Friday, January 26, 2007

We Are the Medium

I am reading The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture by Shane Hipps. Hipps is a pastor (and graduate of Fuller Sem - evidently Jim knows him) who before seminary worked in advertising. His advertising background gave him a handle on media theory, which he uses in this book. On the whole I was pleased to find a book from a Christian publishing house engaging with the meaning of media theory for the Christian church. As a Communication scholar I found Hipps’ explanations of McLuhan’s media theory a bit simplistic, but the choice makes sense given his audience. I found his explanation of the impact that modern/print culture has had on the church one of the more cogent I have read, and his explanation of changes brought by image culture also helpful. He ultimately suggests that we need to consider the ways this technology changes us through the eyes of our theology, and work within the maelstrom (in McLuhan’s terms) to celebrate the new possibilities but also not ignore what is made obsolete that might be valuable. He examines in particular the way these changes impact our understanding and experience of community, leadership, and worship. For example, he points to the good ways electronic media combat the individualistic impulse of print, but often lead to superficial community, and suggests ways to cultivate deeper relationships within contemporary culture. In general, I think he does good work.

I have a few minor quibbles with the way Hipps presents his case. His bias is clearly protestant evangelical, as is his audience, but he doesn’t seem to acknowledge this at all. As a result, he considers a renewed focus on eucharist instead of sermons a change in the church, without acknowledging that many Christians have worshipped this way since before the reformation. I also think the term “Hidden” in the title and elsewhere is deceptive. It is not as though the effect that media has on us is creeping in the corners of our lives, it is more like slight of hand – we are distracted by other things and don’t notice it. The implication that we are “uncovering” something that was “hidden” indicates Hipps own modern bias and suggests that the impact of electronic culture is necessarily negative and sneaky. And perhaps it is, but Hipps’ actual view is more measured than his title might lead us to believe. But I suppose it does make a provocative title.

Perhaps the most useful conceptual move that Hipps makes is by positioning the church as God’s chosen media for his message of redemption. He writes “the way we live and practice our faith together is evangelistic, missional activity that communicates our distinct identity. Our identity is the message” (85). The church as media, like the church as reading (an idea I got from Milbank) suggests that Christian practice is itself a powerful rhetoric for communicating the grace of God. An idea that is important for my thesis. He points out earlier the way media impact our preferred form of thinking – analytic or wholistic, for example – and applies this to Eastern Orthodox thinking compared to western protestant. He says we “become what we behold” and I wish he would, at this point, stretch this idea to sacrament. If we become what we behold, and we are constantly exposed to the sacrament – enacting God’s grace and our gratitude – perhaps then the logic of God’s grace can become our working mode of thought.


Big Ear said...

Very interesting read

Steve said...

Bethany -

Also read "Millenium Matrix" by M. Rex Miller for an examinaion of how technology changes our brains and therefore culture, and therefore our churches.

Steve Fridsma