Communication technologies are not neutral channels. Just as the riverbed shapes the path of the river as much as the river does, so too, society’s media shape their organization as much as they do. To take an example, smartphones may ostensibly “connect” us, but everyone knows that what they have actually done is atomize us and isolate us. Therefore, as Marshall McLuhan put it, “The medium is the message”. In other words, it’s not the use of a technology that is its message, but rather its effect on social patterns, paces, and organizations. So we might have invented the smartphone, yes, but the smartphone is most certainly reinventing us and our society as well. The articulation and elaboration of this groundbreaking idea comprises the first major breakthrough in the field of Media Ecology: The study of communication technologies—“media”—as environments for human civilization.
The second breakthrough of media ecology was the realization that communication technologies are not just environments, but intellectual environments. We might say that just as rivers are full of the minerals and qualities of the riverbed they run on, so too are societies permeated by the inherent biases of their communication technologies. So they do not just alter how we relate to each other and to ourselves; they alter how we relate our ideas to each other and to ourselves. A Facebook stream brings you your aunt’s latest rant about Obamacare right next to a video of a puppy yawning right next to a video of ISIS right next to an advertisement for deodorant. And we wonder why we are so scatterbrained these days, why we cannot seem to focus on any one thing for five minutes or more, why we cannot follow nuanced arguments or intricately woven narratives. We wonder… for a minute or two. And then, oh look at that…
These two breakthroughs bear directly on the spiritual life of contemporary Christians. If they are true, then our religious organizations are shaped by communication technologies just as our societies are, and our spiritual practices reflect the biases of the mass media just as our social practices do. At stake is whether, like every century before us, a subtle form of idolatry has resurfaced in the popular Christian imagination. There is no question that the riverbed has effects on us, but God promised that by the power of the Holy Spirit, we would be able to be transformed in spite of it. That power rests, however, in those who walk closely with the Lord and foster an intimate relationship with Him. Outside of such a relationship, the primary shaper of one’s life and lifestyle are their communication technologies and the culture surrounding them and being transmitted through them. If Christians were ever called to be counter-cultural, then this is a very serious question. (Hint: Christians were absolutely called to be counter-cultural.)
Digital Society & Christian Culture
The internet that connects all of our thousands of screens—iPads, laptops, watches, phones, TV’s, and more—is most useful when it is showing us something explosive, scandalous, in a word, spectacular. That is our primary use of it. I will not cite statistics here, except to say that a vast percentage of downloaded content is pornographic. That should be enough, but furthermore, I appeal to the reader’s experience. We get on Facebook not to “connect and converse with old friends” or whatever, but rather to watch that crazy video of the girl getting hit with a shovel. This is the inherent bias of the digital world, a bias toward the spectacle.
In 1967, Guy Debord coined that designation, “the spectacle.” It is, according to Debord and the Situationists, any bright and shiny thing that distracts us from our chosen path and converts us all to crows. As everyone knows, crows will pick up any bright and shiny thing they see in their path, and then they do what those birds do: they crow about it. Supposedly, but this is only by the way, American culture is now one streamlined and continuous spectacle. (For more reading on this, the reader should consult either 24/7 by Jonathan Crary or The Humiliation of the Word by Jacques Ellul, or, ideally, both.)
I go to such great length in describing the bias of the digital world because I believe it is reflected in much of American Christianity’s spiritual practice today. Think of prayer, which is more and more “Pentecostal” or “Charismatic” or “Spirit filled.” Or think of televangelism’s obsession with being “slain in the spirit.” One could also mention various viral videos that supposedly surfaced of “gold dust” falling on large worship services, or the many stories of people seeing “feathers float” as a sign of healing, and on and on. Christian culture seems to be enamored with the idea of a God who shows up in visual ways. I don’t suppose there is anything wrong with that theoretically, after all, Elijah called down fire from heaven, but it seems we are forgetting that God shows up in whatever ways He so chooses. And often, He shows up in precisely the way we were not expecting Him to. God’s manifestations tend to be symbolically related to their situations. Elijah calls fire down from heaven because he is facing up against the god Ba’al, the god of mountains and storms, and he is showing that Yahweh is the true god of mountains and storms—and everything else too. In contrast, many of the modern manifestations of the presence of God have little to no symbolic bearing on their context—they are mere spectacles.
Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying that the way these various groups worship is somehow flawed. Quite the contrary. Those who truly worship in such a tradition and whose relationships with God are rich, emotionally invested, and nurtured by the intimacy of a worship that knows the presence of God—those people are not the target of my analysis. Instead, I’m talking about mass Christian culture. It is increasingly “experiential” and increasingly about the spectacle of the presence, and not the risk, the meaning, or the demands of the presence of God. God is not a firework, in other words. If He shows up, there is probably a better reason than to distract us with his brightness and shininess.
Again, such Christian spiritual practice contrasts starkly with God’s revelation to Elijah that he is not in the raging fires or storms, but in the still small voice. At least in this situation, and in a few others as well, the presence of God is not a spectacle, but rather a sound. One does not see the presence of God, one hears it like a rushing wind, or a whisper. The word for “spirit,” we know, is the word for “breath.” It is still. It is small.
And finally, it is there.
That sets it fundamentally apart from anything at all whatsoever that you see in the digital world, through a smartphone or an iPad, etc. In the digital age then, we see the world as a steady stream of images, and if we are not daily invested in an intimate friendship—marriage even—with God, then it is nearly impossible to resist seeing God also as a spectacular image. But God is never going to hit a girl with a shovel or distract you from your distractions with another distraction. He is not a viral video or a scandalous story—not to the modern taste, anyway. Grace, in all truth, is certainly scandalous, but it will not make the news. Even though it bleeds. It is shocking, but not to the eyes, not as an image, rather as a message—a message heard.
Ezekiel could envision the presence of God like a river running from the temple in the New Jerusalem. If such a river runs in us, temples ourselves, then it is imperative that we resist the formative effects of our riverbed, as it were, and submit only to the shaping, directing, and flow of the true river, the un-spectacular presence of God.