Media Ecology and Theology

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This essay examines the interlocking relationship between media ecology and theology. The questions addressed here are: Is there a relationship between these two distinct areas of study?  If so, what are the basic concepts which overlap in the relationship? Where does media ecology and theology intersect? Drawing from the work of the founder of general semantics, Alfred Korzybski, five general concepts are identified which form the basis of convergence. It is believed that these concepts can help communication scholars’ further study the relationship between media ecology and theology. The author believes that just as media ecology can bring insight to theology, theology can also enlighten our understanding of media ecology. Examples from the work of other media ecologists are used to support this thesis.

It was many years ago when I heard Robert K. Blechman’s song, “A Model Media Ecologist,” that I began thinking about the relationship between media ecology and theology.  In the song, Bleckman writes, “I am a model media ecologist; I also sense the difference between me and a theologist.” What is the difference between a media ecologist and a theologist? I wondered. And, what is the relationship between media ecology and theology?  Are these two totally separate domains or is there some overlap between them?  If there is a connection, what forms the basis of that connection?  At the same time that I was pondering these questions, I began work extending Alfred Korzybski’s theoretical principles to critical television viewing (Forsberg 1993). Korzybski, the founder of General Semantics and linguistic ecology, believed that “God” was a highly abstract word with no verifiability in reality.  As a devout Christian, I questioned whether or not Korzybski’s theories were the best for me to draw from. Then one day I approached Professor Henry Perkinson from New York University with that question.  He reminded me of what St. Augustine said, that we could take back from the Egyptians those things which they had stolen from us. In other words, “all Truth is God’s Truth.”  With that assurance, I began examining Alfred Korzybski’s work with an eye for finding that which correlates with Christian theology.

In this essay, I would like to identify Korzybski’s basic theories which I believe intersect with theology. Theology, as defined here is the study, knowledge, and experience of God.  Christians come to an understanding of God through many means, including: Biblical texts, creeds, worship, community life, conduct, church, God’s creation, the Trinity, and the Incarnation. Korzybski’s theories provide correlatives which can provide a connection between media ecology and theology. Before discussing Korzybski’s concepts, however, let me briefly place this entire discussion in its broader context and provide perspective on media ecology and theology.

Communication and Religion

There has been a long history related to the study of communication and religion. From early Judeo-Christian texts, the writings of St. Augustine, Tertullian, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther to the more recent work by Richard Niebuhr on Christ and Culture, there is a wealth of scholarship exploring the nature of this relationship. In 1995, Communication Research Trends, edited by William Biernatzki, reviewed literature relating to “Religion in the Mass Media.” Articles in that issue addressed such questions as: “Are Journalists Irreligious?” “How is religion reported?” And, “what are the trends in religion on U.S. network television?” In the 2002 issue of  Communication Research Trends, Paul A. Soukup, reviewed contemporary studies on “Media and Religion.”  These articles focused on the methods and frameworks scholars use for studying media and religion; the relation of media and religion as it pertains to journalism, entertainment media, and information media; and, Christian reflection on media. Soukup explains that scholars who are interested in the relationship between media and religion approach the study using many different methods and questions. Some document the ways religious groups use the media, some work on audience analysis to discover who watches or listens to religious programming, some work on content analysis, others address policy questions, and media criticism (3). Soukup completes his review with a discussion of “Communication Theology” and explains that, “In contrast to the other approaches to media and religion, communication theology provides a more abstract set of concepts to situate the interaction of these two deeply human events.”(Soukup 29). It is within the framework of communication theology that I explore the relationship between media ecology and theology.

Media Ecology and Theology

Media ecology is an intellectually vibrant, dynamic, and growing discipline within communication studies. Contributing to the intellectual ferment is the Media Ecology Association, the media ecology journal—Explorations in Media Ecology, numerous conferences and symposiums, as well as a proliferation of books and articles written from a media ecology point of view. Perspectives on Culture, Technology, and Communication: The Media Ecology Tradition edited by Casey Man Kong Lum provides an excellent overview of the intellectual history of media ecology. Media ecology as described by Lum is a “theory group.” It draws theoretical frameworks from many different disciplines including: anthropology, psychology, sociology, linguistics, and semantics.  It draws from major thinkers such as: Lewis Mumford, Walter Ong, Harold Adams Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Susanne K. Langer, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Eric Havelock, Benjamin Lee Whorf, Norbert Weiner, Erving Goffmann, Alfred Korzybski, and Neil Postman.

Postman was the first to coin the term “media ecology” and the first to develop a doctoral program specifically focused on the study of media ecology at New York University in 1970 (Lum, 20). In various books, Postman has provided definitions of media ecology. All the definitions are based on understanding our symbolic environments—our communication environments. Postman noted that the word “ecology” was initially used by Aristotle in a political and social sense.  Aristotle was concerned that the stability of one’s household would be weakened if the state increasingly interfered in social affairs (Conserving, 23). In other words, Aristotle was interested in knowing how one social environment impacts another social environment. Media ecologists are interested in the same question.  How do our communication environments influence us?  How does one communication environment impact another? Media ecologists seek to discover how our thinking and behavior changes as we move from oral, to scribal, to print, and electronic cultures. Media ecologists are interested in discovering how various forms of communication influence our moral, physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual development. Media ecologists want to know what a communication environment gives and takes away from human relationships. Some media ecologists are particularly interested in discovering how our media and technologies influence our values, our religious sensitivities, and our basic theological understandings.

Media ecologists such as Postman, McLuhan, Ellul, and Ong were all interested in the relationship between theology, our understanding of God, and our media of communication. Some, like Ellul and Ong, made this relationship a primary focus of their scholarship.  Others, like Postman and McLuhan, had underlying Judeo-Christian beliefs that influenced their scholarship. Many communication scholars are unaware that the research of all four scholars was heavily influenced by, and in most cases even derived from Judeo-Christian beliefs and theological concepts.  In a special issue of the Journal of Media and Religion the religious underpinnings of these seminal thinkers was explored.  The next few paragraphs seek to establish the fact that these scholars’ research was influenced by theological concepts.

According to Lance Strate in, “The Judaic Roots of Neil Postman’s Cultural Commentary,” Postman’s underlying Judaic roots influenced his cultural critique. Postman criticized the worship of images, he defended the word against the onslaught of visual images, he advocated a counter-environment in which one could critique our technological environment, he supported education, and he had a concern for social justice and moral responsibility. All of these values came from his Judaic roots. Commenting on the basis of his love for the word, Strate explains:

His love of the word can surely be linked to the Jewish tradition in which the word is God’s medium, and the word of God is both venerated and subjected to painstaking analysis. Moreover, Postman’s love of the word extended to both its oral and literate forms….God’s creation begins with God’s speech act (and light, and therefore vision, only comes second), the watchword of our faith begins with, Hear O Israel, and God’s name, YHWH, may be written but never pronounced. In addition, our Pharisaic tradition includes the Oral Torah, the oral tradition of customs and interpretations that accompany the written Law of Moses. (203)

There is no doubt that Postman’s Judeo-Christian worldview formed the underlying foundation for his media criticism (Forsberg, 2005). It gave him a foundation, and another environment, from which to evaluate the technological society in which we are immersed.

McLuhan was also interested in the relationship between faith and media scholarship. In “The Medium Is the Mass: Marshall McLuhan’s Catholicism and catholicism,” Thomas W. Cooper elaborates on McLuhan’s faith as it related to his scholarship.  Some have thought that McLuhan compartmentalized his faith, but “in fact his faith permeated his work.” McLuhan converted to the Catholic faith after reading St. Thomas Aquinas and G.K. Chesterton.  He was a deeply religious person who drew heavily upon the Biblical text for personal guidance as well as intellectual inspiration. According to Cooper: “He would rise at 4 a.m. to meditate upon the Bible as written in Greek, Latin, French, German, and English. Similarly, he would seldom quote from the Bible without also quoting from, for example, Pound, Poe, and Mumford, if not Yeats, Eliot, and Havelock as well” (168). McLuhan also considered the relationship between our media and theology.

For the ‘media monarch,’ communication tools had interpenetrated all corridors of society and consciousness from politics and education to the tributaries of his religion—liturgy, Mass, dogma, catechism, and theological debate.  Just as McLuhan’s religious views subconsciously infused all of his thinking, his media cannibalized other technologies and indeed all of civilization.  That was one of the primary meanings of his most famous dictum, “the medium is the message (171).

McLuhan was very concerned about how the media are influencing the church.  And, he provided seminars and summer schools for Catholic priests on this topic.

Jacques Ellul, the French sociologist and theologian, was also interested in the relationship between technology and theology. In his essay on “Jacques Ellul’s Conversions and Protestant Theology,” Clifford Christians explains Ellul’s dialectical method and his theology. After his conversion to Christianity at the age of 22 while reading the Bible, Ellul began analyzing our technological society not merely from a Marxist and sociological point of view, but also from a theological perspective.  As Christians explains:

Ellul’s book on politics in the modern state (The Political Illusion, 1967) corresponds to his biblical analysis of 2 Kings (The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, 1972).  The Meaning of the City (1970) stands against The Technological Society (1964). To describe la technique theologically, he traced the city in biblical narrative from Cain to the new Jerusalem. Prophecy in The Judgment of Jonah (1971) represents biblical communication in contrast to Propaganda (1965).  In his terms, ‘I confront theological knowledge and sociological analysis without trying to come to any artificial or philosophical synthesis; instead, I try to place the two face-to-face, in order to shed some light on what is real socially and spiritually’ (Christians, 151).

Christians notes that in order to understand Ellul one must read both his Marxist critiques and his theological counterpoints. Ellul believed that there is hope and freedom for humanity which can be found in a transcendent God. He believed that a transformation of humanity is necessary for cultural change. Ellul believed that people should place their confidence and faith in God not in technology. Postman was also concerned about the human idolatry of technology, a theme he took up in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.

Walter Ong, a Jesuit priest, scholar, and teacher also integrated his theological understanding into all of his scholarship. In “Contexts of Faith: The Religious Foundation of Walter Ong’s Literacy and Orality,” Paul Soukup reviews Ong’s religious background and how it related to his scholarship.  According to Soukup, “Ong never separated his religious sensibility from his scholarship.  Thinking and its manifestation in communication related to the word—not only the linguistic word but also the Word, the incarnate Second Person of the Christian Trinity” (175). Ong also credited his later ideas about language and visualism to his study of Scripture and Hebrew thought (178). According to Soukup, “Some of the theological strands that become important in Ong’s life are clear.  They include the centrality of Christ, a reverence for creation and a sense of the cosmos, an appreciation for time, a confidence in reason or intellect, and a generally hopeful view of humanity—a humanity redeemed by Christ” (180).  The goal of Ong’s writings were to “connect Christianity, the human mind, and the nature of literature (or communication)” (182).

Of course, the fact that Postman, McLuhan, Ellul, and Ong explored themes common to media ecology and theology, does not in and of itself establish a connection between these two areas of inquiry.  However, Ong was definitely interested in the question of how these two disciplines intersect. In his article, “Communications Media and the State of Theology,” Ong analyzed the relationship between communication media and theology.  He believed communication media and theology are inextricably “interlocked.”  As our forms of communication change, our theology changes. Early oral theology, he explained, was focused on narratives and parables, it used formulaic devices and mnemonic devices to assist memory, it was agonistic and dialectical, and it discouraged originality. Modern day theology comes out of a print and electronic culture and is abstract, dispassionately objective, non-formulaic, and fosters originality. As forms of communication evolve there is a direct relationship to theology. In order to better understand theology, one must understand how forms of communication have influenced theology.

Developing these ideas further, Soukup, in his article, “The Structure of Communication as a Challenge for Theology” explains how changing forms of communication from orality, to literacy, to secondary orality influence theology. In his words, “The concerns and the methods of theology change with the change in these structures” (110).  Soukup goes on to explore Joshua Meyrowitz’s concepts of group identity, socialization, and authority as they relate to media and theology. He attributes the modern breakdown of religious group identity, the movement of people from one church to another, and the diminished authority of the clergy to structural changes in communication media. Media ecology’s investigation into the cultural consequences of the communication environment helps to identify methodological, topical, and ecclesiastical shifts in theology.

In “The Influence of Information Technologies on Theology” Soukup, Buckley and Robinson, ask, “How will new communication technologies affect theology?” Their answer is that new communication technologies will “affect the context for and of theology, the resources that theologians work with, the communication methods linking people, and the cognitive processes with which we approach any intellectual work” (368). New communication technologies have an enormous impact on theology, theologians, and theological education.

In his review of literature on Religion in the Mass Media (2002), Soukup explained that when approaching the study of communication media and theology, scholars bring certain theological concepts to their work. These concepts according to Bernard Bonnot are:

1) the Trinity—God is three persons in one Godhead, characterized by communio, and a self-communicating love; 2) creation and redemption—the world is the material self-communication of God; and 3) the Incarnation—the becoming flesh of God’s Word establishes a pattern for communication: the giving of self love. (29)

Creation, the Trinity, and the Incarnation are the theological concepts which will be referred to here as they relate to Alfred Korzybki’s theories.

Alfred Korzybski’s Theories and Theology

Korzybski was born in Poland in 1879.  Although he was trained in mathematics and engineering, Korzybski drew upon his knowledge of linguistics, psychology, philosophy, biology, chemistry, anthropology, and physics to develop a theory of symbolization.  His ideas were made popular by S.I. Hayakawa in his well known work, Language in Thought and Action (1941).  This book became a text for many years in college English and Communication programs.  Many other authors such as Wendell Johnson, Irving Lee, Samuel Bois, and Stuart Chase both explicated and elaborated upon Korzybski’s theories.  Some of his concepts to be considered here are: Korzybski’s view of man as a “time-binder,” structure, the natural universe, abstracting, and environment.  These are the concepts that I believe most closely intersect with theology.

In his first book, Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering (1921), Korzybski set forth an analysis of what it means to be human.  He believed that before we consider language, symbolization, and communication we need to come to some understanding of what it means to be a human being.  According to Korzybski,

The importance of a right answer is sovereign—for it is obvious, once the fact is pointed out, that the character of human history, the character of human conduct, and the character of all our human institutions depend upon what man is and in equal or greater measure upon what we humans think man is. (291)

Korzybski believed that through a functional analysis of life forms, he could more clearly define what it means to be human.  He analyzed the function of plants, animals, and humans. He classified plants as the “energy-binding” form of life because functionally plants are able to convert energy from the sun into organic chemical energy.  He classified animals as the “space-binding” form of life because unlike plants, animals are able to move about in space.  And, he classified human beings as the “time-binding” form of life because functionally human beings alone are able create, critique, revise, and develop knowledge which they can pass on to future generations.  Future generations can learn from the knowledge of past generations.  We can analyze the knowledge developed in the previous generation, learn from it, make revisions if necessary, and continue to progress from generation to generation. We can benefit from the labor, research and discoveries of those who have gone before us.  And, future generations can benefit from our labor.

Based on Korzybski’s functional analysis, human beings are unique and distinct from other life forms.  Human beings are not just a higher evolved form of animal. Human beings can create symbol systems, language, architecture, art, music, philosophy, and science. Korzybski’s theory of the human being, as far as it goes, is consistent with Christian theology. According to Judeo-Christian teachings, human beings are created in the likeness or image of God—with mind, volition, emotions, personality, and spirituality.  Human beings are a distinct class of life.

Theologically, it can be said that human beings are “time-binders” symbol-makers, and communicating beings. Theologically, however, humans are also created with a God-consciousness and an awareness of right and wrong. The Apostle Paul speaks to this when he says:  “For when the Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them…” (Rom. 2: 14-15). In other words, embedded in the human DNA there is an understanding of right from wrong.

From theology and from Biblical studies, we gain a greater understanding of what it means to be human that goes beyond the functional definition provided by Korzybski.  A theological understanding can provide deeper insight for media ecology analysis.  For instance, a theological perspective can give us a reason for being concerned about the “humiliation” of the word and its consequences for humanity.  A theological perspective can take into account our “time-binding” attributes, our “spiritual” and our moral attributes.  From a theological perspective we can ask such questions as: Do media promote idolatry? Does television strengthen cultural life or are we merely “amusing ourselves to death?” Are our media fostering our “moral imagination” or are media diminishing it?

As the only life form that is able to encode knowledge, thought, labor, and experience into symbolic form, it seems that we have an inherent responsibility to understand how we are symbolizing.  We need to reflect on the quality of our communication and to evaluate how our media are changing our fundamental beliefs.

If, as human beings, we alone are able to bind-time, Korzybski then wanted to know how we go about doing this.  How do we create symbols and symbol systems?  How do we create language? Korzybski realized that we must look at the structure of language. For Korzybski, as for McLuhan, Ong, Ellul, and Postman, the structure of our languages, our media, was most important to understand.  According to Korzybski, “In structure we find the mystery of rationality, adjustment….If we want to be rational and to understand anything at all, we must look for structure” (Science 69).

As Korzybski set forth his theory of symbolization, he identified structural principles of language which would influence the way we think and behave. The structure of our languages and our basic forms of communication are intertwined with theology and church history. As Soukup notes, “Throughout its history, the structure of communication has influenced how the Church does its thinking” (“The Structure of Communication” 104). By examining how structures of communication change, we can more clearly understand how theology changes. Theology is situated within the media environment.  As a result, the content and the structure of theology are influenced by the media environment.

Korzybski’s focus on the natural world also resonates with theology. The natural world, God’s created order, reflects the character of God. Although Korzybski certainly did not view the natural universe as “God’s created order” nevertheless, his theory of language was based on the natural universe. He identified certain structural principles of the natural universe: change, order, uniqueness, complexity, levels, interconnectedness, context, non-additive nature of reality, and environment. Then, he compared these structural principles with language. For example, in the natural world everything is undergoing a constant process of change but through language, through our categorizations, we create the impression that things remain the same. In the natural world there is a certain order to life, we go from day to night to day, we go from summer to fall to winter to spring, etc.  Language, Korzybski, argued needs to have some order as well. To develop accurate theories, beliefs, ideas, we need to develop language which relates closely to the real life object first and, then, moves to generalizations.  In the natural world everything is unique.  Even “identical” twins are unique.  However, language enables us to label in such a way that we forget uniqueness. In the natural world everything is complex, exists in levels, and is interconnected.  Take for example a tree. If you cut down a tree you can see the levels of growth in the tree trunk, you can see how complex its development has been, and you can detect when other environmental factors have impinged on its development.  Language structurally enables us to separate those things which in reality are connected, causes us to focus on only one level, and simplifies what in reality is complex. In this way, Korzybski compared the structural principles of the natural universe with the structural principles of language as he created his theory of symbolization.

Korzybski said our maps (our languages) are not the territory.  Our maps can never communicate all there is about any reality. And, with our maps, our languages, we can create maps of maps indefinitely. He advised people to use a dating system to remind us that people and things change; he encouraged indexing to make us aware that things with the same names are different; he encouraged the use of “et cetera” to make clear that we can not say everything about anything (Postman, 1988). A foundation for the evaluation of language and media based in the natural universe provides a strong theological foundation. From creation theology Christians come to understand more about whom we are and what gives meaning and purpose to life. A foundation based on the reality of the natural world is essential for thinking more accurately in an image-dominated culture.  It can help us understand the difference between reality and a pseudo-event, reality and image, real life and make believe. The natural world, God’s created world, gives us structural principles which can help us understand more about language, communication, science, and theology.  An understanding of the natural universe and its structural principles can help us with both media analysis and theological analysis. Another Korzybskian theory that interlocks media ecology with theology is his theory of abstraction. Korzybski developed a theory and model of abstraction which explains how we approach the world, develop language, symbols, and theories.  Abstracting is the human process of selecting, omitting, organizing, and categorizing the details of reality.  A normal process of abstracting moves continuously from lower to higher levels of abstraction.  Difficulties in thinking occur when one stays at lower levels of abstraction and does not move on to higher levels: when one goes up to higher levels of abstraction and does not come down to lower levels; when one merely stays at one level of abstraction—what Wendell Johnson referred to as “dead level” abstraction (Johnson, 1946).  This theory of abstraction can help us think about theology and the development of theology. For example, in early oral cultures, people thought at much lower levels of abstraction.  They thought in terms a lot more closely related to the real-life world.  As Ong explained in Orality and Literacy:

In absence of elaborate analytic categories that depend on writing to structure knowledge at a distance from lived experience, oral cultures must conceptualize and verbalize all their knowledge with more or less close reference to the human life world, assimilating the alien, objective world to the more immediate, familiar interaction of human beings (42).

In contrast to oral cultures, typographic print-based cultures are abstract in their thinking and communication. Forms of communication change not only what we think but also the way we think. As Ong states, “the invention of writing restructures consciousness” (78-116). Using the theory of abstraction, Christians can think about the Biblical manuscripts, the early orality-based texts with their use of narrative, parables, and mnemonic devices. The theory of abstraction gives insight into the Biblical text, church history, and modern church practices (75). With the theory of abstraction, Christians can also think more clearly about the Incarnate Christ—the abstract God who took on concrete human form, the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. As Ong discussed in relation to orality and literacy:

For in Christian teaching the Second Person of the One Godhead, who redeemed mankind from sin, is known not only as the Son but also as the Word of God.  In this teaching, God the Father utters or speaks His Word, his Son.  He does not inscribe him.  The very Person of the Son is constituted as the Word of the Father.  Yet Christian teaching also presents at its core the written word of God, the Bible, which, back of its human authors, has God as author as no other writing does.  In what way are the two senses of God’s ‘word’ related to one another and to human beings in history?  The question is more focused today than ever before. (179)

Ellul also uses an understanding of abstraction to discuss the nature of God.  According to him, God is not some abstract concept but a “God who enters history through his inseparable relationship with his creation” (Humiliation, 55).  Throughout The Humiliation of the Word, Ellul discusses abstraction as it relates to theology and writing, language, images and the modern environment. He critiques writing as having become abstract, having lost its vitality, its power, its life (46-47). Ellul analyzes the use of abstract language and concrete images in the church and states that, “although we cannot separate sight and language, only the Incarnation of Jesus shows us the correct equilibrium or synthesis, as we wait in hope for the fullness of the Kingdom” (71).  Ellul critiques the use of concrete images which have led us to a false relationship with reality. Ellul believes that images have gone through a process of abstraction that has led to a fragmentation of society (140). Ellul also critiques our relationship with the natural universe by using the concept of abstraction.  We increasingly live in a technological environment far removed from the natural environment—God’s creation (207). Abstraction, as a concept, helps both Ong and Ellul think about the relationship between theology and communication.

In his article, “Early Christian Creeds and Controversies in the Light of the Orality-Literacy Hypothesis,” Thomas J. Farrell analyzes the early Christian Creeds (the Nicene Creed of 325 and the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381) in light of the more concrete mentality of the oral culture and the more abstract mentality of the literate culture. He comes to the conclusion that “being literate is a necessary but not sufficient condition for grasping abstract thought” (143).  According to Farrell, a person does not have to be literate in order to be a Christian, “one does not need to be literate in order to remember and recite the Creed of 381, and one does not necessarily need to grasp the meaning of homoousios in the Creed of 381 in order to be a faithful Christian” (143). However, “one’s faith may be deepened with an understanding of homoousios and other abstract concepts of the Christian faith” (143).  Korzybski’s theory of abstraction could be useful in thinking about shifts in various forms of communication and how structural changes affect an understanding of theology—Biblical texts, creeds, the nature of the church, and Christian faith.

It has already been stated that understanding communication as an environment is the basis of media ecology. Korzybski looked at language as a changing environment. He compared the structural principles of natural environment with the structural principles inherent in language.  He understood that our languages are dynamic. There is a context to our language, there are levels associated with language, and there is a connection between language and the way we encounter the natural environment. Speaking about our symbolic environment, Korzybski said, “We often speak about the influence of heredity, but much less do we analyze what influence environment, and particularly the verbal environment, has upon us” (Postman, 1979, 56; Forsberg 1993, 57). Media ecologists want to know what influence our communication environments have on us. What influence does orality, literacy, television, film, radio, computers, the Internet, cell phones, video, etc. have on us? These questions relate just as much to the church as they do to society in general.

In a paper on “Teaching communication and theology,” Paul Soukup analyzed how media ecology can help with the teaching of theology. He believes media ecology can give students “an additional lens” to consider the Church and its beliefs. Media ecology provides a “broader scope of inquiry into the relationship between theology and communication” (29).  Soukup understands theology to be an environment as well.

For theology, too, forms an environment for people, although only a part of the larger environment we call religion or religious practices.  As a kind of advanced analysis of religious symbols and meaning (as well as the construction of religious meaning), theology creates an environment for belief. (2)

Drawing upon the work of Harris and Lytle, Soukup identified five areas where communication environments and theological environments overlap. Those environments are labeled: collection, cult, creed, community, and code. Collection refers to the “texts and religious stories that define the Christian tradition.” Cult refers to “the public performance of belief—the worship of the community, as well as the communication that supports that worship. Creed refers to the more abstract statements of belief. Community refers to the communication among Christians. And code refers to our behavior, what we ought to do.  This area is also known as moral theology. Media ecology can help students understand how forms of communication influence the writing of texts, the way we worship, the development of statements of faith, the ways we communicate within community, and the development of our “moral imagination, leading people to particular kinds of ethical decisions”(Rossi and Soukup, 1994). According to Soukup, media ecology allows for an integrated approach to teaching theology and communication. Understanding communication as an environment and theology as an environment can help us analyze the two environments and provide a pedagogy for teaching communication and theology.

Media ecology and theology interlock, overlap, and interconnect in many ways. Even though they are two separate areas of study, it seems impossible to fully understand theology without understanding how our basic forms of communication have changed throughout the ages. These communication changes have had an impact on theology, the way we understand Biblical texts, the way we understand Christian community, and the way our morality and ethics have been shaped.  The way we preserve our experience and knowledge of God whether documents written on stone, papyrus, printed books, or visual images, video, and film can affect both the quality and durability of what we pass on to future generations.

I believe Korzybski’s concepts of time-binding, structure, the natural universe, abstraction, and media environment, help to reinforce the link between media ecology and theology–as the diagram that follows illustrates. Media Ecology and theology are certainly two separate and distinct areas of knowledge.  The two have different vocabularies, different bodies of literature, different research methodologies, and different purposes.  However, as Ong, Soukup, and others have argued, understanding the influence of media can contribute to a better understanding of theology and, in turn, theology can contribute to a better understanding of communication.

Media ecology can inform theology about the ways media shape and influence theology; the ways theological content is influenced by media; the ways theological education are influenced by the media. Media ecology provides a way of understanding theology; it provides a way of analyzing changes in the church; and, it provides pedagogical insight for teaching future theologians.  Theology, on the other hand, can provide media ecology with an underlying moral foundation from which to critique media and technology. Theology can provide an alternative environment for critique of the technological system. Theology can give insight into the relationship between communication and culture.

What are those “truths” which media ecology and theology share?  From a Christian perspective, they are the truths that God has created the human being as unique from all other forms of life.  The human being alone has been given the gift of symbol-making, of communication, of preserving knowledge and experience in symbolic forms. The God who first created structure and, then, content understood the importance of structure for cognition, symbolization, and human life.  The God who created the natural universe did so by infusing certain principles in its very structure.  These principles form a basis for science and sanity, for media and theology.  As the Bible communicates, we can know that God exists by just looking at the universe about us.  Abstraction, the degree to which our symbols, our communication, relates to reality is central to the Christian faith. As our culture has evolved from lower levels of abstraction to higher levels of abstraction, our understandings of God, of church, and of community have changed. How we have changed is the subject of both media ecology and theology. The concept of environment is also central to theology and media ecology.  An understanding of oral, scribal, print, and electronic cultures enable us to think more clearly about how communication environments shape our relationships with others and with God.

In Conclusion

The purpose of this analysis was to identify those basic media ecology concepts, from the work of Korzybski, which interconnect with theology. I believe the concepts identified here can help communication studies as we seek to understand how the world is shaped by the influence of the environments in which we live. In drawing attention to these concepts, it is my hope that they can provide communication scholars with deeper insight as we seek to explore the relationship between media ecology and theology.

 

Works Cited

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About the Contributor

Geraldine Forsberg

Geraldine Forsberg
Geraldine Forsberg received her doctorate in Media Ecology with Neil Postman. Her doctoral dissertation, Critical Thinking in an Image World, analyzes a theoretical foundation for critical thinking. Currently Geri teaches in the English department at Western Washington University where she teaches courses in media and culture; technology and culture; and, technical communication. She also serves with Faculty Commons, a ministry with university professors. 

Comments

  1. The roots of faith rest in percept and practice; both are profoundly affected by the media of their time. Concept and definition can support the exploration into mystery, but these cannot eliminate the mystery. Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Case for God’ is, between-the-lines, a media study of the origins of apophatic religion, the shift away toward ‘natural’ or rational religion under the influence of the alphabet and print, and the return of the apophatic under the influence of electronics and quantum physics. This is the transitional territory that got de Lubac into such trouble with the rigid scholastic Thomists who dominated Catholic theology after Cajetan and Suarez with the centuries-long dominance of print. Francis’ pastoral approach is much needed to retrieve the apophatic as the true root of faith.

  2. Well said. And not just the tribal-apophatic, Howard, but the raw universality of spirit. As global communication connects increasing numbers of previously unconnected tribes and belief groups, it becomes less about my historical reality vs. “other” historical reality, and more about essential spirit: love, empathy, compassion. Jesus becomes less about one institutional-cataphatic structure against another, and more about a common, shared humanity.

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