The Technological Church

A version of this paper was published by the Moody Media Lab.
Graphics by Ben Neary.

 Image of a church building.

Dear church leader,

Please allow me to introduce myself. I’ve never studied Greek or Hebrew, I’ve never preached a sermon or even taught a youth group, and I’ve never led worship. I’ve never had to make difficult decisions like how to guide a congregation in participating in the sacraments or how to structure a liturgy. I’m not a renowned theologian, but I am a theologically trained artist and communications professional. I study technologies to see how they affect the people who experience them. And I’m learning from scholars in education, literature, technology, sociology, history, theology, and media studies to see what observations and perceptions they can offer the people of God. The more I study, the more I’m convinced that they have things to say that are far too important for the church to ignore.

Maybe you’re the sole pastor of a small church plant and you’re just trying to keep the doors open. Or maybe you are on staff at a church with thousands of members and a budget that allows for every possibility you could dream of. Either way, you probably don’t have time to read thousands of pages of communications theory. There’s no time in your schedule for a sociological research project. You’re probably pretty skeptical about all this to begin with, and if we’re being honest, it’s not your area of expertise.

But it is ours. We theologically minded communicators and artists, we’ve spent years studying and creating and asking questions and searching for answers. We’ve spent most of our lives wondering if there’s a place in the church for us, and we long to use our gifts and knowledge for the benefit of the body of Christ. We believe we have important things to say about the life of the church. We want to have conversations with you about how our technology changes the way we perceive our faith. We want to speak about how communications studies can help our understanding of theology and liturgy. We want to find wholeness, presence, and reality in a world of fragmentation, isolation, and deception.

We’re just not sure those are conversations most church leaders are interested in having. So here’s what we’re asking of you, church leader: let’s have a conversation. We’re not asking for a position of leadership. We’re not even asking you to make a bunch of changes in your church. But we are asking for a place at your dinner table or at your favorite coffee shop. So please, listen. Make room for us. We’re convinced it will be worth your time. And we hope this essay is just the start of that conversation.

 

Image of a typewriter.

 

Theology is one of the most important practices of the children of God. By it we understand who God is, what it means to be his one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and how to live out that reality. Without theology, we are a people of sacraments without reality, of rituals without significance, of traditions without meaning, of faith without understanding. In the pursuit of such understanding we may occasionally hear scholars explain the influences of certain philosophies or cultural differences that influence theology, and of course most people would say theology cannot occur in a vacuum. It doesn’t take much to convince people that an elderly woman in medieval rural Italy will have a different interpretation and understanding of scripture than a young man in 1950’s Japan. Theologians today are becoming increasingly aware of how history, culture, politics, and even gender influence people’s perception of theology.

However, one of the influences conspicuously missing from this discussion is the influence of our physical artifacts, our technologies. It’s easy to imagine how such abstract ideas as culture and philosophy could influence our theology. But our technologies? Those belong to the physical realm. Surely our faith can’t be so fragile as to be influenced by something as arbitrary as a man-made artifact. But humans constantly manipulate our environments with little or no understanding of how the changes we make actually manipulate us in return. The physical artifacts that surround us create environments that change the way we perceive such things as faith, knowledge, communication, ourselves, each other, and God. The faster our technologies develop, the clearer it becomes that humans are deeply changed by the environments created by our technologies, and by extension, these technologies also change the theologies we construct. Our technologies hold great influence over how we perceive God.

In scripture, we’re given great reason to believe that our physical artifacts influence our beliefs, and the things we create are clearly important to God. In Genesis 10, we see that a man-made artifact, the Tower of Babel, was the product of the city, which is the pinnacle representation of a technological society. In Exodus 20, God prohibits the creation of carved images, and later he gives extremely specific commandments about the media–sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and textures–involved in tabernacle and temple worship. In the gospels we see God incarnate deeply affected by his physical environment and fully immersed in the culture into which he was born.

That’s our true starting point for understanding technology: Jesus. The important part is not in how he used technology or was affected by it, but in the reality of the incarnation. Jesus is the mediator – the one who goes between – yet he is whole, present, and real. However, most of what we have created has served not to bring us further into wholeness but to fragment us spiritually and relationally. Our technology encourages isolation and distance instead of presence, and it creates worlds of unreality instead of drawing us further into our true reality in Jesus. We have mediated ourselves so that we reflect not the incarnation of Christ but the opposite. Much of our technology is at work creating a discarnate world.

“Discarnate” refers to interactions that are defined by a shattering of wholeness, a lack of physical presence, and a turning away from true reality. This seems abstract, but it occurs in every area of life. Jesus is the Good Shepherd because he is present with his sheep, yet our pastors appear to us through screens and pixels, no presence necessary. People say they feel “naked” without their phones, as if they could not be whole without the technology they depend on. Our social media encourages us to vicariously live the lives of others when we find our own lives too mundane or stressful to warrant our full awareness. Our technologies split our attention and affection, we no longer value physical presence in communication, and we often choose the fantasy of a digital environment over the reality of the physical environment.

The danger with discarnate technology is not in how “other” and foreign the technology is but rather in how close to reality it is. Through media we feel like we are a part of the lives of people from whom we are physically distant, but in reality we’re not. For example, I feel like I am more a part of the lives of my niece and nephew when I see pictures and videos of them sent to me on social media or through text or email. But the truth is, they have no experience of my presence during those moments because I am not physically present. I allowed social media to lull me into thinking that I was participating in the lives of others when I was really only observing them. My experience of social media felt so real that it was easy mistake for reality.

Discarnate technology does not just concern our phones, screens, and online profiles. It ultimately concerns our minds, our hearts, and our faith. Marshall McLuhan, one of the scholars we’ll be learning from, said,

…a discarnate world, like the one we now live in, is a tremendous menace to an incarnate Church, and its theologians haven’t even deemed it worthwhile to examine the fact. [1]

What about a discarnate world is a menace to the incarnate church? Everything, since we worship Immanuel, “God With Us,” a God who is both trinitarian and incarnate. When the church’s understanding of the incarnation is correct but the church is immersed in discarnate media, can we truly say our theology fully informs our lives? Can the church’s theology be correct while its adaptation of technology is actually heretical? If our physical artifacts say something about us, surely they say something about the one whom we worship. If our technologies are inherently discarnate, then they must be speaking heresy about God.

Why haven’t theologians addressed this threat? Because most Christians are still under the impression that we are above the influence of our physical artifacts. We’re convinced that technology is neutral and what matters is how we use it. McLuhan comments on this tendency by stating, “I am in the position of Louis Pasteur telling doctors that their greatest enemy is quite invisible, and quite unrecognized by them. Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.”[2] Those words are bold, cutting, and exactly what the church needs to hear to understand the technology it uses in the name of Jesus.

May I suggest that it’s our theology itself that leads to this ‘technological idiocy’? Let’s look at Genesis 2:26 (ESV): “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”[3] Here is the basis of the Christian theology of humans ruling over creation. Based on this and many other scripture passages, we have developed the idea that humans have been given dominion over the entire physical realm. This idea is emphasized further using verses like Psalm 8:5-6 (ESV): “Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet.”[3]

Perhaps our theology of authority over the earth has been interpreted as humanity rising above the influence of the physical realm. We often think that our technologies are simply ways in which we express our God-given dominion over our environments. And that is the hidden assumption in so much of our theological reflection: that our pursuit of the sacred is somehow immune to the physical world in which it is enacted. This is simply not true.

Jacques Ellul, another scholar we’ll learn from, addressed this misconception:

Some will try to dissociate the spiritual situation from the material one, despising the material situation, denying that it has any meaning, declaring that it is neutral, and does not concern eternal life, and that we can turn our attention solely to ‘spiritual problems.’ Such people argue that nothing matters but “the interior life”: that is, that to be the “salt” or the “light” is a purely spiritual affirmation, which has no practical consequences. This is exactly what Jesus Christ calls hypocrisy. It means giving up any attempts to live out one’s religion in the world. It turns the living person of Jesus Christ into an abstraction. God became incarnate–it is not for us to undo his work. This dissociation of our life into two spheres–the one “spiritual,” where we can be “perfect,” and the other material and unimportant, where we behave like other people–is one of the reasons why the churches have so little influence on the world. This avoidance of responsibility for our faith is evidently a convenient solution for the intolerable dilemma in which we are placed by the society of our day. All we can say is: this is the exact opposite of what Jesus Christ wills for us, and of that which he came to do. [4]

Admitting that the physical artifacts around us influence us is not denying the transcendence of God over nature or our God-given roles as caretakers of the creation over which we have been given dominion. Rather, it is confessing the unity of the material and spiritual worlds and confessing that the objects we create have meaning and influence and power not just in how they are used but ultimately in what they are.

Dissociating the spiritual world from the physical world, as Ellul warned against, would lead us to believe that our technologies are neutral and that it’s how we use them that is good or evil. And if we believe our technologies are neutral, we won’t be looking for evidence that says otherwise. This leads us to being technological idiots as we adopt new technologies without truly understanding their influences on us. And, as one media scholar put it, this “adaptation without awareness is suicide.”[5]

Most of the technology the church has adapted in the past hundred years has been unaware. McLuhan said, “The ordinary evolutionary and developmental attitude towards innovation assumes that there is a technological imperative: ‘If it can be done, it has to be done’; so that the emergence of any new means must be introduced, for the creation of no matter what new ends, regardless of the consequences.”[1] He went on to say, “I merely suggest that these results come from a typical visual Western mentality as it approaches technological innovation. As soon as a new means of communication arises, we feel driven to adopt it without considering either the aim or the consequences.”[1]

Ellul and McLuhan uncovered what is hidden to the technological idiot: technologies are not neutral. All technology has an agenda that it carries out regardless of human intentions. All technology creates winners and losers, and all technology creates unintended consequences that are larger than the original good it was intended to perform. There is always a cost.[5]

Instead of the question, “Am I using this technology for good or evil?” the church must begin to ask questions like, what is this technology besides what it says it is? What technology can’t we live without and what does that say about us? What technology rearranges our relationships?[5] What technology redefines our understanding of corporate and individual worship? In asking such questions and searching for answers, we can come to no other conclusion than that our technologies drastically determine how we perceive each other and God.

The field of study that deals with such questions is called media ecology. Lance Strate, a co-founder of the Media Ecology Association, describes media ecology as “the study of media environments, the idea that technology and techniques, modes of information and codes of communication play a leading role in human affairs.”[6] The main scholars and contributors to media ecology have so much to offer Christians in understanding technology and theology. This field of study should not be equated with theology or be understood as a part of theology. Media ecology and theology are distinct fields of study, but media ecology helps us perceive the technologies and environments that shape our theology and practices. As such, it is crucial to have a solid understanding of media ecology to truly understand what influences our beliefs.

You may be thinking, “I’ve heard terms like literary criticism and communication studies and cultural anthropology before, but why haven’t I heard the term media ecology?” One reason is that it’s a relatively new phrase, and most of the studies done in media ecology are often done under the umbrella of communication studies. One reason this term has been used only in the past half a century is that only recently has the rate of technological change increased rapidly enough to enable us to perceive sociological patterns that were previously too subtle to notice.

Many of the important scholars within media ecology had a deep interest in religion. Some were devoted followers of Jesus from diverse theological traditions. Still, most of them would not consider themselves to be theologians. In fact, Marshall McLuhan, a media scholar and devout Catholic, was asked a question regarding the effects of technology on Christianity, to which he replied, “I would prefer that most questions of that sort be dealt with by theologians, but they do not seem to be interested.”[1] So we turn to scholars in the field of media ecology not because they offer a better understanding of technology and the church than theologians do, but because they offer the only one.

Most media ecologists would make a distinction between their field of study and sociology; however, Daniel B. Clendenin writes about Ellul’s work as a form of sociology in the introduction to Ellul’s book The Presence of the Kingdom. Clendenin explained three ways sociology helps the church:

  1. “It forces theology to be relevant by identifying the pertinent questions and strategic factors that shape human life at any given point.”
  2. “It also forces theology to remain concrete…”
  3. “Sociology helps the church community to examine itself in order to determine the degree to which it functions purely in a sociologically determined fashion without any Christian distinctives. In other words, it helps the church to avoid blatant conformity to the world.”[7]

Sociology isn’t meant to be a secular replacement for the church; as we’ll see, it can be a tremendous help to our theology and practices. These same principles apply to media ecology whether or not one considers it part of sociology.

The words “ecology” and “environment” are used quite often in media studies, and this is because much of our understanding of technology comes from ecology. A simple way to understand media ecology is to picture a remote island with a stable ecosystem. Then imagine a new invasive species is introduced to the island. The ecosystem doesn’t just add in another animal to the food chain and continue on as normal; the entire ecosystem drastically changes. Other species may respond with a population boom or with total extinction. No species is unaffected, and every relationship changes. Now imagine a specific human society in a specific time and place as an ecosystem in equilibrium. Every new technology introduced is an invasive species that radically changes every relationship between humans and other humans, technology, and society. The introduction of a new technology changes everything, and nobody is left unaffected.[5]

Media ecology is the study of these changes and their causes and meanings. Media ecology isn’t a science and media ecologists don’t have a method; they have a story to tell. According to scholar Neil Postman,

…the purpose of media ecology is to tell stories about the consequences of technology; to tell how media environments create contexts that may change the way we think or organize our social life. Or make us better or worse, or smarter or dumber, or freer or more enslaved… so we are obliged, in the interest of a humane survival, to tell tales about what sort of paradise may be gained, and what sort lost. We will not have been the first to tell such tales. But unless our stories ring true, we may be the last. [8]

Media ecology is invaluable in its ability to help us tell stories about the consequences of technology within the church. From this perspective we can learn not only what sort of “paradise” we may gain or lose, but what reality we affirm or deny. The goal of this essay is to help church leaders awake to the reality of technological idiocy, understand the dangers of discarnate technology to theology, and begin to create a church environment that affirms the reality of incarnation. As we move toward this goal, we’ll obtain a clearer vision of how our perception of God is shaped and molded by the works of our own hands.

 

 

In order to understand how technology changes our theology and church environments, we must build a foundational knowledge of what exactly media is and how it works. First, we need to define a few key terms.[5]

  • Technology: an invention, part of the natural environment manipulated to achieve a specific outcome
  • Medium: that which goes between, a collection of technology applied to a given use
  • Media: plural form of “medium”

Next, I’d like to introduce you to Marshall McLuhan, whom you’ve already heard from in the previous section. McLuhan (1911–1980) was a Canadian professor and scholar whose life was dedicated to educating people about the effects of technology.[9] He was also a devout Roman Catholic who made important connections between his faith and media studies.

In Understanding Media, McLuhan lays out the basics of his theories about media and applies them to a myriad of diverse technologies from roads and clothing to clocks and weapons. McLuhan viewed all mechanical technology as extensions of the human body and all electronic media as extensions of the human nervous system. For example, clothing is an extension of skin, a wheel is an extension of feet, and a camera is an extension of eyes.[10] All electronic and digital media, whether radio or the Internet, is an extension of the central nervous system.[2] Everything humans create is only an extension of a pre-existing part of us, and every technology can be traced back to its biological counterpart.[11]

According to McLuhan, “the medium gives power through extension but immobilizes and paralyzes what it extends. In this sense, technologies both extend and amputate. Amplification turns to amputation. The central nervous system reacts to the pressure and disorientation of the amputation by blocking perception.”[11] The part of the human body that is extended by a technology is numbed; it doesn’t function as it normally would have before it was extended. The more extensions that are applied to a person, the more fragmented they become.

At the very center of the church we find media, not as an extension of man, but as an extension of God. While some theologians or media ecologists may balk at the idea of saying that anything could an extension of God, I feel comfortable saying that because of the divinity and humanity, the incarnation, of Jesus Christ. The extensions of God are the sacraments of baptism and communion. Communion is an extension of God in the sense that in it we participate in his body and blood. Baptism is an extension of God in that we are baptized into Christ. In communion, we receive Jesus in bread and wine; in baptism, we are submerged into him.

This may sound like a form of transubstantiation, but it’s not. Protestant evangelical theologian Dr. Marcus Johnson writes,

Just as Christ is the substance of the gospel, so is he the substance of the sacraments… What the church receives in Word and sacrament is never more, less, or other than Christ. To deny the true, sacramental presence of Christ in Word and sacrament is to implicitly deny that Christ continually gives himself to the church, his body. [12]

Without Christ being present in some way in the sacraments, they hold little meaning.

Let’s consider this in the context of a Protestant evangelical worship service. There are the sacraments, the extensions of God, which are to be the focus of the liturgy. But then built into the liturgy are also extensions of man in the form of architecture, spoken and written language, music, projectors, microphones, and more. In what ways do these extensions of God and man either unite or conflict? How does this affect our perception of God and our perception of ourselves as worshippers? Is liturgy to be understood as the extensions of God meeting the extensions of man? How do our extensions change how we participate in or act out God’s extensions?

We cannot say that all extensions of man clash with the extensions of God because in scripture God clearly mandates manmade technology to be a part of worship. On the most basic level, we cannot worship corporately without technology because even our speech, clothing, and architecture are technologies. In the Old Testament God commissions artists and craftsmen to create a worship environment that is rich with beautiful sounds, sights, smells, textures, and even tastes. All of these technologies served to draw the worshipper further into experiencing the physical reality of worship, whether at the temple, the synagogue, or during the celebration of feasts and festivals. These technologies complemented the purpose of God in creating a worship environment of wholeness, presence, and reality.

Contrast that with a more modern example of technology in liturgy. In The Medium and the Light, McLuhan devotes an entire essay to the changes the microphone brought to the Roman Catholic liturgy. He argues that the introduction of the microphone to mass forced the church to change from Latin to the vernacular, it turned around the priests so they now face the congregation, and it necessitated speakers that made acoustic-minded architecture obsolete. It also makes it difficult for personal meditation during mass because the amplified sound comes from all directions instead of one source. It even changes the tone of the message: “…the microphone, which makes it so easy for a speaker to be heard by many, also forbids him to exhort or be vehement.”[1] McLuhan refuses to make a value judgment about such changes, but this example helps us understand how one “small” change in technology affects so much.

Let’s take a look at an example that might be easier for us to analyze. Many people access the Bible on their smart phones during church services. While many pastors may think, “Great! Now everybody can easily follow along with my sermon!” that is not the real effect of smart phones. Obviously, there’s the issue of distraction, but that’s an easy target that doesn’t need to be addressed here. The purpose of a weekly church service is for believers to be present together before God in order to receive Christ through the sacraments and the preaching of the gospel. Without smart phones (or even printed Bibles, to some extent), the preaching of the gospel is listened to and received corporately. With Bible apps on smart phones, the unified body of Christ acts more as a loosely associated collection of individuals who become sermon critics instead of receivers of the word. It seems this extension of man works against the extensions of God as it creates a worship environment that is certainly not characterized by wholeness, presence, and reality.

An important principle in McLuhan’s work is summarized by the well-known and often misunderstood phrase “the medium is the message.” McLuhan believed that all media (except thought and electric light) worked in pairs, with the content of one medium being a different medium. For example, the content of speech is thought, and the content of film is the novel. W. Terrance Gordon summarizes it well: “The contained medium is the message of the containing one, but the effects of the latter are obscured for the user, who focuses on the former. Because those effects are so powerful, any message, in the ordinary sense of ‘content’ or ‘information,’ has far less impact than the medium itself. Thus, ‘the medium is the message.’”[11]

Practically speaking, McLuhan described the difference between content and medium like this: “…the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”[2] When we are technological idiots, content acts like a Trojan horse that distracts us while the enemy army–the medium–slips past the city gates. Now, this doesn’t mean that technology has some sort of malevolent intentions against humans. However, each technology takes away possibilities for some things as it creates possibilities for other things. The Bible app is the Trojan horse that distracts us from the true message of the smart phone in worship, which is individualism. The smart phone creates the possibilities of quickly looking up related passages or other translations, but it takes away the possibility of experiencing the preaching of the word of God as a truly unifying, corporate experience.

Every new technology changes or re-creates the environment surrounding it so that “any new service environment, such as those created by the alphabet or railways or motor cars or telegraph or radio, deeply modifies the very nature and image of the people who use it. As electric media proliferate, whole societies at a time become discarnate, detached from mere bodily or physical ‘reality’ and relieved of any allegiance to or sense of responsibility to or for it. In the electric age, the alteration of human identity by a new service environment of information has left whole populations without personal or community values to a degree that far exceeds the effects of food- and fuel- and energy-shortages.”[10]

Smart phones create a new environment that is characterized by fragmented attention, individualism, and a lack of true presence. This is easier for us to realize when we think about a scene we’ve all observed: a family eating at a restaurant with a teenager glued to their phone and completely uninvolved in the conversation. We see this situation and cringe, yet this is exactly what happens in our churches every week. The message of smart phones in church is not the use of Bible apps but the smart phone itself, and the individualism and isolation that comes with it.

There are dozens of other examples we could dive into, like the switch from hymnals to projectors and PowerPoint presentations. We could talk about lack of valuable architecture and art that encourages churches to adopt the same design principles as a waiting room for a dentist’s office. When churches are not distinct but look just like any other building, their message may be viewed as ordinary and indistinct as well. Truly, in many evangelical churches the only physical artifact that is treated as remotely significant or sacred is the new carpet. However, let’s move on to a conversation about how what we’ve discussed so far affects our perception of God.

According to McLuhan,

In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same. [1]

Here McLuhan is restating the incarnation in media terms. Immanuel, “God With Us,” is both what Jesus says but also who he is. In Christianity, the mediator is the message. As we discussed before, the incarnation is not just foundational to our thoughts about Jesus but also our thoughts about technology.

How does the incarnation inform our thoughts about technology? First, consider the idea of wholeness. In the incarnation Christ is not fragmented into a being half-God and half-man. He is mysteriously and completely both God and man. Does our technology encourage our wholeness or our fragmentation – physically, mentally, and spiritually? Second, think of presence. Jesus was truly present on earth; he was not an abstraction or an illusion or a spirit. While Jesus is called the mediator, his presence is not mediated; nothing separates humanity from Jesus. Does our technology encourage us to be fully present or does it encourage our distraction and isolation? Third, consider reality. Jesus did not come to provide an escape from a difficult life but to bring us into a reality of union with him. Does our technology ground us further into the present reality into which Christ has placed us or does it uproot us into a life of escapism, abstraction, and unreality? Also, if the incarnation truly means the medium is the message, then what is our technology saying about who Jesus is to us?

Remember, when we say “incarnate” in the sense of technology, we mean technology that enables our whole presence in true reality. “Discarnate” refers to technology that mediates us to create an experience of “reality” that doesn’t include our physical presence. Examples of discarnate technology include things as ancient as letters and as recent as Snapchat and Periscope. By separating our true presence from our communication, discarnate media risks rendering us fragmented, isolated, and abstracted. One of the dangers of discarnate media is that it extends senses that are truly human. The danger isn’t that technology is so foreign; rather, the risk is in the fact that it extends our very bodies and minds.

If we don’t have a problem with discarnate media we’re essentially saying that our bodies aren’t important parts of who we are. This brings up an interesting problem because it forces us to determine how important our bodies truly are. If our bodies are not important parts of our identity and personhood, then by all means, revel in technologies that are discarnate in nature. However, if we confess with scripture that our bodies are important to our personhood and identity, if we confess that a physical body is part of what it means to be created in the image of God, if Christ’s physical presence on this earth has any significance, then we must confess that using discarnate media is inherently opposed to our faith. Perhaps this is another reason why Christians are so prone to technological idiocy; because we do not have a strong enough theology of our physical bodies to actually perceive a problem with discarnate media.

McLuhan highlighted the problem discarnate media presents Christians when he said, “Isn’t the real message of the Church in the secondary or side-effects of the Incarnation, that is to say, in Christ’s penetration into all of human existence?”[1] If the true message of the church is the incarnation, but our church services and everyday lives are filled with discarnate media, then what gospel are we preaching? Or better yet, what gospel are we living? McLuhan goes on to say,

…it is only at the level of a lived Christianity that the medium really is the message. [1]

The incarnation is not just something to be appreciated through theology or the sacraments or the liturgy; it is something to be lived out in the life of every follower of Jesus, something to penetrate into all of our existence, something to inform even our choices about technology.

Ellul echoed this when he wrote, “To speak quite frankly, without beating around the bush, a doctrine only has power (apart from that which God gives it) to the extent in which it is adopted, believed, and accepted by men who have a style of life which is in harmony with it.”[4] He goes on to say that reflecting the incarnation in the way we live is both an individual and collective task. It must be done in community with the support of the body of Christ, and it very well may take us out of our comfort zones. He warns, “Confronted by these compromises, the church ought not to justify itself, or to justify the world’s solution, but it ought to find its own way, given by God, which it alone can follow. It is only on this condition that the church will cease to be a sociological movement, and be present in the world with the effectiveness given by the Holy Spirit.”[4]

The task of the church in this matter is clear: we must reconsider our society’s acceptance of technology and find our own way. This will require us to have far more robust theologies of Christ and our union with him (for further study on union with Christ see Dr. Marcus Peter Johnson’s book One With Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation), of our own physical bodies, and corporate worship. Without this theological foundation for our choices about technology, we will have no way to combat the subtle but all-encompassing hypocrisy of technological idiocy. And until we address the problem of technological idiocy within the church, we cannot begin to create relationships and environments characterized by wholeness, presence, and reality.

 

 

Let’s return to McLuhan’s concept of media as extensions of man. He elaborated on that foundation by saying that media doesn’t simply extend a part of the human body; it changes that which it extends. The wheel is an extension of a foot but a wheel can move a heavier load farther and faster than a human foot can. Technology always changes the form, scale, or speed of that which it extends.

This change has to do with sense ratios. In any media environment, certain senses are dominant over others. In a culture whose language has no written alphabet, the sense of hearing will be dominant over the sense of sight (McLuhan says in spoken language all the senses are highly engaged). When the printing press was invented, it sparked a great change in sense ratios as sight became increasingly more dominant. McLuhan says, “the effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.”[2] New technologies rearrange our senses so they work in different ways than they did before. When different senses are extended, different environments are created that make some things impossible and create previously nonexistent possibilities for other new things. This is how new technologies create new ways of relating to the world and to each other.

McLuhan says that even different languages encourage different sense ratios: “Our own mother tongues are things in which we participate totally. They change our perception. So if we spoke Chinese we would have a different sense of hearing, smell, and touch. The same is true with printing, radio, movies, and TV. They actually alter our organs of perception without our knowing it.”[1] This has important implications for intercultural ministry that deserve to be further explored. It also emphasizes the fact that the technologies we create are not neutral; they act on us and shape us in ways that are powerful but often unnoticeable.

This foundational understanding of sense ratios will help us understand the large-scale view of technology and the church throughout its entire history. In order to do this, we’ll add to our discussion an American by the name of Walter J. Ong (1912-2003), who was a Jesuit Catholic priest and a scholar whose work integrated diverse fields of study.[13] His best known work is Orality and Literacy, in which he builds on the work of linguists, anthropologists, and other scholars to bring to light the ways in which a culture’s exposure to different forms of language are definitive. In this book he the differences between cultures that are rooted in spoken language and cultures that are built on written or printed language. He argues that almost every part of modern Western culture, even the way we think, is inescapably conditioned and shaped by the technology of the written and printed word.

It’s important to note that language is a technology that acts like the other technologies we’ve discussed. There are a few distinctions between the different ways the technology of language can exist in a culture. First, a culture might have language that exists only in spoken form. This is actually the majority of all languages that have ever existed. Second, a culture might have a written language in the form of hieroglyphics, symbols, or characters. Examples of this would be Mandarin. The major distinction comes third, in cultures that have a phonetic alphabet.

There are also distinctions about how these forms of language are transmitted. There is verbal transmission, then manuscript culture, in which the language exists in written form. Both of these are still usually considered “oral” cultures because even thought they might contain written language, their primary effect is still through spoken language. This is possible because written manuscripts took a lot of time and money and professional skill to accomplish. They were few and far between, and not many people knew how to read, so the cultures were still based in orality. An example of this would be the Hebrews in both the Old and New Testaments, who had written language but were still cultures strongly characterized by the spoken word. Many cultures today would still fall into this category – not just remote people groups with little access to modern technology, but in places such as modern African-American communities in the American South.

These oral cultures stand in contrast to cultures defined by the influence of written or printed language, which is referred to as “literacy.” This could be in the form of hand-written manuscripts, but mostly it refers to the domination of written language that resulted from the printing press. Most globally powerful cultures today would be considered literate cultures. Because of recent developments in electronic and digital technology, the twentieth century saw the beginning of what Ong refers to as secondary orality. Secondary orality happens when a culture previously based in literacy adapts electronic and digital technology that reintroduces parts of orality to create something that resembles both but is in itself distinct.

The different ways languages exist and are transmitted each promote a different ratio of the senses. We saw this already in McLuhan’s analysis of the ways in which the microphone changed the Roman Catholic liturgy. In order to understand better how these changes to sense ratios affect the church, let’s look at a few more snapshots of Christianity in different technological contexts.

First, let’s look at the phonetic alphabet, which was one of the most drastic technological developments in humanity. According to Walter Ong, “…the shift from oral to written speech is essentially a shift from sound to visual space.”[14]

This describes the way in which the alphabet changed sense ratios from sound domination to vision domination. McLuhan elaborates on the importance of the phonetic alphabet by saying, “…the phonetic alphabet, by a few letters only, was able to encompass all languages. Such an achievement, however, involved the separation of both signs and sounds from their semantic and dramatic meanings… The same separation of sight and sound and meaning that is peculiar to the phonetic alphabet also extends to its social and psychological effects.”[2] There is a level of abstraction in all forms of writing or communication, but that abstraction is greatly magnified in the phonetic alphabet. In essence, the phonetic alphabet separated thought from action.[5] It created abstraction and fragmentation in humanity in a way that hadn’t existed before. It is a separating of the physical and non-physical, and as McLuhan said, that didn’t just change language. It also changed humans socially psychologically.

One of the main changes it enacted was in the way people thought about words. Ong writes, “Sound… exists only when it is going out of existence. I cannot have all of a word present at once: when I say ‘existence,” by the time I get to the ‘-tence,’ the ‘exist-’ is gone. The alphabet implies that matters are otherwise, that a word is a thing, not an event, that it is present all at once, and that it can be cut up into little pieces, which can even be written forwards and pronounced backwards…”[14] So in spoken language, words are events, but in written language, words are things, objects, and commodities.

This abstraction of words from events into things affects even our theology and church practices. Perhaps the influence of written language has encouraged us to view scripture not as an event in which man meets with God but as a commodity to be consumed in order to know God. Could it be that the written scriptures are easier for us to objectify in this way? The same thing could happen in corporate worship. Instead of viewing worship as an event in which man and God meet in a special way, worship becomes a thing to be obtained. Instead of the sacraments being an event in which we receive Christ, they are things we consume in order to help us remember Christ. The common thread in this form of abstraction is the changing of experience into object.

The alphabet allowed things to happen that couldn’t have happened before. Ong says that the Greeks, in creating the first alphabet with vowels, found the ability to rise above other civilizations as far as intellectual work was concerned. He credits this as the cause of their great philosophical achievements and other accomplishments.[14] This is important for Christians to understand because the church was, and still is, heavily influenced by this Greek culture and philosophy that was only possible through a very specific technology.

Connected but not exclusive to the effects of the phonetic alphabet are the effects of writing in general. According to Walter Ong, the major monotheistic religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam would not have existed without writing because they all have ancient sacred texts.[14] Writing, partnered with the alphabet, enabled western scholasticism and the proliferation of philosophy and other academic disciplines. Writing allows introspection to a degree and specificity that couldn’t occur in orality. Writing encouraged a linear way of thinking that didn’t exist before and created new possibilities. Much of our western theology is built on a foundation of western philosophies and ways of determining knowledge, and almost all of it is the result of writing. For example, there would be no systematic theology without writing because systematic theology is based on western logic and linear thought. The abstraction we see in the phonetic alphabet is magnified even further by this flood of printed language.

Ong describes the tension between orality and literacy when he writes,

Oral cultures indeed produce powerful and beautiful verbal performances of high artistic and human worth, which are no longer even possible once writing has taken possession of the psyche. Nevertheless, without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials, cannot produce other beautiful and powerful creations. In this sense, orality needs to produce and is destined to produce writing. Literacy, as will be seen, is absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself. [14]

Ong is careful to explain that orality is not the ideal that we should seek to return to, and neither is literacy something to which we should aspire.

One of the ways in which we can see the fragmentation and abstraction of language affecting our theology is in our understanding of the sacraments, which we already briefly discussed. Remember, in the phonetic alphabet we have the separation of symbol and meaning and the separation of thought and action, and in writing and printing that fragmentation is amplified. This is really just another way of expressing a separation of the medium and the message. Because our language and technologies shape us, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that it shapes our ideas of God and the sacraments.

The abstraction in language and technology shows up in communion as the abstraction of the presence of Christ in the bread and wine. It is not possible to have a memorialist view of communion without the phonetic alphabet and writing. Separating the person and work of Jesus is separating the actions and ideas in the phonetic alphabet. Only with the separation of sign and meaning, of thought and action, of the medium and the message, could we believe that Christ is not in some way truly present in communion. When words are events, Jesus is someone in whom we participate through the event of communion; when words are things, Jesus is someone we think about during communion. Is not this fragmentation the opposite of the incarnation? Those who say that Christ is not truly present in communion fall for the same trick as the technological idiots – that the medium is not really the message.

Another way orality and literacy studies can inform our theology is by helping us understand the significance of references to different forms of language in scripture. Throughout the Bible, we can see God consistently identifying himself with specific forms of language over others. Although God gives the Ten Commandments carved in stone and directs his people to write down the law, the main way he communicates with his people in the Old Testament is through speech. He speaks the earth into existence, he talks out loud to Moses, he speaks to and through the prophets, and he appears to Elijah in a whisper. There aren’t many instances of, “Thus writes the LORD,” but scripture is filled with “Thus says the LORD.”

God identifies himself with spoken language when he calls Jesus the divine logos, the Word of God, in the book of John. We have accounts of what Jesus said, but as far as we know, God incarnate left us no written messages. The God we serve is not a God of writing but a God who expresses himself primarily in audible form. Christians therefore are not truly “people of the book” but rather “people of the Word.” This doesn’t mean that scripture isn’t inspired or important; however, we must realize that much scripture actually existed in verbal form before it was written down.

How does this identification with spoken language inform our theology and practices? Consider the difference between communicating with someone through a letter or through speech. When we think of God as a God of the written word, he is mediated, distant, and not truly present. But if we think of God as a God of the written word, then his communication with us cannot occur without his actual presence. When God speaks, he is present with us. We serve a God who doesn’t write us letters but who speaks to and through his children because he is present with them in the incarnate Son and in the Spirit. Our technologies either encourage or discourage us to reflect this wholeness, presence, and reality in our communication with God and with each other.

With the onset of secondary orality via electronic and digital technologies, we can expect our theology and practices to change in new ways, and it already has. This is evident in our previous example of the microphone causing Latin to be replaced by the vernacular in Roman Catholic masses.[1] McLuhan builds on that claim when he says that Vatican II was the Roman Catholic Church’s response to the effects of television. McLuhan and Ong spoke of these changes before the advent of the Internet, social media, and smart phones, which have now redefined our sense ratios.

The onset of secondary orality is drastically changing the way in which formal theology is practiced. The authors of “The Influence of Information Technologies on Theology” claim digital technologies are changing the way theology is approached by “affecting the content for and of theology, the resources theologians work with, the communication methods linking people, and the cognitive processes with which we approach any intellectual work.”[15] They elaborate on what this means here:

From a sociological perspective, the categories by which we define our theological thinking and processes will begin to shift. Practice will definitely influence function. The social and ritual practice of scholarly research and interaction will move from the probative, text-driven, sequentially conceptual base of the ‘book’ to the associative, imagistic, and nonlinear information networks of the Internet. This new ‘rite’ of scholars as cyber-practitioners will allow for more fluidity of signification in theological thought and argument. [15]

Our digital technology creates winners and losers in the sense that it excludes some people from the theological conversation and includes others. People who have no access to digital technology or no connections with Western publishing companies or universities are often left out of the global theological conversation. Digital technology is disrupting the domination of linear thought and driving scholasticism to return to an integrative, nonlinear mode of thinking. And it brings countless other changes into existence as well. It does not matter if the church eagerly anticipates these changes or fights against them; they are here. Studying scholars like Ong will greatly benefit the church as it either accepts or rejects technologies that determine who has a voice in global theology.

Because our technological choices either include or exclude people from theological conversations, our technologies are ways in which we can build a global church culture of inclusion. While digital technology may seem like a great solution because it is so accessible to anyone with a cell phone, we must consider what kind of inclusion is enabled by such technology. Does digital technology allow for people to be included in a way in which their true presence is valued?

Understanding the ways that the abstraction in language seeps into all areas of our thoughts, beliefs, and practices is necessary in order for the church to build relationships and environments that are characterized by wholeness, presence, and reality. Through orality and literacy studies we can better understand how different people groups operate with different sense ratios, which will help us better reach them with the gospel. It will help us understand how to include all of our brothers and sisters in the life of the local and global church, and it will help us live in a reality in which we are all truly present together before God.

 

 

To better understand what it means for the church to be present in a world dominated by technology and technique, we’re going to learn from Jacques Ellul. Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) was a French scholar whose works on technology, society, and theology were influenced by his Protestant Christian faith and by Marxism. In his most famous work, The Technological Society, he asserts that the most important phenomenon in today’s world is what he calls technique. It is important to distinguish what Ellul refers to as ‘technique’ and what we refer to when we use the similar word ‘technology.’ He isn’t referring to our physical artifacts or inventions; instead, “Ellul defines technique not as machinery or any device or procedure, but as ‘nothing more than means and the ensemble of means.’”[7]

According to Ellul, technique is a force whose end is efficiency and rationality and it does not serve any agenda besides its own self-augmentation. Technique promotes a quantifiable “one right way” to do any given task, which means it diminishes human choice because we must choose the most efficient option. But technique drives people to be so focused on the efficiency of the means they are using that the end, the actual goal or purpose, disappears. The most important thing to remember about technique is that it separates the means and ends. No part of humanity and no part of the globe is immune to technique.[16]

Humanity was not always dominated by technique. Ellul says that for much of human history, technique was held in check by other forces: “Among all these factors, which mingled with one another, technique was only one. It was inexorably linked with them and depended on them, as they depended on it. It was part of a whole, part of the determinate society, and it developed as a function of the whole and shared its fate.”[16] This is the “proper framework” for technique – one that involves checks and balances.

However, in the nineteenth century “society began to elaborate an exclusively rational technique which acknowledged only considerations of efficiency,” and that snowballed into the domination of technique that exists today. While Ellul does admit that there are restraining forces that could hypothetically act on technique, he firmly maintains that it’s far too late to dream about retaking human societies from the grasp of technique.[16] This is how Ellul perceived the state of the world during his lifetime:

The first great fact that emerges from our civilization is that today everything has become ‘means.’ There is no longer an ‘end;’ we do not know whither we are going. We have forgotten our collective ends, and we possess great means: we set huge machines in motion in order to arrive nowhere. [4]

Earlier we learned from McLuhan about the tendencies of people to adapt technologies without understanding them. Ellul agrees when he says the “principle law of our age” is that “everything which is technique is necessarily used as soon as available, without distinction of good or evil.” Technique itself refuses to “tolerate moral judgments” because “the technological phenomenon cannot be broken down in such a way as to retain the good and reject the bad.” Technique cannot be judged as good or evil, but “the power and autonomy of technique are so well secured that it, in its turn, has become the judge of what is moral, the creator of a new morality.”[16]

According to Ellul, “man can never foresee the totality of consequences of a given technical action.” He agrees with McLuhan that technique produces problems that are exponentially greater than the ones it sets out to solve, leaving society in a worse position than if a particular technique had never been applied. Ellul insists that the result of technique doesn’t just change societies as a whole, but it also conditions individuals irreversibly, and since technique conditions humans with comfort, people will always choose the path of least resistance, which is itself technique.[16]

It is important to note that Ellul did not believe technology or technique is evil. He believed “technical progress is ‘neither exclusively positive nor totally negative,”[7] and he “would certainly never wish to maintain that technology was to be deplored.”[16] He believed “the real problem is not to judge but to understand.”[16] However, he was clearly comfortable in pointing out the problems he saw in technological society:

The problem arises, though, when means and ends are separated, so that technical means no longer have any end except absolute, rational efficiency (‘the one best way’) and are no longer subject to outside value judgments. The “one best way” of efficiency is always the self-selecting and self-justifying end. At this point people no longer have a choice, because technique chooses for them, and all proposed ends become superfluous. Thus technical means have become totalitarian and landed us in an apocalyptic situation. [7]

The true problem with technique is when means are separated from ends. This might sound familiar because it’s really just another facet of “the medium is the message.” Ellul doesn’t leave us to speculate about how this affects our perception of God; he approaches from a different perspective McLuhan’s claim that in Jesus the medium and message are one:

…for the Christian there is no dissociation between the end and the means. It is a Greek ethical idea which has caused this division. The point from which we ought to start is that in the work of God the end and the means are identical. Thus when Jesus Christ is present the Kingdom has “come upon” us. This formula expresses very precisely the relation between the end and the means. Jesus Christ in his incarnation appears as God’s means, for the salvation of man and the establishment of the Kingdom of God, but where Jesus Christ is, there also is this salvation and this Kingdom. [7]

Ellul says that “for the Christian also the end and the means are united in the same way; thus he is irrevocably committed to fight with all his might against our previous enslavement to means.”[7] He spoke of this enslavement so strongly because he truly believed that the triumph of means in the lives of people actually obstructed people from living out their Christian faith. As to what kind of obstruction he meant we may only speculate. We know of the tendency to view humans as means to our own ends, which is antithetical to the gospel. We also know that technique’s effect on us is distraction. We’re unaware of not just the state of the world around us but unaware of ourselves and our neighbors. We see this in direct opposition to scripture’s call for us to be sober minded and alert in 1 Peter 1:13, 4:7, and 5:8.

Perhaps we also see a separation of ends and means in our soteriology. Jesus is both the means and the end of human salvation – we are saved through Christ and into Christ. However, many of our theories of salvation focus on a transaction in which Jesus gives us a thing called “salvation.” When Jesus gives us salvation, he gives us nothing other than himself. He is the way, the truth, and the life. We see this also affecting our view of sanctification. We think of Jesus as giving us “holiness” when Jesus cannot give us holiness apart from giving us his very self. 1 Corinthians 1:30 says, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption…”[3] When we separate the person and work of Jesus, we separate the ends and means of our salvation so that Jesus becomes neither.

How are we to fight this enslavement to means, this unawareness Ellul speaks of? We must pursue “the rediscovery in every sphere of life of the reality which all the world is seeking… to achieve this awareness as a whole is only possible under the illumination of the Holy Spirit.”[4] How do we achieve this? The wrong answer is that we must take up action and work to realize the Kingdom of God. Ellul says,

In this situation it is not our instruments and our institutions which count, but ourselves, for it is ourselves who are God’s instruments; so far as the church and all its members are God’s “means” they ought to constitute that presence of the “end” which is characteristic of the Kingdom… They have to represent before the world this unity between end and means, authorized by Jesus Christ. [4]

To raise a battle cry and take up arms in action against the domination of technique by more instruments and institutions is only making the problem worse. “That men should be alive, instead of being obsessed with action–it is at this point that means can be put in their right place.”[4] Daniel B. Clendenin summarized it well when he wrote that while action cannot be ignored, what is first required of the Christian is not action but presence. This does not mean that the church should remain idle and stagnant until Jesus returns. Instead, Ellul says “we must search the scriptures for the way in which we ought to live, in order that the end, willed by God, should be present among men.”[4] He elaborates here:

Thus it is the fact of living, with all its consequence, with all that it involves, which is the revolutionary act par excellance; at the same time this is the solution of the problem of the end and the means. In a civilization which has lost the meaning of life, the most useful thing a Christian can do is to live–and life, understood from the point of view of faith, has an extraordinary explosive force.[4]

The most revolutionary thing Christians can do to pursue God in wholeness, presence, and reality is simply to live. What does Ellul mean by “life?” He means “the expression of the Holy Spirit, working within us, expressing himself in our actual life, through our words, our habits, and our decisions. Thus what we need is to rediscover all that the fullness of personal life means for a man standing on his own feet in the midst of the world, who rediscovers his neighbor because he himself has been found by God.”[4]

To live a life characterized by wholeness, presence, and reality, “…the most important thing that we can do socially is to rediscover our neighbor.”[4] We must determine if the techniques and technologies surrounding us cause us to be more fully present with our neighbors or more isolated from them. If the medium truly is the message, if the means should not be separated from the ends, if our calling is truly to rest in the presence of Christ and be present in the world, then our technologies must either be a part of that calling or have no place in our lives and our churches.

 

 

McLuhan, Ong, Ellul, and the other scholars we’ve heard from have shown us how deeply affected we are by the physical artifacts that surround us. They’ve shown us how our technologies aren’t neutral but actually promote ideas of their own by the sense ratios and social effects they enact. Often, those ideas are inherently opposed to the nature of the God we worship. Now, if this were a theological premise that was inherently opposed to the nature of God, we would call it a heresy, reject it, and create something positive as a declaration of truth and orthodoxy against it. This is how many of our creeds came into existence – as a confession of truth in the face of heresy.

The concepts of orthodoxy and heresy are usually applied to the realm of our thoughts but are never considered as ways to view the physical realm. However, the physical objects we create and are surrounded by truly impose their own agendas on the people who use them, and those ideologies are often at odds with what we would consider orthodox Christianity. If the ideas promoted by our technologies are opposed to doctrines such as the incarnation, why don’t we call it what it is – heresy? Remember, there are no new heresies, only old ones in new disguises, so it will be helpful to study old heresies with technology in mind, especially trinitarian and christological heresies. In doing so we can consider if our technologies encourage us to reflect the incarnation or if they do not. We can consider if they encourage the unity we see reflected in the trinity or not. For example, in a conversation about churches using social media, media ecologist Dr. Read Schuchardt said,

You cannot use a discarnational medium to draw people to an incarnational God. [5]

If we seriously consider this example, we must wrestle with the thought that the church is not only in a place of technological idiocy but also in a place of technological heresy.

Perhaps it is difficult for us to bring heresy into the physical realm because doing so would require us to make difficult choices. It would require us to act differently from the rest of the world. It’s also difficult because we cannot make blanket statements and proclaim all technology as anathema. As all of the media scholars we just studied would agree, we cannot jump to make judgment calls about technology. We can only seek to understand it. Of course, there must be a time in which we make decisions about the technologies we will and will not accept, but that cannot come before deep, prayerful study. So perhaps the idea of orthodoxy and heresy in regards to physical artifacts is helpful not as a rule by which to make decisions but as a start to asking questions that take us beyond the content into the medium, the true message.

Even if we do carefully study these technologies, they will not automatically tell us what to do. In order to make decisions about technology, we first have to know what it is that we actually want. We must decide what kind of people we want to be, what kind of lives we want to live, and ultimately, what it is that we truly value. Recall the three intertwined principles we’ve brought up a few different times in this essay: wholeness, presence, and reality.

Wholeness, as opposed to fragmentation: As we read earlier, McLuhan believed that each medium is an extension of man and that the more extensions man has, the more fragmented he is. Ellul agrees when he says that “it is impossible to fragment man’s personality without weakening it.”16 How can we define wholeness in terms of technology? Can wholeness be understood by our hearts, minds, and bodies resting in the same reality?

Presence, as opposed to isolation: This isn’t just referring to our physical presence, although that is an important part of it. This is also referring to our mental and emotional presence. Does our technology cause us to be holistically present in the lives of the people around us? Does it encourage spending time engaged with other people? If it encourages solitude, is it a healthy solitude or a dangerous isolation? Does our technology block us from being emotionally present?

Reality, as opposed to fantasy: Much of our technology makes it easy to create modes of existence that aren’t grounded in reality. Remember, technology is not dangerous because of its foreign nature but because it creates experiences and even entire worlds that are deceptively close to reality. Does our technology ground us further in the reality of our present, physical lives or does it encourage the creation of alternate modes of experiencing the world? Does our technology encourage true, face-to-face relationships with other people or does it mediate our interactions through a screen? Does it encourage healing or escapism when our physical reality is a painful place?

Unless the church addresses these issues within its own theology, it will never be able to help the world heal from fragmentation, isolation, and abstraction. We cannot fully be the presence of Christ in the world, the true church, if we ourselves collectively and individually are fragmented, isolated, and operating in a world that isn’t real. If we don’t seek understanding of the technology we use in our churches, we risk distorting the good news of Jesus with technology that denies the incarnation.

These questions we need to ask have complicated, nuanced, and difficult answers. They are questions whose value is in the conversation they bring up and not necessarily in our ability to answer them concretely. These are the questions we must ask about our phones, our computers, our cars, our clothing, our architecture, of every piece of technology we use. But first and foremost they must be asked about the technology in our churches, not for the sake of the promotion of an institution, but for the sake of the gospel. We must seek a deeper understanding of how our physical artifacts shape us and our beliefs so that we can better love God and our neighbors, so we can be wholly present in the reality in which God has placed us.

Media ecology can also be helpful to the church in surprising ways and timely ways. One of those areas is cross-cultural ministry and missions, as it brings to light the foundation of cultural differences in language and other technologies. Another way media ecology can help is in the area of interracial relationships within the church. One media ecologist explains that the visual arts within the church introduced a focus on race into theology that hadn’t existed before. When stories were told out loud, nobody cared too much what color Jesus’ skin was, but when paintings and other artwork showed up, Jesus became white and the devil was often portrayed as having dark skin.19 This representation of racism isn’t possible without the visual artwork in the church, and doubtless this affected people’s theological views about ethnicity. Perhaps the church can turn to media ecology for help understanding how different ethnic groups have different sense ratios that may make integrating churches difficult. If this field of study can help us understand the fragmentation and isolation in our theology and practices, perhaps it can also assist us in our pursuit of racial and ethnic reconciliation within the church.

These are just a few examples of ways that media ecology can serve the church. Just in these examples, it’s obvious that we need a much better understanding of technology if we are going to face these issues with anything more than technological idiocy and heresy. As we make decisions about the technologies we accept or reject, we must remember these words of Jacques Ellul:

If these means are to be really ordered in the light of this eschatological event, they must cease to be limitless in their demands, and subject to no authority higher than themselves. They must be judged, accepted, or rejected. It is not their intrinsic virtue, their quality as means, that counts; it is their eschatological content, their faculty of being integrated under the lordship of Jesus Christ. They are not good or bad, they are called to enter into the Kingdom of Love, and they are able either to enter it or not. 4

May we as the church choose to adopt only technologies that are able to enter the kingdom of love as we pursue God in wholeness, presence, and reality.

 

Hopefully this essay has awakened readers to the reality of technological idiocy and exposed the dangers of discarnate technology to theology. As we seek to understand the ways in which we might begin to create a church environment that affirms the reality of incarnation, we must begin to narrow our focus to the ways in which this can be done in individual local churches. Creating a church environment, a church culture, is not just the job of the pastors or staff members, it is the role of every participant in the congregation. Understanding the environments that our technologies create necessitates the input of each person who experiences those environments. And while each person’s input is valuable, input from people who are experienced in seeing past the content to the medium and message is especially valuable. Specifically, the church must value the input of its artists.

One thing most media ecology scholars have in common is their high view of artists. This respect for artists is not coincidental, it’s because of the extensive common ground and common goals shared by artists and media scholars. McLuhan himself said, “art has the utmost relevance not only to media study but to the development of media controls.”2 One step the church can take to better understand the effects of technology is by partnering with artists who are already a part of the church. To do this, we must refine and challenge our misconceptions of who artists are and what art is.

Artists are trained perceivers. According to McLuhan, “the serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.”2 Richard Cavell elaborates on McLuhan’s understanding of artists:

McLuhan ‘s intention was to urge us all to take on the condition of artists… the condition of individuals critically engaged with the world around them. ‘In social terms,’ writes McLuhan in Through the Vanishing Point, ‘the artist can be regarded as a navigator who gives adequate compass bearings in spite of magnetic deflection of the needle by the changing play of forces. So understood, the artist is not a peddler of ideals or lofty experiences. He is rather the indispensible aid to action and reflection alike’ (TVP 238). 17

Artists are people who have been trained to understand human senses and how they work, which means they are especially helpful in understanding new technologies and the environments they create.

When technology creates a new environment, the old environment becomes seen as a form of art. According to McLuhan, “The history of the arts and sciences could be written in terms of the continuing process by which new technologies create new environments for old technologies. The old technology, as the content of the new, quickly becomes tidied up into an art form, such as is now happening to film since it has become the content of TV.”18 Environments are so difficult for us to notice because they are of low intensity or definition but all pervasive, making us fish who don’t know we’re wet. “Anything that raises the environment to high intensity … turns the environment into an object of attention. When an environment becomes an object of attention it assumes the character of an anti-environment or an art object.”17 Artists help us perceive technologies for what they truly are because they bring them to our attention in new ways.

Richard Cavell summarized McLuhan’s views well when he wrote,

The object of such art has less to do with self-expression that it does with heightening perception. ‘The training of perception upon the otherwise unheeded environment became the basis of experimentation in what is called modern art and poetry. The artist, instead of expressing himself … turned his senses and the work of art to the business of probing the environment (EM 224). In probing the environment, the artist produces a counter-environment, or anti-environment. 17

This is where art and media ecology meet, and it challenges many people’s perceptions of what art is. Art is not self-expression; it is anti-environment. By that we mean artists take what is too subtle or too pervasive to notice and place it in a different environment where we can see it and its effects. This could be a technology, a social system, or really anything. In doing this, artists offer us “artefacts as a means of creating new vision and new awareness.”18 Art doesn’t just make our lives a little more beautiful; it allows us to see our lives and the physical objects that act on us in ways we couldn’t have perceived them before. It offers us valuable insight into our technologies.

Anti-environment can include historical or intercultural studies in which we juxtapose our current society with a different culture. McLuhan writes, “Today when we want to get our bearings in our own culture, and have need to stand aside from the bias and pressure exerted by any technical form of human expression, we have only to visit a society where that particular form has not been felt, or a historical period in which it was unknown.”2 This is why many media and communications scholars are interested in studying communities like the Amish, because it gives us a chance to compare and contrast our societies to see how our technological differences affect us socially.

Lance Strate, founder of the Media Ecology Association, builds on the work of Hannah Arendt to claim that what McLuhan truly meant by “anti-environment” was the laboratory. He writes, “Seen from the perspective of the “real” world, the laboratory is the anticipation of a changed environment… We may further consider the art museum or gallery or library as a controlled environment, a laboratory of sorts, and note the parallel in the idea of art as the anticipation of a changed environment.”20 He continues on to say that houses of worship and other sacred spaces act as laboratories because they take us into an environment that is usually very different from our everyday lives. He says this of sacred spaces:

They are in some way dedicated to making the invisible world of the spirit visible to us through the use of sacred symbols and objects, even for religions whose concept of God is one that is entirely outside of the world of appearances. Sanctuaries might therefore be considered laboratories used for moral, ethical, and sacred discovery, experimentation, and development, and places where changed environments are also anticipated… 20

This idea of churches as anti-environmental (and therefore occupying a similar role as art) should challenge our ideas of what the physical environment of our corporate worship should be like.

Notice the phrase “the anticipation of a changed environment.” One of the ways in which art is anti-environmental is in its prophetic nature. It calls into existence (or at least imagination) the world as it should be, and, according to McLuhan, it can also foresee changes on the horizon: “the power of the arts to anticipate future social and technological developments, by a generation or more, has long been recognized… This concept of the arts as prophetic, contrasts with the popular idea of them as mere self-expression.”2 Art is a way of embodying the prayer, “May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Ellul speaks about modern prophecy as a revolutionary way of life:

… the prophet is not one who confines himself to foretelling with more or less precision an event more or less distant; he is one who already lives it, and already makes it actual and present in his own environment. This, then, is the revolutionary situation: to be revolutionary is to judge the world by its present state, by actual facts, in the name of a truth which does not yet exist (but which is coming)–and it is to do so because we believe this truth to be more real than the reality which surrounds us. Consequently it means bringing the future into the present as an explosive force. 4

Christians are prophetic artists when we live in anticipation, believing the promises of God that have not yet been fulfilled, and bringing the future into our present lives by the explosive force of faith. This is how our very presence is anti-environmental art in the midst a world of unbelief. Dr. Read Schuchardt takes this further by saying, “To be ‘in but not of the world’ is the church’s command, to be the counter-environment to the world’s dominant environment. The world is dominated by technology, thus Christianity, to be effective must be a form of resistance to the technological imperative. It is the Caesar before whom we should not bow.”21

Art as anti-environment and prophecy forces us to ask serious questions regarding our lives as individuals and our collective life as the body of Christ. What reality will we affirm as truth by our intentional presence? What reality will we create? And do our physical artifacts affirm or deny this reality? What sort of paradise is there to be gained and lost by our technological choices? McLuhan saw the work of artists as something for everyone to participate in, which means that these questions are not just for our leaders and artists. They are for all of us, collectively and individually, to answer.

 

Through this essay the realities of technological idiocy and heresy have been exposed, the dangers of discarnate technology have been brought to light, and the ways in which our theology is affected by this has been explored. In learning about artists, anti-environment, and prophecy, we’ve barely begun to understand how we might create a church environment that affirms the reality of incarnation. This foundation is strong, but we have yet to fully answer the question, “How then shall we live?”

The only answer I can give to that question is one of incomplete beginnings. We as Christians are called to pursue God in wholeness, presence, and reality. Any technology that draws us further into that may be adopted, but any technology that draws us away from that, any technology that defies the incarnation of Christ, must be rejected. How we go about discerning that difference is difficult to say. Perhaps we can learn from the apostle Paul when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:23-24, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.”3 The decisions that lie ahead must be concerned with the good of both ourselves and our neighbors, for our presence to our neighbors is the presence of Christ in the world, and anything that obscures that presence is far more harmful to the good news than we may ever perceive.

Earlier, we learned from Jacques Ellul that most revolutionary thing Christians can do to pursue God in wholeness, presence, and reality is simply to live with “the expression of the Holy Spirit, working within us, expressing himself in our actual life, through our words, our habits, and our decisions. Thus what we need is to rediscover all that the fullness of personal life means for a man standing on his own feet in the midst of the world, who rediscovers his neighbor because he himself has been found by God.”4

How that rediscovery happens is not through becoming Luddites or living in fear of all technological developments. As Christians we have been given spirits of power, of love, and of sound minds. We must have courage to ask difficult questions, love to ask self-sacrificing questions, and sound minds to ask intelligent questions. Those questions will be asked and the answers found not within the walls of seminaries and universities but in art studios, sanctuaries, schools, homes, and everywhere the people of God are present together before him. We must ensure our technologies are encouraging our wholeness, presence, and reality as we together seek to rediscover our neighbors so they, too, might be found by God.

 

References

[1] McLuhan, M., 1999. The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion. Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, OR.

[2] McLuhan, M., 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Critical Ed.). Gingko Press, Berkeley, CA.

[3] The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 2001. Crossway, Wheaton, IL.

[4] Ellul, J., 1989. The Presence of the Kingdom, 2nd ed. Helmers and Howard Publishers Inc., Colorado Springs, CO.

[5] Schuchardt, R., 2015. The Reformation as a Media Event, class lecture.

[6] Strate, L., 1999. Understanding MEA. Medias Res 1.

[7] Clendenin, D.B., Ellul, J., 1989. Choosing Life and the Possibility of History: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Jacques Ellul, in: Wyon, O. (Tran.), The Presence of the Kingdom. Helmers and Howard Publishers Inc., Colorado Springs, CO, pp. xxi–xlii.

[8] Postman, N., 1992. Social Science as Moral Theology, in: Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology, and Education. Vintage Books, New York.

[9] Gordon, T.W., 2002. Biography of Marshall McLuhan.

[10] McLuhan, M., McLuhan, E., 1988. Laws of Media: The New Science. University of Toronto Press, Canada.

[11] Gordon, W.T., 2003. Editor’s Introduction, in: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Critical Ed.). Gingko Press, Berkeley, CA.

[12] Johnson, M.P., 2013. One With Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation. Crossway, Wheaton, IL.

[13] Walter J. Ong S.J. Biography and Remembrances, n.d.

[14] Ong, W.J., 1982. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Routledge, New York, NY.

[15] Buckley, S.J., Robinson, S.J., D.C., Soukup, S.J., P.A., 2001. The Influence of Information Technologies on Theology. Theol. Stud. 62.

[16] Ellul, J., 1964. The Technological Society. Knopf, New York.

[17] Cavell, R., 2002. McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

[18] McLuhan, M., 1965. New Media and the Arts. Arts Soc. Avant-Garde Today 3.

[19] Soukup, S.J., P.A., 2015. A Media Ecology of Theology.

[20] Strate, L., 2013. The Laboratory as Anti-Environment. Hannah Arendt Cent.

[21] Schuchardt, R. 2017. Personal communication.

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