“The medium is the message” –Marshall McLuhan.
As a communication theorist, McLuhan believed that the presentation of an idea formed the idea as much as the content of the idea itself. Therefore, transferring an idea from written to verbal form does not just modify its presentation, but the very idea itself. Mennonite Pastor Shane Hipps takes this concept and applies it to the Church. Our culture has transformed from a typographical culture to a digital one. How are Christians to respond without compromising Christianity?
Hipps begins by looking at how previous media affected the Church’s understanding of theology. Hipps argues that the Protestant Reformation was born because of the advent of the printing press. Yet, more than that, the transfer to print also caused Christianity to take on a more individualistic, rationalistic, and logical dimension. With the creation of the typographical culture, it became necessary for theology to make logical sense. Justification became a logical move from condemned to saved, instead of an ambiguous process and journey. Theologians made rational sense of all theology, and it became something that an individual could perform with only his Bible. It may not have done so intentionally, but the advent of print lessened the need for the Church by embracing the individualism of a print-based culture. Thus, Protestantism not only corrected the fallacies of medieval Catholicism, but it also fully embraced the rationalism of a typographical culture. Christianity, though still holding to the same Scriptures (the content), changed because of a shift in medium.
Today, culture has shifted away from print to digital media. Hipps argues that digital media holds more in common with ancient culture because of the emphasis on images. An image is ambiguous. It is not rational, logical, or linear; it is a mere moment in space. It can be understood differently by different people. Images require community in order to understand them fully. Our digital culture is moving away from a rationalistic, black-and-white way of understanding the world and moving toward a more community centered, ambiguous one. Some Christians argue that Christianity must alter with it, keeping the same content but shifting in medium. Yet, as McLuhan argues, changing medium will irreversibly affect the content. However, McLuhan also states that to attempt to cling to the past will result in Christianity becoming irrelevant. What are Christians to do?
Hipps spends the first half of his book sketching out the difference between print-based culture and image-based culture, and the problems that come with both. The second half of the book is focused on how Christians should react to our new, digital culture. Interestingly, his section on solutions begins in the most logical place: the proper medium for Christianity. Hipps argues that neither print nor images are an adequate medium. The God-ordained medium for Christianity is the Church. We may use other mediums (both print and images), but the primary medium through which the Gospel is transmitted is human beings. Questions of how digital media affect our worship are good to have, but our focus should always be on how we as people can better live out the Gospel. In this section Hipps also addresses a few other ways digital culture affects Christian living: how digital media can help or harm worship, how it can affect true community, and how it decentralizes leadership. These secondary aspects are interesting, but in a book that wrestles with how different media affect the transmission of the Gospel, the true shining light is the chapter on the Church as medium.
I read this book as part of my Introduction to Communication college class, and it was one of the best books I read all semester. The ideas Hipps wrestles with (borrowing heavily from McLuhan) are so fascinating that they drove me to reconsider how I understand worship, community, and even the usage of digital media. It drove me to rethink history, theology, and thinking itself. This is a mind-blowing work and a must-read for Christian communicators. If you are really brave, you can jump right into the work of communication theorists Neil Postman or Marshall McLuhan. However, if you want something lighter, or a primer on the basic ideas Postman and McLuhan cover, try The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture. I hope you enjoy it.
Published on 3 January, 2017. Last updated on