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Editorial: Princess Adelaide and Presbyterianism: The Death of Context and the Life of the Church

Gregory E. Reynolds

What on earth does Princess Adelaide have to do with Presbyterianism?

Contextless Information: The Telegraph

On February 3 the Washington Post published the obituary of the telegram (1844-2006).[1] Thus, over a century and a half ago, began the dramatic redefinition of space and time. Like the obsolescence of the "horseless carriage," the death of the telegraph represents, not an end, but the end of the beginning of a new cultural environment.

Henry David Thoreau was one of the few intelligent critics to point out the most significant negative consequence of the new wonder. In the seclusion of Walden Pond (1845-1847) he opined: "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.... We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough." By decontextualizing information the new medium would change the nature of discourse, trivializing the profound and making the irrelevant relevant.[2]

Not everyone was thrilled with the idea of a national village either. In 1889 The Spectator mused over "The Intellectual Effects of Electricity": "The world is for purposes of intelligence reduced to a village." The incompleteness of information as well as the lack of time to reflect on its significance causes "perpetual dissipation of the mind."[3] The problem of "information overload" and its concomitant lack of teleology was already being noticed by our grandfathers.

As for the rest, even the most thoughtful men of letters, such as Whitman, Emerson and Van Wych Brooks set their eyes on a glorious future in which the democratic ideal would be realized in the universal dissemination of the best knowledge.[4] So you see that it is not a matter of intelligence, but rather a matter of cultivating the ability to stand back and analyze, that makes one a media ecologist. The solitude of Walden Pond, and well cultivated habits of mind, suited Thoreau to be an astute observer. Like Trivial Pursuit, knowledge without context floods us with meaningless information, thus undermining all hierarchies of value, and the very idea of truth. Perhaps rather than Postmodernity we should call this Modernity in bloom.

One of Marshall McLuhan's favorite metaphors comes from an Edgar Allen Poe short story titled A Descent into the Maelstrom. In the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Norway there is an area teeming with fish in which few dare to navigate due to the nearby presence of a deadly whirlpool called the Maelstrom. The sinister swirl is known for swallowing men and boats alive. But one brave fisherman and his two brothers regularly pass the edge of the vortex in order to mine the bounty. One day a violent storm causes them to be caught in the Maelstrom. One brother dies by tying himself to the mast, which snaps and pulls him to his watery death. Another stays with the ship and is drowned in the whirlpool. The third, however, recognizes a pattern in the way different objects behave when they are sucked into the vortex. While most descend rapidly to the destructive rocks at the bottom, certain objects go less rapidly into the Maelstrom and then slowly ascend to safety. He notices that they are cylindrical in shape. Thus, he ties himself to a barrel and ends up surviving the hellish waters. On shore he is met by an incredulous crowd which doesn't believe a word of his account.[5]

This dramatic story poignantly illustrates the nature of the electronic environment. The all-at-once-ness or simultaneity and pervasiveness of our media experience is impossible to safely navigate without standing back and observing the nature and patterns of what is going on. Without such navigational skills the electronic whirlpool can be deadly, especially to the life of the church, and its leaders. How does this affect Presbyterianism?

Our Context: Confessional Presbyterians in God's World

Communication technologies subtly transform the ways we think, and our social institutions and structures. The printing press brought down the Pope by undermining his authority through making the Bible and other Christian literature available to a wide audience. The image-based hierarchy of the Papacy was no match for the new medium. Printing fostered trade, nationalism, and universal literacy. While it also tended toward radical individualism it promoted logical and historical thinking, along with unity in text-based communities. Reasoned discourse was enhanced.

In a similar way, the Internet threatens to undermine Presbyterianism, which thrived in the Gutenberg world, as a literacy-based institution. The egalitarian bias of the Web is powerful; and partly because we are so close to it, it goes largely unnoticed. The word "web" symbolizes the nature of the Internet, as it promotes thinking in and relating to complex networks. It is changing the social structure of every institution, including the church. The old news outlets are weakened under the pressure of an expanding menu of choices. The tyranny of experts is weakened. But this good news has a downside. Information without any meaningful context is proliferated at an astonishing rate. All social space is altered. Everyone potentially becomes an expert and a fool at once. While it may help us avoid manipulation by mass media, it may also delude us into thinking we know something important when we don't. Henry Ford's considered opinion that "history is bunk" takes on new meaning in the electronic assembly line.

A medical doctor recently told me of a patient who came with his own diagnosis from WebMD. When the doctor insisted that the diagnosis was wrong the patient stormed out. He wanted a confirmation of his own opinion, not an accurate diagnosis from someone who knows more than he does. Thus, pastors may be tempted to preach in polo shirts because they are no longer the "experts in the Bible" of Machen's biblical ideal. But Machen's view of ministry was one that promoted true liberty in the church, united in a knowledge of the whole counsel of God.

Apart from the obvious problem of our tending to spend more time staring at the pixels of our computer screens than into the eyes of our families, parishioners, and neighbors; on the web we are also forming opinions and coming to conclusions in a new ecclesiastical space, unauthorized by the Bible. Our tendency, after our Gnostic caucusing is complete—though it seems rather like an endless stream—when we assemble in sessions, presbyteries and general assemblies, is to push an agenda rather than truly deliberate issues. The speed of light does not tend to foster careful thinking, writing or deliberating. A disembodied, electronically isolated spirit tends not to be as accountable, or as thoughtful in listening, as when face to face as imago dei. The incarnation implies that our embodied existence is what constitutes the image of God. Anything that diminishes that real life context will tend to undermine the church and its biblical way of doing things.

Think of what video streaming, or even daily posting of debates, of the General Assembly would do to the deliberations of that body. Out of context conclusions may be drawn before a conclusion of the matter at hand has been decided by the assembly. Why not have a gigantic video conference? Think of all the airfare we'd save. The god of efficiency is taking center stage in the pantheon of modernity. The importance of the incarnation is becoming less plausible as our out-of-body experience in the electronic world increases.

This is a maelstrom we had better learn to navigate or we will find ourselves in deep spiritual and ecclesiastical trouble. So what shall it be: conformed or transformed? Romans 12:1-2 leaves us in no doubt: "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God."

Let me suggest that inefficiency should be more prized among us. Taking time to go through rigorous steps to achieve or create something seems to me more consistent with Paul's idea of "presenting our bodies a living sacrifice." More uninterrupted meditation, reading and discussion. Fewer, but better meetings and visits. Less email "discussion" and more face to face community and communion.

Living in space and time as embodied creatures there is a pace without which life is no longer worth living. Too much unwanted and unneeded, contextless and meaningless information about Princess Adelaide will make it so. Epic poet Wilmer Mills considers the fast pace of our culture to be the reason people have no patience with epic poetry. As a sawmill operator and furniture maker he prizes the slow processes of producing lumber and craftsmanship. Process enables us to think of life as a story.[6] Whereas the instantaneous electronic world tends toward self-absorption in lives without creaturely contexts.

To slow the pace we need to consider ways of protecting church, family, and private spaces, modeled more after the biblical narrative than the modern maelstrom. Cultivating the context in which we live—in which God has placed us in his created order—is the only way to navigate the swirling currents of modern life. We cannot change the nature of the environment, but we can wisely navigate it. That is what Paul calls us to do. When electronic means of communication enhance our experience in space and time as creatures of God in relation to the world—those around us, and him—then we are navigating the whirlpool and need not give Princess Adelaide's whooping cough a passing thought. The important things will claim our attention and devotion.

Endnotes

1. Mike Musgrove, "The Telegram, 1844-2006," Washington Post, February 3, 2006. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/
02/AR2006020202467.html (p. D01 print version).

2. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1985), 65-69. Cf. Thoreau's Walden.

3. Daniel Czitrom, Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 19.

4. Ibid., 35-36.

5. Edgar Allen Poe, A Descent into the Maelstrom (Charlottesville, VA: Electronic Text Center of the University of Virginia Library, 2000), http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/ebooks/Plist.html, accessed March 27, 2006.

6. Ken Myers, "Guest: Wilmer Mills, the Interview in Brief," Mars Hill Audio Journal 57, (July / August 2002), http://www.marshillaudio.org/resources/segment_detail.asp?
ID=453054365.

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