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Keeping Up with the Times: Evangelicals and the New Media, Part 1: A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

Understanding Evangelical Media: The Changing Face of Christian Communication, edited by Quentin J. Schultze and Robert H. Woods Jr. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008, 345 pages, $22.00, paper.

The New Media Frontier: Blogging, Vlogging, and Podcasting for Christ, edited by John Mark Reynolds and Roger Overton. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008, 254 pages, $16.99, paper.

Prophetically Incorrect: A Christian Introduction to Media Criticism, by Robert H. Woods Jr. and Paul D. Patton. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010, xlii + 182, $19.99, paper.

Recently I had someone compliment me for an innovation I made on a certain web site. He said, “Thanks for keeping up with the times.” A well-intended thanks displays an important assumption common in our day. I became familiar with this cultural undercurrent as I was coming out of the counter culture in the early seventies as a new Christian. The sentiment ran something like this: “If we don’t offer contemporary music we’ll lose the young people.” This is progress—keeping up with the times. Lacking the pedagogical instinct that the young people might need to learn something or change, people embrace the idea that the latest is the best—critical reflection is anathema. So, before I committed myself to a real haircut, I directed a Christian coffee house for a large Baptist church in New Hampshire. The entrance beads at the doorway, the psychedelic posters, and the black lights were all supposed top draw the hippies in. The oppressive presence of the media that formed the way of life I had repented of moved me to buy my first three piece suit—only kidding. Well, not quite, because this experience awakened me in a simple way to the relationship between medium and message or form and content.

When I began my doctoral research on the relationship between electronic media, the church, and preaching in 1990 the discipline known as media ecology was not on the evangelical radar. There were few evangelical writers, much less Reformed, who were thinking along those lines. Joel Nederhood wrote “The Back to God Hour: Mission Television Report” for the Christian Reformed Church Synod Report (1977).[1] This is an extremely thoughtful reflection on the use of television for Christian broadcasting. He was one of the few who, early on, understood the nature and influence of the visual media, especially television and its effect on Christian ministry. Then Douglas Groothuis’s The Soul in Cyberspace (1997)[2] was the only full length book in which the McLuhan-Postman or media ecology perspective was really applied to critique not only the content but the grammar and environment of cyberspace. Os Guinness has been aware of McLuhan’s critical perspective since the early 1970s when I studied with him at L’Abri Fellowship.[3] In 1989, Ken Myers was another lone voice alerting the church to the dangers of uncritically absorbing the forms of popular culture.[4] More recently Arthur W. Hunt III, “Neil Postman and the Evangelicals,” has identified evangelicals who have perceptively applied media ecology to their respective disciplines in his 2006 article in the journal of the Media Ecology Association.[5]

My purpose in this review article is to survey five books that provide windows into the range of thinking among evangelicals about the new media. As a scholar in the discipline of media ecology and a Reformed pastor I approach modern culture generally applying the antithesis of Van Tilian apologetics to the activities of common culture, especially through the biblical paradigm of idolatry.[6]

The first three books under review exhibit a failure to think outside the box of the media environment itself. Oddly, Understanding Evangelical Media apes the classic McLuhan text Understanding Media, without exhibiting many of its profoundest insights. The book does serve as a window into the thinking of evangelicals about media, with little substantive thinking about media themselves. Editors Quentin Schultze and Robert Woods’s introduction to the volume holds out the false hope that this will not be the case, “communication ‘mediates’ our views of reality” (19). But they never follow through on this theme, but rather concentrate on the uses and content of media. There are interesting articles on the use of various media, its content and production—everything from music to movies, theatre to theme parks—but not on understanding media, which is the entire idea behind the McLuhan title. In the conclusion Schultze does sound a critical warning, “Rarely do evangelicals take stock of the role of media in their personal, family, community, and church lives” (285). But even here the focus is not on the nature of media and their effects, but rather on the time spent with media and how that impacts our relationships.

Like Understanding Evangelical Media, The New Media Frontier displays some media naiveté from the outset, but is more focused and well constructed. The editors inform us, “New media are nothing more than means of communication, which we’ve been doing for a very long time. All that is new is the form and availability of communication” (13). Minimizing the form reminds me of the idea that each medium is just a different “delivery system.” A few paragraphs later a bit more insight is provided, “It is far too easy to embrace the intended benefits of a new technology without noticing the unintended consequences” (14). Indeed, but the problem is that the liabilities are not understood by understanding the medium itself. That being said the book truly offers “some direction for how Christians can use the new media with discernment and grace” (16). The book is not lacking in media ecology. With many wise cautions, the book focuses on the use of three types of media: blogging, vlogging (video), and podcasting. The topics covered include theology, academics, ethics, politics, journalism, pastoral ministry, youth ministry, evangelism, and apologetics. For example, after enumerating several benefits of blogging, Tod Bolsinger in “Blog as Microwave Community” (113–23) ends with a direct application of McLuhan, “The medium of ‘virtual’ inevitably becomes the message of ‘community’,” adding the sage observation, “Building community through new media requires more commitment to community than to new media” (122). This and other chapters display a Reformed influence. The Westminster Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism are quoted in two chapters (68, 100).

Along the way there is evidence of serious media ecology. Matthew Lee Anderson’s chapter “Three Cautions among the Cheers” (55–68) explores the dangers of an uncritical embrace of the new media. He goes on to quote Douglas Groothuis (59) and Quentin Schultze (62) in observing the lack of depth in online communication, as well the absence of personal presence. David Wayne’s “Theological Blogging” shows great sensitivity to the importance of the visible church as the community in which genuine theological development takes place, putting the value of blogging in perspective (97–112). He quotes McLuhan in warning us that “the medium of blogging not only transmits a message, it has the potential to shape the message” (107). Jason Baker in “Virtual Classrooms, Real Learning” (177–89) even unpacks McLuhan’s famous tetrad—revealing media patterns—and applies it to online learning in a very thoughtful way. All told, this book is worth reading as another window into evangelical thinking on the new media.

Equally thoughtful, but more problematic is Prophetically Incorrect. The neo-Kuyperian cultural transformationist agenda is front and center in this “Christian Introduction to Media Criticism.” Here, too, is a useful window into a different part of American Christianity. Not as eclectic as the first two books, mainly because there are only two authors who are clearly united in their perspective. The introduction clearly reveals the agenda (xxxi-xlii). The organizing concept of the approach is to “to analyze media content, as well as media institutions and technologies” (xxxiv). And then this,

We simply cannot escape the words of the Old Testament prophets and Jesus about love, justice, peace, and righteousness. Both called for individual and cultural transformation. (xxxv)

Tipping their hat to the Augustinian adage that “all truth is God’s truth” (xi), the authors determine to refer to non-Christian media as “mainstream media” (xxxvii).

We are told—warned?—that our “prophetic” cue will come from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Walter Brueggemann (xxxix). Chapters 3–6 are “taken from Heschel’s monumental two-volume work, The Prophets” (xxxix). It is an important hermeneutical mistake to apply the words of the prophets to Israel under the Mosaic covenant to modern culture. This sets the stage for exploring our “dance with popular media” (xl). Chapter 2 suggests that “Bono, lead singer of rock band U2, has a prophetic voice” (xli).

Woods and Patton divide Christians into two groups with distinct types of responses to media. “Proclaimers” reject the ungodly media environment with a moralistic critique (8–9). “Transformers,” on the other hand, “redeem not just individuals but cultural institutions, including the media. Since all truth is God’s truth, Christians should search for faith-affirming interpretations among all types of popular media content” (9).

The footnotes reveal an interesting paradox. An extended footnote (135n24) acknowledges the proper sources of the academic discipline of “media ecology,” such as the writings of Neil Postman, Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innes, and Walter Ong. The authors refer to the Media Ecology Association, of which I have been a member since 1997 at the recommendation of Neil Postman. The footnote then refers to a section in the introduction that makes an excellent and very important point, sounding almost like Postman. The third of six points describing faithful media stewardship is:

Both popular media content and media technologies matter. Media content is an easy target for Christians, and for good reason. Concerns about the coarsening of cultural life through excessive displays of sex and violence are legitimate. But the technologies that deliver the content are also made by human beings, and as such reflect human values, desires, and aspirations. Each communication technology has its own unique DNA, or characteristic predispositions that shape human communication.24 (xxxvi)

But the footnote adds the comment, “It [media ecology] is sometimes referred to as technological determinism.” It is nothing of the sort. Just as a fish is largely unaware of his watery environment, so we are largely unaware of our electronic environment. If the water is polluted, the fish dies. But, unlike fish, we are gifted with the ability of doing something about our man-made environments. This was a bedrock conviction of McLuhan, who insisted, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is willingness to contemplate what is happening.”[7]

Finally, the authors make another good point: that it is dangerous to think of technology as neutral. In the footnote to this point (11n49) the list (in the earlier footnote) of media ecology luminaries is extended to include Jacque Ellul, Eric Havelock, Lewis Mumford, Daniel Boorstin, and more contemporary media scholars, such as, Joshua Meyrowitz, Thomas de Zengotita, and Nicholas Carr. So how is this marshaled in the service of transformationism? And is there a difference between the media ecology approach to culture and the transformationist school? Certainly with McLuhan there was no idea of transformation. His favorite metaphor for dealing with the electronic environment was marine navigation based on the actions taken by the fishermen in Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelström” (1841), to survive the ocean vortex.[8]

Christians, like the patriarchs, are in pilgrim mode. This is why there is no agenda to transform culture in the new covenant. The fundamental mistake of Woods and Patton is to model their cultural criticism on the prophets of the Mosaic covenant.

If you are only going to read one of the three books reviewed here, The New Media Frontier would be my choice. In part 2 next month pilgrim navigators will find two books more suited to their perspective.

Endnotes

[1] Joel Nederhood, “The Back to God Hour: Mission Television Report,” Christian Reformed Church Synod Report. Report 1:A, Supplement, 1977.

[2] Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997).

[3] Guinness, Fat Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994).

[4] Ken Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians & Popular Culture (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1989).

[5] Arthur W. Hunt III, “Neil Postman and the Evangelicals,” Explorations in Media Ecology 5:1 (2006): 61–72.

[6] Gregory Edward Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), chapter 1 “No Other Gods: Idolatry in the Bible,” and chapter 2 “The Apologetics of Fire: Idolatry as a Critical Paradigm,” 1–61.

[7] Marshall McLuhan, "McLuhan Probes," in Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message, eds. Sanderson and Macdonald (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1989), 219; Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (New York: Bantam, 1967), 25.

[8] Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (Boston: Beacon, 1951), 43, 45.

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, October 2012.

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