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Review: The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture

Gregory E. Reynolds

The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church, by Shane A. Hipps. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005, 176 pages, $18.99.

Pastor Hipps has written a thoughtful, readable account of the media-critical approach to electronic culture, an approach spawned by Marshall McLuhan in the sixties. Pastor Hipps's love for the Lord and his desire to communicate the gospel to people are evident throughout the book. He explains the McLuhan perspective with great clarity. This is the true value of the book. But when it comes to applying these insights to the church and the Christian life Hipps is a good deal more sanguine about the benefits of electronic media than I am, although he does not fail to raise some important cautions, especially in chapter six on "Community in Electronic Culture." I suspect that the difference in our respective ecclesiologies, at least in part, accounts for the difference. The Anabaptist Mennonite context of his ministry, which he has only recently, but intentionally, chosen, tends toward a far less structured approach to doctrine in general, and the doctrine of the church and its worship in particular. Accordingly, the foreword is written by a leading light of the emerging church movement, Brian McLaren. Hipps is thus sympathetic with the epistemology and cultural milieu of postmodernism. Beyond this Hipps's generational perspective may also account for his technological optimism. I have wondered for some time now whether the "crossover generation" of us baby boomers is uniquely disposed to retain literary culture in a way that the younger generation—I never liked "generation X" as a designation—simply cannot understand. They have never known a world without computers and cell phones.

By parsing the book's title we are alerted to both its strengths and weaknesses. The main title "The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture" reflects the McLuhan metaphor of the fish in water. Electronic culture is a complete environment, like water is to a fish, too close to be aware of and thus "hidden." The first part of the subtitle "How Media Shapes" is an accurate interpretation of McLuhan's famous aphorism "the medium is the message." By filling in the blank (How media shape ______ or This medium shapes______) one may apply Hipps's insight to any arena of concern regarding technology's formative power. In the book Hipps applies this concept to "Faith, the Gospel, and Church." Since electronic media shape culture generally, Christians and the church are not exempt from their subtle and pervasive influence.

In my own media ecology research I discovered that the Amish—one type of Anabaptist—are not the Luddites I had assumed they were (stopping technological development arbitrarily at a point in the nineteenth century).[1] While I do not favor—although I sympathize with some of its concerns—the separatist view of culture, I admire some of the ways these Christians have sought to be good stewards of technologies such as the telephone. Recognizing its potential to reshape social structures such as the family and the community, they have limited telephones to public use. "Observing the tendency of the telephone to isolate the individual from the family and the community, they restricted the use of telephones to community locations, to be used only when necessary."[2] That is a fine example of media ecology.

The first half of the book (Part I: New Ways to Perceive) helps the reader to discern the electronic environment in new ways. Because Hipps is a pastor he often illustrates his understanding of media with examples that are familiar to Christians. He employs McLuhanesque graphics to make his point—shades of The Medium Is the Massage. Some might think this too cool by half, but I don't think there is a better popular exposition of McLuhan, in less than one hundred pages, in print. It is a tour de force against the media naiveté that plagues both church and culture. Hipps crystallizes McLuhan in a way that any thoughtful Christian can understand. Anyone who can explain the famous McLuhan (both father and son Eric developed these) "Laws of Media," in two pages (41-42), deserves an award. He applies the four laws insightfully to the well-known "Four Spiritual Laws" Fact-Faith-Feeling train in order to reveal the logical bias of print. Missing, however, is any critique of the theology of that well-known Campus Crusade tract.

Chapter four is the segue into the second part of the book (Part II: Alternative Ways to Practice), which deals with the practice of the church in the new environment. Just like his chief endorser, Brian McLaren, author of A New Kind of Christian and A Generous Orthodoxy, Hipps's view represents a new kind of church and a new kind of orthodoxy.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but it seems to me that the absence of the definite article before the word "church" in the book's title is significant, given the author's Anabaptist commitment. It is not the church, but church—not an institution or organization—an organism. Seeking liberation from the arid lifelessness of institutions is a quest common to both postmodernity and the emerging church. Hipps asserts, "For decades our cultural landscape has grown increasingly unfamiliar to the church" (16). If that is true among Anabaptist churches it certainly is not among Evangelicals. Ken Myers's quip is apropos, "The church is of the world, but not in it." While the church has sequestered itself from meaningful engagement with the world (challenging its idolatrous assumptions, as well as contributing in a genuine way to its welfare), it often apes its ways of thinking and living. I would suggest that in part the emerging church is doing the same with postmodernism.

While Anabaptists, according to Hipps, may have largely skipped the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment, traditions that predate both are being ignored or jettisoned in the name of leaving rationalism behind. Foundationalism is the new whipping boy of postmodern and emerging church epistemology.[3] According to Hipps, to claim that "Scripture is the foundation of truth" is a modernist assumption, locking us into "outmoded ...apologetics" (70). Despite several disclaimers in his thoughtful exposition, Hipps none-the-less displays the tendency to disregard all traditions and voices of the past, along with systematic expositions of the church's doctrine (58). It is important to remember that the systematizing developments of Reformation and Post-Reformation theology predate the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment. One of the McLuhanesque aphorisms from Hipps's all-at-once Web site epitomizes his attitude toward tradition, "What doesn't bend breaks." But what is the starting point and what regulates "recasting the place and purpose of the church" (16)? The guiding and protective boundaries of confessional orthodoxy are sadly absent. One of the many false dichotomies in the book is the idea that mystery and reason are enemies.[4] This is not so in Reformed orthodoxy. The hard-line distinction between modernity and postmodernity is also, in my opinion, overdrawn. While discontinuities clearly exist in this conventional distinction, the continuity between the two has been largely overlooked by the emerging church. Fallen man's quest for autonomy fundamentally animates both dimensions of modern culture.

This emerging epistemology leads Hipps to assert that both methods and message "should change and evolve" (88). He goes on to claim that the new content (wine) of the gospel changes along with the container (wineskin), leaving the old behind (89). Hipps confuses the unfolding development of redemptive history with epistemological change. Clearly Jesus had the former in mind. McLuhan the latter. "The emerging gospel of the electronic age is moving beyond cognitive propositions and linear formulas to embrace the power and truth of story" (90). When narrative and propositional truth are pitted against one another in this way, we are, in my opinion, heading down a dangerous pathway. For Hipps, claims of unchanging truth are boastful. But while arrogance may be the sinful attitude of some who make such claims it seems that to jettison the value of propositional truth and reasoned theological understanding is to cast oneself into the maelstrom of postmodern confusion and relativism. Thus God's chosen medium is for Hipps not the preached Word, but the people of God. "If God's chosen medium was Christ, and the church is the body of Christ, then the church is God's chosen medium for God's ongoing revelation to the world..." (92).[5] Again he pits metaphor and image over against reason and truth. This is an unbiblical dichotomy. The "open-ended and ambiguous" seem to trump everything (93).

Hipps also favors the egalitarian tendency of electronic media. This is, of course, in keeping with the instincts of the Radical Reformation. "Power is now dispersed among the pews" (130). While he claims that authority in the church, and even in the printed medium of Scripture, are important, he seems to underestimate the dangers of electronic democratization in which everyone's opinion is king. His desire to see the program oriented church change to a more community oriented concept is salutary. His desire for more humility and servanthood in leadership is also good. But what he seems to sacrifice in the process of achieving these is troubling.

Regarding worship, Hipps reports with approval that "the emerging churches are intentionally designing worship services that engage all five senses" borrowing heavily from Eastern Orthodoxy, with "body movement, incense, chanting, bells, eating, and images" (76). Absent is any notion of the public worship being regulated by the express warrant of Scripture. Of course, this is not Hipps's tradition. Interestingly, he is enthusiastic about the emerging church's acceptance of conversion as a process that varies in each person's experience (79), something Presbyterians have always believed.

Hipps properly decries the radical individualism of our culture, but is far too optimistic about a new communalism developing in the postmodern church (72). The very denial of the validity of absolute truth, cognitive propositions, and logical formulations, is a form of epistemological assertion of individual autonomy unequaled by the most confident modernist. It is true that the primary oral cultures were, by the nature of their communication, tribal or communal. But the secondary orality of electronic culture seems to be, as Hipps accurately describes, "a tribe of individuals" (105). Hipps then sums up the ambiguity of his own position, "My belief is that despite the retribalizing force of electronic media, our culture remains intensely individualistic" (108).

This is a media ecology book written by a Christian reflecting on the effect of the electronic environment on the church, something there are far too few of. Despite the serious reservations I have expressed above, I recommend this book to the critical reader.

Gregory E. Reynolds
Ordained Servant
Amoskeag Presbyterian Church
Manchester, New Hampshire

Endnotes

[1] Gregory E. Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 157.

[2] Samuel Ebersole, "Media Determinism in Cyberspace," http://regent.edu/acad/schcom/rojc/mdic/html, quoting Diane Zimmerman Umble, "The Amish and the Telephone: Resistance and Reconstruction," in Consuming Technologies, eds. R. Silverstone and E. Hirsch (London: Routledge, 1992), 184-192.

[3] For a very helpful discussion of this epistemological debate and how it affects doing theology see Robert C. Kurka, "Before ‘Foundationalism': A More Biblical Alternative to the Grenz/Franke Proposal for Doing Theology," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50:1 (March 2007): 145-165.

[4] Hipps also has an aversion to the "abstract," presumably one of the many negative consequences of rationalism. He makes pejorative references to it throughout the book. Let me suggest that images are also abstractions and that it is essential to human perception to abstract in order to make sense of experience.

[5] My own use—and I believe this was original with me—and explanation of the term "God's chosen medium" may be found in the chapter titled "Tongues of Fire: God's Chosen Medium," in The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures, 313-353.

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