Saturday, June 17, 2006

Media Technologies and Christian Discernment

[This article was published in Christian Camp and Conference Journal, November/December 2004.]

Recently I was privileged to serve as an interim preaching pastor at a large church in Denver that projected the image of the preacher on two large screens to the upper left and upper right of the pulpit. These were used for the preaching outline as well as projecting the image of the preacher. Before preaching there, I wondered what effect this might have on the presentation of the messages. Would people look at my image (which was a split second delayed from the real me) or directly at me? Would I lose eye contact, something so vital for preaching and teaching? Not being part of the leadership of the church, it was inappropriate to simply demand that the screens be turned off. Nevertheless, I wondered about their presence, because I feared that the uniquely personal and unmediated environment would be compromised. Perhaps that technology would better not used. I had the screen turned off during my sermon about television.

How Christians today would not have raised these questions? The technology, which is quite impressive, would simply be welcomed as part of the advancement of technology. The assumption for many is that technologies simply amplify what is already good by electronically enlarging images, distributing data rapidly, and providing wide access to information otherwise unavailable or hard to find. The medium is neutral, and can be employed to the good. If a church or Christian camp offers a web page, someone surfing the web may discover a ministry that they otherwise might never discover. When a graduate of my seminary was a missionary in Ethiopia, he had little access to many of the books and articles available in the United States. Yet he could find much needed material on philosophy, apologetics, and ethics on my web page ( and at many other places on the Internet. This helped substitute for regular library resources.

Christian ministry should be infused with certain theological principles that help us discern how and when to use various technologies. The fundamental question is this: Does the use of this medium fit the purposes of God’s Kingdom? God’s Kingdom advances as rebellious creatures are brought back to God’s truth in order to recognize and serve Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Lord of the universe (Matthew 28:18-20; Colossians 1-2). Therefore, any technology should pass through a “truth filter.” The truth filter determines whether or not the medium delivers truth in ways that affect lives for God’s kingdom. I have a tangible illustration. Laptop computers help us retrieve and record information for many purposes. However, they may distract us from ways in which God forms us into more Christlike people. I have a laptop in my office, which serves many functions, such as connecting me to the Internet, allowing me to write quizzes, and so on. However, when a student meets with me, I put the screen down and have a discussion with the student—free of computer distraction. I may end up going on line to get the student a resource pertinent to our discussion, but I do not want to divide my attention between the screen and the soul sitting before me.

Instead of stumbling into technologies unaware, and praising everything new and hi-tech, it is best to develop some specific principles of discernment concerning the strengths and weaknesses of technologies for Christian ministry. Every media technology should be interpreted carefully and not used blindly simply because it is “cool” or affordable or popular. The first and leading principle is that every technological medium affects the message it contains. No medium is an empty shell for content. Decades ago, Marshall McLuhan claimed that “the medium is the message.” Interestingly, he was reflecting on a biblical passage that warns that those who worship idols become like them (Psalm 115:4-8). He extended this biblical warning to apply to communication media. We are shaped by our media. Our habits are formed by how we spend our time and with what we attend to on a regular basis (see Psalm 1).

Sadly, most people have forgotten McLuhan’s wisdom (or never understood it in the first place). Nevertheless, the medium always shapes the message decisively. For example, a sermon heard on the radio favors the spoken word over anything written to anything visualized. The same sermon experienced in a church service adds the dimensions of sight and a sermon outline (if the preacher has done his homework). Anything presented in a video format tends to favor graphic images over words. So, on television complicated situations are reduced to no more than a few minutes of attention on the news, all of which focuses on images. The spoken words are minimal and pale in significance to the dominating images. Material in cyberspace involves images and words, but is presented in a format that allows and encourages moving quickly from one web page to another through links and clicks. This medium tends to downplay sustained attention on any one thing, given the very nature of the format. For example, how much reasoned discourse occurs in a chat room? (Some web logs are better in this regard.)

Every year I team up with another professor to administer an examination that tests students’ ability to explain their Christian beliefs. One year a student did poorly when asked to relate biblical texts to the larger history of Scripture. We found that he had studied by using a computer program that printed out acres of isolated Bible verses on various topics. He had collected and memorized biblical factoids, but he lacked a deeper sense of biblical history. We told him to read and study the Bible in book form because this would help him see the larger biblical narrative.

This example brings us to second principle. We must always value the face to face dimension of ministry and never downplay it when it is available to us. Several biblical passages highlight this. Near the beginning of Paul’s tremendous letter to the Romans, he laments that he is separated from the believers in Rome. He writes, “I long to see you that I may import to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is that you and I may be mutually encouraged in each others faith” (Romans 1:11-12, NIV). Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is one of the high water marks of doctrine in the entire Bible, but yet Paul yearned to communicate in person with his beloved church. Similarly, the Apostle John ends his short epistles of 2 John by saying, “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12; see also 3 John 13, NIV). Jesus, of course, spent significant amounts of time with his disciples, teaching them the things of the Kingdom by word and by deed. Only after three years of intensive discipleship, did Jesus tell his closest followers that they should not worry about what to say when they were persecuted, since the Holy Spirit would give them the right words (Mark 13:5-11).

Let’s return to the laptop to apply this principle. Many of my students bring their laptops to class to take notes—at least I hope that’s what they are doing with them. However, some students are so entranced by their glowing screens that they seldom look up at me or at other students. In some cases that eye to eye, soul to soul moment is vital to make a point stick. Because of this, I have recently started implementing “no screen times” in my classes. I ask students to put down their screens for a few moments. I am not banning laptops, but trying to tame them—to use them in a way that honors the uniquely personal aspects of ministry and learning.

A third principle for using media technology wisely is that we must distinguish between information, knowledge, and wisdom. Electronic media provide us with an ocean of information on almost anything, but much of it is false or misleading or merely trivial. (Consider all the tripe on celebrities, for example.) Only part of it contributes to our knowledge. To know something means that our belief in something is factual and reasonable. In order to find the knowledge in the information available in media, we need to use it carefully. Often, the best source is a trusted book (which sports a reputable publisher and author), not the Internet (where anyone can post anything). Moreover, reading from a book tends to allow us to focus on one message without jumping around from screen to screen, as is often the case on line. Our goal as Christians is not merely to be “well-informed,” but to be wise in the Lord. Wisdom involves knowing how to acquire knowledge and using our knowledge in a godly way. We should implore God for wisdom in our high-tech day, just as young Solomon did at the beginning of his kingship (1 Kings 3:1-15).
· Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, where he directs the Philosophy of Religion Master Degree program. He is the author of ten books, including The Soul in Cyberspace (Wifp and Stock reprint, 1999) and Truth Decay (InterVarsity, 2000).

Further resources: Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace (Wifp and Stock reprint, 1999); Quentin Schultz, Habits of the High-Tech Heart (Eerdmans, 2003); Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Eerdmans, 1985); Arthur Hunt, III, The Vanishing Word (Crossway, 2003).

1 comment:

Jonathan_Samuelson said...

Thanks for posting this rewarding Ellul-ian article. I didn't know about the influence of Psalm 115 on McLuhan's famous formulation. I wonder if you can point me to a specific place in his books where he mentions or meditates on this passage. Is it in Understanding Media?