GodBlogCon, with which I have been formally associated in the past, rests on the assumption that Christians should engage culture and do so using whatever tools are at our disposal. In this case, that’s the “new media.”
It is a proposition which I happily and eagerly affirm. But in doing so, I have become aware of the dangers and limitations of media in our presentation of the Gospel. As Christians, we must understand how to use new media in order to avoid those dangers and appreciate these limitations.
In a genre that thrives on nearly mystic writing–think Postmanand McCluhan in particular–it is refreshing to read a lucid analysis of how Christians should relate to media. Shane Hipps has provided such an account in his The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture. Drawing heavily on McCluhan’s work, Hipps argues that if we are not aware of the ways in which media–by which he (following McCluhan) means any extension of human powers–affects our lives, then it will enslave us. We are only set free from media’s bonds by awareness and understanding.
Hipps develops this idea and then analyzes the way media is changing and its effects on the Church. He argues that the shift from print to image has contributed to the shift away from propositions, reason, and individualism toward experience, story, and community.
But while his prose is clear, his connections are less so. He often relies on intuitive relationships that sometimes were less than intuitive to me. What’s more, though he insists the changes in technology are only one reason for the broader cultural changes he identifies, those qualifications are lost in the absence of identifying any other reasons for such changes. In essence, Hipps comes close to a “technological determinism” with respect to culture.
Yet the heavy emphasis on technology as the source of social change leads Hipps to a deeper problem: he sees, it seems, all such changes as inevitable and hence every change as to be embraced by Christianity. He locates the important conversation of technology in the context of the Emerging Church, which at points makes his work seem like an apologia for Emergent-style Christianity. For instance, he points to the democratization of information as partially responsible for the democratization of church structure without stopping to wonder whether such a result is a good effect or not. There may be, in fact, good reasons to keep an authoritarian church model while pushing for decentralized and democratic information. But Hipps’ implicit technological determinism cannot make this move, nor, it seems, would he want to.
Hipps’ book is an important contribution to the discussion of technology and the church. Aimed at church leaders, he raises important questions and he provides his analysis with a genuine sense of humility and awareness of his limitations. He is clear that using technology well demands careful discernment, and that understanding should precede appropriation. As such, he has provided an excellent foundation for dialogue about the challenges and issues facing churches who wish to be in, but not of, the twenty-first century.