Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How we say it.

Talking to someone not only is about the words we say, but also the way we say it. Conversations hinge on the body language someone exhibits. If someone crosses their arms, the conversation can go from friendly to tense in a flicker of an eye. When we’re tense, what we say in a conversation changes completely.

Communication technology is the same way. What technology we use, shapes what we say. Shane Hipps notes in Flickering Pixels:
Marshall McLuhan, the oracle of the electronic age, reveals the error of this assumption when he says that ‘the medium is the message.’ If the first truth is that our methods change, the message automatically changes along with them. You can’t change methods without changing your message – they’re inseparable.” (25)
The medium by which I communicate with my grandmother changes everything. I send her short e-mails with forty words and usually a silly picture attached; Grandma sends me cards in the mail with a silly news story clipped from the paper. Neither of us writes back. Our phone conversations are longer, we banter, and we discuss everything from family history to theology and politics. These are the same two people, yet what we say changes completely by the mediums we use to communicate with. It is fortunate that this 90 year old grandmother and this 24 year old grandchild have the telephone, otherwise we’d never be able to meet in the middle and hear what the other person has to say. Our ability to communicate vastly improves with finding a technology that works for both of us.

In theology terms, Hipps explains that the medium that we use to talk about God changes the ways in which we communicate about God. The way that the printing press changed Christianity was not only in terms of reading the Bible, but also in the ways that we organized our congregations. He points out pews inside churches, which line people up like letters on a page, are not found in medieval churches (47). The printing press changed everything for Christianity. We changed our ways of thinking about and constructing Christianity because of technology.

He also suggests that the printing press changed the way we understood theology. A sentence is a logical, linear string of characters to produce a whole thought. Therefore, Hipps sees those of us who have been trained in reading and writing think in these logical linear ways. In Hipps understanding, theology became a linear, logical understanding that valued progressive, factual thought over feelings. How we understood God and talked about God, changed because of this technology.

Yet, like the example of communication with my grandmother, communication between God and humanity goes both ways. Hipps describes Flickering Pixels as both the way we communicate about God, and the way that God reaches out to us: “It’s about the way God communicates with us and the way we communicate God to the world” (13-14). God uses different mediums to communicate with humanity. At first it was the temple in Jerusalem, later God used Jesus. Using the Logos passage in John 1, Hipps points to the ways in which the message and the medium were embodied in the same person. Through Jesus, the ideas and words of God, become perfectly communicable. Interestingly, a human, is the ultimate communication technology for God.

Yet some parts of what is communicated remain the same; some parts of each new communication technology build from another communication technology. So when the Jesus medium talks about love, Jesus is using the same message from previous technologies, for example the Prophet Isaiah communication model. My grandmother asks about my eating habits and exercise routine or tells me that she loves me whether it is through phone or card. So while communication mediums do change, some parts of the message, like God loves, doesn’t change.

Unfortunately, there is also the problem of the fourth dimension of technology. This is the fact that technology can sometimes trap us in unexpected ways. Hipps calls this the “underside” of technology. For instance, city walls while providing protection during a siege could also be a trap during the time of a city fire; video surveillance cameras provide identification of those who commit a crime, but also invade the privacy of people (Hipps, 37). The response to the God Communicating Technology also can have flaws that get brought forward with each new technological advantage. Despite God’s use of many different people to communicate, God’s message, that gets regularly forgotten. Deborah, was excluded from the list of Judges in Bible concordances for centuries; Mary Magdalene was excluded from Paul’s list of people who witnessed the risen Christ. Even though well intentioned people do use this medium to talk about God, they in fact sometimes bring in the underside of technology as well.

How we say what we say matters. Not only does how we say it matter, it changes what we say too. So, if a Theology after Google, is a theology that takes rapid technological changes into account, then it also needs to understand the ways in which talk about God will change what we say about God. If we are to take this theology seriously, we need to be extra observant of what precisely it is we are pulling forward from past mediums, looking for both the potential beauty from past mediums, and be aware of the past mistakes.

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