So far this summer I have read a good deal and invested a lot of time thinking upon technology and how it shapes my intake and digestion of information. After reading Neil Postman’s critique ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death,’ a book I heartily recommend, my world has never quite been the same. I am continually astounded at how deeply embedded some habits have been etched into my mind by media consumption, often rendering me unfit for profound meditation. This link between media and spiritual growth was important for me to make because I have learned that the Gospel, the glory of God, and my duty toward people is at stake. I have to ask myself, “Am I a product of my culture?”
As many well know, one of the main focuses of the Reformation was to eliminate the divide between secular and sacred and to help people reconcile the entirety of their lives to Christ. No longer were certain professions and lifestyles to be unfit for use by God, rather all were to be trophies of grace reflecting the transforming power of the Gospel. We must take that same mindset and apply it to the Christian life today and bring everything, including media, under the Lordship of Christ.
Discernment in media is something that our generation desperately needs. I only say that because I know what it is like to indulge myself in a world with little Biblical understanding (See, blog title). If anyone has fallen flat on their face while handling technology, I am the foremost … and I have a level 156 Marksman to prove it.
Although there are a lot of thoughts to be mentioned, I wanted to briefly share three thoughts that may be helpful for reflection followed by three attempts at remedies in another post.
1. Media has the propensity to destroy conviction.
If you have grown up in the era of internet and television, you might understand some of the dangers a media culture poses against conviction. I will begin with an illustration.
Let’s say that you are watching a special on World War II on television and the show thoroughly unpacked details of the destruction in places like Hiroshima. The music is sober and the graphics are shocking. It should go without saying that the heart is moved to pity and compassion. Within your innermost being grows a deep desire to do good to others after witnessing destruction … and then the show ends. Being a well-trained channel surfer, you pick the pieces of your heart off the floor and try to find something that catches your eye. Hm, Conan is on! Oh, iron chef is on! You flip to that station and there is laughter, bright colors, and (hopefully) tasteful humor. Your heart is mended rather quickly and you head off to bed remembering a lot more jokes than you can recall facts from the documentary. All of a sudden the alarm goes off, you groggily get out of bed, remembering almost nothing of last night.
Okay, I do not watch television, but this is a small example that represents many scenarios in my own life. Perhaps I find a good sermon jam on youtube, but a few clicks later I find a good YouTube cover of a secular song. Now neither of these things are sinful in themselves, but the latter often nullifies the former. This is when a neutral thing becomes a deadly thing. As Matt Chandler once said, “There are things in your life that are morally neutral that will absolutely destroy you if you are not careful.” Often times after hearing a good sermon, my heart wants nothing more than to sit in silence and rejoice in the promises of God … but wait, it is time for post-event fellowship … or people want to see a movie. By the time the after-event is done, I find myself able to recall the sermon, but I have incredible difficulty trying to stay focused. Since its getting late, I think to myself, “I will try to mull over the message tomorrow morning,” only to have the moment of conviction and the content of the message fade into oblivion.
What I am trying to say is that, personally speaking, media has trained my mind to receive all information equally. Now the initial response may be different, but my mind has been conditioned to move on very quickly from serious moments. All things are filed away, but rarely is a thought out on the table for longer than a day. Things are prayed over for but a moment, but rarely is anything so heavy on my hearts as to consume me. Each day brings enough troubles, and I daresay, distractions of its own. How can we expect to imitate the psalmist, to wait on the Lord? Can my plea be to dwell in the house of the Lord, to gaze upon His beauty, and to inquire in His temple? Everything is reduced to facts, not meditation.
Let me say this: information does not mean reformation. After much thinking on this idea, I realized that I have been an abomination of a steward of the preaching and reading of His Word. So many messages intended to build my faith have gone to waste because I have been more excited to check basketball scores and hang out afterwards than to be in prayerful consideration of the things of God. As Leonard Ravenhill once said, “God does not care if you have been convicted, He only cares if you have been changed!” Conviction does not mean you are a new creation. Practically speaking, the ability to “amuse” myself (literally, ‘not thinking’, or diverting attention from something heavy to something light) after spending time in the things of God leads to the death of wonder and marvel at doctrine and truth. Truly we are a people who live in a Huxley-esque culture (author of Brave New World) who choose to medicate the mind rather than dwell in the house of God.
2. Media has the propensity to harden the heart.
This idea became clearer to me after getting coffee with my friend, Mike Chen. He was talking about how his heart was breaking for the Jr. High ministry after camp and that he cried for the first time for the souls of those in his ministry. I was moved, but then profoundly disturbed at the state of my own heart. When as the last time my heart broke for anything? Tears are not the definitive sign of conviction and a broken heart, so we began to discuss how we could soften our hearts. Immediately my mind went back to Postman’s book.
One of the reasons why I loved ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ was because there was a historical element that chronicled how technology dramatically changed human communication during the last two centuries. He gave insights to how people once lived and how technology can transform a society. He says that two pieces of technology rise above the rest as inventions that have irreversibly changed society forever: the telegraph and the photograph.
The reason why the telegraph changed the world is profoundly simple. People were able to send messages to each other at incredible rates. Before the telegraph was invented, the Pony Express was by far the fastest mode … so fast that it took ten days for a message to travel from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific Coast. That means that pen-pals were separated by at least twenty days! Imagine if email was that slow – we would all go crazy! The telegraph allowed there to be stations in major cities that could send and receive messages. Instead of traveling across the country, the Express only had to carry letters from the station to nearby residents. This was indeed a revolution in communications, which the photograph would only reinforce.
Now what does this have to do about the heart? Let me say this first: imagine you lived in the era of the Pony Express. What would you know about the world? What would you know about local matters? Undoubtedly people invested much more into their immediate context. The biggest drama in California was not a blizzard in Boston but perhaps poor public education or the flood of a nearby creek. Though ignorant of much, people then were able to invest themselves and fix problems because they had the means of realistically changing neighborhood circumstances.
With the introduction of the telegraph came a dramatic shift in how “news” would be defined. Local issues became lost as information from around the nation would captivate communities. Sure the creek was overflowing, but there is a huge hurricane threatening Florida! Sure California has bad education but wow, those kids from Mississippi are really dumb and someone has to fix that! Soon big things around the world would swallow up small local issues.
The problem with this however, is that we often fail to give emotional and financial support to distant causes because they are too far removed from our local contexts. Again, information does not mean reformation. In this case, the heart is at stake. Now this does not mean someone can’t sincerely break for far off places, but can the heart realistically spread itself so thin?
I am not against being informed about the world. Events like Norway need to be prayed over. The thing is, what can my hands and words realistically do in such a context? Can I practically be a vessel for the Gospel in that situation? Pragmatism is not the issue here, rather passivity in urgent immediate contexts is the problem.
There was a time when I wished to be informed about world events and to grow in my knowledge of how the world works. Most of that desire remains in tact, though discernment has shot through the roof after considering its effects. I realized that it is very convenient for my heart to “break” for a couple of minutes over tragic things happening in the world. Strangely, I would end up on Facebook and Tumblr again. This is another instance of appointing equal value to most information. Sharing the Gospel with a classmate or a non-Christian friend is much more difficult than sending my condolences overseas.
I think the reason why Paul was able to give himself wholeheartedly for the ministry was in part, because these small communities were the only things he knew in life. If he had the internet and CNN, perhaps he would have been more distracted, or his heart would be spread thin over the twitter updates of all the churches he served. Imagine the Corinthians tweeting, “Meeting just finished. Bitter dispute between followers of Paul and Apollos.” Maybe the Galatians would tweet, “Hooray! Another Gentile has been circumcised. Now he can share in the glory of Christ.” I feel like Paul’s heart would be pulling him in all kinds of directions if he lived in our age. He responded well to the crisis when he heard about them, but if he had the constant updates that media allows us to have, I don’t think he would have been able to minister as effectively.
The digital age, or rather, the age of information, is both a curse and a blessing. Theological resources and updates on missionaries are definitely good things. However when it causes me to desire a ministry in every part of the world, all it caused me to do … was nothing at all. This has ramifications in and outside the church. Yes, Rob Bell is wrong in how he understand how “love wins,” and it’s important to know, but can we be faithful in practically supporting our ministers? I know I have failed the charge on numerous levels to be faithful locally. My friend Mike would do well to limit how far he stretches himself so he could give himself fully to local church ministry. Let us sift through the ocean of information and use it to equip ourselves to be faithful in our immediate contexts!
3. Media has the propensity to give us unrealistic expectations of sanctification.
I will not be referring to the Postman book in this section, but rather a part of C.J. Mahaney’s sermon at the Together for the Gospel Conference entitled “Ordinary Pastors.”
One of the clear points of the sermon was to be faithful in ministry, though one may not experience the success of a John Piper or David Platt. Not only will most pastors not write a book, but most pastors will not preach a hit sermon that seems to change the world like “Don’t Waste Your Life” or John MacArthur’s sermon on the prodigal son.
CJ exhorts pastors to have realistic expectations for their sermons and sermon series. Rarely will a man be radically changed through one sermon (Although I do confess, Steve Lawson’s sermon on the Use of Time destroyed me) or one sermon series. It is a slow process of things clicking over a long period of time that causes a man to mature. Biblical worldviews are usually not built overnight.
We live in a culture of unfair expectations. We expect conferences, camps, and retreats to make us into super-Christians. However the Bible says nothing about feasting on God’s Word for a season (or a weekend!), but to be faithful in communion with God until we die. CJ makes this clear with an example of, you guessed it, our media world.
This example is so simple, yet it has deep implications for how we live our lives. We live in a world of technology, where things are getting faster and smaller. The days of dial-up are long gone. We click and get results. We can use Google and get hundreds of articles, all in a second. If someone wants to check email, watch television, or sneak in some sensual content, the world is available through the fingertips. We live in an age where waiting means seconds, thus the age of information/digital world. Even our shipping is fast (Amazon Prime) …
CJ reminds us that we live in a different context, and I daresay, a different world, than our Biblical counter-parts. He exhorts us to live in the past when Biblical truth is at stake. No matter what era, God’s Word makes bold declarations and demands results. But waiting is not seconds. He made it clear that while we live in a culture of media and instant gratification, the Bible is set in a context of agriculture and patient faith. This was an important distinction that reminded me to have realistic expectations toward sanctification.
Upon reflection, it is obvious that growing an apple tree is a lot different than using an Apple product. What is at stake is the same … getting results for our labor. Some people believe that they can calculate their growth and envision themselves reaching maturity in almost no time at all. Somehow reading the right books can equip someone to become a leader or ready for marriage. God does not work that way because fruit does not grow that fast on trees. Indeed as I Corinthians 3 says, God causes the growth, and what a tremendous promise that is! There will be maturity, God’s people will be made holy, and the church will be built and advance toward the gates of Hell, yet not according to the time it takes a website to load, but through the slow daily grind of killing sin, loving others, and delighting in Christ.
There are many applications to this. America is into results, so the alter call and the repeat-after-me prayer are not surprising because we live in a culture of instant gratification. The wisdom of God however, looks down on the “wise” and “strong” of this world and states that He will use sheep to beat back the wolves. He will cause the growth and His Spirit will bear fruit, in His timing. In one sense, faithfulness in prayer and reading everyday, similar to plowing and watering, will inevitably bear fruit. We have that promise, so let us be faithful men and women!
Hopefully this post was able to help you think more clearly on the relationship of media (and how it shapes us) and our faith (which is what really matters). These are things that stand out in my life … I dare not say my experience defines reality. I left out a lot of stuff for the sake of space, but hopefully this will pique your interest and help you examine how media has shaped your approach to faith. If you’re ever interested in having a conversation on this topic, I would enjoy that very much!
I wrote this on a whim during the last two hours. Hopefully it’s not too scatterbrained. If anyone has a practical way to write daily, let me know!
The next post will contain three practical solutions I am seeking as a remedy in hopes of reversing some bad habits.