Equippers as Environmentalists: Re-Imagining Leadership in Today’s Western Church Part IV
MAJOR CULTURAL SHIFTS TO NAVIGATE
From Print and Broadcast to the Digital Age
A major shift is taking place in our world today, but it is often overlooked. It’s the hidden power of the primary medium of the day. Many people believe that the medium or method of communication is neutral and that only the content of the message is vital. But those who have spent a lifetime studying the effects of media, like Marshall McLuhan, would say otherwise. In his book, The Medium is the Mass-age, he states, “societies have always been shaped more by the nature of media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication” (McLuhan 1967:11). To emphasize this idea, he coined the famous aphorism “the medium is the message” (McLuhan 1967:7). McLuhan contended that we are often blind to the ways in which the medium shapes us, and a number of Christians who have thoughtfully engaged in the study of technology would agree.*
McLuhan shared how different media have significantly shaped humankind. For example, print media led humans to become more detached and more logical. The electronic media caused people to become involved and participate in the whole of humankind.
Let’s just think about the effects of the print media. Those of us who read English are consistently and often unknowingly shaped by the medium every time we read a book, newspaper, or blog, as are those who read Hebrew, but in different ways. When people read in English, we scan left to right and we read a phonetic alphabet that is sequentially assembled. When people read Hebrew, they read from right to left and only read consonants, which means they have to pay close attention to the surrounding ideas and concepts in order to figure out which vowels to fill in.
Now here is the amazing thing: those who study the brain and how it works through devices such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) note that when we turn our heads from left to right, the left side of our brain controls that motor function, the part of the brain that is responsible for the logical, sequential, rational, analytical, and objective thinking and that looks at the parts. When we turn our heads from right to left, the right side of our brain controls that motor function, the part of the brain that is responsible for the random, intuitive, holistic, synthesizing, subjective thinking that looks at the wholes. Is it any wonder why those who read English “focus on abstract principles and doctrinal systems, all our linear, sequential arguments based on reason are tied intimately to our profound textuality” (Keel 2007:132,133) and the left side of the brain? Conversely, those who read Hebrew and Aramaic engage in the part of the brain responsible for understanding context, metaphor, and synthesis.
Keel writes,”Is it any wonder that the Protestant Reformation, which in many ways was a rediscovery of the theology of Paul, occurred simultaneously with society’s capacity to access ideas in an abstract and individualized way through the medium of print? And is it any surprise that we struggle mightily with Jesus and his confounding way of speaking (in Aramaic) in parables? We love the literal and avoid the metaphorical” (Keel 2007:133).
It is any wonder why, for the typical protestant, often the central part of the service is the message, as opposed to the table? We don’t have time to talk about how the Chinese read ideographic writing that is pictorial in nature where a single symbol represents an entire concept, as opposed to those of us who read English “a symbol system that is totally abstracted from reality – a collection of abstract, meaningless squiggly shapes used to create meaning” (Hipps 2005:49). And yes, they read from up to down. After having only looked briefly at one medium, we can already sense the inherent power of the medium to shape culture.
In fact, Rex Miller, after 25 years of researching social change throughout history found that the best way to organize the major societal shifts over time was by considering the dominant medium of the age. Miller states, “The Millennium Matrix builds on the premise that when the primary means of storing and distributing information changes, our worldview changes. Here’s how this works. When our means of storing and distributing information change, our perceptions change. Changed perceptions create changed understandings and even changed psychology. Changed identity affects relationships. Changed relationships affect the traditions and institutions that support those relationships. These changes eventually reach a cultural critical mass, igniting a battle between old and new worldviews. Communication is the medium for relationship, community, and culture; so a more efficient or powerful tool of communication results in their restructuring” (Miller 1998:114).
The middle of Miller’s book presents a 23-page chart that indicates changes in how we believe, how we know, how we live together, how we see beauty, and how we work and trade. He contends that there have been four different eras defined by the media of the day, including oral, print, broadcast, and digital eras. Below is a selective and extremely condensed version of the Millennium Matrix to give a taste of how the primary medium of the day shapes us. McLuhan, Miller, and others understand that as we create our tools, our tools in turn re-create us.
While McLuhan (and others) understood that the content does indeed matter, he was trying to draw our attention to what often goes unnoticed – the power of the medium to create an environment that in turn shapes us in ways that are hard to detect. As McLuhan noted, ‘Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible. The groundrules [sic], pervasive structure, and over-all patterns of environments elude easy perception” (McLuhan 1967:68).
In the next post we will look at the philosophical shift from modernity to postmodernity.
*Christian works that argue we have become blind to the medium of technology include Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Bluff (Grand Rapids: Eermans Publishing,1990); Marva Dawn’s Unfettered Hope (Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, 2003); Albert Borgmann’s Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 1984) and Power Failure (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press 2003); and Shane Hipps’s The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).