Flickering Pixels; Flickering Faith?



"Flickering pixels compose the screens of life, from televisions to cell phones to computers.  These screens, regardless of their content, change our brains, alter our lives, and shape our faith all without our permission or knowledge." - Shane Hipps, 

In his new book, Flickering Pixels:  How Technology Shapes Your Faith Shane Hipps (www.shanehipps.com) begins with a bold assumption, albeit an unoriginal one.  In a recent interview at the National Pastor's Convention in San Diego, Hipps was interviewed by none other than Rob Bell, teaching pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI and the creative force behind the popular Nooma video series (postmodern parables in video format).  In the interview Hipps told a crowd of several thousand pastors and church leaders, "We used to think that the message [of the Gospel] never changed.  The media might change, but the message remained the same.  Well, that's not true, the media is the message."  

In 2006 Hipps wrote a book entitled The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel and Church (Zondervan 2006).  Hipps candidly admits that Hidden Power concerned itself with the narrow world contained inside the Church.  Flickering Pixels is Hipps' attempt to utilize and expand upon the themes of his first book to speak into a wider culture.  Hipps' purpose, he asserts, is to illuminate how media and technology shape issues of both faith and life.  Further, Hipps expresses a desire that the reader will begin to "see the world in new ways." (11) Hipps inspiration for both of his books was Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), a cultural commentator, professor, writer, sociologist, you name it, who wrote a book entitled "The Medium Is The Message."  (www.marshallmcluhan.com)  McLuhan quipped things like "Mud sometimes gives the illusion of depth," and "With telephone and TV it is not so much the message, but the sender that is sent."  If you peruse McLuhan's work it is easy to see where Hipps gathers most of his thoughts and extended ideas.  

Hipps does make a compelling case for how the medium is not simply a passive vehicle for the message.  He uses what he refers to as the "four dimensions of all media," to demonstrate his point and to lay the foundation for what becomes the overall thesis of his book.  To begin, Hipps declares that the first dimension of all media is that it amplifies or extends bodily functions as well as social and mental processes.  In other words, the binocular extends eyesight, headphones amplifies hearing, and so on.  The second dimension of media that Hipps explores deals with irrelevance and obsolescence.  He uses the automobile and the horse and buggy as examples.  The automobile made the horse and buggy obsolete.  It didn't make it extinct, it just changed its use in society.  The third dimension of media, according to Hipps, has to do with retrieval.  He uses a variety of examples, stating that "the Internet retrieves the telegraph...Painkiller drugs attempt to retrieve the comfort of a mother's womb," and so on.  I'm not sure about that last one, to be honest.  At any rate, you get the idea.  

The fourth dimension is essentially where Hipps lives and breathes when it comes to his critique and assessment of technology and its impact on life and faith.  The fourth dimension of media, Hipps asserts, is "the dark dimension," in that it is difficult to predict, and to see.  Hipps calls this media that "reverses upon itself."  He cites the automobile once again as an example.  With the advent of the car, society experienced increased speed and distance in travel, but the unintended and unexpected result of too many cars is traffic congestion, accidents, and sometimes death.  

What follows in Flickering is essentially a series of essays on the different ways that we have missed the mark when interpreting technologies like the Internet, photography, print, online communities and much more.  Hipps peppers his essays with a smattering of Anabaptist theology---a theology that has obviously both formed and informed his understanding of faith and life (Hipps is, after all, a Mennonite pastor).  

The Anabaptist emphasis on communal living, communal Scripture interpretation and communal ideals of faith and cultural interpretation is certainly brought to the fore throughout Flickering.  I think that a little more transparency in this regard would have been a good thing.  There is a great deal that the wider Church could learn from our Anabaptist brothers and sisters, and I especially enjoyed Hipps' inclusion of Mennonite (www.mennoniteusa.org) mediation practices in the chapter  "Next Door Enemy," in a document entitled "Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love."  The emphasis on face-to-face interaction, communal agreements or covenants---all these things point to what Hipps describes as a way to move toward "meaningful authentic community..." (130) They also stand in sharp contrast to the way that Hipps describes and critiques the way he feels technology has begun to strip us of our ability to be in true community with one another.  

One of the quotes that I found interesting in Flickering was in the chapter entitled "Our Nomadic Life." After describing the phenomenon of virtual communities created from blogging, Facebook and other social networking tools on the Internet, Hipps declares, "I find it troubling that so many communities of faith are in hot pursuit of these technologies." He goes on to say, "The Internet is seen as the Holy Grail of 'building community.' However, churches will find the unintended consequences of this medium coming back to bite them..."  (115)

I completely understand what Hipps is trying to do in Flickering.  In his conclusion, which comes in the form of a short essay entitled "Bend," Hipps recalls the words of his greatest influence, Marshall McLuhan, who once said, "There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is willingness to contemplate what is happening."  (182)  Hipps characterizes his work as a wake-up call, or more eloquently "an invitation to awareness" that is given in hopes that we might bend instead of breaking under the influence of technology on our life and faith.  (182) Hipps is doing, in a much less poetic way, what the Pastoral Poets of the Renaissance did in the face of growing urbanization---hearken back to an idyllic time and a place where simplicity "reigned" and people were happier.  I say this with a great deal of humility, careful not to trivialize Hipps skillful argument.  But still...it's there.   

Additionally, I am not sure that I completely buy into the fact that the Church should eschew virtual communities and creative, thoughtful attempts to reach an ever-growing online population for Christ.  When I began working as a youth pastor in the late nineties I quickly found that most of my students were "IM-ing" (instant messaging) on AOL.  So, I joined, set up an account and began ministering to them online---because that's where they were.  After the turn of the century (strange to say that, right?) I discovered that most of the students in my suburban Chicago youth group were on Xanga--one of the early, accessible, communal blog sites.  So I set up a Xanga, and began ministering to them online---because that's where they were.  At my next church the students had moved on to MySpace---so I went there.  Then they moved on to Facebook---so, you guessed it, I went there.  

Now I am working hard to stay in community with colleagues, parishoners, college-age stage students, and many more who are part of a variety of online communities from Facebook to Squidoo to Twitter.  I don't blog incessantly, but when I do blog the folks in my online community have immediate access to my thoughts and can interact with them if they so choose.  I also am able to reach hundreds of people with my podcast, Squidoo pages, etc.  I am enriched by the feedback I receive from my colleagues and friends (and even from random strangers).  And further, I find I have drawn closer to some of my friends and colleagues by reading their thoughts, "talking" to them online, etc.  

I think that the reality we are facing is that the Church needs to shed its fortress mentality and stop assuming that people will come to us.  We need to go where people are, and where they are more often than not is online.  And there is plenty of community to be found there.  

Having said all of that,  I do agree with Hipps that far too many of us are becoming addicted to the rush of information that we are constantly being fed.  As Christians we do need to live incarnational lives, and to realize that the medium God has chosen to convey his grace and peace to the world through is the Church.  And if Hipps is right about his theory of dimensions (he very well may be), the Church has the potential to mess it up, and good---to reverse upon itself and do more harm than good.  We need to realize, though, that the Church's immorality has far less to do with its recent infatuation with technology and much more to do with the fact that it is made up of broken, sinful people.   

There's also this that I need to admit.  I am working to "unplug" from my connectedness for some times of Sabbath.  I plan on taking one day of the week completely off from work, from the Internet, from my cell phone, email, etc.  I want to write, to read, to spend time with my wife, to sleep, go to a movie, eat some sushi, sit on the porch with a glass of wine...  I also have begun to "unplug" at 9 PM to rest, read, talk to my wife (or other things...you know) and let my mind begin to work a bit differently.  It's difficult to do, but not impossible.  I'm not doing it, however, because I believe myself to be intellectually and spiritually above it all... I'm not doing it because I want to rail against technology or because I believe I can't have real relationships online (I do and I have).  I'm just doing it because I need to...for me.   It doesn't mean that I am going to begin driving a horse and buggy to work either.  Even moderation is good in moderation.    

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