Dr. Peter Horsfield is an ordained minister in the Uniting Church in Australia. He is currently employed on the Electronic Culture Research Project, a special initiative of the Uniting Church’s Commission in Victoria to explore the impact of electronic media on global cultures and the implications of this cultural change on religious institutions and on the social experience and expression of religious faith. For ten years previously he was the Dean of the Uniting Church’s Theological Hall and Lecturer in Practical Theology in the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. He has published extensively in the areas of mass communication and society and media, religion and culture. Among his publications are two books: Religious Television: The American Experience (Longmans 1984) and Taming the Television: A Parents’ Guide to Children and Television (Albatross 1986).
The following article was published in The Covenant Quarterly, Vol. LIV, No. 3 (August 1996), pp. 26-37.
In what ways can the Bible, a book from a largely agricultural, pre-industrial, and pre-electronic culture, have any bearing on how we should live and work out our faith in a global media-dominated culture today?
The communication situation today
The development of electronic technologies for storing and transferring information in the past two generations has been exponential. Things are now being done in electronic communication which once would have been thought impossible.
These developments have changed not only the speed and way in which we now communicate: they have also changed the way our societies are organised, how we relate to each other, what we think is important, and how we think and expect our social institutions (including the church) to function.
It is my contention that the mass media have become so integrated and extensive - technologically, economically and socially - that they have gone beyond being just instruments for social communication. The mass media together have shaped a new international culture and ideology whose web now touches, influences and in some cases dominates every other cultural system.
In previous times we lived and worked within the context of the natural environment. Today the environment within which most of us live and work is a media environment, an over-arching web of mediated symbols, processes, stories and values that surrounds, gives shape to, and interprets most things we do as individuals and as a society. While the natural world is still there, touching us through the seasons and weather, natural disasters and occasional recreation, the natural world is no longer the major thing with which we contend. The world that has greater impact on our decision-making, value formation, relationships and self-perception is the technological-mediated world, not the natural world.
The broader dimensions of this change are significant. The world of nature, because of its grandeur and sense of uncontrollability, carried with it the "suspicion" that there is something greater than us, something with which we need to contend. This greatness of nature traditionally has been a significant foundation for our understanding of God. Paul alludes to this in Romans: "(God’s) eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him." (Romnot only absent, God is not necessary. The "otherness" we experience in this world is seeing something awesome that makes us feel humble; it is the disequilibrium we feel when we see others with things that we don’t have. "Mystery" in the media likewise is not an experience of awe and humility: it is an experience of technological curiosity ("How did they do that?") or functional strategy ("How can I get it?").
This is not to say that people have become totally submissive to a technological/consumer world-view: we are not robots to a technological pre-determinism. But it is important to understand that the actual world in which we live, not just the immediate processes we live by, has changed in the last three decades and this change is influencing the way we see things and make decisions and judgments.
The relevance of the Bible
In what ways can the Bible, a book from a largely agricultural, pre-industrial, and pre-electronic culture, have any bearing on how we should live and work out our faith in such a global media-dominated culture today? It is important that we find a way of practically connecting the Bible and our media culture, otherwise we run several risks.
First, there is the risk of separating private faith and devotion from public decision making and ethical behaviour. Because the Bible doesn’t speak directly about the mass media, it can be easy to see the Bible as the authority for the personal aspects of our lives and then simply assume that people who are good personally will automatically know how to be good publicly or corporately. That is not a correct assumption.
Second, we run the risk of seeing the Bible as relevant only for those forms of communication that were known in biblical times. There are a number of excellent books, for example, which give a biblical account of communication, without saying anything about technological communication.
A third risk is that we select out bits of the Bible that suit our ideas about mass media but ignore other parts that would challenge those ideas. When someone says "This is what the Bible says about Christian use of mass media," it generally says as much about the context and agenda of the person doing the interpreting as it does about the biblical message. For example, the Bible is frequently quoted in support of opposition to portrayals of sex and violence in the media but not often to challenge the practice of western media corporations destroying poorer indigenous cultures by selling cheap western entertainment that under-cuts local programming, even though protection of the poor is a strong biblical message.
How then can we make necessary connections between the Bible and modern communications? My perspective is that there are a number of connections that arise both from the issues that confront us as Christians living in a mass media age and from the Bible’s insistent message.
1. The Biblical message supports a quality of communication that is strongly personal-communal. The existence of things and people is an expression of the personal quality of God’s justice-love and God actively seeks an ongoing just and loving relationship with what is created. God encourages this relationship to be robust and interactive involving qualities of comfort and challenge, initiative and response, question and answer, closeness and distance, lament and laughter, complaint and reassurance, defence and vulnerability, on both sides. Even in revelation, God gives people the freedom to participate, to see or not to see.
The supreme expression of this personal nature of God’s communication is in the person, Jesus of Nazareth, the "Word made flesh" (John 1:14), whose nature was to liberate humans to their full humanity (Luke 4, etc) and to restore intimate relationship (communion) between creation and God (II Cor 5:18-21).
Because it is a reflection of God’s nature and God’s way of doing things, establishing, maintaining and developing full and robust relationships between creation, God and people-in-community should be the quality that characterises Christian communication.
This perspective should guide us in evaluating not just the content of communication but also the method of communication. The central message of the Christian gospel is that the method by which God’s redemptive love was shown was not in sending an edited message or program, nor by sending an inter-media-ry, but by being there personally in Jesus Christ, vulnerable to our pain, desolation, disease, anger and retribution - in fact being killed by it. The method by which we communicate as Christians has meaning, not just the content of our communication.
2. Mass media are just one aspect within the whole spectrum of communication. We have come to believe in the past two decades that mass media are the most important, most influential and most necessary forms of communication. We have come to this belief, not because of clear findings of research, but because of the way in which technology and technological development are revered, marketed and used within our society. The result is that for many countries and organisations (and even churches) developing communication is now understood mainly as buying new machines for processing information or broadcasting programs.
Communication research indicates, however, that in many ways inter-personal and group communication is still more effective for achieving understanding of issues, conveying information and influencing decisions, and are more enjoyed for relaxation and entertainment than are mass media. Inter-personal communication is still the most effective means of evangelism. If we applied a biblical perspective in assessing new technology, and if the same amount of energy and resources had been devoted to the development of inter-personal and community-based communication as have been devoted to technological communication, we may have achieved a richer more satisfying alternative way of living together.
3. Communication involves much more than just what we do as humans. Communication is the breath (pneuma or spirit) of our common existence. The world is dependent on and affected by inter-relationship (communication) between all things - even animals and what we have thought to be inanimate objects.
This is the biblical perspective of creation: that we are born into a world that is given to us and not something of our own making (Genesis 1-2, Psalm 8); that humans have a place within it but not the place (Job 34:14-15); that the whole of this creation is interconnected and in constant communication with itself in a complex way (Rom 8:29-23) and that nature experiences destructive consequences as a result of human disobedience of God (see for example Genesis 3, 1 Kings 17-18, Romans 8). Yet we have gone ahead with development that breaks ecological chains, ignores complex interrelationships between people, animals and things, and assumes that human activity and progress can take place without consideration of other aspects of creation.
4. The mass media reflect values that are challenged by biblical values. Studies have shown for a number of decades that the mass media reflect common patterns of underlying themes, motifs and values across different media and a wide range of programming.
While Christians frequently take action in relation to specific objectionable aspects of programming, what we have not yet addressed are the broader, repetitive underlying values that are changing not just particular ideas but the whole structure of our perception. These underlying "mythological" patterns include, for example:
the inescapable requirement that things be entertaining;
the idea that it’s necessary to know as much as possible about as many things as possible, rather than limit what we know about in order to have time to act compassionately and justly;
the idea that there should be something in it "for me" to justify my involvement in something;
the idea that struggle and adversity are bad and should be avoided or got out of as soon as possible;
the idea that most of life’s problems can be solved by buying or acquiring something to fix it - one’s life will therefore be better the more one can buy more goods or go more places.
These values are rarely addressed specifically by the Bible, but many of the Bible’s teachings and emphases contradict and challenge them. How does one present a gospel of loving sacrifice on media that demand that things be entertaining?
5. The Bible gives a place of special importance to those people who are powerless, in need, or marginalised. More than just requiring us to remember them, the Bible actually makes our relationship and empowerment of them the measure of our faithfulness and stewardship to God ("Whatever you did for one of the least of these....you did it for me." (Matt 25:40)).
In this context, a courageous acceptance of the biblical view of communication and God’s seeking and transforming justice-love turns upside down our normal way of looking at power, ethics, organisation and communication (see, for eg. Matt 18:1-5, Matt 19:30, Luke 1:52-53, I Cor 1:27-29, and I Cor 12:24 "God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member...").
This perspective of the central importance of the powerless challenges all our Christian communication and proclamation. Christian preachers, biblical scholars, theologians, writers, conference speakers, broadcasters and Christian media organisations have immense power by having access to opportunities for communication that others don’t have. On whose behalf do we use this power? One can get the impression on occasion that much of the church’s communication, and much of the mass communication efforts of Christians, are directed more towards promoting the self-interest of the speaker, building a Christian power base, or furthering the goals of the Christian organisation than for the purpose of serving Christ by advocating, representing or empowering those who are silenced in their powerlessness.
To that extent, a biblical view of communication challenges and confronts not only the content, but also the power structures, methods and motives of mass communication, even our "Christian" mass communication. (Though we need to note that while the Bible speaks consistently for justice and for siding with the poor it offers little that is unambiguous about policy and strategy for achieving it - another example of how God gives plenty of scope to us to participate in creation-redemption by using our imagination and initiative!)
FOR FURTHER THOUGHT
1. The biblical message always finds expression in a new culture by affirming some aspects of the culture and challenging others. What aspects of media culture do you think the biblical message affirms, and what do you think it challenges?
2. What happens to the meaning of the message, "God loves you!" when it is spoken by one person, edited, to a million people at once via a book, television or radio rather than one person talking to another?
3. Do the media encourage us to believe that it’s important to know as much as possible about as many things as possible? What would be the implications if we decided to limit the amount of things we knew about in order to have time to do something compassionate about a fewer number of things? How would you go about it?
4. Is entertainment contrary to God’s nature? Is too much entertainment contrary to God’s nature? How much entertainment is too much entertainment? Should some things be entertaining and others not entertaining?
5. What implications does Paul’s statement, "God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong" (I Cor 1:27) have for the way we communicate as Christians?