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The Church and Communication in the Technological Era

by William F. Fore

William F. Fore received a B.D. from Yale Divinity School and Ph.D. from Columbia University. A minister in the United Methodist Church , he was Director of Visual Education for the United Methodist Board of Missions, then Executive Director of the Communication Commission of the National Council of Churches in New York City. From 1989 to 1995 he was Visiting Lecturer in Communication and Cultural Studies at Yale Divinity School.. His publications include Image and Impact (Friendship Press 1970), Television and Religion: the Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture (Augsburg 1987, currently reprinted by SBS Press, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511), and Mythmakers: Gospel Culture and the Media (Friendship Press 1990).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 24, 1986, pp. 810-812; copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


For years church leaders concerned about the communication revolution have been asking how to get the churches to take the changes seriously. What will it take to coax churches to become really involved in radio, television, satellites and computers -- to join the communication revolution?

This seems like a fairly straightforward challenge to churches to become more relevant to the times in which we live.

But such a question contains many dubious assumptions that could lead religious communication dangerously astray -- as it already has in some cases. Though the church certainly needs to consider more seriously the implications of the sweeping changes in the world, it must not simply acquiesce to those changes but seek to transform them in the light of the gospel.

There is little doubt that the world is in the midst of fundamental change. "This world of ours is a new world," wrote Robert Oppenheimer in 1963, "in which the unity of knowledge, the nature of human communities, the order of society, the order of ideas, the very notions of society and culture have changed and will not return to what they have been in the past" (Saturday Review of Literature, June 29, 1963, p. 11).

Thus, it is not enough to call what we are experiencing "rapid social change" or even "revolution," since these phrases connote only social or political upheaval. The change is more basic in that it modifies everything we have known. As a result, the religions of the world are facing not just a communication revolution but a new Technological Era that brings with it its own world view -- one that challenges the world views of all historical religions.

Dutch philosopher Arend van Leewen suggests that there have been only two basic eras in all of history. The first is the ontocratic era in which we have lived until now, in which human society has apprehended life as a cosmic totality, where belief in a God or gods held together the contradictory and confusing elements of the human community. But relatively suddenly --within the past 300 years -- we have moved away from this unifying concept into a multiform system of relationships with no single integrating element to give meaning to all other things. We have moved into the technological era, Van Leewen says, and this is the great new fact of our time (Christianity in a World History [Edinburgh Press, 1964]). The communication revolution, the Age of Information and the Information Society are surface manifestations of the more profound change that is under way in every aspect of life.

The technological era is functional and pragmatic, characterized by utilitarianism and relativism. It is thoroughly secular, demanding rationality and personal autonomy, and asserting that this space-time world is the proper home for humankind. It rejects metaphysical claims and demands that religion deal with the here and now.

This secular understanding is not necessarily inconsistent with the Christian faith. The proclamation of the gospel is precisely that the eternal order is revealed in the historical order. The clash with biblical religion comes only when the technological world view’s emphasis upon the pragmatic and the instrumental results in people’s being treated as means rather than as ends.

Unfortunately, thus far the new technological era has created a world of means in which the meaning of human existence is lost. Jacques Ellul calls the force at work The Technique -- a pervasive method of problem-solving that asks, "How can we best solve this problem now?" rather than, "What is the ultimate objective, and how can we reach it?’ The means is identified with the end, and whatever gets something "done" is good (The Technological Society [Knopf, 1967]).

The communication manifestations of The Technique are literally Orwellian. The Technique does not use fear or threats, nor does it concentrate on undermining its opponent. Rather it characteristically woos people, using their genuine needs (to be safe, to be liked, to be comfortable) to create other needs that make them not only willing but quite eager to buy what is being sold (deodorant, beer, antacid). A glaring example of the problem this method creates is the present state of TV news: most people prefer its simplistic presentation over a more complex and demanding one.

This alternative world view is taught -- perhaps unintentionally, but nevertheless with great persuasiveness and power -- through the media. Alternatives to traditional religious values are made tremendously appealing as religious vocabulary is supplanted by a vocabulary composed of a curious mix of economics, science, high technology and fantasy. Good examples of this new vocabulary are found in films like Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E. T. At the same time, activities of genuinely religious people are secularized, glamorized and finally robbed of their religious rootage. Even Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa have not completely escaped this secularization.

Although we have lived within the new media environment for only a few decades, some of its characteristics are becoming clear. First, our society has become increasingly dependent on mediated communication: more time spent with electronics, and less spent with people. Second, the exploding number of communication delivery systems and the diversification of programming allow individuals to pick and choose only those messages that reinforce already held attitudes and beliefs, thus fragmenting the culture because people literally cannot hear or see others.

Third, we are moving from seeing communication as a service function for the whole society to treating it as a commodity to be purchased and sold. As laws of economics increasingly control media structures, they inevitably become larger and owned by fewer people. Moreover, society is also being divided into a new class structure as more sophisticated communication facilities are available only to a small elite for their personal growth, education and enrichment. Though advertised as progress for all, computer programs, data bases, specialized videocassettes and a wide assortment of information services are, in fact, separating society into the information-rich and the information-poor.

Finally, all news, information and entertainment are being trivialized for the vast majority of people. Emphasis is given to information rather than meaning, surface events rather than depth and reflection.

Some people would contend that the church has been blind to these changes. However, I believe that church leadership has in fact been aware of and has responded to both the fundamental shift to the technological era and the new information techniques that communicate its world view. The problem is that their responses have been largely inadequate. They recognize that there has been a major shift in values and assumptions, and they have responded in ways reflecting religion’s past responses to the challenges from opposing world views.

H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic categories in Christ and Culture (Harper, 1951) are useful here. Biblical fundamentalists have adopted what Niebuhr would classify as Christ Against Culture, rejecting the appeals of the mass media and, to a certain degree, the media themselves. These fundamentalists detect an anti-Christian value system in the media, and counsel a return to religious fundamentals, which often include proscriptions against dancing, movies, plays and rock concerts, attempts at censorship of media -- especially films, television and books -- and encouraging participation in church social events as a substitute for secular culture offerings. This position recognizes the seriousness of The Technique’s appeal and its ability to lure people -- especially young people -- away from fundamentalism’s Puritan values. Ironically, however, the fundamentalists’ strong reaction tends to increase the attractiveness of that which is banished. Also, the rejection of many cultural experiences tends to leave people psychologically involuted, intellectually isolated and spiritually subject to the pride and authoritarianism that are generated by a dogmatic and closed system.

Curiously, other so-called fundamentalists have taken exactly the opposite course: Christ of Culture. Having no doubt about the answers to every religious question, they conclude that the most important communication task is to reach others with these answers and to convince them of their validity. They see The Technique’s success in converting people to its value system, so they apprehend the techniques -- especially television, radio and books -- and use them to convert people to their own religious views.

This Christ of Culture response is the impetus behind the electronic church -- which, in the guise of rejecting culture’s values, actually embraces many of them. It also explains why fundamentalist religion has been quick to grasp every new communication technique -- from radio to motion pictures to television and satellite TV and videocassettes. For them, the only question is how to build a bigger and better pipe to deliver the simple gospel message to the recipient.

Another Christ of Culture manifestation is evident in the "Be Happy" radio and TV programs that appeal to many members of the mainline churches -- people who go to church regularly, yet give little evidence of being uneasy about their deep involvement in secular culture and values. In Habits of the Heart (University of California Press, 1985), Robert Bellah and co-authors show that most Americans today express a vague religious belief in God, but are utterly incapable of relating their faith to any kind of morally coherent life. "Feeling good" for them has replaced "being good." The question "Is this right or wrong?" is replaced by "Is it going to work for me, now?"

Both secular media and most religious media encourage this cultural religion. In fact, its expressions are perhaps the most pervasive of all the religious responses to The Technique. To be sure, there may be media excesses that are too gross for even thoroughly acculturated Christians to ignore: too much sex and violence in films, too many commercials. But these are seen as problems to adjust, reduce and rework, not expressions of a fundamental dislocation from the center of their faith. For these Christians, the underlying values of commercial television are in fact their values.

A third Christian response to the challenges of The Technique rejects both the Christ Against Culture and Christ of Culture views. It is hesitant, problematic and ambiguous, but it tries to relate the requirements of historical Christian faith to the current cultural and media reality. It takes very seriously the demonic power within the media but nevertheless refuses to abandon culture altogether.

On one level Christians who adopt this position develop program material that -- in contrast to the media’s expressions -- tries to illumine the human condition, to ask meaningful religious questions, to rediscover religious truths, and even to create a new religious vocabulary that has meaning and power for the multitudes. At the second level, these Christians work within the media and political institutions themselves to bring about conditions that allow the media to achieve their considerable potential for good.

This dual approach tends to fit into the Niebuhrian categories of Christ and Culture in Paradox and Christ Transforming Culture. It recognizes the ambiguities and paradoxical nature of the church at work within a system full of powers that could corrupt everything they touch -- including the church. Yet these Christians act in the belief that testifying to the Good News is a requirement that cannot be avoided, and that, potentially, faith and action based on this liberating gospel can indeed transform structures built upon human sin and pride.

In light of this analysis, the church is faced with three challenges: first, to provide an alternative environment to the media environment, namely, face-to-face community; second, to penetrate the media with images and messages that challenge the media’s own values and instead communicate fundamental human values; and third, to teach parishioners (and the public) how to understand the ways in which the media are being manipulative.

One of the greatest strengths of the churches today, particularly in the United States, is its large and effective infrastructure: the local churches. There is no other institution in American life in which so many people meet regularly in a face-to-face relationship for anything other than work. This face-to-face environment offers tremendous possibilities for building community in the midst of the pressures to substitute a mediated community -- indeed, mediated experience -- in the place of face-to-face relationship. Moreover, at a time of increasing specialization, local churches can be the meeting place for a genuine exchange of views, a marketplace of ideas and values, a place where -- within an environment of Christian love and support -- people can deal with controversy in realistic and productive ways.

People have already begun to sense the need for new forms of community. The growth of special-interest hobby groups, the reassertion of town and city street fairs, dances and shopping malls, the increased involvement in citizen action groups all indicate that people are determined to escape the ersatz world of television and to re-enter the real world. But the churches are already in place with a ready-made environment for rediscovering community. The only question is whether they will respond appropriately. Those who will give direction to the church in the decades immediately ahead need to see this function as a major challenge for institutional religion.

The second task, that of penetrating existing media with religious images and vocabulary, requires considerable organization, time and money, making national efforts more feasible than local ones. National denominational offices and interdenominational organizations need the understanding and support of local churches and their leaders as they attempt to act as leaven within the loaf of social communication. Much more needs to be done in building local and national citizen-action groups to make their presence felt in government in order to secure media that are responsive to the public interest, both locally and nationally.

The final area of action, media education, is growing in importance. Harvey Cox points out that our main ethical problem is not how to make the choices we see, but how to see the choices we have to make. Media education is the process by which individuals are helped to see what the mass media are offering and to understand that we in fact can choose whether to accept or reject that offer.

Media education must become a major part of the preparation of children to become adults. It should begin at the earliest levels of school and continue through the entire education process. And adults need special help to catch up with the ways in which media use and abuse them.

Without citizens who are literate about the media, it is impossible for the church to participate meaningfully in deciding how our lives will be shaped by The Technique. Only by providing alternative environments to the mass media, using the media for messages about human values, and helping viewers overcome their growing dependence upon the media environment and its values can the church hope to liberate people from control by The Technique and to set them free from the potential tyranny of the technological era.


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