A Theology of Communication

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 originally appeared as Chapter Three in Television and Religion: the Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture, pp. 38 – 54.


Theology is a statement that tries to make sense out of our lives. This essay is intended to provide a viewpoint from which to understand the workings of communication. It attempts to say what communication is all about, in the context of what the world is all about.

What Is Theology?

Theology is a statement that tries to make sense out of our lives. Of course, there are more sophisticated views of theology. And there are many different kinds of theology: historical, systematic, practical, black, liberation -- in fact, a "theology of" just about every movement and topic that requires serious thought and signification.

But all theologies have at least one thing in common: they are attempts to deal honestly and lucidly with the way things are, so as to help people understand what life is all about.

Unfortunately, theology has become so specialized during the last 50 years that it has almost defined itself out of existence. Where only a few centuries ago theology was thought of as "the queen of the sciences," the one discipline that held all the others together and which everyone took with the utmost seriousness, today it speaks only rarely to the totality of the scientific world, and is almost nonexistent on the horizon of the average lay person. The theologians themselves seem to be disappearing. Not only are the massive systems of a Thomas Aquinas no longer produced, but for more than three decades we have not seen single systematic theology of the caliber of Gustav Aulen, Karl Barth, or Paul Tillich.

Avery Dulles charges that 20th century theology has been largely a reaction against the corrosive influences of print culture on the faith of the Church. Barthian neoorthodoxy sought to escape from the detatched impersonality of the print medium by a revival of face-to-face oral communication as it existed in New Testament times. But that movement was fundamentally reactionary. It sought vainly to operate within a communications system -- primative oralism -- that no longer existed. Dulles is right in insisting that the church "cannot wall itself up in a cultural ghetto at a time when humanity as a whole is passing into the electronic age." (1).

This chapter is not an attempt to provide in any sense a genuine systematic theology. It is intended to provide a viewpoint from which to understand the workings of communication. It attempts to say what communication "is all about," in the context of what the world "is all about." It rejects some worldviews, and with them certain ways of using and thinking about communication. It proposes a worldview -- a theological perspective -- which I believe to be consistent with genuine biblical and historical Christianity, and which, if accepted by the reader, leads to certain implications about ways of using and thinking about communication.

What Is Communication?

The dictionary tells us that communication is: first, the act of transmitting; second, facts or information transmitted; third, written information, conversation, or talk; fourth, access between persons or places; or fifth, interchange of thoughts or opinions.(2)

The problem with all of these definitions is that they place communication in a third-party role, as if it were something that occurs between two people or things. None gives sufficient emphasis to communication as a relationship which involves persons and things, a relationship of which we are all an integral part. Trying to understand communication without these relationships is like trying to understand a human being through an autopsy -- the life is missing.

I find more useful the following definition: communication is the process in which relationships are established, maintained, modified, or terminated through the increase or reduction of meaning. This allows us to examine the process of communication in a way which includes the "relateds" and how they are always affected as objects which become subjects, affecting and being affected, as well as the changes in meaning and in messages which become filled or voided of meaning as the process, and those related to it, constantly change.

Another problem is that communication is so integral to what we mean by "human," and even to what we mean by "existence," that it is easy to use the term universally to include almost everything, and so to render the term meaningless. Arguments have been put forward that communication is education,(3). that it is the church,(4). that it is incarnation,(5). that it is Christianity.(6) While each of these connections contain helpful insights, and while in a sense communication is a constituent of everything, sometimes a more arbitrary and limited definition must be employed if the word is to be of practical value.

We need to explore both aspects of communication -- its role as a part of everything, of all of being, and also how it functions in everyday life. The challenge at this point is a little like trying to understand water. Water is essential to all living things, and we need to understand that. But we also need a theory of hydrodynamics, which tells us how water works. We need both.

Therefore, we shall examine, first, how communication is essential to being (its ontological aspects); second, how communication functions in society (its ethical aspects); and finally, how communication works among practicing Christians today (its confessional, pastoral aspects).

Communication and Being

Most theologians today have abandoned serious attempts to develop arguments for the existence of God. Instead, they take an existential starting point, agreeing with Kierkegaard that existence precedes essence, that human beings decide in the act of existing. We can no longer begin with a theory of reality or a theory of God, but can only begin where we are as human beings in the midst of all the contingencies of human experience.

What we discover is that, reduced to the most basic level possible, there exist only three things: matter, energy, and relationships. And these relationships, whether between atoms and molecules, bees and flowers, or humans and God, are created, sustained, and modified by some kind of communication. Another way of saying this is that everything relates to something, or else it does not exist, and within all relationships communication is present.

There is nothing outside our experience. Even that which we call the transcendent is understood as "that which exists in its own right beyond our categories of thought and explanation, but not necessarily that which is entirely outside our experience in all its modes."(7) One implication of this emphasis upon experience is that the deductive, the hypothetical, and the projective kinds of thinking no longer are controlling, but are replaced by the inductive, the coordinative, the analogical, and the dialogical.

It is significant that there is an increasing correspondence recently between Christian process theology and theories of communication. Process theology holds that things that endure are composed of a series or a process of distinct occasions or experience, each one connected to the next, and each one affecting the next. Nothing is independent and disconnected. All experience is related to previous experiences. Everything -- atoms, animals, human beings, nature and the universe -- is interrelated. And communication is the fundamental process by which these relationships occur. Communication is a fundamental given of existence, essential to the nature of being.

In process theology the past is the totality of that which influences the present, and the future is the totality of that which will be influenced by the present. Each present moment is but a selective incarnation of the whole past universe. Our individual choices and actions, conditioned by the past, will make a difference throughout the future. And the mechanism that connects the past, present, and future, is communication. We create our future by communicating our decisions. Since successful communication depends on the reduction of uncertainty, our communication options must be free to create new and wholly unprecedented relationships. This is what is meant by creating order out of chaos.

Community is where our human existence takes place. Community is established and maintained by the relationships created by our communications. We establish our relative individuality within this community. The more we participate in community, the more we become true individuals, and the more we become individuals, the more richly we participate in community.(8) Community, the fulfillment of effective human communication, is essential to our becoming human.

Language is necessary to human beings in community. Language shapes images and hence affects our actual sensibility and our modes of perception. Whitehead writes that "the mentality of mankind and the language of mankind created each other."(9) Walter Ong takes this a step further by holding that language and the media created by communication technologies are not simply instruments external to humans, to be used by them, but are in fact extensions and transformers of human beings.(10)

A similar view is taken by communication theoretician Harold Innis, who argues that communication technologies fashion media which bias individual perceptions of reality, and that different forms of communication technologies create different forms of social organization over knowledge.(11) Innis, Marshall McLuhan, and Edmund Carpenter all suggest that different media of communication bring about major shifts in human culture, along the following lines:

1. Media are extensions of the human sensory apparatus.

2. Media alter the internal sensory balance between eye, ear, and other organs.

3. The dominant forms of media influence aesthetic preferences and all forms of social, political, and economic structure.(12)

The freedom which is essential in both communication theory and in Christian theology is ideally suited for this cultural period in which ideological pluralism challenges the older forms of Christian dogmatics, and a radical reinterpretation of the biblical texts and the Christian tradition are necessary in order to do justice to recent scholarship. God is not absolute, omnipotent, wholly other; God is responsive. God’s love is not controlling; it is persuasive. Christ is the force of creative transformation of the world, but this transformation depends for its actuality on the decisions of individuals communicating in their freedom. The concept of the interconnectedness of all things makes possible a clearer understanding of the importance of ecological sensitivity in both the natural world and in economic theory, where there is a systematic discounting of the future in order to justify overconsumption in the present. A corresponding interconnectedness appears in communication theory, which has moved away from the mechanical model of information/transmitter/signal/receiver/audience (Shannon-Weaver, l948), to models which at first added secondary relationships such as groups, neighborhoods, and social structures (Riley in l958), then internal relationships such as self-images, abilities, media selection and so on (Gerhard Maletzke, Hamburg l963), until today the whole ecological system is recognized as part of the complex mix of communication experience. Communication models now embrace a never-ending, all-inclusive process, extending backward in time to take into account our personal and corporate history, and forward in time to take into account the future, involving other selves, families, communities, societies, and, ultimately, the whole of creation.(13)

In summary, communication in its most universal terms must be understood as a basic constituent of the process of being. But we also need to examine from a Christian perspective the role communication plays as a process which is used and misused in our experience as social and political beings.


A Christian View of Communication

As communication is central to maintaining any culture, so mass communication is essential to maintaining our highly technological culture. Mass communication is integral to mass production and mass consumption. It is the enabler of social communication. It acts as the nervous system of the social and political body, bringing together the sensations, responses, orders, sanctions, and repressions which are necessary for large accumulations of people to live together in community. But the mass media are not mere carriers of messages. They also confer power, they legitimate systems, and they provide ways of looking at the world. They supply the context in which information is learned, attitudes are formed, and decisions are made.

Christians living in our culture find themselves at odds with the assumptions and values within it. But the mass media echo and amplify these assumptions and values. Radio, television, newspapers, magazines, and the rest of the media seek out and detect those values and assumptions which appear to be acceptable in the culture. This is done without regard for any moral or religious considerations, since the media are a part of The Technique which is interested only in what works. The media then re-project these "valueless" values and assumptions back to its citizens, amplifying them in the process. Responses in the form of purchases, ratings, audience research, and so on, are then returned once again, indicating acceptance or rejection, and the media once more send back, and amplify, those values and assumptions which are found to have especially strong acceptance.

This process is one of resonance. Just as an organ pipe or a plucked string will vibrate to a particular frequency and amplify it naturally, so the mass media respond to those values and assumptions which find ready acceptance among the members of a particular culture and then amplify them. The question of whether television creates values and attitudes, or merely reflects them, is strictly a diversion, since the media, of course, do both. They reflect the values in the culture, and they legitimate, circulate, and amplify them and thus, in reality, "create" them as potent values, through the process of resonance. By choosing to repeat and amplify only some of the myriad of possible values, attitudes, and worldviews, and to not repeat or amplify others, the media become a powerful process that helps to create, maintain, and change our culture, while those who become expert at detecting and amplifying these messages feel no moral responsibility for what is resonated, but only that it is done well.

Thus a non-Christian view of life predominates in mass media, as it does in the society as a whole. As Martin Marty has pointed out, the "proper" opinion always dominates, and the Christian view is always the "improper" opinion.14. Christians have a responsibility to speak out and act in response to their convictions and in opposition to views they believe to be false. But since we live in a pluralistic society, Christians must do so neither demanding nor even expecting that their own view must prevail, but rather insisting only that it be heard and taken seriously, in faith that it will find adherents, with varying degrees of success, as it has throughout the past two millenia. This is the call to be faithful, not triumphalist.

There are several Christian doctrines, derived from the witness of Scripture, Christian tradition, and the reflection of Christians today, which bear directly on the role of communication in society. They are: creation and stewardship; sin and redemption; the newness of life; good news and proclamation; and Christian witness.

l. That God is creator of "all things visible and invisible" is a central Christian doctrine. By this is meant that all things are interrelated, that the eternal order of things is revealed in the historical order, and that we human beings are not the creators but rather are bound together as part of creation along with all other parts of creation, in mutuality. Creation includes the techniques of social communication -- the telephone, radio, television, movies, print, and so on. Without these technologies, humankind simply would be unable to live in the complex social structures we now enjoy.

Since all elements of social communication are first of all God`s creation, and not our creation, they must be thought of as being held in trust by those who use them. Stewardship is a necessary corollary of creation. The mass media are especially powerful forces in the society, and the importance of exercising stewardship in the use of them for good increases with the magnitude of their power. The biblical record and Christian tradition are clear that human beings are expected by their Creator to use the good things of the earth to accomplish God`s will: the building of a just, peaceful, and loving community. The media of social communication have enormous potential for aiding in this goal, and to use these techniques purely for self aggrandizement and profit is completely ruled out by the Christian understanding of creation and stewardship.

2. Christians understand sin as the misuse of God’s gifts. Sin is taking something that is a gift of God -- things, money, power, prestige -- and treating it as if it were God. Sin is not something that people are thrust into by events, but is the result of choice, a choice not to live up to God’s expectations for the full potential of all human beings, but rather to further the self at the expense of others. Humans constantly misuse the power over creation that God has given them. Instead of using their unique gifts to bring about harmony in all creation and its interrelatedness, they misuse power for selfish purposes.

The communication media have become a major source of power and potential in the technological era. Because men and women depend upon them for information about their world, the media have become keys to many other forms of power: economic, social, and political. And precisely because of their intense concentration of power, they inevitably become a primary locus of sin. The primary manifestation of sin in the mass media is their treating persons as objects of manipulation and turning them into consumers of media rather than into participants through media. Historically, Christianity has understood that a major role of government is the regulation of the misuse of power. A fundamental task of government is to protect the weak and defenseless against the powerful and the predator. It is only through the power of the whole state, acting on behalf of its citizens, by establishing limits to untrammeled exercise of power by the strong at the expense of the weak, that society can remain civil and community can remain intact. Thus Christians recognize the necessity for governmental regulation of those aspects of communication which allow it to become a monopoly of the few at the expense of the many.

3. Christian doctrine takes seriously the concept that God makes all things new, that novelty and creativity are essential elements of God`s world. Therefore, Christians resist any attempts to restrict communication so that persons are restricted in their choices. New ideas, new values, new understandings are essential to growth and to human potential. Any policy or regulation which would restrict opportunities for persons to discover new meanings is theologically unsupportable.

Censorship of communication is itself a sin, since it allows one person or group to dominate the information intake of all others. Christian belief insists on remaining open to newness, and rejects attempts to restrain the way newness comes into the world. It also rejects top-down, one-way flows of communication. It remains open, not only to novelty, but also to that which is not yet completely understood, since God works in mysterious ways, and can never be fully grasped, predicted, or controlled.

4. Christians testify to the fact of the good news that Christ came to set us free, that is, to set persons free from personal sin, from corporate bondage, and from all kinds of oppression -- spiritual, mental, social, physical, economic, political. The good news is for every person, regardless of location or station in life. But since the good news is news of liberation, it has a definite bias toward those who are most in need of liberation -- the poor, the weak, the defenseless. For Christians, a primary role of communication therefore is to aid in the process of liberation.

The good news requires that communication in the community takes into account all persons, and the whole person, and that it deal with them as sons and daughters of God. Communication that does otherwise, that treats persons as objects, is in fact oppressing them. Christians therefore have an advocacy role, to proclaim the good news and to work toward the fulfillment of its promise in the media of our times.

5. Finally, Christian doctrine challenges falsehood. Christianity is not "evenhanded." It has a bias toward what it perceives to be real and true. The fact that we live in a pluralistic society means that as Christians we must be a witness for the truth as we perceive it while at the same time being open to hear the truth as perceived by others.

The social media communicate not only "messages." They also establish a way of looking at everything. In this sense, they set the agenda as to what in society will be discussed and what will be ignored. Therefore, it is incumbent on Christians to challenge the media`s view of the world if they believe it to be false. Christians support the political concept of pluralism, because it is an environment in which all persons may be heard. They have a responsibility to bring to bear their own vision and to attempt to influence the worldview of the media, while at the same time rejecting any temptation politically to enforce their views upon others.


The Nature and Content of Christian Communication

Communication in daily life is far less a cosmic process than that described at the beginning of this chapter, and much more personal than the view of social communication just discussed. What we are dealing with here are the interactions between ordinary Christian people in everyday life. It involves such things as testimony, witness, evangelism, and telling the way one perceives the world, faith, and God.

In this context, communication is the sharing of something experienced, by means of commonly understood relationships. Reduced to its minimum, this kind of communication can be pictured as a process involving source-encoding-signal-decoding-destination. But in actuality, personal communication is a never-ending process which connects the "I" to other persons in continually developing feedback loops within a complicated field of relationships within culture, space, and time.

Each new generation has the task of taking the new technology of its age and rediscovering religious truths and making them meaningful in the light of cultural changes. This has always been a religious task. Each new cultural situation, shaped by the communication media of its time, reformulates the question: What does it mean to be human?

The answer to this question is being radically changed by the new media of communication. For example, we tend to think of two basic modes of communication -- face-to-face and mass media. But between these two poles lie whole new combinations of communications processes which require us to redefine what is community and, therefore, what is human. By way of illustration: if I spend 30 minutes every day "with" my TV network newscaster, and I spend no time at all with the apartment dweller who lives next door, who then is my neighbor? What does it mean to be "with"? What does "neighbor" mean? And if several people watch a TV evangelist each day and regularly discuss their experiences together, is this the church? What is "church"? What is "community"?

The following are some middle axioms for consideration. They are neither basic theological principles, nor specific proposals for action, but rather come between principle and practice -- they are middle axioms. The purpose is to state the axioms and then consider their implications for Christian living. These middle axioms are clustered around four aspects of Christian life: Christianity as communication; revelation as communication; the church as communication; and distortions of communication.

Christianity as Communication.

Christianity can be understood as a religion of communication. Johannes Heinrichs(15) and Avery Dulles,(16) among others, have proposed this. One reason that the Christian trinitarian view of God is important is that for the first time in history a dialogical -- that is, communicational -- view of the deity was put forward; God is both before us, with us, and in us. The doctrine of the incarnation represents God`s self-giving, communicative, action toward creation. The doctrine of redemption takes place through a communication process which allows us to maintain and to increase our sense of identity, an awareness of who we are, by means of interacting with and contributing to the total society. And love, the essential Christian message, can be made manifest only by "credible preaching by word and deed, on the one side, and by practical commitment (i.e., faith) on the part of the recipient."(17)

Religious communication between human beings may be "anonymously Christian," that is, may occur even when the name of Jesus Christ is not mentioned, since communication about what is ultimately real is not exclusively Christian. Nevertheless, the entire content of Christian faith is "nothing other than the development of the dialogical principle itself," and "the relationship to God is not simply communication. It is rather that which makes communication possible."(18) If we take Heinrich`s analysis as a starting point and at the same time accept the requirement that theology must at all times take into account the meanings present in common human experience, then for Christians the aim of communication is to help people interpret their existence in the light of what God has done for them as manifest in Jesus Christ.

This means that the purpose of Christian communication is not to ask, "How can we communicate the gospel in such a way that others will accept it?" This is the wrong question, the public relations question, the manipulative question, the question asked by the electronic church. Rather, our task is to put the gospel before people in such a way that it is so clear to them that they can accept it, or reject it -- but always for the right reasons. As Tillich points out, it is better that people reject the gospel for the right reasons than that they accept it for the wrong reasons.(19)

Of course, one can never know with certainty what are the exactly "right" and "wrong" reasons for someone else, any more than we can know perfectly the innermost thought of others. Therefore, in fashioning a strategy to communicate our faith we can only act in faith, never in certainty. But our objective should always be to present the Gospel in ways so clear and self-evident that the recipient will have an "Aha!" experience, so that the good news will make complete sense to his or her own inner world, so that the recipient will say, in effect, "I already knew that!"

Revelation as Communication.

How is the Christian faith authentically communicated? How does revelation, or knowing about God, take place? H. Richard Niebuhr helpfully distinguishes between two ways in which we know: our external history and our internal history.(20)

External history is that set of experiences which are available to everyone: they are events, ideas, actions, experiments that can be duplicated. External events are impersonal. In the Christian tradition, they include such things as the "historical Jesus" and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Internal history is a personal story about "our" time. Although it, too, deals with events that are verifiable by the community, it is not objective in the sense of a physics experiment or hieroglyphics written on the wall of an Egyptian tomb. The time involved is our duration. The history is our history. The experience is present in our memory. In the Christian tradition, this would include such things as our knowledge of Martin Luther King or Archbishop Tutu, or our experience with a sanctuary church or a peace march.

The task of Christian communicators is to reveal our internal history, and the internal history of our community, in such a way that it will help individuals ask what meaning life holds for them and their community and internal memory. The content of Christian communication is not a series of logical propositions, or wall charts with connected squares "explaining" God’s plan, or texts from the Bible committed to memory, or creed, or theological statements. The content of Christian communication is essentially what God has done in the lives of individuals, including me. There are many points of potential contact -- history, nature, group experiences, individual’s stories, the Bible. The content can be logical or charted or related to biblical passages or theologies -- or it may not. What is important is that the content explains the internal history of the communicator and results in the recipient gaining perspective on the nature of what is ultimate reality, that is, the way things are.

In terms of communication, it is important to note that it is not the words or content or things in themselves which are revelatory, but the relationships of meaning which are communicated. This means that authentic Christian communication is possible, not only in face-to-face relationships, but also in much more remote relationships, including those provided in and through the mass media -- provided that relationships of meaning are communicated.

On the other hand, both communication theory and common sense tell us that the difficulty of successful communication increases with the relational distance one perceives. Note that real physical distance is not what is important, but rather perceived relational distance. One can "be" very close to one’s wife over a 3000 mile telephone, or "be" very distant from the president who passes only 20 feet away in a swiftly moving motorcade. The great relational distance in communication via mass media makes Christian witness difficult, complicated, and problematic. The same holds true for any communication that is remote in space or time: the greater the perceived distance between those communicating, the more difficult the communication of meaning becomes. This is true simply because the authentic source ("my story") is less available, less present, less accessible to the perceiver.

For example, the personality appearing on TV is not "really" present; the taped program is not in "real" time; and I cannot affect a televised program I am watching in any real way. It is this combination of remoteness of mass media technology and remoteness of space and time that makes Christian communication via television difficult, though not altogether impossible.

However, the mass media are technically ideal for the task of helping prepare people to hear and the receive the gospel. Mass media can provide education about the faith and stories about people and communities acting out of their religious convictions. It can examine issues and illuminate subjects which can help individuals understand themselves better, to bring them closer to reality, and to encourage them to ask the right questions about the meaning of life and the meaning of their lives, as well as to learn what Christians say and how they act regarding their involvement with the gospel.

To be revelatory, communication must take place within community. Communication cannot be validated unless it is affirmed in and through the life of persons in community. For this reason, the disintegration and rearrangements of community in America today pose a major challenge to effective Christian communication. Robert Bellah, in Habits of the Heart,(21) has documented this fragmentation of community. He points out that in pre-Colonial times individual independence and social cooperation went hand in hand, but that this tradition grew out of two incompatible models of the relationship of the individual to society. The covenant model promised care and concern for others in exchange for divine care and concern. The contract model joined people together only to maximize their self-interest. During the past two centuries, individual fulfillment has gradually eroded the sense of community until today the individual tends to be the reference point for all values. This kind of secular freedom undermines human commitment since it treats everything as a dispensable commodity -- marriage, friends, jobs, churches, religions, God -- since everything has value only insofar as they have utility for the individual.

This analysis underscores the urgency of redefining and rebuilding community. From a Christian’s point of view, it is only through the resurgence of community that the individual can reconnect with God who is manifest in the process of participation and whose essence is relatedness, wholeness and harmony. Given the new technological era with its rapid growth of the means of mass communication, new forms of community will have be invented, identified, and constructed which take these media into account. Only as we succeed in maintaining and recreating community will we be able to meet the needs of the new humanity.

 The Church as Communication.

All of creation is potentially a mediator of divine disclosure, but the church is the community which possess the greatest potential for communication about God. According to Avery Dulles, "The Church exists in order to bring men into communion with God and thereby to open them up to communication with each other."(22) This task is variously called "mission", "evangelism," or "education".

Since the apprehension of God is a constantly recurring and renewed experience, the distinction between reaching non-Christians versus nurturing Christians is always inexact and elusive. In fact, we must reject the whole idea that the church deals with the sacred while the secular elements of culture deal only with the nonsacred. Church and culture are bound together. "The substance of culture is religion, and the form of religion is culture."(23).

On the other hand, wherever there is an apprehension of and participation in God`s revelation, there exists the church. This means the church community and its communication exist in places not normally considered by society to be the church. And that which calls itself the church often is not fulfilling the role of church, namely, to be as pure a channel of communication about God as possible.

This situation leads the church into a paradox: how can it be the most effective and "pure" channel of communication without falling into the corruption which "effectiveness" can bring, and which sin-of-pride-in-purity engenders. All the church can do is attempt to be as faithful as possible in its faltering communication attempts, and then place itself under the same judgment as that which it uses to judge the rest of society.

Even though the church today is considerably less than perfect, it nonetheless often raises the right questions; it takes sides, and it represents a significant challenge to existing power structures. Through it, potent biblical and other religious symbols and images manage to become manifest. For example, Selma, sanctuary, and the churches in South Africa, South America, and the Philippines all have taken on powerful meaning as symbols of liberation in recent years. Above all, the church remains one of the only places in society where people still meet on a regular basis in face-to-face relationships.

But regardless of the degree of faithfulness of the church, communication about God goes on. It occurs wherever and whenever people tell what God has done in their lives -- even when the word God is not mentioned. Jurgen Habermas frequently uses the term "unconstrained communication" to refer to that communication which is the most comprehensive possible, transcending all other interests, values, and interpretations.(24) This unconstrained communication makes possible, and in fact requires, ideological pluralism and at the same time resists attempts at ideological conformity. But it is not anti religious. Johannes Heinrichs points out that, even when the name of Jesus Christ is never mentioned, fundamental truth may be in the process of the communication.(25) The same idea is called by Paul Tillich the "latent church,"(26) by Schillebeeckx the "anonymously Christian Church,"(27) and by Gregory Baum the "Church beyond the Church."(28) Whatever the term, it is important for the Christian to identify and celebrate these moments of religious communication which occur outside the church, and within the secular culture.

Distortions of Communication

If it is true that human communication has the potential for being an instrument for both good and bad, of both reconciliation and exploitation, it becomes even more true in the case of these extensions of human communication in the mass media.

The mass media are not neutral tools, any more than the automobile and the washing machine are neutral. Every medium is more than just a technique of transmission. It is a synthesis of technology combined with economic, social, and political organization. Every medium therefore affects the communication process in a unique way, entirely aside from the way a particular communicator "uses" it. In fact, it is entirely accurate to say that the user is used by the medium at the same moment that the user uses the medium.

Everything that Christian doctrine teaches about original sin and the nature of humankind is eminently applicable to communication, and especially to the more potent forms of mass media. In this respect the use of mass media is no different from the use of any other form of power, and the tendency toward will-to-power and the other lessons of moral man operating in immoral society were never more apt.(29)

A number of theologians have described ways in which Christian communication can be distorted.(30). Five situations are particularly destructive to effective communication within the Christian community:

1. When loyalty to the church is substituted for loyalty to God. This happens when the church is believed because the source (church) is substituted for the message (God). The greatest distortions of this kind come when the church tries to communicate that it is the invulnerable possessor of truth.

2. When the Bible is substituted for God as an object of ultimate loyalty and faith, that is, when the authority of the Bible is substituted for the authority of God.

3. When Christology is substituted for theology, that is, love of Christ for the love of God.

4. When the church cuts itself off from its own tradition, or when that tradition is treated as something objective and final from the past, rather than as living memory in which the community of faith actively takes part and to which they add their own life-stories.

5. When Scripture is allegorized so that it caters to the desires of people for simple solutions at the expense of faithfulness to reality, or when scripture is taken so literally that attempts at new scriptural understanding are considered a betrayal of the original communication.

Tillich specifies four "demonries" which have great potential for distorting Christian communicating. Each demonry is a particularly powerful value in our culture which, when taken to its extreme, tends to destroy the human values in communication. They are: rationalization, which tends toward sterile intellectualization and robs life of its character and vitality; estheticism, which cuts off true communication by maintaining an esthetic distance in order to dominate, rather than to support, others; capitalism, which tends to depersonalize people by providing for their hedonistic needs in order to support production and consumption regardless of its human utility; and nationalism, which tends to make national things sacred and in doing so to create idols out of them.(31)

In concluding this theological framework for considering communication, it is important to remind ourselves that there is no way entirely to eliminate all the hindrances to successful Christian communication. There always will be distortion in one form or another. The important thing is that communicators recognize the potential dangers and distortions, and that they not succumb to the temptation to misuse communication in the guise of communicating "more effectively."


    1. Avery Dulles, "The Church and the Media," Catholic Mind, 69/1256 (October 1971): 6-16.

    2. Websters New International Dictionary (Springfield: Merriam, 1963), p. 460.

    3. Philip H. Phenix, Intelligible Religion (New York: Harper, 1954).

    4. Dulles, "The Church and the Media."

    5. Knud Jorgensen, "God's Incarnation: the Centre of Communication," Media Development 27 (1981): 27-30.

    6. Johannes Heinrichs, "Theory of Practical Communication: A Christian Approach," Media Development 27 (1981): 3-9.

    7. Dorothy M. Emmet, The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking (London: Macmillan, 1953), p. 66.

    8. John Cobb and David Griffin, Process Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), p. 82.

    9. Alfred N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Macmillan, 1938), p. 57.

    10. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Methuen, 1982).

    11. Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964).

    12. Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan, Explorations in Communication (Bos- ton: Beacon, 1960).

    13. Melvin de Fleur, Theories of Mass Communication (New York: David McKay, 1975).

    14. Martin Marty, The Improper Opinion: Mass Media and the Christian Faith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967).

    15. Heinrichs, "Theory of Practical Communication,"

    16. Dulles, "The Church and the Media."

    17. Heinrichs, "Theory of Practical Communication," p. 7.

    18. Ibid.

    19. Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press), chap. 15.

    20. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan, 1952), cf. especially pp. 43-90.

    21. Robert N. Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

    22. Dulles, "The Church and the Media," p. 6.

    23. Paul Tillich, The Interpretation of History (New York: Scribner, 1936), p. 236.

    24. See Heinfichs, "Theory of Practical Communication," p. 7.

    25. Ibid., p. 8.

    26. Tillich, Interpretation of History, p. 48.

    27. E. Schillebeeckx, "The Church and Mankind," Concilium I (Glen Rock, N.J.: Paulist, 1965), p. 88.

    28. Gregory Baum, "Toward a New Catholic Theism," The Ecumenicist 8 (May-June 1970), p. 54.

    29. Cf. Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (New York: Harper, 1935), and The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. I (New York: Scribner, 1941).

    30. Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 200 ff.; H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan, 1952), pp. 90 ff., and The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry (New York: Harper, 1956), pp. 42-75: Hendrik Kraemer, The Communication of the Christian Faith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956); Phenix, Intelligible Religion; Heinrichs, "Theory of Practical Communication," p. 8; and Dulles, "The Church and the Media."

    31. Tillich, The Protestant Era, pp. 115-122.