Presence

You and I need media to communicate with one another. Speech is one medium to bring thought into oral expression. Writing is another medium to bring thought into the world through inscription of various kinds. When electricity was pressed into communicative service long ago, new media were added to the human scene: telegraphy, radio, telephones, television, cell phones, and the Internet.

All mediation creates a new environment, which changes the communication and changes the people communicating. Those who first used telephones felt it odd that a voice could be so radically separated from a human being who was speaking somewhere in the general vicinity.

Electronic mediation allows for informational extensions beyond that of the immediate. I have FaceTime with a friend in Czech Republic, because we cannot meet at the local pub for now. However, all these electronic mediations separate as well as unite. FaceTime shows me a face and gives me a voice, but I cannot shake hands, put a hand on a shoulder, or pick up the kinetic subtleties I would experience if I were in a room with my friend. Moreover, I depend on the camera to give me the angle of vision. When face to face, I can move around the room, literally lean into the conversation, and communicate with my full body in ways not available through face time. Mediation gives, and mediation takes away.

Now let us open our Bibles. The Apostle John ended two of his three letters with a desire we may read over too quickly.

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete (2 John 12).

I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face (3 John 13-14).

John realizes the limitations of quill and parchment—that ancient kind of mediation that we understand as pen and the paper—and now, more and more, as keyboard and the screen. His realization was based on his experience of the Incarnation itself, as he tells us.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete (1 John 1:1-4).

The Apostle, Paul, said much the same in two places.

I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith (Romans 1:11-12).

Paul was about to write the book of Romans, the most thorough account of Christian theology in the entirety of holy Scripture. Yet even that was not the same as seeing the recipients of his letter. Paul yearned for the “mutual encouragement” that comes from face-to-face fellowship. He writes the same to his young charge, Pastor Timothy:  “Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy” (2 Timothy 1:4).

Examples like this could be multiplied. They reveal that personal presence cannot be replaced by any medium of communication. Being with someone is not identical to any other form of communication. I am not devaluing letters, emails, texts, or even tweets. However, we gain wisdom when we understand the nature of the medium we are using—its weaknesses and its strengths. But we should not be so deceived as to think that the on-line classroom is exchangeable for the in-person classroom or the on-line church service is exchangeable for the in-person church service. Presence matters because matter matters. It matters to God, and it should matter for us. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Thus, we should practice the presence of God and practice the presence of other people.

For more on these ideas, see Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997).

Texts, Graphics, and Culture: On the Decline of Reading and Civilization

Inscripturation is part of being human, or at least it has been for a long time. We inscribe words on bark, papyri, codices, human skin (tattoos), books, magazines, bracelets, and automobiles. These are the media for our messages. We use pens, markers, pencils, printing presses, and spray paint to do our writing. These are the tools by which to inscripturate. We employ graphics for our inscriptions done by various tools on various media. You are reading this online and in a font. The headline of this essay is larger and bolder than the text. A few words have already been placed in italics.

Patterns of inscripturation tell us much about ourselves. Consider books. Most thoughtful books from thirty or more years ago had few subtitles, lacked boldface, and relied on the words themselves (as semantic abstractions) for the meaning—rather than relying on the variation of typeface, odd spacing, or special effects. The text in a book does not move around on the page and cannot be altered apart from annotations. It is ruthlessly linear and requires decoding (reading). We might find endnotes or footnotes, none of which stand out on the page.

Consider books today. Some remain similar to books published thirty years ago, with their unadorned text and high volume of information per page. But many books ape the sensibilities of a computer screen when online. I am now reading an insightful piece of Christian social criticism, which considers how renewal might take place in our postmodern world. I have other books by this thinker. However, the book does not trust its words to do the work of knowledge. Each page has several different graphical effects to make its points: different colored text, boldfacing, and indented text. It is annoying and interrupts the flow of thought rather than ensuring it.

Why is the book thus marred? The assumption is that readers are conditioned by the activity on screens and will be reluctant to submit to the discipline of pure textuality. They need headlines, call-outs, textual variations, and other brain candy in order to remain remotely conscious through the ardor of deciphering the meaning of the inscriptions.

The book I am reading does not plug in. There is no internet connection. It is not an e-book. It is the equivalent of an e-book—or a paper book in e-book drag.

This kind of graphic clutter has been accruing for years. A Hal Lindsey book from about thirty-five years ago that had almost as many words in subtitles as words in the main text. (His failed prophesies are best forgotten, but Christ will come again.) The special effects cater to and encourage intellectual impatience and the skimming mentality. Here we face a vexing challenge.

All writing must be aimed at an audience. If the audience is addled by screen addiction, it will be difficult for readers to adjust to unmoving, linear, and demanding textuality. Yet we ought want these souls to learn from good books—books like the graphically cluttered book I am now reading and which prompted this essay. At the same time, we ought to challenge readers to bear down, turn off the phones, turn off the music, and let themselves be immersed in reading worthwhile words for long periods of time.

I know that none of my books will be pocked by multiple typefaces, odd spacing, and different colors. I will stick with what I know best for what I do. I will write words crafted for meaning. I am not against apt graphic illustrations, subtitles, italics once in a while, and so on. But when text hypertrophies into a riot of contending inscripturations, we lose too much of what matters most in writing. In so doing, we betray our literary patrimony (and perhaps without evening knowing it) and become high- functioning, digitally-savvy, well-informed illiterates.

 

 

 

How Christians Can Take Back Their Minds

Americans are being lied to every day. Popular culture tells us that deep thinking and reflective living is pointless. Instead, we must move faster. We need faster cars, faster food, and faster computers—now. We need more things, more toys, more power, and more perks. We need more hair (if baldness threatens), but we don’t need more knowledge or more wisdom. We need less wrinkles (hence Botox parties) and less pounds, but not less vices (as long as we can get away with them). Our media are dominated by celebrities who are not wise, learned or godly people. They are usually over-paid and ego-driven athletes or movie stars. Next to nothing in popular culture encourages us to slow down and cultivate a contemplative life before the God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Instead we are tempted to believe that God has nothing to do with our most valued activities and dreams. We can do fine without him. Or, we may redefine the God of the Bible and godly religion to fit our designer preferences. Either way, worldliness reigns, world applauds, and the mind is deadened.

The myriad messages of popular culture have been sticking to and deforming our souls. American men and women are not known for their reasoned convictions about those things that matter most. Polls show that Americans are very “religious” concerning belief in God and church involvement. Yet they watch an average of four hours of typically mindless and violent television per day, are terribly ignorant of basic biblical truths, seldom read thoughtful books, and are theologically confused on basic doctrines. Some of the most popular Christian teachers and writers today often lapse into heresy or aberrant doctrine. (Hence the need for The Christian Research Journal’s many articles correcting these errors). Few Christians share their faith regularly or wisely. If they do, they are often stumped when faced with skeptical questions and challenges, since their evangelism is not grounded in solid apologetic arguments (see 1 Peter 3:15-17; Jude 3). Pollster George Gallup found that many of the same people who say, “Yes, Jesus is the only way,” also affirm that “Yes, there are many paths to God.” But this is logically impossible. Jesus cannot be one of many ways—and the only way! Gallup comments, “It’s not that Americans don’t believe anything; they believe everything.” Here Proverbs give a word to the wise: “A simple man believes anything, but a prudent man gives thought to his steps” (Proverbs 14:15).

So-called “spirituality” is on the rise, but spiritual discernment—even among Christians—is languishing. Many feel free to combine ideas and practices from various religions with little or no concern for logical consistency or allegiance to any received religious tradition, let alone biblical authority. A kind of smorgasbord mentality prevails. One might, for example, consume servings of happy Christian thoughts (“God loves you”), self-effort (“God helps those who help themselves”), and some yoga for physical wellbeing and inner peace—and feel no pain of inconsistency. This is despite the fact that God’s love is not an amorphous energy that permits everything (including Hindu practices such as yoga), ratifies works-righteousness, and condemns nothing. Quite the contrary, God’s love is manifested concretely through the gracious work of Christ who alone liberates us from counterfeit spirituality and the futility of self-salvation. Yet these radical and world-changing truths are easily lost in fogs and bogs of our worldly environment.

The Media Fast: Breaking Free and Reaching Up

The Lord Jesus Christ does not want us to believe everything—only the truth (John 14:6). He commands us to love our God with all of our minds (Matthew 22:37), to know the truth that sets us free by following him (John 8:31-32) and to make that truth known to others (Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 4:15). The Apostle Paul commands us to “test all things. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thessalions 5:21). Rather than letting culture conform us to its mold, we should be transformed through the renewing of our minds so that we know and accomplish God’s will in all of life (Romans 12:2). Similarly, the Apostle Peter wrote his readers to stimulate them to “wholesome thinking” (2 Peter 3:1) and to admonish them to prepare their minds for godly action (1 Peter 1:13). In his Pensées, Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal issued a strong indictment: “Man is obviously made for thinking. Therein lies all his dignity and his merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought.” Yet instead of pondering God and the soul, the world inclines us to think more about diversions, such as “dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verse, fighting, and becoming king, without thinking what it means to be a king or what it means to be a man.”

How do Christians break free from the deceptive temptations of popular culture and reach up to receive with open hands all that God has for us? We need first to disengage from worldly distractions and then engage our God-given minds in constructive and rewarding ways. As the Psalmist cries to God, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

“My mind cleared. I had fewer lustful thoughts. I started to think more deeply about life. I prayed more. I spent more time with my family and friends. I want to be this way more often!” Hundreds of students at Denver Seminary offer testimonies like this after completing a required “media fast” for my class on ethics and contemporary culture. For at least one week they abstain from at least one popular medium (usually television) and meditate on various Scriptures, such as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-18). Reading their reports is a rewarding task for me, because they reveal that God is at work renewing my student’s minds and liberating them from subtle snares.

Why should anyone fast from media when they are everywhere and so easy to use? Should we become cultural hermits, who spurn all of popular culture? No. This spiritual discipline follows from the spirit of Jesus’ teachings on fasting from food. For a time, we deny ourselves something that is routinely part of our lives in order to focus more intently on God and his Kingdom (Matthew 6:16-18, 33; see also 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 for another application of fasting). In our media-saturated, self-focused, and dumbed-down culture, a media fast is often a tonic for the beleaguered and benumbed mind. Some of my students initially suffer from withdrawal symptoms. The silence roars in and the mind races after they unplug. They automatically reach for the remote control and have to stop themselves. Something must fill the “empty” time. But they soon find there is much to do that refreshes the soul and renews the mind. These principles apply to any Christ-follower, not just seminary students who are doing an “assignment.”

First, the media fast allows for—but doesn’t automatically produce—more reflection, prayer, and a deeper life before God. Instead of being yanked along at a breakneck pace by television, movies, radio, or video games, we can slow down, “be still,” and remember God in all our ways (Psalm 46:10). We can listen to the voice of conscience, repent of our sins, and seek a more godly and peaceful life (Matthew 7:7). Just as King Hezekiah had the temple purified by priests and Levites after many years of defilement and abuse (2 Chronicles 29), so should we purify ourselves from the habitual sins so readily encouraged by popular culture, since our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

Second, we discover time to pursue intellectually challenging activities, especially reading. Christian author Larry Woiwode notes that television is a “Cyclops that eats books.” Many Christians don’t read a single thoughtful book in a year because they are too occupied with a myriad of mind-numbing media. If they do read, the are often short, simplistic, or sensational and of dubious theological and intellectual substance. (Consider most Christian bestsellers.) But a deeply meaningful life in Christ cannot be experienced without consistent exposure to and enjoyment of great thinkers. The Bible ranks first in great thoughts since God is its ultimate Author, and because it is the truest and wisest book ever written (Psalm 119). Because it is God’s own word, it cuts to the quick and teaches us the truth we need to know in order to love God and others aright (2 Timothy 3:15-17; Hebrews 4:12).

We should also seek out and savor thoughtful books and articles about the Bible, theology, apologetics, history, art, ethics, literature, and so on. Great books can be good friends, and for a lifetime. The writings of C.S. Lewis are a treasury on many topics, from apologetics to ethics, to science fiction. He was a delightful and arresting writer, a dedicated Christian, and a brilliant thinker whose works stand the test of time. I have read his apologetic classics—Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, and The Abolition of Man—many times and with great profit. You can also stay abreast of contemporary culture from a Christian perspective by receiving Charles Colson’s daily “breakpoint commentary” (www.breakpoint.org) and by listening to Ravi Zacharias’s radio program, “Let My People Think”—as well as by reading their thought- provoking books.

Getting Down to Business

Compare the time you spend on entertainment with the time you spend reading and reflecting on Holy Scripture and profound books. Then compare it with the time you spend in prayer and biblical meditation. Prayerfully seek God for the necessary adjustments in thought, word, and deed. Engage in a media fast for yourself. Instead of languishing in front of the TV with your family and friends (or by yourself), read a meaty book together and talk about it. Invite your family and friends to resist the hollow enchantments of worldly culture and to instead glorify a holy God in their thinking, speaking, and doing (Colossians 3:17). But be sure to begin the process with yourself as you resist worldliness and pursue godliness (Matthew 7:1-5).