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The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture…

March 16, 2009

0310262747In The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, Shane Hipps advances a thesis first put forth by Marshall McLuhan–media is the message.  Hipps builds a convincing case for the way media functions as a cultural architect conditioning both the way we perceive reality/faith and the way we practice.  The book offers a convincing proof of this assertion through a broad survey of various historical developments in media–from writing systems (both phonetic and symbolic) to the proliferation of print (printing press) to the current media revolution driven by the internet.

Hipps is not calling the church to monastic escapism from engagement with the media forms of the day.  He is calling us to critically examine how these media applications will shape us in ways that either strengthen or dillute our theology of the church–primarily understood through the lens of being a missional contrast community that points to the Good News of the kingdom of God.   He says, “the power of media forms has created both challenges and opportunities in the ways the people of God are formed.” (23)

Throughout the book I was impressed by Hipps ability to hold with an open hand the possibilities offered by various media applications, while at the same time perceiving the hidden ways in which our using these forms might shape us in ways that distort the essence of what it means to be missional communities.  Hipps looks underneath the packaging of the message to examine how the message is impacted by the media we use to enact the gospel as worshipping witnessing communities.

In chapters six and seven Hipps examines how exlectronic media has shaped our views of the relationship of individual to community.  He also explores how media often perpetuates a cultural bias toward the autonomous individual.  Individuals can in essence define their own reality, act as their own locus of authority and discovery.  They are no longer dependend on communal institutions to create meaning.  They are free to question.  There is a tension between this develop which has produced the private disembodied world of blogging/cyber-communities and embodied face-to-face communities.  One of the byproducts of this media-driven change has been the reality which Hipps describes as being a tribe of individuals.  While the media form seems to create the perception that we are more connected with people and the world, we can at the same time be more isolated.

I am intrigued by the possibility of storytelling as a catalyst for community.  Hospitality (gathering around food) and storytelling have been two practices that have become increasingly a part of our communal rhythm at SMC in the last 6-8 years.  Gathering around food and telling stories help us continue to live into the vision of SMC being a community that makes room and creates space for encountering others who don’t look exactly like me, think like me, or share the same background as I do.  We are beginning to have conversations about what it might mean to work at economic reconciliation.  The idea that our primary identity should not be shaped by our social-economic location and our relationship with money, but from an engagement with the Risen Christ who calls us into journey of learning and being formed into his image (whether we are rich, middle-class, or poor).

Community is the soil out of which the flower of discipleship grows.  (121)

“Christianity–in a centralized, administrative, bureaucratic form–is certainly irrelevant.”  Marshall McLuhan (125)

In chapter seven Hipps analyzes how media has impacted the structure and function of leadership in the church.  One of the observations that Hipps makes is this:  “Authority is often derived from information control.  In other words, as access to information increases, centralized authority decreases.  Whenever people have exclusive access to information, they are granted a certain degree of authority, which is why doctors, lawyers, and mechanics receive such deference….”

“…once the New Testament writings were officially compiled by A.D. 367 and deemed sacred, an elite scribal or priestly class…had tremendous authority, because they had exclusive access to a limited number of manuscripts containing sacred information.  They alone possessed the skills for decoding these texts.”  (128)

“This centralized, hierarchical authority emerged gradually after the compilation of the New Testament and continued until the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s…”

“This equal access to information leads to a diffusion of power and authority.  We begin to believe there is no center (authority) or margin (follower) in the electronic world–everyone is a leader and everyone is a follower.  As in oral cultures, in the electronic age authority tends to be communal and shared.” (130)

“This shift toward information diffusion and the subsequent diffusion of power are providing us with a helpful corrective to the long history of centralized, top-down authority in the church.  Electronic media allow us to retrieve the more participatory and egalitarian forms of leadership where authority is dynamic and based on relationships rather than on fixed job descriptions.”

I find all of this insightful analysis to how media is impacting authority dynamics in the church.  Hipps then goes on from this entry point to explore how this has led sometimes to an imbalance as we have embraced more right-brained media and lost some of our left-brained skills for interacting with Text.  I would not disagree with the assertion that we need those (resident theologians) who help God’s people engage with the meaning carried by Scriptural texts (which can “easily be obscured by 2,000 years of history, language barriers, and enormous cultural differences”).  We need leaders who are able “to function in ways similar to ancient scribes–those who have a deep knowledge of our sacred texts and traditions.”

I would make one observation and perhaps an addition to this way of framing leadership in electronic culture.  Hipps develops his description of the kind of role leadership might have in the emerging church around text-centered view of Christ.  I would contend that to be Christo-centric does not just center us in the scriptural text, it calls us to be a community centered in the divine trinitarian community.  Hipps hints at this framework (citing Miroslav Volf, in his book After Our Likeness:  The Church as the Image of the Trinity, who describes a theology of the church that is reflective of and rooted deeply in the communitarian fellowship of the Trinity), however, I primarily centers this kind of theology around an engagement with Scripture.  I would contend that a centered-set framedwork for the church will require the centering authority to go beyond engagement with text (which is again a linear…rationalistic media), to include some understanding of the Eucharistic table as a centering practice in the missional community.  Eucharist centers us in the reality of the crucified Lamb whom we worship as the Risen Christ.  Eucharist offers a non-linear communal way of enacting the mystery of our faith.  It is inherently participatory.

drivebyvenueI think Hipps teases this out a bit in chapter eight as he offers a critique for some worship experiences in the emerging church which offer concurrent options for the self-directed worshipper to choose from.  Hipps names these patters of worship as consumeristic in that the emphasis while achieving the goals of being nonlinear, holistic, multisensory, and participatory, also reinforce the cultural value of personal preference (individualism).  He says, “the subtle message of using concurrent elements is, ‘You are an individual, a consumer.  Do whatever you want in order to encounter your God.'” (158)

Hipps articulates a helpful framework for understanding how media could be used in helpful ways that don’t reinforce the consumeristic individualism of our culture.  I close with this quote:

A worship service is as much about the gathered community as it is about God.  Communion, baptism, confession, and preaching are all acts that depend on the community.  By inviting us beyond ourselves into corporate practices, we facilitate the body of Christ and challenge the notion that a relationship with God is first and foremost a private affair.  (159)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2009 11:54 am

    Very interesting. I’m a great fan of McLuhan, and when he says:

    Hipps names these patters of worship as consumeristic in that the emphasis while achieving the goals of being nonlinear, holistic, multisensory, and participatory, also reinforce the cultural value of personal preference (individualism). He says, “the subtle message of using concurrent elements is, ‘You are an individual, a consumer. Do whatever you want in order to encounter your God.’” (158)

    I think he puts his finger on what I thought about at one such “emerging” service.

    I was hoping that something about this might emerge from our dialogue, but it hasn’t yet.

  2. just an apprentice permalink
    March 16, 2009 2:14 pm

    It would be good to connect through Facebook. Do you have a Facebook page?

    Sounds like an interesting conversation taking place between Orthodoxy and emerging missional churches in South Africa. Keep me posted.


  3. March 25, 2009 8:31 am

    I have a Facebook account, but use it rarely, and tend to miss things there, My Twitter updates appear there, but that’s about all. And the new interface makes it even harder to find anything but Twitter updates.

    Blogging’s better, or e-mail, or mailing lists. Try the Christianity and Society forum for this kind of stuff.

  4. Steve permalink
    March 30, 2009 8:39 am


    I think you’re moving somewhere important with the Eucharistic understanding of how community might be held together in post-Christendom and diffused authorities faith contexts. But then does it become significant again like in the rigid ages of PA Mennonite life to decide who can take the eucharist or not and how is that decided?

    The early church practice seemed to be cautious about communion, but to me it seems that Jesus isn’t particularly careful about who he shares meals with, though it doesn’t seem like he shared meals with the political or religious elite.

    You may be moving us toward a more Catholic or eastern understanding that could allow us to temper our rigidity with mystery.

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