It's hard to imagine that only 20 years ago nobody had heard of the Internet, and only 10 years ago Facebook and Twitter had yet to be invented. Today, there are 1.15 billion Facebook users, 400 million tweets per day, and adults spend an average of 8.5 hours per day in front of a screen. Now we're all rampant consumers—and producers—of digital media.
Christians are divided on what to make of this recent flood of digital technology. Generally speaking, evangelicals are either "determinists" or "instrumentalists" when discussing media technology. On the determinist side are intellectuals like Jacques Ellul, Neil Postman, and Marshall McLuhan who warn that technology comes with its own set of values that shape (and erode) culture almost apart from human agency. People who decry the corrupting "force" of Instagram or iTunes would also be in this camp.
On the other side are instrumentalists, who view media like Facebook or Twitter as either neutral tools or unfettered allies in the work of the gospel. They ask, like Leonard Sweet, not "Would Jesus Tweet?" but "What would Jesus Tweet?" There are certainly wise moderate voices in between these two extremes (John Dyer's fine book From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology comes to mind). But arguably most evangelicals fall into a dazed middle ground, posting status updates, "pinning" pictures, and hashtagging away with little thought for how the Christian story might inform their media usage.
But Andrew Byers, a chaplain and PhD student at the University of Durham, is trying to reorient the conversation. "If God creates and uses media," he writes, "then there is a theological logic instructive for how we produce and use media technology today." This, the central claim of Byers's new book TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age (Wipf & Stock), is what makes the book such a valuable contribution to the burgeoning conversation about Christian faith and digital media.
Byers argues that God doesn't just give a thumbs up or down to our media practices, but that he himself "creates and uses media." So does God blog, tweet, and appear on cable television? Not exactly. Byers's definition of media is far broader than TVs, iPads, or online newspapers; media is simply "a means of communication or revelation." Words or gestures, buildings or symbols, prophets or idols—all could be forms of media. With this more expansive definition in mind, Byers reexamines the biblical story, from the "media event" of creation to its apocalyptic finale. His purpose is both to understand how God himself employs media and to craft a theological framework for our media usage and production today.
Priority on Words
The Bible puts God's vast media repertoire on display. Dreams, visions, symbols, plagues, deliverances—all are chosen mediums for God's revelation. Sparkling stars, mighty cedars, and whispering breezes speak of his power and divine nature (Ps. 19:1, 104:16; 1 Kings 19:11-18; Rom. 1:20). Golden cherubim, purple yarn, fine metals, and sweet-smelling cinnamon that adorned the Tabernacle communicate his holiness and love for beauty (Ex. 28:2, 40). To break the silence, apparently God can even use the weird and wacky. A smoking fire pot, a talking donkey, a burning bush, Aaron's budding staff, and even a bronze statue of a serpent are chosen forms of divine media.