Under the general title “God and Man in the Twentieth Century,” Educational Communication Association (P. O. Box 114, Indianapolis, Ind. 46204) next month will release a filmed series of thirteen half-hour panel discussions for public-service television presentation and for use by church and college discussion groups. Participants in the panel on “The Crisis in Communication” are Mr. Louis Casseis, religion editor of United Press International, an Episcopal layman and author of numerous books; Dr. George L. Bird, professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at Syracuse University, and for almost thirty years head of the Graduate Division; and Dr. David Mason, associate director of Laubach Literacy, Inc., and a Baptist minister who holds a master’s degree in journalism. Moderator is Dr. Carl F. H. Henry, editor ofCHRISTIANITY TODAY.
What worries three experts:
Bird: Man isn’t communicating with God. Cassels: People are buried by too many words.
Mason: Half the world is outside the audience.
Under the general title “God and Man in the Twentieth Century,” Educational Communication Association (P. O. Box 114, Indianapolis, Ind. 46204) next month will release a filmed series of thirteen half-hour panel discussions for public-service television presentation and for use by church and college discussion groups. Participants in the panel on “The Crisis in Communication” are Mr. Louis Cassels, religion editor of United Press International, an Episcopal layman and author of numerous books; Dr. George L. Bird, professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at Syracuse University, and for almost thirty years head of the Graduate Division; and Dr. David Mason, associate director of Laubach Literacy, Inc., and a Baptist minister who holds a master’s degree in journalism. Moderator is Dr. Carl F. H. Henry, editor ofCHRISTIANITY TODAY.
Dr. Henry: We live in the third great crisis, the third great revolution in human history. First, the rise of an agricultural society, then of an industrial society, and now the age of automation and communication—the age of atomic science and electronics, the age of space science, of supersonic airplanes, of Telstar and of moonshots. On our own planet, press, radio, and television keep us abreast of events around the world while often we remain ignorant of our immediate neighbors’ needs. Gentlemen, what reason is there for speaking of a crisis in communication?
Mr. Cassels: I think people are deluged with so many communications from so many voices clamoring for their attention that they are rapidly losing the ability to hear or respond to any of them.
Dr. Bird: I would take a slightly different point of view, Mr. Cassels. I would say that the trouble started much farther back when men ceased to communicate directly and frequently and constantly with God.
Dr. Mason: Well, I guess I have a third point of view, and that’s the problem of balance. When we talk about Telstar and all this deluge of information, we are talking about the literate world. But half the adults of the world are illiterate and can’t read the newspapers and can’t afford television. And we are getting to a point where we’ll soon know more about the surface of the moon than we do about these people and their problems, and they about us.
Dr. Henry: Let’s probe Mr. Cassels’ thesis first. He works at the heart of a worldwide wire service—really one of the most intricate communications networks in the world. And it is interesting to hear him say that human hearts are being hardened by the mass communication of words and by advertising and propaganda techniques.
Mr. Cassels: Well, if you could see as I do the sheer volume of information that is being communicated, or in the technical sense being transmitted for communication, each day—for example, United Press International must move close to a million words a day of news from one part of the world to another! You can imagine what a tiny fraction of this amount one person can read or absorb. A great selectivity must go on by editors of newspapers and by producers of television news programs. But even with all their selectivity, consider the amount of information that is hurled at the ultimate consumer by newspapers, by television, by radio, by magazines, by books. I read the other day that over 1,500 religious books alone are published each year! Well, the most assiduous reader, the most devout clergyman, probably reads five, ten, at the most. But here are all these others.
Dr. Henry: Are you saying that the sheer quantity of words in a sense dilutes the emotional capacity of the masses to respond?
Mr. Cassels: I think that people (I sense this, and some of the philanthropic agencies tell me their experience shows it) have had their emotions wrung so many times by so many stories, so many disasters, so many tragedies, so many heartbreaks—they have been told about so many problems, so many things that seem to threaten the future of mankind—that they are beginning in self-defense to pull into their shell, shrug, and say, “I can’t do anything about it” or “I’m going to tune this thing out.”
Dr. Mason: You might say they have developed calluses on their souls. It takes something awfully dramatic to reach them.
Dr. Bird: That is only part of the story. You are getting at an effect; you’re not getting to the cause behind this. The cause is that man is not communicating with his God as he used to do. I think not only that this applies to pastors and others in the clergy but that the clergy are not getting their message through to the people in their churches—because they are not getting it direct from God and because the church members themselves don’t get it. They are not communicating with each other. They don’t love their fellow men as they are commanded to do, and this means they are not communicating the message of God to others.
Dr. Henry: You are suggesting, then, that there is more to the crisis than quantity—that it is qualitative, as well?
Dr. Bird: Yes. You would scarcely believe it, but nowadays it is possible for a person such as myself to spend a quarter of a century on a college campus and never hear the real message of Jesus Christ. This happened to me at Syracuse University.
Dr. Henry: When did you first hear of Christ?
Dr. Bird: I first heard of the reason for believing in the deity of Christ just two years ago. I attended a meeting of the Inter-Varsity group on the Syracuse University campus at which a local minister, Donald A. Miller, was speaking. He was so convincing that before he got two-thirds of the way through I had to say to myself, “George, if you are going to consider yourself an honest man from now on, you’ve simply got to believe it.” So I believed it.
Dr. Henry: This is a highly interesting phenomenon, that a man who has spent a lifetime in communication and journalism should so late in life for the first time encounter the claim of Christ in a supposedly Christian society.
Mr. Cassels: I might say it also contradicts Dr. Bird’s own thesis. I mean, he seems to be saying that human beings are no longer responsive. Obviously even university professors are responsive when they hear the good news presented by someone who believes it.
Dr. Bird: Yes, I was in the right place at the right time. This minister had the right words and he was the right person.
Dr. Henry: Isn’t Dr. Bird suggesting that there is a culture crisis, a crisis of culture, that is also involved here? Is it a fact that mass communications today are shaping a new materialistic culture—that in a sense the mass media (like the politicians, let’s say) are conveying the thesis that it is impossible to have a good or a great society unless we have some things that the great civilizations of the past managed to get on without, particularly materialistic things?
Dr. Bird: Well, this is obvious. And it comes not only through the news dispatches that Mr. Cassels handles so ably but in large part, I think, through advertising. Advertisers create wants, desires, which we eventually come to believe are necessities. And so we want a second car, and a bigger house, and a bigger lot. We seek social status. We seek the approval of our neighbors, our associates, our friends. This is good to a point; but when we put this above the approval of God himself, it is not good.
Mr. Cassels: No, of course it is not. I may sound like a strange representative of the mass media, but I think we all carry our load of guilt complexes and one that bothers me in particular is the feeling that we have contributed to the corruption of the innocent in our society. And by this I don’t really mean sex and violence on television leading children astray. I don’t even mean pornography in magazines or in paperback books. These problems quite aside, I think that the very abundance of mass communications in our day has tended to replace the simple dignity, the home truth, that used to be part of the mental armamentarium of, say, a farmer or a mountain family. In my youth I knew a great many people who were terribly dignified and wise human beings. They knew what the King James Bible said. They knew things they had learned from their forefathers. Today they know what they saw on “Gunsmoke” or what they read in the comic strips.
Dr. Bird: I agree with this. You and I are fairly close together on this point. In communication theory we would call this “noise,” and this noise gets in the way of man’s communication with God. As long as he is harassed, tense, nervous, striving, he can’t communicate with God. And this has to be decreased.
Dr. Mason: I couldn’t agree more, Dr. Bird, as far as our own lives are concerned. I know I’m subject to this noise and have the frustration of this piling-up of communication on communication, and then communication from the past in the form of books and libraries. But what about the people in the world who don’t have access to this? We’ve been talking about communication in our society, or perhaps Eastern Europe. And yet I get back again to these billion people, the silent billion, the people who cannot read and who do not have access to all of this. This is a problem that I think is the basis of much of the unrest that we have in the world. The revolution that we had, and that France had, is now getting down to these underdeveloped countries, to the have-nots. They see the things we advertise. They want them but don’t have them. They see the difference between their lives and others’ lives, and this creates tensions and brings wars and revolution. And yet our technique of reaching these people is antiquated.
Mr. Cassels: What technique do you use, Dr. Mason.
Dr. Mason: Actually the only technique by which you can reach about half the people of the world is to go to them and sit down and talk with them, if you know their language.
Mr. Cassels: Each one teach one?
Dr. Mason: Well, we—Laubach Literacy—advocate teaching the people how to read, and then giving them simple literature that will help them develop basic skills and introduce, for the missionary, the Christian Gospel. And as the person learns this essential tool of reading, he is at the same time learning something useful. For example, Nehru said in India that if half of the farmers could read the instructions on seed packages there would be no problem of famine. Take the basic problems of the world: population explosion, hunger, Communism, superstition. These defy solution without some means of communicating with the people.
Mr. Cassels: Can you communicate with them verbally, or are you suggesting that electronic media like radio and television might work?
Dr. Mason: Well, I’ll throw the question back to you. If a man’s average income is $50 a year, he can’t have a radio or TV. About the only way you can reach him is to talk with him, or teach him how to read and give him a tool for economic development so that he can come into the world as we know it.
Dr. Bird: Dr. Mason, have you ever thought what might happen if Jesus Christ came to earth again and attempted to communicate to these illiterate millions—which add up to a billion or more? Or what might happen if he came here to Washington or any of the other great metropolitan centers of the country? Can you imagine, Mr. Cassels, how he would be received by the press if he came to Lafayette Square. What would happen? All these TV people with their cameras, the photographers with their flash bulbs, the reporters, the radio folks with microphones. And can you imagine what they would say to him? “Give us another smile.… Hold your head up.… Why don’t you get a haircut?… Where’d you get that crazy garb?”
Mr. Cassels: You are assuming that Jesus would come wearing long hair and crazy garb, when in point of fact Jesus came to the people of his own day very much as a man of his time.
Dr. Mason: Well, he had problems with crowds in his own time. He had to go out in a boat to get away from the pressures. And today I think he would use TV for us. But again, he could not get around to all the world. The type of people that lived in his day are passé. We don’t even think about it. As we talk here, we want to forget that half the adults of the world don’t know what we’re talking about. They are not concerned about East-West tensions. They don’t know anything beyond their own country. And if we are going to be concerned for these people, either for their own welfare or for what ideas we want to communicate to them, we have got to set up the lines of communication. I was with people last summer—a tribe in which no person in the whole tribe could read. They were so eager that men walked five days to come to the meeting to hear about what could be done for them. They want this. Jomo Kenyatta, the president of Kenya, when we talked with him last summer, said, “An illiterate is a half man.” And they are; they’re half men living half lives. In our culture we are about to drown in information; we have a problem of selection. But all they have to talk about is the last rain a week ago or what their wives happened to pick up in the way of gossip at the water hole.
Dr. Henry: And yet it is interesting that just last week I had a letter from an outstanding journalist in Hong Kong who is author of several volumes on Asia and developments there. He stressed that in the years ahead the Western churches will reach the East evangelistically for Christ not by the patterns of the past generation—that is, by planting churches or hospitals or schools in the traditional way—but rather by using the techniques of radio, television, and literature. And he said that in Japan millions of dollars are being invested on the assumption that mini-TV sets will be as popular in the next decade as these little transistor radios are in our time.
Dr. Mason: This may be true. However, people thirty years ago were saying the same thing about the communication of the Gospel in this country. And we still really reach people, in my opinion, by the Church. This other can supply a background. Just as in advertising, however, you can create the desire, but the people still have to go and confront the salesman. Japan is the most literate country in the world. It is 8 per cent more literate than we are in this country, and that’s one thing. But again we get back to this boiling cauldron of people who see just enough of the modern life and everything that we know to want it. Yet they can’t bridge the gap without a start in education, and education starts with reading. Now, if we can reach them by TV or radio, this is wonderful. But somehow it seems to me a little more difficult to put a radio or a TV set in a hut than it would be to give them a pamphlet telling them that when they plant potatoes plant the big ones and eat the little ones instead of eating the big ones and planting the little ones, and therefore get into the area of economic development.
Dr. Henry: Jesus had a way of getting through simply to the people, and isn’t Dr. Bird’s question still a good one in terms of the modern mass-media culture? I’d like to hear you speak to this, because he suggests that the newspaper men in a sense properly have an interpretative role that nonetheless may work adversely sometimes in the communication of the essential religious and moral claim in our time.
Dr. Bird: I think that Christ would have to be provided with police protection.
Dr. Henry: “Give us another sentence from the Sermon on the Mount?”
Dr. Bird: That’s right. Or, “Will you say that again?”
Mr. Cassels: I very much doubt this. I think it is obviously a moot question. We smuggle into any discussion like this all sorts of presuppositions about what Jesus would look like and how he would conduct himself in our time. We only know what he did in his day, and we also know that he is our eternal contemporary.
Dr. Henry: But he would work with the media and through the media rather than on the edge of the media.
Mr. Cassels: Speaking with all the detachment of a newspaper man and not necessarily in this case as a professing Christian, Jesus was a superb communicator. He was one of the best communicators in history, and I have a feeling that he was a good enough communicator to be able to cope with all these things you are talking about. How he would cope with them is a rather academic question.
Dr. Mason: He was not only a good communicator in the interpersonal sense but in the sense of drama—the going into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple, the focusing of popular attention on what he was doing. I think that as a great master of this he would somehow find ways to circumvent the problems in reaching the literate world today.
Dr. Henry: Gentlemen, we have explored the problems. Now, how can the Word of God be effectively communicated to modern man?
Mr. Cassels: I have some thoughts on that because I wrestle with this problem daily. I think the first requirement is that we quit underestimating his capacity to hear it. I am weary to death of some of the so-called new theologians, the self-styled “Christian radicals,” who are always making sweeping pronouncements about what modern man will and will not believe, and what the Church must do. This is their favorite word. We must do this! And what we must do usually turns out to be not reinterpreting or restating the Gospel but jettisoning some aspect of it which they have difficulty in believing. I think the first thing, then, is to accept the fact that modern man is fully as capable of hearing the Word of God when it is proclaimed as was man in any other generation. I don’t think he differs at all in this respect. I was impressed, Dr. Henry, at what Karl Barth said the day we had lunch with him here in Washington. He said he had discovered that when he used the simple words and phrases and figures of speech and stories of the Bible, his contemporaries, including his most intellectual contemporaries, seemed to understand better than when he used the very modern concepts of theology.
Dr. Henry: The Christian has an advantage when he speaks with conviction and with the power of the revealed Word of his biblical heritage, hasn’t he?
Mr. Cassels: Conviction is the second thing I was going to say. I think that the real crisis in religious communication today is perhaps a crisis of faith rather than a crisis of communication. I think there are, unfortunately, a great many people professionally involved in religion—such as theologians and pastors—who are in the situation that our Lord mentioned of “the blind leading the blind.” I mean, they have largely lost their own faith. I don’t think you can ever communicate anything to anyone else until you deeply believe it yourself.
Dr. Bird: I think you have said that very well. That is what I was trying to say a little bit earlier. And I did not mean to paint an entirely black picture. Much is being done on many of the college campuses. There are such groups as Inter-Varsity and Campus Crusade that are enlisting and holding the attention and faith of college students. They do make converts. Some of these groups are holding prayer meetings together in various rooms, seminar rooms. There are also faculty groups that do this. And many of the denominations have representatives on campus to contact their own denominational members. My suggestion is that in the 2,000 cities or thereabouts that have colleges and universities, the local church make a deliberate effort to send what might be called a missionary onto the campus. Not just one church but twenty or thirty or forty. I think they all ought to be represented. And another area in which I think they could make a genuine contribution would be to send missionaries into the inner city. These people who are moving in from various areas of the country or from outside our borders—they not only lose their ties with friends and all such but also lose their ties with the Church.
Mr. Cassels: Yes, but there you really open up another important problem. I don’t think that you are going to communicate the Gospel to the inner city or to the college campus, probably not to anyone today, simply by talking at them. I think that the Church has got to earn anew the right to be heard; and it has to do it the way Jesus did it, by deeds, by actual deeds of compassion and mercy.
Dr. Mason: Right. Let me interrupt you here. This I think is one great contrast with this silent world. They feel the need and they are responding to it. They do not have callous souls, and that’s why I feel that if we can respond the opportunity is tremendous, because they do not have this immunity.
Mr. Cassels: To use one example, Dr. Bird, I don’t see how a segregated church can say anything about Christ to the inner city or to the silent world that Dr. Mason has talked about.
Dr. Bird: I agree with that. I think the churches should send people into the areas where these unchurched ones are to live among them, live more or less the same life, and understand their problems. I think I would make one other suggestion: many of these young folks who have interests in this area could go on to the campuses where there are schools of journalism and study religious journalism—learn how to communicate to these people. Many of them have degrees from Bible schools, and once they learn the communication techniques they would be doubly invaluable in the field.
Mr. Cassels: Is a young Christian communicating the Gospel if he joins the Peace Corps or if he goes down to Mississippi to work in a voter-registration drive? If he does this, is he communicating the Gospel to our day?
Dr. Mason: I think he is communicating it to our day. Largely, in this country and abroad, you have a cultural barrier to leap, and I think there is a challenge for young people to do this. As I said in my book on Reaching the Silent Billion, there are five Christian ends that can be served by going to these people, the underprivileged people primarily. It expresses compassion by giving them what they need more than anything else. It gives an opportunity to open the pages of the Bible; without that they can’t really—well, they’re in a pre-Reformation situation. It provides a rapport that gives a real climate for conversion in a personal relationship. It gives lay Christians something that they can get involved in. And in many areas it provides an entree that even medical missions do not have today. I think this drive that is the appeal of the Peace Corps or of going into Mississippi or of similar things is something young people have. They want a cause to give themselves to.
Dr. Henry: Gentlemen, that brings us to the end of our time, and I want to thank you for coming and sharing your busy lives with us and with our viewers. We can be thankful, I think, that more and more Christians are probing the possibilities of the communications age with a sense of duty and of new opportunity. It’s interesting that for some months some aerospace scientists, out of an evangelical concern, have been meeting with some missions executives and anthropologists just to discuss how the “systems approach” that has been so effective in the Apollo moonshot and in space science generally, and how modern communications and computer techniques, can be used to set ahead the Christian task of evangelizing the earth in our own generation. The Church’s biggest management problem in our day is the evangelization of the earth, and whatever can be done to focus the interest of the churches and the oncoming generation of Christians on the opportunities before us will be helpful. We have faced various facets of this problem—the problem of non-communication to the world of illiteracy; and the problem of overcommunication to a generation whose emotions are frayed and worn thin; and the problem of undercommunication of the Gospel. Thank you very much.
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