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.
Though God is not beyond using oddities like baked dung (Ez. 4:12) or dismembered hands (Dan. 5) to 'speak,' he puts a priority on divine words—both spoken and written. God spoke creation into being, spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and spoke to Moses on Sinai, which he then etched into stone. His word was the bedrock of the covenant, and 'the Word' is even the name of his Son. When prophets like Jeremiah called Israel back to the covenant, Byers notes a tension between two forms of ancient media: God's words ("law," "my voice") versus the images of "the Baals" (Jer. 9:12-16). Though Byers is careful not to suggest we should "persecute the image," he's just as emphatic that central to loving God is a call to bathe in his words (Deut. 6:4-9).
The climax of all "TheoMedia" is the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. When Jesus preached and taught, his gospel declared the enduring value of divine speech (Matt. 5:18). His incarnation communicated the importance of embodied relationship and physical closeness. His crucifixion broadcasted the character of a self-giving God, and through his resurrection he opened the hearts of multitudes to understand not only the Scriptures, but all the world as God's media (Luke 24:17-31). God may not be on Twitter, but he's certainly not silent.
Imitating God's Media
TheoMedia is unique. It is a first-of-its-kind attempt at a comprehensive narrative theology of media. Many other books on new media draw wisdom from media ecology, social analysis, or modern history—and add in Bible verses or stories to supplement their conclusions. But Byers endeavors to take a look at the entire biblical story to uncover God's own media use and production—and in so doing crafts a wandering highway of divine media, peppered with periodic off ramps into the worlds of email messages, "ikes," tweets, animated movies, and Angry Birds.
Several off ramps on the biblical journey are application-rich blog posts ("TheoMedia Notes") scattered between the chapters. Some have a prophetic tone. Screens, for example, can function like portals that transport us to worlds of unreality, veils that hide our real identity, and stages where we seek digital applause through blog stats, flattering comments, retweets, or incoming links. Others give solid pastoral advice. Consider letting your children watch no more TV than they read Scripture. If you choose to amplify anybody's voice through social media, follow John the Baptist's lead and point to somebody else—and then fade into the background.
The book is also resplendent with un-doctoral-student-like prose. The "TheoMedia Event" of the Exodus, for example, is described in detail: "The life giving river became deathly blood, the sky vomited stones of ice, homes were swollen with rotting frog-flesh, darkness was permitted to go unchecked by the sun." Lucid biblical storytelling, interspersed with personal stories as a father and chaplain, makes for engaging reading. It also makes the reader forgive him for overusing the word "media" and occasionally losing track of modern media applications along the winding biblical narrative.
But the lasting effect of TheoMedia is embedded in his main thesis: Because God uses and creates media (broadly defined), there is a discoverable logic to guide Christians in using and creating their own media. This changes the conversation from the proverbial "Yea" or "Nay" to blogging, Pinterest, or cable news, and instead asks how we can imitate God's media use and take the next step to creating divinely-inspired media. This casts a broader net to include not only pastors and bloggers, but also those who work in media: advertisers, marketers, PR representatives, literary agents, graphic designers, web developers, journalists, radio hosts, and film-makers. Byers lays down tracks for faithful engagement, not just critique.
Take, for example, the applications he draws from Christ's incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. When God became man, he placed emphasis on relational nearness and physical presence. "If God himself puts such stock in face-to-face physicality," writes Byers, "then surely this emphasis is to be reflected in Christian communication habits." So, if social media is used to replace physical interaction, it isn't incarnational. But if social media is used to arrange more physical communities—gatherings of classmates, co-workers, friends—it begins to point to Immanuel, God with us. Even when St. Paul chose to write a letter (ancient social media) to the church at Corinth over visiting them in person, he did so to heal relational tensions, thus drawing himself closer to them (1 Cor. 1:23; 2 Cor. 2:1). Digital communication, then, should "always be moving in a relational direction from distance to nearness." We should use digital media to arrange more lunches or get in touch with long-lost friends, not to send emails to co-workers three cubicles down the hall.
Christ's crucifixion exposes both our digital vanity and inspires selfless online interactions. On the prophetic side, Byers suggests that a "cruciform" media ethic would minimally mean
no more embittered remarks in the comment streams; no more self-centered blog posts promoting our online significance; no more vain status updates; no more tricky strategems for beefing up our pool of followers simply for the sake of augmenting our self importance.
Conversely, Byers suggests the Cross should lead Christians to crafting media that points away from the self, even when self-glorifying messages ("You were mentioned in a Tweet!") worm their way into our inboxes. Perhaps a better question than "How often are you blogging?" might be, "Who is this post going to benefit?"
Finally, the Resurrection leads Byers to adopt a perspective of "hopeful realism," a disposition that interprets "the tragedies and glories of our age through a 'hermeneutic of resurrection.'" In an age of government shutdowns and manufactured crises, it's not hard to watch the news and turn cynical or even depressed. Indeed, God calls us to inhabit the tragedy of Newtown or the pain of the Aurora movie theater shootings without glossing over human suffering. But Christ is resurrected, and Christians read history with a hopeful slant. We can choose to tell stories—whether as pastors, marketers, news anchors, or writers—focusing on the glimmer of light shining through the darkness.
The Digital Deluge
Last year Time magazine did a survey of 5,000 people from 4 continents and found some startling results on smart phone usage. Eighty-four percent said they couldn't go a single day without their phones, 20 percent of respondents check their phone every 10 minutes, and 50 percent of Americans sleep with their phones (that number rises to 80 percent for 18-24 year olds). For American teenagers, touching the screen of a smart phone is the third most common activity behind sleeping and breathing. Everyday popular media is pouring into our pockets quicker than we can evaluate the digital deluge. As New York University professor Richard Sennett has said, "Technical innovations run ahead of people's ability to use the innovations well." Considering that there may be no more common activity among Americans than media consumption, perhaps it's time to re-focus our media habits in light of the media of God.
Jeff Haanen is executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work.