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S1E7: Conclusions, Part One
(The following is the manuscript for episode seven of season one of the Breaking the Digital Spell podcast, which premiered on October 2nd, 2018. Available wherever you get your podcasts, or you can listen online here.)
Even though the title of this episode is “Conclusions, Pt. 1”, this season of Breaking the Digital Spell is far from over. We will do a similar episode like this at the end of the season, when we draw some more conclusions based off the upcoming episodes dealing with the consequences of the Internet. I think we are at a point where we can start drawing some big conclusions based off what we’ve already covered, so if you’re a new listener to the podcast and haven’t listened to the previous episodes, there’s nothing stopping you from listening to this one without the others, but you’ll get more out of this episode if you listen to those other episodes beforehand.
We are going to look at three significant conclusions in this episode, all of which I think are true conclusions that can be made well before the social media and smartphone era, and all of which I think get even more apparent as we move into episodes dealing with those eras. But before we dive into these three conclusions, I want to make a few things clear up front. First of all, I am going to tailor my conclusions specifically to conversation American evangelicalism because its the camp I grew up in and, for better or worse, is the camp I still remain in. Much of what I say here can apply to other corners of American Christianity, but because I have little to no experience in those corners I will limit myself to the world I know – which happens to be one of, if not the, largest block of American Christians. Second, I am going to offer some counterarguments to what I’m saying at the end of the episode, because while I think these conclusions I’m about to outline are true, I also think that my biases are worth examining as well, and I’ll do my best to try and do that at the end.
Now, with all that being said, lets dive in.
Conclusion 1: American Evangelicalism’s default response to modern technology and media has been one of unchecked technological optimism.
In episode 2 we looked at the three common response to new technology and media: technological optimism, technological pessimism, and technological ambiguity. To briefly recap, technological optimism puts a greater emphasis on the positive changes technology brings, technological pessimism does the opposite, and technological ambiguity puts the emphasis of the context that technology is used in to determine whether or not that technology is good or bad. In covering the advents of television and the Internet, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the default response to modern technology and media by American Evangelicalism has been one of unchecked technological optimism.
I use that word “unchecked” deliberately. It’s not as though American Evangelicalism wrestled with new technology and media and, time and time again, came to hold an optimistic response – I think its safe to say that American Evangelicalism didn’t wrestle with new technology and media at all. The reason they didn’t was because of a philosophical view that undergirded – and, in many ways, guarantees in advance – their optimistic response to new technology and media, and that view is known as utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism, for our purposes here, will be defined that “something’s value and/or worth is solely tied to that thing’s output.” In other words, utilitarianism grounds value and worth on conditional variables, and those variables are tied to production, output, effectiveness – any criteria that can be measured and tracked. If worker A makes 5 sales a week, and worker B makes 50 sales a week, a utilitarian view would say that worker B is inherently more valuable than worker A is, regardless of whether or not worker B made those 50 sales honestly, ethically, or professionally. Worker A might have been ethically and professionally upstanding and fully honest in his dealings that earned him those 5 sales, and worker B might have been shady, manipulative, or dishonest in how he achieved those 50 sales – but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that worker B made significantly more sales than his counterpart. In utilitarianism, the ends justify the means. The son of the late theologian Francis Schaeffer, known as Frank Schaeffer, wrote an extremely underrated book in the early 80s called “Addicted to Mediocrity”, and its thesis was that a utilitarian view of the arts and creative had thoroughly ravaged the Christian understanding of creativity and beauty, and while I doubt he would vouch for the contents of that book today, its still a phenomenally relevant text even 30 years later. This is a lengthy quote but listen to the way he describes utilitarianism, and how it has manifested itself in the church, and ask yourself if anything he says here rings a bell:
So the tree which one had had value, not least of which was its beauty, its shimmering leaves, the dappled shades it cast upon the mossy ground beneath, now only had value because of how many cubic feet of paper could be produced from it. So even man was measured by what he could achieve, produce, earn, contribute, and so on. Not only that, all man’s attributes, talents and endeavors had to be justified in some utilitarian way. No longer was it good enough to say that some human attribute was a God-given gift which should be freely enjoyed and given. Now those gifts had to translate themselves into utilitarian usefulness. Either they had to contribute monetarily or in some other way to society. They had to become propaganda tools, advertising tools, or monetary earning tools, to be considered useful and therefore tolerated by the church. . . . Unfortunately, the church itself was infiltrated by this view. The view was translated into religious terms. Now everything anyone did had to measure up somehow in utilitarian terms in the church. It had to be useful to the onward march of the church. It had to help in its efforts, in its programs, its church growth emphasis week or whatever. This would be bad enough by itself. To make it worse, whatever thing had to measure up to as being useful toward was this false view of spirituality, this shriveled, truncated, narrow view which selected a few things arbitrarily and called them the Christian life, the walk with the Lord, my Christian growth, witnessing, or whatever. That this was all that remained of the full Christian life we were redeemed to and that these sad standards were used to measure all Christian endeavor for its utilitarian usefulness to the church left many things in very deep water. - Frank Schaeffer, Addicted to Mediocrity
To translate this back to technology and media: the reason why I say that American Evangelicalism’s default response to new technology and media was one of unchecked optimism was because of the utilitarian implications these new technology and media brought with them. If you’ll recall in the fifth episode of this season, the late Rev Billy Graham believed that, in a single television cast, he preached to more people than Christ did in his entire lifetime. Any concerns about the possible effects television might have on the message conveyed in the medium – like the ones Neil Postman raises in his book Amusing Ourselves To Death – were irrelevant because, in Rev. Graham’s words, “television is the most powerful tool of communication ever devised by man.” It’s potential to reach millions, by default, overrode any consideration as to what it was that reaching these millions. The ends justified the means. This would be true of American Evangelicalism’s general attitude towards the Internet, and nearly everything that has come from it, as well. These new mediums opened the door to “reach” people with the message of the Gospel, and while these mediums did overcome some legitimate obstacles to evangelism or ministry, they would also introduce new obstacles that we are dealing with today, chief among them being the consumerism among American Evangelicals when it comes to their relationship with church as a whole.
One of the reasons I mention this conclusion first is because I think that, so long as this conclusion remains true, everything other conclusion we could make – both in this episode and later on – ultimately stems from this one. Given some of the conversations that Ive seen take place about the place of VR in the church (spoiler alert: I don’t think it has a place), I think I can say that this unchecked technological optimism is perhaps now more a reality than it was 20 years ago, simply due to the fact that the Internet now pervades every aspect of our lives. And yes, there is some pushback coming from some corners of evangelicalism, but they’re in the minority. The default response hasn’t changed, nor has the idea that whatever we can use in the name of proclaiming the gospel is automatically fair game. As a social media manager, part of my job is to keep my ear to the ground on what is going on in the social media world for anything relevant to ministry use, and there are quite a few Christian thought leaders in that sphere who I believe passionate love Christ and the church, but who are quick to immediately embrace anything and everything new that comes out in the social media industry. The common response is that if something is going on in the social media world the Church must get in on it, even if its something as ridiculous as spending a 40 hour workweek to flood Vine 2 with Christian vines when it comes out or that half a youth pastor’s week should be making YouTube content (yes, those are actual suggestions I’ve heard). Being optimistic about new tech or media is not a bad thing, but when the mediums themselves get embraced and adopted uncritically, all that leaves you with is a charge to create content for those mediums. Which leads us to the next big conclusion.
Conclusion 2: American Evangelicalism has wrongly defined “counter-cultural” in terms in content, not medium usage.
So because American Evangelicalism has held this unchecked technologically optimistic response to modern technology and media, its worth examining how that response plays out, and I think it’s easy to say that American Evangelicalism’s focus was on creating alternative, counter-cultural content within the mediums that were adopted rather than creating counter-cultural medium engagement practices.
I am a 90s kid. I lived during the golden era of Saturday morning cartoons. KidsWB and eventually FoxKids and the (awful) 4Kids TV were the centerpieces of my Saturday morning ritual and routine. Whether it was Pokemon or Teen Titans or One Piece or any one of the other dozens of cartoons available, my childhood was defined by television entertainment. But, being in a Christian home, we also had other things we could watch if we wanted to – and if your upbringing was similar to mine, you know what those other shows were. You could watch Batman: The Animated Series…or you could watch Bibleman. And, if you watched these shows like I did, it wasn’t because they were good, but it was because watching these shows made you different. It was counter-cultural. It made you stand out from your non-Christian friends, even though you watched just as much television as they did, even though you used the Internet as much as they did, even though – content not withstanding – there wasn’t anything different at all as to how you used these mediums.
I don’t want to digress too deeply into the entertainment American Evangelicalism put out through television and the Internet (believe me, I could ramble on for hours on that), I only want to point out that, because American Evangelicalism uncritically embraced television and the Internet without hesitation, the emphasis has always put on creating counter-cultural content rather than creating counter-cultural media consumption practices. Its the embodiment of this us-versus-them approach to cultural engagement where we have our content – our movies, our music, our books, our TV shows, trinkets, and T-shirts – and they have their content. In later years this would manifest itself in things like GodTube, the Christian version of YouTube, or FaithFreaks, the very short lived Christian MySpace, or even The Overflow, a Christian version of – I kid you not – Spotify and Apple Music. It’s never been a question of how we use the Internet; it’s always been a question of what is consumed on the Internet. It’s never been a question as to how we watch television or even how much television we watch; it has always been a question as to what is watched on television. Only very recently has the question shifted from what is on our phones to how we use them, and with that question, how we use social media as well. And what we consumed, what we watched, and what we listened, if not tied explicitly to evangelistic ends, was at the very least meant to be a signal indicating to those around us that we are Not Of This World – even if the ultimate source and inspiration came from “this world”, especially in the music realm. So long as we consumed content that expressed or displayed our faith, it did not matter if the way we used these mediums were uncritically identical to the rest of the world.
I am not trying to suggest that creating content that reflects the Christian worldview is a bad thing – obviously, as a podcaster, I don’t believe that at all. Nor am I trying to suggest that the content we consume doesn’t effect us and that Christians ought to be discerning as to what we watch or listen to – of course we should. The point that I’m trying to make is that whenever new technology and media arise, the response of unchecked technological optimism nullified the need to consider how we use and consume new technology and media and instead became a matter of filling that medium with Christian content that mirrors or rivals non-Christian content, and this Christian content has an end towards evangelism or signaling your commitment to your faith. Consuming Christian content became just as plausible an option as consuming non-Christian content, rather than using television or the Internet in ways that reflected Christian convictions about what these mediums do to us.
Conclusion 3: Because of this unchecked technological optimism, and this misplaced emphasis on counter-cultural content, changes in technology and media – namely, television and the Internet – empowered secularism to gain a greater influence in the church than it ever had before.
First, let’s start with secularism. I can’t vouch for the other definitions of “secularism” you might be familiar with, but for this podcast, when I say “secularism” I mean two things. First, by “secularism”, I mean a state of mind where all belief systems are possible, equally valid options for living a happy, meaningful life, and second, where the idea of “transcendence” becomes less believable, less possible, less meaningful. In secularism, belief systems – whether yours is Christianity, or Islam, or atheism, or Pastafarianism – are not evaluated based on their truthfulness, but on whether or not your expression of your belief system helps you live a full life. As a result of this, the idea of “transcendence” – the idea that there are things that go above and beyond the world we physically inhabit – becomes not necessarily false, just unnecessary. There is no need to know your Creator – who exists outside of you and apart from the physical world you know – if the life you’ve chosen to live brings you joy and happiness, and so long as your neighbor is choosing to live their lives around beliefs that bring them satisfaction and isn’t causing trouble for others who are pursuing the good life in other ways, good for them. And, after all, how do we know that what we believe is really correct? Who’s to say that our beliefs are any better than theirs? Secularism takes any kind of truth claim that would stand over all of us – such as the claim that “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” – and flattens out it’s claim to exclusivity in order to bring it into a realm where it could be wrong – or it could be just as important or significant as any other belief, including ones to the contrary.
Secularism existed long before television and the Internet, and I’m not trying to suggest that the church was impervious to this way of thinking before television sets began appearing in believer’s homes. What I am trying to say here is that these changes in technology and media – specifically, with the advents of television and the Internet – have empowered secularism’s influence in the church by giving it tools that reinforce a secular way of thinking. Secularism is ultimately rooted in individualism, and individualism is strengthen by technology that makes practicing individualism easier to do. Recall the end of episode 5 when we landed on televised religion – and specifically, televised Christianity – changing the way we conceive of Christianity because we now have the option to participate in the Christian life, including our Sunday morning worship, apart from having to physically be present with the embodied people of God. A secular way of thinking doesn’t see a difference between watching a sermon at home or physically going to church to be with other believers – but this kind of thinking wasn’t really possible before television, because before television, the idea of staying at home to watch a sermon broadcast didn’t exist yet. As Neil Postman explains:
The television screen itself has a strong bias toward a psychology of secularism. The screen is so saturated with our memories of profane events, so deeply associated with the commercial and entertainment worlds that it is difficult for it to be recreated as a frame for sacred events. Among other things, the viewer is at all times aware that a flick of the switch will produce a different a secular event on the screen – a hockey game, a commercial, a cartoon. Not only that, but both prior to and immediately following most religious programs, there are commercials, promos for popular shows, and a variety of other secular images and discourses, so that the main message of the screen itself is a continual promise of entertainment. Both the history and the ever-present possibilities of the television screen work against the idea that introspection or spiritual transcendence is desirable in its presence. The television screen wants you to remember that its imagery is always available for your amusement and pleasure. - Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death.
Likewise, as we talked about the Internet in the previous episode, the Internet took this individually-experienced Christianity and gave it something that televised Christianity lacked – the ability to form communities apart from any geographical constraint, and all without having to leave your house. A secular way of thinking doesn’t see a difference between a physically gathered Church and a digitally gathered group of believers, because before the Internet, the idea of being able to forge relationships with people all over the world with relatively minimal commitment wasn’t possible. With both the television and the Internet, the individual was empowered, for the first time in history, to choose a Christianity that fit their lifestyle, their preference, their convenience as to how they wanted to experience it – and so long as this gave you meaning and happiness, who was to say that you were wrong to do so?
In talking about how technology and media have shaped the way we think about God, it is impossible to avoid talking about how modern changes in technology and media have reinforced the idea that thinking about God is not inherently better than not thinking about him. It has also reinforced the notion of a closed-off physical world, where every phenomenon we experience (including religious experiences) have physical, natural explanations, and the need to appeal to God as an explanation for anything becomes unnecessary because there is a more proximate explanation that we can make sense of. This is known by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor as the “buffered self”, an individual who has insulated themselves in their individualism from anything that exists outside themselves – including the transcendent realm. Television and the Internet began to give individuals the ability to further insulate themselves from any external influence by empowering them with technology that not only gives them the ability to act on their individualism, but also distracts them from needing to consider the possibility that maybe there is a God that exists outside themselves – and maybe this God doesn’t see the world the way you do. Alan Noble, in his very recent and very good book “Disruptive Witness”, explains that:
Our pervasive culture of technological distraction dramatically exacerbates the effects of the buffered self, which in turn feeds the demand for technology of distraction. It is not a coincidence that these two forces have arisen at this point in history. The rise of secularism has inspired a view of technology and fullness rooted thoroughly in this life and established and chosen inwardly, which I believe has helped to justify the creation and adoption of technologies that are not directed toward human flourishing but instead help us project our identity and remain distracted. Outside of a culture of virtue grounded in an external source, science, technology, and the market have been driven to produce a society that prioritizes the sovereign individual. The modern person experiences a buffer between themselves and the world out there – including transcendent ideas and truths. The constant distraction of our culture shields us from the kind of deep, honest reflection needed to ask why we exist and what is true. -Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age.
To link all this back to our first two conclusions earlier in the episode – when American Evangelicalism responded to these new technological forces with unchecked optimism, they allowed themselves to be open to the influence of secularism, even if their initial motives for adopting these new mediums were entirely attached to religious reasons. The problem with adopting television as a medium for preaching the Gospel is that you can’t just isolate your adoption of television for that singular reason – you either adopt everything that television brings as a medium, including it’s “psychology of secularism”, or you don’t adopt television at all. The same is true for the Internet – it is impossible to adopt the Internet for the use of spreading the Gospel and making Christian materials more readily available without adopting the option of experiencing Christian community without committing to a physical church. Its a package deal. And, to link this to the second conclusion, if this secular way of thinking is empowered by modern technology and media, and if Christianity is flattened out to being one possible belief amid a myriad of others, then focusing solely on Christian content only reinforces that message – and reduces your message to being an expression of your preference for Christianity. Your collection of Christian T-shirts, music, books, and movies becomes signals by which you express your faith – and those expressions of faith are not proclamations of a Gospel that calls all men and women everywhere to repent and believe in Jesus Christ for salvation, but simply expressions of how important your faith is to you, and no different than expressions of belief from anyone else. You might not mean it that way, but thats how your neighbor takes it to be. What sets us apart is not the content we consume as Christians, but how we even approach these mediums at all. If the habits surrounding our television, smartphone, internet, and social media usage are identical to our non-Christian neighbors, does anything actually set us apart and show that we are different? Consuming different content is not sufficient. Approaching the mediums themselves differently is.
Now, I do want to give some credit here to actual technological optimism – the creeping secularism into American Evangelicalism was long occurring before television and the Internet, and it would have continued onward without them, even if it was at a slower pace. And, even if American Evangelicals had decided to not adopt television and the Internet in the ways that it did, it wouldn’t have changed the fact that their neighbors and coworkers would’ve have, and evangelicals would still have to deal with the obstacles of secularism in living as Christians in their communities. The writing was on the wall for this trajectory – American Evangelicals were just willing to pick up the chalk and write with everyone else. But if this is the way the culture was already going to go and there was no way to stop the tide from turning, why not try to take advantage of that in any way you could? If secularism was already on its way to reducing Christianity to being one possible belief option amid a mass of other equally viable beliefs because of this new technology, why not jump into the mediums that reinforced that thinking and try to influence it from the inside? While I think that the reasoning behind the wholesale adoption of television and the internet was on very misguided philosophical and theological grounding, I am sympathetic towards the idea that, if these cultural changes were going to happen regardless, that you might as well make the most of it. To use a military analogy – if you know the army marching towards you can wipe you out regardless of whether or not you put up a fight, why not go and try to surrender or negotiate a peace agreement – even if you came out as captives, at least you were still alive. Where technological optimism conceded too much in adopting television and the internet, if technological pessimism were the majority response, American Evangelicals might have overlooked legitimate opportunities in these mediums, especially in the Internet. Its a complex situation, and despite my criticisms of technological optimism in this episode, I don’t believe that technological pessimism might have been the best response either. If we believe what the Bible teaches about the sovereignty of God being over all things, including the technology and media of our present day, then why not dive in head first knowing that God is going to use these flawed and imperfect mediums to build his kingdom? Why should we take a cautionary approach based on what we can perceive and get involved in the mess of the world knowing that Jesus Christ descended from heaven into our mess in order to bring about the salvation of mankind? These are questions I regularly ask myself in wrestling with the technology and media I use and consume every day. And this is ultimately what this podcast is about – asking these kind of questions and thinking through them and wrestling with their implications. I think American Evangelicalism is starting to ask more and more questions about the technology and media in our lives, and praise God for that. There is a deep cultural unrest about the impact our phones and social media have on our lives, and in thinking through these we are going back to look at the two big mediums that paved the way for our present situation. Personally, my concern is not whether or not you come to the same conclusions that I do after wrestling with these questions, but whether you wrestle with these questions at all. If I can convince you of what Neil Postman believed at the end of Amusing Ourselves To Death – that “to ask is to break the spell” – I will have done my job.
Secularism is going to play a more prominent theme in coming episodes as we start discussing smartphones, social media, and the future of technology and media, but on the next episode of Breaking the Digital Spell, we are going to briefly pause all of our talk about new mediums and take a look at the technology that makes these new mediums possible.