Saturday, February 12, 2011

Marshall McLuhan is the message

Hipps, Shane. Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith. Zondervan, 2009,
208 pages.

            Shane Hipps is a quintessential “teaching pastor.” He takes the tried and true format of a Zondervans book (great captivating stories, often from the author’s personal life, pop culture, or classics of literature, woven together with his assigned topic to create a rich teaching tapestry, nothing too heavy or jargony) and makes use of it to share the most salient insights of media theorist Marshall McLuhan with the church. McLuhan is especially famous for coining the aphorism, “The medium is the message.”[1]
            Hipp’s primary concern is that “the North Star by which the vast majority of Christians have navigated the perpetual changes in culture” is “the methods always change, but the message stays the same.”[2] Hipps and McLuhan both believe this is dangerously wrong-headed. McLuhan famously quips, “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”[3]
            If the vast majority of Christians have been wrong on this point, Hipps has considerable burden of proof. Furthermore, he needs to offer his analysis in such a way that he wins his readers over rather than bludgeoning them with in-your-face facts. And Hipps has done his homework, so comports himself nicely, making use of his medium (short winsome little chapters) to chip piece by piece away at the old edifice so the readers comes away with a new McLuhan-esque vision of how the message of the gospel and the medium in which it is shared interact.
            Speaking of media, I happen to have read Hipps book on my Kindle rather than in the print version. Although I have been reading from the Kindle for quite some time, it is a different experience with the Kindle trying to do analytical work and take notes. I have found it a bit more difficult to page around in the text finding what I need for references. However, one feature of Kindle stands out. I can navigate to a page of the most popular reader highlights. If I do this, I learn that the most popular highlight in the book so far, with 30 total highlights, is this: “When we fail to perceive that the things we create are extensions of ourselves, the created things take on god-like characteristics and we become their servants.”[4] Hipps makes this point in the midst of re-telling the Narcissus myth, but it could just as easily be a quote describing characters in Tron:Legacy or I, Robot. Hipps as a preacher steps things up a notch from McLuhan. It is not simply that the medium is the message, it is that the medium is everything, god if you will, as soon as we fail to remember that it is just a medium, an extension of ourselves. Luther famously wrote, “A god is anything in which you put your trust.” Exactly.
            Hipps treads a lot of familiar ground, at least for those familiar with the literature on orality and literacy, information overload, the post-modern demise of a meta-narrative, or some of the more recent studies in neuroscience on the impact of new technologies on patterns in the brain. But he does so in such a winning way that you would feel great handing the book to a young reader or infrequent reader, confident they would enjoy it and get something out of it. That being said, I do have a major reservation concerning the book. Rather than being a student of media, in the end Hipps seems to become hyper-critical of the new media and social networking. As hip as he is, he seems to buy into some very unhip and retrograde pietisms that keep him from keeping up with the actual insights McLuhan had into the import of media theory for contemporary culture.
            For example, although I do not actually go in for simchurch and arguments for the profound nature of online community, I just do not think this statement of Hipps is wise or true, “Virtual community is infinitely more virtual than it is communal.”[5] If you have ever corresponded by e-mail over an extended period of time with someone, participated in a listserv, or been on Facebook or other social media, just ask yourself whether the statement rings true. Furthermore, just to add one statistical detail to the discussion, as far as current research is concerned, contra Hipps, social networking appears to make people more social rather than less.
            That being said, Hipps is right to lift up the shadow side of media, and focus our attention on its dangers. His section on reconciliation and mediating conflict is especially important. E-mails seeking to resolve conflicts typically simply ramp them up, and the best approach to conflict resolution is to get face-to-face with people. That is something the world has known long before social media and the internet popped up. You simply will not say the same things in person to someone that you would consider writing in a letter.
            Finally, Hipps does not end with an analysis of print and electronic media. Final chapters indicate that he believes we, you and I, are the medium for the message.[6] So is the church.[7] In fact, the church is the message and the medium all rolled up into one. In fact, these final chapters read less like a book on how technology shapes your faith, and more like a sermon on how to be salt and light in mission in the world in a technological age. The last sentence of the book, for example, is “Go therefore, and be the message.”[8] Although I appreciate this as a sermon, I do not think it is the appropriate concluding medium for the book. Medium and message do not align.

[1] Actually, in many instances McLuhan actually says, “The medium is the ‘massage,’” rather than ‘message’ and I have yet to figure out why it is message rather than massage that has become more popular. Perhaps message allows the insight to be had without admitting to the manipulative dimensions of media themselves?
[2] Kindle location 169
[3] Kindle location 185
[4] Kindle location 272
[5] Kindle location 1054
[6] Kindle location 1658
[7] Kindle location 1703
[8] Kindle location 1811


  1. Actually this book so we'll meet the requirements for a practical context of teologia.Sou a professor of theology who appreciates the Lutheran theologians, among them, Bultmann and Tillich.

  2. Thanks Clint. I just read the book and had similar reaction. I liked the explanation of the message/medium but didn't feel that he pulled it through to the end of the book. I wish he had applied that theory in a more detailed way to social media, in which the message of the medium - one which invites interaction and exchange - seems to be much preferable to broadcast media, which leads to more passive consumption.

    I think it a common pitfall that people talk about social media and "real" community as an either/or, rather than a both/and. It's seems more effective to say - social media is good for this, but not for that, rather than argue the obvious, which is that social media will never be an adequate substitute for personal connection and community.

    The reflections on the the church as medium and message, and on conflict, were well taken, but didn't support the overall argument.

  3. Keith, thank you, you've named better than I have what I found disatisfying about the book. It takes an either/or rather than a both/and approach, and unnecessarily so. I'm all for making distinctions and doing either/or when necessary, but the way he approaches it isn't spot on, and it does argue the obvious.