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technology and church: towards an essay

September 2nd, 2008 by isaac · 8 Comments

I’m am beginning to work on a essay for a conversation on technology and worship sponsored by Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Below you can read my initial attempt at working through some of the literature.

Part 1

Why not start with Karl Barth? In his essay, “Church and Culture” (in Theology and Church, London: SCM, 1962), Barth disallows any uncritical approval of culture, nor does take a consistent stand against culture. As usual, Barth makes things complicated. On the one side of the dialectic, Barth takes up the ax of John the Baptist: “Christian preaching…has met every culture, however supposedly rich and mature, with ultimate sharp skepticism” (quoted in T.J. Gorringe, Furthering Humanity: A Theology of Culture, p. 18). But later in that same essay, Barth has no patience for a spiritualism that ignores our cultural milieu. There is no room, Barth writes, “for a basic blindness to the possibility that culture may be revelatory, that it can be filled with promise.” The seeds of God’s kingdom proliferate throughout the world. Barth pursues the same line of thinking in Church Dogmatics IV/3, where he claims that if “all things are created in and through Jesus” (Colossians 1:16-17), then, as Peter Dula puts it, “there is nowhere, not even the mouth of an ass, that we cannot expect to find words reflecting the light of the Word” (Peter Dula, “A Theology of Interfaith Bridge Building,” p. 164 in Borders and Bridges: Mennonite Witness in a Religiously Diverse World). Barth goes on to call these diverse worldly witnesses to God’s kingdom “secular parables” (CD IV/3, p. 115). The earth and human culture resound with echoes of the one Word of God and speaks into existence the kingdom of God. Therefore we must pay attention to the places we inhabit, the cultures that permeate us. “The Church,” he writes, “will be alert for the signs which, perhaps in many cultural achievements, announce that the kingdom approaches” (20). The kingdom does come. The question Barth poses to the church is whether she is ready to receive it, however strange it may appear.

It’s a strange possibility to consider how the pieces of culture called ‘technology’ may display God’s kingdom, if only parabolically. Barth won’t let us rule out an abstract category like “technology” without serious engagement in particular technological machineries—he calls them “cultural achievements.” Nor will he take up every new sophisticated invention as a chance for the kingdom to make headway. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of skepticism.

In The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture (Zondervan, 2005), pastor Shane Hipps critically considers the place of technologies in worship. He carefully steers clear of many church leaders who welcome any and every form of technology as the panacea for dying churches. Blidly welcoming technology into church life turns worship into another capitalist commodity. We then become one show among many where Christians can find “new experiences to consume” (15). In Modernity, writes Hipps, “churches heeded consumer demands and sough to reinvent church. They either had to compete in teh consumer marketplace on the consumer’s terms or face extinction. In the spirit of modernity, these churches reincarnated themselves as highly competent vendors of religious programs and services” (99). But the answer, according to Hipps, is not a reactionary turn against all forms of technology. “I’m not arguing for some Luddite strategy of literally destroying media” (65). Instead, we carefully and communally discern how modern technologies can aid us as we embody the good news of Christ. In Hipps’ words, “We learn to understand the power of our technologies to shape us, thereby regaining power over them” (122).

Pastor Hipps considers how the internet feeds off our desire for community. “Our electronic media has rekindled our interest in community and made us aware of our total interdependence on one another” (121). Hipps quotes Marshall McLuhan to this extent: “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village” (103). The internet has shown us how we are connected to the rest of the world. We inhabit a global village. While the internet displays our interdependence, it also offers us cheap community, a simulacra of intimacy. “In our quest for meaningful connections we encounter convenient decoys—the always-appealing cotton candy communities of the virtual world” (121).

Probably Hipps’ best technological criticism comes into play when he describes the egalitarian nature of church and recent developments in shareware and collaberative technologies. His guide is Marshal McLuhan who writes, “Christianity—in a centralized, administrative, bureaucratic form—is certainly irrelavent…. We must get rid of the hierarachy if we want participation” (125). Hipps welcomes the organization structure displayed in our electronic age. “This shift toward information diffusion and the subsequent diffusion of power are providing us with a helpful corrective to the long history of centralized, top-down authority in the church” (130). This is an example where techonology can help us relearn what it means to be a faithful church. “Electronic culture is helping us recover a biblical vision for more collaborative and egalitarian leadership models” (143). Church is a non-hierarchical, highly participatory community. Thus decision-making through consensus is the decisive practice that displays this power-sharing organization. But, as Hipps notes, our media culture forms us to be impatient people who value instant results. Thus we have hard work ahead of us in our churches as we try to cultivate virtues and practices of patience that make space for the hard work of communal intimacy. A patient church that takes time to listen to the weakest voices in our midst is a counter-(media)cultural church.

What I appreciate about Hipps’ book is the way he turns a conversation about electronic culture into a argument about the shape of a faithful church—a clever move. Questions about technology and media become unimportant. For Pastor Hipps, what matters is the way we exercise ecclesial authority and how we welcome and listen to friends and enemies. What is missing in his critical engagement is the role of socio-economic class. But he is not uniquely culpable for this blindness. It’s quite typical for church leaders to ignore the question of class when they discuss worship styles, communication technologies, and cultural relevance. To be fair to Hipps, at least he does mention the economic factors of techonological relevance: “Extensive resources are being sunk into editing equipment, audio systems, video projectors, light shows, and more. there is no other period in church history when relevance has cost so much time and money” (154). Hipps does put spending practices on the table. But, at the beginning of the book he tells a story that puts the question of economics on the back burner: “We wondered were the money would come from? Would the screen be obtrusive?.... These were all valid and important quesitons, but we began to believe these were not the most important questions for us to ask” (21). Economic issues don’t take center stage because we don’t worship with needy people. We can ignore issues of cost in our discussions of technology because we lack the prophetic presence of the poor.

In Simple Spirituality (IVP, 2008), Chris Heuertz challenges our churches to think how we’ve created cultures of worship that are inhospitable to the poor. “[T]he church…isolates the poor” (72). The poor have their place in the world, and we have ours. Heuertz asks, “Do our multi-million-dollar sanctuaries in North America send the same message?” Even if they did stumble into our worship services, could we hear their silent cries over the perfectly amplified music and the crystal clear voice of the preacher on his cordless mic? “As the statistics of poverty grow, the church only sings louder so as not to hear the staggering numbers and the cries of the victims” (71). Our state of the art worship tends toward immorality because we use it to cushion ourselves against what Heuertz calls “the prophetic presence of the poor” (82). Our churches look and feel different when we worship alongside someone who doesn’t know where they will sleep that night, or a parent who has to prostitute themselves so they can put food on the table. How much does that cordless microphone cost, anyhow? Heuertz can’t help but think about economic realities: “my waste was offensive…. My poor friends became a prophetic presence” (83). “We would often invite local friends (many of them extremely poor) to join us, their presence a constant reminder not to waste” (86). Thus the cost of technology isn’t important to those who don’t have the prophetic presence of the poor. And if we lack their presence, we aren’t living into Christ’s mission: “to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4).

Part 2

If Marshall McLuhan’s dictum, “the medium is the message,” is helpful (as Shane Hipps argues), then we must go all the way down; we must dig into the materiality of the medium. We must investigate the conditions that make possible the process of production. Hidden powers are physically remembered in the pieces of technology we use.

Most popular discussions of technology and worship fail to explore the realities of material production—the where, when, why, and how of invention and assembly. From readings these books on media and worship, one would that assume technologies magically appear—created out of nothing. Since electronic devices are available, we have to figure out ways to make them liturgically productive. The problem, according to Eileen D. Crowley, is that “Most churches lag at least twenty years or more behind the art world in the kind of media art they create or purchase and in how they imagine that media might be integrated within worship” (32). Our churches are not on the cutting edge of media. Our liturgical media is passé. We have failed to encourage the development of artists who makes use of anything at their disposal to lead us into an “experience of the Holy” (32)

The best books on media and worship call us to create ecclesial cultures of creative cooperation. Media should not be imposed from above by consultants and experts. Rather, our use of technology at church should arise from the discernment of the people. In Liturgical Art for a Media Culture (Liturgical Press, 2007), Professor Crowley offers on such argument, typical among the most helpful books on liturgical use of media. She engages in a discussion of the dangers and possitive possibilities of our media culture for worship and offers reasoned “tools [that] can help a church decide whether this new media  and new ministry are appropriate for their circumstances” (90). While Prof. Crowley wants to situate our modern use of technology in worship in a long history of multimedia liturgy, she doesn’t engage the history of technological production. Since church has always been a multimedia performance, Crowley argues, then we deceive ourselves when we think that there is a kind of worship that is not already multimedia. “Adding today’s new media to these old media does not make worship multimedia. Liturgy has always been multimedia” (8). She exposes the false distinctions that underlie our usual ways of thinking about using multimedia in worship. We already do! We have done so for centuries.

The problem, according to Prof. Crowley, is that we lack a theologically informed process of ecclesial discernment. She proposes a highly participatory liturgical use of technology that invites as many people as possible to the planning table. Her model “includes all the faithful in the creative process, and encourages the creation of locally produced liturgical media” (90). The problems with technology in worship happen when a select few of experts and consultants impose change from above. They force technological changes to worship without any engagement with the people.

While her model describes a healthy egalitarian and communal decision-making process, Crowley never digs into what matters most: the economic, political, and social realities that make technological production possible. All those factors remain hidden. Her readers are left with the impression that pieces from technology exist creatio ex nihilo. Speakers, screen, computers, and microphones magically appear in catalogs and box stores. Where does the LCD monitor come from? Best Buy or Circuit City. End of story. The shear existence of technologies warrents our use. It’s at the store, so we think through what it will do to our worship and community if we use it. It’s a utilitarian argument.

Thomas Friedman begins to open our eyes to the reality of the conditions that make technologies possible. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree (2000), he writes, “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist… And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps” (pp. 464-475, quoted in Gorringe, p. 88). Our electronic devices receive their life-blood from weapons of mass destruction. Sophisticated weaponry and well-trained soldiers make possible our technological arsenal for worship. And our indebtedness to Silicon Valley provides the cultural legitimacy to our military machine—they defend our technological way of life. The hidden power of our liturgical electronic art is violence. To repeat Friedman’s line, the U.S. armed forces is “the hidden fist that keeps to world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish.” How can we worship God with devices that reverberate with effects of violence? Our church sound booths are awash with the blood of victims.

Crowley is right to say that “the creation of media for worship raises social justice issues” (83). But she doesn’t expose the fibers of the dead that hold together our liturgical electronics, nor does she unmask the clean surfaces to show how they are infused with violence. She does not help us listen for the voices. She isn’t haunted by their cries echoing in the microphones and reverberating through the amplifiers. Attempts at redeeming technologies through ethical use simply ignores the issue. Our self-justifying attempts at redemption aid our convenient forgetfulness; we wash our hands and move on. But God is not fooled by our trickery, nor does God absolve our sins of omissive memories: “Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Gen 4:10). God want us to listen with penetrating ears. Can we tune our senses to penetrate through the desired technological sensations and hear what civilization wants us to forget? Electronic media has a lot to hide in order to make its way into our spaces of worship.

Tags: church life · technology

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeremy Alder // Sep 4, 2008 at 3:54 am


    Wow. Way to follow the rabbit hole all the way down. Of course, once you start down this path, where do you stop? Electronic technologies aren’t the only ones with a bloody history. There’s the cars we drive to church, the coffee we drink when we get there, and so on. Lord, have mercy and give us the ears to hear the cries of our brothers and sisters—and the ability to respond.

    Have you read any Jacque Ellul on technology? He wrote a book called The Technological Society or something like that. I haven’t read it but I believe Marva Dawn references it in some of her stuff. Anyway, you might want to check it out.

    Finally, I’ve been wanting to follow up with you about the liberation stuff but I can’t find your email address. Could you shoot me an email so I’ll have it?

  • 2 mshedden // Sep 4, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    Looks like it will be a good article. I am sure you familiar with this but Yoder used the medium/message line shortly after it appeared. I believe the essay that he uses it in is in the Royal Priesthood.
    But aside from that I am currently filling out my MLI and will be looking for pastoring Job within MCUSA and was wondering if you would have any advice on the MLI, or job searching. E-mail me if you have time. Peace

  • 3 isaac // Sep 5, 2008 at 7:09 am

    Jeremy, thanks for the comment. Yeah, you’re right. Once we start going down the path I’m suggesting, then everything is suspect. I don’t know what to do about that. I know there’s a problem. And I don’t think the answer is to shy away from it or ignore it. That’s too easy and too cheap. At the same time, I don’t quite know how to go forward. Barth has this awesome line about how we are too often like Esau rather than Jacob. It’s Esau is walks confidently into the future, who rushes into opportunities. It’s Jacob who walks with a limp, who hesitates, who shakes with fear and trembling at every step. That’s what I want. Christians who don’t know how to take the next step because the weight of the problem is so great. So we limp.

    A line from Gillian Rose comes to mind. It’s the epigraph to her beautiful book, Love’s Work: “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”

    I’ve read a little bit of Jacques Ellul’s book. It’s helpful, but dense. I’m slowly making my way through it. But I forget about how he has shaped Marva Dawn. I know that Dawn has a book about worship, so I wonder if she develops some of Ellul’s thoughts. I’ll have to check that out. Thanks.


  • 4 isaac // Sep 5, 2008 at 7:11 am

    Yes, mshedden, i’m familiar with Yoder. But I can’t remember where that passage is in Priestly Kingdom about the medium and the message. Do you know which essay?

    I’ll email you about the MLI stuff. I went through all that a few years ago.


  • 5 mshedden // Sep 5, 2008 at 6:02 pm

    I was wrong I don’t think it is the Royal Priesthood. Here is the the footnote I have for his reference of it.
    Yoder, John Howard. 1996. The theology of the Church’s Mission. Mennonite Life 21 (January): 30-34.

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