Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Flickering Pixels

Shane Hipps had been on my radar screen for a while as his name had come up in conversations with friends who are also in ministry. I had picked up a copy of his book “The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture” a while back but never had the opportunity to read it. I few months ago, I picked up a copy of his second book “Flickering Pixels” after hearing comments about it from a trusted friend. Having just gone through a Movie Theology course, the idea of media as a medium is still fairly fresh in my mind. The very nature of what I do every day in my job also connects me with the visual and aural.

“Flickering Pixels” was a fairly quick read for me. At 198 pages, it’s fairly short and the language that is used is far from some of the deep theological and ethical readings that I recently had to process through. Hipps’ subtitle for the book is “How technology shapes your faith.” His premise in the book is fairly simple: the medium is the message. Regardless of the fact that many of us view certain mediums as amoral, Hipps argues that the medium becomes the message that it conveys. He bases some of his ideas to Marshall McLuhan whom he refers to within the book as the “oracle of the electronic age.”

Hipps opines that the things that we create are extensions of ourselves. We communicate through symbols and while the English language is restricted to letters with specific phonetic values and words with specific meanings, some of the languages of the Eastern world are more symbolic in nature. Any student of the ancient languages of Hebrew and Greek quickly understands the shortcomings of the English language.

Hipps says, “Images initially make us feel rather than think.” Advertisers discovered this and if you pay attention to advertisements, this is fairly apparent. Whoever coined the phrase “a picture’s worth a thousand words” was not far off. In many ways, a picture is also worth a thousand emotions. Our culture has quickly moved from a “reading” culture to a “watching” culture. Hipps suggests that reading requires patience while watching encourages a catatonic and unengaged state. He even suggest that our image culture is eroding creativity and imagination.

Hipps unpacks the medium of email as a means of communication. In its genesis, email was meant to be efficient. While it may be a fairly efficient means of communication, the lack of intonation, body language, context, and other clarifying elements of communication are absent. If most of us were to stop and think, we would probably be able to recall at least one instance where an email was misinterpreted, either by us or by the recipient of one of our own emails.

Hipps suggests that as we continue in the electronic age, we are seeing a growing biblical illiteracy. In much the same way that we see the marketing of “10 Minute Abs” we also see the same marketing within Christian circles with people trying to sell their condensed version of spiritual formation. But whether we like it or not, reading, learning, and listening to the Bible takes time. It is not the simplest of books to ingest and understand.

One of my disagreements with Hipps in the book is more an issue of semantics than anything else. When I first started in vocational ministry, I would constantly hear the phrase “ever changing method, unchanging message.” Hipps suggests that both the method and the message change. While I don’t know him personally, so I can only speculate, it seems that he is saying not necessarily that the message changes so much as different aspects of it are highlighted or focused upon depending upon the context. The Gospel message does not change, but there are definitely aspects of it that stand out more depending upon a variety of factors that I bring with me when I interact with it.

As Hipps concludes his book, he writes, “Instead of simply resisting or caving in to cultural forces, we are invited to study and understand them. Only then will we learn to use them rather than be used by them.” His point is important as we, who are the church, should not blindly use certain mediums to communicate without thinking about the potential impact of said medium.

Of course, all of this coming on a blog may seem a little ironic. I do get the irony, and with that in mind, I certainly approach what I do with caution, being aware of the potential for misinterpretation and miscommunication. When I finally discovered the importance of clear electronic communication, I learned a valuable lesson and saved myself from numerous headaches. Unfortunately, as long as fallible creatures communicate, we will misunderstand and misinterpret one another, but that does not eliminate the need to continue trying to improve.

If you are actively engaged in our electronic culture, I would encourage you to pick up a copy of “Flickering Pixels.” It’s a quick read, but one that will make you think, and hopefully will make you analyze the ways that you communicate and the ways that you are communicated to as well.

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