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John, the Media Ecologist: Why I Am a Media Ecologist

Gregory E. Reynolds

"I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face," the Apostle John (3 John 13-14).

The Apostle John, in a simple but profound way, practiced media ecology in the first century. But, what is media ecology? you may ask.

Media Ecology is the study of the relationship of media to their cultural environment. Ecology is from the Greek οἶκος (oikos) for house, and deals with the management of households and other realms as interconnected environments or systems. Media ecology focuses on the critical analysis of media as environments and as part of the larger environment or cultural context. Secondly, media ecology deals with management or stewardship which the analysis of media warrants.[1]

For the Christian, media ecology is an aspect of the general stewardship of all of life in this present world. Such stewardship is an aspect of what is enjoined by Paul in Romans 12:2, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." This specifically Christian duty, therefore, involves a critical awareness of the ways in which each of the media affect us and our cultural environment—our various relationships; and finding ways to overcome any tendency we discover in media to conform us to this world. Simply put, media ecology is a stewardship of the God-given gift of communication that distinguishes humanity as his image-bearers.

Many people mistakenly perceive media ecology to be an entirely negative discipline. Hence the pejorative label Luddite is often used to describe us. But, as I've explained elsewhere, unless someone catches me smashing computers because they threaten my livelihood—as was the case with nineteenth-century weaver Ned Ludd, after whom this epithet is named—I cannot be fairly called a Luddite. John did not reject letter writing as a medium of communication. He simply understood that it was no substitute for the face to face communion of persons. The word communication implies communion. Depending on the medium of communication, the communion of persons is more or less facilitated. Community is related to the same root. The quality of our communion and the communities of which we are a part are formed, for good or ill, by the media we use and the larger media environment of which we are inescapably a part.

But how are we to understand the pen and ink as media? These, along with all inventions and technologies, are "extensions of man," as Marshall McLuhan would describe them. They are the product of our creativity as God's image bearers. In this sense the entire created order is an extension of the triune God. Not emanations, mind you, but extensions in the sense that God's character and acts are revealed in them.

To shun criticism of technology, while claiming that various inventions are just tools, is to shun wisdom. Wisdom is often defined as the proper use of tools. Proper use, in turn, requires the critical skills of identifying liabilities and benefits through critical analysis, as I have defined it above. Another way of understanding this critical process is suitability. As a media ecologist seeking to be a good steward of media this means that we will not seek to use pen and ink, or any other technology, to do what only personal presence can do. The apostle John understood the benefits and liabilities—or the suitability—of pen and ink, and acted accordingly. The maturing Christian is called to do the same.

A Noteworthy Anniversary

In this, the one hundredth anniversary of Marshall McLuhan, it is noteworthy that so many within and outside the church are becoming aware of the significance of his contribution to understanding media. The subject I began studying, speaking, and writing about over two decades ago, is now, for the first time since the 1960s, becoming more popular. Back then Joel Nederhood and Neil Postman were among the small group who understood the importance of McLuhan's unique insights into the effects of the electronic environment upon culture as a whole. Back in 1990, Nederhood was the only one I knew within the evangelical and Reformed church who really grasped the importance of understanding media. There was, of course, no shortage of content critique among evangelicals. But that is not what McLuhan wanted us to see. He wanted us to see what the media themselves are and how each medium and the sum total of media alter the messages they communicate. A good example of content criticism is the way movies are rated, by evangelicals and the population in general, according to the presence of violence, sex, and foul language. A more sophisticated version of this would be worldview criticism. But, legitimate as these concerns may be, they do not step back to look at the nature of the medium itself and ask, what is TV, or cinema, or the Internet? This is the matter to which McLuhan wished to awaken us.

But, as encouraging as the renewal of popularity of (and in many cases a genuine appreciation for) McLuhan's thought may be, the real question remains: Will Christians be willing to do the hard work of discerning the patterns of the new media environment and taking appropriate steps to protect biblical truth as it is embodied in the church's worship and government, and in the lives of God's people? Christians are called to be transformed by intellectual and spiritual renewal. To shun this responsibility is to remain in the default position of fallen humanity. If we are not wise stewards, our tools will shape us and our relationships with God, his church, other people, and his world. And this shaping will go largely unnoticed and thus unchallenged.

Let's look briefly at the uniqueness of McLuhan's insights into the nature of electronic media and at some ways in which his insights can help us face the challenge.

Marshaling McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan's entire pedagogy—including his puns and probes—was aimed at awakening sleep walkers to their media environment.

Marshall McLuhan didn't mince words when he observed: "Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot." The term "idiot" is only apparently uncharitable. The original Greek word (ἰδιώτης 1 Cor. 14:24, "unlearned," 2 Cor. 11:6 "untrained in speech") indicated ignorance of a particular language. The point is that, as a culture, we are largely ignorant of what we are doing with media, or more precisely, what the media are doing to us. That too was McLuhan's point—technological ignorance.[2]

Such ignorance is dangerous. Just as a fish is largely unaware of his watery environment, so we are largely unaware of our electronic environment. If the water is polluted, the fish dies. But, unlike fish, we are gifted with the ability of doing something about our man-made environments. This bedrock conviction of McLuhan came, I believe, from his basically Christian view of man as imago dei. He insisted, "There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is willingness to contemplate what is happening."[3] Mere contemplation and awareness is not enough, however. Action must be taken to navigate the new environment. Like the fishermen in Poe's "A Descent into the Maelström" (1841), to survive the ocean vortex one must observe the patterns of its forces and act accordingly.[4] Know where the off button is and use it.[5]

Far from advocating the move from print culture to electronic culture, McLuhan encouraged us to take the blessings of literacy seriously. Hidden in the uncharted sea of McLuhan's words of the continuous text of The Gutenberg Galaxy (and leaving the false impression of uncritical enthusiasm about the electronic environment) are these startling, but almost entirely ignored, words: "Far from belittling the Gutenberg mechanical culture, it seems to me that we must work to retain its achieved values."[6]

Another important element of McLuhan's essentially Christian anthropology is his consistent disparagement of Gnosticism, a denial of the value of embodied existence. For McLuhan this was one of the liabilities of electronic media. It contradicts the incarnation of Jesus Christ.[7] "Discarnate" was a favorite word McLuhan used to describe the condition created by the electronic environment. Along the lines of the Apostle John's concern for his flock is my concern that because of this tendency to disembodied existence (discarnation) we must ask some hard questions of ourselves regarding every relationship in our lives. And this is not only negative. Criticism in this sense is an exercise in understanding, not negativity. So, we should ask, how does my involvement with this particular medium enhance or detract from my relationship with God, his Word, his people, the church, public worship, my family, people I work with, my neighbors, and God's world? For example, I once gave a talk on media ecology to a small group of seminary students. I began by saying, "Please turn off your cell phones, because I don't want anything to come between you and me." How often do our gadgets get between us and others?

Another set of questions should involve the ways that media, as well as all technologies, change my perception of the world around me, including people and institutions. Meeting people in person who we have only known through the Internet, for example, is instructive in terms of assumptions that prove wrong. On the other hand, I may learn a lot about someone by a simple Internet search. Watching network news may alter our perception of the world in such a way that we become afraid to leave our homes or communities. The Internet, however, might give us a more accurate report of what's actually happening in Tahrir Square during the uprisings in Cairo, Egypt. The Internet may expand our knowledge of the world, but social networks may limit us to only those we know and actually narrow our view of the world.

Beyond this are profound questions of how electronic media have changed social structures, and what, if anything, we can do about it. Most people are not in a position to change these structures, but being aware of how access to information alters the institutions of our world enables us to see what we need to navigate. This was McLuhan's goal. By observing the patterns of technological change we learn navigation skills. For example, a man who chooses not to participate in social networks may come to realize that, as a consequence, others know more about what's going on in the lives of his friends than he does. By recognizing the way social networks function, he can find other ways to make sure he stays in touch.

It should be noted that my criticisms of a particular medium are not meant to be universal pronouncements, only my particular application of media ecology in my situation in life and with my unique sensibilities. In this sense, much media criticism falls into the category of Christian liberty. As Paul told the Corinthians, " 'All things are lawful,' but not all things are helpful. 'All things are lawful,' but not all things build up" (1 Cor. 10:23).

This is not say that absolute truth does not impinge on these questions. God's law and the wisdom of his Word must be brought to bear on every area of the Christian life. Church officers must wrestle with the use of electronic media in public worship, in church discipline, and in shepherding God's flock. Social networks, email, and the Internet are tending to subvert Presbyterian government. Officers must take loving, wise steps to overcome this tendency. Officers need to promote the kind of personal presence in church relations that forms the basis for other kinds of electronic interaction.

There are few black and white answers to the perplexing questions raised by the new electronic environment in which we live. But Christians have been given an infallible framework, the lens of Scripture, for living in and interpreting God's world. We have also been given wisdom in the common culture about the history and nature of technology. Through these provisions of our God, I believe we can navigate this present age to the glory of God. That is why I am a media ecologist. My goal in this essay has been to sample the thinking I believe we should engage in to be good stewards of media. I have employed Marshall McLuhan as one very useful guide. He is by no means an infallible or sufficient guide, but a very good place to begin.

So the next time you take up pen and paper, your smart phone or iPad, or view the world through the lens of a screen, think of the apostle John—weigh the benefits and the liabilities.

Endnotes

[1] Gregory E. Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Wipf and Stock, 2001), 152. A fine example of this stewardship applied to preaching is T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009).

[2] Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures, 279 (quoting Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964], 18).

[3] Marshall McLuhan, "McLuhan Probes," in Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message, eds. Sanderson and Macdonald (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1989), 219; Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (New York: Bantam Books, 1967), 25.

[4] Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (Boston: Beacon, 1951), 43, 45.

[5] Bruce W. Powe quotes McLuhan without attribution in "A McLuhan Symposium," in Marshall McLuhan The Man and His Message, eds. Sanderson and Macdonald, 120. It appears to come from a 1966 interview by Robert Fulford found in Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews, eds. Stephanie McLuhan and David Staines (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2003).

[6] McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), 135.

[7] Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures, 166; 286-90.

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, December 2011.

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