The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Understanding the Voices of the Electronic World, Chapter 1

Gregory Edward Reynolds

“For from day to day men came to David to help him, until there was a great army, like an army of God. . . . Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do.” (1 Chronicles 12:22, 32)

“If we as Christians today see idolatry only at life’s margins, we will be ill-equipped to use this powerful critical tool as the apostles and prophets did—to understand and challenge the surrounding world.” (Richard Keyes[1])

“The Idol is the measure of the worshiper.” (James Russell Lowell[2])

“The contemporary preacher must project his message into the teeth of the gale of the mass media. The air is full of voices” (Merrill R. Abbey[3])

“Today, in the electronic age of instantaneous communication, I believe that our survival, and at the very least our comfort and happiness, is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment, because unlike previous environmental changes, the electric media constitute a total and near instantaneous transformation of culture, values and attitudes.” (Marshall McLuhan[4])

The Electronic Landscape[5]

Faithful preaching has always required awareness of the cultural milieu, especially the communication environment in which the preaching of God’s Word takes place. This is the preacher’s environment, the world in need of the good news. Such awareness must be motivated by a deep desire to understand, respect, and genuinely care for those we wish to address. This insight will also equip us to challenge the idolatrous patterns woven into every fallen culture. The modern situation demands special attention to the new electronic environment since most people, especially Americans, are naïve, largely because they are unaware of the pervasive influence of the media on their thinking and living—the ways in which media shapes us.

There are increasingly alarming signs relative to the ubiquitous, dominating presence of electronic media in our lives. Rejection of electronic media is not an option, but nor is uncritical embrace. Wise navigation is the order of the day. This is the task of the preacher and his hearers.

BBC One’s “Inside Out: West Midlands” explored how one family unit survived under the strain of a technology detox.

The Stones family from Coventry was given the tough task of living without technology for four days. Professor Russell Beale, from the University of Birmingham's School of Computer Science, monitored their coping strategies and the changing interactions between family members.[6]

The very existence of such experiments, as well as the many emerging programs and places designed to help people overcome electronic addictions, should sound an alarm.

When I lecture on media stewardship, I begin by asking people to turn off their cell phones because I do not want anything to come between them and me. Now we are so immersed in our electronic environment that we are usually unaware of its presence. McLuhan used the analogy of fish, “We live invested in an electric information environment that is quite as imperceptible to us as water is to fish.”[7]

This new electronic environment has expanded over time. On May 24, 1844, the first electric communication was transmitted by telegraph, the Victorian Internet, thirty-seven miles between Baltimore and Washington, DC. Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791–1872) sent the famous message “What Hath God Wrought!” His daughter had chosen the quote from Numbers 23:23 in the King James Version, “God brings them out of Egypt and is for them like the horns of the wild ox. . . . ‘What has God wrought!’ Behold, a people!” Morse used the statement as an exclamation, not a question, as some have erroneously thought. He was proclaiming this revolutionary form of communication to be a wonder of God’s Providence. What we now take for granted had the appearance of a miracle to mid-nineteenth century perceptions.

Between 1838 and 1882 photography, the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, and movies were invented. Then in 1902 the first wireless radio signal was sent across the Atlantic. Thirty years later the first television broadcast was made from the Empire State Building. A little over twenty years later (1953) the first computer, used by the Defense Department, was invented. By 1970 this comprised a network of computers. Just five years later in January 1975 the first microprocessor-based computer was marketed to the general public. In 1980 the first Internetwork, linking scientific and academic networks, was operational. The next year the first personal computer (PC) was sold. By 1990 the Internet and World Wide Web were becoming household realities. Most recently in 2005, the Web, often referred to as Web 2.0, went mobile with smart phones and text-messaging, and a variety of social media appeared on the Internet.

The magic has never left. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad, he declared it “magical and revolutionary.”[8] High tech engineers and their promoters are the new alchemists. Magic became a reality as the scientific order began to take form in the sixteenth century. This should not be a surprise as the ultimate goal of magic is autonomous human control over God’s world. The Enlightenment unleashed these powers through science and its progeny, technology. C. S. Lewis explores the relationship between science and magic in That Hideous Strength (1946). The book’s name comes from Scottish knight and poet Sir David Lyndsay’s Ane Dialog (1555), in which he describes the Tower of Babel, “The shadow of that hyddeous strength sax mile or more it is of length.” The evil Lord Feverstone—a telling name—states his agenda, “If Science is really given a free hand it can now take over the human race and re-condition it: make man a really efficient animal.”[9] Jobs seems to have had the connection between science and magic in mind.

Not only has the electronic environment grown over time, but it also has done so with increasing rapidity over time and thus manifests several unique characteristics. Many would say inventions like the printing press have always ushered in change, but consider the difference. Arthur Boers, the author of Living in Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distractions, enumerates several ways in which the contemporary technological situation is unique.[10] It has precipitated an unprecedented rate of change, which leaves us no time to adapt discerningly to the new technology, thus technology overpowers us. Gutenberg’s moveable type took two centuries to take hold of western culture. Furthermore, the new environment is artificial, separating us from the natural world. As author Wendell Berry reminds us, “The Bible is an outdoor book.”[11] So the new technology tends to distance us from the world of the Bible. Technology is also pervasive and ubiquitous—it dominates everything everywhere, so there is no rest, no sabbath or vacation. Finally, its universal dominance tends to demand conformity, thus undermining the uniqueness of local cultures.

So, we are challenged to change Morse’s exclamation into a probing question: What hath God wrought? Unpacking this question requires us to ask the right questions. As preachers we must let Scripture set the questioning agenda. God tells us through Paul the pastor-preacher:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 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. (Rom. 12:1–2)

So, the default position of every child of Adam is world conformity. Thus, the first question to ask is, Does the electronic environment disciple us? If so, how? Electronic media, along with all technology, as extensions of man, are a gift of God, but they also have created a powerful environment of world conforming influence in which the powers of spiritual darkness have found new means of influence.

What do we mean by environment? In the world of vinting wine, “terroir” refers to the combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character. It is a total and complex environment. In his book Propaganda, French sociologist Jacques Ellul reminds us of the power of the cultural environment: “People manipulated by propaganda become increasingly impervious to spiritual realities.”[12] The terroir of the world is the totality of its culture, the soil or habitat in which its inhabitants grow.

We should never forget that the genius who invented Facebook is telling us how to organize and view our world—Mark Zuckerberg’s worldview. “Friend” and “Like” are juvenile, binary delineations of human life. Technologies are never neutral. They are altering the social structure and intellectual climate of our world. We need to challenge this idea. We must ask: What has been gained and lost? How does this new environment affect my relationship with God, his world, his people, and my culture?

The terroir of the Christian is the church and the Word—this is where the preacher cultivates and exercises his preaching. This is where McLuhan’s idea of forming a “counter-environment” may be applied to the kingdom of God—the Word saturated Church, transformed by the renewal of the whole person through the ordinary means of Word, sacrament, and prayer.

Asking the Right Questions

We live in a brave new electronic world—new in the sense that our level of technological skill and control is unparalleled in history. Electricity has given us an “almost” magical power to control the created order and our cultural environment. The Baconian logic of Enlightenment control, disconnected from the constraints of faith, has left us living off of the borrowed capital of Christian ideas and aspirations while divorcing those from transcendent reality—meaning which can only be found in the Trinity. Thus, we are left with technology disconnected from purpose and ultimate meaning. Technology without telos is enormously dangerous.

Jacques Ellul defines the technological society as the climate in which we live and move and have our being. He defines “Technique” as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.”[13] Technology, including all of the inventions of man, is a larger category of which electronic media is a subcategory, but electronic media are now present in almost every mechanical device. Autonomous efficiency is a chief god in the pantheon of modernity. Ellul gloomily predicted the pervasive effect of this efficiency over half a century ago,

The effects of technique are already too far advanced for us to begin again at the beginning. There is no doubt that all the traditional cultures and sociological structures will be destroyed by technique before we can discover or invent social, economic, and psychological forms of adaptation which might possibly have preserved the equilibrium of these societies.[14]

However difficult it may be to navigate this new environment, the Christian, and especially the preacher, has resources unknown to the world.

It is incumbent upon us, therefore, not to ask the wrong questions, or fail to ask any questions at all. Asking no questions at all unwittingly invites and even guarantees world conformity. Most Americans, including most Christians, have greeted every advance in electronic communications with uncritical enthusiasm, naively asserting that media are just tools that assist us in progress. There is a sense, of course, in which they are tools, wonderful tools, but they are so much more, as we shall see. Back in the sixties, Bishop Fulton Sheen, a genius in the early use of television for religious purposes, declared, “Radio is like the Old Testament, hearing wisdom without seeing; television is like the New Testament, because in it the wisdom becomes flesh and dwells among us.”[15] Unfortunately, such uncritical enthusiasm still largely prevails in the evangelical community.

A recent example of technological boosterism is Sebastian Thrun, a Google technological genius. He helped develop “street view” and is now working on driverless cars. He recommends breaking all the rules and disrupting all the old ways. His online artificial intelligence class was a huge success. His enthusiasm knows no bounds:

The AI class was the first light. Online education will way exceed the best education today. And cheaper. If this works, we can rapidly accelerate the progress of society and the world. If you think FaceBook is neat, wait five to ten years. So many open problems will be solved.[16]

Marshall McLuhan did not 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.”[17] 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.

The new Pharisaism is technological: “more technologically sophisticated than thou” or “cooler than thou.” We are told that we must use the new media in the church to be relevant. The secular doctrine of progress, that new is always better, rules—“More relevant than thou.” Those considering new contemporary forms of worship almost never consider the nature of media. For example, even secular statistician (called “Leonardo da Vinci of data” by The New York Times) Edward Tufte explains the deficiencies of PowerPoint presentations in the business world. It alters the cognitive situation.[18] Formatting rules content. So, in worship, PowerPoint tends to mold worshippers in its image. More generally, the use of pop culture, which is electronically performed and marketed, in worship music tends to undermine reverence and awe. The medium of worship is a powerful implementation of the message of Scripture. As we will see in Part 2, God’s chosen medium for the central act of worship, which is the ministry of the Word, is you the preacher-pastor.

Tools to Assess the Electronic Environment

Ever since Adam uttered his first words, stewardship of communication became essential to fulfill the great purposes of our God. When sin entered communications, communication ecology became a complex enterprise. Add to that electronic media and the complexity multiplies. In his Providence, God has gifted us with electronic media. Appropriate use means assessing its benefits and liabilities—understanding how the medium shapes the messages we intend to communicate. Several thinkers have given us tools to help understand and navigate the media environment.

Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan, professor of English at Saint Michael’s College in the University of Toronto and founder of the academic discipline media ecology, was an innovator, who probed the nature of our new electric environment. His famous aphorism “The medium is the message” is a purposefully thought-provoking professorial “probe.” A veteran punster, he expressed many variations of this saying, among them: “the medium is the massage” and “the medium is the mess-age” (making a mess of our age) and “the medium is the mass age” (that is creating mass communication). His most well-known books are The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962); Understanding Media (1964); and The Medium Is the Massage (1967).

The gist of this maxim is that every medium is an essential aspect of every message. The form of a given medium shapes the message. Form and content are inextricably bound together. But there is more: as the subtitle of McLuhan’s major work Understanding Media posits, all inventions are extensions of man. As extensions of man, electronic media together form a total environment and thus alter not only messages but also the way we see the world and all social, political, and religious structures and relationships in our world.

Think about the ways in which all technologies as extensions of man change not only the way that we view the world but also all of our relational structures. Consider the way the automobile changes how you see the street you live on in contrast to the way you see that street when you walk, and the way that you relate to the people that live in the houses when you walk down the street, as opposed to when you drive down that street. Look at the difference between knowing people on FaceBook and knowing them face-to-face. Richard Louv is concerned that the way of knowing the natural world via electronic media and actually going into the wild are radically different, whereas many people prefer the virtual to the actual to their own tremendous impoverishment.[19] These are concerns for the preacher.

The simplest tool of assessment is consideration of the benefits and liabilities of each electronic medium? How does my cell phone effect my relationships to my family, friends, the church, and the Lord? We can learn to navigate better by enjoying the benefits and avoiding the liabilities.

The metaphor of navigation was a favorite of McLuhan’s, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “A Descent into the Maelström” (1841). Fishermen are swallowed up in a whirling ocean vortex. One fisherman learns how to survive by observing the way a barrel descends and then ascends out of the vortex. By discovering the patterns of its forces and acting accordingly, he is able to swirl to safety. Pattern recognition is a major theme of McLuhan’s. While we cannot alter the overall environment of our culture, we can learn to navigate it wisely. Preachers must help their congregations do so. McLuhan insisted, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is willingness to contemplate what is happening.”[20] Mere contemplation and awareness, however, is not enough. Action must be taken to navigate the new environment. To put it more bluntly, McLuhan advised us to know where the off button is and use it.

Late in his career, Marshall McLuhan teamed up with his son Eric and wrote a book called The Laws of Media.[21] These four laws, known as the Tetrad, are a very sophisticated set of perspectives to help understand the ways in which a particular medium effects other media. Each new technology:

#1 Obsoletes – It replaces another technology, like the automobile replaced the horse-drawn carriage. This explains why it was called a “horseless carriage” for a long time and why we still refer to internal combustion engine power as “horsepower.”

#2 Retrieves – It restores an old technology’s best features. Cell phones restore the communication of a village, email retrieves the telegraph.

#3 Enhances – It enables, as an extension of man, to do something better, like word processing extends the capacity of typewriters to produce documents. The automobile extends the human capacity to travel, overcoming space.

#4 Reverses – It becomes or does something unintended when pushed to an extreme, like the automobile causing traffic jams and accidents and dispersing neighborhoods and families.

The Media Metaphors of Joshua Meyrowitz

In trying to develop critical awareness to overcome this naiveté, I have found communications scholar Joshua Meyrowitz to be very insightful. As Meyrowitz points out, the environmental aspect of media, which is the least appreciated in media studies, helps us understand the ways in which social structures are changed by media. He goes on to express his preference for the label “medium theory” because such analysis asks: “What are the relatively fixed features of each means of communicating and how do these features make the medium physically, psychologically, and socially different from other media and from face-to-face interaction.”[22]

Meyrowitz offers the thoughtful preacher a helpful synthetic approach to media criticism by combining the metaphors used to analyze media in the history of communication study. Media are viewed as conduits in which the content of messages are analyzed, as languages in which the grammar of a medium is analyzed, and as environments in which the environment created by a medium is analyzed.[23] In this way the media critic will foster an awareness that no single way of viewing media is sufficient for understanding communication. Of course, each medium involves all three aspects, but analyzing them separately aids our understanding of the subtle dimensions of the media environment.

1. Medium as a conduit of information. “Conduit” is related to the word “content,” that is medium as a tool of communication. This most obvious and, therefore, most discussed dimension of media is not specific to particular media but crosses “easily from medium to medium and between mediated and unmediated interaction” and deals with “behaviors, themes, and topics.”[24] Assessing the impact of sex and violence on television is a classic example of this kind of analysis.

2. Medium as a language, or grammar. This aspect of media analysis focuses on the “unique ‘grammar’ of each medium and the ways in which the production variables of each medium . . . interact with content elements” and are thus used to “shape perception and response to mediated communications.”[25] This form of analysis “demands some understanding of the specific workings of individual media . . .” such as the television’s camera-ability to make close-up and personal shots and distance shots, which focus more on social roles.[26] Clear comparison among grammatical elements of a medium or media requires the content to remain constant, such as a murder shown from the perspective of the victim or from the perspective of the murderer. Unlike content, the more effective the grammar is the less obvious it is to the audience.[27]

For example, such analysis might discover that a producer favored a political candidate in a televised debate by having the camera zoom in for close-ups at favorable moments in the debate, and from the best perspective, and perhaps more frequently than with the opposing candidate. Close-ups of the opposing candidate might be done when the candidate is blowing his nose or looking confused. The Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate in 1960 is the classic example of this metaphor in action. Kennedy was calm and dignified while Nixon had been up late and was nervous and sweating. Nixon lost the television debate badly but won on the radio, where verbal content took center stage, rather than appearances. This diverse outcome through two different media covering the same event shows the importance of media grammar.

3. Medium as an environment. This metaphor is the most subtle and thus most difficult to grasp. As an environment it draws us into itself but is also connected with the larger macro-environment of culture. Observe how media change our perception of the world around us. They change the way that we look at reality, teach us what is important, molding our perceptions and ultimate commitments. This aspect of media analysis focuses on “the particular characteristics of each medium. . . . The nature of the medium shapes key aspects of the communication on both the micro-, single-situation level and the macro-, societal level.”[28]

Macro-level analysis assesses the social changes effected by a medium in terms of social boundaries, situations, and institutions. It also takes into account the contextual social, political, and economic forces that foster media development. This form of analysis is most difficult, because it is the least obvious of the three aspects, especially after a medium becomes culturally pervasive.[29] The fact that television, as a medium, discourages rational discourse and encourages “all-at-onceness” may explain why Johnny has difficulty reading because print is linear and logical in its essence. At the macro-level this will lend insight to discussion of the failure of the traditional curriculum, which is based on a literary model.

An important dimension of this way of looking at media is the often unrecognized reality that media alter social space. JoshuaMeyrowitz’s groundbreaking book No Sense of Place (1985)[30] adds to McLuhan’s analysis of media’s messages by incorporating the paradigm of situational sociologist Erving Goffman, whose seminal work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959),[31] looks at the ways that access to information alters social structures. Because electronic media alter access to information, they have transformed the social landscape of our world. Neil Postman, who directed Meyrowitz’s doctoral work at New York University, followed this insight in The Disappearance of Childhood,[32] demonstrating how television exposes children to undifferentiated communication, including adult themes, which were once imparted gradually through reading and conversation and rites of passages, when the gatekeepers were parents, clergy, and teachers. Children are now exposed to the adult world via adult information, before they learn to read. Social space and structure have been profoundly transformed. Old world children grew up in a closed environment, carefully controlled by parents. They gained access, their rite of passage into adult world, through reading and conversation. This is not only true of communication but also transportation. Harold Innis’s A History of the Canadian Pacific Railroad [33] showed how the transcontinental railroad changed the social structure of Canada. This was a powerful influence on McLuhan’s thinking.

Many secular researchers are sounding an alarm in this area. Professor Sherry Turkle, who was once very positive about the influence of technology on human beings and their relationships, has written Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.[34] She is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and a licensed clinical psychologist. She reports a change in her early assessments.

I reported on this work [focus groups exploring the boundaries between real and virtual worlds] in my 1995 Life on the Screen, which offered, on balance, a positive view of new opportunities for exploring identity online. But by then, my optimism of 1984 [The Second Self] had been challenged. I was meeting people, many people, who found online life more satisfying than what some derisively called “RL,” that is, real life.[35]

Church leaders and parents are becoming aware of some of the dangers associated with online life. Mediated relationships open people up to deception about who they really are. This is a special temptation for teenagers, who are forming their identities and learning habits of human interaction. Things are expressed online that would never be expressed, or at least in the same manner, in face-to-face situations. In some cases, social skills are so stunted that young people actually fear face-to-face interaction. The church has a definite advantage in this area because we believe in the vital importance of meeting together for worship, learning, and fellowship—face-to-face.

Preachers need to be aware of how the new media environment effects the lives of our congregants. Back to God Hour preacher Joel Nederhood maintained that preaching is the only bridge between Scripture and this present age. The Bible is the only “alternative environment” to the pseudo-environment of the electronic media. God is a great user of media. His creation is a great medium. Jesus Christ as the Mediator bridges the gap between the infinite and the finite. Due to sin, man tends to pervert media. So, the preacher needs to discern the nature of man’s inventions.[36]

The Benefits and Liabilities Test

A more popular tool of analysis, best for preaching and teaching media stewardship to the church, is what I call “The Benefits and Liabilities Test.”What are the consequences of our inventions in terms of their benefits and liabilities? Take the examples of email and FaceBook; how are they beneficial? Email is a fine tool for document transfer, administrative work, quick messages for meetings, etc. FaceBook is great for sharing pictures, personal info, and staying up to date with the activities of family and friends.

But both also have serious liabilities. Both tend to undermine face-to-face communication; FaceBook isolates and narrows one’s world to “friends.” Most are unaware that they are being used for the largest focus group in history. Facebook uses its clients for marketing. Email’s efficiency encourages sloppy composition, and thus careless thinking. Text messaging exacerbates this tendency by seriously apocopating language. There is much more that could be said on both sides of the ledger. This is a simple sample. Preachers should encourage people to develop plans and patterns of change in order to better navigate the new environment. Challenge the church (and yourself) to ask the tough questions of how various media effect their relationships to God, the church, other people, themselves, and God’s world.

Understand the Idols of the Age

An important element in assessing our cultural environment is the biblical concept of idolatry. Preachers will benefit from understanding the ways that modern technology, especially electronic media, enhances the creative possibilities of idolators, thus presenting the preacher with a formidable enemy.

The prophet Habakkuk described the enemies of God, who are about to brutally conquer his people Israel, in a startling way: “Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!” (Hab. 1:11). Ultimately idolatry can be reduced to its most basic loyalty—human autonomy. In this case, power is the far idol made concrete by the various war gods, locating the trust and fidelity of their worshippers. No age is without its idols.

Defining Idolatry[37]

The Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 34, Question #95) has a concise definition:

“What is idolatry? A. It is, instead of the one true God who has revealed Himself in His Word, or besides Him, to devise or have something else on which to place our trust.”[38]

Idolatry is the substitution of an element in God’s creation for him in an effort to suppress the truth. Idolatry is the worship of a substitute for the true and living God. True worship is the ascription of worth to the Lord as the ultimate source of reality, meaning, and redemption. False worship is the ascription of ultimate worth to a lesser, created object. “Idolatry is the ultimate sin. It is also, in a sense, the root of all other sins.”[39] It is a matter of ultimate loyalty, which at bottom devolves around the self. The prophet Jeremiah sums this up in terms of trust, “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). An idol is a means of harnessing power to enable fallen man to assert his independence by controlling God’s world. Idolaters view reality as infinitely manipulable, given the right scientific knowledge and technological ability. Autonomous people are free to refine and redesign everything, especially human beings. Modern technology has simply fueled this conceit.

Originally creation was designed to be a medium of revelation of the glory of God the Creator (Rom. 1:20). Humans were designed to cultivate and guard the temple-garden for communion with God. Since Adam’s rebellion, idolatry is the native instinct of fallen man. In his rebel quest to “be like God,” he harnesses the powers and resources of creation for his own sinful, self-exalting purposes. Culture is corrupted by the worship of the creation in place of the Creator, as Paul says, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (Rom. 1:25). Rebel man creates God-substitutes known as idols, which function as media to communicate, cultivate, and legitimize man’s rebellion. Idolatry is an effort to assert autonomy by diminishing God to a manageable size, thus seeking to control Him. Calvin observed that idolaters “wish to reduce God, who is immeasurable and incomprehensible, to a five foot measure.”[40]

The visual appeal of the forbidden fruit, in Genesis 3, lies at the heart of the temptation. “So, when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate” (v. 6). The underlying assertion of autonomy in Eve’s act forms the basic motive of idolatry. She “worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). The God-given beauty of the tree and its fruit became a seductive image through the perception of a rebel. Visual as well as verbal appeal became the primary media of deceit. Created reality became the locus of man’s devotion. What was created to reflect the glory of God became the object of worship in an effort to usurp God’s sovereignty. Man as the “image” (בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּּ Gen. 1:26–27) of God turned his creative and interpretive powers into an evasion and suppression of the truth (Rom. 1:18). This endeavor has polluted all of our cultural activities ever since.

The power and immediate presence of the visual elements of the serpent’s seductive interpretation of the covenant of life lend themselves to the purposes of idolatry. In the hands of sinful men the visual image becomes a means of defining reality, even purporting to create reality, independently of God and controlling the powers of his creation. Idols impressively package various forms of the lie that the true and living God is not who he says he is in his Word. The medium is closely associated with the message. Visual images are used by idolaters to give form to their idolatry. They capture the oral interpretations and rituals associated with the idol. Images give earth-bound coherence to the idolatrous perspective on life. By giving a sense of historical concreteness, the idol lends credibility to the beliefs and practices of the idolater. The suppressing activity of the fallen mind is positively expressed in its attitudes toward created reality. All media become potential modes of communicating the great denial of God’s glory.

The fallen imagination, using the Adamic powers of lordship, thus names and controls the objects of its affections in forms which embody their own sinful agendas. Idolaters are controlled and discipled by their idols in a covenant with emptiness and death; because they live in God’s world, which is cursed due to idolatry, their endeavors are thwarted. As the psalmist Asaph observes of the apparently successful unbelievers, “Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin” (Ps. 73:18).

Furthermore, idolatry and immorality are inseparable. Man’s ultimate ethical commitment determines the objects of his affections and devotion. His rebellious stance is both reflected in and cultivated by the idols he constructs. “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:8). Idolatry always dehumanizes. The preacher must therefore be alert to the ways in which idolatry is expressed in the electronic environment.

Applying Idolatry to the Critical Task of Media Ecology

Idolatry is the most comprehensive biblical concept by which to understand people in their fallen situation—culture. It gives concrete expression to man’s natively sinful heart. Along with presuppositional apologetics, this concept should be used to develop a distinctively Christian approach to the electronic media. Idolatry is at the heart of the thought forms and moral habits of every fallen culture. Media, especially electronic media, create a pervasive environment. Thus, the vast and world-encompassing Babel-like Paradise project of modernity highlights the use of technology to create a culture independent of God.

The digital world is designed for maximum binary efficiency—remember Ellul’s definition of technique. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an example of fallen human beings using their God-given intelligence to seek ultimate control by creating and manipulating others. Because digital technology cannot possibly replicate human consciousness, cognition, and values, much less human beings, we tend to let computer programming control us, rather than using it to assist human life. Thus, we end up promoting the discipling power of idolatry.

God has designed his own media of special revelation to communicate, cultivate, and reassert his Lordship over his creation. Thus, he has entrusted his Word to his chosen people, the church, especially preachers of the Word (Verbi divini minister).

In the Old Covenant the tabernacle and temple, their rites, priestly order, and the Word were the media God used. God chose a medium suited to his message. The problem of imagery is not located in material representations of religious truth as such, but rather in the source of those representations. The God of Israel goes to great lengths to prescribe the architecture, furnishings, clothing, personnel, and rites of the tabernacle and temple in great detail. The Author of all meaning precisely chose material representations suited to his redemptive purposes.[41] The presence of the cherubim accented the difference between the temples of idols and the temple of Yahweh. Their wings overshadowed the ark of the covenant, signalizing the invisible presence of the LORD between them, so the cherubim function as guardians of the divine glory.[42] The divinely prescribed cherubim defined and accentuated that distinction by not reducing God himself to a visual image.[43]

In the New Covenant the mediatorial presence of the incarnate, glorified Son through his Word and Spirit, prayer, and the sacraments are God’s chosen media. The Lord re-orients the idolatrous misuse of the visual for his creational-redemptive purposes by choosing the media of worship. The Word is central in reasserting this control. In common culture the restrictions of the Second Commandment do not apply in the same way. While idolatry is forbidden for all people, God has allowed fallen mankind to develop media of communication as part of his common order and blessing, i.e. common grace. The Christian is called to consecrate these media to God’s glory in his everyday cultural endeavors.

Idolatry is still the chief temptation of the church. It is the central means by which the church is tempted and corrupted. Thus, ministers of the Word are called to teach and warn God’s people of the nature and dangers of idolatry so that they can develop a paradigm, or pattern of spiritual perception, to understand and resist the idolatrous elements of fallen history and culture. The use of this paradigm is central to the church’s task of discipling the idolatrous nations under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

The Mosaic legislation, in the Second Commandment, directly challenges idolatry:

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exod. 20:4–6)

This commandment deals with the exclusive allegiance required by the LORD of his people. The First Commandment defines, in negative terms, the object of worship, while the second negatively defines the means of worship. Both forbid idolatry, although the second is usually the commandment associated with it. The media used in worship are central to the LORD’s concern because the medium communicates the message.

Media critic Neil Postman found this commandment to be formative in his own exploration of the nature and uses of media, “The second commandment was unique in the world of its day.”[44] No other ancient law code expresses this concern for images:

In studying the Bible as a young man, I found intimations of the idea that forms of media favor particular kinds of content and therefore are capable of taking command of a culture. I refer particularly to the Decalogue, the Second Commandment. . . . It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture.[45]

Postman, viewing the commandment in terms of cultural criticism, does not deal with idolatry per se, but he puts his finger on a crucial point. The form in which God’s character and the nature of his relationship with his people is communicated plays a critical role in determining the content of that communication. Marshall McLuhan observed a similar connection in Psalm 115:

The concept of “idol” for the Hebrew Psalmist is much like that of Narcissus for the Greek mythmaker. And the Psalmist insists that the beholding of idols, or the use of technology, conforms men to them. “They that make them shall be like unto them.” This is a simple fact of sense “closure.”[46]

The point of both Postman and McLuhan is not to comment on the nature of idolatry but rather to demonstrate the culturally formative power of media. It should not be inferred from their statements that the visual is inherently idolatrous. The Second Commandment deals specifically with the means or media of worship, thus while Postman deals with culture formation, the biblical commandment deals with cultic formation, that is a connection between the forms of divine communication and the quality of the worship and community which they affect. Although the forms of media in common culture are not divinely prescribed, that does not mean that there is not a connection between those forms and the culture they form. The powerful grip of idolatry on men’s souls is evident in the very socio-economic fabric of fallen culture. The preacher should be concerned first with the cultic implications of this commandment, but then also its cultural implications. The embassy of the church, having turned from idols to worship the true and living God through the grace of God in Christ (1 Thess. 1:9), is commissioned with the task of confronting the idolatrous world with the transforming message of the Good News. Paul’s ministry in Ephesus provides a poignant example of this. The local silversmiths profited from crafting shrines to the idol Artemis (Acts 19:21–41). The preaching of the gospel changed human hearts and aspects of their culture.

It is God’s plan that the church should inhabit the world of idolaters (1 Cor. 5:10–11) precisely because it is an embassy among the nations, representing the program of our sovereign God. The urgent mandate to Christians to “flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:14; Col. 3:5, 10) is in order that the new order of humanity created in Christ should be visible to the lost world. The centrality of this imperative to the gospel cannot be overestimated. John sums up all that he has to say about assurance of faith in his first epistle with the comprehensive pastoral plea, “keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).

The Christ of Scripture is the only antidote to idolatry. Only the grace of the Mediator, God incarnate, can overcome idols, as Zechariah predicted long ago:

On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness. And on that day, declares the LORD of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more. (Zech. 13:1–2, emphasis added)

The image of God in Christ is the ultimate challenge to the worship of idols. All idols are counterfeit mediators. But now the true Mediator has invaded history. The writer of Hebrews indicates that the Son is the final medium (πολυτρόπως, Heb. 1:1) of God’s self-revelation (ἐλάλησεν ἡμῖν ἐν υἱῷ, Heb. 1:2) in this the final epoch (ἐπ᾿ ἐσχάτου τῶν ἡμερῶν τούτων, Heb. 1:2) of redemptive history. He is the “exact imprint” (χαρακτήρ, Heb. 1:3) of God, such that he who has seen the Son has seen the Father (John 14:9; cf. 1:14).

The Creator-Son has made himself visible in history to draw our attention away from the worship of created things (εἰκόνος, Rom. 1:23) to which we are so powerfully attracted by our fallen natures. Jesus the Christ is the full and final speech of God to lost humanity. In him the brightness of God’s glory consummately shines (ἀπαύγασμα τῆς δόξης, Heb. 1:3). He is the original image (αὐτὴν τὴν εἰκόνα, Heb. 10:1) of which the Old Covenant law, in its prescribed forms, is but a dim shadow (Σκιὰν, Heb. 10:1). He is the only antidote to idolatry.

For an exposition of the biblical material, I recommend the summary I provide in Chapter 1 of The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures; the implications of idolatry for the church in Chapter 2; as well as the superb exegetical work of G. K. Beale in We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (2008).

This Paradigm Is for Preachers

The preacher as an apologist should be a joyful iconoclast like G. K. Chesterton, turning the weapons of unbelief back on the critics themselves. As pastor-apologist Richard Keyes reminds us:

Like someone held at gunpoint with his own pistol, Christians have been threatened and attacked for two hundred years on the basis of their own view of idolatry, turned against them. Such celebrated critics of the gospel as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud based their debunking of religion on the insights that originally came from the Biblical notion. They claimed that religion was not true, but merely a projection of the believer. Curiously, however, now that these critics and their philosophies are themselves in bad shape, Christians have been surprisingly slow in reclaiming their own best weapon.[47]

The beliefs of the idolater are projections of their unbelief in the face of God. The wise preacher will challenge unbelief in all of its dimensions. The church is called to be a witness lamp, a menorah (Rev. 1–3), in the midst of an idol-building world.

The whole counsel of God is the weapon of the wise preacher, who like Paul studies his audience at every level, out of a passionate desire to see God’s Word penetrate to the center of ultimate allegiance, exposing the idols of his time by bringing them under the searching light of Scripture and toppling them with the preaching of Christ, crucified and risen.

He will understand the means of communication as a critical element in exegeting his culture. He will believe in the power of God to speak to this generation, use the medium of live pastoral preaching in the historical presence of people made in God’s image to bring sinners to repentance, and build a new servant-humanity after the glorious image of the incarnate Son.

Pastor Timothy Keller has been dealing with what he calls “late modern” people in the intensely secular urban environment of New York City for more than three decades. He has sought to answer the question: How do we engage late moderns with the gospel without compromising Scripture? He points to Paul’s approach in Athens, where he notices that they have a religious instinct, but it is misdirected (Acts 17:22–31). He quotes the Greek philosophers Epimenides and Aratus who say, “In him we live and move and have our being,” and “For we are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:28). He proposes the pattern of looking for the reflection of God’s image in the idolator’s thinking, then showing how Christianity challenges that thinking, and finally bringing the good news of the gospel as the perfect answer. We might summarize this so: Yes / No / Good News.[48] Here is a simple example:

Take a person who believes that humanity can be perfected with artificial intelligence and/or robotics. We could agree that yes, humanity is imperfect and in need of perfecting. However, the Bible shows that your solution will fail, since it is not according to the image of God. Robots at best cannot replace humans and will only reflect our imperfections as their creators. We need a model of true humanity from outside of the human condition. You fail to take into account that the historic fall of mankind in Adam and Eve is the reason for our imperfection. Jesus Christ is the perfect model of a new humanity. The good news is that Jesus Christ came to save us from our imperfection. His substitutionary death pleases our perfect Creator and thus, when we turn from our sins, our imperfections, and trust Christ’s righteousness and his sacrifice, he enables us to have a living relationship with him, and we can know true perfection.


[1] Richard Keyes, “The Idol Factory,” in Os Guinness and John Seel, eds. No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 30.

[2] in Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image or Whatever Happened to the American Dream? (New York: Atheneum, 1962), 74.

[3] Merrill R. Abbey, Preaching to the Contemporary Mind (Nashville: Abingdon, 1963), 32.

[4] Marshall McLuhan, “A McLuhan Mosaic” in Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message, eds. George Sanderson and Frank Macdonald, (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, Inc., 1989), 1.

[5] Some of the material in this chapter is adapted from Gregory E. Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 1–61, and from lectures given in a course, “An Ecology of Preaching in the Electronic Age,” taught at Westminster Seminary in California in January 2015.

[6] “Technology Detox,” BBC One West Midlands, October 6, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04knnt8.

[7] Marshall McLuhan, Counterblast (McLelland and Stewart, 1969), 5.

[8] http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/01/27/apple.tablet/

[9] C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 41.

[10] Arthur Boers, “Open the Wells of Grace and Salvation” at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary conference June 2013 “From the Garden to the Sanctuary: The Promise and Challenge of Technology.”

[11] Quoted in Arthur Boers, The Way Is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007), 167. Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (New York: Pantheon, 1992), 103.

[12] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes (New York: Vintage, 1973), 229.

[13] Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. by John Wilkinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), xxv, emphasis in original.

[14] Ellul, The Technological Society, 123.

[15] Daniel Czitrom, Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 188.

[16] Andy Kessler, “Sebastian Thrun: What's Next for Silicon Valley?” The Wall Street Journal (June 16–17, 2012): A11. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303807404577434891291657730.

[17] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 18.

[18] Edward R. Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (Cheshire, CT: Graphics, 2003).

[19] Richard Louv, The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin 2006).

[20] Marshall McLuhan, “A McLuhan Mosaic” in Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message, eds. George Sanderson and Frank Macdonald, (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, Inc., 1989), 219.

[21] Marshall and Eric McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988).

[22] Joshua Meyrowitz, “Taking McLuhan and ‘Medium Theory’ Seriously: Technological Change and the Evolution of Education,” Chapter 4 in Technology and the Future of Schooling: Ninety-Fifth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Part II (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 79.

[23] Joshua Meyrowitz, “Images of Media: Hidden Ferment—and Harmony—in the Field,” Journal of Communication 43, no. 3 (summer 1993): 55–66; “Multiple Media Literacies,” Journal of Communication 48, no. 1 (winter 1998): 96–108.

[24] Meyrowitz, “Multiple Media Literacies,” 98.

[25] Meyrowitz, “Multiple Media Literacies,” 99.

[26] Meyrowitz, “Multiple Media Literacies,” 100–101.

[27] Meyrowitz, “Multiple Media Literacies,” 102.

[28] Meyrowitz, “Multiple Media Literacies,” 103.

[29] Meyrowitz, “Multiple Media Literacies,” 105–106.

[30] Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place: The of Electronic Media on Social Behavior (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[31] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1959).

[32] Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (New York: Delacorte, 1982).

[33] Harold Innis, A History of the Canadian Pacific Railroad (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1923).

[34] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

[35] Turkle, Alone Together, xi.

[36] Joel Nederhood, “Effective Preaching in a Media Age,” class notes, Westminster Theological Seminary in California, 1990. Cf. Joel Nederhood, “The Back to God Hour: Mission Television Report,” in Christian Reformed Church Synod Report. Report 1:A, Supplement, 1977, 168.

[37] For an excellent treatment of idolatry cf. G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008).

[38] G. I. Williamson, The Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1993), 165.

[39]Williamson, The Heidelberg Catechism, 165.

[40] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, LCC, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed., John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.11.4.

[41] Meredith G. Kline, “Investiture with the Image of God,” Westminster Theological Journal 40 (No. 1, Fall 1977): 41.

[42] Meredith G. Kline, “Creation in the Image of the Glory-Spirit,” Westminster Theological Journal 39 (No. 2, Spring 1977): 251. Cf. Kline, “Investiture with the Image of God,” Westminster Theological Journal 40 (No. 1, Fall 1977): 44.

[43] Calvin, Institutes, 102.

[44] J. D. Douglas, The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962). S.v. “Idolatry,” by J. A. Motyer.

[45] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1985), 9 (emphasis in original).

[46] McLuhan, Understanding Media, 45. McLuhan wrongly attributes this quote to Psalm 113. It may be a typographical error.

[47] Keyes, “The Idol Factory,” 29.

[48] Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), Chapter 4, “Preaching Christ to the Culture,” and Chapter 5, “Preaching Christ to the (Late) Modern Mind,” 93–156. Cf. my discussion of what modernity and postmodernity have in common in Gregory E. Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 36, 205. Immanence limits reality to what is on the human horizon and human autonomy which deals exclusively with the open ended surface structures of culture.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, February, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: February 2023


Also in this issue

The Bringers and Receivers of Complaints: OPC Book of Discipline 9.1

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 3.7–8

Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 2: The Importance of a Lowly Heart

Justification: A Lutheran Perspective: A Review Article


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