A Fire Too Far: Ruminations on New Media and Christian Faith


In the days before the Internet and the 24/7 new cycle the announcement by an obscure Florida pastor that his church would be burning copies of the Koran might have attracted a column inch in the back pages of The Gainesville Daily Register, or get picked up as a nutty bit of ephemera by Paul Harvey.

No longer. Terry Jones (wait, wasn’t he with the Pythons?) has had his 15 days of celebrity, outraged pretty much everybody, and been addressed by the President of the United States, among other dignitaries.

Jones has also managed to convince inflammatory Republicans that there actually can be a fire too far. That anybody or anything could even momentarily unite the gladiators on both sides of the culture wars is worthy of note.

I will spare you the obvious pieties about this sad affair. For a thoughtful post on it I refer you to Debra Dean Murphy (who I just discovered and have added to my blogroll) .

What particularly interests me is how new technologies reshape the way Christian faith is perceived. For example, in eighteenth century New England, itinerant evangelists like George Whitefield and Gilbert Tenant changed the face of Puritanism by staging huge public revivals. This shifted the authority away from the settled pastors in local communities to the popular evangelists. Harry Stout has called Whitefield the first “rock star.” Better roads allowed people to travel greater distances, and printing and high literacy facilitated communications about the revivals.

Likewise, the locus for Christian authority in America away from the mainline to conservative evangelicals in the Twentieth century is still a story that remains to be written, but once again it was about the democratization (and vulgarization) of Christianity away from elites, and it was facilitated (once again) by new technologies. For example, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell used television to collect large audiences to promote their particular brand of conservative faith.

So now we are watching in real time the power of social networking (Jones got the kerfuffle started on Facebook) and other media to quickly gather eyeballs if not hearts and minds.

I would like to dismiss “events” such as Jones’ provocation as mere ephemera (just as I mistakenly did with the rise of the Christian right for too many years) but when people’s lives become at stake and the President of the United States feels the need to engage the subject it becomes hard to dismiss.

The rise of instant internet communication has been widely praised for its democratizing tendencies (such as last year’s Iranian “Twitter revolution”), but I wonder if we are now seeing clearly the darker side of instant communication?

Does the quickness and brevity of the new media inevitably shape the message? (see Halden Doerge’s insightful post on patience and blogging. He is speaking only about blogging, but many of the same issues obtain).

I argue that it is the humans who use the communications media who shoulder the moral responsibility for the messages they put out. It is too simplistic to blame the media (although there is a long history of blaming any new media for the decline of civilization, religion, civility, etc.)  The medium is not the message (or not the whole message, at least.)

Christians believe we live in a fallen world, and that everything in creation can be used for ill as well as for good. Should the new media be any exception?

So how should we use the new media?  Perhaps that is a subject that could benefit from some discussion in congregations and Sunday Schools. New media arrive with a false sheen of authority.  Remember when something had authority just because it was “seen on TV?” And remember when early e-mail users forwarded every stupid hoax and rumor as if it were true just because someone had sent it to them? In time the wise learn how to use and not use these tools.

Some choose to forgo the new technologies altogether, and that is a choice one is free to make, but I personally find enough of value in them to want to use them wisely.

Which leads me to ponder whether one of the spiritual disciplines for Christians (and others) in our time might be a healthy skepticism about any information we take in from any source. And ancient habits of silence, meditation, and thoughtful reflection might help us decide what is worthy of our precious God-given time and attention.

2 thoughts on “A Fire Too Far: Ruminations on New Media and Christian Faith

  1. >To demand that we use tech/media and its content wisely, means that we should also demand that maturity in their adoption/use be cultivated. That assumes though that the group that judges knows how to dissect the technology and the content in their contexts (as correctly as possible). I don't know that the Christian body (esp in the US) can do that just yet… we're getting there.

  2. >Yes, that's right. And what I am suggesting is that Christian leaders and congregations should be working at developing the discernment and habits of the heart that will lead them (and especially their children) to be wise users. In some ways the current discussion mirrors the concerns about the widespread availability of printed vernacular translations of the Bible during the Reformation. It was argued that people didn't have the skills to interpret them. They were partly right, but the suppression of knowledge is not the answer.

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