God’s Medium AND God’s Message”
A Review of
Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith.
by Shane Hipps.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
How Technology Shapes Your Faith.
Hardback: Zondervan, 2009.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
“Technique has taken over the whole of civilization. Death, procreation, birth, all submit to technical efficiency and systematization.” – Jacques Ellul
From the moment we are born until the moment we die, our lives are formed by technology. Our education, in the home, at school, at work or in the church, molds us into the technological system so that we remain blind to the power it holds over our lives. In recent decades, there have been a number of Christian thinkers – e.g., Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich and Wendell Berry – who have warned us with the eloquence of the prophets about this technological tyranny. And yet their critiques have gone largely unheard among most church congregations in North America. While the writings of these critics could be dismissed by some as dense, irrelevant or obscure, there is a new technological critic, Shane Hipp, whose evangelical background and simple, lucid writing style will render him a voice that cannot be so easily dismissed. Hipp’s new book Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith, raises many of the same issues as those probed by critics of technology – both those in the church and those outside it, such as Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan – but does so in a clear, engaging style that will resonate with many members of our churches.
In the book’s introduction, Hipps describes the task that he will be undertaking:
This book explores the hidden power of media and technology as a way to understand who we are, who we think God is, and how God’s unchanging message has changed, is changing and will change. It’s about the way God communicates with us and the way we communicate God to the world. Mostly, though, it’s about training our eyes to see things we usually overlook (13-14).
He launches into his critique using familiar cultural images such as SNL’s Mr. No Depth-Perception and the ubiquitous Magic Eye posters of the 1990s to help us imagine and understand the power that technology holds over us. Explaining at length how the technologies of reading and writing changed the nature of Christian life – shifting it toward rationality and away from emotion – Hipps is careful at every step to note both positives and negatives of each technology he explores. Following in the footsteps of Jacques Ellul and other cultural critics (e.g. see last week’s review of Chris Hedges The Empire of Illusion), Hipps is particularly concerned about the shift in recent decades toward image-driven forms of media. At the heart of his critique is the idea that: “When used in the hands of a skillful artist, [images] can open and penetrate deeper realities. But most of the time [they] direct us to the surface of things” (99).
Although he is speaking here to the Church in the broadest sense, Hipps is a Mennonite pastor and his roots in the Anabaptist tradition of the Church guide the form and content of his arguments. In particular, Flickering Pixels is marked by four deeply Anabaptist characteristics, and I would add that it is not difficult to see these same characteristics embodied in the works of John Howard Yoder, perhaps the most well-known Mennonite voice in broader ecumenical conversations about Christian theology.
First, Hipps is cautious about embracing technology. He does not hesitate to make reference to his fellow Anabaptists, the Amish, noting at several points the benefits that have blossomed from their hard line stance toward certain technologies. Historically, the Mennonites have maintained a commitment to non-conformity (rooted in Romans 12:1) and this commitment is often manifested in the sort of cautiousness about technology that we see in Hipp’s work. Secondly, his work demonstrates a keen sense of history. Perhaps this is too broad a generalization, but in the Anabaptist tradition’s hesitancy to adopt modernity, they never quite became slaves to the prevailing ahistoricism (lack of history) of the modern age. Throughout the pages of Flickering Pixels, Hipps deftly weaves a historical narrative about technology and its intersections with the way of Jesus Christ – from the advent of print, to the telegraph, to radio, television and now the internet.
Thirdly, Hipp’s work is salted with a graceful humility. Although this virtue is embodied most vividly in his poignant use of a story of a life-long Mennonite gentleman in his congregation who powerfully testified to the work of Christ in his life in front of the church and yet concluded with the words: “But…I could be wrong.” This humility echoes throughout all of Flickering Pixels from his honesty about his own struggles to his willingness to see both positives and negatives of each technological change. Finally, Hipp’s work is distinctly Anabaptist in its radical ecclesiology. He emphasizes that one of the greatest costs of technological innovation is that we are increasingly isolated from one another. This escalating individualism, of course, also manifests itself in our theology. In contrast, Hipps calls us back to a Christianity in which the Church – and not the individual – is central. He puts in most clearly near the end of the book: “The Church is God’s medium and message” (175).
Indeed, it is the Church as a whole that Hipps – despite his groundedness in the Anabaptist tradition – is addressing here. His message is simple and clear: we need to repent of our blindness toward technological oppression and begin to be free to use technologies instead of being used by them. While readers who are well-versed in the technological critiques of Ellul, McLuhan and others will not find much new here, the clarity of Hipp’s style will bring these critiques to the eyes and ears of a much larger audience. Flickering Pixels is a book that would work well to spark a congregational conversation about technology, especially if such a conversation were to be guided by a facilitator (or facilitators) who were familiar with the depths of the emerging stream of technological criticism. This sort of conversation might just create a space in which the Holy Spirit would lead us to repentance and transformation into a richer expression of the Gospel of Jesus. Indeed, Hipp’s work here raises to mind the essential question: What kind of Jesus are we, as God’s people, representing to the world?