I want to address something that I read yesterday from Charles Colson on CT. I would have written this yesterday but i was finished the last edit of a contribution to a commentary on the Book of Acts. 3000 words on Acts 10-13. My goal was to weave historical and contextual accuracy with the relevancy of today’s situation. The Bible is ALWAYS living, relevant but I couldn’t be casual or flippant so it took longer than i expected. But that has been sent off now, so let me now get on with it.
Colson’s article in Christianity Today is called “Soothing Ourselves to Death”, an obvious revamp of Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death”
Colson suggests, along with Neil Postman’s 1980’s book, that television has impaired our ability to think but i say the computer – a greater influence than TV – has made today’s screenagers smarter in a more complex way. Which is by far a greater challenge for those who seek to communicate to them – teachers, pastors, parents, etc. This is a big issue and it affects how we communicate in church.
Oh, btw – my issue is not what Colson just said about the “emerging church” so i don’t want to argue it here.
He said “Doctrine and biblical teaching are not—as some “emerging church” advocates believe—dry, dusty, abstract notions.”
My last round of responses to Colson on postmodern truth (The Skinny Response: The Official, The Cheesy and The Intuitive) yielded no fruit at all so I will not bother this time. I do . . . however . . think it quite amazing and somewhat stupifying that after having personal interaction with hundreds of emerging churches in dozens of countries, that i still could not think of even ONE emerging church leader who would say that Biblical teaching is dry and dusty. Maybe it used to be, but part of their journey into emerging church involved a rediscovery of biblical teaching and better methodology to learn and apply biblical truth.
Take me to a city, any city, and put me in a taxi.
“Taxi driver” I will say from the back seat with urgency and ” take me to a church where the people think doctrine and biblical teaching are dry, dusty abstract notions. Take me to . . . an EMERGING CHURCH!”
“Whaddya say?”” The taxi driver pulls the hand-brake and looks back at me as if I am an idiot. “We aint goin’ nowhere.”
“An emerging church. Where they . .
“I heard ya! Don’t you mean a LIBERAL church? A DEAD church? A hypermodern rational church where they teach from books and no longer from the Bible? There’s one around the corner”
“Ahhhh. No. Charles Colson said an ‘EMERGING CHURCH!'”
“You mean those emerging churches that graffiti Scripture all over their walls and never stop talking about Luke 10? Yeah, there’s a coffee shop 4 blocks from here where they hang out talking theology until 3 in the morning. My daughter goes there. She has an emerging church blog and she reads and writes about theology everyday. Not what i was doing when I was 19. Who knew???? No . . . I don’t think its what ya looking for. But, lets go anyway!”
Nor do I want to tackle his other statement that doesn’t sit well with me. The one where he says :
“But the gospel above all else is revealed propositional truth—truth that speaks to all of life.”
Now I am just hoping that Colson’s understanding of propositional truth is broad enough to include the historical, narrative, time-space event of Jesus Christ, the express image (eikon) of God who came, died and rose again. If not, I would take issue. But not here. Seth from Street Jesus answers back and so I will leave it and more on.
Nor will I mention his singing vs teaching dichotomy, having learned much of my theology as a child from songs [“Jesus Loves Me This I Know, for the Bible tells me so”] and re-affirmed it weekly. And I have witnessed the successful removal of the stage and the accompanying celebrity element by emerging churches, many of which have avoided the entertainment appeal to consumerism by demanding a high level of participation. No! I will avoid all that and just go straight to the line that needs updating …
“When Postman published his book two decades ago, he feared television would impair our capacity to think. He was right.”
“Now here is the thing. I think Postman WAS right when he published the book but things have changed and there are other factors that must be addressed. What Colson doesn’t say is that it is no longer 1985 and the world is different.
[Update: In honor of Neil Postman (1931-2003) we should not assume that he stopped thinking in 1985. A Symposium was held a few days ago in his honor (PDF) and there is much in today’s new media world that he did see. Read his son’s eulogy to bring Neil’s thoughts to the present and the PDF- POST(MODERN)MAN to see Neil as a postmodernist with a lot to say about truth]
When Postmans book “Amusing Ourselves To Death” came out, I bought it, like all other pastors and communicators and thinkers. It was a HOOT. A superb book that sparked my interest in media and epistemology. And like them, I put it next to Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” and similar books on my shelf. Postman’s thoughts even found their way into my preaching on Sundays. This was, btw, the 1980’s when some of you were being born, but old people like myself were alive and well and thinking about these things.
And 20 years ago, Postman had a point. Television was threatening the culture of books. We were teetering on the edge of post-literacy. We would all become mindless idiots who could not hold a thought longer than . . . ahhh . . . what was I saying . . . sorry . . . just had to change the music . . . and get a coffee . . .. and change the channel on the TV . . . and respond to an IM . . . and finish the deep, intimate conversation that i am now having with my wife who is wondering why my fingers are typing on this keyboard while i am giving her my undivided attention.
OK – part of that came true. And Neil Postman is the Patron Saint of wives with geek husbands. But other parts are no longer true. Kids are smarter today. IQ rates have increased and multi-tasking abilities, pattern recognition, synoptic thinking and other POSITIVE traits have appeared. Communication is far more demanding and learning processes are more complex.
Todays blog media is modular. One thought per blog post – that makes it easy to comment on. Which is why this post, is far longer than it should be – i am honoring Neil Postman with a long continuous blog post that demands a higher level of commitment.
Other people, much smarter than I, have come to different conclusions than Postman (and Colson) and should be heard in this conversation.
– Lev Manovich argues strongly that the MTV cinematic style of short cuts, a historical echo from the age of Mannerism, is giving way to continuity and longer shots. In fact, a Russian movie came out a few years ago that was one single shot – for the entire movie.
– Douglas Rushkoff has written of the BROAD attention span of youth (Children of Chaos) and the Revolution of Writing (Open Source Democracy) that has turned a generation readers into writers – something I have mentioned in reference to Generation Text. I have used the illustration of a 5 lane freeway before to describe the importance of multiple channels in communicating to youth. A recent study found that children are able to master 5.4 channels of communication at the same time – far more than their parents and something that the marketplace of the future will demand of them
– Steven Johnson, whose book on “Emergence” is a great introduction to emergent theory, has a book called “Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter” (blogged here). Steve’s research shows that today’s youth, brought up on video games, are able to track thoughts that are longer and more complex than their parents. He points to the high commitment level of tracking a series like 24 or the amount of characters in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, or the incredible ability to delay satisfaction in completing a fantasy game like Myst or Riven. In fact, I have been at Myst for nearly 10 years and am still hanging in there.
– Perhaps more than anyone, Stuart Moulthrop in “So You Want a Revolution: Hypertext and the Laws of Media” [A chapter in The New Media Reader] should be read because he confronts Neil Postman’s threat of post-literacy through the idiot box [the television] and presents a case for post-post-literacy through the impact of hypertext.
“But the idiot box – or to be precise – the boxed idiot – is precisely the intellectual problem that hypertext seems excellently suited to address . . . the development of hypertext systems implies a revival of typographic culture (albeit in a dynamic, truly paperless environment) . . Hypertext means an end to the death of literature.”
Thus, it is now appropriate, given the blogsophere [the greatest hypertext system to date] and the revolution in writing and co-authorship i have described in Generation Text, to talk about the age of POST-POST-LITERACY.
Ok ok ok ok – this post is getting really long. But ask yourself this question – who is going to leave first – the young people or the older people?
btw- The longest hymns in the Ausbund – the oldest Protestant hymnbook in continuous use (Warkentin) – have so many verses that they take about 20 minutes to sing. And sermons a few hundred years ago often lasted 2 hours or more. In fact, I have endured a 5 hour church service in Mexico without moving from the spot, except to get up and preach for an hour or more (they still thought it was too short!) and I dare anyone – young or old, emerging or traditional – to test your endurance at one of these church services.
So let me put you out of your misery and end this lengthy thought (1846 words).
If kids are bored with your lengthy sermon, it may not be their fault. It might be yours. Kids are smart. Smarter than you think. They demand more and deserve more. Jesus used questions and answers, dialogue over meals. Dialogue is not unbiblical – its even one of the words in the Bible for “preaching”.
You would be amazed how your ministry would be transformed if you went back to the Bible and ways of Jesus. Its not a dry and dusty book. And if someone finds that person masquerading as an ’emerging church leader’ who says it is, please report him to me so i can send him a sharply pointed email. The same guy must have crossed D.A. Carson’s path.
Hey – don’t bug Charles Colson – he’s doing a great job in the prisons – which is where Jesus is (Matthew 25). I have preached in lots of prisons and I respect what Colson has done to highlight ministry there. Pray for him and bless him.