What Does "This Means" Mean?

Rick Ritchie
Thursday, June 30th 2011
Jul/Aug 2011

What do questions of media have to do with Word and Sacrament? We can find the latter discussed in the Bible, while the former is a late twentieth-century construct, isn't it? When I first started to think about this, that was how it appeared. But these two kinds of questions are more closely related than I once imagined. As our congregations make choices about how to "get their message across," they need to be aware that the means used are often part of the message itself. This is true first and foremost in the incarnation itself. God sent his Son. He could not just as easily have sent a postcard or a DVD. And later, when God chose to bring us news of that through Word and Sacrament, these means were not accidental. It makes little sense, in our attempt to make disciples of all the world, to ignore questions of appropriate medium’or to fail to see how certain choices of media actually seem more effective than they are because of our fallenness.

Means of Grace and Media

There is an interesting linguistic connection between the words "media" and "the means of grace." They don't merely come from the same root. They are basically the same word. The term "means of grace" in English can be traced back to the Latin media gratiae. Is this an accident of language, or is there some common meaning here? If I trust my Random House College Dictionary, it offers these definitions of media: "1. plural of medium. 2. the media. Also called mass media. The means of communication, as radio and television, newspapers, magazines, etc., that reach very large numbers of people." Under "medium," I find "6. an agency, means or instrument, usually of something specified: a communications medium." So we have things that can be used as means or instruments of communication, and things that can be used as means or instruments of grace.

Lutherans consider the ministry of the Word and the sacraments to be the means of grace. People come to saving faith through these means. So some media have already been set aside for the purposes of communicating grace: preaching, water for baptism, and bread and wine for Holy Communion. These are some of the most humble elements of which we can think. St. Paul even speaks of the "foolishness of preaching" (1 Cor. 1:21) by which God confounds the wisdom of men. Water is so common that in the Small Catechism, after Luther has described how baptism "works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe," he includes the question, "How can water do such great things?" He answers, "It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God in the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water." What is conveyed in these means of grace is the gospel itself. Yet we are given humble means, so that we might not begin to think that it is the quality of these things themselves that save us. Yet, when we start thinking that some new communications medium is going to make salvation flow to all the world because its attractive format will catch everybody's eye, we are falling for the old lie.

Extending Our Reach

In his 1964 book Understanding Media: Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan introduced the idea that "the medium is the message." Before this, many people would have argued that media was a neutral vehicle that could convey all kinds of content, good or bad. McLuhan said that we need look not only at the content of what we receive through media, but also at the forms of media. Often, the forms themselves carry messages that we can end up receiving without being aware. This idea has been applied by many thinkers, and not merely to television and books or those things we usually think of as "media." As McLuhan presented the idea, almost any human invention is a medium. A new medium is a new tool we might use to gain more control over our world. In the church we often see the possibilities of new media for outreach. If our reach is extended, outreach will be easier, won't it? Perhaps. There have been times when changes in media have improved things. The printing press certainly helped to spread the ideas of the Protestant Reformation more rapidly than was possible even a century before. But a powerful medium can convey a message of power, and when we look at the Christian message, its very message as a medium may be at odds with the message it is being used to convey.

To begin with, let us consider how we first got into our mess, according to Scripture. The first temptation involved an incident of false advertising. Eve saw the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She saw three things in it: that it was good for food, that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise (Gen. 3:6). In each case, the fruit was seen as a means to an end. The first end, that it was good for food, was likely true and a legitimate end. Other trees were given for that purpose (Gen. 2:16), so it was recognized by God as a good purpose. The second end, the delight of the eye, is not to be an end in itself. Scripture elsewhere refers to the "desire of the eye" (1 John 2:16) as a mark of worldliness. The last end, the making wise of the eater, was an outright lie. The serpent asserted that the tree would make a person wise. Instead, it made Eve foolish. If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10), then she chose to leave wisdom behind. It is noteworthy that as Eve's thought process is listed, the three things she saw would almost appear to be her own ideas. But the third one was planted by another. And perhaps that third one caused the second. Her eyes were delighted because someone else talked up the product. What she could have passed by any number of times in the past, she took unusual interest in. The tree appeared to be a means to only good things, but its promises proved mostly false, especially those beyond the mundane. We do not know what makes for our good. When humanity has fallen into sin, God must save. And God offers salvation to man through the apparently unpromising means of grace. That our trouble began with attempts at self-extension and that our remedy was given in humble form should make us wary of glittering promises made by new media.

So let's consider this idea of media as extensions of man. What does it mean to extend humanity? In some cases this is quite obvious. Eyeglasses or contact lenses extend the eye. Where wearers could see only close objects before, they can now see far. A car is an extension of the leg. Where people could only walk a few miles in the past, they can now go many miles and in less time. A book is an extension of the voice. We can write down our words at one point in time, and our words can be heard later, even after we are dead. A gun is an extension of the arm. Where we might have thrown a spear in the past, our projectile can now go much farther to hit its target. In many of these cases, exactly which faculty of man is extended might be answered in different ways. And perhaps there has been a slow accumulation of technology with one replacing another in such a way that we don't even remember the entire series. When television replaced radio, an extension of the eye (the word "tele-vision" or "far-vision" almost says as much by itself) replaced an extension of the ear. This suggests that when we change technologies, we don't merely make a sense stronger than it was, but we may do so at the expense of another sense. We are innately limited, but when our tools extend one of our capabilities, we feel altogether strengthened. We don't notice corresponding atrophy. As with the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we see only promise.

Each new technology promises to change the world. The world does change, sometimes dramatically. But we often forget just how great the claims of the older technologies once were. We imagine our generation was the first to be dazzled. This is far from true. If you ever doubt this, find a magazine from early in the last century and look through the ads. They all promise the good life. They all lie. We can easily see through the older claims. People who come after us will laugh at the ads we find motivating. These extensions of man don't change us as they promise to’and media that appear to bring us life also fail.

How Lovely Are the Satellites That Bring Good News

Now there is some sense in which a case can be made that when we use a new technology in church, all we are really trying to do is bust through some inconvenient restraints to the spread of the gospel. And it needs to be spread, does it not? How often when the specter of universalism appears do we hear the line quoted, "How shall they hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14). It is clearly scriptural to think that people need to carry the gospel. We are further told, "How lovely are the feet of him who brings good news" (Rom. 10:15). So surely we have to send missionaries, don't we?

St. Paul does make it clear that it is God's will for the gospel to be spread by people following the Great Commission. They are to go into all the world. Their feet will move to do this. But there is another side to this message. God has not left himself without witness (Acts 14), and even the heavens declare his glory (Rom. 10:18). It seems that the Word of God is all over the place, but people suppress it. Yet missionaries bring the Word to people who are lost without it. However far we take either side of this picture, it might be best not to trust communications media to do our evangelizing for us. If universal coverage is what is needed, God has put his message in the heavens. If people are needed, they need feet to bring that message personally to those who don't have it. Our shiny inventions are not the means God has chosen to bring the gospel to the world. We are bringing the message to those who have already invented their own shiny technologies to reach God. The missionaries must tell them no. It is not your golden idol that connects you to God, but rather this humble water, connected to God's Word. And it is not the water that does this; it is the water with God's Word according to God's command, something your idol lacks.

Some years ago there was a movie called The Mosquito Coast that seemed to catch on to how we often imagine that it's our technologies the lost are in need of to get to God. The Reverend Spellgood, a fundamentalist missionary, has installed satellite communications that can beam his sermons into the jungle so the lost can hear them. When he wishes to illustrate how prayer works, he uses a telephone. These are people who never had telephones, and instead of a living, breathing missionary, they are listening to a television, and instead of using regular person-to-person communication as his illustration of prayer, he uses a telephone. And this is supposed to bridge the gap between God and humanity. These technologies, rather than closing the gap, are often used to maintain the gap. I don't want to be with you, so I'll send the television in my place. And God probably doesn't want to be with you either, so you can talk to him long distance. These ironies of what technology is supposed to do versus what it actually achieves seem to be clear to the biblical writers. Unfortunately we often forget our own wisdom and have to hear it from a jaded outsider.

The Four Spiritual Laws of Media

The medium of a subheading exists to grab attention. Now that I have grabbed it, I won't discuss the Four Spiritual Laws, which probably violates some laws of media themselves. McLuhan does, however, discuss four things new technologies invariably do. What I love about these four observations is that they make clear how technologies both give and take away. The fans of new and improved only see the benefits. The curmudgeons always think the older technology was better. McLuhan is clear that this was usually a two-edged sword, so his observations are worth considering.

1. Enhance

Enhancement is what technologies always promise. And to some degree, most deliver at least partially. As was mentioned earlier, examples of this easily come to mind. Eyeglasses enhance vision. Recordings enhance hearing. Microphones enhance the voice.

What is enhanced in church? Hymnals enhance musical memory. We can now have a larger repertoire of hymns and songs to sing. Printing enhances the hand. One set of hands can make many more copies of the Scriptures for people to use.

2. Obsolete

New technologies make older technologies obsolete. Think of the television. Out goes radio. This is a particularly good example, as we can see true but not total displacement. What was done on radio, such as game shows or westerns, moves to television. The eye displaces the ear. One generation that could easily picture what they heard is followed by another that cannot. We quickly see how the eye has been extended. We might miss how the ear has been made smaller.

How many are aware of how hymns replaced the singing of psalms in many churches? I wonder when proverbs were made obsolete as a wisdom medium, and what took their place.

3. Retrieve

New technologies bring back what previous new technologies made obsolete. McLuhan saw the car as bringing back the knight in shining armor. How so? Like the knights of old, we too began going our own way rather than riding public transportation.

More recently, I saw this retrieval happen when I bought my Kindle. Suddenly, all sorts of material that had been long out of print were instantly accessible. Books that I could not have found in a local library could be in my hands in seconds. I imagine some Christmas future where technological advance has made it safe to have candles on the Christmas tree again (sensors? safer burning materials? perhaps live trees that cannot burn?).

A good friend of mine explained everything he saw wrong with using screens in front of the church for music. He rightly saw how they would eventually replace hymnals, and had some observations of ways this would be damaging. I pointed out, however, that something was retrieved: the stance once again of looking forward while singing. As with many things, the benefits and liabilities must be weighed. But this is best done when both are noted.

4. Reverse

Reversal is the hardest of the McLuhan categories to understand. The question is, how does a technology end up leading to the reverse of what is promised? One of his examples was the automobile. It seemed to make us all very individual again, shut up in our own private space, going where we wanted to go. Yet in a traffic jam, the reverse happens. We are all stuck together again, and going nowhere.

Examples of this happening in the Christian church are legion. Think of printing. This should have extended memory. Instead of having the Scriptures available that one could only hear and remember, one now had the whole Bible. Yet this has led to flabby memories and scriptural illiteracy in many churches.

There are psychological technologies that have been used. Back in the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards followed John Locke in believing in the importance of imagery in conveying emotion, and he saw value in George Whitefield's emotional style of preaching. He honed his skills at this and produced the sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." In terms of psychological impact, the results were astounding. (Readers are free to have their own opinions as to the ultimate results and how much was directly of God.) While Edwards delivered his sermon in a monotone voice, as he was a shy person (the opposite of what you will see if portions of this are dramatized on television), those in the audience shouted to heaven and begged him to stop. Yet these same methods have been used on people in churches and in advertisements and television commercials for so long that they no longer do what they once did. We grow jaded. Few people react strongly unless someone dear to them is in immediate danger, and some even have a hard time reacting when they see dire news on television, as real disasters remind them of the movies. At least when Charles Finney introduced excitements, he admitted they couldn't be expected to work past his own generation. Yet we still employ them.

True reversal would be seen in a case where church growth techniques emptied churches where they were tried. I'm sure it has happened. This is especially true with the young, who don't believe in the manufactured community that is marketed in so many congregations.

What Does "This Means" Mean?

In Lutheran circles, you often hear the question asked, "What does this mean?" This comes from Luther's Small Catechism. We need to become more adept at asking the catechism question of the various media in the churches. I suggest that we take this as broadly as possible. Begin with elements you find in your own congregation and in other churches. What is the meaning of a choir? worship band? pew? pulpit? sermon? hymnal? screen? Ask the four questions McLuhan offers. Talk to older people to get a sense of what earlier technologies offered. I doubt that older will always be better. But you will probably learn interesting things about the trade-offs experienced in adopting new methods.

Also, try to become more aware of the kinds of means that are instituted in the Bible itself. Do some of them seem to have a perennial wisdom to them? Did you find any abuse recorded in the pages of Scripture itself?

Means are often invisible to us. We think that all we get on the receiving end of means is the content intended by those who are using them. This is often not the case. We tend to become enamored of the means itself and forget the message. Those who have tried to use television to spread the gospel find that television uses them. To pay the enormous bills, they must keep a steady stream of entertainment, and the focus shifts. This happens more subtly throughout the church.

While I am inviting my readers to engage in a McLuhanesque inventory of their church practices, I want to leave them with one last observation. The humble means of grace are still at our disposal when the shiny media are losing their luster. When you're sitting in a boring committee meeting pondering the details of your new program and how to keep it afloat, instead of enjoying fellowship with the brethren, a word of gospel can still be spoken. You can remember your baptism. You can remember the last time you partook of Holy Communion and look forward to the next time. The burden that you imagine is on your shoulders really isn't. God is better than that. He brought his word of grace to you long ago without the need of these newer technologies. He will continue to save others through his Word even if you can't master the new media.

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Rick Ritchie
Rick Ritchie is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He blogs at www.1517legacy. com.
Thursday, June 30th 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church