A Change in Communication Systems is Changing What It Means to Be Church

Y esterday I posted a new entry about the differences between speaking and writing – orality and literality, or print. But we need to drill down some more on a basic premise of that post. Here it is:

 

Different communication systems create different ways of knowing God and our world.

They are quite powerful and largely unseen by many. In fact, a current change in communication systems may be changing what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Several different communication systems have driven cultural development and how we assimilate knowledge and find meaning over our collective history as people of God. The story of God and God’s people began in an oral culture but moved to a manuscript or writing culture by the end of the biblical narrative. In Genesis, the primary way of knowing is defined by God’s spoken word. God’s response to Moses’ existential question of authority is answered with a self-evident spoken word: “I AM WHO I AM”. By the time of the last biblical book’s writing, The Gospel of John, the same unspoken question from the reader is defined by the authority of the written word: “Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.” (John 20:31).

In the biblical story, our way of knowing as God’s people has been rooted in both the oral and the written–different communication systems.

Over history communication systems have shifted from written to printed, and now from printed to a still emerging collection of visual, digital subsystems.

There’s much to be said about the consequences of these different systems. One prominent consequence is that the more dominant a system is, the less awareness people have of it and the more sacralized it becomes. A culture with changing or competing systems, such as the oral and manuscript clash of Jesus’ era, or the written and printed clash of the reformation, will find itself in great turmoil, as two primary ways of knowing competing for ubiquity. Then, as one system takes over, its attributes come to define how we understand ourselves, what is true, and even how we understand God.

 

When communication systems change, our understanding of God changes.

For example, orality is a spoken word system. It is social. It is the basis for community. Oral cultures are community cultures. They invite open-ended thinking and the free exchange of lives and ideas. Knowledge is shared. God is communal.

The written, and later even moreso the printed, word moves us toward an individual experience, a privatized way of knowing. In a print culture we come to define our lives and our faith by a “personal decision to follow Jesus.” We find meaning in private Bible study. Knowledge is owned. We have copyright, a odd concept to a person of oral culture. God is privatized, even.

Do you remember the funny scene in Bruce Almighty when Jim Carrey logs in as God and receives millions of prayer requests? Seems impossible, doesn’t it – that the God of the universe could keep track of billions of people. Well, that is a privatized, print-oriented understanding of God.

In the biblical narratives, knowledge of God was communal. Particularly in the Old Testament stories we see this, but even in the New Testament, where the story of the centurion’s household being saved because of the decision of the father has always messed with privatized notions of personal salvation (Acts 11:14). Of course we still have social experiences but they are not like the social way of knowing of oral culture.

 

When our communication systems change, our very way of thinking and knowing changes.

Print culture both reached its zenith of Western cultural dominance in the late 20th century and has begun to crack due to the rise of a still embryonic digital system. This seeming paradox is connected, as a system doesn’t fully become sacralized until it is threatened by the next system. And threatened is always the consequence, because a new system changes not just how we communicate but how we find meaning.

Socrates said the rise of manuscript culture would lead to the decline and fall of society, because knowledge, once rooted in our memories, would cease to exist once written down. How quaint–but you can see where he was coming from. Much much later the Catholic Church felt similarly threatened by the rise of the printing press, which shifted power to remote outposts and democratized knowledge. The schism of the Reformation is directly tied to the existential struggle created by the sudden rise of the printing press, and the new communication system it birthed.

 

Changes in the church reflect a shift from print to digital communication systems.

Why does all this matter? Well, here we are again, in the middle of the birth of a new communication system. It is redefining our collective way of knowing–ideas, each other, and God. You can see the conflict played out in church life everywhere. For example, a pastor who is trained up in a print-dominant educational environment and who finds meaning in print culture will exhibit the traits of print culture: individualized expression of faith, primacy on knowledge, finality of thought, and so on.

On the other hand, a post-literate pastor may have an entirely different worldview, characterized by a community expression of faith, primacy on justice, open-ended thought, and so on. A “missional” church is in many ways just a post-print church. You will probably not find too many missional churches that are deeply rooted in print culture. In fact, it is no coincidence that my former church, Ginghamsburg Church, moved from an emphasis on creative, visual means of communicating the gospel in worship to an emphasis on mission.

In the 1990s we placed an emphasis on visual communication, and told many stories that defined meaning according to this new embryonic digital communication system. The more post-literate the congregation and it leadership became, the more it found itself defining meaning according to community rather than the individual. It has moved away form the privatized experience of the book and toward the social and communal nature of our culture’s emerging digital system.

This is not to claim causality, or to say that because the church used screens it became missional. It is however to say that the embrace of a new system correlated with the manifestation of social values of faith. And we are seeing the same thing happen all over, even in traditionally evangelical churches, who once dismissed social justice as a perversion of the gospel mandate to make disciples via a personal salvation experience.

What do you think are some of the variables of the various communication systems – oral, manuscript, print, and digital?

 

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).