The Blind Spot

One thing we’re not talking about when it comes to changing technology

If I told you I spent time studying my Bible this morning, then asked you to draw a picture of what that might have looked like—what would you draw?

Probably a guy reading a book that says “The Bible” on the cover, right?

What if I told you I listened to a few minutes of my audiobook version of the New Testament, read by Johnny Cash (which is awesome by the way)? Or that I watched a YouTube video of a praise song that had a certain passage scrolling on-screen throughout?

Media shapes our lives, and expectations, in certain distinct ways. This includes our religious practices and traditions. We as Christians—especially Protestants—place a special emphasis on a book, the Bible, as a central part of our life of faith.

Researchers have been paying attention to how Christians, and American Evangelicals in particular, have integrated digital technology into the “ecologies” of our religious practices and churches. They have also been keeping tabs on how we discuss new technology and frame our conversations about it in certain unique ways, distinct from other faiths.[1]

What’s perhaps most interesting about the research, however, is not what researchers are finding, it is what they are not finding.

Scholars in the field of “media ecology” have looked back at how new technologies have impacted culture and the church at various points throughout history. They found that in the long term the important thing that changes as a result of new communication technologies ultimately ends up being Biblical interpretation.[2] Yet in our current conversations about digital technology, this has not yet been a major topic or consideration.

Media have an interesting way of very subtly reshaping our imaginations. For example, we might start to use new technologies like wireless communication and the digital “cloud” as analogies to help us understand things beyond our understanding like the Holy Spirit. No matter your age or vocation, we all approach church and scripture with certain culturally conditioned understandings of what abstract things like community look like. That understanding is derived from our context and experiences. And when digital technology is intricately woven into our daily experiences, we begin interpreting scripture with this reality implicitly in mind.

I do not have any great insights yet on how digital technology might reshape our contemporary theology. Perhaps it is worth simply pointing out that history suggests it will. In some areas these developments may produce a thorny hindrance, but in others, by the grace of our God, it will bear new fruit and the church may be blessed with a richer and more robust theology.

Throughout this series we have reminded parents and youth leaders how important it is to listen to young people. Listen so they will feel comfortable telling you if they are being bullied, listen so you will understand what they are sharing online and why, listen so you can grasp their enthusiasm for playing video games. I am confident that many of you are already doing a great job of listening in these ways.

There is another question we need to listen for that is crucial: How are young people making sense of scripture, and of the messages they are receiving from the church, in light of digital technology? So often conflicts and crises arise as the result of unintentional miscommunication. It is clear that there is a significant shift taking place between those who have adapted to digital technology throughout its emergence as opposed to those who have been immersed in a digital world their entire lives. In order for us to do the best job we can of sharing our faith and the good news of the Gospel, we need to listen to young people. If we don’t, no matter how good our intentions are or how great the message we are sharing is, it will fall flat.  

That may sound daunting, but consider this: historically, times of growth and revival in this country started with youth-led movements. They also quite often involved new media: colonial newspapers and later the telegraph to announce forthcoming revival meetings, or sermons and worship broadcast on radio and television. Throughout the history of the church, all the way back to a handful of young men and women sending letters around the Roman empire, there have been tremendous seasons of growth and renewal whenever young people were empowered to share the gospel in new ways.

New media and technology can feel so threatening and uncertain to those of us who feel forced to adopt and adapt. This is especially true for those of us who care for and about young people as parents and leaders. I want to conclude this series by turning our attention towards the opportunity digital technology has put in the hands of our young people. If history has taught us anything, it is that teenagers have an opportune moment to do great things. In the midst of important conversations about creating healthy boundaries in our relationship with technology, let’s also encourage young people to seize their moment and share the timely truth of the Gospel with the world in dynamic new ways.

 

[1] Hoover, S. M., & Kim, S. S. (2012). Digital Media and the Protestant Establishment: Insights from “The New Media Project”. Finding Religion in the Media, 97.

[2] Boomershine, T. E. (1987). Biblical Megatrends: Towards a paradigm for the interpretation of the Bible in electronic media. In Society of biblical literature seminar papers (pp. 144-157).