What thinking does the field of Media Ecology bring to the Christ in Media Institute to aid its success?

by Dr. Steven L. Reagles

In August 2003, when Neil Postman, notable American media critic, was living out his last days, Lance Strate, professor at Fordham University asked me to be on a panel at Fordham’s Manhattan campus, honoring the work of Neil Postman. Strate, who was familiar with past work of mine, asked me to address the intersection of media and religion. Though Postman was dying from lung cancer and required portable breathing equipment, he would be present at the event to respond to our papers. Unfortunately, college commitments prevented me from accepting that invitation. Postman died two months later, on October 5.

I regret missing that auspicious occasion and the opportunity to personally meet Postman. However, two years later when a full-day commemorative symposium was organized at New York University Strate invited me again to be on one of four panels honoring Postman.  Of course, Postman was not present, but the crowd of New York colleagues and other admirers were there in the audience that day, packed into the conference room along with Postman’s wife and sons as honored guests.

If you spend anytime at all around media you eventually come across the names of media ecologists like Marshall McLuhan—”The Medium is the message.”– and Neil Postman—”Technology giveth and it taketh away.” Let me briefly reflect how media ecology can benefit the purposes of the Christ in Media Institute and I’ll use my Postman anecdote as a departure point. My comments are not the final word, but rather provocations to stir discussion.

Those who value Postman’s wisdom, and their numbers in the scholarly world are legion, including Lutheran writers such as Gene Veith, cite Postman because of his cautionary wisdom about media and technology. In fact, during his lifetime Postman was a well-known keynote speaker at many evangelical and Roman Catholic gatherings because of his critical comments related to religious media. Inevitably, you find Postman and his ideas from Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) and Technopoly (1992) attacked, pilloried, or ignored by technophiles, whose love affair with anything new in media and technology make them more than willing to tether and use what James Carey and others have called the “electrical” and “technological sublime” where even angels tread cautiously.

Of course, Lutherans, acknowledging electricity and technology as gifts from God, have been more than willing to use these instruments for the glory of God in bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations, just as 16thcentury Theologians—Lutheran, Catholic and Reformed—tapped the printing press’s power. Perhaps if anyone using new technology were to ask Samuel Morse’s question, sent as the first telegraphic message—”What hath God wrought?”—perhaps the consequences of media use might be more positive. Of course, the other question implied might be more truthful in terms of actual effects, and perhaps we ought to be attending to it: “What hath man wrought?”

You can judge for yourself whether the “discovery” and development of nuclear energy, and its effects upon world politics, is best framed as a question of “What God has wrought?” or “What man has wrought?” There are consequences for HOW we use media, which go beyond “content,” that is, beyond the WHAT we are saying. The EFFECTS of media used to convey the message, and not the MESSAGE itself, may have more profound effects upon us. Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying—”The Medium is the Message!”—claimed not that content was unimportant, but that media, like television, had done more to change our way of life than the messages. Family dialogue at dinner tables, evening family time died and was replaced by silent watching. Cell-phones kill . . . . automobile drivers and passengers. The Internet is not simply a treasure-house of information, it is a trash-house, also, of porn sites. The surviving aphorisms—”Full steam ahead!” and “Pedal to the metal!”—capture the human tendency to harness the power of technology without thinking about effects. So what do these ideas have to do with the Christ in Media Institute?

And how does Postman fit in? Of course, we are living in an age of “speed,” aided and abetted significantly by the kind of technology and media we use. “Speed kills!” was not an aphorism created during the age of the chariot. It is a reminder of the character and consequences of a technological age. We want things today! Voila! I send out a message by computer; my credit card is electronically charged—and charged, and charged, and charged for items; I check overnight mail—another $3.99—and, today! . . . I have in my hand the product that was in California yesterday. And if technology can work with such great speed in getting us material objects, then, certainly it will help speed up the process of enlarging my church and giving “God-speed” to the Gospel! Or not.

Psa. 44:6   For I will not trust in my bow, Nor shall my sword save me.

Psa. 20:7  Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; But we will remember the name of the LORD our God.

In the electric, technological age in which we live, as members of the church, dedicated to bringing the Gospel to the nations, the church ought to be visionary, but also wisely circumspect in its thinking about how it uses media and about which media are most “expedient.” Ultimately all technology and media are mere chariots to convey the powerful Word of God. When I use the word “expedient” I have in mind Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 10:23, “Everything is permissible—but not everything is beneficial.”

Like you, I seek to live viably in the world of past and present technologies and I watch as those much younger than I “catch on” to new technology with lightning speed. As people age it is common to give up on the new because our mind has atrophied or our body slowed in its learning curve. I watch my grand-daughter, age one year and a half, place a DVD in the Blue Ray video player, while my four year old grand-daughter daughter smoothly navigates the computer or iTunes.

The Christ in Media Institute will serve multiple audiences and it will need to decide which audience age group it is serving. According to a February 23, 2009 Barna report, email and Internet are considered “mainstream” media by half of all computer users, exclusive of age, including Elders and Baby Boomers. But for Baby Busters (Generation “X” ages 37-45) “mainstream” media includes text messaging and hosting a personal website or homepage (such as MySpace or Facebook). For Mosaics (ages 18-26) “mainstream” goes further: blogging, watching videos online and downloading music online. Which of these media interest the Christ in Media Institute?

Like many of you, I try to “keep up” with technology, challenging as that is. I use a computer for its projection and audio technology, check You Tube, listen to radio, send e-mails, shop online, respond to blogs, watch movies and streamed video; I carry my blackberry which makes my office anywhere, where I can talk, do instant text messaging, check weather, news; check my GPS location. I use its video and camera functions often; re-send them to family. I’ve used Skype, respond to blogs, have a twitter account, and explore virtual programs like Second Life. I’ll admit that I’ve been slow getting to Facebook and some other media opportunities. I could go on, but in this revolution it is clear that the “visual” turn toward screen and image-based technology raises lots of questions for the Christ in Media Institute to consider.

Which of these technologies and media ought to be central to the task of the institute? Would using any of these technologies and media have consequences, which are best avoided by choosing different media? Which media are permanent and which ephemeral, fads of the age’s Geist? Are some media, because they CHANGE who we are, or the message we want to convey, best ignored? Which media best support the primacy of the oral word and the role of books, as part of a rational rather than, primary visual logic? In America, which Neal Gabler has fittingly called the “Republic of Entertainment,” Christian media moguls may be tempted to follow suit.

Conrad Ostwalt, in his book, Secular Steeples (2003) reminds us that religion “operating in a free-market environment finds itself competing with entertainment for attention and often adopts the stance of entertainment in order to thrive” (6). This mentality is what led Postman to write AmusingOurselves to Death. Were Postman writing today he might have been interested in the media style of Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, Brian McLaren, Paula White and Rick Warren, who Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere have dubbed Holy Mavericks (New York U. 2009) in their latest book. These holy mavericks

. .. preach edgy, sexy, iconoclastic sermons that are light on doctrine and heavy on experience, light on fire and brimstone and heavy on therapy and self-empowerment. They mix the secular with the sacred and are undaunted by the personal. They are business-savvy, media-sophisticated, high-tech preachers . . . who adjust their methods and messages to the needs and tastes of the masses. (149-50).

Let me conclude this short essay “probe,” with a case study to illustrate and summarize some of the ideas implied above. Many are acquainted with the Time of Grace (TOG) TV broadcast Ministry, featuring Pastor Mark Jeske of St. Marcus Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a member of WELS. Jeske is a talented speaker, who has the ability to convey a biblical message in conversational style, matching well what McLuhan called the “cool” media of television. In fact, the success of Time of Grace Ministries was recently highlighted in the April 2009 issue of Church Production Magazine. TOG, despite being a relatively small church, has dramatically grown in a short time, and while its location is in Milwaukee its broadcasts now cover 22 cities around the country. TOG has been added to the Daystar Television Network and American Forces Network. What is interesting from a media ecological viewpoint is the change in broadcast formatting, which has occurred in TOG’s short history.

The first of TOG programs show Jeske preaching in full liturgical attire and from the pulpit. The liturgical service itself has been cut out, but one can see that Jeske’s sermon is part of a traditional liturgical service. But this soon changed and in later podcasts one finds Jeske not preaching from the pulpit but speaking from the chancel area of the same church, now wearing a suit rather than a gown, and now not, in appearance, in a formally liturgical service, but what appears to be an informal bible study where he is at the front of the church nave. [Actually it is part of the liturgical service, but Jeske has taken off his gown to fit the television production mode, which wants to convey informality.]

Jeske talks informally, jokes, and during one program that I watched opens a bottle of wine, pours a glass and drinks it, while in a playful manner, teases the congregation about their not being able to enjoy this drink. He used the chancel space freely. The pulpit has been abandoned. In the last several weeks TOG has changed its format even further, so that the camera cuts back and forth between Jeske delivering the “sermon” in the informal bible study mode, in front of the church, to shots of him speaking from behind a desk in what is really a mock office in the studio “around the block.” This back-and-forth shooting between church and office format is a conscious attempt to move away from the liturgically based sermon setting the program began with to a television-friendly mode.

Why the change in format?  Ideas were suggested by various sources from within TOG as well as professional sources.  Looking for advice on how to best serve a larger constituency, TOG hired well-known television consultant Phil Cooke (known best for his work with Joel Osteen). Cooke’s fundamental advice reflects issues that media ecology and Neil Postman’s work would agree with, that a full formal worship setting does not televise well. [Apparently EWTN, which broadcasts full length liturgical masses, unedited, has a different philosophy about the value of cutting out liturgical ceremony.] What media most effectively convey a message? How do media themselves shape effect?

Ironically enough, Cooke’s most recent books reveal an interesting change. Cooke incorporates two of the primary scholars of media ecology—Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman—and it is their thinking which played a significant role, apparently, in influencing Cooke to dramatically shift his focus and advice to television preachers. Give up television preaching! Well, not exactly, but close. Basically, Cooke does not believe television ministries with “talking heads” are the best way to promote the gospel of Jesus Christ, in our changing world of media and technology because the media get in the way.  Liturgical services do not play well on television! Cooke suggests that this age of developing technology needs innovation, including a new generation of media arists producing short films, because the new age of media is a screen age, captive to images of all sizes and shapes, whether on I-Pods, smart phones or computers.

The biggest epiphany from Cooke’s latest book, The Last TV Evangelist (Huntington Beach, California: Conversant, 2009) echoes Postman, the claim that “TECHNOLOGY CHANGES, BUT THE MESSAGE DOESN’T. . . .IS A MYTH.”Beside the actual claim itself, the important point here is that Cooke is drawing his chief insights from the field of media ecology, and specifically, Neil Postman, and in fact, Cooke spends much time immediately after this claim discussing Postman and the implications of his idea for Christian media professionals.

The nature of the media we use to promote the Gospel may change how the message comes across, which may partially explain why Cooke has advised Time of Grace Ministry to change its format, and TOG has complied seeing wisdom in Cooke’s counsel.  Liturgical worship does not work well on television, according to Cooke. Now apart from the fact that Cooke sees Jeske’s message as being a “non-denominational message”—and Confessional Lutherans might wonder about the effects of such changes on the larger church and about a Lutheran church’s ability to preach the full counsel of God—this is yet another kind of question that media ecology asks. The field of media ecology, as one might gather, concerns itself with asking questions about the consequences of our decision with respect to the total environmental not merely pragmatically, but theologically.

Do changes on television imply for some viewers that “liturgical worship” and traditional Christianity are no longer the most effective way to engage in the work of sharing the Gospel outside of the broadcast environment?   It is not uncommon now to see Lutheran preachers in our circles eliminating vestments and preaching in a manner that resembles the peripatetic style of Baptist and Pentecostal ministers, choosing informal rather than formal liturgical style.  What do such practices say about Lutheran identity?  In fact, while shedding one’s gown and adopting an office-format for informal speaking may be treated as adiaphora, the most effective way to spread the word to a television audience, one can wonder about the media effects of such practice, upon the larger ecclesiastical environment and viewing public. In the most recent Luther film the actor playing Luther, curiously, does not preach from a pulpit either and, now, one can find scores of Lutheran pastors in this fellowship who no longer preach from pulpits, wearing robes or conducting “formal worship.” In fact, it is difficult now in watching many “Lutheran” service podcasts to determine on the basis of the changed semiotics of worship whether the preacher is Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian or otherwise. They have exchanged formal worship for an informal style in order to match the medium of television.

Such “media effects” remind one of Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism that “The Medium is the Message,” but this, of course, is the part of media ecology that Phil Cooke understands and who in his last two books gives a hearty “Amen!” to fundamental principles of Media Ecology, suggested by McLuhan and Postman. There are things about theology that Phil Cooke is not qualified to address, at least for Lutherans, despite his claim to having a Ph.D. in Theology. This case study is just one small aspect of the complexities of media ecology as one Lutheran organization struggles to develop a viable media ministry that serves the Gospel.  But the principles of media ecology are fairly easily grasped and the principles provide anyone who entertains them a provocative means for thinking about possible media effect in order to plan for media use. I have barely touched the surface and have curtailed much explanation, but some ideas above may generate thinking and discussion about media decisions. The point is that in a media age “common sense” takes one only so far. TOG hired Phil Cooke to give the advice, but, arguably anyone may find such wisdom and advice in the field of media ecology—as Cooke himself exemplifies—from figures like Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul and Walter Ong, to name a few. Our thinking process, our critical perspective, our ability to make wise judgments about media may be enhanced by depending upon some of the critical perspectives of Media Ecology.