Category Archives: THEOMEDIA

THMED 4

The UK Version of ‘TheoMedia': now available

My book TheoMedia is now a UK citizen, so to speak. The Lutterworth Press secured the rights to publish the book here and came up with their own cover design (which turned out very well, I think). The copies are being printed and available for order at their website.

theomed

The difference between this version and the US version released a year ago?

An INDEX. And it is awesome (as far as indices go).

A big thanks to the folks at Lutterworth!

steve-jobs-jesus-bible

“Media Christology”

My favorite section in TheoMedia is “PART 4 | Media Christology: Jesus, Media Legacies, and Focal Media Practices.” Here are the chapter headings:

The Page-Splitting God Who Rips Sky and Veil: An Interlude”

Gospel and Incarnation: Jesus as the Ultimate TheoMedium

Crucifixion: Cross-Visuality and the Eucharist

Resurrection & Ascension: Word-media, Baptism, and Christ as Mediator

Christ’s Return: Apocalyptic Media and the End of Mediation

What I am trying to do in this part of the book is to reconsider our media culture through Jesus, and then to rethink how Jesus’ life, work, and reign should configure our media practices.

The whole purpose of TheoMedia is to allow the biblical story of Creation–Fall–Redemption and the biblical visino of the Triune God to redefine our appropriation and understanding of digital culture. “Media Christology” looks specifically at how Jesus was himself the ultimate medium of God (the divine Word who became Incarnate) and how his own life compels an array of media practices.

I am currently reading a review copy of Craig Detweiler’s iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives (soon to be released by Brazos). I just read Detweiler’s cataloguing of the religious rhetoric and imagery attached to the founding of Apple, the rise-fall-resurrection of Steve Jobs, and the cult-like devotion of Apple consumers (and let me confess that I am typing this post on a Mac). Apple lovers have appealed to Christological language and imagery in describing Jobs and his products.

It is eerie… even if much of it is in jest.

Rather than recasting Jesus to fit our technological fascinations, I would prefer, of course, that we rethink our technological fascinations through Christology.

That is the point of PART 4 in TheoMedia. As it turns out, Christology has a great deal to say about how we use and understand media today. If you get a chance to read through it, let me know what you think… and help me keep thinking about the possibilities.

the_newsroom

Everything Bad is Good For You… Including Preaching

In researching TheoMedia, I read Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You where he takes to task the conventional wisdom that our entire society is “amusing ourselves to death” (so Neil Postman) and reducing our collective minds into media-saturated mush. His claim is that much of this supposedly “bad” stuff in pop-culture is actually helping us to think better. Hence the book’s subtitle: “Why Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter.”

He has made some excellent points.

Let’s take television, for instance. When I was growing up, there were three main networks competing for American viewers. The media-brokers’ mentality towards entertainment seemed to be this: produce shows that demand very little of an audience other than to be entertained. For the most part, the 1980s and 1970s sit-coms offered dumbed down stories that targeted the lowest common intellectual denominator of the watching populace (for Johnson, shows like Hill Street Blues were decidedly different).

Compare this previous TV era with the today’s era of endless cable channels and countless new shows. The most successful television series over the past decade are far from dumbed down in terms of intellectual engagement. For shows like Breaking Bad, Lost, ER, The Newsroom, and even Seinfeld, entertainment is not necessarily easy for the viewers—to catch jokes on Seinfeld, you may have to remember an episode from two years earlier. To follow Lost, you have to endure what feels like insensible plot twists and recall brief character interactions from prior episodes. And shows like The Newsroom and The West Wing demand quite a bit of intellectual brain-wracking along with a textured understanding of politics and current events.

Johnson points to shows like these as evidence that pop culture can actually make us smarter.

I am not sure watching The Newsroom makes me smarter. But what Johnson does demonstrate is that people are not solely entertained by shallow shows with empty plotlines. To the contrary, those series offering difficult, challenging material that engage our imaginations and our intellect are thriving. Not everyone prefers to watch The Newsroom in their spare time, but large swathes of us are willing to endure insensible plot twists and highly intelligent banter between sophisticated, complex characters because the kind of entertainment we most want is entertainment that is meaningfully engaging.

When I watch a film, I have high demands for entertainment. I do not just want to laugh at frivolities. I am not interested in gratuitous “love scenes.” I want the film-makers to make me think and rethink, to engage my imagination and inspire new ways of seeing and perceiving.

Is there anything those of us who are preachers can learn from this?

The Sermon and Good Television: Any Lessons Here?

Perhaps we have something to UNlearn.

It seems to me that many preachers began taking their cues from pop culture trying to make the Sunday sermon entertaining in the way shallow television has attempted to entertain their congregations during prime-time. A lot of preaching was dumbed down. Funny stories empty of real meaning or of any connection to the texts and topics became par for the course.

Steven Johnson might have some wisdom for the 21st century preacher: there are people out there who want to be meaningfully engaged. Not only can they handle difficult content and mystifying plotlines, they are offended when it is not offered. They actually enjoy being entrusted with lofty and carefully articulated material.

Shallow television may well turn our brains into media-saturated mush.

Shallow preaching does the same thing.

But the entertainment industry is picking up on something about human nature: we do not just want to be amused; we want to be meaningfully engaged.

No media form is more uniquely suited for meaningful engagement than preaching. The content of our message demands the highest degree of intellectual wrestling: i.e., There is One God in Three Persons, or a lordly figure has appeared from an ancient line of Kings to end cosmic tyranny.

And no plotline is more insensible and full of more twists than the bullets on this storyboard:

God shows up in the flesh
God gets yanked out of a garden
God gets nailed naked to a post
The Dead God then bursts forth from a grave

[For a post with similar themes, see my “When Preaching Mystifies More than it Explains“]

Should Preaching be Entertaining?

I asked in the previous post if preaching should be entertaining.

My thinking is that preaching must ultimately be, like the Christian Scriptures, engaging. That is, preaching must arrest the mind, heart, soul, and strength (to borrow from the Shema—Dt 6:4) and compel a reimagining of reality and a reanimation of our lives.

In this act of engaging, preaching may well be entertaining.

As noted earlier, Christian critiques of entertainment media need to be more nuanced. I write in the opening of TheoMedia that all media was once religious. This is because “media” are means of communication and self-revelation, and for ancient and modern-day Christians communicative initiative begins with the Triune God. The concept of “media” goes back to this one phrase:

“Let there be…”

God spoke, and thereby employed “media”—specifically, the medium of speech. And by that medium he created the multi-media world of creation. Our God is a multi-media God.

So we need to be careful with our negative connotations of “media.”

Entertainment media, however, has rightfully earned itself a bad wrap in many respects, like when it seeks to engage an audience by appealing to our shallow fancies and our unhealthy curiosities. Sermons that merely titillate to maintain a congregation’s attention are little different from television studios who throw in gratuitous sex and stylized violence to maintain an audience.

This is not the job of Christian preaching. Entertainment is not its goal, but engagement. At the same time, it is okay (and perhaps right!) when engaging preaching entertains us.

But this is not “entertainment” that, as mentioned above, arrests our attention by appealing to base interests and shallow fancies.

What should most arrest our attention is truth. What should hold our concentration is a compelling vision of the Triune God. What should awaken our interest is the urgency of sin and injustice. What should seize our minds and hearts should be Christ crucified and the cosmic scandal of a burst open tomb.

And these realities and convictions are what Christian preaching must offer through the medium of speech.

Preaching will be entertaining at times. It will also be unnerving. And if we are plying the homiletical craft faithful to the subject matter, then it will grasp and hold the attention of those who have ears to ear.

Next Post: “Everything is Bad for You… Including Preaching.” A look at how HBO’s The Newsroom and NBC’s Parenthood model a new mode of television that informs the craft of preaching.

Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 9.17.20 AM

The Bible as Entertaining…?

[I just started doing some thinking on the blog about entertainment culture, theology, and ministry. In my recent book TheoMedia, I have a “TheoMedia Note” (an aside or excursus) called “The Mediation of Sex and Violence.” Other than those few pages, I deal very little with entertainment media. So I am wanting to interact over it now in these posts.]

I mentioned earlier that the biblical stories and perhaps even some poems and songs certainly have an entertaining quality about them. So is there such a thing as “biblical entertainment”?

The Bible is indeed entertaining at times, but entertainment was not the goal of the biblical writers. Ultimately, they were seeking to engage their readers. This could come in the form of entertainment, of course. But the Bible does not stop with just entertaining us. It engages our intellect, our emotions, our sense of humor regardless of the entertainment value and seeks to upturn, overturn, unnerve, and ultimately redeem and recreate our lives.

The Bible is not bound to viewer ratings. It has no interest in the opinions of its reviewers. It is entirely dispassionate toward the literary critics.

The words of one literary critic are really helpful here. This is from Erich Auerbach’s comparison of biblical literature with the writings of the early Greek poets:

The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s, it is tyrannical—it excludes all other claims. The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality—it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels. [1] (Emphases added)

That last line can be applied to a comparison between the Bible and the entertainment industry today. Media production often seeks “to court our favor,” to “flatter” our sensibilities. Scripture seeks to engage us and reconfigure our take on reality.

I do not think that entertainment, per se, is wrong. By no means. It is easy for Christians to bash the entertainment industry—we need to be much more nuanced.

But entertainment bound to profit margins needs to be held with some degree of suspicion. As in any industry, our entertainers must answer to the market dynamics of supply and demand. And what do we demand? A lot of things that are not that good for our souls.

Scripture, on the other hand, does not seek an audience or a market niche by suiting the fancies of its consumer base. It needs no survey for detecting trends in demand. Even so, it makes the attempt to engage us full on, arrest our senses, and alter our lives.

NEXT: what preachers can learn about their craft from the new era of TV…

[1] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Trans. by Willard R. Trask; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953), 14–15.

drama-masks

The Media Sin in an Entertainment Culture is to be Boring

I make a parenthetical comment in my book TheoMedia that “the great media sin of our culture is to be boring.”

The converse probably also rings true: the great media virtue is to be entertaining.

I will be offering a few posts here at HR on entertainment culture, something I actually write very little about in TheoMedia. My concern is not to lambast our society’s entertainment industry or to make wholesale critiques of our own desires to enjoy screen-mediated amusements. “Entertainment” is one of those words that sounds quite shallow and full of kitsch as soon as we hear, and it is so easy to pick on the entertainers of our world (as much as we love them). When I hear the word ‘entertainment,’ I immediately think of John Tesh co-hosting Entertainment Tonight—it was the silly show that presented itself as newsy just after my family would have watched serious news (I just checked online and saw that the show is still running. Just no John Tesh, sadly).

But ‘entertainment’ deserves to be treated a bit more seriously. ‘Entertainment media’ can actually include certain parts of the Bible—many of those old stories, songs, and poems would certainly have had some entertaining qualities… though, as Erich Auerbach has pointed out, the way they entertain is markedly different from the entertainment media of other cultures, ancient or modern (more on this in a later post).

For now, I am just curious about one way our culture of entertainment has shaped our moral conscious at a meta-level:

boring = unimportant.

Our entertainment culture is often blamed for the immorality of Western society. Sex and violence abounds on screens small and large. But most films actually promote a strong sense of morality in that right and wrong, good and evil, are portrayed in dramatic conflict.

Entertainment culture is teaching us something more sweeping, something we rarely observe. It is teaching us that boredom is wrong. This idea establishes a standard for our media use and appropriation. A medium that is boring (like a textbook) is considered inferior to the more exciting medium of video footage. Educational curriculum in schools and churches are incorporating more video footage to make the subject matter more exciting.

Pedagogically, I get it. I totally understand the efficacy of these media decisions—adolescent kids (especially boys, perhaps) will surely find science more exciting if they can watch CSI-style video footage with creepy music and gruesome crime scenes.

The alternative of a reading assignment in a science textbook seems increasingly outdated.

But along with the intended science lessons, this entertainment-based curriculum teaches unintended lessons: something is worth learning if it is entertaining; if something is dull, it is not worth the effort of learning; to be educated I must be entertained; my teachers must amuse me.

I am what media specialists would call a “soft determinist,” meaning that I think media has some influence on (rather than a dominating control over) its content or message. But I am not hard-nosed about this, and I think the message often shapes and configures its medium, as well as the other way around. But I think Neil Postman made a good point in his chapter “Teaching as an Amusing Activity.” Once we allow the entertainment complex to enter the educational sphere, we may find ourselves disparaging the academic disciplines required for learning hard stuff that does not come packaged in a video clip.

So what about the media of the church? Preaching, for instance: when we say a sermon is “good,” to what degree is that assessment based on the values of our entertainment culture? Good as in it held my attention? And if it held our attention, how did it do that? By engaging us with a compelling vision of God, or by stimulating our entertainment needs?

I think sermons should be engaging. What is the difference between engaging and entertaining?

See the next post…

TheoM pic 2

Okay: ‘TheoMedia’ is Now Available…

The official publication date for my book on media and biblical theology is July, 2013. But the book has only now become available at the bigger online shops like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, which for most of us constitutes a real “release date.”

Some thoughts…

“Media Theology”

The book is TheoMedia: The Media of God in the Digital Age. I am calling it a “media theology,” that is, a book that tries to think biblically and theologically about our current media culture. There are a number of projects doing this very thing with technology (and to some degree with media as well) like John Dyer’s From the Garden to the City, Tim Challies’ The Next Story, and Shane Hipps’ Flickering Pixels. More academic studies include Brian Brock’s Christian Ethics in a Technological Age and Albert Borgmann’s Power Failure.

I really like the term “media theology.” It encompasses quite a bit, and reminds us that we do theology via media: books, art, poems, hymns, etc. And I like pairing a savvy, hip term like “media” with “theology,” which sort of sounds less hip to most (though “media” is as ancient a concept as “theology”).


Readership: For Academic or General Audiences?

TheoMedia is designed for both.

Trying to engage both academics and general readers may be the surest path to a marketing disaster. But this is the sort of writing I think the church most desperately needs… you know, the kind of writing that is born out of intensive study but is nonetheless accessible and digestible to nonspecialists. Even though the marketing niche for this sort of thing may be small, I am pleased to operate within its range of readers. And I hope I have done those readers justice.

Purpose
My reasons for writing TheoMedia are personal, pastoral, and academic. But the thrust of what I am trying to do with this book is to identify and articulate the right conceptual grid—the interpretive lens—through which we assess and use media in the digital age. It is hard to see how our ancient collection of sacred texts (the Bible) and our age-old theological traditions can speak in such a cutting age, 21st century culture of social media, downloadable apps, Google, and iPhones.

Yet the Bible is actually a medium about media. And God himself makes and uses media—means of self-revelation and communication (“TheoMedia”). If God uses media, then there must be a theological rationale by which the church can understand, produce, and use media today. My purpose in writing is to point out this rationale and venture applying it to our own day.

The Gospel
To tip my hand a bit, I want to say that writing this book gave me an excuse to write about the Gospel. Ultimately, TheoMedia is about God reaching to the furthest extent through Christ to restore a divine-human communication loss of cosmic proportions. And nothing is more thrilling to write about.


Behind the Scenes…

I just think it is fun to point this sort of stuff out. My first book, Faith Without Illusions, came out of a sermon. The same is true for TheoMedia, except that it was a 3-part sermon series. I think I even called the series “TheoMedia.” They were preached at University Christian Fellowship during the Fall of 2010. The ideas had a homiletical reappearance in Scotland for King Church Durham’s Student House Party event in January of 2012. If you were there for any of those events, then thanks for being a part of this book!

One last thing…
The book is a bit pricey, weighing in at around $25. Yeah, I know—it had better be good. I guess the price reflects its labeling as an academic work. Sorry folks—not sure I can do anything about this. Sheepishly, let me encourage us to look on the bright side: at least the price is high enough to qualify for free shipping, right?

If you can help me spread the word about TheoMedia, that would be great. Thanks so much!