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Don't Take Your iPod to Church!

Yesterday I described the book as The Perfect Technology. There was perhaps a little bit of hyperbole involved, but I think the point was well-taken. I was actually surprised to see how many people agreed with me. Maybe as Christians we are unusual in this regard; maybe Christians are, almost by definition, readers and, thus, people who will toss away their books only with great caution. This is good, I think, as Christians tend to be too pragmatic, prone to believe that any innovation that claims to make life immediately easier or more convenient (without violating any clear teaching of Scripture) must be good.

Today I want to carry on with a few more thoughts about reading in a digital world and I want to focus in on one issue in particular.

I have witnessed recently what I consider a disturbing trend—Christians coming to church armed not with a Bible but with an iPod or an iPhone or another hand held device. With many versions of the Bible available in electronic formats and with the widespread popularity of MP3 players, cell phones and other digital devices, I guess it just makes sense to some people to bring Scripture in that electronic format. Pragmatists that we are, I believe many Christians have done this without thinking at all about the implications.

I want to encourage you not to bring an electronic Bible to church. I want to encourage you today to bring to church a Bible—an old fashioned kind of Bible, with ink printed on paper and slapped between two covers made of cardboard or leather or pleather. I also want to encourage you not to get into the habit of doing your daily Bible reading using an electronic device. I think we stand to lose far more than we gain.

In the past couple of months I have spent a fair bit of time reading the works of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman—gurus of the technological age. I tend to prefer Postman as I find him not only more accessible but also more accurate and more realistic. McLuhan is prone to hyperbole, excessive hyperbole even, and I find that this detracts from his effectiveness as a communicator (though I know that many would disagree with me on this point).

McLuhan is undoubtedly best-known for his catchy little phrase, “the medium is the message.” It sometimes helps to emphasize that little word is as if to stress that the the medium and the message carried by that medium cannot be neatly separated. This is exactly what McLuhan emphasized time and time again—we cannot afford to fall into the trap of believing that media are neutral, simple bearers of a message. “The medium is the message.” In a classic case of McLuhian hyperbole, he would say that the content of a particular medium “has about as much importance as the stencilling on the casing of an atomic bomb.” He turns the equation right around, saying that the content is nothing, the medium is everything.

I think McLuhan makes an important point and one that we discount at our folly, though he overstates his case here and elsewhere. Still, where McLuhan is so important is in understanding that every medium carries with it a message that necessarily impacts the content. We like to think that we are smart enough, holy enough, to draw complete and utter separation between medium and content. Christians do this all the time when we assume that there is no difference between singing songs from a hymn book and singing songs via a projector and Powerpoint. We do this when we listen to sermons online instead of listening while seated in a pew. But what if we are fooling ourselves? What if the medium really does radically shape our perception, our understanding, of the content it carries? What then?

This is where Neil Postman comes in. In Technopoly Postman says that, when two technologies come into competition or conflict (two technologies such as the Bible printed on paper and the Bible on an iPod), it is more than technologies that are squaring off, but rather, entire worldviews. Every medium, he says, carries with it some kind of an ideological bias, “a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing more than another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.” Thus, again, the method we use to convey information is inseparable from the content of that information. And even more so, every medium carries with it both content but also a worldview. When we read the Bible electronically, we read the very same words, but in a way that influences us toward a different worldview, a different way of understanding the reality of those words.

Postman also adds to this discussion a phrase that is so simple but so important: a technology does what it was created to do. Over time, a technology will play out its hand, to to speak, and it may do so in ways we would not expect. Had Gutenberg known what would happen through the invention of the printing press, do we believe that he still would have invented it? That printing press was instrumental in forever changing the Roman Catholic Church (of which he was a faithful son). How many other technologies have played out their hands in completely unexpected ways? Should we not be on our guard, then, when considering such new innovations?

So where does this leave us? It leaves us wondering what ideological bias, what predisposition, is carried in the book and in the electronic book. It causes us to wonder what skill or attitude is amplified in the book and what skill or attitude is amplified in the iPod.

But I will have to take this up in another article. Check in next week for that.