Saturday, February 21, 2009

Flickering Pixels: CH 5

Before emergence was a word adopted by a village in the eastern hemisphere of evangelical thinking, it was a term from scientists. To reduce it, emergence theory is a science of relationships--social, biological, electronic--that claims the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts (i.e., group think or swarm logic). Author Steven Johnson covers this science from the perspective of a cultural critic in the book Emergence.

Christians can learn a great deal from authors like Johnson who are willing to dissect our culture and analyze trends in thinking/being/relating. We may not agree with everything he says, but the beauty of written discourse is our ability to strain an author's thesis through our logically-wired, left brain. Digital technology, to some degree, improves this by allotting a comment section (the borderless version of a book club!).

While I didn't read Emergence (I couldn't risk having such a condemning title in my pastoral library), my good friend coaxed me into reading a follow-up work by Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You. Admittedly, a title like this could also get a pastor in trouble, fortunately the book is not dealing with morals but technologies. Specifically: Video games, the world wide web, and television series are amoral.

Johnson seeks to upset conventional wisdom. Axiomatically, we state literacy is a virtue, more so than playing Killzone 2 (PS3). We might site arguments that more crime, poverty, and classicism result from reading deficiencies than one's Wii fitness score. But Johnson challenges the conventional wisdom, turning it on its head. Imagining a 'parallel universe' Johnson wonders in prose how people would view books had video games come first.

Reading books chronically understimulates the senses... Only a small portion of
the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading,
while games engage a full range of sensory and motor cortices. Books are also
tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in
complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds
together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet
space, shut off from interaction with other children (pg. 19).

I appreciate Johnson's imagination: I do not want to take my world at face value. It is easy to decry video games ("They promote violence and produce obesity!") and herald literature, because older things are more trustworthy. On the surface, this may appear to be the case, but Johnson looks below.

Hipps does the same thing in Chapter 4 of Flickering Pixels. "Subliminal Messages" peers beneath the technology of reading, identifying three major messages that text reiterates: You're an individual; Remain objective; Think abstractly and rationally (pg. 55).

Mass publication opened the door for privatized learning. Hipps calls this 'the luxury of thinking apart from the tribe' (pg. 56). Matt Damon captures this image as the titled character in the film Good Will Hunting. Needing no teacher, no classroom, no assignments, but only the cost of a library card (and a few fines), Will surpassed the intellect of a Harvard professor. The conflict for Will is not intellect, though, it is intimacy.

Literacy bolsters the individual while simultaneously isolating him. I'm saddened by how many men in church I've met who cite authors as mentors. And the fact that American Christianity has reduced 'good' living to a set of individualized disciplines--quiet time, solitary prayer, journaling--finds roots in the text era (pg. 56). We might be people of the book, if we mean we read it, study it, apply it alone, and show up to hear an uninspiring monologue on Sunday mornings. Or as Hipps states the matter: "Community in the print age has been understood primarily as a collection of discrete individuals working concurrently on their personal relationships with Jesus" (pg. 57).

The second part of the chapter deals with the suspicion of pure rationalism in the digital age. Printed text resulted in the 'unintended consequence' that people 'began to believe that our objectivity was absolute' (pg. 58). In other words, Logic became God, and since man had the tools for logic (syllogism and lexicons), 'we started reading Scripture under the illusion we could know God's mind with unbiased clarity of vision' (pg. 58). Arrogance, irreverence, and detachment are the offspring of such thinking.

I do not doubt the place of rationality in the Christian life--I wouldn't write if I did. Nor do I question the perspicuity of Scripture. What I appreciate in Hipps's chapter is the exposure of man's hubris. Our exegetical tools are good, but I suspect our boasting is akin to the child who points a magnifying glass to the heavens and says, "Now I can clearly see the heavens."

Cute. Good start. But I would encourage us to bring our glasses to the historical community of God and see what emerges.

Questions to Consider:
  • What are communal disciplines that we might join with our devotions?
  • How might benediction, doxology, and corporate reading strengthen the church?
  • Can we be convinced of Biblical truth and acknowledge mystery?
Integrity Check (these words included):
Hipps Words: 71
Total Words: 855
Percentage: 8.3%

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