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Review of Flickering Pixels

October 18, 2009

I just recentily finished the book Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith by Shane Hipps. I had heard about it for a while, and the topic really caught my attention. A few years ago, Neal Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death really forced me to think seriously about the way media changes our perspective, and I thought Hipps book would do the same.

First of all, the good stuff – I really liked his insights from the advertising world (that was his former job before becoming a Menonite minister). Especially the part about why images are so powerful – reading words taps the rational part of the brain and invites argument, but you can’t argue with images. They engage emotions. It also calls us to think seriously about what images we expose ourselves to, and the effect that has on the way our brains are formed. As a father of an 19 month old, I found that a sobering thought. I read recently that one of the reasons pornography is such a difficult addiction for men to break is that the brain actually forms new neural pathways when exposed to it. In other words, viewing that kind of thing makes your mind work differently. That can be true for anything we shouldn’t be watching. He also points out the limitations of our more common forms of electronic communication, and made some points I really agree with about the limitations of e-mail, blogs, etc.

Now to the part I don’t agree with…and the thesis of the book (and recent talk I heard him give). He cites communication thinker Marshall McLuhan (who I hadn’t thought about since my Mass Media Communication class in undergrad). McLuhan is famous for saying “The medium is the message.” Hipps takes that and applies it to the gospel. He says that our often used phrase “The message (gospel) never changes, but the methods do” is false. In his opinion, when the method changes, the message necessarily changes. So, the gospel message changes when its delivery method changes.

But here’s the thing – I don’t think he really believes that. A controversial statement like that is an excellent attention getter for a talk and it probably will sell alot of books, but he doesn’t mean it (at least not the way he words it in that statement). When I heard him give the talk in person, he was careful to say there were certain core elements of the gospel that don’t change. He didn’t say why those didn’t change, or more importantly, who got to decide what changes and what didn’t, just that some elements don’t change. To illustrate his point, he uses the various messages God gave through Moses, the prophets, Jesus, and Paul. He claims that is proof that God’s message changes. Yet, I don’t think the fact that God gave different individuals different messages means that His gospel was somehow evolving. In fact, if God’s message was that His people would be delivered, the mere fact that different acts were necessary at different phases in history doesn’t mean the message changed. Plus, God spoke directly to Noah, Abraham, and Moses, yet He gave them all different messages. In that case, the medium was the same, but the messages were different. Why? Because God knew what was needed at that time, and He gave man the information necessary. The change was because of circumstance, not the medium. Same for Jesus, when He was telling others not to tell who had healed them, and Paul, when he was preaching to everyone.

He also makes some creative uses of the “mustard seed” and “new wineskin” teachings of Jesus to support his point. Those seemed like quite a stretch to me. The bigger challenge, as stated earlier, was the fact that some elements remain the same. If you start picking and choosing what elements of the gospel don’t change, you are getting into some pretty subjective territory. Discernment is important, but the opinions of a church community never have the right to determine what the text says. After all, Peter did say that no prophecy was a matter of private interpretation, but that men were carried along by the Holy Spirit when they recorded scripture.

I did think the book was a good read, and Hipps is wise to point out the effect different mediums have on us. We do need to be very careful about the way we use those mediums to communicate the gospel – different mediums can create effects we may never have intended. But they don’t change the message. 

P.S. I also liked the cover.41QEw570hmL__SS500_

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2009 8:32 am

    Thanks for the review, Andrew. I also have some problems with the thesis of this book, at least as presented here. Like it or not, communication changes. The gospel was mainly communicated orally, for hundreds of years. Then the printing press changed all of that. Sermon styles change drastically from age to age. Now computers and video projectors are adding a whole new wrinkle.

    Yet I’m convinced that the message is eternal.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

    • andrewdphillips permalink
      October 19, 2009 1:42 pm

      Thanks Tim – I definitely think that there is alot to consider about how the medium can affect the way our minds perceive the message, and I am glad Shane brings it up. In the race to use new technology, we need to carefully consider how we use it, and do it with excellence. I just resist Hipps’ suggestions as to how that is fleshed out.

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