Theological Reflections on Culture and the Internet
My cell is ringing
I need to know who’s calling
My garden’s overgrown
I go out on my belly crawling
I got CCTV, pornography, CNBC
I got the nightly news
To get to know the enemy
-U2, Fast Cars
This week as a D.Min cohort we have been pondering the intersection of theology, culture, technology and media. To be sure, if you are a Christian leader and not thinking about these things, then you should. For one, the internet is now everywhere. People spend much of their life connected and communicating, and many use it to seek out spiritual content, or augment their current spiritual practices. Christians, of course, have also been very preoccupied with culture, whether from an accommodationist or a rejectionist standpoint, in particular evangelical circles have often had a love hate relationship with “culture.” While evangelicals in the mainline (and mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox) often have a strong working connection to high culture, wider evangelicalism typically have been content to create their own pop culture ghetto. In recent years, this has radically changed as more and more evangelicals seek to engage and create film, music, and art that is not explicitly Christian. Our reading this week, has also shown how Christians have tended to look at technology. Garner in “Theology and the New Media” highlights how Christians see developments in technology as either liberating, oppressive, or as a neutral instrument. I believe a point can be made here as to Christian’s relationship to culture as well, seeing it as liberating, oppressive, or neutral.
In our world, new media, technology, and pop culture all collide and merge together into a convergence of dizzying bombardment. We are constantly and instantly connected to information and a cascade of narratives, images, symbols, and conflicts. We have to ask ourselves if we are only sliding on the surface of things here. The dark side of this convergence is seen in the reactive political extremes of Wikileaks anarchistic attempts to pull back the curtain on what it sees as the hypocrisy of Western democracy, and with aplomb smash it all to pieces, against the countervailing institutional pull for structure and control in the NSA data collection. We live in a world caught between security and anarchy. The dark side also raises its ugly head in pornography, online bullying, and the rise of “reality television” in which we become voyeurs into people verbally and physically destroying each other and themselves. Still, this does not mean the convergence is all bad. People find Jesus online, or connect with communities they would not be able to. Moreover, this week, we read two articles that highlighted the power of pop culture, and new media to speak prophetically and powerfully into the connected world we inhabit through lament. Christians have much to speak into the use of media, and technology and our relation to culture. God inhabits these realms. His common grace redeems and creates good, even in pop culture. As Noll would urge us, God created these things, they are part of God’s realm, so they are important. Yes, there is much to critique in the hyper-sexualized, vapid, consumerist, emotional porn of much of pop culture (I personally find it disturbing that the only way Bob Dylan can get on TV is in a commercial). But, there is also much pop and high culture available that is redeeming, and imbued with common grace. David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Terrance Malick’s To the Wonder are two recent cinematic meditations on both human and Godly love.
So as Christians, we live in this tension: belief that what God creates as part of his visible and invisible world, is worthy of study and use. We must become sharp thinkers, and cultural exegetes, understanding culture and technology, and how they converge. Maybe pastors should see themselves as cultural exegetes and guides above all else? This maybe already is underway as missional theology asks us to see ourselves as outsiders, sent ones, and missionaries even within our own cultures. Why do we not teach our churches about film, music and art criticism? Still, most of all we need to develop a theology that comes to these issues in light of the incarnation and resurrection.
The fear of how technology will impact modern society is not just confined to evangelical circles. There has often been a growing sense of fear and dread in reaction to the hyper media connection of our world. This year a technological apocalyptic film called Transcendence will be released.
While it is science fiction, the fears of our world are reflected in it. Since U2 has been a theme for this week, perhaps we should turn to them to help us point a final theologizing point on the theme. In their song Fast Cars, U2 describe a person caught up in the media, technology, noise and anxiety of modern society:
I watch them channel hop
Check the stocks
I’m in detox
I want the lot of what you’ve got
There is no fiction
That will truly fit the situation
I’m documenting every detail
In a sense, the modern world has left the protagonist numb:
You should worry about the day
That the pain it goes away
You know I miss mine sometimes
However, the song ultimately points us back from the discontent of the hyper connected world, back into the garden, to relationship:
All I want is a picture of you
All I want is to be right next to you
I’m not used to talking to somebody in their body
Look, there’s somebody in a body, somebody in a body
Interestingly, U2, a Johnny Depp movie, and the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ, point us back to a theology of embodiment. To be human is ultimately reside in a physical world of community and love. This can be augmented and aided by technology of course. But, perhaps this is our guideline for interacting and thinking about the convergence. Pop culture and new media should ultimately point us back to the embrace of Christian love, the already not yet of communion, and the redemption of our whole and entire humanity.
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