Lesson 6: Christian Words in the Electronic Age

social media isn't socialScholars usually speak of 3 momentous stages of language: the spoken, written, and electronic word. Each has distinctive characteristics that most of us readily recognize. Each has consequences for religion as well as culture.

In the age of the spoken word, persons communicated exclusively person to person. Because most of this was face to face, meaning could be discerned through inflections, gestures, and physical expressions. If you still were not sure, you could ask the speaker to provide more words. Storytelling provided meaning. Repetition aided preservation.

In this stage, the Gospel was proclaimed face-to-face and passed mouth to mouth, sometimes quite literally in a kiss of peace. Believers reported what they had seen, heard, and experienced. The situation of the hearer was always taken into consideration and some kind of spontaneous response was expected. As was to be expected, different interpretations developed as situations changed. However, liturgy retained a basic story. The proclamation always included an invitation to join the community of believers. It’s essential to remember that Christians still regard the spoken word as the fundamental form of proclamation. It provides the vulnerable exposure essential for proclaiming unconditional love. In a face-to-face environment, the promises inherent in declarations of love can be called in.

In the next stage, the written word was added to the spoken. This, of course, brought more permanency. Thoughts could now be written down and even preserved in books as well as remembered in spoken narratives. Because you could return to the written word over and over again, it was easier to engage in extended study and profound thought. This led to setting standards and seeking uniformity.

The Gospel was much more associated with the Bible that was regarded as a realistic historical narrative. Many eventually identified the Word of God with the written scriptures rather than spoken proclamation. An established canon naturally inspired a search for approved doctrines. Of course, communicating through writing loses some of the spontaneity and vulnerability that goes with speaking person to person. Community is also less important when a believer alone in her room can read the Bible and connect with Christians down through the ages.

Society is just beginning to fully appreciate that electronic media have brought changes as earth shaking as the printing press. The electronic age provides great speed, marvelous extension, and an abundance of information. You can now speak immediately to someone on the other side of earth or download academic papers from numerous prestigious libraries to your office computer. However, because communication is pretty much limited to short sound bites, you lose profundity. And personal contact can be reduced all the way to anonymity on electronic media.

The church is struggling to know how to proclaim the Gospel in this new age. Pentecostalism believes it can overcome the loss of personal relationships by returning to the spoken word alone. Fundamentalism reacts to the loss of traditional authority by returning to the written. Both distort the message by refusing to address the real needs of the present global society created by electronic media. A world struggling to handle climate change is not prepared to listen to an individual claiming the Christian god speaks through her. Appealing to an absolute doctrine of any kind creates division and contributes to the pain of a world suffering political gridlock.

I think the present proclamation of the Gospel must invite people into the Beloved Community in which people can come to trust one another through personal contact, shared conversation, and working together. This community would not champion doctrine but share understandings and experiences in an attempt address the common good of the society.

The attempt to provide something relevant and useful is not surrender to a truth reduced to what works for me or comes up atop a Google search result. It is truly prophetic as an honest search for Christian truth using faith, hope, and love to seek meaning and purpose in our lives together.

Next week, I’d like to begin examining how those three words work in our electronic age.

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  1. Lupe Andrade says:

    I think you have touched on a sore spot of sorts, but seeking a solution or adequate response to this may result in more confusion than clarification. I am, right now, re-reading “Eminent Victorians (Strachey) with enormous rediscovered glee at the sticky, almost glue-like capacity of words to come together and form impenetrable conundrums or stumbling blocks. The disquisitions on the liquefaction of St. Gennarus’ blood (in the life of of 19th Century clergy both Anglican and Catholic) such as Henry Edward Manning, not in doubt, but on the divine purpose of such a phenomenon, or on the “regenerative’ role of Baptism and whether God picks those slated for salvation from babyhood (meaning He excludes all others), made me see some similarity there to what you say about those comments on Gospel as Good News or as one of four books, and against “relevance”.

    I do not wish to imply that you, personally, split hairs or argue about angels-on-pins, not at all, but in this case having to choose between being either faithful or relevant seems to exclude the possibility of being both faithful and relevant. And as far as relevance being a dirty word… well… if it isn’t relevant, then where is its importance?

    I have no answers, dear Fritz, none, but loving words the way I do, I fear their peril as well. There has to be something else beyond words and their layered meanings. With love, Lupe

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