America: Hope Of The Earth?

During election season you can count on candidates to vie for the “loves America most” moniker.  Being perceived as down on America, at home or abroad, is a path to a lost election.  We saw this in 2004, when the release of John Kerry’s testimony on the supposed atrocities committed by his fellow soldiers in Vietnam hurt him significantly in the polls.  We are seeing it again now.  In Monday night’s debate, Mitt Romney again accused President Obama of going on an “apology tour”, where the President supposedly took it upon himself to apologize for most of America’s foreign policy over the past decade (while slighting our closest ally, Israel).  The telling aspect of this exchange was not Governor Romney’s accusation, but President Obama’s response.  Rather than explaining his opposition to an American foreign policy that “dictates to other nations”, or talking about the evils of unjustified foreign wars or neo-colonialism, President Obama denied that he apologized for anything and affirmed his belief that America is absolutely indispensible as a force for good in the world.  Mr. Romney, for his part, said that America is the hope of the earth.

The rhetoric on both sides is strong here, and conservatives need to accept most of the blame for how indiscriminate and apparently inevitable this rhetoric is. We are fond of pointing out the “anti-American” rhetoric of many on the Left, yet we often seem unwilling to acknowledge that there is an opposite extreme.  I am certainly guilty of this.  

John Piper and Doug Wilson have already pointed out that this language amounts to a kind of soft idolatry, ascribing to American military and political power a role that once belonged to the Gospel.  Now instead of sending missionaries into foreign lands to convert the “heathen” to Christ, we send political pressure in its many forms to ensure that the heathen (whose own religious beliefs we refuse to interfere with in the name of pluralism) does what is in the American state’s best interests.

Now of course I have to clarify.  I am not speaking about the use of government per se.  America is no Theocracy, and the role of the state is not to spread the Gospel.  I am speaking to individual Conservative Christians and the policies they support most vocally.  Favoring a strong military to help ensure international harmony (or “peace through strength”) is not bad in itself.  But we need to be measured in our rhetoric.  We should push back when a Presidential candidate talks about America in unmistakably Christological terms.  At the risk of sounding utopian, our hope of world peace and universal redemption should be grounded in the preaching of the Gospel to the ends of the earth.  This means we should be more concerned with saving souls under condemnation, not creating societies where “moderate” Muslims and Hindus will build McDonald’s and Starbucks.  Energies and resources should be spent putting a Bible in every hand, not an iPhone.

Lest I sound down on America, let me add an encouraging caveat.  First, it must be admitted that both candidates were only speaking in political terms, and there is no doubt that America has been, on the whole, a force for good in the world.  I only want to caution how we speak about America’s role in the world and what aspects of our foreign influence we choose to emphasize.  Our nation was once the greatest launching pad for missionaries before it was the greatest launching pad for F-22 fighters.

Second, the increase of America’s military and economic influence, while not the primary “hope of the earth”, should not be totally disparaged toward that end.  A strong American military presence throughout the world would aid the church’s missionary work, not to force conversions, but to protect missionaries from the retaliation and violence of intolerant states.  Moreover, the spread of some non-religious aspects of American society and influence is not all bad.  Putting an iPhone in the hand of every non-Westerner should not be confused with cultural salvation, but an iPhone would connect a new believer in Pakistan or China with a entire world’s worth of evangelistic and educational resources. 

In short, America can indeed be one hope of the earth in a very limited sense, only insofar as its influence is used to protect and aid those who go forth and proclaim the true hope of the earth.

Flickering Pixels: Reuniting Medium and Message

Do you control the ways in which you communicate, or do they control you?  As Shane Hipps, the Porsche advertising executive turned Mennonite pastor, writes, “Christianity is fundamentally a communication event.”  Hipps’ newest book,  Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith, explains why a misunderstanding of the relationship between a communicator’s medium and his message has led to the unintentional and continual reshaping of Western imagination, beliefs, and even interpretations of the Gospel.

It has often been said that while the Gospel message will never change, the methods used to present it must change in order to make it feel immediately relevant to new audiences.  Christians have used countless methods, both conventional and unconventional, to communicate the Gospel:, movies, breath mints, billboards, T-shirts, toys, video games, flannel boards, comic books, and, in Francis of Assisi’s case, even poverty.  On the surface, this makes sense – different methods are saleable to different groups, and it’s important to communicate the Gospel effectively.

Unfortunately, Christians often assume the methods used are unimportant as long as the Gospel message remains unchanged.  In 1967 communication theorist Marshall McLuhan announced, “The medium is the message.”  In other words, the various media we use to communicate are not neutral – they are a message in themselves, and that message inevitably changes the content you intended to convey.

Flickering Pixels is a concise and accessible synthesis of much of McLuhan’s work, written for those unfamiliar with the finer points of communication theory.  It offers unique and illuminating explanations for a number of historical trends of interest to both  scholars and laypeople; for example, Hipps points out that the logical and well-educated Apostle Paul’s letters are especially well suited to a written medium, and in Luther’s time they became very popular.  As print became more predominant, however, Paul’s theology came to be emphasized at the expense of other parts of the Bible:

During the Middle Ages, before the invention of the printing press, the letters of Paul were seldom taught because their complex messages could not be captured in stained-glass scenes or illustrated prayer books…

The printing press not only resuscitated the letters of Paul, it also helped cultivate the reasoning skills necessary in culture to comprehend his message.  This is one reason why Martin Luther’s rediscovery of Paul’s letter resonated with print culture in a way it couldn’t have before that point.

Problems arose, however, when linear reasoning was pushed to the extreme.  The medium reversed, as all media eventually do when overextended… this led to a belief that the gospel could be established and received only through reason and fact.  (Flickering Pixels p. 49)

This artificial preference for one part of the Bible over another, writes Hipps, changed the way Christians interpret the gospel:

The impact of the printed medium… even reshaped the gospel.  The values of efficiency and linear sequence, which became more entrenched in the Western world with each passing decade, changed the way the gospel was conceived.  Under the force of the printed word, the gospel message was efficiently compressed into a linear sequential formula… Such a stunning compression of the gospel would not have been possible prior to the age of the printed word. (Flickering Pixels p. 48)

Pastors in particular will find the book to be a valuable resource as they struggle to communicate the gospel most effectively; Hipps’ easy to understand descriptions of various communication methods will help many better understand  how to be the medium that spreads the message of the gospel.

Most importantly Flickering Pixels helps readers become aware of this complex interplay between medium and message – and awareness is half the battle:

By understanding the forces that shape us, no outcome is inevitable.  Which is the point and purpose of this book: to make us aware…. Stay awake.  Look beneath the surface of things.  And learn to bend.  If we do this, things won’t sneak up on us so easily.  Media and technology have far less power to shape us when they are brought into the light and we understand them.  (Flickering Pixels, p. 183)