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)