The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture | Notes & Review

Posted on December 21, 2011


Shane Hipps. The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, The Gospel, and Church. Zondervan, 2005 (176 pages)

…every innovation is an amputation as well as an extension. – Brian McLaren (from the Forward)


This is not a book intended to argue that the church needs to engage culture. Rather, it assumes cultural engagement is well underway. It presupposes that there are changes already happening in churches and that people are wrestling with difficult questions about the true message of the gospel, the balance between cultural relevancy and faithfulness to the gospel, and what it means to be the church in our electronic consumer culture. This book seeks to explore these issues and provide some insight into the often unintended consequences — both good and bad — of how we go about living as the church. (14)

Why are we seeing such drastic changes in our philosophy and cultural topography? Why is postmodernity gaining a foothold in the church? Why do many Christians increasingly see conversion to the Christian faith as a process rather than as an event? Why are congregations showing a preference for nonlinear experiences and mystery over propositions and reason? (16)

I propose that the answer to the question of why these changes have come about can be found in part by exploring the nature and effects of media and technology on culture. (17)

Behind everything that follows is a conviction that within the forms of media and technology, regardless of their content, are extremely powerful forces that cause changes in our faith, theology, culture, and ultimately the church. (17)



Is twentieth-century man one who runs down the street shouting, “I’ve got the answers. What are the questions?” – McLuhan

The forms of media and technology — regardless of their content — cause profound changes in the church and culture. (23)

I find Mr. No Depth Perception to be an appropriate metaphor for the church’s relationship to media and technology. We are able to see, but we have great difficulty perceiving. (25)

To perceive media and technology with both eyes open, we cannot simply list the various benefits and liabilities of all new and existing media in hopes of understanding their power and meaning. Instead, the task before us requires an entirely different approach to analyzing media, recognizing them not simply as conduits or pipelines (i.e., neutral purveyors of information), but rather as dynamic forces with power to shape us, regardless of content. Such an approach invites us to ask different questions, better questions, and moves us beyond the oversimplified but common belief that media forms can be deemed good or bad based on how they are used. This perspective is deeply entrenched in the assumption that a medium can be considered “redeemable” if it dispenses the gospel or educational information, but “evil” if it distributes sex and violence. It is imperative we move beyond this paradigm and realize that our forms of media and technology are primary forces that cause changes in our philosophy, technology, culture, and ultimately the way we do church. (27)


The medium is the message. – McLuhan

Whenever methods or media change, the message automatically changes along with them. (30)

Christianity — in a centralized, administrative, bureaucratic form — is certainly irrelevant. – McLuhan

In the same way we are invited to step back and perceive the power of our media, not in an effort to stop them but, for the purpose of navigating them. (34)

Every medium is an extension of our humanity. This is the starting point for his approach to media and the doorway to understanding their power and meaning. | All forms of media (i.e., any human invention or technology) extend or amplify some part of ourselves. (34)

In McLuhan’s view the chief error of Narcissus was not that he fell in love with himself but rather that he failed to recognize himself in the fountain’s reflection. …As proof of this interpretation, McLuhan points out that the name Narcissus is derived from the Greek word narcosis, which means “numbness.” | When we fail to perceive media as extensions of ourselves, they take on godlike characteristics, and we become their servants. (36)

When we become aware of the specific ways in which technology and media serve as extensions of ourselves, much of their power is dispelled. We are returned to being owners of technology rather than those who are owned by it. (37)

…media are much more than neutral purveyors of information. They have the power to shape us regardless of content and thus cannot be evaluated solely upon their use. (38)

In truth, the content of a given form of media actually distracts us from detecting the effects of its form. …We are oblivious to the ways the medium, regardless of its content, reduces our capacity for abstract thought, makes us prefer intuition and experience over logic and reasoning, and revives tribal experiences in an individualistic culture. (38)

The content or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb. – McLuhan

THE ECOLOGY OF MEDIA. The principle of ecology refers to the ways in which environments change and adapt. For example, imagine two adjacent rooms separated by a wall. In one room the temperature is 20 degrees; in the adjacent room the temperature is 90 degrees. If the dividing wall is removed, the two temperatures are blended to form a completely new climate. In the same way, communication media often serve to remove the walls of time and distance. As a result, formerly separate worlds collide, creating entirely new cultural ecologies. (40)

Under these conditions, the world undergoes a kind of implosion; the barriers of time and space are abolished, greatly diminishing the scale of our world — which leads to the phenomenon of the Global Village. (40) [VIA: Would Roman roads also be considered a “medium?” I think yes.]

A blank tetrad diagram

What does the medium extend? You’ll recall that McLuhan believed every new medium enhances, amplifies, or extends some human capacity. Determining which part of ourselves — and this might be a body part (the camera is an extension of the eye, a previous medium (the telephone is an extension of the telegraph), or even an emotion (smoke detectors extend our sense of smell as well as our feeling of security) — is extended is essential to understanding the ways in which that medium impacts society.

What does the medium make obsolete? Every new medium makes an older technology obsolete. In this case the word obsolete does not necessarily mean the technology has disappeared but that the function of that previous medium has changed. For example, the automobile made the horse and buggy obsolete. This means the horse and buggy went from being used for transportation to being used for quaint entertainment and romance.

What does the medium reverse into? This is the law where we discover the dangers of media. When pushed to its extreme, every medium will reverse into its opposite intention. For example, when pushed to the extreme, the automobile — a medium intended to increase the speed of transportation — reverses into traffic jams and fatal accidents. This law of reversal can often be the most difficult to predict or anticipate. But sometimes the answer to the following question sheds light on this effect.

What does the medium retrieve? Every new medium retrieves some ancient experience or medium from the past. In other words, there is no such thing as a completely new technology. When we discover which medium is retrieved, we can study its effects in hindsight in an effort to anticipate the future of the new medium. For example, the medium of e-mail retrieves the telegraph. If we want to understand the future effects of e-mail, we would be wise to study the cultural effects of the telegraph in the 1800s. [VIA: What does the telegraph retrieve? Smoke signals? Drum beats?]


The printed book added much to the new cult of individualism. The private, fixed point of view became possible and literacy conferred the power of detachment, noninvolvement. – McLuhan

The broad introduction of literacy into an entire culture completely alters the way that culture thinks. …our thinking patterns begin to mirror the specific form of media we use to communicate. (47)

A QUANTUM LEAP: THE PHONETIC ALPHABET. While a phonetic alphabet is linear, sequential, and abstract, ideographic writing is nonlinear, holistic, and intuitive. (49)

These two media have very different forms that contribute to the fundamental differences between Eastern and Western approaches to philosophy. Ever since the Greeks perfected the phonetic alphabet, Western philosophy has been centered on linear, fragmented, and sequential forms of logic called syllogisms that perfectly mirror the form of our writing system. In contrast the nonlinear, holistic nature of Eastern philosophy can be summarized by a single symbol, the yin-yang, which mirrors ideographic writing. (49)

We need to understand what happens to Western culture when we begin to communicate using images and logos rather than phonetic words, as in the case of Nike. (50)

By creating the first uniformly repeatable commodity, print became the first assembly line for mass production. This linear, sequential form of visual organization was the basis for the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent methods of mass production used to make everything from cars to fast food. (53)

PRINT MADE US MORE INDIVIDUALISTIC. In a predominantly oral culture, one in which communication is based on face-to-face oral speech, there is no means for storing information or knowledge outside of the mind. As a result, once knowledge is obtained, the culture depends upon the community to both retain and repeat that knowledge. With the introduction of writing, people are afforded the luxury to learn and think in isolation without the threat of losing those thoughts. As writing becomes the dominant communication system, people no longer need the community to retain teachings, traditions, or identity. As a result, they spend greater amounts of time reflecting in private. This increased isolation creates a new emphasis on individualism. Prior to the written word, a person’s identity was completely bound to the tribe; the notion of the individual didn’t exist. Because writing introduced the notion of the autonomous self, printing obliterated tribal bonds and profoundly amplified individualism. (53)

The modern age conceived of a gospel that matters primarily for the individual. The gospel was reduced to forgiveness as a transaction, a concern for personal morality, and the intellectual pursuit of doctrinal precision. In this view the Bible became little more than an individual’s handbook for moral living and right thinking. As a result, printing had a tendency to erode the communal nature of faith. (54)

In this case these highly individualistic disciplines were placed above everything else as the primary means to discipleship. …Faith then moves from being personal to being private, a shift that is antithetical to the biblical understanding of what it means to live as God’s people. (55)

PRINT INTRODUCED THE NOTION OF OBJECTIVITY. For the first time people were able to stand outside their ideas and observe them on a printed page. This detachment had a profound effect, as it introduced the belief that we can stand outside something and judge it. (55)

PRINT MADE US THINK MORE ABSTRACTLY. Prior to the rise of printing, worship was centered on the concrete practices of the sacraments, like baptism or communion. But with the new capacity and enthusiasm for abstract thought due to printing, the pulpit began to displace the altar and sacraments… (57)

Another effect of this emphasis on abstraction was that Protestants became preoccupied with getting their doctrine straight. (57)

PRINT INTENSIFIES LINEAR, RATIONAL THINKING. This led to a belief that the gospel could be established and received only through reason an facts. (59)


The age of print, which held sway from approximately 1500 to 1900, had its obituary tapped out by the telegraph, the first of the new electric media. – McLuhan

Today we experience in reverse what pre-literate man faced with the advent of writing. – McLuhan

We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us. – McLuhan

Electronic culture presents us with a disorienting hall of mirrors where media are embedded in other media. (64)

I’m suggesting the easiest way to get our bearings is to focus our attention on a few basic inventions. …It is my contention that the most significant inventions of the electronic age include the telegraph, the radio, and the photograph. (65)

Invention comes from the root word inventus, which means to start from scratch and discover something new. Innovation’s root word is nova. nova means to make new again, to take something that already exists and make it fresh or to put it into practice or to combine it with something else so that something happens. – Leonard Sweet

TELEGRAPH: THE VICTORIAN INTERNET. Morse’s invention did something that dramatically altered the nature of information: it broke the connection between communication and transportation for the first time in history. (67)

Prior to the telegraph, information tended to be local, rooted in a context, and wrapped in history to provide meaning and coherence. …With the telegraph, information was instantly rent from its local and historical setting. It was presented as a mosaic of unrelated data points with no apparent connection, causes, or meaning. Prior to the telegraph, information was gathered for the purpose of deepening our understanding and wisdom. But with the telegraph, information became a commodity in itself, something that could be bought and sold. (67)

The principal strength of the telegraph was its capacity to move information, not collect it, explain it, or analyze it. – Neil Postman

As a result, information itself changed to the point where “there is no sense of proportion to be discerned in the world. Events are entirely idiosyncratic; history is irrelevant; there is no rational basis for valuing one thing over another.” [Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, 106] (67)

As always, our worldview and thinking patterns mirror our media — we become what we behold. (68)

In one sense, I wasn’t trying to convert him to Christ; I was trying to convert him to a modern worldview — a futile exercise for those of you who haven’t tried it. (70)

RADIO: THE TRIBAL DRUM BEATS AGAIN. This shift from private to corporate ways of knowing has provided a positive corrective to the print age bias toward individualism. …our culture is neither tribal nor individual. Instead, we are a paradoxical hybrid — a tribe of individuals. (72)

THE GRAPHIC REVOLUTION: DERAILING MODERNITY. The rise of image-based communication in our culture weakened our preference for abstract and linear thought patterns in favor of more concrete, holistic, and nonlinear approaches to the world. The establishment of black-and-white categories resulting from typography gave way to a preference for grayscale gradations of mystery and ambiguity that resulted from communication through images. (72)

Regardless of what is being depicted in a photograph, the form itself evokes in us a particular pattern of intuitive, holistic thinking and emotion — the exact opposite of the patterns evoked by the printed word. (73)

As image-based communication becomes the dominant symbol system in our culture, it not only changes the way we think but also determines what we think about. (75)

THE WEST MOVES EAST. As images become major elements of the culture, critical reasoning gives way to a preference for the experiential and intuitive. (76)

…our adoption of images in worship is not merely an imitative practice; it is also generative. (77)

We may be in danger of undoing some of the most valuable aspects of modernity’s influence on Christian faith, such as our dependence on the medium of Scripture or the development of leaders who are well-versed in our sacred texts. (78)

CONVERSION IN THE ELECTRONIC ERA. In the modern age, there was a great deal of emphasis on conversion as an event. …However, in the postmodern age, …an unfolding experience of discovery and growth. (79)

As images displace the written word for communication, our thinking patterns and preferences change. A photograph cannot create categories; it just provides an impression of reality. An image shows us the world as it is — an array of ambiguity and mystery. It does not explain or organize the world the way language can. As a result, we become increasingly tolerant of ambiguity and mystery — the very things images can best depict. As printing wanes, so also does our preoccupation with creating categories. (80)

Evidence of this shift can be seen in the metaphors. (80)

In an emerging context, it is assumed that both Christians and non-Christians are in need of ongoing conversion experiences. …The categories of believer and nonbeliever still have significance, but they are beginning to serve a different purpose. They are no longer used to define a target for evangelism. Rather, these categories inform the starting point and tone of our conversations with one another. (81)



Media are ‘make happen’ agents, not ‘make aware’ agents. – McLuhan

There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening. – McLuhan

Too often we want to determine whether something is good or bad before we understand it. (88)

THE EVER-CHANGING MESSAGE. Like it or not, our theology and interpretation of Scripture have a long history of mirroring our forms of media, a fact most easily seen in the way modern approaches to faith mirror the linear, rational, and abstract attributes of the printed word. …I believe some of our methods, and thus our message, should change and evolve — this is part of God’s ongoing creation and relationship to God’s people. (88)

Throughout Scripture the message changes. (89)

When we claim the gospel message is unchanging, we risk boasting a kind of omniscience in which we presume to know the totality of God’s inexhaustible mysteries. …In this view, the gospel story (if there is one) is of no consequence; all that matters is a static proposition. | Instead of presuming to know the unchanging, universal gospel message, our posture toward the gospel should be one of humility and discovery. Throughout Scripture God invites us to remain open to the dynamic and unpredictable breath of the Holy Spirit as we seek to be God’s people. Remaining faithful to Scripture does not mean holding on to some fixed and permanent idea of right doctrine until our knuckles turn white. Faithfulness means developing a communal sense of patience to discover the gospel, courage to name it, and humility to hold it with an open hand in order to allow it to be touched by God’s voice in Scripture and the Spirit’s movement in our midst. (91)

We must have the freedom to allow both our methods and our message to change as we continue to discover God’s voice in each new context. (91)

GOD’S CHOSEN MEDIUM. In Christ, God’s medium and message are perfectly united. (92)

If the medium is the message, the message of the gospel is profoundly shaped by the way the church lives in the world. | We are the message… (92)

Our goal as the church is not perfection …Instead, we might seek by God’s grace to become communities of humility, repentance, and authentic hope. (93)

…our faithfulness to God’s agenda demands we recover a theology of the church as a body sent as a foretaste of God’s kingdom. (100)


The immediate prospect for literate, fragmented Western man encountering the electronic implosion…is his…rapid transformation into a complex…person emotionally aware of his total interdependence with the rest of human society. – McLuhan

The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village. – McLuhan

…mobile technology…has a remarkable capacity to bring those far away much closer while at the same time making those near us much farther away. …This paradox is at the heart of the challenges we face in forming community in an electronic age. (105)

A TRIBE OF INDIVIDUALS. If the oral world was primarily tribal or communal in nature, and the print age was individualistic, then electronic culture has turned us into a tribe of individuals. (105)

My belief is that despite the retribalizing force of electronic media, our culture remains intensely individualistic. (108)

America is the only country in history to be argued into existence via the printed word. (109)

ELECTRONIC NOMADS: FROM INDIVIDUALISM TO ISOLATION. If tribal culture is intensely connected or empathetic and print culture is more distant, then our electronic experience creates empathy at a distance. …The experience of empathy at a distance doesn’t always motivate us to act. (110)

We must develop an awareness of our unconscious tendency to be seduced by our virtual communities so we can use them more intentionally rather than be used by them. (112)

To be human is to be in conflict, to offend and to be offended. To be human in light of the gospel is to face conflict in redemptive dialogue. – John Howard Yoder


Christianity — in a centralized, administrative, bureaucratic form — is certainly irrelevant. – McLuhan

We must get rid of the hierarchy [in the church] if we want participation. But we don’t have to wish for it. It’s happening. – McLuhan

Authority is often derived from information control. (127)

Unlike the printed book or typed telegraph message, radio and TV have no “access codes.” (129)

No child or adult becomes better at watching television by doing more of it. What skills are required are so elemental that we have yet to hear of a television viewing disability. – Neil Postman

This means even very young children have access to the same information that adults have, undermining the monopolies of information. (129)

In many emerging churches the pulpit is no longer the only seat for authority. Power is now dispersed among the pews. (130)

LOSING TOUCH WITH SCRIPTURE. The rules of logic that govern the printed word are neither intuitive nor innate to us; they require learning. It takes years to build up the intellectual capacity and patience necessary to understand arguments, unpack rhetoric, test “truth claims,” debate meanings, and refute or appreciate conclusions. …In contrast, electronic media with their images and acoustic information require no time, skill, or energy to comprehend. (131)

The Bible comes to us from another time and place. Its ancient context is assumed by its authors and thus never explained. …As long as we practice a religion dependent on a book, people of faith need the left brain capacities and knowledge necessary for accessing and interpreting Scripture faithfully. (132)

…the loss for the church and the challenge for leaders is a subtle one. Our culture’s voracious appetite for practical application is displacing our capacity and concern for meaningful theological reflection and study. …The culture of unbridled pragmatism is our reality… (134)

Praxis refers to a way of living in which our reflection and study are informed by our action and engagement, while our action and engagement are informed by our study. (134) This is about mutual interpretation. (135)

I believe a more faithful and relevant approach is to invert this pattern, making collaborative and egalitarian structures our default with a limited use of top-down authority. (136)


The new preference for depth participation has prompted in the young a strong drive towards religious experience with rich liturgical overtones. The liturgical revival of the electronic age affects even the most austere protestant sects. – McLuhan

Spectacle creates publics, not communities. (149)

…the weekend attractions that are so successful in drawing crowds comprise the very force that works against the creation of missional community. …The point is not that they are invalid; rather, they are insufficient. (150)

VIDEO VENUES: THE SPECTACLE OF CELEBRITY. The medium itself nurtures an elite priestly class in which the preacher is set apart from the people. With video venues we can say goodbye to the priesthood of all believers and hello to the papacy of celebrity. (152)

The problem comes from a lack of awareness for how media shapes our message in worship. (152)

ACCIDENTAL CHANGES IN OUR THINKING. …the very forms of emerging worship actually undermine modern approaches to theology. …In this way, emerging forms of worship are creating more Eastern and medieval approaches to church and theology. (153)

THE ILLUSION OF RELEVANCE. Relevance does not come simply from imitating culture or mirroring the techniques of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. It does not depend upon the adoption of electronic hardware in worship. Relevance is derived from experimenting with authentic and indigenous practices that emerge from the gift mix of a particular congregation for a local community. (154)

Our approach simply cannot be one of cultural imitation. (155)

THE INEVITABILITY OF IRRELEVANCE. The danger in pursuing the holy grail of relevance is that we become chameleons, morphing into whatever colors our culture puts before us. (157)

Without lament, praise is little more than shallow sentimentality and a denial of life’s struggles and sin. Without praise, lament is a denial of hope and grace, both of which are central to our life of faith and to God’s promises. To value one over the other is like suggesting that breathing in is more important than breathing out. (160)

RECOVERING THE ROLE OF THE ARTIST. For McLuhan, the artist plays a central role in our culture — that of prophet. He writes, “The role of the artist is to create an anti-environment as a means of perception and adjustment. Without an anti-environment all environments are invisible.” The artist is the antenna for the future, always probing and finding truths few of us are willing to utter. McLuhan believed the artist would be our best source for revealing the hidden power of our media to shape us. Artists create counterenvironments to help us see the water we swim in, something which is largely invisible to most of us. In one sense it is the role of the artist to focus our gaze on the things we refuse to see or simply cannot see. Like the biblical prophets, artists have often been shunned as unwelcome voices in both the church and broader culture. (162)

AN ECOLOGY OF WORSHIP. First, we must probe our media and methods with the right questions. …Second, our invitation is to remember the ecology of the brain. (163)

Rather than assuming one medium is categorically better than another, we are better served by considering the ways in which each medium shapes our message and our minds. (164)

— VIA —

It takes courage to write down — for public consumption — observations and theories such as these. While Hipps makes no affirmative attack on theology and religious practice in any era, it is inevitable that readers understanding this “medium/message” reality will naturally inquire. “So, are you telling me, that what I believe is more a reflection of the technology and media than it is of the ‘truth’?” Hipps does a good job ensuring that that is not the case, ultimately, and that this foundational understanding of the connections between technology and epistemology are not mere critiques of truth, but rather a critical key to understanding the truth.

Admittedly, Hipps’ disclaimer is that he raises more questions than he answers. I appreciate that statement as I am truly left yearning for further and deeper understandings. So, here are the questions that are raised for me as I understand these connections further:

If the message truly does change with the medium, then does that mean there can never be any “orthodoxy?”

There seems to be some disconnect in this theory. Writing is ubiquitous in both Western and Eastern cultures, yet not all cultures have necessarily adopted the same understandings of authority, commodity, community, and epistemology. I opine that there are other factors at play that are even more subliminal behind the technology itself. I don’t yet know what I’m thinking, I’m simply intuiting that this medium/message observation is incomplete.

What was originally lost, then, when the first-century followers of Jesus began writing this stuff down, and how did the message change from its original inception? Is there any way to truly know (back to another historical and epistemological question)?

How long has this individualism been around? If print drives individualism, then is there Phonecian and/or Sumerian individualism? Is there a message change from pottery to parchment and from parchment to paper and ultimately to pixels?

Understanding this medium/message reality seems and appears to me narcissistic, in the conventional sense. That is, in his discussion on Emerging Church worship, theology, authority, etc., there seems to be an underlying “justification” of their practices in the explanation of medium/messaging. Is, then, technology and media and the acquiescence to its existence another totem, a collective representation of our traits and values that ultimately coerce us into self-worship?

According to Kevin Kelly, all technology builds upon previous technologies, and all concurrent technologies are dependent upon the ones that have come before. According to Hipps/McLuhan, there is an obsolescence that happens to previous forms of technology (with a clarified definitino of “obsolete”). What is really going on here?

And, if the medium is the message, then can all messages, ethics, values, behaviors, ultimately be tied to a medium?

For more on technology, I commend to you What Technology Wants, as a much more in-depth analysis of technological realities, and it’s ontological influence on humanity (or, vice versa).

The are of difficulty in this book (as it is with so many others), is the continual reference to the Bible with statements that sound absolutist. Phrases like “the Bible clearly teaches…” seem to be contrary to the general thesis of this book. If the medium is the message, and our world is changing in its perceptions of the medium, and new mediums are being discovered (archaeologically) that enhance our historical and cultural understandings of said medium, then how could an absolute phraseology like “clearly” really be used? If we are to take Biblical study seriously, and that vis-a-vis the cultural nuances of mystery, concreteness, and non-linear thinking and logic, then we ought to be consistent with that ethic when it comes to Biblical interpretation. I have written about this elsewhere, and believe this is one of the biggest weaknesses of Christian writing; the inability to apply our own theses to our reading of the Bible.

Regardless, bottom line, this is an important first step in the conversation, and I’m thankful to Hipps for his very accessible contribution.