I spent yesterday afternoon relearning the implications of the G.K Chesterton quote that this blog takes its name from:
Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion…The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
Oh to be able to let an unformed thought remain unformed without regret! I had many of those yesterday afternoon as I worked my way through Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith by Shane Hipps on my way home from London. Every page blew my mind in a different way, and the book’s intimations have huge implications for my dissertation, my personal projects, my creativity and even my very theology. It threw up some thoughts I’d already been chewing on for a while but mixed them in with other insights I would NEVER have come up with on my own, and cohered them in fascinating ways. As a result, I had random thoughts popping up all over the place at random, the majority of which I was unable to capture.
Here is one particular gem, talking about the repercussions that the invention of the printing press had on Christianity:
The impact of the print medium is nearly endless…It 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:
APOLOGIZE FOR YOUR SINS + BELIEVE JESUS = GO TO HEAVEN
Such a stunning compression of the gospel would not have been possible prior to the age of the printed word. Medieval cathedrals told the stories of the Bible in elaborate stained-glass windows. They presented the seeker with a vast array of vague impressions representing the grand sweep of the biblical narrative – the message was far from distilled. But this new, abstract, linear formulations gained ascendancy in a culture that increasingly communicated via the abstract, linear nature of the printed word…
The printing press not only resuscitated the letters of Paul, it also helped cultivate the reasoning skills necessary in culture to comprehend his message…Problems arose, however, when linear reasoning was pushed to the extreme. The medium reversed, as all media eventually do when overextended. Linear reasoning became the primary means of understanding and propagating faith. This led to a belief that the gospel could be established and received only through reason and fact. Printing makes us prefer cognitive modes of processing while at the same time atrophying out appreciation for mysticism, intuition and emotion.
[P]erhaps the most damaging effect of suppressing the heart is that it deadens desire. That deep longing for life, love and God fades. Insteadm we come to expect less from life. We acquire the bland taste of a domesticated god who resides somewhere in our head.
The book goes on to make all sorts of different connections about various technologies and their impact on our faith, such as how the invention of the telegraph and the resultant overabundance of information dislocated from context led to relativism’s denial of absolute truth, or how image culture has, amidst other more negative consequences, restored the importance of the right brain and “serving as a helpful corrective to the tyranny of fixed categories”.
This all raises interesting questions about the nature of belief in Jesus – at what point does a person become “saved”?* When did the disciples become “saved”? I think the notion of a continuum is more helpful than that of an on/off switch – is your trajectory pointed towards Jesus or away? I’m a big believer that you can’t lose your salvation because you didn’t earn it in the first place, but at what point do you receive it? A lot of Kingdom theology (about prayer, healing, supernatural things etc) depends on the concept of someone being “in Christ”, and rightly so. Simply put, if someone is a disciple of Christ, they have authority (like when Jesus says to his disciples that he has given them the keys to the kingdom). But surely that means there must be a point at which you are given this authority which you did not have before? Plus, Pauls letters seem to echo this “one minute you’re an unbeliever/next minute you’re a new creation” thinking. But, Hipps rightly questions the way this mode of thinking has been pumped up on steroids since the print age:
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Thomas had died just seconds before his finger touched the wound. his man followed Jesus faithfully for three years as a friend and a disciple, but in that last moment before touching Jesus’ wounds he didn’t truly believe. Thomas was a follower of Jesus who wasn’t a believer. What do we do with this category with people? What does that mean for his eternal destiny?
I’m definitely not against linear categories. I think that sometimes you have to understand principles rationally before you understand them in your heart through God’s revelation. That’s how it’s often been for me – I understood the concept of grace by reading the last few chapters of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God in my head before I really got it in my head. Likewise, when my church were doing our “healing on the streets” training, where we learned about praying for the sick, it was vital that we understood our authority as children of God in a concrete way. Emotions and right-brain experience wouldn’t have taught us this on the same level, I don’t think. This is the approach employed by Jesus himself in this case – while he often spoke in cryptic parable form, thus inviting people into a deeper way of being rather than simply transmitting information, when he was teaching his disciples about practical things like performing miracles or mission, he always spoke with clear instructions.That said, understanding is not enough. I understand the principles of my status in the Kingdom of God as a believer (I have the authority to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and cast out demons”), but am in need of ever-greater revelation from God of the depth of this authority so I can actually walk in this reality. Sometimes you need to understand things on a head level before your heart kicks in.
The way Shane wraps the book up is the best bit. He goes on to relate the whole “medium is the message” thing to Jesus (message+medium inseparable) and the church (we are the medium, therefore God’s message is transmitted through us as we try to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world. If we, the medium, suck, the world doesn’t get the message, it’s as simple as that). Aaand that totally doesn’t do justice to how well he wraps up the book.
Anyway, I was going to list a few of the unformed thoughts that my brain spewed up while reading Flickering Pixels, but those last few paragraphs were actually several of the aforementioned nebulous thoughts and I can’t remember any of the rest of them. But maybe I should start collecting and celebrating my unfinished pensées, a bit like Mr Oizo:
*I actually really hate this word…