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‘The courage to be culturally irrelevant’

I’m going to be away from the keys for most of today. We’re taking a day trip with the kids. Probably won’t be able to check in much today, but I’ll approve comments as I can. Please be patient. Meanwhile, enjoy this long, meaty interview Leroy Huizenga conducted with the media theorist Read Mercer Schuchardt [1]. It’s about technology and religion. Excerpts:

Was the print revolution of the 15th-16th centuries an advance over prior oral and written culture? What was gained? What was lost?

Wow — that’s a huge question, and dissertations have been written on it and it’s still not fully answered. What was gained, thanks to Martin Luther and the power of the printing press, was the right to challenge the abuses of the church without necessarily burning at the stake for doing so (if only Jan Hus had this technology!) But without the printing press, Martin Luther would most likely have died an unknown heretic who violated all three of his monastic vows (chastity, obedience, poverty). As I understand it, modern Catholicism sees this portion of its history as a failure on their part to not internally reform soon enough. The other thing that was gained was representative money, an impossibility without the printing press to make receipts for the gold on store. But if the printing press created “Sola Scriptura” at the expense of orality (i.e., “tradition”), it also created more than just a “single” Protestant Reformation. According to the World Encyclopedia of Christianity, the “one true church” now has over 33,000 officially recognized denominations. And if military victories go to the technologically superior entity, then it’s certainly the case that the church has become impotent through a “divide and conquer” scheme — by their fruits shall you know them! So what was gained was greater intellectual freedom for the individual, vernacular translations of scripture, capitalism, democracy, the nation-state, nationalism, patriotism, and a massive increase in both the words of a language and the literacy of the population. What was lost was, ultimately, a coherent and meaningful narrative by which people led their lives. The psychological security of the average medieval peasant was, I think, far more profound than that of today’s well-paid, well-insured, well-adjusted citizen who is doing fine but taking Prozac to keep his ennui or depression at bay. If I’m a member of the one true church, but then have to choose between 33,000 denominations, well suddenly the whole thing gets called into question and people like Richard Dawkins start to make a lot more sense because they at least have one consistent story that solves the paralysis of choice quite easily: choose either (a) believe nothing, or (b) believe one of these 33,000 tales. If freedom requires a choice, then technology requires an efficiency to those choices, and most people simply don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to go through all their options on the believe side of the ledger. So I think, ultimately, atheism is a natural outgrowth of all this, the way nudity is the end result of too many fashion choices (this was the point of Robert Altman’s film Pret-A-Porter). It becomes the last resort of the rational mind, even as it defeats its own purpose.


We simply swim in tech nowadays. Most of us couldn’t do our jobs without our computers, at least: word processing, the web as a major source of information, email for communications, et cetera. How does one swim against this tide?

There are two valid options, as I see it. The first is actually the easiest: become Amish. The second is even harder: swim upstream. McLuhan compared it to an Edgar Allen Poe short story called The Maelstrom. By noticing the pattern or effect of the whirlpool, one man in the story saves himself by jumping out of the ship and clinging to a piece of flotsam that is strangely swirling up instead of being sucked down by the whirlpool. So too can we devise a strategy of individual survival by being good at pattern recognition and by paying constant attention to the ways in which new media and technology can pull us down into their unintended side effects. It’s no surprise that the DSM V will have the most entries at the same point in human history as we have the highest number of new technologies to create psychic imbalances in our built environment.

How should Christian leaders – clergy, lay leaders, music ministers, etc. – think about using tech in their ministries?

Very very carefully. My first recommendation is to read Jacques Ellul’s “Effect on Churches” section of Propaganda. My second is to recognize that the church is not competing with Starbucks, the mall, or the movie theater for audiences. I think Henri Nouwen gets it right [in his In the Name of Jesus – ed.] when he says that the leaders of the future will be those who have the courage of being culturally irrelevant, because they will recognize that what the soul in technological society truly craves is the worship of the true and living God, not the temporary two-hour appeasement of the burden of self-consciousness that can be had anywhere else and with higher production values. So recognizing that worship and entertainment are not synonyms, understanding how icons (cultural and religious) work both semiotically and spiritually, knowing that “ecclesia” is the people and not the building, and knowing that value is a function of scarcity (and not repeatability), that is where I would start with teaching clergy how to think about tech use in their ministries. By and large, most people hate church for the same reason they hate meetings run by PowerPoint: if I can get this electronically on my laptop at my own convenience, why am I even here?

Read the whole thing. [1] Please comment on all this after you’ve read the interview — and remember, I’m going to be away for much of the day, so if you don’t see your comment for a while, just be patient. Because there will be a comment explosion at some point.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "‘The courage to be culturally irrelevant’"

#1 Comment By John E On December 2, 2011 @ 8:59 am

The psychological security of the average medieval peasant was, I think, far more profound than that of today’s well-paid, well-insured, well-adjusted citizen who is doing fine but taking Prozac to keep his ennui or depression at bay.

Spoken like someone who has never experienced anything like the everyday hardships of the average medieval peasant.

#2 Comment By Will Hinton On December 2, 2011 @ 9:01 am


Excellent interview. I think it is important to point out that there is a difference between the church understanding our culture and knowing how to speaking into it as opposed to being culturally relevant. The great irony is that I often see churches, usually “mega-churches”, who desire to be culturally relevant yet their actions show their complete ignorance of the culture.

There is a mega-church here in Atlanta that moved into a new building a few years back. Their building was made to look like an office building with the reasoning that they are trying to reach young professionals and that this would make them more comfortable. Of course they ignored the fact that most young professionals are not looking to go back into the office on Sundays. And I think that many young people today actually are looking for something transcendent.

#3 Comment By TWylite On December 2, 2011 @ 9:18 am

The “psychological security of the average medieval peasant” quote is choice. When people express a longing to turn back the clock and party like it’s 999, they’ve lost me. From what I’ve read, Alasdair MacIntyre is in the same category. Basically writing off the Enlightenment as a profound mistake. No thanks. I will gladly cling to my ennui and freedom to be confused by too many choices than the “security” of a mental and physical cultural straightjacket.

#4 Comment By MWorrell On December 2, 2011 @ 9:23 am

“Christianity, the “one true church” now has over 33,000 officially recognized denominations.”

Recognized by who? God? I think not. This is a purely human preoccupation that we spend too much energy on. There is only one Church, and you’re in or you’re out based on your own heart.

#5 Comment By Hector On December 2, 2011 @ 9:34 am

The problem with this ‘Read Mercer Schuhardt’ is he’s essentially subscribing to a narrative that’s something like ‘the church was united before Luther, and then people realised that you didn’t need to tip your hat to Rome, and you could just do your own thing’. A quick glance at history shows that’s not true. Christianity was never united, not in the first century, not in the tenth, not in the thirteenth. The Middle Ages were full of Christians breaking away from the church, some in quite large numbers- Waldensians, Albigencians, Joachimites- and then being suppressed. So were the early centuries of Christianity. Some of those breakaway sects lasted for centuries, before eventually fading out or being suppressed.

What was new and different about Protestantism was that it lasted (though something like Manichaeanism lasted more than twice as long as Protestantism has to date) and wasn’t, at least in the beginning, immediately squashed. WHy that is is an interesting question, but I’d say it has more to do with geopolitics and economics than with the printing press. If you needed the printing press to spread your ideas, Manichaeanism would never have spread from Carthage to China.

#6 Comment By Julana On December 2, 2011 @ 10:06 am

That is a great article, and should be read, re-read, printed, and passed along.

Viva les Bruderhof! (Pardon my French.) (I was once privileged to visit one of their communities near Winnipeg. Fascinating. Also, they build great Rifton equipment for people with physical disabilities, up in New York. Technology!)

Have to express appreciation for following lines from the interview, as the parent of a nonverbal child whose reading ability is very limited, and who may never learn to write, and who is frequently limited by being put into a category:

“So the medium really does affect the message, as McLuhan argued. For Christians, one of the strangest (and perhaps hardest to recognize) things was that Christ never wrote anything down, never asked anyone to write anything down, and never suggested that salvation could or would come from the written word. If anything, he was the living embodiment of the spoken word in real time, which was the key to his power against the state, against the ruling religious authorities, and against what Neil Postman called the “hardening of the categories” that writing had created. ”

Maybe a little Hallelujah here.

#7 Comment By Julana On December 2, 2011 @ 10:55 am

This category-crackling verbal Jesus is not going to be taking Andrew Sullivan’s side in his recent dialogue with Ta-Nahisi Coates.

#8 Comment By Leapold On December 2, 2011 @ 10:59 am

Wow. This is a meaty interview. It brings to mind Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s “Gift from the Sea”, specifically her reference to the German concept of Zerrisenheit. She writes (in 1955!) “Woman’s life today is tending more and more toward the state William James describes so well in the German word “Zerrissenheit – torn-to-pieces-hood. . .She can’t live perpetually in zerrissenheit. She will be shattered into a thousand pieces. On the contrary, she must consciously encourage those pursuits which oppose the centrifugal forces of today.”

Of course, consciously encouraging those pursuits is precisely what will render one culturally irrelevant. And then the magic of real life happens.

Lindbergh’s answer was solitude.

My answer must be partly imagination and partly the choices i make. I can’t really get any solitude; with children and no one who can be prevailed upon to watch them without resentment, I go inward all the time. The weather helps. Now that there is frost on the windows, I checked out Kristin Lavransdatter from the library and have been cultivating a sort of medieval Nordic inner landscape; more fire, more ice, more bread, more ale.

One other pursuit I turn to is handwriting, the handwritten letter. But I have let that habit fall by the wayside, sensing, over the years, that it becomes a burden to others. . .there’s never any reply, just awkwardness and guilt.

Here’s a question for fellow commenters: How do you oppose the centrifugal forces of today? Or are you just caught up in the maelstrom? Are you sinking? Is your psychological well-being shattered? This blog can be a bit of a maelstrom–that’s partly Rod’s job–but sometimes it’s an antidote too. Certain posts help keep my awareness sharp, like this one today. Posting here does not feel like real life, and yet, I do so thinking some good may come of it, somewhere. Just a little thinking to start the day. . .

#9 Comment By Charles Cosimano On December 2, 2011 @ 11:07 am

We have all become as Chen Tzu Wang’s Master of Dark Truth who could see the whole world in a jade bottle.

#10 Comment By Clare Krishan On December 2, 2011 @ 11:26 am

funny that .. the post is entitled almost perfectly. Adding a parenthetical term to the value proposition helps hilight my point: The Courage to be Culturally (Ir)relevant. That makes the sense derived arise in the sense derived (what is relevant? what cult do you ascribe faith in?)

“Which is to say, freedom comes on the individual level, which is always highly contextualized, contingent, and culturally framed.

Thus we arrive at the very crux of the epistemology of the social sciences so en vogue in the Austrian school so scoffed at by ‘exceptionalist’ movers-n-shakers on both sides of the political aisle: subjectivity of an individual contingent on personal circumstance, in the context of ends sought and cultural means chosen. We can critique the ends sought, we can critique the means chosen, we cannot critique the contigent circumstance – it is given by God, ours is to seek the path out of man’s deficiencies by relationships built on shared obligations. Rights to such freedoms only get us so far. A declaration to enter a covenant of sustenance obliges us to honor the faith vested in us. Social capital is the measure of that faith – what profiteth man….?

#11 Comment By Clare Krishan On December 2, 2011 @ 11:40 am

And here’s a perfect example of the aquavit of Austrian doctrine, subjective value: “The question became, “Which do we value more: good television or singing children?” And that to me is true discernment.”

#12 Comment By JustMe On December 2, 2011 @ 11:41 am

Posts like this are why I keep coming back to this blog.

. I think Henri Nouwen gets it right [in his In the Name of Jesus – ed.] when he says that the leaders of the future will be those who have the courage of being culturally irrelevant

I can see why Read Schuchardt is appealing to Orthodox readers. The most important point I think he makes is that as Christian churches try to use technology to appeal to congregants, what they’re really doing is making themselves less relevant, because congregants can just think to themselves, “why am I sitting in church for this kind of techno-entertainment, when I can just get the same thing at home on my TV/computer or in a movie theater?” Rather, the church needs to pick on what needs can’t be satisfied by our techno-entertainment-industrial complex rather than trying to glom onto it.

I want to pick out this section of the interview:

Tyler Wigg Stevenson asks a similar question in Brand Jesus when he wonders what part of his life he is dependent on God for when he has a high-paying job, medical insurance, life insurance, nice suburban existence in a safe neighborhood, good schools, and is white, heterosexual, and middle class. The answer, of course, is less and less.

That’s a good point, but… I think the real point is that we find what’s really important to rely on God for. As he states earlier, we may well be unhappier and unhappier and be confronted with personal/spiritual/psychological challenges in our modern world that we didn’t confront before, and that is what we are going to find ourselves turning to God for, rather than putting our faith in God to get us through our material deprivation.

#13 Comment By Noah On December 2, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

Rod always digs up the most thought-provoking things. What a small-c catholic intellect!

I want to go read Schuchardt’s book — in paper, of course.

A false note Schchardt strikes:

“For Christians, one of the strangest (and perhaps hardest to recognize) things was that Christ never wrote anything down, never asked anyone to write anything down, and never suggested that salvation could or would come from the written word.”

In Luke 4:16-21, Christ read from a scroll of Isaiah announce the purpose of his (Christ’s) ministry. When he quoted the Old Testament Scriptures, he often prefaced with either “As it is WRITTEN,” or “Have you never READ…?”; in short, he expected Biblical literacy from his followers. One of the Twelve was a Levite, one who would have been literate in Scripture (and, not coincidentally, wrote one of the Gospel accounts).

#14 Comment By Ed Steegmann On December 2, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

So, atheism resulted from widespread literacy? As Orwell said, some ideas are so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them. Thinking people should find this particular idea repellent as well.

#15 Comment By Jamie O’Neill On December 2, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

In one of his answers Mr Schuchardt says, “by ‘vice’ I mean unintended consequence or ‘side-effect'”.

I like this. I don’t think he intended the remark to have wider bearing. But it possibly does. Who goes out (or stays in) with the intention “Tonight I shall commit the vice of gluttony” or any other vice. But viciousness attends.

#16 Comment By Extollager On December 3, 2011 @ 10:20 am

Leapold asks, “Here’s a question for fellow commenters: How do you oppose the centrifugal forces of today? Or are you just caught up in the maelstrom? Are you sinking? Is your psychological well-being shattered?”

I’m not sure that you’re referring to something more profound than the daily feeling of scatteredness that most of us probably deal with and (to a considerable degree) have to deal with.

I’d say that, for Christians, a key element in one’s response to the feeling of scatteredness is to start with a fundamental fact — namely, “I am baptized into Christ.” (Admittedly, for Christians who hold to the idea that the significance of one’s baptism is basically that it was a testimony of one’s decision to live as a Christian, this won’t work.) In your Baptism you really were united with Christ, buried with Him and raised with Him (see Romans 6). This is a given. Whether you are distracted or not, this is your identity.

Furthermore, I think one can simplify things on this basis (but whether one does simplify things or not, one is baptized into Christ). For example: Since I am baptized into Christ, do I need this, must I do this, should I do this? — etc.

#17 Comment By JonF On December 3, 2011 @ 10:22 am

Re: Christianity, the “one true church” now has over 33,000 officially recognized denominations.”

A lot of those denominations are simply administrative units. The Orthodox Church, for example, is usually divided up into its multiple jurisdictions (Greek, Russian, Antiohian, etc.) in these counts.

Re: The Middle Ages were full of Christians breaking away from the church

There was also a great deal more localism in the Church in pre-modern times, if only because technology made it impossible for Rome (or Constantinople for that matter) to keep abreast of everything happening everywhere let alone try to micromanage it all.

In regards to Luther and Jan Hus I think it should be pointed out that the Roman Catholic Church had become far more corrupt in Luther’s day than it was in Hus’. Yes, there were some serious problems in 1410 too, but the time the Renaissance popes had had at it, the Church was profoundly corrupt and it had lost the allegiance of many ordinary people due to its sins.

#18 Comment By Leroy Huizenga On December 3, 2011 @ 10:35 am

Rod, thanks for linking this, and all, thanks for the substantive comments. Looks like I better get on Read’s case about getting his next couple books out. [2]

#19 Comment By Leroy Huizenga On December 3, 2011 @ 10:38 am

…and an popular chapel talk he gave: [3]

#20 Comment By Nick K. On December 3, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

An interesting interview. I am not familiar with Schuchardt, but he seems like a very keen intellect. One point, of the many interesting ones raised in the excerpt, that warrants some further explanation from him, is the assertion that the predominance of the written word led to a loss of “a coherent and meaningful narrative by which people led their lives.” I fail to see why this would be true. Why would written media undermine personal or cultural security? Wouldn’t written information transmission solidify and preserve previously oral cultural information?

#21 Comment By Charles Cosimano On December 3, 2011 @ 5:41 pm

It all strikes me, as an ardent secularist most of the time, as a big “so what?” But then I do have a hard time paying much attention to folks who quote Mcluhan.

#22 Comment By thomas tucker On December 3, 2011 @ 11:30 pm

This kind of writing does raise the qestion: is depression really more common today than it was in past centuries? How would we know, one way or the other?

#23 Comment By Noah G. On December 3, 2011 @ 11:36 pm

Awesome interview. More technology posts. 🙂

For instance: Ray Kurzweil, transhumanism, etc. ( [4])

The Dark Side. This sh*t seriously makes me want to run SCREAMING into the company of the luddites. Demonic. There’s no other word for it.