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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. 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.  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.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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