Faith Works 4-9-16
Sipping from the firehose
Conversations about sermons recently have made me think about where theologian Karl Barth's most overused line meets the popular catchphrase of Marshall McLuhan's . . . do you know which two quotes I'm talking about? Either way, hold that thought.
There are, in this paperless age, still so many books out there. Nearly a 1,000 new titles or reprints every DAY. And that's not counting blogs and posts and various online outbursts of information and opinion. The task of a librarian or a curator is as important as ever, perhaps more so, as people look for tools and particularly people to help them figure out "what counts? What should I read, and how much can I just skip?" Curating, selecting, editing: none of this is answering questions, exactly (even the youngest students now turn to search engines for things like "what is the chief export of Ecuador?"), but the ongoing question of "what's going on in my world, and how should I respond to it?" is crying out to be answered by each of us.
Social media tries to aggregate and hashtag to sort and sift, media streams develop a cache of their own (podcasts are big right now, and I just don't get Buzzfeed), and there are developing bodies of knowledge online, growing out of existing data sets like those long managed by the U.S. Census Bureau or the Smithsonian Institution, or from groups like Net.Bible.Org or AmericanBible.Org with online scriptural tools. What was once only accessible by specialists is now available at a click.
Yet even for believers with a passion for the Bible, the 66 books of the Protestant canon of scripture can be a daunting mass of chapter headings and footnotes. A good study Bible in your hand can be a rich banquet of tools (no clicking required!) but you need some training to be able to open it up and dive deeply into the text.
About those two quotes: In Life magazine in 1963, Barth said he liked to tell seminarians (those in training for ministry leadership) "to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible." Or as it often is shortened, "take the Bible in one hand the newspaper in the other." And it was the next year, in 1964 that communications professor McLuhan coined the phrase "the medium is the message."
Or it might make more sense to you if you think about what McLuhan is saying as being about the "Medium AS message" – that the method and format of delivery of information shapes how you receive and process information.
It used to seem to be a simple and reliable matter for anyone, with whatever background or training, to distinguish between a published volume (and out of the minister's library, no less) and a grimy handful of blue-tinted mimeo pages someone runs in and throws on the table. One is reliable, the other less so, right? Printed books, delivered publications, mimeographed sheets, then perhaps a look at someone's scribbled notes – they're a sort of hierarchy of what once was.
I'll add to Barth and McLuhan the caption from a cartoon in "The New Yorker" from 1993: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." It was a laugh with two canines looking at a computer, but in reality today, there are dogs and wolves and some mischievous and even malicious coyotes out there presenting their take on the Bible, faith, church life, and much more, as definitive. They might never have gotten their views between hardback covers in the past, but a webpage can look very legit, but have content not worth wrapping fish guts in (after you'd printed it out, of course).
This is the new challenge in ministry and in Christian education, but it's also the old challenge in a new form. Believers have long wondered "who can I trust?" It has always been the task of pastors to shepherd the flock past hazards, getting them to still water and peaceful, fruitful meadows safely.
That means we have to learn new things, and be ready to share our knowledge in different ways with a congregation who have gotten used to taking in information through some very different devices than the First Century technological innovation of – a book! Yes, that's right, the first "Bibles" or "biblia" were a technology in their own right. It does no violence to the sacred sense of the contents to spend some time looking at how we use that external tool.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him how you prefer to take in information by sending it to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.