Every person is a piece of clay. We always have been and always will be. Clay is malleable, impressionable, ever ready for pushing and pulling. Most of the time we're unaware of this. We think ourselves stone—weighted and set, rolling towards every daily destination. But we know better when we pause and look around. The atmosphere is full of tools for our shaping: ideas, longings, technology, words. We'd live more sincerely if we realized each day that we're being pressed upon, rather than pretending we aren't. But there's an ocean of difference between being affected by tools and being shaped by a person. It's one thing to be shaped by media, but quite another to be shaped by the Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). Christians should be aware of the former but center themselves on the latter.
Tools Shape Us
Media theorists have always pointed out how tools shape us. Marshall McLuhan was perhaps the most famous. I read through his landmark work twice, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. I couldn't help it. The prose was so cryptic, and McLuhan wasn't shy of making up his own words. But the central point throughout that book is that (1) our technology is an extension of some part of ourselves, and (2) each technological invention affects us far more than we realize. Take a hammer, for instance. A hammer is an extension of your fist. Humans couldn't smash a peg into a hole with that fleshy dough ball at the end of their arms, so they constructed something that could. They extended themselves. In other words, they used ingenuity to expand the potential of their limited body. But that extension affected us. Before picking up a hammer, we were less aware that we could fasten parts of the created world together. We could build things. And that ability changed the way we saw the world and lived in it. Hammers didn't just serve us; they shaped us. They shifted our story.
McLuhan wrote and taught during the 1960s and 70s. He never got to see the internet age. His analysis mostly stopped with electric technology, which was the most advanced in his time. He thought electricity was an extension of our central nervous system. He also thought that, by creating and depending on electric technology, especially in the form of television, we were setting ourselves up for a great amount of sensitivity and anxiety. It's hard not to ponder the link between the rise of electric technology (and then digital technology) and the rise of anxiety in the Western world. In the United States right now, nearly 1 in 5 adults battles an anxiety disorder. I'm not saying there's a clear causal link there, but I do believe the phenomena are related. But that's another rabbit trail.
We cannot act on tools without them acting on us.
In his theory, McLuhan often wrote about media (forms of technology) and how they communicate much more than their mere use suggests. That's where his famous mantra comes from: the medium is the message. The technology at our disposal isn't just a set of tools. It's a set of tools that shapes us, that communicates, that introduces change into our daily life and perspective. We cannot act on tools without them acting on us.
Now, let's bring all this into the present before we tie it to faith.
Digital Liturgies: Shaped to a Tool
As I read Samuel James's book Digital Liturgies, I saw early on that James was applying McLuhan's insights to the realm of the web—that invisible humming network we hang on throughout the day. James notes several ways in which the web is shaping us, all of which are related to the concept of story, some version of "the good life." Put differently, the web imbibes users with a series of values, practices based a set of standards or goals. He calls these practices "digital liturgies." He writes, "The digital liturgies of the web and social media train us to invest ultimate authority in our own stories and experiences as they separate us from the objective givenness of the embodied world" (p. 10). The web treats us as authoritative, disembodied islands.
As James notes throughout the book, this isn't based on the content of the web, which is what people often focus on; it's based on the medium of the web itself. We all work on the web, but the web itself is working on us—changing how we think and act by treating us as disembodied creatures that can transcend the limits of time and space. The web is a different world, removing boundaries basic to our physical environment. In fact, most of us know that people seem to develop "online identities" that differ significantly from their personal, real-life identity in time and space—usually by being pruned of all strife, hesitancy, and complexity.
How else is this medium shaping us? James makes the disturbing (but true) connection between the web and the pornographic industry, both of which thrive on novelty, consumption, and isolation (pp. 132–139). The web creates the worldview on which the pornographic industry parasitically thrives. Scripture, in contrast, offers the worldview on which God-given identity and meaning blossom, namely through word-delivered truth, Christ-contentment, and communion. Note how the former push for isolated individualism while the latter presuppose other people in real time and space—in physical church, daily discipleship, and personal fellowship. The worldview of the web is at odds with the worldview of Scripture, no matter how many commonalities we might be able to discern by common grace. That's why a majority of people today battle distraction, discontentment, and dislocation (p. 156–166). In fact, most of us take these battles as the new normal.
Scripture offers the worldview on which God-given identity and meaning blossom, namely through word-delivered truth, Christ-contentment, and communion.
All this is to say that the medium of the web is shaping us, just as every technology in human history has. And yes, there may be positive effects of the web environment as well, but those tend to be harder to discover, and their biblical counterparts are always preferable and more effective.
It's clear that McLuhan was right: the medium always has a message, always shapes us even as we use it to shape something else. That's how media work. But aren't Christians supposed to be shaped by a Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5)?
Divine Love: Shaped to a Person
Being shaped by media is one thing. But what does it mean to be shaped to Jesus Christ as the Mediator between God and man? What does it mean to be shaped to an invisible person? If we don't know the answer to that question, we'll miss out on the most important path of the Christian life, something Paul calls Christ-conformity.
Now, Scripture is clear that we're not called to be mediators. "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5). None of us can do what Christ did in atoning for sin and redeeming a human soul before God. When we mention Christ-conformity, we're not talking about humans becoming mini mediators. Rather, we're talking about human beings resembling the true image of God (Col. 1:15) more and more each day.
In One with God, I talk about that in terms of sharing the heart and will of Christ. What is the heart and will of Jesus? Gentle and lowly self-giving. Put it in terms of questions you can ask yourself each day.
- Am I gentle toward others, or am I harsh and stern?
- Do I put other people above myself, or do I look to be served?
- How can I give myself to others via resources, skills, and abilities?
The more the Spirit of God moves in us to take on the resemblance of Christ in gentle and lowly self-giving, the more we become our true selves, and the more we change the world for the glory of God.
Love shapes us so that we can shape others with God-given love.
But here's the mind-blowing part of it all: this shaping is not the unintended influence of a tool like the web; it's a gracious and progressive act of love by God himself. To be shaped to an invisible person in this case is simply to be loved by an invisible person. By the Spirit's work in us, we allow that love to have its grace-giving effect. And that grace-giving effect directly shapes our engagement with God and others. Love shapes us so that we can shape others with God-given love.
The Web vs. the Word
Being shaped by the web and being shaped by the Word are very different realities. Both can happen. Everyday. But while web-shaping seems to happen without our effort, Word-shaping requires more of us. At bare minimum, it requires soaking ourselves in God's word in Scripture and then speaking back to him in prayer. That rhythm can be tough for us. It's easier to reach for a phone in the morning than it is to reach for a Bible. But if we don't root ourselves in the voice of God, we're not going to hear silence instead. We'll hear the hum of the web, and we'll lean into its liturgies. There's no way around it: being shaped by an invisible person means you must speak to an invisible person, a person who is with you right now. And as you hear God's voice in Scripture and speak back in prayer, look for opportunities to be gentle, lowly, and self-giving.
Media may always have a message, but so does the Mediator. And it's one we need to hear everyday.
Check out One with God for yourself!
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