Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps is a fascinating look at communication media and the role these media play in shaping an entire culture. While Western culture emphasises the message and generally disregards the medium, Shane Hipps argues that media affect the way we think, and that until we recognise this fact we will be under their control.

Does that sound too deep? Let me give some examples…

Shane talks about how in oral cultures, where there is no written form of a language, people store information in their minds. When something is learned, it is passed on through the community, generally through telling and retelling stories. The culture therefore tends to be very community-oriented, and people derive their identity from the community.

When literacy is introduced to a culture, people have the luxury of thinking apart from the tribe, without worrying that their thoughts will disappear. The community is no longer needed to perpetuate ideas, and people will tend to become more individualistic.

“In pre-literate societies, a person’s identity is bound to the tribe; the notion of individual has little importance. However, the technology of writing, regardless of content, weakens and even destroys tribal bonds and profoundly amplifies the value of the individual.”

Another fascinating example that Shane gives is that of writing systems. He compares the Chinese pictographic alphabet, with the western phonetic alphabet. The western way of writing is a simple, linear, sequential list of symbols. The symbols in themselves have no meaning, but when put together they are very efficient at bringing meaning. As a result, western culture values abstract concepts, efficiency, and linear sequential thinking.

The Chinese writing system on the other hand involves symbols that actually represent a particular thing. In many ways this is a very inefficient way of writing – requiring a separate symbol for every single word – but the writing system is as Shane says “a visual art form”. Eastern culture similarly has developed to be nonlinear and holistic, valuing these things above efficiency and simplicity.

These media shape our culture, and even our understanding of Christianity. The Roman alphabet’s tendency towards efficiency and simplification has meant that western churches tend to emphasise the simplicity, rather than the mysticism of the Christian message. Our approach to the gospel is to present it as A + B + C = Go to Heaven, when other non-western cultures might take a more holistic and less simplified approach.

Shane goes on to look at other media since the printing press – particularly photographs (allowing for non-textual literate communication) and the telegraph (bringing instant communication over a distance). The telegraph, in many ways the forerunner of the internet, for example changed the culture by providing a mass of information. This mass had to be sorted through, and was assigned subjective value based on how the reader responded to it, paving the way for a move away from modernism, where the printed book with its sequential argument was king, to post-modernism, where a mass of information is weighed up by each person receiving it.

He then addresses social media (and what some might call our post-literate culture), which in many ways are a strange juxtaposition of previous media and their cultures. As a result they bring paradoxical ways of interacting with each other:

  • We are a tribe of individuals. Where pre-literate cultures value community, and literate cultures promote the individual, we long for the community of a tribe, but we define it on a strictly individualistic basis.
  • We feel empathy at a distance. Pre-literate cultures feel great empathy for others in the community, and literate cultures allow people to distance themselves from what is going on around them. As post-literates we paradoxically feel empathy at a distance – we empathise with celebrities and African Aids orphans, but we also feel detached from them and unable to relate to them.
  • We are anonymously intimate. Where pre-literate cultures are in many ways very intimate, and literacy brings the possibility of privacy and anonymity, as post-literates we are anonymously intimate. We share very personal and intimate parts of our lives with a large number of people, giving the illusion of intimacy as we present our façade to the world.

What does all this have to do with faith? Firstly Shane would say that it’s important for us to understand the culture that we live in, so that we are not trapped by it. Our culture likes to think that information is important, and the media of communication are simply serving us in our desire to pass on that information. But we need to be aware of how the media we use are actually influencing our entire view of the world, and of God himself.

But secondly Shane finishes the book by looking at the media God uses to communicate his message, and the fact that his ultimate means of communication with his people was through Jesus – a messenger who was himself the message. As Christians God has also chosen us to be his messengers, but like any medium of communication, we are part of the message itself.

“Why would God choose such a frail, failing, and inconsistent medium to embody his abiding message? Is it possible that God chose a collection of bent and bruised hearts to bear the message of redemption and reconciliation because that is a message in itself? Maybe God chose a medium of weakness to reveal his stunning power to reach through human failure, sin and sadness to grow new life.”

Flickering Pixels

I don’t feel I’ve done the book justice in this post – you’ll just have to read it for yourself. You may also be interested in listening to a sermon I gave in the US a couple of weeks ago about Peter telling Cornelius about Jesus in Acts 10, which was actually influenced by some of the ideas of how God communicates that originated from the final section of this book.

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Tanzanian Pastor faces 6 months in prison after refusing to swear on Bible

Saturday 7 February 2009

I’d always wondered how Jesus’ instructions to his followers not to swear on any thing, but to let their “yes be yes, and no be no” applied to swearing on the Bible in court. So I was fascinated to hear this tale of a Tanzanian pastor. It’s told by Kenneth Mwazembe, and is in Swahili, so the quoted text below is my translation:

Pastor of the EAGT [Evangelical Assemblies of God in Tanzania – a large Pentecostal denomination] church on Ichenjezya street in the town of Vwawa, Mbozi District of Mbeya Region, Simon Kitwike (48), yesterday found himself with a 6 month jail sentence for contempt of court after refusing to swear the witness oath because of his religious faith.

The Pastor who had had his house broken into at the end of last year and had some things stolen, arrived at Mbozi District court to give his witness but refused to swear, claiming that it would be wrong.

The District Judge Kajanja Nyasige commanded him to read the section of the Bible which tells him not to swear in court, so the Pastor opened the Bible and read Matthew 5:35, which is where his view comes from.

… Judge Nyasige continued to be patient with the Pastor in order that he have the chance to change his stance, by commanding him to read from the Bible again – from the letter of Paul to the Romans 13:1-5. The witness read this section in front of the court, but when he was asked if he had changed his stance, he replied that he was unable to change his stance from this verse, and insisted that his position was still the same.

Judge Nyasige was compelled to read him the judgement that he was guilty of contempt of court and so was sentenced to go to jail for 6 months, and also that he would be expected to give his testimony in the original case on March 2nd this year. read more

What would you have done were you the judge? The judge was quite right in saying that Paul tells the church in Romans 13:1-5 that they should submit to the government and those in authority, but what happens when the law of the country directly contradicts an instruction of Jesus?

It’s an interesting dilemma that could equally have happened in the UK (and maybe has done in the past?) and highlights the irony of laws that require witnesses to swear on a book which instructs people not to swear on anything but simply let their yes be yes and their no be no.

Waking up to reality

Monday 24 November 2008

As we turn on the TV again we’re confronted with a choice of hundreds of channels. We have a right to choose what we want to watch, how we want to live. We have a right to choose whatever gadgets, whatever clothes, whatever house and car. As long as we work hard, we have a right to a comfortable life.

We’ll watch the news, but only on the large flatscreen TV that we have chosen, and when we’ve had enough of the tragedies from afar we’ll switch over and return to our “reality TV”. The world where we’re in control, where we have a right to pursue an endless supply of wealth and happiness. The world where we look after number one, and then proudly pronounce that God has blessed us.

One day our TV starts telling us that we might start getting poorer. We might have less money to spend, and less choice of things to make our lives easy. Outraged, we insist that something must be done to stop this infringement on our right to ever increasing wealth and comfort. After all, we live in a developed country, and God has blessed us.

Our politicians tell us the only solution is to borrow, borrow, borrow. Buy more to breathe life into the stagnating economy, our trusted old friend who we thought was immortal. At all costs we must keep spending, not losing sight our God-given right to economic prosperity.

So we keep striving for ever-increasing wealth, desperately trying to make ends meet without having to give up any of our comforts. It’s our right to control our destiny. It’s our right to have power over our own lives, to be rich as long as we work hard. It’s our right to create a good and easy life for ourselves, to enjoy our retirement in comfort.

But then gradually, a haunting thought comes into our minds that won’t go away… what if it was all an illusion? As we have been chasing after our rights, we have a vague recollection that others, millions were dying, starving, being killed in war. As we have been arguing about tax cuts, and economics, innocent people have been tortured and murdered. As we have been worrying about our own comfort, millions have been wondering whether they will ever eat again.

But, surely… God has been with us all along. We have always honoured him with our Sunday mornings,  we have asked him to be with us, to bless our plans.

The thought won’t go away, and as we look around, desperately trying to comfort ourselves that we’re all in the same boat, we suddenly realise that there is a large ocean beyond the sides of the boat. All of a sudden reality isn’t as real as it seemed. We look to each other for comfort, but no one has any answers. Now the things we always took for granted, our comforts, our security, look so hollow and feeble, mocked by the reality that we are just now beginning to see.

Our saviour, the one we thought we knew, has returned. We can’t quite believe that our wealth, our democracy, our economic prosperity have vanished in the blink of an eye. As we think back what seems like an age to our world of reality TV, new clothes and fast food, we ask “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?”

Finally we realise all too late that  Jesus wasn’t in our multinational corporations. He wasn’t in our banks and our governments. He wasn’t on our entertainment shows or in our shopping malls. He was a poor man, living with the lowest of the low, enduring suffering, mockery and even death. And now he has returned as king.

Poverty and our growing affluenza

Wednesday 1 October 2008

This is a brilliantly ironic video, mocking some of the “hardships” many of us in the developed world face in comparison to millions of people in the majority world…

Marriage: A Rural African Perspective

Sunday 17 August 2008

One of the biggest cultural differences between Africa and Europe/North America is the way that the family in general, and marriage in particular is viewed.

Ben Byerly has just been involved in a leadership conference for Pastors in western Kenya. One of the sessions was on marriage, which he has blogged about, giving a fascinating insight into some of the issues facing Kenyan Christian couples.

From last week’s leadership conference for pastors in rural Western Kenya. For the the session on marriage, we divided the twelve women from the the about thirty-six men and had them discuss these questions:

  1. What problems or challenges do you face in marriage?
  2. How can a husband demonstrate love to his wife (Eph. 5:25; Col. 3:19)? read more

The language of church

Sunday 20 April 2008

Our church at the moment is an Anglican church, which can mean a variety of things, but in our case means it’s quite traditional. In an average morning service, there are probably 5 words that I can only guess their meaning from the context, and dozens of others that I wouldn’t hear during the rest of the week.

And the idea of using different vocabulary in church to the rest of life isn’t confined to traditional churches. We were listening to a sermon online today from a church that is very alive and fruitful in many ways, but some of the words used probably hadn’t been used in regular English conversations for well over 100 years.

Why do we do this? Why do we use special old words when we’re talking to God that we would never use if we were talking to our next door neighbour? I’m not sure, but here’s some possible ideas:

  1. We think that God understands old words better. God is old. He’s been around for thousands of years – maybe he’s like our great-grandparents and longs for the good old days. Maybe if we use old words we’ll get his attention and he’ll really understand us.
  2. We’re used to using a Bible with old words. Since God speaks to us in old English, it’s only fair to reply in the same language.
  3. We want to impress other people. If God speaks old words and we do too, maybe people will be impressed that we’re close to God and know his “lingo”…
  4. We’re scared to use the same language in church as we do in the rest of our lives. If we do, that will mean that the rest of our lives are actually connected to what we do in church and we’ll have to give our whole lives to God, not just Sunday mornings.

Are there other (more genuine) answers I’ve missed? I’d love to know, because there are people who are much more godly than me, who I really respect as Christians, who use old English words. Am I missing out on something because I only use simple words…?

mustard seed: the dilemma of growth

Friday 21 March 2008

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Photo by mrjoro

This? This…is the glorious mustard seed? Not the magnificent and beautiful tree one imagines. Its a weed…!

Thanks to our Pastor at Calvary Petaluma, this isn’t as shocking to me as it could have been. The parable of the mustard seed in Matthew 13 is a little more rough around the edges than I’d ever given it credit for before.

He gave them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest garden plant and becomes a tree, so that the wild birds come and nest in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32, the NET Bible.

Perhaps Jesus didn’t mean for the parable to only refer to the beautiful growth of the Kingdom of Heaven – which is still a facet of this image – but hoped to warn against false growth, as well. Isn’t it true that growth can allow things to go unnoticed and hidden from obvious view? In the two parables, the yeast and the mustard seed, something considered unwanted from the lens of the biblical culture – yeast (evil) and birds (enemy) – come to hide or lodge in the surroundings.

If this is true, what are the implications on the Kingdom of Heaven as we see it? What is true growth in the Kingdom of Heaven? What are the implications of physical growth in the church on this Earth?

Palm Sunday!

Sunday 16 March 2008

Yeah – today is Palm Sunday and it was my first encounter with the Anglican traditions linked with the occasion as somehow we missed it last year…!

At our church, St. Peter and St. Paul’s in Stokenchurch, we had a special reading that incorporated a lot of the congregation. The week before we were asked to sign up for parts in a dramatic reading of the Passion account in Luke. Being as adventurous as we are…we chose the smallest portions in the reading: the two thieves on either side of Jesus at the crucifixion. I was the unbelieving thief and Mark was the believing (mine was a smaller part…). It made the reading very alive and allowed many people to participate in and feel a part of the service.

Our Crosses

Another delightful highlight were the small palm crosses that were distributed to the congregation during the second hymn. I could tell by the way Mark reacted amusedly to my surprise that this was another tradition carried out by the Anglican church. It was quite a novelty holding a cross constructed from a palm leaf on this day.