Sunday, May 07, 2006

Form and Content, Medium and Message

Marshall McLuhan has famously stated that "the medium is the message." This means that it is not only the content of what we say that speaks to people, but the form which our message takes screams every bit as loudly.

As social critic Ken Myers has written, "The assumption that all forms are neutral is not itself a neutral assumption." In other words, the idea that as long as the message of the Bible is preached, it makes little difference what types of media are used to convey that message, is a uniquely post-Enlightenment position with which hardly anyone in the first 1500 years of Church history would have agreed.

I could provide an obvious example involving, say, "Fairest Lord Jesus" sung to the tune of "I Stab People" by the Insane Clown Posse, but for the sake of bringing the point a little closer to home, take the issue of informal dress (of which most informal churches are quick to assure us when we visit their websites). It is undeniable that there is a connection between the anti-authoritarian assumptions of post-sixties Americans and the resistance of many of today's evangelicals to dress as nicely for church as they do for work. In the "wardrobe wars," it seems, God can't hold a candle to Mammon.

A better example could be provided from Paul's argument to the Corinthians that their desire for the Christian message to be presented with such power and eloquence that it would seem impressive in the eyes of men is utterly inconsistent with the nature of that message. If the gospel is all about the weakness and foolishness of the cross, then to present it in glitzy packaging is rather inconsistent. Like trying to hold water in a sieve or communicate the Pythagorean Theorem using smoke signals, the content simply can't be conveyed using that form.

Is it possible that, in our insistence upon the supposed neutrality of the media which carry our message, we have allowed our cultural convictions to shape our conventions, thus rendering our churches expressions of our cultural disorder, rather than remedies for it?