Just the other day, I was sitting, having a wide ranging discussion, with a number of people. It wasn’t a particularly theological discussion, until one of the participants took our visit in a whole new direction, by asserting that she had not understood the Trinity until she had read The Shack by William P. Young. What was particularly troubling was the fact that all of the others admitted they too had read one of the more than ten million copies of the book, and also had gained a much clearer understanding of Trinitarian theology. That deeper understanding, accepted as gospel, is being gleaned from a self published book written by a former office manager and hotel night clerk, whose goal was probably more about writing a good piece of fiction than a theologically instructive statement.
Young’s contribution to the theological wisdom of this era is not the first of its kind. The very popular Left Behind series by Tim Lehaye and Jerry B Jenkins has had a profound effect on the general understanding of, what is seen to be, the Christian eschatological viewpoint. The theology of the books has widely permeated our western psyche in both the Christian and non-Christian communities. Over 60 million copies have been sold and three Left Behind movies have been made. Inspired Media Entertainment released the PC video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces in 2006 and has followed up with two sequels to date. The games, which are based on the same end times stance as the books, have been criticized for their violence and apparent bigotry but have added to the message of the books and the movies. While Lehaye is an ordained minister and served a church in California for twenty five years, his view of eschatology is not one that is held by most of the major North American denominations. Yet his books have found their way into Christian bookstores and church libraries across the continent where they sit not far from The Shack.
Thomas de Zengotita, in his book Mediated: How the Media Shapes your world and the Way You Live in It, presents us with a wide ranging rapid fire exposition of the influence that the media places on our lives. While he does have something to say about the way that the Christian media works, describing its TV programming as being presented from sets that are “almost a parody of gracious living in a gated community” by people who are “addicted to a particular rhetorical gesture, the inevitable redemptive climax to their multifarious tales of woe” , and he does touch God as a back grounding item in his descriptions of the world, de Zengotita, spends very little time actually discussing the effect that “mediation” has had on the Christian church, and the life of faith. This may be because he holds to the premise that God is dead, that “God died slowly, unable to sustain Himself as the subject of a world that no longer displayed His designs” . He sees this as the reason that religion has retreated from the public to the private realm in our march toward modernity making the corporate entity, called the church, redundant. He makes a good point, but I wonder if some of media’s effect on the organized church, its weakening its place in society, has come through through the virtualization and commoditization of God.
The proliferation of media to the masses, through the availability of the printed word, after the invention of the movable type press, allowed for the initial breaking of the power of the Roman Catholic Church. New ideas could be spread more freely, discussed, and written about and distributed again. The church lost its monopoly on doctrine, its ability to control the story, its high standing as the primary source of truth. From a time when a single entity was able to dictate truth to the masses, we have come to a place where the multiple truths held by the masses are all equally valid. We have been so indoctrinated by the media to consider all opinions, and hopefully, choose the one they are currently espousing, that we have forgotten, corporately as churches, how to hold firm to a single idea or principle. We have instead become groups of people who hold, individually, more or less the same ideas, and cannot, in many cases, articulate what the stand of the whole is on any number topics. While the stated doctrinal standards of many denominations, stored in dusty books, and in the heads of aging professors and pastors, may still clearly show distinct hermeneutical lines between denominations, the proliferation of media has irretrievably blurred the lines. In the blurring, the message, that is supposed to bring hope to a suffering world, is so distilled, diluted, and distilled yet again that many are not exactly sure what the message is, or if they would even recognize the messenger. Yet, the Christian media machine continues to churn out a river of material, exemplified in The Shack and the Left Behind series, that is more geared to a profitable bottom line for their media giant owners, than any inherent desire to illuminate the truth. It is also more likely to feed into the ego-centric themes of mediation, as described by De Zengotita, aiming to help the consumer create an image of themselves to reflect back onto themselves.
De Zengotita leaves us with a picture of doom, hopelessness. He prophesies terror on the way that will rock our insulated world as the suffering masses rise up. This terror will challenge the virtual reality in which he argues we live, it will break it, and then the mediation machine will form a new reality in which we, the survivors, can be cradled. It’s all so discouraging, so Matrix like, with forces beyond our control, beyond our sight, planning and directing the world in such a way that even the way we think and feel is influenced.
And yet, I just cannot accept that God is gone, that God is not in some way at work, that God has been, according to De Zengotita at least, killed by science and technology; by the media. Certainly, the old Christian ways of being and the old Christian liturgies, practices and even beliefs may not be holding much sway in a mediated world that is screaming for our attention, wanting us to be sure to take our place at center stage. I’m also not willing to turn our reflections on God, and the interpretation of biblical truths, over to the characters in The Shack or to the latest Left Behind video game, but their popularity does leave me with some hope that there is a searching for deeper meaning inside our mediated society. Maybe it’s in the silences between the media bombardments that we’ll find God. He’s been found there before, providing an anchor, something that is real rather than a virtual construction or fictional representation purporting to be truth, so that we can find some hope, real hope for a real future. Maybe we just need to step outside the blob which media has created (an impossible task according to De Zengotita) and listen.