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Christianity and the Communications Revolution

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J

Before entering on our subject, it may be important to identify just what I plan to speak about.

“Christianity and the Communications Revolution” is too comprehensive to be intelligible unless we narrow its focus, and, for our purpose, unless we somehow relate it to evangelization.

I would therefore like to rephrase the topic and expand it into a sentence, which might more accurately be called a thesis:

“The Future of Christianity, Notably Its Evangelization, Gravely Depends on a Balanced Understanding of the Modern Communications Revolution.”

My plan is to briefly analyze the following elements of the topic:

  • The two principal forms of communication.

  • Revolutionary changes in each of these two forms.

  • Significance of these changes for evangelization.

Two Forms of Communication

The first connotation that comes to mind when the word “communications” is mentioned is electronics instruments like radio and television. And the revolution implied in their use to most people would mean the widespread diffusion of news and information by these and similar methods of radionic transmission.

This bias is unfortunate because there are two very distinct forms of communication that demand theological appraisal.

The first form is direct communication between people, whether it is two people speaking to each other in private conversation, or one (or more) person(s) addressing a group of people in face-to-face confrontation.

The second type of communication is mediate, i.e., mediated, communication where some physical or electronic medium is the necessary means of transmission—of sight or sound or symbolic language—from one human being to another.

No doubt, in a limited sense, all communication is mediated by such elements as voice and gesture. But the mediated communication intended here is, if you will, mediated twice over: once naturally and necessarily by the human condition and once again by the newly-discovered electronics media.

Failure to distinguish between these two kinds of communication would mislead us into underestimating either the gravity of the revolution or overestimating the evangelical potential of the latest—admittedly phenomenal—developments in man’s ability to communicate with his fellowman.

Revolutionary Changes

There is some value in looking at both these forms of communication separately to see at close range how revolutionary have been the changes in each.

We will then be in a better position to understand that part of the revolution is precisely in the growing imbalance between man’s immediate communication and the mediated transmission that almost erases distance and time and that, in many cases, practically eliminates the human presence as a condition for (shall we still call it) human communication.

Immediate Communication. There are many ways we might explain the revolution taking place on the first level, of immediate communication. One way to describe it is to say that in large parts of the Western world there has been a radical loss of authenticity or, as some prefer, a loss of personal identity.

Expressions like “I want to be myself” or “I wish to be genuine” suggest the evidence of a new spirit of the age that is looking for the truth, even when the search is halting and angular, and sometimes tragic.

Volumes have been written on the factors in today’s society that conspired to inhibit a man’s “being himself,” and that worked the counter-response in the direction of authenticity.

Two factors especially are pertinent to the creation of a “masked” civilization that bears on the question of what has happened.

Anonymity and mobility are so characteristic of the large population centers of Europe and America as almost to define them. Both have been instrumental in producing the kind of mentality that wants nothing more than to be delivered from the burden of conforming to a make-believe code that urbanization and automation have imposed on millions who still believe (however vaguely) in Christianity.

We correctly speak about the “standards of the world” which demand recognition and impose heavy sanctions on those who dare to disobey. There are expectations in dress and place of residence; in eating and drinking customs; in reading habits and forms of recreation; in what to say in what words on what occasion; in where to stand or sit or posture to assume; in how to act “correctly” and not react “improperly” in a medley of social circumstances. They are accepted by millions whose conformity to external modes of behavior tends to atrophy their responsiveness to the inner norms of behavior. There seems to be no escape from the dilemma. Familiarity is born of living in a familial (originally family) situation; but there is no intimacy in a crowd and nothing is more anonymous than a social security number.

Under these conditions it is next to impossible really to know others, and they do not expect to be known beyond the occasional exposure of a chance remark or a sudden outburst of feeling.

So, too, the penchant for movement that has entered the bloodstream of Western life.

Every tendency in modern society points to accelerated mobility…Industrialism not only lures people off the farms and into the cities, it also invades the farms, transforming them into food factories…The modern city is a mass movement…Not only do we migrate between cities in search of improvement, but we migrate within cities to find more convenient or congenial surroundings. Commutation represents a small daily migration. We commute not only to work but also to play, to shop, to socialize. Everybody is going places, but what is happening to us as people along the way?

What is happening is that anonymity has been intensified. Another barricade was erected between human beings whose most intense desire is to exchange spirit with spirit in friendly and confidential intercourse.

The rise of such movements as the Jesus People, the Jesus Freaks, the Charismatics, the Process People; and of such phenomena as living in communes, and the whole gamut of Sensitivity Programs is symptomatic of this search for authenticity and quest for self-identity which characterizes a growing segment of Western society, and not only among the youth and not only in the United States.

Electronics Media. So much for a brief rundown on the revolution taking place in immediate communication, with its consequent loss of human authenticity. A comparable revolution has been taking place in the mediate communications, ushered in by the discoveries in electronics.

Social scientists do not hesitate to compare its depth and gravity with two preceding revolutions in the story of mankind: the introduction of the alphabet, first begun among the Semites in the Near East and then adopted by the Greeks to create what we now call the Graeco-Roman civilization—all of this before the time of Christ; and the introduction of print in the 15th century of the Christian era which ushered in the Protestant Reformation with its consequent stress on the written Word of God in the Bible as normative of faith and the allegedly unique repository of divine revelation.

Where do we begin to describe this third revolution—beyond the alphabet and print—which people are now casually calling the “Communications Age”?

Phrases like “the fall of the tyranny of print, the medium is the message, participation mystique, putting on one’s environment, hot and cold personalities” are familiar. But their frequent use and exploitation have blurred the significance of what historians of the next century may well consider the greatest single development in man’s culture since the Stone Age.

What changes are being introduced by the new media that are bound to have lasting influence on Christian thought and institutions, and with special emphasis on the future of Christian evangelization?

It is not too much to expect this influence to be at least as great as that exercised by the discovery of print and the dissemination of books which accompanied the Protestant Reformation.

The first discernible effect of electronics media—telephone and telegraph, radio and television, radar and computer, photography and film and their derivatives—has been to collectivize those who come under their influence.

Words like “tribalization” and “mass participation” vaguely suggest something of what is happening. Simultaneously millions of people find themselves equally involved in seeing and hearing and feeling the influence of a single man or woman—or a single event—with whom (or which) they establish instant rapport. This is one side of the involvement. Instinctively they also sense that unseen multitudes of others are equally captivated by the same experience, which now takes on cosmic proportions.

What makes this collectivized experience revolutionary is different for different cultures.

In the West it comes on the heels of half a millennium of isolating literacy. Western man has been suddenly plunged into an intense depth participation with others. From a coldly rational culture that had come to worship books, people are now exposed to people, with all the terrifying (and enthusiastic) possibilities of such exposure.

Visual contact with lifeless print is now becoming extended to warm intimacy with living persons, where the man, body and spirit, thought and emotion, becomes profoundly absorbed. And the absorption is active, not merely passive; and the communitarian to a degree that staggers the imagination.

The new media have increased the impact of sheer impressions by geometric proportion. When I read a page, I get only so much data per unit of time. When I watch the television screen, I am bombarded with countless data all at once. To call this multisensorial is to say very little; myriad-sensorial would be nearer the truth.

Never before has so much power been so easily available for divinizing or demonizing the human spirit, depending on the virtue or treachery of the one who directs the media. He determines their theology; and their influence is inevitable, provided they are shrewdly adapted to differences of place, person, and time, and exploited with maximum awareness of human needs and wants.

While much of the same influence of the media can be attributed in societies that have not gone through five centuries of bookish literacy, the impact of the media on them is somewhat different.

They are already, in large measure, tribal societies—except where Western urbanization has deeply penetrated.

In one sense, therefore, the effect of tribalization seen in countries of Euro-America has not been so drastic.

It has, however, been widened in its scope and corresponding influence. Smaller units of society are becoming larger ones. And the rise of nationalism in Africa and Asia is at least partly explainable by the impact of the media on and by the leaders of these cultures.

Moreover, unlike in the literate West, there has been less of a reaction against isolation of a print-civilization. In fact, and unexpectedly, the electronics media have become an important means for raising the standard of literacy and creating, especially in the Far East, an insatiable desire for learning something of the written wisdom of the past that for so many centuries has been literally a closed book to more than one half of the human race.

Significance for Evangelization

The implications for the Church’s outreach to the nations and her mission of evangelization are so many and so complex that I will not attempt the impossible.

Let me just mention, with a brief commentary, what I consider some of these implications to be. I would synthesize them in five words:

  • Discrimination

  • Reformation

  • Education

  • Presence and

  • Community.

By discrimination I mean that we do not begin to evaluate the role of communications in evangelization unless we first distinguish and keep carefully distinct the two major forms of communication, the immediate and the mediate.

The one is not the other, no matter how closely they may be related or interdependent.

Failure to so discriminate can lead us to so identify communication with the media as to undervalue and practically ignore the prior importance of direct, personal communication of the human spirit.

It can lead us to look upon the apostolic labors and methods of St. Paul as archaic and irrelevant; as echoes of a pre-electronics age—and thus fail to find what the New Testament is so clear in teaching, that “faith still comes by hearing, and in order to hear someone must be sent to preach” and not merely something is transmitted to those to whom we are presumably being sent to bring the message of salvation.

By reformation I mean that we should take serious stock of what is happening in our secularized Western society—much of whose secularization is the result of a lack of immediate communication between people.

Crowds are notoriously locking in humanity, and how can we expect them to be models of Christianity?

Anonymity breeds narcissistic individuality, and egoists are not the persons who either come to share the good things they possess nor, for our purpose, are they the ones whom history tells us God uses as the heralds of His Gospel.

Unless we in the West recover something of that spirit of faith, nourished by inter-communication between kindred Christian spirits, I fear for the future of—not the Church- but of our so far glorious share in the Church’s evangelization enterprise.

No one gives what he does not have. And in matters religious, what we possess must grow and develop in a climate of interpersonal communication between believers—at the risk of even losing the faith we still retain, let alone cultivate that sense of mission—which is an expression of Christian charity—without which evangelization is only a word or, as it has become for too many nominal Christians, at best only an academic, even embarrassing exercise.

By education I mean that those actively engaged in evangelization, whether at home or abroad, should learn for themselves and help to teach others in the philosophy and theology of communications which the electronics media are opening up to what I ant to believe is another apostolic age.

Let me raise a few typical questions which these media are urging us to face:

What is the finality of communications? Is it the communication of truth? If so, who is to decide what is true and therefore, morally speaking, communicable?

In what sense can mediate communication validate the, so far accepted, concept of communication as a shared experience? How is it not a one-way transmission from one person to perhaps millions who have no effective way of responding to our co-responding with the source of the transmission?

Is it possible to avoid having the media become instruments of indoctrination or tools of massive demagoguery unless those exposed to the media have borrowed from immediate communication how to appraise what the media are pouring out; or have the opportunity after the media bombardment to share their reactions in easy and uninhibited personal converse with other people?

By presence I wish to cover the whole spectrum of ideas so prevalent in the Old and New Testaments intimating that God’s chosen prophets in every age affect their contemporaries by their presence among the people.

This touches on the mystery of the Incarnation. A moment’s reflection will remind us that God had been communicating to the human race, mediately, since the dawn of human history. The works of His creation were all eloquent witnesses to His power and goodness, and a constant means of teaching mankind that He was the Maker of the universe and the provider of human needs.

So why did He become Man? Was it not that by His immediate presence among men He could show forth the attributes of His greatness and mercy in a way that—ex hypothesi—was impossible before He took on our human form?

We return to the issue at hand: to state what deserves to be restated in today’s media conscious age, that there is no substituted for the immediate presence of Christ’s dedicated and zealous believers—today’s prophets if you will—among the people they hope to evangelize.

This is not to minimize the value of the media in helping to transmit the message of salvation, nor am I suggesting that they not be exploited to the limits of present and future ingenuity.

What I am affirming is a principle. St. Paul was speaking of all times, including our own, when he said: “Be you imitators of me as I am of Christ.” To imitate someone is to see him, to view him at close range, to be able to touch him, even as Christ’s contemporaries saw Him at close range and, at times, could touch Him or be touched by Him.

There is a sacramentality about the human presence that defies analysis, but is not for that reason less real. It partakes of the mysterious reality implied in the word Emmanuel, which means, God among us—verified in the first great Apostle of Truth, Jesus Christ, and expected (I believe) of every lesser Emmanuel who comes after Christ to carry on His mission to the world.

Finally, by community I mean that the end-product of all apostolic labors is, in effect, to establish—among other things—a communications enterprise.

After all, the Church we seek to implant (or replant) is more than a group of people; certainly more than an organization or structured society. Secular agencies are organized and they are nothing if not structured to the teeth.

What the Church must become (or re-become) is a living body of persons whose kinship of spirit, as described by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, makes them one community.

The Church that Christ founded and the at we are to work much harder to develop is a community in which all the members communicate:

  • Communicate the same faith because they believe in the same mysteries of Christianity.

  • Communicate the same hope because they look forward to the same destiny beyond the grave.

  • And above all communicate the same love because they share the same deathless charity for the Triune God.

Please God we shall not fail the Savior who died on the cross for two reasons: to redeem us from our sins and to unite us among ourselves by uniting us to Himself—whose name is Love—here on earth in a community of patience as a prelude to the community joy, which is patience rewarded, in a heaven that will never end.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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