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Changing the Medium, Not the Conversation

Katherine Britton | Crosswalk.com, News & Culture Editor | Friday, September 5, 2008

Changing the Medium, Not the Conversation

September 5, 2008

The new media can’t rightly be called new media anymore, but its rules of operation are still emerging. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of people – including Christians – are venturing into the blogosphere and Twittering away online. The opportunities of instant updates present themselves along with the pitfalls. Where does a person even begin to evaluate the new media, much less participate in it?

Perhaps new media is like new music, suggests Dr. John Mark Reynolds, founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. Should the music change just because we now record to mp3s and have left vinyl records behind?

“Conversational styles in some ways will have changed and in some ways will not have changed,” he said in a recent interview with Crosswalk.com, TheHighCalling.org, and MereOrthodoxy.com. “We’re going to have to have new rules all around about what we’ll tolerate and what we’ll do online.”

“Some people make a big splash the minute they get on the Internet; they have one big post or they say nasty things but then their nastiness catches up to them. On the other hand, there are people who are so careful about what they say online that it just puts you to sleep to hear them. So how can we be ourselves, but our best selves, and so survive within the new media?” Reynolds said.

The Questionable Courage of Political Blogging

Reynolds, a professor at Biola and a speaker at the upcoming GodBlogCon conference Sept. 20-21, encourages Christians to weigh in to join the online conversation on all subjects. But the subject of politics can be daunting, as Reynolds knows from his own blogging experience on scriptorumdaily.com.

“[If] I take political stands, no matter how carefully I nuance them, however carefully I say it’s my point of view, people are going to be offended,” he said. “But I think it’s important for me to both show my students and the broader Christian community how I’ve tried to integrate my role as a citizen in this republic with the rest of my life – with my life as a philosopher, and with my life as a teacher.”

Bloggers that swing the opposite direction, however, are not marked by courage or great will in Reynolds’s eyes.

“In new media, we always act like it makes us really sad that, I don’t know, people at Focus on the Family might not like us if we were liberal Democrats, when in reality if you’re this kind of person, you don’t hang out with that kind of person,” he said.

“I think sometimes we give ourselves courage points for offending people that we don’t actually like,” Reynolds continued. “I have some concern online that it will become trendy to kind of despise and loathe the actual people who are sitting in the pews… our spiritual grandparents.”

Blogs, Cars, and the Younger Generation

The younger generation – those that are most apt to jump onto the new media bandwagon – still needs help regulating itself, Reynolds noted. Without the old publishing structures and their scores of editors, however, younger writers need to look elsewhere for feedback.

The new mechanism, Reynolds said, can be found by joining and forming group blogs that have behind-the-scenes help. “I have yet to go to a blog where the comments were by and large helpful,” he said, adding that a network of proofreaders and reviewers can help avoid bad or harsh content.

New media tempts people to totally immerse themselves, Reynolds said. This highlights the need for parents to monitor their teen’s online activity like they would monitor their teen’s driving habits.

“I think a lot of parents, except for porn and things that are obviously harmful, pretty much throw the keys to the Internet to their kids and say, ‘Well, at least she’s just on facebook 24 hours a day. She’s not looking at bad sites or chatting with evil people,’” he said. “But she’s wasting her time, just like someone endlessly driving around in their car on a summer day could be doing something better.”

Yet endless protection is not the point; Christians need to be aware, not blind, Reynolds pointed out.

“I noted with some dismay that most people only go to political sites that agree with their general worldview,” he said. “I think technology is catching up with our ability to filter and make sure that we’re not just inundated with temptation. Simultaneously, I don’t want to build the gated communities so high that I literally could just set my bookmarks on my computer so that I only go to young earth, creationist, orthodox and evangelic Web sites that are Republican. I could just cycle around what must be thousands of interesting sites that fit those general profiles. And that’s too narrow.”

Keeping the Sacred Out of the Profane

In the arena of personal blogs and vlogs, the line between someone’s life and their online record of it can start to blend. Reynolds doesn’t dismiss this synthesis as all bad.

“When I talk about political blogging, I try to put my whole self that it’s appropriate to put online there. However, the follow-up is that there are some parts of myself that it’s not appropriate to put online.

“For example, my daughter had a sixteenth birthday this year,” he continued. “I had some thoughts about that and I intentionally didn’t blog them. I did blog some thoughts on my son leaving for college after I talked to him about it… But I don’t put every aspect of my life there.”

As writers for a potentially unknown audience, the distinctions between private and public need to be clear.

“I think it can go too far where we cheapen sacred things by exploiting them every time for an ‘oooh, aaah’ blog post,” he said. “I would want people to pick some parts of their lives and keep those separate from what they’re Twittering and showing other people, in the same way that we do in real life. There are some things about me that are none of your business…  If people don’t keep that part of their lives separate, I think that they’ll regret it later.”

The online record is hard to erase, a fact that many people realize only when it’s too late.

Using New Media to Discover Old Truths

Reynolds advocates Christians’ involvement in new media, but he is quick to point out its limitations. For instance, it certainly doesn’t replace the New Testament tradition of meeting together, he said.

“You can’t do church on new media. You can’t [even] do church on TV,” he said. “I’m still a soul in a body, not just a disembodied mind surfing the Net... you still need to go and fellowship with incarnate souls created in the image of God who are there in body.”

But the new media does offer a theology of sorts, Reynolds said.

“Being expressed through language and being able to connect to many people online is just a delightful preview of paradise, or one aspect of paradise. We can begin to experience that – things like 800 facebook friends and you can kind of follow what they do and keep up with people that you couldn’t otherwise dialogue with or see very often … Technology is allowing us to do something that time will allow us to do in paradise where we can know what everyone’s doing because we have an infinite amount of time to get to know the finite number of people that are there.”

The second theological point actually comes from new media’s limitations.

“We do have bodies and so there are limits to how much verbal or even video interaction can replace just face to face conversation,” Reynolds said.

He continued, “I think the necessity of the incarnation and the centrality of the incarnation to the Christian message is brought home by the new media. God so loved the world that He couldn’t have just come and related to us on facebook. He came and didn’t just send us words, words, words, or video, video, video. He came and had sweat, and ate, and dwelt among us.”

Getting Personal

It’s because of the incarnation that Christians need to dialogue about the new media face to face, Reynolds said. While the concept may sound strange, he pushes the personal interactions at GodBlogCon as a way to help foster authentic interactions online as well as off.

“I get asked all the time, ‘Why would we go to a convention and sit in rooms and talk to each other when we’re talking about new media. The answer is, I want to get to know you guys face to face. I mean it matters that I’m 45. I’m not handsome like Mel Gibson. I’m not young. I’m not particularly fit and that’s all part of who I am,” Reynolds said.

“It’s too easy to hide on new media and so it’s good to get together. That’s kind of giving the negative side but the positive side is we are who we are and we want to be our whole package when we talk to people.”

Download the interview in its entirety here.

Read Dr. John Mark Reynold’s blog posts at http://www.scriptoriumdaily.com/.

Interested in heading to the GodBlogCon? Crosswalk.com readers will receive 20% off the current registration price by using promo code SWNGBC08 until September 12. Be sure to click ‘apply’ for the discount. Visit GodBlogCon 2008 to register and learn more about the convention and other speakers, including Andrew Jones of Tall Skinny Kiwi blog.