Steve Martin once said that you cannot play a sad song on a banjo, indicating that the material form more often than not dictates the content of any particular communication.
Long before Martin, the poet W. H. Auden once intimated that to fully appreciate the richness and complexity of the world we live in, communication had to take place in a variety of material forms.
What is happening in this age of consumption, however, is that the range of acceptable channels of communication are becoming narrower with time, particularly with the standardisation of mediums of communication, through devices like the iPhone, social networks like Twitter, and information databases like Wikipedia and search engines like Google. This standardisation can be paralleled with the narrowing of the ability to communicate a range of otherwise sophisticated concepts. In tertiary education, one is beginning to see exemplars of the fruits of this standardisation in instances where undergraduate essays written in “text speak” – the manifold abbreviations used in mobile phone text messaging – are submitted to assessors as final form.
If the two previous observations are correct, and if Neil Postman’s Entertaining Ourselves to Death is also right in claiming that the medium of communication determines not only the content of a communication but also the way a public thinks of and reads the culture, then the narrowing range of ideas that seems strangely coupled in our day with the proliferation of actual words, does not seem so curious. Nonetheless, the hemming in of our cultural horizons by the standardisation of mediums of communication remains a highly pertinent issue for those wishing to extend the Body of Christ. For Christianity is an Incarnational faith, and as such the Gospel must be communicated in temporal forms, and the fullness of that Gospel cannot be communicated if the means of communication continue to narrow. As an illustration, try explaining the hypostatic union in text speak.
The issue Christians face is not so much the actual means of communications, but rather the number of social, cultural and political spaces we think we inhabit, which in turn determine the range of communications channels available. When we realise that the narrowing of the range of acceptable channels of communication is coupled with the colonisation of all social space by one particular form of space – which in this day and age is one that is circumscribed by the market – then we should not merely base our hopes on widening of cultural horizons on finding new ways to communicate while leaving the dominance of the market intact. Indeed, in the search for finding new ways, we stand the chance of actually making the communication conform to the media of the status quo (think of the number of times church discipleship has to be framed as a “program”, packaged in such a way to make it “advertisable” and whose facilitation must often be couched in terms of what it can do for the consumer).
For Christians, the proliferation of alternative spaces has to be grounded in another public: the Church as the Body of Christ. It is a body that sits alongside, but is not necessarily separate from, the predominant public of the market. This conceptualisation can only be facilitated by a thoroughgoing allegiance to the Body of Christ, beginning from a liturgical enactment of that Body at the Eucharist, and extending the borders of that Body far beyond the confines of the worship space. If Christians want to save communications, Christians must not be afraid of the inconvenience of prioritising one’s citizenship to the Body of Christ over and above their civic belonging.