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Reviews

TheoMedia

Andrew Graystone

Andrew Byers
The Lutterworth Press, 258pp

When I was growing up in an evangelical church in the South of England those individuals who had been sent out by the church to serve on 'the mission field' were mentioned with a certain awe and respect. In my eyes the most glamorous by far were the couple who were stationed in The Seychelles, where they engineered a missionary radio station, beaming the Word of God into strange lands that were otherwise inaccessible. That was good media. In stark contrast, the media we enjoyed at home - Blue Peter, Nationwide and The Generation Game - was bad media.

It was mostly about the content of course, but there was a sense that electronic media, unless it was specifically used to share the gospel, would have the same effect on your soul as Coca Cola had on your teeth. I still get the same vibe from many Christians I meet - so it's interesting to note that in the US at least, practising Christians today watch exactly the same TV programmes as the rest of the population, but on average watch for longer. In the third century of electronic communications, with the internet approaching middle age, Christians still don't have a constructive and guilt-free theology of media.

Andrew Byers' book aims to put that right, steering a nuanced course between wholesale rejection of communications technology and uncritical cultural assimilation. He offers a 'rough overarching theological framework' for understanding media, in which he explores the ways that God communicates with us in order to see whether there are principles that can be applied to our use of contemporary digital media. His approach is to tag every mode of God's communication as an example of 'TheoMedia', the assumption being that God's use of media ought to inform ours. Leaving aside the awkward neologism this is a really useful aim.

Unfortunately the investigation of God's revelation is limited to a rather conventional evangelical narrative theology. Of course that validates a great many types of communication, because we worship 'a multimedia God.' In the Old Testament there's a certain joy in visual media, from talking donkeys to naked prophets and dancing mountains. The valleys are TheoMedia because they shout for joy. The Book of Deuteronomy is a collection of Moses' media lectures. The building of the Temple in Jerusalem is 'God-sponsored technology.' Through it all, he argues, words are pre-eminent in God's revelation.

The trouble with this is that the notion that God's communication is media can't quite bear the load that Byers gives it. Sometimes the analogy seems hopelessly overdrawn. It's not clear that it means very much to say that 'image-bearing is a media vocation' - or if it does, that it wouldn't be more clearly expressed without the word media. Does it make sense to refer to idols as 'unauthorized media sources'? What does it mean to talk about death as 'media silence'? I wonder if Byers' theology of revelation might not be clearer if he just went through and crossed out the word media.

There's a central confusion here, pace Marshall McLuhan, between the medium and the message. It is one thing to say that God communicates through many channels - nature, the Bible, perhaps the human conscience - but it's another thing to say that every channel is God's communication. If you are going to tie God's speaking so clearly to nature then you have to account for Malaria as well as Mozart. A core oversight, which was shared by my evangelical home church, is the almost complete lack of reference to the third person of the Trinity. If the incarnate Christ is 'the Multi-medium of God' the Holy Spirit is surely the wireless network. This media imagery is infectious.

What many of us are looking for is a theology that will inform our discipleship, and Byers seeks to provide it, albeit in brief and often anecdotal passages. Christians are called to 'media saturation,' he says. Well, most of us are doing quite well then, since the average person in the UK spends around 8 hours 41 minutes each day with a media device (compared to 8 hours 21 minutes asleep.) But the media he wants us to be saturated in are 'the media of God.' That doesn't mean Premier Radio and GodTV, but the traditional forms of revelation by which God has spoken through the generations: the Bible, the church, the creation and so on. Byers encourages us to tweet, blog, text and type status updates, but also to 'linger in the TheoMedia domain of the church and cling to the media legacies of Christ's Incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, Ascension and return.' There's not much practical help for how Christians or others should consume or create content beyond that which might have been offered by my childhood church, where we were taught to 'Read your Bible, pray every day, if you want to grow.'

Some of the most useful parts of the book are the short personal reflections he calls 'TheoMedia Notes' (perhaps better referred to as 'Notes'). In these he addresses practical issues around faithful spirituality in the digital age. He writes of the capacity of screens to reveal and to conceal, and of the risk of the commercialisation of prophetic voices. He reminds us that God's ultimate communication was couched in atoms, not bytes; so embodied contact always trumps digital fellowship. And he argues that the consistency between Paul's face-to-face preaching and his use of 'social media' (really?) teaches us that physical/virtual integrity is important. These are fair points, but if you take out the word media, you're left with a pretty classic account of conservative evangelical theology and a slightly disappointed feeling that the big questions about Christian discipleship in digital culture remain to be answered elsewhere.