The Messy Multiple Meanings of Medium – Part 3

This is the third and final post in a series on the meaning of the word medium. It was inspired by Erik Eekhoff’s review of Tim Challies’ The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion and thoughts I’ve had after writing my own book From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology.

In this installment, I want to introduce a fifth kind of medium and then offer some concluding thoughts. This post will make make more sense if you’ve read the first two, so if this is your first time here you might want to backtrack a bit.

5. Mediums as Persons

In the Scriptures and pop culture, we find that people can functions as mediums or mediators in at least two ways. First, there is the kind of medium who can talk to dead people popularized by movies like Ghost and TV shows like Medium and Ghost Whisperer. King Saul visited just such a woman (the “Witch of Endor,” 1 Sam 28:7-9) who served as a middle point between a living person (Saul) and a dead person (Samuel, or something else?) transferring something between them. We use the term medium because what is happening is somewhat analogous to the way a book is the middle point between two people (often one is dead!) transferring something between them.

The Scriptures also talk about persons serving as mediators between two parties (see Mediator, Mediation in Baker) often when there is a conflict that needs to be resolved. Joab and the woman of Tekoa, for example, served as negotiators between David and Absalom (2 Sam 14:1-24). The Old Testament is also full of instances of priests (Lev 2:1-16), prophets (Isa 37:1-38) and kings (2 Sam 7:5-17) functioning as mediators of God’s wrath, blessing, judgment, and mercy to individuals and nations. In the New Testament, the incarnation of Christ removes the need for these kind of mediators. Paul writes, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:5).

In each case, one person (the mediator or medium) is in the middle of two other parties affecting, influencing, and shaping their relationship.

Are We Confused Yet?

Now that I’ve laid out no less than five different kinds of things that mediate, one might conclude that in some sense I’ve really said nothing at all. In a comment Adam Shields said, “It seems to me that we often end up with either everything is a medium or almost nothing is a medium.” In a blog post, Matt L. Anderson asks, “A simple rule, perhaps:  if everything is mediation, then nothing is.” And finally, Jacques Derrida seems to have agreed saying, “We are all mediators.”

So is everything a medium, making nothing a medium?

Not Everything that Mediates is a Medium

The problem we started out with was that it often seems hard to tell what is an isn’t a medium. But I hope to have shown that the problem is rather that we have a group of terms that share a common root (medium, mediate, mediator) which are used to describe several similar ideas, but which are also quite distinct from one another.

In part 1, I brought up mediums of direct connection (like a phone, operating synchronously) and mediums of transference (like a book or painting, operating asynchronously) which might be considered classic technological mediums. Then in part 2, I brought up additional things like language and environment/culture which are not normally thought of as mediums, but which are said to mediate something to us. Finally here in part 3 we talked about people who are mediators.

Now that I’ve laid them out, it should be apparent that these are distinct types of mediation and distinct kinds of mediums. They are analogous in the sense that they all affect us, and they all transfer things between parties, yet they are also clearly distinct from one another. It just doesn’t make sense to say that a spiritual medium (like Whoopi) is the same as a technological medium (like an iPhone) or the same as a cultural medium (like clothing). We can make comparisons between them and use one kind to help us understand another, but we can also tell them apart and in fact we should tell them apart.

Of Mediated and Unmediated

It is not uncommon for someone to speak of being in mediated or unmediated relationship. If we don’t distinguish between different meanings of mediation, then this can be quite confusing. On the other hand, when we do delineate between them, things become clear.

For example, if I talk about wanting to experience my dear friend who lives in Dubia in an unmediated way, then I probably mean I’d like to see him face-to-face rather than through a technological medium. Of course, when we do meet face-to-face, we’ll still have clothing, language, and environment between us, but I still think of it as unmediated relative to using Skype.

On the other hand, we when talk about Adam and Eve making clothing for themselves after they sinned (Gen 3:7), we can say that they were no longer in an unmediated relationship since they were ashamed to be naked. But notice that the use of the term unmediated here is different than in the previous paragraph. Failure to recognize this distinction would lead to the very wrong assumption that my desire to be “unmediated” means I want to be naked.

Likewise, when I speak of wanting to know God in an unmediated way, I’m not referring to technology or nakedness. Instead, I’m addressing my desire not to have a priest mediating our relationship and wanting to see Jesus in the flesh rather than in the Spirit. Again, each of these uses of mediated and unmediated have some similarities, but the analogies aren’t perfect and pushing them too hard can result in some problematic (and awkward) conclusions.

Mediums and Eschatological Hope

In some sense, the Biblical story moves from less mediation in the Garden to more mediation after the fall and then back to less mediation in the eschaton. Adam and Eve walk unmediated with God in the Garden, then they are separated from him by sin, then Jesus (the unmediated God) came, and one day he will return.

From the above paragraph one might assume that our future hope is to be fully unmediated in all its senses. But it’s the “in all its senses” where we fail to distinguish between different uses of the idea of mediation. The portraits of the new city in the Scriptures seem to indicate that many of the things that mediate meaning and value to us – clothing, cities, roads, trumpets, etc. – will all be part of the new heavens and new earth.

So while we will no longer need a spiritual mediator between God and humanity in the eschaton, we will exist in a world of things that mediate (cultural goods) and perhaps even  technological mediums – though, of course, in some redeemed form that is beyond speculation.

Wrap Up

I hope these examples can help us continue to use the terms medium, mediate, and mediator in helpful ways while still remembering that not every usage of the term is exactly the same.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

4 thoughts on “The Messy Multiple Meanings of Medium – Part 3”

  1. John –

    I was a little surprised when you wrote of wanting to have an unmediated relationship with God, meaning “to see Jesus in the flesh rather than in the Spirit.” Do you see one of the Spirit’s roles as being a mediator? I’m wondering if it could be argued that the Holy Spirit is the unmediated God in our lives. I’m just wondering out loud here; I don’t have an opinion actually.

    If I understood your meaning correctly, unmediated would mean face-to-face, which makes sense. But what about spirit-to-Spirit? Is that mediated in some way? I’m curious to get your take.

    Adam

    1. Adam,
      Great comment. I , too, am a little shaky on the details of some of this stuff.

      I agree that compared to the OT when David would pray, “take not thy holy spirit from me” (Ps 51:11) our experience of the Spirit is less mediated.

      But since Jesus promises to return and our eschatology says that things end with us being physically present with Christ, I take that to mean that face-to-face, incarnate presence of Jesus is the experience of God for which we should long.

      Does that make sense?

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