Why Referring to “Screen Time” May Not Be Helpful to You or Your Kids

Recently, I had a brief, but eye-opening interaction with one of my kids:

“Dad, can I use the iPad?”
“Sure, if you want to create something or draw for a bit, that sounds great.”
“But daaaad, I just wanna watch a show. I don’t want to do anything.”

How should I respond? Is saying, “You have 23 minutes left of ‘screen time'” a sufficient response? Are there more instructive tools can I use to help my child grow and mature?

Worries about Technology and Screens

TIME Magazine recently name the iPhone the most influential gadget of all time, and yet a recent survey found more than half of teens feel they are addicted to their smartphone. But let’s not be quick to judge just our youth. Other studies show that its actually older Americans who the ones most likely to use their phones during meals. The studies go on and on, with researchers finding that up to 33% of people feel depressed after using Facebook (everyone else is having more fun), and even simply having a screen visible during a conversation can make people feel sad and anxious.

We obviously need help navigating this new world, so what should we do with these devices that appear to be causing us so much pain and suffering?

The common response has been to regulate the amount of “screen time” or to commit to going “screen free” for periods of time. While this response can be helpful to a degree (and as a parent, it’s super easy to implement), I think it can also hide a chance for more careful and thoughtful reflection.

How “Screen Time” Became Outdated and Unhelpful

The term “screen time” was created in an earlier era when “screen” referred to just one thing – a television – and “screen time” referred to how much time we spent watching TV shows. This changed in the 1980s, when the television grew an appendage – the video game console – and “screen time” expanded from referring exclusively to passive consumption to include some form of interaction and perhaps even social participation.

In the 1990s, as personal home computers became more common, “screen time” became even more ambiguous. Families now had a “screen” that was primarily suited for new kinds of creativity, writing, drawing, video editing, 3D modeling, and information gathering.

Today the passive consumption of television, the interactive nature of game consoles, and the utility of computers have all been merged into the portable, glowing rectangles of various sizes we now use for everything from communicating with relatives to filing our taxes to recording and posting our child’s first steps. Unfortunately, screens are also use them to bully classmates, consume pornography, and falsely glamorize our lives.

With all these activities collapsed into one device, the blunt force tool of “screen time” doesn’t really do much to help us avoid the damaging uses of screens or habituate us away from the tendencies toward vapidness and self-focus that are so common on screens.

Axes for Thinking about Screens

So if  “screen time” is no longer adequate, what should we use instead? Below are several categories or axes (plural of axis, not axe :) of thinking that can help us think more deeply about how we’re using our happy little glowing rectangles.

Creation vs. Consumption – This is what my child was getting at in the opening conversation. Sometimes you just want to passively consume something, and in moderation there’s a place for that. But in that moment, I judged that we’d had enough consumption for the weekend, and I wanted to encourage my kids to find something that would express their God-given creativity rather than sit passively and consume more. However, my criteria is not “on screen” or “off screen”; rather, it’s creating (with Lego, paper, iPad, playdoh, dolls, etc.) vs. consuming (television, YouTube, etc.). “Screen time” alone would limit both indiscriminately. (Note: you can see this breakdown in Common Sense Media’s four categories of teen screen usage)

As helpful as this first axis is, alone it is just as insufficient as “screen time,” because there are certain important forms of consumption that we shouldn’t deny, but should encourage. For example, quite a bit of what we do at church (reading scripture, listening to a sermon) are good, edifying forms of consumption. And this leads us to the next axis.

Entertainment and/or Enrichment – I want my kids to avoid harmful immoral material, but I always want them to think about how something shapes them. A history book can be enriching, but it’s not always entertaining, while a LEGO Star Wars book can be quite entertaining, but not very enriching. In other words, in screen or in print, a diet of Captain Underpants and Twilight (“At least they’re reading!”) is not the same as a diet of Little House on the Prairie and The Hobbit. But notice this one has “and/or” instead of “vs.” because some works like The Hobbit are both entertaining and enriching at the same time. (You might also use “edifying”)

Individual vs. Near Social vs. Distant Social – Screens can be used just by one person or by a group to do something together, but neither is necessarily positive or negative by itself. For example, when I read the Bible for personal devotion, whether its print or on a screen, it’s very much an individual activity and still a good one. Conversely, when I play a video game with my kids, we usually play cooperative games which have at least some social significance (that said gazing at a screen together is different than gazing at one another across a board game). We can also further delineate social activities to consider if they are with those physically near us (playing Risk on a tablet) or with those far away on another device (video chat).  The point is that individual activities are not necessarily bad and social activities aren’t always amazingly deep, but learning to recognize the difference can help us grow in our decision making and avoid either/or thinking about screens.

Bonus Categories

The three above are probably a great start for helping us and our kids think more clearly about the place of screens in our lives, but I’ll offer a few more just in case it helps.

Outward vs. Inward – This category is designed to help us consider whether we are using social media to promote ourselves vs. actually interact, uplift, and encourage others.  It’s easy to put Instagram in the “social” category above, but I often find myself using tools like Instagram to try to direct others toward me, rather than build them up. This category can also help us think about how screen use affects those physically around us. Recently, when I got home from work, I opened my computer to work on a plan to build a treehouse for my kids. This is creative (not consumptive) screen use that is “outwardly” focused, but I discovered that my screen usage was communicating that I didn’t want to help my wife with dinner or play with my kids during a prime time. One can’t always avoid this – work and taxes sometimes call – which makes this one of the trickiest categories, but it also gives us another tool to think about our screens more deeply.

Movement/Body vs. Stationary/Mind – This weekend I let son use my laptop to write something while my daughter and I went for a jog and recorded it with a phone. The first was a stationary activity of the mind, the second had movement and bodies. One of the potential dangers of using any media, whether creating or consuming, entertaining or enriching, is that we forget that being human means having both a mind and body. Our world of screens and pages tends to focus on us on our minds, so we need to compensate and reclaim our bodies (even if we use a screen as part of the physical activity).

Evaluating Screen Activities

So let’s see how various activities might fall on the scales above.

  • Playing Angry Birds/Watching YouTube
    consumption, entertainment, individual, inward, stationary
  • Letting child use the Peppa Pig painting app
    creationentertainment, individual, inward, stationary
  • Listening to a podcast while running
    consumption, enrichment (maybe), individual or social, inward, body and mind
  • Reading a Bible app with kids
    consumption, edifying/entertainment, near social, outward, mind
  • Reading Macrumors.com on a phone in the bathroom
    consumption, entertainment, individual, inward, mind
  • Scanning through Instagram feed
    consumption, entertainment, individual or distant social, inward, mental
  • Using Facebook to find things going on in people’s life to talk/pray about
    consumption, enrichment, distant social, outward, mind
    (I’ve successfully done this about 1 in every 38,000 times I’ve used Facebook)
  • Looking up a recipe for dinner and making it
    creative, enrichment, individual or near social, outward, moving/body

So Let’s Retire “Screen Time”

I hope these categories and examples demonstrates that teaching our kids that “screen time is bad and should be limited” while “anything other than screens is good and unlimited” doesn’t really help them navigate today’s world.

Certainly, there are times when we need to unplug, disconnect, live in the moment, and hide the phone. But as screens become more and more ever present, we adults and the children in our care need to learn more complex forms of discernment.

I hope you find at least one of these axes useful and that you add your own (near vs. far?) as you think through how to flourish in this world, appreciating the wonderful tools at our disposal, while constantly evaluating how they shape us as we use them.

Meet Circle: Technology Control for Your Home and Family


Plug and Un-Plug

I have a friend who manually unplugs the family Wi-Fi every night at 10:00pm.

Dad and mom have to be done with work and kids need to be done with homework and socializing because the Internets are dead after 10pm. It seems like a lot of work to go plug and unplug the Wi-Fi, but he does it because he cares about his family and wants to be intentional  about their time, relationships, and physical health.

What if you could have that level of control, but not have to physically unplug the network every day? Enter a new Kickstarter project called Circle. The team sent me a link this week, and I thought it is something worth mentioning.

Meet Circle

From their website

Circle helps families balance their lives in our screen-driven world. These days, we’re always connected. Circle is a device, managed by an iOS app, that enables you to choose how you and your family spend time online by using advanced filtering, time management systems and informing to answer the where, when, why, and how of your network’s Internet activity.

[kickstarter file=http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/304157069/meet-circle/widget/video.html /]

I Hope It Happens

circle-controlsMy own children are too small to have their own devices, but I know that day is coming. We desperately want to protect their little minds as long as we can, but also progressively give them more and more responsibility as they grow, so that when they leave our home they will have the mental and spiritual tools to discipline their own lives. But right now, we withhold devices not only because they are too young, but also because I can’t find a way to adequately control them.

That’s why I hope Circle succeeds. I don’t think it will work as a “Set-and-forget” parenting device, but it hopefully will enable parents to give their kids access to devices but in a manner that’s as safe as possible.

So what do you think? Would this be helpful to your family? Is it tech controlling tech controlling tech controlling us? Does it invite kids to try to break the fence or does it help protect them? I’d love to hear what you think.

When Jesus Creates

An Artisan

I’ve long been fascintated by the Greek word tekton (literally artisan or craftsperson) which is translated “carpenter” in the gospels (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3) to describe the kind of work Joseph did, because it means as a little boy Jesus would have watched his earthly father creating which is theologically awesome since we believe all things were made through Son (John 1:3; Hebrews 1:2) with the Father and that we are his “workmanship” (Eph 2:10).

But as far as I could remember, the gospel writers don’t actually record many events where Jesus makes something (except perhaps breakfast: John 21:9). But I was reading the gospel of John to my son yesterday, and I noticed a detail that in clearing the temple Jesus took time to make his own whip:

So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. (John 2:15)

For Artisans

So in honor of this passage I made a little Internet Meme to Jesus as a reminder to all of us that make stuff, all of us who are tektons, artisans, craftspersons, and makers of some sort:

What you are doing is what the Son has been doing and continues to do.

And though the universe is vast and incomprehensible, his greatest workmanship is you.

And though you like the temple are full of sin, he wants to cleanse you, redeem you, break you down and bring you back to life so that he can work in and through you.

6 Tips for Handling a Perfect Storm of Internet Fame

Last week, three big websites referenced things I’ve worked on recently:

  1. Biola University launched it’s new Open Biola project and featured my lecture on its homepage of resources.
  2. Jeffrey Zeldman, one of the web’s leading designers, blogged about my MediaElement.js library.
  3. Outreach Magazine and other websites reported on my work to distribute 50,000 Arabic digital Bibles during the Olympics.
  4. Bonus: We also launched a new version of DTS’s website that features a responsive layout and Retina-ready images in many places.

For this little web coder, this is all very exciting and fun. Yet, I also know that when something like this happens, there is a danger that I will react poorly to it. First, I am tempted to think so highly of myself that I start acting arrogant and self-important (see all the “my” above?), talking about myself more than others. Second, I start getting used to the good feeling I get from recognition and then when it’s over I feel deflated and unimportant.

So to prevent that from happening this time around, I’ve written down a few tips that I use to remind myself of how reality is in fact structured.

1. It Is a Big Deal

An easy way for me to try to deal with this kind of recognition is to feign humility and show people I don’t really care by saying something like, “It’s no big deal.”

But it is a big deal, and I do care.

I did some really great work, and it’s incredibly rewarding and downright exciting to have it publically recognized. I know God gives grace to humble and mocks the proud (Prov. 3:34), but being humble isn’t the same thing as falsely claiming, “I don’t really care about all that stuff.” True humility requires that I begin by being honest about what has happened and the reactions to it in my heart. That’s where the next steps come in.

2. There’s Always Something Bigger

To balance the fact that all of this is a big deal, I remind myself of where it stands in the grand scheme of things. I shouldn’t be unnecessarily self-deprecating, but at the same time I shouldn’t overplay the significance of these things to the point where I think I just landed on Mars or cured cancer.

This isn’t about comparing myself to others or jockeying for a higher place. It’s just about making sure that I balance all the excitement with a recognition that God is doing lots of great things through many other people all around the world. By recognizing that what I’ve done is part of the much larger plan of God, I’m able to be thankful for what he’s allowed me to do and also excited for others when they have success.

3. It Didn’t Happen in a Day

Even though the Internet is reporting the events all at once, the reality is each of these projects is the result of lots of hard work over long periods of time. I first started working on MediaElement.js two years ago for a demo at the Echo Conference in a talk I did with Nathan Smith. The Biola Lecture was actually accumulated ideas that I’ve been working on since 2008 when I gave my first such talk at the BibleTech Conference.  And the Bible Software in Arabic? I’ve been tinkering with that kind of thing for more than five years.

So even if my plan was to replicate this fun event of having lots of things recognized all at once, I would need to get to work on Monday and hope for a link storm in 2016, not Tuesday.

4. I Didn’t Even Do It All

In just about every case, what I’ve done is the built on the work of others and wouldn’t exist without them. The DTS website? We hired out an amazing designer (Chris Merritt) to create the visual design, and my co-worker Michael Jordan did a ton of work over the summer to make that design into a real website.

The 50,000 Arabic Bibles? I just did the coding on one part of it. Many teams of people at Digital Bible Society built additional tools, did quality assurance, and printed the SD cards, and other teams in London distributed the software. And that doesn’t even count the people who actually, you know, translated the Bibles! My Biola lecture was built on the ideas of others and given at a conference put together by a team of professors and students. And even my video library has dozens of contributors on Github finding bugs and making it better.

Again, I did do a lot of good hard work, but seeing it as a part of many larger efforts helps me enjoy it even more since the network of people exists long after the tweets die down.

5. Tomorrow, It’ll Be Forgotten

As cool as all of this is, the Internet moves fast and tomorrow someone else’s amazing work will catch people’s eye. That means that I can have fun with it for a day or two, but then I need to let it go and not seek to hold on to the feeling.

This isn’t just some over spiritualizing, it’s a physiological reality. As soon as those tweets and like started firing, I remembered that such electronic queues generate a dopamine response, and when the beeps and boops, the sudden lack of dopamine can feel like a real let down. It then becomes really tempting to try to drum up more tweets to perpetuate the high. But by not placing too much value on myself and knowing it’ll end in a few days, I can enjoy it while it lasts and then move on to doing new great work without missing a beat.

6. It Won’t Help My Baby Boy and Girl Get Through Middle School

I recently finished Steve Job’s biography and by far the most heartbreaking section for me was the interview with his middle daughter who says something to the effect of, “I understand why my dad wasn’t around much. He was working on important things, and he didn’t have time for me. I’ve accepted that.”

I don’t want to set my kids up to have to make that kind of excuse for me when they are older, and that means I can’t always keep up with everything that I want to do online. There’s always something more to do, create, and promote. But I’m the only one who can be there for my kids in this special time.

Speaking of that, we have some dragons to slay!

So if you have any tips of your own leave them in the comments, and I’ll get to them once they are sleeping.

Want to Rein in Social Media? Don’t Post about It!

Overload from http://www.sxc.hu/photo/5616

Last fall, CNN posted an article which argued that if you tell people you are trying to lose weight, it can actually make it harder to succeed.

Problems with Losing Weight

There are certainly some great reasons to talk with a community about weight loss, diet, and exercise. Accountability and encouragement are really important, and yet some doctors have found that there are reasons why telling people about your weight loss plans can backfire:

  1. Friends will be resistant – Dr. Jon Walz says that when it comes to weight, we usually choose friends in the same range. As you start to change you’ll fall outside your friends’s range, and they will tend to be resistent to this even if unintentionally.
  2. Reporting intentions messes with your drive – Dr. Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology says that goals (like losing weight) require an “indicator of accomplishment” (like praise from a friend). But when you tell someone that you’re going to lose weight, they often give you praise immediately and that short circuits the drive to continue.
  3. Noticing is Better – The other factor is that it is much more powerful for someone makes an unsolicited comment like, “Wow you look great – have you been working out?” than if they followup on a previous conversation saying, “Looks like you really followed through.”

So what do these doctors recommend for weight loss? They say you should not tell anyone until you’ve hit your goal.

Problems with Losing Social Media

When I read this article, it seemed obvious that it could be applied to social media. We’ve all known a guy or gal who announces on twitter or their blog that they are “taking a break” from it all. Inevitably there are lots of comments and feedback, some of it in praise, and perhaps a few negative ones. It seems to fit the pattern of

  1. Friends will be resistant – Since we all know that overuse of media is a problem, very few people will probably be actively resistant. But if you’re really having a problem, announcing that problem using the tool that is contributing to the problem might perpetuate it more than help calm it down. The cynical, “You’ll be back comments,” probably won’t help your general mood about social media either.
  2. Reporting messes with you – Sometimes an online announcement can feel like you’ve actually done something. “I’m so over facebook!” we say, but then don’t follow through because the announcement itself and the subsequent likes and comments can feel like the kind of “indicator of accomplishment” that should happen after we’re finished. From the studies, it seems that the blog post about not blogging short circuits the intent.
  3. Noticing is Better – When someone posts about not posting and then later posts that they met their goal, it’s kind of interesting. But when I actually notice that someone changes their media habits, I’m much more inspired to do the same.
So the bottom line is that if you’re having trouble cutting down on media of any kind (TV, twitter, pinterest, etc.), the best advice might be to set your own goals, commit to them before God, and then don’t tell anyone for a while (especially on those media).
Then, once you’ve hit your target, let us all know!

Why My Church Waited 10 Years to Go HD

Before Going HD, Our Church's Screens Didn't Quite Fill the Box (notice the black bars)

A few Sundays ago, I looked up at the screens in our church auditorium and immediately bumped my wife and said, “Look!”

Her response was, “What? What am I looking at?”

I couldn’t believe it. For 10 years our church has had 4:3 screens sitting inside  widescreen frames, and that day they had finally upgraded to 16:9 widescreen HD. And she couldn’t even tell.

The Value of Planning Ahead

Just as I moved to Dallas about 10 years ago, the church family my wife and kids are now apart of was putting the finishing touches on a new worship center (the one you see pictured above).

At the time, “going HD” was all the rage, but the cameras and projectors were very expensive. Since the church already had a working SD setup from the older part of the church, they decided it wouldn’t be a wise use of resources to upgrade the system for the new building.

But even though they decided against the upgrade, they still planned ahead. The white frames in the picture above were designed to accomodate wide screens. One day, upgrading would be affordable, and someone had the foresight to plan ahead.

Surely, within a few years, it would be affordable and perhaps necessary to upgrade.

The Value of Waiting

But it wasn’t a few years. The existing setup kept going for another 10 years outlasting two recessions and our pastor’s bout with cancer.

A few weeks ago, however, it finally died with no hope of resurrection, so the church media team began working frantically on an mid-week transformation.

Mark Matlock was preaching the next Sunday and before he started his message he mentioned three important things. First, in light of a tough economy and a community that values not spending money on frivolous things, it was important to say that the new system was patched together with mostly used parts so it was much less expensive than a straight upgrade (awesome right?). Second, since it was less of a planned upgrade and more of a last minute necessity, there might be some glitches (actually, there weren’t any!). And third, all the pastors were getting facials since they were worried about the new screens showing their pimples (classic Matlock humor).

New Widescreens Displaying the Nicene Creed

Personally, I’m proud to be a part of a community of believers who value preaching God’s word (we’re going through Mark this year), reaching out to the local community (the church has several ground-breaking partnerships with the city of Irving), and the wise stewardship of God’s resources (no frivolous upgrades even if they would be cool).


In recent years, our church has also begun celebrating the ancient holidays on the church calendar that demarcate the life and ministry of Jesus. A few days ago was Pentecost Sunday, and I took the short video of the music team’s great arrangement of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

The video does show the new HD setup, but I think it’s real value is as a beautiful portrait of old and new, faithfulness and creativity, frugality and extravagance all mixed together:

Parenting Tip: Three Photos, and I’m Out!

Thomas the Tank Engine day with my kids

Jon Acuff has a nice post about Skrillex (an Internet sensation for his electronic music) who recently advised a group of his fans that they shouldn’t try to experience his concert through their smartphones. In the words of Mr. Skrillex:

Don’t try to experience the party through your cell phone just so you can document it to show people later that you were there. Just be there.

Acuff follows with some helpful thoughts about parenting, and many of the commenters lamented that they feel pressure to document everything in order to be good parents. But among the comments, I especially appreciated this great suggestion from KC,

I have a 3 picture rule… If our daughter does something iPhone camera worthy, we snap 3 quick pics then put the phone back in the pocket.  Later, it can get Instagramed, posted, tweeted, whatever.   As first time parents, I love capturing those precious moments, but being IN that moment is far more important!

I love that KC is being thoughtful about the benefits and downsides of the smartphone. She recognizes problems, but instead of abandoning the technology altogether she puts two thoughtful boundaries around it that represent and reinforce her values:

  1. First, she limits herself to three pictures instead of endlessly angling for that perfect shot which sometimes ruins the beauty of the event itself.
  2. Second, it seems that she waits until later to post, tweet, instagram, etc. the photo  so she isn’t looking at the phone while her kids standby.

By setting these boundaries around the technology, she is able to balance the two things she values: being “IN” the moment and capturing memories. And if you have tips of your own, please share them in the comments!

Captivated: A Documentary about Media Consumption

There is a slowly growing body of teaching about media that is actually based in media, and I think this is a good thing.

The past few years have seen the release of many books on technology and Christianity (including my own), but the trouble is most of the people who need to hear their message aren’t really into, you know, reading books. That’s why videos like David Murray’s God’s Technology and Phillip Telfer’s Captivated (from MediaTalk101) are so important. They speak the language (i.e. use the medium) of the person who most needs to hear the message itself.

About the Film

Though his organization MediaTalk101, Telfer has been giving talks at churches about media consumption for several years, and now he’s made the move to create a feature length (1 hour, 45 minute) documentary with interviews from both secular thinkers on technology and culture (Mark Bauerline, Maggie Jackson) as well as various religious figures (David Murray, Ray Comfort, Kirby Anderson).

The documentary also features interviews with several teenagers (and a few adults) who, after years of struggling with overusing media, eventually gave up their chosen form (for a teen girl it was music obsession, for a grandmother it was playing FarmVille endlessly). Some gave it up voluntarily, some as a family exercise, and some through attendance at a camp for trouble youths called Shepherd’s Hill Academy where no iPods, cell phones, or computers are allowed and chores like horse grooming are encouraged.

The first half of the documentary focuses on the subtle effects of media saturation on things like multitasking, concentration, deep thinking, mental feedback loops. This section includes interviews with neuroscientists and cultural critics who discuss studies linking overuse of media to sleep problems, obesity, concentration, and ADHD.

About half way through, the film shifts focus from media to its content. Here Christian thinkers are featured more often, and they discuss our changing attitudes about sex and violence in movies and video games, strongly urging us to consider the link between what we ingest and what kind of people we become as a result. Personally, I found the first half of the video more compelling than the later half probably because it’s harder to argue with a nueroscientist on whether or not the brain can multitask than a pastor talking about R-rated movies.

Using Captivated

As I mentioned, I’m glad to see resources like Captivated coming out because it provides something that churches, parents, and pastors can use to being talking about media and technology with the people around them. Even if there were things I wish had been included or elements I personally would have left out, I think its usefulness as one of the very few video resources on the subject outweigh any criticisms I might offer.

That said, there are three things I’d like to point to if you’re considering using the video. First, at 1 hour and 45 minutes (plus bonus material) the film is fairly long, so you’ll probably only be able to show a few selected segments in a single sitting. But this is also a good thing because it means you have a lot of material to work with when you begin selecting segments.

The second thing worth mentioning is that unlike God’s Technology which spends some time addressing about the good side of technology as a gift from God, Captivated (in the usual style of a documentary) focuses almost exclusively on the negative impact of media. The film opens with questions about media that are framed strong either/or dichotomies and some of the speakers (like Mark Bauerline) are quite negative about social technology. On the other hand, there is a fun sequence at the beginning showing how the film itself could be spread via social media, and there are a few places where a person says something like, “We’re not just saying ‘no media,’ just use it in responsible and God-glorifying ways.” But I wouldn’t be surprised if the average viewer came away feeling like the overall tenor of the film was “no media.” So again, if you’re going to use the video you’ll need to supplement it with a more holistic view of technology and nuanced understanding of art and culture so that your group doesn’t come away thinking about these important matters in black and white, on and off terms.

A final point is that while the film does a good job of pointing out research on the unintended and problematic consequences of media, it doesn’t attempt to provide a lot of practical guidance on how the average person can balance the reality of technology as we go forward. The testimonies are generally of people who completely cut out FarmVille or iPods or Facebook, turning to some kind of outdoor activity, and feel much better as result. But it seems that many people are looking for practical wisdom on how they can discipline their media usage without completely shutting it off. This means you’ll need to talk to your group about ideas like the Tech Basket or Phone Stack to help them come away with a more concrete strategy they can implement in their own lives.

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.

The Messy Multiple Meanings of Medium – Part 2

This is the second post in a series of posts 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.

In the first post, we talked about mediums that stand directly between two people (like a doctor’s stethoscope) and mediums that indirectly transfer things between people (like an artist’s canvas). We also made the basic case that the mediums carry meaning from one person to another. We’ll now turn to two less obvious kinds of mediums that challenge what we mean by the term.

Medium as Environment

When we begin talking about mediums that don’t sit directly between two people (like books, paintings, and cell phones) and saying that mediums themselves have meaning (email vs. hand-written note), we start to make the line between what is and is not a medium a little fuzzy.

This becomes more apparent when we start comparing mediums. For example, think about the difference difference between watching a movie on your phone versus watching it at a theater. Beyond the obvious difference in screen size, one major difference is that instead of listening to a tiny little speaker there are dozens of speakers all around us (remember THX? ). This means that in the case of a movie theater, the medium isn’t just in front of us, it’s also around us. The experience of the movie, then, is partly an environmental experience.

But where should we stop with this? One might say that the smell of popcorn, the plush seats, and the stadium seating arrangement are also part of the “movie going experience,” but should we really call those mediums?

Like a medium, the popcorn is made by people, and like medium, the popcorn has some meaning and significance that gets mediated to us. Yet at some fuzzy point, we need to draw a line and say that the popcorn is less of a medium and more of what is sometimes referred to as a cultural good.

One way of distinguishing between a cultural good and a medium is to say that a cultural good mediates meaning between a community and an individual, whereas a medium tends to function between an individual and another individual. However, this too quickly breaks down when it comes an environment’s mediating power. For example, if I decide to take my wife on a date, the experience of that data will be different depending on whether I take her to a nice restaurant or or a place that doesn’t pass inspection. The restaurant is not literally between her and me, but when I choose one over the other it still mediates something from me to her. Likewise, if I take a shower and dress well, the outcome is likely to be different than if I show up a stinky mess.

My choice of clean clothes might also send her a message and because our clothes are literally between us, we might think of them, too, as a medium. We see this all the way back to Adam and Even, when just after they sinned, clothing seemed to take on a special mediating significance (c.f. Gen 3:7 and Gen. 3:21) between Adam, Eve, and God.

But let’s now turn to another kind of medium that shows up before the Fall.

Language as Medium

When I was writing my book, I asked myself a somewhat strange question: What name should I put on the book?

My full name is John Charles Dickey Dyer, and I wondered if I should have used it as a pen name? It’s certainly memorable, and it’s earned me a few laughs over the years. I also considered going the Lord of Rings route and trying something like J.C.D. Dyer because it’s still memorable, but more formal and less comical. But then I wondered if it was too formal for a popular level book. In the end, I went with “John Dyer” simply because it has better Search Engine placement.

Of course, I’m still the same guy and my book is still the same book regardless of which name I attached to it. But I still had to think through the name because a name is a medium in the sense that it stands between two people. Someone’s first impression of me and my work will in some small way be influenced by how I presented my name.

The power that resides in a name can be found all the way back to the Garden before the Fall when God asked Adam to name the animals. We know this was to find Adam a helper (Gen 2:18), but God also seems interested to find out “see what [Adam] would call them” (Gen. 2:19). Imagine that Adam sees a bird and decides to call it a “bluejay.” No big deal right? Well, it actually is a big deal, because he has just determined that the defining characteristic of that bird is how it looks. If the next bird comes along and he names it “woodpecker” he would have defined the bird according to its action, not its appearance.

These names are not mere neutral tools, objectively transferring bits of information between data terminals. Rather, names, words, and all language, sit between us and a thing, and language mediates certain aspects of the thing to us, shaping what we see and don’t see about a thing.


The first two kinds of mediums – what I called connection and transference – are fairly straight forward. When we to use terms like mediation to talk about broader ideas like cultural goods or even language, it can help us see things we didn’t see before but it can also introduce confusion as well. In the next post, we’ll look at another application of the concept of mediation, and then offer some concluding thoughts about how we use these terms.