Book Review: Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps

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Shane Hipps’ Flickering Pixels is a well-written, thought-provoking look at how technology can shape us and our faith. If you are at all interested in technology and ministry, this book is a must read. It goes down easy, but packs a punch!

About the Author and the Book

Shane Hipps is a pastor of a Mennonite church in Arizona, but he began his professional career in the advertising world, working for high profile clients such as Porsche. He spent years studying  how to use media and technology to convince them the needed to buy certain products to be fulfilled or significant. This experience along with studying Marshall McLuhan’s media theory gives him unique insight into the ways media influences people and their faith.

Hipps’ first book The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture covered much the same material but was address to church leaders. With Flickering Pixels, Hipps has reworked and added to that material, purposing it for a more general audience. The chapters are fun and easy to read, longer than a blog post without being heavy or academic.

The Message of the Book

The main aim of Flickering Pixels is to dispel the commonly held myth that “the methods change, but the message is the same.” Instead, Hipps uses McLuhan’s idea that “The medium is the message” to show how various mediums have shaped what the Church believes and values. He walks through the progression of culture from oral to print to visual to digital and shows how each new technology shifted our beliefs. For example, the medium of print lends itself toward rational, logical, and linear thinking which leads to an understanding of the gospel in the categories of systematic theology and “Four Laws.” The recent shift toward a more visual culture brought on by photographs and televisions has seen a renewed emphasis on the gospel as story and a devaluing of systematic thinking.

In the later part of the book, Hipps discusses God’s usage of various media to communicate to his people, using the burning bush to communicate holiness, an ass to show Balaam his asinine actions, and ultimately his Son, Jesus Christ to communicate his deep love for humanity. Hipps then argues that the Body of Christ, the Church is God’s current medium and that how we communicate and act is as important as what we communicate. Rather than exist as individualistic flickering pixels, Hipps wants us to deeply connect to one another in faith communities, forming a beaming “city on a hill” that clearly communicates the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Moving Forward

Hipps’ aim in the book is not to classify technology as good or bad, but to give the Church tools to understand it. He says, “we are only puppets of our technology if we remain asleep; Flickering Pixels will wake us up” and help ensure that we use technology instead of technology using us.

The main critique I would offer is that I wish Hipps would have spent more time on the Internet and the technologies it has spawned. He mentions email, facebook, and mobile phones briefly, but does not delve as deeply into their significance as I might have hoped. Perhaps this is because the Internet is too young for anyone to fully understand, but it may also betray that Hipps himself has not delved very far into Internet usage and that McLuhan’s insights only go so far. Hopefully, then, this book will enable the next generation to more thoroughly evaluate the Internet as a medium in order to know how the Church can best use it without being used by it.

So now, go, buy Flickering Pixels, and discuss it with your kids, your friends, and your small group. (You need this book!)

Blogs vs. Classics: The New Experience of Language

In order to get a handle on just how many words I see every day, I analyzed two of my favorite tech blogs and compared them to a few classics.

The Statistics

Awesome Blogs Words per Year
TechCrunch* 1,881,152
Engadget* 1,218,609

Classic Books Total Words
Homer – Iliad 168,599
Plato – Apology 11,472
Aristotle – Ethics 85,103
Old Testament 593,493
New Testament 181,253
Augustine – Confessions 137,505
Shakespeare – Hamlet 30,066
Melville – Moby Dick 210,997
Dostoevsky – Brothers Karamazov 349,272
Faulkner – The Sound and the Fury 96,709
Total 1,864,469

* These stats are estimates based on number of posts per week reported by Google Reader and an average number of words from the last 10 posts.

Dropping TechCrunch = Literary Scholar?

These numbers suggest that if I dropped just one blog, TechCrunch (I love you Mike!), I could conceivably use the leftover time to read all of the above classics in just one year. At 250 words/minute, it would take only 20 minutes a day.

And people say they don’t have time to read the classics.

What It Really Means about Our Experience of Language

In reality, this comparison isn’t apples to apples. I don’t read TechCrunch, I just scan it. I look at the titles and pictures, and only read the posts that relate to my field. But because I do this hundreds of times per day on several blogs and news sites, it says more about my experience of language than my chances of becoming an epic scholar. Here are some observations:

  1. We are exposed to an staggering number of words every day. Just scanning these two blogs adds up to 3 million words in a year. That’s not counting comments, advertisements, or the links out to other sites.
  2. We are see numerous fragments, but few complete thoughts – TechCrunch uses it’s 1.8 million words for 6,000 short, decontextualized posts. Compare that to 1.8 million words in 10 classic works each comprising major themes.
  3. We consume facts, but few ideasTechCrunch is a must read for the web startup world, but it is mostly just data. It doesn’t develop a person morally or discuss what ought to be, it only tells us what is.

This doesn’t mean TechCrunch is bad or even useless, but it does mean that our most common experience of words is a form of empty consumption rather than deep soul formation. It’s rather like choosing to eat a dozen 99 cent McDonald’s burgers instead of a slowly marinated, costly steak.

If you looked at your word consumption, what would you find?

Technology and “Face to Face” in the New Testament

I recently attended Church Tech Camp: Dallas (thanks to John Saddington, Rhett Smith, and Tony Steward for putting it on) and had a blast meeting a lot of neat people.

At one point, there was an interesting discussion about the “digital pastor” which brought up several issues regarding the nature of community and the Church in the online world. During the discussion, someone mentioned Paul’s use of the technology of writing when he could not be physically present. I happened to have looked at these passages a while back, and I thought I would share what I found.

Just to be clear up front, the goal of this post isn’t to answer the question of whether there should be “online church.” My understanding of these passages is that they alone can’t answer that question, and shouldn’t be used as proof texts for or against online church.

“Presence” in the New Testament

'Saint Paul writing his Epistles' by Valentin de Boulogne ca 1600 Greek has two main words for physical presence: πρόσωπον (prosōpon) which literally means “face” and στόμα (stoma) which literally means “mouth.” Both can also used to refer to the whole person’s physical presence and is sometimes contrasted with a spiritual presence or technological representation.

Here are some (ESV) verses in which the two words appear with the meaning of physical pretense, along with two other passages expressing the desire to be physically present, but not using prosōpon or stoma.

  • I answered them that it was not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone before the accused met the accusers face to face [prosopon] and had opportunity to make his defense concerning the charge laid against him. (Acts 25:16)
  • For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you (Rom 1:11)
  • For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face [prosōpon] (1 Cor 13:12)
  • I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face [prosōpon] with you, but bold toward you when I am away! (2 Cor. 10:1)
  • And I was still unknown in person [prosōpon] to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. (Gal 1:22)
  • But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face [prosōpon], because he stood condemned. (Gal. 2:11)
  • For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face [prosōpon, lit. “my face in the flesh”], (Col. 2:1)
  • But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person [prosōpon] not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face [prosōpon] (1 Thess 2:17)
  • as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face [prosōpon] and supply what is lacking in your faith? (1 Thess 3:10)
  • As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy (2 Tim 1:4)
  • Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face (stoma pros stoma), so that our joy may be complete. (2 John 1:12)
  • I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. 14 I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face (stoma pros stoma). (3 John 1:13-14)

Some Observations

Here are a few observations from these passages

  1. Paul and John longed to be physically present whenever possible.
  2. Paul and John preferred “face to face” to technological means.
  3. Paul and John often connected physical presence with “joy” and “completeness.”
  4. Paul and John embraced technological tools when they could not be physically present.

Clearly, Paul and John (as well as our Lord) highly valued being present. One might say they valued presence over representation. However, just because they valued being present didn’t mean they shied away from using technology when they needed to. Their use the technology of writing seems to indicate that we can and should use technology for ministry today. In other words, I don’t think these passages can argue against online church without also calling into question many other uses of technology in the Church.

Some Incongruities

While these passages do seem to support the idea of using technology for ministry, there is some incongruity with comparing what they were doing to the concept of online church.

  • Paul and John probably wouldn’t have considered their writing to be the fullness of “Church,” but something supplemental to it. They were transferring words to the page, but not other elements such as the sacraments.
  • Paul and John wrote for the benefit of church communities with existing pastoral leadership, not to individuals. This seems closer to something like piping in video to a campus, but might not quite the same as piping video to an individual’s screen.
  • Paul and John’s use of technology happened when they couldn’t be physically present. This might support the idea of online services for people who can’t come to church such as people living overseas, hospital patients, and parents of new babies, but it would be harder to argue for those who can be present, but choose not to.

Again, this is not meant to argue for or against online church services, but to flesh out the discussion of “face to face” and “technology” in the New Testament. Three things seems clear. First, physical presence was very important to Christ and to the apostles. Second, the apostles were not afraid to use technology. Third, these passages alone are inadequate for answering the larger questions about online church. Much more thoughtful study on the nature of the Church, Church leadership, and the sacraments would be needed to answer these questions.

In any case, may we all long with John for the day when we will see savior, the God-man, Jesus Christ, face to face:

Then they will see his face [prosōpon], and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Rev 22:4-5)

Kid’s Opinions about Hyper-Connectivity

The Low-Tech Times, a fun Neo-Luddite blog on technology, linked to a blog post by Mr. Patty, an Ohio schoolteacher, who asked his students what they thought about the hyper-connectivity of today’s technology. His theory is that many technologies isolate us (texting, emailing, etc.) but that hyper-connectivity tools (twitter in particular) work to bring us back together and feel more connected. At the same time, they can make us into “connectivity addicts.” It’s certainly interesting to see a teacher talk about trade-offs with technology using a blog!

Selected Responses from Students

One positive aspect about being “hyperconnected” is you always can contact a person and know what they are up to. This allows you to keep tabs on all your friends and arrange plans much faster. … One negative factor about being “hyperconnected” is people are constantly on their phones, (me being one of them) and they don’t pay as much attention to the world around them.

There are so many awesome things about being hyper-connected!!! I mean when your bored and there’s nothing to do you can always just text or e-mail someone and have lots of fun. I mean you can’t hold on ten conversations on a phone, but you can hold up ten conversations in text message easy!! It’s a wonderful way to stay connected to old friends; I mean the only time I even talk to my childhood friend is on Myspace. I think its okay as long as it doesn’t get weirdly overboard … There are some down sides; people loose their lives doing this. I mean if you’re to the point where you don’t even go anywhere anymore than you have a problem. Or if you’ve gained ten pounds because all you do is lay around on the computer that’s bad…real bad. People still need to go outside, play some sports, and have contact with the outside world. That’s my opinion!!

The only problem with it is the fact that soon, if not already, we will become too reliant on technology.

Would You Do This in Church?

It’s interesting to see that kids who never experienced the world before hyper-connectivity are still able to see that there are pros and cons to these technologies. I hope Mr. Patty’s thoughtful exercise will not be the last, and that churches (youth groups, in particular) would also engage in this kind of thinking. If so, we might be able to prevent those cases where instead of us using technology, technology is using us.

The Secret Behind the Switches

Yesterday, the technology news world was buzzing about Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross’ suggestion that a single search on Google makes a major environmental impact. He calculates that a search generates 7g of CO2 while boiling water for a cup of tea generates 15g of CO2. Here’s some of the coverage, some of it agreeing with Wissner-Gross and some of it calling him “hot air.”

Whether or not Wissner-Gross is correct, his suggestion reveals a major truth about our technological world: we have no idea how it all works or what’s on the other side our switches, buttons, and screens. For example, when we use Google (or any web tool), we are unaware of the tens of thousands of crawling, storing, caching, and processing servers each demanding enormous amounts of energy. These unknowns make the moral and ethical decisions about how and when to use technology more difficult.

In recent years, we have become aware of the the need to be careful in our consumption of oil, gas, and even food. Perhaps, we should also be more careful with our online activities, so that we waste neither time nor the physical resources God has entrusted to us.

Book Giveway: The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society by Murray Jardine

1587430703One the most influential books on my thinking about society, culture, and technology has been Auburn professor Murray Jardine’s 2004 work entitled:

The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society: How Christianity Can Save Modernity from Itself

The book is now out of print, but I have an unmarked copy, so if you’d like it, please leave a comment below (an RSS feed add would be great too, but of course not required). I’ll choose a random person in a week or so.

(also, please note that there is a point being made in this post)

Five Things We the Church Need to Know About Technology (5 of 5): Technology Tends to Become Mythic

This is the final part of a five part series based on Neil Postman’s lecture “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change” applied to the church and spirituality.

  1. Technology Is Always a Trade-Off
  2. Technology Creates Winners and Losers
  3. Technology Contains a Powerful Idea
  4. Technology Is Ecological, Not Additive

5. Technology Tends to Become Mythic

hand crank window My boss tells a great story about the first time his 7-year-old son Jacob saw a car with rollup windows. He came running in the house and said,

“Dad, we have GOT to get a car with those awesome cranks!”

For little Jacob, a motorized window was the default kind of window. To him, it was as normal as a tree or cloud. He couldn’t imagine the world without them, but he hadn’t yet learned that he was only supposed to think of new things as “cool.”

Technology as Mythic in Culture

Every culture has things that started as “new,” but over time become “normal.” We eat hotdogs at baseball games, we have 12 grades, we wear tuxedos to weddings, and so on. These go unquestioned, because it’s just the way thing are. In this sense, they have become mythic. (Here a myth is not a fairy tale – it is a shared story that powerfully operates in a culture. In reality it might be true or false, but in either case it is influential).

Technology too eventually becomes mythic and unquestioned. Once a human invention seems like it has always been here – whether it’s a blow drier, Google maps, or the alphabet – it has achieved mythic status. It has become the default against which we judge other things. The only thing we can’t do (without appearing a complete fool) is question technology that has become mythic.

Technology as Mythic in the Church

We the church have also allowed technology and beliefs about technology to become unquestioned, or mythic. Here are a few examples:

  • Personal Bibles – We all know that it’s good to have a personal copy of the Bible. In fact, most of us have several. But this is a really new and recent phenomenon. Before the printing press made Bibles widely available, the only exposure one had to Scripture was the public reading of the community’s copy. While I love my copies of the Bible (and my Bible software), I also lament that few Christians today know more than a handful of a verses by heart, whereas many believers before the printing press memorized entire books! 
  • Technology = Progress – This is the foundational belief of our modern world. We believe that the more high tech something is, the better life will be. In reality this is mostly false, especially for Christians. High tech nations are not happier than low tech nations, and high tech churches are not more sanctified than low tech churches. The use of technology to reach a technological culture is wonderful, but we should be careful not to think more highly of that form of ministry than learning Cantonese to reach a Cantonese-speaking culture.

It is ironic that we young people who enjoy bucking trends and catch phrases like “Think Different” and “Question Everything” are so unwilling to question our technology. For us, it is like questioning our gender, our nationality, or mom’s apple pie. But if we are to be “in the world, but not of the world” we must question the technology we use and not allow it to become a more powerful myth than the great true myth of Christ’s power over all things.

My prayer is not that you take them out of the [technological] world but that you protect them from the evil one. (John 17:15)

Trouble Memorizing Scripture? Scientists say, “Turn Off Your Computer and Go Outside”

Narrow is the path that leads to righteousness The Scriptures tell us we are to mediate on the words of the Bible “day and night” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:1-2). This requires that we care for our minds and make ourselves aware of how our technology and environment affects our ability to focus on the Scriptures. A few recent studies indicate that being constantly connected to technology impairs our minds, affecting this aspect of spirituality.

  1. A study from the University of Michigan says that going outside and spending a few moments with nature – you know, that thing we’re supposed to take care of (Gen 2:15) – can improve your focus, memory, and attention.
  2. At the same time, scientists also say that city life can dull our thinking. “After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control.” This study also suggests that nature can improve the brain’s ability to think.
  3. Earlier last year, Nicholas Carr asked the question, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” which suggested that our brains are adapting to searching rather than knowing. We can know process lots of little pieces of information, but not large blocks. (The Bible is a large block).

Computers are a blast and necessary in our day, but if we want to grow spiritually, the scientists seem to be saying that we should spend a little less time with our creations and a little more time with God’s.

Five Things We the Church Need to Know about Technological Change (4 of 5): Technology is Ecological, not Additive

This is part 4 of 5 considering the implications of Neil Postman’s Lecture, “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change” for the church. I have re-titled it, “Five Things We the Church Need to Know about Technological Change.”

  1. Technology is Always a Trade-Off
  2. Technology Creates Winners and Losers
  3. Technology Contains a Powerful Idea

4. Technological Change is Not Additive, It is Ecological

Remember that youth group illustration for sin where you put a drop of food coloring in a glass of water, mix it up, and then ask the audience if there is any way to “unmix” it? It’s a powerful visual meant to show that once we sin, we are changed, and we can’t go back to our former, pure state.

This illustration is also apt for what happens when a technology enters the world. New technology is not merely added alongside other things, it changes the world it enters and alters the relationships that existed before.

Societal Examples of Technology as Ecological, Not Additive

  • Mass Transit – When a city adds mass transit (buses, trains, etc.), this form of transportation does not merely sit along side cars. Instead, the ecology of the city changes. People stay in one place for longer, so they shop and eat differently. Roads wear differently, meaning there is less need for construction, or construction jobs. Gas stations, living quarters, and so on all shift around mass transit.
  • Music Downloads – There was a reason music executives feared the Internet. They knew that something like Apple’s iTunes music store would not be an additive change to the music industry, but a major ecological shift to the way music was produced, bought, sold, and consumed. They were right.

Church Examples of Technology as Ecological, Not Additive

The church too has experienced technological change in an ecological, not additive way. Of course, the changes are not always “bad,” but major shifts in the church can be traced to technological changes:

  • Printing Press – The classic example of how technological change affects the church is the story of how the printing press enabled the Protestant Reformation. Certainly many things were at play in the Reformation, but the printing press allowed Luther’s writings and – perhaps more importantly – his German translation of the Scriptures to make it into the hands of commoners. Before the printing press, the Bible was in Latin and the authority was in the Roman Church. Afterwards, the Bible was in many languages and authority was dispersed. Before Gutenberg, no one ever said, “Read your Bible.”
  • Large Church Buildings – The 1950s saw the formation of the megachurch, powered by large buildings, microphones, and speakers. But the megachurch-era didn’t just usher in large Sunday mornings – it oversaw the formation of age, gender, and interest based sub-ministries within churches. Before 2,000 member churches were common, there were few college ministries, young adult ministries, or dedicated youth ministries in the form we see them today. Consider this difference:
    • Twenty 100 member churches require 20 teaching pastors
    • One 2,000 member church requires 1 teaching pastor, 3 associate pastors, 1 adult pastor, 1 youth pastor, 2 secretaries, 1 janitor, 2 worship leaders, 1 sound board guy, etc.

Just as the church was never the same after the printing press and the megachurch, churches will continue to change from recent technologies, perhaps most significantly from the Internet.

Hopefully, by realizing that technology is ecological rather than merely additive, we can guard against trends which would make the body of Christ into the cyborg of Christ :) But as my good friend Josh points out, the Spirit seems to work his way both in spite of and through technology. So let us be like Sons of Issachar, who “understood the times” (1 Chron. 12:32) and be wise, neither fully embracing, nor fully rejecting technology.

Incarnation and the Technology of Virtual Worlds


This Christmas was special for our family as we celebrated not only the birth of our Lord, but the birth of our first child. Unfortunately my entire family couldn’t be together, because my sister was visiting my brother in Hawaii. So we hooked up webcams and, when the time zones aligned, we watched each other open gifts from 4,000 miles away. There were some technical hiccups, but it was fun and much better than not seeing one another at all.

This combination of new life and new technology brought to mind the wonder of Incarnation and its relation to technology, specifically the technology of virtual worlds (facebook, twitter, tokbox, etc.) that we now regularly inhabit.

As those who bear the imago dei, our acts of creation reflect God’s acts of creation. God created the physical world from nothing, and we create technological and virtual worlds from what he has made. It seems then that there is a relationship between Christ taking on his physical creation in the Incarnation and the Church taking on our technological creations.

Christ entered into the physical world he created, and
we should enter into the virtual worlds we’ve created.

In the past few years, the term “incarnational ministry” has been used to describe ministry which goes into the cultural worlds people inhabit just as Christ came into our world to redeem us. Wearing an Abayah to reach an Arab culture, learning a child’s interests, or holding outdoor church services for the homeless are examples of incarnational ministry. Paul also gives us an example of incarnational ministry with policy of being a Jews to the Jews and a Gentile to the Gentiles.

Just as the Incarnation can be applied to entering into cultural worlds, it can also be applied to entering into virtual worlds. For those who already spend a significant amount of time online, this will often be more like “relational evangelism” where we simply share the love of Christ with those around us (my friend Rick Smith does this particularly well). Others may create entire ministries with the goal of reaching people online (another friend Tim Kimberley does this well at where he counsels 1000s of teens). In both cases, the idea is to reach people where they are and bring them into relationship with the Father.

Christ affirmed the importance of the physical world, and
we should affirm the importance of the physical world.

Although it seems clear that we should work to reach people who are online, the permanence of the Incarnation teaches us another important lesson about virtual worlds.

At the Incarnation, the Son of God became fully divine and fully human for all eternity. When he returns one day to build a new earth, he will still be a physical human being, albeit with a glorified body. Sometimes, the afterlife is pictured as a place in the sky with disembodied souls playing harps, but that’s not the biblical portrait. The final destiny of humanity is not a purely spiritual heaven, but a physical earth free from the destructive effects of sin with Christ walking among us.

Since the telos (goal, purpose, destination) of Christ’s work is the physical world created through him, I believe the end point of our ministry should also be the physical world. After all, incarnation literally means “embodied in flesh.” This is not to say that very deep levels of community don’t happen in the virtual world or that the virtual worlds cannot enhance or contribute to relationships, but to affirm with John that face-to-face reality is the “fullness of joy,” the final destination.

There is of course no clear cut way of defining exactly how and when to make this happen, but I do believe that some practical steps can be taken. If I spend a significant amount of time communicating with someone online, I like to meet them in person if possible [Rhett Smith has also made this a goal]. I also encourage people I meet online to attend a local church or community of believers whenever possible. There are certainly exceptional circumstances when physical presence it not possible, such as Paul’s inability to come to Rome but we should still “long to see” one another just as Paul longed to see the Romans.

So, if the Lord tarries until then, I hope next Christmas I can see my family face-to-face.