Encountering Christ in the Media
Estimated reading time: 7 mins
Does God really have anything to say about the media technologies we use everyday? Dr Eugene Gan reflects.
Occasionally, I like to stun my incoming first-year students (and their parents) by saying that I’m not really concerned about the church getting into the new media or using it to evangelise (meaningful pause as you think about that). You see, I don’t think the notion that the church is slow to adopt new media will last long. I just have to look to my children and my students and how the media is already such an integral part of their lives. They will be the future laity, priests, religious, bishops, and Pope! So, no, I’m not concerned about the silly notion that the church is not getting into new media. What I’m really concerned about (and you should be too) is how we’re forming ourselves and our loved ones in the application and consumption of new media in our everyday lives because if we don’t use media as God intended us to use it, the media will use and consume us. And we’ve all seen the effect of this: from information overload to busy and sometimes burdensome schedules, to wishing we could truly experience authentic quiet time, to the challenges of carving out quality time with Our Lord, our families and friends.
So how do we form ourselves in the proper application and consumption of media? Does the Bible really have anything to say about this? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Scripture has much to say about this age of media communication technologies since the Word of God is for all times and all peoples. The principles are all there, but they aren’t laid out in a direct “this-is-how-you-engage-media-technologies” kind of way. Take, for example, John’s Gospel and how it proclaims that “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1). Stop there for a moment. Why “Word”? When we look at “Word” as a media producer or consumer, we see that this is in essence communication. It is because Jesus Christ is the ultimate medium and message that we realise this is the ultimate Communication. Our God is Love (ultimate medium) and communicates His Love, Himself, to us (ultimate message). Do you know how the Pontifical Council for Social Communications defines ‘communication’? ‘Communication’ at its most profound level is ‘love’ (Communio et Progressio, article 11) precisely because it is the gift of self. In the Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, the church encourages: “Faith grows when it is lived as an experience of love received and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy.” (article 7). The Church’s definition of communication completely blows the secular definition out the window. The secular definition in most textbooks merely defines communication to be an exchange of a message between one who transmits the message and one who receives it. There’s so much that the secular definition misses and if it’s the only definition that our children are exposed to in their schools, then it’s no wonder that we face so many of the ills in our society today: from parents unable to communicate with their children to the breakdown in communication between spouses.
What this means for me
What does this mean for us in our everyday practical lives? It means that we are to strive to be aware of how we use our smart phones and what we say in online forums and social networks. It means we are to daily cultivate an examination of conscience as to our own interior dispositions, intentions, and agendas in our hearts. It means that we are to choose to communicate what is true, good, and beautiful in our text messages, blogs, or postings on Facebook or YouTube, inspiring and being inspired by those we interact with online, supporting one another, sharing our struggles and sorrows of our faith journeys, as well as our joys and praises of our Heavenly Father who brings all things to good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28). It means that we can communicate selflessly by choosing to sacrifice, for example, our time, whether it is to listen attentively (to God in Eucharistic adoration, to a family member, or friend) or to set aside screen time to do the household chores. It also means that we must acknowledge the limitations of digital media technologies and our abilities to employ them to communicate our love – sometimes, nothing beats just being there next to someone.
Another very good way to learn how to use and apply media is with the help of the Catechism and the Church’s myriad documents on media and communications. You may have heard complaints (or you may be the one complaining) that there are many evils to be found in modern media, whether it’s horrible movies and video games, or people using online social networks to disparage and discourage others, or a host of other media ills in between. And it’s true. But this hasn’t stopped the Church from calling media “a marvellous thing” (Mirifica) and “gifts of God” (Communio et Progressio, article 2) over and over again. Think about that: the Catholic Church, far from merely criticising media, has praised media as channels of potentially great good. In her documents, the Church encourages us not only to consider media as channels for sharing the Good News, but also encourages us to rightly integrate media in our lives and to learn to be media literate, meaning to learn how to be discerning about one’s own media use and application. The Holy Father reminds us: “There exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world” (45th World Communications Day message).
If we are living in a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses kind of culture, it may not even occur to us to that there are other choices, and that that we are free to choose a different kind of lifestyle. Specifically, we are called and can freely choose a lifestyle that makes us whole and holy, a lifestyle that brings us closer to the love of our life, Jesus Christ, who opens up the door to authentic peace and real joy. Do you choose this kind of life and so choose to be a lamp on a lampstand? We can begin with simple steps.
An example of a simple step is in choosing to turn off smart phones not just with a switch on the device itself, but also in our hearts: reflecting on why our insistent desire to check the latest news or message during a family meal distracts us not just from the people around us, but ultimately from our own well-being. I’m not in any way saying that we are to become luddites, or saying that media technology is bad. It is a gift from God and it is good. It is precisely because media is good that we can periodically fast from media, if only to come back to it with greater awareness of its control over us, our use of media, our desire for media, and appreciate media for what it truly is: gifts of God.
Further reading and reflection
The Bible, with the Magisterial documents and Catechism to help deepen our understanding of the Word of God, gives us a framework for encountering Christ in the media. What I’ve been able to share with you here is only the beginnings of a “Theology of media” that is at once beautiful in its simplicity and practical in its application. For a little more unpacking of this theology of media, and a summary of Scripture and Church teaching on media, I have to point you to my book Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media, because Our Father does not abandon us to lead our lives without his Presence, love, and direction. Frequent reception of Jesus in the Eucharist, prayer, and reflective spiritual reading are necessary as we daily practice healthy ways of engaging our media technologies, and more importantly, model this attitude and behaviour for the future Church: our children.