In 1991, Saturday Night Live introduced America to Mr. No-Depth Perception, played by Kevin Nealon. The character made only one appearance, but the sketch left an indelible mark on my memory. The title tells the story: It's a sketch about an enthusiastic and well-intentioned man who is completely unaware that he cannot perceive depth or distance.
Mr. No-Depth Perception is excited by the prospect of skydiving, imagining how thrilling it must be to "pull the rip cord at just the right moment"-an impossible feat for him to accomplish. Later, he shatters the living room window with his head in a simple attempt to see who is knocking at the door. As his guests, Brenda and Gary, come in and sit down for dinner, Mr. No-Depth Perception turns to his wife and says loudly, "I can't believe Brenda's dating this loser!" Gary, sitting only a few feet away, fidgets awkwardly in his seat. When Mr. No-Depth Perception's wife reprimands him for his insensitivity, he responds by saying, "Oh, relax! He can't hear me way down there!" The sketch goes on like this, but you get the point.
Mr. No-Depth Perception reflects the condition most of us find ourselves in when we try to understand how our culture shapes our faith. We see certain elements of our culture, but we have great difficulty perceiving their real importance. For example, we recognize that images and icons are fast displacing words as the dominant communication system of our culture-a trend easily identified by Nike's ability to use its wordless Swoosh icon without losing any brand recognition -but we fail to perceive that the system of visual communication has the capacity to shape and influence faith.
Like Mr. No-Depth Perception, we are often oblivious to the limitations and dangers of our disability, believing instead that we can already see and perceive everything we need. We herald the high virtue of efficiency and effectiveness, eagerly embracing new cultural methods, media, and technologies. We assume our lives and our faith will be stronger, faster, and more relevant, yet we are surprised each time we shatter a window with our heads. All of a sudden life feels more complicated, unmanageable, and dizzying.
Humans have a lengthy and ambivalent relationship with technology, something the films Minority Report, The Matrix, and I, Robot have explored. Such films present apocalyptic visions of social control and the unintended consequences of our obsession with creating ever-more-powerful machines.
In many ways, these movies are contemporary retellings of the dystopian novels of a previous era. George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's A Brave New World, both written before 1950, are prophetic visions of societies overtaken by technological power. Orwell's novel introduces us to the all-seeing, always-watching "Big Brother" and warns of a dark future where conformity is guaranteed by invasive and controlling technology. In contrast, A Brave New World describes a seductive, seemingly utopian future in which technological promise is the succulent but poisoned apple that leads to humanity's downfall.
In nineteenth-century England, a group of disgruntled textile artisans known as the Luddites destroyed the machinery in wool and cotton mills to protest the dehumanizing technological advances of the Industrial Revolution.
In our time, the Amish maintain an equally radical, albeit less violent, rejection of certain technologies. A prohibition on automobiles and electricity is central to the corporate practice of the Amish faith. While such a stance might appear to be an arbitrary time freeze, it is deeply informed by this community's theology of technology.
Even these warnings about the dangers of technology are not the earliest. Several thousand years ago, a nomadic culture wandering in the Sinai desert was warned about the technology of images. The Hebrew people tell the story of a God named Yahweh who issued ten moral teachings, one of which explicitly prohibits using images as a medium for worship: "You shall not make for yourself graven images." There is no explanation beyond this, but for some reason this God is concerned about the things we use to communicate and make meaning. In fact, his concern is so strong that the warning comes in second on his top-ten list.
Not long after this, in another part of the world, a Greek philosopher named Plato retells a story about Socrates teaching one of his pupils. In Socrates' story, there are two Egyptian gods: a king named Thamus and an inventor named Theuth, who was known to have invented, among other things, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and writing. As Socrates tells it:
Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus ... To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians ... When it came to writing, Theuth declared, "... I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom." To this, Thamus replied, "... you have attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful ... What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction ... And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.
In his book Technopoly, cultural critic Neil Postman employs the Thamus story to illustrate an important point. King Thamus, who is opposed to writing, and Theuth, who heralds the promise of writing, are both "one-eyed prophets," each with the opposite eye closed. They each speak a measure of truth while simultaneously conveying a subtle error. Thamus has a point: Writing does erode memory, and while writing can provide new knowledge, it's not the same as wisdom.
A friend recently said to me, "I had the most amazing insight about my spiritual life this morning. It was ... basically, like ... uh ... let me get my journal, I wrote it down." He then read his insight to me, periodically interrupting his own reading to enjoy his discovery all over again-"Oh yeah, that's what it was!" He couldn't remember the meaning or specifics of his spiritual breakthrough from just four hours earlier. When he was finished reading, he reported, "Since I've started writing this stuff down, I can't remember anything without my journal."
The erosion of memory is, in fact, a downside of the invention of writing; however, there is also an upside that Thamus failed to perceive. Reading and writing have an incredible capacity to expand consciousness and advance the common good. Consider the Reformation, which challenged the corruption and abuse of the medieval Catholic church. This would not have happened without a rise in literacy among the masses. Their ability to see directly for themselves what Scripture said is what gave traction and support to Martin Luther's cause. Or consider the fact that free democratic forms of government have a tendency to take root and thrive in cultures with high literacy rates. Democracies demand that citizens have access to information in order to make informed decisions. Literacy provides this on a scale that a purely oral culture does not.
We need both eyes open if we are going to perceive the multitude of subtle forces that shape our lives. Technology both gives and takes away, and each new medium introduced into our lives must be evaluated. As Postman put it, our culture is teeming with "throngs of zealous Theuths, one-eyed prophets who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo."
On the road ahead, we will see what it means to keep both eyes open.
Excerpted from Flickering Pixelsby Shane Hipps Copyright © 2009 by Shane Hipps. Excerpted by permission.
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