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    The DtK Book Club: The Medium or the Message?

    February 11, 2014 by Brandy Vencel
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    We are getting into the part where I began to struggle with this book six month ago. The reason I struggle is because I agree. I agree that consumerism is one of the siren songs of our culture. I agree that it’s a bit like a disease, and one we don’t want our students to catch.

    Because I agree with him, I also worry about Smith’s sources when it comes to a reply. Devoid of Scriptural references {or even much Augustine in this passage}, his footnotes are instead citing The Communist Manifesto and George Orwell. If our imaginations are formed by our stories, I sometimes wonder what stories Smith is reading.

    Not that it’s wrong to read Marx.

    Or Orwell, for that matter.

    Anyhow, instead of getting derailed by my suspicions that while I agree, this is the place where Smith begins to sound more like a list of liberal progressive talking points than our beloved writers like Lewis, Chesterton, Mason, and shall I go on? no? — instead of that, I’m going to talk practices.

    Years and years ago, we read Neil Postman and turned off our television.* This really wasn’t a fear thing. We weren’t scared of the teevee. We simply wanted a different kind of life. We wanted to build a different kind of culture. We didn’t define this culture as the absence of the television, but nonetheless that absence left room for things.

    In a word, it was about space.

    The space in which to grow a culture.

    We’re slow adopters, if we adopt at all, and I don’t mean this to criticize those of you who have all the accessories of modern life, such as iPads and smart phones.

    But I will say that I like the culture we’ve built, and I do not think that our family was capable of building it in the midst of all that other stuff.

    I don’t own a cell phone and I’ve never sent a text message in my life, but the truth is that I’m not sure I could be moderate and that’s not the person I want to be.

    My husband and I were talking about commercials yesterday. About a year ago, we bought a new television {because I was afraid the old heavy one would fall one someone and kill them!} and an antenna. The television was for watching movies, and the antenna was for Football. The children, therefore, see commercials more often than they used to, probably two Sundays per month. In not seeing them for a long time, it is like I see them with new eyes.

    And I am usually horrified.

    I think it is possible that commercials communicate a “vision for human flourishing” more than shows do, though I can’t be sure. It’s just a guess. But they really are propaganda for the world, and in more ways than one. Smith focuses on consumerism, and I know he has a point, but, goodness, it seems to me that what they are really trying to sell us is a sick culture filled with perversion and promiscuity, with selfishness and emptiness, and even with violence.

    Consumerism being more of the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

    I even recently saw a car commercial try to convince me that all families are equal, and what’s the big deal about how we define “family” anyhow? This in spite of evidence that family inequality is an incipient problem.

    In seeing the occasional commercial lately, I’ve concluded that our time really is better spent.

    I feel like I’m running around in circles, so I’ll try to bring it back here. My thoughts today concern the idea that though we live in this culture, and though I firmly believe we are called to be in the world and not running off into some ghetto we build, the truth is also that we can live here without listening to that song. We can listen to the song of the Church, to the song of God’s Word, to the songs of those who have walked this way before us. This is why the real, physical, local church is so important.

    Also, I was thinking lately about the choices we’ve made as a family, and I realized that I’ve long agreed with Smith, but never realized it. A lot of people draw the line at content. This app, not that app. This game, not that game. This show, not that show. And DVR it so the commercials can be skipped.

    Maybe it’s because my undergraduate degree is in communications, meaning I was exposed to Marshall McLuhan at a critical age in my development, but we drew the line at media, not content.

    It was McLuhan who said, “The medium is the message.” He was saying, essentially, what Smith is saying: we aren’t just formed by content; we are formed by physical practices. So while content shapes us — and there is no doubt that it does — the physical act of engagement with the medium shapes us also.

    So, while reading a Jane Austin tome can bring about emotional maturity, increase language-processing ability, and hone our social skills, watching the movie equivalent causes low alpha-waves and an addictive opiate-effect upon the brain.

    I say this even though I love those movies.

    As our children are getting older, yes, we are introducing them to more. But especially at the critical ages of zero to five, we chose to abstain. We chose to be formed by other things, by stories in books and read aloud and by the physical world, the world that God made. We chose to give their brains and souls a place of rest.

    I’m not saying all of this to tell you to do the same, but rather I’m sharing it because it wasn’t until today that I realized that we’ve actually been acting on Smith’s ideas for a really long time. And I find that interesting. So far, I don’t regret it, and as long as we succeed in preparing our children to engage the real world {complete with its technology}, I think we’ll be satisfied.

    What about you? Do you find that you make decisions at the level of the medium or the message? Do you think both are forming? Is one more forming than the other? I’m still pondering this, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    *This alone is interesting. We encountered an idea — a thought — and made a decision about practices. But then we assumed our children would be formed by those practices.

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