Notes From ‘Flickering Pixels’

I read this book a few years back, and thought it would be worth reading again as it was one of my favorites and has stood the test of time. Shane Hipps’ ‘Flickering Pixels’ is a beautiful story about the art, power, and place of story in our society. Reading it again felt just as fresh as the first time, and it’s heartily recommended.

Hipps begins by taking us back to the giving of the Ten Commandments and the stories of Socrates as examples of the importance of image:

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.

Is the image a powerful tool, a powerful drug? The answer might no ‘both’, and Hipps challenges us to explore that in full. He tells another story, this time of Narcissus, as a cautionary tale:

The chief error of Narcissus was not that he fell in love with himself but rather that he failed to recognize himself in the water’s reflection. Narcissus became “numb” to his own extended image in the low-tech medium of a water mirror. He could not perceive that the image was simply an extension of himself, and so he gave the image power to harm and ultimately kill. If Narcissus had understood that the water was simply a mirror reflecting his own face, the mirror’s power would have been dispelled, and Narcissus could have gained control over it. Narcissus — derived from the Greek word narcosis, which means “numbness” — became enslaved to his own image. When we fail to perceive that the things we create are extensions of ourselves, the created things take on god-like characteristics and we become their servants.

Finding a balance in the power of image in our lives is paramount to not becoming a slave to it:

Every medium, when pushed to an extreme, will reverse on itself, revealing unintended consequences. For example, the car was invented to increase the speed of our transportation, but having too many cars on the highway at once results in traffic jams or even injury and death. The Internet was designed to make information more easily accessible, thereby reducing ignorance. But too much information or the wrong kind of information reverses into overwhelming the seeker, leading to greater confusion rather than clarity. It breeds misunderstanding rather than wisdom.

Why is this true? Well, it’s because images themselves are so powerful. Hipps uses the example of a sentence (“the boy is sad”) compared to an actual image of a crying boy:

It would seem a picture is actually worth a thousand feelings. Images initially make us feel rather than think. They can pin the logical side of your brain to the back of your skull, which is why image-based advertising is so effective. Images don’t invite you to argue; they give you an experience. In contrast, the printed word makes us think and question. The statement “The boy is sad” generates several logical questions: Which boy? How sad? Why? But one look at the image leaves no doubt of the boy’s sadness.

The fact that images are worth feelings more than they are words is an important distinction. It’s what could make television so ‘dangerous’ for developing minds:

The television image is extraordinarily stimulating to the brain, and not in a healthy, “this discussion about politics is so stimulating” way — more like the sugar-is-stimulating-to-the-body way. The televised brain candy we consume doesn’t develop — or even require — any mental capacity. Reading, on the other hand, is brain protein — it demands concentration and sustained neural energy. This practice is also generative. Powerful capacities are created which are not naturally developed by the brain, resulting in ever-more nuanced skills of discernment, logic, and reasoning. The underrated virtue of patience is also developed by reading, since it requires one to be seated, focused, and disciplined for extended periods of time. While television also invites long periods of focused time, it encourages a catatonic state rather than an engaged one.

This book is by no means written from an alarmist angle, though. Television isn’t evil, and images aren’t either. In fact, it’s quite easy to go in the opposite direction and forget the importance of image (and story) at all:

In a section entitled “Which Are the True and Noblest Books of the New Testament?” Luther writes, “John’s gospel is the one, fine, true, and chief gospel, and is far, far to be preferred over the other three and placed high above them. So, too, the epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter far surpass the other three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.”
 Luther’s reasoning was simple — anything in Scripture that tells the story of Jesus was of little value as compared to those writings that describe explicit doctrines about Jesus. It should not surprise us that Luther, who was shaped by the printed word, would elevate these books. John’s gospel and the letters of Peter and Paul are made up of highly theological monologues or long conversations. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, on the other hand, are characterized by short stories and parables rooted in the thought patterns of an oral tradition. Luther observed that John, Peter, and Paul provide us with a theology of Christ while Matthew, Mark, and Luke merely provide us with the life of Jesus.
 In an image-saturated culture, the concrete life-stories of Jesus gain traction once again. The age of image restores a right-brain preference for parable and story over theology and doctrine. The life of Jesus is just that — a story. As a consequence, the life of Jesus is slowly becoming the interpretive center of the New Testament.

Finding an appropriate mix of both, means that not only are we more open to finding truth, we are more open to natural evolution over time that’s healthy for us. When we lean too heavily into the power of image (or the power of words), we might find our views far too static. Hipps tells a story of a friend who challenged his own definition of appropriate belief:

A good friend of mine goes to church every week and is convinced that he’s supposed to act like Jesus. He is one of the most authentic followers of Jesus I know. But he also wrestles with doubts — serious doubts. He has a very hard time accepting that Jesus was divine or could have possibly been raised from the dead. He just can’t seem to get there.
 According to static categories of the print gospel, my friend is headed for hell until he gets his beliefs straight in his mind. He needs a good dose of Pauline theology if he wants to score high enough on his doctrine test to get a saving score. But my friend has far more in common with Thomas than with Paul — more in common with the anguished father who tells Jesus, “I do believe;help me overcome my unbelief!”
 Image culture is learning to make space for this kind of person. The person who is a true follower of Jesus, a student and a learner, but perhaps not yet — and maybe not ever — an orthodox believer. This category of doubting disciple didn’t seem to bother Jesus; after all, his parting words to us in the book of Matthew were, “Therefore go and make disciples …” Jesus didn’t tell us to make believers. He called us to make disciples, and disciples are followers and students of the way of God. Followers learn to change their beliefs as they walk.

Hipps then moves on to another powerful subject, of presence in a digitally distracted world:

I was sitting with a different friend at lunch one day. His cell phone rang. I stopped talking and said, “You can get that, if you need to.” Without blinking or checking the phone he said, “You took the time and effort to get together with me. Whoever is calling didn’t. Now, what were you saying?” All he did was ignore his phone long enough to be present where his body was. Not only did I feel honored, but it also made me appreciate the gift of being there. Prioritizing those who are physically present can have a transforming effect on us when so many are digitally absent.

…and takes the opportunity to caution us against using these new mediums as a way to avoid more natural methods of communication:

Using email to mediate conflict is like baking a cake without a mixing bowl or an oven. The very ingredients that make reconciliation possible are absent. Reconciliation comes in the context of clear communication, meaningful listening, shared understandings, civility, openness, and a lot of patience. The medium of email inevitably removes these delicate ingredients.

We shouldn’t hide behind these tools not only because it’s bad for us, but because it often simply makes things worse:

Countless hours and precious emotional energy are wasted combing over messages, parsing word choices, verb tenses, and leaps in logic. Even more time is wasted crafting the perfect digital response. And yet on nearly every occasion, such misunderstandings and hurt feelings can be avoided simply by speaking to each other directly. Jesus understood this truth about conflict resolution. In the book of Matthew he tells his disciples, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”4 The time-tested words of Jesus couldn’t be more relevant to our digital culture. Perhaps if he were able to update this teaching for the digital age, he might add a new emphasis: “If your brother sins against you, don’t email him about it. Instead, go directly to him.” Unfortunately, we seem to have a growing habit of throwing stones from a safe distance. And why not? Anonymous intimacy — and distant hostility — is not only possible, it’s encouraged by our culture. And therein lies the problem.

One of my favorite passages towards the end is a reminder from Hipps that this isn’t applicable only on an individual level, but a corporate one as well:

In 1 Corinthians Paul writes, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”
 For my entire Christian life, I had understood this passage as a call to personal purity and individual morality. I was taught that if I was ever tempted to drink, get a tattoo, or smoke, this verse could serve as a cocked and ready defense. While I am grateful it warded off certain temptations, Paul is not talking about individual purity. He is talking about the church.
 Every time Paul says “you” in this passage it is plural, yet every time he says “body” it is singular. He is speaking to a corporate group about their shared body — the church. The church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, not me personally.
 Paul is emphasizing that the Spirit dwells in the corporate body. Our individual purity still matters, and the Bible still teaches that the Spirit dwells in us personally, but this passage is actually concerned with the church community as a whole. Paul assumes that our personal faith journey is bound up and rooted in a larger community of people who serve together, not individually, as God’s medium. This means the church does not exist only for us, we exist for it — each an essential part in the incarnated body of Jesus in the world.

We must find out the right way for technology, images, words, and story to shape our faith, so that we can be the church the world deserves. That’s a lesson worth remembering, over and over again.

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