From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg

In the legend of Pandora’s Box the world was introduced to the latest, greatest technology: fire. You could cook and stay warm with it. And you could gather families and communities around it. Yet fire came with an incredible power of destruction: the ability to relentlessly destroy everything in its path until it ultimately consumes itself.

Among many lessons this myth offers, one is the picture of how new technology leads to major changes in culture – for better and for worse.

It is no small detail that the Reformation happened after Johannes Gutenberg’s recent invention of the printing press around 1440. This new technology led to a new type of mass communication. But our age is more characterized by Mark Zuckerberg’s tool for mass communication: Facebook, and the whole realm of social media.

The Gutenberg era paved the way for the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. What kind of Christian reformation of church and culture might the Zuckerberg era of the 21st century pave the way for?

Gutenberg era reform
Martin Luther’s writings exposed the weaknesses of the church culture and led to major shifts. He began a shift back to the final authority of Scripture, a shift towards church leadership rooted in the local church elders, and a shift back to a Christian life of holiness rooted in faith, not finances.

But perhaps the most understated shift that Luther began was a reemphasis on the cross. Church leaders and priests had become too focused on the “otherworldliness” of God, which led to people painting a picture of God that reflected their own expectations of what he should be like. But Luther was a theologian of the cross – finding the beginning and end of God’s character in his suffering.

Zuckerberg era reform
In the Zuckerberg era, the church can also expose the weaknesses – not primarily of the Catholic church – but of our secular age, and our self-focused age, with the hope of reforming our broader culture as well as the way our church culture has been captured by it.

First, Christians can cause a reform today by offering a shift from a preoccupation with the self to a focus on the bigger story – the true Story of the whole world which belongs to God. Social media has all the same characteristics of Pandora’s Box. It can gather community and be a vehicle for storytelling. But it also comes with destructive power by doubling as a breeding ground for making oneself in your own image. And like fire, it can totally consume our own worlds until it ultimately consumes our selfs with it. When the tendency is to see the world as revolving around “me,” the strength of the Christian witness today is a Story that pulls us out of ourselves and makes us more aware of God and neighbour as the ultimate aim of our love.

Second, Christians can use the end of the story of the Bible to reform the western church. Our self-focused culture has led to a self-focused faith with the goal of going to heaven. But as N.T. Wright says, “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world!” The whole story of Christ is that he will unite heaven and earth again as a bride and bridegroom are united. Our faith lives should reflect the scope of our eschatological hope by shifting the church from focusing on being citizens of heaven towards being citizens of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

A third way that Christians can cause a reform in the Zuckerberg era is to shift our focus from a theology of convenience back to Luther’s theology of the cross. For many of us, our most frustrating moment today might be losing our internet connection, or the grocery story not having the one out-of-season produce item that we need for dinner. But imagine the reform of the church for the common good that could happen if we embraced the Cross not only as the beginning and end of the revelation of God, but also as the be all and end all of the church in mission today: to be a church that reveals God’s face and heart by suffering for the convenience of refugees having a safe home, the convenience of nations having clean water and the convenience of lonely seniors having a community. And to be a church of compassion because we love for people to know that they belong to the Christ who died for them.

For Luther, the key Bible passage for preaching the Reformation was Galatians. If Christians are going to cause any shifts of reform today then perhaps the most applicable Bible passages are Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. Because our greatest need in an information-overload age is the need for wisdom and discernment to move beyond our self’s, and to find redemption in suffering, which leads towards the path of a Christian reformation of church and culture today. 

  • Andrew Aukema is pastor of the CRC of Prince George, B.C.

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