According to some statistics, the average American Christian spends half of their week engaged with one form of media or another (34-35). Considering nothing more, the sheer amount of time spent immersed in media ought to get our attention and lead thoughtful believers to think upon the way their media habits shape them. Because of the importance of this subject, I was delighted to receive a copy of Media, Journalism, and Communication through Crossway’s blog review program. In Media, Journalism, and Communication, Read Mercer Schuchardt attempts to tackle the interrelated areas of media, journalism, and communication from a Christian perspective. The series of which it is a part, “Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition,” is intended to present a distinctly Christian perspective, rooted in the Bible and tradition, on the intellectual challenges presented by the culture (11).
Media Lacks Clarity
Though the book has many things to say about a Christian’s interaction with these fields, it lacks a clear organizing thesis or structure. The closest Schuchardt gets to outlining his thesis is his contention in the introduction that by studying media, journalism, and the communication arts, a student can get the best foundation for intellectual interaction with our society, a concept he calls “interdisciplinary simplexity” (achieving maximum results with minimal resources) (26-30). This idea unfortunately falls to the wayside after the introduction. Without a clear guiding argument or idea, Media amounts to a sustained and sometimes scattered reflection on the Christian’s interaction with media and communication (Journalism shows up here and there). Christians need to wrestle with the question of digital media and the effects media has on us and on our communication of the Gospel. In as much as Schuchardt raises these questions and begins the process of critical thinking in the reader, Media is a helpful book. However, I do not think it succeeds in communicating clearly nor persuasively.
The audience for which Schuchardt writes is quite broad, for the Christian student but also all others associated with the university. We could then describe the level of the book’s address as entry-level academic. Unfortunately, I found the book unclear and the connection between various sections was not always apparent. I came to this book with many years of academic theological and philosophical training and found it unclear; I suspect, therefore, that undergrad students—the intended audience—will find it even more so.
Media Does Not Argue Persuasively
In addition to being unclear, Media, Journalism, and Communication raises good questions but is rarely ever persuasive in its argument. Sometimes this is because of an unclear train of thought (e.g., 100-101), but at other times Schuchardt argues in a haphazard and even dangerous manner. First, his primary method for defining terms is etymological (defining by words by their parts or history); contemporary linguists are widely agreed that etymology is rarely a helpful guide to understanding words (especially in languages like English). The weakness of etymologizing shows up in this book. For example, when the average person or scholar uses the word “communication,” they rarely intend a connection with “communion” or “community”; furthermore, Schuchardt’s definition “making many one” is a clumsy way of describing only one of many purposes for which communication is undertaken (e.g., 33). Furthermore, “media” in common usage is not used as the plural of “medium,” so even if “medium” means “something that goes between,” media may not—and usually does not—mean “several things that go between” (e.g., 114).
Second, and most dangerous, is Schuchardt’s use of Scripture and the resulting contentions concerning the written word. His argument that technology is a result of the fall does not follow: we can debate whether Eden was “perfect,” yet there is no reason to believe that perfection precludes technology, especially considering the creation mandate to subdue and have dominion over the earth (100-101). Furthermore, several times Schuchardt’s arguments border on allegorical exegesis (e.g., 77, 93), a suspicion supported by his favorable reference to medieval spiritual interpretation (80-81, 91-92) and language of looking through Scripture—which is reminiscent of Platonism (e.g., 72-73, 88-89). In other instances, his argument from Scripture is wrong and used for destructive ends. The clearest instances of this are his discussions of 2 Corinthians 3:6 (73, 103), of which he writes, “even Paul pointed out that speech was life-giving while writing tended to produce a hardening of the perceptual categories: ‘… for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Cor. 3:6).” From this Schuchardt derives the conclusion that “the written word is itself just a visual image, and that unless its dried and desiccated husk is watered and revivified— unless it is spoken, heard, trusted, and obeyed in real time as a living word—then Scripture too can become ‘just an old book’ all too quickly in the living out of our religious faith” (83, 75). There are so many things wrong with this. For starters, 2 Corinthians 3:6 is not comparing speech and writing, as Schuchardt claims (73), but the Old Covenant written on stone tablets and the New Covenant written on fleshy hearts (3:1 – 4:6, cf. Jer 31:31-34, Ezek 36:22-32). The difference between “the letter” and “the Spirit” is the external covenant of Sinai and the internal covenant of Golgotha. Furthermore, as the reformers maintained and John Piper has argued persuasively in two recent books (A Peculiar Glory, Reading the Bible Supernaturally), the Scriptures are not powerless but vivifying and transforming: they are the very words of God and are both living and active (Heb 4:11-13). Schuchardt’s low view of the written word permeates the book and is its weakest feature.
Media, Journalism, and Communication: A Student’s Guide offers a challenge to the reader to confront their media production and digestion habits; in doing so it is of great value. If the reader wants a Postman-esque critique of technology and media from a more Christian perspective, Schuchardt’s books delivers. However, he does not improve much on Postman in clarity nor does he give his argument a firm biblical foundation. For these reasons, a lack of clear or persuasive argument, I do not recommend Media, Journalism, and Communication to the students for whom it was written.