From the Dean’s Desk

Harold W. Attridge

Those of us of a certain age remember Marshall McLuhan and his provocative book title, The Medium is the Massage. The Canadian professor focused our collective attention back in the 1970s on the ways and means through which we try to communicate with one another. His effort was timely, but the environment that he faced was far less complex than the reality that envelops us today.

Some of us still read print newspapers and occasionally watch network TV for news and weather, but we may be in a minority on the contemporary American scene. Some of us still read books in their traditional bound paper form, but do so alongside our electronic reading devices: laptop computers (already a bit dated), iPads, Nooks, Kindles, etc. If we thought sound bites on TV during political campaigns grossly oversimplified complex social issues, what are we to think of “tweets” and text-messages? The librarian of the Divinity School, Paul Stuehrenberg, tells me that circulation of our library holdings continues to increase, but the Yale Medical School recently inaugurated a program to equip all incoming students with iPads. Will we be far behind at YDS? Electronic reserves have already largely dis- placed the cumbersome collections of articles that students used to buy.

Major developments in the history of Christianity were connected with shifts in the media of communication. Part of what facilitated the spread of the faith through the Roman Empire and beyond was the adoption by Christians of the codex, the “book” form with which we have long been familiar. Gutenberg’s printing press gave a major boost to the Reformation. Radio and television served the evangelism and catechesis of twentieth-century preachers and teachers, with varying degrees of success. Will the new media, social and otherwise, assist the work of the church or hinder it?

Whatever else the new media do, they affect the ways in which we relate to one another. They connect people across vast expanses of the globe, making possible revolutions and breaking down old barri- ers. At the same time, they provide new avenues for harassment and even degradation, for the rapid spread not only of profound insights but also harmful trash. While they connect they also isolate. What are communities of faith to make of them?

All these issues and more are the subject of this issue of Reflections, to which some of our recent alums, all very much involved in the culture of the new media, have contributed. The issues are on the minds of students and faculty at YDS, as they both engage in work of scholarship and learning and as they prepare to lead communities of faith in a rapidly changing world.

On the broader horizon, this unstoppable cultural shift requires significant theological scrutiny from many quarters. It deserves our attention in the church and the academy. Our aim with this Reflections issue is to spark a continuing and needed conversation. We thank the many far-flung writers here – theologians, sociologists, pastors, practitioners from many disciplines – who share their thinking and experience to help shape the right questions and the emerging answers.

We hope, as always, that this issue will encourage a wider dialogue about the ways in which current media massage our message.