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Thursday, March 7, 2019

"Always On" (Angela Williams Gorrell)

TITLE: Always On: Practicing Faith in a New Media Landscape (Theology for the Life of the World)
AUTHOR: Angela Williams Gorrell
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019, (208 pages).

The new media is defining us in more ways than one. This is not just social media. It is a new age of media technology and people interactions that revolutionizes the way we work, play, and live. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have changed the way we communicate with one another. People express themselves using online platforms such as YouTube and Instagram. Consumers buy and sell on sites such as eBay and Amazon while many play online Internet games with people they have never met face to face. This is the face of the new media. Like any phenomenon or change of social landscape, there are plus and minus aspects. It has the potential to communicate and to bring about a lot of good in brand new ways. Unfortunately, the downsides are also huge. In order to ensure we have a healthy kind of hybrid, that is, to maximize the positive and minimize the negative, it would be a great way forward. This could be done through "interested conversations" that enables meaningful dialogue that are both "theologically reflective" as well as "Spirit-guided." Author Angela Gorrell brings us through a fascinating journey through the new media terrain. It is an ambitious attempt to connect ancient faith with modern media. Like our modern multimedia folks, the early church communicate with one another through many senses such as "written, oral" and "reading and singing." The common theme is communicating. The difference is the specific ways we communicate the written, the spoken, and the various dialogue avenues. While that might be true, it is also true that social media has been mixed with fake news and "empty and shallow" talk. This is a legitimate concern but the potential for Christians to influence worldviews is too big to be ignored.

Gorrell takes special care not to presume anything but to go through the basics of what it means to stream, to scan, to friend, to post, to follow, to tag, etc. The key thing is to understand the potential for meaning-filled conversations. Gorrell shows us that it is possible to maintain healthy and constructive conversations through new media. One major way is through the telling of stories. Unfortunately, many stories are one-sided or partial. They only tell the side of the story that people want others to know. She hits the mark by pointing out the subjectivity of such story-telling. By identifying and highlighting the plots and sub-plots of our stories, we are challenged to go beyond cultural norms toward a more holistic vision of what it means to be human. We need to challenge the underlying cultural norms of self-reliance, superiority of desires, and how we trap ourselves through hypocrisy and a lack of honesty to deal with the real issues with ourselves. It is here that Gorrell raises the very thesis of her book, that an "always on" environment stimulates an "always on" individual to become desensitized to one's real sense of need. We are fallible but technology deceives us about infallibility by making us think we are more right than we actually are. We desire meaning so much that we often look for them in all the wrong places. We need to be watchful about what we post and careful about ulterior motives behind the media providers. That said, research has also shown that the way people use new media gives us an insight into their psychological profile. Even if we cannot solve all the problems created by new media, we can at least understand more about our human selves. By sharpening our understanding of how these new media work, we are more able to understand both the potential and the perils of using them. The chapter on "online Jesus" is probably the one that many believers would be interested in, how to be a witness online. Gorrell even shows us the way we could use the lectio divina online!

My Thoughts
There are three reasons for the need to learn about this new way of life and why this book is significant. Firstly, it is the new way we live. How we communicate and relate to one another is affected by this new media. Whether we are using social networking sites, producing user contents on YouTube, buying stuff on Amazon or Ebay; or playing on game sites on the Internet, we are essentially participants in this new world of technology and media. Even if we manage to avoid using any of these media, our friends, loved ones, business associates, clients are users. So it makes sense to learn and understand this new media lingo.

Second, all of us need help with regard to understanding what the media is trying to do. Marshall McLuhan's thesis is so apt, that "The media is the message." Not only is the new media changing the way we live, it is also changing us in more ways than one. If that is so, why don't we adapt and adjust. Humans are adaptable people. Gorrell is doing us a favour by doing the heavy-lifting of explaining what the new media is and their unique characteristics and how we can use them appropriately. For believers, though they often say that they want to be salt and light of the world wherever they go, saying is one thing, doing is yet another. Books of this nature will be a valuable guide to help us navigate the complexities of the new media landscape. Just knowing their strengths and weaknesses, what they can or cannot do

Third, with the acceleration of advancement of science and technology, the examples and platforms described inside would be outdated pretty quickly. Will Facebook and Twitter still be around in ten years? Will there be new jazzier and more hip media in the future? There is no assurance that even half of our modern media platforms would survive into the next decade. Point is, the specifics may differ, but the philosophy and path toward human flourishing remain an evergreen topic. We are all trying to improve our lives all the time, to do things better. When reading this book, focus not on the specifics or technical details of the digital media, but on the people using it. Use whatever media use as a window into the lives of people. It is not simply a witch-hunt to identify who is right or who is wrong. The Russian novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn has famously said: "The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man." Perhaps, the same can be said of new media, that the way people use new media could very well be the way it exposes the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in all of us.

Angela Williams Gorrell holds a PhD in Practical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. She is an ordained minister with Mennonite Church USA. She creates surveys, leads focus groups, conducts case studies, manages metrics and evaluation, and collects and analyzes social network data for organizations.
Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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