Friday, April 17, 2009

Book Review: Flickering Pixels

It's probably an important sign of the times that the people most invested in book-reading have manifold ways of reading for free. Libraries stock bestsellers and can handily find loaner copies of whatever they don't stock. Book-swapping websites are among the more practically-minded social networking innovations. Bloggers can solicit or are occasionally solicited, out of the blue, with review copies of whatever they're interested in reading. That's most recently the case of Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps, a book for thoughtful laypeople interested in the shift from a print to an image-based media. It came to me gratis in both digital and print editions.

I eagerly downloaded the digital edition, but I have yet to crack it open, which tells me something about the parameters within which I'll consider an e-book. But then came the print edition, and once I opened it, I couldn't close it. No one asked me to review this book, but I'm doing it anyway, because I feel a bit guilty that Hipps has gotten none of my money, so I'd like to cajole some of you to send him some of yours.

Hipps is a Mennonite pastor who came into this vocation after a lucrative career in advertising. He's doing fascinating integrative work between the shift from print to image media and the implications for Christian theology and practice. He's in the line of tradition of Marshall McLuhan, that guy who once said, "The medium is the message"; that insight and everything that extended beyond it earned him cover photos on major magazines and a reputation as being "the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Freud, and Pavlov." While that may be overstating things, I learned from Hipps that McLuhan isn't just the author of a cliche but rather an important student of cultural psychology. His observations merit theological consideration, something Hipps does ably.

In Flickering Pixels Hipps shows the impact of the printing press on religious thought, making a compelling case that Protestantism in general took the shape it took because of innovations in print media. "How disconcerting," he writes, "to have a faith yoked so closely to a medium that is now in the dusk of its life." Not that print is dying, but it is being eclipsed by image-based media, an innovation that brings its own benefits and blind spots. The book reads to me like a sea-change; the time is now appropriate to refashion the faith, to stop lamenting the weathering of old wineskins and to allow the new image-based media to tease out its own message. Hipps helpfully shows that the cliche that media change but the message remains the same is not true; what remains the same is not the media or the message but the message-giver.

Hipps reads better as a culture critic than as a writing pastor; his applicabilities are a bit strained and underdeveloped, and he's infinitely more tweetable in his discussions about media. But the books that follow Flickering Pixels will benefit from the wake he's creating: we're given seeds of a renaissance here, and we're given permission to go plant those seeds somewhere and see what grows out of them. I'm eager to read his first book, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, which is directed toward leaders of churches and ministries, and I'm especially interested in seeing what he publishes next.

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