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The Medium and the Gospel Message

As demonstrated by the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the medium by which we communicate the Gospel story can profoundly impact the way listeners perceive the Gospel message.

I recently observed a conversation between a group of people who had just finished watching the latest motion picture carrying the title of J.R.R. Tolkien's, Lord of the Rings. The conversation debated whether or not the movie was better than the book. On one side the argument was made that the movie highlighted elements of the story that were at best only secondary themes in the book while at the same time it overlooked important character definition and development.

… the medium of a "book" allows for the development of different features than does the medium of a "film."

In response, someone claimed that the visual effects of the movie version actually enhanced the appreciation of the issues of temptation and evil, making it just as valuable as the novel. By the end of the conversation the contentions were unresolved leaving some defending the superiority of the book and others claiming the aesthetic value of the movie.

Many communication scholars believe the populist debate surrounding the superiority of the book over the movie and vice versa is fundamentally misguided. In the spirit of the well-known Canadian communication scholar, Marshall McLuhan, different communication media have differing capacities to communicate a message. For example, the medium of a "book" allows for the development of different features than does the medium of a "film." A book medium allows an author the luxury of expressing thoughts in linear fashion in terms of individual character and story line development. A film medium, on the other hand, provides a director with an opportunity to present detailed and overwhelming ideas through special effects and landscape cinematography.

The differing characteristics of particular media become so significant that the medium through which an idea is communicated significantly shapes the nature of how the message is received with the result of the medium becoming the message.

From this perspective, the essence of the earlier debate on the Lord of the Rings becomes somewhat irrelevant and the question of the comparative evaluation between the movie and the book should be: "Which was a better story?"

The book and movie versions of the Lord of the Rings are essentially unique messages because of the difference in communication medium. Rather than making a claim that the movie does a good or bad job of representing the book it may be better to say that the movie is a better or worse story than the book since much of the difference between the two can be attributed to the different natures of the medium communicating the story. If the difference between the book and the movie is more a result of the difference between the two media by which they are communicated than between the representation of a single story line, what does that suggest about the effect different media have on communicating the story line of the Bible?

Does anything happen to the Gospel message when we communicate it through different media?

The example of the Lord of the Rings may illustrate well the reality of the medium of communication determining the essence of the message. In response, efforts in Christian evangelism must give pause. Does anything happen to the Gospel message when we communicate it through different media? If the choice to use a different medium created the Lord of the Rings, the Motion Picture Story as opposed to the Lord of the Rings, the Novel Story, what then is the difference between the Gospel story I communicate to my neighbour as we talk together in the back yard and the Gospel story told via radio, television or any other communication medium?

Furthermore, is there a medium of communication that is the best means through which to communicate the Gospel?

Understanding the impact that a dominant communication medium can have on the shaping of a culture's identity, is there any significance to the observation that Christ's earthly ministry, the season when the Word become flesh, happened when the dominant communication medium was person-to-person communication?

More and more today churches are incorporating different forms of communication medium into their efforts to communicate the Gospel. I do not believe that these efforts are in error. Rather, as Christians we need to consider the characteristics of each communication medium so that we understand both its ability to contribute as well as its limitations to communicate the complete story of the Gospel.

Jon B Ohlhauser is Vice President of marketing and enrollment, Tyndale University College & Seminary.

Originally published in Connection, Summer 2002.




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