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Are Media ‘By Definition’ Morally Neutral?

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series

"Is Rap Really a Canvas?"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

In Shai Linne’s statements, we identified four propositions:

1) Rap is a medium.
2) Media are morally neutral until informed by content.
3) Christ’s act of redemption means that even media formerly used for evil can now be used for God’s glory.
4) This is what Shai Linne is doing with rap.

Last post, we considered Linne’s notion that rap is a medium like cameras or canvases. We saw that equating rap with media such as these is unhelpful, for the simple reason that such devices do not carry messages of their own. Rap, as a form, already has expressive value, and contains meaning before the lyrics are added. (Careful readers, please note: Linne was not simply using an analogy. Linne said that rap is a medium. That’s not an analogy, it’s a predication.) In short, we found that Linne’s use of medium contains equivocation.

We now consider the idea that media are morally neutral until informed by content. In Linne’s words, a medium is by definition morally neutral until informed by content. That is to say, what makes a medium a medium is that it carries no moral value, no aesthetic contribution, no enlargement or diminution of the rightness or wrongness of the message it conveys. Once it has such moral value, by Linne’s definition, it is no longer solely a medium.

To falsify Linne’s statement, we need either or both of two things to be true. We must find a medium which carries moral value apart from its having been ‘informed by content’ – invalidating his definition – or we must simply show that rap does not conform to this definition of medium. Strangely enough, supporters of Linne’s view will attribute to rap creative beauty, missing the point that this already places it in the realm of the moral, for what is beautiful is good, and what is ugly is evil. Since we have already dealt with rap being a medium in a different way to canvases in the last post, let’s briefly consider the idea of ‘contentless’ media being intrinsically morally neutral.

Do we really have to say “Marshall McLuhan”? One would think that 47 years of the phrase ‘the medium is the message’ having been in the common tongue would have influenced evangelicals on this topic, but alas. And it wasn’t only McLuhan. Ken Myers wrote All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes in 1989, asking Christians if popular culture was a worthy or fitting medium to communicate the transcendant. Neil Postman wrote a whole book in 1985 on how the medium of television influences how political debate, serious discussion and news are changed in their meanings by television. In Postman’s view, the medium of television shapes the message – turning all it carries into a form of entertainment.

Knowing the media shape messages is hardly a recent idea, or even a minority view. Indeed, the discussion continues with newer media. Articles abound on the effects of social media on communication, the effect of seeing only the image of a preacher on a screen in a campus church, or the Googlization of knowledge. When something can shape a message, it is no longer morally neutral. It can so limit or transform a message as to make it less (or more) true, noble, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, or praiseworthy. It can falsify a message, beautify a message, trivialize a message, or ennoble a message. This is moral value.

Of course the medium has moral value, for the medium has a form. That form presents possibilities, limitations and meanings of its own. Sending the message “Can’t wait to see you on Friday” on a piece of decorated writing paper to a friend carries a very different meaning from having it inscribed on a butcher’s knife and mailing it anonymously. Further, the medium carries value, perceptions, and associations through how it is used, who uses it, when it is used and where. Indeed, this was much of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 8 to 10. Though dealing with the neutral substance of food, and the seemingly meaningless idols of the Gentiles, Paul showed how the use of that food had moral meaning. Identification, association, edification, and a use of freedom responsibly were among the matters that gave huge moral meaning to the decisions that the Corinthians had to make. Arguing for the intrinsic neutrality of a medium is almost irrelevant if such a medium shapes meaning the moment it is used, or transmits messages. Truth be told, most media have this before they are ‘informed by content’.

In short, media are not morally neutral until informed by content. Instead, media are more or less ingressive to the messages they carry. And some are positively hostile or contradictory to the original ideas and affections of the messages they carry.

One of the necessary paths to correct conclusions in the worship wars is not to unthinkingly accept commonly believed platitudes and assumptions. It is necessary to take the time to consider notions such as ‘a medium is by definition morally neutral’, even when those notions come from those who we think are on the right side of the theological barricades, and whose convictions and example carry weight. In fact, in those cases, it is especially necessary.

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About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.