Breaking The Digital Spell exists to explore the effects of technology and media in our world, in the church, and in our theology. One word that often comes up in these discussions is the word “media literacy”, and at Breaking The Digital Spell, we believe media literacy is very important for Christians today.
But what does that term even mean? Why should Christians even care?
Numerous Definitions, One General Meaning
If you Google “what is media literacy?”, you will get a good list of definitions from media literacy advocacy groups. Many of these definitions are good and helpful, but each organization places a different emphasis on one aspect of media literacy. Making sense of all these perspectives can be tricky.
Thankfully, one group has an easy definition to work with. Media Literacy Now, a national advocacy organization that works to raise awareness of the need for media literacy education in public schools, has a very helpful definition that captures the one general meaning expressed in these numerous definitions:
Media literacy is the ability to decode media messages, assess the influence of those messages on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and create media thoughtfully and conscientiously.Media Literacy Now definition of media literacy
This definition sufficiently captures the three ideas at the core of media literacy – the interpretation, assessment, and creation of media, and how to do those things well. Media literacy is a direct evolution of the traditional concept of literacy, expanded to now include the ability to “read” and “write” in visual languages alongside printed language.
Literacy For The Digital Age
Neil Postman, in his landmark work Amusing Ourselves to Death, argued that with the advent of television, our society began to shift from being a society shaped by words to a society shaped by images. This is even more true with the advent of the Internet and the smartphone.
Being able to read and write is still a critical skill, but being able to “read” the visual media surrounding us – from photography and memes, to YouTube videos and cinema – is now an equally critical skill. If visual media has the power to shape us and our communities, being able to interpret, assess, and create visual media well is necessary to participate in our communities and regulate media’s influence on our thoughts and emotions.
Media literacy also helps us interpret and assess the individuals and organizations behind the creation of visual media. Whether it’s your crazy uncle who posts lengthy Facebook diatribes, a news organization on the opposite end of your political spectrum, or even a ministry creating documentaries and films, we tend to respond to the people behind the media based on how we judge the media itself. If we agree with our uncle or that news organization, we tend to think favorably of the people who created that media, or people who also like that media. If we disagree with that media, or don’t like it, that impression carries over to the people involved as well.
Of course, this response is not unreasonable in and of itself, but as our polarized society shows, those responses can be taken too far.
Swimming Against The Current
Media literacy helps us think about the people behind the media without concluding too much about their beliefs and motives based off the media they create. Unfortunately, the current trends of society favor quick thinking and snap judgments based on little pieces of information, usually provided by social media. Good media literacy forces us to slow down and ask questions about the media we interact with and the individuals behind that media:
- What is the intended goal of this meme? Is it to be funny? Helpful? Stoke fear, concern, or division? What does the person who shared the meme think about it?
- What message is this filmmaker/editor trying to convey with the images, words, and sounds they’re using? What is the message of the words when combined with the message of the images?
- Why do I believe everyone who works for that website/media outlet is terrible? How much of that belief stems from a negative opinion I have of their main figures or talking heads? Do I believe that people who like that website/media outlet are terrible as well?
- This person identifies as belonging to a group (or tribe) that I fundamentally disagree with. Does that mean I have no common ground with that person based off a description in their profile?
- How am I framing the issues I write about online? Is truthfulness my sole concern? Could people misinterpret my intentions based off the tone of my writing? What reaction am I looking for with the images/memes/GIFs I post?
In our fast and rapidly moving culture, it is not easy to slow down to think about these questions. Sometimes, however, we are afraid to ask these questions because we are afraid of the answers we might receive. Maybe we will realize we are quick to rash judgment. We might recognize that we have more in common with people outside our circles than we’d like to admit. Our firmly held beliefs might be challenged and leave us uncomfortable. Media literacy is a skill that must be practiced, and a virtue that must be cultivated.
Christians and Media Literacy
Christians ought to care about media literacy for many reasons, but perhaps the most important reason is because our faith is shaped by a particular medium: books.
The Bible is a collection of 66 books, written by different authors over a period of several hundred years, which we believe to be the Word of God. Although we believe the message of the Bible is one unified message and is inspired by God himself, that does not mean we read each part of the Bible the same way. Each author comes from a unique context, each book belongs to a particular genre, and each event takes place against the backdrop of a specific culture and time. Understanding these different dynamics helps us understand the Bible, and is a direct fruit of “traditional” literacy.
If “traditional” literacy helps us understand the Bible, media literacy helps us understand the Bible in relation to the world around us. How do we talk about the Bible, a collection of books, in a culture that is shaped by visual media? How do we encourage people to read the Bible when their media literacy is confined to TikTok-length attention spans and skim reading? We must wrestle with these questions if we take evangelism and discipleship seriously, because the people we share the Gospel with and disciple are being shaped by the media they interact with. Media literacy helps us speak to the ways media shapes us in ways that are hurtful to living a vibrant Christian life.
Media literacy is a critical hole in our discipleship, and education about media literacy and its effects is vitally important for Christians living in a digital age. Education, however, will not be enough. Being media literate is more than just knowing how to interpret, assess, and create media – it is knowing how to keep media in its proper place in our lives. Media literacy is both taught and lived, just as “traditional” literacy is taught and lived in being able to read and write.
How Do I Learn Media Literacy?
Thankfully, you do not have to take a class or course in order to begin learning media literacy.
Our Resources page list a wide variety of books and articles that serve as fantastic introductions to media literacy. In our Staff Picks section, we include books like Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, one of the most widely read and influential texts on media literacy. We also highly recommend Cal Newport’s recent book Digital Minimalism, which outlines a robust philosophy of technology use in a easy-to-use process that will help you begin living with technology and media in their proper places. Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness is a great book to read if you’re concerned about the theological implications of media literacy, while Jean Twenge’s iGen will give you plenty of data and research about what happens when media literacy isn’t prioritized in the lives of children and teenagers.
Media literacy can be learned in isolation, but it is best learned in embodied community with others. In addition to reading these books (perhaps reading them as a group), ask questions about the media you and your friends interact with. You can talk about the message of that recent film you saw together, assess the impact of that meme your friend texted out, and create unique media together for fun. Just as reading and writing involves being able to read other people’s writings and write to others, media literacy involves working with other people as well.
As technology and media continue to play a greater role in our lives, media literacy will only become a greater need. At Breaking The Digital Spell, we are passionate about helping Christians understand the importance of media literacy and giving them the resources they need to begin learning this skill. We believe media literacy is necessary for effectively proclaiming the Gospel in our distracted digital age, and we hope this article, along with everything else on our website, helps you proclaim the Gospel as well.