The Gutenberg and the Google World

Generational Clash in the Church

From my day with Leonard Sweet that I blogged about last week, one of his base concepts is that the language of the church is changing. He calls the shift the most important since Gutenberg created the printing press and that indeed the times we are in require a shift in perception and a willingness of the church to learn the language of the culture. The Gutenberg culture thinks in words and verses; the Google culture thinks in stories and narratives. And right at this moment both cultures are getting closer and closer to parity and both need to be taken seriously.

Sweet describes the paradigm shift from the Gutenberg World to the Google World well in this video:

Guiding questions:

  1. How is your church learning the language of the culture?
  2. How is your ministry context connecting with the images and narratives of the culture?
  3. How do you retain the Gutenberg generation while reaching the Google generation?

I think the most important concept is that Missionaries either taught the people English to explain their concepts or they learned the people’s language and re-framed the Christian concepts. In the former, the natives had to translate foreign concepts in an odd tongue. In the latter, the missionaries had to be the agents of translation from an English culture to the native culture.

Is your ministry context providing the translation services or are you expecting the culture to do the translation?


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  1. says

    If we can speak of these as two worlds, then a major feature of the Gutenberg world was to make knowledge/instruction discrete: this bit of knowledge/instruction is in THIS book, not THAT book. In contrast to that, the Google world makes knowledge/instruction non-discrete:this bit of knowledge/instruction, is like every other; there are no boundaries, all is a textual/iconic blur.

    My first thought is that if we apply this kind of thinking to the self, the so-called Google world is very Eastern in orientation. There either is no self (Buddhism) or the self is just part of the All (Hinduism). The Gutenberg world allows an understanding of the self that allows for a plurality of discrete selves. These discrete selves need not be independent of each other: after all, books, discrete as they are physically, are normally in dialog with each other.

    Another question arises. Is it adequate to limit ourselves to the metaphor of language, once we have begun with the metaphor of world? Worlds, given their greater temporality and materiality than languages, are not as much “givens” as languages. We are continually MAKING worlds, or at least contributing to the making of worlds. Why must we say of the Google world (or the Gutenberg, or any other), that is is a pure given to which we must adapt rather than taking some other stance, possibly a much more active stance?

    • Rob Irish says

      I’m not sure you need to look east to see the more collective sense of self. Pre-enlightenment Europe displayed a similar sense of common or shared personhood. It was the Enlightenment, not Christian belief, that brought us the autonomous individual. Indeed, arguably, that Enlightenment individuation undermined the integrity of Christian community and was part of the erosion of the need for God, pushing God to the margins. (I’m not really expressing original ideas, David Bosch’s _Transforming Mission_ says as much).

  2. says

    I find the Google vs. Gutenberg metaphor contrived. I don’t think Google is a tool of story and narrative. If anything, it is even more about fragmenting the world into discrete bits and pieces divorced from their context or original purpose.

    Moreover, I don’t think a history of books would uphold the assertion that books were the major way that faith was shared or developed for the last 500 years. Lots of religious books were published, but that does not mean they were the mechanism by which faith spread. They might have been supports or aids in that spread and development, but the mechanism has not really changed a great deal since the apostles.

    My reaction, therefore, is that we make technology out to be more than it is, and we fall into the trap of believing it explains more than it does.

    • Daniel goulet says

      I agree with Dr. Sweet that the church should understand the language of Google, it has a definite presences in the activities and minds of our upcoming generation. My teenage sons often make reference to social events and/or items of importance to them that I have no knowledge of; they received this information via the web and I did not. So, we miss out on a potential point of connection because we are not versed in the language of google.

      However, to John’s point, is there an inclination to make more of it then we should. I suggest in the context of reaching the lost of our upcoming generations we may be? Dr. Sweet states that the devil is learning the language of google, I’m wondering whether he is writing much of the language of google. We should learn it but not fall prey to being engulfed by it’s ability to fragment the relational aspect of society. Let’s not lose sight of the relational and personal aspect of reaching the lost. Dr. James Davison Hunter in his recent book entitled, “To Change the World” says, “Language no longer reliably connects us to the world around us. We no longer completely trust words to be answerable to the world.” His comprehensive research concludes that, “Word and world come together…through the word’s enactments.” He further argues that just as the Word became flesh and lived among us, we too must be presence in real time and in real places if we hope to have influence and make an impact. Something google just can’t do.


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