As a child of the turbulent sixties, I came to the Reformed faith via a circuitous route. Raised in a liberal Congregational church in New England, I took readily to the rebel spirit of the counterculture I discovered in architectural school in Boston in 1967. Long before the personal computer and the Internet, I was influenced by radio, TV, and the electric excitement of Rock and Roll. I think of us baby-boomers as a technological crossover generation, because we caught the tail end of literary education. In my lifetime the electronic environment has gone from prevalent to ubiquitous.
The Lord used my Baptist mother’s and uncle’s influences and prayers to turn me to Christianity after I had exhausted a variety of forms of Eastern mysticism. After completing my exploration of Eastern sacred texts with the I Ching, I began reading the Bible. This made me realize that there was nothing like the grace of God in the Gospel. Much to my joy I discovered that the Christ of Scripture deals concretely with sin and death in a way that Buddhism and Hinduism do not. I had never really understood how good the Good News is until then.
After spending time studying with Francis Schaeffer and Os Guinness at L’Abri Fellowship, and finishing my undergraduate work at Covenant College, the Reformed faith took firm hold of my soul. The encouragement of my pastor and several professors, combined with a strong desire to communicate the Word of God to others, moved me to attend Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and enter the ministry in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1980 as the organizing pastor of a mission in New Rochelle, New York.
I soon learned that many of my favorite professors from Westminster in Philadelphia were leaving to start a new Westminster Seminary in California, led by Dr. Robert B. Strimple, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, and others. Later that decade I ended up on a small three-man committee to study the possible revision of our denominational magazine, Ordained Servant. Jay Adams, one of the trio, convinced me that the Doctor of Ministry, a program which he had designed, was just what I needed to improve my preaching. I was hooked.
Having spent much of the early part of my training and first decade in ministry immersing myself in the Puritan and Reformed tradition I thought I was on solid footing to re-evaluate the nature of modernity and how this affects preaching. It seemed that many preachers were intimidated by the vaunted sophistication and superiority of electronic media, and thus willing to compromise the simple means prescribed in the Bible to communicate God’s Word to his people. In January of 1990 I spent my orientation month in Escondido taking classes with Edmund Clowney, Jay Adams, W. Robert Godfrey, Dennis Johnson, Joey Pipa, and Joel Nederhood. The spiritual and intellectual environment was thoroughly stimulating, and in light of difficulties in the church I was pastoring, it did me a world of good. It was a time of true renewal.
What, in hindsight, do you appreciate most from the time you spent at WSC?
Most encouraging and life-altering was Dr. Joel Nederhood’s intensive course, “Effective Preaching in a Media Age.” He focused on television—it was still the most pervasive medium—the Internet had not yet become a force in popular culture. And so he challenged me to think about the environment in which we preach, and then about preaching itself, and how preaching relates to the challenge of electronic media. No one in the Reformed or evangelical world had come to understand the importance of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman had. His report on the use of television as a medium to communicate the Gospel for the Christian Reformed Church impressed me as a uniquely useful model for thoughtful evaluation of an electronic medium. Almost everyone naively thought of all technologies as neutral tools. I think this is still largely the case, although there are signs of a new awareness among Christians. The effect of various media on the message and the messenger seemed rarely to be considered. I was convinced of the enormous value of Nederhood’s assessment and have spent the last two decades developing the insights he spawned. By the time I completed the final phase of the doctoral program, I had moved to New Hampshire and had helped plant an OPC church in Manchester.
The final phase of the doctoral program, a decade after orientation, was only two weeks long, but no less stimulating than the first. By then the faculty had changed somewhat and I enjoyed courses from Phillip Ryken and Peter Jones, and some great fellowship with the director of the doctoral program, Iain Duguid, and James Dennison. Thankfully, the August California sun proved hotter than the questions of the examination committee and my thesis was approved. All that remained was returning to graduate the following May. Meanwhile, Wipf and Stock published my project in the form of the book The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (2001). Jay Adams’s requirement that we produce something useful for the church was a valuable project in producing this volume.
The Marshall McLuhan I had once believed to be the guru of the new media turned out to be a profound critic of media and a conservative Roman Catholic. He owned neither a TV nor an automobile—about as unlike a sixties hippie as one could imagine. What deceived us was the fact that while McLuhan detested the basic tenor of modernity, especially as it expressed itself in electronic media, he believed that his mission was to get people to pay attention to the media environment in order to navigate it wisely. His was a descriptive rather than a prescriptive project.
Neil Postman, on the other hand, added a strongly prescriptive dimension to McLuhan’s insights. Through the research Westminster’s doctoral program motivated me to do, a whole new world of interest in the relationship between ministry and electronic media emerged. For example, I joined the then nascent (1997) Media Ecology Association, of which Marshall’s son Eric and many other media scholars are members, interviewed Neil Postman the author of the ground-breaking book Dr. Nederhood had us read Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), and best of all my love for preaching the Word of God was rekindled.
What particular truths or experiences that you gained from WSC do you find most important and valuable now?
My research in homiletics and media gave me a new sense of confidence in the regular task of pastoral preaching. I concluded that, despite modern assessments of the inadequacy of preaching, because it is God’s chosen medium for communicating his Word, it must be central to the ministry and worship of the church. This reinforced what I already believed. Beyond this fundamental encouragement, I came to a new understanding of the relationship between written and oral communication. I realized that one fault among Reformed preachers has been the failure to translate our excellent academic training into effective pulpit speech. This insight has enabled me to become more direct and applicatory in my exposition of Scripture.
As a member of the OPC’s Committee on Christian Education I have enjoyed bringing some of the things I learned through my initial research in WSC’s doctoral program to bear on OPC ministry, especially the oversight of the denominational website, and editing our journal for church officers, Ordained Servant. One of my passions is to get Christians, especially preachers, to ask critical questions about their stewardship of electronic media. The probing—an especially McLuhanesque exercise—can be painful, but I believe it is essential for Christian maturity. Observe the media environment and act accordingly. McLuhan used Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “A Descent into the Maelstrom” to illustrate this point. Every medium, and the totality of the media environment, affects, for good or ill, our relationships with God, others, the church, and God’s world; and they affect the way we perceive each of these.
What, in your opinion, makes WSC a unique and important institution?
Over the years I have been impressed with the pastoral focus, and the intellectual and theological integrity of WSC. As with Machen and Old Princeton, in whose train WSC follows, there is no dichotomy between spiritual and intellectual development. The most important dimension of the pastoral priority of WSC is its emphasis on the primacy of the church as the Lord’s institution, with reverent worship and effective preaching at its center. I shall always be in its debt.