I am fascinated by this simple fact: no matter what I am reading, no matter what I am studying, no matter what paper I am writing, the question, ultimately, stays the same. And that question? What kind of disciple are you called to be and how, on your own journey? Can you be of help in the formation of those who choose to walk along beside you, and if yes, how? Everything, always, comes down to the question of discipleship and formation, at least, for me.
Today’s task is to complete one of two blog posts for my independent study course about technology and faith. The paragraphs which follow share some information about the book I chose as my reading assignment: Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures, edited by Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren, and Charles Ess, published by Peter Lang in 2012 as Vol. 78 of their Digital Formations series, a series devoted to the discussion of issues raised by the ongoing digitization of almost every aspect of our human culture. This particular volume in the series looks at the intersection of digital culture and religion through a series of essays about what the editors (and others) have called “Religion 2.0”. Religion 2.0 is most often defined as the “church” that results from the interaction between the global world of faith as represented by specific traditions and Web 2.0, that summary designation given to the electronic world of blogs, social media, wikis and apps in which many of us now find ourselves living. Religion 2.0 is not a church in which the traditional is replaced by the electronic, but one in which the faith community becomes an assembled mixture of real world and virtual practices (pg. 2).
And here is where the discussion turns to discipleship. The editors Cheong and Ess offer an interesting discussion about theories of individuality and self-identity, how that identity relates to our beliefs, and how the type of self we create in our own spirits and those around us influences the ways in which we adopt and express our relationship with faith and spirituality. It is a very interesting discussion; they suggest that the Protestant mainline traditions are very much tailored to the children of the Enlightenment, those who value rationality and learn through literature and the written word. The introduction of social media and a type of digital reality have altered the type of individuality experienced by each of us, however, and that new self-identity is no longer compatible with simple written communication. We are now entering the age of what they call the networked individual, someone exposed regular to sensory input that is not just written but also graphically visual and auditory in nature. This expansion of the sensory viewpoint of those receiving information has returned the field of emotional response to the mix — rationality is no longer sufficient to persuade the believer nor to hold their attention to the community and the tradition. Cheong cites as illustration of this point a study of subjects with a regular micro-blogging ritual (Tweeting). The data suggests that the brain’s sense of reality may actually be rewired, leaving the subject open to a less rationalized and more experiential understanding of the relationship between their individual nature, the other, and the Divine (pg. 11). Or, to use more standard faith language, it seems that our return to a kind of communication that involves all of our senses may herald the return of the mystical tradition to our faith (my summary, not Cheong’s). As a follow up, Cheong points out that Protestant traditions that emphasize the theology of being “born again” are more attractive to an individual expressing this kind of networked identity that the more rationally oriented traditions.
And so the authors return to my eternal question. For any faith community to grow and thrive, it must first ask the question about what kind of individual and individuality do they wish to form and to foster. The second question is then, with that mission clearly understood, how do we use a combination of the traditional and the new media to put that calling into action? Individual = disciple. Individuality = discipleship.
The volume actually contains a group of essays centered on these questions and includes discussions of theories that apply to digital religion, some empirical investigations of specific practices, and a set of discussions that attempt to create a theology that fits to the new world of digital religion. As an example of the type of work included, let’s take a close look at a couple of those essays.
The first is one of the so-called empirical studies in the volume. “Voting ‘Present’: Religious Organizational Groups on Facebook” by Mark D. Johns is interesting but I find it hard to truly classify it as an empirical study, since the group studied is not truly quantifiable. It is, however, an interesting reflection of the nature of Facebook groups formed around religion. Johns gives us some interesting facts about online use: he quotes the Pew Internet and American Life project, noting that one fourth of all adult internet users have searched for faith information of some kind online. In fact, according to Johns, religion-related activity online is secondary in frequency only to that related to pornography (note that most of his date comes from 2008).
Using as his evaluation criteria the four categories of online activity cited by Heidi Campbell (2006) in her work “Religion and the Internet” published in Communication Research Trends (information gathering, participation in online rituals, online missionary activity, and formation of online religious community), Johns examined a subset of the over 500 religious groups he found on Facebook in 2008, and declared none of these activities present. Instead, he concluded that participation in these groups was inherently passive. Most joined groups not for the sake of interaction, but as an affirmation of the goals or viewpoint of the group they selected, and, as a public statement of their own beliefs. According to Johns this constitutes a fifth type of religious activity not cited by Campbell: a confession of faith. Whether or not that act of confession generates any true faith identity formation is totally dependent on the reaction to the declaration.
If Johns evaluation is correct, we have a group of people (his focus was those in youth and young adulthood), taking that risky step of stating their faith identity with no one really listening. The question for those of us interested in faith formation is this: is it a true act of declaration if you shout out and no one is there, and if he is correct that this is happening, how can we as educators see to it that someone hears the cry of these young people? I don’t have an answer.
The second essay I selected is one filed under the heading “Historical and Theological Examinations.” Peter Horsfield, in his essay, “‘A Moderate Diversity of Books?’ The Challenge of New Media to the Practice of Christian Theology” writes about the ways in which the medium has changed the message throughout the history of Christianity. According to Horsfield, the medium influences communication in four ways: first, by the importance of what senses are engaged by that medium and the way those senses influence the physical characteristics of the presentation; second, by the way in which the medium stores, retrieves, and reproduces the cultural knowledge that it contains; third, by the the way in which a medium positions people in relationship to each other and to the information, and the social relationships that develop because of this positioning; and fourth, by the relationship between the medium and power (pg. 246-47). The basic medium for theology is language: oral, written, printed, visualized, sung or screened. We have already seen the changes in theological expression as it encountered the evolution from oral to written to printed express and the changes that occurred as society itself moved from majority illiterate to majority literate in character.
Horsfield suggests that as theological discourse moves from the printed book to digital media, we will experience a further paradigm shift in modes of theological discourse. The biggest challenge will be to the idea of theological authority. As we see the extension of the discussion past the usual academic and institutional circles, theologians are forced to enter the marketplace of ideas. No longer can institutional authority be the sought after imprimatur Theological ideas, to survive in the marketplace, must be seen by the individual consumer to support their personal consideration of the big questions about the meaning of life and the ultimate human condition. No longer can the theologian seek to be “right” or to simply spark discussion within a narrow academic circle. In the new media age, they must reach out and build a relationship with the seeker, a relationship of mutual exploration.
While Horsfield’s article talks about the type of theologian we will need for the future, it too is a statement of the kind of disciple we can expect to encounter in this brave new world. It is no longer sufficient to tell someone what to believe. Those who do continue to seek a relationship with their God, whatever that might be, will use new media to do their own type of questioning, their own exploration. For those of us involved in formation activities, that means that we have to work even harder to provide forums for discussion and thought-provoking materials that can be accessed in many different ways.
I am not certain how useful this book is for someone trying to do the actual work of formation in a church setting. I am not certain how useful it is for someone examining the question of how to respond to the technological innovation that surrounds and beckons us. It does not successfully argue for or against the use of technology in formation. It does, however, provide some thought-provoking discussions for those who might be interested in crafting a “theology of technology.” Digital Religion is a volume with many more questions than answers, but they are thought provoking questions that need our consideration.