A surprising work of God

Posted Sep 16, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Kathryn Reklis


In my scholarly research, I’ve been reading a lot about the series of religious revivals that swept the North American British colonies and parts of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Germany in the 1730s and 40s—a series of events that later came to be known as the Great Awakening. One of the most striking features of the accounts of the awakenings left by revival pastors is their hope and confidence that these revivals were an outpouring of God’s Spirit unlike any seen since the Protestant Reformation. They were, they believed, witnessing the next great reformation.

Like the Protestant Reformation, these revivals were made possible by new media technologies, especially the proliferation of print. The invention of the printing press gave lay people access to the Bible, creating the conditions under which the Protestant Reformation could take root and flourish. It would have been impossible to imagine the slogan sola sciptura (scripture alone as a rule of faith) until you could insist that everyone read the Bible for him or herself. Likewise in the eighteenth century, there was another explosion of print technology—regular periodicals, newspapers, and coffeehouse journals—coupled with advances in transportation marking the beginning of early global trade routes, that created the conditions to share news of revivals among the colonies and across the Atlantic which made possible a narrative of “world-wide” revival.

It has become relatively commonplace to herald the communications revolution of our own age as another kind of Renaissance. Not since the invention of the printing press, the story goes, have we seen such a massive leap in information technology. We are in the midst, others remind us, of the kind of tumultuous world transformation that only comes along every 500 years. We can look back at the Great Awakening and chuckle a bit at the hubris of its proponents. We don’t think of the 1740s in Massachusetts as a new reformation after all. I think our current day predictions are much more likely to stick. It is hard to refute the communications revolution, even if we sometimes want to lament it.

But seeing these bold claims made by colonial pastors about the “surprising work of God” they were witnessing in their midst, I’ve been wondering what, if any, Christian reformation might be made possible in the conditions created by social media today.

I spent last weekend visiting Countryside Community Church in Omaha, Nebraska. Countryside is home to Darkwood Brew, the subject of my case study for the New Media Project. Darkwood Brew is an online video program that streams live on the web every Sunday night and is available for download anytime. The larger vision for Darkwood Brew can be found in what they call “nuggets” or “guided episodes.” These are edited versions of the hour-long program created for small groups to watch together, with pauses and open-ended questions built in to allow live interaction and group discussion. The hope of Darkwood Brew is not a thousand individuals watching each Sunday night but for a thousand small groups discussing live.

If social media creates conditions for religious revival, new forms of interaction, connection, and community are likely to define it. The new technology of the printing press provided individual access to scripture, and it is not surprising that the legacy of the Protestant Reformation and the culture they were born into was one of increased individualism and concern for individual salvation. The eighteenth century revivals emphasized just how much this was the case—as the outgrowth of two hundred years of print culture, they focused all their attention on the question of how individuals could be saved from eternal damnation.

Social media continues to place great emphasis on the individual—my profile, my preferences, etc. At its heart, however, is the idea of a social network—individuals coming together to form new kinds of communities. What defines us in social media space are our connections and this desire for community. The religious desire to find new forms of community may not be just a backlash to modern individualism, but may also be shaped by the very media forms that make some expressions of it possible in the first place.

Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is the Executive Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D candidate in religious studies, concentrating in theology, at Yale University.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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