The “cloud” of witnesses

Posted Sep 30, 2011 | New Media Project

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By John B. Weaver, guest blogger


“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, ESV)

I recently participated in a daylong conversation among senior administrators about the identity and mission of Abilene Christian University (ACU), where I serve as the Dean of Library Services and Educational Technology. The day of presentations and conversations opened and closed with meditative and prayerful reading of Hebrews 12:1-2, 12-15, and their gripping images of Christian faithfulness in following the faith of Jesus. I began to consider how the metaphor of the “cloud of witnesses” might relate to digital cloud technology.

Multiple times in the conversation, administrators and academic leaders reflected on the role of new media at ACU, particularly its nationally recognized mobile learning initiative and our provision of iPhones or iPads to all incoming university freshmen in order to promote use of the devices to enhance teaching, learning, community life, and other meaningful university relationships. With iPhones in hand, students and instructors are able to connect, teach, and learn through “the cloud” of computing services on the Internet, including computation, software, data access, and storage services. These experiences with mobile learning in the classroom and community are part of ACU’s vision “to become the premier university for the education of Christ-centered, global leaders.”

In addition to years of faculty research on mobile learning at ACU, campus leaders are increasingly reflective about the implications of a Christian university’s deployment of these mobile devices, with all their promise and peril for student life and learning. Our participation as a case study in the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary is one important aspect of a broader institutional discernment and deepening of our use of new media to educate Christian leaders, including the preparation of graduates for ministry through the Graduate School of Theology. In future blog posts I hope to share some ideas and activities related to critical and theological practices of teaching and learning with technology at ACU. For now, I will share my hope for ACU’s nascent practices of communal and theological reflection on the use of new media and mobile technologies in Christian institutions of higher education. Combined with traditional practices of lectio divina, antiphonal prayer, and a cappella singing, our recent community conversation about institutional mission and identity was, for me, an example of how the use of new technologies should be considered theologically and holistically as an extension of the university’s core Christian values, beliefs, and practices, and not vice versa.

As I read, reflected, prayed, and discussed the meaning and significance of the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1, I was given new insight into the theological weight of the metaphor of “the cloud” as a way of thinking about both the arrangement among digital technologies and our connection to them. Comparable to the scriptural “figures” of faith described in Hebrews 11—historically both distant and present in sacred time—the configurations of online personalities and digital voices are spatially both distant and present to us in the cyberspace computing “cloud” of the early twenty-first century. There are numerous ethical and Christological implications of this analogy between digital media and spiritual mediums in Hebrews 12:1-2, but for me a most important insight is that “the cloud” here, as elsewhere in the Bible, is a metaphor for close proximity and complete envelopment. As I reflect on what the computing cloud of new media means for our students at ACU, I have come to understand more fully that faculty and technicians must avoid one-sided tendencies to think about “the cloud” as only advantageously distant from our institutional responsibilities and budgets. New media, especially on mobile devices, is a digital cloud of witnesses, with an omnipresence in student lives that Christian universities, like the writer of Hebrews, can form and reform through biblical narratives, liberal arts, and Christian practices of confession and profession that are focused not only on the media, but also the messages to which they “testify”—which they embody and impress.

John B. Weaver
Dr. John B. Weaver is the Dean of Library Services and Educational Technology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. Abilene Christian University is one of the case studies for the New Media Project.

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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