Who are the church's editors?

Posted Dec 05, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Jim Rice


Back in the pre-Internet bad old days, big media served as the gatekeeper for much of the news and information most of us received. A small number of broadcast TV networks, as well as a few big-city newspapers and weekly news magazines, set the parameters for public communication. Editors at each outlet (and, ultimately, the owners of the various media) decided what was newsworthy, how important it was, and what spin to give it—usually under the name of “objective” journalism and sometimes even claiming to be fair and balanced in the process.

There were obvious drawbacks from such a controlled information environment, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century as fewer and fewer corporate entities held ownership of most major mainstream media outlets.

But there were also benefits. With today’s deluge of data through the Internet and its corollary digital channels, we don’t lack for information, at least volume-wise. The biggest challenge today is finding wheat amidst the chaff, sorting out what’s important and meaningful and true in the midst of the incessant clamor. And that was exactly the function that editors played (and still play), sometimes better and sometimes worse, in broadcast media.

Without the presence of editors to play a mediating role, the Internet is fertile ground for the spread of lies and half-truths, propagated either intentionally or in ignorance. A recent Washington Post article by staff writer Paul Farhi looked at what the author called “grass-roots whisper campaigns” filled with “demonstrably false” claims, “a carnival of nonsense” that is “popular on the thriving underground e-mail circuit.” And while this phenomenon obviously predates email, Farhi writes, “in their modern, Internet-driven form, these persistent narratives spread far faster and run deeper than ever.” One reason, of course, is simply the instantaneous nature of the Net, where any missive is a push of the send button away from going viral. But the other explanation is the lack of any mediating force between an individual with an idea, whether truthful or not, and the capacity to communicate to a mass audience.

These aren’t new issues to the church, of course. Who, if anyone, gets to play the editor function when it comes to interpreting the gospel? Who decides what is truth and what is heresy? Who speaks for God? Why, reformations have been undertaken over questions such as these.

The answers are anything but simple. On the one hand, the Holy Spirit “blows where it wills,” as the Pentecostals and Quakers might say, maintaining that God continues to speak in our world, sometimes by inspiring individual hearts and minds. But even Christians that emphasize the outpouring of the Spirit through individuals are clear that such revelation must be tested for authenticity in the context of Christian community.

Some branches of the church have tended to bestow such teaching authority on a magisterial chain of command—for Catholics, it’s the pope and the bishops, communicated through the priests. Other Christian streams, with different polities and ecclesial structures, empower ordained clergy as official spokespeople for the gospel. And still others, with a “priesthood of all believers” theology, emphasize the responsibility of all followers of Christ to spread the good news.

Despite these important differences in approach, no church body gives carte blanche permission for just anyone to say anything they want and claim it to be Christian teaching. Whether the editor function is carried out by a hierarchical institution or a more egalitarian body of believers, discernment of what is gospel truth is never a merely individualistic endeavor.

The digital age has seen a reduction in the role played by mediating agents—editors, fact-checkers, scholars with historical perspective—in the dissemination of what passes for information, and that change has come with consequences. The revelation of God’s Word, of course, is of a different nature than Facebook status updates or celebrity tweets. But people of faith shouldn’t ignore the trends in secular communication, being savvy about what to avoid and what to imitate, as we seek to be sharers of the good news in our world.

Jim Rice, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C.

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.

3 Comments

  1. 1 Dale 31 Jan
    Jim,
    I have often thought about how the process of the canon might have been different had that age been at the stage we are now in electronic communication. I think about this anew as I am reading David Weinberger's new book, Too Big To Know. In it, DW explores the changes in the way we perceive knowledge as we move from a notion shaped by books (and the shape and limitations of books and "long form writing", linear, beginning , end, progression , etc.) to an electronic, linked, unbounded form, faced with a host of diverging opinions that usurp the traditional process of books which are created as a whole, persuasive argument from beginning to end. What would the "Epistles" become? It seems tome that rather than the "go to" source for some established theological perspective they often are, the "comment" section may have directed their history in an entirely different direction, including a record of how Paul himself might have clarified an issue based on a particular question, rather than some expositional research based on long after the fact cultural studies that make some educated guesses at what Paul was saying. It may well also have prevented or attenuated the tendency that texts have, particularly ancient ones, to attain the status of final truth.
    And would the "canon committees" have been able to justify the inclusion of only certain texts quite so easily? And would the desire to limit the authority to a pre-selected "approved" canon have been quite so strong had they begun to discover, as we have, the expansion of our very idea of what constitutes knowledge and its forms? Weinberger calls it, as many others have, "networked knowledge", and Phyllis Tickle asks , in her book "Emergent Christianity", whether this "open source theology" is what best characterizes postmodern theology.
    When you write, inyour post, "Whether the editor function is carried out by a hierarchical institution or a more egalitarian body of believers, discernment of what is gospel truth is never a merely individualistic endeavor.", I consider the possibilities of conversations that can take place with those crucial elements involved; and fashion a truly participatory theology.

    Dale
  2. 2 Dale 31 Jan
    This comment has been removed by the author.
  3. 3 Dale 31 Jan
    Jim,
    To add just a bit: Weinberger's book also explores the question of "good filters" and "bad filters". The quote from your post I used in my previous comment is also relevant to how this new medium enables this with its ability to enable wider connectivity and conversation. This is something I am working on in my proposal for a research grant; this exploration of how the Internet is "messing" with traditional "paper-based" notions of truth and knowledge. Thanks for posting this.

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