This essay is one of six in a collection of theological reflections on social media and new media conducted by the New Media Research Fellows at Union Theological Seminary. They are based upon the case studies conducted by the research fellows in 2011. Explore the Findings tab for more information about the rest of our work.
Study questions: Note that this essay includes questions at the end to help you go deeper into the topic, or to help others you may be leading to go deeper. Some of those questions will connect to other essays and case studies.
How do we make theological sense of the new media revolution currently upon us?
This essay will
engage this question in conversation with the
case study reports
the New Media Project research fellows. It will take issue with some of the
ways new media is talked about theologically. And it will try to offer some
historical analogies and (God willing) some theological wisdom for pastors and
other practitioners trying to think through how our lives are changing and what
God wants with us now.
me propose a three-part typology for thinking about, and more importantly
practicing virtue with, social media. To speak broadly: 1) For some, digital
technology is saving us. 2) For others, digital technology is damning us. 3)
For Christians, God is saving us. A new way we creatures communicate is via
social and other digital media. What’s our salvation in Christ mean for how we
communicate in these new ways? I will propose an as yet “underdetermined”
This third option is messier, more complicated, and ultimately more faithful.
The temptation to reject
It would be
tempting simply to say “no” to new media, or at least to the ways some of its
champions baptize it as God’s new thing. Karl Barth famously responded to the
rise of the Nazis in Germany by saying the church should go on doing theology
“as if nothing had happened.” Drawing analogies from the time of the Nazis is
always treacherous (and indeed, in the blog world’s
Godwin’s Law, the party
that refers to the Nazis first ipso facto
loses the argument!). The rise of a collection of new technologies and
social practices, some of which may fundamentally change the way we attend to
ourselves, others, and to God, is not the rise of one particularly barbaric and
genocidal political regime (against which Barth later wished he’d done quite a
bit more, hindsight being what it is). And one problem in conversations about
new media is the flat and un-nuanced use of historical analogies (“The web is
like the printing press!”). Nevertheless, Barth’s antidote is true. Epochs
change in the church on God’s time, not ours: Resurrection, Pentecost, and
Christ’s anticipated return in glory, Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Ordinary
We are embodied
creatures in this world whom God loves into being and dies to save. We have to
do business with the ways our neighbors and our children live. But spare us the
secularized theology of a new world, new us, new way of God being mediated, new
church. We can never catch up with the newness of God’s work, that genuine “new
thing,” of “rivers in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah
43:19). Our producers of digital technology may proclaim a new revolution every
six months or so, but God is unchanging in his covenant faithfulness to us in
also said we must preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the
other. He couldn’t have imagined newspapers’ near demise, let alone Christians
reading the Bible from smartphones (indeed we can hold both in one hand now!). Barth’s “Nein!” is
satisfying rhetorically, but it finally fails. Some of his greatest legacy
bearers have said something quite a bit different. John Howard Yoder, the great
Mennonite theologian of the last century, had an early appreciation for the
web. He was profligate in publishing his theology: anyone who asked for his
time or wisdom got it. He would write a book with a major university press or a
tract for a church publishing house. And he found the web a fine way to publish
certain kinds of his work (much of it listed here, ironically, as
“unpublished”). This is a
man who personally handed to Barth the manuscript for his book on all the ways
Barth is wrong about just war and pacifism—the
night before his doctoral dissertation defense at which Barth would examine
him. Yoder’s theological bona fides as a critic of the easy analogy, of
self-indulgent theology, are not in question. Similarly, Yoder’s sometimes
willful protégé Stanley Hauerwas, in an interview I did with him, objected to
my question of why Protestants are not now known for their innovation. We once
founded colleges, seminaries, orphanages, hospitals, but no longer—why? “How do we know?” he asked. It takes a while to see that an institution was begun that’s
important. No one had heard of L’Arche for a good while. Mother Teresa labored
in obscurity until Malcolm Muggeridge came along.
From a quite
different ecclesial vantage, some of the most beautiful institutional websites
out there are hosted by monastic communities. Monks and nuns are getting older,
they need always to be recruiting new sisters and brothers, what better way to
do it than the Internet? If you travel to Christ in the Desert Monastery in New
Mexico, you will notice its solar panels immediately. It’s one of the largest
private owners of solar panels in the country. There’s simply no way to run
power that far out into the desert with economic efficiency. So the monastery
went solar, far ahead of the green revolution in which many of the rest of us
will. This organization, devoted to maintaining a fourth century Christian form
of life marked by the disciplines of poverty, chastity, and obedience, finds
new media and other cutting edge technologies salutary for its form of life.
Technology is saving us
Whatever the reason people have for making this claim, I suggest that this rhetorical thrust must be met and rejected.
Some years ago
there was a conference called “Theology After Google” at Claremont School of
Theology, headed by leaders in the Emerging Church movement.
The LA Times
a conference in which participants said that church members “must embrace
technology to survive.” Tony Jones, theologian in residence at Solomon’s Porch
in the Twin Cities, welcomed participants this way: “We don’t want you to
silence your cellphones. We want you in this room to be connected to everything
that’s happening in the world.” Philip Clayton, a fine theologian at Claremont,
brought up Gutenberg’s printing press in the fifteenth century, which, he said,
“democratized religion” and led to the Protestant Reformation. Then, he opined,
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are talking today about a transition equally as
language about new technology is not new. Contemplate this 1850 quote from a Methodist missionary reflecting on
the invention of the telegraph:
This noble invention is to be the means of extending
civilization, republicanism, and Christianity over the earth. It must and will
be extended to nations half-civilized, and thence to those now savage and
barbarous. Our government will be the grand center of this mighty influence….
The beneficial and harmonious operation of our institutions will be seen, and
similar ones adopted. Christianity must speedily follow them, and we shall
behold the grand spectacle of a whole world, civilized, republican, and
Christian…. Wars will cease from the earth. Men “shall beat their swords into
plough shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks’ … then shall come to pass
Such religious praise of new communication
technologies does not always come from religious sources. Secular writers also
speak in the sonorous tones of clergy as they describe the devices. Take, for example, Jeff Jarvis’s book, What Would Google Do? His
fame came from buying a Dell, hating it, and telling the world about it. In
2005 he had a computer that wouldn’t work. He could get nowhere with Customer
Service. So he took to the web about it. Soon his “Dell Sucks” blog post came
up second on Google after “Dell Inc.” itself, and he was getting calls from the
company offering his money back. With the web, big companies that could have
ignored us before can’t do that now. As Jarvis writes, “Give the people control
and we will use it. Don’t, and you will lose us.”
Mark Zuckerburg, founder of Facebook, says his company is in
the business of offering “elegant organization.” They make it easy, beautiful
even, for friends to share with one another, for communities to do what they
already do, only better. If you’re lucky and offer value, they’ll let you help
Do you hear a theological echo there? That in giving up
power we gain it? That we ought not just talk from on high, but we ought to
listen, not guessing in advance what will come back? There are stunning
parallels for church. Give over power, make a place, host a site, where people
can do what they want. In effect, make it easy for them to do what they want to
do. For the church, people don’t want to give their time, treasure, or
attention to an institution for its maintenance. They do want to give their
lives for something worthwhile. When the church helps them do that, they will
turn their lives over to Christ through it. Will we make space for them to do
that with us, even partly through technology?
soteriology of digital technology is John Palfrey’s and Urs Gasser’s Born Digital: Understanding the First
Generation of Digital Natives.
The book describes digital overload well: in 2007 there was more information
posted online than has ever been
published in books. A lot more. Three million times more. Those of you who
think your blog might change the world, think again: 120,000 new blogs are
launched every day.
The most interesting moments in “Born Digital”
are fleeting but expressly theological. They quote one Harvard student: as
opposed to print publications that reliably start and stop, “on the Internet …
there’s no beginning and no end.” I’ve heard that somewhere before. Digital
natives are so wired that their very understanding of identity is changing.
They can have as many fake selves as time allows, but however many avatars they
have, their “true” self is more set in cyberstone than ever. Once one could pack
up and move off to another continent and start over. No more. Google is
changing our very notions of the continuity of human identity, both in terms of
how we understand ourselves and how others understand us. Claims like that cry
out for theological commentary from a people who think baptism changes our
identity far more than digital innovation ever could.
sometimes sounds similar, especially regarding its educational initiatives. In
one way this makes sense: the cost curve for higher education has gone up too
fast to be sustainable, especially for those who will graduate into ministry or
other service fields. Can’t we do more education online? There is talk of hope
for wider distribution of education in Africa via smartphones. What about here?
is one case
The school offers every entering student an iPhone or iPod Touch and expects its
teachers to include those devices for such work as keeping attendance, grading
“papers,” extending discussion outside the classroom, and for inviting comments
from students who would otherwise remain silent. The school’s leadership speaks
of professors having to transition from “sages” to “guides,” away from the lone
source of authority to someone who can teach others how to navigate the ocean
of digital information out there. Walls are coming down (another interesting
biblical image), so students must be ready for that world.
Claims of diminishing
authority should be questioned, especially when claimed by those authorities themselves, or so colleges
once taught. Beware anyone who claims not to have authority, especially if she
has grading power. Such soft-selling of authority can be a precursor to its
unsuspecting overuse. An ACU student enthused that the digital initiative
allows different forms of education, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all
approach. This, she says, comports with the imago
dei. To be clear: every student having no choice but learn via phone is against uniformity? And to claim that
new technology lessens dread of the professor’s red pen sounds more like
another symptom of grade inflation than a technologically heralded eschaton. Tony
Jones’ words above about being connected to the outside world also beg for
questioning. Are monks in a monastery not
in connection to the world when they pray for it?
media gives us more of us. Often this is glorious—humans create staggering
wonders every day. Often it will be reprehensible: That anti-Semitic hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, can
disseminate online just as easily as Shakespeare lovers can share their
favorite bard’s work, and probably a good deal more so, since it had trouble finding
its way into libraries but not onto websites. Far more often it’s just banal or
lurid, as we entertain ourselves on devices during lectures. We remain “a
little lower than the angels,” capable of grace and mischief in equal measure,
more capable of both than ever with these new tools and their new ways of
Only God saves.
Barth’s “Nein!” is appropriate over against any other claim to salvation. Yet
Christ is also Lord of all creation. No particle of this universe is outside
the purview of Christ’s Lordship. We humans created technology (though I
sometimes joke with people, “That’s why Jesus gave us email …”). Like other
created human goods, it can be used for terrible ills or for surprising good.
How can we make for more of the latter and less of the former in response to
Jesus’ Lordship over our lives?
Technology is damning us
remarks in the last paragraph you may think I find this next category amenable.
It is indeed important to hear this point of view. For example, Quentin J.
Schultze’s Habits of the High-Tech Heart takes the posture of the scold.
Digital technology is a threat to democracy, to our souls, to dappled things
and puppy dogs, and to all things decent people should hold dear. The book’s
argument is clear, its writing lively and full of zingers, and it finally
Schultze, a professor
of communications at Calvin College, worries that technology “divert[s] my
attention from the central concerns of life ... to relatively trivial
And he wants his balance back. The web promotes a sort of “promiscuous
knowing,” a surfing on the top of things that he characterizes as
“informationism.” It’s no accident that pornography has long been a driver of
digital innovation, for the web itself promotes “pseudo-intimacy.” This is not
the sort of knowing that can make the knower a better or wiser person. It
rather obliterates such human fundamentals as time and space. It promotes
individualism and pushes its users into aping celebrities. The web creates
precisely the sort of Gnostic religion that Christians have long said can get
you damned (that is, after all, what heresy does) and which Jarvis and others celebrate.
and obviously overshoots. Lots of the ills named above and expostulated on at length
in the book are sins of our culture generally, begun in the Enlightenment and
spread out and thickened in modernity. The sort of instrumentalization of
knowledge that happens online, supplanting face-to-face communal knowing, did
not begin with the Internet. Arguably it began in the garden. Technology
functions here, as with many technophobes, as a sort of substitute for original
surely right to reject what he rejects—the “radical selfism” cultivated by
digital culture (and just think, publishing in 2004 he had no inkling of
Facebook!). He’s also right in some of his proposed solutions: St. Benedict and
medieval monks advocated reading great books exceedingly slowly, chewing over words
and phrases like a cow over its cud. The sort of wisdom that makes good living
possible surely comes only at a price and through discipline—and the web by
itself rarely makes for that.
against these technologies comes from reflection on theological education.
David Kelsey is one of Yale’s great theologians, writing when these
technologies were more hypothetical than actual.
Kelsey first describes the God whom theological
education is about: one who “values and affirms organic matter.” He describes
God pumping a fist and shouting “yes” at the goodness of creation. Kelsey then
describes God the Son this way in similarly fleshy terms: “what Jesus does and
undergoes as a very complex organism decisively and normatively discloses who
God is and how God is toward us.” In
Jesus, God has toenails and hair follicles and a sternum and a pancreas.
Scripture also uses language to describe the church that’s just as organic, embodied,
fleshed. Over against this material-loving, flesh-taking God, modern philosophy
has pulled body and spirit apart. Philosophers have conjured images of humanity
as a ghost in a machine. And some computer scientists have continued talking of
us this way: “there is no reason why my consciousness and intelligence could
not be downloaded onto a computer that would then be me, or a replication of
is simply wrong on Christian grounds. We are not what we know—not even God is
just what God knows. “[W]e are … not spiritual souls contained in bodies, not
ghosts in machines, not even centers of consciousness floating somehow above
brains, but extraordinarily complex organic bodies.”
With that kind of description, you can guess how much Kelsey
is going to like disembodied theological education. He grants it could be used
for some limited things—like languages or passing on of historical facts. But
this is it. The religion of the God made flesh has to be taught in flesh or not
Some of the most fundamentalist preachers opposed to technology
aren’t even religious. Take Sven Birkerts. He’s an editor of the literary
magazine, AGNI, a memoirist and
essayist, and writer of The Gutenberg
Elegies. With a title like that you won’t be surprised to hear a quote like
this: “the belief in the gathered weight of literary expression, what we used
to consider our cultural ballast, is fading.”
We’re forgetting how to read because of digital culture. We’re losing the
ability to pay attention for long stretches, to follow storyline, to
concentrate. Our habits of attention are under great duress from new habits
like grazing and scrolling. His evidence is, of course, anecdotal, based on
observing himself and his spouse and his kids and his students, but I doubt
others of you have experienced something much different. We may be reading and
writing more than ever, but the kind of reading necessary to tackle great books
and works of art may be receding.
The skills to write such works are atrophying as well.
Birkerts doesn’t just mean that publishing is under duress, and less fiction is
coming out—though that’s true, even more so since he wrote his new
edition in 2006. It’s that humanity itself is under revision. “What is
imagination if not the animating power of inwardness?” Birkerts asks. The
steeping of a private self into deep time allows souls to flourish. He looks at
his own kids and asks if they will ever know the slow drip, drip, drip of time.
Silence is now exceptional. And the imagination that once “burrowed its way
into idleness” is now superseded by the glowing screen and the clicking thumbs.
In order to live a life of reading and writing (and, we might add prayer), one
needs a sense of friction, of mystery, of gravity, of contradiction—all things
that require time and a self and no distractions, at the least. What’s happened
instead is since the middle of the last century we introduced device after
device to interrupt that trained idleness. And Birkerts is not happy about it.
He wants none of the balance that will see something good in all things. He
calls himself “an unregenerate reader.” He originally concluded his book this
The devil no longer moves about on cloven hooves, reeking of
brimstone. He is an affable, efficient fellow. He claims to want to help us all
along to a brighter, easier future, and his sales pitch is very smooth....
Fingers tap keys, oceans of fact and sensation get downloaded, are dissolved
through the nervous system. Bottomless wells of data are accessed and manipulated,
everything flowing at circuit speed. Gone the rock in the field, the broken
hoe, the grueling distances…. From deep in the heart I hear the voice that
says, ‘Refuse it’.”
Then Birkerts had children. And they multitask. And pile
device upon device. And he couldn’t just refuse it. He and his wife chose
instead “artful seduction,” to surround the children with books and try to lure
them into the good life of loving them. He also wanted to stay a writer, and
that’s hard to do without email (though Wendell Berry pulls it off). He calls
himself a more divided critic now, but he still likes his earlier bombastic
self. So do I. When I
for Faith & Leadership, I
not only found him convincing, I found him without a cellphone (somehow we
still met each other at the airport). He had ideas for a sabbath from digital
technology—just as European countries offer generous maternity leave he thought
we should have creativity leave, where the long distance in the soul opens back
up that makes creativity possible. When we published the interview, an
evangelical friend got on my case: how can you promote a man online who refuses all this tech, when
you publish twice a day and Tweet and Facebook about it? You’ll just give
encouragement to the enemy.
church has said a categorical “no” before to practices most of the world deemed
glorious. Many Christians in the ancient church headed for the hills when
Constantine made Christianity a popular, power-brokering faith. There are
aspects to these technologies we must reject also. Several pastors interviewed
in our study worry about the perception of being constantly available through
these technologies. Others set policies to help train their congregations on
how to access them: don’t answer an email too quickly, respect your day off,
don’t deliver hard news electronically. If digital technology is a created
good, then like other created goods it can take over our lives. Food, sex,
drink, and other good gifts of God can command undue allegiance and become
idols. This is why the church practices such disciplines as fasting, Sabbath,
moderation. It is also good to have some people rejecting these created goods.
Monks and nuns remind the rest of us that as good as money, sex, and power are,
they are not as good as prayer or single-hearted devotion to God. Even those of
us who champion digital technology need those who foreswear it.
Only God is saving us: Toward an “underdetermined”
response to technology
“answer,” if there is one, to these two prior typologies is not to offer an
answer at all. Or at least not to pontificate quite so confidently. God is the
one saving us. The church is gathered in response to that saving work. We who
are doing the gathering tend to carry the web around with us in our pockets on
our phones. What do we do with those things? How can they be taken up in the
work of the people of God in the world?
above David Kelsey’s worry about disembodied theological education. He makes
good arguments. They are, unfortunately, incorrect. Here’s why: Christianity from the beginning has been a going and telling
faith—and not only a going and telling faith on physical feet.
What did St. Paul do besides travel? He wrote letters, some to churches he’d
never yet visited but where he still claimed a sort of authority, one
recognized enough that those churches kept those letters, passed them down, and
eventually called them scripture. In some cases, he wrote to churches where
he’d learned about their problems (the Corinthian correspondence). In others,
he wrote to churches he did not know about, though he still expected them to
respond to his authority (Romans). Other epistles make clear: bodily presence
is good, epistolary presence is not as good, but sometimes epistles will have
to do (2 John).
The biblical material is surprisingly unselfconscious about the tying together
of a church by something so fragile as letter-writing.
The practice continued in the early church. The pope of Rome
doesn’t appear all at once, but church hierarchy builds up from the bottom over
time, principally through writing and receiving letters. Rowan Williams,
retiring Archbishop of Cantebury, writes, “By the third century (probably
earlier) the simple custom of circular letters announcing the election of a new
bishop and asking for prayers had become a standard feature of much
Mediterranean church life…. To be excluded from this routine circulation of information
and from the assurances of mutual prayers was … the main form of sanction and
protest between churches.”
Christianity is an epistolary faith, based on writings to and from friends who
know each other in the flesh and others who do not—yet are not for that reason
any less part of the body of Christ. Some of the greatest arguments in the
history of the church come in letters between Jerome and Augustine, who never
met but who circled each other in argumentation. They were in fleshly union
with one another enough to fight like brothers, like Cain and Abel. And the
church kept their correspondence specifically to educate others. It’s
illuminating precisely because it is virtual correspondence between fleshy
brothers in the faith.
Graham Ward, an English theologian and Anglican priest,
argues that the church has no problem with a virtual body as such.
Communication technology is changing the way we look at human beings, ourselves
and others. We are less locally identifiable, less limited to one place, more
malleable and international. And this is just fine with Ward, for the
incarnation itself transgresses boundaries like these. If modernity had it
wrong to think of ourselves as individuals, self-determining, a soul in a body
determining its own destiny, post-modernity is more right in understanding
ourselves as interconnected, networked, changing in ways we’re not in control
of, liquid rather than solid, if you will. Ward criticizes Kelsey’s sort of
pining for embodiment and community as an act of nostalgia rather than memory,
a waxing for the good old days. But memory is a living thing, and our reception
of God’s creative and redeeming goodness is always unfolding and never static.
question for technology, as it is for anything we evaluate theologically, is
this: How can we use it to love God and neighbor more? It can be used to
augment relationship, to maintain contact over time and space—not as a
substitute for face-to-face friendship, meals together, mutual prayer and
worship and laughter and bodily touch, but as an extender of memory of what’s
missing in those things when we are away from one another. It can be used to teach. Theology attempts
to show the world the delight of what we do as we worship and then think about
God. I’m impressed with pastors who
write blogs, who send out e-blasts, who post status updates on Facebook that
tilt their people’s attention toward God. Travel and communication can be a
good thing for missions: as Dana Robert says, “Just as the Roman roads and galleys
carried Paul and his helpers across the Roman empire, the colonial rails and
steamers carried a cadre of youthful mission enthusiasts around the world.”
And in an age of non-western missionaries, this might be cheaper than ever. Prognosticators
say we won’t be traveling, so we’ll need the Internet in order not to be too
for House For All Sinners and Saints, Quest Church, and Community of Hope AME Church
reveal appropriately underdetermined approaches
to technology. They take stock of their community, offer ministry there, and
leave out any grand theory on how technology should or should not be used. The hip
professionals of Community of Hope use their smartphones in worship. The
hipsters in Denver turn the devices off for their ten minutes of contemplation.
Quest uses digital tech, worries about it, tries to delimit it, but ultimately
doesn’t fret over it. God is working out salvation on souls as stubborn as
ours. Surely technology will be part of that. But not too big a part.
Rodriguez asks if you can have a city without a newspaper. What holds all the
buildings together in the Bay Area is not the city limits so much as the San Francisco Chronicle, which attunes
people to the same set of stories, even if it’s just baseball box scores. But
listen to his description:
The other day I came upon a coffeehouse that
resembled, as I judged from its nineteenth-century exterior, the sort of café where
[early newspaper entrepreneurs] might have distributed their paper. The café
was only a couple of blocks from the lively gay ambience of upper Market Street
yet far removed from the clamorous San Francisco of the nineteenth century.
Several men and women sat alone at separate tables. No one spoke. The café
advertised free wi-fi; all but one of the customers had laptops open before
them. ... The only sounds were the hissing of an espresso machine and the
clattering of a few saucers. A man in his forties, sitting by the door, stared
at a screen upon which a cartoon animal, perhaps a dog, loped silently.
We all know
the scene—it’s a morgue, not a café. And have you noticed that people glare at
you if you want to talk in a coffee shop, but now everyone in libraries chats
away happily? The place Rodriguez describes may as well be in Cairo or
Malaysia, a people with no place. By contrast, in Catholic thought, the whole
church is gathered in every local gathering, and the local is the origin of
saints, ideas, devotions. Universals dropped from the sky and squashing the
local is out of balance, Catholically speaking.
communities we studied show their stubbornly adamant particularity in their own
specific neighborhoods. None of them, not even Darkwood Brew, could exist just
anywhere. They are rooted in particular histories. It is a UCC church in the
Midwest, trying to be something different from other Bible Belt possibilities.
The story is pure Omaha. And here is the great irony: the web can help us be more local, more particular, more
granular in our attention to the specific patch of ground to which God has
called us to do ministry. House for All Sinners and Saints is one example of
has recently launched an
endeavor to pay particular attention to six cities. Their print magazine and
website will profile New York, Detroit, Richmond, Phoenix, Portland, and Palo
Alto over the next two years, and then online readers will be encouraged to
submit portraits of ministry in their own city (7th
pointed me to a website called Project Peace in the Oakland area that links Christians
with missional opportunities in their city. Here a consistent pastoral
problem—Who’s doing what in our town? How do we get involved without re-creating
the wheel? How do we tell our people where to serve?—is addressed digitally in
a more elegant way than paper media or word of mouth ever did.
friend showed me a church social networking site called Be The Light that allows folks in a large church to
connect with one another for missional purposes—again, perhaps better than they
would have in person.
This is the final scorecard
for new media, as it is for all things churchly. Does this help us grow more
deeply into the heart of the triune God, to immerse ourselves more deeply in
his crucified Christ? Does it further our mission of loving our neighborhood,
our city, our world into relationship with the God who desires the very best
for every person? The web has its Gnostic, body-denying tendencies—anyone who
denies that is in for trouble. Yet God makes a harvest from the most
unpromising soil. The church, like Christ’s sower, is always tossing seed
everywhere. Some of it will even come up online. And when that happens, our
stance cannot be the scold’s, telling God he cannot work in such places. It has
to be the same response of faithfulness that should always be coming from our
mouths: none other than “alleluia.”
Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Mitchell Landsberg, “’Theology after Google’
conference takes look at religion in Web era,” Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2010, http://articles.latimes.com/2010/mar/15/local/la-me-beliefs15-2010mar15.
 Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New
York: Oxford, 2009), 3.
 Jeff Jarvis, What
Would Google Do? (San Francisco: HarperBusiness, 2009), 11.
Palfrey and Urs Gasser, Born Digital:
Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives (New York: Basic, 2008).
 If I am at all able to criticize this endeavor well,
it is due to my New Media Project colleague Lerone A. Martin’s wise and
clear-eyed case study on ACU, “ACU Connected: Groundbreaking initiative
reshapes education at Abilene Christian University,” New Media Project at Union
Theological Seminary, http://www.cpx.cts.edu/newmedia/findings/case-studies/abilene-christian-university/article.
 Quentin J. Schultze, Habits of the High Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the High Tech Age
(Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004).
 Schultze, Habits
of the High Tech Heart, 13.
 David H. Kelsey, “Spiritual Machines,
Personal Bodies and God: Theological Education and Theological Anthropology,” Teaching
Theology and Religion 5, no. 1 (2002): 2–9.
 Sven Birkerts, The
Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (New York: Faber
and Faber, 2006), xii.
 For a similar argument see Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to
our Brains (New York: Norton, 2011).
 Sven Birkerts, The
Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reaching in an Electronic Age (Boston: Faber
and Faber, 1994), 229.
 Faith & Leadership, “Sven Birkerts: Literary
culture in the electronic age,” Faith &
Leadership, December 15, 2009, http://www.faithandleadership.com/qa/sven-birkerts-literary-culture-the-electronic-age.
 Stephen E. Fowl, “Stories of interpretation,” in Engaging Scripture (Malden, MA:
Blackwell, 1998), 32-61. I take the description “underdetermined” from Stephen
Fowl’s typology of biblical interpretation: if 1) modernism offered determinate
interpretation, where there is one meaning in a text and, look! I just found
it, 2) post-modernism offers anti-determinate interpretation, where we can find
no meaning in any text, he proposes 3) under-determined interpretation, where
God offers us the grace of wisdom about himself in scripture, but that meaning
is never exhausted, since God never is. The “under” suggests we need no grand
“theory” for this to work.
 2 John 12: “Although I have much to write to you, I
would rather not use paper and ink; instead I hope to come to you and talk with
you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” I am grateful to John Dyer
for his use of this verse in From the
Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology (Grand
Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2011).
 Rowan Williams, Why
Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 2005), 52.
Ward, “Between Virtue and Virtuality,” Theology
Today 59, no. 1 (2002), 55-70.
 Dana L. Robert, Christian
Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Malden, MA:
Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 59.
 Richard Rodriguez, “Final Edition: The Twilight of the
American Newspaper,” Harper’s Magazine,
November 2009, http://harpers.org/archive/2009/11/0082712.
Study questions (going deep)
- In Christian sacraments, material things are taken
up, blessed, broken or poured, and given away. This is the pattern with water
in baptism, with bread and wine in Eucharist, with our own bodies in our
conversion, confirmation, and constant offering of ourselves. How can new media
be taken up, blessed, broken, and given away for the sake of the world? If it
cannot, what place does it have in the church?
- What do we make of the fact that religious
rhetoric finds its way into rhetoric around new media? Does its unsanctioned
use there suggest illegitimacy? Or does God’s truth have a way of bubbling up
in surprising places such that we should rejoice?
Further study questions (going really deep)
Research fellows for
the New Media Project have written six different but interrelated theological
essays, each focusing on and drawing from a distinct theological tradition and
discipline. The following questions draw from the essay above and its
relationship to the other New Media Project reflections.
- Given that use of new media is not disembodied,
but differently embodied, as Kathryn Reklis suggests, what does it mean that it can’t be used for the things
that matter most to our bodies? (eating, sleeping, physically loving another)?
- How might new media change each of the
categories of the church named in Jim Rice’s essay? E.g., how will a herald be different with
these tools rather than without?
- How can we square Monica A. Coleman’s low Christology and ready
identification of many created things with Jesus, with Tillich’s Protestant
principal? What effect would an answer to that question have on use of new
media in the church?
- In his essay, Lerone A. Martin points to historical development of
new media. What was George Whitefield actually doing when he was accused of
innovating in the 18th century? What do his responses to that charge
have to teach us?
- In her essay, Verity A. Jones takes up the Trinity. Trinitarian
theologians have usually insisted on a dose of apophaticism in their work on
the divine nature, meaning, ultimately, we cannot know the full nature of God. So, if we don’t know what we’re talking about
when we talk about God, what effect would that have on our analogizing from
Trinitarian theology to new media?