God and the universe in 140 characters

by
11 March 2016

Andrew Davison looks at theology on the internet and social media

Blend Images/SuperStock

Stored up in the Cloud: internet symbol

Stored up in the Cloud: internet symbol

THEOLOGY today isn’t only in books, churches, and lecture halls. It’s also on the internet. Blogs, podcasts, Twitter, and videos are part of the theological scene for many of us. (I’m a regular viewer of Catholicity and Covenant.)

Theological blogging seems to start with something that mattered on a personal level. Blogging is a discipline (a frequently used word), a training-ground for writing and arguing clearly. Interaction with readers is a prize: it is “humbling, enriching, and a spur to further reflection (and revision)”, as one blogger put it.

Blogging encourages the author to keep thinking, and it provides a record of what’s been thought. “Why do I blog?”, one blogger asked, and answered his own question: “As encouragement to continue drawing from the wells that have captured my theological imagination, and thus (again, I hope) to enrich my prayer and teaching.”

The internet offers works in progress, thoughts in passing, and gathered treasures: the range of theological internet resources available today — both paid for and free — is enormous. Text still dominates, but podcasts and video are important, too.

These range from a recording of something that was happening anyway (we should not disparage this — think of Rowan Williams’s extraordinarily good recent Hulsean Lectures) to slick media pieces conceived for the internet from the start (the theological Timeline Project from St John’s, Nottingham, is an example; you have to pay for it).

Changes in government academic funding and assessment mean that, from now on, almost everything a UK theologian in a university writes (of the “journal paper“ type) will be posted for free somewhere on the internet (often in repositories such as www.academia.edu). This will not be in its final, typeset form, but as it was submitted to the journal.

Dr Julie Gittoes, a residentiary canon at Guildford Cathedral, is a relatively new Twitter user (@JulieGittoes), but her insights run deep. “What about the 140 character limit?” I asked her. She replied that that is where a well-phrased question is useful, “particularly in engaging in theological discussions”.

There is clearly more to this medium than I’d expected. “It’s surprisingly good at sustaining a sort of corporate prayer, for instance,” Dr Gittoes says. “Sometimes it’s just a line from compline, but it’s also very powerful in undergirding @Primates2016.”

I suspect Twitter favours an outlook that can see God (and theology) in all things. “Interaction with other institutions and community networks is important: engagement with faith in the public square; cultivating the common good; being present. It’s more than publicising events, it is about using every medium to seek God’s Kingdom.” And what Dr Gittoes goes on to say it sometimes offers reminds me of what Plato also thought was vital: the chance to overhear a really thoughtful discussion.

 

NOT every theological site involves the creator posting his or her thoughts and insights. Creative curating has also become important.

One excellent US site, Mars Hill Audio, had woken up to this before the internet took off: Mars Hill Tapes was launched in 1992. The purpose remains the same: “interviews with authors of books on a wide-range of topics related to the question of developing a theologically informed understanding of culture” — even if the medium of distribution has changed (and mailed-out CDs remain surprisingly popular).

Christian Amondson’s Syndicate project is another example, already quite renowned, of the curating approach. His team picks a book. Someone, other than the author, writes a substantial introduction; two or three others write essays in response to the book. The author then writes a reply to each of those essays. This is blogging based on “longform writing that takes months to craft”. Once these pieces are posted, however, they provoke a flurry of online comment, and we have jumped into the distinctive temporality of our own age.

Speaking to these practitioners of online arts, I am struck by how often they refer to time (and just to the fact that “blogging takes time”). Ian Paul (the blogger at Psephizo, probably the Church of England’s most visited blog) mentions timeliness: a blog can accelerate the application, or dissemination, of a theological resource for a particular moment.

He cites John Barclay’s well-received new book on St Paul: blogging or no blogging, it will certainly have an impact on the Church’s reading of St Paul in the long run, but postings can “can take a key idea from the book and apply it to a current question of debate in the Church”, and do so in a fleet-footed way.

Ian Paul sets out the historical story of how we got to where we are today. The early days of blogging were full of “excitement and enthusiasm” — particularly when they gave readers contact with a blogging scholar they admired — and blogging tended to be collaborative. Today, it’s much easier for anyone to set up a blog, but “traffic” is harder to come by. That’s partly what makes blogging now more of a competitive sport.

 

THE internet engenders wide-eyed optimism in some, and pessimism in others. Here we might turn to Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio. There is certainly a note of pessimism in their decision not to embrace the internet’s culture of commenting and feedback. Their site has no Twitter feed, no Facebook, and “no likes”, as Myers puts it. It’s not just that people can be rude: the internet can encourage specialisation, and party feeling, too.

Myers also speaks about the other side, however, namely that “the internet’s capacity to expand the range and audience of thoughtful conversation is a great service to the project of theological reflection (but whether that service outweighs the more pernicious habits of internet communications, I can’t say).”

Paul acknowledges the dangers. As Zygmunt Bauman put it, writing in El País, “most people use social media not to unite, not to open their horizons wider, but on the contrary, to cut themselves a comfort zone where the only sounds they hear are the echoes of their own voice, where the only things they see are the reflections of their own face.”

Paul argues that it’s important to take the double-edged nature of the internet seriously, and to respond intentionally. We need sites “where people of genuinely different viewpoints engage in constructive debate, and learn from one another”. Clearly, one of his principal rewards in blogging is seeing creative discussion between people who would not otherwise have encountered one another.

Amondson agrees that careful curating makes all the difference. Get it right, and “something rather amazing happens.” On his own site, “for the most part, people write as if they were talking to someone face to face. In most cases, people are charitable, eirenic, and trusting of one another, even if their work is being critically examined, and often picked apart.”

It matters that his contributors are not primarily arguing over the merits of the book concerned, so much as attending together to the questions that reading it provokes. In that way, the book under discussion becomes “a window through which one can see deeper issues”: issues about which all concerned care deeply, even if they do not come up with the same responses.

All that said, Amondson acknowledges internet evidence of human enthusiasm for intellectual blood-sports: the most widely read symposium has been the one where contributors “pulled no punches, and made little effort to come to true mutual understanding”.

 

THE theological entrepreneurs I spoke to made modest claims for their work — too modest, perhaps. They remind us that online interaction is no substitute for face-to-face encounter and discussion (“pure analogue”, as Amondson puts it); but, in a world where that is sometimes difficult (one can be interested in theology and rather a long way from others who are), they are not in competition.

Maybe the best model is a hybrid, both-and approach. Today, a local group, perhaps a fledgling church discussion group, can tap into expertly organised online discussions and content, produced by enthusiastic, knowledgeable thinkers, often for an international audience.

 

Andrew Davison is the editor of these Church Times supplements, an author, and an academic at the University of Cambridge.

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