In 1999, evangelical scholar Robert Webber released Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Webber is probably the individual most responsible for the resurgence of evangelical interest in high-church ritual and liturgy, but I'm not sure even he could have foreseen the items that have come across my radar in the past couple weeks. I should mention that these stories came to my attention through listening to Krista Tippet's OnBeing show on my NPR One app. The first item concerns a group of hackers being drawn to monastic life and the Rule of St. Benedict - you can read about it here in Nathan Schneider's article for the Nation.
The second item was from tech-guru film-maker Tiffany Shlain who has embraced tech-Sabbaths with her family, where they shut down all their devices for 24 hours and is also trying to use the internet to promote character development. For many cultural observers, the internet is a realm that resists discipline and erodes the character of individuals and societies. What both of these items have in common is an awareness that our context needs what it resists, resulting in an attempt to recapture ancient spiritual disciplines for our very "wired" society.
Lots to talk about here.
First, he says "the methods change, but the message stays the same." He also quotes Marshall McLuhan, who said: "the medium IS the message [or "massage" in an enduringly poignant typo]." People who think about evangelism and Christian missions have always known this on some level and described this reality as "contextualization," or, adapting the message so that it communicates appropriately to a given audience and context.
So what does this mean for our high-tech, wired, online culture?
In a 1996 issue of Wired, Gary Wolf wrote that McLuhan, a devout Catholic, believed that:
"As an unholy imposter, the electronic universe was "a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ." Satan, McLuhan remarked, "is a very great electric engineer."
Hipps says that, most fundamentally, human beings are the medium of God's message. Therefore, we have to ask how technology changes us, as communicators and receivers of communication, when we collude with technology (it should be obvious that I don't think technology is "of the devil")?
One thing that strikes me is this statement by Daniel Pink:
"In a world of Google, if you have a fact, I can in five seconds come up with a counter-fact. Facts are now ubiquitous and free and therefore they don't have much value. What has value is the ability to put facts in a context and deliver them with emotional impact, and that's what a story does."
A brief (and reductionistic) summary of the history of theology:
1. Through humans, God tells a whole bunch of stories.
2. Other humans collect those stories in a book and say "this here is the straight dope on God!"
3. However, humans find these stories and this book rather confusing, so they re-sort (cut and paste) all the statements in the book ("facts" or "propositions") into a more "logical" set of categories (God, revelation, creation, humanity, evil, salvation, community, the future) so that those statements can provide singular authoritative "answers" to human "existential questions." They call this "systematic theology" and work on it for 2000 years.
4. Humans (maybe starting with Hans Frei and Karl Barth, made popular by C.S. Lewis) start recognizing the limitations of this method of "knowing" and communicating about God, the world and ourselves.
5. In a world of Google (and "postmodernism" and the "global village" and genocide and corporate empire and string-theory), a lot "facts" and logical systems start making less sense. Maybe people have less patience for logical arguments or following a line of thought (ie. things like this). Maybe facts arranged in systems are boring.
6. People seek after stories and images to start to make sense of God, the world and themselves again.
See #1 above. Hmmm.
For more on theology and story see my friend Daniel Kirk's blog "Storied Theology."
So, do you have any sense of how you (or those you know) are different because of the technological innovations of the past say, 20 years? Any sense of how your faith or belief system has changed?
Matt Hunter, Ph.D
Multidisciplinary religious scholar and practitioner