Odyssey Networks is partnering with the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg to take a deeper look at religion and the media. Odyssey's own Pastor Mary Brown asked Associate Professor Mary Hess the following questions to get a better understanding of modern media and faith.
“Why have some church leaders and congregations been so slow in embracing new media platforms as a way to share the faith and connect with a younger generation?”
Well, the first thing I’d say is I think the degree to which a specific congregation or group of church leaders embraces particular media platforms primarily has to do with their central commitments and concerns. There are a lot of church leaders who have not been slow in doing so! The ones who have been tend to be more protective of their authority. They worry about what constitutes authentic faith, and are fearful about the extent to which a certain media platform does or does not carry with it inhibiting ideologies or other factors. These are legitimate concerns, but I think our practices with various media are beginning to demonstrate that these concerns – at least if the practical response is refraining from using specific media – are overblown.
"Electronic media allows everyone to become a source of information and opinion. How does the democratization of theology fit in with the concept of more formal seminary training?"
I think in many ways this radical flattening of authority – I’d term it that, instead of a democratization of theology – has presented huge challenges to seminary education. Basically I think we, that is, those of us who teach in seminary settings, need either to learn how to swim in these mediated spaces, or we are going to drown – and may well take down our congregations and communities with us. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit has always blown where she will, and this moment in time holds enormous potential for listening carefully and collaborating globally.
A key question has to do with who determines what is authoritative and authentic in a given community of faith. At any moment in time when you can access all sorts of “stuff” online, how do you decide if the “stuff” you’re looking at and listening to is worthy of your attention? The ironic thing about these challenges is that people who have spent a lot of time in various kinds of digitally mediated environments are learning how to do this – they have a lot to teach us about thoughtful ways to attend. But those of us who have held back, who have legitimate concerns, who worry about how these environments are shaping our relationships – are not bringing those concerns into these environments. In some cases we’re actively avoiding the very spaces where these questions are most being engaged.
If we are serious about a commitment to democratizing theology – and frankly, even though I work in a lot of seminary environments I sometimes think seminaries are the least committed to such a process – then I think we have to learn how to “practice attention” in deeper and more faith-full ways. We now have access to a global ocean of differing perspectives, differing ways to listen to God, differing ways of responding in faith… what a wonderful and rich resource! We need to stop being afraid of it, and wade in and learn to swim.
“Can you envision a congregation where every worshipper would be encouraged to provide regular FB status updates and tweet during the service? Do you believe this would be an effective evangelism tool? What would be sacrificed in worship, if anything?”
I don’t need to envision this, because there are already congregations actively doing this – and many of them are growing rapidly. I would say for myself personally, however, that I’m a Roman Catholic and I tend to prefer the kind of room for personal interior engagement that is framed in traditional RC worship. I’m not really interested in tweeting while I’m in worship, or posting a status update. I may do so later, after I’m home, but for me when I’m in worship I want to be focused through the liturgy in a way that frees me to pray and to listen in the multiple modalities that worship encourages. We argue, in the RC tradition, that the sacrament of Eucharist signs forth God’s presence in our midst. That doesn’t mean that God isn’t present at all other times as well, but a sacrament is a particular sign and I want to make myself fully available for engaging it.
I think a lot of people actually long for this kind of space and experience in worship, but because it’s so unfamiliar they’re uncomfortable trying it, let alone learning the practices of attention that make it so richly sensory. Rather than adding digital media to worship, I’d prefer to add more room for individuals to share their own experiences, and for people to learn how to inhabit silence.
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