Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture
It would be hard to argue the relationship between theology and digital media has been rigorously, much less exhaustively, examined. However, there is a growing tide of scholarship seeking to fill this void, and sociologist Heidi A. Campbell and theologian Stephen Garner’s co-authored text Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture is a welcome addition to this discourse. The book serves as both an introduction to the terminology and big ideas in media and technology studies, and an attempt to open a dialogue between that field and the practical work of Christian theologians and pastors.
The authors suggest that, up till now “much of the scholarly work on the intersection of new digital media and theology has taken one of two forms: either guides for Christians on how media should be used for purposes such as evangelism or worship, or appraisals of new media often grounded in overly pessimistic or overly optimistic assumptions about the nature of new media and their potential religious and cultural impact” (16). The authors see their work as an attempt to genuinely engage beyond those staidly categories with the theological and ethical impact of new media technology on society. To do this they argue first for an interrogation of “how the use of new media correlates with social and religious values” (16), followed by a move to “construct a faith-based response to digital culture” that takes into careful consideration “the revolutionary nature of new media” (16).
In undertaking this effort, Campbell and Garner do an excellent job of explaining what exactly digital media studies and network theory is, a field many professional theologians and Christian ministers are undoubtedly unfamiliar with. Major thinkers such as Manuel Castells and Lev Manovich are summarized and contextualized lucidly, and many of both the dangers and excitements of digital media technology are presented equitably. One of the authors’ key contributions is to remind their readers that digital technologies are more than just objects, but become whole environments in which people conduct their lives (35–37). Any scholar would do well to read the overview of chapter 2—“ new media theory”—which is full of buzzwords such as “modularity,” “Web 3.0,” and “transcoding” as well as questions on how to best enact the Christian practices of justice, humility, and truth in the Digital Age are raised in thought provoking ways. In particular, their discussion of “who is … marginalized in our use of technology and media. Which individuals or communities have their humanity diminished…?” (128) in the final chapter is surly a conversation every Christian community in the First World should be having.
From the outset, this book takes an almost entirely empirical approach to questions of digital technology and Christian practice. Thus, the “faith based response” the authors end up offering also tilts towards a comparison of certain external practices in Christian communities and the communal practices and identities engendered by new digital technology. Some of the anecdotes which are meant to drive home their points about how digital media complicates older patterns of Christian life are perhaps overblown—that a few thousand people in the world go to an online Anglican church in Second Life (65-66) seems less culturally significant than that in the United States, where essentially everyone has access to the Internet and is completely accustomed to doing everything from dating to grocery shopping online, a 2015 Pew Research Center study found that half the population still goes to a church building at least once a month for worship.
Beyond this, little reference is made to the more subcutaneous ontological questions of Christian worship; ritual practices supposedly emerging from and leading into a spiritual reality that exceeds the temporal where technologies exist. How digital media technology might enable or obstruct access to the sacred is never really broached. Theologians and philosophers engaged in debates about meaning in language, being, consciousness, or metaphysics will be discouraged to find no references to the rich imaginations of thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Hubert Dreyfus, Charles Taylor, Katherine Hayles, Zygmunt Bauman, or Peter Sloterdijk, just to name a few, who engage extensively with the question of what technology has to do with what it means to be a human.
Surely it cannot be stated that “digital technologies are increasingly intersecting with our spiritual lives” (1) without first assuming it is somehow clear what our “spiritual lives” actually are. That category is certainly not stable, and this is not a book to engage with that problematic question. It offers instead a more straightforward meditation on “what is it … that the Christin tradition can offer here in the light of the God news of Jesus Christ? And how can it offer it in a way that is intelligible and credible to those in that context and also valuable and relevant to their everyday lives” (117). In the course of this dialogue, this work arrives at the basic ethical principles “to do justice, to love kindness and mercy, and to walk humbly with God” (122). Networked Theology is well worth the read for those looking to dip their feet into the big names and ideas of media theory from Christian perspective, but as a work of theology, this text does not quite escape the orbit of those other “guidebooks” to ethical Christian practice it alludes to in its introduction.
Michael Raubach is a doctoral student in theology at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.
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