Practicing virtue with social media:

An “underdetermined” response

By Jason Byassee
May 10, 2012

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 of 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.

Let 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” answer.[1] 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 Time.

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 Christ.

Barth 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 reported on 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 great.”[2]

Such messianic 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 the millennium.[3]

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?[4] 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 them.

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?

One final soteriology of digital technology is John Palfrey’s and Urs Gasser’s Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives.[5] 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.

The church 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?

Abilene Christian University’s ACU Connected is one case study.[6] 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?

New 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 being.

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

Given my 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.[7] 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 overshoots.

Schultze, a professor of communications at Calvin College, worries that technology “divert[s] my attention from the central concerns of life ... to relatively trivial pursuits.”[8] 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.

Schultze simply 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 sin.

Schultze is 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.

Another jeremiad 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.[9] 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.”[10] 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 me.”[11] This 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.”[12]

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 at all.

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.”[13] 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.[14]

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 way:

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’.”[15]

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 interviewed him for Faith & Leadership,[16] 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.

The 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[17]

The “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?

I mentioned 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).[18] 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.”[19] 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.[20] 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.

The final 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.”[21] 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 parochial.

Case studies 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.

Richard 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.[22]

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.

The 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 how.

Christianity Today 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 City, Yours).

A friend 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.

Another 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

[1] See note 17.

[2] Mitchell Landsberg, “’Theology after Google’ conference takes look at religion in Web era,” Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2010,

[3] Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford, 2009), 3.

[4] Jeff Jarvis, What Would Google Do? (San Francisco: HarperBusiness, 2009), 11.

[5] John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives (New York: Basic, 2008).

[6] 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,

[7] Quentin J. Schultze, Habits of the High Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the High Tech Age (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004).

[8] Schultze, Habits of the High Tech Heart, 13.

[9] David H. Kelsey, “Spiritual Machines, Personal Bodies and God: Theological Education and Theological Anthropology,” Teaching Theology and Religion 5, no. 1 (2002): 2–9.

[10] Ibid., 6.

[11] Ibid., 8.

[12] Ibid., 7.

[13] Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (New York: Faber and Faber, 2006), xii.

[14] For a similar argument see Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (New York: Norton, 2011).

[15] Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reaching in an Electronic Age (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994), 229.

[16] Faith & Leadership, “Sven Birkerts: Literary culture in the electronic age,” Faith & Leadership, December 15, 2009,

[17] 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.

[18] 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).

[19] Rowan Williams, Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 52.

[20] Graham Ward, “Between Virtue and Virtuality,” Theology Today 59, no. 1 (2002), 55-70.

[21] Dana L. Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 59.

[22] Richard Rodriguez, “Final Edition: The Twilight of the American Newspaper,” Harper’s Magazine, November 2009,


Study questions (going deep)


  1. 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?
  2. 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.

  1. 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)?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?