Technology, Trust and Transformation

I discovered a new blog yesterday – one that focuses on a topic near and dear to my heart. It’s called “When Religion Meets New Media.”

The author, Heidi Campbell, is involved with the Wikiklesia project I mentioned here about a month ago, and her blog concentrates on the religious response to, and use of, the ongoing communications revolution in which we find ourselves.

As a Public Affairs professional who has tried, with relatively little success, to move a decidedly “old media” Defense agency public affairs office towards an appreciation of new media tools and tactics over the last two years, this topic intrigues me.

As a blogger and writer on things philosophical and theological, the intersection of this phenomenon with religion – any religion – fascinates me.

If you are here, reading this blog, you probably don’t need me to tell you what constitutes “new media.” It used to shock me how little appreciation institutions of any sort had for powerful tools like blogs or social networking sites like YouTube and MySpace. The deeper I get into this issue, though, the more I am coming to think that this is precisely because they are institutions. New media, it seems to me, is innately anti-institutional. Already it is driving down the readership of virtually every major newspaper in the United States, changing the face of politics, bringing down corrupt governments, chipping away at attendance in local institutional churches, and threatening national security.

It is these last two applications that intrigue me the most, for it is in these areas that we see the intersection of new media with religion.

Those of you who have read much of my writing here are already aware what I think of the institutions and traditions that make up modern-day “Churchianity.” This being the case, I believe the online revolution and the advent of “Web 2.0” – the sprouting of social networking, wikis and other collaborative sites – to be perhaps the most exciting thing that has happened to the church since Martin Luther picked up a hammer in Wittenburg.

What you might not realize is that Christianity is not alone in this. I’ve talked before about the tremendous propaganda successes radical Islamists have achieved using websites, cell phones, and video cameras. Just last week, ABC News was handed a tape that was all over the Internet within hours, showing a Taliban “graduation ceremony” of suicide bombers preparing to enter and attack Western targets such as Germany, Canada, Britain and the U.S.

However, Islam is also suffering its own identity crisis in strikingly similar ways to that being endured by Christianity – and for largely the same reasons. Due almost entirely to the ease with which materials can now be published, ordinary Muslims all over the world are beginning to question the previously unassailable credibility of both the Ulama (Islamic scholars) and the Hadith (Islamic traditions).

I find all of this very exciting, because it forces each of us – no matter what we believe – to reexamine what, and who, we trust.

Going back to Islam, the importance of the Hadith has always stemmed from the assertion that it relates back to the practices and words of the prophet Muhammed and helps to explain the words of the Quran. Similarly, the Ulama are those most studied in Islam, and thus have been the arbiters of Islamic Law.

Similarly, the importance of Christian tradition has always been said to be its relation to scripture, and the importance of the “vicar class” has always been its members’ study and training in scripture and doctrine.

Prior to this time, those assumptions have been virtually unassailable – and those who make waves have found themselves cast out by the very arbiters whose authority they doubt, using the very traditions whose legitimacy they question. I’ve felt this myself, having been threatened with excommunication due to my decision to leave the Southern Baptist Church of which I was a member for two years. It’s not exactly as bad as a fatwa calling for one’s death, but it’s unpleasant enough.

Increasingly, though, technology is loosening the desperate hold of the so-called “religious experts.” No longer does a Muslim seeking to better understand his religion need an Alim to explain it. No longer do I need a pastor to tell me what He believes God wants from me.

So again, Who (or what) do we trust?

As Christians, who do we trust? Ask yourself this question. Do you trust Scripture?

Why?

And what do you mean by your answer?

Think about it for a moment. Do you believe Scripture to be infallible? Authoritative? Inspired?

What do each of these words mean to you?

If Scripture is truly infallible, then which version (or versions) are flawless? If your answer is “the original texts” then how do you feel about the fact that no person now living has ever seen one of these texts? If your answer is “copies of the originals in their initial languages” then does it disturb you at all to place your trust in human translators to “get it right”? Does it bother you that many well-meaning people have come up with different answers? Does it give you pause to realize that some of the most trusted versions were blatantly politically motivated at the time of their translation?

If Scripture is “merely” authoritative, what does that mean to you? Does it mean that every word must be followed? How then do you feel about the Old Testament demands to abstain from eating rabbits, stone rebellious children and engage in blood feuds with rival families? How do you feel about the fact that Christ himself advocated routinely breaking some of the ten commandments? How do you feel about the myriad interpretations of various New Testament issues like drinking alcohol, wearing headcoverings and speaking in tongues?

Who do you trust to tell you what to think?

If Scripture is “inspired” – the only one of these three terms it actually claims to be – what does that mean? What does “profitable” mean? How about “teaching” (doctrine in the KJV), “reproof,” “correction” or “training in righteousness”? How do you feel about the fact that the single passage in which scripture does claim to be inspired is a very specific reference . . . to the Old Testament?

How do you feel about the fact that the Old Testament canon was compiled based on material from books that didn’t make the cut? How do you feel about the fact that the New Testament canon originated as a sort of “pastor’s recommended reading list“?

Who do you trust? Historical church leaders like Martin Luther – who called the book of James “an epistle of straw,” yet quoted from it anyway? Even more distant church fathers like Athanasius, Origen and Augustine, who disagreed with one another?

Who do you trust?

My point is not to belittle Scripture. My point is that human authorities, no matter how respected or credible, are not perfect. It seems to me that the more conservative, “fundamental” sects of Christianity have ceased to be “Christians,” and have become “Biblists.” We (I include myself in this group because it is in this tradition that I grew up) have forgotten that Christ said that He, not the writings of His followers, was the way, the truth and the life. We have forgotten that a relationship with the living God is a personal relationship . . . not a matter of academics.

Who then do you trust? Your pastor? your church leaders? your Bible? . . . or your Father?

This is the glory found where technology intersects with religion – the glory of a personal relationship with our Creator, free of intermediaries, interventions and interpretations. Of course we are never free of our own interpretations, but as Samuel once had to be reminded, the Lord knows our hearts. Of course we . . . I . . . struggle daily with my own presuppositions and interpretations, but I trust God. I trust Him to draw me to Himself. My own filters are difficult enough to navigate. I am grateful that technology has negated the need for any others. It has transformed relationships of many kinds – only one of which is my relationship with Father.

One thought on “Technology, Trust and Transformation”

  1. Michael-

    Thanks for you comment on my blog. Your post highlights a very important issues that I have been researching this past year, that is how does the internet and new media impact perceptions and framing of traditional religious authority. Initally scholars and the press assumed the internet would undermine traditional authority of all kinds–political, religious, etc.–but recent research has shown many religious groups are now using new media to monitor their members and solidify their influence or control. So in many respect the internet can be seen to both challenge and affirm traditional sources of authority including texts, authority figures and structures. The one thing that we can say that as new media becomes embedded in the fabric of everyday life it is forcing religious communities to re-examine their core values and how they should treat one another in light of our mediated world. You might be interested in a recent article I have written that fits in with many of the questions you are asking above. Check out: http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol12/issue3/campbell.html

    Cheers!

    Heidi

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