Cursor_ Exploring New Venues for Theological Discussion in an Open Access Journal
We first started thinking about our project in the summer of 2015. This project eventually became “Cursor”_ Zeitschrift für explorative Theologie” and we are about to launch our first issue. Then, all four of us were teaching theology at the university, working on different scholarly projects in our dissertations or second-book projects, and all four of us obviously had different backgrounds and individual habits and experiences when it comes to the use of social media. But we shared the impression that a lot of the academic theological discourse was rather closed in different ways: Scholars tended to think (and talk) within separate schools of thought, without much dialogue between the different camps; scholars tended to publish well-polished arguments that would close discussions rather than open up new venues for them; scholars tended to avoid any impression of questions without ready answers.
Even generally, in many publics many people view theology as such as something that is forbidding, censoring, and moralizing on the one hand – while never up to date, especially with technological developments, on the other. I am saying that all of this was our impression, not that this was and is the case everywhere.
On the other hand, we had the impression that there was an interest in theological discussion if one started to look around: The US have a certain type of “theological public” that already existed before the internet, mainly in magazines and through the large book market. There has been some serious discussions going on about topics like “faith and culture”, “faith and politics”, “faith in a secular postmodern context”. This public was relatively successful in its transfer to social media. Some bloggers like Richard Beck (http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.de) have even published “online books” and made their research available.
In Germany, this is not equally the case. But since the years 2003/4, even here, there has been a vibrant social media culture and theological blogger scene. In the academic theological discussions, however, there was not a huge sensitivity to the cultural shift occurring in connection to digital transformations, so somehow it felt like an academic culture which was considerably closed off from public debate.
I was personally engaged in digital theological discourses before I was involved in the academia and I found myself startled by how little German academic theology was even aware of there being new forms of theological discourse in the social web. On the other hand, I found it interesting how little connection the online discourse had to the better sides of academic theology. That’s why I participate in Cursor_: in order to create a space where those two forms of theological discourse can meet: to show people in academia what’s going on in new forms of theological public and what kind of questions and sensitivities are emerging from that; and on the other hand, to help those involved in new forms of theological debate to find the resources they need in order to provide a new depth for these discourses.
Surely, there can be an expertocratic snobbism in Academia, but there can also be something C.S. Lewis once called “chronological snobbism” in Social Web where people have the feeling that they cannot learn anything new from theological classics. This would be a missed opportunity for academic theology to find a new relevance by communicating to a different public and learning a new vernacular and a missed opportunity for those innovative forms of theological discourse to see the established theological discourse in a new light and to profit from “full time theologians”.
Another problem is that in the past few years the Christian right (in way parallel to the political right) has turned out to be far more present in social media than ‘established’ theology. It is a worrying discovery for me that there seems to be something in the very structure of online media that makes it very attractive for right wing discourses, both religious and political – and I don’t think that this structure has been understood very well so far. Our journal Cursor_ is also an experiment if another theological public is possible that avoids both the trap of becoming an isolated bubble of likeminded ‘progressives’ or ‘academics’ and the trap of joining a culture of superficial, non-constructive exchanges of ideological positions.
In very recent years, the general realization has set in that the same infrastructure once built to enhance dialogue, cooperation, and dissemination of knowledge, can also be used to deliver advertisement and political propaganda, or to construct entire filter bubbles, thereby separating and even isolating its users from reality as experienced by others. The current state of the web has the potential to support communal or even ecumenical conversations, but it can also become a completely solipsistic exercise where users “share” more on social media than ever before, but also less of a common outlook on reality than ever before.
However, you have to take into account that the use of social media in Germany differs greatly from that in other Western societies. For instance, Germans tend to share less content in social media and they tend to be more anonymous and passive in social web. Additionally, higher social media usage tends to be correlated with lowers degree of formal education. Milieus of traditional education are more likely to shy away from social media.
Notwithstanding important national differences, we as Cursor_ are aware of these problematic developments within the current state of social media, but we are also excited about the notion of unrestricted and egalitarian exchange of data, ideas, and opinions, which is fundamentally connected to the concept of the internet right from the start.
Currently, there are also new developments happening within fields of scholarship to include interdisciplinary perspectives, as well as the opinions of non-experts under the name “Citizen Science”. In my view, these concerns lie at the heart not only of the humanities, but of Protestant theology itself: The notion of universal priesthood and the egalitarian participation of lay people are theological key issues for the Reformation. To our surprise, despite Protestantism’s positive history of early adopting new media, theology so far has mostly ignored these current developments. Thus, we found it worthwhile to explore these new possibilities further.
When the four of us put our heads together, we thus wanted to create a space for theological exchange that would see theological inquiry as a tentative, explorative, even experimental process; that would look for progress in knowledge in forms of communal practice. We wanted a medium that would be more dynamic and transparent; that would invite and foster participation; and that would open up dialogue between scholars and practitioners of different fields. We wanted to create a space that would take serious recent developments in church and society; search for intersections beyond established discursive borderlines; and develop new venues for a participatory and interactive culture of dialogue and discussion.
Thus, we decided to found a new journal, academic in quality, but broader in its range and accessible and interactive in its practice. We thought that “open access” could and should mean more than just publishing the same kind of monolithic papers in a pdf rather than print format. We wanted to embrace the potentials of the online world and developments in citizen science in order to foster our goals and create a kind of “inverted classroom” between teachers and learners without necessarily pre-assigned roles.
In this course, we rely on social media use and hope to draw on its potential. Within our practice, the employment of social media specifically aims at facilitating quicker and more direct discussion. We cherish the possibility social media provide to opine regardless of formal qualification or academic training. We love its potential to create, develop and harvest fresh ideas. We want to use it to create an easy exchange between writers and readers and it gives us the chance to reach a wider audience than just theological scholars or traditional church goers.
We intend to engage both readers and authors in a more participatory way. In previous centuries the main challenge may have been to make as much information available to the largest audience as possible. However, the central task today (for us as an academic journal aiming to reach beyond the academic circles) is probably this:
To get the audience's attention and promote its engagement without resorting to click baiting, as well as to create spaces for inclusive and engaging discourses that experience a high level of egalitarian participation, continual commitment, and thematic quality. This is not a trivial challenge and Cursor_ decided to face it with a double strategy, consisting of a pragmatic-opportunistic use of social media on the one hand, as well as a more idealistic approach to engagement and commitment on the other hand.
First, Cursor_'s use of different social media platforms follows a pragmatic approach: We use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in order to grab our audience's attention on as many channels as possible, and encourage any first exchanges and discussions. We are fully aware of the short shelf-life of these channels (who remembers Friendster, Second Life and My Space today?), as well as economic, moral, political, and other ambivalences associated with them.
Most importantly, though, we are convinced that most of the web’s promises on egalitarian exchanges of ideas have yet to be fulfilled, but that there is a distinct lack of working solutions at the moment. In our view, none of the currently existing social media platforms provide the functionality we are looking for, which incited us to build our own solution, consisting of a combination of different aspects. In order to go beyond the often superficial, banal, or aggressive forms of exchange common on social media, Cursor_ opted for an approach that combines more traditional physical means with the new virtual collaboration platform PubPub (www.pubpub.org).
We believe that people are more likely to engage with a project whose output can also take on physical forms in "real life". We therefore pay a lot of attention to a well-designed layout and ready-to-print typesetting, we implemented a print-on-demand service, and we regularly organize workshops where authors and readers can interact with non-virtually.
On the other hand, Cursor_ uses PubPub, an open-source platform designed for scientific publishing and equipped with extensive functionality for discussions, where anyone can participate free of charge or academic titles. Our hope is that the specific features of PubPub as a platform will allow for more engagement, commitment, and continuity when it comes to author-reader interaction and general discourse. It is, thus, our primary platform for "social research" or “citizen theology”.
Open access online journals commonly employ a structure that is more or less the same as in academic standard print journals. They are organized in volumes and issues, and contain a few peer reviewed articles, sometimes concerning a certain topic. Usually, the articles have only been revised during the review process. After being published their readership is often quite small, – at least in the German humanities – the majority of them is never cited.
It was an exciting discovery to see that PubPub works differently. It allows you to use your journal more like a repository for articles that can be commented and constantly revised if necessary. As old-fashioned Europeans we still rely to some degree on the structure of thematic issues, but the technology behind PubPub enables an ongoing discussion and fosters an academic culture that is open to revision and improvement. Non-anonymous and registered online comments can be a low-threshold way for participating in academic debate and providing valuable critique to a very specific issue without getting forced to publish a full article. For this reason, online comments for articles on Cursor_ can get their own Digital Object Identifier (DOI) and are an integral part of the peer review process.
Cursor_'s ultimate goal is to encourage and facilitate a kind of exchange of ideas in order to bring experts and non-experts, authors and readers, clergy and laymen together in a communal dialog in order to advance our theological discourse culture inside and outside of academia. For this, we need a continuous osmosis between two spheres of discourse – social media and PubPub – while still maintaining their independence and autonomy, since they serve different purposes. An open question for us, though, is how to set up a kind of interface, a bridge or a membrane, between these two spheres that lets high quality ideas, attention-grabbing quotes, and especially interesting discussions travel easily in both directions.
What would you recommend to scholars considering using social media?
Be vulnerable! Use social media as a tool to try out new and unfinished ideas! Don’t be afraid to expose your ideas
Limit yourself. Omnipresence in social media is neither possible nor desirable, and it will end up in having multiple dead or rarely visited accounts with no real use.
Use videos and podcasts. Recorded talks, presentations or classes are widely appreciated among students and are often the first way to get familiar with certain topics or scholars.
Use social media to reinforce your commitments - they allow you to find many who think alike but who know more or different things than you do. Use their output as a motivation and reinforcement of your own. One the other hand, use social media to also diversify your outlook and commitments. That’s harder to do, because social media often foster certain “filter bubbles”. But you also have the chance of finding very different opinions - allow them to challenge your own.
Finally, we’d like to invite you to use and experiment with PubPub. In its current state most social media is as much a tool for theology as it is an obstacle. The potential of the web for more sophisticated, sustained, and meaningful exchanges needs to be actualized in future solutions for which we need to keep an eye out. We believe that PubPub could be one of such tool that can help theology as a whole to become more open, participatory, egalitarian, and inclusive. Which would, in the end, coincide nicely with what theology is all about. You can test the functionality of PubPub, contribute to our project, and improve this very text by discussing it with us and others on: https://cursor.pubpub.org/pub/cursor-cursor-2017