God, Theology, and the Digital Age: Digitality and the Changing Contours of Theological Enquiry
J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu PhD
Trinity Theological Seminary, Legon, Ghana
This paper proposes to address the simple but complex issue of how digitality changes contemporary methods of theological enquiry. Theology is about experiencing and making meaning in a world where the existence of supernatural reality, God, is taken for granted. Thus, in the intersections between religion and media, a question that nags theological scholarship relates to the tensions arising from the attempts to domesticate the supernatural through the mundane for the purposes of accessibility and meaning making. Peter Horsfield has for instance drawn attention to how in the study of media and theology, for example, media is viewed “not as individual instruments of communication but as part of a conglomerate of technological and nontechnological social mediation by which people access and contribute to processes of making meaning in their lives” (From Jesus to the Internet, p. 1). It is virtually impossible in our age of media technology then, to engage in theological enquiry in any meaningful sense, without those digital resources that have become integral to our religious lives. The paper reflects on how the transition from manual to a digital age raises challenges regarding how theological enquiry is conducted, especially in non-Western contexts like Africa where Christianity has taken refuge from its siege in the West.
Introduction: Theology as a Western Systematic Discipline
Historically speaking, Christian theology which has mostly been studied as a system of ideas about God in relation to the created order and human origins, life, relations, and activities, was until the middle of the early 20th century, envisaged as a Western ecclesiological enterprise. This understanding stemmed from several reasons including the fact that in the modern history of Christianity beyond the West, the faith was known and received as a white person’s religion. Christianity until recently, when the development of digital technology took over the media space, was also a religion of the book. When the printing on paper was invented in the 15th century, one Johannes Gutenberg is quoted to have described the press as a source from which “shall flow in inexhaustible streams the most abundant and most marvelous liquor that has ever flowed to relieve the thirst of [humanity].”1
Christianity has been mediated through the translated Scriptures and other resources like tracts and pamphlets that summarize the stories of the Bible for different categories of people. Its beliefs, faith, spiritual and practices were accessed from the sacred writings of the Bible, interpreted by theologians in academic literature and proclaimed orally by its various advocates. However, as Jeffrey S. Siker notes of Gutenberg’s observation above, the digital age in which we now live have witnessed no less than an inexhaustible torrent of 1s and 0s from which continues to flow “that most marvelous liquor” of information and data to satisfy the insatiable tastes of humanity.2 We speak here of computer mediated communication, ranging from emailing to Facebook, twitter, and podcasts, through which we access the Bible and the theologies based on it.
In its Western missionary and denominationalized forms, Christianity spread through a strong print culture. Christianity as a world faith was also expressed mostly through institutions in which singing, praying and even preaching was organized in ways that mimicked what had been received from the West. That Western hegemony over Christian theology has been broken because of the multiplicity of sources and resources for theological discourses made available through cybertechnology.3 In African Christian theology, which is the focus of this paper, the transition from a print culture to the reliance on digital media is best appreciated when considered from the viewpoint that the history of Christian mission in Africa started with the delivery of Bibles from Europe to indigenous believers. Traditionally, Scripture, Tradition, Experience and Reason, are listed as the four main sources of theology and theological texts are written with these in mind. In an age of media and digital technology, the question that faces the churches, as well as other religious traditions, is this: “what will the Christian faith and its theology look like as the world transitions from a print to an electronic age that is increasingly becoming digitized?
Digital technology belongs to the realm of new media which “empowers users in ways that influence social and cultural engagement as well as technical use and appropriation.”4 To appreciate the ways in which new media poses challenges to traditional ways of being religious and doing theology, consider the following development. An international Christian organization has recently been donating to the Trinity Theological Seminary, Ghana, where I teach, large quantities of a beautiful study leatherbound Bible. The Seminary have graciously received them and thanked the donors, but interestingly, we rarely find Seminarians carrying these physical Bibles to church. They also do not carry thick theological textbooks to lectures. Instead, what they have, are cellphones, tablets, and gadgets of that nature on which most of the time, they conveniently carry more than one version of the Bible for the benefit of reference and comparison. If seminarians or worshippers were to carry physical Bibles to church, those who prefer to have the different versions of them, would have needed large boxes to carry their Bibles physically to places of worship. Digitality comes with convenience, accessibility, and possibilities of interaction with the material of interest.
Media Technology and Developments in World Christianity
Digital media has simply transformed the way we read, study, and refer to the Bible. Spiker’s observation that the Bible in digital social media is where we best see the “liquid character of the Bible,” is a very instructive one.5 It has also transformed the way we worship. The “liquid character” he explains, refers to the ways in which the Bible is translated from solid text to image and sound.6 In Spiker’s words:
The printed text has been rendered into liquid 1s and 0s, the language of all things digital, whether as text on a digital screen, as narration on a digital audio player, or as both static and moving images on a digital video player.7
Thus, to account for the traditions of the church in the study of theology, for example, one of the things that needs to be considered is the media traditions of our technological age. In every case for example, “tradition” and “experience” have referred exclusively to the biblical and Western approaches to these concepts. However, several new developments have taken place since the beginning of the 20th century that have affected how we study theology. These developments include, but are not limited to the following:
Contextual theologies such as African, Asian, Latin American and Liberation theology and Inculturation theologies have developed in response to the inability to Western systematic theology to adequately account for the experiences of these contexts.
In the face of the agitations for the contextualization of Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church was one of the first to respond to the age of media technology and the challenges it posed to the ministry of the church
Christian religious innovation in Africa (and in other non-Western contexts) has revealed beliefs and phenomena that illustrate what Africans, when left to themselves consider important in religious experiences and Christian theology
The rise of Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity in Africa as the new representative face of the faith has led to the mainstreaming of the belief and experiences of the Holy Spirit in Christianity
These developments coincided with three others that are relevant for our discussion, and they are: first, the decline of Christianity in the West; second, accession of Christianity in the non-Western contexts of Africa, Asian and Latin America; and third, the explosion of media technology and its deployment in the service of the church. So how do these developments, especially the rise of digital media, impact the ways in which we engage in the theological enterprise?
Christian Theology in a Media Age
Digital theology or cyber-theology is the study of the intersections between theology and digital technology and one of the fundamental issues this raises is how the relationship affects methods of theological reflection. The Durham University website advertises a graduate course in Digital Theology which is supposed to offer a unique opportunity for theological reflection on digital culture and its impact on contemporary Christianity. The areas that course explores are very instructive and they include the following:
How we think theologically about digital culture and how we might apply digital methodologies to our theological thinking
How key theological themes are impacted by serious engagement with digitality
How religious practice adapts within a dominant digital culture, especially digitally mediated Christianity and whether there are boundaries to that adaptation
Christianity is now a non-Western, non-White religion with its major heartlands now found in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. We have pointed out that the decline of Christianity and the processes of secularization in the West, the former heartlands of the faith, have coincided not only with the accession of the faith in the global South. In the late 20th century, the world also started experiencing an acceleration in globalization, increased democratization in the practice of religion and an omnipresence of media in human life and development.
The emergence of Africa as a major heartland of Christianity started with the translation of the Bible into various vernaculars. It is the access of Scripture and therefore theology in mother-tongues, as happened on the day of Pentecost, that contributed to growth of Christianity beyond the West. Today Christian theology is no longer a Western dominated subject because of vernacularization. Interestingly, Spiker sees in the shift from print to digital Bibles a reflection of a shift to a new kind of vernacular. He describes it, and in my opinion with veracity as “a new vernacular of Christian faith for reading, hearing, and watching the Bible.”8 Since religion is itself a mediated phenomenon, the media has continued to offer possibilities in the expression and consumption of religious resources outside the control of defined religious authorities and institutions. It all started with the invention of the radio, television and then by the 1970s, portable storage devices—cassette and audiotapes and videotapes—that made recording, storage and circulating theological material easier than it used to be.
The arrival of the internet moved things a notch higher. The internet has become a place of religious and theological encounter. It is also a place that generates for people all kinds of numinous experiences, making it impossible to study theology today referring to the information and happenings accessible through cybermedia spaces. Blogs, tweets and Facebook including WhatsApp have become what Spiker refers to as the new common language “spoken” as well by digital immigrants who have come to appreciate the ease with which we can read and interact with Scripture and even theologize whether as professionals or lay people.9 We can study the theological themes of sermons, styles of worship, access the history of churches and know what the public even thinks about theological issues and developments through access to the Internet.
Writing on “the internet and the numinous” in his book Media and Religion, Daniel A. Stout observes as follows:
The internet, as a synthesis of several media, has a great capacity for numinous experience. In the same way that religion combines belief, behavior, community, and feeling, the Internet’s convergence of text, video, graphics, sound, and interactivity facilitates all four dimensions of worship. Beliefs are described and discussed; there is an opportunity for community-building through social networking. Users engage in rituals and other sacred behaviors online. In sum, the Internet creates an environment for both structured worship and serendipitous searching for truth.10
The Internet, as Stout argues here has great capacity for “numinous experience” and that means in addition to the traditional sources of theology we outlined, this has become the new frontier for the study of ideas and experiences about God in relation to all things in the earthly realms of existence. The Internet is a cauldron of all kinds of both sacred and secular activity. In fact, with its now unrestricted access to profanity, it has become a context of competing ideologies where everyone—individuals and institutions—attempt to claim some space for themselves within it.
Religious activities now abound within cyberspace and in many ways, some of what is placed there even threatens to undermine not just recognized Christian religious authority, but also what was previously accepted without question as theological orthodoxy. In addition to all these, the study of Christian theology must now take place within a Western context in which, at least within the public sphere, developments in science and technology has led to what Paul Gifford refers to as the “peripheralization of the otherworldly.”11 In the modern West, God has apparently been nudged out of the public sphere, but that must not be misconstrued to mean that theology has become irrelevant in the lives of people. Media technology can be trendy and within contemporary cultures are usually indicative of the fact that Christian communities that use it effectively are up to date. On that score, cybertechnology as a theological resource, as Quentin J. Schultze suggests, must be deployed within the context of the power, majesty, and glory of God.12
Scripture and Digitality
Contemporary digital media practices have led to heightened interests and active, desperate, and aggressive quests for “experiences of enchantment and transcendence.”13 The “liquid scripture” which we have been discussing is now the new sources of theology. This is what Spiker refers to as the “de-clericalization and democratization of the Bible,” in the digital age.14 The availability of digital Scripture had led to its accessibility in new vernaculars and helped to make theology in non-Western contexts a non-professional endeavor. Kwok Pui-lan puts the matter even more succinctly:
Today print culture is yielding to a digital one, where visual, electronic text appears much more fluid and malleable. Electronic text has no fixed borders and can be constantly updated and constructed by the creator and the user/reader. Scripture now appears in hypertext format, with links to all kinds of information and websites. The reader can read a few lines, surf other sites, and check out video clips thereby creating [their] own domain of knowledge and context of knowing.15
The decline of Christianity in the West and the secularization that has accompanied it has often been explained in terms of the historical impact of the age of Enlightenment in which things that cannot be proven by science and rationality was deemed not to exist. However, the attraction of digital theology means that secularization has not necessarily led to diminished interest in religion and in theological ideas. Pui-lan points out that biblical scholarship now takes place within new cybermedia generation contexts steeped in visual culture. She speaks here of how pictures, animations, and videos now constitute critical new contexts of learning and appreciation of biblical knowledge.16 This can hardly be otherwise looking at the speed in which digital technology is changing our epistemological categories and orientations.
The culture of conspicuous consumption within the secular sphere has led to widespread disillusionments with many people searching for something more otherworldly or numinous for meaning making in their private lives. In fact, what secularization has done in many cases, is to create a certain hunger and thirst for supernatural experiences that can help to fill the spiritual void and emptiness that people feel. This is how the Psalmist captures the feeling:
“As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:1).
When people thirst and hunger for spiritual fulfillment and nourishment, they can now look beyond what has historically been offered by the custodians of theological truths and access their needs from the various digital resources available to seekers. What this means is that organized religion, or for our purposes, institutionalized Christianity may have a waning influence, but we can still rely on digital theological practices to trace the contours and trajectories of faith through the questions that people are asking and the religious practices that they now ardently pursue within media spaces. One of the exciting developments in cybermedia, Pui-lan notes, is the uninhibited access to information including the ability to interact with such information across space and time.17
This recalls promptly something about the reception of the message of the gospel among the people of Beroea that is reported in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul and Silas preached the gospel in that city, and we are told that they “welcomed the message very eagerly,” but they also “examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). In an age of technology and cybermedia, the options for the verification of theological information is now even more open-ended. The scriptures that the people of Beroea are said to have examined would have been the Hebrew scriptures. Today, it is possible for listeners to simultaneously verify whether a sermon being delivered, or some theological seminar presentation being aired in terms of facts are true or false. Cybertechnology means that our understanding of text as written has changed considerably and in the study of theology, we now must clarify what it means when the Bible, for example, is described as “holy.” The scriptures, which is a primary source of Christian theology can now no longer be defined as published and printed text. It exists in cyberspace as downloadable material that people can read and also interact with.
LGBTQI+ and Theology
There are several other theological issues on which the Christian church as the “body of Christ” does not proffer one stand. A more current and sore issue relates to whether the church of Jesus Christ must admit into the full fellowship of the church as the body of Christ people belonging to the global LGBTQI+ fraternity. This debate, which has been carried out in the media with diverse views on it and has been disseminated by digital technology poses a big threat to world ecumenical institutions. At the end of June 2021, for example, the Methodist Church in Britain passed a resolution endorsing LGBTQI+ activities. It also passed a resolution to accept cohabitation of by unmarried couples. The Methodist Church Nigeria was quickest to respond with a recorded video in which the Methodist Church UK was denounced as having fallen away from its Wesleyan heritage. Thus, cybertechnology makes it possible for scholars to study how churches of the global south, for example, respond to some of the contentious theological issues emerging out of the Christian West.
The churches in Africa have found the decisions of the British Methodist Conference deeply traumatizing. Thanks to cybertechnology, the churches in Africa have made their voices heard and their minds known through pastoral letters and responded to popular opinions on the decision by the public. The average Methodist Church member in Africa did not have to wait for any official communique on developments in the UK. On Facebook, twitter and by blogging, the public contributed to a theological debate that took church authority several weeks before carefully crafting a response to make their stance known. This means as a theological issue the church no longer has the final say on such contentious issues. The public was able to follow the debates through various of forms of social and digital media with both those who approve of it and those against it making their voices known.
Thus, in studying the LGBTQI+ issues in terms of theology, scholars have the benefit of what the church as an institution is saying and what the general public’s responses to the decisions are. The debate went beyond what was discussed at the level of the denomination because through social media everyone—whether Christian or not—had access to the discussions and those wanting to do so responded as they deemed fit. Most importantly, the mere fact that most African responses reject the endorsement of LGBTQI+ lifestyles indicates that theologically, churches may have the same heritage, but they differ in how the Bible is interpreted when it comes to a range of issues that affect the Christian faith. In the submission of Pui-lan, there now exists many more channels through which people look for information about the Bible. The access such information by surfing the Web, interacting virtually with other interpreters and even pose questions online.18
Covid-19 and Digital Theology
One of the questions we raised earlier relates to how religious practices adapt within a dominant digital culture, especially digitally mediated Christianity and whether there are boundaries to that adaptation. This matter came very strongly to the fore at the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions. Religious services had to be conducted wholly online including the celebrations of the sacraments of Holy Communion. A lot of churches had to adapt to different forms of celebrating virtual communion and long held theological views regarding sacraments have had to be revised. Churches that would otherwise restrict holy communion to only baptized and confirmed members, for example, had to come to terms with the fact that under locked down conditions, the sense of fear brought upon families by the Covid-19 had made it difficult to insist on certain theological positions regarding access to the Lord’s Table. The question of the theological significance of virtual or cyber holy communion is one that those interested in the liturgical theologies would need to address in the light of our Covid-19 experiences.
The depressive circumstances that the Covid-19 pandemic situation created, also offered the virtual perfect fit for the sort of motivational and inspirational messages associated with contemporary Pentecostalism. Its prosperity message had often sounded a bit monolithic and myopic in the sense that although it is preached in full knowledge that suffering and evil are real, those sorts of circumstances had often been ignored. In the African Christian context with its endemic poverty and deprivation, the emphasis on the power of triumph, success, promotion, life, health, victory, and overcoming had blinded many preachers to the real-life circumstances of their patrons. These messages were confronted with reality checks in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the Covid-19 situation, preaching through media meant that some of those who listened were likely to be a bit more discerning and critical of motivational messages of success. The reality was that their lives had been badly disrupted, and many looked for hope, solace and comfort from the resources available through cybermedia. In spite of the regular messages that those who fulfill certain religious obligations would be successful and win the battles of life, this particular demon of a coronavirus was affecting the fortunes of everyone including pastors and prophets who had assured that faithful Christians were beyond the logic of suffering. Many took to social media to question the inability of the African charismatic prophets to foretell the onset of the coronavirus and if not deal with it, at least get the world to prepare.
The world was locked down through Good Friday and the Easter period. In Africa these events are very heavily advertised by churches in order to attract patrons to their programs during the season. The lockdowns did not afford African Pentecostal pastors the usual opportunities to advertise the “benefits of the cross”, “the blood that speaks”, or the “power of the resurrection”. As with the first Passover and the first Crucifixion and Resurrection days in the Bible, everyone was locked down and although the messages were still empowering, preachers were challenged by the circumstances to tweak them a bit to account for what the world was going through. Until the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak, one would have struggled to hear sermons on the second coming of Christ among contemporary Pentecostal preachers.
I have argued elsewhere that one scarcely hears sermons about eschatological events in a contemporary charismatic world. This is because, a preacher cannot encourage members to make as much money as they could, build big and palatial homes, buy the best in luxurious cars and at the same time preach that, but anyway, Jesus could appear like a thief in the night.19 Contemporary Pentecostals believe in God’s end time judgement and the second coming of Christ, but they simply do not preach it. Paul Gifford also mentions this in his book, Ghana’s New Christianity, noting that the recurring emphasis in this form of Christianity “has to do with success, wealth and status.”20 If these are the recurring themes of contemporary Pentecostalism, what changed in the first quarter of the year 2020? The simple answer is that prosperity preachers were forced to respond to a pandemic that revealed the realities of life. In the period of the coronavirus consternation, there was certainly a change in mood and several preachers took to cybermedia to reach their patrons with eschatological messages that had hitherto been placed on the back burner.
Oral Theology and Cybermedia
The oral culture of Africa goes back to antiquity. This oral tradition is constituted by a varying but interrelated range of forms that capture and document history. Storytelling and drum language are for instance two of the main ways in which orality is expressed. The age of technology and cybermedia, rather than undermine the importance of oral theologizing as some thought would happen, has rather helped to keep the oral tradition alive. The invention of recording technology to document oral tradition, have enabled the recording, storage, and wide disseminations of previously inaccessible material for global consumption.21
Christian theology in Africa has sustained oral modes of talking about God and faith through poetry, preaching singing, drumming and extemporaneous forms of prayer. In other words, it is impossible to write any treatise on African theology with the oral resources through which faith is expressed. Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako referred to oral theology as implicit, grassroots, or spontaneous theology from which systematic theology could benefit immensely if it seeks to understand the place and revelation of God in African cultures. The storage of oral theology now makes it possible for the faith of African independent indigenous Pentecostal/charismatic churches and movements to be studied without physical onsite visitations. African Pentecostal music, sermons, books, and prayers are now available either through cyberspace or on those portable recording devices that we have spoken about. They have become invaluable resources in studying theological themes that may be unique to the African experience.
Methodologically speaking, the study of theology has changed with the emergence of highly sophisticated media and cybertechnology. The traditional sources of theology have now expanded to include information communication technology sources through which the Christian faith is now accessed and expressed. The growth of digital media although challenges the traditional sources of theological truth may not necessarily be bad for the authority of religious functionaries. Digital media offers the opportunity for the assessment of theological claims and opportunities for comparing them with what may be available elsewhere. Through digital sources theological information, even those from oral sources, can now be stored, accessed, and disseminated in ways that were not possible in the past. The availability of cybertechnology means redefining the nature of the church’s institutional formation because increasingly, the church is ceasing to be the sole custodian of theological truth.
The Christian and other publics now participate in theological debates through computer mediated communication and other portable devices offering democratized access to such information. We have illustrated from the LGBTQ+ and the Covid-19 experiences that there is a process of deinstitutionalization occasioned by the availability of cybertechnology that scholars cannot ignore if they want to remain contemporary, contextual, and relevant in the study of Scripture and theology. The life of the contemporary church is now lived online, and religious messages and resources are available to those interested through cybermedia. This is the new arena for the study of Christian theology. The repackaging of the Christian message using media meant that, as Horsfield points out, the principal agents of religion are having to adapt by packaging and marketing their services and products to meet the needs or demands of their patrons online. In digital practice, people ignore the formal boundaries between the secular and sacred spheres of existence as they actively explore and play with enchantment and transcendence.22 This is where theology lives now, and this is where it must be accessed and studied.