The Medium ist the Message? Theology in an Age of Digital Social Media.
I will never forget the first time I heard Marshall McLuhan’s famous words: “The medium is the message.” I was a first-year undergraduate student thrust into an upper-division communications course. When the professor read McLuhan’s words, I was confused.
I entered college thinking communication media used simple tools. These tools were neutral and largely inconsequential to what was communicated. We might prefer some media to others, I thought, but the form didn’t affect what was communicated. Whatever medium one might choose delivered the desired meaning, without remainder. McLuhan’s seemed patently false.
Today, I think McLuhan is partly right. I don’t think any medium presents the entire message. Words, images, or sound cannot give us full truth. But neither do I think media forms are inconsequential. In my view, the forms of communication shape the content of their messages. Media matters.
I admit to finding it difficult, however, to articulate precisely how any particular medium shapes its message. What exactly does a video communicate differently than a text, a newspaper differently than a whisper, a billboard differently than a song, etc.? What’s going on?
I’ve come to think explaining a medium’s influence on its message is similar to the problem of explaining art. I cannot articulate well my aesthetic preferences. And I cannot explain precisely the influence a medium plays in shaping a message. Language cannot capture art fully. Videos, whispers, billboards, and emails shape messages in unique ways.
I was interested in communication as an undergraduate, and today I’m especially interested in social media. I’m not only interested in how forms and formats shape their messages. I’m also interested in how media shapes us… the people who use social media.
In this essay, I offer thoughts on how media – especially digital social media – is shaping theology and theologians. I’m using “theology” in a broad sense. I mean to include other disciplines that explore big questions, disciplines like philosophy, biblical studies, religious studies, ministry, and more. As I see it, digital theology offers opportunities and challenges.
Online Theological Education
There’s little doubt social media is changing the way we live. Most people acknowledge changes in their personal relationships. And most know it changes how they go about accomplishing tasks each day. But few seem to notice the way social media changes how theologians pursue scholarship and religious leaders engage followers. A quiet revolution is underway in theology.
For almost two decades, I’ve been noticing changes in my work as a theologian. In the early 2000s, the academic institution at which I worked became one of the first in the world to offer fully accredited, fully online Masters degrees in religion. It was a major risk, and we felt like pioneers.
Being first in online education had assets and liabilities. My university colleagues and I received widespread criticism for offering online degrees. The harshest critics were other academicians. Some criticism was deserved, of course. We made plenty of mistakes! But most denigration was based upon naïve assumptions, unrealistic fears, or misinformed views about technology. We were a threat to the theological establishment.
Online education has now become common. Although it takes many forms, nearly every academic institution uses online technology and social media for education. And that includes theological education. There are still strengths and weaknesses to this format. But the number of full-throated critics continually declines. Many now seem to accept the reality of online theological education and are about the task of figuring out how to do it well.
The Internet and Social Media
When the internet emerged, many theologians considered it a new repository for ideas and scholarly materials. The new technology was just a bigger library, in this way of thinking, but a library without physical books and materials. Many scholars then and many now consider the internet a massive storage bank one can access more easily than the archive or museum in a nearby city. Let’s call this the “digital library” view of the internet.
Theologians soon found and are increasingly finding the internet to be more than a library. It’s also a powerful organizational tool. I can use my own life to illustrate. In the 1990s, I carried a physical Day-Timer book throughout my day. That Day-Timer had my calendar, phone numbers, addresses, ideas, to-do list, and more. Today, my iPhone holds all of that. And the internet offers specialized organizational tools that go beyond the amazing capacities of my iPhone. Let’s call this approach to the internet “the digital Day-Timer” view.
Social media moves the internet beyond being a mere library or Day-Timer. But many theologians think of social media as a billboard, a way to promote their activities, ideas, or events. Usually, social media is combined with websites for such advertising. In the last few years, one of the most powerful forms of theological broadcasting is the podcast. Savvy theologians use personal podcasts to promote their ideas, projects, or convictions. Let’s call this use of social media and the internet “the digital billboard.”
Today, the social aspect of the internet – especially key social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the like – prompts many theologians to regard the internet in ways other than merely a digital library, Day-Timer, or billboard. In fact, an online “presence” is increasingly necessary for theologians wanting to make a difference.
For instance, publishers want to know about a potential author’s “platform,” by which they typically mean social media influence. Educational institutions want to know if a professorial candidate has social media connections or at least some experience teaching online courses. The quality of a scholar’s website affects the measure of her prestige in the opinions of young people. In many ways, those in the theological academy without a social media “presence” are less effective. Let’s call this approach to the internet having a “digital social presence.”
In my view, few people seem to realize the impact of social media and digital technology upon how scholars think theologically and do theology. To reference McLuhan, many theologians have thought of the internet and social media as means alone. By contrast, I think digital media affect the theologian’s message. Theology is done differently in a digital age, which might be captured with the label “digital theology.”
Social media and technology more generally powerfully influence the way scholars pursue scholarship, formulate their research, or do other tasks related to their disciplines or interests. Religious activists and leaders shape their efforts and their thinking around the uses and constraints of social media. Social media influences the kinds of arguments, types of articles, imagined audiences, and language theologians choose. Those who use digital media heavily are rightly called “digital theologians.”
I recently put together a list of how social media and digital technology influences my work. They play a key role in generating my ideas, networking, crowdsourcing, private or classroom discussions, research, project publicity, personal branding, journaling, event organizing, idea testing, honing my theological language, and more. Most of the paid lectures and writing opportunities afforded me in recent years came through social media engagement. Even people at my own academic institutions have invited me to lecture and write based on what they discovered about me online!
There are advantages and disadvantages to every form of social media or digital technology, of course. I don’t see the digital landscape as in all ways better or all ways worse. But being cognizant of how the media shape the message helps me do theology better. And I suspect the future of theological work is far more likely to follow current trends than revert completely to ancient ones. Most likely is that ancient ideas and practices will be reshaped and appropriated. The most powerful appropriations may be of the kinds of theological digital communities that are emerging today.
Engaging fellow scholars and the wider public on social media has led me to do theology in novel ways. Rather than speak in generalities, I thought I’d address some specific ideas that social media, technology, and the internet have initiated. In mentioning these, I hope to spark ideas that could prove fruitful for others.
I am a Christian constructive theologian. So much of my theological ruminations revolve around Christian themes and communities. More specifically, I’m an open and relational Christian theologian. This further designation means that I think about God and existence as open and relational. I’m sure this has inclined me to notice new analogies and metaphors related to technology in contemporary Christianity.
For instance, some Christians today speak of divine revelation as information “download.” Of course, this a clear reference to computer technology. Just as we download a program to our computer devices, so some Christians claim to download divine information for their lives. I don’t especially like this “download” reference, however. It gives me the impression that Christians are passive recipients of self-contained messages delivered by God on high. Revelation “download,” in my mind, obscures the divine-creature relational dynamic I think inherent in revelation.
Other contemporary Christians, however, sometimes speak of divine revelation as coming from their “chatroom” with God. In this way of talking, God is not “on high” but an active participant in give-and-receive conversation. Both God and creatures engage in “listening” and “chatting.” No one, not even God, controls the message entirely. As an open and relational theologian, I like this view of revelation.
I also hear Christians today employ analogies related to internet access. Accessing the Holy Spirit is like accessing Wi-Fi, for instance. Both are present, must be engaged, and yet both are unseen. Like Wi-Fi, the Spirit is necessary to access the web. But we must get connected; if we’re going to discern the Spirit’s desires, we need to “log on.”
Changes in theology are not simply about new terms and language. Many of us today engage social media with the kind of devotional practices and ritual consistency that religion previously garnered. In fact, some Christians worry that social media practices are replacing traditional Christian practices.
For instance, some find more holy inspiration from a morning check of their Facebook status updates than checking in with God in morning prayers. Others worry that Christians who read biblical texts from iPhones instead of leather-bound books are missing something vital. And some worry that Christians are staying home to engage Christian media and virtual conversations rather than showing up in person to worship with communities in the flesh.
I’m personally less worried about these matters than some. In contrast to critics, I wonder how forms of social media can incorporate values from traditional practices and community engagement. But I admit that some positive dimensions are lost when new practices replace them.
Some of the most intense concern about the negative impact of digital communication comes from Christian theologians who care about issues of embodiment. Digital technology does not provide “real” encounters with God and community, some say, because online education and virtual worship services are disembodied. Online religion with its electronic practices cannot replace old-time religion with its embodied practices.
A specific event forced me to think carefully about bodies and the internet. A professor led an online celebration of the Eucharist with his students. Those participating clicked their computer keys together to “receive” the digitally imaged body and blood of Christ. When some of my Christian scholar friends learned of this online celebration of the Eucharist, they renounced the event. It’s not “real,” they said, it’s virtual. “Christ is only present when we look one another in the face,” they argued, “and when we share, in person, the elements of His body.”
I’m not convinced by these objections. I admit that celebrating the Lord’s Supper online seems weird. I suspect my feeling weird about it derives from my aesthetic intuitions. But as I see it, those who celebrated that Eucharistic meal online were interacting with people with real bodies. They may not have been standing alongside them in the flesh. But I don’t see how this makes the communion meal any less grace-filled. After all, Christians typically believe God is omnipresent. Besides, blind people never see those with whom they celebrate the Eucharist. Is Christ not present to the blind if they cannot see those with whom they share communion?
My forays into digital theology lead me to think more, in fact, about those who are differently abled or disabled. The churches I usually attend are designed with a particular kind of body in mind. Those whose bodies don’t fit that design can easily feel excluded. For some, the internet and social media put them on “equal ground” with others. New forms of media may become new means of grace for new members of Christ’s ever-new body.
These stories and ideas make up a tiny portion of what I consider intriguing digital theology issues. I offer them to prompt us to ponder more deeply the possibilities of social media and digital technology. I pray that we do not fall into the temptation to be Luddites. But I also want to retain ancient wisdom. Digital theology engages in the perennial task of embracing both what is new and what is old, but in light of new means and methods.
Theologians and Philosophers Using Social Media
To conclude this essay, I want to mention a new publication, Theologians and Philosophers Using Social Media: Advice, Tips, and Testimonials (SacraSage 2017). The book contains more than 90 essays from scholars engaging social media and technology. I’m the editor.
Many scholars wrote about their surprise that social media platforms could become places for serious research and reflection on sophisticated ideas. And this has prompted many to now online discussions and online journals. Many are testing their theories on blogs or discussion groups before presenting them at academic conferences. In sum, scholars are finding that new forms of technology generate new ideas, new scholarship, and new ways to engage the life of the mind.
I conclude with words of gratitude and hope. I’m grateful to the editors of Cursor for inviting me to contribute. I’m excited about their vision of what this journal could be. In fact, they write a creative “dialogue” in Theologians and Philosophers Using Social Media about their project. We need more theologians, philosophers, and scholars of religion in general who see the need to do digital theology.
And I’m hopeful. I’m optimistic that the challenges and liabilities of digital technology can be faced and at least some of them overcome. I’m optimistic that social media can become what my theological tradition calls a “means of grace.” I don’t think progress is inevitable, but I think it’s possible.
I believe God can work through various means to communicate various messages in ways that you, me, and Marshall McLuhan could have never imagined!