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Scripture as Interface. A Hermeneutical Reflection on a Concept based in Media Theory

The paper reflects hermeneutically on the description of "Bible as interface" - with surprising insights into the theological understanding of Scripture based on this concept from digital media theory.
Scripture as Interface. A Hermeneutical Reflection on a Concept based in Media Theory
Contributors (1)
Published
Nov 10, 2019

  1. Introduction: Three premises and a position

Relating dogmatic and hermeneutical questions on Scripture to the phenomenon of "digitization" is based on three premises.

First, "digitization" not only describes binary data processing or computer based technologies, but is also related to a profound media change that affects our understanding of writtenness. In terms of media history, one might compare this change from a “culture of book” to a “digital culture” with the invention of the printing press.1 This implies – and might already serve as a first suggestion for discussion – a concept of "digitality" as both media and cultural change.2

Second, the hermeneutical question about Scripture and its authority is (also) a question about media. It reacts to the "media problem of monotheism" (Nordhofen), i.e. to the necessity of mediating the communication of the un-created God with the created world.3 The Christian tradition places special confidence in biblical texts as witnesses of God, able to reveal the gospel through the Holy Spirit again and again to persons by being read and heard. Therefore, Scripture has a unique authority for the protestant community (sola scriptura) and is described as one of the medium salutis4, in not just a few theological traditions.5

Third, when it comes to scripture as a medium, the medial form of the Bible – its “mediality” as text, song, image or play – must be taken seriously. Hence the question arises as to where and how medium and message are interrelated.6 The debate – still very small though – about digitization and the Bible reflects an awareness for this change, mostly negatively connoted:7 One suspects an arbitrariness in accessing the sacred texts in the digital, breaking off its canonical validity.8 In contrast, the written form of the biblical text is interpreted as the guarantor of the externality (or alterity) of the biblical texts against its interpreters. Similarly, some are concerned that the texts would be deprived of their fixed form and content (in contrast to oral traditions) by the fluid medial forms.9 One can also read about the historical connection between Protestant tradition and the invention of printing,10 which makes theology a "reading tradition".11 The "emancipation of writing from the book" also leads to new conditions of theological research.12 Throughout, the debate shows a profound struggle for the question of how the fixation of the message conventionally associated with the writtenness of the Bible and its externality to the recipient can be understood under changing medial conditions.

In the following, I do not want to continue this debate on the level of media theory - I am not qualified to do so and Michael Hemenway has worked refreshingly and very constructively on this issue.13 Rather, I want to relate the medial question (mediality of Scripture) with the hermeneutical question (Scripture as medium) to consider how Scripture can be understood as a medium and then come back to the question of its mediality.14

Starting point is Hemenways description of the “bible as interface”, itself located at the interface of media theory and theology. In his study, Hemenway argues: „The connections between the major technological transition from roll to codex in antiquity and the contemporary move toward the internet and mobile technologies as reading platforms encourage us to consider bible as an interface that affords high surface area, collaboration, and anarchy. […] bible as interface is a relationship between a material platform and a user that cannot be reduced to simple consumption of content.“15 The concept of interface – originating in media theory – becomes a dogmatic description referring to the properties of Scripture when he writes: “throughout its rich media history, bible has been an interface”.16 “Bible as interface” – while Hemenway wants to describe rather than to dogmatically construct this notion,17 I will try to further it from a dogmatic and hermeneutical point of view.

  1. “Bible as interface” – theological implications

I will unfold the theological implications of “Bible as interface” in three ways: Firstly related to the understanding of Scripture as medium and its authority, secondly referring to its pneumatological and christological underpinning and thirdly in relation to the “users” of the Bible.

  1. Bible as Interface – Scripture as medium and its authority

    1. Bible as “zone of encounter” – a relational medium

“At its most basic, interface denotes some kind of relationship of interaction between entities.”18 Based on that definition Hemenway unfolds his understanding of interface, referring to the cultural scientist Johanna Drucker.

Drucker describes an interface as “a zone of encounter, not a window through which we access content”.19 This encounter encloses “the entire system of reader, aesthetic object and interpretation”.20 An interface is therefore a “space that supports interpretative events and acts of meaning production“.21 Therefore books can be understood as interfaces,22 as Hemenway points out: “a book is an interface that provokes probabilistic production through the reading event“.23

Following Hemenway and Drucker in this understanding, there are astonishing parallels to the interpretation of Scripture as the medium of the Gospel in traditional dogmatic: Here, too, Scripture takes on the function of an interface. In Scripture, the reader encounters testimonies of the revelation of God, and through the Holy Spirit can become revelation for the reader, opening up the gospel for him or her. The Bible thus serves as an interface between the reader and what the texts attest: Gods relation to mankind.24 Scripture as medium salutis therefore does not imply a certain ontological quality of Scripture, but a “function” or “service” (Indienstnahme).25 This is the reason for its authority, which must prove itself in the constant recognition and actualization of this confidence in the reception of the texts.26

  1. The Bible as event – a procedural authority

Following this understanding, the encounter with the Bible becomes of central importance. At this point, Hemenway's description offers another interesting interpretation, by distinguishing between interface as noun and interface as verb.27 The verbal character of interface –Drucker speaks of "interface as event" – offers a helpful reinterpretation of Scriptures authority.

Authority understood as a relationship, as described above, can now be stated more precisely as a procedural authority: Scripture’s authority comes to bear if and insofar it is read. Namely: if and insofar it is read with the confidence that the gospel will be disclosed by reading these particular texts.

The appropriation of Scripture therefore has constitutive significance for the validity and authority of the texts, as Stoellger makes clear in comparison to the Lord's Supper: “Holy Scripture is only to be called holy if it becomes the body of the Spirit. And the Spirit can only meet us in it, as long as it is present as its power to give meaning. It's the same with Scripture as it is with bread and wine. Outside of their concrete use, which faith makes of them, Scripture is just one among many texts. Therefore, we worship the elements of the Lord's Supper as little as we worship the Bible. Without animating use, the Spirit would be as dead as Scripture would be.” 28 For this reason, factual uses of the Scripture are of great interest for dogmatic reasons.29 This structure, in turn, is constitutive in the digital design practices described by Hemenway.

  1. Dogmatic groundings of interface-theory

    1. Interface-theory and Pneumatology

Following the proposed relational concept of authority, authority is constituted between reader and text in and around the event of reading and hearing. This understanding grounds in the doctrine of efficatia: for the believer, the authority of the scripture results from its effectiveness, i.e. that it leads to faith through the Holy Spirit. This efficatia proves itself again and again in the communion of believers through history. Therefore, the confidence in the biblical texts always precedes the reading of the individual Christian.30

Here, the description of the Bible as interface touches pneumatology: This understanding of biblical texts as evangelion is always inspired by the Holy Spirit. Theologically, the description of Scripture as interface is to be specified as a function or service (Indienstnahme) by the Holy Spirit: It serves as an interface used by the Holy Spirit to open up the gospel.31 At this important point, related to the authority of Scripture, it is deprived of human action.

Therefore, one has to differentiate carefully between possible readings of the Bible: Reading and listening to the biblical texts is not always an experience of the Holy Spirit but might also follow other interests and aims. Although every act of reading is an exploration, not every exploration of Scripture opens up the gospel.32 We can only experience the evangelion and as soon as we start to share our witness, our experience is hidden in our words, culture and communication setting. Being touched by the Holy Spirit in reading and understanding the evangelion in Scripture can only be witnessed intersubjectively, but not conclusively justified rationally.33

  1. Interface-theory und Christology

Thus, in terms of media theory, one can speak of a two-stage mediation of the Gospel: The Incarnation of the Logos in Christ, is itself already a medium, the “ultimate medium of the monotheistic God”.34 Scripture does not replace Christ, but witnesses to him (at least in parts). Man’s knowledge of God is therefore mediated in two ways: It is mediated through Jesus Christ, who in turn is witnessed in Scripture medially.35 According to Stoellger, this is not limited to one specific medium: “The Word became flesh - and again word and sacrament and also image, ritual and ’Lebensform’.”36 Scripture and image, film, sound, music etc. are thus involved in the potential medial diversity of the embodiments of the Word of God.37

This hiddenness of the message itself leads to an inevitable plurality of readings and interpretations of the evangelion – both in the plural witnesses the different biblical texts offer and in our differing readings of these texts in history and today. Hemenway therefore describes “anarchy” as one affordance of the interface: “Anarchy in interface constantly exceeds attempts by users to grasp and order the whole in a stable manner.“38 – one might even say: The evangelion constantly exceeds attempts by believers to grasp and order the whole in a stable manner. Plural medial references and interpretations are therefore not a drawback of Scripture’s authority, but its constitutive characteristic.

  1. The affordances of the Bible – Perspectives of the “User”

For Hemenway, this constitutive facilitation of plurality is a central implication of the understanding of bible as interface. He describes it as the affordances of Scripture: “Affordances are the set of real or perceived use possibilities offered by the material design of an interface in relationship to a particular user and context.”39 Applied to the bible he wants to “consider bible as an interface that affords high surface area, collaboration, and anarchy“.40

As the affordances take up the perspective of possible users of the Bible, I want to take up the debate sketched out above, related to the fixation of the written text as an alterity to its user.

  1. Interface as high surface area and the written text

Firstly, Hemenway describes the bible as a “high surface area”: ​​It has many possible points of contact between user and platform. Thereby it can hardly be deterministic due to the many interactive possibilities offered by the structure of the interface.41 Hemenway concludes “thus the relationship of the interface always exceeds a user’s ability to master an interface in its entirety”.42

Related to the notion of anarchy – understood in the very sense of the word as “without the reign of an original43 – this understanding might serve as a description of the plurality of the biblical witnesses of the evangelion in the biblical texts themselves: The plurality of the offered interpretations of God and the Gospel in the canonical collection of texts themselves make a reign of an original impossible – because the origin lies beyond the texts, which themselves only serve as witnesses for this origin. Not only the inner-biblical plurality of texts, but also the inner-biblical reception and interpretation processes as much as the diversity of dogmatic and historical interpretive patterns show the adequacy of understanding Scripture as a “high surface area”. This implies anarchistic “interferences” to all theological aims to simplify or unify the biblical witnesses to one single message.

Digital media, therefore, do not add anything new to this plurality, but only extend the existing plurality of medial and interpretive frames and forms. Scripture is – no matter in what mediation and medial form – a high surface area. The fixation of Scripture by its writtenness must therefore be unveiled as a dogmatic construct.

  1. Alterity and interface

As mentioned in the beginning, the written form of the Bible is often interpreted as the guarantor of the externality (or alterity) of the texts against the interpreter. This understanding arises out of the (reformational) concern not to deliver the biblical text to the arbitrariness of its interpreters, but to find in the biblical texts a hermeneutical “counterpart” to the churches’ tradition and doctrine. Scripture should serve constructively and critically as the source and guideline of theological and ecclesiastical reflections. This conviction is grounded in Luther's reflections on the claritas externa of Scripture: The verbum externum, the text of the Bible, is a counterpart to the interpreter and his or her interpretational endeavors.

The relation of this figure to a certain medium – especially to its writtenness – is quite controversial.44 From media theory, it is clear that the externality of Scripture understood as its mediality is difficult to maintain in the digital: Text and readers become interface and user, which are intertwined to one another in different material and virtual constellations. On the contrary, in interactive approaches to biblical texts, the texts will be constantly being reconstituted, collage-like reconstructed and linked together. Based on insights of reception aesthetics theory, the bias between text and reader is difficult to describe as sharply as necessary – even without changing medial forms: Every reader is part of the process of understanding and therefore is part of the hermeneutic process of generating “texts”. Do we therefore promote arbitrary readings of sacred texts in the digital, breaking off their canonical validity, as we heard in the beginning?

Following my interpretation, means to say “no” to that question. But that does not imply to deny the notion of the alterity of Scripture. Alterity of Scripture consists for other reasons. The alterity of Scripture vis-à-vis its interpreter cannot be defended in media theory, neither analogue nor digital. The theological reflection has shown that is based only in the alterity and externality of the one to whom Scripture witnesses. Scriptures alterity is part of its pneumatological understanding. Therefore, it is part of the experience of “spiritual reading” and can only be witnessed intersubjectively.45

  1. Interfaces allowing collaboration and anarchy

Hence, the two other affordances of Scripture, Hemenway suggests, are of constitutive relevance: collaboration and anarchy. Both are closely linked to one another: Bible as interface affords “collaboration”, offering “possibilities for both participation in constructing the space of interface and chances for user interaction”.46 Thereby it enables a relation of anarchy and proximity (Lévinas), “without the reign of an original“.47

Therefore, collaboration in reading and reflecting biblical texts is as important for theological reasons – as described related to Christology – as for medial reasons (at least in digital contexts). Following a relational understanding of authority, the interpretation of biblical texts in community is of central importance. Reading, hearing and interpreting in koinonia is at the heart of the understanding of Scripture and its authority, sketched out above. Clivaz therefore asks: “Are the different Protestant churches willing to understand the sola scriptura as lectura that happens in koinonia?” 48

The meaning of common reading (and hearing and seeing) is especially evident in digital contexts.49 Hemenway concludes: “At its best, bible has and always will afford this kind of anarchy through the constraints and possibilities of its materiality in interface. Even if this anarchy looks more troubling and threatening to those who value the stability of the texts of bible, the continuity throughout history of this affordance of anarchy in the acts of material media translation can offer us a way to engage emerging bible interfaces from a place of familiarity and value, not anxiety.”50

  1. Medial changes and the Holy Scripture – conclusions and open questions

Overlapping media theory and theology, Hemenway's thesis of bible as interface offers an innovative perspective on the hermeneutics of Scripture. It implicates – at least in my understanding – a close relation to reception-oriented hermeneutics, interpreting them in terms of media theory.51

My hermeneutical reinterpretation shows that the dogmatic reflections on Scripture as a medium are much more fluid than the debates on the mediality of Scripture suggest. The alterity of Scripture, the fixation of its content, the embodiments of the gospel – these characteristics attributed to the writtenness of the Bible are not challenged by digital media, but have to be reinterpreted regarding all medial forms.

To open the discussion, I want to conclude with two questions.

Firstly, the question that arises out of media theory is, whether we can speak of a “digital media change” related to the medialities of Scripture. It seems, that the written culture remains in current digital and web-based accesses to the Bible: these are predominantly text-based interfaces.52

In my view, we are not challenged by media change as much as by media pluralism. This is a very old challenge – theology has been preoccupied with the relationship between writing and image throughout its history, ever since the Old Testament ban on images.53

Furthermore, the relation between orality and literacy has a long tradition in Christianity - so strong that the emerging connections in digital technologies can be interpreted as a return to the antique complementary understanding.54

To take this plurality seriously, is indeed a challenge for the “culture of books” in current theology.55 To consider the relation of writing and image – expanded in digital accesses to the Bible: to films, plays, visualizations, sound, music etc. – is therefore the actual, but in the end not new, task in the field of digitization and scriptural hermeneutics.56

Looking at this broad spectrum, I want to ask secondly: To what extent – if any – are the constructs of the fixation and alterity of Scripture of theological relevance? In other words: Do we need limits of interpretation – despite all sympathy for anarchic, discursive and collaboration models of interpretation?57 Dalferth stresses the duty of exegesis in this regard, to emphasize the alien character of the biblical texts, as the diversity of contemporary media blurs the lines between traditional content and fiction, text and interpretation.58 Do we have to think about limits of interpretation – related to the text or the koinonia – thinking about the affordances of Bible as interface?

Then we need to think also about the concrete materialities of the interfaces used – themselves expressions for the interface-character of the bible.59

Here we face at the very end a question, which Hemenway does not pose explicitly – but I want to: If the Bible can be described as interface not only for reasons of media change but also for theological reasons – are digital tools not only appropriate but maybe the most appropriate medial forms for “the message”? Or – in Hemenway’s words: If “bible at its best is an interface that enables relationships with users that cannot be reduced to simple consumption of its contents”60, how can “bible at its best” be theologically interpreted in digital and analogue medial forms?


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CODEC (2019): Digital Millenials and the Bible. https://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/codec/DigitalMillennialsandtheBIble-finalversion.pdf. Accessed 10/30/2019.

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Schlink, E. (2004). Ökumenische Dogmatik, Vol. 2 Schriften zu Ökumene und Bekenntnis, 3rd. ed., Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

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Footnotes
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Comments
48
Kate Ott: The discussion about this on Saturday was fascinating and perhaps speaks back to the issue of tradition or traditionalist interpretation affecting outputs. Liberative outputs might be as likely given the anarchistic interferences.
Michael Hemenway: Great question Frederike. Let’s discuss more! I think work like Matthew Kirschenbaum’s in books like _Mechanisms_ might highlight the ‘writtenness’ and page likeness of many digital technologies.
Frederike van Oorschot: Thanks for this reference!
Michael Hemenway: Yes! But can we push even further back up the chain of revelation here? Is it only the witnesses that exhibit anarchy?
Michael Hemenway: I love it. Anarchic athority!
Michael Hemenway: So, in a sense, could we say the authority of scripture is an event, not an entity or property?
Michael Hemenway: Ha ha. I should have kept reading :)
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Michael Hemenway: Very interesting that some people link alterity with the written form. I would love to hear more about this.
Michael Hemenway: Would you say that other traditions, (Judaism, Islam) have had a more explicit articulation of the mediality of their sacred traditions and the authority they demand than Christian traditions have?
Frederike van Oorschot: I would say, it is often more explizit elaborated, yes.
Michael Hemenway: I like your use of writtenness here as connected to our cultural notions of self and knowledge and such. It nicely highlights the materiality at work in our relationship with information.
Frederike van Oorschot: Thank you. I would appreciate to discuss with you of digital writtenness related to your notion of materiality.
Hanna Reichel: That is a convincing way of framing the lack of original: through the ineffability of what is “behind” the texts. However, some might say that there actually is no “behind” the texts (which can either go into more ineffability or into fundamentalist reductions of the text). What about those who maintain that if there is an act of revelation/communication going on through scripture, then there HAS to be a RIGHT interpretation of it - and if humans are incapable of discerning it, then at least we would assess different interpretations as attempts at approximations of “the original message”?
Hanna Reichel: I presume that the thesis of a “lack of an original” might disconcert theologians. I think it is an important insight though
Michael Hemenway: Ha! I have had many heated debates with theologians, biblical scholars, and translation studies scholars about this notion of anarchy. I would love to continue those discussions with this group. I have so much to learn. Coming from the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, I believe this notion of anarchy to be deeply theological.
Hanna Reichel: absolutely convincing
Hanna Reichel: again information theory might supply the important insight here that communication is actually more unlikely to happen than not
Hanna Reichel: it is not just putting a content into a box and shipping it on.
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Hanna Reichel: Is it though? Maybe something we could learn from communication theory is actually the productivity of “both sides” of the communicative event. Without active participation, especially interpretive work on the receiving end there is no communication. In order to see the Spirit at work here, the human being cannot be deprived of agency!
Frederike van Oorschot: Good point. My describtion might be one-sided and misleading here. I will think about it further…
Hanna Reichel: Yes! That is a very convincing observation! - We need more practical turn in dogmatics! -> taking into account the way practices are theology-productive, rather than just “applications”
Michael Hemenway: Like!
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Hanna Reichel: reference to Shannon?
Michael Hemenway: Ah, excellent question. Unfortunately, my thinking here was not nearly as sophisticated as yours, Hanna. I know far too little of Shannon’s work, but you make me wonder what we might learn from bringing Shannon’s concept of entropy to the notion of interface?
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Hanna Reichel: I love how you “frame” your own contribution with Hemenway’s work on both sides of you: Both on the “theory” and on the “practical” side :)
Hanna Reichel: Against that, interesting arguments from the intertextuality of the canon might actually see a more “fluid”, “hyperlink”-structure as quite fitting for the canon we have inherited
Michael Hemenway: Perhaps I am missing how to use mentions in this comment area? Frederike, does “Deprived” already indicate a predisposition toward a theological commitment to bible as ‘book’? Hanna, I love this point about the constitutive hyper(inter)textuality of the Christian scriptural tradition. Even in a codex materiality, very early on, we see Eusebian canons and such, highlighting the non-linearity of the tradition.
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Hanna Reichel: very interesting! This is in some ways the same problem, but opposite direction, as in my paper. There it is about: how can (knowledge of) “the world” enter into (the mind of) God; here it is: how can (knowledge of) God enter the world! We should have added a session on revelation and communication technology!
Frederike van Oorschot: I would love to bring this up at any point!
?
Gotlind Ulshoefer: yes, and I think the important point here is: what does “fixation of the message” mean, i.e., also, who fixes it and what is the extent of the fixation.
Florian Höhne: How can we ask this important question, if we cannot separate message and form (as i would emphasize)? How can we ask this question without falling back into a merely instrumental understanding of media technology (s. Hanna’s paper)?
Michael Hemenway: Great question, Florian. I look forward to discussing more.
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Florian Höhne: I understand this thesis, but i would like to hear more about why you think it is not new.
Florian Höhne: Also from the standpoint of practice-theory: that makes a lot of sense. Again my question from above: Does the procedural understand make praktical experience of the individual the decisive authority?
Florian Höhne: YES!!!
Michael Hemenway: I hope we can talk about this bit some more. I wonder if written text ever actually afforded the alterity/externality hoped for? It was other because I couldn’t change its material form? this could be very helpful for me to better articulate what i value about interface, because for me, interface only exists if alterity can not be reduced to consumption. So insofar as digital bible/user interfaces reduce alterity, i would argue that these cease to be interface and become simply tools for consumption.
Florian Höhne: Yes!!!
Florian Höhne: It seems to me a little like the decisive authority in procedural authority is the authority of the (spirit-induced) experience. Is that right? And if so: What kind of experience to you have in mind: Is this an individual experience? Or a collective experience as the “we” in your sentence indicates? Can exeperience be “wrong”? How does one criticise an experience discoursively? I would like to discuss those questions further! :)
Michael Hemenway: Pardon my lack of experience (ha) with theological language here, but what work is this idea of “We can only experience” the gospel doing theologically? What do we gain by having revelation NOT be inter subjective, while witness is? Or perhaps I entirely misunderstood this part?
Florian Höhne: That sounds very interesting and plausibel. I’d like to discuss this furhter. Just to be sure: This is meant normatively, not purely descriptively? This is they way scripture should have authority. Not: This is the way it has an authority in a ways that could be observed sociologically. Right?
Frederike van Oorschot: I would say: This is the way I can imagine authority of Scripture to be in a normative sense. But it cannot ne isolated from the actual empirical use of Scripture. That means, the use of Scripture influences the normative status. Is this plausible to you?