Christian communities have been adapting to new communication tools for two thousand years. The Bible itself records a shift from an oral culture to a written culture, preserving the stories in codified, written form. Widespread illiteracy in medieval Europe prompted Gregory the Great’s ambitious program to carve, paint, and stain glass in cathedrals with Bible stories. The newly invented printing press became an important vehicle of communication in advancing the Protestant Reformation through the publication of printed scripture and commentary. In twentieth-century American culture, as video began to dominate oral and written practices, churches turned to PowerPoint displays in worship, and Christian broadcast companies began developing TV and film for religious audiences.
Given that for two millennia, Christian communities have engaged various cultural worlds to tell the Biblical stories of faith, what’s so particular about today’s challenges?
For one, the complexities of change can be mind-boggling to many, and its effect more rapid and diffuse that at any other point in history. Imagine that members of a congregation “tweet” the pastor’s sermon, sending 140-character snippets of the message out into cyberspace while he or she is still standing at the pulpit. Within days (or hours), a community of believers (and possibly skeptics) has amassed around the message, but in dispersed locations other than the community known to the pastor. How do he or she continue to shape the thought and practice of a people for whom he or she can no longer look in the eye, nor control the choice of words? And it’s happened so fast. Five years ago, Twitter did not exist; today over 100 million people use the micro-blogging service.
We are not simply talking about learning new tools. These tools accompany a profound shift in communication behavior patterns in American culture. Take a look back: 1999 was a watershed moment in Internet history. That’s when the Cluetrain Manifesto was first published on www.Cluetrain.com. The manifesto—organized in 95 theses, a bold reference to Martin Luther who, in 1517, used new media to challenge the church—declares that the internet brings to an end all modern information and marketing strategies because, “people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed.” The equally provocative 2006 blog post by NYU professor Jay Rosen entitled, “The people formerly known as the audience,” asserts that the walls between creators and consumers of information have completely collapsed.
The proliferation of online networks of people who produce and share their own content, and their demand for engagement with media, has forced traditional media to do more than employ new digital tools. It has required them to adapt to new patterns and ways of thinking made possible by digital communication. For example, the dominance of proprietary news reporting has given way to news aggregation, even sharing and posting information from traditional competitors.
A second element in our current context is the global recession and its effect on publishers, both religious and secular, who play a key role in adapting to this communicating shift. The recession has thrown virtually all publishers into sudden crisis, and as a result, many opportunities for creative problem solving have been lost, says Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody (Penguin, 2008) and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Penguin, 2010). “While people in media were starting to realize [the prominence of digital] … they were suddenly robbed of the four or five years they thought they had to respond.” Andrew Golis, deputy publisher of Talking Points Memo, adds, “Many of the best publications haven’t been ready for the transition and so the sharpest minds have lost prominence in the debate as a result.” (The Big Thaw, 2010).
These new patterns beg for exploration, even theological exploration.
Verity A. Jones is the project director of the New Media Project and a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary.
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