Day1 Blog: Dr. Mary Hess and the Religion & Media Blog Tour

For the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg Blog Tour on Religion & Media, Dr. Mary Hess responds to questions posed by Day1. Please add your voice to the conversation! Click on the "Comments" link to post. And see the specific question Dr. Hess would like to hear from you about at the end of this post.

(1) "How can preachers and other communicators of Christian faith most effectively use various media/technologies today?"

What a huge question! Any good preacher will know that there's not one single answer to it. Communication of any kind - whether through preaching, social media, email, worship music - is deeply contextual. Perhaps a first thing to understand is that digital media are environments in which meaning is created, circulated, contested, negotiated -pastoral leaders need to be alert to the practices of the media they seek to engage. The content of our communication is deeply embedded in the practices we use to communicate. Often we communicate things we do not intend to communicate simply by not using certain media. Do you refuse to engage facebook? Why? If you're not present there, how will you have any sense of whether your community is there? How are the people you're trying to communicate with using the media you're interested in using? Better yet, how are the people you're trying to communicate with using the media you're refusing to use?

I have very strong negative reactions to the phrase "the unchurched." I much prefer to speak of "the unheard," and I think that there are more and more of these people in our communities. What might God be saying to them, and through them to us?

The same elements that contribute to good communication in other media - including the medium of the human voice - are part of good communication in digital media: attending to your "audience," being clear about your own connection with your message, respect, integrity, consistency, and so on.


(2) "How can we better proclaim the message of the mainline churches in the news media, which tend to favor conservative Christian spokespersons?"

Ah. Now there's a fascinating question! I think you have to start by asking about the practices of the news media you're speaking of. If you're thinking about certain kinds of 24/7 television news media, then having your message engaged in that context will require immediacy, good images, effective sound reproduction and so on. Fewer and fewer news organizations have the ability to actually investigate news, and they rely more and more on pre-produced, or spontaneously-produced (ie. talking head commentators), content. Thus the arrival of the bloviating opinionator - whose only cost is their salary, and whose "stickiness" (in terms of the length of time eyeballs remain on them) is often tied to their ability to produce "jolts" of adrenaline.

One reason why our news media are so full of disasters (or concerns about anticipated disasters) is that such stories are a routine source of adrenaline production. What is an alternative? Well, we know that individuals "shouting" can produce "stickiness," but so can humor - and humor often provides for more complex engagement. Witness the ways in which The Daily Show with Jon Stewart covers religion.

Frankly, I think the messages of the mainline church are often more complex and ambiguous than the 15 second soundbites that typical "news" programs allow. I think we do better in the long run by cultivating relationships with the writers of television shows that have long narrative arcs. In those series - and here I think about shows like The West WingBattlestar GalacticaThe Simpsons and so on - we have more opportunity to encounter representations of religion in all of its complex messiness in the midst of relationships, and to show the context in which mainline churches operate.

But beyond that strategy - which is long term, and requires thoughtful cultivation of relationship with writers - we ought to be putting out our own stories via digital media. This blog is a good example of how you're connecting with a wide variety of pastoral leaders who are sharing the good news - both of Jesus Christ, and of the mainline church, in all sorts of ways.


(3) "What are some biblical themes/texts regarding communicating faith that are most relevant to this discussion?"

I'd be hard pressed to find any that are not! But in my own work I tend to focus on passages like the Emmaus text at the end of Luke. I think that's a passage that invites us to consider how communication leads to understanding (not simply "information"): we encounter something or someone in the midst of our daily lives, we open ourselves to new interpretations (particularly those which might upend our previous assumptions), and we need to be ever alert to the ritualized elements of our engagements.

I also work a lot with Paul's letters to the community in Corinth, in terms of being willing to open oneself to "not knowing" - "I come before you not with sublime words of wisdom, but knowing only Christ, and him crucified."

I would combine each of those with Deuteronomy 6, and notice that the basic command to love God is something that needs to be remembered at all times and in all places - "Keep repeating them to your children. Recite them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up" (cf. NAB).

But as I said, these are simply some to which I return frequently. I really don't think there's anything that can't be a part of our ongoing conversation with God in this world we inhabit!


(4) A question for the readers of this blog:

What do you find the most challenging theological concept to communicate? Another way to ask that question would be: which idea from the heart of your faith do you find most difficult to engage people with?

See Part 1 of the Blog Tour at