Scholar's top 5: Mary Hess on theological education and new media

Putting together a brief overview of what’s going on with “theological education, religion and digital culture” is a daunting task.

Is “theological education” only what occurs in departments of theology and/or free standing seminaries? Or is theological education also something that occurs in religious studies departments, not to mention in settings in which undergraduates are learning about theology? What about theological issues that are raised in the midst of popular cultures?

I’m reminded of the distinction that was recently reiterated by John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas (in A New Culture of Learning). That is, are we teaching “about” a stable body of knowledge, or are we learning "through" engagement with the world? My own writing has tended to take the latter stance, that theological education is best exemplified through engagement with religious practice – whether one is a believer in that specific practice, or not. Here I would point you to two of my books, Engaging Technology in Theological Education: All That We Can’t Leave Behind (Rowman&Littlefield, 2005), and Teaching Reflectively in Theological Contexts (Kreiger, 2008).

I have been deeply impacted by the work of media scholars who take reception theories and cultural studies very seriously, and I have also learned an enormous amount from scholars exploring new media environments (people like Mimi Ito, danah boyd, Lisa Nakamura, David Weinberger, Clay Shirky, Yochai Benkler, and Lawrence Lessig).

Where does that lead in exploring “theological education and new media”? I’m going to answer that question in two ways, and hope that this first entry will not prevent you from reading the second. Those two streams are, one, the theologians whose theological (philosophical) work is giving us room to engage these changes more effectively within theological education; and two, the pastoral leaders who are finding ways to embrace new media in ways that are deeply grounded both in pastoral practice and nuanced engagement with media. One final caveat: although I teach and work in interfaith settings, the following resources are drawn from within Christian theological settings, as that is the context within which I am most fluent.

In this first post, I’ll start with theologians who are taking nuanced engagement with culture seriously. I think the following five books are essential reading:

(1) Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

This book is a compelling and serious examination of the ways in which Christian imagination takes shape from the earliest communities following Jesus to today. Jennings unmasks the destructive ways in which supersessionism, colonial powers and a general tendency to align with “power over” rather than “power poured out” has contributed to hegemonic Christian practice. In many ways the book is a grim indictment of Christian imagination, but it is also a vivid and hope-filled exploration of the many Christian alternatives which persisted alongside of dominant narratives. Given Jennings’ thoughtful engagement with critical cultural studies, and his innovative exploration of the arts (particularly jazz, the blues, and certain kinds of storytelling), the book paves a way for a deeply Christian theological engagement with new media, even though that is not its explicit goal.

(2) Jolyon Mitchell, Media Violence and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

This book is the single best theological engagement with a wide range of current media, religion and culture scholarship of which I am aware. Mitchell considers a wide range of media genres – everything from video games and films, to news media and photojournalism – bringing a keen theological engagement with representation of violence to the task. The book is a brilliant and significant contribution to the emerging conversation taking place at the intersection of media studies, Christian ethics, and practical theology. It’s also a model for bringing to bear a diverse array of disciplinary lenses respectfully and fruitfully, while keeping a focus on a specific topic – media violence. I was particularly struck by the innovative way in which he engages ritual theory and liturgical practice.

(3) John McClure, Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011).

This book is an excellent exploration of digital audio technologies and the ways in which they have entered into music production – particularly as represented in the vibrant music scene in Nashville, Tennessee, where McClure is on the faculty at Vanderbilt Divinity School. The book is grounded in some of the best of the recent engagement with audio and the ways in which soundscapes contribute to meaning, as well as bringing a mature theological imagination to bear. McClure is particularly adept at pointing to the resonance that exists between preaching and crafting songs, a process of “mashing up” tunes with layers of meaning.

(4) Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).

This book first appeared more than a decade ago, and is an accessible and engaging introduction to various “theories of culture” as they have entered into Christian doctrinal reflection. While Tanner does not engage digital media at all, not surprising given the book's date of publication, she does work through a variety of perspectives on how “culture” is to be understood, concluding with a postmodern engagement with fluid notions of “culture” as a medium in which meaning is created, circulated, negotiated with, and contested.

(5) Brad Hinze, Matthias Scharer, Jochen Hilberath. The Practice of Communicative Theology: An Introduction to a New Theological Culture (Crossroads Publishing Company, 2008).

This book grows out of a pedagogical practice that is particularly common in German-speaking Catholic communities across Europe, and which is spreading into other settings (this book is the first comprehensive English translation of that work). Drawing on the theorizing and practice of Ruth Cohen, a psychoanalyst known for her work in theme-centered interaction, this form of theological engagement is rigorously grounded in actual communities, and is a dynamic communicative process featuring nodes of “I” (an individual person’s reflections), “we” (a community’s or group’s reflections), “it” (the logos or heart of a specific doctrine), and the “globe” (distinctive reflection centered in and through the surrounding world contexts).

While this form of theological reflection is only beginning to be used intentionally or in a focused way in relation to digital media (cf. my own work), its pointed attention to these four nodes inevitably means that people reflect in the midst of their lives, and thus in the midst of new media.