The Perils and Promise of Cyber-Church

internet final 2The internet is volatilizing and reconfiguring political life in late-modern highly-developed societies. If Christian theology gives us any critical purchase on the cultural developments that surround and shape us, it will thus need to make its insights felt here. We tend to assume that the internet and the various communication gadgets that go along with it are just tools, something we pick up or put down at will. While behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists have only recently begun to question this assumption in earnest, philosophers have been doing so for some time. George Grant, to take one example, has remarked that, “Seventy five years ago somebody might have said ‘The automobile does not impose on us the ways it should be used’, and who would have quarreled with that? Yet this would have been a deluded representation of the automobile” (1986, p. 24-35). Our habitual ways of thinking of technology as a neutral tool reveals a problem at the heart of the modern way of thinking. Grant concludes,

“The computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used” asserts the essence of the modern view, which is that human ability freely determines what happens. It then puts that freedom in the service of the very ‘should’ which that same modern novelty has made provisional. The resolute mastery to which we are summoned in ‘does not impose’… therefore cushions us from the full impact of the novelties it asks us to consider” (p. 31-33).

In this essay I want to consider the world of the internet as one forum in which the church suffers the techniques of the age and so begins to bring them into its powers of description. Because it lives in an age of transition from the book to the screen, as it wrestles with the implications of this shift for its own life it gains critical purchase on the cultural shifts that unsettle it.

My aim is to query the ways these new communication technologies are reshaping the church’s patterns of communion. My discussion will orbit around two questions: what would it mean for the church to pursue worship in cyberspace? And, how might the church assess the role of internet communication in training future pastors and theological educators? Anything the church might have to say in general about the technologies that make up the internet will be learned as it asks particular questions of this kind. It will not have the resources to assess the worth of the internet as a whole without many more detailed engagements with, and immersion in, its many cultural effects. Only as the church gains this hard-won knowledge can it witness to the gospel in an internet culture. My interest is in allowing the semantics of ecclesial life and the imperatives to reconciliation, mutual representation and ecclesial discernment as found in the political theology of Bernd Wannenwetsch to orient theological judgments about trajectories in our late-modern cultural context. As I do so, it will be important to watch how our understanding of both the church’s current configuration and the internet are judged and deepened in the process.  My treatment will point out several pitfalls of theological blogging, but conclude by suggesting how communication via cyberspace might be understood to serve the church in limited ways.

Sung, Read and Screened Theology

I draw on Wannenwetsch’s work because his emphasis on worship as a form of communion mediated via the canon is an attempt to recover for contemporary theology the precedence of hearing and speaking to God from within the living throng of saints. This position is a corrective to modern theology at the end of the print age. That theology is heir to a theologically problematic shift from monastic, or “sung” theology to scholastic or “bookish” theology. The patristic era’s rule for theology, lex orandi, lex credendi, “the law of praying is the law of thinking” marks what was lost in this transition. Wannenwetsch is recovering theology conceived as expressing in a different idiom the grammar of praise and prayer, in so doing granting the given language of liturgy, its songs, prayers and lectionary, conceptual precedence.

This move directs attention to the patristic church’s emphasis on worship as a calling on and singing praise to Christ. The theology of liturgical performance was devoted essentially to proclaiming the Lord. This had a wide range of practical implications. For instance, in the western monastic tradition, the term “Psalter” did not primarily refer to a book of 150 psalms, but to a textually formed performance of collective worship. In this form of collective worship human affections were energized and aligned by taking up the words of past saints, not primarily by theoretical reason or contemplation. In worship Christians understood themselves to be joining in the worship of the whole eschatological City of God, comprised of all the saints (and angels) past and present. The rule lex orandi, lex credendi thus encapsulates the impulse of the earliest Christian theologians to ensure that silly or heretical claims about the Trinitarian God were submitted to testing in the “echo chamber” of the universal church and the heavenly choir of angels as they praised God (Wannenwetsch, 2004, p. 330-336).

The church fathers felt liberated to dispense with the complicated technologies of memorization popular in late antiquity because they understood liturgy as their pedagogue; in it they were impregnated in a very bodily way in the shaping of their affect, will and rationality by the Word of Christ. Within these presuppositions reading, and especially reading scripture, is understood as an act expressing a desire to be possessed by this Word, to have one’s affections reoriented, not to possess or manipulate what has been handed down. Likewise, the purpose for which the congregation assembles is to be re-membered, to become conscious of the faith of the communion sanctorum (Illich, 1993, p. 43-44).

The rise of theology as a bookish discipline coincided with the dispersal of this self-understanding of the church. Just before, but paving the way for scholastic theology (around 1120), Hugh of St. Victor was an early advocate for moving away from this liturgical form of memory toward memory as a carefully constructed archive of wisdom contained in the individual’s mind. He offered instead a recovery of Greek technologies of memory and espoused new techniques of reading that displaced the liturgical time of synchronic and diachronic simultaneity for a primary understanding of time as a historical sequence. In so doing individual reading was rendered the paradigmatic form of worship (Illich, 1993, p. 45-50). A new ecclesial self is born that reads to “discover himself in the mirror of the parchment” (p. 23).

For the first time the communality of theology and so its social engagement is rendered a problem. Because

 …lectio divina is always a liturgical act coram, in the face of someone,—God, angels or anyone within earshot… there was no need, in the time between Benedict and Bernard, to insist on the social responsibility of the reader… Fifty years after Hugh, typically, this is no longer true. The technical activity of deciphering no longer creates an auditory and therefore social space (p. 82).

I will suggest that it is the loss of this experience of eschatological union in time and space that fuels inchoate contemporary attempts to recover some of the simultaneity of theology as liturgy. If so, these are secular attempts to reconstruct a substitute for liturgical memory, an alienated yearning for the kairos in which all the saints are gathered. To make such a bold claim raises important questions about modern theology. To what extent can it any longer even comprehend the rule of lex oradi, lex credendi? Do modern theologians see themselves as expressing the whole church’s desire to praise God in the present as a way of joining the praise of the saints of all ages? Were this the case, they would be beyond the distinction between theory and practice, and would not be trapped by the problem of finding a relationship between the two (Hütter, 2000, p. 34-37).

The theologies of Wannenwetsch and the fathers have suggested theological development with a very different contour. In their view theology does not aspire to be creative in thinking “new” thoughts, nor in its achievement of a supposed balance between form and creativity. Its true creativity is to serve the transference of canonical images and metaphors from past generations into the present, their “creative elaboration in particular circumstances,” suggests Wannenwetsch (2002, p. 52). To return to patiently rediscover the wisdom of patristic theology is thus not an act of nostalgia, but an attempt to regain sight of the essential components of theological activity amidst a church seeking renewal from the depredations of routines of management and managed communion.

These considerations compel us to revisit a question to which western culture has recently returned for very different reasons: “What exactly is reading?” (Rosen, 2008, p. 25). This must finally be a theological question. The developments in the culture of western theology I have just sketched suggest the following answer. Reading is a forum in which we submit ourselves to others. We read them in order to hear their living voices. Such an account seems inescapably anachronistic to the mind trained to interact with a screen where one trolls, comments, surfs, or buys; one does not submit to being captured by another voice as they choose to present themselves. I recently talked to a professor of medicine who said that he encouraged students to have their computers open on the desk in lectures as it allowed them to “tune in to what they were interested in” and to “look up unfamiliar terms” or “check the accuracy of what they were hearing. Whether or not this is what students were doing online during lectures (and my observations suggest that they would much rather keep up with their friends on Facebook), I suggested that theology seeks to train students in a different sort of listening, one that is not content to sift, pick and choose from the outset, but to listen, understand, assimilate, and then, ideally, critically tease apart. The teacher of theology is not herself demanding this undivided attention, but scripture and the communion of saints who have handed it on to us.

Reading the fathers, medievals and reformers takes time, as does worship and listening to other congregants. To observe this is to set the concept of reading within the concept of entering a theological tradition, a worshipping community. Every time we do so we are forced to accommodate ourselves to the communicative forms in which we encounter each of these people, long and unwieldy treatises full of unfamiliar cultural assumptions in the one case, and the (often) inconvenient and time consuming interruption of our plans on the other or our difficulties in comprehending others’ unfamiliar ways of articulating themselves. If we want to be with other Christians, to be formed by them, we have to listen to them as they have presented themselves.

The theology that asks how God is claiming and confronting the present worshipping community amidst all its foibles must be a patient and attentive discipline. The forms, restrictions, and slowness of communities of scholarship that teach us to read and so hear the saints are not a hindrance to that attentiveness to God and neighbor that takes the form of thought, but rather they make it fruitful. God’s Word strikes home in a moment, but the work of attentive learning to hear the Cappadocians, to take one example, and the description and living out of what God reveals in this forum, is an extended labor of patient and faithful attentiveness. Christian faith lives and changes, or better, changes its hearers, as its tradition and scriptures become a living rule in the flow of life. This is a slow process of repentant rethinking in the context of a communal self-presentation to God, a repentance that dampens the value of unreflective opinion. Such theological sensibilities stand in stark contrast to current web culture in which thought is more valuable when more simultaneous, or when an unlimited number of voices participate.

Is the Theological Blogger the Beginning of a New Church?

In order to develop wider analytical purchase on the cultural shift that is the internet, I will concentrate my discussion on the web log, popularly known as the “blog”. In this electronic forum users post comments or commentary on current events, often on a daily basis, in a style reminiscent of a diary. Among those with uninterrupted access to the highly developed technology and infrastructure that sustains it, this is, by all accounts, a cultural form that is here to stay, with many millions of bloggers writing each day. Very little theological work has been done on if or how to live as a Christian in this new but influential and rapidly expanding subculture.In this case church practice has run well ahead of its theological thought, and having already drawn in and shaped Christian self-understanding, I suggest that the time is right to attempt to make the underlying grammars of these practices more apparent.

Internet communication is a development in extant patterns of communion and communication that emphasizes the rapidity of written speech and deemphasizes physical presence, although with results that may surpass our expectations. Some Christians have enthusiastically greeted this change as a harbinger of new modes of communion, and proponents of cyber-church have suggested that in blogging and other online activities “two or three” in fact gather in more meaningful and transformational ways than is possible in traditional forms of ecclesial gathering (Bednar, 2004). Even mainstream ecclesial movements are being attracted to the claim that the simultaneity of communion developed by constant texting and e-mailing is a better index of the quality of the church’s communion than simple physical gathering (Ward, 2002, p. 88-89). Some churches encourage texting and other electronic communications between pastor and congregation within services of worship to make them “more interactive.” As the apostle Paul at least had no qualms projecting his presence through letters, the most advanced communication technology of his day (Col 2:1, 5), perhaps Christians ought to prepare themselves for a reorganization of the ecclesia as it embraces these new modes of communication?

Read sympathetically, blogging can be seen as a cultural form in which society, and increasingly the church, seeks a space in which the word can be trusted under the often accurate perception that neither churchly or secular authorities are listening (Bailey, p. 182). Evidence suggests that relationships of trust and respect can develop in these extended and diffuse conversations. In a world increasingly characterized by manipulated communication, Justin Bailey astutely observes that blogging represents a quest for genuine communication, and in it a healthy critical awareness of manipulative communicative techniques sometimes develops (p. 177).

Any accurate judgment of the wisdom of immersing the church more deeply in internet culture depends not only on a theology and ethos of communion, but also on an awareness of the dominant grammars of cyberspace. This community, for instance, is often strongly marked by antipathy to all political authority (Saxenian, 1994. The internet community often understands itself to be achieving truth through decentralization and the undermining of the old forms of authority represented by the disciplinary society described my Michel Foucault. The “hacker” or the internet startup profiteer reincarnates the American pioneer spirit so characteristic of cultures of innovation (Wannenwetsch, 1996, p. 186-188). Protestant Christians are often especially attracted to this spirit of innovation, and this pioneering spirit often attracts Christian bloggers (Jacobs, 2006). Those in the vanguard of this movement have gone as far as to suggest the replacement of the church council with a rolling conversation among the priesthood of all believers, on the grounds that egalitarianism and simultaneity are the prime marks of true discourse (Bailey, p 182). Are we right then to affirm that the technology of the internet undermines the old conception of churchly authority structures? Might it break down and enliven old stale habits of the church, especially of its theologians?

Blogging: Publicity, Display and Speed

Two initial theological queries of the blog culture as it currently exists will give us better access to the appropriate questions here. The first regards the will to display that characterizes blogging culture, and which is tied to its architectural features. Blogging is a form of writing that promises to generate instantaneous reader responses and as such it invites obsession with the number of readers: a temptation to all writers in a post-printing press age, but one accelerated in a forum that is technically geared to provide instantaneous feedback on numbers of readers and relative ranking and assessment. One may, for instance, read the runaway success of blog platforms like “MySpace,” with their emphasis on virtual self-description, to be driven, in no small part, by a widespread internalized desire for individual meaning or presence interpreted within the dominant understanding of publicity as reality. Blogging, with its invariable interest in displaying the author’s tastes and opinions, therefore appears as a relatively unsurprising forum for the extension of the well-developed culture of individualist expressivism in which identity is established by the display of a carefully chosen constellation of tastes and affinities for consumer products or types of entertainment (Taylor, 2002, p. 80-88). This is expressivism that can only be accelerated as it merges with a modern media society in which publicity has been integrated into the techniques of governance in which presidents and governments can be elected or overthrown by movements fomented on-line.

The problem here is a political one. Any hypertrophy of display in communication is inimical to hearing and so to consensus building (Wannenwetsch, 2004, p. 242-246). For instance, one of the originators of blog software (Andrew Smales, developer of Pitas) worries that increasing penetration of the publicity culture by the blog is tied to its ability to tap into our voyeuristic impulses (Bailey, p. 187). The blog turns the Victorian diarist’s interest in the inwardness and secrecy of daily quotidian life outward as an expression of the technological rationale of visibility and publicity, hastening the disappearance of voyeurism as an immoral activity. When the consumption of people’s everyday lives has become entertainment, and surveillance an everyday fact of life, a new humanity is born that no longer aspires even after the ideal of a private or hidden life. The public and publicity become all encompassing. Theology done within blog culture all too readily exhibits the lapse into display, preening and pontification one would expect in a medium where publicity makes one “real,” self-exposure promises to up one’s visitor count and one’s immediate reactions are assumed to be commentary not only worth reading, but fundamental to the accruing of truth.

A theological assessment of this will to self-publicize needs to ask how, why and before whom does one wish to appear? In opposition to the politics of publicity,  Jesus’ criticism and counter-example seem to suggest a rather healthy disregard for what is today called marketing or public relations (Mt. 6:1-6, 27:14, Jn. 5:31, Wannenwetsch, 2004, p. 322). To suggest that what Christians’ ought desire is to appear in Christian community or as community before the world is to raise sharp questions of the individualist self-understanding characterising the bulk of current blogging culture. This culture of publicity and display of what we already think we possess too often subverts the proper self-forgetfulness of Christian good works, and the technologies of the internet, with their speed and visual bias, accelerate this subversion.

The problem of display in blogging culture is intertwined with a high valuation of the pace of communication to which the medium lends itself. Whereas one may return countless times to revise a book with the hope that it might be taken hold of by future generations prepared to attend to its unnoticed richness, the blogger has no such aspirations. Pace is paramount and a conversation left untended is “dead” and soon disappears, never to be revisited. Though this is not intrinsically demanded by the medium, the evident emphasis on the living nature of communication and the architectural features of that communication (such as comment boxes) tends strongly toward communication as the rapid exchange of information or opinion. As Alan Jacobs (2006) observes, “as vehicles for the development of ideas [blogs] are woefully deficient and will necessarily remain so unless they develop an architecture that is less bound by the demands of urgency—or unless more smart people refuse the dominant architecture.” One of George Grant’s (2005) central themes was the tendency of the computer to privilege information over wisdom, and the pace and content of the blogging culture as a whole corroborates this perception (p. 263). This is not a forum that lends itself to sustained, in-depth reflection, but is explicitly one for signaling presence through the offering of opinions. When penetrating writing appears, and it does, it shows clear marks of being from pens trained in slower forums than the blog or chat room. But, as Jacobs (2006) also notes, “what happens more often than not…is the conversion of really good scholars into really lousy journalists. With few exceptions, posts at the “academic” or “intellectual” blogs I used to frequent have become the brief and cursory announcement of opinions, not the free explorations of new and dynamic thinking.”

Instantaneous communication pushes communion in the direction of shorter and less substantive interactions, which in turn increases our consumption of necessarily more formulaic forms of information. In a previous generation Thomas Merton (1968, p. 151) attempted to preserve the sensitivities lost to this frantic spirit by reading only old newspapers, out of an awareness that the pace of communication is its most deadening feature, and in this generation many Christian bloggers have also had to develop forms of fasting as a bulwark against the transformation of time by the urgency of blogging (Barkat, 2007). Merton anticipated the reorientation of temporal sensibility of the wired generation who are constantly affectively engaged in maintaining the flow of messages in real time, developing a vastly different notion of reading and attention (Rosen, p. 23-26, Richtel, 2010). The arrangement of hardware and software that sustain the otherwise diverse activities of text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, and so on, are geared to maintaining continual but brief messaging. These technologies increase the number of contacts possible with a greater number of people, and increase abilities to “information forage,” but only by decreasing the content that is communicated or absorbed. A message now communicates more by its form and timing (HelloJ) than its content. What one says is deemphasized in relation to the continual maintenance of a sense of collective simultaneity, and more formulaic messages are sufficient for this task. Communication as formulaic stimulus can only be yet another faint echo of the true simultaneity of presence before God in the communion of saints.

Church vs. Lifestyle Enclaves

These questions prepare us to ask: is blogging the forum in which congregants properly discover the gifts God through them brings into the service of the body? The answer to this question is to be found via another: How does this form of communion help or hinder genuine listening to one another? How often do we encounter those here who do not conform to our expectations or stock narratives, and how often do those encounters grow into enriching relationships? More importantly, where are our expectations for such a surprising encounter generated and conformed to the work of Christ?  Wannenwetsch’s theology suggests that the communication of Christ in the ecclesia and through word and sacrament, with its emphasis on the verbum externum and the genuine giving and receiving of one’s self in communion, allows us to recognize and name as deficient instances of communication as the mere transfer of information (2000, p. 93-106). The forms of speaking, reading and hearing required in worship, oriented by the desire to listen, reread, digest, sit under authority and in which we are changed as hearers, are corroded by the expectation that we will hear no more from the other than information. Without a thick theology of listening, and without a place in which listening is practiced and valued, we will have no way to recognize, and therefore to name as temptations trajectories that are within internet culture. That culture will have become the shaper of sensibilities that technological humanity will bring to reshape the church’s liturgy.

This emphasis on listening, discernment and sensible presence suggests that despite the ubiquity of the blogosphere, in which a “church” can form of those anywhere in the world and currently online, it remains a “lifestyle enclave” and not a real church. In a lifestyle enclave one leaves when the group activity is no longer interesting, or when interpersonal conflict undermines one’s enjoyment of it. But what is often not left behind is the presupposition that all human society is made up of such voluntaristic and utilitarian gatherings. The church universal exists in a fundamentally different register, as that community in which real conflicts are being overcome in real space and time. The church is that real body gathered with the aim of being conformed to a trans-temporal and spatial community of praise. In this real space we cannot filter our persona by electronic self-presentation and our choices of congregation are limited by physical geography. A church that emphasizes the believer’s decision to join or convert will be, for good reason, the church most attracted to and least able to resist the promise of the blogosphere to displace traditional physically gathering church.

Churchly Authority vs. Information and Opinion

If the internet is not the appropriate forum for the church’s worship, might not it be the place where the church’s theology is properly undertaken? It has lately become a commonplace dogma that internet discussions are more free, egalitarian, dynamic and therefore interesting than the old forms of communication through traditional media or academic publishing. On this view, the “traditional academic form does not breed conversation, but promotes monologue; it does not foster cross-fertilization of ideas, but reinforces one particular perspective on an issue; it is not open to other voices, but is designed precisely to close them off; and, finally, any such discourse is not welcoming to all voices, but privileges a select group who have been properly vetted by the Western academy” (Penner and Barnes, 2006, p. 1). On this basis some Christians have lately called for a movement of theology out of or at least beyond the academy, primarily into the forum of the internet. Such sentiments express aims quite close to that of Wannenwetsch: conversation, not monologue, cross-fertilization of ideas rather than single perspectives, structural openness to other voices, and no privileging of expertise. As such, these voices have the merit of reminding western theologians how infrequently they conceive themselves of doing their work within the acoustic realm of the worshipping community, and so become the closed community the bloggers rightly protest. In this blog theology offers, then, an important corrective to the contemporary construal of academic theology. What we must ask is whether internet theology can in fact generate the community of discernment these authors seek.

In a community of discernment, Wannenwetsch has suggested, authority and judgment are crucial roles sustaining the health of the body. To suggest that theologians have their own appropriate (if circumscribed) authority as church teachers in the body of Christ is by no means to render theology the preserve of experts. To think of theology as an expertise in a technical knowledge is to displace theology as a vocation with theology as a professional qualification tied to conceptions of management, market orientation and standards of performance rather than a role within the ecclesia that is bound to be responsive to it. A vocation finds its form in devotion to the health of the whole community in the concrete form that they appear. Vocational success is judged not according to criterion technical efficiency, but by its actual effect in the life of the community, bringing it rather closer to an amateur performance (Wannenwestch, 2001, p. 45-55). Though it may generate its own type of authorities, blog culture allows neither for local context nor appreciates the value of being “trapped” by a voice that cannot be switched off and so controlled. As a result it fundamentally narrows the forms of authority that can emerge within it.

Here I confess that as a theologian, I find these issues crucial because I have regularly seen theological students who blog daily and at a relatively superficial level to the detriment of the much deeper learning available to them in libraries and seminars. I would never suggest that Christians ought, on principle, to stay aloof from the online community. Central to the account of the church developed here is my affirmation that what it means to be church is to be involved with the world, suffering its missteps precisely in order to be able to name them as missteps. At the same time, it would be a dereliction of my vocation to introduce students to the riches of the communion of saints if I withheld my judgment that, on balance, the effort, habits and consciousness necessary to be a good citizen of the blog universe competes with the development of habits and forms of attention required to be deeply immersed in a theological tradition. The reading and writing of paragraphs in a blog, however well done, remains a strikingly different activity than reading, digesting and being changed by a text like Augustine’s City of God, or Barth’s Church Dogmatics. The sheer difficulty and difference such texts present is theologically important in inviting us to consider whether in fact we and our forms of communication may be anomalous or even inferior, and in raising theological questions about why one form might have advantages over another. We cannot prejudge whether or not this is the case, but we will have no grounds from which to make a judgment if we do not learn to listen to the saints as they have presented themselves to us.

The Promise of Theological Blogging

It is not yet clear how genuine transformative and reconciling encounter might fruitfully emerge in the blogosphere. An impulse to be more theologically constructive might, however, push us to imagine theological blogging finding an orienting purpose explicitly ancillary to the physical gathering of the worshipping community and disavowing any desire to displace it. It thus far has not surmounted the cultural and technical undertows to become a forum for the sustained and patient attention that is evident in academic writing, reading and reviewing books, nor the growth in affection that transcends (but not erases) cultural difference in the midst of theological disputes taking place in person. When it has done so, it submits to forms of stage managing that intensify communicative potential that have developed over time in other forums: the symposium, journal, or book format, to name a few.

To blog as a way of writing a book, to take one example, substantially changes blog conversations. The form and gravitas of the culture of print publishing immediately influences the content of the blog, generating, for instance, much more substantive and careful interactions between a group that is necessarily limited to hand-picked conversational partners aware their writing will be edited to freeze the best moments of the discussion for publication. The internet is a public forum, and one primarily suited to the thoughtful handing on of knowledge, which differs from publicity in being a gift to others, rather than a mode of self-aggrandizement. In it the goings on of the world can be observed and brought to the church’s attention and the things of the church can be disseminated and digested. But for the reasons discussed, it ought not be expected it to become the primary locus of the church’s theological thinking, nor to displace the church’s gathering for worship or its ordained authorities.

Theological blog sites at their best show evidence of awareness of these pitfalls and their primary location within the physical and local church. Such sites fill an intermediate niche in the church’s pedagogical and dialogical tasks. If pursued seriously and prayerfully they may produce writing both more intellectual and responsible than much Christian populist publishing while being more accessible, both physically and in terms of presentation, than the extended ecclesial discussion taking place in academic journals. They also invite academic theologians too often guilty of hoarding their insights under the influence of ideologies of individual academic reputation, intellectual property, profit, or career advancement to consider a new liberality in sharing their theological insights and writing. Theirs is thus a freeing word to academic theologians in witnessing that whatever is of value in their work is a gift of the Spirit that it is dangerous to hoard. As such they can provide salutary counterbalance to the undertows of “bookish” theology whose medium and institutional location allow it all too easily to drift free of its allegiance to the church and to theology as in essence another form of praising the name of the Lord.

Bloggers may participate in their own way in the church finding its mind through the discussions that introduce, disseminate, fact check and hold theologians to their vocation of patient and serious thought. In this way they might call for the highest standard of communication even as they validate the indispensability and centrality of more permanent and accountable mediums and authorities. In this action they too may serve the gentle unifying power of the Spirit. As we see in secular spheres, blogging cannot displace the mainstream media outlets who sign, date and stand behind the accuracy of their every word, not as opinion but as truth with a concrete address. But bloggers, insofar as they are attentive to texts and real-world details, can call these official actors to a higher standard, while simultaneously validating the greater responsibility and authority to which they, and not bloggers, are held (Bailey, p. 180). Even those media corporations who are increasingly shifting their emphasis to online publishing in order to absorb some of the immediacy and ease of access of online culture are developing protocols for ensuring the quality and accuracy of their material. In so doing they ensure that some form of elite gatekeeper role will remain (Alterman, 2008). Discernment and moral ownership cannot be eradicated from trustworthy communication.

It is exceedingly difficult to simultaneously inhabit the cultures of instantaneous opinion and official and laboriously fact-checked writing. I am suggesting both that the cultural undertow among bloggers is very strong toward communication as opinion-statement or display, and that any hope of combating this undertow will be derived from a transformation of this culture by submerging it in the praise discourse that necessarily orients the truth discourse of the worshipping community (Wannenwetsch, 2004, p. 331). When this transfer of allegiance takes place, the internet may no longer appear as the most suitable forum for many ecclesial activities, its worship, education, pastoral care and so on. That the task of pastoral care is already migrating into the blogosphere as the blog becomes an ersatz confessional or pastoral forum is a stark reminder to the local church of the critical nature of its responsibility for discernment, and a standing indictment of its not having been perceived as peopled with interested enough listeners who invite all into the body. The power of the new communication technologies to create an idolatrous sense of simultaneous collectivity will only gain momentum amidst a western church that has lost any sense of the true simultaneity of the communion of saints.


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Wannenwetsch, B. (2004). Political worship: Ethics for Christian Citizens. Oxford:Oxford University Press.

Ward, P. (2002). Liquid church. Carlisle: Paternoster.

Extract from chapter 6 of, Brian Brock, Christian Ethics in a Technological Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010). Originally published in The Princeton Theological Review, vol. XVII, No. 2, Issue 43, Fall 2010.

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About the Contributor

Brian Brock

Brian Brock
Brian Brock is Reader in Moral and Practical Theology at The University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He earned his MA and PhD at King's College, London. A theological ethicist by training, he has a keen interest in theologically-oriented cultural criticism and in constructive Christian ethics, especially as they relate to technological change. His most sustained theological interactions with contemporary late-modern culture can be found in his book Christian Ethics in a Technological Age, as well as in Theology, Disability and the New Genetics: Why Science Needs the Church, edited with John Swinton. He is also the author of Singing the Ethos of God: On the Place of Christian Ethics in Scripture and Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader


  1. Thank you for the helpful thoughts and reference material included.
    Would you give some help regarding Church Fathers? Any recommended anatomies of their works regarding corporate worship?
    Also, How did this staple of early liturgy relate to the philosophical influences of its day? (of neoPlatonism)

    • Hey Phil,
      A great book for learning about the worship of the earliest Christians is Mike Aquilina’s book ‘The Mass of the Early Christians’. He goes through all of the relevant primary source material of the first few centuries with commentary.

    • Brian Brock says:


      Dom Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy is another classic text describing the early eras of christian worship, in addition to the book Brantly has already mentioned.

      Just to clarify, what do you mean by “this staple of liturgy”? Which “staple”?

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