What does Jerusalem have to do with the Internet? #YaleEdin2021 Keynote
It's with very good, great pleasure that I move to the first event of the conference and introduce our speaker. I'm delighted that my colleague, Dr. Alexander Chow, is going to open our conference with the keynote address.
Alex is Chinese American. He was born and raised in Southern California. He completed his PhD in Theology at the University of Birmingham, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at Renmin University of China, where he was doing research in Chinese Christianity and teaching in the School of Liberal Arts. He joined the University of Edinburgh in September 2013. And he is with me, co-director of the Centre for the Study of World Christianity and co-editor of the journal of Studies in World Christianity.
He's also editor of the book series Chinese Christianities by Notre Dame Press. Alex has written a number of articles on Christianity in China. And he's written two books, Theosis, Sino-Christian theology and the Second Chinese Enlightenment, which was published in 2013. And Chinese Public Theology Generational Shifts and Confucian Imagination in Chinese Christianity, which was published in 2018. Dr. Chow's first career was as
a computer software engineer who better to prepare a fully digital conference. And he is taking that skillset into his new area of interest, which was looking at digital theologies and digital cultures. So who better to start our conference with a paper entitled, What does Jerusalem have to do with the internet? World Christianity and digital culture. Dr. Chow, the floor is yours. What has Jerusalem to do with Athens? The church, with Plato's Academy, the Christian with the heretic? Our principles come from the porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that the Lord is to be sought in simplicity of heart.
After Jesus Christ, we have no need of speculation. After the gospel, no need of research. Scholars of World Christianity, we have failed to heed the advice of Tertullian, the great African apologist. We have researched. We have speculated. But worst of all,
we have entertained the idea of Christianity mingling with the philosophies of this world. Tertullian, who was citing the Apostle Paul, was concern about philosophy, philosophia. This was not simply the modern academic subject taught in universities today. It encompass ways of perceiving the world, often with a religious inflexion. What we need today describe as a culture or subculture.
In the last few decades, especially with the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, a digital culture has come into being. If the digital has created a culture, then it reconfigures Christian movement and networks from geographic spaces to digital spaces. If the digital has created a culture, then it translates the Christian message into a new medium.
If the digital has created a culture, then it changes the ways people experience and perceive and practise the Christian religion. Scholars of World Christianity are perhaps some of the most well-suited to study this so-called digital culture. A year and a half ago, when we were planning for the then 2020 Yale-Edinburgh Conference, my colleague Emma Wild-Wood asked me to deliver the keynote lecture. At the time I thought I would have to spend most of the lecture convincing my listeners that there is such a thing as a digital culture.
Then there was a pandemic. And around the globe, many people, not everybody, but many, became so much more dependent on digital technologies. For work or for school, for church, for the daily news and the daily shopping. Digital technologies were also key in maintaining public health measures. It is remarkable that the world's fastest growing mobile app has not been Facebook or TikTok or Pokemon Go. But Aarogya Setu an app released in April of 2020 and designed by the Indian government for contact tracing.
Within the first 13 days of its launch, this public health app accrued 50 million users. After 40 days, it had over a 100 million. Many of us have had firsthand exposure to digital culture. If you have ever told somebody to unmute themselves on a video call, you haven't baptised in the fire of digital culture. If you've ever curated the view of your webcam by repositioning your books on your bookshelf or changing your virtual background. You have been born again in digital culture.
In fact, digital culture has existed for much longer than the advent of this virus we call COVID-19. The pandemic has merely accelerated the spread of digital culture. Some of the early research around Christianity and digital culture examine the ways in which communities reimagine themselves through email communication and online discussion groups.
Others explored more experimental approaches to digital technology, such as the Church of Fools, which enabled worship goers to use digital avatars to attend a 3D render church, listen to sermons, and sing and pray together. To many commentators, this was closer to science fiction than the Christian religion. But it also overshadowed more subtle Christian uses. Digital technologies through online networks, sermon podcasts, blogs, and microblogs. Needless to say, the Christian use of digital technologies has had its detractors.
Some have denounced attempts at virtual church as not being confused with true church or real church. On a semantic level, there's a perception that the virtual denote something that is artificial or simply not real. Part of the problem comes from the computer science use of the term virtual, which indicates that something is being simulated.
This computer science sense of the term is quite different from the metaphysical sense, which finds its origins in the scholastic theology of John Duns Scotus well before the advent of digital technology. But this debate between virtual and real seemed to have been somewhat diffused by the pandemic. Partly because many churches needed to choose whether to go online or to find another means for running their activities under lockdown measures. With the shift to online church, it may have been perceived as less than ideal, but few church leaders would call this a simulated church.
If we think about it, an online church service that uses microphones and speakers and cameras is not all that different from an AV system in an in-person church service, especially for churches that broadcast within a large sanctuary or overflow rooms, or have recorded sermons that were once shared on cassette tape or CDs and now on sermon podcasts. All of these examples involve real people and real experiences that are mediated by various technologies. Perhaps the main difference between an online church in an in-person church is a physical distance that's involved.
Another area of contention has been the use of digital Bibles. In certain contexts. It has now become commonplace to attend a church service and hear the words, please take out your phones, tap on your Bible app and swipe with me to Isaiah 61. The sheer mention of a phone or an app or tap and swipe indicates adulteration of Christianity by an intrusive digital culture. It is a technology of convenience and access.
The NAB version that is, the Nearest Available Bible, which has ease of searchability and innovations of digital alerts for Bible reading plans or the verse of the day. But on the smartphone, it can also be a source of distractions, notifications of the Latest News, or a friend's instant message disrupting one's reverent spiritual reading. Instead of the digital bible, many Christians may insist on a physical paper bible.
Please open your Bibles and turn to the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 61. It is on page 751 of your pew Bible. If the paper Bible was good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for us today. But actually Jesus in Luke's Gospel is recorded as standing up on the Sabbath day in the synagogue.
And he unrolled the scroll of Isaiah to what we would today referred to as Chapter 61 and read the words, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour. We have been baptised in print culture. It is easy to forget that the notion of a bound Bible, mass produced by machine type, paginated and divided into chapter and verse, is part of a print culture that was completely foreign in Jesus's day. Furthermore, while the debate appears to be between the print Bible versus digital Bible, the overriding question for some maybe about the spiritual power found in the materiality of the physical paper Bible. As a culture, the digital introduces new values and new rules for behaviour, such as video conference etiquette, where one person speaks at a time while everybody else keeps muted.
As a culture, the digital engenders new performances to tap and swipe or to raise one's digital hand. As a culture, the digital creates new artefacts and symbols that shape one's identity. By virtue of the pandemic, many of us have acquired all sorts of new artefacts, software and hardware technologies, as well as the versatility in a new language. Phrases like “Zoom bombing” or the use of digital hieroglyphs known as emojis or meta languages, such as hashtags. With technologies like Twitter, posts are limited to mere 280 characters.
As Polonius explained in Hamlet. Brevity is the soul of wit. Or perhaps we can say the Internet meme is the soul of wit. The digital fosters a culture of pithy hot takes that we did not know of before. The digital in producing a culture has brought to the foreground how one's interactions with and understandings of the Christian religion or augmented by these technologies.
The Bible offers negotiations with various technologies, whether it be the advent of clothing for Adam and Eve, or the materials, designs, and technological skills involved in the crafting of priestly instruments, the tabernacle and temple. The Bible also highlights the importance of oral and literary cultures. God speaks the sun and the moon and the stars into being. And we hear the profits proclaim, thus says the Lord. The technologies around literary culture are also important, whether it is God or writing the covenant law on a tablet of stone with his finger, or the New Testament letters penned to Christians and their communities.
In the Epistles of John, we are even told of how the author deliberated about technology as he had much to write, but would rather talk face to face as opposed to using the tools of paper and ink. Any technology offers innovations and limitations to the experiences, perceptions, and practises of Christianity. When considering world Christianity, we must ponder the ways in which digital culture interacts with many other cultures of this world. For instance, it is often said that technology accentuates and individualistic orientation. With a rise of print during the Protestant Reformation, the widespread ownership of the Bible brought about a transition from public readings of scripture in the congregation to private readings in the home. This is even more so the case with the rise of digital technologies, like personal mobile devices, when a person reads the Bible held in their hands, a paper Bible held in their hands, it offers a public symbol of Christianity to those around them.
In contrast, a person using a mobile device can be reading a digital Bible or checking their social media or both. The public nature of the Bible is no longer found in the physical object. It may not be lost as a sharing of Bible verses on social media presents a new form of public spirituality. But the shift from print technology to digital technology has resulted in reorientations of public expressions of Christian faith and practise. However, some have noticed the collectivistic orientations of certain societies have been reshaped in the use of digital technologies.
In Pauline Cheong's study of New Creation Church in Singapore, she describes how the church has tried to use social media to highlight aspects of church cohesion. Instead of the individual oriented selfie, that is, a photo one takes of oneself, the church has encouraged the taking of group oriented photos called “wefie” or “usie” with a hashtag #GraceRevolution. As opposed to the egocentric representations of the selfie, Cheong explains that these, allocentric representations highlight the underlying Asian cultural collectivistic values that are translated into the digital culture.
Of interest to scholars of World Christianity, Cheong also makes an appeal for research on digital culture to grow beyond its current focus on American and European perspectives. Digital technology can also foster group cohesion. Cohesion by the inherent interconnectivity it provides.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, technological innovations related print, transit, and telegraph facilitated the international awareness and spread of Christianity. In the 21st century, technological innovations in digital media have phenomenally increase the speed of communication. Some churches in the Philippines have long used video conferencing platforms for small group and discipleship networks, with one even describing it as “Skypleship.” According to one commentator, digital communication technologies has been important for the African church and promoting Ubuntu solidarity since they foster the crossing of social divides in the maintenance of social networks. The interconnectivity offered by digital communication technologies, facilities, a major hallmark of World Christianity, namely the global movement of Christians. Digital technologies have been used by diasporic Christians to send and receive prayers, blessings, and inspirational messages with those in their home countries and home churches, or by migrant workers in restrictive countries who otherwise would not have been able to attend worship services or mass if it were not conducted online.
Even more than ever, we must speak of Chinese Christianity, Filipino Christianity, Nigeria Christianity, or whatever other form of Christianity, in transnational terms. We need expansive imaginations to appreciate particular expressions of the World Christianity, beyond the limits of geographic locales. When considering the implications of digital on World Christianity, we need to recognise that there are different degrees of engagement with digital culture. On a basic level, digital technologies are tools to be used by Christians and churches.
We see this with how Christian leaders responded to the rapid turn towards online services in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many churches witnessed a significant growth in online viewership when compared to their pre-pandemic physical tendencies. And these viewers were often geographically disperse and included in international audiences that would not have previously attended in-person services. For these novices in digital church, this garnered an awareness that a digital shift creates new possibilities for mission and evangelism beyond the limits of space. We may contrast this with those who have much more long-term and conscious engagement with digital technologies. Especially as found in a number of evangelistically-oriented or Pentecostal-charismatic churches.
In a study of African Pentecostal, Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu explains that for the contemporary African Pentecostal movement, digital media offer something much more than just serving as an instrument for evangelization or mission. This is a movement that believes it has been called to literally dominate or occupy global space. The Internet is much more than a tool. The digital space is part of the global space.
In the case of these African Pentecostal and charismatic churches, it is a space in which a theology of dominion can be practised. It is a digital arena of spiritual warfare in which God's presence can sanitise and diffuse the influence of Satan and the Christian can take authority in Christ to dominate and influence. We may also consider the case of Reformed Churches in China in which their use of digital technologies has occurred within one of the most sophisticated and restrictive Internet censorship systems in the world, the Great Firewall of China. In many ways, Chinese digital culture, like a millennium of print culture before it, has been architected as part of a propaganda system to build and to sustain state orthodoxy.
Despite this, Christians in China have negotiated this restrictive digital space through online magazines, blogs, and microblogs as means for promoting theological rationale for change in the society and the state. Testing and challenging the digital boundaries of public discourse. This has involved a seemingly futile cat and mouse chase, often with a censoring of online posts, the closing down of social media accounts. While the Chinese government has developed a legal framework to exert what it calls “Cyberspace Sovereignty,” these Reformed Christians would likely argue that Divine sovereignty has ultimate control over the digital space.
To adapt the words of one Calvinist theologian. There's not a square inch, not a computer byte in which the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, mine! In the case of African Pentecostalism, we see the dynamism of an oral culture that has produced a theology of deliverance and dominion translated into the digital. In the case of Chinese Reformed Christianity, we see the public intellectualism of a print culture that has produced a theology of public engagement translated into the digital. In both, the digital space is now sacralized as a divine space, which God can and has ultimate authority. As a digital space, the Internet is often applauded as a platform for democracy. Of course, such an ideal does not exist in any society, let alone liberal democracies like the United States or the United Kingdom, given that there's not a single country where all citizens have equal access and equal proficiency in technology, digital technologies.
We need only consider events such as Arab Spring or the recent social unrest in Hong Kong or Myanmar, to understand why government entities have had anxieties over what the masses are able to do with the power of the Internet. Not only do traditional expressions of authority exist, whether we speak of civil or religious authorities. But digital culture has given rise to new voices, such as social media influencers or digital creatives. However, the digital space is also occupied by actors who are not human. Digital culture complicates traditional civil and religious authority by introducing algorithmic authority in which social trust is garnered from informational tools and rankings leading to individuals who engage as thought leaders and as cultural authorities for particular communities. Perhaps scholars of World Christianity now must speak of benevolent and malevolent bots, as they have spoken of benevolent and malevolent spirits.
While some human and non-human voices insist on promoting subversive messages, theologians and ethicists insist that the digital space can and should also be a context for the common good. Ideas and practises are not only translated into the digital, but online discussions and activities often have implications for offline social political realities. Marcella Althaus-Reid, demonstrates this in her study of websites that highlight stories of excluded within Argentinian society. Ironically, many of these individuals do not even have their own technological means to access the digital space which presents their stories. Althaus-Reid explains These websites are types of Eucharistic ethical archives in a sense that they reveal testimonies, communion of solidarity, and the pervading sense of God, which is so abundant amongst the destitute and Argentina. The gathering of these contemporary voices in the web produces much more than an archive.
It emerges as a Eucharistic gathering for shows a presence of God manifested in people's practise of solidarity while encouraging us towards a practise of love and justice. Inspired by the project of the Kingdom of God and the hinted poiesis or creativity of every day of the excluded. In such a way, the digital creates a space where those who have had no authority and no voice are offered a platform to speak.
It also offers a community that brings together the weak and the powerful to share in the experiences of God's presence in the world online and offline. What has Jerusalem to do with the Internet, the church, with Zuckerberg's Facebook, the Christian with the social media influencer? It goes without saying that digital culture should not be met with unbridled optimism. Along with the direct challenges that are introduced by digital culture, we are confronted with a number of indirect obstacles as well. Digital technologies accelerate hierarchies of resourcing. What exists only in
the digital leaves behind those who do not have the right access or right abilities, resulting in a world of digital haves and digital have-nots, digital rich and digital poor. We may also consider with the rise of digital culture, especially in a post-COVID-19 world. We have all collectively invested in new gadgets and new habits. If the computer scientists, Gordon Moore and David House are correct, computer chip performances double in speed every 18 months, leaving us with a world with significant ecological costs.
As the theologian Randy Woodley puts it, we need to seek the Shalom in the community of creation. The digital indeed creates a culture. This digital culture translates other cultures, both those that developed out of human societies, such as Confucian, Hindu, postmodern, or various indigenous cultures, as well as technological cultures, from the most natural instruments of vocal cords and body language, to the most unnatural.
A pen and printing press and microprocessor. As the boundaries between the online and offline become blurred, these translations go in multiple directions. Digital culture reflects and encounters, changes people's day-to-day lived and local situations. Through this newcomer, digital culture, we are reintroduced to multiple streams that animate Christianity, now in a digital key. Scholars of media studies tend to prioritise the medium as encapsulated in Marshall McLuhan's dictum, “The medium is the message.”
While many Christians are preoccupied by the sanctity of the message, that is the Logos or the Word. Others are preoccupied with the medium of that message, that is the flesh through the Incarnation. I would like to suggest that it is not only about the Christian message conveyed through a particular medium, but the new modes that digital culture enables. That is,
it is also about how oral or print or digital cultures negotiate and renegotiate ways in which people experience and perceive and practise the Christian religion. The mode is also the message. Thank you very much.