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Virtual Christianity: Potential and Challenge for the Churches

Author: Jean-Nicolas Bazin, Jerome Cottin
Publisher: Geneva, Switzerland: World Council of Churches, 2003
Review Published: October 2005

 REVIEW 1: Tim Detwiler

Virtual Christianity: Potential and Challenge for the Churches is translated from the original French (Vers un christianisme virtuel? Enjeuz et defies d'Internet) and is a European-flavored publication of the World Council of Churches. The text addresses contemporary issues regarding the work of the church in a post-modern culture applicable to faith groups worldwide and to both professionals and laity. The book is aimed at uninformed ministry professionals who have little exposure to the new forms of technology (exclusively the Internet) and the accompanying issues, but who desire to become better informed practitioners.

The physical nature of the text invites a quick-read in that it is a very handy 7 1/2 by 4 3/4 and fits easily into one's hands as the reader engages 122 pages of material by way of six chapters and four appendices. The cover is attractive and intriguing as it juxtaposes the text of Scripture in front of a computer screen, and that is the crux of the book -- how does one maintain adherence to the "old" while adapting to the "new"?

The project rests under the symbol (actually appearing on the cover) of the Greek concept of Oikoumene, which means to inhabit. In essence, how do humans inhabit the material nature of the human condition while at the same time seeking to live out the spirituality of their faith in the context of new technology? Interestingly, the authors set up the conflicting notions of how to handle the issues in an idealistic and humanistic (spiritual) manner while offering a practical and pragmatic (material) approach to technology. Given the context of the World Council of Churches, Bazin and Cottin suggest that the use of new technology by the church (broadly defined) allows for an ecumenical ideal to develop regarding the use of new communication technology to advance its earthly purpose.

Chapter Contents

Chapter one, "The Internet and How to Use It," begins the work by defining the Internet and how one is able to use this marvelous new technology in both personal and professional applications. A list of a number of ways the church is using the Internet is offered as well as a brief consideration of some the limitations and dangers of using this technology in performing functions of the faith. The church has dealt with the advent of new technologies (printing press, telephone, and television, to name three) and many of those technological functions have a parallel with the latest technology (Internet). This line of thought is important as one juxtaposes the new world available through the use of communication technology with the historical witness of the church in contemporary culture. With that as context, the authors tend to view the impact of the Internet on the church as being revolutionary and not evolutionary. I suggest that this frame of understanding serves a disservice to the sorts of conclusions reached by the authors. During the first pages, the authors raise a number of ethical issues worthy of consideration. Nevertheless, the challenge is clear -- how does the church interact with the Internet? That question is foundational to chapter one and certainly a line of inquiry worth exploring.

Chapter two, "The Internet In the Current Social Enviornment," extends some of the primary conceptions offered in the opening section in the general context of describing the Internet in the current social environment. Given the authors' inclination to acknowledge the various facets of a culture which have a say in the integration of any new technology, I am curious as to their desire to push the notion of the "birth of a new culture" (29) where something "new" is happening. Yes, the Internet is a new/different way for humans to communicate, but is there a civilization shift occurring? A civilization shift resembling the manner by which all cultures change and shift? Yes. A fundamental reordering of the human condition? Probably not. The development of any new technology is not out of the control of the social institutions which gave it birth, nurture it with laws and social practices, and guide it into maturation. Typically, those independent and interdependent social structures usually, using Brian Winston's (1986, pp. 23-25) thoughts, "suppress the radical potential" of any new technology to radically alter a culture. Generally, it is the language of a primary or a combination of a culture's dominant social structures (and the church still remains such) that provides a symbol system by which one comes to know about, understand and negotiate the function of a new technology. Thus, a technological determinism is seldom appropriate by which to frame the issues that this text raises.

Chapter three, "How the Church Assesses the Internet," addresses the main point, which is that despite its concomitant temptations and limitations, an opportunity exists that the church must grasp in it relationship to technology. The authors acknowledge that opportunity, and write that "a Christian theological orientation for humans to engage the Internet could be a form of self-actualization linking the written word, the spiritual meaning, the human body and the invisible presence of God" (56). With those thoughts as the context, the authors ask what position should the church take toward the new media? In answering that important question, the authors do deal with (although in a limited way) issues of philosophy, theory, and practice. The authors spend most of their time discussing the practical application of the Internet. Bazin and Cottin state that many of the same arguments/issues raised regarding the Internet have been raised with the advent of all other forms of technology. In short, an acknowledgment is made that not all of the new technology is negative, as the Internet provides a distinctly new and different "ideological worldview" guiding the human entrance into a virtual reality. This raises an interesting point, in that it would seem that a human spiritual experience in itself is a form of virtual reality encompassing a number of non-material experiences, including prayer, meditation, witness, and other acts of faith. Perhaps the "new way" of thinking is less due to the Internet and other related technologies, but is a way of thinking and living that resists a scientifically verified Modern way of experiencing the human condition. The dual tension of real and virtual and where the church's role ends and the technological role begins, as well as where both of the roles overlap, is central to the work of the text.

Chapter four, "The Internet and the Expansion of the Church," addresses a few of the issues surrounding the Internet and the expansion of the church. The church has a mission of expansion, of proclaiming a message of salvation, and thus seeks to increase the numbers of followers willing to live life according to a Christian spiritual level of experience. As the authors write, "the use of the Internet to create space for the expression of spirituality" (88) flows nicely from that purpose. However, it is good to know that the authors place the church’s interaction with the Internet into a bigger project and that is the ecumenical campaign for fair communication proposing a new order for governing information and communication technologies, not just for a commercial and un-egalitarian society, but in building a more universally fair society, a society based on greater solidarity (94). This is a sufficient context out of which the authors position their work and the work of the church. Ultimately, the authors argue, the challenge is for the church not to ignore a new method of communication, but that it should proactively fulfill its corporate stewardship responsibilities in meeting the needs of its cultural call to guidance and reconciliation. The church should be reflective on its role in culture and then be a projective force providing answers for ethical and concerned reaction. There is a good section in this chapter suggesting ways for the church to use the Internet (pp. 62-64) in calling local parishes to use new media in ministry to the broader culture. In learning to communicate better as a church, the Internet is a viable technology to "rebuild community links," both internally and externally (69).

The authors' final thoughts are contained in a conclusion chapter which provides a good summary of the book. Perhaps this is the clearest rending of what was a tenuous struggle throughout the book for the authors to determine whether the technology was good or bad for the church.

A grouping of four appendices finalize the book. The first of the supplemental materials "lays the groundwork for an Internet project" by offering specific plans and applications for interested communities of faith seeking to use the technology in local ministry (with global possibilities) settings. Additionally, Appendix One seeks to connect the suggested applications to the more theoretical concerns raised in the earlier chapters.

The other three appendices provide resources for anyone interested in pursuing the topic by way of websites, general resources (primarily print materials), and a general reading list. Each set of resources provide a good but limited point of reference.

Text Critique

Bazin and Cottin offer the thesis that there is an undeniable need for theological clarification of the many issues surrounding the new technologies and how the church should use them. Without a doubt that is true, but there are already a number of books which deal with a myriad of similar issues. The authors do offer a resource and reading list, but they seem to be unaware of the material which analyzes some of the topics they suggest need more research. For example, I offer just a short list of books which consider many of the issues raised when one considers the use of technology driven by a Christian vision and purpose:
    Groothuis, Douglas. (1997). The Soul in Cyber-Space. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

    Noble, David F. (1998). The Religion of Technology: The Divinty of Man And the Spirit of Invention. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

    Schultze, Quentin. (1996). Internet for Christians. Muskegon, MI: Gospel Films, Inc.

    Schultze, Quentin. (2004). High-Tech Worship? Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
In addition to a number of available books, one just needs to explore the almost overwhelming information available on the Internet itself when introducing to a search engine a variety of related words in multiple combinations: religion, technology, and Christian, to name just a few of the most obvious concepts. Simply, there is much information to provide a rich historical, sociological, and theological context and this text struggles to offer much new to the existing conversation.

One of the concerns of the authors is that the church has not typically critiqued the "new" without offering constructive proposals on how to approach, use, and shape the new. Again, that might be true, but a number of people have considered the questions. In that sense, this text is very elementary in the questions it is asking and in the answers it provides. Courses at American faith-based colleges are offered, full degree programs have been developed, and there are scores of folks walking around able to discuss the issues the authors suggest need responses.

I would offer that new technologies are impacting the culture and the work of the church in a new format, but that in essence, we are dealing with old questions in new contexts. A thick and historically rich understanding of how humans have integrated and negotiated new technology into culture would allow us to step back from what appears to be a fast-paced new race and see that what we consider "new" is really embedded in the course of historical events, revealing that the base issues are not new, but an old set of questions seeking to allow humans to understand, exist, and make their way through the human condition with new/different tools of communication. To do otherwise is to make the church's use of the Internet a magic-wand experience.

One thing that seemed apparent as I read the book was that the authors were themselves perplexed about the positive use of technology in ministry and how to deal with an assumed set of negatives which comes with the venturing into new terrain. I agree, it is imperative that people of faith consider the desirability of e-Christianity and whether or not this new electronic world offers something that is a new perspective on the world -- both for the faithful seeking to negotiate their way personally and socially and for those outside of it all. The struggle is worth the effort as Christians seek to re-establish Christian and humanistic values in the field of communication when dealing with new forms of human interaction. In some sense, they are trying to understand the Internet from a "Modern" perspective and that could be part of the reason they seem puzzled by seeking to address a post-modern technology being used by a modern or pre-modern social organization (the church). Perhaps this underscores the tension of two visions, one of material and one of spiritual. An exploration of the post-modern culture in which the Internet operates might prove a valuable perspective for fresh insights in the church's relationship to culture.

A probing notion that the church has little control over the external factors which are behind the declining interest in Christianity in the West is offered by the authors. This assertion cries out for more direct involvement by the church in the conversations of a culture. I believe that this text is a treatise of sorts to challenge those in church ministry to study, examine, and use the new forms of communication in effectively developing a strategy for present and future activity. I agree with Cottin and Bazin in that a word of caution is needed for churches to think through the technology related questions before automatically using them for social and ministry purposes. In Virtual Christianity: Potential and Challenge for the Churches, Bazin and Cottin have taken the time to ask a few questions and provide a few answers to those who need to be informed as well as trained Christian ministry professionals. It is noble to claim the created human order for the use of the Creator.

Brian Winston, Misunderstanding Media. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Tim Detwiler:
Tim Detwiler is Dean of General Studies and Professor of Communication Arts at Cornerstone University of Grand Rapids, Michigan. His research interests include: the relationship of technology and culture, technology and organizational behavior, and a rhetorical understanding of the spiritual nature of technology. Previously, he reviewed Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance and Culture & Technology for RCCS.  <timothy_j_detwiler@cornerstone.edu>

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