On media, religion and theology

Verze 2

František Štěch from the Research Group Theology and Contemporary Culture gives an overview on the new field of media theology

Nowadays, “media is a more frequent arena then family and church for contact with religious ideas and values,”[1] declares Swedish sociologist Mia Lövheim. This is certainly one of the strong (and very practical) motivation factors for theological engagement with media, which gives birth to what could be called media theology. Media theology covers a diverse portfolio of theological approaches to different media (including new media and communication technologies) as well as reflections on communication and the relationship between God and human beings (including its theological/doctrinal implications). However, in this wide range of contemporary theological discourses on media and attempts to formulate media theology, the most common approach to medium and mediation is almost exclusively in terms of communication science. Medium and mediation are understood as something intermediary to communication which always has some direction. The majority of texts on media theology offer either theological insights on new media and digital technologies (drivers of mediatization), (and)or theological interpretations of the way how they function.

According to Israeli media theorists, Menahem Blondheim and Hananel Rosenberg, media theology reflects on “the relevance of communications to the relationship between God and humans and to the ideological implications of those ideas.”[2] According to their expertise, we may find together three styles of media theology:[3]

(A)       From theology to media. This style of media theology is focused on how theology as religious thinking influenced the human relationship with (new) media technologies.

(B)       From media to theology. The second style of media theology turns the focus in an opposite direction and deals with the question of how (new) media technologies function as parables or metaphors of theological issues.

(C)       Media as religious experience. Using new media may become a new, wholly different religious experience asking for its theological reflection.

These are consonant with three phases of religious interaction with the technical medium of internet. This interaction is proportionally intensified to the improvement and evolution of technical apparatuses (access devices) allowing for the constantly increasing speed of connection and offering more possibilities:[4]

(A)       Religion online. In the first phase (slow connection, primitive and static access devices), the internet is understood as a tool for presenting religion online (e.g., informative webpages about particular religious communities and their activities)

(B)       Online religion. In the second phase (fast connection, advanced and portable access devices), the internet takes up a function of the tool for religious interaction online (e.g., online prayer groups or religious rituals performed and broadcasted online). If religious experience occurs in relation to the internet it can be at best classified as virtual religious experience (hence not real).

(C)       Online religious experience. This phase (always faster connection, personalized (smart) access devices, datafication of human lives, interaction with AI) seems to replace quite recently the other two and introduces the internet as a semantic web – as an environment (cyberspace) where online religious experience becomes possible, actual and real. This means that the experience of the encounter with the divine in cyberspace has the same characteristics and qualities of the same experience (of revelation) in physical landscapes of this world. In other words, the wall between real and virtual still visible and discernible in the second phase is now becoming more and more transparent. And the rapid development of augmented reality contributes to the process of its complete vanishing.

Based on their analysis Blondheim and Rosenberg believe that online religious experience ‘emerging from the breakdown and collapse of all entrenched conventions and narratives in the digital world, and the opening of a chaotic abyss can (…) serve as prelude to a fresh new theological start’.[5] However, they do not say anything about how this fresh theological start would (or should) look like. That represents a challenge for contemporary theologians. One of the possibilities to set off in this direction might be designing new media theology not focused as much on drivers of mediatization and how they function, but more on mediation as a way of living in the medium – the environment where the borders between physical and virtual fade away, and where reality becomes more complex and colorful than we would imagine in times prior to our discovery of cyberspace, before technologies became part of our identities, enhancing human perception possibilities.

 

 

František Štěch, Th.D. currently works at the Protestant Theological Faculty at Charles University within the framework of the Theology and Contemporary Culture research group. His professional interests include fundamental theology, ecclesiology, youth theology, religious and Christian identity, intercultural theology, public theology, and theology of religions.

 

[1] LÖVHEIM, Mia. “Religious Socialization in a Media Age.” Nordic Journal of Religion and Society 25 (2), 2012: 151.

[2] BLONDHEIM, Menahem, and ROSENBERG, Hananel. (2017). “Media Theology: New Communication Technologies as Religious Constructs, Metaphors, and Experiences.” New Media and Society 19 (1): 44.

[3] Ibid. 44-45.

[4] The first two phases were studied and defined well by Christopher Helland. Cf. Christopher HELLAND, ‘Online religion as lived religion: Methodological issues in the study of religious participation on the Internet.’ Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 1 (1), 2005. Online: ˂http://www.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/archiv/5823>. Accessed 23rd November 2017. The third phase is added only quite recently by Menahem Blondheim and Hananel Rosenberg. But not yet properly explored. Cf. BLONDHEIM, Menahem and ROSENBERG, Hananel. ‘Media Theology: New Communication Technologies as Religious Constructs, Metaphors, and Experiences.’ New Media and Society 19 (1), 2017: 50.

[5] BLONDHEIM and ROSENBERG, ‘Media Theology’: 50.

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