By now y’all probably realize I’ve taken a pretty deep hit with all the “Christian” shenanigans last month (and frankly for all time) and I’m struggling to find anything nice to say about anything that is Christian. In the middle of my most recent theological melt down (I’ve had so many) I promised the good people who put up with me at Patheos to write a review of Clint Schnekloth’s new book, Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. Until now I have royally dropped that digital ball (why they still put up with me is a mystery). But as a woman of her word I’ve pulled my head out of my theological/personal crisis ass long enough to do what I said I would do. And boy am I glad I did.
My Second Life avatar, Sophianne Rhode watched her 7th rez date come and go last month with not a lot of fan fare. In terms of online life, 7 years makes her nearly the Crypt Keeper (I could be projecting a little bit) so I suppose that is consistent with how I’ve taught women behave about been getting older. But I digress. Reading Clint’s book sparked me to dust off Sophianne’s digital shoes and stroll around her old church digs. Great memories of our motley little bad of congregants came flooding back as she/we walked into the sanctuary of Koinonia (faithfully preserved by some good ole Presbyterians who’ve taken up the digital land and are maintaining Koinonia as a historic site!). I gratefully recalled the many conversations I was blessed to have with the church wounded, brave church leaders and wandering seekers.
As the planter and facilitator of an online church that held it together for nearly five years, I truly love the premise of Schnekloth’s new book even if it is a tad academic for my tastes. Here’s the nifty and über helpful Amazon summary:
“The church struggles with media. Whether it is a denomination negotiating the 24-hour news cycle or a church evaluating how Facebook or online games are influencing the youth group, media is raising questions and placing demands on communities of faith in ways that could not have been imagined just 20 years ago. Thus the importance of understanding media for the church has never been greater.
In Mediating Faith, church leaders of all kinds will find Clint Schnekloth an engaging and insightful guide to this new and sometimes wondrous world. In doing so he offers an evaluation and theological response to the trans-media era that highlights its potential to transform our work and world.Far from frightening, Schnekloth highlights the opportunities and the riches of this fascinating time.”
Now, as one who continues to experience community online in very real and profound ways thought there here blog, ye old Facebook and that punk Twitter, I thought the best way to share what Clint’s book is getting at would be to ask him a few questions that come from where I am right now on my own winding journey. Thankfully he agreed to this little hat trick that also relieves me of actually writing a substantive post all by grumpy-cat self.
Here’s how our fruitful little tête-à-tête when down:
My long, grumpy-cat question(s): “In light of the recent high profile homophobic shenanigans of the fundamentalist “Christian” power brokers who forced World Vision to backtrack from compassion into cowardice, what role do you think online community plays in offering Christians, especially those suffering PTSD at the hands of the church, a place of reconciliation and healing? Can you speak to how you believe (if you believe) that online communities off faith can provide a much needed counter to the well deserved perception that all Christians are homophobic, nationalistic, infighting asshats?”
His gracious, intelligent and faithful answer: “I’m always amazed and honored when members of the LGTBQ community who have been hurt at a previous church come and check out Christian community with us, or anywhere. If I had been hurt in the ways I have heard of folks being hurt, I don’t know if I would ever try again. And I imagine many don’t. One of the things virtual community offers is a safer place to step back into community after such a traumatic experience. Because it is digitally mediated, you have a little more control over your environment. You can shape your avatar, you can choose who you interact with, you can intentionally go to places you know are welcoming. All of these are goods of digitally mediated community that aren’t always available in spatial or geographical church. So one thing churches can do and be in these contexts is a place of refuge and safety.
Of course, there are also churches that are doing this in the real world. My friend Pastor Heidi Neumark leads a church in Manhattan that hosts a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth. They mediate safety and refuge in real body space. They have found over time that there are better and worse ways to do this. There is, as I talk about in my book, a kind of procedural rhetoric that forms communities to be safe and welcoming places of grace.
Finally, the digital community can organize. It can influence policies and decisions, both for non-profits like World Vision, and in denominations and beyond. Those who care about, as you call it, compassion over cowardice, need to make contact with World Vision also and let their voices be heard. So far it seems perhaps the homophobic voice is more organized. So Christians can organize on-line in ways that tend toward justice.
I might add that we simply need more people telling alternative stories. Walter Brueggemann talks about testimony and counter-testimony in Scripture. We need more people telling the story of Heidi Neumark’s shelter at Trinity in Manhattan, of every day churches offering welcome, of non-profits taking a stand for welcome and justice. Stories as counter-testimony have power, and can change things.”
A question that I was dying to ask him the whole time I was reading his book: “Can you speak to my favorite quote from theologian Leonardo Boff
“Grace and salvation are always expressed in sacramental form. They do not come like a bolt from the blue. They find their path to the hearts of human beings through all manner of mediations. The mediations can change, but grace and faith cannot.” ~ Ecclesiogenesis: The Base Communities Reinvent the Church (Orbis, 1986)
Where he nails it: “The Boff quote is spectacular. It’s true. Grace is mediated everywhere. I find it helpful to remember to mediate it in social media in intentional ways. Some of my most regular practices include: 1) Posting prayers as status updates. 2) Cultivating conversations in Facebook threads that offer space for a variety of voices, for communicative rationality and care. 3) Living faith and real life in an integrated fashion, and then putting on my social media avatar that illustrates this.”
Thank you Clint for your work on this great little book. Faculty, seminarians and clergy interested in 21st century ministry may find it especially enlightening! As for Sophianne and I, I think we’ll be hanging out together a little more thanks to your reminder about what good we can do online as well as off.
Clint is lead pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Fayetteville Arkansas and blogs at lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com