Religion and Media: An Interview with Mark Hoffman

Religion and Media: An Interview with Mark Hoffman May 14, 2012

As part of the launch of a new Religion and Media Concentration in its Master of Arts in Religion program at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, I was asked to interview one of their profs as part of their Religion and Media blog tour. I have no real connection to Luther Seminary, but this looks like a great program and I always think its a good idea to engage people in conversations about media and religion.

— From the program description

“We know that God has a history of speaking: in the beginning, God spoke and the world came into being; Jesus spoke and the waves were calmed. So how is God’s church speaking to today’s culture? And how is the church hearing what the world is saying? Critical issues and critical questions for a critical time. Explore with us!”

I drew Rev. Dr. Mark V. Hoffman, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies and asked him the following questions. If you get chance, he’ll be responding here so feel free to push back, affirm and generally interact with the good doctor!

How would you respond to those who say that all of the focus on digital media and technology is only widening the gap between the have/s and have not’s.

Are you saying that the gap is a good or bad thing? Just teasing, but we do want to remember up front that not everyone thinks technology is the key to the future. With that in mind, I’m still understanding technology to be a positive. Besides the simple exchange of information (which make access to the Internet so fearful to repressive governments), I think it has made us all more aware of the smallness and linked-togetherness of our world.

If technology can make us all better world citizens, I’m for it!

In any case, it certainly is important to be aware of this gap issue, and I think initiatives like One Laptop per Child are commendable. Still, I don’t believe technology is a zero-sum game. Just because I have a desktop computer, notebook, and a smartphone doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t. In fact, the case is likely that the early adopters of new technology bear much of the costs of development and implementation that eventually make the technology more affordable and available for everyone. Ugh… I suppose that sounds a bit like trickle-down technology, but it is significantly different than trickle-down economics. The idea is not to let the technology accumulate at the top in the developed nations. Rather, and I’m being a bit cynical here, I think if you follow the money, there is tremendous incentive to make technology cheaper and more widespread.

I think there is evidence that the gap is narrowing. The author of this site is a consultant and expert on the “Global Mobile Market.” He notes the tremendous growth in mobile subscriptions in China and India and other emerging nations. A lot of interesting stuff on that page, but the data that really caught my attention was on slide 10 of his show. (Look here at ChurchMag to see the chart quickly.) Doubtless there are a bunch of ways to sort out the data, but the number of people who have mobile subscriptions exceeds that of those who have electricity. (How does that work?) The figures are close for those two categories, but the real stunner is that mobile subscriptions greatly exceed the availability of safe drinking water! From a Christian and humanitarian perspective, providing water is a more basic need we should be addressing than providing more technology. The glib way of putting this is that when Jesus saw the crowds and “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd,” (Mark 6.34), he ended up feeding them, not ‘friending’ them! Still, before he fed them, he first “began to teach them many things.” If Jesus had had the technology available to enhance his teaching–or better, if he were teaching in today’s technologically enhanced environment–I suspect he would use it.

What are a few of the more compelling reasons that churches should be open new technological and media possibilities? Conversely, if you could offer a cautionary thought for churches who are ready to begin using media and technology in new ways, what would it be?

As a Lutheran, I’m trying to think about this question in terms of what Martin Luther might have said when asked about the pros and cons of the printing press. That new technology certainly was an important element in the success of the Reformation movement, but it also became a medium that was used by Luther’s opponents and resulted in the turmoil of that period. Ultimately, the technology continued to develop, and all parties pretty much ended up jumping on board rather then being left behind.

So, I suppose one compelling reason churches need to pay attention to technological and media possibilities is simply because those possibilities are not going to wait for the church’s imprimatur in order to keep moving on. The issue is less about if we use the technology but how. A second reason I would mention for using technology is its potential for creating connections, especially global ones. I fear that churches often become rather closed communities. One of the things that the Internet has done is highlighted our interconnectedness with people from our past, those with shared interests, and communities around the world. The church has always been committed to mission support and encouraging members to go on mission trips, but technology is now able to create, grow, and sustain those relationships like never before. A third reason: new tech and media possibilities are simply ‘interesting.’ I’m not talking about providing more entertainment in the church. Nor am I referring to how all this technology fascinates me personally when I think about how it all is largely a binary manipulation of 0’s and 1’s. Rather, it’s interesting in the sense that usually (there are exceptions to everything) dynamic is more interesting than static, color than monochrome, new than old. But that brings me to some cautions. We don’t want to be investing in technology simply because it is new or because everyone else is doing it. Back in 1996 I created a website for the church I was serving. The Internet was still in its dialup infancy, and to have a website was really a cutting edge medium. Around that time, I also was able to move from using an overhead projector to PowerPoint in our teaching service. This also had a very progressive feel to it. But I became aware of two things.

1) Just because you are able to flex a little technological muscle doesn’t mean you should. We had to think about the reasons for maintaining the web site and for using new technologies. If they don’t serve a purpose, then you are wasting your time.

2) Back in the 1990’s, it was fairly easy to use new technologies in church and generate a ‘gee-whiz’ factor. That doesn’t last long on its own, but even more, it quickly became evident that other secular and business-oriented groups were adopting those technologies, and they were generating way more professional results than we had money, time, knowledge, or personnel to do in the church.

Now, our use of technology was looking very ordinary at best. So, we need to acknowledge that we are not going to be able to use new media with the same degree of professionalism and ‘gee-whizness’ that you see elsewhere on TV or the Internet. My recommendation is to think in terms or simple, tasteful, functional, and effective. A church will want to do the best it can with technology, but I don’t they should try to compete with the secular media. It’s kind of like how you use fonts. Sure, you can use a billion fancy fonts these days, but the most effective use of fonts is one that is simple, tasteful, functional, and effective. The question, then to keep in mind: Does the media enhance our message? Or better, does the media we use promote the Message, the Gospel?

Mark Vitalis Hoffman is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. His website CrossMarks offers Bible study materials and resources. He is a mentor for Fisher’s Net online courses and he blogs at Scroll and Screen, a biblical studies and technological tools blog. He is ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. His 14 years of parishexperience in Minnesota and North Dakota were often focused on Christian education. Hoffman holdsa B.A. from University of Illinois and a M.Div. from Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary. His M.A.,M.Phil. and Ph.D. are from Yale University.


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