As I prepare to present at one workshop at the University of Chicago on Friday and attend a writing workshop in downtown Chicago on Sunday, I’m sharing excerpts of what I presented recently at the Lutheran Women in Theological and Religious Studies annual meeting at the American Academy of Religion. (For more on the two workshops I mentioned, see the end of this post.)
Being Lutheran and feminist in the 21st century requires public engagement, wherein theology is done online, marginalized voices are empowered, and the church is called to be prophetic, all of which in in relationship advocating gender and racial justice.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim, as part of an online series in Feminist Studies in Religion earlier this year, puts it this way:
“Our audiences are on the Internet. They are tweeting. They are on Facebook. They are writing and reading blogs. … We have to remember that God is in the public sphere, not locked up in our churches. God is among the poor, the hungry, the outcast, and the marginalized. Our writing should also be out there where God is. When our writing is specifically out where God is, then it becomes more meaningful, enlightening, and empowering.”
I’ve written a bit about the Gutenberg parenthesis here before, an idea explicated by Thomas Pettitt and Lars Ole Sauerberg, interviewed here, with a helpful image that Pettitt created here. In sum, the idea of the Gutenberg parenthesis is that the digital age, rather than being a wholly new and disruptive way of communicating and publishing, marks a return to practices and ways of thinking that were central to human societies before the printing press changed human literacy and the world. The printing press introduced on a mass scale the idea that you could fix and quickly reproduce words. It lead people to think that ideas had some sort of permanence, and that debate could be contained. The digital age is now said to be closing an era of static truth. And so, within the long span of human culture, these 500 or so years are the aberration, the interruption, as a parenthetical thought would be.
There are good and bad things about the beginning of the Gutenberg era. Here are a few:
Fixing knowledge likely enabled the advance of research and science, and allowed for easier transmission of (relatively stable) knowledge from one person to another, from one culture to another, from one generation to the next. It arguably made the Protestant Reformation possible, and upheld one of Luther’s own theological pillars: access to texts. He used the emergent technology of his time, the printing press, to expand access to God (via the bible) and access to debate (via printing his and others’ treatises). However, the value and esteem placed on the written word also meant that if your words weren’t published, they were less valuable. The reification of ideas often makes challenging them a daunting task. This eventually led to viewing biblical texts as inerrant, fixed, permanent, and contained.
There are also good and bad things about the ending of the Gutenberg era, the digital age in which we now live. Here are a few:
We have to re-learn how to evaluate what we read. I think about this a lot in terms of teaching young people how to research well. Is it a legitimate source? It isn’t just young people, as we know. Spend any amount of time in social media spaces and you inevitably encounter people sharing articles from sources that are suspicious at best, illegitimate at worst.
However, two social movements from the past five years to illustrate this point: the Arab Spring, and Black Lives Matter. As Luther himself knew, when institutions (like government, media, journalism, church, and law enforcement) are the problem, they must be circumvented. Experiences can be shared, protests organized, information disseminated, quickly and globally within a moment. Books and articles about systemic racism have existed in this country for hundreds of years … but watching Eric Garner being choked to death by a Staten Island police officer as he says “I can’t breathe” eighteen times galvanized more action. A history of the effects of Jim Crow laws on current race relations is well documented by scholars … but watching a police officer shoot Walter Scott in the back as he ran away from him illustrated anew the deep problems in law enforcement culture.
And so I agree with the authors of the recent article who made a multilayered case for “Why Academics Should Wrote for the Public.” These are some of the particular resonances with Lutheran history and feminist commitments that make this acute for me.
On Sunday, December 6, I will be participating in The OpEd Project’s Core Seminar “Write to Change the World.” Because that’s the dream of what good writing should do.
On Friday, December 4, I will be on a panel at the Preparing Future Faculty Workshop at The University of Chicago Center for Teaching, on “Teaching the Introductory Course.” Because introducing students to the academic study of religion and of gender also has the potential to change the world.