When I was writing my doctoral dissertation on the impact of the Internet on practices of evangelism, Lutheran pastor Clint Schnekloth’s Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era is the book I always wished existed but never could find. The vast majority of texts on the relationship between Christians and technology treat technology as a supplement to faith, an additional realm of engagement offering the potential for networking, evangelizing, community-building, or education outside of the “real,” brick-and-mortar physical church.
What Schnekloth has realized, however, is that this distinction is not so clear-cut, nor should we force it to be. Beginning with an expanded definition of “media”—based on Marshall McLuhan’s formulation of media as all the “extensions” of humanity (to include not just video games and Facebook groups but clothes we wear, buildings we inhabit, the language we use, etc.)—Schnekloth argues that “all of life is mediated, and much more is media than we are often aware.” Furthermore, we are living in what he calls a “trans-media” era, a time in which, rather than experiencing new media replacing old media, new media is being layered on top of old, allowing for more complex and integrated relationships between the “real” and “virtual” elements of our lives. So, for example, Facebook church communities are not necessarily replacing face-to-face church gatherings (as some feared), but are enriching and expanding them.
With this understanding of media in mind, Schnekloth is interested in how the media effects of our trans-media age impact faith formation. He is also interested in how we might use a “theologically informed awareness of media” to better adopt and engage with new media. As case studies, he looks at World of Warcraft (WoW), Second Life, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) Facebook Group he created in 2011, examining in particular how these media might guide church leaders to improve the catechumenate model.
Each chapter provides both theological insight and suggestive starting points for further theoretical contemplation, all the while pushing readers towards ultimate action and deeper media engagement. In his examination of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMPORGs), for example, Schnekloth points out how shocking it is that more clergy haven’t established a presence in digital virtual worlds. Citing Douglas Estes’ Simchurch, Schnekloth notes that less than 1% of the seventy million individuals present in these worlds have been evangelized, making the avatars of cyberspace “the largest unreached people group on planet Earth.” He observes as well that this is likely because of our discomfort at reaching out to avatars, which we deem to be fictional representations of real people. However, when Schnekloth applies his understanding of media to this context, one realizes that, ultimately, humans are constantly in states of various performance. We act one way at work, another at home; we act differently around different sets of friends; we change our appearance, language, and behavior based on audience, environment, and context all the time. So why should we isolate online representations of self as any less legitimate?
What Mediating Faith will not offer its readers is a how-to instruction manual on navigating new media. Instead, by pointing out that our lives are already thoroughly mediated—that even reading the Bible, among the most traditional of faith formation experiences, is a mediated practice—he hopes to diffuse lingering suspicions about immersing ourselves in new technology and to eliminate the idea that new media is in conflict with or will ultimately eliminate old media. In an interview, Schnekloth explained that his goal for Mediating Faith is that it will lead his readers to be “missionaries and explorers” and motivate them “to go and experience formation in new places—like Second Life, World of Warcraft, local catechumenal communities…[and] to think creatively and critically about the relationship between old and new media.”
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Amber M. Stamper holds a Ph.D. in English (Rhetoric and Composition) and is an Assistant Professor of Language, Literature, and Communication at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. Her research and publications center on religious rhetoric and communication, especially issues of Christian evangelism and the digital church.