by Colleen Windham-Hughes, Assistant Professor Assistant Professor in Religion; Director, Theology and Christian Leadership Program; Associate Director, Center for Equality and Justice at California Lutheran University
When I think of culture I like to keep yogurt in mind. For yogurt and for people culture means conditions that foster life and growth. Now, this certainly does not mean that all of culture is life-giving, but it does mean that people are aiming what helps them live and grow and not intentionally annoying others with music, language, or patterns of interaction that bother others. If we stay focused on life and growth we might have a good chance at seeing how Christ is showing up in another whose culture is different from our own. We might even identify what is life-giving in our cultural moment so that we might inculturate the gospel in our time.
To inculturate the gospel is to participate in God’s work in the world by giving voice to the gospel in language and images the culture understands. This is the work of every Christian in every time.
Our understandings of and relationships with God are often expressed through metaphors of daily life. Present preoccupation with personal electronic technology sometimes encourages a privative notion of God, available on demand to address our needs. And yet here too the gospel can break through.
In her book Tweet if You <3 Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation, Elizabeth Drescher points out that desert mothers and fathers often counseled spiritual travelers with compact phrases meant to stir the seeker to contemplation and action. For example: “Vigilance, self-knowledge, and discernment: these are the guides to the soul,” Abba Poemen. Count the characters here and in Martin Luther’s 95 Theses; powerful, truthful things can be said in 140 characters or fewer!
In every age the greatest gift of Christian life is the promise that no one goes alone. Today’s technologies bring us closer to people across time and distance, and yet we often feel alone or isolated. How can we be accountable to one another for support and proclamation both in cyberspace and in person?
After my first semester as a professor ended a student I had come to know well made her confession: “I missed the first few weeks of your class. My body was there but I was having anxiety attacks without my phone and I didn’t get any of it.” I had started the first class as well as each one thereafter with, “Turn off your cell phones and commit to this space.” To me, having phones off was a matter of courtesy. To her, turning her phone off shut down part of her self. That first semester students laughed, rolled their eyes, looked at me in disbelief, and tried to muffle buzzes. One day I asked them to take out their phones and send a text to someone they could keep in their thoughts and prayers. We waited—only a few seconds for most people—as texts came back: “Thank you.” Now turning off phones and keeping them on is a matter of spiritual practice.
Religious communities have often created or made use of emerging technologies to inculturate the gospel: bells were used by monastic communities to signal time for prayer and the printing press carried many of Martin Luther’s new ideas to people ready to receive them. Technology is not the answer to our deepest questions of life; neither is it the problem. The challenge of Christian life is the same as it ever was—to receive the proclamation that the kingdom of God has come near and to join with Christ in ministries of justice, reconciliation, and healing.
How can we engage technologies in Christian practice and how can we discern times to turn it off?
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I am a United Methodist deacon, which means that I’m a clergy person rooted in the church for service in the world. These days the bulk of my service in the world is with young adults pursuing education and asking questions of vocation at California Lutheran University, where I start every class with a ritual: “Turn off your cell phones and commit to this space.” With my spouse I’m raising two children whom I hope will be able to live both on and off the grid, connected to God and to others.
Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.
Drescher, Elizabeth. Tweet if You © Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation. New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2011.
Thomas, Adam. Digital Disciple: Real Christianity in a Virtual World. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011.
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