I’m participating in AMBS’s conversation on technology and worship. I have to put together a paper. Below are my initial reflections as I work towards something of substance. I would appreciate any critical engagement. Am I going in a helpful direction? Should I turn around while I still can? Thanks.
Why not start with Karl Barth? In his essay, “Church and Culture” (in Theology and Church, London: SCM, 1962), Barth disallows any uncritical approval of culture, nor does take a consistent stand against culture. As usual, Barth makes things complicated. On the one side of the dialectic, Barth takes up the ax of John the Baptist: “Christian preaching…has met every culture, however supposedly rich and mature, with ultimate sharp skepticism” (quoted in T.J. Gorringe, Furthering Humanity: A Theology of Culture, p. 18). But later in that same essay Barth has no patience for a spiritualism that ignores our cultural milieu. There is no room, Barth writes, “for a basic blindness to the possibility that culture may be revelatory, that it can be filled with promise.” The seeds of God’s kingdom proliferate throughout the world. Barth pursues the same line of thinking in Church Dogmatics IV/3, where he claims that if “all things are created in and through Jesus” (Colossians 1:16-17), then, as Prof. Peter Dula puts it, “there is nowhere, not even the mouth of an ass, that we cannot expect to find words reflecting the light of the Word” (Peter Dula, “A Theology of Interfaith Bridge Building,” p. 164 in Borders and Bridges: Mennonite Witness in a Religiously Diverse World). Barth goes on to call these diverse worldly witnesses to God’s kingdom “secular parables” (CD IV/3, p. 115). The earth and human culture resound with echoes of the one Word of God which speaks into existence the kingdom of God. Therefore we must pay attention to the places we inhabit, the cultures that permeate us. “The Church,” he writes, “will be alert for the signs which, perhaps in many cultural achievements, announce that the kingdom approaches” (20). The kingdom does come. The question Barth poses to the church is whether she is ready to receive it, however strange it may appear.
It’s a strange possibility to consider how the pieces of culture called ‘technology’ may display God’s kingdom, if only parabolically. Barth won’t let us rule out an abstract category like “technology” without serious engagement in particular technological machineries–he calls them “cultural achievements.” Nor will he take up every new sophisticated invention as a chance for the kingdom to make headway. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of skepticism.
In The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture (Zondervan, 2005), pastor Shane Hipps critically considers the place of technologies in worship. He carefully steers clear of many church leaders who welcome any and every form of technology as the panacea for dying churches. Blindly welcoming technology into church life turns worship into another capitalist commodity. We then become one show among many where Christians can find “new experiences to consume” (15). In Modernity, writes Hipps, “churches heeded consumer demands and sough to reinvent church. They either had to compete in the consumer marketplace on the consumer’s terms or face extinction. In the spirit of modernity, these churches reincarnated themselves as highly competent vendors of religious programs and services” (99). But the answer, according to Hipps, is not a reactionary turn against all forms of technology. “I’m not arguing for some Luddite strategy of literally destroying media” (65). Instead, we carefully and communally discern how modern technologies can aid us as we embody the good news of Christ. In Hipps’ words, “We learn to understand the power of our technologies to shape us, thereby regaining power over them” (122). (more…)