Only Connect, But to What?

A Response to Prof. David Hempton’s Giffor Lecture “Only Connect!”: Christianity in the Digital Age. First published on the University of Edinburgh Gifford Lecture blog.

Listening to Prof. David Hempton’s lecture on Christian networks in the digital age has been a refreshing and inspiring experience. His lecture series spans the year 1500 to 2020, and it is astounding to think that the last twenty of those years are so important as to merit an entire lecture. As it turns out, that suits me well. My PhD research offers a theological critique of personal identity in digital culture. It combines secondary research with an ethnographic perspective drawn from digitally active Christian youth in Ghana. Like Hempton’s lecture, it takes a long view of the cultural impact of informational culture, specifically invoking a Kierkegaardian perspective developed in the technological upheavals of the Danish Golden Age in the nineteenth-century. I will thus be drawing from these perspectives on this evolution to offer a few comments on a very contemporary lecture.

Kierkegaard was skeptical about the impact of technology on culture. He saw the “outer life of telegrams and anger,” as the chief danger posed by information technological culture. [1] Within this culture, he feared that individuality would be lost in the superficiality of public Christianity. By eroding authentic personal faith in the individual, then, the technologically mediated society could not sustain any true notion of Christian community. The networks crumble. Were Kierkegaard at last night’s lecture, I believe he would have smiled at several points, but perhaps also shifted in his seat a lot. He would have nodded vigorously, I suspect, at Hempton’s observation that digital networks multiply the individuals’ alternatives for identity construction, but he would not have expected this to mean—rather ironically as Hempton notes—that this would facilitate the tribal grounding of individual identity so quickly. It would not have mattered much though, for his contention would remain that Christian networks were still jeopardized if the nodes and nuclei formed around worldly interests more than divine inspiration. Digital culture, with its endless gossip, boasting, self-help, motivational content, trolling, selfie culture, anonymity, and identity voyeurism, represents a constant displacement of the nuclei of Christian networks.

At the same time, Hempton notes how social media valorizes the individual to such an extent that the individual becomes pivotal in the restructuring of networks. What appears to be happening, then, is the emergence of a cultural mosaic in which technology simultaneously intensifies the strength of Christianity’s networks and erodes the strength of individual commitments so that with time, the nodes and networks formed must and are being redefined. Perhaps this is what we see observe in the fact that the search for meaning, intimacy, and self-improvement is shifting towards non-church groups such as Harry Potter and the Sacred Text and others. Perhaps church is being redefined in such a way that we may need to reconsider what constitutes a Christian node in a digitally pluralized online world. (It might interest seekers that EdinBurrow, an Edinburgh instantiation inspired by this, is co-organized by a current PhD student at New College, Jo Thor.)

Of course, this speaks immediately to the question of authority that Hempton raises. The standard predictions have been that digital culture disintegrates centralized authority structures and redistributes them according to interests and expertise at the individual level—the social media expert becomes the de-facto missionary, priest, and theologian. Here, Kierkegaard would truly be scratching his chin. The press of his day made the church and state superior, even, in a sense, transcendent. It reduced the individual to no more than a serial number in an abstract nothingness called the public. Having served as the communications director for a network of churches, managing their social media and communications operations, I have first-hand knowledge of how important digitally competent individuals can be in shaping the theological agenda evangelistically, liturgically, and hermeneutically. Who designs the preacher’s slides? Who captions the image of a praying congregation posted to Instagram? Who moderates the chat feed on a live evangelistic crusade? In Ghana, it is very often a/the pastor. Especially in small neo-Pentecostal, charismatic or so-called one-man churches. In larger churches, often a designated, young “junior” pastor. Predictions about the radical decentering of pulpits, especially where theology is taken over by an army of theologically uninformed, denominationally agnostic social media influencers, may be more reflective of a Western cultural process influenced by secularization. Prof. Hempton shows an awareness of the possible complication of the emerging models of digital religion by insisting that more attention be paid to the centers that portend the greatest changes to the nature of Christian faith and the structure of its networks. These centers are in the Global South and are, leveraging the operational and cultural strength of online media, fundamentally rewriting the history of the global spread of Christianity.

The coming decade, I believe, will be key in deciphering how digitality will influence the overall direction of travel. I’m thinking here about the role of algorithms. In an online world in which the individual is simultaneously recentered and decentered, what will the algorithms pick up on? Will they clue in on deeply held theological particularities? Or in a domain where scale is its own truth and money its logic, will capitalist interests override Christianity’s nodal specificities in the reshaping of its contemporary and future networks? What will algorithms mean for the content of our religious participation through online church?

During lockdown last year, I attended an online church service in which a song leader shared their screen so we could be edified by a song ministration on YouTube. In the sidebar was a lingerie advertisement featuring a feminine figure in a bra. Was it a problem ethically or theologically for anyone in that culturally diverse congregation? Probably. But the image was not removed from view, and I did not notice any complaints in the comments section. This might seem like a theologian’s petty quibble. But the image has remained with me in the form of the old iceberg metaphor. What lies beneath the surface of the algorithm’s omniscient presence in today’s liturgical and iconographic sphere? What is being slowly and imperceptibly valorized into the meaning of church? As Hempton forebodingly inquires, will it even matter in the end?