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Blogging and the future of theology

The Fall 2010 issue of the Princeton Theological Review has a diverse selection of essays under the general heading of “The Church After Google”. David Congdon and Travis McMaken have a good article on theological blogging that I think is worth making note of: “Theo-Blogging and the Future of Academic Theology: Reflections from the Trenches”.

A couple of conversations I had over the summer with proper employed theologians got me wondering whether the future of the discipline at university and even seminary level in secular societies is as secure as publishers’ lists and conference programmes suggest it is. Richard Dawkins may well be a rabid fundamentalist, but when he asserts that theology is no more entitled to a place in today’s universities than the study of leprechauns, I suspect that he may have post-Christendom history on his side. Perhaps in coming decades the centre of theological gravitas will have to shift away from the imposing mainstream institutions into more unruly, unregulated neighbourhoods—such as the blogosphere.

Congdon and McMaken, however, begin with more immediate concerns about the state of academic theology—basically that too much research is being done, because scholars are under intense pressure to “publish-or-perish”. They quote Alan Jacobs: “Too much of what is published is of poor quality, and most published research is ignored by the scholars’ peers.” They also highlight the significant burdens of time and cost involved in the dissemination of new ideas through the traditional methods of print media and conferences. They suggest that these issues point to the need for the sort of “liminal” space that the blogosphere provides.

Our basic point is that blogs are neither non-academic diversions from true scholarly work nor replacements for the traditional forms of academic communication and publication. Instead, blogs ought to be seen as a liminal space that does not compete with the already-occupied spaces of academic scholarship, but instead strengthens and enriches the “old” modes of intellectual engagement. In this way, blogs may become a fertile, creative threshold for theological—but not only theological—research and dialogue. (94)

They then set out what they regard as the weaknesses, strengths, and future potential of blogs as a medium for doing theology. Their discussion is worth reading—along with Brian Brock’s essay “Theological Blogging: A Contradiction in Terms” in the same issue—but I will summarise the main points here.

Weaknesses

  1. There is a general perception that “blogging does not constitute serious scholarship”. Now I have to take issue with this…
  2. Blogs lack quality control—again, I protest!—though this situation can be helped by rigorous comment moderation and by bloggers joining forces to “produce a single blog, combining their expertise and discernment, and thereby elevating the quality of their published material”.
  3. Blogs are “time intensive”, though this may also be mitigated by comment moderation and communal blogging. Ah, now there you have a point…
  4. Blogging very easily becomes ego-driven. “The flow of traffic can stroke one’s ego with great seductive power.” No! Seriously?
  5. The blogosphere encourages readers to shop around for sites that conform to, and reinforce, their prejudices. Caveat lector!

Strengths

  1. The most obvious strength of blogs is their immediacy. It can take up to five years for book reviews to appear in journals. Bloggers can download the Kindle version and have a half decent review posted the next day. My friend Chris Tilling gets a foot-noted pat on the back for his exceedingly thorough review of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
  2. “In addition to the instant and creative assessment of new literature, there is also the ability to carry on discussion and debate through comments.” Discuss.
  3. Blogs are, generally speaking, “concise and flexible” whereas serious academic publications tend to be long-winded, verbose, wordy, pleonastic, discursive, rambling, long-drawn-out, overlong, lengthy, protracted, interminable, windy, and waffly (synonyms courtesy of the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus).
  4. There is a lot of information available on the internet.
  5. Blogs democratize intellectual dialogue and provide a “bridge between academic theology and the educated laity”. Or in some cases, the uneducated laity.

What does the future look like?

  1. Some blogs—and not only the collective ones—are “beginning to function as theological think-tanks”.
  2. Bloggers are beginning to organize “blog conferences”.
  3. Blogs are beginning to be published as books. I myself gave an early, tentative, and really quite inconsequential impetus to this development with Otherways: In Search of an Emerging Theology.
  4. Blogs are being incorporated into teaching. “It is not too far-fetched to suggest that blogs will become an increasingly important tool in the pedagogical tool-box.”

The question I would ask is whether we could learn to do theology effectively and faithfully in this post-Christendom, postmodern world without the solid, authoritative, professional presence of institutional theology underpinning the whole business of serious Christian intellection. Should we be so tolerant of a system that has to over-produce to the extent it does just in order to stay afloat? The irony is that for all the output, there is still a massive chasm between biblical scholarship and the Sunday morning sermon or the Wednesday evening Bible study. Undoubtedly the blogging phenomenon has gone some way towards bridging that chasm, but the more profound need, it seems to me, is for theology, wherever and however it arises, to regain a shared prophetic voice.

In that regard, Congdon and McMaken’s reflections on the future are rather disappointing—blogging is coming to be seen as a way of replicating or consolidating existing modes of communication. Blogging as “liminal space” really ought to suggest something more exciting than that. You will find Habakkuk blogging at www.woetothechaldeans.com.

Comments

Technology and social media have affected just about everything, including the church and religion in general. You’ve brought up a myriad of points that are extremely thought-provoking and that I know I’ll have to revisit in order to get the most out of. Thanks for bringing up such an interesting subject!

Thanks, Margo. But the credit should go to Congdon and McMaken. I merely summarize their arguments.

From what I can tell in my blog reading, it is not only those of us in the laity who are benefiting immeasurably from this “liminal space,” but clergy in parishes outside of academic communities and with budgets that do not permit subscriptions to journals such as the Princeton Theological Review. 

Having blogs as a resource is pure godsend. [Yes, due note about discernment, as always.] From blog posts and their related book reviews, I am able as a layperson to pass along information that would never reach the members of my church groups otherwise. Where else would I have been likely, in a small Southern town, to hear about narrative-historical theology? Pure treasure, I tell you!

I agree with the strengths of the blogosphere.  It is a way for scholars and lay people alike to test out new theories and give a fresh face to old ones.  It gives instant feedback, in many cases, and helps theologians engage with those that their theological constructs will effect - cheifly the layity.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.