Doing theology with a bible in one hand and an iPad in the other – the challenges

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At our curates’ weekend away we considered how the church engages with the world. A number of us gave short talks on a variety of topics such as should we be political in our preaching and how do we deal with the politics of fear and I chose to speak on this one. Here is the text of what I shared.

20170511_171811Is there any difference between doing our theology with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other (as Barth said) and doing our theology with the Bible in one hand and an iPad in the other?

I was chatting to a friend recently about the fact that 20 years ago I used to read a daily newspaper, then about 15 years ago I started to only buy a paper on occasion – quite often if I was going on a journey somewhere and wanted something to read, then since about 5 years ago I have all but stopped buying newspapers – except for occasionally the weekend papers (especially when on holiday). Why is this? Well I don’t know about you but when I read a printed paper these days I think, knew that, yes, know that, read it last week online, know that…it’s all yesterday’s news.

I consume news almost solely through the radio and my phone these days. The problem with my online consumption is it is no longer filtered by one organisation, I am fed news (funny that we talk about ‘feeds’ in social media parlance – as if we are eating information) through a combination of things my friends have shared and things that a faceless algorithm has decided I might like. More and more now on social media – mainly Facebook and Twitter for me – the blurring of the power of the algorithm with what my online networks share is only increasing and it is almost becoming sinister. This is because, of course, the wonderful social media platforms (which I joined in their early infancy) needed eventually to find a way to make money. The way they do that without charging for your use of their platforms is of course via advertising. I read a very disturbing article recently in the Guardian about a company called Cambridge Analytical who were instrumental in the Trump election campaign – they can psychoanalyse people using what they’ve shared on social media and then target vulnerable looking individuals with emotive content and fake news. I’m sure there is some of this going on in the current election. The terrifying thing is that it is so hidden and insidious.

So when I read a news article now online there are a huge number of factors that I have to consider – what is the source, which of my friends shared it or did it come via another route, why did this pop up in my feed, do I need to fact-check this?

So when we take Barth’s dictum about doing theology with the bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other it has a whole load of other layers when we replace the newspaper with a phone or tablet. When reading a newspaper the experience is fairly one dimensional. You read the article, think about it a bit, and then move on. The old fashioned way to deal with it if you felt particularly strongly, was to write a letter to the editor expressing your views. That process would take a few days. With an iPad the experience is much more three-dimensional. If you’re on Facebook those little reaction buttons are tantalising, almost without reading the full article they’re begging for a click – will you ‘like’ this or click the ‘wow’ button or the ‘angry’ button, go on, do it, click it! Then the next stage is to write a comment underneath it and then you very quickly get sucked in to the undercurrent of the comments feed – someone replies to your comment or you respond to someone else’s and before you know it it’s midnight and you have an early start in the morning. Then the next phase is to write your own rant or blogpost about the topic in question and the comment cycle continues. This can all happen within one minute of seeing the article appear in your feed.

Here are some guidelines I have formulated to ask myself when trying to do theology with my bible in one hand and a phone in the other:

  • Are most of the news articles I read from a single source or a single political perspective? Am I aware of this?
  • Who paid for this article?
  • What are my emotion levels like as I read this – has it been written to press particular buttons?
  • Do I need to do some more reading around?
  • Do I need to slow my reactions down? Think before you share/comment/react.
  • Do not comment or react to the article unless you have read it in full.
  • When commenting, why not use the THINK acronym, is it true, is it helpful, is it inspiring, is it necessary, is it kind?

Alternatively, to turn this on its head, what about the benefits of doing theology with a bible and newspaper in hand:

  • You have time and space to reflect and consider carefully
  • If you want to make a response, you need to find pen and paper and put your thoughts down in an orderly fashion as a letter
  • Then you need to wait to see if you get a response back – perhaps up to a week

Surely the best theology is done through prayer and reflection, not from quick fire, gut responses? So my challenge to myself (and maybe to you) is to build in reflection time and prayer time into my engagement with current affairs. I need to press pause more. Perhaps I need to react less, so that I can hear that still, small voice of calm.