Peter M. Phillips: "The idea of Digital Theology is to look at both digital culture and theology and ask how one speaks to the other"
What Dr Peter Phillips and Digital Theology have in common is beyond the fact that the first studies the latter. However, the scientist's competency in his field is hard to question. At Durham University (UK), he manages a specialized research center focused on the study of digital religion. In his spare time, Phillips writes articles and books on unconventional topics. "The Bible, Social Media, and Digital Culture" is his latest book. During Phillips' visit to Kyiv, RISU spoke with him about the modern Bible online, the Church in the media, and Christian bots.
— How did you come to research ‘social media and religion’ topic? Why this area? Why did you issue a book ‘The Bible, Social Media And Digital Culture’ about it?
— My doctoral research was about the Prologue of John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18). However, when I finished it, I was already teaching New Testament Studies at Cliff College, a Protestant training college in Northern England, and thinking about how the Bible was presented online. Later on, my job moved to Durham and I began the research which led to this book. I am very interested in social media and in the Bible and in the modern interpretation of the Bible.
— As far as I understand, you claim that the modern online audience tends to share, bookmark and highlight moral, undogmatic and non-conflictual verses. How does that influence the church offline?
— That is a really good question. The research focusses on kinds of Bible verses people are sharing, bookmarking and highlighting online. The book also picks up a lot of sociological research (in the Introduction and Chapter 1) on changes in the offline Church. So, this research points to the shift happening both in the online and offline Church. Christian Smith suggested that most Christians in the US follow the belief system he calls moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD). In this form of Christianity, young people try not to annoy others, to walk a middle way, to try not to be nasty. Such young people are careful to be open and well-mannered to others in order to show that they are positive and therapeutic in everything they do.
The interesting thing is that such behavior is not found online. In the secular online world, people are rather vicious, always ready to shutdown others’ views or to make insults. Christians online, though, are doing something else - living out Christian morals which are therapeutic, which bring healing rather than division: ‘do not be nasty and horrible to others’. It would be interesting to see whether this has an effect on a more public online life.
— In Ukraine, too. Facebook has become the main battlefield just like Twitter in the United Kingdom.
— Yes, Facebook is often a hostile place, though maybe less so than Twitter. However, Facebook is more social, offering more opportunities for connection. Facebook promotes a much closer connection with people than Twitter. The latter creates a kind of exhibition space for people to shout out their own views rather than to talk to one another.
— You agree with Esther McIntosh’s argument about the lack of research into ‘the effect of mediating the Christian message through digital technologies, nor the possible distortions of that message that media and especially digital media make possible’ (p. 108). Could you please elaborate on what we are talking about? Which distortions have you already witnessed?
— Marshall McLuhan, an American media scholar of the mid-late 20th century, argued that the media is the message. In other words, the media we use to communicate often overwhelms the content of the message which we are trying to communicate. A message on the TV is different from the same message in a piece of art and in both instances, the media (TV or art) is powerful enough to overwhelm the content of the message being communicated. I think I’m happier with the argument that 'the chosen media changes the actual message’. It distorts the message because different media have different affordances and different abilities to do things in various ways. So, one of the interesting things we see in the case of the Bible is that in the context of social media there is a shift from propositional/doctrinal Bible texts to more therapeutic or those aimed at self-improvement. Thus, popular Bible verses on social media put much more focus on our feelings about the Bible, God, and/or our Christian life rather than talking about doctrines or God’s doings.
So, the key verses advertised or shared online tend to be about ‘how to change my life and the world I live in’. And verses like John 3:16, claiming that God has given His only begotten Son to save the world are not there. The most popular Bible verses in social media are about things we can do and not about what God does. It shifts the balance and the focus of religion on me as an individual, feeding individualism. However, the Bible itself is about God’s history, God’s activity in the world.
— It seems that the Bible App’s Most Popular Verse of 2019 ‘Do Not Worry’ proves your hypothesis.
— That’s right. YouVersion has found that within its app, Philippians 4:6 is the most popular verse of 2019 across many countries. I think that this is important because it signals what kind of verse people are looking for on the Bible App and it serves as another confirmation that God can help us in our anxiety.
— Is this a specific question about the Anglophone world or is it worldwide?
— No, I think it is worldwide. According to the latest figures provided by YouVersion, ‘Do not be anxious about anything’ (Phil. 4:6). That is a very good verse for the world which is [unclear] by fear, climate change and political instability, it is about our understanding of the truth, fake news, etc. It communicates that you do not have to be anxious because God has everything under control. But actually, the verse does not say that God is in control. It is not about God’s agency. The verse simply tells us not to be anxious. We are to pray to God about our anxiety but it does not confirm that God can do anything about it. It simply says ‘don’t be anxious’, ‘don’t be worried’, which is again therapeutic. It is about ‘the ways I can do better in my life and my mental health through the Gospel’ rather than about God who intervenes in the world.
That verse is the favorite one on YouVersion across about 20 different countries and different cultures from Africa to South America, Europe and Asia. So, this is not just about the Anglophone world but across many different languages and cultures.
— Do you know anything about online Christian content consumption in Slavic states? Do you know scholars in this area?
— Some of YouVersion’s research focusses on the way different countries share, bookmark and highlight the Bible. In 2017, Christianity Today wrote an article outlining the most popular verses across 88 countries. In Slavic states the situation is as follows:
- Ukraine: Psalm 69:31-2: "This will please the Lord more than an ox, more than a bull with its horns and hooves. The poor will see and be glad--you who seek God, may your hearts live!"
- Russia: Psalm 94:18-19: "When I said, 'My foot is slipping,' your unfailing love, Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy."
- Czech Republic: 1 Corinthians 10
- Slovakia: Psalm 27: 10-11: "Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me. Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors."
- Poland: 2 Corinthians 7
You can see that these verses are diverse but the majority focus on different verses from the Psalms which explore both God’s character and the believers’ faith in Him. Surprisingly, both the Czech Republic and Poland returned whole chapters from Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians.
Perhaps we need to do more research into Biblical Literacy and online use in the Slavic Nations. Sadly, though, I am not aware of people working in this area in these countries.
— You are one of the few lecturers in the ‘Digital Theology’ program run by Realis Christian Center in Kyiv in 2018. What does this discipline study and who are trend-setters here?
— The idea of Digital Theology is to look at both digital culture and theology and to ask how one speaks to the other. So, how does theology speak to digital culture and how does digital culture speak back to theology? For instance, there is a dispute on whether technology can be used by God or whether technology belongs to the devil as a creation of humanity. But we also believe that in the Bible there is one God who is in all, through all and overall (Ephesians 4:6). Therefore, it is my belief that God is also present in technologies and must speak through them. Technology, then, is redeemed by the presence of God. But if God is in technology, we can encounter God through it. Could God speak to us through social media, data algorithms or artificial intelligence? In 2019 and via anonymous polling, we asked Christians at conferences in the UK and in Singapore whether anybody had experienced God online through social media. In the UK, 69% said they had, in Singapore - 71%. It would be interesting to see what people meant by “experience God” but clearly Christians are open to encountering God online.
On the other hand, we need theologians to query digital culture, to ask: ‘What is the effect of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and of the power of digital marketing? Is this really promoting a pro-human existence? Are we talking about the way human beings can grow and develop into people closer to God or is digital marketing taking as much money as possible from people and stealing their data? Where do we go with Facebook’s understanding of the truth allowing fake news to flourish? Is that compatible with the Christian faith or not?’. You know, Pilate himself asked: ‘What is truth?’ and Jesus had that conversation with him. The truth seems to be important to what we believe in the Christian faith. Does that mean that it has to be eventually apart [unclear] ways between Facebook and the Church? No. Because I believe that it can be redeemed.
Who are the trend-setters? There are too many. It would be invidious to outline every name in such a huge academic field and now we have a Global Network for Digital Theology with over fifty people working with us. Here are a few names. Professor Heidi Campbell is one of the great US writers in digital religion. Dr Timothy Hutchings has written some great works, including a ground-breaking PhD thesis on creating Church online (now a book!). Dr Bex Lewis is a leading thinker on the use of technology, theology and marketing, who works in Manchester Metropolitan University. Professor Pauline Hope Cheong in Arizona also works in this field, as does Professor Stewart Hoover from Colorado University, and Professor Mia Lövheim from Uppsala University. Dr John Dyer at Dallas Theological Seminary has just completed his PhD exploring technology and the creation of apps and wrote a great book called “From the Garden to the City'' tracking how technology is explored in the Bible and Christian faith. In general, it is a developing field, and we are trying to work out the ways to engage lots of people. Recently, we had a panel meeting at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in San-Diego. There we had Dr Steven Garner from Laidlaw College in New Zealand, Dr Jonas Kurlberg from Sweden (who doesn’t workin in Durham though) and Dr Katherine Schmidt, a young Catholic theologian from New York. There was Professor Erkki Sutinen from Turku University in Finland, who is now setting up a new Computer Science Dept. at the University of Namibia. Roland Chai and Pak Wah Lei are developing a model for Digital Theology for South East Asian cultures in Singapore. It is a growing field with intense work going on in the Church and university contexts in Germany. Already, there has been a seminar in Princeton about tech and theology.
— In your book, you have mentioned a lot of DT studies, and no wonder they are written in English. Do Western churches take them into account when forming an attitude to a wide spectrum of questions from AI to transhumanism, or are they published for academic circles instead?
— The field of Digital Theology tends to cross the line between academic theory and church practice. There are already good conferences linking the two and we would be interested in creating more. It is important to bring church practitioners into the conversation along with academics. Last year, in Durham, we held a seminar on “Mission Dei in the Digital Age” and over 60 people attended. These were academics and practitioners exploring mission in a digital age. Sometimes the Church takes notice and we rejoice when it does.
— Some experts say that Pope Francis is an ideal digital preacher, whose short tweets fit well to that social network and are influential. However, the Catholic church remains as dogmatically solid as possible. Nothing changes. So, is it possible to be digitally oriented and theologically propositional (=conservative)?
— I would agree that Francis is a great communicator for a digital age. He uses social media well and has a good team around him which are making the most of his own gifts. He loves people and you can see this in the various media opportunities which seem to happen around him. He responds well to different situations. I think things are changing in the Catholic Church – gradually and slowly. But I am not saying in my research that the shift from doctrine to therapy is necessarily a good thing. There is a place for both. I believe the church does not simply mirror contemporary culture but also stands against that culture and says that the Kingdom of God is not the same as the secular state. As such, I am not really surprised to find Pope Francis’ tweets reflecting both his love for people and his care to uphold the doctrine of the Church.
— What are the topics where Christian digital theologians disagree one with another?
— I am not sure we have had enough conversations about areas we disagree yet. I think there is a general conversation about whether the Internet comes from the devil or from God (and can be used by them). However, we disagree about politics (left and right) and about which politics is dangerous (progressive, conservative, etc.). Also, we disagree about whether Facebook can be redeemed or not, whether it is worthy to go on working with Facebook or we should create something new by ourselves. Whether there can be an online Church or whether it should always be a physical thing. Whether sacraments can be delivered online or solely offline. In general, it is not surprising because theologians always disagree. Theologians like to argue as they always have. Conversations about religion, technology and ethics will always invoke differences in views across different traditions and fields of scholarship.
Media changes the message
— Could you please share some stories about the successful and unsuccessful online exploration of religion?
— Media (the channel(s) you choose to communicate a message i.e. radio, TV, social media, voice, art) alters the message, as we already noted earlier. When you decide to use a particular form of media, you end up following its rules. In “Amusing Ourselves to Death'', Neil Postman argues that there is no serious media anymore because everything is about entertainment, popularity and celebrities. Therefore, if we begin to actually portray our faith in celebrity terms, we end up simply focusing on the things that please, entertain or excite people. Using popular media to tell the Christian story could lead to the content of that story being overwhelmed by celebrity issues. We have seen this, for example, in discussions about pop stars’ conversion to faith such as Kanye West or Justin Bieber. Contemporary social media influence the content of our narrative to such an extent that faith narratives end up wrapped in celebrity culture like the rest of our life. That means we would lose a more rigorous and in-depth understanding of the theology underpinning our faith.
I make the same argument about the therapeutic turn in the book. We end up with a happy-clappy religion which is all about entertainment. We may become less focused on many doctrines: What does it mean to be saved? Who is Jesus? What is the truth? An at the same time, we see all this on the television. In Britain, there are elections whose focus is not the truth but lies and deceit. It is not about policies and truth, but about how entertaining everyone is.
Religion has to be careful with its use of the media. Media transform or distort what we are trying to communicate, including our religion. We need to be careful to get the key message of the faith across and to be cautious about all forms of the media.
— Do you mean to create your own media?
— The Church has the option to change the way it does “media” or at least to shape it along with of social change of technology. Per this theory, technology does not determine our use of it. We shape technology. Society has a role in governing and adapting technology for human use. So, we do not need to create our own religious media, though we should shape it to make it conform to our standards and to the image of the Church we want to present. Therefore, if you want to have a doctrinal faith focused on community life, humility and justice, you shape your representation of the Church through any form of media by rigidly applying those guiding rules. Everything you say, everything you print, all your artwork and social media must replicate the same worldview: community, humility and justice. You would make use of both high-profile media celebrities and a range of ordinary people. You would ensure those people represent different groups within your society, different ages, genders, social and mental health backgrounds. You make sure you have more preaching online to give a message to many different people on the same issue. You would explore different models of worship and resist entertainment as the only way to present worship songs. You could create a much greater depth in the worship communicated to those viewing your media. It is the form of branding that blocks/rejects the usual form of branding through celebrity.
— Who would you consider effective in this area?
— I think there are some great podcasters who do good things (or at least try to). I think of Shane Claiborne in the United States. He seeks to resist the celebritization of religion and always focuses on ethics and the downcast, the marginalized in our societies. I think about people like Tim Keller in New York, or John Piper, who make use of online ministry to focus on the interpretation and application of the Gospel. Tom Wright from the UK offers solid teaching about the seriousness and cultural importance of Christianity. The Church of England in the UK is doing some great work in the digital sphere, trying to reach out to different people across the spectrum to return them to the Church. I consider this a commendable attempt not to celebritize or bring attention to leaders, but to democratize the Church to shape it into a bigger, wider, and a more real organization.
Future Without Bots
— It seems that the future will be similar to the one depicted in ‘Player 1 Ready’ or ‘Ghost In the Shell’. Are there any red lines in using digital technologies in the Church? Excluding, of course, non-ethical online behavior.
— I am not sure that ‘Player 1 Ready’ or ‘Ghost in the Shell’ will be the model for the future. Some weeks ago, Annalee Newitz wrote an article for the New York Times asking where the future of social media is going. She thinks that both Facebook and Twitter will decline. Instead, we might have a form of social media where we opt into a group or a network for discussions. Thus, we end up with social media which cannot be controlled by an organization. Instead, we would have a social media which is openly democratic and managed by an individual. So, we open ourselves to groups of people.
If that is the case, we need to question whether social media can survive as a democratic and popular social activity. Already too many companies and states have manipulated social media on Facebook and on other channels to create fake news and to mislead the public, causing many to withdraw from social media. I think that we will miss out on the great opportunity to hear a democratic voice if that becomes the underlying trend. We lose global mass communication.
Though it may be the only way to slow down the world. One of the big problems is that with more than two billion people on Facebook across in the world, everything is moving too quickly. It seems we have ended up in a very chaotic version of Marshall McLuhan’s global village. What would it mean to go back to the slower form of the world and, in particular, slower form of the news? A slower form of engagement, so that we are no longer pushed all the time to follow social media, to reply to the latest tweet, snapchat or Facebook update. Is it possible to slow down? Perhaps the true Church will demand pro-human and pro-life deceleration.
One red line will concern ethics and our practical use of it, our beliefs, and freedom of speech around the world. For example, there are LGBTQI rights in so called progressive nations which are rejected or resisted in many other places. Will the Church there reject social media because it opts to choose one of those options? A progressive Church might stop using social media because it becomes conservative. Also, a conservative Church might refrain from using social media networks because they become too progressive. Imagine online and offline churches engaging with social media because of their ethics. Money is yet another future issue. Will we say that social media and capitalism, in general, have taken too much money from us as we are being used by rich corporations rather than the poor and the marginalized? I think if the Bible is rejected and referred to as the “hate speech”, it will not cease to exist online. Such a rejection might become another red line. These things might push the Church offline.
— Can a Christian use trolls and bots?
— Trolls… A friend of mine, Marika Rose, said that Jesus Himself was a troll. Originally, the term meant a person asking provocative questions to stir others up. Of course, that isn’t how the term is used today and I certainly don’t think Jesus was a troll in its modern meaning. Now we speak of trolls as hateful people saying terrible, harmful things on the internet, like the grim monsters hiding under bridges. In my opinion, there is no way for Christians to act like trolls. Nor should Christians manage bots seeking to manipulate social media or automatically promote certain conversations. Christians should always remain Christians. Indeed, they should try to be true to themselves and to the way God made them. Quite often, bots and trolls hide their identity or seek to hide it under another. Using bots or being an online troll is probably incompatible with Christian social media engagement. Social media must remain social since it is about me and you. It’s about me trying to be as transparent as possible to communicate with you via computerized devices. Therefore, trolls and bots are identified with fake news, hurtful comments and being distanced from the rule of love at the heart of the Church. That is why I am sure that the use of trolls and bots is not compatible with being a Christian.
— May I have another identity on Facebook?
— Now that is an interesting question. I have discussed it with many pastors. I asked them: ‘Is it possible for me to have two different identities: personal (Pete Phillips) and corporate (Rev. P. Phillips)?’. The problem is that you are not true to yourself. Why would you want to split your identity? Are there things you wish to voice without your church members hearing them? It is dangerous for you can’t keep things hidden online. It’s very hard to sustain that kind of separation though. The existence of two accounts is likely to be discovered, potentially causing significant reputational damage if the accounts’ contents communicate two different messages at the same time. Who can live with two identities? Since God knows us through and through and we should be confident in our given identity, it is better to have one identity and keep to it across all social media.