Book Reviews

From time to time I may post a book review of something that I have read pertaining to faith formation in the 21st century.  Feel free to include your own recommendations under this topic.

The first three entries are required texts for EL 3415 – Media and Technology in Parish Education, a course taken at Luther Seminary, June, 2011.

Engaging Technology in Theological Education  All that We Can’t Leave Behind   by Mary E. Hess (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC, Lanham, 2005)

Anyone who has taken Education I at Luther Seminary with Mary Hess will  love this book!  As a collection of essays, these chapters can be read sequentially, but do not necessarily need to be.   Hess, assistant professor of educational leadership at Luther Seminary, MN,  lays out in this book the methodology behind and the practices of engaging in technology in the world of theology, specifically theological education.  She begins with laying the case for the need to bring technology into the educational arena.  Defining an adaptive challenge vs and technical challenge, Hess claims that the theological educational challenges today are best met with adaptive solutions.  In other words, a response that requires accepting and adapting to the necessary changes that need to take place in order for the goal to be met.

I love the image of  “rich treasures in jars of clay” defining the biblical witness as the center of our lives and our learning!  Hess’ own bias toward the scholarship of Parker Palmer is included as she describes Palmer’s “grace of great things” (God) when she writes, “I cannot think of a better way to put Paul’s admonition that “we have this treasure in clay jars” at the heart of our learning than to practice what Palmer calls the grace of great things (p.10).”  Hess likens learning in this theological education arena to a script that is learned, practiced, performed, and lastly improvised.  And it is this script that she maintains is an adaptive challenge that is in need of a new model of learning.

Taking off to embody this adaptive challenge with the answer of technology, Hess begins with the questions that many resistant to change ask in reference to the validity of such a change. Will it really work in terms of maintaining and even growing the relational element of learning and community (p.23).  Hess’ evident enthusiasm for the move in this “new direction” to engage in media and technology in learning is crowned with a quotation from Adan Medrano who is a well known filmmaker and videographer, who refers to media as the sacramentals of today!

Claiming that learning experiences are shaped by people, purpose, and context, Hess goes on in the following pages to argue that that world around us that is described and in which the people being taught come from, is cause to sit up and pay attention to their world – a world deeply embedded in media and technology.  A way to address these challenges, is through ideas, feelings, and actions (p. 46).  Meet the culture where it’s at!  She gives a plug to distributed learning (woohoo!) particularly at Luther Seminary.  She also talks about a third set of trios in which learning takes place: intentionally. incidentally, and unacknowledged learning.

All this is to build up to the intentional method of using technology in graduate theological education.  Hess gives well researched arguments and tried examples of teaching and learning in online formats in chapter 4.  In chapter 5 she acknowledges that faithful teaching and learning acknowledges those who have gone before us, learning from their explorations how one might engage media today.  In chapter 6 Hess addresses the necessity for antiracist pedagogies in teaching and how very real and often neglected race is in terms of media and technology today.  The last two chapters deal with a new understanding of copyrighting and contributing to the digital world as well as the offering of practical examples of engaging in media and technology in theological education.  A well informed book – practical and cutting to the chase in terms of the evident non-negotiables in theological education today as it engages in a digital world.

Tweet if You (Heart) Jesus Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation by Elizabeth Drescher  (Morehouse Publishing, New York, 2011)

Elizabeth Drescher, a scholar and writer with a Ph.D  in Spirituality, maintains that we are in the early stages of what she terms, a Digital Reformation.  Unlike previous reformations within the church which sought through revolutionary means to change the practices of the church, this Digital Reformation seeks to actually “reclaim something of the spiritual practices of the early church communities for believers today (p.2).”  Doctrine and theology are not the impetus for this reform, but rather, a push to express faith in new and defining ways of communication, specifically through digital social media that permeate and infiltrate all aspects of daily life is what drives this reform.  For it is here that faith travels.

The purpose of this book, then as Drescher writes, is “to provide insight into the opportunities and challenges presented by new digital social media for mainline churches, and to suggest ways that lay and ordained leaders in ministry… can participate in the digital Reformation by way of nurturing and sustaining the Christian church as a force for spiritual and social transformation.”  Now that’s what I’m looking for!  And I hope the church is too!

Broken into 5 parts, Drescher begins with the concept of  habitus, which defines the culture in a particular time.  She moves the reader quickly through history from medieval to contemporary time in the Western world.    She finds this necessary to point out the impact of the digital scene on daily life.  Part 2 continues an historical walk through time with a new development of thought where the internet proposed a new way of thinking about communication, as it became a place and not just a thing.  The internet became a new virtual place to gather and engage with others.  Part 3 deals with how community forms in this Digital Age, acknowledging that spiritual resources as such are accessible by one’s own means of search and finding in cyberspace more so than in bricks and mortar.  Part 3 explores how the rules of engagement have changed when it comes to building relationships, thus inviting the church to enter into this social network with new rules for the game of 24/7, touching the lives of believers as well as those outside the church (p.15).  Part 4 talks about leadership role changes.  What exactly does a “ministry of presence” look like in this Digital Age.? It suggests a shift in how one perceives leadership from a top down model of authority to a practice that involves all voices (the Tweethood of all Believers!), building up the community and offering faith formation.  Authority changes.  The final section, Part 5, Drescher moves the reader into considering the need to adapt to these changing times of Digital Reformation and how that might benefit the church, giving examples of churches engaged in the process of adaptation.

This is a very thought provoking and engaging book – yet, honestly, not something most of us who would be driven to pick up and read did not already know.  But perhaps the key is that don’t want to know of its reality!  The church in many ways is content to stay as it is and where it is, believing this to be a passing phase.  But Drescher and many others think otherwise.  And so she  challenges leaders in the church to engage in the process – to become part of the Digital reformation in an attempt to be relevant and authentic in the world and not be left behind.

Here Comes Everybody The Power of Organizing without Organizations  by Clay Shirkey (The Penquin Press, New York, 2008)

Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody is a fast paced, energizing, “let’s go” kind of book, which is what makes his title, “Here Comes everybody!” so appropriate.  He has a keen way of looking at the internet and mass media communication and seeing its effects and potential socially and culturally.  He begins with a story found in the New York Times of a woman who left her smartphone in a NY cab and consequently it was taken by someone else.  As the story unfolds, it is a keen illustration of social networking at its best as a friend begins the investigation into recovering the phone.  A world joins in on the effort, individuals adding in their expertise, building on one another, sharing emotion and moral ethics to do the right thing (!), asking questions to broaden the scope and enabling and encouraging others to join in the campaign, and bottom line, connecting people to people to launch a movement that changed lives and changed the world.  And that was just the opening chapter!  However, Shirky’s following pages give example after example of the above networking in motion in different arenas and platforms.  From the development of Wikipedia, to Microsoft’s evolution, to the understanding of how people engage with one another in a new social reform experiment called the White Bicycle Program in Amsterdam in the 1960’s.

I found this book fascinating from the perspective of socialization and the ability to move people toward common cause by allowing people to be the motivators with the hidden goal of collaboration.  Not a top down approach –  in fact the authoritative, rule bound, red pen edit prone approach to what was then called Nupedia is precisely what caused it’s failure.  Only when people were allowed to publish and then filter, whether that be self filtered or freely filtered by the next observer/writer, did something called Wikipedia take the information world by storm.  The social media network has provided a platform. A place, for collaboration where people are sharing with people the latest news as its happening and people are also able to share their own learned and experienced information in a way that takes the social world to new heights, unprecedented and at shocking speeds.  Great read for those who want to understand this new social revolution and how to attempt to keep up with it!

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