Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era (Fortress Press, 2014)

[1] It goes without saying that religion and identity are indelibly linked. The question of identity is especially at the forefront of any articulation of religious ethics, since after all, the acting subject must have at least a tacit understanding of her own subjecthood before taking up the question of authentic action of the moral person. It is in this sense that Clint Schnekloth’s account of “trans-media effects” of formation raises important questions for ethicists within a faith community (predominantly, in his focus, Lutheran): what kind of people are we? How are we forming ourselves and new members of our community?

[2] Schnekloth’s book is as much a self-analysis of his immersion into digital environments as it is a traditional dissertation. The author has traversed a digital landscape where the virtual and the real mix, mingle, confront, and evade each other. A great strength of this book is his invitation to explore this new realm with an eye to its potential for identity formation within the church. Despite some key shortcomings, discussed below, readers will be hard-pressed to ignore this central question after reading Mediating Faith.

[3] The book is divided into three parts. The first two chapters – Part I – outline the careful perspective Schnekloth will employ throughout the book. In the first, he uses his own experience developing the skill of extemporaneous preaching to make the strong case that the process itself was formative, establishing “neural pathways, open connections and deep patterns” (19) that have transformed his preaching. This sets up his stated thesis: the church would do well to attend to the “media effects” of formation (52). How someone is formed is tied intrinsically to the identity crafted by formation.

[4] In Chapter Two, Schnekloth summarizes three “conversation partners” who have been skeptical of emerging digital/virtual media. Alan Jacobs argues that instead of taking pleasure in the use of media – like enjoying a good book – humans run the risk of focusing solely on the utilitarian use of media to achieve results. Brian Brock continues in this vein, noting that the faith engendered by new technologies in “guaranteed outcomes” causes us to disregard divine action. Sherry Turkle, for her part, raises the specter of identity, cautioning that one may easily become “a tool of the tools one uses” in this era of technological progress (39). The chapter is not a typical confutatio; these cautions will serve as guideposts of hesitancy for the arguments that follow.

[5] The three chapters of Part II each deal with a particular media form and the complex effects of each. As the core of the book, Part II contains some of the best insights of the author, yet the frame it grants to the overall project leads to some confusion about the thesis of the book. If the key argument – that attention to media effects “will strengthen faith formation practices in the church” (52) – is at the center, then the analyses in Chapters Three, Four, and Five are interlocking pieces of a puzzle that reveal the importance of attending to how people are formed through any media. Clearly, this is Schnekloth’s aim. However, it is difficult as a reader to keep the author’s main focus in mind and not be caught amidst the swirl of other theses that can distract from this. Chapter Three, for example, with its emphasis on the importance of the catechumenate, its lament that this process “remains largely unknown in many North American congregations: (53), and its uplifting of one example of a well-developed catechumenate at a Lutheran church, seems to be supportive of the argument that churches should embrace the catechumenate in general and specific forms in particular.

[6] Likewise, Chapters Four and Five, while presenting very intriguing analyses of both “massively multiplayer online role playing games” (MMPORGs) and Facebook, respectively, at times slide into a defense of engaging the digital/virtual world as a new landscape for mission. This is an argument Schnekloth passionately supports. However, readers are drawn down a path of argumentation that is a step beyond the initial claim that churches should pay attention to media effects. This, too, can be distracting.

[7] We get a bit of help from the author’s early claim that his goal is to encourage “openness” to both forms of media – the catechumenate and the virtual world. But this claim elides two sub-theses corollary to the “overall thesis”: 1) the catechumenate offers rich yet under-utilized formation opportunities within the church, and 2) online games and social media offer rich yet under-utilized formation opportunities for the church. Each of these – in addition to the “overall thesis” – requires its own defense, yet neither receives its just attention.

[8] That said, Schnekloth’s claims here do raise urgent questions for the church. In Chapter Three, he indicts models of formation that position catechumens as consumers passively “downloading information from a pastor” and recasts formation as a “wiki,” in which each participant is an active creator within the process (54). This is consistent not only with a vision of the community as a “universal priesthood” but also with recent pedagogical research. Passive learning is hardly learning at all, and we in the church must attend to this.

[9] In keeping with this insight, Schnekloth’s observations of play in Chapter Four are well worth attention. He astutely draws a link between online gaming and face-to-face formation, positioning the latter as a form of “gaming” itself. This re-visioning may help the church become more open to the playfulness that opens space for creativity and transformation. Feeling free “to play with the faith itself,” Schnekloth argues, will leave catechumens better-equipped “to dwell in [the] mystery and paradox” that is so central to, especially, Lutheran faith (78).

[10] In the final two chapters that comprise Part III, Schnekloth offers a theological analysis of the preceding. Some of the claims he makes are compelling. Theology, he argues, is always mediated, so out-of-hand rejection of certain forms of media teeters on the edge of twin perils: first, the failure to see ourselves as unable to escape our own materiality, and second, the failure to see the Holy Spirit as operative in and through the material world. He also observes that the church must attend to the complex and diverse opportunities created by media, rather than too quickly sliding into utopian or dystopian approaches to new media.

[11] The book concludes with three summary lessons the church can draw from an analysis of media effects: A) “Beauty is grace is social justice” (121); B) “The future is the present” (121); and C) “I am the network” (124). Each of these is a relevant insight for the church to consider, though readers may not be as convinced as the author that digital/virtual media will achieve these aims. This is especially true of the “nonhierarchical yet highly connected” modes of existence posited under the third observation (124). Schnekloth himself seems to admit as much earlier in the book when he notes that both the power to develop new technologies and the knowledge needed to exploit them inherently create meta-hierarchies in the digital environment. (cf. 88-89).

[12] To stay true to a text, it is important to attend to what the author has done and not what is missing. However, the absence of embodiment as a lens for examining trans-media formation is glaring here, despite an apparent need to focus on the ways in which the body itself mediates formation. In a striking “test case,” Schnekloth compares praying at someone’s bedside to praying over the phone and, finally, to posting a prayer on Facebook (106-107). He uses this to highlight skepticism of new technologies, assuming most of us would value the first action more highly than the second or third, but he fails to draw this skepticism into substantive question (beyond considering it a sort of “quasi-Ludditism”). Nor does he explore the way we may be confronted by the sick and dying body of the Other as mediating the Spirit. A central question left unasked is what happens to the body if the church moves (as Schnekloth hopes) toward virtual media formation? Indeed, where one might expect an incarnational theological analysis that draws this out, the author turns instead toward pneumatology and Trinitarianism, leaving little space to view a central difference between “real” and “virtual” media: the absence of the body. Even when the opportunity arises, for example, during his discussion of the presence of the Spirit in matter, Schnekloth opts for a spiritual discussion of the material, rather than a material discussion of the spiritual.

[13] Quite honestly, though, this gap should give us pause to wonder about the extent to which the body is currently considered a vital medium within the practices of formation. How often does the church leave space for catechumens – especially youth – to view their bodies as material enlivened by the Holy Spirit? Perhaps by moving away from physical interaction and toward digital interaction, the space can be created to explore the body.

[14] Schnekloth’s book is a compelling starting point for such dialogue. It may not lay all the ground necessary for what he hopes to accomplish, but it certainly breaks new ground in studies of both mission and formation. The questions he raises and the insights he derives will be of key importance for a church so often struggling to live into the 21st Century.

Ryan P. Cumming

Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D. is program director of hunger education for ELCA World Hunger and senior lecturer at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.