Monday, August 29, 2005

Godcasting by Podcasting

One of the more notable and growing phenomena in our age of religious broadcasting is connected to the growing popularity of the 'Ipod' and similar devices. It is now possible to download sermons, lectures, musicales from church onto your Ipod and listen while you work, jog, play, or drive. Some services now have up to 10,000 subscribers. Not surprisingly, Evangelical Christians have been some of the first to take advantage of this new avenue to spread the Good News. This morning the N.Y. Times has an article about the phenomenon which is well worth absorbing and contemplating. You will find the link here--

While there are many positive aspects to this new way of communicating, there are of course draw backs. For one thing there is a big difference between listening to something and participating in it. Not for nothing does Jesus say "whereever two or more are gathered, there I am also" or the author of Hebrews urges "do not neglect the coming together in fellowship". There is an essential communal dimension to worship and fellowship that is largely lost when it is filtered through various sorts of media. While the difference is not as drastic as the difference between listening to a football game on the radio and actually playing in the game, it is close. What God wants is worshippers, not mere observers or those who overhear what is going on, and worship like fellowship is a group phenomenon. So we need to realize from the outset that these sorts of avenues of communication should be seen as suppliments not substitutes for direct Christian experience.
And while we are on that point, there is another one. If we keep turn public experiences into merely private ones we are encouraging voyeuristic Christianity. Our culture already too strongly associates what is profoundly personal with what is private. It will then seem natural to many to choose to experience worship 'privately'. A moments thought will show these two things, the personal and the private, are very different matters.
For example, while we can talk about a 'right to privacy' we cannot talk about 'a right to be personal'. There is no such right to be personal, it is rather a privilege and requires an interpersonal compact of sorts, an actual relationship. Christian experience is often profoundly personal, and rightly so, but it was never meant to be a purely private phenomenon kept to yourself, not least because we are supposed to share the Good News. Furthermore, as the cliche goes, the only way to keep God's love in your life is to give it away. In other words, there is an inherently social and intra-personal dimension to the Christian faith, for which infinite downloads are no substitute. Indeed a real worship or fellowship experience is infinitely better.
I say all of this because if we are cognizant of the cultural trends, we will realize that we are going to have to do even more to encourage people to come together and have normal interaction, normal worship experiences, normal relationships not filtered through one or another sort of media that turns a public phenomenon into a private experience. The key word in this discussion should be encounter. You can have many private experiences that involve only you and some sort of impersonal stimulus, but you cannot have a 'private' encounter. An encounter involves two or more persons, and whether with other humans or an encounter with God it requires something direct, unfiltered. It requires in the end that we go 'public', even if it happens initially in the privacy of our own homes. To put it another way, it requires a commitment, an opening up of the self to the other, a willingness to be vulnerable and submit to contact, to scrutiny, even to the evaluation and critique of another. A real relationship, rather than being just an observer or consumer, requires this of us.
In the book of Hebrews, as it reaches its peroration in Heb. 12.21-29 the author explains that the goal of the human life is a close encounter of the first kind with God and with God's people. He envisions it as being like being present at Mt. Sinai and being present with thousands of joyful angels and saints of days gone by in assembly and being directly in the presence of Jesus. In short, he says the goal of human experience is to be present at the final theophany. We are warned that there will be 'a whole lot of shaking going on' so that there will be the removal of things which get in the way of encounter, things that can be shaken-- "that is created things, so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us worship God acceptably with reverence and awe for our 'God is a consuming fire." Instead of being consumers, we are called to be consumed by direct contact with that all consuming fire--- God. May it be so for us, and our children, and our children's children.


Unknown said...

Good thoughts. I believe the reason things like podcasting are taking off in evangelical circles, is largely due to our consumeristic mindset as church goers. I have been dealing with this in my head for a while. There are many in our society that in many ways treat church no different than Wal-Mart. We are consumers. We go to Wal-Mart to get our t-shirts, or milk, and our toilet paper, we go to Sears to get our tools, we go to the restaraunt to get our food, and we go to Church to get our spiritual goods and services. Why wouldn't podcasting take off, it is an inovation to how I recieve my spiritual goods and services. I recieve it faster; I can deal with it on my time; and there is no responsibility from me. I realize not all podcast participants will treat it this way, however, it does play into the present situation.

Brian Russell said...

Hi Ben,
I agree with your critique in general and see your cautionary remarks as helpful.

I remain hopeful about these new media (including blogs). They remind me of our past in which ideas were disseminated through pamphlets. If all of this promotes merely an individual faith, we are certainly in trouble, but if these media invite individuals to a biblical faith, then maybe we will see a new reformation!

Tony Kummer said...

The size of my MP3 player is perfect for jogging, so I bring along Max Mclean reading the ESV. I doubt that is the norm. Thanks for the post.

Sharad Yadav said...

Wonderful (as usual) insights. Too often we fail to count the cost or engage in any critical Christian reflection before baptizing new methods, technologies and mediums. I agree with ben about the consumeristic mindset of church-goers, and would add that many within my tradition feel that listening to a sermon is really the essence of what church is about, which obviously lends itself to the replacement and privatization you're talking about (as Christian books, tapes, radio etc. have done). Of course one can participate in these sorts of trends judiciously (I have an ipod with hundreds of hours of lectures on it), but not without moral reflection. Thanks again for the post! Incidentally, is there anywhere I can download Ben Witherington lectures?


Ben Witherington said...

In regard to downloading Witherington lectures, we shall see. I now have my Romans lectures on CD, so maybe.

Kyle said...

I just turned my palm pilot into an mp3 player and I think it's GREAT! I can never find a balance in my life so I live in the TENSION between an extraordinarily cluttered, noisy life of 'encounters' and a desparate need for that quiet place of an encounter with God (the mp3 player is a means of grace to finding a 'digital closet').

Even so, I'm glad for the reminder (I need it about every day) to stop thinking individualistically and see myself in community.

I'm glad I found this blog - I enjoyed you Dr. Witherington at GCTS for some good Wesleyan Theology somewhere in the early 90's.

Sharad Yadav said...

Thanks! I'll watch for them!

rgbrao said...

Yes, but podcasting is a boon for folks in the 3rd world who do not have access to concrete information about christianity. It is the case that in many parts of India, people have access to computers and the Net, but not to christian resources.

I can think of more than a situation where an unbeliever might be interested in Christianity, but because of familial pressure might not openly inquire into it. Podcasting is a boon.

I know of a Sri Lankan woman who came to the faith, and has been severely persecuted by her family on account of this. She has been beaten up twice on account of her faith, and additionally, her Bible has been taken away so where is she going to learn about God and Christianity ??? The Net.

Now if there are sermons in tamil on the net, then she will really grow. I should check on that.

God Bless,
R. Rao
Syracuse, NY