Gospel + Culture: Web 2.0 & Christian Identity

Paul Winch | Sep 22nd, 2010

The technology we call Web 2.0 applications, such as YouTube, Facebook, blogs and Wikis are not useful-but-occasional tools – like a car jack – but fundamental to our everyday existence. In this article I am going to explore this obvious cultural marker as a case study for probing how we as Christians should relate to culture. Like good missionaries in a host culture, we notice and analyse what is going on and why.

Culture Analysis: Web 2.0

Egalitarianism is deliberately built into Web 2.0 applications: Anyone can create and publish content in blogs, while Wikis are the result of opt-in group efforts. This is a radical change from Web 1.0 where websites were still largely owned and run by institutions and other bodies that had the resources to host them, and their function was largely information dissemination and client relations. The way the invention of the printing press divulged intellectual power away from the elite due to people being able to accumulate home libraries, is magnified multiple times with the internet, especially Web 2.0. Is this the true democratisation of knowledge? Furthermore, due to the international nature of the Internet, the approach people take to such knowledge is also shaped as well. This has been called 'glocalisation' – a global perspective on local issues.

Thus Web 2.0 applications, in design if not use, cohere well with postmodern values, especially collective tolerance, communitarian knowledge, and aspirations for intrinsic personal freedom, which are usually mediated by individual consumer choice. Put simply, all are welcome; everyone's perspective matters and you can choose to say anything or nothing. For those who have rejected the values provided by the meta-narrative of modernity and who are looking for alternatives, the potentialities for self-expression and individual choice enhanced by Web 2.0 applications provide one resource for the construction of identity and meaning.

Now that we have done some of this cultural analysis, we are in a better position to meaningfully apply three biblical tenets to the integration of Web 2.0 into our lives as Christians. I will work up from the individual to cosmic level, as they all dovetail into each other.

1. Integral Discipleship

Because Web 2.0 applications foster massively public personal expression, self-image creation and management are a temptation. Yet true freedom is found in trust and obedience of our maker and Saviour, rather than personal expression through endless choice. In real ways, following Jesus - the human par excellence - makes us more human! To be redeemed from depravity and sin through the gospel of grace is to become a new self, renewed in the image of its creator. Thus, Christians have found their identity in Christ and their significance is not determined by public image, whether on or offline.

2. God's Peculiar People

In our urbanised world, if online communication supplements offline relationships, generally community is enhanced. This benefit applies to church life, and many Christians would also attest to the fact that Facebook, for example, does much to preserve their relationships with non-Christians. By nature however, Web 2.0 communication is stripped from an embodied interaction with others. When used as a substitute for traditional dialogue, communication can easily be turned into a commodity at private discretion – something to be traded on and engaged with or not. Ambient intimacy and troll-like behaviour result. The potential drawbacks associated with disembodied but massively public communication need to be handled with great care. It is one of the key contexts in our culture in which discipleship of Jesus is learned, usually through the gentle instruction of those who are our Christian brothers and sisters. As God's people, belonging to him and yet deeply serving his world, relationships need to be protected and nurtured online.

3. Mission of God

Within the value structures of Web 2.0 applications, it is hard to see how the demands of the gospel can be propagated. To be 'heard'’ online rather than reacted against as an institutional authority, Christianity needs to be seen as appealing, as helpful and as beneficial. Yet sating individual desire, even for a functional life, and the pursuit of significance and identity through self-expression, all of which Web 2.0 fosters, do not sit entirely comfortably with daily cross carrying in following Jesus. Nevertheless, the story of the gospel can be told through the hermeneutic of a believing online community, although with difficulty. I suspect it will be exemplified mainly in the myriad of interactions between Christians where repentance, forgiveness, grace, justice, faith and love are on display. However, where plausibility structures of postmodern friends may be shaken through the online witness of God's peculiar people, it will probably take the additional context of a non-virtual relationship to explain properly "the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3:15). After all, the mission of God took his Son to an embodied life and non-virtual death amongst us.