Monday, December 03, 2007

Michael DeLashmutt: Techno-Theology and "Religionless Seattle"

Many of the papers presented at the Popular Culture Association's annual convention have proved to be a source of intellectual and reflective gems for me. I have commented on some of them in the past, and with this post I am privileged to interview Michael DeLashmutt, the author of "Religionless in Seattle" that will be part of the forthcoming book Explorations in Religion and Media Culture (London, Ashgate, Spring 2009). Michael is Lecturer in the Study of the Christian Church at the University of Exeter in the U.K. where he works in the area of practical theology and has done some fascinating research and writing on techno-theology and posthuman speculative science. He is also a prolific author and some of his work can be found at He is an active member of the U.K. Research Network for Theology, Religion and Popular Culture, a film reviews editor for the journal Political Theology, and an aspirant for Holy Orders within the Episcopal Church (USA) in the Diocese of Olympia.

Morehead's Musings: Michael, thank you for agreeing to talk about your interesting research in this interview. I know that blog interviews are not something that you usually participate in, but I am trying to do something different with my blogs in the subject matter touched upon and the manner in which it is explored. I'd like to begin by exploring a little about you. How did you come to develop a personal and academic interest in theology and popular culture, and more specifically, how did you come to address specific research topics like information technology and posthuman speculative science?

Michael DeLashmutt: Thank you for asking me to take part. Your blog seems like an interesting space for discussing such issues and I’m very happy to be a part. I suppose, like most people who study theology and everyday life that my interests were born out of a desire to study things that appeal to me. I remember in the mid-1990s watching movies and hearing songs which talked about God and faith, love, and virtue and thinking to myself that popular forms of media culture were doing a better job at wrestling with these issues than were their correlates in the religious world. To be sure, the evangelical Christian church was keen to use media culture as a venue for the promulgation of the gospel, but the simplistic attitude towards faith and the shoddy production value made such attempts seem childish. Instead, mainstream culture appeared to be voicing more authentic theological concerns whilst maintaining commitment to artistry and craft. At the time, I was involved in Christian ministry and beginning to consider graduate theological education. I wanted to be able to bridge my interest in popular culture with my commitment to the church and my passion for rigorous and critical theological inquiry.

As for information technology, my foray into that field was quite by accident. A child of the 70s, I remember distinctly the first computer that was brought into our home in the early 1980s. I suppose, I’d always been keen to play with this new gadget and eventually found a way to supplement my book-buying budget as an undergraduate student with work in IT. I was living in Seattle at the time, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to have a part-time job in IT. After having a horrible experience working as a computer lackey at my undergraduate institution (where I was constantly belittled by my over-bearing tyrant of a boss), I moved on to find better and more lucrative work in IT, eventually taking part in the dot-com economy directly before and after the burst of the dot-com bubble in 2001. All the while I was working on my Master’s degree at Fuller Seminary and preparing to start a PhD in the UK in 2002. With this heady mix of theology, millennial frenzy, and seemingly unlimited growth in the IT sector, it seemed to me that technology and the ways in which we approach technology, would soon be among the biggest issues for a practical theology to address.

Morehead's Musings: Earlier this year you presented a paper at the national convention for the Popular Culture Association that caught my attention titled "Religionless in Seattle" that looks at the issues of identity and spirituality as it relates to information technology in the Seattle, Washington area. Your paper has been revised for publication as a chapter in the forthcoming collection edited by Christopher Deacy, Exploring Religion and the Sacred in a Media Age (Ashgate Press). At the beginning of your article you reference a "techno-theology" which will likely be unfamiliar to most readers of this interview. Can you touch on what this is and what theologians you have interacted with to construct such a theology?

Michael DeLashmutt: Techno-Theology was a short-hand term that I started using when I was writing my PhD thesis. I’m sure other scholars have made us of the term quite independently of me, yet I find it to be a handy abbreviation. In sum, I view techno-theology as the antithesis of a theology of technology (something which in my current book I’m trying to outline). A techno-theology considers technology itself (or rather, a reified and essentialist understanding of ‘Technology’) to be the core facet in the construction of ethics, value, and identity. A techno-theology is an unreflective attitude towards technology which invests human agency and technical capacity with the power to alleviate all human suffering and fulfill the basics of human need. Where this becomes problematic is when the drive for technical mastery or technology development is pursued without concern for the human impact of continued technologization. The role played by theology in this portmanteau of a phrase is more abstract and diffuse than one would expect from the word. In sum, the theology within techno-theology represents an alternative system of values and concerns which strive for ultimate importance. When translated into the language of Christian systematic theology, techno-theologies appear to spawn heterodox eschatologies and soteriologies where the human certainty in human salvific activity in the future and present is exchange for contingent hope in the activity of the Divine. A theology of technology, on the other hand, places the role of the kerygma (the kernel of Christian proclamation) at the centre of our dealings with technology and material culture and asks first after the role of the other in governing our development and use of technology. Moreover, a theology of technology rightly regards technology as a part of the whole of our life-world, judging it alongside other elements of creaturely reality.

Morehead's Musings: Are many theologians aware of this techno-theology, and do you see this as an increasingly important realm for theologizing to take place?

Michael DeLashmutt: My interest in techno-theology is intended to point out the cultural, imaginative, material and scientific elements of technology and to examine how these disparate aspects of ‘technology’ each contribute to the construction of one’s theological world view. Amongst those working within the field of theology and popular culture, the input of media-studies and material culture into the sub discipline has elevated the profile of technology as a concept worth theological reflection. The work of Elaine Graham in post/humanism and Heidi Campbell in new-media are just two examples that come to mind – and to be sure, their projects were very influential for my own thinking on this subject. However, as a whole I have found technology to be an underdeveloped topic within contemporary theological discourse. Serious discussions of technology tend to be pushed to the fringe, whereas a related topic like the sciences still has a tremendous draw. The privileging of a science-theology dialogue over a technology-theology dialogue reveals the late modernist view of science which is still very much at play within contemporary theology. In more postmodern philosophy, however, the philosophical investigation of technology in its own right has become a very interesting field of research. Philosophers of technology who draw upon continental, phenomenological, or hermeneutic themes (Don Ihde, for example) or more conventionally Anglo-American philosophers who still address the philosophical issues raised specifically by technology (Albert Borgmann) have done terrific work in raising the profile of technology as an object of reflection. I believe that it is only a matter of time before theologians begin to more broadly engage with technology as a vital aspect of our lived-life.

Morehead's Musings: How have information technologies contributed "to the radical construction of identity, community, ethics, and even religious faith" as you discuss in your paper?

Michael DeLashmutt: Good question! Technologies of information have always placed formative pressures on the ways in which we construct the world around us, whether this is in terms of the technologies of information which were so influential during the Reformation (literacy in general, printing in particular), or the role played by new media in the expansion of Pentecostalism in the American west. Information technology (as most broadly understood) is a medium which transmits the stories we tell about ourselves and our world, though the transmission of these stories is no neutral matter. Early information theorists noted that all forms of data transmission resulted in the attenuation of the signal and the transformation of the content by means of its transmission. No matter how invisible, how seemingly benign or how ubiquitous a technology may become, its role in changing or suitably transmogrifying the underlying information being transmitted cannot be denied. This is why, for me, a theology of technology is ultimately reducible to a robust hermeneutical analysis, which reads not only the stories being conveyed by technologies, but the technologies themselves.

Morehead's Musings: Your article lists the top eleven cities for computer science related employment, including San Jose, Boulder, Framingham, Huntsville, Durham, Bethesda, Seattle, Colorado Springs, San Francisco, Austin, and the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria areas. How did you come to focus your research on Seattle, and do your observations apply equally well in general terms to these other parts of the country?

Michael DeLashmutt: Three factors played into my selection of Seattle: 1) I have lived in Seattle, on and off, for the last 15 years and I am well connected in the region and able to make use of those connections for the purposes of my research; 2) during the final stage of this research project my research was unfunded and as I was living in the city at the time, I didn’t have the resources of a University at my disposal to broaden the scope of my project; 3) the majority of my current research centres on the condition of the Christian Church in the UK and Seattle more closely matches the religious demographic of the United Kingdom than do most other regions in the United States.

Morehead's Musings: In reading your article I was surprised to find that your research indicates that computer science and information technology does not account for Seattle's low-rates of religious affiliation. Do you think others will be surprised by this, and if so, what does this say about our assumptions or biases about technology as it relates to traditional forms of religious commitment?

Michael DeLashmutt: I was certainly surprised. My assumption was that technological and scientific people just don’t have time for God. Though this may be the case, it seems from my research that other factors are far more significant in influencing one’s self-selection for religious identity. I believe that one of the things that this project points out is how complex one’s religious identity truly is. We often assume that by translating the message into a culturally relevant form we’ll be able to overcome people’s preconceived biases against the Christian story. The truth of the matter is far more complex than either metaphysical incredulity or subaltern presuppositions.

Morehead's Musings: What other factors are there that you suggest might contribute to the Seattle area's low-rates of religious affiliation?

Michael DeLashmutt: I would have to refer you to a fantastic book on the religious climate of the Pacific Northwest: Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest (AltaMira Press, 2004) edited by Killen and Silk. The book looks at historical and contemporary religious trends. In my mind, the entrepreneurialism and lack of a unified and singular religious presence in the region over time are the two principal reasons why the region has so dramatically differed from national religious affiliation norms. People in the Pacific Northwest, and Seattle in particular, see themselves as the chief arbiter of truth, goodness and value and the imposition made by organized religions upon the freedom of the individual are seen as meddlesome.

Morehead's Musings: In your interviews and ethnographic research you also found diversity in the spiritual habits and interests of those in Seattle. Can you summarize some of this?

Michael DeLashmutt: Well, interestingly many people conveyed some kind of latent spirituality, either in terms of a belief in a diffuse notion of God or gods, or through their respect for various spiritual practices (meditation, yoga, even spiritual cleansings). Yet when pushed as to the ways in which individuals practiced the beliefs which they posited, few showed any of the marks of discipline or even regularity which would, in effect, evince through their practices the centrality of the beliefs and values which they posited. In a sense, St Cyprian’s famous dictum ‘Outside the Church there is no salvation,’ resonates with my own view of religion and spirituality. One cannot confess to a particular kind of spirituality and not follow through with practices, if one wants to maintain any sense of credulity. Eschatological implications aside, you cannot reasonably call yourself a ‘Christian’ and not at the least attend Church with some frequency. Moreover, you can not call yourself ‘spiritual’ and not maintain some consistent set of spiritual practices. In my opinion, the spiritual landscape of the United States has increasingly become one that reduces spirituality to a matter of consumer choice.

Morehead's Musings: I enjoyed your conclusions in the article that are important for continuing research and theological reflection. One of your conclusions noted that computer science and information technology professionals are not the techno fetishists that we many times assume they are. You argue that there appears to be a trend toward the use of such technologies for "ubiquitous computing, social networking technologies, and high-touch." You then suggest that because of this that the ministry and mission of the church might need to rethink its assumptions about the use of technology in worship and the presentation of the Christian message. Can you touch on your thinking here and what the practical implications are, not only for churches in Seattle, but elsewhere in our media saturated culture?

Michael DeLashmutt: Well, Christian theology has a long and venerable ascetic tradition. If we were to put a moderated form of ascesis into practice today, it would reflect the material theology evinced by the episodic stories in the middle of Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s Jesus consistently challenges his audience to re-consider their relationship with material wealth in light of Jesus call to self-sacrifice. Neither family, social status, nor material possessions should interfere with the disciples’ Jerusalem-ward journey alongside Jesus. Jesus’ call is one of self-sacrifice and other-oriented service. This may seem an unusual point to place at the center of a theology of technology, but I believe it is a concern for the other which must be at the heart of our decisions regarding the use and consumption of contemporary technology. Obsolescence is at the heart of contemporary technology. Items are purchased with expiry dates in mind, if only for the purpose of procuring the most recent version. Is it truly honoring to God, the creation, or the other for us to simply buy into the consumerist element of technology culture in order solely to keep up with the times? Does having the most recent gadget really make us happy? Is the latest hand held computer really that much better than the previous version or, moreover, a paper calendar? Though blind consumption of technological goods is a society-wide problem, for many an entrepreneurial Christian church, the consumption of technological goods has become a kind of sacramental duty. Executive pastors seem to think that if they don’t have digital projector, the latest AV equipment, and all the gadgets that come with it that their church is bound to fail. We assume that the obstacle which stands in the way of people attending Christian worship services are carpet color, seat materials, and the flashiness of the on screen display. Though the pre-green church of the 80s and 90s may have relied on tactics and technologies for the proclamation of the Gospel; I believe that the current culture-wide shift towards lower-tech and higher-touch uses of technology signals a move away from technological fetishism and a move towards more considered uses of technology.

Morehead's Musings: Michael, thanks again for making some time to explore this important area of cultural, social and theological reflection.

1 comment:

nic paton said...

I thank you both for this original and provocative exchange.

I have found that the issue of technology has remained close to my heart throughout 20-30 years of spiritual seeking. For me part of the "narrow gate", via negativa experiences I went thorough at early stages in this path, I developed a detachment and even suspicion of technology that has never really left me.

I am a techno-sceptic, because I see technolgy as being central to the Artifice - the seemingly eternal and yet essentially temporal aspect of the "Kingdom of this world".

McLuhan said (paraphrased) "Technology both amplifies and amputates." I am aware that the Artifice cannot save, and so I cannot get drawn into the hubris of technical progress.

To gain perspective, I take the question back, back, back: what exactly is technology, and when did it start? The iPhone? No, earlier. The Personal Computer? No, earlier. The Car? No, earlier. The printing press? No, earlier. Agriculture? No, earlier. Arrows and flint? Hmm, maybe.

However, I find myself, as a litugist who belives that the whole world is G-ds playground, wanting to sacrelise whatever the current state of our technolgy is. I have held several litugies where for example, the Camera, The Projector, Bluetooth, and every evangelicals favourite, Powerpoint, were brought into a creative, worshipful space.

I have put this conundrum - loving, using and yet ultimatly not bowing the knee to technolgy - into a post entitled

Once again, Micheal and John, thank you.