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Thursday, June 14, 2018

"Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age" (Stephen D. Lowe & Mary E. Lowe)

TITLE: Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age: Spiritual Growth through Online Education
AUTHOR: Stephen D. Lowe & Mary E. Lowe
PUBLISHER: Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2018, (250 pages).

We are living in an increasingly digital world. In such a ubiquitous environment, almost everything seems to be going digital. From printed papers to ebooks; groceries to e-shopping; communications to GPS directions; anything that could be digitized would be digitized. With the Internet at a global scale, more people are interconnected than ever. What about faith? What about spiritual formation matters? What about online theological education? According to the authors, two of the biggest challenges to teaching spiritual education online "were community formation and spiritual growth." It could be due to the difference between digital natives and digital immigrants. It could be due to the lack of experience in the new digital world. It could also be due to the skepticism among many educators. Whatever the case, both Stephen and Mary Lowe believe that online education is not only here to stay, they are poised to become a major part of spiritual formation, both communally and personally. Rather than outright rejection or cynical avoidance, perhaps a model to teach and help people Perhaps, just like the speed of evolutionary progress, why not use the ecological model of spiritual formation? For using ecology as a metaphor gives at least three advantages. It is interconnected. It takes time. It requires mutual dependence. It brings together the importance of both communal and individual health. Moreover, this motif is biblical. From Genesis to Revelation, the gospel parables about ecological growth, ecological references in Paul's epistles, there is a strong motif about ecology and faith.

The framework of the book is as follows. In Part One, the authors describe the biblical theology of ecology showing us how the universe is physically interconnected in so many unique ways. Looking at the cosmic perspective, we see a world of interconnected ecosystems. Looking at the earthly ecosystem, we explore the world of living and nonliving entities and to see interconnections among them. From human to social ecology; personal to garden; we essentially see God's creation as beginning in the garden. Sin disrupted this perfect ecology. Scripture are replete with references to biology and living organisms. Even the parables of the kingdom of God have many ecological references. Essentially, God created the world in an interconnected ecosystem. Jesus tells the parable in a way that we could understand since we are part of that system. Likewise, the body of Christ could be understood in the same way. Having laid these biblical foundations, Part Two leads is through the model of ecological connections and the world of online learning. Stephen and Mary argue that social networks could be interpreted from the perspective of ecosystems. It is not simply about connections. It is about identity and how this identity could be further developed. That is what spiritual formation is about. They tackle one of the biggest objections to online learning, which is the big advantages of face to face interaction when compared to distant learning. Using technology is not inferior. They make a strong case by saying: "Distance is no barrier to the work of the Holy Spirit." Ditto that. They also note the frequency in which people use the digital medium, which in turn shapes them. If that is the case, rather than to let others do the shaping, why don't Christian jump in and be part of the change advocacy? Plus, the speed of connection and communication could address any need more quickly. They address the negatives of online communities by saying that physical communities do not necessarily help people grow. What matters is the spirit of desiring change and openness to spiritual formation regardless of online or offline mediums. They also address the criticisms of disembodiment by saying that digital ways could be very positive in terms of growth. Underlying the model is a belief that authentic online communities are possible and could flourish too! Of interest is the many examples on how we can build social media connections using the various "digital learning strategies" via Facebook, Twitter, Spreaker, Wikispaces, blogging, etc.

Part Three focuses more specifically on Christian formation in the community. Beginning with Christ, we are reminded that Christ is central in all we do. We cultivate "ecological connections" to fellow Christians being mindful of the body metaphor, using the horizontal "syn-compunds" in Philippians to participate with God in community building and growth. Online education is thus an exercise in connecting with one another, with God's Word to concepts, old knowledge to new, and action with reflection. On a larger scale, we engage "ecological interactions with other Christians" toward "mutual and spiritually beneficial ways."

My Thoughts
First the positives. Stephen and Mary boldly champion online education as the future model for faith development and spiritual formation. This is most practical judging from the way digital technologies have become ubiquitous all over the world. Anyone ignoring the influence of this medium is doing so at their own risk. For people are not only connecting more often digitally, they are also sharing more of their personal lives online. The rise of social media usage is a case in point. The optimistic outlook by the authors help to counter the many negative impressions of online learning such as the dangers of disembodiment, the lack of physical interactions, the limitations of digital connections, and the disappointing experiences of the past in the early years of 21st Century technology.

Second, I find the book too optimistic for my comfort. I would have appreciated the authors engaging some of the philosophies and research done by Sherry Turkle, Albert Borgmann, Jacques Ellul, and others who warn us of the downsides of digital technology on us. While the Lowes argue from Mary Hess's unpublished paper about the dichotomization we place on ourselves, that while online learning does not necessarily lead to "disembodied learning," neither does it embody learning in the conventional or traditional ways we have come to know. Perhaps, the difference lies in who we are, whether we are digital immigrants or natives. In addition, while online learning is increasingly acceptable, it may not be beneficial for all kinds of learning. Maybe the optimistic approach is to be viewed more as a counterbalance to pre-existent levels of resistance rather than an absolute way forward. One could also pin the book's optimism on the Lowes' vocation as online champions. After all, they are professors of online learning. Who would want to risk their own jobs? At the same time, what about keeping the Sabbath and the need to take a break from a 24x7 always ON environment that our modern technological world are keeping us addicted? A digital Sabbath?

Third, the way to position this book is to see it as an advocate for online learning in a historically risk-averse educational environment. The Lowes are right in observing a general shift toward digital communications. Since most of the people are already online, join them. There is no use trying to maintain archaic structures where no one would be interested to attend or to support. After briefly comparing and contrasting the positives and the negatives of the issue of online learning, the frequency and presence of people in the digital world tilts the balance in favour of online work. We cannot turn back the clock and maintain a luddite mindset. What is more important is to find constructive ways to use online learning well. This is what this book has sought out to achieve.

Dr Steve Lowe is chair of the School of Divinity at Liberty University. His research and writing interests include spiritual formation, missional church, and online learning. Dr Mary E Lowe is associate dean for online programs and professor at the same university.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of InterVarsity Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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