Chris Ridgeway, the reviewer of this book and my former research assistant, is the national Staff Program Manager for Great Commission Ministries, and blogs on theology from a digital context at www.theodigital.com… And Chris wrote a thesis on internet and Bible, and I’m thinking we’ll be hearing more from his insightful thought. [One other point: Dwight Friesen, author of the book below, was a student of mine in a former life — back when I was at TEDS.]
Friesen, Dwight, Thy Kingdom Connected: What the Church Can Learn from Facebook, the Internet, and Other Networks (emersion: Emergent Village resources for communities of faith)
. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker/Emergent Village, 2009.
Remember those high school biology textbooks that featured glossy photos of yeast proteins and other microscopic wonders? What we thought was snow or hair turned out to look like raspberries–molecules as big as our head and represented in [Figure 15] by dots and lines and symbols we were expected to know (and subsequently forget). These things may have fallen out of my head (I’m not even sure if I’m talking about biology or chemistry), but Dwight Friesen is chock full of them. An Emergent Village conversation partner and pastor (he was featured in Gibbs and Bolger’s 2005 survey Emerging Churches), Friesen is now part of the Mars Hill Graduate School faculty in Seattle, the next-generation seminary noted for its founder Dan Allender and sometimes-association with Brian McLaren.
Friesen’s new book, entitled Thy Kingdom Connected: What the Church can Learn from Facebook, the Internet, and Other Networks, grabs those micro-biology metaphors and updates them for a social networking world. Terms like “network,” “hub, ” “node,” and “hyperlink” flow thick and fast in what essentially scales down to Friesen’s ecclesial proposal–his vision for the identity and function of church in today’s world.
Friesen might want to say that his proposal is wider than
just church-thought; he is demonstrating a broad theological hermeneutic–a lens–for looking at just about
anthropology, Trinitarian theology, and of course, Kingdom. But his audience (pastors of a
missional/emergent bent) and language (lots of “reimagining”) orbit most evidently
(and practically) on the church herself, so this is where Thy Kingdom probably fits most snugly.
Friesen groups his thoughts into five “Clusters.” We’ll squish them to three.
and God’s Networked Kingdom (Clusters
One and Two)
The first 50 pages of Kingdom
Connected begin with familiar territory–a Christianity caught up in modernism
and individualism and the need for something new. System problems like global warming and the sex trade
need networked solutions. And the
kingdom–like microscopic yeast through dough–gives a “loaf theology” that
provides the relational answer.
“Simply connecting while living the way of Christ is how the kingdom of
God transforms the world,” establishes Friesen. This is his consistent thesis throughout the book. Friesen’s strengths here are his even
application of the world’s newest and most pervasive metaphor–the Internet–to a
wholistic gospel. “Network
thinking” links self, God, and community–the creation modeled after the “open
We” of the triune God.
Particularly evident is Friesen’s native understanding of
information culture. If we have
discovered that the autonomous individual is actually an imaginary modernist
creature–how do we now think of personhood without it becoming like a website
buried under millions of networked hits?
“You are both more and less important than you ever imagined,” Friesen
declares pastorally. His
“theology from a digital context” affirms what classically might be seen framed
as the imago dei–the equilibrium of both “God” and “image.”
(Clusters Three and part of Five)
If the Kingdom is a vast reparative-connective force, then
the Kingdom Leader is a link repair-person. This is not an Amway Rolodex collection, but is
others-oriented in the model of Jesus, who bridged human and God and human to
human by self-emptying (kenosis).
Because life is orderly chaos, the connective leader has no hope or
chance of controlling the network, but doesn’t need to. Nobody controls the internet either. Making connections neither eliminates
chaos nor succumbs to disorder. Here
is where the ecosystem/life sciences metaphors return. The life-cycle itself shows us that
death is part of a natural environment, and the connective leader understands
how removing nodes or hubs is not defeat, but simply “releases kingdom
nutrients that allow for new life to blossom.” [ch9]
But Friesen’s most helpful note to leaders is his
description of closed-systems (autopoises)
and open-systems (disapative). The connective leader must navigate
between these two realities. Our
churches must not only be open organically to the world, but also maintain
their self-defining identity, like a cell membrane which interacts with
everything around it but has a distinct border. Pastors must be “conservative” in this sense, writes Friesen
(which he still places in scare quotes, understandably worried about his
post-conservative audience). And
it’s clearly this burned-by-institutions group he has in mind when he
The Networked Church
(Cluster Four and parts of Five)
This is possibly Friesen’s best contribution–especially if
imagined as a speech to a room of disillusioned emerging
post-evangelicals. Two terms are
introduced: Christ-Commons and Christ-Clusters
(the latter brings to mind Honey Bunches of Oats Cereal, but that might be just
me). The Commons is the institutional (yes, he said it) structure
of the church, and his point is that, though it can be reimagined, it cannot be
eliminated. Clusters are the soul
of the church–the dynamic, fluid, and contextual work of the believers. The Clusters inhabit the space created
by the Commons, like living people in a public park. Said yet another way, Church denominations and leadership
structures are the party planning committee, and the Commons are the life of
the party. You gotta have both,
Emerging is growing past its hippie stage.
Also of note:
Friesen returns to Missional’s common use of the “bounded set/centered
set” distinction most often harped on by Alan Hirsch, but originally from
evangelical missiologist Paul Hiebert.
Hirsch decries bounded set definitions of the church (creeds, baptismal
formulas, card-signings) that define who is in or out, offering instead that
“insiders” be directionally focused towards Jesus, no matter their current
membership status. Kingdom Connected’s take, though, is the
“Networked Set”–theologically preferring the everywhere-presence of the Holy
Spirit to the “Christ as center” picture.
The woman who attends bible
study at work, a Lutheran church on Sundays, and elsewhere for small group
shouldn’t be thought of as scattered, but a picture of the networked Christian
A Digital Theology
I’ve spent my last few years insisting that all theology is
contextual, all contexts are not geographical, and the digital context is the
most influential coming transformative voice in theology that theologians don’t
see. Friesen gets this. His work is not about how we do church
on Facebook or youth ministry on Twitter.
Instead, he is producing the first genuine piece of digital theology
I’ve read–using the unique metaphors, categories, and processes of digital life
to reflect on God, God’s people, and God’s leaders. And he does it with the near fluidity of a digital native, a
category most often used to define those half his age. We can expect much, much more of this
as our junior high generation–currently texting three to five thousand times a
month–finishes their theology PhD’s (while those last) and begins writing whole
series of new reflections on the God who interconnects.
I do have a few pokes for Friesen, and they fall briefly
towards his evaluation of digital culture and more significantly towards his
A Near Misstep: Misclassifying Facebook. Early on, Friesen introduces Martin
Buber’s categories of inter-personal relationships: the “I & You” being the most intimate and personal and
the “I & It” being objectifying but necessary to life (e.g. your relationship with the
checkout clerk). In this context,
Friesen almost started down a
popular but misguided path these days:
“Websites like Facebook and MySpace […] promise an I & You encounter
for the low price of an I & It relationship. All a person has to do to become your “friend” is send a
quick request and then wait for your confirmation. And since I get to control my home page, displaying only the
images and content I want the world to see, conversation is not necessary nor
is a hug or a meal or anything remotely humanizing in terms of the analog
Undoubtedly many would initially agree with Friesen on this,
but with permission, I’ll make two short observations . Certainly our early use of the
Internet, just like our early use of every communications medium, inspired
silly names like pinkpixie321 and anonymous encounters. But even in its childhood stage (as the
internet remains), the relational focus has quickly shifted to augmenting
in-person relationships, not replacing them. Facebook, the most important site on the web, is entirely
built on this principle, using real names and providing tools to model real relationships
that Mark Zuckerberg calls the “social graph.” It provides another layer of data and connection on top of
the friends we already have. The
important questions about social media are not about a world on Facebook, but a world with Facebook. How does the pace and form of digital social media modify
our perception of relationships with God and others?
Commendably, Friesen barely beats this horse and veers right
back on track, admitting the “depth of connection I have experienced online”
and wondering aloud where it will go.
Given the general timbre of his work, I do hope he continues wondering.
Presuppositions. This is
where Friesen may get some heat, from this author included. It’s less what he says, but what he
doesn’t say that is most important.
We’re not a fan of placing people on theological spectrums, but there
will be some flags here that especially moderate to conservative evangelicals
might notice. Specifically: his free quoting of the Dalia Lama or
Barack Obama or Gaia references alongside Scripture will turn some heads. However, I am less concerned about
guilt by association (evangelicals’ favorite weapon) than unsure how to read
the remix of views as they are presented.
Does this theology have any
uniquely Christian qualities?
Of more interest is his underlying definition of the Church–one
we find ourselves trying to discern as Kingdom
Connected spends much of its time there. We’ve already encountered his helpful observations on
structure (Christ-commons) and soul (Christ-clusters) of the church. But for Friesen, there is not much more
to the definition. I think we spy
a Baptist free-church ecclesiology here–the church is no more than the free
association of believers.
Regarding God’s purposes in the world, the church may provide a venue
for Kingdom connectedness, but for the most part, Friesen sees God’s redemptive
work as located through Christ-imitating actions in all of Creation. “The good news of Christ invites us to
wholeness, united body and soul, sacred and secular, male and female, Jew and
Gentile, even God and humanity:
one God, one creation. It
even unites church and world in such a way that releases the gospel from the
control of the church,” he writes.
For Friesen, the church is not particularly the hope of the world. In fact, it’s not entirely clear to me
that he would find it necessary.
The Missing Piece. In this case, the missing piece of
Friesen’s is the Christological one.
Paul’s metaphor of the Church as body
is well-expanded by Kingdom Connected–providing
a rich new insight about our interconnectedness using new cultural
metaphors. But is there
significance that this is Christ’s
body? Christ and the church are
more wholly connected than is allowed here: in their sufferings, in their presence in the world, in
their soteriological function. To say that the Church is the Body of Christ must mean
more than its interdependent nature.
For Friesen, Jesus Christ is exemplar extraordinaire–our
God-example for how to make connections and therefore bring redemption. Yet while life is emphasized, death,
power and sin are conspicuously absent.
Death appears only as an ecological metaphor that keeps networks from
being stale and spurs new connections.
We are to follow in Jesus’ example, but the power and path to do so
comes from little more than awakening to our call. The work of Jesus Christ–the atonement–(even widely
conceived) appears unconnected to the theology of Kingdom.
Friesen undoubtedly can speak to these concerns. Would he better imagine for us how 1)
the church as Christ’s body and the 2) atonement as Christ’s work appear in the
Summary. But this is a step forward for a new genre
in theology that understands digital technology as not simply a youth ministry
concern or malevolent force but the cultural setting of a new generation. Friesen’s fresh eyes begin with where
we actually are and skillfully lift us into genuine reflection on the nature
and work of God. This is digital
faith seeking understanding. And
possibly that chemistry diagram with all the dots and lines.