Book Review, A Media Ecology of Theology: Communicating Faith Throughout the Christian Tradition

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Book Reviewed: Soukup, Paul A., S.J. (2022). A Media Ecology of Theology: Communicating Faith Throughout the Christian Tradition (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press). (Amazon Associates Link)

Reviewed By: Stephanie Bennett

Journal of Christian Teaching Practice, Volume 10 (January-December 2023)

Reviewer Affiliation: Palm Beach Atlantic University

Total Pages: 240

ISBN-10: 148131775X

From the importance of the spoken word in primary oral cultures to the social media of our current era, this book uses media ecological principles to explore how various changes in communication technologies have helped to shape the concept and practice of religion. With particular focus on the evolution of the Christian faith, Paul Soukup leads the reader deep into the ontological woods of history where the limbs of theology and limbs of communication grow up together, entwine, and shape our very way of being in the world. In this weighty tome, the author unveils the many ways in which print, radio, television, film, and social media, to name a few, influence the development of a socially cohesive religious expression, helping to shape multifarious forms of worship, doctrinal belief, and ways of thinking about God.

Chapter 1 explores the prominence of orality and the value of the spoken word in early Christian practice and theology. The sound of the voice—the medium of communication in oral cultures— has a special place of significance, for it connects the interior of the teller with the interior of the hearer. For many reasons, one of which is remembering important information, the sound of the voice contributes to identification with the values of the characters in stories, thus building a cohesive sense of community through continuity and common places. That aspect of narrative increases the sense of presence, of immediacy, and of truth in the telling (35). Indeed, the spoken word adds a livingness to what is being communicated, helping faith to remain vibrant. These aspects of sound become the message—or at least part of it—yet are often overlooked when discussing oral histories and theology.

Soukup’s second chapter, on the medium of storytelling, is foundational to understanding the relationship between communication and theology, for although ours is far removed from a primary oral culture, stories remain the backbone of contemporary western culture communication praxis. At the same time, stories are shared and interpreted differently in cultures where literacy is dominant. Echoing Walter Ong, the author is quick to remind us that in a literate culture, story may be a luxury.  “In an oral culture, it is a matter of life and death” (38).  Stories, whether spoken or written, describe, ground, and add structure to what people experience. Stories provide pathways to categories for thinking. Soukup elaborates the functions of storytelling as concurrently instructional, a source of entertainment, a mnemonic device, and a way to build community. To this day, “people still tell stories, still use stories, and still follow the structure of stories for their faith-seeking-understanding” (34). When they are spoken, added dimensions of connectedness and mutual dependence evoke and preserve a particular depth of social cohesion, thereby strengthening the group’s ability to remain intact. Whether conveyed through speech, writing, or image, stories sustain faith communities across generations. In sum, the importance of storytelling to the emergence of a Christian theology cannot be overstated, as it is exhibited through every ensuing mode of communication.

In Chapters 3, 4, and 5 Soukup addresses educational systems, focusing on writing and print technologies. Here we see one of the most significant shifts in thinking about God and faith, in which apprehension of the faith began to change into learning about Jesus Christ, getting doctrines correct, and performing rituals with precision. What it meant to be a Christian began to morph from a visceral, embodied experience of shared faith in a resurrected Christ to a more ideological, doctrine-centric one. This began the move away from a communally expressed way of life to an increasingly intellectual one. In addition, ecclesial authority became less localized, moving away from dependence upon the sage—in this case, the priest—to the page.

Chapter 6 provides a most interesting analysis of the ways in which the sacramental imagination flourished through art and iconography, especially in the development of early Christian thought about an afterlife. Icons and other artistic depictions of the life of Jesus were very much a part of early Christianity, creating something of a visual exegesis which compensated for the low literacy rate of the time. Soukup suggests that the highly symbolic nature of visual art invites a more participatory culture in which individual interpretation of popular images (such as Jesus as Shepherd) was not unwelcomed, but rather appreciated and received.

The nature of music as a theological medium is the subject of Chapter 7. Music is a complex media ecosystem, because it “involves time; hearing; the human voice (of self and others);  instrumental sounds and the instruments that create them; a performance space and experience; oral and acoustic performance; written texts (specifying both verbal and nonverbal aspect); audio characteristics,” as well as a plethora of additional considerations (121). The vitality of the sound of the voice woven together with the sound of the instruments becomes as significant to meaning-making (if not more) than the discrete words of the song or hymn. In this captivating chapter the author further unpacks the essential nature of hearing and how it applies to discerning the voice of God, returning the reader to consider once again the importance of sound. There is much to be gleaned in this chapter as it applies to the more contemporary “worship wars” and differing theologies concerning use of music in religious worship.

An unexpected and fascinating treatment of architecture as theological medium is the subject of chapter 8.  In it, Soukup reveals how the structure of cathedrals and church buildings has been used to ground the faith in the community. He focuses in on the highly symbolic design of early cathedrals, particularly how these buildings “spoke” without words of the majesty and magnitude of the God of Creation. For example, “the high roofs in medieval cathedrals symbolize the height of the heaven but also evoke in those who enter such buildings a sense of human smallness in comparison to the grandeur of God” (147).  Some church structures, he explains, are built with a design that “reinforces understanding or theologies of the role of worshipper:  Do they gather in ways that foster interaction or privacy? Do they stand close to or far from central sacred places in the building?” (147). The same might be said concerning the organization of space in the building, which is the focus of the next chapter.

Chapter 9 discusses how the physicality of place shapes congregants’ ecclesiology in terms of particular social relationships and statuses. Drawing from Meyrowitz (1985), Soukup explains  the “distinction even appears in linguistic usage in English, as when people say that someone ‘does not know his or her place’”(161). A clear example of this is exhibited in the traditional ways worshippers are seated in most of church buildings from the third century to this present age, with each person sitting in a row facing the back of another person’s head. Each row faces forward toward an altar or pulpit, which (inadvertently, perhaps) communicates without words that the central focus of the meeting is the priest or pastor and what he (or she) is saying. This configuration of space fosters a more individualistic apprehension of faith rather than the more communal one experienced in first and second century instantiations of the church. Also, this design suggests a pedagogical system, bringing people together for more of a teaching or educational event rather than one of mutuality and a shared faith experience.

Continuing the conversation on image and icon, Chapter 10 approaches film from the perspective of continuing narrative, as against what Soukup frames as the “unproven theory of the role of the image” and its potential unreliability (121). Throughout his discussion of film, Soukup suggests several ways that film takes on religious significance, the most compelling being its part in understanding oneself and one’s community. This view of narrative suggests there are similarities between the prominence of narrative in oral cultures and its centrality in film. He suggests that film “in narrative content and style, in image, and in form touches its audience in a way consistent with the sacramental principle” (181).

Chapter 11 takes a deep dive into the significance of social media in opening up the theological ecosystem, discussing how contemporary communication practices via online platforms are re-shaping perceptions of church, discipleship, worship, and education, as well as creating new pathways to experience the faith and interact with others in pursuit of faith. Soukup concludes with a chapter (12) engaging popular culture as an evolving agent of change in present-day theology, noting how music, film, and online church formats have already changed the way the faith is apprehended and understood. He ends with a call for further exploration of the topic, reminding the reader that “all theology emerged from the media ecology or shared environments of and practices of Christian believers” (204).

An expansive volume drawing from the widest range of communication study, linguistics, philosophy, and religion, Paul Soukup’s book was a pleasure to read.  Through his in-depth tour of the media landscape surrounding the changing face of religion, the author is able to reveal wide gaps of interpretative possibilities, reminding readers that we can count on the continuing evolution of Christian theology as the Digital Age advances.

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