Frederick, John and Eric Lewellen, eds. The HTML of Cruciform Love: Toward a Theology of the Internet. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2019, pp. 208, $26, paperback.
This edited volume saw the beginning of its formation at the second “Ecclesia and Ethics” conference in 2014 on the topic of gospel community and virtual existence. The conference was a webinar style conference that was sponsored by Corban University and the University of St. Andrews. Six further articles were also written to supplement the papers chosen from the original conference leading to the present volume published by Pickwick. Co-editor John Fredrick is a lecturer in New Testament at Trinity College Queensland. His other works focus on the way of the cross and cruciform love including Worship in the Way of the Cross and The Ethics of the Enactment and Reception of Cruciform Love. The second co-editor, Eric Lewellen, is an account manager at Vercross LLC, an online education systems technology company. Both editors participated in the second Ecclesia and Ethics conference and collaborated to edit this volume.
The articles contained in this volume focus on a theology of the internet from a variety of perspectives. Some take a primarily biblical approach such as T. C. Moore’s article, “The Bible is Not a Database,” which focuses on the issue of hermeneutics and how we read the Bible in the age of Google (pp. 52-61). Moore contends that, rather than bringing our personalized questions to the text looking for answers, one should read the whole narrative for what it is, learning to ask the questions it asks and thinking the way it thinks through finding ourselves in the story. Walter Kim’s article, “The Solomonic Temple: Technology and Theology,” uses Solomon’s temple as a metaphor and lens through which to discuss how technology, digital or not, interacts with theology within our world, creating meaning, utilizing and influencing culture, and creating visual representations of our shared values (pp. 101-116). Other articles take a more theological approach such as Scott B. Rae’s, “A Theology of Work for the Virtual Age” (pp. 75-85). He develops a theology of work as both an order of creation and also a work of redemption. He also develops the idea of God as a worker to draw implications for the value of even virtualized work.
A number of articles also take an ethical, or perhaps moralistic, approach to the topic of the internet by mining the internet’s implications for our character and how we interact with one another in community. Frederick’s own chapter, “Cyber-Genesis of the Digital Self,” for instance, develops a demonology of the digital self and how our digital self is a real entity that can harm ourselves and others, even after we are deceased (pp. 39-51). Chad Bogosian in “See Me, Hear Me, Praise Me: An Internet for More than Vainglory,” focuses on how the internet is used for self-promotion and even for presenting an idealized view of oneself (pp. 62-74). Within these ethical articles are also calls for holiness through various suggestions drawing on scripture, early catechetical literature and contemporary theologians. Frederick’s own assessment in his introduction that the two main themes developed in this volume are this idea of character and also the idea of how the internet affects community, is a helpful lens through which to see the compiled work (p. xiii).
The HTML of Cruciform Love is a good introduction to the topic of the internet and theology. Unfortunately, it remains just that introductory. As a whole, and in many of its various articles, it fails to mine the depths of theological possibilities both in terms of how it treats the internet and in terms of the breadth with which it dives into the theological. One glaring example is the moralistic tone of most of the articles. Many of them still seem to be asking the questions of whether or not the internet is good, bad or neutral and how it is so. Missing are articles that move beyond these questions of morals and begin to treat the internet like the reality it is in our world and begin to mine the resources it has to offer for worship, community, healing and as a metaphor for the theological task we do every day. As Fredrick alludes to in his article on the digital self, there can be demonic in the internet, but there can be demonic in any structure or institution. Discernment also tells us that there can be redemption and resurrection in every structure or institution if we are willing to look for them. Certainly, the internet is not just a passive shell through which we interact. Like all mediums it has inherent negatives and positives that must be dealt with, but this volume focuses much more on the negatives. Even in its title, one only finds the “HTML” portion and little talk of the “cross” or of “love,” two topics that would have benefited the book greatly.
While the overall scope of the book fails to move the study of theology and the internet forward, there are some articles that present helpful perspectives and nuggets for reflection or further research in their own right. For instance, I have already used Moore’s critique of the database approach many use toward the Bible today in my own ministry context. While the internet is a helpful metaphor to get into the topic, I am not sure our proclivity to bring our own questions to the text is an internet issue as much as a modern issue, however. Kutter Callaway’s article, “Interface is Reality,” perhaps goes the furthest in presenting a theology of the internet by recognizing how haptic technology and the internet have changed the very way we think about reality. He wrestles with the idea of embodiment and, using emergent theory and a rich reading of the body of Christ, determines that, while there may be limitations, the church is the actual body of Christ, not just a metaphorical reality, whether it meets online or in person (p. 36).
As mentioned earlier, The HTML of Cruciform Love functions well as an introductory level book to the topic of theology and the internet, though a better introduction may be Antonio Spadaro’s Cybertheology. It is probably best suited for undergraduate students and ministry students who are looking for practical applications of how to navigate the issue of the internet in a ministry setting from a theological point of view. Keeping in mind Frederick’s own categories he feels underly the majority of the book, community and character, will be helpful in choosing whether or not to engage this book or in actually engaging with it.
San Diego State University