My New Book: Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, Connected Toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age

Pray Tell continues with a new series, “My New Book,” in which authors answer a few questions about their recently-released book.

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What’s the point of your book, in ten words or less?

The best I could do is seventeen words – hazard of the job for an academic.

To invite the church to think out of the tradition when it comes to engaging digital culture.

Or if I were to put it Twitter-style in 140 characters or less:

To stand on the shoulders of tradition for being church in the digital age #connecttowardtrueencounter #goandproclaiminthedigitalage

What do you think is the most interesting thing you say in the book?

A number of things intrigued and surprised me while writing this book.

1) Reading the proceedings of Vatican II about the council fathers discussing Inter Mirifica was very interesting. It endeared the council fathers to me because it reminded me of any given pastoral meeting today when the topic of digital media comes up. Some comments were exploratory, some enthusiastic, some alarmist, some even slightly off topic – somewhat all over the place. Reading this, I recognized the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the deliberations of a thoroughly human bunch, and this gives me a lot of hope for the discussions we are having today. It feels like engaging digital culture is a scattered, fluid, all over the place effort, but like Vatican II’s Inter Mirifica, it is supremely important that we have this topic on the table.

2) The metaphor of Christ the Perfect Communicator in the chapter on Communio et Progressio and the Angelus Prayer offered in the Epilogue are to me two theologically rich and deeply interesting themes to explore further. Both of these invite reflection on what authentic Christian communication looks like, regardless of the media defining the culture of the day. Questions like what does it mean to say yes to the Word, to offer oneself as self-gift, to bring forth the Word for the life of the world, to communicate toward communion are profoundly interesting to me for thinking about communication theologically and spiritually.

What’s the most controversial thing you say in it?

At first glance this does not have much shock value, but I do challenge pastoral ministerial formation to approach digital media literacy in an integrated fashion rather than as one specific skillset for a select few who will become “media experts.” In the digital age, this model does not work as effectively, because the role of who is the public communicator has broadened. We still have media experts, but they are no longer the only ones with a public voice. Pastors and people in pastoral leadership are sharing this public voice with people in the pew, or with people who do not even participate in the life of the community. My hope is that pastoral ministerial formation acknowledges all this, and educates people toward a broad awareness of engaging digital culture along these lines, both for the work of people in pastoral leadership, but also for pastoral leaders to be able to guide the people they serve to be able to claim and use their public voice faithfully and authentically.

The shock value may come in with the fact that engaging digital culture so comprehensively challenges the boundaries of pastoral formation, where the digital culture can sometimes be perceived as a distraction, a burden (for example,  source of pornography), or a detraction from face-to-face encounter rather than a legitimate way of encountering people today. It is true that digital culture poses particular challenges such as these–but do we form people to avoid or to engage these?

Why should I buy your book? Who do you hope will buy it?

My hope is that Connected Toward Communion quells some of the overwhelm many of us feel about digital culture, especially in roles of pastoral leadership. Digital culture loves technological innovation – keeping up with the latest is a core driving force of our time. Because of this it seems that what is available to us is always already one step behind.  The result is overwhelm coupled with the constant question about how to keep up.

The survey of these church documents shows that the church has thought about engaging with media culture for a good while, and that the pastoral approach can be both constructive and proactive, rather than reactive and scrambling to keep up with the latest. While the media have changed, we do have a solid theological tradition that offers a strong starting point for thinking about communication. So, if you feel swept up in the flow of digital culture and are looking for some solid ground, buy the book.

Who will like your book? Who won’t?

Those who have an appreciation for the Roman Catholic tradition, and especially those who enjoy church documents  (we are out there!) will like the book. Those who are intrigued by social communication carried out at the Vatican will like the book. Those who are looking for a bit of theological tradition to round out their practical knowledge of social media and ministry will like the book.

Those who are looking to explore beyond the boundaries of established ecclesial tradition may not at first glance like the book, but will surprise themselves by enjoying this as a story about an institution thinking toward engaging with culture in our present time.

What do you hope might change in the church because of your book?

I end the book with “Proclaiming Christ today necessarily involves the culture wrought by digital communication; our question is no longer if but how.” The “how” opens the door to thinking about authentic, faithful communication as integral to being Christian in the world today. Connecting the public voice one exercises in digital culture with the opportunity to communicate Good News, explicitly and implicitly is an immense opportunity for lived faith. One of the key phrases of the Second Vatican Council was “full, conscious and active participation,” and we have thought about what this means regarding the liturgy for five decades.  One of the integral labels for our digital culture is that of “participatory culture”–people participate in a number of ways in sharing their voice, coupled with the belief that their participation, however small or informal, matters. How does this dialogue with “full, conscious and active participation” in the church, and how might this dialogue enrich both church and culture?

Anything you didn’t include that might be in your next book?

I am looking forward to delving deeper into the theology of communication, especially through the lens of practical spirituality for the digital age. Our digital culture sheds new light on a number of themes important for spiritual reflection:  silence, self-gift, encounter, openness to the Word and more. I am working on bringing the Gospel tradition into conversation with digital culture particularity around some of these themes.

3 comments

  1. Most excellent overview of an invitation into the conversation of what promises to be the most exigent of questions — where do we (individually and collectively) stand with regard to the coming Singularity? What is our response to trans/post humanism as it will be assuredly expressed, especially by some religions, as the Second Coming, as the fulfillment of the “new and everlasting covenant?” As we all become consenting consumers of technological hope, what price for immortality? Will the Church, as guardian of the Soul, negate this “artificial evolution?”
    Because these thoughts have been at the forefront of my reflections for sometime, the prescient insight of this work has been not only inspiring, but nurturing as well… Brilliant is the revelation of Trinitarian relationship as the template for this immanent transmutation of our own sense of seeking “genuine encounter.”
    From the last page: “The digital presence of the Church likewise needs a unifying foundation, an element that moves these parts from interconnectedness toward an expression of communion.”
    Zsuspan-Jerome’s book is an evocative melody upon which this improvisation may begin.

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