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How Communication Studies Can Help Us to Bridge the Gap in Our Theology Megaphors

by Frances Ford Plude

Frances Forde Plude, Ph.D., earned her doctorate at Harvard University and studied satellite communications at MIT. She taught at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University, and is currently associate professor of communication at Notre Dame College, Cleveland, Ohio. She is co-author of Communication Ethics and Global Change (Longman Press), and has contributed chapters to numerous works. As part of a planning and research project, Dr. Frances Forde Plude recently met with the communications ministers of all 13 European Community nations. The following first appeared in New Theology Review, Volume 8, No. 4, November 1995 (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN 56321).

 . . . the spoken word is the normal vehicle of faith. . . . In our times the "word" also becomes image, colors and sounds, acquiring varied forms from the diverse media of social communications (Medellin Conference, 1968).


The word informs both theology and communication. Words serve us as content and as vehicles of tratissmission. What happens when "the word" is altered-when the communication content and the transmission technologies change?

For people of Christian faith, the communication between God and the people of God was altered dramatically when God entered history to interact as person with all of humanity. Today we are living in another period of altered communication, one spurred primarily by technological tools. All of us have had our patterns of work, of relationship, of faith, dramatically altered by a tumultuous communications revolution similar in its impact to the introduction of printing in the fifteenth century.

Most of us learned in textbooks, even in high school, that there was a connection between tile introduction of the technology of printing and the democratization of thought. Is there any doubt that this played a role in the Reformation (Eisenstein 1979)? Similar structural changes are underway today in a global community linked now by digital bits as well as by printed documents. What are the implications for those of us who care deeply about effective communication among ourselves, and with our God? In these pages I will (1) provide an overview of communication scholarship trends, (2) offer some reflections concerning the impact of new technologies that promote human interaction and cooperative alliances, and (3) make some practical suggestions that can enrich our communication-theology integration.



The dialogic aspect of communication study has emerged from much previous theory. Early communication research stressed the impact of messages moving from a single source to a receiver, with the possibility, of course, that the message received was not necessarily the same one that was sent, due to variations of perception, a sort of "static" that interferes with the message content (Shannon and Weaver 1949). One could speak, I suppose, of sin as similar "static" interposing itself between God's message to us and our reception and implementation of the divine message in our lives.

Other communication research has dealt with the power of mass media in altering our consciousness and informing our choices-the propaganda or advertising aspect of media messages (Lasswell 1927; Roloff and Miller 1980). This type of analysis is very much a part of current concerns about how media manipulate, for example encouraging us to become more active consumers, creating unrealistic perceptions of a more violent world, and imposing American culture on media audiences throughout the globe.

Other scholars have dealt with the agenda-setting role of media, especially news media (McLeod, Becker, and Byrnes 1974). Our media define what is "news" and we allow them to do it when we focus our own discussions upon the news content as it has been defined for us by media players. We all know that these so-called news experts have real limitations. For example, they work within an industry, a business, that defines most news stories in terms of conflict narratives. They stress the bizarre and they often do so in short sound bites rather than with in-depth analysis. And yet, their choices define what our news is and we know what is chosen by these agenda-setters by what is transmitted on radio and TV, the main source of news today for most of the world's population.

Some communication research has focused on a critique of media economic power and the problem of increasing portions of media profits being in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations (Compaine 1982). These data provoke concern in terms of economic justice, but another real issue is that media owners and players are "gatekeepers," with the power to define who has access to information. In an information economy, information is what we use to leverage ourselves into economic transactions. By ownership of the channels and the profits and the prices, modern media players could become a new type of feudal baron. However, modern communication technologies are breaking up this gatekeeper monopoly. The late Ithiel de Sola Pool, in Technologies of Freedom (1983), was one of the first to note the decentralizing impact of new interactive communication technologies oil policies and markets.

All of this indicates tile importance of public policies in telecommunications-issues such as legislation or how much our governments should regulate in the public's interest and how much the marketplace should decide. This issue of public policy relates to the duties of the human race as stewards of the gifts of creation, including scientific and technological gifts.

Another exciting thread of communication scholarship has incorporated advances in anthropology; this research focuses on communication and culture (Carey 1989). Such scholars speak of liminality, myth, ritual, and symbol found by audiences within the stories of our cultures. Perhaps most of our stories are told today through media channels-fictional stories, news stories, advertising stories. Theologians and pastoral leaders make a big mistake when they ignore the fact that global audiences interact with these stories as they view them. Many people who do not watch much TV themselves need to keep in mind that humanity now gathers around the TV and movie screen for the magical stories that were once shared by bards. People absorb information and principles of socialization from these stories-from the quest of "Star Trek" to the brash dialogue of "The Simpsons. " Much of this type of research has been done on the impact and the global popularity of the soap opera "Dallas" (Liebes and Katz 1990).

Incidentally, although evangelical media have been analyzed (Hoover 1988), very little research has been done on communication patterns within Churches. It might be surprising to discover the dynamics of communication flows within the U.S. Catholic Church: who listens to whom; how various messages get transferred (and transformed) within the institutional Church; which messages are credible or meaningful in the beliefs of the faith-community; and to what extent the culture, including the media, alter these messages. There could be very interesting findings in such research!

Linguistic analysis has been a very serious thread of communication studies, based on the philosophy of language, or semiotics. David Tracy's work (1975) has focused our attention on religious language. Dialogic anthropology proposes that humankind becomes human through communication, with varied communication patterns. Communication theory scholars have probed ramifications of the technological interconnected web of networks of which we are all a part.

Everett Rogers, one of the foremost scholars of the communication field, has claimed that interactive, two-way technologies represent an epistemological turning point in communication research (Rogers 1986). We are moving from linear, point-to-point communication patterns to a web of networked interactions, where individual two-way dialogues are linked with wider groups. So we move from dyads to forums as we begin to use newer technological tools to decentralize the dynamics of messages. Televised broadcasts from the streets of China and Russia have shown global audiences that with telephones and fax machines

and computer terminals it is no longer possible to control communication from a centralized source. There are obvious implications for hierarchical structures and top-down communication styles.

My own research emphasis in harnessing technological tools for public service-in education, in medicine, and in servicing the basic needs of the poor-has led me to conceptualize strategies to facilitate cooperative (linking) ventures because communication technologies change so rapidly and the entrepreneurial opportunities are so vast. This situation requires collaborative strategic planning and much of my own thinking and writing has stressed this approach, called "strategic alliances" by the corporate sector. Interactive strategic alliances (ISAS) form the heart of making collaboration a social habit by institutionalizing collaborative mechanisms.


One might first ask, what are the ramifications of living in a "wired" or "mediated" world? What, exactly, is this "information age" that we speak of so glibly? What do theologians have to do with the socalled information superhighway and a five-hundred-channel world? Here are some examples of technological links that go beyond the simple exchange of movie and TV stories:

If its present rate of growth continues, the computer network Internet will have 300 million users by 1999, 750 million by 2000, and 1.5 billion by 2001.

As computer power increases and the size of the unit decreases, personal communication networks will permit wireless interconnection from units that fit in our hand or suit pocket.

The economics and the ease of interconnection will alter our habits from independence to interdependence. Our technological link ups foster attitudes that blend both a global identity and a fierce ethnic pride. One analyst commented about computer forums and bulletin boards: "E-mail is a tribe-maker . . . at the same time that) it globalizes us."

Interactive TV has the potential (in the United States) to tap into the fifteen-billion-dollar-per-year video rental market, the ten billion-dollar-per-year arcade game market, and the home retail market, which may be worth hundreds of billions of dollars every year.

In Russia, in Somalia, in Bosnia, in South Africa, mass media and smaller interactive technologies provide a window through which global audiences gaze and actively participate. This seems to link us globally while at the same time provoking regional alliances and ethnicpride skirmishes. How will this impact the human family searching for God?

We probably need, as Rogers suggests, to reexamine much theory and practice in the light of this "wired" world. Some medieval faith constructs were linked to the idea of the sun revolving around the earth. As Galileo learned, when new scientific information is put forward it is not easy to let go of our comfortable paradigms. Change disrupts; today's rapid change disrupts exponentially.

Words and images, used metaphorically, provide central symbols of the Christian tradition. Such symbols, we have been told, give rise to thought. Theologians, of course, have already risked exploring new metaphors and updating symbols. Both liberation theory and feminist theory have pushed theologians into new arenas.

Today's rapidity of change (technological, symbolic, metaphorical, communicative) challenges us to reflect and communicate about faith within changing Church communities in changing cultures. This is a task which theologians and communication theorists and practitioners should address through much dialogue and joint analysis.


I have begun to reflect more systematically on the impact of modern interactive communication technologies on our individual and collective (institutional) expressions of faith. In a recent essay, I explore how communication interactivity is a metaphor for a more dialogic "communio" ecclesiology (Plude 1994). In that text I explore four questions: (1) What forms of participatory communication are emerging in Churches and what is the role of authority in such forums? (2) How do we encourage collaboration, which the theologian Hermann Pottmeyer calls "animating forms of cooperation"? (3) Must participatory freedom lead to polarization and, in reaction, central control? (4) Call new communication and collaborative theories help Churches become vital communities, to Teammate an apparent diminution of faith in some modern societies?

In trying to answer these questions, I found supportive texts in Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, Avery Dulles, Walter Kasper, Edward Schillebeeckx, Joseph Komonchak, Patrick Granfield, Bernard H5ring, and others. My reflections took an "open systems" view of Church, based somewhat on Granfield's (1973) study. A very helpful framework for analysis is used by Paul Soukup (1983), where he organizes the literature around four major theological themes: religious self understanding, Christian attitudes toward communication, pastoral uses of communication, and ethics and advocacy. He then sets up a matrix to cross-classify the literature around the following communication analogues: linguistic, aesthetic, cultural, interpersonal, sender-receiver, and theological. These categories are reflected in the summary provided above of communication concepts in the research literature.

I will suggest three aspects of new technology interactivity and offer some potential applications for religious theory and practice. Instead of talking about using TV to evangelize, I will focus upon the changes forced upon us by interactive or two-way communication/computer tools. Such intra group communication changes are of great significance to faith communities; however, this often is neglected in our concern over the impact of mass media.

One changing pattern is occurring within organizational structures. As interactive technologies become more widespread, organizations are flattened; they become more horizontal than vertical. A key organizational reason for the change is that it is no longer necessary to have everyone located in one central place because connections (as well as communication) within the organization are facilitated by technology -- computers, fax machines, and wireless telephony, for example. Many organizations, therefore, are spreading out, decentralizing their operations, simply linking them technologically instead of organizing large numbers of people in one place.

With this distribution of organizational structure tends to come a shared responsibility and accountability. Large bureaucracies are struggling to follow corporate organizations in a major movement toward decentralization. In addition to being possible technologically, this is proving more productive.

Another organizational pattern involves linking up the dispersed units. Interactive technologies foster team linkages because tasks can be facilitated by data-base management systems. The salesperson, inventory clerk, and bookkeeper can all do their piece of a customer's order because each one is operating from the same data base within the computer system. Such team linkages are almost seamless or invisible, but they are becoming a daily part of organizational patterns and relationships. Modern organizations see many groups interconnect around tasks instead of in the old departmental arrangements. These ad hoc groupings within organizational structures allow flexibility that was not possible in former, rigid organizational patterns.

Much of this relationship reflection makes one think of covenantal concepts in salvation history. Theology deals much with relationship and must, of course, be aware of changing relationships in human-kind's history. One theologian mentioned to me recently that he reminds his students that the concept of "father" changes somewhat with modern culture. Thus we need to seek religious-language metaphors that work in our age.

The organizational patterns described above entail governance changes also. Top-down hierarchical management structures are melting into shared responsibility patterns. Members of such organizations tend to have more autonomy. Obviously it is vital to coordinate (link) the units and this is a major challenge when organizational structures are dispersed.

It is not difficult to see the connection between these organizational patterns and theological questions such as the issue of the local Church in ecclesiology. In many organizations there is often a tension (which can be quite creative) between the central and the local authority. As this is discussed theoretically (and under the guidance of the Spirit), it could be helpful for theologians to be aware that, on the practical level, these issues are linked to communication theories and technologies that have transformed organizational patterns in our day.

A second aspect of the change instituted by two-way technological tools relates to communication flows themselves. We are all linked into many networks. And our communication messages can now be stored for later use (e.g., by telephone answering machines, computer E-mail, fax messages). The dialogic communication flow breaks out of the tyranny of controlled one-way programmed media, It is possible that the incredible popularity of the VCR is directly related to the desire latent within us to control our own programming content and our viewing time-frame.

Communication patterns within institutions are more participatory in an interactive communication technology world. Feedback (talkback) becomes a common communication mode and it is difficult to return to an authoritative top-down communication style. It is no accident that small group media are a favored communication mode in small base communities of faith. These tools allow interaction and the communication loop is energized by this participatory potential.

Another rich aspect of this interactive communication pattern is what one author has called "shared minds." Corporations using teleconferencing usually cite the savings possible because people do not have to travel to get to meetings; they can be linked into a meeting technologically (by telephone, computer, or video). However, tile larger payoff may well be that ideas are born from the process of collective input that the format of a forum permits. There is an accumulation, a piling up, of thinking when one is part of an interactive group.

I cannot help but think of the work of John Henry Newman or Yves Congar when reflecting upon a participatory theology, as the Church struggles to move toward more inclusive roles for laity, for women, for national cultures. One is also reminded of our obligation to give the poor a voice and options that are more meaningful than violence. We are seeing participation in the political arena (U.S. talk shows, faxes fueling uprisings in China and Russia). Our communities of faith, too, are interactive liturgically, sacramentally, and a technological world can serve these faith communities.

One must also consider the concept of technology as power. Information technologies like the telephone have long been considered basic necessities in developed nations, although there are surprisingly large blocks of people even in the United States without telephone access. A farmer in a remote village in India is economically disadvantaged if he does not know current prices at a regional market and he is unable to sell his crops at the right time. Even access to a village phone transforms economic realities for him and his family if it allows him to monitor market prices some distance away. In fact, the growing use of "wireless" technologies will allow such nations to "leapfrog" over previous wired technologies.

Access to information technology is a power issue, an economic issue, a justice issue. Interactive technologies offer the chance to transform the concept of "power over" to "power with." A gospel response to new technologies is to safeguard access for all God's children rather than reserve most of the goods for a favored few.

I would recommend, finally, some interaction between a theology of spirituality and those who become victims of new technological tools. Who among us does not regret that information technologies move information faster and faster, increasing the pace of our lives? As one who struggles to be contemplative I find that I must occasionally pull the plug! Communication technologies can inform the theological enterprise, but how very much the interactive world needs to be reminded of Thomas Merton's comment in his Asian Journal: "the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, beyond speech, beyond concept."


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