Computer-Mediated Communication and Ecclesiological Challenges To and From the Reformed Tradition
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Communities of faith have appeared online since the inception of computer - mediated communication (CMC)and are now ubiquitous. Yet the character and legitimacy of Internet communities as ecclesial bodies is often disputed by traditional churches; and the Internet's ability to host the church as church for online Christians remains a question. This dissertation carries out a practical theological conversation between three main sources: the phenomenon of the church online; ecclesiology (especially that characteristic of Reformed communities); and communication theory. After establishing the need for this study in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 investigates the online presence of Christians and trends in their Internet use, including its history and current expressions. Chapter 3 sets out an historical overview of the Reformed Tradition, focusing on the work of John Calvin and Karl Barth, as well as more contemporary theologians. With a theological context in which to consider online churches in place, Chapter 4 introduces four theological themes prominent in both ecclesiology and CMC studies: authority; community; mediation; and embodiment. These themes constitute the primary lens through which the dissertation conducts a critical-confessional interface between communication theory and ecclesiology in the examination of CMC. Chapter 5 continues the contextualization of online churches with consideration of communication theories that impact CMC, focusing on three major communication theories: Narrative Theory; Interpretive Theory; and Speech Act Theory. Chapter 6 contains the critical conversation between ecclesiology and communication theory by correlating the aforementioned communication theories with Narrative Theology, Communities of Practice, and Theo-Drama, and applying these to the four theological themes noted above. In addition, new or anticipated developments in CMC investigated in relationship to traditional ecclesiologies and the prospect of cyber-ecclesiology. Chapter 7 offers an evaluative tool consisting of a three-step hermeneutical process that examines: 1) the history, tradition, and ecclesiology of the particular community being evaluated; 2) communication theories and the process of religious-social shaping of technology; and 3) CMC criteria for establishing the presence of a stable, interactive, and relational community. As this hermeneutical process unfolds, it holds the church at the center of the process, seeking a contextual yet faithful understanding of the church.