As the new media of the Internet age continue to unfold, many scholarly Christians have tried to share their work and expertise effectively, particularly in the rambunctious world of social media. This concern is the primary subject of Theologians and Philosophers Using Social Media: Advice, Tips, and Testimonials. The book can best be described as a massive crowdsourced volume featuring ninety-one contributors, all edited by Thomas Jay Oord. While most of the authors are in the academy, several are simply effective users of social media who deal with theology or generally religious matters. The choice of writers is fairly diverse, but a majority of them seem to frequent or inhabit the progressive-revisionist circles. Oord himself is a self-described open theist and process theologian.
To encourage coherence among this broad spectrum of authors, Oord asked them six questions to answer in their essays:
- What forms of social media/platforms do you use, and which forms are primary?
- Why did you begin using social media in relation to your scholarly interests, publication, or teaching? Is this the same reason you continue to use social media?
- What have you been surprised to discover or learn when using social media?
- What great idea, conceptual breakthrough, or interesting project emerged through or because of social media?
- How do you manage your time and other obligations in relation to time spent on social media?
- What three things would you recommend to scholars considering using social media? (p. 4)
While most of the contributors respond in a direct and orderly manner to these prompts, others outright ignore them, sometimes with amusing results. Otherwise, the book has a fairly repetitive tempo.
Three matters of perpetual importance and interest do pop up in the book. The first is how to use social media well, particularly how to build a large platform, effectively reach a desired audience, and how to blog or share work sustainably. The second is how to use social media without losing one’s soul through distractions and other vices that commonly arise in the digital environment. The third is deep theological reflections, appreciations, critiques, and warnings about what social media does to the individual person and the society at large. All three of these matters show up in brief flashes throughout the book.
This book doesn’t really elaborate on any of those elements in depth. The authors can be incredibly profound when they address these subjects, but, unfortunately, it takes a lot of work and time to find them. This book is long—well over four hundred pages. It is debatable whether the quality of the insights merit the effort required to find them.
It is also obvious that some contributors have a better grasp of social media and its uses than others. The result is that the quality of advice and tips widely varies, which is not surprising in a crowd-sourced project. The only way to sift the wheat from the chaff is to gain knowledge from other sources, which throws the overall usefulness of this text into question. For instance, as Patheos progressive channel manager, Benjamin Corey advises in his essay, “Read up on social media best practices and do your best to follow at least some of those recommendations” (p. 78). The implication is that one should probably look elsewhere for such resources. If one is looking for a handy, well-researched, go-to practical guide to the field of social media, this book is not it.
Of course, the communications industry provides a dizzying array of articles, workshops, and other venues that can provide an excellent crash-course in social media usage. Experts keep track of significant changes in the field, such as algorithm shifts on important platforms. A single book like Theologians and Philosophers Using Social Media cannot keep pace with the rapidly changing environment. The book has a similar weakness when it comes to the other two concerns of personal discipleship and weighty reflection. There are other books and resources that provide focused, in-depth attention to these issues instead of brief comments, observations, and opinions. Thus, the book is of limited use and desirability for its being a desultory jack-of-all-trades but master-of-none. A handful of typos and grammatical errors also reduce the quality of the text.
That is not to say that the book is worthless. It may well serve as a helpful time capsule. Historians will be able to use it as a resource to help understand how academics and scholars dealt with the fairly new phenomenon of social media in AD 2017. It is important that such matters be chronicled for future generations. However, aside from this future potential, the text need not be at the top of anyone’s “to-read” list.