Q&A with Dr. Mark Hoffman, Professor of Religion and Media

Religion and Media Blog Tour

Earlier this spring, Dr. Mark Hoffman (www.crossmarks.com) of Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg had me Skype into a class of his in Gettysburg, and I was impressed by the caliber his students and warmed by their kindness toward me.

LTSG then made the exciting announcement that it was adding a new Religion and Media Concentration to its Master or Arts in Religion degree. As part of its launch, two of the programs professors including Dr. Hoffman, are going on a blog tour where they answer questions submitted to them by bloggers. I asked two questions of Dr. Mark Hoffman , and he sent the helpful responses below.

Dr. Hoffman’s Responses

Greetings, John. Your book, From the Garden to the City, has been an important voice as we think about technology and the church, so we were very pleased that you were willing to participate in this Religion and Media blog tour. Thanks! The first question you posed:

I come from the “Bible church” tradition which sees itself as placing a high value on the reading, preaching, and study of the Scriptures. And yet, we’ve been finding that biblical literacy and reflective Bible reading is as much on the decline in our congregations as it is culturally. In light of these changes, how do you see the shift from print to electronic reading influencing the ways Christians interact with the Scriptures both in their personal lives and corporately?

You, John, have already given us a lot to think about in your book, but I can contribute a few of my own thoughts. I addressed a related matter on Sansblogue where the issue was trying to entice more Christians to read the Bible, but your question is focused on the effect the change in medium will have on the m/Message. I can reflect on my own experience. I have about five feet worth of Bibles on my bookshelf. Only three of them show much use. There’s a NOAB RSV Bible that got me through college and seminary a Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament for seminary and grad school, and a NRSV pew Bible I’ve used for preaching. In the mid-1980s, I started using digital editions of the Bible, and around 2000 I got a PalmPilot and OliveTree’s BibleReader program. Since acquiring these resources and their up-to-date heirs, I have very infrequently opened any of those Bible on my bookshelf. Today, I have 14 Bible programs on my computer, and I’m up to an Android smartphone with 5 Bible programs on it, and on top of that are all the web resources.

So, I’ll personalize your question: How has the shift from print to electronic reading influenced my interaction with Scripture? I find that I do still have a sense of “Bible.” When I was serving as a pastor and doing hospital visits, somehow it just didn’t feel right to share some readings from Scripture by pulling out my PalmPilot. (I ended up kind of hiding it in a portfolio.) Or on those occasions when I’m doing expository preaching, I just don’t think I could be comfortable standing in front of a congregation with my Droid X to cite Scripture. (That’s where I use the NRSV pew Bible. In doing so, I’m drawing on ancient Jewish tradition where the person reading Scripture made a point of only looking at the scroll as he read the Hebrew. The translator standing next to him who was rendering in the Aramaic the people understood, was not allowed to be looking at any text. It provided a visible reinforcement for distinguishing the divine Word and the human translation.) I also do miss using my old NOAB RSV, a Bible I with which I was so familiar that I could even picture on which part of the page a certain passage appeared.

On the other hand, I rarely carried my Bible around with me back in the day, and now I have one (many!) with me almost all the time and end up reading it more often. I miss those annotations in my old Bible, but today when I take notes in my digital Bible, it gets synched through the cloud, and I have them available on all the platforms I use. That’s far more helpful for me now and into the future. (A quick aside: an elderly woman in my congregation once told me that she had received a very nice Bible from her family for Christmas. Her grandson told her that he hoped she would make lots of notes in it. “That way,” he said, “we’ll have something to say at your funeral.”) The main thing for me now is that I don’t just a Bible with me, but I have access to original language texts and so many supporting resources. I have another five feet of shelf space devoted to lexicons, concordances, and grammars, and I am happy to say I haven’t had to use them in a long time.

Overall, I would have to say that the transition to a digital Bible has been a blessing for me. I still find that when I think of “Bible,” I think of a book and not a program or a smartphone, but the actual experience of reading the Bible has been enhanced. Additionally, I think we have only begun to think about digital media can enhance the ways we actually interact with the Bible and engage with it on personal, corporate, and global levels.

A second question you asked:

The Association of Theological Schools, the body that accredits both of the seminaries at which you and I are employed, will soon begin approving fully online seminary degrees, something that was previously prohibited. As higher education in general is changing, what role do you see online education playing in the theological and spiritual formation of seminarians of the future?

That’s a big question that we are seriously trying to think about at my seminary. I suspect that if it weren’t for the financial challenges all seminaries are facing, we would be moving more slowly into the realm of online education. Still, I am excited about the possibilities that online education offers and am cautiously optimistic that it really can be an improvement over the way we’ve always done things. I will say up front, that I love teaching and the interactions I have in the classroom. I’ve missed that when teaching online, but I remind myself that the focus should not be on my teaching but on student learning. To that end, already in my residential courses, I have been including more and more online aspects: links to resources, making class materials downloadable, doing online collaborative work, and trying to connect with the world outside the seminary. (For example, we were able to have you Skype in to our class to talk about your book with us! I’ve also been able to connect with the Lutheran seminary in Hong Kong where our Greek classes worked together.) We are also making more connections with other teaching partners, something that would not be possible without online possibilities. Our Religion and Media concentration, for example, came into being as a joint project between our seminary here in Gettysburg (PA), Luther Seminary in St. Paul (MN), and the Odyssey Networks based in New York. With this sort of distance cooperation, students will be able to enjoy a wider variety of classes. We are also setting up more possibilities for project based learning where the teacher serves as the guide and mentor, but the student is responsible for shaping the educational experience. We anticipate that much of this work will be done collaboratively and hence online and hopefully even globally.

So far I’ve talked about theological education, but you also ask about spiritual formation. I think that is going to be more difficult. Personal practices probably aren’t as much affected, but there is the communal aspect of spiritual formation that does need the real presence of other people. We are planning to use a ‘hybrid’ model where the online work is complemented by face to face, intensive gatherings. That can help both the communication necessary for online learning as well promote the bonds of community. But rather than thinking that spiritual formation mainly occurs at seminary, online instruction provides the opportunity to encourage spiritual development right where a person is at, in the real communities where they are now living. Perhaps also, this larger virtual community in which we all participate can help dispel some of the critiques of seminaries as ‘ivory towers’ disconnected from everyday life. No doubt, then, there are challenges, but there are also some great potentials.

Thanks Dr. Hoffman

Thanks to Dr. Hoffman for taking time to answer my questions. If you have additional questions for him, please leave a comment here, since he’ll be trolling for the next few days. And if you’re interested in a religious studies degree focusing on media and technology, be sure to check out LTSG concentration.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

5 thoughts on “Q&A with Dr. Mark Hoffman, Professor of Religion and Media”

  1. While you are both “here” can I ask some supplementary questions. In connection with distance education I’ve become really interested in “presence”. I teach a class where students “attend” a weekly online tutorial. The system offers audio and visuals (whiteboard, PPT sharing PC screens). Video is available but at present we don’t use it because bandwidth to some locations is not good. What is it about face to face meeting that such a system does not offer that is significant? Or is our knee jerk assumption that “virtual” communication and face to face communication are different in kind is merely a hangover from older less rich technologies?

    1. Tim,
      You have asked some great questions. I hope to share about the issue of “presence” in online courses from the perspective of a practioner. For perspective, I serve with eDOT, a ministry that among others uses of technology in ministry, helps European Bible schools develop online learning courses/curriculum. As we help these schools develop online programs, we tend to stress the importance of “presence” and communication in online learning environments over content. That should not be understood in any way to de-value content; merely to indicate that in the online learning environment, the development of “presence” and communication require more intentionality on the part of the teacher/facilitator. Most teachers do not struggle to find content for online courses; but some teachers do struggle with the best methods to engage students in the online learning environment. Our experience suggests that content does not often cause a student to drop an online course; but the inability to establish online “presence,” or the inability/unwillingness to communicate effectively in an online course will often lead to a student’s failure to complete an online course. We stress the importance of communication within the online course by suggesting that our partners make 30% or more of the final course grade contingent upon successful participation in discussion forums and other collaborative activities throughout the course.

      To better understand the importance of “presence” online and methods to encourage more online learning community in courses, I recommend the following texts by Palloff and Pratt: The Virtual Student (2003); and Building Online Learning Communities (2007).

      To see examples of course solutions (A solution toward student involvement in online learning environments) that eDOT has built with online courses, feel free to navigate to http://demo.equiphispeople.com and peruse the courses there.

  2. Good question, Tim. I think you can have every bit as rich as experience in the virtual world as in the real… but it is different. I’ve had great discussions that happen online, but they lack the give and take of a real classroom. I know I have had to figure out different ways to teach–or better, to facilitate learning–online, and the results end up being different as well. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. I do also note that it has helped if people know each other somewhat in the real world, because it creates confidence in knowing how to ‘read’ a person online.

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