Posted by: jadanzzy | April 21, 2008

Open-source Christianity

I know many of you will have no interest in this matter. But I ask that you take some time to consider my thoughts.

Today, I went to the TED website (which is pretty amazing) and listened to Yochai Benkler talk about how markets and central power structures are losing their grip on the economy by open-source structures: Microsoft vs. Linux, Encyclopedia Britannica vs. Wikipedia, RIAA vs. p2p networks, telecomms vs. Skype. This was most apparent in the choice of servers most e-commerce websites used. The open-source Apache server completely overtook Microsoft as the choice for a lot websites. The Ubuntu OS is growing slowly but surely as Linux strives to be more user-friendly. Record companies are desperately fighting off the masses in gaining control of profits. So on and so forth.

And this is the direction Christianity may be (or is already) headed.

After the early church sprang out of the miracle of Pentacost, The Way was a radical movement that seemed to threaten and undermine the Roman empire. Fast forward several hundred years and the Roman Empire has made Christianity its state religion. In the midst, the Great Schism occurs between the Eastern and the Western churches. Throughout this transitional period you have the historical councils dictating what texts and theologies are orthodox and heterodox. But these councils, joined by the government, were symbols of power, much like the Microsofts of today. And for hundreds of years after, these power structures held till other power structures rose (i.e. Protestanism) to compete in the Christian worldview.

In contrast, what we see in the early 21st century is the waning of such monolithic theological centers. In its stead, with new manifestations like the Emergent conversation, New Monasticism, and young evangelical movements, new standards of faith are arising. Communities are affirming local and contextual theologies that hold place within the local body’s environment. The likes of John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Dom Crossan are just voices (albeit important) in a myriad of many to be studied. Communities are learning what it means to put their faith to their feet in new and innovative ways as the Spirit leads.  And this is a threat to theological powers. It is a threat to the Vatican and the Reformed institutions. And it is even a threat to the structures of our own understanding of faith communities.

Spencer Burke mentioned that the way we share sermons with one another may change. Instead of the same voice every week, people may opt to share voices with one another via mp3s, live video, or a re-imagining of itinerant preaching. Future communities may be more fluid and city-centric. Does this sound scary or exciting to you?

The two biggest questions that may arise are: What about heresy? How do we know what is of the Spirit and what is not?

If you notice in these open-source communities, the bad bugs in programming, or bad data in articles are found and sifted out. Open-source communities are actively engaging with others in the community about ideas and often tweaking the software or information to give the user the best product possible. The same could happen with theology in the future. Heresy, of course, is a concern. However, communities can communicate knowledge and information much more quickly and more critically than ever before such that faulty logic and information will be… ahem… buried (to use a Digg reference). Although monolithic structures may dissolve, faith that the true voice of the Spirit will carry through will be in play.

So we see already a tension between centralized structures versus decentralized structures. Traverse throughout the Christian blogosphere and you can see it. Hear about the different conferences held to defend one thing or to deconstruct another. Christianity as we know it may shift completely into a whole new paradigm of decentralized networks of faith.

Or Google could come along.

[As a post-script, here are some questions I’ve been thinking about that are by-products of this topic: Why are some things orthodox (as defined by the historical councils) and other things not? Weren’t the Powers of the time involved in forming those central doctrines? What then of the “purity” of those doctrines? Is it the Holy Spirit’s role to deem one thing “orthodox” and the other thing “heterodox”? Will this idea of open-source Christianity merely be a Western phenomenon? Moreso a phenomenon of the educated?]



  1. theology’s task and nature… are they inherently to be subversive and overthrow the structures that might try to adopt them?

    is the true, “open-source” christian movement, as long as the Lord tarries, always to be a revolution upon revolution?

    and if so, why? is it because power structures corrupt as soon as they adopt something good? or is it just inherent to being Christian, to overthrow any powers on the planet?

    i think advancing the idea that Christ challenges the world from dramatic angles, and that those challenges continue to have a place so far in human history, is tenable. but i’d hesitate to sign up for the idea that Christianity, inherently and as an end state, will always look rebellious. at least, not without a theory that can explain why every authority and power in the world will always be at odds with the Christian idea: grace, servanthood, radical love, justice.

    instinctively, our sensibilities inform us that it does seem far from possible, but to deem the message of Christ as irreconcilable with the way the human planet works, and thus always overthrowing and in rebellion… it almost extinguishes hope of transformation.

  2. I didn’t mean to come off as positing that Christianity is always supposed to be revolting. Rather, the way we theologize, share, and interact in our information will be akin to open-source systems. Because of that, power centers will respond to it as a threat. This doesn’t mean open-source Christianity will function intentionally as a threat.

    In the 21st century and the years to come, power may look completely different as sources of information come not from monolithic centers of knowledge but from, as Barack Obama would say, the ground up.

  3. I find it problematic that “power structures” are deemed in many ways to be antithetical to Christianity, or the view that history is somehow or always a competition between powers. Power is not a bad thing, though it is a thing that can be badly used, and inherent in the notion of power is the ability or even responsibility to define reality or the limits of orthodoxy, religious or otherwise.

  4. You gave me a great idea for interpreting Acts 17:22-31 in a future sermon. Thanks a bunch!

  5. This is very intriguing to me. I find your analogy very penetrating. Though “local definition is the alternative of hierarchical definition (Constantinianism)” [Hauerwas], and local incarnations of the people of God are right on, I think most protestant churches and movements are simply incarnations of capitalism – they can never rest, they are always growing like a virus, reinventing, mutating and always exploiting new markets.

  6. We might even contemplate what will happen if authentic Christianity is Out Sourced.

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