Similarities between Hackers and Church

Cut-out figures on top of a globe
Hackers of the World, Unite!

I’m finally getting somewhere with this talk entitled “Where is God on the Internet?” for tomorrow evening, but it could very well be a long, long night ahead of me. Or early morning. Or both.

I’ve been reading through a number of books I got from Amazon about the Church, the Internet and God. But none of them really said what I was looking for. I wanted something beyond the usual: “use email, chat rooms and forums to build and foster community”. That seems somehow too easy an answer. “If you build it they will come”, might work for a Hollywood movie, but I’m not sure that the general public are taken in quite so easily.

Book cover for Virtual ChristianityOne book I’ve found particularly thoughtful is Virtual Christianity: Potential and Challenge for the Churches by Jean-Nicolas Bazin and Jérôme Cottin (World Council of Churches Publications, 2004) ISBN 2-8254-1414-X.

This short (and thin) book has only four chapters:

  1. The Internet and How to Use it
  2. The Internet in the Current Social Environment
  3. How the Church assesses the Internet
  4. The Internet and the Expansion of the Church

While flicking rather desperately through the book this afternoon, looking for inspiration I read this quotation from Manuel Castells, a professor of sociology at Berkeley University in California:

“The Net is much more than a new technology, it is a civilization shift.”

Book cover for The Hacker EthicI then turned to another book that Manuel Castells had contributed to called The Hacker Ethic by Linus Torvalds, Pekka Himanen and Manuel Castells (Vintage, 2001) ISBN 0099426927.

I first read this book a few years ago, while I was living in Inverness. At the time I found the book quite inspirational; one of the best, most exciting books I’d ever read. In it Himanen challenges Max Weber‘s Protestant Ethic in favour of what he calls “The Hacker Ethic“, that is “the belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing free software and facilitating access to information and computing resources wherever possible” (from Wikipedia).

For Torvalds [creator of the Linux operating system], the basic organizational factor in life is not work or money but passion and the desire to create something socially valuable together.

Book cover for The Cluetrain ManifestoAn article in .net magazine this month led me to another online resource that I’d never come across: The Cluetrain Manifesto by Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, which is published online (keeping true to the hacker ethic!) as well as in book format.

In their introduction they write:

A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.

These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked.

Most corporations, on the other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do.

Their 95 Theses (purposefully named after Martin Luther‘s 95 Theses which brought about The Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century) call for corporations to move from being closed networks to being open and human with their markets, who have already begun to communicate in powerful ways.

As I read their theses I began to wonder how much this might also apply to the Church, the Institutional Church, which sometimes acts like a giant corporation. I began to think about the rediscovery over the last ten years of God as Trinity, and its implications for ministry: that ministry is not reserved for a few ordained people but is what all the people of God are called to.

Book cover for Transforming ChurchIt occurred to me that thesis #7 “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy” was saying something similar to what Robin Greenwood was saying in his excellent book Transforming Church: Liberating Structures for Ministry (SPCK, 2002) ISBN 0-281-05208-5:

Of course thinking about the nature and task of the Church is relatively unimportant if we continue to associate it mainly with the limited concerns of clergy and their chosen helpers to keep something going; Church is unimportant if we see it excluding all that we do when we’re busy in our primary vocations of so many kinds…

The Holy Spirit seems now to be inviting us to be a Church:

  • where everyone is the whole of life can make an equal but different response to the call to be part of Christ’s united but kaleidoscopic ministry;
  • that cuts ice with the poorest and the excluded and with those growing parts of ourselves that yearn for intimacy, demand honesty and need to walk with others;
  • that stops playing at centuries past;
  • that echoing Godself meets people at their point of pain and remains there;
  • that shows the way in not trating the planet as the mere background for increasing our personal prosperity at the cost of another;
  • that is shaped by God’s regenerative power and restorative healing and that can help others to know what we already partially experience;
  • that shows the world its true life by daring to choose to be at one with the risky, distributive and serving energy that we call God’s Spirit.

… Of course the Church is dying; that’s the only way to know resurrection, going down the tubes into God’s unfolding future.” (pp.147 f.)

While I’m not saying that the Internet is the saviour of the Church, it just seems to me interesting that while the nature and ethic of the Internet is moving towards subverting hierarchy and replacing it with a connected network of people communicating on an equal basis so the Church is also questioning the nature of its ‘traditional’ hierarchies in favour of shared ministries — not because there is no money (and there isn’t!) but because made in the image of God we feel a yearning to live our lives modelled on the relationship that is God the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer and Holy Spirit.

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Safeguard Global; latterly at Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

One thought on “Similarities between Hackers and Church”

  1. thanx for the thoughts. I’ll be preparing to give a talk on “theology and the virtual world” a few months from now, and will spend some time thinking about this myself.

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