Possible New Futures For Our Journal On The World Wide Web

Possible New Futures For Our Journal On The World Wide WebAbstract

The author argues that this journal, Religious Education, as a premier outlet for religious education scholarship, must take more creative steps in making its scholarship accessible via electronic media. In particular, she suggests three possible new arenas: leveraging existing content by creating "electronic content collections," moving the journal into an online format that would allow for multimedia articles, and developing a site that would promote "open source" scholarship in religious education.

In the spring of 2004, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released the findings of their latest survey into the ways in which people engage the Internet. In this survey, they intentionally sought responses that described participants' "use of the internet for spiritual or religious purposes," and the report noted that "64% of the nations 128 million internet users have done things online that relate to religious or spiritual matters."1 It is crucially important to recognize, even as I quote this report, that there still remains a "digital divide" in the United States, as well as the rest of the world. But, even with that qualification, it should be evident that religious educators ought to have a healthy appreciation for "cyberspace" as one more venue in which faith seeking and sharing occurs.2 Indeed, by most accounts, religious "seeking" is driving an enormous amount of popular culture. Publishers Weekhj notes, for instance, that "growth in religion continues to confound expectations and outpace every other category in publishing,"3 and that "bestseller charts have consistently listed religion or spirituality books near the top for the past several years, and the Association of American Publishers has been measuring monthly double-digit sales growth in religion."4

Yet another example is clearly present in the variety of explicitly religious themes making their way into hit songs. The Blackeyed Peas sing an explicit prayer to God, asking "where is the love?"; R.E.M. s Michael Stipe asks "tell me why?" in the song "Final Straw," a song centered on seeking love and forgiveness in the midst of vengeance. Badly Drawn Boy's video "The Year of the Rat" uses animation to preach nonviolence. U2's Bono sings "Grace," in which a key lyric notes "that grace makes beauty out of ugly things." The list is very long, and growing longer by the day, joined by an equally interesting set of films and television shows. The entertainment year 2003-2004 saw the launch of the hit television series Joan of Arcadia, in which God is a central character, and the film The Passion of the Christ, which is nearing sales figures that rival that of The Lord of the Rings. And these are simply examples from the U.S. context. At the same time, however, more institutionally based sources of religious information are waning in influence, becoming "one amongst the many" rather than a sole or authoritative source of information.5

What are religious educators to do about this confluence of new media, pop culture, and religious searching? I have suggested many responses in other venues, but for the purposes of this essay, I would like to concentrate on one very small-but very rich-resource religious educators could be engaging, and that is the nearly 100 years' worth of scholarship to be found in our journal, Religions Education. Although our journal is one of the premier publications in the field, and it can boast of authors who have been key in the development of religious consciousness in public life in the United States, its scholarship is playing less and less of a role in the daily life of religious educators, let alone religious people more generally in public life. In part, this shrinking role can be celebrated in light of the numerous other organizations-many of which are specifically denominational-that have sprung up in the last few decades to provide access to religious education scholarship. At the same time, however, we must acknowledge that one element of our shrinking impact can be traced to lack of access to our scholarship in precisely the arena noted earlier-cyberspace. Scholars can find our journal articles online if their libraries subscribe to the journal, and the American Theological Libraries Assocation Serials (ATLAS) project funded by the Lilly Endowment will make back issues available in digital format. But we must be honest: simply putting the information up on the Internet really only makes it accessible to those people who know to look for it. Until libraries and other organizations manage to develop search mechanisms that seamlessly weave scholarly journals into the fabric of Internet user searches, it is unlikely that people will find our research, unless they are specifically looking for it.

Instead, we ought to be creating welcoming invitations to peruse the materials we have already developed, and at the same time, creating environments in which we risk our understandings by engagement with these same Internet seekers. In the remainder of this essay, I would like to propose three avenues by which we could do this, while at the same time, maintaining the rigorous and scholarly nature of the journal. I invite readers to consider three possibilities: leveraging our existing content into digital arenas, expanding the media in which the journal appears, and moving into open source religions education development.


The first of these-leveraging our existing content into digital arenas-could be an easy first step. The Teachers College Record (TCR) provides an interesting example of such a process. That journal, found on the Web at: http://www.tcrecord.org/, has organized a rich assortment of its previous published content around specific areas of interest that it makes available to more casual browsers of the Web. The content of the articles has not been changed, they still present rigorous scholarship, but the organizational links, the pathways by which people find the content, have multiplied and, in the process, have created a much more dense and hypertextual fabric. Each week the journal sends out an electronic announcement to people who choose to subscribe to the service in which it highlights a particular set of articles and notes book reviews that have been added to the site. The site also includes a mechanism allowing for community commenting, a kind of open forum in which people who come to a particular content area can post questions or responses.

Creating a richer web of access to our existing content in this way would also make it more likely that articles from the journal would show up in Web searches of particular questions. In addition, pulling together "content collections" of the sort that TCB regularly provides could stretch peoples understanding of the relevant issues by connecting them with content for which they might not otherwise have considered looking.

What would be involved in such a transformation of the journal? Clearly there are copyright issues to consider, as moving content into cyberspace may require some modification oi existing copyright agreements with authors. This is by no means an impossible task, however, and having the example of the Teachers College Record in front of us can point the way. Perhaps the major task of such a transformation would be the development of specific "content collections" and the hypertextual links among them that could structure an environment that provides context for our scholarship and makes it more accessible.

Even this challenge is not insurmountable, and would likely prove a very interesting and instructive exercise, perhaps even sufficient for a doctoral level thesis. A scholar could consider systematically our journal's entire output, its range of issues over the years, using an inductive methodology to cull arenas of meaning, to identify threads of significance, recurring themes, and so on, and then use those themes to organize assorted "content collections" to which we could draw people's attention. Even research that has clearly been superseded by more recent findings might remain interesting as historical context. Such a project would provide rich data for the graduate student working on it, but would also have a tangible and useful outcome if it led to ease of access on the Web.

Going a step further, beyond simply organizing "content collections," into an architecture that would enable community comment on the materials at the site-much as the Teachers College Record does with its "Community Discussion" section-would create a mechanism by which we could track the ways in which our site might provide a venue for pressing religious education discussions. That, in turn, could point toward new questions that scholars ought to Ix- addressing. Eventually, the "feedback loop" between the scholar and the community to which their scholarship is addressed might be made more organic and directly linked.