An Open Source Religious Resources Website

One of the central challenges of faith nurture currently facing communities of faith globally has been a striking shift in the traditional consensus around what constitutes authentic patterns of worship and prayer, in the traditional patterns of authority, and in how Christians understand their agency as human persons who are believers in a transcendent God. Authenticity, authority, agency – these three elements interact in such a way that, as T. Boomershine notes, "we no longer reason by means of philosophical argument, but rather by means of sympathetic identification." Such a description in no way intends to belittle the philosophical, or to glorify the sympathetic, but rather to describe the contexts we inhabit.

In these contexts widespread access to digital technologies has created its own challenges, rapidly decentralizing what had in previous contexts been pretty carefully mapped structures of authority, and providing widespread access to multiple forms of meaning-making and widespread exposure to multiple religious practices. Within this space religious educators find themselves with new challenges as well as new opportunities. In the document that follows I propose an open source religious resources website that I hope to develop and establish. First I describe the site, then I make an argument about three important ways in which it will impact religious community, and finally I point to the next steps forward in developing the site.

Open source religious resource development and the web – what could it look like?

There are three important goals for this proposed website, and they are as follows:

First, to provide a dynamic, multi-lingual, inter-faith forum in which people can freely share religious resources (curricular materials, prayers, liturgies, texts, songs, music, video, photographs, still art).

Second, to create a dynamic, multi-lingual, inter-faith forum in which people can reach each other to share inquiries, information, ideas, announcements in relation to the above.

Third, to create a robust, multi-lingual link list that provides for the inter-faith community contact information on publishers, artists, copyright orientations for creators, other sites in which to publish things, contract models, ethical guidelines

It is important to note that the "multi-lingual" character of the site is envisioned to apply primarily to the interface that allows for navigation. Individual publication and content review would be done in whatever language is native to the author, and although we might seek funding for some translation, we could certainly not guarantee such.

Such a website might contain a variety of elements, but imagine at least these. First, imagine a website where any community of faith could publish the materials they had created to support religious learning and religious practice. This website would be free and open to the public so that anyone could post resources – curriculum materials, bible studies, worship materials, hymns and songs, and so on – and anyone could download them. The key would be that anyone posting through this site would have to agree – in the actual process of posting – that they hold legal copyright to the material and that their resources would be published there under a Creative Commons license. Such a license, being non-revocable, would provide a means by which their work would remain accessible in electronic format for non-commercial use, no matter what other licensing arrangements they might make in commercial contexts.

So, begin by imagining a web space in which people from all over the world could publish the resources they’ve developed locally, and others could download and use these resources –modifying and reposting them back to the website, further contextualized for use in specific settings.

Now, imagine that this website has two additional features – a very powerful search engine that allows people to search in multiple ways amongst the materials, and a very powerful and flexible ratings system, that allows anyone who chooses to, to add their own evaluation of the materials.

Finally, imagine groups of people all over the world – religious education professors at seminaries, for instance, and local groups of religious educators in a specific denomination – who regularly go to this site and engage in evaluation of published materials there. Individual readers of the site could develop their own ratings of the critics, and begin to use both keyword search criteria, as well as their favorite critics’ recommendations, to find quickly and easily materials that they can use in their own context.

There are already some few religious websites out there in the English-speaking world that function in this way in certain limited ways. "HollywoodJesus.com," for instance, is a public space for discussing popular films and their use within religious contexts. The "Workshop Rotation" model for Sunday school curricula (http://www.rotation.org/) is a space in which people are experimenting with curriculum development together. In the Spanish-speaking world there is already one very vibrant example of such a site at "Selah" (http://www.selah.com.ar/new/Default.asp).

In the larger world beyond religious community, there are many examples of open source development. Part of the energy for this particular project grows out of seeing the enormous creativity, innovation and success of open source development unleashed across a broad variety of contexts. (More information on this movement can be easily found through the Creative Commons Foundation, the Lessig Blog, SourceForge and the Wikipedia.) A few pertinent examples in this context would include SlashDot (http://slashdot.org/), a website in which people regularly post news, then rank the postings and engage in community discussions of various aspects of it. Merlot (http://www.merlot.org/Home.po) is perhaps the closest example from within higher education, although it varies in one crucial way by exercising clear editorial control. While not in any sense an "open source" site, the bookstore "Amazon.com" is one model for the collection of reviewers who regularly review materials. The Wikipedia would also be an example of a resource developed completely in the open, and in a multi-lingual format.

The editorial function of the site envisioned in this proposal would grow organically from the users of the site. The beauty of such growth would be that we would also be growing evaluative capabilities amongst communities of faith. There are other possible benefits as well. Imagine a site with resources in multiple languages from around the world. Now, think about churches in your own context with recent immigrants. How might a community support the religious development of their recent immigrants, if they have no familiarity with the communities people are coming from? One place to start might be with materials drawn from the original context and reshaped to reflect the concerns of the new. Imagine "old members" of a church, and "new members" of a church sitting down together with a lot of draft materials to play with and learn from together, to build something new together, and then imagine that group re-posting those materials to the website for others to build on.

As noted earlier in this proposal, contemporary communities of faith are facing widespread paradigm shifts, with corresponding challenges to the traditional ways in which authenticity, authority and agency have been constructed. Taking each of these elements in turn, consider how an open source religious resources site might provide a crucial response.

Rapid access to digital pop culture resources (authenticity)

The first challenge has to do with the multiple "databases" upon which people draw when they articulate their experiences of religious belief and belonging. No longer are these the databases of specific religious communities, carefully bounded by specific beliefs and founded on specific practices. Rather, human beings in the first part of the 21st century build their sense of themselves as religious – as bound in relation to God – from a variety of places, including those of mass mediated popular culture. As Adán Medrano has written:

"...we are encountering religious experience in everyday media culture, and it is in media culture that our religious symbols and myths are alive. It is in media culture that we create our understandings of who we are, who God is, and how we should live." (147)
"Media technology has become naturalized in our daily environment and is in fact the material with which we form and inform our habits, relationships, conversation and identities." (148) (Belief in Media, Ashgate, 2004)

Religious communities often no longer control the use of the symbols they originated – consider the singer Madonna’s use of the crucifix, or the government’s use of the language of "blessing." Central religious concepts such as "will and grace" and "faith and hope" are more familiar as the titles of sitcoms, than as fundamental theological convictions. And yet at the same time, some of the most profound religious experiences people report – even people with significant religious formation – come within these mass mediated contexts more often than within traditional religious services.

"Authenticity" – particularly as understood in terms of resonant personal experience – has increasingly become a key category of interpretation, and religious educators seek to expand and challenge that category by connecting it to the practices and symbols of historically grounded religious communities. Such work is often done in improvisational ways, building upon whatever film is currently at the multiplex, or whatever music is popular at a given moment. More and more religious educators are re-inventing religious education in ways that draw upon these popular cultural resources and then integrates and tests them with the more traditional languages of religious discourse.

Several denominational publishing houses have tried to work with these trends, building resources that take into account such materials – the Augsburg Life Together quarterly planner, the PCUSA media literacy curriculum, Reel-to-Real, and so on – but a print publisher is inevitably constrained by time and limited financial resources, not to mention the difficulties imposed by having to seek copyright permissions for the commercial use of mass mediated materials.

An open source religious resources site allows groups across the country who are developing such materials for use in their local churches to share them with others in a quick, easily accessible way. Such shared use in turn promotes the kind of experimentation and "working out of bugs" that has been so helpful within the open source software development movement.

Thus, one specific push of this proposed website is to promote religious educational imagination around the use of mass mediated popular culture materials.

Local development around curriculum (authority)

Whereas in past decades denominational publishing houses produced carefully developed curriculum materials which were then purchased by churches with little or no thought as to whether they were appropriate – the assumption being that if you were a Lutheran, for instance, you bought curriculum materials from Augsburg – today’s Christian educators pay little attention to which publishers are producing materials, and much more attention to whether the materials are a good match for their specific community. Even pre-published, printed materials are less a given, with numerous communities of faith developing their own lessons and putting together often quite complex curricular materials developed within their own church.

In the past six months alone, three different ELCA churches in the greater Twin Cities area have been working on developing quite complex confirmation curriculum that they have written from scratch. Not one of these churches was initially aware of the others’ efforts, nor were they building their work on materials published by Augsburg (the ELCA publishing house) – and this at a time in which Augsburg had just released a brand new confirmation curriculum.

Indeed, it probably mattered little whether the denominational publishing company had brought out new materials or not, because the local churches were keen on developing their own materials. The process of the development of such curriculum was easily as important to these churches as was whatever content originated from it. In other words, the very process of developing curriculum was also a process of formation and theological engagement for the committees and staff from the churches who were working on these materials.

The underlying dilemma for print publishing companies is that educators are searching for resources that match the specific needs of their very specific, situated churches. No religious resources publishing company has yet found a way to meet such needs that at the same time allows them to maintain themselves within the corporate economic structures in which they operate. An open source resource site enters this context with the promise that it will provide an arena in which such development might be shared, at least in part. Pastoral leaders in one context can publish the resources they’ve developed on the site, and leaders in another context can learn from them, take them down and use them, alter them for use in their own context, and so on. Ultimately this kind of experimentation could become a critical form of research and development for print publishing companies who can skim off the best resources for use in commercial print contexts -- with the important and underlying proviso that the electronic versions remain freely accessible under the non-revocable Creative Commons license with which they were first published electronically.

A second benefit of this "playground" of resources is that local communities of faith will have to be quite thoughtful and engaged in wisely choosing and evaluating the pieces they use. The process will, in fact, further enhance a local church’s ability to assess the appropriateness of a given piece of curriculum material. It will do so in at least two ways. First, by simply reading the reviews posted by various authors a local congregation will begin to absorb some sense of possible criteria of evaluation – including theological appropriateness for a given context. Second, by becoming involved in using materials, adapting them, re-publishing edited versions, and reviewing and ranking reviews, the local congregation begins to engage in the practices of grounded assessment and reflective practice. Third, there will be much serendipity possible once a sufficient number of resources are published. Since this site will be wide open, members from one community of faith may well stumble across materials produced in a very different one.

Ever narrowing access to traditional publications due to copyright constraints (agency)

In early September of 2005 the World Council of Churches sponsored a consultation on worship music and copyright issues. A variety of experiences were shared that demonstrated the dilemmas local church people encounter in relation to obtaining appropriate permission to use copywritten materials. Often it is difficult if not impossible to track down the copyright owners of specific pieces of text or music, and sometimes it is not even possible to identify the owner. In one particularly heart-breaking case, a traditional song of the community had been transcribed by a North American and published under that person’s name with full copyright restrictions that were so onerous that the local community whose song it was, could no longer use it in any printed or projected form. In another the publisher had worked hard to identify the copyright owner and present him with royalties – but the royalties were so small that the owner more than used them up simply having the US check cashed in a Taiwanese bank.

It is unlikely that an open resources site will have any immediate impact on these difficult challenges for materials already published in print form under existing law, but it is certainly an important and constructive step for moving into the future. By requiring anyone choosing to publish on the site to agree to a Creative Commons license for their work, we both protect their individual intellectual property rights, and at the same time make it far simpler for people to use their work in non-commercial contexts. The Creative Commons licenses are proving so popular that in the four years since the organization was founded (in 2001), the licenses are already available in location specific language in more than 20 jurisdictions around the world.

Indeed, given the extent to which information is increasingly being held in commercial and private contexts, moving deliberately to place religious resources in a public "commons" to which all have access is a profound theological commitment and a vital form of advocacy.

Critical links to the scholarly world of religious education

One of the crucial elements necessary for success in the development of this kind of website is the community of people that will gather around it, post materials to it, and use and review such materials. Here a very useful community of support will be the scholarly community. Throughout the world religious education professors seek to find ways to help their students – budding pastoral agents of all kinds – learn how to develop curriculum materials, and how to assess previously published materials. Imagine a network of such professors and students spread across the globe, who regularly contribute materials to this site, and then return to critique and revise materials already published there. Indeed, if this website is going to fulfill any of its promise, it must develop a community of people around the world who will use it. Students in the academy are an excellent source of initial development for this website, and professors who work with such students will bring the crucial interpretive and evaluative skills necessary to the task of building a robust infrastructure of review and critique.

There are many other potential partners as well who will be explored as we move forward. Perhaps print publishers might like to contribute some of their older, now out of print materials to the site (it’s great free publicity). Perhaps regional resource centers might find this site a good gathering place to which to link the web of expanding "open files" they are gradually converting to electronic formats. Perhaps educators outside of religious contexts will find the site interesting enough to bring their evaluative capacities to bear (think of school teachers who are faithful church goers but who aren’t very involved in direct religious education). Perhaps individuals who simply like to write and develop their own materials will decide to publish in this context. Indeed, Wired Magazine recently noted, in celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Netscape IPO:

"The electricity of participation nudges ordinary folks to invest huge hunks of energy and time into making free encyclopedias, creating public tutorials for changing a flat tire, or cataloging the votes in the Senate. More and more of the Web runs in this mode. One study found that only 40 percent of the Web is commercial. The rest runs on duty or passion."
"Coming out of the industrial age, when mass-produced goods outclassed anything you could make yourself, this sudden tilt toward consumer involvement is a complete Lazarus move: ‘We thought that died long ago.’ The deep enthusiasm for making things, for interacting more deeply than just choosing options, is the great force not reckoned 10 years ago. This impulse for participation has upended the economy and is steadily turning the sphere of social networking - smart mobs, hive minds, and collaborative action - into the main event. (Wired Magazine, August 2005)

The reality is that we simply will not know all of the kinds of things that people might do with this site until we begin to make it possible, and people find it and begin to contribute to it.

There are clearly some potential obstacles we face, not the least of which is helping people who live within old economy models, and who still think of information structured hierarchically, to imagine the possibility of building evaluative capacity at the grassroots, into communities of practice and participation. Most of the institutions we have initially talked to about this idea would make one significant change – they would put in place an oversight editorial board that would preview every post before allowing it to become public. Setting aside for the moment the logistical and legal nightmares entailed in such a process, simply consider how it refuses to respect the ability of individuals and individual communities of faith to develop an evaluative capacity that could then be useful in a variety of other contexts.

One of the central tasks of theological education is in fact to cultivate and prepare leaders for communities of faith who know how to develop such capacities in the communities they serve. We have begun to recognize across the many disciplines of theological education how vitally important it is to help our students become collaborative, imaginative leaders who can nourish leadership capacities across the breadth and depth of the communities they are called to serve. The open source religious resources site proposed here is one very tangible and direct way to support such nurture.

Steps to making this site happen

There are a number of critical action steps involved in putting this website together. The process described below envisions a multi-national attempt.

Action steps:

First steps that can be taken prior to the site’s launch:

  • Urge authors/composers to put creative commons licenses on their work
  • Begin to develop the robust set of links necessary
  • Develop an advisory board/planning team. This initial planning team would determine the specifics of the website architecture (technical issues, management issues, funding issues), develop the policies necessary, and oversee the process of putting out a "request for proposals" for institutions interested in hosting the site
  • Put out a request for proposals to determine which institution would best host the technical infrastructure of the website (given the world we currently inhabit, it’s quite likely that an institution outside of the US would be able to develop and sustain this website more effectively and cheaply than would a US institution)
  • Select an institution based on the request for proposal
  • Develop funding to pay for the site based on the proposal selected

Steps necessary once the funding has been secured:

  • Design the site, implement it, pilot it in a beta stage
  • Develop content and review resource partners (people who will post a lot of initial materials, and professors with students who will provide the initial review capacity)
  • Publicly launch the website
  • Maintain the site
  • Evaluate the site and prepare for its next iteration

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