Digital Flashes and Reflective Ministry
A few weeks ago, I had an inspiring experience sitting in a conference room in the Pepperdine University library. Now that we have the entire catalog of Leaven articles digitally archived, Josias Bartram, the librarian for digital publishing, was showing me a tool that tracks downloads of those articles on a map of the world. For every download, a pin dropped onto the map and flashed. In the five minutes that we watched, the pins flickered and flashed all over the screen like a worldwide digital fireworks show. Below the flickering map, a spinning counter quantified the downloads by day, year, and in total. It turns out that Leaven articles generate well over one hundred thousand downloads every year and, at current rates, will reach a total of one billion downloads in only a few more years.
Those numbers and our ability to track them was impressive enough, but what really struck me was that Leaven represents a large community of people from different states, countries, and continents that share a passion for theologically informed ministry. It also struck me that the community seems to be growing and the demand increasing. And now, in addition to the digital archives, we are launching Leaven as a fully-online journal with added features—including these blogs—making its reach and impact even greater. For all these reasons, I am thrilled to be a new co-editor of the journal along with my friend, Mark Love, as we stand on the shoulders of Stuart and D'Esta and their service to Leaven over the past thirty years.
Beyond updated delivery mechanisms and impressive metrics, however, I am especially enthusiastic because I really believe in the journal's mission. Leaven exists to bridge the worlds of theological reflection and Christian ministry and I am one of the beneficiaries of that mission. I have had a foot in both academics and ministry for most of my adult life, and have observed how these two worlds both suffer when siloed and detached from one another. The academy risks becoming isolated in the proverbial "ivory tower," and ministry risks becoming unmoored by unreflective or even anti-intellectual expressions of faith and service. By bridging reflection and ministry, however, both are enhanced and empowered.
I learned this lesson most acutely while working as a missionary in East Africa. For a number of years, in addition to my full-time work as a church planter and development worker, I also pursued a PhD in philosophy at Makerere University in Kampala. Straddling those two worlds made for some interesting experiences. I would often be up late into the night reading dense philosophical treatises of Western and African intellectuals like Wittgenstein, Gadamer, Taylor, Mudimbe, Gyekye, and Serequeberhan, and then I'd grab a few hours of sleep and head out to some Ugandan village to spend the day with mostly non-literate Ugandan farmers confronting the challenges of a recent drought, clan disputes, the lack of basic resources like clean water, or the tragic outbreak of diseases like cholera.
This led to some cognitive dissonance, to say the least. Sometimes the disparate worlds seemed to pull apart creating in me a range of emotions from frustration to disillusionment to privilege-guilt. But in better moments, the worlds were not only connected but they informed and affected one another in deep and mutually enriching ways. On one hand, my village experiences gave real-world urgency to the quest for careful and organized reflection. On the other hand, my academic experience was transformed by the practical wisdom and brilliance of the farmers with whom I spent my days, many of whom had little or no formal education.
On more than a few occasions, I had fascinating interactions with Ugandan friends about the things I had been reading the night before. I remember one long discussion with a Ugandan church leader about the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and whether his analyses of human experience had anything to offer postcolonial Africans. It was interesting enough to wade into Heidegger's famously (annoyingly?) oblique analyses while speaking the Ugandan language of Lusoga, but we also did so while trudging through my friend's garden and discussing how he might respond to a disease that was threatening his potato crop and, thus, his family's income. He found Heidegger clarifying and challenging, even as he offered some alternative perspectives, and we returned to the conversation several times during the following months. It also led to other discussions about various biblical concepts and prompted prayers about the challenges we both faced as church workers in Ugandan communities. In the end, it turns out that the days in the villages of Uganda enriched the import and content of my nights with the great philosophers, and my nights with the great philosophers informed and enhanced the ministry and life I was privileged to share with Ugandan co-workers.
While my experiences in Uganda were unique in some ways, the fact is that all thoughtful Christians—including reflective ministers, whether literate or non-literate, and faithful scholars, whether African or otherwise—straddle the same worlds and are enriched by prayerful and reflective collaboration as we all seek to serve a broken world.
Leaven provides resources and builds bridges for just that, which is why I am thrilled to be a part of its ministry as we together continue to light up the map!
John Barton directs the Center for Faith and Learning and teaches on the Religion faculty at Pepperdine University. Previously he served as a missionary in Uganda and Provost for Rochester College. He is co-editor of Leaven.