“Church as Wikipedia”: Scholarly publishing encounters an open source worldview

I’m usually pretty attentive in church. But my ears perked-up in a special way a couple of weeks ago when the minister announced a “theologian in residence” lecture series happening at a near-by college, featuring a fellow who was talking about the “open source church.” Open source—as in the open source software movement (or alternatively, the free software movement)—has many historic and philosophical affinities to the open access information movement. Hence my interest.

It turns out the fellow is named Landon Whitsitt, a writer, artist, and theologian, who is also currently the Vice-Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly and the Executive of the Synod of Mid-America. Whitsitt has written a book called Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All (The Alban Institute, 2011). The premise of the book (from the Alban website):

Open source software makes the basic program instructions available for anyone to see and edit. An “open source church,” likewise, is one in which the basic functions of mission and ministry are open to anyone…

In Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All, Landon Whitsitt argues that Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that anyone can see and edit, might be the most instructive model available to help congregations develop leaders and structures that can meet the challenges presented by our changing world. Its success depends, he demonstrates, not on the views of select experts but on the collective wisdom of crowds.

Then, turning to the work of James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds, he explores the idea that the body of Christ itself—when it is intentionally diverse, encourages independence of thought, values decentralization, and effectively captures and aggregates the group’s collective wisdom—is an open source church. (links added)

I downloaded the free chapter sample of Whitsitt’s book into my Kindle app to get a feel for his approach. Whitsitt moves his open source discussion in the direction of practical theology—calling for the freeing-up of organizational and leadership structures so that all members of the community can openly and creatively participate and serve.

Ultimately, the open source movement is a discussion about what freedom is and how all of us use that freedom. Pertinent questions are: Who decides what freedom is? Is there a limit to the amount of freedom any person or group should have? Does the freedom of one person or group mean that another person or group doesn’t have freedom? If everyone is exercising a lot of freedom, how do we tell someone or some group that they can’t do whatever it is they are doing?

A popular way of talking about freedom in the open source movement is to differentiate between the terms gratis and libre. The word gratis means that a piece of software does not cost anything to obtain or use. This is not to say the software doesn’t have value (it very much does), only that someone will not be required to offer anything of value in exchange for that piece of software. You don’t have to pay money to obtain or use it. Such software is often called freeware and is referred to as being “free as in beer.”

On the other hand, when people in the open source software movement say that something is libre, they are referring to the fact that the piece of software has no restrictions placed upon it. If software is libre, you cannot dictate who uses the software, the reasons for its use, or whether or not it can be modified. Those of us who are residents of the United States of America are taught this understanding of the word freedom with our first lesson in civics. We are taught that in our country we are “free” to be and do and pursue whatever it is that we want to be, do, and pursue. When we say that we have “freedom,” we mean that no restrictions are placed upon us as long as we behave in a manner that does not restrict anyone else. It is in this regard that we would say something is “free as in speech.”

These ideas—free as in beer and free as in speech—are important to the open source movement. However, it is not only the open source movement that can claim them. One could say that that these twin ideas are an integral part of the way we understand what is required of us as Christians. Together, gratis and libre form the basis of Christian ethics. (Kindle Locations 222-240, emphasis added)

We have encountered some of this before (e.g., gratis and libre forms of “free”) in other conversations about open access. Whitsitt also draws upon the ten criteria of the Open Source Definition—what he likes to refer to as “The Ten Commandments of Open Source”—for his practical theology.

[These] criteria not only provide the open source software movement with a consistent and unifying voice but also offer other open source ideologies (such as open source Christianity) with a foundation on which to build and explore. (Kindle Locations 287-289, emphasis added)

Though clever and intriguing, I am not prepared here to explore Whitsitt’s particular application of open source in his practical theology. Besides, I’m working off a limited preview of his book. Nevertheless, I believe Whitsitt’s premise has implications, by analogy, for open access. First, we are now firmly in a cultural milieu where scholarly communication is shaped and enriched—metaphorically and literally—by computer and network technology, especially the Internet and the Web. Second, although I fully appreciate that the study of religion need not presuppose a confessional commitment by the scholar, the concepts of free/freedom implied in open source (and by extension, open access) is implicit in and consistent with the ethical stance of (in Whitsitt’s case) Christianity. As such, those who are so inclined need not look very far for moral support of open access. Finally, as was already discussed while interacting with Chris Anderson and his comments on the democratizing impact of the Internet from his book Free, this will challenge traditionally authoritative and controlling modes of communication and access.

This last point comes across especially strong in an article adapted from Whitsitt’s book on The Alban Institute website called “Church as Wikipedia.” Here is a key excerpt:

Wikipedia’s origin story suggests to us what the church [replace with traditional scholarly publishing here] is in for (and has already experienced, in many cases) when it encounters an open source worldview. Established institutions are eager to do whatever they can to ensure their viability (the development of Nupedia—the non-open source predecessor to Wikipedia­­—was slow, and Wikipedia would ensure that it got content up in a timely manner), but they rarely realize that the very thing they are counting on to save them will be the harbinger of their death. There might be a host of reasons for their demise, but the primary one has to do with structure. Institutions are generally aware that their current way of doing business is not tenable in the long run and are astute enough to know they must commit to some drastically different practices if they want to survive. But decades of habit are not easily changed.

If we want to appeal to the “open source generation” (is there such a thing?), we can’t be wedded to our current understanding of church [um, traditional publishing] structure. Our bureaucratic committee system will betray our true intentions, and that will repel those whom we hope to attract. I’m sorry, but it’s true.

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UPDATE: As I was browsing around looking for more information about the “open source church,” I stumbled upon an interesting article in The Economist (September 3, 2011) that tracks a path parallel to Landon Whitsitt’s book. The article, “What would Jesus hack?: Cybertheology: Just how much does Christian doctrine have in common with the open-source software movement?” draws from an article written by Antonio Spardaro, an Italian Jesuit priest, entitled “Hacker ethics and Christian vision,” in the magazine La Civiltà Cattolica. “Mr Spadaro argued that hacking is a form of participation in God’s work of creation… ‘In a world devoted to the logic of profit,’ wrote Mr Spadaro, hackers and Christians have ‘much to give each other’ as they promote a more positive vision of work, sharing and creativity.”

Posted in Book/Article Review, Open Access
One comment on ““Church as Wikipedia”: Scholarly publishing encounters an open source worldview
  1. Kevin Smith says:

    While I like the distinction between free as in beer (gratis) and free as in speech (libre), I always add a third when talking about open access – free as in puppies, meaning gratis for users but entailing ongoing costs to maintain. There is, I think, a clear parallel in the church, and I wonder if we could look to how churches support their “open access” ministries to find alternative funding models for open access. Our current preferred model of OA funding, article processing charges, strikes me as very similar to pew rents, a model the church has long moved beyond. Most churches are now funded by a combination of centralized funds (a form of wealth redistribution, since those funds are collected from member institutions in the first place) and pledging (a kind of voluntary “membership” fee). Since these models have proved sustainable for churches for quite a while, I wonder if the long term future of OA might look more like this.

    Of course, I also believe that, over time, more and more of the funds that libraries now use to purchase subscriptions will be moved into various forms of support for open access, whether through memberships in open access publishers or as support costs for local and even shared repositories.

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