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2012-08-01 issue:

New technology and the global church

Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church

by John D. Roth

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In the spring of 1751, two Frenchmen, Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert, published the first volume of the Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. When their project was completed 21 years later, the Encyclopédie boasted 28 volumes with 71,818 articles covering the full breadth of human knowledge.

In its time, the Encyclopédie revolutionized the dissemination of knowledge. It not only put an enormous amount of expert information into the hands of ordinary people but its alphabetical arrangement of topics meant that individual users were free to impose their own interpretation on the information they gathered. Anyone over 30 can recall going to the World Book or Britannica for information on a high school research paper or to resolve a dispute about Trivial Pursuit.

For those under 30, however, the bound volumes of an encyclopedia belong to the age of the dinosaurs. Today, our standard sources of information come from the Internet, especially from Wikipedia. Launched in January 2001, Wikipedia offers readers more than 22 million articles (more than 3.9 million in English), with editions in 285 languages. It, too, has revolutionized the dissemination of knowledge.

In contrast to the Encyclopédie, however, Wikipedia takes up no space on the bookshelf. And rather than relying on the expertise of a few scholars, the information it offers draws on the local knowledge of millions of users. Once the object of general academic scorn, recent studies suggest that Wikipedia is at least as accurate as standard encyclopedias. In a global age, Wikipedia offers a new model for generating and sharing information.

Although I tend to be skeptical about technology in general, I have been struck by the potential that a “wiki” approach to knowledge has for the global Anabaptist-Mennonite church. In the late 1950s, a team of Mennonite historians—led by Harold and Elizabeth Bender, Cornelius Krahn and dozens of other scholars—undertook a massive initiative to compile the four-volume Mennonite Encyclopedia. Supplemented by a fifth volume in 1990, the Mennonite Encyclopedia represented the fruition of several generations of scholarship and quickly became the standard reference work for information on Anabaptist-Mennonite history and theology.

Several years ago, a visionary group led by Sam Steiner at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ontario, converted the text of the Mennonite Encyclopedia into electronic format and posted it on the Internet as the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO). Based on the Enlightenment model of the Encyclopédie, GAMEO has since become an extremely useful research tool—available to anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

But the Wikipedia model of shared information—nonhierarchical in structure, global in scope and anchored in the grassroots knowledge of many people—may be even better suited to an Anabaptist ecclesiology. The Global Anabaptist Wiki, an initiative of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism at Goshen (Ind.) College, is an experiment for the global church.

The site offers a place for members of every Anabaptist-Mennonite group in the world to describe themselves in their own words. It also allows for books, articles, newsletters, stories, bibliographies, web links and images to be posted in multiple languages. Recently, contributions to a new “Anabaptist Dictionary of the Bible” have begun to appear on the site, along with a host of sources related to martyrdom, Mennonite ecumenical involvements and the texts of Anabaptist-Mennonite catechisms, confessions of faith and church position statements.

Eventually, the wiki could serve the church as a global archives that simultaneously preserves digital information for the future while making it accessible to everyone else.

The newly created Global Anabaptist Wiki is not without problems. Not everyone has access to the Internet, and opening the site to ordinary people could lead to misinformation or conflicting stories. Encyclopedias still have their advantages. In fact, recognizing the value of both approaches, GAMEO and Anabaptistwiki recently entered into a formal partnership, with both initiatives developing a closer relationship with Mennonite World Conference.

Ultimately, GAMEO and the Anabaptistwiki are tools, not ends in themselves. But the world is changing. And as our church becomes increasingly global in character, we will need to explore new ways of gathering and sharing information.

Consider contributing some of your local knowledge to the Global Anabaptist Wiki (www.anabaptistwiki.org).

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.)  College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.

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