From Jesus to the Internet: A History of Christianity and Media
Communication Professor Peter Horsfield pens a trenchant, alternative history of Christianity by focusing on the media employed by church leaders across the centuries.
The title, From Jesus to the Internet, summarizes the range of his study, while the subtitle, A History of Christianity and Media, describes the substance. Horsfield connects key turning points in ecclesial history with the major communication shifts of each era, from oral to written, from print through digital. While church histories may focus on the dogma being debated, Horsfield suggests that those who marshaled media most effectively usually won the ideological war. This highly readable text has implications and applications to classes in religion, theology, history, and communication.
Horsfield offers a clear and succinct overview of his methodology in the introduction. He adopts a broad definition of both religion and media, approaching Christianity as “a complex and expanding mediated phenomenon, a constant creative reproduction and rhetorical reworking of Jesus to match the conditions of an ever-expanding set of constantly changing circumstances” (3). As a professor of Communication, Horsfield draws upon Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong; he draws also upon his divinity studies. He is fully conversant with the work of Martin Marty, Stewart Hoover, and Lynn Clark, yet emerges with a wholly original synthesis of religious history and communication theory.
Horsfield’s notion of media moves beyond technological instruments to the cultural contexts in which these technologies emerge. He studies oral and written communication, signage, statues, decorations, prayer beads, bread and wine, buildings, chanting, and bell ringing, as well as print-, television-, radio-, telephone-, and computer-based communication. Horsfield finds his interdisciplinary approach to “studying Christianity through the lens of cultural practices of media opens up a number of avenues for rethinking Christianity” (7).
His central thesis suggests that while the theological skirmishes across church history may have been about beliefs and practices, the outcomes of those debates were remarkably dependent upon the means employed. Those Christians who mastered the media of their era flourished. Those who argued thoughtfully through older mediums were often left behind. Written defeated oral. Mass printed defeated illuminated. The implications for our era are suggested but left open ended: Will digital communication and electronic images supersede the word? Protestants certainly want to know!
Horsfield traces these media shifts to the earliest days of Christianity, noting how Jesus’ speeches and actions aimed at the illiterate on the margin became a religion controlled by the educated upper class. Those who see orthodoxy as a predetermined outcome handed down from on high will find his approach challenging. For Horsfield, writers who adapted Jesus’ message to appeal to their target audiences codified his oral communication. The medium (writing for those who could read) shaped the message (to Greco Romans of a certain class). An itinerant Jewish rabbi was repackaged for Gentile readers’ consumption.
As Jesus’ message was spread across cultures in the West and the East, Horsfield finds that Latin and Syriac became the primary means by which that message was recorded and disseminated. Sensitivity to language and translations is not a recent development; it has been an essential part of how and why faith took hold in certain places and times. Volume matters as well. Horsfield suggests the most influential church theologians were often the most prolific. He describes Origen as “a media machine” both in creating content and employing copyists to distribute it across his network (73). He salutes Augustine’s “media management,” for understanding “the need as an author to be intentional in promoting one’s name and building an audience” (105).
While Christian scholars readily acknowledge the connection between the printing press and the rise of the Protestant Reformation, Horsfield highlights the prodigious output of Martin Luther and John Calvin as primary to their immediate and ongoing impact. Luther adapted his writing to vernacular German and populist formats, “polemical publicity booklets and pamphlets” (192). They were short, small, cheap, easy to conceal, and encouraged to be read aloud to the illiterate. Calvin doubled the output of the next closest French writer of his time, with over 2000 of his sermons turned into manuscripts (196). Their writing and preaching was deep and thoughtful, but it also benefited from wide distribution.
Horsfield summarizes the Iconoclast controversies as a victory of the word over image, with artists forced to paint within the bounds of approved theological writings. It is suggested that this is why Eastern Orthodoxy ignored cultural change and emerging media. Yet I might argue that the power of the images may yet supersede those writings in our highly visual age. Growing interest in religious iconography reminds us that visual media can communicate plenty of theology without explanatory text. Our electronic era favors “show” rather than “tell.”
The Middle Ages are marked by the rise of cathedrals as media centers where sights, sounds, tastes, and touches came together in a single space. Horsfield astutely notes how the refinement of the Christian calendar made room for the mediation of the days, weeks, and year. Bells, carols, festivals, and colors became means to communicate faith. Relics made the saints tangible across the broad network of cathedrals. Horsfield interprets the Crusades and the Inquisitions as coordinated media campaigns with devastating long-term impact.
The Age of Enlightenment is read as the rise of the open-air revivalist, carrying a more personalized gospel via horseback to a more individuated audience. Horsfield connects the success of John Wesley and George Whitfield’s emotive rhetoric to
communication strategies that tapped into the opportunities of what was a growing consumer market, with an innovative repackaging of Christianity into an experiential commodity, tailored to the new cultural expectations of human autonomy by placing the individual in charge of their own salvation. (226-227)
Horsfield rightly sees this tendency toward commodification amplified in the electronic age, where consumer choice is the assumption driving our televised evangelists.
The rise of Global Pentecostalism and Prosperity Christianity is attributed to more adaptive media-savvy ministers than mainline Protestants wedded to a word-based hierarchy. Yet in uncritically embracing commodification, “with all the exploitation, inequality, dehumanization, and environmental damage that brings with it,” such populist preaching may have actually accelerated secularization (254).
Writing from RMIT University of Melbourne, Australia, Horsfield does not take sides on debates within American Christianity. His scholarship draws upon John Crossan, Bart Ehrman, and N. T. Wright. He credits Paul’s prodigious letter writing, but laments how Paul relocated Jesus from “a rural Jewish peasant to that of a Gentile aristocrat, the Lord Jesus Christ” (39). He salutes the “Catholic-Orthodox Party’s” ability to quash alternative takes on Jesus through uniformity of media and message and bemoans the subsequent suppression of women’s leadership in the Church (75). The contemporary Roman Catholic Church’s inability to contain charges of sexual abuse amongst priests demonstrates how the new media moment challenges older hierarchies (276).
Some may wish for stronger conclusions regarding the implication of this history of
Christianity and media. Does his research suggest that Joel Osteen may prove to be the most
influential theologian of our era, spreading his feel-good gospel to the farthest regions of
his television empire? For educators, will the massive online reach of Liberty University
ultimately supplant the efforts of those who have attempted to raise the bar for a Christian
education in the liberal arts through quality rather than quantity?
For those who feel particularly embattled by the digital era, this history suggests that Christianity has always been forged in the marketplace of emerging technologies and translated across new mediums. Horsfield’s research may disturb historians but reassure church leaders who are wrestling with how much media to allow inside the sanctuary. From Jesus to the Internet reframes the question, insisting that our faith has always been mediated across cultures, languages, and audiences.
Ultimately, Horsfield places his hope in the ongoing appeal of the alternative Jesus, the friend of the poor and the marginalized, despite the many efforts to domesticate the man and his message across the centuries. Horsfield engages in his own bit of rebranding, downplaying the Lord and Savior aspects of Jesus the Christ that emerged from early church controversies. He wisely reminds us that those who tailor their message to the dominant media may prevail during their era. But minority opinions and creative alternatives have a remarkable resilience, as Professor Horsfield suggests, “not unlike the way yeast works in bread making or a small mustard seed that’s sowed in a field” (290). In small local parishes, in house churches, in intentional Christian communities, in social justice movements, in online communities, we see the stalks of the ongoing, always-adapting followers of Jesus.