When Religion Meets New Media
Since I earned my doctoral degree in communication studies in the 1970s, scholarship addressing the intersection of religion and communication has become a booming enterprise.More recently, researchers have started examining the rise of “new” digital media which enable religious groups to circumvent the mainstream and religious mass media gatekeepers at television and radio networks and print publishing houses. The Internet, in particular, is nowa hot spot for religious discourse by critics as well as defenders of particular faith traditionsand communities. The only way to keep up with online religious fervor, in particular, is totrack the scholarship of those who are dedicated to the task of making sense of freshly mediated religious rhetoric. One of the first scholars to address religious uses of the new media interms of communication and cultural theory is Heidi A. Campbell, who earned her Th.M. andPh.D. degrees at the University of Edinburgh and teaches communication at Texas A&M University.
In this study, Campbell examines how religions of “the Book”—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—use their own traditions’ theology, ideology, and social practices to adapt new media to the standards of their faith communities. By “new media,” Campbell means: (1) thelatest media of a given time and place, such as the printing press during the Reformation, and(2) today’s “emerging forms of newer digital, networked technologies” such as the Internetand digital cell phones that function across computer networks (9). Campbell rightly rejectsthe stereotype that deeply religious people are necessarily anti-technology (the example ofAmerican evangelicals, including many media-savvy fundamentalists, should put that stereotype to rest for good). She nevertheless contends that many devout people are “constrainedby a number of social and faith-based factors which inform and guide their responses to thepossibilities and challenges offered by new forms of media” (6).
Campbell advocates for a “constructivistic” rather than a “deterministic” approach tothe study of how religious communities respond to the rise of new communication technologies. She aims to get beyond earlier behavioristic research that tended to view religious groupsas passive respondents that merely accept or reject new technologies. The case studies in this book, based largely on Campbell’s personal and some participant observations, describe how various religious groups actively try to fit new technologies to their own distinctive traditions and contemporary ways of life.
According to Campbell, each religious community “negotiates” how it will use new mediaby appealing to its core beliefs and practices, its tradition of interaction with its own sacredtexts, and its unique understanding of religious authority. She especially explores the “meaning making” conducted by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities marked by “institutional order or structural boundaries which define their relationships and process of meaning-making” (8). Campbell focuses on institutionally definable religious communities as opposed to more dynamic religious movements—with the major exception being her consideration of the rise of the Emerging Church movement.
For instance, Campbell explains that Orthodox Jewish leaders in some communities havecalled for bans of the Internet, whereas leaders of other groups have aimed to use the Internetpositively on behalf of their communities. Campbell considers Koshernet, an Internet serviceprovider that Jewish communities can use to block websites and email messages that containhate speech, promote violence, or dispense drug information. Campbell also looks at the Zomet Institute, formed in 1988 to help observant Jews apply Halacha to life in the modern Jewish state. In 2007 Zomet created a special phone to enable active Israel Defense Forces to placecalls without violating Shabbat laws. The device electronically scans the phone keyboard circuitry every few seconds to determine which keys have already been pressed and then automatically calls the resulting number. Apparently such asynchronous action enables callers toseparate the mechanical act of pressing a keyboard button from the electronic impulse of activating a current, thereby avoiding the profane action of “making fire” on the Shabbat. I recently read an interesting article on whether an observant Jew should let a computer automatically download files over Shabbos; the writer advised readers not to do so if the downloaded files had been paid for, but in any case recommended that the screen should be turnedoff before Shabbat commences.
Campbell’s analysis of Islamic communication practices focuses on satellite television aswell as newer media. She discusses popular Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled’s partnershipwith media producer Ahmed Abu Haiba to create a Western-style Islamic network resembling evangelical television in North America. Khaled, a moderate Muslim who focuses on personal devotion and on cultural rather than political engagement with society, used his TV platform to call for women to wear veils and faithfully practice daily piety. Some Egyptian-Muslim prelates were displeased with Khaled’s popular style of rhetoric and supposedlybanned him from preaching in Egypt. As the story goes, Khaled hastily migrated to the United Kingdom (U.K.), where his trendy charismatic style and upbeat message appealed to young,European-born Arabs looking for a bit of tradition—but not too much, and certainly not if it were promoted in an old-fashioned style.
Campbell addresses evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic adaptationof new media—with few surprises. For evangelicals, computers and the Internet represent thelatest quiverfull of utilitarian instruments for transmitting the Gospel. In one of the more interesting Christian examples, Campbell describes how Anglicans and Episcopalians in the U.K., New Zealand, and the United States created a virtual cathedral in a computer-generated world called “Second Life.” The location-less cathedral held “blended” services multiple times weekly, using contemporary Christian music along with versions of the Anglican prayer book.
Campbell suggests that the Internet enabled the cross-denominational Emerging Church movement to validate itself by demonstrating how the latest social media could be used to coalesce a new version (or perhaps a new “application”—my term) of Christianity. In particular, the website www.emergentvillage.com became a community for those who were “disillusioned and disenfranchised by the conventional ecclesial institutions of the late 20th century”(152). Members of the movement—presumably younger and more computer-savvy than theirclerical counterparts in mainline churches—were able to form an online community to articulate their shared frustrations and to organize local groups and national conventions to strategizefor ecclesiastical and theological change. This kind of online movement would not have beenpossible without the newer social media such as Facebook and Twitter, which have helped to“virally” spread Emerging Church ideas and practices.
As Campbell acknowledges, the many variations in technological adaptation even withinjust one of the religions of the Book are varied and sometimes seemingly contradictory. Generally speaking, however, the range of responses to new media continues to echo H. Richard Niebuhr ’s Christ and Culture categories, where “Christ” could be replaced with the Orthodox Jewish G** or the Muslim Allah. Media do change, but some patterns of cultural adaptationalso seem to be remarkably common across religions of the Book. Clearly some religious groups are more active and self-conscious than others about how they employ new communication technologies. But I am not sure that any such groups function fully as “meaning-makers,” touse the fashionable constructivistic language that Campbell adopts. It seems to me that eventhis book’s case studies suggest that religious communities actually apply age-old discourseand related root meanings to new situations and contexts. In other words, to be faithful is to call again on the theo-rhetorical language and related social practices that a community has long employed in its goal to live in tune with what it ultimately professes. In this regard, studies of the history of how distinct religious groups have used media—from letter-writing to printing and preaching—are just as important as studies of contemporary faith communities’ responses to the latest-breaking round of technological innovation. After all, in this high-tech information age we might just as easily lose the meanings long held by a cloud of witnesses as we might gain any deeply original insights in how to live faithfully.