off the cuff:

New media and the reshaping of religious practice

posted by The Editors
 
The religion blogosphere in abstracto|IssueCrawler by Govcom.org, Amsterdam (click to enlarge)  

It’s no longer news that digital media are changing how knowledge is produced and disseminated, and how people relate to one another more broadly. This is so in the case of religion as much as any other. As older forms of communication begin to cede their exclusive hold on the public’s attention, it becomes all the more urgent to ask what newer forms stand to offer and what challenges they pose, not least because these burgeoning media are modifying and adapting themselves at unprecedented rates. In this context, a newly released SSRC report explores the “new landscape of the religion blogosphere,” mapping out its contours, presenting the voices of some of its bloggers, and asking what new possibilities blogging might represent for public and academic conversations about religion. In conjunction with the release of this report, we asked a number of bloggers, journalists, and scholars how blogs and new media have altered academic and public discussions of religion. Now, we ask another group of thinkers: how are new media—from blogs and social networking sites to mobile technologies and other forms of digital connection—shaping and reshaping the practice of religion?

This page was updated on 3/18/2010—ed.

Our respondents are:

Heidi Campbell, Assistant Professor of Communications, Texas A&M University

Elizabeth Drescher, Assistant Professor of Christian Spiritualities, Church Divinity School of the Pacific

Paul Harvey, Professor of History, University of Colorodo at Colorado Springs

Stewart Hoover, Professor, University of Colorado at Boulder; Director of the  Center for Media, Religion, and Culture

Michael D. Kennedy, Professor of Sociology and International Studies; Director of the Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University

David Morgan, Professor of Religion, Duke University

Randall Stephens, Associate Professor of History, Eastern Nazarene College

______

Heidi Campbell, Assistant Professor of Communications, Texas A&M University

More than reshaping the practice of religion, I would argue that the uptake of new media by religious practitioners and the resulting forms of online religion point to larger cultural shifts at work in the practice and perception of religion in society. New media tools support networked forms of community, encourage experimentation with religious identity-construction and self-presentation, and promote drawing from multiple and divergent religious sources and encounters simultaneously. This encourages an open, fluid, and individualized form of religious engagement, which compliments what many scholars have noted as a move towards “lived religion,” where media resources serve as tools to help redefine religious practice in contemporary life. Yet, this online religion is clearly intimately connected to offline religious engagement, serving as a supplement and complement to the ways many people engage religion offline. In a recent study, I found that there are a variety of motivations for religious blogging, ranging from a desire for a more integrated online-offline religious experience, and for a chance to engage in new levels of religious discourse, to wanting to make private spirituality public, or hoping to create new spiritual networks with like minds. Bloggers’ motivations were also frequently linked to their religious or theological traditions, their beliefs about religious authority, and the offline roles or positions they held within a given faith community. Thus, religious blogging seems to be embedded and connected to individuals’ offline practices and convictions. I would argue that paying careful attention to religious practice and belief online is important, because it provides a forum in which we can study, in a nuanced way, the nature and practice of religion in the global information society.

Back to top

______

Elizabeth Drescher, Assistant Professor of Christian Spiritualities, Church Divinity School of the Pacific

It strikes me as just a little ironic that the SSRC’s report on the religion blogosphere was released just a month after the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that blogging activity has dropped precipitously among teens and young adults—down 14% among 11-17 year-olds and nearly 10% among 18-29 year-olds since 2006. Those over age thirty are keeping on blogging on, increasing their blogging activity by close to 50% since 2007. What’s that all about? And what might it mean for the practice of religion in America?

For one thing, it seems to mean that if we want to understand how digital media practices are impacting emerging religious practice, looking at the religious blogosphere probably isn’t the first place to start. Demographically speaking, with the important exception of gender, the religious blogosphere as it’s mapped in the SSRC report is largely an articulation of mainline religious and academic institutional establishments. Wonderful as the blogs and blogsites studied may be as gathering places for academic and religious thought leaders with a lingering passion for reasonably extended reflection, their very inclusion means that they have participated in a process of institutionalization that is undermined again and again by the very nature of Web 2.0 practice and culture. Fan though I am of many of these blogs, their very status in the various rankings cited in the report places them at the top of a hierarchy that is relatively meaningless in the shaping of religious practice in America. The report, then, picks up the trail of religious change just at the place where it seems to be going cold.

Where might we pick up the scent? The answer, I think, is small: small clusters and communities centered around more or less exclusive and more or less organized social networks, and small communication forms like Facebook status updates and, especially for younger teen girls and young adults of all genders, Twitter feeds. Attending to these micro-forms is something we learned from Steven Johnson’s influential book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. An emergence, Johnson teaches, is lead by ants, not by queens. Small is where we’ll find the contours of new religious identity, community, and practice.

With this in mind, I’ve started to look at how Facebook fan pages for congregations, dioceses, and other organizations in the Episcopal Church reflect, present, and interactively shape the character of those communities, and feed into an emerging Anglican/Episcopal identity in America that is shaped by the faith lives of ordinary believers, rather than religious leaders, theologians, or other academics. When I publish online, for example, on Religion Dispatches or on my own website, I am a fairly unambiguous Christian academic, and I’m not convinced that my presence there does much to shape religious practice. Encounter me on Facebook or Twitter, however, and I am connected to people and expressive of concerns that would seldom enter my formal academic life. When the digitally represented complexity of me is linked, say, to other Facebook “friends” from my local congregation and from well outside that community, what it means to understand me as “Episcopalian” is nuanced in ways that would not likely come to light at a Sunday coffee hour. Mapping my relationships (with the caveat that I am a less than ideal example here because, at the end of the day, I’m too churchy, too academic and, uh, too much over 29) will tell a lot more about how religious identity and practice are changing in the Episcopal Church than will mapping the traffic, inter-blog citations, or blog-to-mainstream media influence of Episcopal Café. Understanding changing religious practice in relation to digital social media depends on attention to these micro-engagements.

The same can be said of the need to attend more fully to the micro-genre of Facebook status updates, Twitter feeds, and other social media platforms. These, I think, are breadcrumbs that mark out various paths of changing religious practice. The prayer tags on a site like Kindle, for example, construct a small, but meaningful narrative of spiritual practice and need that spans the theological continuum of mainline and evangelical Christianity. Even such expressly Christian sites insist on a non-hierarchical encounter with difference that will surely have an impact on the nature of Christian community and on traditional religious practices like prayer.

The young adult Episcopal zine Episcorific, online almost against the will of its founders, brothers Jeremiah and Jason Sierra, is another breadcrumb. Episcorific means to highlight the voices of self-identified Episcopalians in their 20s and 30s, and to do it in 750 words or less. Small is precisely their métier, and their impulse connects them to the developing pattern of micro-communities that have developed on the social web.

Of course, breadcrumbs, by their nature, are not durable markers, and I suppose that makes for a particularly apt metaphor for tracking change in a medium that itself will change before the next report on it can be written. Important though the leading religion blogs may be, new media are changing religious practice not on the basis of 35,000 hits on GetReligion, but because 35,000 people are connecting, a couple hundred or so at a time, on Facebook, clicking over to their favorite blog from time to time, then coming back to flexible and diverse, but nonetheless more primary digital networks of affiliation. Looking at the loaf tells us something about where the breadcrumbs came from, but it doesn’t say much about where they lead.

Back to top

______

Paul Harvey, Professor of History, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

Blogs are becoming something like a combination of spiritual journals and diaries together with personalized newsletters, allowing for people to publicly express their daily thoughts and spiritual practices, for ministers to reflect on sermons past and present, for church members to discuss what their preacher talked about last Sunday, and for intellectuals to issue prompt analytical verdicts on religion in the news and religious trends as reported in the media. The result, I believe, is a continuation of a familiar theme in American religious history—the democratization of religious expression, the relative flattening of authority, and the basic impulse to internalize religious traditions in a personal way. Social networking may have some of that effect (I’m less familiar with religious social networking sites), but may work at cross-purposes as well. For example, Facebook fan clubs for religious celebrities accentuate, rather than flatten out, authority and promote well-known religious spokespeople, as opposed to the decentralized and anarchic world of blogging. Many bloggers, I have noted, keep a list of exercises (personal, academic, spiritual) and give daily or weekly accounts of how well they’ve kept up their disciplines—much like Sarah Osborn did in her personal writings in the eighteenth century, and countless evangelical believers did in the nineteenth. The difference, of course, is that the blog is there as a form of private confessional that holds one publicly accountable.

The technologies are new, but the impulse to personalize, record, and measure one’s spiritual devotion has gone on a straight line from the Puritans to the present.

Back to top

______

Stewart Hoover, Professor, University of Colorado at Boulder; Director of the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture

This impressive and fascinating study raises as many questions as it answers. The implications for authority, both religious and academic, are at the center, and are obvious. Our assumptions about how knowledge of religion is made and circulated lie in the background. How wide a circle of discourse is—and should be—involved? Which voices have access, and how? Do we think of the digital realm as a “public realm,” and if so, for which “publics” are the discourses here relevant? Do we assume that what is generated and circulated by these digital voices moves out into more “public” settings, in the tradition of public intellectualism, or is it a conversation that is, or should be, limited and bounded? The study provides a map, but not a sense of the universe of (even) digital discourse within which these largely academic sources reside. How do we define a “religion blog”? What makes a “blog” “religious”? The study does reflect a bit on the question of what we mean by “blog,” and a diverse range of sources are included here. They are clearly not all the same, as the study notes. An obvious distinction, and one that relates to issues of authority, is that between single-source and edited or moderated sites. Of the latter, many are more like online magazines than they are like “blogs.” This raises the question of what is, and what is not, actually new here. Is the digital realm actually transformative, and if so, of what? The study makes it clear there are implications for the academy that are central. One thing that is new is Technorati and other such services. Question is, what do we make of what they tell us?

Back to top

______

Michael D. Kennedy, Director of the Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University

The relationship between the religious blogosphere and other publics is mostly not distinctive. Academic reputations are equally damaged by blog foolishness in politics as in religion. Not just churches, but all organizations blog to build identities. New media’s less centralized means of communication can undermine all dictatorships, and not just religious ones. The religious blogosphere is intrinsically no less artificial than those organized around martial arts or music. But religion’s place is different when it comes to publicity, pluralism, and power.

Religion’s privatization is extended to the extent that blogs reinforce author culture; new media can reproduce religious views in their own niche space. Blogs designed to constitute public discussion about religion’s place, like The Immanent Frame, work more among scholarly communities. This report creates two new possibilities.

It helps to extend and consolidate the religious blogosphere, but I would expect that sphere to develop in more conventional religious directions, even as the community of participants could be diversified. That is good. The second is to consider how new media are useful for driving particularly central discussions around religion, democracy, and geopolitics. That is harder.

The Immanent Frame makes more accessible rethinking secularism, with considerations of religion’s place in modernity’s constitution and discussions of specific issues, like Europe’s minarets, punctuating the theoretical. Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics, about universities’ engagement of religious difference after 9/11/01, also was conceived on the web to extend global public goods. Can new media do more, however, than ease audience access? We know how to talk about how new media might enrich scholarly work, but can we talk about how this scholarly work, with new media extensions, benefits public culture?

This is easier when the organization needing benefit is obvious—like the Democratic Party’s religious rhetoric deficit in the last decade. But can we constitute public spheres engaging tough questions with new media? And how can we assess its effects not only in mapping networks but in broadening cultural/religious/political results?

This becomes even more challenging as we go beyond the comforts of the Anglophone world with more common language and institutional references.  But the potentials of new media are designed with just that global reference in mind, even if audiences remain potential, rather than designed.  As we develop in universities problematics that deliberately work to move beyond North American presumptions, and as we with increasing frequency, as at the Watson Institute, do so with new media extensions, do we face any distinctive challenges with religion and geopolitics as our subject? That will be something we can talk more substantively about in years to come, but the blog can help anticipate that now.

Back to top

______

David Morgan, Professor of Religion, Duke University

Several changes are discernible, but none of them is absolutely unprecedented. Mobile communication technologies from cell phones, digital video, and podcasts have changed the delivery and consumption of sermons, meditations, conferences, and lectures, increasing the asymmetries of communication as well as the consumerist nature of production and reception. One might contend that this privatizes religion, but people share what they like and dislike among friends and blog readers, so I am not convinced that the new media destroy “community.”

Community is being redefined, with greater emphasis on mediation other than face-to-face. Yet, physical relations remain important. It is a mistake for researchers to imagine virtuality as a replacement for face-to-face engagement. Online and offline are thoroughly intermingled by new media users, and online is itself a form of embodiment.

New media have perhaps accelerated change already underway. For example, the stature of traditional authorities, such as clergy and religious hierarchies, continues to decline because access to information is democratized online. There are, of course, many other reasons for this—higher education, clergy scandals, religious consumerism, mobility, increase in divorce, and the decline of traditional social arrangements respecting gender and sexuality. The social capital of traditional authority is broadly declining.

New media encourage people to identify affinity groups, to seek out and participate in virtual associations in which they can “express,” that is, confess what they like, assert what they like, avoid what they dislike, and congregate with those who share their opinions. This parallels television and radio programming (Oprah, Dr. Phil, talk radio). It is not new in itself (Sunday morning fellowship hall is a face-to-face version of this—having coffee with one’s friends), but new media such as blogs and Twitter allow far more control over one’s associations.

Back to top

______

Randall Stephens, Associate Professor of History, Eastern Nazarene College

Nearly thirty years ago, political and cultural theorist Benedict Anderson wrote of “imagined communities” and the shaping of national (or group) consciousness in the early modern era. What bound people together across space and time? Men and women, “members of even the smallest nation,” Anderson wrote, might “never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” Public rituals and events, as well as publications that targeted a mass audience, linked citizens together.

Anderson’s high social constructivist idea seems to fit the digital age well, though he formulated it when whirring, creaking computers had tiny black monitors with flashing green cursors. Now millions of young and old around the globe log on daily to social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube. Churches and parachurch organizations set up social networking sites as handily as nouns, like “friend,” become verbs, like “to friend.”

But how substantively might this relatively new virtual reality actually change, say evangelicalism, as it’s lived out on a day-to-day basis? Back when Anderson wrote Imagined Communities, sociologists and religious studies scholars pondered the massive impact of the “electronic church,” populated by media soaked laypeople, as well as fast-talking radio and TV preachers. The new media, it seems now, did not fundamentally alter evangelicalism. That may be because evangelicals had always led the way in embracing new technology, whether that be the printing of cheap chap books and newspapers or setting up radio towers or satellite dishes. Currently, the world’s largest Christian TV network, Trinity Broadcast Network, boasts that it “is on the cutting edge of technology with our state-of-the-art Virtual Reality Theaters…. Today’s satellite technology has opened up opportunities for the Gospel as never before imagined—and TBN is at the forefront of utilizing this mighty tool to reach people around the world!”

In the end, I am skeptical that there is anything truly new or earth-shattering about how evangelicals are using the latest technology. (Yet, it could be that these new outlets make some forms of evangelicalism even more of an echo chamber.) I’m not convinced that Twitter, social networking sites, or blogs are significantly altering how believers worship or behave. (Granted, it’s not something I’ve thought about a great deal.)  There certainly is a generational dimension to this. I do find fascinating what researchers Bryan C. Auday and Sybil W. Coleman are looking into. Their recent study of the social network activities of evangelical college students gives us something to ponder. They ask: “Will the behaviors that are associated with spiritual development, such as prayer, Bible reading and study, attending religious services, serving others, impacting society in areas of peace and justice, etc. become short-changed due to the lack of time and discipline on the part of busy college students?”

Back to top

Tags: , ,

Printer-Friendly Version


2 Responses to “New media and the reshaping of religious practice”

  1. What does it mean that every one of your respondents is European American (and I’m serious, not sarcastic or judgmental in asking this)?

  2. avatar Rebecca Rittenberg says:

    In the last decade or so, the exceedingly powerful role that digital media plays in our world is undeniable. This blog post proves this is true, and in fact, the very existence of The Immanent Frame further proves this point! While the role of digital and social media has essentially wedged its presence in most facets of our daily life, it is worth discussing how new media—from blogs and social networking sites to mobile technologies and other forms of digital connection—shapes and reshapes the practice of religion.

    As I reflected on the various comments posted by the chosen respondents for this piece, I recognized that I connected best with the perspective that Randall Stephens postulated. Stephens brought up cultural theorist Benedict Anderson, a figure who I have studied on multiple occasions during my time at Colgate University. Anderson wrote of “imagined communities”, and the notion that people perceive themselves to be in a community with total strangers who just so happen to be citizens of the same nation. It can be argued that posting your religious views on a blog or a form of digital media allows your perspectives to be shared with and consumed by others—by people who you may not know directly and who you may not ever meet. However, if these individuals feel a connection to your beliefs and musings, it can feel like a community is being established despite the viral distance.

    It can be assumed that Anderson was not speaking about the Internet when he wrote his famous “Imagined Communities”. However, it is unbelievable how well his concepts apply to this new age of digital media. Religious blog posts, publications, online sermons, meditations, or discussions debating the content of the sermon that was told in church last week create and fuel communication between religious communities online. In a way, it appears as though community is being redefined, with less of an in-person emphasis. While some certainly argue that converting to online religious practice is a horrible turn of events, it does not appear that this trend is all bad! Imagined communities form, and individuals who may not share parallel views with members of their community congregation can instead reach out to someone across the country, or across the globe, and receive the healthy conversation they crave.

Leave a Reply

Please note: All comments will be approved by an administrator before they appear on this page.