Blog

Kyong James Cho - Sunday, September 15, 2013 - 21:31

As with other fields of study, it is important for the field of new media and religion to chronicle its evolution. Hojsgaard and Warburg's (2005) work observed three waves of research in new media and religion, the first wave being quite polarized between Utopian and Dystopian forecasts while the second wave learned to nuance the findings to avoid this (now obvious) false dichotomy. At the time of writing Hojsgaard and Warburg observed that the third wave was imminent, characterized by a “bricolage” of scholars from different disciplines contributing to the budding field. A fourth has been proposed characterized by refined methodologies and typologies (Campbell, 2012). The trend is a maturation of the field, beginning with case studies and exploratory research to building on those early studies and proposing perspectives and approaches unique to the field.

I believe that the next appropriate stage in the field of new media and religion (or digital religion) is critical engagement with theories from the disciplines that our researchers come from, and continuing development of theories and methodologies unique to the field. Cheong, Fischer-Nielsen, Gelfgren, and Ess's Digital Religion, Social Media, and Culture (2012) offers a good starting point to the growth of the field. It proposes itself as an anthology in the vein of Hojsgaard and Warburg's edited volume. Its approach to the Internet is nuanced in that it observes a moderate scale of change emblematic of the attitude of the second wave, avoiding wholesale forecasts of previous studies. The edited volume contains contributions from scholars in media studies, communication, theology, religious studies, and sociology, reflective of the bricolage of the third wave. I think one of its key contributions to digital religion is in its critical engagement with broader theories. Fischer-Nielsen's chapter on Danish Pastors on the Internet, for example, engages with secularization theory and strategies of established churches. Hutchings' study on his extended ethnographic research with online churches engages with mediatization theory, networked individualism and networked collectivism, and religious social shaping of technology (RSST), an approach born from within digital religion studies by Campbell (2010). These engagements are crucial not only because incorporating broader new media theories clarify digital religion, but because digital religion helps build a clearer picture of of the landscape of social engagement and use of new media.

I think one phrase in the book is emblematic of the climate of digital religion. In the second chapter of the book, Knut Lundby writes, regarding the question of virtual churches, “The quality of virtual and other Net church expressions, I will argue, becomes crucial if they add to the experience of a 'real church' for people” (p. 37). “Real church” in quotes here refers not to the virtual church, but church experience in general. I think these quotation marks surrounding the general experience of “real church” is reflexive of the attitude that there is a sort of tension with the arrival of new media. The virtual is not a parallel universe as much as it is weaved into the fabric of religious life; the effects are complex.

While the edited volume limits itself almost exclusively to the study of Christian religion and theology, and doesn't focus so much on innovative methodology in digital religion, it is an important lynchpin in the development of digital religion. Continued progress in the field of digital religion, I believe, is further engagement with broader theories to substantiate, qualify, or dispel them, and develop more theories and approaches unique to the field.


Wendi Bellar - Thursday, August 15, 2013 - 22:37

As a young scholar studying religion and new media I have not been exposed to much literature mentioning, much less focusing on, the role of gender. Mia Lövheim’s new edited volume, Media, Religion and Gender: Key Issues and New Challenges is helping to fill that gap as well as encouraging more critical analyses of the intersection among the three areas.

The book opens with chapters focusing on literature that does exit in this area, how feminist and queer theories have and can shape the field, and methodological concerns and implications. These first chapters provide an excellent foundation on which the rest of the book is built. The following chapters are specific case studies focusing on different areas such the testimonial practice of Christian women through different media formats; gender representation in religious journalism; gender and sexuality constructed in Vodou online discussion forums; Muslim women using new media to claim religious authority; and US cultural discourse on masculinity, media and religion.

Perhaps the most helpful case studies for new media and religion scholars were those that focused on online-offline life and social media. For example, new media like Facebook and Twitter are often lauded as tools through which users have their voices heard on their own terms. Klassen and Loften’s chapter analyzing how women give testimony about their faith through new media opportunities, however, problematizes these new platforms. Rather than becoming a liberating form of communication, they see these testimonial performances through social media as a further commodification of the Christian woman’s experience that takes place in an environment of increased theological judgment.

While Kalssen and Loften’s chapter problematized new media practices, others showed how they could be transformational and transcendent. Although not focusing solely on new media, Petersen’s chapter does show how social media participation was an essential part of the meaning-making process for teens’ understanding of romance and spirituality portrayed in the Twilight series. Likewise, Boutros used a transnational feminist approach to show how participatory media, like discussion forums, can foster “new forms of cultural productions” of gender and sexuality as well as “new social relationship around religious identities,” (p. 108).

Media, Religion and Gender provides a good overview of feminist and media theories, some discussion of methodological matters, and case studies that begin to fill the gap in the literature. However, the book is heavy on feminist and mediatization theories while only contributing one chapter to studies of masculinity, and one chapter with some discussion of queer identity. While there is a need for more focus on queer and masculine theories, the edited volume is still an essential guide for the growing discussion surrounding gender in media, religion, and culture studies.


Heidi Campbell - Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - 11:36

While attending a recent conference of theology and communication I was struck and frustrated by the fact that over the past decade the media theorist most often evoked in theological discussions of new media is Marshall McLuhan. His medium theory and "medium is the message” dictum is employed as a key lens for discussing the effects of technology on faith communities. While McLuhan provides an interesting starting point for considering how media messages are shaped, I find this can be a limited frame if the conversation does not go beyond this. When voicing this frustration online a colleague suggested the reason for this trend is the fact that McLuhan is the only media theorist most theologians have ever heard of. “He is the total of their experience in the field, until someone shows them there's more’” he argued.

So this blog post is my attempt to briefly highlight several other media theorists whose work I think Theologians in particular might consider as potential conversational partners when looking at the ethical and structural issues related to technological adoption and decision making and their implications for religious communities. While these are not the only media theorists that are useful for such discussions, the following are five I have found useful at different stages in my own work to closely investigate processes technological appropriation and value judgments underlying different choices and strategies. I suggest these theoretical stances from Media Studies offer interesting alternative perspectives and frameworks for reflecting and study how people view, respond and reflect on the affordances of digital media technologies within faith communities and society in general that can deepen the current discourse.

(1) Elihu Katz (with Jay Gurevitch and Michael Haas)-Uses and Gratifications Model
The uses and gratifications model offers and audience center approach to studying the motivations behind media adoption and use. It suggests different people use the media in different ways, in order to achieve certain goals or fulfill types of needs. The uses and gratifications model stresses the importance of what people do with the media rather than what it does to them. UGT assumes audiences are active consumers in their media choices, which are goal driven based on the needs and priority of audience member. It offers an important perspective because it focuses attention on audience value judgments and agendas in relation to how media can meet or gratify certain desires or priorities. Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch approach to UGT is important because it highlights in more detail how audiences use media and contextualize more instrumentalist claims about how media effects on audiences. They found that audience typically uses media for information gathering, to help cultivate their personal identity, as a source of social engagement and interaction or entertainment. Theologians could use this approach to reflect on how and why people use media as a tool for reinforcing personal values, building a sense of connection and belonging and how it can serve as a space for personal and moral reflection.

Key work: Katz, Elihu, Jay G. Blumler, and Michael Gurevitch. "Uses and Research." Public Opinion Quarterly 4th ser. 37 (1973–1974): 509-23. JSTOR. Web. 14 Oct. 2011. .

(2) Everett Rogers-Diffusion of Innovation Theory
Diffusion of Innovation theory seeks to explain how why and at what rate new technologies spread and become adopted within a given context. The theory highlights four main elements that influence the spread of a new idea: the innovation, communication channels, time, and a social system. Rogers defines intrinsic characteristics of innovations that influence an individual’s decision to adopt or reject an innovation as well as the character of key adopter categories. This approach argues that it is not only leaders exert influence on audience behavior via their personal contact, but additional intermediaries called change agents and gatekeepers are also included in the process of diffusion. This approach offers a framework for considering how information flows through networks and the factors that shapes opinions regarding technological decision making. This approach is helpful for reflecting on the consequences for individuals and society of adopting a given innovation.

Key work: Rogers, Everett M. (1962). Diffusion of Innovations. Glencoe/NY: Free Press.

(3) Roger Silverstone and Eric Hirsch- Domestication of media theory
The Domestication of media focuses on the processes by which technological innovations are “tamed” and appropriated by specific user communities, especially families. It offers reflection on how technology choice are informed and constrained by the “moral economy” or a set of values held in common within a household or user community. It seeks to distinguish decision making that occurs at different phases of this process including those of appropriation, objectification, incorporation and conversion of a given technology into the life world of given group. Domestication highlights the need to consider how values and beliefs of a given group constrain and inform technological adoption and innovation. It can also be used as to way to identify what key motivation inform a given user communities technological priorities.

Key work: Silverstone, Roger, Hirsch, Eric (Eds.) (1992). Consuming Technologies: Media and information in domestic spaces. London/New York: Routledge.

(4) Everett Rogers/Jan vanDijk: Social Network Theory
Network analysis (or social network theory) is the study of how the social structures and relationships around a person, group, or organization affects beliefs or behaviors. The network approach recognizes that a shift in society from tightly-bounded social systems and communities formed on the basis of family, institutional and geographic relations to loosely bounded relations based on flexible and dynamic social networks. Rogers characterizes a communication network as consisting of “interconnected individuals who are linked by patterned communication flows” (1986). Network analysis seeks to consider how people connect and relate to one another and thereby create an interpersonal, relational communication structure. This approach is important as it outlines how many people live within multiple loosely connected social networks in contemporary society and how relationships are constituted and maintained within a digitally supported, network based society. The network approach may offer creative possibilities for reimagining relational structures and communication in religious communities.

Key works: Rogers, E.M. & Kincaid, D.L. (1981). Communication Networks: Toward a New Paradigm for Research. New York: Free Press.

van Dijk, J. (2005). Outline of a multilevel approach of the network society. Retrieved from http://www.utwente.nl/gw/vandijk/research/network_theory/network_theory_...

(5) Henry Jenkins-Participatory Media Culture
Jenkins outline the ways in which new media culture offers audience to simultaneously take on roles of consumer and producer of media simultaneously, resulting in a new category of the “prosumers “. Jenkins argues in our participatory media culture people are able to creatively respond to media content by creating their own cultural commodities in their attempts to decipher and find meaning in media products and messages. Participatory media culture means their are low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement so people are able to more easily respond, contribute and critique media messages and meanings. This process of interaction also creates some degree of social connection with other involved in media consumption and creation. Theologian would benefit from considering the new possibilities and challenges offered by trend towards prosumption that changes audience understanding of authority, agency and interpretative process.

Key work: Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, NY: New York University Press.


Kyong James Cho - Thursday, March 14, 2013 - 13:27

Last month, Wendi Bellar wrote a blog post about Heidi Campbell’s edited book, Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (2013). The blog post summarized the book’s structure, its content, and assessed its strengths, one of which is its synthesis and presentation of the various themes in the study of digital religion, including ritual, identity, authority, community, and authenticity. What follows is a more detailed review of a few portions of the book; I will firstly give an overview of Campbell’s conceptualization of the field in her introductory chapter, and then offer reflections on two of the themes presented in the book: ritual and authority.

As the title suggests, Campbell conceptualizes the subject of her edited volume as digital religion. It is fairly important to define the terminology in discussing the intersection of new media and religion. Study of emerging technologies, after all, is described using a wide range of terms, including Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), Internet studies, cyberspace studies, and new media. There is considerable overlap in these terms, and clarification of terminology is necessary for a growing subfield. Campbell’s description of digital religion as “the technological and cultural space that is evoked when we talk about how online and offline religious spheres have become blended or integrated” (p. 4) errs on the side of being a bit too all encompassing (the alternative, of course, is to propose terminology that is overly restrictive). Yet the themes articulated in the book create space within digital religion to specify areas of inquiry, which are helpful in conceptualizing the landscape of the subfield. I will now turn to two of the themes in the book.

Chris Helland, a staple in digital religion studies for his early conceptualization of online-religion and religion-online, makes the observation that ritual, which is the “purposeful engagement with the sacred” (p. 27), can be mediated by the Internet but can also occur on the Internet. The two case studies on ritual in the book are examples of the latter; Heinz Scheifinger and Louise Connelly’s respective studies on online Hindu pujas and Buddhist meditation on Second Life demonstrate the nuances with which we ought to explore online religion. Each scholar’s concise yet thorough treatment of the issues involved in each of the religions offers a reminder that online rituals are not one size fits all. Each religion must grapple with issues particular to its own traditions, and it is even presumptuous to assume all branches of a particular religion approach rituals in the same way, a point made specifically in Connelly’s description of the Buddhist center she studied.

Pauline Hope Cheong conceptualizes the study of authority through two logic systems: the logic of disjuncture and displacement, in which traditional religious authority is largely eschewed, and the logic of continuity and complementarity, in which religious authority is successfully negotiated. Tsuriel Rashi's case study of the kosher cell phone is an instance in which religious authority is maintained in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Israel, but demonstrates in part the dialectical relationship of religious authority and new media that Cheong observes. Paul Emerson Teusner's study of emerging Christian bloggers in Australia provides an interesting example of new standards of authority that appear on the web. Cheong observes that authority has not been treated as extensively as other themes that appear in the volume. I suspect this is because authority is difficult to conceptualize: other themes, like community or ritual, are quite easy to spot when one has an idea of what it's supposed to look like. Authority's existence is also variable depending on the religion observed.

It seems that digital religion is slated to become a useful umbrella term under which to orient much of the study of religion and new media. Under this umbrella are a number of thematic elements that were previously scattered in scholarly cyberspace. Five years ago when I began my graduate studies, the key themes in this subfield were not consolidated anywhere. I spent an entire summer searching academic databases and reading to get acquainted with the literature, happening on the scholars in this volume by perusing the results sections of the databases. As Campbell stated in the introduction to the volume, her chief goals in scholarship was to produce an apologetic for the subfield, provide a map of key research and themes, and create a space for interdisciplinary work. The fact that such a book exists is affirmation of the growing subfield.


Robert Woods - Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 19:46

Evangelical Christians and Popular Culture: Pop Goes the Gospel (3 volumes), edited by Robert Woods, Foreword by Mark Noll, was released in January 2013 by Praeger Publishing Company. Here is a direct link to the collection: http://www.abc-clio.com/product.aspx?isbn=9780313386541.

The three volumes provide additional support for the ways American evangelicalism in general, and evangelicals and popular culture in particular, are becoming subjects of serious academic study inside and outside the academy and beyond only those who identify with it as insiders. The 57 authors across three volumes and 54 chapters represent nearly 50 institutions of higher learning, both public and private. The authors teach and write in the areas of history, English, theology, music, psychology, sociology, new media, journalism, communication and media studies, rhetoric and cultural studies, film and television studies, advertising and public relations. They explore the following intersections between evangelicals and popular culture:

• how evangelicals produce traditional and non-traditional forms of popular culture;

• how evangelicals are portrayed in popular culture created by non-evangelicals;

• how evangelicals are viewed by the wider public/mainstream media/press;

• how evangelicals and their faith have shaped and been shaped by popular culture;

• how evangelical critiques can be brought to bear on popular culture; and

• how evangelicals use, or make use of, popular culture for spiritual/religious purposes.

Of special interest to this network's members are several chapters in volume one dealing with new media. In chapter 17, Heidi Campbell (this site's director) explores the rise of evangelical engagement with the Internet and the range of reactions voiced by evangelicals towards this media technology. Attention is specifically given to the rise of e-vangelism as an example of the evangelicals’ tradition of appropriating media within a distinctive frame for specific religious outcomes. In chapter 18, Mara Einstein provides a unique view of GodTube, exploring its “missed opportunities” despite its early successes. In chapter 19, Samuel Ebersole provides an indepth analysis of evangelicals’ engagement with and use of social media to create online communities and interactive live events for religious purposes. It also addresses some of the promises and pitfalls that emerge when a subculture based on tradition adopts new digital technology. Finally, in chapter 20, renowned communication and media scholar Clifford G. Christians offers several evangelical perspectives of technology, from the instrumental view to more interactive, dialogic views. His chapter offers a unique understanding of the philosophical and theological systems that drive evangelicals’ consumption, creation, and critique of new media.


Vit Sisler - Monday, February 25, 2013 - 16:03

My recent research deals with the impact of information and communication technology and new media on the production of Islamic knowledge and the construction of Muslim identities in Muslim communities, particularly in the Arab world and Western Europe. By doing so, it focuses on two separate, yet simultaneously entangled, phenomena:

First, the article Cyber Counsellors: Online fatwas, arbitration tribunals and the construction of Muslim identity in the UK (Information, Communication & Society, Vol. 14, Iss. 8, 2011, pp. 1136-1159) explores four distinct websites providing normative content for Muslim minorities in the UK. It focuses on the connections between these Islamic websites and global and local Islamic institutions, the interactions between online and offline Muslim communities and the ways in which the normative content online shapes offline religious manifestations and practices. By doing so, it aims to locate the sources of authority associated with these websites and to explore how Muslim identities are built, negotiated and performed in new discursive spaces.

Second, the book chapter Playing Muslim Hero: Construction of Identity in Video Games (in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Ed. Heidi A. Campbell, Routledge, 2012, pp. 136-146) analyzes three contemporary Muslim games and explores the ways in which the hero’s identity is constructed and communicated to the players. The key research question of this study is how identity can be construed on the level of game play – that is through the interactive transactions between the player and the game as enabled by the game’s rule system. In doing so, this study compares the different concepts of identity of three Muslim games while simultaneously analyzing how these concepts are embedded in their game play.

On an overarching level, my research deals with the production of Islamic knowledge and construction of Muslim identity in the increasingly networked and interconnected communities; the emerging potential of new digital media for dissemination of moral and religious values; and the ways public authorities operate within the religion-technology interaction.

For those interested in understanding the relationships between Islam and digital media, the following are my recommended resources:

a) Eickeman, D., Anderson, J. W. (eds.) (2003). New media in the Muslim world: the emerging public sphere. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. New media in the Muslim world is the pioneering research on the topic and an essential reading to start with.

b) Bunt, Gary R. (2009). iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. iMuslims has an overwhelming scope, ranging from methodological and theoretical issues related to the research of Islam in cyberspace to detailed analysis of particular and diverse segments of the cyber Islamic environments such as the Islamic blogosphere or the use of the Internet by jihadi movements.

c) El-Nawawy, Mohammed - Khamis, Sahar. (2009). Islam dot com: contemporary Islamic discourses in cyberspace. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Islam dot com deals with the virtual Muslim public sphere and the contestation and deliberation over religious authority and Muslim identity online. It analyzes the discourses and deliberations in the discussion forums of three of the most visited Islamic websites and explores the potential impact of the Islamic public sphere on the reconfiguration of the virtual Islamic community.

d) Howard, Phillip N. (2010). The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press. With unique data on patterns of media ownership and technology use, The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy analyzes the role of information technologies in political transformation in the Muslim world.

e) CyberOrient: Online Journal of the Virtual Middle East. CyberOrient provides unique platform for research and theoretical considerations on the representation of Islam and the Middle East in cyberspace, as well as the impact of the Internet and new media in Muslim and Middle Eastern contexts.


Wendi Bellar - Wednesday, February 13, 2013 - 10:43

"Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds" (Campbell, 2013) offers a comprehensive guide for new students or current scholars interested in studying how religion is lived and experienced in online environments. The book, which is broken up into three sections, explores salient themes in the study of religion and new media, provides examples of recent case studies involving new media while focusing on a variety of religions, and concludes with a frank discussion about the theoretical, ethical, and theological concerns involved in studying digital religion.

Part I begins with an overview of themes associated with digital religion including ritual, identity, authority, community, authenticity, and religion. Each section traces the history of the concept in terms of religion and media and then focuses on how that concept has been studied within the realm of new media. Each chapter builds on the last and the result is a comprehensive view of the boundaries of the field. While all of the authors mention the three waves of scholarship focused on religion and new media, they also offer a fresh perspective of the waves concerning the theme they are explicating. The recommended reading sections at the end of the chapters, which offers a type of annotated bibliography, are another aspect that adds to this section’s strength.

The variety of case studies – which focus on many different religions including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, New Age and even new religious movements such as Hikari no Wa – is another strength. Not only are the topics and religions discussed varied, each chapter also provide viewpoints from a wide range of disciplines, including Media Studies, Communication, Theology, Religious Studies, and Sociology. Each chapter in this section is followed with discussion questions that encourage future scholarship from a variety of perspectives.

While the book does give an overview of the theoretical and methodological implications of studying digital media, qualitative research dominates. Quantitative methods are mentioned in some chapters, yet all of the case studies involve qualitative ethnographic methods including participant observation, in-depth interviews, textual analysis, and also virtual ethnography.

Overall, the book is successful in defining digital religion and providing a broad sweep of the field as it has been and as it may come to be. First, the historical overview frames the field by showing how scholars were focused on the utopic and dystopic possibilities of religion on the internet. Next, authors discussed how scholarship shifted to concentrate more on understanding the relationship between the online and offline realms of religion and religious practice in terms of identity, authenticity, and community among other themes. Finally, the definition of digital religion is extended as the book provides a direction for future scholarship by highlighting how technology may provide more personalized, interactive, and mobile ways of engaging religion in every day life, as well as discussing the theoretical and methodological implications of this shift. Digital Religion will prove to be an important resource for scholars of many different disciplines as they approach the study of religion in new media within their own research and within the classroom.

http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415676113/


Heidi Campbell - Saturday, January 26, 2013 - 20:22

In 2013 the network will start a new blog series entitled "Good Reads in Digital Religion" which will offer analysis and summaries of key books and articles in the study of new media, religion and digital culture. Members of the network team as well as authors will be invited to offer critical reflections on various publication over the next few months. If you are member of the network and have a book or article you would like to blog about or see covered please send your recommendations or offers to review to digitalreligion@tamu.edu.

As a way to get this theme started I want to offer some inital reflections on good reads in research methodology. A number of good texts exist related to methodology and research within Internet Studies. As a starting point I highly recommend Baym & Markham's Internet Inquiry, see: http://digitalreligion.tamu.edu/biblio/book/462, Jones's Doing Internet Research, see: http://digitalreligion.tamu.edu/biblio/book/463, and Johns, Chen & Hall's Online Social Research as texts that provide good surveys of the variety of approaches which exisits in internet research and the ethical issues they raise. For a fuller list of internet research methodology and ethics resources also check out the list found at: http://construct.haifa.ac.il/~azy/refmetho.htm

In the study of Digital Religion there still no full texts, which deal strictly with religion and internet research methods. However the recently released Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (Routledge 2012) offers two relevant chapters. Knut Lundby reflects on theoretical approaches to the study of religion and new media, see :http://digitalreligion.tamu.edu/biblio/book-chapter/828, and Mark Johns talks about ethics in studying religion online, see: http://digitalreligion.tamu.edu/biblio/book-chapter/829. Also in another text, Tim Hutchings explores broadly the development and application of digital research methodologies in "Religion and the Digital Humanities: New Tools, Methods and Perspectives:, see: http://digitalreligion.tamu.edu/biblio/book-chapter/605. However, this shows there is definitely room for scholars to write and specifically reflect on the unique challenges posed when studying religion online.


Heidi Campbell - Saturday, January 19, 2013 - 19:15

A year ago the Network for New Media Religion and Digital Culture Studies was officially launched. Since that time the network and the resources it provides continues to grow. Over 100 scholars have joined the network, and the scholar's index is becoming a hub for researchers, students and even media professionals seeking to connect with people doing innovative work on specific topics related to new media and religion. Over 400 entries have been added to the searchable online bibliography, which offers access to the most up-to-date collection of current literature in this emerging subfield. In the coming year we plan to expand the researcher's toolbox resource collection and offer a new blog series reviewing key literature in the field.

To celebrate this milestone the Network for New Media Religion and Digital Culture Studies will be running a giveaway of a copy of the recently released "Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds" (Routledge 2012). All new members or current members who contribute to the site in some way (i.e. adding a news item or a bibliography entry, etc.) between now and 28 Feb 2013 will be eligible for a drawing of a free copy of this text.

Thanks again for your involvement and support of this initative! We also welcome comments and recommendation of how we can further improve our resources, just contact us at digitalreligion@tamu.edu.


Kyong James Cho - Thursday, December 20, 2012 - 18:50

Pope Benedict XVI tweeted using his personal Twitter account last week for the first time. The first tweet was a message of good will, thanks, and blessing:

"Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart."

While it is not unusual for religion individuals and communities to experiment with digital media, this event perhaps is quite significant for religion and digital media researchers because of the implications for the Catholic Church and digital technology. The Pope's blessing on his followers through social media opens up large questions about the intersection of digital media, religious authority, and theology.

The Pope himself articulated in part his stance on digital technology in his World Communications Day message in January 2011. In it the Pope praised the potential of digital technology to advance the Gospel and encouraged Christians "to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible." His invitation for engagement was tempered, however, with the notion that authenticity needs to be carefully considered in participation in cyberspace. The Pope also admonishes: "it is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives."

Social media as an integral part of life behooves the Christian to participate in it. But the Pope warns there are risks of creating a false image of oneself and being less present with people in everyday life. Digital relationships cannot replace "direct human contact," creating a hierarchy or dichotomy in communication; digital contact is perhaps supplemental or secondary and cannot replace physical presence. One can enclose oneself in a "parallel existence" if not mindful.

Digital technology has perhaps not been grafted itself into the Catholic Church as readily as in other religious expressions. For example, the independent Protestant Church LifeChurch.tv has many campuses, including an online campus where worship experience can take place. Conceptualizing digital technology as a site for witnessing and engagement belie the absence of virtual worship. In this sense it seems that digital technology is seen as a conduit for evangelization rather than a locale for worship or ministry. This official approach to digital technology can be contrasted to virtual religious communities like those in Second Life, for example.

It might be banal to say that different religions approach and appropriate digital technology in different ways. But in the case of the Pope and the Catholic Church, the warnings against "parallel existence" and becoming involved at the expense of being physically present may stem from an embodied theology akin to the transubstantiation in the Eucharist.

The Pope's Twitter account is further evidence of the proliferation of digital media and the importance of what researchers in new media and religion do. It also serves as a reminder that robust reflection and study of digital media and religion must understand the nuances of religious traditions and beliefs as they inform religious individual and communal engagement with digital media.

The Pope's Twitter Page:
https://twitter.com/Pontifex

The Pope's 45th World Communications Day Message
Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age:
http://goo.gl/Prvup


Pages

Subscribe to Blog