Scholar’s Top 5: Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority, Changing Tensions and Challenges

Contributions in our new book volume, Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures (Peter Lang 2012) , focuses on the communicative possibility of social media and Web 2.0 as it intersects with core religious understandings of identity, community and authority. As I propose in the opening chapter and in my research studies, religious authority and its attendant hierarchical order has historically been mostly conceptualized as being threatened or eroded by the development of newer communication technologies. What is interesting to observe is how traditional religious authorities, in turn, are now appropriating newer digital and social media to facilitate changes in the personal and organizational basis by which they operate. Strategic practices by some clergy, for example, which include their engagement with social media and branding activities, enable them to regain the legitimacy and trust necessary to operate in the religious ken. In these ways, changing dialectical tensions in the restructuring of authority is related to the countervailing tendencies in digital media negotiations. While the increasing plurality of online knowledge sources can provide laity with alternative resources that may encourage them to question their ministers’ claims, these same sources also serves as a source of education that enhances a priest’s authority as the latter is able to move beyond dictating, to mediating between texts and offering informed interpretations. At the same time, as we explicate in the book, these dialectics in the changing tensions and challenges of authority appear to correlate with parallel emergences of hybrid senses of self and identity facilitated by networked communication media. Through our book, we invite readers to critically examine these emerging and hybridizing pathways of change with regard to mediated faith practices. This is a significant journey- let us explore together!

For those interested in understanding religious authority as dynamic, discursive and contested performances, the following are my recommended resources:

a) Lincoln, B. (1994) Authority: Construction and Corrosion, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. This book by Professor of the history of religions, Bruce Lincoln, provides an engaging treatise on authority, its construction, maintenance and corrosion. Vis-à-vis television, the then new media at that time, he conceptualizes the importance of thinking about authority as an emergent and asymmetric relationship between leader and followers that entails coercion and persuasion by consequential claims.

b) M. Hojsgaard & M. Warburg (eds.), 2005, Religion and Cyberspace, London: Routledge. One of the first few edited books that include a section with three articles related to ‘religious authority and conflict in the age of the Internet’.

c) Lee S.L. and Sinitiere P.L. (2009) Holy mavericks: evangelical innovators and the spiritual marketplace, New York: New York University Press. Through archival research and analyses of media texts, this book examines how five leaders of some of the largest megachurches in the United States construct their appeal through creative practices that include branding a range of spiritual goods and services to thrive competitively in contemporary religious economy.

d) Scholz, J., Selge, T., Stille, M. and Zimmerman, J. (2008) ‘Listening Communities? Some Remarks on the Construction of Religious Authority in Islamic Podcasts’, Die Welt des Islams, 48, 3-4., 457-509. This extensive journal article discusses how Muslim leaders and organizations may disseminate doctrine and reinforce existing power structures by appropriating podcasts alongside older media, in ways that acoustically construct authenticity and that include references to the epistemic authority of the podcasts’ key speakers.

e) Cheong, P.H., Huang, S.H., & Poon, J.P.H. (2011). Religious Communication and Epistemic Authority of Leaders in Wired Faith Organizations. Journal of Communication, 61 (5), 938-958. This recent article in a flagship communication journal conceptualizes religious authority as emergent, discursive negotiations that increasingly encompass engagement with and across media. Clergy are proposed to be adjusting their social identity from that of commanders and sages, to guides and mediators of knowledge and encounters both online and offline, an approach that we have termed “strategic arbitration.” Processes of strategic arbitration among Christian clergy are described here as well as in another article that examines this in a Buddhist context. (Cheong et al (2011) Cultivating online and offline pathways to enlightenment: Religious authority in wired Buddhist organizations. Information, Communication & Society, 14 (8), 1160-1180).