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The Essential and Complex Relationship of Religion and Media

A monument to Johannes Gutenberg, whose press allowed for the mass distribution of the Christian Bible and every book since, in Strasbourg, Germany. Photo by Glenn J. Mason from London, Britain CC BY

Listening to Chris Cotter and his panelists – Suzanne Owen, Vivian Asimos, and Tim Hutchings – bring up some compelling issues relating to religion and media, I was struck at how integral media is to the message of religion and worthy of academic study.  My own faith, Christian Science, would not exist if the founder, Mary Baker Eddy, hadn’t found a medium through which to share her insights. In spite of the difficulties facing a woman writing on religious matters in the late nineteenth century she wrote and published her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, to crystalise her teachings.

Media is a way a religion presents itself both to its own adherents and to the world beyond.  In the podcast, Tim Hutchings brought up the question of how religion and media need not be seen as two separate issues that occasionally meet, but that religion can be reconceived as a kind of mediation itself.  In fact, religion is always a mediator or a set of practices of mediation between the human and the divine.  This can give it authority for its adherents who see it as trustworthy.  However, while it brings an understanding of the faith to the believer, this very same medium can be less fathomable to the outsider because of the use of particularised language, lack of in depth understanding of the teachings, and so on.

This podcast centres mainly on social media, which might be seen to be a way of bridging the gap, but it raises as many issues as it solves.  Social media is often less representative of mainstream religions, being more the province of individuals expressing and finding their religion in their own unique way.   The speakers on the podcast discovered various issues relating to social media such as isolationism, the anonymity of user names, and concern by those who remain with the more traditional physical forms of worship. These findings are echoed by Christopher D Cunningham in his recent article in Public Space magazine, where he observes,

Social media has provided a venue to channel religious fervour without institutional oversight.  The effect has been a democratisation of religion.  This approach takes church out of religion, undercutting churches’ authority (and ability) to control a narrative and maintain doctrinal boundaries.

Tim discovered this in his research with Christian groups who use digital media. He was faced with the question of who gets to decide if this new manifestation of church online is the true church. He noted the relationships and emotional commitments that the online church group members make feel very real to them.  But he also found that those members of the church who maintained the more traditional worship in physical places felt that they were the ‘real’ church.  This raises the wider issue of who defines a religion, especially in relation to these new online versions, Tim’s solution is to let the group itself decide.

@amishbek#Pennsylvania I’m Amish♬ original sound – user444597131867472

 

 

Above, teen Rebecca Fisher maintains a popular TikTok account. Though her parents were Amish, they left the church when Fisher was a young child, but she considers herself Amish and says she attends an Amish church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Most Amish communities discourage the use of cell phones outside of business and medical or other emergency reasons, and photographs and videos of individuals are also discouraged. Still, the use of social media is increasing, especially among teens who have not yet been baptized and who are permitted, before choosing to join the church, to engage in popular culture in ways more familiar to their “English” (non-Amish) peers.

Identification is a significant issue in religious scholarship because misunderstanding can have adverse, wider consequences, such as misleading stereotypes and prejudice. In my position in the Christian Science Committee on Publication, an office that reviews media discourse about the denomination, I regularly see my faith freely defined by others – church leaders, academics, journalists, writers, playwrights, novelists and so on – often inaccurately and sometimes in ways that are simply wrong and misleading.  This is not new and certainly not confined to Christian Science.  So I can’t help seeing value in Tim’s approach of allowing the group to define itself and listening to them, free of judgment, to find out who they are and what is important to them.

Churches have always used the media to nurture and educate their members.  Today their use of the new digital media may sometimes be clumsy, not well understood, and subject to failure at times, as Tim has seen in his research, but it is the current and future manifestation of the way many religions and religious people want to share and make themselves known.  Tim’s arguments to his university asking them to support his research into religion and digital media are not only valid but essential because, as he says, it offers a lens into studying what really matters in religion “”whatever that might be.”  By extrapolation, studying all the media resources of any religion will cast light on them in a real and profound way. It is how they express themselves – their beliefs, practices, relationships. But the challenge for researchers is to allow religious groups to speak for themselves and not to interpret them through their own particular bias. To gain a clear view of religion from their media takes sensitivity, patience, listening and reflexivity, and this is not easy.

The Inauthenticity of New Media

Everyone seems to have an opinion about the Internet. Sometimes these arguments are positive, but more often they are critical. Survey online news media to sample the width and breadth of these suspicious takes: Dataphones are addictive. Social media foster superficial, inauthentic communicative interactions. The Internet is eviscerating civil discourse. Digital technologies are eroding sociality and kinship. And these are not just journalistic opinions; these are the positions of scholars. On more occasions than I care to count I’ve have had to justify to bewildered colleagues why I would write a book about digital media practices or invest my attention on things like blog posts and hashtags and Twitter debates. In the academy, at least as per my experience, Tweets and Instagram images are far less prestigious scholarly artifacts than ancient texts or dusty archival records. The assumption fueling many of these discussions is that Internet communication is inherently inauthentic, vulgar, and ephemeral.

Listening to this interview between three students of media and religion, broadly conceived—Suzanne Owen, Vivian Asimos, and Tim Hutchings—I was struck by these scholars’ clever strategies for pushing back against essentialist media ideologies.

Above, one of the images in British digital artist Juhamatti Vahdersalo’s series thinking about religion and digital technologies. This image invokes Moses’ delivery of the 10 Commandments; others include an interpretation of the birth of Jesus and Jesus’ baptism.

Asimos identifies the distinction, in academic discussions and beyond, between “the real world versus the online world, or the virtual world, or the digital world.” For Asimos, such distinction marks the online or virtual world “as completely not real and therefore all communities formed, all relationships had, all experiences are therefore painted as not real.” To counter the binary, Asimos opts for a third category, the physical world, which, although equally problematic, does free the scholar from making normative pronouncements about our subjects’ perceptions of reality.

Likewise, in fantasy fiction communities of reception, Owen comments, people distinguish between primary and secondary worlds, wherein “primary” is “meant to be the ‘real’ world.” For Owen, this is somewhat of a “false boundary.”

Hutchings also describes this conundrum in the context of his research with online churches. “I started out thinking, well, it’s online churches versus offline,” he comments. “But that doesn’t make sense because lots of those offline churches have websites or some sort of online presence.” Even offline churches make use of informational websites or email listservs. In short, these churches are “not digital-free spaces” but are “mediated differently in some way.”

Here, Hutchings parts ways with Asimos’s preference for the third category of the physical. As he argues, “physical, to me, didn’t quite work either because we use physical technologies to connect with digital technologies as well as anything else.” Hutchings has resorted to distinguishing between “the online and the local,” in attempt to “catch that sense of a thing that is different.” He admits that even after years of experience studying online congregations his terminology is “still not quite right.”

Hutchings’s humility on the subject accurately reflects what is a densely mediated and complex situation. His comments remind me of new media scholar Wendy Chun’s argument that new media are “wonderfully creepy” because they redefine the previously cherished boundaries of modern life. Concepts such as public and private, new and old, online and offline make less sense than they used to.

But as some scholars have suggested, should we reject the online/offline binary in entirety? Think about middleclass American households, Google Home, and other smart appliances. Think about wearable technologies, such as Apple Watch and Fitbit. More and more, these domestic and habitual applications blur the distinction between discrete domains. In certain contexts, living an offline existence is becoming less a possibility.

According to Hutchings, rejecting this distinction “doesn’t quite work for the groups I’m looking at because the value of the online space is partly that it is not the face-to-face.” For this scholar’s subjects, the online domain is both real and “sort of not quite real at the same time.” Hutchings proposes that rather than reproduce misleading binaries, it’s perhaps best to conceive of the digital as a playful third space that is both qualitatively different from the physical world but inextricably linked to and even constitutive of it.

It turns out that social media interactions are reconfiguring conceptions of what counts as authentic or inauthentic. As this discussion’s moderator, Christopher Cotter, suggests, there are situations online wherein people report feeling “less filtered” and “more ‘real.’”

From the perspective of my research among digital post-evangelicals, Cotter’s point holds. New media have complicated, even contradictory effects when it comes to power. Progressive Christians use digital technologies to challenge what they see as a conservative evangelical hegemony. For non-mainstream collectives, new media empower and give voice to marginal groups (who in pre-digital times would have lacked such a platform). At the same time, these communities are sensitive to the fact that dominant religious institutions also harness social media in effort to control orthodoxy and manage ecclesial boundaries. Regardless, they use blogs, podcasts, Twitter, Skype, Facebook, and Instagram to experiment with new modes of authenticity and in doing so challenge and reshape conceptions of orthodoxy.

Above, a sign asking worshippers to turn off cell phones before entering a worship space. Shared on Twitter @nefertitijaquez

 

Digital media may also be altering structures of power within academic circles and scholarly life. Bringing the situation around full circle, Asimos discusses in detail how anonymity in online scholarly interactions can in some situations flatten out existing hierarchies:

What I found, at least when, say, talking with academics who have a bit of a bias against virtual worlds, to kind of paint something more broadly there, they tend to say that because things can be anonymized therefore you can’t trust anything. What I found during my fieldwork as well as just from my own various online spaces at various points in my life, is that there was still an identity that is tied to username. Often users can feel more empowered to act in a way that they might not be able to.

In this scholar’s experience and research, username anonymity did not flatten out authentic interactions but allowed for it in ways not possible in the physical, face-to-face world. Asimos notes how in some cases anonymity can ease up on biases traditionally based on gender, race, and age. For herself and her subjects, anonymity generates authenticity, not vice versa.

What this roundtable discussion highlights well, I think, is the arbitrary, contextual, site-specific character of authenticity discourse about online interactions. Physical vs. immaterial, real vs. digital, real vs. virtual, offline vs. online, face-to-face vs. mediated: these dualisms are perhaps initially, comparatively helpful but in the long run do very little to observe and describe the hybridity and creative complexity of expressive discourse in the age of the digital.

As the discussants point out, scholars need to ask more compelling questions, moving beyond overly simplistic binaries and dualisms to think in terms of scales and networks, degrees and systems, connection and difference.

For Hutchings, to conclude, wondering what counts as “real” church isn’t conducive. It’s far more interesting to let groups self-define, debate, manage, and maintain their terminologies. The most pressing questions for scholars of digital religion, rather, should be: Who gets to decide what is real or not? and What are the strategies and tactics by which the digital religious determine and apply their standards of authenticity?