Material-Digital Faith Interactions and Religion 2.0

There are alternative perspectives that challenge the dominant conceptualization linking the internet to a decline or crisis of authority, mirroring the trajectory of general internet studies that has gradually moved away from a sole focus on online phenomena and its disembodied customs of virtual church and spiritual pilgrimages. The past decade has witnessed a shift in scholarly and industry perspective to a more synergetic and integrationist outlook on mediated developments. A more recent perspective grounds the significance of the internet in peoples’ everyday life rhythms and contexts, including a more complementary understanding of online practices that dovetail with local community-building activities. In a comparable fashion, the intellectual spotlight on the study of religion and new media has been directed at the complementary relationships between online and offline faith practices, beliefs and infrastructures. This view undergirds how a logic of continuity and complementarity is operant as offline religious authority is reconfigured and reframed as shaping, sustaining and being sustained by online practices.18

So, rather than be threatened by the emergent electronic media foray, some scholarship has recognized how religious organizations have addressed the presence of new online religious texts and controversial interpretations. For instance, Karine Barzilai-Nahon and Gad Barzilai19 highlighted how ultra-Orthodox Jewish elites in Israel controlled online information via censorship and tight supervision of websites that provided a platform for them to disseminate their teachings and provide counter-narratives to political criticisms. Furthermore, they argue that the internet represents a “cultured technology” since their findings illustrate how the social hierarchies of a Jewish community were maintained online as females and those with lower income and education had lower online adoption rates as compared to their male counterparts.

In this way, instead of social change, the process of “culturally shaping” the internet can lead to the preservation of the existing hierarchical order and social stratification of their membership. Campbell also noted how the Catholic Church has shaped the internet in line with its formal hierarchy and clerical caste led by the Pope.20 For example, there are email responses automatically generated on the Pope’s behalf. Furthermore, online interactive features like the ranking function and comment mode are disenabled on the Vatican YouTube channel, reducing an opportunity for feedback and comments among online interactants in social media platforms.

In a study of religious leaders we conducted, we found that religious leaders largely framed the internet as a positive development for their community. Cultural compatibilities were expressed between the development of new media and a variety of established faith traditions (i.e., Buddhism, Christian, Muslim, Taoist and Hindu) in the highly wired context of Singapore.21 In contrast with past commentators who have stressed the inherently political nature of technological artifacts and technical arrangements,22 several leaders stressed the toollike capabilities of the internet to impute neutrality into the medium. It therefore appeared that this “just tools” form of technological instrumentalism helped them to justify their technological adoption and “reclaim net-based technologies for their religious practices.”

Moreover, online religious discourse may not necessarily be provocative or injurious to established authorities. In another multimethod study of Christian blogs, hyperlinks on blogrolls and interviews, our analyses showed that amid the diversity of posts and a minority that indicated disagreements, several blogs were hyperlinked and affiliated with local churches and many blogged about their active and enthusiastic engagement with local religious activities and referenced customary religious texts.23 Hence, internet use may complement believers’ pre-existing norms and religious practices situated in local houses of worship.

Most recently, emerging scholarship has proposed redefinitions of the constitutions and practices of authority to account for fresh ways in which it is flourishing in increasingly integrated new and social media platforms in what has been termed as the “Religion 2.0” age.24 An emerging corpus of religious studies highlights how religious leaders are weaving social media into their vocation. For example, an analysis of results from a survey completed by 1,040 pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark found that 95 percent of the pastors are online daily.25 A significant proportion regarded the internet as having positive influence on their work, given that they integrate Google, Facebook and YouTube into their working lives. Two-thirds of the respondents reported that internet use had “caused more frequent contact with parishioners” and most endorsed “flesh and blood,” “real church practice” in lieu of cyberchurch rituals and web-based services.

Moreover, leaders and laity are encouraged to enter into agreements characterized not merely by offline dogmatic pronouncements but increasingly also by clergy’s new competencies to connect interactively across a spectrum of older and newer digital media to reach congregational members persuasively.26 In another more recent study of Christian and Buddhist leaders, we proposed that clergy are adjusting their social identity from that of commanders to arbiters of knowledge and encounters both online and offline to adapt pragmatically to an increasingly pluralistic spiritual “marketplace,” an approach that we have termed “strategic arbitration.” Such strategic arbitration entails internet use that facilitates the co-creation of information and expertise. This co-creation takes place under conditions where laity cooperation is elicited by retaining discretionary power among the leadership to determine informational and interpersonal outcomes such that they do not destabilize the organization. For example, the findings from our study showed how Christian clergy utilized Youtube and social media content to enhance their teaching, and justify the validity of their authority (e.g., by drawing upon scriptures and stressing their own interpretations via new “online ministries” like blogging and social media “outreach,” and engaging in faith-branding activities of their web presence and products) in order to wield influence and reinforce normative regulation.27

In contemporary times, therefore, an added dimension of the logic of complementarity includes transmediation, a process whereby authority practices are appropriated and remediated across different linked-communication platforms.28 There have been multiple ways in which churches have incorporated the use of Twitter and other micro-blogging practices into their routine institutional practices to create “ambient religious communication” and a sense of connected presence among members.29 For example, it was reported that Jeff Wilson, the communication and innovation pastor at Henderson Hills noted how “[a]t first when the iPhones and iPads came out, people were hesitant to bring those into church because people kind of looked at them like they were text messaging or playing with some other program during the service,” but now some churches are asking people to use their mobile devices, including the YOUversion Bible app in church.30 As integrative electronic platforms gain popularity, churches and Christian ministries have started creating their own apps. Here, it is pertinent to highlight that the YOUversion app was not created by private individuals or commercial companies but under the auspices of Lifechurch, in collaboration with other established Christian print ministries. In this way, Bible apps may help reinforce existing organizational practices that are initiated by religious leaders and enacted within traditional organizational spaces. Two endorsements on the YOUversion site underscore this supportive and complementary relationship ( ipad, italics, mine):

Great!!!This is an awesome app!!! I use it every time I go to church. It makes me want to read my Bible more.

Sometimes free means not very good. Not the case here. Lots of versions, easy interface, daily reads, interact online. This is truly a gift. This is a MUST have for a Christ follower, and as a pastor, I love it.

In the same vein, we note how apps like Confession are firmly positioned within the ancient practices and structures of the Catholic Church and seek to fortify those embedded structures and embodied practices, rather than question or capsize them. In the introductory chapter of our forthcoming anthology on Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture, we note:

... it is enormously significant that Confession is not marketed as a complete and virtual replacement for a central rite in the Roman Catholic tradition. Rather, the Confession advert carefully points out that “The text of this app was developed in collaboration with Rev. Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, Executive Director of the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Rev. Dan Scheidt, pastor of Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Mishawaka, IN.” Even better: “The app received an imprimatur from Bishop Kevin C. Rhodes of the Diocese of Fort Wayne—South Bend. It is the first known imprimatur to be given for an iPhone/iPad app” (ibid). In this way, Confession is careful to make explicit how far it is integrally interwoven with both the traditions and relevant authoritative hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, Confession users are reminded that in order to receive absolution for their sins, they will still need to take the matter up with a real priest in a local church.31

In fact, it is momentous that the Vatican qualified its support for Confession,, a day after the program’s developer announced it was the first app to receive official church approval. Dan Gilgoff and Hada Messia report that the Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi stated unequivocally that “the sacrament of penitence requires the personal dialogue between the penitent and the confessor and the absolution by the confessor” and that “one cannot talk in any way about a ‘confession’ via iPhone.”32

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