Good Reads: Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture (2012)

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.