Good Reads: "Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds"

"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.