VOLUME 3, ISSUE 1: FILM, TELEVISION AND THE BODY

SPECIAL ISSUE ON FILM, TELEVISION AND THE BODY

GUEST EDITOR: ALEXANDER ORNELLA, UNIVERSITY OF HULL

INTRODUCTION TO THE SPECIAL ISSUE
Article by Alexander Ornella (University of Hull), pp.1-7

“YOU CANNOT BE IN LOVE WITH A WORD”: THEOLOGIES OF EMBODIMENT IN DREYER’S THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, AXEL’S BABETTE’S FEAST AND VON TRIER’S BREAKING THE WAVES.
Article by Alina Birzache (University of Edinburgh), pp. 8-30

EXCESS, ARTIFICE, SENTIMENTALITY: ALMODOVAR’S CAMP CINEMA AS A CHALLENGE FOR THEOLOGICAL AESTHETICS.
Article by Stefanie Knauss (Villanova University), pp. 31-55

SCREENING PIETY, INVOKING FERVOUR: THE STRANGE CASE OF ITALY’S TELEVISED MASS.
Article by Davide Zordan (Fondazione Bruno Kessler), pp. 56-83

WHEN CHURCH AND CINEMA COMBINE: BLURRING BOUNDARIES THROUGH MEDIA-SAVVY EVANGELICALISM.
Article by Deborah Justice (Syracuse University), pp. 84-119

MASTERS OF CYBER-RELIGION: THE FEMALE BODY AS GOD’S “INTERFACE” IN THE TV SERIES CAPRICA.
Article by Jutta Wimmler (European-University Viadrina), pp. 120-154

“YOU’RE MY TRUE VESSEL”: KNOWLEDGE AND DIGITAL FAN CULTURE DISCUSSED ON THE BASIS OF MEDIUMSHIP AND POSSESSION IN SUPERNATURAL‘S NARRATIVE AND FANDOM.
Article by Lisa Kienzl (University of Graz), pp. 155-180.

BOOK REVIEWS

VOLUME 2, ISSUE 2: ALESSANDRO PORROVECCHIO

 

Manga, Wuxia and (New) Religious Syncretisms: the Orientalization of the Western Imaginary, from Osamu Tezuka to Contemporary Oriental Disciplines

 

Alessandro Porrovecchio

(University of the Littoral Opal Coast, France)

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Abstract

A new interest in various forms of spirituality and religiosity is emerging in some subcultures of contemporary society. This tendency can be seen as an indicator of an Orientalization process that affects everyday life and lifestyles, and it can be read as a symptom of a crisis in the paradigm of Western Modernity, which is changing the relationship between culture and nature, the central role played by the rational positivist paradigm, and ideas of body, space and time.

Oriental disciplines and martial arts are a significant case study for the purpose of analyzing the on-going Orientalization process. These highly ritualized practices have become part of many people’s daily life and have affected their way of dressing, as well as the way they arrange furniture at home and the way they make decisions that involve their diet and body care. These practices may also affect people’s identities by changing their values, ethics and morality.

To explore the Orientalization process, I first introduce some features of the diffusion of the “mythical Orients” in the Western imaginary since the sixties. In particular, I focus on some media products (for example, mangas and wuxia movies) that played an important role in arousing interest in Other cultures. In this stage I will refer to some media theories, in particular to Gerbner’s cultivation theory and to the medial socialization effect.

In a second step I focus on the imaginary embodied in some Oriental disciplines and martial arts.

I refer to some results of a research that I am conducting in some martial arts gyms, starting from my experience as an instructor. In that context I performed an ethnographic study, gathering several in-depth interviews with masters, beginners, fighters, experts and therapists, and analysing the interactions within some online communities (virtual ethnography). This last method allowed me to come back to the first step, and to focus on how some features of the media imaginary are mediated through the interactions within the virtual communities.

 

To cite this article: Alessandro Porrovecchio (2013): “Manga, Wuxia and (New) Religious Syncretisms: the Orientalization of the Western Imaginary, from Osamu Tezuka to Contemporary Oriental Disciplines”, Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture, volume 2, issue 2, accessed from http://jrmdc.com/

 

Introduction 

In Die geschichte mit den schuhbänderen. Soziologe au reise Norbert Elias (2008) explains how, by simply walking through a city, everybody can “do sociology.” He writes: “I cannot help it: over and over again I am fascinated by the people and the differences in their behaviour, their way of life, whether it is at the Lido in Venice or in Rome, at Torremolinos or in London, in Paris or in a smaller German town like Műnster” (2008, p.135). While I was discussing Elias’ words with my students of the School of Motor Sciences in Turin, I understood that this could be a good starting point for my research: I had to walk through the city and to observe, like a flaneur, the people, their behaviour, their way of life, the city.

While I was walking in Piazza Castello, one of the main squares of Turin, I received some flyers. One of these flyers advertised a school that aimed to develop a spiritual path through tantra, lucid dreams and self-observation. Another one advertised the activities of a new multinational centre of wellness, inside a shopping centre near Turin. The third one invited me to a new pizzeria, and the last one celebrated the opening of a new gold buyer shop. When I got into a bookstore near the Piazza Castello, I noticed some publications on spirituality, from Osho to Krishnamurti, from South American shamans to African animisms. As I continued walking, I observed the fiction books arranged neatly on the shelves, and I noticed that the “classics” by Tiziano Terzani and Carlos Castaneda were complemented by more recent life stories, such as the one of Gregorio Manzur (2006), and by testimonies of disinterested observers, like the one of Errico Buonanno (2012). Out of the bookstore, I could choose to have lunch in a Chinese restaurant, in a Sushi Bar, in an Indian takeaway or in the Pizzeria advertised in the flyer. And then I could go to a Thai massage centre near the Indian takeaway, or simply go back home, watch a wuxia movie[i] or read an Urasawa manga[ii].

As I was walking, I had the feeling that a new interest in various forms of spirituality and religiosity was emerging in Western societies. This tendency can be seen as an indicator of an Orientalization process that affects everyday life and lifestyles, and it can be interpreted as a symptom of a crisis in the paradigm of Western Modernity that is changing many features of everyday life: the relationship between culture and nature; the role played by the rational positivist paradigm; ideas of body, space and time; spirituality and religiosity.

In this paper, I will not talk about religion and its representation in media to explore the Orientalization process. This does not mean that religious subjects are uncommon: religion is quite a common topic in many manga, such as Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha (1992). Thomas Jolyon Baraka (2012) describes an interesting case of Comic Religion, Hikaru Nakamura’s Saint Young Men (Seinto oniisan, 2006-ongoing). Nakamura proposes a story of Jesus and Buddha living as roommates in contemporary Japan. He juxtaposes the two religious founders with familiar aspects of contemporary life: they blog, they play videogames, Jesus attracts the attention of high school girls because of his resemblance to Johnny Depp, Buddha is teased by neighbourhood schoolboys for the tuft of hair in his forehead. And each of them inadvertently performs miracles in public.

To explore the Orientalization process, I will first focus on some media products (manga, anime[iii] and wuxia movies) that have been considered important role in arousing interest in Other cultures (Raimondo 2007). In a second step, I will analyze the case of Oriental disciplines and martial arts. During my analysis of the connection between media products and the imaginary – the world as it is imagined – of Oriental disciplines, I will refer to some media theories, in particular to George Gerbner’s cultivation theory (Gerbner et al. 1973) and to the effect of socialization by the media (Morcellini 1997; Porrovecchio 2013a).

 

On method

 

I started my research path by “surfing” (McLuhan 1951) through the imaginary of various Oriental disciplines. My purpose was to gather preliminary documentation for my research. In order to do so, I referred to three different kinds of documents: scientific literature, manuals, and popular culture products (movies, fiction etc.). In particular, I focused on anime, manga and wuxia movies. In the second phase of my research, I understood the importance of this first exploratory step: the words of my interviewees kept in my mind Gerbner’s cultivation theory (1973) and the effect of socialization by the media.

Starting from this preliminary documentation, I used my personal experience of practicing and teaching martial arts to produce a qualitative research design. I became a participant observer in one of the many martial arts gyms in Rome, the Tao Chi Kwoon, a traditional kung fu school supervised by Sifu Maurizio Di Bonifacio[iv]. I collected detailed field notes, on the spot or right after every training session.

Because of my interest and long-term involvement in martial arts, there was the potential for me to go native (Hammersley, Atkinson 2007), which would affect my ability to engage in the field. So I decided to widen my research field by training in several gyms in northern Italy, where I practised disciplines both from South-East Asia, such as Pençak Silat and Filipino Kali, and from Europe (Sicilian stick, knife fighting). The goal in this phase was to explore, as a beginner, a considerable number of symbolic worlds, and to meet and interact with a large number of martial artists who practised disciplines different from mine. This strategy enabled me to ask probing theoretical questions about the data I collected and the interpretations I provided (Jennings et al. 2010, p.536-539). This research approach, as with Samudra’s (2008) notion of thick participation, provided many details of the multi-sensorial and emotional nature of the Oriental disciplines practised in the Kwoons.

Finally, I accompanied this research path with a virtual ethnography (Hine 2000, 2005; Porrovecchio 2012) that I conducted in some martial arts and manga fan communities. This last method allowed me to come back to the first step and to focus on how some features of the media imaginary are mediated by the interactions within the virtual communities and personal experience.

It is important to note that this analysis is only the beginning of opening a slightly different perspective on the relationship between media, religiosity and sports. As such, I hope that my study encourages further investigation. In particular, I believe that the cultivation and the socialization perspectives are useful, but I have addressed them from a purely descriptive point of view. I am aware that I should have addressed them from an empirical point of view. One way to start this work might begin from a comparative analysis that should take into account four samples: people who practise Oriental disciplines; people who don’t practise/are not interested in Oriental disciplines; people who used to be interested on Oriental media products[v]; people who have never been interested in Oriental media products. Paraphrasing George Gerbner’s suggestions (Gerbner et al. 1973), a researcher should examine the responses given to questions about the East among those with varying exposure to the world of Oriental media products.

 

Orientalism and mythical Orients

 

Edward Said (2003) explained that Orientalism is a system of thought that approaches a “heterogeneous, dynamic, and complex human reality from an uncritically essentialist standpoint; this suggests both an enduring Oriental reality and an opposing and no less enduring Western essence, which observes the Orient from afar and, so to speak, from above. This false position hides historical change” (p.333-334). The implied critique here is that the supposed opposition between East and West is both misleading and undesirable. Furthermore, according to Said, it is important to point out that contemporary critical consciousness should be warned about the risks that arise when we talk about Eastern culture: in fact, the “East” is nothing more than a sort of social construction (Berger, Luckmann 1966). This means that, for example, many of the stories about the world of Oriental disciplines may consist in idealized reconstructions of an imaginary world. For this reason I do not provide an anthropological analysis of the identity and the social and cultural origins of each Oriental discipline, or each media product. According to Kaplan (2006) and Brown et al. (2010), undertaking a cross-cultural analysis requires sensitivity, because “we are forced to read works produced by the Other through the constraint of our frameworks/theories/ideologies” (Kaplan 2006, p.157). The risk is to succumb, on the one hand, to Orientalist discourses, and on the other to our way of decoding these media products.

Those difficulties convinced me to diverge from Said’s idea of Orientalism, and to embrace Durand’s (1963) and Corbin’s (1964) more generic concept of mythical Orients. Durand and Corbin were among the first scholars, in the first years after World War II, to argue that the great Western values were declining in favour of alternative cultural systems. The expression “mythical Orients” doesn’t refer to a specific geographic area, but to the idea of an Orient that could be found increasingly in everyday life: Zen philosophy, Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese takeaways, Thai massages, Sushi bars and so on. In a few words, mythical Orients are different ways of dealing with nature and with the world.

As we can see, the concept of “mythical Orient” implies a rather generic and fuzzy idea of the “East” as a geographic area and of the “Orient” as a form of the imaginary that is socially constructed. This implies – as regards the researcher – a precise choice concerning the “point of view” from which to start the analysis: the Western one. For this reason I won’t outline any cultural axiom that could be “Oriental” and/or “Eastern,” and that could serve as indicators in my analysis. I will outline only some configurations of the imaginary of what Westerners perceive as “Oriental”. This choice could seem to undermine this research project, but it will keep the initial spirit with which it was designed: this is not a study of Oriental cultures but a descriptive study of Westerner’s perceptions of the Orient, and of how these perceptions seem to cultivate some aspects of the Western imaginary.

 

First part: A new imaginary?

 

According to many scholars, such as Sergio Raimondo (2007), the mass perception of Oriental disciplines began to change with the rise of Eastern philosophies in the wake of the 1960s and 1970s, and then with the global success of Hong Kong’s wuxia cinema, thanks to which audiences discovered that martial arts were not only Japanese. A new imaginary composed of renewed mythical Orients[vi] started to spread all over the West; it was composed of many narratives coming from wuxiapian, manga, anime and Oriental philosophies.

“Caution: this movie reveals the Kung Fu for the first time. Kung Fu is the Eastern most deadly way of fighting. We inform everybody that the imitation of what you have seen on the screen leads to serious and irreparable injuries, and in some cases to death” (Raimondo 2007, p.69). This alert was displayed in a movie theatre in Rome, on the 26th of January, 1973, to introduce Five Fingers of Death (Chang-Hwa 1972). In Hong Kong, the first release had not been particularly successful, as the film was part of the copious production of the local wuxiapian. Between May and June of that year, Five Fingers of Death had great success all over Europe and USA, together with two other movies produced in Hong Kong, which starred Bruce Lee (Lo Wei 1971, 1972). The global success of Hong Kong wuxia movies merged with Japanese tradition and contributed to the creation of a double configuration of the imaginary. I will address this idea of a double configuration of the imaginary by applying a slightly adapted version of Toshio Miyake’s (2011) simple but helpful model, proposed  during a conference held at the University of Naples “L’Orientale” some years ago.

 

The first configuration, as explained by Miyake, is rooted in the opposition between Western and Eastern identity. If one of the pillars of Western identity is modernity (with its paradigms: reason, progress, scientific method and so on), the East is perceived by Westerners as traditional, in fact, hyper-traditional. The effectiveness of this perception becomes manifest when we observe some cultural products coming from the East, and some recurrent well-known images crystallized in the occidental imaginary, and articulated in an a-temporal way and a-spatial way: the geisha, the samurai, Mount Fuji, shaolin and wudang temples, cherry blossoms, monks. All these images emerge in many occidental cultural products that propose some peculiar representations of the East: just think about best-sellers like Memoirs of a Geisha (Golden 1997) or popular movies like The Last Samurai (Zwick 2003).

If we analyze these images, we can identity some isotopies (Greimas 1983), namely some recurring themes that characterize mythical Orients and distinguish the hyper-traditional Eastern imaginary from the Western one. The East has mainly been represented as feminized, childish, emotional and in harmony with nature. As cultural forms of a collective imaginary, the origin of these aspects could be barely explained exhaustively, and this is not my aim. Instead, I want to propose some significant examples of these aspects.

The perception of an (Eastern) imaginary as feminized is strongly linked to the overcoming of Westthe West’s traditional gender order and dichotomies. As regards gender order, an interesting example can be inferred from an analysis proposed by Brown et al. (2010). In their paper, they analyze the positioning of forms of masculinity within the global gender order that male bodies in Asian martial arts films negotiate. Their theoretical sensitivity is taken from Connell’s relational notion of “multiple masculinities/femininities” (1995), to make sense of the performing martial arts body as a gender-associated phenomenon. Throughout their study a construction emerges of a masculinity diverging from the Western hegemonic one. Bruce Lee’s masculinity, for example, is very interesting, because he is one of the recurrent characters being discussed in the virtual communities considered in my research, and a point of reference for many martial artists. His masculinity seems ambiguous: “it is a masculinity that resists the patriarchal ideologies of a hegemonic masculinity while refusing to be characterized into dichotomous models of sexual identities” (Chan 2000, p.375).

Similarly, in many manga and anime gender dichotomies are constantly upset: one of the most recurrent archetypes is the androgynous (Jung 1959). This archetype manifests in many ways. For example, sex/gender swapping are common: a significant example is that of Takahashi’s Ranma½ (Ranma Nibun-no-Ichi, 1987-1996), in which the main character often changes into a girl to advance his goals. Intersexuality and gender indefiniteness are common too: the protagonist of Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight (Ribon no Kishi, 1953-1956), due to an error of an angel, has two hearts, a male and a female one, and resides constantly in a grey area of indefiniteness.

The East has also been perceived (and represented) as childish. Another recurrent archetype is Jung’s Puer Aeternus (Jung 1959; Hillman 2006).  It seems clear that many protagonist of manga and anime are personifications of this archetype; just think about Goku (the main character of Toryiama’s Dragon Ball/Doragon Bōru, 1984-1995), detective Conan (a sort of fusion of a Puer Aeternus and a Senex; Aoyama, Meitantei, 1994-ongoing) and Arale (Toryiama, Dokutā Suranpu, 1980-1984).

The childish aspect also emerges if we analyze manga’s consumption: the most successful manga genres are shojo manga (marketed to a female audience roughly between the ages of 10 and 18) and shonen manga (marketed to a male audience aged roughly 10 and up) (Bouissou 2006; Pellitteri et al. 2011; Calderone 2011), although the fans usually read several genres[vii]. If we surf through some virtual communities, we can find articles talking about the preferred or most recognizable characters[viii]. It seems clear that most of them are personifications of the Puer Aeternus, or simply childish characters: Doraemon, Hello Kitty, Totoro, Super Mario, Astro Boy, Pikachu, Goku, Arale and so on.

The other two recurrent features of Westerners’ imaginary related to the East (emotionality and harmony with nature) will be the core of my discussion; for this reason they will be analyzed in the second part of this paper.

During the 1980s, along with the economic and financial rise of some Eastern countries, the second configuration of the imaginary emerged. It has been defined techno-Orientalism by Morley and Robins (1995). Techno-Orientalism displays itself as a process of differentiation from the West that pushes some parts of the East (Japan, Chinese megalopolises and so on) towards a distant future, out of time and space. Miyake (2011, p.179) defines this configuration as a hyper-modernity based on the strategic selection of some high-tech features. In this case, in the Western imaginary, some images and stereotypes emerge that could be considered dysfunctional or negative with respect to the occidental idea of modernity. Examples include cyborgs and robots, suicides, urban alienation and atomic bombs. As we can see, they are spread mostly by manga and anime, and propose a dystopian vision of the East.

Robots and cyborgs seem to be the largest and most known manifestations of media imaginary: the most cited by our interviewees, the most discussed on virtual communities and probably the most pervasive and influent. The interest in robots arises with the success of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom, 1952-1968)[ix], and Yokoyama’s Ironman 28 (Tetsujin 28-gō 1956-1966). Yokoyama proposed for the first time an anthropomorphic technological giant, controlled through a remote control by a young boy. Thanks to the creativity of Nagai Go, , this kind of robot spread in the imaginary all over the world in the early 1970s: Mazinger Z was produced as a manga in 1972, and immediately adapted into an anime. Then arrived Getter Robo (1974), Kotetsu Jeeg and Ufo Robot Grendizer (1975), the best-known robot in Italy.

The history of manga in Italy is particularly recent (Calderone 2011). The Italian media system has always been characterized by a discontinuous trend and an uneven evolution of the various apparatuses, in contrast to other modern Western societies. One of the features of the “Italian case” is the fact that the distribution of audiovisual media – paradoxically – has always anticipated the spread of reading (Morcellini 2005): the spread of television and cinema preceded the spread of the press, and similarly it seems that the passion for anime has been the driving force behind the success of manga, both in Italy (Calderone 2011) and in France (Bouissou 2006). Bouissou explains that the diffusion of manga in France is entirely thanks to the anime, or, among today’s generations, to computer and card games (Pokemon, Yu Gi Oh): 95% of his respondents discovered manga in that way.

The spread of anime in the West was encouraged by two particular circumstances (Pellitteri 1999, 2010; Calderone 2011). The first one is the introduction, in 1975, of a time slot in the evening (from 07:00 pm) in which American TV series and cartoons were broadcast. The second one was the growth of local and national private broadcasting (Ciofalo 2011).  One of the effects of the multiplication of televisions was the necessity to fill many hours of broadcasting with different (possibly low-cost) contents. One of the strengths of anime, in the seventies, was their cheapness to produce. Nowadays, their strength is the fact that they are part of a wider marketing strategy which relies on products based on imaginary universes that develop through many media, a sort of embryonic trans-mediality (Jenkins 2006a, 2006b; Giovagnoli 2009, 2013) involving anime, manga, video and web games, card-games, virtual communities, theme parks, fairs and so on. This last feature emerges clearly from my research: martial arts practitioners, for example, usually refer to imaginary worlds that develop through the contents proposed by a constellation of media, and convey these imaginary worlds through some practices, like cosplay or video/webgame challenges and so on. Some of the practitioners of the Tao Chi (but also a Taekwondo Master that I interviewed in Turin), for example, usually organize their cosplay challenges on the occasion of comics fairs, like Romics in Rome, or Lucca Comics in Lucca (the most important comics fairs in Italy), transforming their bodies into their favourite characters.

The first anime broadcast in Italy was Vicky the Viking, a Nippo-German co-production (Chiisana Viking Vikke, Saito, 1975). The first important success was UFO Robot Grendizer in 1978. It opened the doors to a phase of massive importation of Japanese cartoons and to the phenomenon of the “anime boom.” Since then, Italian private televisions provided a lot of stories of robots, cyborgs, heroes, little sorceresses, thieves, young girls in love and football players.

From the early eighties, some Italian editors began to publish stories based on the most successful anime (Pellitteri 1999, 2010; Ciofalo 2011). In a first phase the comics were produced in Italy, and they were not based on the original manga: the structure of the page was different from the original, and images were mostly taken from the anime. Even when the editors translated (unsuccessfully) the originals (as for example Great Mazinger, 1979-1980 in Italy, and Candy Candy, 1982), they sectioned and published them in the usual occidental layout, transfiguring – in fact – the original product.

The first Italian-language manga comparable to the original was the Italian translation of Otomo’s dystopic Akira (1990). But it had been adapted, filtered and modified from the US version. In the nineties, the editor of Granata Press started a politic of diffusion of manga through many magazines, but bankrupted in 1995. Then, Star Comics finally opened the doors to a sort of mass market, with the publication, in 1995, of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball in the traditional Japanese sense of reading, from right to left.

In this analysis of the publication and consumption of manga and anime in Italy, my main focus of analysis has been robots and cyborgs. One of the reasons for this choice is their diffusion and pervasiveness in the Occidental imaginary related to the East. A second and equally important reason is the fact that the Eastern tradition, in particular the bushido’s imaginary – the way (do) of the warrior (bushi) – merges in an original and surprising way with the science-fictional hypothesis of an hyper-technological world. Many Japanese robots spread an imaginary that recalls the iconography of the samurai: they embody the postures of the traditional martial arts, they use some ancient weapons, like katanas, halberds, swords and chains, they wear suits of armour that recall those of ancient warriors.

These two configurations (hyper-traditional and hyper-modernity) vary from time to time: what they have in common is their logic of distancing from the Western model. Their interaction leads to a condition of constant contradiction – emerging, for example, in many manga or anime – that actually makes the Eastern imaginary a-rational and particularly fascinating. These features emerge clearly, again, if we analyze the cases of robots and especially of cyborgs (Ghilardi 2010, 2011): their imaginary swings constantly between nature and culture, their bodies swing between organic and mechanic. The struggle between culture and nature, in some cases, leads to an anomic (Durkheim 1897) or even dystopic condition: Fist of the North Star (Hokuto no Ken, Buronson and Hara 1983-1988), for example, is the story of a world, in “199X,” in which civilization was ruined by a worldwide nuclear war. It is the story of Kenshiro, one of the most-known and most cited characters in the gyms where I trained. In this story we can find almost all the isotopies of the hyper-modern imaginary: a violent, anomic and alienated post atomic world with all its corollaries.

 

On ethics and religion

 

Marina D’Amato, an Italian sociologist, analyzed cultural products for children and young people throughout her research. She proposed an analysis of the ethics emerging from Japanese anime (2002). She explained that the religious factor was the one that linked together all the anime that her research team analyzed; it acted as a point of reference of ethics and values ​​that structured all the episodes.

In her book, D’Amato explains that in all the stories the characters look for some kind of “absolute,” and they do it in their specific and peculiar way: sportsmen do it through competition, and the constant attempt to “defeat the enemy within the Self[x]; everyday characters do it through ritual actions often ending in self-transformation, imposed from nature or inspired by their ancestors (we will see the importance of these ways of acting). The behaviour patterns of all these characters are based on codes that consider the shame of losing honour as a fault and a potential risk of disorder for social harmony; all human behaviour is evaluated according to its effects on the community. In this context, winning is a way to improve the Self, but it is also an obligation towards the peer group and the wider nation. This approach also characterizes the latest wuxiapian: Brown et al. (2010) describe the final part of Fearless (Yu 2006) as full of good intentions but with also a certain dose of nationalism. Similarly, the main theme of Ong Bak (Pinkaew 2003) goes in the same direction.

According to D’Amato sports-themed anime are inspired by an idea of sport that is absolute, totalizing and one-dimensional, which has little to do with the morality of Western sports. All the episodes of these series are characterized by a common sequence of events: very hard training, violent and infinite struggles, the crisis of the hero, his self-analysis, the overcoming of the crisis and the obligation of the victory. Within this standard sequence we can find two constant elements: physical suffering as an external manifestation of inner turmoil, and the presence of a Mentor (the coach or the Master), who spurs the hero and conforms his behaviour and attitude to the “must be” of the ethical and religious principles. These include dedication, shame, honour and loyalty, which not coincidentally are regarded as some of the main values ​​(if we replace shame with humility) by the martial artists that I met during my ethnographies.

The stereotyping of the characters, says Marina D’Amato (2002), finds its raison d’être in one of the core elements of Japanese religious/philosophical thought, the tendency to transform the abstract into the concrete. Moreover, the inclination to a primitive simplicity is a characteristic of the teachings of Lao Tzu. The culmination of this feature is – in the Japanese tradition – the Kannagara, namely the feeling that all actions are dictated by emotional and impulsive moods, and only in a second phase they are rationalized (Tucci et al. 1973). In the anime examined by D’Amato this aspect is particularly marked.

A last feature analyzed by D’Amato is nature. It is considered sacred, feminine and maternal. Nature is always present and, although attenuated, all-pervading. The aesthetic attitude of the characters towards nature is always emphasized, expressing the pathos of the individual placed into the reality of things, being (or trying to be) in harmony with the Cosmos.

We will see that many of these features emerge in Oriental disciplines’ practitioners’ imaginary.

 

Second part – the other side: martial arts and de-rationalization of life[xi].

 

One of the issues that emerged during my research among Oriental disciplines’ practitioners was that Oriental discipline was a form of “secular religion” for its practitioners (Aron 1958; Bailey 1998; Jennings et al. 2010; Porrovecchio 2013b, 2013c). My interviewees made a selection of elements that they liked within the Oriental disciplines’ imaginary (Luckmann 1967, 1996), creating a sort of bricolage. For example, A. A., a 33-year-old woman teaching kung fu at the Tao Chi Kwoon in Rome, described her practice as “monastically devoted.” This statement echoes Loïc Wacquant’s words, referring to boxers: “The most striking character of the workout is its repetitive, denuded, ascetic quality: its different phases are infinitely repeated day after day, week after week, with only barely perceptible variations. Many aspiring boxers turn out to be unable to tolerate the “monastic devotion” … [the] absolute subordination of the self that this training demands” (Wacquant 2003, p.60).

Through various processes of spiritual bricolage, some of the features of Taoism, Shinto and Buddhism become achievable. In this way, the goals of Oriental disciplines become sacralised through the exercises and the body techniques. Each practitioner experiences the holy part of the discipline in its own way: the discipline becomes a kind of intimate secular religion.

According to Jennings et al. (2010) this is the first key feature in analyzing Oriental disciplines as a secular religion. This feature involves the ways in which practitioners evolve from an everyday secular practice into something more spiritual. The second key is related to the importance of the body and to how the Oriental discipline’s habitus (Bourdieu 1979) develops over time: the body is not simply a machine that has to be programmed. At the core of these practices there is a highly specialized habitus, namely specific embodied schemes of dispositions acquired through the diligent long-term practice. This practice must be strenuous, stressing and must require sacrifice: it emerges both from the words of A.A., who talks about hard work (which is also the translation of the term kung fu in English), and from the analysis of the interactions occurring in many forums online, in which the term “training” is usually supported by the term “hard.”

The new schemes interiorized by the practitioners become an unquestionable act of faith in the Oriental discipline. Each member of the group of practitioners embodies a different degree of this habitus, and its acquisition is central to the whole raison d’être of the system.

 

Harmonies, Holism, Eternity

 

The Western world passed through a phase in which instrumental rationality led to the modern disenchantment of the world (Weber 2004), and then to the contemporary phase of slow re-enchantment, of which the success of both Oriental disciplines and the cultural products that I described in the first part of this paper are significant signs.

Martial arts and Oriental disciplines too relate to a condition of (re)enchantment: they are highly ritualized physical and mental practices, born in the Far East and south-east Asia, devoted to combat, to peace and relaxation, or to the treatment/therapy of the human body. For the purpose of my research it is useless to differentiate martial arts and Oriental disciplines, since the real goal of all Oriental disciplines and martial arts is to defeat the one true enemy that lurks within the Self “without doing battle” (Ming, Weijia 1994, p.101). As we have seen, “defeating the enemy within the Self” is also one of the recurrent themes that characterize the constant quest for some kind of “absolute” in manga and anime.

Another feature of Oriental disciplines that characterizes them in the frame of (re)enchantment is the fact that they are based on a kind of social action (Weber 1958) that we can define as both traditional[xii] and emotional; we can call it holistic. These kinds of acts were typical of traditional socio-cultural conditions, while in the modern era social actions were more rational and instrumental (Weber 1958). I prefer to use the term “emotional” here, and not “affective” according to the definition proposed by Max Weber. The kind of action proposed by Oriental disciplines, in fact, presupposes a certain voluntarism on the part of the practitioners, who seek to manage and channel their emotions. So, in a second phase, their actions are rationalized. This feature too recalls the description proposed by Marina D’Amato (2002), when she explained that anime’s characters are strongly stereotyped: all their actions seem dictated by emotional and impulsive moods, and only in a second phase they are rationalized.

The fact that many of the participants in my research, both in the interviews and in the online forums, refer to a transcendent energy (see for example the areas dedicated to the Traditional Chinese Medicines in http://www.forumartimarziali.com/forum/) that permeates the universe is a clear indicator of the fact that they embrace a holistic/pantheistic and re-enchanted Weltanshauung. In this context, the body and corporeality take on new connotations: one of the objectives of Oriental disciplines is to turn the body in its ideal image: to transform the transient reality into a myth, to make the dying body eternal.

When I interviewed some practitioners, I asked them in which ways Oriental disciplines had transformed their lives, and how they had changed. At first, they explained that their lives had changed completely because they had a new approach to everyday life and a new vision of reality. They changed their relation to the Other thanks to their new relation to the Self. They had changed their perspective about nature and said they were in equilibrium with society, culture, and nature; this could mean that Oriental disciplines, as a spiritual/holistic practice, operated in all spheres of people’s existence.

This led me to develop some broader considerations about Eastern disciplines. We must assume that the transformation of the body should not be considered only an aesthetic transformation: in addition to an idea, perhaps now obsolete, of homo æstheticus (Maffesoli 2007), maybe we should refer to the emergence of a holistic individual (Nocchi 2008). This is an anthropological figure, which conceives the body as an expressive form of the mind and as a small element of the infinite puzzle represented by social and natural infinity. This means that the holistic individual seems to have started the difficult process of re-union between the biblical Nefech Hayah (the body as object, as biological organism) and the biblical Bassar (the body as subject, with feelings and emotions) (Milanaccio 2009, p.15-28).

Starting from these assumptions, the body becomes a vital, albeit small, piece to build the Everything. In the imaginary of many Oriental disciplines it becomes a fundamental element to access to a sort of synergy with the cosmos, because it contains within itself an internal energy (the Qi for the Chinese disciplines, the Ki for the Japanese ones, and so on) and the primordial elements of Nature (Brambilla 2009). These elements are the inner guide of Man, they guide his mental and psychological sphere. All the above concepts come from ancient Oriental disciplines (see for example, Huang Ti 2002), which were coded according to a specific assumption: the body, conceived as an object (Nefech Hayah), allows one to access three other dimensions: psychological, energetic, and spiritual. As a consequence, the training of the body allows the immersion and the fusion of the individual into the Everything.

Therefore, the practice of Oriental disciplines, at a broader level, appears as that research on the Other which is needed as a basis from which to understand, manage, and build the individual’s Self. We can identify three different kinds of Other. First, the Other can be seen as a form of culture different from the Western one: it represents a form of mythical Orient, which links Oriental disciplines to the enjoyment of Other cultural products, such as manga, anime and wuxiapian. From this perspective we can analyze the construction of myths related to alternative spaces or times, the stories of great masters, legends and lineages (the great heroic figures that have characterized the history of martial arts), often proposed by wuxiapian, that hold the narrative of the martial art itself. Next, the Other can be a different kind of social action, opposed to the instrumental rationality (Weber 1954) that dominated Western societies until the seventies (Maffesoli 2007). Oriental disciplines propose a different kind of rationality and tend to be emotional. Finally, the Other can be a spiritual Other that focuses the individual’s attention on the inner nature of the body. From this perspective the body becomes a medium to build identity and social relations.

Through the practice of Oriental disciplines, the individual balances and rebuilds his own Self according to the Others mentioned above. In this manner he is able to experience, on a spiritual level, its synergy with the universe (holism). The values of martial arts and Oriental disciplines, therefore, lie primarily in their ability to allow the development of multiple aspects of the individual’s life, affecting his spiritual dimension.

The holistic individual can find in the corporeal dimension the possibility of operating a full (re)construction of the Self. The body is also a tool to reach a deep individual Harmony that is essential to activate the energetic Harmony and to awake the primordial archetypal capital that governs the spiritual and psychological dimension. This means that the holistic individual is fully aware of his psychosomatic unity and of his role as part of the Everything. So he is in potential harmony with the natural elements and the environment in which he lives.

Another aspect that I would like to emphasize is the possibility of overcoming modern conceptions of time, through the embodiment of Oriental disciplines’ imaginary. Looking at the differences between modern/occidental idea of time and Oriental disciplines’ one, it is evident that they are antithetical. The modern individual is enslaved in an idea of linear time in which the present is erased to focus on future goals (Elias 1984; Harvey 1990); he is always pushed towards an endless teleological and rational action that leads him to value appearance more than substance, targets more than paths. Meanwhile, the traditional (Oriental) model is based on a circular and cyclical idea of time in which the present moment must be fully internalized. This sort of eternal return also characterizes TV seriality in general (Gerbner et al. 1973; Leonzi 2010) and anime in particular.

The differences between the two conceptions are not confined to the return of a sense of cyclical time that takes the place of the modern idea of linear time (Leonzi 2010). Holistic time is also a time of fracture, for three reasons. First of all, the cyclical aspect, namely the eternal return, allows one to embody the Other’s traditions and philosophies. The first radical change is a temporal short-circuit that moves symbolic universes coming from distant eras within the context of contemporary society. The second radical change bases on the fact that cyclical time is a feminine time (Durand 1963; Ortner 1974; Maffesoli 2007; Leonzi 2010). According to Sherry Ortner (1974), men are closer to culture while women are closer to nature, due to their natural cyclical bodily rhythms; starting from this premise, the return of a cyclical idea of time should assume the rising – as a sort of fracture – of a new naturalized and feminine world, that should be replacing the modern culturalized and patriarchal one. The third radical change can be found in the nature of Oriental disciplines and in the goal of their practise: they aim to go against time and to break the linear essence of the modern age, thus eternalizing human nature. Many Oriental disciplines cultivate the idea that the body is constituted of all the five elements (wu xing) of the cosmos. This means that it can be considered a sort of representation of the cosmos. The correct interaction of the wu xing could stretch the life of every individual[xiii] and could lead to the secret of immortality pursued by the alchemic Chinese tradition. This trend – as well as others – can be found in many Taoist works, and the idea explained above is especially present in the Taoist Canon[xiv].

In conclusion, Oriental disciplines may assume a maieutic role, stimulating the diffusion of that form of mechanical solidarity (Durkheim 1911) proper to a traditional historical phase, in which the collective consciousness was separated from the individual one. Therefore, I think that turning to mythical Orients is not merely a sort of unconscious way through which individuals answer to their need for enchantment (Weber 2004; Maffesoli 2007). Modern individuals have been disenchanted, but find a new enchantment in the creation of new mythologies that respond to their needs.

The above considerations lead me to conclude, then, that the rising (new) intimate forms of secular religiosities are nothing but a kind of return to a traditional condition.

 

Mythical Orients in virtual communities

 

My analysis shows some points of convergence between the imagery of Eastern cultural products and the one of Oriental disciplines. I have already stressed the coincidence of some elements that I consider fundamental to practitioner’s religiosity (or practitioner’s construction of their own intimate secular religion): the attempt to defeat the enemy within the Self; the Kannagara and the pre-eminence of traditional and emotional ways of acting; a (re)enchanted Weltanshauung; the quest for an absolute and for an harmony with the Everything, that could be reached through the management of an internal energy linking together the new Holistic Man and the Cosmos; the overcoming of the modern and linear idea of time through a (new?) cyclical perception of time (eternal return); the quest for eternity.

These Eastern principles are discussed in virtual communities, in which the syncretistic aspect of some practitioners’ secular religiosity also emerges. The following quotes are taken from a thread on Taoism and Christianism (http://www.forumartimarziali.com/forum/): “I myself have a way of understanding religion and basing all my life choices primarily on the teachings of figures like JESUS CHRIST (not the church), Lao Tzu, Buddha …” (Corvo della neve); “Well, as far as I know, Taoism is not a religion but a philosophy… then you could easily be a catholic christian [even if you live as a Taoist]” (Tulk4s); “Thanks to Thay Boxe, that unfortunately I had to leave because of my job, I discovered the whole universe of Eastern philosophies […]. I think that Tao and Christianity can fuse together, it depends on the person. No Way is absolute, no path is perfect, no Master is the best. So I think that in our life we must deepen more than a road and then take the best from each and create a proper and suitable way for ourselves” (Demi).

There has been a process of collaborative construction of mythical Orients that has developed over time. This construction has its roots in the interaction between Oriental disciplines’ practitioners and the internalization of Oriental cultural products, and it emerges clearly from the analysis of interactions on the virtual communities. In some forums these imaginaries are shared, constructed and socialized by the participants. This emerges, for example, from the analysis of the areas dedicated to movies and videogames in http://www.forumartimarziali.com/forum/. I can systematize through three different Weltanschauung the construction and socialization potentialities I identified in virtual communities. They can be considered a place for:

1. Information seeking, use of multimedia content and knowledge sharing;

2. Self-expression, Self-representation, Self-narration and testing of alternative Selves;

3. Creation of a network of relationships (even labile or instantaneous, or more concrete, like the map created by some users of martialartsplanet’s community; http://mapservices.org/myguestmap/map/MAPisAwesome).

As a place to find some information and to access any kind of multimedia texts, the web can be considered an enormous encyclopaedia (Eco 1975) through which people can find any type of content related to Oriental disciplines, techniques, lifestyles, health, philosophies, values, religions and so on. For example, eiffel48 writes: “Hi to everybody in this forum. I need to know something about a kung fu style, the long xing quan (the dragon style). Thanks bye” (in http://www.forumartimarziali.com/forum/). Another example of the complexity of the contents is rabbit’s post in www.martialtalkcom/forum: “I have a question. I have been observing other people breathe while they are asleep. It seems to be audiable, why? In plain english what I am trying to say is I can hear it. I suspect it to be using a different type of nasal breathing that I never hear mentioned in chikung books”. People interested in Oriental disciplines can interact, or simply consult the documents posted while looking for some useful information. Furthermore, through virtual communities people share and have access to a broad social and cultural capital, to which they can contribute, as we can see in some sections in which people share articles, for example, in the community of martialartsplanet (http://www.martialartsplanet.com/forums/). This is the mission of many virtual communities, and it’s precisely the reason for their effervescence.

As a place of Self-expression, Self-representation and Self-narration, virtual communities are a wide laboratory in which individuals put at stake their identities by constructing a narrative and making it interact with other Selves. Individuals test the efficiency and effectiveness of their knowledge capital, their own martial encyclopaedia, the theoretical potentialities of their techniques. Flamings are some examples of these kinds of situations. Some of the practitioners that trained in two of the gyms in which I carried my ethnography told me that they were often involved in some hostile and insulting interactions in some martials arts chats in which they participated with fictitious identities. During these symbolic guerrilla actions they tested their martial knowledge capital. The web, in this context, becomes an arena in which occur some relatively painless fights that are some opportunities to put the Self at stake in the real field. Besides offering the chance to bring into play the Self, the web also allows to experience some totally alternative Selves. It offers some opportunities to create fictitious identities, functional in this case to the construction of identity and to create a knowledge capital related to their own secular religion.

In substance, virtual communities are like some big melting pots, in which practitioners’ imaginaries, Oriental disciplines’ imaginaries and Oriental product’s ones converge and merge continually.

 

Conclusion: cultivating mythic Orients

 

When I analyzed the interactions within virtual communities, I noticed the constant reference to the imaginaries proposed by Oriental cultural products. These references were more explicit in some areas dedicated to cultural products, as for example “fun and games” in www.martialartsplanet.com/forums or “Risorse & Utilità” in http://www.forumartimarziali.com/forum/), but could be easily found also within many of the interactions on techniques or on the story of the Oriental disciplines. It seemed clear that some important parts of the participants’ imaginaries were “cultivated” by the media: they were the result of a sort of effect of socialization by the media. That mechanism reminded me Gerbner’s cultivation theory (Gerbner et al. 1973), namely television’s ability to create a pervasive symbolic environment that could lead the imaginary to replace the personal experience of reality. Gerbner (1998) states that television is similar to religion as a source of socialization: “The heart of the analogy between television and religion, and the similarity of their social functions, lies in the continual repetition of patterns (myths, ideologies, ‘facts’, relationships, etc.) which serve to define the world and legitimize social order” (1998, p.178).

According to cultivation theory, television as a “centralized system of storytelling” (Gerbner 1998, p.177) cultivates from infancy the values (Shrum et al. 2005), the predispositions and the preferences (Gerbner 1998) that used to be acquired from other “primary” sources, and it has become the primary common source of socialization and everyday information. Some longitudinal studies (for example Gerbner et al. 1994) showed that television can exert an independent influence on attitudes and behaviour over time, but that belief structures and concrete practices of daily life can also influence subsequent viewing: individuals are not totally passive, but choose television programmes on their own.

Most criticism of cultivation theory focused on the treatment of television viewing as a uniform activity that ignores variations in viewers, the content to which viewers are exposed, and the contexts in which they view or to which they are exposed and so on (Cohen, Weimann 2000, p.100). Gunter (1994) noticed that the cultivation effect could be program-specific, and Cohen and Weimann (2000) concluded that “some genres have some effects on some viewers.” On the other hand, Gerbner explains that the viewers are not so passive, as some surveys have shown that the general amount of viewing and the programs viewed follow the lifestyle of the viewer (1998).

Starting from these premises, it is clear that mythical Orients, and religious imaginaries, especially those where the body is involved, are partly cultivated by the media (Leonzi 2010). I propose a graphic metaphor, which I already used in a previous paper on gender/sexual identity construction (Porrovecchio 2013a), to visualize the construction of these imaginaries on the basis of the results of my research. Dance’s communication model (1967, img. 1) can help us visualize this process, keeping in mind that the model is idealistic and it has nothing to do with a mathematical study of the curve. So, following the metaphor and given that this is an oversimplification of the observed phenomenon, the spiral can represent the path for the construction of individual’s imaginary. The process starts from the bottom, and the vertical axis (the centre of the spiral) represents the time variable: the spiral tends to infinity (∞), namely to the end of the individual’s life. Each point x along the spiral, represents the asset of knowledge and experience of the individual at that time. Experience, of course, goes through a constant process of expansion, built on the basis of: exposing and interest towards media’s storytelling (cultivation and socialization); individual’s need for enchantment (spirituality); individual’s capacity of bricolage of new and forms of intimate secular religiosities (religiosity).

I do not propose any other kind of conclusion, because – as I stated – my analysis is only the beginning of opening a different perspective. I would just like to stimulate the sensitivity of the readers on the complexity of the phenomenon that I introduced, hoping that my paper will encourage some more research on the relationship between body, religiosity and media cultivation.

 

Acknowledgements

 

A version of this paper was presented at the “Commun(icat)ing Bodies” conference in Graz, February 2012. Some parts were published as a chapter of a book (Porrovecchio 2013b). I would like to express my gratitude to Alessandra Turchi and Ben Young, who reviewed some parts of this paper, to the peer reviewers for their suggestions and to Sifu Maurizio di Bonifacio, Master Christian Giglio, Sifu Giorgio Garabello, Master Lorenzo Tarditi and Master Marco Palermo for welcoming me in their gyms and allowing me to carry on my research even without funding.

 

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Tezuka Osamu, Princess Knight, 1953-1956.

Tezuka Osamu, Buddha, 1992.

Toryiama Akira, Dragon Ball, 1984-1995.

Toryiama Akira, Dr. Slump, 1980- 1984.

Yokoyama Mitsuteru, Ironman 28, 1956-1966.

 

 

Anime

 

Saito Hiroshi, Vicky the viking, 1974-1975.

Takahashi Yoichi, Flash Kicker, 1983-1986.

Tezuka Osamu, Astro boy, 1963-1966.

Yuyama Kunihiko, Pokemon, 1997-ongoing.

 

About the Author

 

Alessandro Porrovecchio is an Assistant Lecturer (Sociology and Sport Sciences), University of the Littoral Opal Coast, where he teaches Sociology. He got his PhD in Human and Social Sciences at the University of Turin in 2011. He recently published a book on the construction of adolescents’ gender/sexual identity (“Sessualità in divenire. Adolescenti, corpo e immaginario”, FrancoAngeli, Milan, 2012) and some papers on virtual ethnography. His research interests concern sexuality, health, sports and media.

 

Affiliation: University of the Littoral Opal Coast – URePSSS laboratory, France

 

Contacts

E-mail: alessandro.porrovecchio@gmail.com

 



[i] Wu-xia means “martial chivalry”. Wuxiapian or Wuxia pian are the martial chivalry films. Some consider martial arts movies as being part of wuxiapian, some prefer to distinguish them as two different genres. In this paper, I consider martial arts movies as part of the wuxiapian tradition.

[ii] Comics created in Japan, or by Japanese creators in the Japanese language.

[iii] Japanese animated productions.

[v] Wuxiapian, anime, manga, video-games, card-games, web-games and so on.

[vi] Mythical Orients already existed before the sixties. In a first phase they emerged from the accounts of some missionaries, then from news reports on the boxer rebellion and on the World Wars; finally they emerged from beat generation’s interest towards the East (Raimondo 2007).

[vii] The main genres are: Kodomo (for children), Shonen, Shojo, Seinen (generally targeted at a 18–30 year old male audience), Josei (generally targeted at a 18–30 year old female audience), shonen ai (with beautiful boys in love), yaoi (like shonen ai but contain largely sex scenes and other sexually explicit themes) and dojinshi (self-published works) (Calderone 2011).

[ix] Known as Astro Boy in the USA. It has been published for the first time in 1952. The manga was adapted into an anime tv series in 1963 in Japan, and broadcasted in a remade version in 1980 in Italy. It became the forefather of a generation of autonomous robots (Di Fratta 2007).

[x] This sentence recalls the definition of Martial Arts and Oriental discipline that many Masters and practitioners proposed during my research.

[xi] This, and the following parts are partially based on a chapter recently published on a book, (Porrovecchio 2013b), and a paper that will be soon published in an Italian journal (Porrovecchio 2013c)

[xii] Just think about the traditional ways of training, the traditional scripts of movements (the Japanese Kata, the Chinese Taolu, the Indonesian Jurus) that every practiser should know and embody as part of his martial capital.

[xiii] What I have just described also emerges from my observations, in particular from my interactions with a practitioner of traditional kung fu who was affected by cancer and had had many surgical operations. This woman claimed that kung fu had been a great support during the healing process.

[xiv] Daozang, a collection of over 1,400 works of various periods completed in the fifteenth century (Schipper, Verellen 2004).

VOLUME 2, ISSUE 2: REGINA BURGESS

 

Understanding Christian Blogger Motivations: Woe Unto Me If I Blog Not the Gospel 

Regina L. Burgess
Spring Arbor University

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Abstract

Blogger motivations in general and motivations of religious bloggers have previously been studied, but there is a lack of studies specific to the motivations of bloggers who self-proclaim their Christianity to create a blog and maintain the blog. Forty-four bloggers participated in a self-administered survey questionnaire sent via email. They answered questions about their reasons to create a blog, original goals for their blog, and reasons to blog regularly. Motivations found in previous research were garnered from 11 studies, and the participants were asked to indicate which motivations resonated with them the majority of the time they blogged. They were asked to explain why the motive resonated with them. Results, not surprisingly, suggest these Christian bloggers were not motivated by the same motivations to the same degree as bloggers from previous research who are not vocal on their blogs about Christian, faith-based themes. The motivations such as community building, expressing opinions to influence others, or pouring out feelings and emotions do not seem to resonate as acutely with Christians as the motivations seem resonate with political- or corporate-oriented bloggers. Other motives such as documenting life, sharing thoughts out loud, entertaining self, or having a place to store their writings seemingly do not resonate with Christian bloggers as they do with other types of bloggers. These 44 Christians who blog are members of online Christian social, writing, and blogging groups, and are studied to see how being Christian might influence motivations for blogging, and explores reasons Christians have for creating media. This study also raises some interesting questions for future study such as why self-proclaimed Christians seem to have greater longevity for blogging than do authors of blogs with a non-religious focus.

To cite this article: Gina Burgess (2013): “Understanding Christian Blogger Motivations: Woe Unto Me If I Blog Not the Gospel”, Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture, volume 2, issue 2, accessed from http://jrmdc.com/

Introduction

“Woe unto me if I blog not the Gospel,” one man responded in the LinkedIn group Christian Authors, Editors, Publishers, and Bloggers to a question about reasons he blogged. His statement echoes the general feeling of the blogger participants who identify themselves as Christians in the current qualitative study. The blog began as a medium used to post lists (or logs) of favorite websites to visit, and then to comment on those sites (Blood, 2001). Then blogging evolved into a wide realm of business and personal opinions and messages. Note the term ‘blog’ is also used frequently as a verb as in ‘to blog’, or ‘I blogged today.’

Blogs and blogging have been the focus of myriad studies. Scholars have studied blogger motives in various genres such as political pundits (Eckdale, Namkoong, Fung, & Perlmutter, 2010;  Tomaszeski, Proffitt, & McClung, 2009 ); mommy bloggers (Lopez, 2009; Powell, 2010); corporate bloggers (Jackson, Yates, & Orlikowski, 2007); religious bloggers, (Campbell, 2010; Cheong, Halavais, & Kwon, 2008; Wayne, 2008); bibliobloggers, writing academic Bible blogs (West, 2010); and bloggers in general (McCullagh, 2008),using various theories such as uses and gratifications (Cheong, Halavais, & Kwon, 2008; Kaye, 2010), privacy management theory (Child, Pearson, & Petronio, 2009) and needs theory (Chen, 2012) to better understand bloggers as communicators.

Echols (2013) has studied religious and gender authority and resistance in blogging in a case study of 49 Christian bloggers. Campbell (2010) content analyzed 100 religious blogs concerning religious authority. Teusner has studied the religious cyborg (2010a) and 30 Australian Emerging Church bloggers (2010b), and discusses motivations of those bloggers (2010b). Myers (2010) discusses academic, theological blogging, and West (2010) discusses the biblical, or biblioblogger, standpoint. In a broader context concerning Christian motivations online, Hutchings (2011), Campbell (2013), and Cheong (2011) explore religious community online. Community has been shown to be a motive for bloggers whether Christian focused (Campbell, 2013; Cheong, 2011) or not (Jackson, Yates, & Orlikowski, 2007). Campbell’s (2010) study and Cheong, Halavais and Kwon’s (2008) study of religious blogger motivations are content analyses of blogs. However, there is a lack of research specific to Christian blogger motivations to create and maintain their blogs compared to other types of blog and blogger research.

For the purpose of this study, ‘Christian’ is defined using Barna’s (2007) definition of evangelical Christians as people who declare themselves as Christian, have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, and who say their faith is very important in their everyday life. The definition differentiates Christian bloggers in the current study from religious bloggers, a category that could include Buddhists, Hindus, or even atheists. Christian bloggers are defined as those who declare themselves Christian on their blog profiles, or whose blog content is centered on Christian living or Christian perspectives of events (Campbell, 2010). Christian bloggers differ from bloggers in previous research who maintain blogs with no faith-based focus, and who were not documented as writing from a Christian perspective or did not self-identify themselves as Christian. This study is different from previous research of religious bloggers because it is narrowly focused on bloggers’ reasons to create and maintain their blogs. The purpose is to analyze and document these reasons.

This exploratory study of 44 Christian bloggers builds upon Cheong, Halavais and Kwon’s (2008) content analysis of blogging as a religious practice, and their analysis through the uses and gratifications theory. It also builds upon Campbell’s (2010) research into religious authority and community among bloggers. It extends Huang, Shen, Lin, and Chang’s (2007) study of motives and behaviors of bloggers with general themes on their blogs, by looking into the motives and behaviors of those who blog from a deliberate Christian perspective or share their Christianity in various ways on their blogs. The current study helps fill a gap between the previous research of political, corporate, or general bloggers’ motivations and Christian blogger motivations. The current study’s focus is on the bloggers’ self-perceived motivations for creating their blogs and for regular postings to their blogs, and this study does not include a content analysis of their blogs. Previous research findings were used to formulate questions for the current survey questionnaire about blogger motivations and behaviors in order to focus on the blogger rather than the blog content.

Literature Review

Blogs are infused with author opinions of current events, life happenings and lessons learned along with teaching and encouragement, and sharing practical knowledge in a wide range of multi-media elements (Zickuhr, 2010). People online comprise an ever-booming majority. More blogs are created daily than books published annually, with more than 181 million blogs tracked as sources of online buzz around the world as of December 2011 (Neilsonwire, 2012). During October 2011, Blogger (a social media site for consumer generated blogs) was second only to Facebook in number of unique visitors. The top three blogging sites – Blogger, WordPress, and Tumblr – reach one in four online users in the United States per month (Neilsonwire, 2012), which makes blogging a significant medium of communication.

As a medium of communication, blogging is perceived as an extension of an individual (the blogger) or group of individuals (if the blog is maintained by more than one author) into the public sphere of cyberspace through frequent posts (boyd, 2006). Blog posts are a form of narrative reflecting a blogger’s own perspective and judgment on an issue, leaving the interpretation and evaluation to read­ers (Baumer, Sueyoshi, & Tomlinson, 2008). Campbell (2010) notes blogs offer individuals the opportunity to “self-publish narratives on a variety of subjects and passions” (p. 253), which supports the notion that blogging is creation of media. This hodgepodge of opinions is set against the backdrop of the credible and reliable conventional sources of traditional media. Meraz’s (2009) research shows that the blog is a tool designed for outward, networked conversations used to maintain internal elite conversations within the media system as “trusted, traditional media entities” (p. 702). Cheong, Halavais and Kwon (2008) found Christian bloggers usually chronicle their evangelical faith and beliefs and how faith impacts their everyday lives. They purposely communicate it to a wider public as well as to each other.

Lastly, motivation can be conceptually defined as that internal drive to engage or achieve an action (Murphy & Alexander, 2000).  Ford (1992) argues motivation relates to goals when he says that motivation is a product from the interaction of emotions, personal agency, and goals.

Characteristics of Bloggers

Although not all Christians are writers, prophets or evangelists, the premise of this article is that those Christians who blog do so because they have perceived their blogs as belonging to God, who is using them to reach other Christians, church leadership, and those who need encouragement, as well as to reach out to unbelievers (Cheong, Huang, & Poon, 2011). On their blogs they are sharing and defending their faith, edifying fellow Christians, and sustaining fellowship, as Cheong, Halavais and Kwon (2008) found in their study. Studying these motivations may help broaden the understanding of Christian digital evangelism.

People who are sensitive and open to new kinds of experiences are most likely to be bloggers, and they seem to be adventuresome and use identifying information while writing about personal experiences and public events. They are active across social media, with a blogger being three times more likely than a non-blogger to post or comment on message boards and in other social media (Guadagno, Okdie, & Eno, 2008). Bloggers are well-educated with 7 out of 10 having at least some college education (Neilsonwire, 2012). In 2010 a Pew Research survey shows nearly 92 million American adults were reading blogs and looking for religious and spiritual information on the Internet, and there were 42 million American adults writing blogs (Zickuhr, 2010). Cooke predicted in 2006 that bloggers would change the concept of privacy by exploiting the rational exchange of information for mutual benefit of writer and reader. The substantiation of his prediction is evident today in the wealth of bloggers who review products such as books, household items and other products.

Gender, as some studies of computer-mediated communication show, makes little or no difference in Internet content creation when controlled for other demographic variables (Herring & Pallilo, 2006; Wei, 2012). Correa’s (2010) finding that African Americans are more likely than other ethnic groups to create web content contrasts with Wei’s findings of no ethnic differences; however the difference could lie between usage of web content (Wei, 2012) and creation of web content (Correa, 2010). Correa’s findings also indicate psychological factors such as feeling competent and feeling inspired, i.e. intrinsic motivations, are positively related to content creation.

Blood (2002) calls attention to the participatory and very public nature of maintaining a blog. There is a symbiosis between bloggers and their readers; they create a community as mentioned above. According to Nardi, Schiano, Gumbrecht, and Swartz (2004) readers create blogs as much as the authors because the audience participates by commenting. Bloggers are acutely aware of their readers seeming to be a central factor in the blogging experience. It is a social activity for bloggers in general (Nardi et al., 2004). They also visit other blogs and develop relationships with other bloggers while reading and commenting on those blogs (Nardi, Schiano, & Gumbrecht, 2004). Huang, Shen, Lin and Chang (2007) point out that bloggers develop different roles, including communicator, producer, collector and player. In essence, bloggers are writers, publishers, researchers, commentators, and audience.

Cheong, Halavais, and Kwon (2008) note religious bloggers hold blogging as a personal experience revelation, with teaching/learning and explaining mainstream news from a Christian perspective. Their research had a significant proportion (64%) of the 200 blogs they studied that were not religious or Christian in nature, and that used religious terms intermittently. However, 80 bloggers openly identified themselves as Christian on the blogs studied, and these 80 Christian bloggers indicated religion as a vital part of their lives. These Christian bloggers seemed more likely to gather and to utilize information from their own lived experience to illustrate their beliefs and their faith. The Pew Internet and Life Project survey results (Zickuhr 2010) appear to align with Cheong’s  et al. findings of personal religiosity expression and didactic content. Those posts that had a religious educational vein drew on authoritative sources such as religious figures and the Bible, which supports Campbell’s (2010) findings concerning religious authority.

Theological discussions have become widespread online, and bloggers’ authority to create these discussions more accepted. The Internet has enabled blogging to change the delivery and reception of resources in religious circles, as Christian bloggers have immediate access to theological reference books online, whereas before exegesis came from scholars and pastors who scoured scripture and theological books (Wayne, 2008). Christian bloggers embrace God as their supreme authority, and he is the most commonly referred to authority in Christians’ blogs, with the Bible as the second most commonly referred to authority in their blogs (Campbell, 2010). Evangelical blogs assist the authors and their readers to develop communal relationships as well as to grow in faith (Alsdurf, 2008). Alsdurf argues that Christian bloggers express what they believe and in so doing strengthen their critical thinking skills and exhibit their convictions. Myers (2010) points out that blogging is a practice and a technique that develops ways of being the social human. He calls attention to the importance early Christians placed on writing by highlighting the Christian practice of daily examination and introspection of conscience, citing early Christian writers such as Tertullian. Bloggers, Myers says, seem to create bridges, such as theology blogs, that help close the divide between academia and Christian communities. Other studies support Myers’ argument that blogging is a technology of the self and of cultivating community (Campbell, 2013; Chen, 2011, 2012; Hutchings, 2011).

Campbell (2013) discusses the debate of what constitutes community online: the Internet serves as a meeting place for those with commonalities, passions, and connections. Online communities are formed where members are willing to emotionally invest in a group. The space of networking has changed, but the act of social exchange has remained the same. Online social networks of contemporary relationships are useful to understand how many people are living in online religious communities highly personalized through interactions in religious groups and organizations.  Huang, Shen, Lin and Chang (2007) reinforce the idea of community online when they call creation and consumption of web content social interaction.

Incorporating theoretical foundations for blogging motives

Classic media uses and gratifications theory focuses on needs fulfillment of users that traditionally examines the consumption – not production – of media. Blogging is communication media content generation, not content consumption. Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch’s (1973) fundamental assertion in the uses and gratifications theory is people use media for specific purposes, and the driving mechanism is fulfilling or gratifying needs. People fulfill needs stemming from their social and psychological backgrounds. The motives of media production depend upon which needs a person satisfies when selecting a message and medium. Desires produce divergent communication motives, which influence people’s communication decisions about their behavior as well as communication strategies. Uses and gratifications theory emphasizes the role of individual differences, media use, and choice.

One other factor to consider in media uses and gratifications theory is found in Kuhn’s (2007) research that suggests bloggers take the responsibility of honesty (factual truth) as well as transparency and minimizing harm very seriously, indicating honesty as most important. These values help to understand bloggers’motives. When coupled with their stated goals (Ford, 1992), one can observe a broad range of reasons to blog.

Uses and gratifications theory says that communication behavior is guided by goals and the choice of medium is underpinned by needs, wants, and expectations of gratifications. Rubin (2009) draws attention to the social and psychological aspects that guide and filter media choices.  Values and goals of Christian bloggers help elucidate their motivations to create and maintain their blogs. According to Pintrich (2000), goals are cognitive depictions of what a person is striving to accomplish and possibly the person’s reason for the task. Pintrich’s findings align with Ford’s (1992) assertion of a positive relationship between motivation and goals.

Kaye and Johnson (2011) use uses and gratifications theory to explain blogger motives. They argue uses and gratifications and authority are connected because they presume a participating audience, and users are aware of gratifications received from a medium. Pornsakulvanich, Haridakis, and Rubin (2008) note bloggers would be lonely voices without their audience.  Nardi et al. (2004) also argue that the audience creates blogs as much as the authors through commenting on posts. However, Chen (2011) argues that computer-mediated communication through the Internet has somewhat annulled the traditional sender-receiver model of uses and gratifications theory. Chen studied Twitter users, finding a positive relationship between Twitter usage and gratifying the need for social connection, or informal sense of camaraderie. The vast array of applications and social media sites has made the Internet a users’ and consumers’ choice of media to connect with other people. Uses and gratifications theory explains why active users seek out a computer-mediated medium to satisfy their communication needs. People choose to create and maintain their blogs, so blogging must be meeting their communication needs.

Bloggers create through the medium of their blogs, ergo bloggers’ motives stem from that creation more so than from consumption of other blogs or media. Liao, Liu and Pi (2010) argue that bloggers accumulate knowledge and develop a habitual activity pattern in their blogging behavior because various rewards drive their information-gathering needs such as looking forward to others’ responses and finding good topics for discussion. While bloggers may use other media to gather information, the underlying purpose of any information-gathering is to create a post to share the information.

Documented blogger motivations

A national survey conducted by Pew Research lists eight motivations found in numerous other studies either all or in part (see Table 1): self-expression, life documenting, sharing practical knowledge or skills, influencing others, motivating people to action, connecting with others, staying in touch or updating people, and making money. Cooke (2006) argues that blogging is about building relationships among people with shared interests, which relates to community, influencing others, and to the social affiliation Nardi et al. (2004) found. Miura and Yamashita (2007) researched how positive and negative feedback affected blogger motivations to continue blogging, which is the social support aspect of blogging. The positive feedback had positive effect, and the negative feedback had negligible effect on the satisfaction a blogger felt in being accepted (affiliation). Campbell’s (2010) research and Cheong, Halavais, and Kwon’s (2008) study found that motivations for Christian bloggers are self-expression and reflection, and some Christian bloggers’ intention is to have a definitive impact on other Christians. Liao, Liu and Pi (2010) argue that self-expression is a two-pronged intrinsic blogging reward: 1) Enjoying sharing my life with others, and 2) pouring out feelings on my blog (see Table 1).

Schiano, Nardi, Gumbrecht, and Swartz (2004) suggest five blogging motivations: documenting life experiences, providing commentary and opinions, expressing deeply felt emotions, articulating ideas through writing, and forming and maintaining community. They also suggest these motivations may not be mutually exclusive and may play out simultaneously. Huang, Shen, Lin, and Chang (2007) found similar results as Schiano et al., but the motivations of expressing deep emotions and articulating ideas through writing were deeply intertwined. Both bring intrinsic gratifications to bloggers, but the line between them seems blurred.

Research of various genres discovered political pundits (Eckdale, Namkoong, Fung & Perlmutter, 2010),mommy bloggers (Lopez, 2009; Powell, 2010) as well as Christian bloggers (Campbell, 2010) have found blogging to be an outlet to exert influence. For example, Eckdale’s et al. (2010) study of political bloggers found a significant change in motivations between initially creating a blog and motivations for maintaining a blog after two or more years’ experience in blogging. The top three motivations they found to start a blog were: to let off steam, to keep track of thoughts, and to formulate new ideas. After two years of blogging, the top three motivations changed: to provide alternate perspective, to inform people, and to influence opinion. Teusner (2010b) also found blogger motivations to evolve through what he calls phases, not, he is careful to note, that these phases are orderly and structured but that bloggers fluidly pass from one phase to another as their blogging experience increases.

Other research findings indicate other types of motivation. Miller and Shepherd (2004) argue that relationship building and social control are the foundational tools used to manipulate opinions of others. Self-expression and development of community were the two themes they found most prominent in blogs as of 2004. Cheong (2012) found blogging and micro-blogging extends fellowship between Christians, increases intimacy between the congregation and their pastor, and extends church life beyond Sunday activities. Trammell et al. (2010) content analyzed 348 Polish blogs and found 80% were motivated by self-expression, 53% by entertainment, and 51% by social interaction. Chen’s (2012) study demonstrates a positive relationship between the motivations of bloggers of self-disclosure with community building (affiliation) mediating relationship. She compares this to motivations to influence and connect with others.

Chen’s (2012) study focused specifically on women, as did Stavrositu and Sundar (2012), although they focused more on empowerment women found in blogging. Women discover they have a competent and assertive voice as well as a sense of community when they blog. Chen found marginal support for women feeling empowered by self-expression in blogging. Stavrositu and Sundar found self as source, or self-expression stated as a motivation, mediates between interactions and empowerment. However, Huang, Shen, Lin, and Chang (2007) note the bloggers’ interaction-oriented activities are to perpetuate conversation. They suggest the interaction is determined by the motivations of self-expression, commenting on other blogs, and life documenting.

One other pertinent point to ponder about motivations is bloggers sometimes exhibit commitment failure because they quit blogging. In a study of 22,000 blogs over a 15-month period, Qazvinian, Rassoulian, and Adibi (2006) found nearly 80% of all bloggers quit blogging after one month or less. They suggest probability of blogging longevity becomes greater the longer a person blogs.

Research questions

The theoretical framework and what is already known about blogger motivations raise two main questions about Christian bloggers. Because motivation is the most important predecessor leading to behavior (Huang, Shen, Lin and Chang, 2007), the aim of this study was to find out what spurred Christians to create a blog, why they regularly blog and why they maintain their blogs. The objective was to qualitatively explore the impact of potential motivational rewards from the blogger’s perspective. Therefore the two main research questions are:

RQ1: What motivates Christians to create a blog?

RQ2: What motivates Christian bloggers to maintain their blogs?

Methodology

There is currently no way to tell how many Christian bloggers are in the world. This study utilized Christian social media groups to tender a call for participation in the survey questionnaire to be sent via email. The four-week call was submitted via networking sites to six different Christian online groups: 2 on LinkedIn, 3 on Facebook and 1 on Google+. While the call was available to members of these six groups, how many people actually saw it is unknown. Facebook does not send email updates of group postings; LinkedIn does send email updates if the member asks for the updates on a weekly or daily basis. Google+ sends email notifications of new postings as they happen, and the member can reply by email as well. Therefore, notification of the call was available as a posting in each group to a total of about 8,000 members, and by email notification potentially to three groups’ members, both LinkedIn groups and the one Google+ group.

Those Christian bloggers interested in participating in the survey questionnaire were asked to email the researcher their interest and indicate how long they had been blogging. The 56 Christian blogger respondents to the call were scrutinized according to the following criteria for participation:

1) to be Christian, although they did not have to publically proclaim their Christianity on their blog profile;

2) to have at least three months experience blogging so they would have a sense of the rigors of blogging as well as progressing past that critical first month milestone when bloggers have a tendency to quit;

3) to post to their blogs on a regular basis at least once per month, or if they post less than once per month they needed at least three years blogging experience.

Of the 56 respondents, 44 qualified. All bloggers have been given pseudonyms and their information was freely offered for use in this study and for publication.

The survey questionnaire had 10 demographic questions about denomination affiliation, church attendance, satisfaction with their religious faith, reading their Bible and religious materials, the influence their faith has on their decision-making, state or country of residence, name of blog, length of time blogging, how often they blog, and whether or not they declare their Christianity on their blog profile. The main open-ended question in the survey was about why they started a blog. Two related questions were also asked about whether or not they have considered quitting, and why they continued to blog. Questions were asked about the bloggers’ goals and how they accomplish those goals, because goals have been found to relate to motivations (Ford, 1992; Pintrich, 2000). In the series of open-ended questions the bloggers were asked their top three reasons for blogging regularly. That question appeared first so ideally the respondent would have the opportunity to express their intent for blogging without prompting from the documented motivations from previous research in a later question.

Christian bloggers were asked using an ordinal scale, the numbers 0-4 where 0=No and 4=Very Strong Yes, to identify the motivations that resonated with them the majority of time they blogged from a list of 24 documented, blogger motivations (see Table 9) garnered from 11 studies of both Christian bloggers and bloggers from previous research not identified as Christians. This final question helped the researcher to compare the number of times previously documented motivations appeared in the bloggers’ answers to open-ended questions about creating and maintaining their blogs (see Table 2) as well as what they wanted to accomplish with their blogs. The bloggers were asked to state why the motivation (from the list of 24 motivations) resonated with them so the researcher could compare those reasons for blogging to the answers to the open-ended questions. Other questions asked are beyond the scope of this paper.

Results

Participants and their demographics

26 women and 18 men responded from Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States. More of them post to their blogs at least once a week than any other schedule (see Table 3). Matt indicated his regular schedule is posting at least once per day, and sometimes more than once.

These Christian bloggers’ experience ranges from just over 3 months to 17 years (see Table 4), and the majority have more than three years experience.  One man has been blogging since 1995, indicating he was a blogger before the term was coined.

Except for one who did not answer, they are all either very influenced or influenced by their religious beliefs when making decisions. Christian bloggers attend church more than once a week (18), or at least once a week (20), in Assemblies of God, Baptist, Catholic, Christian Missionary and Alliance, Church of England, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Non-Denominational, Pentecostal, Presbyterian churches, and one man attends a cyber-church once a week. 5 indicated they never attend. Two of the five said they were dissatisfied with their religious faith, one indicated her illness prevented her from going to church; the other two did not give a reason why they did not attend church.

All bloggers indicated they read scripture or religious materials at least once per week. 25 Christian bloggers say they read scripture or religious materials more than once per day. 15 say they read it once per day, and 4 say they read it more than once per week. Each respondent was asked how many visitors they received each month, and how that statistic was tracked. The number ranged from zero visitors to more than one million. Two had no notion how many visitors came to their blog each month. The others used some sort of tracking, usually with Google Analytics or some other free tracking device. The blogger with more than a million visitors per month was the only one using a paid tracking service. One woman said she had more than 10,000 page views (total number of pages viewed by visitors) each month, but did not track her visitors.

The bloggers indicated a specific target audience that aligned with their reasons to blog, goals for their blog, and blog content. One woman started a blog to keep friends and family updated about her husband’s illness and designed posts accordingly. Sometimes she writes devotionals and posts about her faith instead of what the doctors reported about her husband’s illness, with friends and family in mind. The bloggers who had written books, focused on content designed for the target market of the book. As a whole, the Christian bloggers were targeting Christians as well as non-Christians about some facet of their faith.

Motivations for creating a blog

The first research question asks what motivates a Christian to create a blog, and the findings indicate motivations for Christian bloggers are diverse (see Table 5). However, 21 Christian bloggers indicated reasons that had spiritual underpinnings for creating a blog. Four indicated the blog was in obedience to God’s call, and more specifically to help others (5), encourage others (6), teach (3), illustrate biblical principles (5), reflect the work of the Holy Spirit (6), promote their writing (6), and be held accountable to stay in God’s word (1). One woman explains, “I wanted a way to connect with readers and provide some fresh insight into their Christian walk daily. Second, I wanted to be held accountable by my own readers so that I would be sure to stay in God’s word on a daily basis.” As one man said, “I felt God telling me I should trust Him in what I’d put in the blog” (see Table 5).

The bloggers indicate they understand God to be using them as extensions of Him. Tina said, “I just let Jesus speak through me and I do feel my audience feels my hug across the airwaves.” Three mentioned ministering to others played a role as a reason to create a blog. Rick said his blog “started as an outflow of my choir ministry singing at church and leading prayer before we went up to sing.” Nita said, “The Wholly Sanctified site is our ministry to others who are being called to be ‘set apart’ for God.” Three of the bloggers indicated their writing skills were a gift from God; as Chrissy said, she wanted to “Glorify God through the gift of writing He gave me, connect with others and be a city on a hill for those who are not just alone, but feeling lonely.” Lena writes intercessory prayers in the form of letters to God, and her church family encouraged her to write them down, so her blog was born. Rick said, “The personal touch helps people to feel as though their prayers matter and it is not some phony thing.” A blog is “a way to share what God is teaching me and to share my writing,” Naomi wrote. Others viewed it as their calling. Rainie wanted to reach out to Christians who had divorced and remarried so they could have “successful marriages.”

Other reasons for creating a blog were not so Christian-oriented. “I have a lot to say and my blog gives me the opportunity,” Blu said. Two women wanted free books. One in New Zealand started a book review blog: “my reason was completely selfish”, she noted, and qualified it by saying most of the books she reviewed were by Christian authors, but “books are so expensive in New Zealand and my blog satisfies my craving to read.” Matt started his blog as a work tool and for personal reasons “as a place where I could share thoughts on software and some of the things I was building.” Jess began blogging before the word was coined to send updates of organizational changes at work.

6 bloggers said they wanted to promote their books or business, and four indicated they wanted to build a social network platform for their books. A woman stated, “I wrote a book and decided to try to promote it and my writing ministry by blogging.  It is cheap advertising!” Two bloggers offer writing advice and help for Christian authors. Anthony mentioned it helped maintain “brand,” and Lew said he wanted to “add value to his website” by sharing his gifts and beliefs.

Bloggers were asked about their goals for their blogs and what they did to accomplish those goals. Because goals are a cognitive depiction of what a person is trying to accomplish the bloggers’ goals compared with reasons for blog creation helped determine the underlying intention for the blog. Some bloggers gave multiple goals, from two to six each, but 18 bloggers focused their blog’s purpose to one goal (see Table 6).

26 bloggers indicated Christian-oriented goals for their blogs, including “To help people understand and accept the reality of God’s existence and Jesus as Messiah” and “To give people biblical truths, and the opportunity to internalize those truths.” The goals of some bloggers clarified their initial blog creation reason, such as Blu, who said he “had a lot to say,” but whose goal was “I believe God told me to help people who are abused and addicted.” Although Nan had indicated she wanted to promote her book, her goal was “Give awareness to my book which shares hope and help and how to know Christ as your Savior.” Jay said he did not feel called to be a preacher, but he stated his goal was “to reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine, to prophesy, teach, and preach the Gospel as it is laid upon my heart by the Holy Ghost.” Maye wanted to first see if she could maintain the discipline of posting once a week as her blog creation reason with the goal to share what she has learned about scripture over the years.

The ones who created their blogs for business reasons indicated goals of keeping track of work progress, updating company changes, providing information for target customers, leading and managing according to defined business strategies, and promoting a coaching business. One woman indicated her blog was a training ground so she could create other business blogs and sites. Other goals were book sales, book reviews, and to practice writing.

Strategies voiced to accomplish goals were as varied as the goals (see Table 7). Christian bloggers had specific ideas, such as the most mentioned: Blogging daily or frequently, listening to and obeying God’s lead, gathering and sharing trustworthy information, making the blog practical as possible, praying about the blog, and responding to every comment (see Table 7).

Some Christian bloggers struggled for balance between initial goals for creating the blog and maintaining their blogs. One man described it this way, “Initially I began a blog as more of a hobby than anything but it quickly became a platform from which to share my faith in Christ.” Similarly, 13 bloggers indicated their initial goal for their blog changed after they had been blogging for a while. Beryl said her husband is concerned about adverse reactions to what she posts, “I don’t agree,” she said, “I’m courageous in Christ for whatever may happen to me, but he’s being very protective and I’m trying not [to] be a rebellious wife! So I now have little impetus to write on my blog regularly.” Others have switched focus to promoting their books.

One man who used his blog as therapy after a long illness said he is now more focused on “how faith influences life.” Matt said when he originally started blogging, his posts were very structured but now he is much more laid back and he posts what he wants when he wants, “I just want to publish because I enjoy writing.” His blog’s theme has now widened to include his family life.

Christian Blogger Motivations for Maintaining a Blog

The second research question was: What motivates Christians to maintain their blogs? Answering the open-ended question about blogging regularly (maintaining their blog) (see Table 8), 14 bloggers said they blog to encourage others or encourage and help others, nine said sharing the Gospel and their faith, and four indicated a desire to teach. Eight attributed their love of writing a gift from God. “I feel obligated by my gift of writing,” said Rick, “to share that hour or more of time a week aside from singing in the choir.” Kat said, “I only blog when I have something I believe is valuable for my readers, I don’t tend to post just to post… I do it because I love to write.” Isla said, “It keeps my writing skills in tune.” Compared with the 10 previously documented motivations (see Table 1), a few Christian bloggers mentioned that staying in touch (3), clarify thoughts (2), and documenting life (1) were important motivations for blogging regularly (see Table 8).

Consistency in blogging is a tactic voiced not only in accomplishing their goals, but also as a reason for maintaining their blogs for their audience. Verna, whose blog is about her husband’s illness and their journey, said it is necessary to be consistent so people will not lose interest. Jan spoke of the importance of a consistent blogging pace, and Maye explains it is good discipline. Matt said it helped his companies to be more successful. Toncy expressed it this way, “If I miss a week, my readers message and email me wondering if they personally missed it.” Chrissy said, “I blog regularly because I find it’s easier to maintain an audience if you are consistent with the frequency and timing of your posts.” The need to blog regularly is important to Lola because she “found users like regular posts and ‘experts’ recommend at least three posts per week.”

Another reason given for regular blogging from nine bloggers is they want to maintain and build readership, and five mentioned relationship building. Leah said she wanted to establish a relationship with other bloggers, and Genna said it was so she could maintain a connection with her followers. Berg said, “I want to serve my readers.”

Identifying motivations from the list of 24 blogging motivations

When asked to identify specific motivations from a provided list of motivations, Christian bloggers found more motivations that resonated with them than they originally expressed in answering the open-ended questions. Teaching and encouraging seem to be the predominant motivations for 43 Christian bloggers (see Table 9). The majority of the bloggers also indicated influencing the thoughts and feelings of others resonated as a reason to maintain their blogs by way of their reasons to promote their books, encourage and help others, and sharing the Gospel and their faith. Clarifying thoughts was a motivator for 26 Christian bloggers, but only one blogger mentioned it as a specific reason in the open-ended question section.

The least motivating factor for 43 Christian bloggers was supporting themselves with income from their blog. Lola said it definitely was not a factor because she had made less than twenty dollars in the past 18 months. Only one blogger indicated income from the blog as a motivation. This finding is consistent with two other studies. In McCullagh’s (2008) study, 1.6% indicated that making money was the main reason to blog and 4.6% said it was a minor reason to blog. In Ekdale’s et al. (2010) study of 66 political bloggers, income from blogs was indicated as an average 0.95 on an 11 point scale from 0 (not at all) to 10 (very much). Twenty-four bloggers said that sharing emotional information – documented in three studies (see Table 1) – was not a motivator, and sharing thoughts hard to say out loud did not motivate (although that motive was documented in Nardi’s et al. study). Twenty-seven Christian bloggers indicated that life-documenting was a motivator when prompted by the list, but this motivation was mentioned by one of the 44 bloggers in the open-ended question section, as “a legacy for my kids”.

Creating community, which was documented in 10 studies as a motive for blogging, resonated with 36 bloggers. This contrasts with the answers to the open-ended question, where only five mentioned a relationship-building motive. 15 bloggers agreed that receiving feedback was a motivation, but only two mentioned it in response to the open-ended question. Gaye explained, “The feedback I receive gives me hope for humanity and I spread that as well. It is a win/win for me and my readers.” Phil mentioned that feedback was how he accomplished his goal for his blog, because constructive criticism is an “impetus for moving forward.”

Responses to a related question about quitting their blog are not as varied as responses to the other questions. 15 Christian bloggers have considered quitting. Of those, seven have taken breaks or “a sabbatical” from their blog. Jess, the one who has blogged since 1995, said he had considered it many times, but would keep going because “I’m a writer, blogging weekly is an excellent way for me to give outlet to my creative urge, and to set out my opinions and learn from the responses.” Two bloggers, who have been blogging for five years or more, are seriously considering quitting, and one is in the middle of his sabbatical. “Many times,” said Matt, who blogs every day. “I think about this probably at least once a week. I consider it part and parcel of being a creative.”

Discussion

It is worth noting here that these 44 bloggers are members of Christian writers’ and bloggers’ online groups, which suggests that their faith is important to their online presence and blogging behaviors. When asked what topics they blog about, their responses show that their themes are not solely focused on Christian issues. The topics are myriad, such as life as a caregiver or entrepreneurship, family happenings, politics, entertainment, storytelling, current events, eating, working out, missions, nature, godly relationships, scriptural applications, and justice, among many others. These bloggers list a wide spectrum of blogging topics within their own blogs. Gigi blogs about health, career workshops, finances, faith, and holiday recipes among others, while Lena blogs about women’s issues such as self-esteem, and other issues such as illness and hospitalization, worry, anxiety, bullying, friendship, depression and celebration.

Within each blogger’s list of topics blogged about, 39 of the 44 bloggers mention a Christian perspective in their blogging, with faith finding some influence in topics chosen. This aligns with the assertion by 43 bloggers that their faith influences or very much influences their decision-making process. This finding begs further research to see if this holds true for other Christians who blog.

The 44 Christian bloggers in this study suggested 32 different reasons to create a blog (see Table 5). Compared to motivations found in previous studies (see Table 1) similar motivations are present but not to the same degree for Christian bloggers. Where community building was prevalent across ten previous studies, only five Christian bloggers indicated it as a motivation factor for blog maintenance. Self-expression was found in nine previous studies, but just one Christian blogger indicated it as a motivation factor.

A few of these motives coincided with previously documented motivations (compare Table 1). These bloggers seem more interested in reaching out to encourage and help than building a community, using life experiences as illustrations to make a point rather than to document their life. They view blogging as a medium to express their thoughts and use words to uplift rather than to manipulate opinions, but they do not use the term “self-expression.” They were more concerned about sharing their thoughts and experiences as illustrations, and what they had learned from scripture to help and encourage. Isla said, “To reach others and share my experience after my sister’s kidnapping and the hope I found through my relationship with Jesus.” Therefore, self-expression does resonate with these Christian bloggers through expressing their thoughts, views, and opinions on their blogs, which recurred in their answers to the open-ended questions overall. This contrasts with Cheong, Halavais, and Kwon’s (2008) conclusion that self-expression itself was a motivating factor. The Christian bloggers studied here do not indicate that life-documenting is of major importance to them, although four bloggers pointed out  that writing about Christian life experiences helped them to accomplish their goals for their blogs and to illustrate points in posts to help and encourage others. The difference here could be attributed to the difference between content analysis of a blog post describing a life experience, and a stated intent of sharing a life experience to encourage hope in Jesus.

However, self-expression is viewed as obedience to God rather than an outlet for emotions. Influencing others seems to be viewed more as persuasion and expression of faith to encourage rather than to proselytize or shift readers’ thinking from one side of an issue to the other side. Miller and Shepherd (2004) argue that relationship building and social control are the foundational tools used to manipulate opinions of others. The bloggers in this study were more concerned about sharing what they had learned from scripture to help and encourage rather than manipulating opinions. Impacting the thoughts and feelings of others did resonate with them, but their answers to the questions seemed more focused on helping and encouraging others. Raine, for example, desired “to help other Christian couples who remarry have successful marriages.”

They take their authority from God seriously. As Jay said, “Blogging has been one of the best mediums (sic) for me and has not required I jump through the hoops of seminary and accepted methods of learning the Gospel by today’s ‘scholars’.” Overall, the findings of this study support Campbell’s findings of Christian blogger authority.

Connecting with others or creating community does not seem to resonate with the bloggers in the current study. This contrasts with Nardi’s et al (2004) finding that maintaining a community forum is one of five strong motivations for bloggers. It contrasts with findings from Campbell (2010), Hutchings (2011), and Myers (2010) who all suggest affiliation and community are driving desires for Christians to cluster online, and Chen (2012) whose study of women bloggers suggests need for affiliation mediates finding a voice by blogging. These community and affiliation motivations did not appear as top reasons to blog, but only appeared eight times in overall answers to the 12 open-ended questions. Nine bloggers indicated it as a resonating motivation in the last question of 24 listed motivations. Further research may help to clarify this difference in findings.

Rather than chronicling their Christian life or documenting life in general, these Christian bloggers are teaching, encouraging, illustrating biblical principles, and reflecting the work of the Holy Spirit. These voiced motives seem to contradict the concern of some scholars that distance, inherent in computer-mediated communication, promotes isolation or a tendency to care less about other people (Alcántara & Authurs, 2010). Instead, the bloggers voice concern for others, and express desires to help fellow Christians and unbelievers alike, which seems to relate positively to influencing thoughts and feelings of others. In turn, the need to influence seems to relate positively to the gratification of connecting to others without a definitive requirement for feedback. These Christian bloggers use their blogs to create messages designed to help and encourage others, and seem to be gratified in that act, trusting God to use their blogs to reach others.

The three least motivating factors for these Christian bloggers – sharing emotional information, documenting life, and sharing thoughts that are hard to say out loud – seem to contrast with what other studies found to be influencing factors. One motivation – making money from their blogs – both Christian bloggers and bloggers from previous research seem to find the least motivating.

Conclusion

There are a few limitations in this study, and one is that this was a small sample. Posting the call to participate several times in each group rather than just once would probably elicit more responses. Nine (20%) respondents indicated the desire to sell and promote their books. This finding might be distorted considering three of the groups invited to participate in the study were Christian writers’ groups on Google+, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Only one blogger stated that publishers required a platform before signing a contract with a writer, but this may have been a background motive for other author-bloggers. Further research with a larger sample may help to clarify this question.

Some scholars, such as Chen (2012), specify that conducting content analysis rather than direct communication with the blogger allows for the broadest motivational factors to be uncovered, because there may be motivations to blog that the blogger is not aware of. Because the results of this study do not coincide with previous studies, future research should compare content analysis of participating blogs with these findings. It would be interesting to see how the content of each blog reflects the personalities and expressed motivations of the bloggers in this study.

The majority of the bloggers in this study have never considered quitting, but 34% have considered it and did not. Considering the experience of the Christian bloggers studied (see Table 4), the findings of this study may help spur continuing study of why Christian bloggers apparently do not give up on blogging as quickly as other types of bloggers. Qazvinian, Rassoulian, and Adibi’s (2012) research was on Persian bloggers. Extending their study to Christian bloggers could help verify if Christian bloggers really do have greater blogging longevity than bloggers in general, and help explain why, especially as Christian bloggers do not seem to blog for the money. Future research might also consider different motivations among different denominations, although motivations do not seem to differ among bloggers from different countries.

In conclusion, this study is an effort to analyze Christian blogger motivations in contrast with known motivations of bloggers as a whole, and Christian blogger motivations previously documented by Cheong et al (2008) and Campbell (2010). This study can lead to further research in that arena. This research should be considered a small step toward understanding Christian blogger motivations because it demonstrates differences in motivation findings within Christian blogger research, opening up new questions. This field of study is as vast as cyberspace.

Appendix A

Tables of Results

Table 1 Each blogger motive found in previous research, the

number of studies is indicated on the right.

Motive No.
Creating community

10

Express opinions to influence others

10

Self-expression

9

Document one’s life

6

Seek other’s opinions and feedback

4

Teach/share knowledge or skills

4

Stay in touch or update people

4

Share emotional information

3

Self-reflection, clarify thoughts

3

Make money

2

 

Table 2 Comparison of motivations found in current study to motivations found in previous research.

Motivations for blog maintenance in current study

Motivations found in previous research

Encourage / teach

20

Teach: Found in 4 studies

Relationship Building

5

Community: Found in 10 studies

Update friends / family

3

Found in 4 studies

Clarify thoughts

2

Found in 3 studies

Document life

1

Found in 6 studies

Self expression

1

Found in 9 studies

 

Table 3 Bloggers post regularly.

Frequency of posting

No.

More than once per day*

0

Every day

3

Every other day

7

Once a week

21

Twice a month

7

Once  a month

3

Less often than that

3

Total

44

*Two bloggers said they sometimes posted more than once per

day, but the practice was not a regular schedule.

 

Table 4 Christian blogger experience.

Length of time blogging No. of bloggers
1 year or less

6

2 years

9

3-4 years

12

5 years or longer

17

Total

44

 

Table 5 The results from the open-ended question: Why did you decide to start a blog?

Reasons to create blog and number of bloggers that indicated them

Leave legacy for kids

1

Connect

2

Impact thoughts/feelings of others

1

Keep people updated about me

3

Entertain myself/others

1

Love to write/blog

3

Store my writings and data

1

Add Christian perspective to events

3

Express myself publically

1

Interact with people I wouldn’t ordinarily

3

Motivate people to action

1

Teach

3

Added value to website

1

Build a platform

4

To help other remarried Christians

1

Friends/readers asked me to

4

Brand

1

God’s calling

4

Help other authors

1

Share thoughts

5

So I would be held accountable

1

Illustrate biblical principles

5

Answer readers’ questions

1

Encourage with my posts

6

Book reviews/free books

2

Reflect the work of the Holy Spirit

6

Clarify thoughts

2

Promote my business, book or product

6

Express myself w/o interruptions

2

Share Jesus

6

 

Table 6 Responses to the open ended question:

What did you originally intend your blog to accomplish?

 

Original goals

Keep track of business things

1

Online journal

3

Build web presence

1

Promote book/business

4

Update friends/ family

1

Teach

4

Share thoughts

1

Practice writing

5

Book reviews

1

Ministry

5

Free books

2

Impact thoughts/feelings of others

7

Public voice

2

Share Jesus/faith

7

Connect w/others

2

Encourage / help others

14

Glorify God with my gift

3

 

Table 7 Responses to the open-ended question: What do you do to accomplish your goal?

Activities to help accomplish goals

Contests

1

Encourage Christian writers

2

Business strategy

1

Illustrate Biblical truths/principles

2

Trial & error

1

Obey God’s lead

2

Training

1

Write about experiences

4

Use social media

1

Write many book reviews

4

Personal attention to commenters

2

Pray

5

Newsletters

2

Produce practical trustworthy info

6

Devotions

2

Write about Christian things

7

Bible study

2

Obey God’s lead

7

Feedback/critiques

2

Blog frequently

8

 

Table 8 Responses to the open-ended question: What are the top three reasons you blog regularly?

Motivations for regular blogging

Communicate God’s truth

1

Please God

3

Earn income

1

Accountability

3

Speaking engagements

1

Builds credibility/interest

3

Get people thinking

1

Share thoughts

4

Document life

1

Regular schedule

4

Self expression

1

Brand awareness

4

Write about current affairs

1

God’s calling

5

Help understand Christian walk

1

Connect / build relationships

5

Clarify thoughts

2

Love to write / blog

8

Exercise spiritual gift

2

Share the Gospel / faith

9

Communicate God’s love

3

Promote book / company

9

Awareness

3

Maintain and build readership

9

Update friends/family

3

Encourage / help others

15

 


 

Table 9 Responses of the 44 Christian bloggers in this study to the 24 motivation prompts found in 11 studies of blogger motivations. The frequency of answers with 0 considered “no”, and 1 through 4 considered “yes” how each motivation resonated with each blogger the majority of the time they were blogging. Some bloggers did not respond at all to a motivation, and those were not recorded which is why answers total less than 44 for some motives.

Frequency of motivations to regularly blog

Number of bloggers answering with 0 = no and 1-4 = yes

Motivation

0

1

2

3

4

Teach and encourage with my posts

1

1

1

8

33

Illustrate biblical principles

3

1

4

9

27

Reflect the work of the Holy Spirit

4

1

2

9

28

Impact thoughts/feelings of others

7

3

8

6

20

Interact with people I might not ordinarily

8

2

6

8

20

Motivate people to action

5

5

7

8

19

Promote my business, book or other product

13

4

4

6

17

Clarify thoughts through blogging

9

6

4

8

17

Receive/look forward to feedback

16

7

5

1

15

Control of content and people who comment

12

4

4

9

15

Connect with others who think/feel similarly as I do

7

2

10

12

13

Express myself in public

9

6

6

11

12

Add Christian perspective to political and/or public events

15

6

3

8

12

Keep people updated about me

12

8

3

11

10

Create community/personal networking

9

8

13

5

9

Release emotional tension

16

4

11

4

8

Express myself w/o interruptions

17

7

6

5

9

Store my writings and data

15

8

5

7

9

Entertain myself

14

11

6

5

8

Chronicle my Christian life

13

5

11

11

4

Share emotional info without expectation / obligation of immediate response from others

24

10

4

2

4

Chronicle my life, not necessarily my Christian life

20

7

5

9

3

Share thoughts hard to say out loud

21

11

8

3

1

Support self by the income

36

4

1

2

1

 

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About the Author  

Gina Burgess served as editor of The Tensas Gazette in Northeast Louisiana, and Lifestyles editor at her hometown newspaper, The Picayune Item, in Picayune, Mississippi, as well as an editor for several other publications. Her first love is using her God-given talent to shine a light in a dark world so she has been teaching Bible studies since 1972, and blogging since 2005. That led to her first published book Refreshment in Refuge from WestBow Press in 2011. She is a weekly columnist at Studylight.org and a bi-monthly columnist at LivingBetter50.com. Since 2009 she has developed and maintained the Christian Authors, Editors, Publishers, and Bloggers LinkedIn group. Gina has 16 years’ experience in online community development and moderating Christian forums.

VOLUME 2, ISSUE 2: WENDI BELLAR, HEIDI A. CAMPBELL, KYONG JAMES CHO, ANDREA TERRY, RUTH TSURIA, AYA YADLIN-SEGAL AND JORDAN ZIEMER

 

Reading Religion in Internet Memes

Wendi Bellar, Heidi A. Campbell, Kyong James Cho, Andrea Terry, Ruth Tsuria, Aya Yadlin-Segal and Jordan Ziemer 

Texas A&M University (USA)

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Abstract

This article provides a preliminary report of a study of religious-oriented internet memes and seeks to identify the common communication styles, interpretive practices and messages about religion communicated in this digital medium.  These findings argue that memes provide an important sphere for investigating and understanding religious meaning-making online, which expresses key attributes of participatory culture and trends towards lived religion.

Keywords: humor, internet, lived religion, memes, participatory culture

To cite this article: Wendi Bellar, Heidi A. Campbell, Kyong James Cho, Andrea Terry, Ruth Tsuria, Aya Yadlin-Segal and Jordan Ziemer (2013): “Reading Religion in internet Memes”, Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture, volume 2, issue 2, accessed from http://jrmdc.com/

Editor’s Note: “Reading Religion in Internet Memes” is published by the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture as a Research Report. Research Reports are not submitted to peer review prior to publication, but are revised in consultation with the journal editor.

 

Introduction

This paper presents the preliminary findings from a comparative study of religious-oriented internet memes. While scholars within internet studies have begun to give attention to memes as a unique form of online communication (i.e. Shifman 2013; Börzsei 2013) no published scholarly work on the study of religion and internet memes could be found at the offset of this research. Therefore a need exists for a general mapping of religious-oriented memes and issues raised by researching such memes. These issues are related to communication styles and interpretive practices associated with memes.

A research team was assembled to investigate a range of religious-oriented memes and genres in order to identify the different approaches used in the construction, meaning-making and circulation of such memes online. The intention of this exploratory study was to help identify key methodological issues, which would need to be considered before undertaking wider-scale systematic study of the area.  Here the aim is to present an overview of this initial survey and highlight a range of ways religion is expressed through memes online. This report introduces several key concepts and a methodological approach we believe is fruitful for the study of religious-oriented internet memes. It also presents preliminary findings about the intentions behind religious-oriented meme practice, how these memes manifest traits of lived religion online and highlights areas for future investigation in the study of religious-oriented memes.

Framing Concepts

This project is framed by the understanding that religious-oriented memes function as expressions of participatory culture and exemplify trends towards lived religion online. In order to unpack this underlying assumption an overview of core concepts is offered.

Memes

A meme is an idea, belief or behavior that is spread through a given culture or social system through social or information sharing. The notion of meme as a thought that is replicated and spread like a “virus” throughout a given cultural system is drawn from Richard Dawkin’s (1989) discussions in The Selfish Gene.  This idea has been closely associated with discussions of internet memes, used to describe the way digital images and messages are spread quickly and modified into new forms of communication online.

Internet memes are highly visual and emotive forms of online communication employing popular culture images with succinct messages to communicate in often humorous ways. They often employ images from popular culture, such as the photo of Sean Bean as Boromir in Lord of the Rings whose “One does not simply walk into Mordor” quote has birthed hundreds of “one does not simply…” spin-off memes with the help of sites such as quickmeme.com and memegenerator.com (http://memegenerator.net/One-Does-Not-Simply-A). Yet memes can also emerge from online culture creating new genres and popular meanings unto themselves. Take, for instance, the Lolcats genre and the famous “I Can Haz Cheezburger?” meme. Its roots are said to have originated from a 4chan message board site where users would post weekly cute cat pictures to which phone texting-like language was added that became known as Lolspeak (Börzsei 2013). Lolspeak and Lolcats quickly spread across the internet and became a unique communicative style and even a popular culture franchise. Memes therefore rely both on popular icons and media images as well as recognizable language patterns and sayings that can be appropriated by individual users in creative ways to communicate concise and often humorous messages. It is important to note that the lifespan of internet memes is dependent on their ability to evolve throughout replication, imitation, and their ability to be adapted into new ideas and contexts.

Internet memes also typically rely on different genres of humor to communicate meaning.  Shifman’s (2012) work on humor in internet memes identifies several common categories employed in meme communication including playfulness, incongruity and superiority (p. 196).  Playfulness is described as humor for humor’s sake and invites the audience to take part in a game. Incongruity creates humor in the juxtaposition of texts and images that do not make sense together, often in the form of puns or play on words. Superiority refers to humor at the expense of an “other”, and serves to maintain or build up the identity of the “superior” group by differentiating them from others.

Shifman’s (2012) work is used here to help decode the meaning and impact of various religious-oriented internet memes. Here “religious-oriented internet memes” refers to memes circulated on the internet whose images and text focus on a variety of religious themes and/or religious traditions. Discussion of different genres of religious-oriented internet memes is found later in the text.

Participatory Culture

Paying attention to internet memes is important, according to Knobel and Lankshear (2007), because they provide insight into how culture is produced and transmitted within new media contexts. Jenkins (2006) calls the process of cultural production and consumption within new media “participatory culture” in which individuals—not just the mass media—create digital cultural artifacts that are shared and circulated throughout the internet. Instead of a passive audience, new media is populated by prosumers, as online individuals serve as both producers and consumers of images and texts simultaneously. Meme creation and decoding practices exemplify this “participatory culture”. Jenkins (2006) argues that the power of digital culture lies in offering people new opportunities to engage in interaction, co-creation and collaborative authorship. For example, meme creators are able to draw images, texts and ideas from multiple sources to create new texts that remix original meanings, and so are freed from authorial intention and agenda.

Thus memes provide a medium in which the user can make sense and meaning of their beliefs through creating visual expressions of religion.  These are then negotiated and reshaped by others who replicate and reinterpret these memes within their own understandings and experiences. Religious-oriented internet memes offer an interesting form for examination of how religious understanding is produced, consumed and circulated online. Analyzing which cultural artifacts and ideas are used within religious-oriented memes – humorous or otherwise – reveals how various religious practitioners make sense of religion in their lives and how the public perceives of faith in contemporary society. Therefore internet memes provide a unique medium for studying religious meaning-making and knowledge about religion within participatory culture.

Memes as Lived Religion

Internet memes also provide interesting insights into lived religion. Lived religion is a process in which people draw from religious sources to make sense of their world, and experience the sacred in everyday practices (McGuire 2008; Ammerman 2006). Lived religion is an approach that sees religion as dynamic, experiential and rooted in the daily life of its practitioners. Campbell (2010) suggests that lived religion can also be understood as the outcome of media usage, as individuals use resources from contemporary media culture to help enact their beliefs and spiritual meaning making.  In this study we see new media as facilitating the process of meaning-making and as key tools helping individuals enact and express their personal religious beliefs. New media technologies enable users to create, reformat and interpret content and thus transmit their beliefs to a broader public. Similarly to lived religion, the internet offers a dynamic cultural environment within which user-generated cultural objects such as memes can be created and shared (Husted 2012).

Religious-oriented internet memes exemplify the traits of lived religion, as language and images of both a sacred and secular nature are assembled online, played with, modified, and reassembled by people to create personalized understandings or expressions of the religious (Hall 1997). Religious-oriented memes can be used to affirm religious beliefs and identities in playful ways, as tools of critique, and to highlight popular debates and assumptions about religion. Memes represent an expression of lived religion, as memetic communication and meaning making is moderated by individual creativity, preferences and connections, over the accountability of bounded religious communities and institutions.

From this discussion of framing concepts, we see participatory culture provides a conceptual basis for looking at meaning making processes of lived religion, communicated through religious-oriented internet memes.

Methodology 

Using a case study approach, each research team member investigated a specific meme platform or collection of memes focused on a particular religious tradition, figure or discourse in order to document how religion is portrayed and framed in a variety of memetic contexts. Each case study focused on a selective sampling of memes around a particular theme tailored to that specific study, which appeared online within a one-year time frame. Through online observation using visual and narrative analysis, each case study analyzed its sample of memes in relation to three specific areas: meme construction, use of humor to frame religious discourse, and audience reception. To analyse meme construction, attention was given to how selected memes have been produced. This involved visually decoding the origins of particular images.  Additionally, attention was given to texts used and how they were adapted, assembled and remixed to create particular messages about religion. Here Jenkins’s (2006) concept of participatory culture was employed to consider how memes’ production and the flexibility of the online environment encouraged and helped create different genres of religious-oriented internet memes.

Next, attention was given to what forms of humor were employed within particular collections, and how this influenced the messages about religion communicated. Shifman’s (2012) categories of meme humor were used to consider how humor can frame ideas communicated about religion in these contexts. Finally, circulations of meaning and religious framings were considered in relation to how memes are read by various internet publics.

Team members investigated public discourse and responses to three specific memes found within their case studies, analyzing audience comments posted on the meme platform and related forums, and conducting online interviews with meme creators in order to learn what the intended message of the meme was, and creators’ perceptions of audience interpretations of these memes. Attention was given to the ways religious memes may communicate multiple or conflicting messages to different audiences. The purpose of this three-fold approach was to identify the key areas scholars must consider when they seek to read and analyze the range of visual, textual and interpretive elements found within religious memes.

Case Studies

Six case studies were conducted, highlighting a range of meme genres dealing with a variety of religious topics and religions. Each case study involved an analysis of a dozen or more religious-oriented memes focused around a specific genre or theme appearing on the internet within the past year. A brief summary of each is provided here describing the focus, sampling strategy and motivations for investigation of each study.

Advice God

“Advice God” memes are those featuring an image of the Judeo-Christian God, as depicted in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. This is situated on a background of blue and yellow triangles typically used for the “advice animals” meme series (Know Your Meme 2011), featuring texts that represent a dominant trait or archetype of the character featured, such as Courage Wolf or Socially Awkward Penguin. A dozen memes were chosen from select websites (memegenrator.com, knowyourmeme.com & ranker.com), a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Advice-God/132179030171972) and a blog (http://www.bannedinhollywood.com/25-great-moments-in-the-god-meme/, no longer available online), all of which featured the “Advice God” meme. The sampling strategy focused on identifying memes with “historical” or textual value (i.e. the first meme created) and where the audience reaction to the memes could be clearly identified. This was done to explore the anti-religious themes or critiques of religion often presented in this genre of memes.

Buddy Christ Memes

Buddy Christ memes are inspired by the film Dogma (1999), which presented the image of Buddy Christ as friendly substitution for “wholly depressing” traditional Catholic crucifix (a line spoken in the film by Cardinal Glick, played by George Carlin).  Twenty-one memes were collected between August and September 2013 by combining a Google image search (key word: “Buddy Christ”), a Christian Meme Facebook page search (www.facebook.com/MemesForJesus), and a Google search that led to an Episcopalian rector’s blog (Hooper, no date).  Memes which expressly questioned or affirmed religious authority were selected for investigation.

Christian Memes on Facebook

Memes featured on the Christian Meme Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/MemesForJesus), appearing between August and September 2013, provided the basis for a thematic analysis of framing of Christianity within memes. The first 12 memes posted during this timeframe constituted the sample, and provided insight into how Christians may use memes to express and make sense of their everyday religious lives.

Mitt Romney and Mormon Memes

This collection of memes involved religious themes surrounding Mitt Romney’s faith and popular perceptions of Mormonism during the 2012 US Presidential Election. Romney became the focus of many internet memes related to his religion and presidential campaign as the first Mormon presidential candidate. This case study examined a selection of memes drawn from a Google image search of the terms “Mitt Romney” and “Mormon” occurring between June and November 2012, to uncover what memes communicate about public interpretations and understandings of the Mormon religion.

Muslim Memes on Facebook

A collection of memes which combined popular culture and media images with text expressing religious beliefs and rituals were selected and analyzed from the Muslim Memes Facebook Page (https://www.facebook.com/MuslimMeme). Memes selected were posted between August and December 2012, with both meme content and comments made regarding these memes being analyzed. The sample focused on memes using lighthearted and innocuous humor to present Islam in a playful, but positive light.

Tweeting Orthodoxies Memes

“Tweeting Orthodoxies” (https://www.facebook.com/dosim.metsaitsimm) is an Israeli-Jewish Facebook page, which features posting on Israeli-Jewish religious practices, community and cultural topics including memes. A sampling of memes appearing from September 2012 to August 2013, one meme per month, was taken to create a representation of memes focused around Jewish holidays and religious events, but also day-to-day routines. Selected memes employed images and texts drawing on international popular culture content (i.e. content related to movies, celebrities and organizations) combined with expressions of Jewish commandments, rituals and sacred texts. These memes are produced in Hebrew and were translated into English for this study.

It was noted that case studies fell into one of two distinct categories: “memes about religion” and “religious memes”. Memes about religion tend to focus on religion as a general construct with a tendency toward negative framings of religious beliefs, practices and traditions. Religious memes are those which are focused around a specific religious tradition and community. They are often produced by individuals associated with this group and used to communicate associated beliefs or rituals that used humor in playful ways. Thus, even when these memes are seen to critique the religion they spotlight, this is done in respectful ways. In this study, the case studies of Buddy Christ, Advice God and Romney & Mormonism memes fell into the “memes about religion” category, while those focused around the Muslim, Jewish and Christian Facebook pages exemplified “religious memes”.

Case Study Findings

While space does not allow for a full report on all three areas of observation for each of the case studies, here we highlight a summary of noteworthy findings for each study. This is done in order to draw attention to key initial reflections related to how and what memes about religion and religious memes communicate about lived religion in digital culture. A full record of the research diaries and initial observation for each specific case study can be found online at COMM 663: Digital Religion (http://comm663tamu.blogspot.com/) through postings appearing between 26 August to 1 November 2013.

Advice God: Exemplifying Religious Critique

Most of the Advice God memes are critical of religion and present God as a harsh or unethical entity to be questioned or viewed with suspicion. These memes present an image of God with text that provides a playful or cynical critique of religion. For example, one Advice God meme questions God’s behavior with the following caption: “Thou shall not commit adultery / sorry Joseph”, a reference to Jesus’s Virgin Birth [Meme 1]. Another meme presents religion as a stupid choice. For example, we see God “saying”: “Accidently make humans smart / They stop believing in me” [Meme 2]. These memes attempt to present religion as ridiculous or contradictory and God as an actor who is cynical or even malevolent. Advice God memes demonstrate that religious symbolism may be used to undermine rather than promote religious narratives or worldviews in meme discourse.

Such memes also raise another question: can memes that express seemingly anti-religious messages be considered expressions of lived religion online? If we understand lived religion as any articulation or action associated with religion that seeks to communicate a personalized understanding of spiritual issues or ideals, such memes can be seen to match notions of flexible religious meaning making. Thus, Advice God memes illustrate an irreligious form of lived religion facilitated by participatory culture online.

Buddy Christ: Drawing on Intertextuality and Reflexive Discourse

Study of the Buddy Christ meme revealed the importance of intertextuality in religious memes’ communicative practices. Intertextuality can be defined as the assembling and reading of fragmented, yet interrelated texts and as a stylistic device employed by media producers (Ott & Walter 2000).  It can be argued that the voices of both audience and producer are essential to understanding religious memes as intertextual units of collective knowledge.  Buddy Christ memes juxtapose religious texts that assert authority with popular culture texts that question religious authority claims.  One example features the words “The body of Christ is snackrelicious” superimposed on the image of Buddy Christ, making a playful and irreverent reference to the communion meal [Meme 3].  While superficially playful, the intertextual message is one that questions the spiritual authority of the Christian sacrament of communion. Despite this contradictory message offered by the meme’s creators, seeming to undermine religion, memes about religion can also be framed to affirm the authority of religious leaders. An example of such reflexive discourse is found in an Episcopalian rector’s blog, where a Buddy Christ meme was used in order to suggest that readers should reflect on whether or not they personally demonstrate the joy of the Buddy Christ.  Parish members affirmed this meaning in the comments section.  In this case, a religious leader’s choice to embrace the intertextuality of the Buddy Christ meme generated reflexive discourse and an affirmation of religious authority. This case study illustrates that memes about religion can employ intertextuality that may either affirm or provoke religious authority, and represents a departure from traditional framings of religious authority.

Romney Memes: Promoting Stereotypes of Mormonism

The study of Mitt Romney and Mormonism memes revealed two notable findings: first, religious memes are necessarily reductive in nature, and second, memes at the intersection of faith and politics use humor to critique religion. Memes that featured Mitt Romney’s religious beliefs tended to be reductionist in nature, meaning that they reduced Romney’s religious belief to its most simplistic terms. This created a caricature of Mormonism that its practitioners would not recognize or agree with. This was seen in all of the memes as both sacred items and aspects of LDS doctrine were misrepresented or oversimplified. For example, a meme with the character of Romney waving in the background reads: “Says marriage has been ‘one man and one woman’ for 3000 years / Great-great-grandfather had 12 wives”, highlighting the contradiction of his advocacy of traditional marriage with the facts of his own family’s non-traditional background [Meme 4]. In this instance, a logical contradiction between Romney’s interpretation of marriage and LDS past practice of polygamy is implied. However, the truncated nature of the meme does not allow for development or discussion, rather offering a pithy or humorous caricature of Mormonism. This leads to a second issue, the use of humor for the purpose of critique.  All of the memes in this case study invoked humor by superiority, which features “people who are unintentionally, or at least not clearly intentionally, funny” (Shifman 2012, 196). Romney was cast as humorous through text highlighting decontextualized and seemingly ridiculous aspects of his faith. Another example showed Romney and Obama during the debate with the text, “Mitt Romney’s policies are like Joseph Smith’s golden plates / No one else has ever seen them and only stupid people buy the bull crap” [Meme 5]. Disbelief in a key tenet of Mormon doctrine is expressed, illustrating that memes combining religious and political frames often simultaneously essentialized and critiqued both frames using humor.

Tweeting Orthodoxies: Employing Postmodern Meta-narratives

The study of memes on the “Tweeting Orthodoxies” Facebook page highlights that memes employ communicative practices associated with postmodern culture. They construct a bricolage of online images, sayings and texts drawn from various popular culture canons and religious sources to present a new message containing a diversity of interpretations. For example, one meme, which was posted during Passover, shows a picture of Disney’s Aladdin eating a piece of bread, a time in which Jews are forbidden to eat bread. The written text states – “thank god for making me Yemeni at Passover” [Meme 6]. This meme can be interpreted as playful, highlighting the diversity of adherence to some religious traditions, or as exhibiting a prejudicial attitude toward Oriental/Yemeni Jews as religiously inferior, a prejudice often expressed in the ethnically torn Israeli society, often dominated by Ashkenazi Jews. Still, this meme does not subvert traditional religious understandings and beliefs, but essentially functions to affirm the religious tradition. This illustrates how memes can serve as a multi-layered site of religious and cultural meaning-making, drawing from various sources of knowledge at once. Thus memes featured on “Tweeting Orthodoxies” show how digital culture creates a space for lived religious practice, so religion can function as an exegetical frame that can engage secular, popular culture and religious Jewish people within a shared contemporary discourse. Another meme shows Santa Claus arriving at a home of an Ultra-Orthodox family, with Santa apologizing and remarking how he has come to the wrong home [Meme 7].  Orthodox Judaism, rather than being seen as purely outside popular culture, can be understood as able to engage in a limited way with it through such intertextual communication in internet memes as reflected in this case study. Memes allow religious groups to attach new meanings to cultural artifacts, and ideal religious practices can become tools for culture jamming in meme culture. These break the construction of the religious meta-narrative into fragmented, smaller understandings of religion that at the same time affirm the larger meta-narrative.

Christian Memes: Communicating Conflicting Meaning through Humor

Collective knowledge is one attribute of participatory culture that can be negotiated through multiple and sometimes conflicting meanings. “1 John” is a seemingly simplistic meme [Meme 8], but thorough analysis reflects how creators and users of memes can conceive of multiple and conflicting messages. The meme’s playful nature may give the impression that it is not much more than a pun for Christian readers to recognize, seeing “1 John” as a reference to first “john,” a book in the Bible believed to be written by John the evangelist, but also slang for a toilet. However, the decoding process shows that people construct and share their own meanings thus creating “spreadable media” (Jenkins 2006) and generating shared knowledge. For instance, some members of the Facebook community found relating the Bible with a toilet defiling. Others came together to create different meanings about the nature of God. One user posted, “oh dear, too funny, God does have a sense of humor ya’ll” (Christian Meme Facebook page, comment posted 30 Aug 2013).  Another chimes in, “In case everybody didn’t know, Jesus had to use the restroom at times. Fully human, yet fully God” (Christian Meme Facebook page, comment posted 30 Aug 2013). We can see from these comments that some readers reject the notion of the pun as offensive and even reconcile it to their religious beliefs by reflecting on the nature of God. Other users rely on the interpretation of other members’ comments in order to make sense of the meme. One writes, “I read those books of the Bible as “first” and “second, not “one” and “two”, so I would not have gotten this if not for the comments” (Christian Meme Facebook page, comment posted 30 Aug 2013). Rather than being left to figure out or make sense of the memes themselves, these users relied on the nature of participatory culture, which generates shared meanings.

Muslim Memes: Popular Culture and Religious Literacy Required

The Muslim memes case study demonstrates that both religious and popular culture literacy are needed to understand the full meanings of religious memes. Many memes require a certain level of knowledge about popular culture (such as recognizing popular media characters and what they represent (e.g. Captain Jack Sparrow) or internet culture (recognizing a meme genre, e.g. Bad Luck Brian)), to decode the elements of irony or humor used. Religious and cultural literacy are also required for reading religious memes, especially when they are designed for a specific religious public. For example, one meme showed Disney’s Aladdin speaking to Princess Jasmine saying “I can show you the world/but first we have to do nikah” [Meme 9]. Facebook page members made comments expressing laughter such as ‘lmao’ and ‘looool’ at this meme. The meme’s innate humor required knowing that nikah is the Arabic word for marriage and the expectation that Aladdin cannot show Jasmine the world until they are married. Another meme shows a picture of Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise with the text “Oh guuurl, that amount of makeup with your abaya?” [Meme 10].  The humor lay in knowing an abaya is a cloak worn by some Muslim women which covers them from head to foot. The layered text is meant to offer humor through the juxtaposition of the cloak, which is conventionally seen as modest, to the heavy amount of makeup, which probably implies immodesty. The interpretative group for Muslim memes is a narrower public than those whom view and interpret many other religious memes. This requires the audience to have special knowledge which allows them to ‘get’ the memes’ punch lines. These humorous memes can therefore be categorized as parochial humor, or inside jokes. Muslim memes use parochial humor that members of the in-group would understand, and thus demonstrate that some religious memes require their audience to have specialized knowledge in order to fully comprehend the punch lines.

Areas for Consideration in Future Investigations of Religious-oriented Memes

Through comparing and contrasting the findings of these six case studies a number of shared observations were noted by the research team regarding areas of important consideration when it comes to studying religiously oriented memes.  Through this initial survey of memes we suggest the following issues be considered by other scholars seeking to conduct systematic research of such memes.

Attention to Meme Context

When studying memes it is important to start by carefully considering the context in which certain memes are produced and consumed, especially in three areas. First, religious literacy is required in order to identify and decode the meaning behind basic religious tenets, beliefs and practices expressed in such memes. Without some rudimentary understanding of a given religious tradition and culture of a particular meme, punch lines and humorous framings may be easily misinterpreted or missed altogether.  Second, how different forms of humor may be employed within memes and how these may shape the message is important. Shifman (2012) argues that humorous memes may use parochial humor mixed with playfulness, incongruity, and superiority. Each form utilizes different techniques and leads to different positive or negative framings of religion. Awareness of these different styles of humor and how they function as tools for meaning making is essential.  Third, considering a meme’s audience and identifying where memes are circulated is essential. Whether a meme is shared and consumed within a controlled space, such as on a Facebook page which may limit the boundaries for interpretation, engaged by a broader audience such as those housed on meme websites (i.e. memegenerator.com), or circulated through social media, impacts the way a given meme is understood, decoded and potentially modified by its interpretive community. Religious literacy and the ability to identify styles of humor and a meme’s audience are vital when seeking to read religious-oriented memes.

Understanding Intertextuality and Comparative Work

Studies of religious memes may be limited if they choose to focus on only one type of meme.  We suggest that comparative work is needed within the study of religious-oriented memes, in order to fully consider how different genres of meme communicate meaning and set boundaries around interpretation. Scholars who choose to study religious memes should consider a thematic body of memes rather than one type within that body, to ensure that their work can access and describe lived religion in digital context.  If the study of Buddy Christ memes, for example, had investigated other genres of memes utilizing other images of Jesus, more significant conclusions about how memes communicate about key religious figures or shape religious authority may have emerged from the findings.  This underscores the layered nature of memes. Images, text, contexts, and audience knowledge all contribute to an intertextual body of knowledge that evokes meaning from larger religious discourses. Sites such as knowyourmeme.com can be used to identify the origins and initial design intent of a meme, as well as trace how it has evolved over time and mutated into new forms.  Furthermore, examining thematic bodies of memes is more likely to give researchers access to more vibrant online discourses that include meme creators.  Indeed, meaning making through memes is a communal process for internet users.  Thus, researchers should attend to both meme audiences and creators, and consider how they discuss, contest, defend, and remix the intertextual layers of memes. Finally, future research should consider the construction of a broader typology of religious memes. Though a meme typology may result in normalized research discourses and narrow the focus of comparative work, it will also enhance the coherency of meme research and thereby establish a functional foundation for future studies.

Identifying How Memes Create and Reflect Emotive Discourse

Memes are often communicated using emotive discourse. Such discourse reflects strong moods and poignant feelings that the producer of the meme seeks to communicate. For example, a creator of a Jewish meme promoting modesty restrictions claimed in an email conversation that he created the meme as an emotional response to another meme that offended him. The production of a meme to deliver a message based on a personal-emotional response is an insight that can be reached only by thick description (Geertz, 1973). Consumers’ reactions to religious memes also reflected emotional motivations. On a Facebook page dedicated to Advice God memes, a self-proclaimed Christian asked page members to “stop misrepresenting and mocking God, it is really hurtful, and I imagine very hurtful to God” (Advice God Facebook page, comment posted 3 March 2013).

Emotions are embedded in the creation of and reaction to memes. Memes’ creators and consumers are motivated by a strong need to promote and defend their religion or attack religious attitudes they find problematic. Thus researching the use of emotive discourse and motivations underlying such framing of religions within meme culture is pivotal to fully understand the intended meanings of memes. Scholars should carefully study the meaning-making process as explained by both creators and consumers of such memes. This can be done by directly contacting prosumers or by analyzing their reactions online. Thus, studying memes requires a sensitive understanding of the multi-layered process of online meaning-making in general, and online religious meaning-making in particular.

Analyzing Memes as Essentialized Religion

This study revealed that internet memes typically tend to essentialize religion by relying on popular dominant metanarratives and popular assumptions about religion, which they seek to either reinforce or challenge. Depending on the community that the meme is intended to reach, this can be either helpful or problematic. When memes are used within a specific religious community to comment on particular aspects of a religion, they can serve to reinforce identity (as seen in the Muslim and the Jewish memes case studies). However, when an outside community or individual uses memes to engage in discourse about someone else’s religious beliefs, the memes become problematic (as seen in the Advice God case study). In the case of Mitt Romney’s Mormon belief, these memes functioned as simplistic, and sometimes incorrect, pieces of criticism regarding Mormonism.

Memes can also reinforce or challenge dominant discourses or stereotypes about religion. The practice of creating and sharing memes in and of itself can challenge traditional boundaries, by mixing the sacred and profane (as in the Christian memes case study) as well as questioning notions of authority (as in the Buddy Christ memes). In the Mormon case study, for example, atheist readers actively engaged the mythology of religion, while also framing religion as a crutch for those unable to think for themselves. Knowledge of and attention to popular metanarratives about religion is necessary for scholars of religious-oriented memes. Additionally, the context and intent of these memes must be examined in order to determine whether the (re)interpretations being presented are true to the interpretations that religious practitioners would offer.

Summary

In summary, our study shows that careful attention is needed to the context of memes and the way in which humor is employed.  Memes can be used both to affirm and critique religious ideas and identities, and interpretation is often dependent upon the audience of the platform in which the meme is situated. Research must also be conducted in regards to how certain images and sayings are appropriated within memes and their evolution over time, which plays an important role in shaping positive and negative framing of religion within memes. Furthermore memes often feature reductionist or essentialized understandings of religion and employ a limited range of popular assumptions or metanarratives about religion to communicate; this is especially true within memes about religion. Also religious memes often require a certain level of religious literacy for accurate or full decoding. Overall, this study seeks to provide insights into how religious-oriented internet memes are constructed and utilize certain communicative strategies and how digital culture and audience reception frame and propagate religious discourses online. It is our hope that future scholars will benefit from these preliminary observations and recommendations as they undertake more rigorous investigation of religious-oriented memes.

 

References

Ammerman, N. (2006) “Introduction: Observing Modern Religious Lives.” In: Ammerman, N. (ed.) Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, 2006. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3-20.

Börzsei, L. (2013) “Makes a Meme Instead: A Concise History of internet Memes.” New Media Studies Magazine 7. Available at: <http://works.bepress.com/linda_borzsei/2> [Accessed October 8th 2013].

Campbell, H. (2010) When Religion Meets New Media. Abingdon: Routledge.

Dawkins, R. (2006) The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dogma (1999) [film] Directed by Kevin Smith. USA: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

Hall, D. (1997) Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hooper, B. (no date) “Buddy Christ”, St James’s Episcopal Church Blog. Available at: <www.stjameswh.org/buddy-christ/>. [Accessed October 8th 2013].

Husted, U. (2012) “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way From the Forum: The Life and Death of Internet Memes.” PhD. University of Minnesota. Available at: <http://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/137171/1/Husted_umn_0130E_13047.pdf> [Accessed October 8th 2013].

Jenkins, H. (2006) Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYU Press, 2006.

Knobel, M., and C. Lankshear (2007) “Online Memes, Affinities, and Cultural Production.” In Knobel, M. and C. Lankshear (eds). A New Literacies Sampler (2007): New York: Peter Lang, 199-227. Available at <http://everydayliteracies.net/files/NewLiteraciesSampler_2007.pdf> [Accessed October 8th 2013].

Know Your Meme (2011) “Advice Animals.” Available at: <http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/advice-animals> [Accessed October 8th 2013].

McGuire, M. (2008) Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ott, B., and C. (2000) “Intertextuality: Interpretive Practice and Textual Strategy.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 17, no. 4, 429-446.

Shifman, L. (2013) Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Shifman, L. (2012) “An Anatomy of a YouTube Meme.” New Media & Society 14, no. 2, 187-203.

 

About the Authors

Wendi Bellar is a PhD student in Communication at Texas A&M University with a focus on Media Studies. Her research interests include new media, religion, digital culture, and mobile communication. She is currently working on research projects that focus on religious mobile applications.

Heidi A Campbell is Associate Professor of Communication where she teaches and does research at the intersection of new media, religion and digital culture. She is author of Exploring Religious Community Online (Peter Lang 2005), When Religion Meets New Media (Routledge 2010) and editor of Digital Religion (Routledge 2013).

Kyong James Cho is a PhD student in Communication at Texas A&M University with a focus on Media Studies. His research interests include media and religion with a specific emphasis on digital religion.

Andrea Terry is a PhD student in Communication at Texas A&M University with a focus on Rhetoric. Her research interests include discourse at the intersection of religion and politics, and public address.

Ruth Tsuria is a PhD student in Communication at Texas A&M University with a focus on Media Studies. Her research interests include digital religion, mainly online expressions of Judaism and Islam.

Aya Yadlin-Segal is a PhD student in Communication at Texas A&M University with a focus on Media Studies. Her research interests include identity construction online, the representations of ‘Others’ and ‘Otherness’ in mass media, and the flow of culture in a globalized mediascape.

Jordan Ziemer is a PhD student in Communication at Texas A&M University with a focus on Organizational Communication. His research interests include the identity-creating rhetoric of religious organizations and the entrepreneurial role that religious leaders play when communicating about organizational identity.
Contact Address:

Department of Communication
Texas A&M University
MS 4234, 102 Bolton Hall
College Station, TX 77843
heidic@tamu.ed

Copies of all memes referenced above are included in the PDF version of this article, available here.

 

 

VOLUME 2, ISSUE 1: INNOCENT CHILUWA

 

Community and Social Interaction in Digital Religious Discourse in Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon

Dr. Innocent Chiluwa

Covenant University, Ota (Nigeria) 

Abstract

Since the advent of the Internet, religion has maintained a very strong online presence. This study examines how African Christianity is negotiated and practised on the Internet. The main objectives are to investigate to what extent online worshippers in Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon constitute (online) communities and how interactive the social networks of the churches are.  This study shows that some important criteria for community are met by African digital worshippers. However, interaction flow is more of one to many, thus members do not regularly interact with one another as they would in offline worship. Worshippers view the forums as a sacred space solely for spiritual matters and not for sharing social or individual feelings and problems. However, the introduction of social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and interactive forums is an interesting and promising new development in religious worship in Africa.

Keywords: Internet, Facebook, Twitter, religion, Christian, online community, social interaction

To cite this article: Innocent Chiluwa (2013):Community and Social Interaction in Digital Religious Discourse in Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon, Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture, volume 2, issue 1, accessed from http://jrmdc.com

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Introduction

Religion has been a sensitive issue in the contemporary globalised world.  As the Internet becomes common and indispensable to individuals and social groups (Hoffman et al 2004), religion has maintained a very strong online presence. Most world religions are not only discussed and negotiated online, they are also practised and sustained digitally. According to Helland (2005), a Yahoo directory for “religion and spiritual beliefs” revealed that the category containing Christian websites increased by 234 sites within 24 hours in 2002 and more people used the Internet for religious purposes than they used it for commercial or business purposes (Larsen 2004). Gradually, the Internet has become “spiritualized” as worshippers employ common discourses for religious intents (Campbell 2005). The present study focuses on Christianity and adopts a sociolinguistic-based discourse analytical approach to examine how African-Christian activities are negotiated and practised on the Internet.

As of June 2012, Internet use in Africa stands at 15.3% of the world with 15.6% penetration and over 48 million on Facebook. Nigeria ranks first in Internet use with 29.0% penetration and over 45 million users; over 5 million Nigerians are on Facebook. Ghana has 8.4% penetration with over 2 million users as at December 2011; over one million Ghanaians are on Facebook as at June, 2012. About 783,956 Cameroons use the Internet with 4.0% penetration and about 493,680 on Facebook (see www.internetworldstats.com/stats1.htm). Like in other continents, the Internet is gradually replacing the traditional media as the main source of entertainment, communication and education, especially among the youth. Thus, online forums and communities have formed in addition to individual blogs as the new media platforms for interactions and debates on social and cultural matters that affect people’s lives. Religion, being a major topic of interest among individuals and social groups, has attracted widespread discussions and debates on the social media.

About 40% of the African population are Christians. Nigeria, for instance, is a leading religious nation with about 91% of the population attending offline religious services and 95% praying regularly (BBC 2004; Emenyonu 2007; Chiluwa 2008b; 2012c). According to NationMaster.com, in a recent survey Nigeria is ranked number one in the world with 89% church attendance rate. In Ghana, Christianity attracts about 69% of the entire population, suggesting that Ghana is Christian nation, although there is no official state religion (News from Africa). Similarly, 69% of the 20.4 million of the Cameroonian population is Christian, while 21% is Muslim, and 6% animist (U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, July-December 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, 13.09.2011, http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/2010_5/index.htm).

Significantly, Christianity has witnessed a tremendous growth in Africa with a relative decline in the practice of the traditional African religions. Among the fastest growing churches are the Pentecostals and Charismatic movements. As at 1995, there were about 552,000 congregations in 11,500 denominations throughout Africa that were not common in the Western World (see The Dictionary of African Christian Biography). This growth has been attributed to African-based evangelism rather than European missionary work. Predictions by religious experts currently envisage a shift of Christian authority from the West to Africa and Asia in modern times. For instance, Sanneh (2007) has argued that African Christianity was not just an exotic, curious phenomenon in an obscure part of the world, but that it might be the shape of things to come.

It will be difficult for a single research paper to adequately study all denominations in Christianity, especially with the type of study being carried out here. Besides, not all churches are currently on the Internet, or are sufficiently represented on social media platforms. Therefore, the present research focuses on twelve Pentecostal churches in Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon. These countries have been selected for this research because they possess the largest Pentecostal Christian assemblies in the west and central Africa. For instance, the Redeemed Christian Church of God (Nigeria) is said to have a membership of over 75,000 in Lagos alone with thousands of branches in all the continents of the world. The Word Miracle Church (Ghana) also has a congregation of over 50,000 in Accra alone with over 75,000 branches both locally and internationally. Lighthouse Chapel International, also in Ghana, has 1,200 branches in 52 countries worldwide.  Some annual events of some of these churches (e.g. Redeemed Church, Winners Chapel, Deeper Life Church and Christ Embassy, all in Nigeria) have attracted between 500,000 and three million participants in single services annually (Chiluwa 2012c). Four churches each from the three countries are selected for the study and the main criteria for the selection are basically size and online presence. The selected churches are:

Nigeria:

  • The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) (http://www.rccg.org)
  • Deeper Life Bible Church (DLBC) (http://www.dclm.org)
  • Living Faith Church Worldwide (LFCW) (aka Winners Chapel) (http://davidoyedepoministries.org)
  • Christ Embassy (CEmb) (aka Love World) (http://www.christembassy.org)

Ghana:

  • International Central Gospel Church (ICGC) (http://www.centralgospel.com)
  • Lighthouse Chapel International (LCI) (http://www.lighthousechapel.org)
  • Word Miracle Church International (WMCI)  (http://www.wordmiracle.com)
  • Victory Bible Church International(VBCI)  (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Victory-Bible-Church-International)

Cameroon:

  • African Church Planting Network (ACPN) (http://africanchurchplanting.org)
  • Eternal Word Ministries (EWM) (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Word-Eternity-Ministries-International/ 121022331248088?v=info)
  • Dominion Faith International (DFI) (http://www.dominionfaithinternational.org/ coda/index.html)
  • Jonah Soul Winning Ministries (JSWM) (http://www.jonahsoulwinning.org/)

 

Table 1 below gives a summary of background information about the churches, showing their founding dates, location of their offline headquarters, and names of their pastors (i.e. the general overseers/founders). The sources of this information are the churches’ websites, listed on the “home” or “about us” pages.

Table 1: An Overview of the Churches

Church Founded    Off-Line H/Qtrs.  Name of General Overseer
RCCG 1952 Lagos Enoch Adeboye
DLBC 1973 Lagos William Kumuyi
LFCW 1982 Ota David Oyedepo
CEmb 1993 Lagos Chris Oyakhilome
ICGC 1984 Accra Mensa Otabil
LCI 1987 Accra Dag Heward-Mills
WMCI 1987 Accra Charles Agyinasare
VBCI 1984 Accra Nii Apiakai Tackie-Yarboi
ACPN 2003 Douala Eva Natongo
EWM 2005 Bamenda Edward Ikeomu
JSWM 2005 Douala Jonah Okechukwu
DFI 1991 Duoala Joseph Israel James

 

This study attempts to provide answers to the following questions:

(i)                 Do African digital worshippers constitute online communities?

(ii)               What is the nature of social interaction on social media platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter?

(iii)             What language forms or structures are common in the discourse of the worshippers?

 

Unfortunately, as at the time of this study, literature on online religion in West/Central Africa is either limited or non-existent.

Character of African “Newer Pentecostals”

Asamoah-Gyadu (2006) defines “Pentecostalism” as the stream of Christianity that ‘emphasizes personal salvation in Christ as a transformative experience wrought by the Holy Spirit’. Ukah (2007) identifies three types of African “pentecostalisms,” namely the classical Pentecostalism, mission Pentecostal churches and the new Pentecostal/Charismatic. The twelve churches under study belong to the last group, the “new Pentecostal/Charismatic”. “Charismatic” is viewed as a “historically younger Pentecostal” and refers to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Hence, speaking in tongues, prophecies, visions, healing, miracles, signs and wonders that are the hallmarks of the new Pentecostals, are closely associated with an active presence of God’s Spirit. Like other Pentecostal Churches, the newer Pentecostals emphasize divine (faith) healing, prophecy, exorcism, spontaneous prayer, visions and dreams.

These “newer Pentecostals” , as Ukah (2007) puts it, are a product of a spiritual quest for salvation and solutions to socio-economic problems following the economic crisis of the mid-1980s in many parts of Africa. In Nigeria for example, this period coincided with the post-war austerity and economic crisis.  Thus, social and economic problems drove people to seek spiritual solutions with a new class of religious elite with a university education, who are strongly amenable to foreign ideas and a new religious message spearheading the movement (Ojo 2009). The “prosperity gospel”, which has become the identity of these new Pentecostal/Charismatic movements in Africa, became the main selling point of this new religious revivalism (Ukah 2007). Ojo (2009) attributes the rise of the Charismatic approach to religion to the new awakening of religious experiences on the university campuses in the early 1970s. Most of the churches listed above began as “fellowships,” “prayer groups” or “Bible study classes” at university campuses, with their leaders as “breakaways” from either parent Pentecostal churches or orthodox churches. The Deeper Life Church (DLBC) for example started off as a Bible study group at the University of Lagos in 1973. Their charismatic founder, William Kumuyi, was a former Scripture Union official and an organist with the Apostolic Faith Church. Light Chapel International (LCI, Ghana) also began as a prayer group.

The founders of the new Pentecostal churches have their Western/American godfathers and mentors (see Chiluwa 2012c). This is perhaps the reason why it has been argued that although many aspects of the African Pentecostal practices reflect African life and culture (Kalu 2008), much of Pentecostal practices are Western (Ukah 2007). According to Kalu (2007, p.3), African “Pentecostal and Charismatic religiosity” is a vehicle for the transportation of ideas and material culture in order to overshadow local cultures and identities and to install a shared global culture. The prosperity gospel is still viewed as an American Pentecostal doctrine which has nothing to do with indigenous African cosmology (Gifford, 1990). For instance, many of the pastors of the churches under study (e.g. David Oyedepo of Winners Chapel) still feel indebted to their American mentors such as Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth & Mrs. Copeland and T.L. Osborn. Other American preachers have also had great influence on these new African preachers through direct training of their workers and distribution of their books, tapes, CDS and DVDs. Many of the African preachers are themselves graduates of some of the American Bible Schools.

The new Pentecostals stress being “born again”, which they believe transforms a person into special people of God. The born again person is regenerated or sanctified through inward cleansing of sin with the blood of Jesus Christ.  Thus, to be born again becomes both a spiritual and social marker, since it sets one apart as God’s elected person (Anderson 2004, cited in Ukah 2007). Of special importance is the doctrine of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which a born again person is said to receive by faith with the evidence of speaking in tongues. The born again worshipper is then entitled to a comprehensive and total solution to all their problems. In some of the churches, giving of offerings, tithes and other “kingdom investments” is stressed as a condition for receiving healing, success, promotion or material wealth. Hence, these churches are also referred to as “prosperity Christianity,” “health and wealth gospel,” “faith movement,” or the “name it and claim it” gospel (Ukah 2007).

Apart from prosperity message which forms the hallmark of the new Pentecostal/Charismatic movement, the emphasis on faith healing and deliverance is another important distinguishing characteristic. In Africa, religion and healing is inextricably linked (Ukah 2007); thus, healing holds a special appeal to African Christians who expect not just a temporary healing from sickness or disease but a total restoration of health from any form of physical disability, including childlessness and mental problems (Hunt 2000). The pastors of the churches under study believe that they are empowered by God to bring healing and health to their members. The CEmb for example operates a “Healing School” in most of its city centres where many people throng for healing, including people with HIV/AIDS. MFM specializes in prayer and casting out of all forms of demons/evil spirits. People who are said to be possessed by the spirit of witchcraft are also said to be healed, during their special programme known as “Power Must Change Hands”. Because of competition that exists among these Pentecostals, each church strives to carve out a niche for itself and thus specializes in a particular type of message. For instance, LFCW is known for faith and prosperity; MFM is known for prayer and exorcism, while CEmb specializes in healing and miracles. Anderson (2006) observes that healing and deliverance churches form a significant type of Pentecostalism that has endeared itself to a large section of the African population. This has now provided an alternative to the mission churches and accounts for an extensive conversion to Pentecostalism. According to Asamoah-Gyadu (2006), pastors of Pentecostal churches had often provided supernatural protection for politicians seeking to consolidate power by entrenching themselves in office. In Ghana for example, one Bishop Duncan-Williams was said to serve as the chaplain to the Rawlings government, thus providing both spiritual and political support.

The new Pentecostals are structured like formal organizations or firms and organized as business enterprises for the production, distribution and pricing of religious products, which according to Ukah (2007, p.15) is solely for “making satisfactory profit and maintaining a market share.” Ukah argues that the pastor (i.e. the founder) “alone holds a special privilege of interpreting the will of God to his followers. While resources such as money, time, and expertise are mobilized aggressively from followers and the general public…the control of these is wrested from the contributors and rested solely on the founder/owner of the church and his/her spouse” (ibid.). In Nigeria, RCCG, LFC and CEmb are the wealthiest churches. LFC is said to be one of the world’s richest churches. Because of their economic character, these modern pastors introduce commercial practices quite similar to the secular organization in the production and distribution of religious products like videos, CDs, DVDs, books, magazines, pamphlets and car stickers. They also sell handkerchiefs, olive oil and Holy Communion items for religious rituals or “anointing services.” The marketing activities of these churches invariably demand some religious advertising and communication. Thus, they employ different methods of secular advertising such as posters and handbills, billboards, branded vast, caps, pens and key-holders. The churches under study employ television and radio adverts using their own private media outfits and sometimes public ones. They also place adverts on newspapers and magazines when necessary especially announcing their annual conventions, conferences or retreats.

The new Pentecostals build and develop “camp grounds.” Particularly in Nigeria and Ghana these churches buy up large hectares of land and construct a range of facilities such as auditoria, secretariats, schools, guesthouses, hospitals/clinics, University campuses etc. All the Nigerian churches under study have built a university or in the process of building one. For example, the RCCG owns the Redeemers University; LFCW has established two universities (i.e. Covenant University and Landmark University) and is in the process of building a third. DLBC is planning to build the “Anchor University” (see Chiluwa 2012c). Religious camps serve as the venue for the yearly conventions of these churches. The LFCW for instance organizes a yearly international conference known as “Shiloh,” which is usually attended by over 50 nations of the world.

One last interesting feature of these new Pentecostal and Charismatic movements is the role of women in their activities. Women are allowed to preach, teach, lead and conduct the choir, prophesy and interpret dreams. Unlike in the mission churches, the pastor’s wife not only preaches from the pulpit, she also exercises significant degree of power and authority. Women are allowed to dress the western way (e.g. wear trousers and jewellery) and don’t have to cover their hair as demanded in some Pentecostal churches. Some of the church founders are women (see Chiluwa 2012c) or are widows of deceased founders. The spouses of church founders are automatically the second in command in the hierarchy of power. They protect the family’s estate and control most financial dealings of the church (Ukah 2007). Some pastors have also taken advantage of the power of women to draw men to church, and given them pastoral duties.

Until the late 1990s, computer-mediated communication or the new media of the Internet was not common as a medium for the propagation of Christianity. According to Hackett (1986), Nigeria has one of the most developed mass media industries in Africa and the growth of Nigeria’s media institutions and industries spearheaded the expansion and diversification of the religious discipline. Subsequently, there was increase in competition between religious groups on the use of the media, which also resulted in conflicts. The churches under study had used the traditional electronic and print media to disseminate their message and to win followers. They had also used the media to advertise their programmes and conferences.

Online awareness among Nigerians began in 1991 with the activities of Nigerians in diaspora, particularly the USA with the creation of the first online community known as “Naijanet.” The participants merely forwarded emails on news relating to Nigeria being disseminated by Reuters and AFP to their friends (Bastian 1999; Ifukor 2011). This online practice later grew and the various online activities by Diaspora Nigerians through emails, listserv and the Usenet newsgroup became the premier efforts in the construction of a “virtual Nigeria” (Bastian 1999). New media networks then provided young Nigerians the opportunity to respond to news about Nigeria and exchange ideas on social, political and economic situations in the country. As greater interest in the social media increased, especially with divergent views and interests on social matters, new virtual communities were formed, mostly along ethnic lines. Religious institutions and Pentecostal churches who believed that the Internet was a fulfilment of prophecy as an instrument for the dissemination of the gospel in the last days began to take the advantage of the new media to propagate their activities (Chiluwa 2012c). RCCG hosted its first website in 1997, CEmb in 2000 and DLBC in 2001. The different activities and programmes of these churches are clearly described on their websites with some display menus like “home”, “about us”, “news/events”, “contact us” etc. In some, special page icons such as “join us”, “need help”, “come to Christ”, “blogs”, “pay your tithes”, etc. are displayed conspicuously (Chiluwa 2012c).

Christian offline worship and practices such as “feet washing,” “healing ministrations,” “anointing services,” “communion services,” “tithes and offering”, etc., are easily and effectively performed online by the twelve churches under study. For instance, some members of these churches who worship online give their tithes and offerings through credit cards. Activities such as feet washing or communion services are broadcast live through videos/internet live streaming and worshippers follow along. They would generally be required to provide water in a basin and a towel (for feet washing), and bread and wine (for communion) and serve themselves as they are instructed by the officiating minister. Healing ministrations and anointing services follow the same procedure: online worshippers simply watch the videos and carry out instructions from the pastor.  Live streams of conferences, retreats, conventions and Shilohs of these churches are followed on the Internet, discussed on Facebook and Twitter and watched on YouTube. There have also been reports of miracles, healings and “signs and wonders” arising from these online worships and programmes (Chiluwa 2012c). According to Chiluwa, Internet technology and online worship have further enhanced the spread of Christianity in Africa.

Online Religion and Religion Online

“Online Religion” is associated with active participation in online worship, characterized by prayer, rituals and meditation, while “Religion Online” is said to merely provide information about religion, such as doctrines, polity, organization, beliefs and religious publications. It also offers religious opportunities for service (Hadden & Cowan 2000; Helland 2000, 2007; Young 2004). Cowan (2004), however, argues that a vast majority of websites seek to bridge the gap between religion online and online religion. Chiluwa (2012c) shows that digital worship among Nigerian (or African) Christians combines features of both religion online and online religion going by the earlier definitions of these terms. The study also demonstrates that Nigerian churches design their websites in a way that provides information about their history, mission/vision, doctrines and church activities. Like in Nigeria, the churches in Ghana and Cameroon, in the current study, provide an opportunity for practical involvement and participation in online worship such as prayer, praise/worship, and teachings.

Online Christian worship in Africa has become more active and popular among worshippers, leading to the emergence of the “Internet Church,” (Chiluwa 2012c), where members worship in addition to their local offline churches. The Internet Church also serves the interest of worshippers who worship exclusively online (e.g. Diaspora Africans) due to lack of availability of their local churches in their present immediate environments. As highlighted above, members claim uncommon spiritual experiences including miracles, healings, and supernatural financial supplies as they participate in online church services right in their sitting rooms. These experiences are often attributed to online “anointing services,” “Holy Ghost services,” “Healing Schools,” “feet-washings” and “open heavens.” These activities generally promote virtual participation and help meet the spiritual needs of worshippers. Thus, online worship significantly supplements offline church membership and participation.

Apart from the Jonah Soul Winning Ministries (JSWN, Cameroon), all the churches in the current study are on Facebook while most of them are followed on Twitter and YouTube or GodTube. Members also join the churches’ mailing lists. These social media networks (SMNs) promote virtual connectivity and interactions among members and between members and their pastors. However, these forums appear to be undemocratic because they hardly support open debate situations, where individuals may discuss personal feelings, complain or question certain religious practices. This limitation to the interactivity of online religion is not unique to Africa. Fukamizu (2007), for instance, argues that only a few sites have the possibility of dialogic interaction which is why religious use of the Internet is very low in Japan compared to the United States.  Kawabata & Tamura (2007) attribute this situation to demographic reasons rather than the interactive profiles of the websites. Japanese believers were said to be likely older than the American worshippers, thus may have low attitude towards the Internet. Watanabe (2007) argues that a monologue system might always exist and in fact be preferred. He compares the users of the Bulletin Board System (interactive) and those of the weblog system (monological), and concludes that there has been a sudden shift from the interactive and dialogical to the blog because those that subscribe to the Bulletin Board System encounter serious difficulties while trying to engage in religious dialogue online, where participants generally tend to be intolerant of other people’s views in matters of spirituality, religious tradition and institution.

The fact that churches are beginning to take advantage of modern information technology/SMN is very interesting, offering insights into the kinds of interactive relationships that are likely to motivate more active social interactions in religious contexts in future. Churches on Facebook and Twitter promise the kind of interactions that did not exist under the old canonical order, where church leaders exercised absolute religious authority. Presently, church activities aided by SMN are most likely to promote a more democratic relationship and a better understanding between church leaders and their members.

Online (Religious) Community

The best theory of religion that captures the idea of community (or communality) is that of Emile Durkheim. In his Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim had argued that religion was mere expression of social cohesion and contended that the totems which the aborigines of Australia worshipped were expressions of their own conceptions of the essence of society. He argued that religion was real not only for the aborigines, but also for all societies. In Durkheim’s view we perceive, as individuals, a force greater than ourselves, which is our social life, and give that perception a supernatural face. We then express ourselves religiously in groups, which for Durkheim makes the symbolic power greater. Thus, religion becomes an expression of our collective consciousness, which is the fusion of all of our individual consciousnesses, and then creates a reality of its own (Kruger 2005). Durkheim’s functional definition of religion identified a church comprised of a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things; beliefs and practices, which unite into one single “moral community” called a Church, comprising all those who adhere to them. This functional definition of religion explains that religion unites societies.

The Internet has so far been used to break geographical and racial barriers for people who share common interests and who must communicate with one another. According to Dawson (2004), being religious also implies being a member of a group “even if the affiliation is more symbolic and subjective than real,” and “in the popular mind the notions of religion and community go hand- in-hand”, in keeping with Durkheim’s assertion that society is the soul of religion (Dawson 2004, p.75). A “community” is traditionally viewed as a people within geographical boundaries with some racial bond and common historical and socio-cultural identity. Hence, people in a community often speak the same language and sometimes exhibit cultural traits. A virtual (online) community, however, tends to be dispersed geographically, though some online communities are linked geographically and are known as community websites. Online communities resemble real life communities in the sense that they provide support, information and friendship for members (Wellman 1999).

In recent times, scholars have preferred the term “online community” to “virtual community” because the latter implies something “unreal” or “false” about online religious relationships (Campbell 2005). Online communities are increasingly accepted as “real” as they reflect traits of a traditional community and online worshippers find solace in the space provided by the Internet to connect with one another and make spiritual inputs where the offline local church had sometimes failed (Campbell 2005). In other words, online communities in modern times are as real as and function almost in the same ways as an offline community, and often provide an option for many whose expectations of offline community have been disappointed.

An online community may be described as the gathering of people in an online “space” where they communicate or interact, connect, and have the tendency to know each other better over time. According to Rheingold (1993), virtual communities form when people carry on public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships. Androutsopoulos (2006) recommends that an online community should interact regularly around a shared interest or purpose with the development of definitely defined social roles, hierarchies and shared norms; these would anchor on a sense of common history and awareness of difference from other groups. Thus, a religious online community, like other “communities” on the Internet, provides collaboration, information sharing and social interactions, but does so along religious or faith lines.

According to Campbell (2005), being members of an email list, for example, does not mean that the group is a community, but some personal relationships that sometimes occur in online contexts can become more intimate and valued than those that occur in a local offline church. “When this takes place, individuals may see their Christian community as coming from the online context rather than where they physically locate themselves for worship each week” (p.xv). We can then say that religious (or Christian) communities have indeed formed online if we begin to accept that a community does not have to be a geographical space, such as a town or village. What is important is that the Internet facilitates the formation of new forms of communities that are free from ethnic stereotypes, class distinctions, gender differences and racial discriminations (Dawson 2004).

However, some scholars have entertained the fear that online communities are fast destroying “real” offline community and argue that the Internet is not capable of replicating the human geographical space known as “community.” According to Stoll (1995, cited in Crispin et al. 2004, p.108), the Internet merely isolates us from one another rather than bringing us together. Individuals are learning to retreat into a “false reality”, because only the illusion of community can be realized in cyberspace. Lockard (1997) also argues that online communities actually encourage people to evade offline “real life” social issues, with their difficulties and challenges. He further argues that online communities are a poor substitute for the “real” thing and that “to accept only communication in place of a community’s manifold functions is to sell our common faith in community vastly short” (p.225; see Crispin et al. 2004, p.111).

An earlier assertion by Anderson (1983) had included all communities outside of the primordial village as imagined communities. However, like Baym (1998), Anderson agreed that virtual communities do indeed act as a meaningful and powerful influence on people’s lives. Baym identifies some ways in which communities emerge through social processes: some forms of expression (people talking about their community); a sense of shared identity; relationship – people’s connectivity and interaction with other members of the community; and shared norms and conventions that control people’s lives (Crispin et al. 2004). Crispin et al. conclude that if at all anything is being lost of the traditional community, more is being gained from the online communities, especially as the latter connect people not of common location but of “common interest and feeling” (p.112).

Social Interaction on the Internet

Social interaction presupposes that people (in real life situations, using a language) communicate with one another in an assumed, informal way, either in groups or on a person-to-person basis. This kind of communication (often oral) is accompanied by non-verbal cues such as gestures, facial expressions or body movements.  While it is impossible to reproduce exact face-to-face interactional situations on the Internet, Herring (2001) argues that CMD constitute social practice in itself and demonstrates that people can effectively “do” interactional work in cyberspace. Synchronous (real time) interactions, for example, attempt to provide situations that are similar to face-to-face communication encounters. In an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) or chatroom for example, a user can log-on and join an on-going conversation in real time. Members of an online chat group can also log on at the same time and watch their contributions appear on the screen soon after they make them and are able to make prompt responses (Crystal 2006). Where contributors are on Skype, they are able to see each other’s facial expressions as well as other forms of non-verbal cues that enhance social interaction. Also, text-based asynchronous CMD (e.g. email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter etc.) include alternative strategies for social cues usually conveyed during face-to-face interaction. For example, emoticons (composed of ASCII characters) are generally used to indicate facial expressions reflecting happiness, anger, disappointment or frustration. Herring (1998c) has also shown that in addition to facial expressions, physical actions can be represented textually. For example, typed actions such as grin and yawn may serve as cues for playful or relaxed discourse frame. Herring also shows that “synchronous CMD such as MUDs and IRC further provides a special communication command which can be used to describe actions or states in the third person. This command is often used to expand dialogue into narrative performance” (2001, 625). According to Sproull & Kiesler (1991, cited in Herring 2001, p.624), text-only asynchronous interaction allows users to choose their words with greater care, and reveals less of their doubts and insecurities than does spontaneous speech. With these interactional resources, online interactants can do virtually anything that people do in offline social interaction such as converse, negotiate, criticize, joke, laugh, tease, fall in love, play games or even commit crimes.  All of these reflect how technology is shaping (and is in turn being shaped) by society as people attempt to incorporate technology into their social interactions (Crispin, Lengel & Tomic 2004).

Methodology

According to Kruger (2005), an appropriate methodology for studying religion on the Internet should provide answers to what is on the Internet, who put it there and for what purpose, how many people use it and how often the use of the online resources has influenced religious worship. As pointed out above, this study relies mainly on asynchronous online resources on the websites and posts on the Facebook walls and Twitter pages of the churches under study. Herring (2004) recommends that a computer-based sociolinguistic discourse analysis (CMDA) should be concerned with the investigation of structures of meaning, interaction, and social behaviour in the “communities” of online worshippers. Herring further recommends that CMDA should account for online discourse behaviours characteristic of a virtual/online community such as language structure (e.g. styles, jargons and code switching that mark off a particular group), meaning and interaction (indicating reciprocity, extended threads and core participants). Hence, a sociolinguistic-CMD analysis adopted in this study attempts to show how “discourse” (i.e. text-based written language) on the websites and social feeds (mainly on Facebook and Twitter) of each of the churches reveals situations of the online community and social interaction. A table showing the regularity of interactions on Facebook and Twitter between worshippers and their pastors, and between members and members (worshippers) is provided in the analysis.

The contents of the quotes are analysed to show whether indeed the posts or comments on Facebook Walls/Twitter are interactive. The criteria for being “interactive” are the level of informality and freedom of the members to communicate personal matters, such as questions or arguments that affect their lives directly, and how often they get feedback, rather than the top-down mode usually characterized by preaching and giving orders by pastors. Interactive exchanges should involve participants interacting with each other on common subjects of interest in relation to the welfare of all community members and how this enhances their religious involvement and participation.

Data/Analysis

Data analysed here is taken from Facebook and Twitter and summarised in Table 2 below.  Table 2 records interaction on the Facebook page and Twitter account of each church, using metrics published by Facebook and Twitter. For each Facebook page, Facebook displays the number of people who have “Liked” that page (“Likes”), and the number of people who have interacted with it in some way over the last seven days, including adding a comment, liking a post or mentioning the page in one of their own status updates (“Talking About This”). For each Twitter account, Twitter displays a number of “Followers” and “Following”. “Followers” are people who have signed up to receive tweets from that account, while the ”Following” metric measures the number of other users that the account itself is following. A few of the Facebook pages studied here belong to the church pastors (e.g. CEmb and LCI), and are used to represent their churches; the others belong to the churches themselves. For reasons of space, only a few posts from the Facebook walls of the churches are reproduced in the analysis below. Names of posters have been removed.

 

Table 2: Interaction Indicators on Facebook and Twitter of the Churches

 

                    Facebook                                    Twitter
Church Likes Talking about this Tweets Followers Following
RCCG   51,734       423  15,569 100,011       33,564
DLBC      7,590   1,629        894      2,150               02
LFCW   52,867 17,794        171            49               16
CEmb     9,943         88    1,264 1,187,598                 0
ICGC   20,456   1,786 - - -
LCI 418,274   1,688     1,183    10,012              12
WMCI   15,375           0        486          221            923
VBCI     1,110         88            2               3              14
ACPN           22           1 - - -
EWM           21           1 - - -
DFI           15           0 - -  -
JSWM - - - - -

 

From the above table, it is quite clear that some of these churches are more active on social media than others. Churches in Nigeria and Ghana that appear to have imbibed a more developed social media culture attract more activities than those of Cameroon. This is probably due to Christianity attracting more computer-literate adherents in Nigeria, for example, than in Cameroon.

Activities on RCCG’s Facebook far exceed most of the other churches, but RCCG doesn’t seem to be interested in “following” topics/messages from their very enthusiastic followers on Twitter. The opposite seems to be the case with DLBC where it appears the pastors who tweet many messages do not get so many followers. Interestingly, there is a “following,” which suggests that DLBC may be more amenable to “follow” responses than the RCCG who lacked a single “following” in spite of 3,134 followers.

Surprisingly, the Ghanaian ICGC (as at the time of this study) was not yet on Twitter despite its vibrant Facebook representation and activities. Out of the four Ghanaian churches, three are on both Facebook and Twitter, while only one out of the four in Cameroon is on Facebook and Twitter. Two of the Cameroon churches are on Facebook but not yet on Twitter. This could suggest that the churches in Cameroon are either do not subscribe to Twitter as a viable medium for religious interaction or that the use of social media is not yet as popular in Cameroon as in Nigeria and Ghana. This is reflected in the number of topics and comments on their respective Facebook pages.

From the above table, it is clear that Nigeria leads in social media use in religious communication and interaction. Interestingly, the Nigerian churches appear not to be as responsive to their members and followers as those of Ghana especially on Twitter. For instance, all the Ghanaian churches are following large numbers of users unlike the Nigerian churches, which implies that social media are used more interactively in Ghana than in all the churches in the data. For example with only twenty-four followers from 151 tweets on Twitter, the VBCI was following 222 other users. This is far more significant than in LFCW (Nigeria), where 6,052 users followed 157 tweets, but LFCW itself followed no one at all.

African Online Pentecostals as Communities

In his article “Religion and the Quest for Virtual Community,” Dawson (2004, p.76) asks: “will cyberspace give rise to a sufficiently adapted form of communal life capable of sustaining religious experience?” He argues that most so-called online communities are rather too specialized, largely ideational in content and too intermittent and transitory to evoke the sense of we-ness commonly associated with the word “community” (p.77). This is because community implies “more than mere social interaction” – so “not all virtual groups are communities” (ibid.). He further argues that the online absence of social cues which people use to judge the character and trustworthiness of others draws people into a dependence on stereotypes. Therefore “we need to know more about the qualitative character of online relationships and the actual performance of so-called virtual communities” (p.79). But even where there is evidence of offline community-type standards on the Internet (e.g. social interaction), I still argue in this paper that the character of social interaction on online Christian worship in African churches is far from being sufficient.

The websites of these churches provide ample information about church programmes available to worshippers and how to participate in such programmes, including “online giving,” or “pay your tithe,” “ask Pastor Chris,” “open heavens”, “missionary activities”, “how to improve on your marriage,” “watch live and archived services,” “watch service on mobile,” and “follow us on YouTube”. This clearly meets the criteria for “religion online” proposed by Helland (2000; 2007).  Members also have the opportunity to post their “testimonies” to the church website and receive counselling and prayers as may be required. The criteria for online community – bringing people together, having social roles, shared norms and hierarchies, and carrying on public discussion long enough – are clearly met by the online Christianity. Members also have the opportunity to development personal relationships and share information with members. However, the kind of regular relationships and social interaction which social media networks promise are often stifled in online worship between church leaders and their members. Interactions are usually quite formal and communication flow is often the top down.

What are evident on their websites are conscious displays of church programmes and information about how worshippers may participate and benefit. Attention is more on miracles, healings and problem solving by God, with church leaders serving as intermediaries.  Worshippers are merely required to meet certain conditions in order to enjoy these benefits. This is hardly a wholesome form of “community”. A traditional community is a place or space where members share problems together, recognize their strengths and weakness, encounter conflicts and initiate conflict resolution strategies etc. These practices often happen in offline church situations but are hardly evident on the Internet in African churches.

Social Interaction in Online Religion

It is a major revolution in the conduct of modern Christian practice that religious worship is adaptable to the Internet – the fact that church services are watched and practised online. The availability of the church on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, RSS feeds, and specialized blogs contributes further to this revolutionary approach. Some church programs are also relayed through Skype. Some of the churches under study like the RCCG or DLBC may also be followed on YouTube or GodTube.  Others like the Christ Embassy in Nigeria have WebTV and video-supported interactive forums and “live blogs”. These are quite new in the history of the modern Pentecostal church.

I argue that social interaction is a major advantage of a strong online community. A virtual/online community ought to provide and sustain a viable and active social interaction base. The fact that online churches are now on Facebook and Twitter suggests that a type of social interaction exists among church members and their leaders. I now examine the nature and content of such interactions. Samples are obtained from the Facebook walls of the churches under study. Since the topics and responses (i.e. the date) on Facebook and Twitter are in thousands as shown in table 2, only a few samples from Facebook are reproduced in the analysis below. At least one example is taken from each of the churches.

Text-based discourse topics (or messages) posted on Facebook walls have some forms of subject matter (or theme) targeted at the worshippers who are the receivers/audience. Thus, a two-way communication flow is in principle established.

The general theme of faith reverberates in the posts of most of the churches. Other recurrent themes include success, victory, healing, prosperity and righteousness. Comments offer brief responses to the topic, which may be viewed as genuine feedback, but are too brief and isolated to be considered interactive. Many of the posts and threads on Facebook are verses lifted from the Bible or a prayer from the pastor, which of course leaves no room for the worshipper to contribute, rather than to simply say “amen”.

Below is an example from the RCCG Facebook wall. “P” is the original status update, and “R” stands for “responder.”

 

P1. (from the Pastor): The world doesn’t reward your efforts or struggles only your success. Today i pray GOD will reward your efforts and struggles in JESUS name (23,896 likes).

R1. Amen sir.

P2. Faith is no Faith until it is tested. GOD will test your faith. Gen 22:1-18 (5,884 likes)

R2. Lord, I ask for the grace to pass the test of life in Jesus name

 

In the two examples above, the responders do not really interact with the pastor. R1 simply affirms the prayer, by saying “Amen,” but she adds “sir,” at the end, significantly showing the African mode of polite address that is normal for an elder, or a person in authority. But it also reflects distance, in terms of the relationship that exists between the addresser and the addressee. Here, the relationship is absolutely formal, between a master and a servant who probably had never met in person. R2 does not even respond to the pastor, rather to God directly as the post functions as a motivator to prayer. Interactions then appear to take place between man and God, rather than between man and man. This piece clearly reflects participant roles in discourse, where the pastor is viewed as the intermediary between God and man, presupposing that the relationship between the addresser and addressee is formal. In this case, an informal interactive atmosphere that occurs in an offline situation (even in offline religion situation) is absent online.  A similar example is taken from the DLBC’s Facebook wall:

P3. (from the Pastor): “Proverb 30.5. Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him (5 likes)

R3. Amen

R4. May the Lord give me the grace to trust and obey His word in JESUS name. Amen

 

Again, the above samples correlate with the earlier examples, showing almost exactly the same pattern of responses, in which responders do not really respond to the pastor. Interestingly, the two responders to the post in P3 (which is a Bible quotation) give the same response as the responders in RI and R2 to a piece of preaching. This suggests that responses are predictable, meaning that the pastors are likely to know in advance what the usual responses will be, and therefore prepare their messages to fit those expected responses. “Interaction” here misses the point of dynamism and appears mechanical.

Responses from the Facebook walls of LFC and CEMb are not too different from the examples below:

P4. (from the Pastor): God says ignorance (the absence of knowledge) destroys. Hosea 4.6 (438 likes)

R5. I hear sir. Thk u sir for the word of knowledge

R6. Amen papa, il faudrait détruire l”ignorance

R7. My mentor is good.

R8. More grace, fresh anointing upon you papa, you are indeed…

 

The responses to P4 in R5 and R6 indicate the usual acceptance of and affirmation to the pastor’s post. Interestingly however, R5 applies the informal writing style usually associated with the Internet and mobile telephony: “Thank you” is abbreviated as “Thk u.” However, this doesn’t necessarily make the “dialogue” informal or interactive, because in all the cases, the pastor’s posts are not followed-up with responses to these comments. R5-8 generally reflect the kind of religious mentality and mode of address mostly common to all these churches, transferred to the social media platform. Like the above previous example, R5 simply accedes to the message. Notice the “sir” address format repeated here to show respect and distance. Some worshippers praise their pastors; some actually adore and brag about them in a form of hero-worship. This is clearly reflected in R6 and R7. The pastor is viewed both as a father and mentor and called “papa” by his church members. The addressee here becomes everyone who cares to listen to the social role the pastor is said to play. R8 goes on to pray for him.

Interestingly, R5 reflects the multilingual nature of the Internet. It is assumed that the writer understands English but she writes her comment in French: “Il faudrait détruire l’ignorance” (ignorance should be destroyed). This reflects a possible global participation of worshippers in religious practices through social media.

All the churches in Nigeria follow the same pattern of top-bottom interactional mode where the pastor is at the centre. Thus, the interactions lack the dynamism of the real offline conversation. However, one of the Ghanaian churches is somewhat different. While there are evidences of the frequent acceptance of the pastor message, there are also some forms of interactions that take place among members and worshippers. The following conversations take place among worshippers from the ICGC.

P5. It’s the Breakthrough Conference! Greater Works 2010. I hear a sound of aboundace in dis year’s greater works n am going 2 have ecounter with my craeter.

R9. dis show is really gonna be big

P6. R10, were you at the church last year, is good but those guys belongs to the protocol department.

R10. I couldn’t make it but i bought the CD and just as i expected the message was spot on that should repent any soul that hears it. Try and get it! Title “BETWEEN TWO SINNERS”

 

These brief dialogues between worshippers appear more like a social interaction. For instance, P5 announces a conference which in his opinion promises “aboundace” (abundance) and also excitedly announces his expectation. This warrants R9, which is a logical response to P5. Notice the word “craeter” (creator), which evidences the typical non-standard Ghanaian pronunciation. P6 and R10 appear more practical. P6 makes reference to “those guys” from the protocol department, which R10 is assumed to be aware off, so he didn’t have to comment on it.  The brief conversation also reflects the worshippers rating of electronic alternatives to offline preaching. R10 was not in church but he was satisfied with the sermon on CD which gave him the same satisfaction as the real life offline church sermon. Another example from a Ghanaian church (i.e. VBCI), shows the worshippers not only praising the pastor, but also giving “testimonies” to the pastor’s contributions to their lives.

P7. To God be the glory, many lives and destinies have been impacted upon for the past 25yrs. I can boldly say that am a full beneficiary of the selfless and dedicated ministry of this great man of God.Bishop.N.A Tackie Yarboi.

P8. My life has bn impacted greatly by you nd u gave me the opportunity to unearth the gifts of God upon my life. Words are not enough to say all i have in my heart, but to say thank u for being obedient to the call…

P9. That’s my church back home in Ghana.

P10. I am so bless to be part of this vision oh God we thank thee

 

P8 is a form of appreciation note to the pastor, which of course the pastor did not respond to.  The phrase “the past 25 years” suggests that the posts in this category are congratulatory messages to the pastor on the occasion of their Silver Jubilee Anniversary. Thus, the above texts are not part of an on-going conversations, rather are individual acknowledgments directed not just to the pastor but also to any reader of the Facebook interactions, expectedly members of the church.  P9 on the other hand is merely a proud identification with the offline church. The post suggests that the writer was not in Ghana at the time he posted the message.

As already indicated on Table 2, Cameroonian churches were yet to apply social media to elaborate and meaningful Christian worship. The three posts on the Facebook wall of the EWM as shown below are from the pastor. Two of the posts are in French, one in English.

P11. On est voit moi qu’avec le coeur, aimons nous les un et les autres du vraie de l”amour

(one sees me with the heart, let’s love one another with the heart).

P12. “We are called to bring men into the fullness of Christ.”

P13. Un succee sans successeur cella ne pas un succe (a success without a successor is no success)

 

The above posts are clearly religious admonitions that do not anticipate any responses. This is perhaps the reason why there are none.

In summary, the information structure of the first type of posts shows that they are preachy. The posts are in form of admonitions, Bible quotes or teachings. This is basically non-interactive. The second form of information structure is partially interactive, where information flows from the top (the pastor) to the members/worshippers and the latter is expected to accept or affirm the message. Members may give “testimonies” to the pastor’s good works or simply pray for the pastor. The third is fairly interactive where worshippers send posts to and get feedbacks from fellow worshippers. This is evident in only one church in Ghana. The three types of interaction models confirm that the churches lack strong interactive forums for a strong social interaction. This is attributed to the traditional administrative structure of the church, where members are usually at the receiving end. The pastor is said to receive instructions from God and dispenses same to members, who seldom ask questions. However, social interaction in the ICGC example does not pose any danger to religious authority as members neither question God’s word nor the pastor’s authority; rather members share and reflect on issues of faith as they affect them; some of them offering spiritual solutions to some seeming problems, without recourse to the pastor. This way, spiritual experiences are mutually shared and stronger emotional ties are sustained. Thus, interactive forums are better than where they do not exist.

Language Use and Structures

The language style of the Internet, which according to Crystal (2006, p.244) “falls uneasily between standard and non-standard English”, does not seem to place any constraints on the language of religion on the web. This means that they are not largely unorthodox in terms of spelling, punctuation, vocabulary and grammar.  Because of its highly formalized context (i.e. of religion), the freedom to manipulate words, or the use of “nonsense vocabulary” (Crystal 2011, p.18) by worshippers is absolutely absent. The use of unconventional orthography to represent auditory information such as prosody, laughter and other non-language sounds are also absent; thus emoticons (e.g. smiley face) are hardly used even on Facebook. Herring (2001) has however, argued that only a relatively small percentage of non-standard linguistic features in CMD are unintentional. The majority are deliberate choices made by users in order to economize space, mimic spoken language features or express themselves creatively. According to Herring, variation in structural complexity in some online contents must be understood as reflecting social situational factors, which determine what level of formality, standardness and structural complexity is appropriate to the context.

In all the websites and pages of the churches under study, writings display formal features of British and American Standard varieties. This is evident in the spelling patterns that identify with British and American English. We can argue that Western influence on virtually all the pastors could have influenced the brand of English we see on their websites. It is true that the websites may have been designed by independent service providers who have introduced their own variety of English, but most of their contents consist of uploads to the websites.  Below are samples from three of the churches under study that demonstrate the forms and variety of English on the churches’ websites:

P14. At Shiloh 2011, God has proved himself to be a God of greater Glory…  The event saw to the live streaming of multiple international locations connecting to and fro Canaanland and there was a total hit of 123,997 within just few days on the website as people from almost everywhere on earth were connected to watch the service online. (LFC, Nigeria).

P15. The International Central Gospel Church is an Evangelical, Charismatic Christian Church. It was officially inaugurated as a church on the 26th of February 1984, in Accra, Ghana. The first meeting was held in a small classroom with an initial membership of just about twenty people. In May 1986, the church settled in a rented scout hall – the Baden Powell Memorial Hall – which became its home for the next ten years… (ICGC, Ghana)

 

P16. Greetings, Holy and Wonderful people of God…Our church building in Togo is in trouble. We bought the LAND and have not paid all the money, we are owing 12,000,000 (Twelve Million FCFA) which is $25,000 (Twenty-five thousand dollars). The Land owner requires that we pay him $12,500 dollars before the end of this year. We therefore solicit your help to payout this amount of money. (DFI, Cameroon)

 

P14 is a report, P15 is a history, while P16 is an appeal. Given the different persuasive contexts of the samples, one can conclude that the English of online religion in West Africa approximates British/American Standard English. Grammatical structures are similar to those of Nigerian, Ghanaian, and Cameroonian Standard English varieties. In terms of vocabulary, words are carefully chosen in all the samples and reflect the register of religion, as we would expect. It is clear that the English of the above samples is near perfect and aptly represents the kind of English in the formal Christian contexts in West Africa.

Conclusion

This research concludes that African digital worshippers have formed online communities; online worshippers of each of the churches constitute a community. However, while certain conditions such as information sharing, norms sharing and recognition of hierarchies are visible in online worship, situations that are typical of the offline community such as regular interactions, development of relationships, and conflict resolution mechanisms are more evident in offline worship than in online worship.  On Facebook and Twitter, pastors see their pages and profiles as another opportunity to reach out to the members in form of teachings, prayers and announcements. Members merely respond in gratitude and share “testimonies” of the impact of the pastors on their lives. Social interactions where members interact with members are minimized probably because members view the forums as a sacred space solely for spiritual matters and not for sharing social or individual feelings. This is particularly evident in the Nigerian online churches although Nigeria appears to be the most developed, in terms of social media use for religious worship. Comparatively, this research has shown that the Ghanaian social networks are the more interactive than the rest and follows Nigeria in terms of the popularization of the new media in religious activities. The use of social media in religious worship is not yet widespread in Cameroon. In all, the introduction of social media networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs and interactive forums is an interesting new development in Christian worship which promises a more dynamic online worship in the near future.

Acknowledgement

A version of this paper was presented at the International Conference on Digital Religion. Center for Media, Religion and Culture. University of Colorado, Boulder, USA, 12-15 January, 2012. I thank the organizers.

 

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About the Author

Dr. I. Chiluwa is a Senior Lecturer and Head of Department of Languages, Covenant University, Ota (Nigeria).  His research focus is discourse studies and pragmatics and has published scholarly articles in some leading international journals in this field such as Discourse & Society, Discourse Studies, Discourse & Communication, Journal of Multicultural Discourses, Journal of Language and Politics, Pragmatics and Society, Journal of Asian and African Studies, English Today, English World-Wide etc. He is the author of Labeling and Ideology in the Press: a corpus-based critical discourse study of the Niger Delta crisis (Peter Lang, Frankfurt 2011); Language in the News: mediating sociopolitical crises in Nigeria (Peter Lang, Frankfurt, 2012) and co-editor of Computer-Mediated Discourse in Africa (Nova Science Publishers, New York, 2012). He is a member of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) (Media, Religion and Culture sub-section).

Email: innocent.chiluwa@covenantuniversity.edu.ng

 

VOLUME 2, ISSUE 1: MARIAM ALKAZEMI

Students’ Spiraling Silence and Willingness to Communicate about Religion in the United States: An Exploration of the Media’s Role in Stigmatizing Religion

Mariam F. Alkazemi

University of Florida

Abstract

The spiral of silence effect describes individuals’ tendency to silence minority opinions, whilst using the media to gauge majority opinion. While the spiral of silence effect has been explored in controversial political contexts, the phenomenon has not been scrutinized in its relation to religious communication. The current study applies this concept to further the current understanding of communication as it applies to religion. A questionnaire was distributed electronically to 94 students at a large university in the south-eastern United States. Using survey methods, this paper finds that religiosity is positively correlated to willingness to communicate about religion. This paper also finds that media exposure is not related to either willingness to communicate about religion or religiosity.

Keywords: media, religion, communication, stigmatization

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The United States is the most religious country in the developed world (Domke & Coe, 2010). In the 1970s, the US witnessed the merging of media and religion, as demonstrated by televangelism of religious leaders, such as Jerry Falwell (Domke & Coe, 2010). While scholars have found evidence that religious references are widely used in presidential speeches to attract religious citizenry without alienating secular voters (Domke & Coe, 2010), there is a dearth of scholarship which addresses the role of the media in creating a sense of respect or stigma around religion.

As technological developments have advanced the field of mass communication, cable television, blogs, and online multimedia platforms continue to be an important vehicle for religious communication (Domke & Coe, 2010). As scholars investigate the impact of the media on religious communication between different religious groups, the media have been regarded as an educational tool in shaping public opinion about religion (Graham, 2012). The importance of the media was highlighted after the televised 9/11 terrorist activities, which increased Americans’ awareness that their knowledge of the Muslim world is mediated (Hoover, 2012). Clearly, the media play a role in inter-religious relations through creating a general image of religions. Yet, many unanswered questions remain about the role of the media in fostering an environment in which communication about religion is encouraged.

The purpose of the current study is to examine the extent to which media exposure and religiosity influence willingness to communicate about religion among students in the United States. The present study focused on students because young people have a nuanced relationship with religion and the media. While some young people interpret the messages of the popular, mass media through the lenses of their religious identities (Loomis, 2004), they often turn to other forms of media to gain religious experiences (Morgan, 2002).

Data were collected via the distribution of an electronic questionnaire to 94 students across two weeks at a four-year university in the south-eastern region of the United States, and 66 percent of the survey respondents identified as being Christian. The results suggest that a positive correlation exists between religiosity and willingness to communicate about religion. Media exposure did not influence respondents’ willingness to communicate about religion—regardless of whether or not the media exposure occurred through more traditional media or through social and online media outlets.

Literature Review

Spiral of Silence Theoretical Framework

The spiral of silence effect describes the tendency of individuals not to express an opinion with which they expect others will disagree (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). As minority opinions are silenced, the silence spirals, or is perpetuated due to the lack of expression of minority opinions discouraging minority opinions from being expressed. Individuals calculate the ‘distribution of opinions’ in their social environment by relying on the mass media and then decide to voice or silence their own views (Noelle-Neumann, 1974, p.44).

This effect contributed to the existing knowledge on the role of media in public opinion formation. In its early research stages, the effect accounted for factors that would contribute to the silencing of minority opinion, such as the strength of the opinion, the urgency to express it, and the calculation of the degree to which others will agree with it (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). Although the spiral of silence accounts for a portion of people with minority opinions that will express themselves regardless, researchers predict that fear of social isolation and/or self-doubt results in a situation in which most people with minority views are less likely to voice their views (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). However, some circumstances exist in which the spiral may be broken. For example, the estimation of future popular opinions to be favourable is likely to increase one’s willingness to share minority opinions due to decreased ‘pressure to conform’ (Noelle-Neumann, 1974, p.49).

While previous mass communications research had suggested that the silencing of minority views was the result of one’s desire to be on the winning side, the spiral of silence effect offered an alternative understanding which explains that individuals simply are avoiding isolation (Noelle-Neumann, 1977). As survey instruments developed in mass communication scholarship, scholars attempted to examine the role of the social environment (Glynn & McLeod, 1984), the individual’s preparation to risk isolation (Donsbach & Stevenson, 1984) and the degree to which one disagrees with majority opinion, in the spiral of silence effect (Lasorsa, 1991). The current study employs survey methods designed to measure the extent to which media exposure and religiosity influence one’s willingness to communicate about religion. In doing so, the present study follows a long tradition of spiral of silence research, which has developed with the evolution of survey methodology and contributed to the field of political communication (Noelle-Neumann, 1977; Glynn & McLeod, 1984; Lasorsa, 1991; Jeffres, Neuendorf, & Atkin, 1999; Perry & Gonzenbach, 2000; Hayes, 2007).

Researchers who study communication and politics have found that in hypothetical social situations individuals are more likely to enter a political discussion with people with whom they share similar views (Glynn & McLeod, 1984). When candidates were perceived as gaining support, individuals were more likely to express their opinions (Glynn & McLeod, 1984). In fact, the more that a candidate was perceived as gaining support, the more likely individuals were to express support for that candidate (Glynn and McLeod, 1984). Glynn and McLeod (1984) were able to confirm Noelle-Neumann’s claim that there is a type of respondent that is more likely to engage in campaign discussion and consider political discussions to be less influential than issues and candidates’ personal qualities. In other words, researchers have identified the conditions under which the spiral of silence may or may not function.

As researchers sought to understand the personal qualities of individuals who were less affected by the spiral of silence, some examined this effect in private and public settings (Donsbach & Stevenson, 1984). Primary research conducted by Donsbach and Stevenson (1984) revealed that those few individuals who express minority opinions may have ‘exhibited decidedly more self-assurance’ despite their recognition that majority views differ from their own, suggesting that perhaps minority groups do not voice their opinion because they are not certain of their own position (p.34). Therefore, an individual’s self-confidence may support the spiral of silence effect in some circumstances. The current study explores the relationship between media exposure, religiosity and the willingness of US students to communicate about religion. Religiosity, a measure of religion that typically focuses on religious behavior, is assumed to be higher for those with more confidence in their religious beliefs because religions often preach a certain quality of behavior (Wald, Silverman, & Fridy, 2005).

It follows then that religiosity could be used as an equivalent measure to political interest. Mass communications researchers have identified an interest in politics as a contributing factor to ‘political outspokenness’, or the tendency to voice one’s political opinions (Lasorsa, 1991, p.131). Self-efficacy, defined as an individual’s confidence that he/she is able to change things beyond him/herself, is another condition under which dissenting views are voiced (Lasorsa, 1991). The spiral of silence effect is also less likely to manifest itself in situations where individuals strongly believe that that their position with regards to an issue is correct (Lasorsa, 1991). Though there are exceptions in the application of the spiral of silence effect, most people with unpopular views are likely to carefully assess the social atmosphere before sharing their perspective. While political communication research has developed the application of the spiral of silence effect, few communications researchers have scrutinized the application of this phenomenon to religion.

Meanwhile, mass communications researchers have found evidence linking media exposure to fear of minority religions (Green & Aly, 2011). In some cases, the factors that impact an individual’s decision to voice minority opinions may be more related to fear of communication rather than fear of isolation. For example, Crandall and Ayres (2002) found that the spiral of silence effect is less likely to apply in situations where individuals have low communication apprehension; are familiar with the individuals with which they are conversing; and if the other person was likely to agree with them. Researchers found that individuals’ willingness to communicate is not impacted by race; however, race may impact an individual’s willingness to be quoted (Jeffres, Neuendorf, & Atkin, 1999). Clearly, an individual’s personal predispositions impact their assessment of discussions in which they participate. Thus, the current study employs a willingness to communicate about religion scale that accounts for tendencies of individuals to feel more comfortable in some contexts than others.

Despite the fact that some individuals may not feel comfortable expressing an unpopular opinion, studies conducted in the southeastern US show that this does not affect one’s willingness to express opinions in more passive ways. In Alabama, those who were afraid to voice minority views were not afraid of using bumper stickers, wearing an expressive t-shirt or a hat, putting up signs in yards or public places, calling a talk show, signing a petition, talking with acquaintances or strangers, or being interviewed by a reporter (Perry & Gonzenbach, 2000). Thus, there are multiple passive ways to communicate minority perspectives.

But how does the spiral of silence effect manifest itself when silence is not an option? Hayes (2007) identified eight ways individuals may attempt to avoid expressing an opinion. These strategies, in order of likelihood of selection, are to reflect the question; to express uncertainty or ambivalence; to express indifference; to talk about someone else’s opinion; to change the topic of discussion; to say nothing; to walk away from the discussion or to pretend to agree (Hayes, 2007). Individuals are more likely to walk away from a discussion when the context is one that they perceive to be different from their own (Hayes, 2007). Mass communications researchers have seldom explored the media’s role in individuals’ tendency to avoid conversations about religion. Willingness to communicate about religion is a measurement that is appropriate within this context, as it measures one’s willingness to break the spiral of silence effect.

The spiral of silence effect has been examined in several controversial contexts, such as government affirmative action (Moy, Domke, Stamm, 2001) and the war in Iraq (Neuwirth, Frederick & Mayo, 2007). The current study explores the spiral of silence effect in the context of religious communication.  It does so by examining the relationship between religiosity, media exposure and willingness to communicate about religion among young people.

Religiosity and Young People

Young people are particularly interesting when one examines religion and the media because they are often targeted by the media while still in the process of constructing religious identities (Clark, 2002). Clark (2002) argues that the media play a role in how young people in the United States interpret their religious practices, and their willingness to identify as being religious. Lövheim (2004) found that new media are important for young people, who struggle to balance their religious beliefs with popular culture, because it allows them to negotiate with others in an environment that contains diverse views as well as easy access to information from authorities in various religious traditions. Hence, young people can seek information to construct their religious identities through the media, including online religious communities.

In fact, scholars of mass media have found that young people ‘develop creative spiritual readings of their own from, for instance, religious symbolism in pop music videos’ (Loomis, 2004, p.153). Students, Loomis (2004) explained, interpret mass media messages using their religiosity as a filter. Therefore, media exposure may be shaped by one’s religious views, which young people may feel more comfortable expressing online in some cases, (e.g., Berger and Ezzy, 2004). Overall, one’s religiosity contributes to an understanding of media in some instances.

In other instances, media contribute to creating a religious experience. For example, the majority of adherents to Islam, Judaism, Christianity and a number of other religious traditions cling to at least one medium – a holy book (Meyer, 2012; Morgan, 2002). However, words are not the only tools used by religious individuals to create a sensation of spiritual intimacy; visual depictions of Jesus have been used in the United States since the early 19th century (Morgan, 2002). By the middle of the 19th century American Protestants began engaging in a tradition common among Catholics: gazing at visual depictions of Jesus in order to shape one’s character (Morgan, 2002). This is but one example of how religious people can seek to use media to communicate sensations, but also seek sensations through media use (Meyer, 2012). Therefore, media play an important role both within and between religious denominations.

Online and offline religious communities are comparable in some ways (Berger & Ezzy, 2004). Online religious communities are no more seductive than physical congregations, according to Berger and Ezzy’s (2004) examination of online witchcraft communities of teenagers in the United States and Australia. Their findings suggest that online religious communities facilitate communication between members of society that may have marginalized opinions, and are easier to leave than offline religious communities. This suggests that newer media may be used by curious individuals seeking religious communities and/or experiences.

The current study concerns the willingness of students to communicate about religion in the United States. In particular, it examines the role of different types of media exposure on students’ willingness to communicate about religion. Such a discussion is incomplete without a review of existing media effects research in which the role of religiosity was examined.

Religiosity and Media Effects

The current study examines religion from the Durkheimian perspective that religion and morals cannot be removed from a social framework in which each member of society has an obligation to others (Pals, 2006). In this view, religiosity is defined as the degree to which an individual is involved in his/her religious traditions, which social scientists consider as separate from one’s religious identity and set of beliefs (Edgell & Tranby, 2007). Scholars of mass communications have recently examined the role of religiosity in media effects research (Armfield & Holbert, 2003; Golan, 2002). Hence, religiosity, the measure of religious behavior, is often employed in social scientific research dealing with communication.

Religiosity is an effective analytical instrument for measuring the extent to which one is religious because there is often a gap between theology and practice. For example, the term “folk religion” appeared at the beginning of the 20th century when academics saw young clergy members in Europe attempt to bridge the gap between the theology of the church and the way Christianity was practised (Yoder,1974). Unlike mainstream religious movements, folk religion describes an alternative approach to religion in which holy texts were interpreted by a community in the way that they, as individuals or as a group, considered to be most appropriate (Yoder, 1974). From the folk religion perspective, Christianity is not a monolithic religion; rather, it appears in many forms (Yoder, 1974). Sometimes, the various forms of the same religion can conflict with one another (Yoder, 1974). Religiosity is a measure of religion that measures the extent to which one engages in religious practices, regardless of the theological conflicts with which one struggles.

Further, religiosity scales are often used in mass communications research. For example, Armfield and Holbert (2003) found that religiosity is negatively correlated with use of online media. Individuals who reported higher levels of religiosity were less likely to use online media.  Their findings were consistent with previous research which suggested that mass media may be too secular for highly religious individuals. Therefore, researchers have identified religiosity as a contingent factor in media effects research.

Another example of religiosity being a useful measure can be found in Golan’s (2002) explanation of the tendency of religious people to support censorship efforts surrounding issues dealing with morality. Through the use of survey methods, Golan (2002) found that more religiously-involved subjects were under the impression that others were more easily influenced by the media than themselves. Golan’s (2002) research suggests that respondents with higher levels of religiosity reported equal degrees of vulnerability to the influence of media as their estimation of the vulnerability of those with lower religiosity levels to the media influence.

The current study examines the role of religiosity in media effects research. Particularly, the present study examines the role of religiosity in the willingness to communicate about religion. Like most spiral of silence studies, the present study employs survey methods to examine the effects of the media on individuals’ willingness to communicate or remain silent.

Hypotheses

Since the spiral of silence effect suggests that individuals calculate their desire to express minority opinion based on mediated perceptions of majority opinion, this study was designed to measure the effect of media exposure on willingness to communicate about religion. Further, the current study was designed to measure religiosity of respondents to determine its role in the spiral of silence effect. Data were collected through survey methods to test three hypotheses:

H1: Media exposure will be positively related to willingness to communicate about religion.

H2: Religiosity will be positively correlated to media exposure.

H3: Religiosity will be positively correlated to willingness to communicate about religion.

Media exposure is expected to be positively related to willingness to communicate about religion because religious young people filter the media through a religious lens. Religiosity is then explored in two hypotheses. The current study explores whether religiosity is analogous to political interest, since Lasorsa’s (1991) findings suggest that political interest is a condition that breaks the spiral of silence effect. Therefore, the second hypothesis explores whether increased religiosity is related to more media exposure. Similarly, the third hypothesis explores whether increased religiosity is related to a greater willingness to communicate about religion. These hypotheses are included in order to determine whether religiosity operates similarly to political interest in the spiral of silence phenomenon.

Methods

Survey Data

Questionnaires were distributed electronically to students taking summer classes at a large south-eastern university in the United States. The university is located in a mid-sized city, with a population of just under 125,000 residents. The university is home to more than 30,000 undergraduate students, including more than 15 student organizations involving religion. During the summer, however, far fewer students are enrolled in classes.

To recruit students, various instructors of summer courses were contacted with a link to an online questionnaire. The criteria for selection of the course instructors involved ensuring the course was being offered at the time the data was set to be distributed. Participants were provided with an extra credit incentive; however, it is unclear which professors gave their students the opportunity to participate. Students taught by eight distinct course instructors responded to the questionnaire, and all eight instructors taught a course related to the mass media. The maximum number of respondents from a course instructor’s class was 20 students; however, only one student responded from another instructor’s class. While 94 students responded to the questionnaire, the nonresponse rate is unclear. The questionnaire was accessible online between May 29 and June 13, 2012.

Though some researchers are critical of samples that consist of students, much of mass communication research uses students as subjects (Golan, 2002). Students are typically young people, and universities are environments in which students engage in multifaceted self-exploration. One aspect that students explore in universities is religion, and the fact that several religious organizations exist at this southeastern university made a student sample particularly interesting. While students were not required to be Christian to participate, the majority of the students in the southeast of the  US. tend to be affiliated with Christianity.

Measures

Punyanunt-Carter, Wrench, Corrigan and McCroskey (2008) adjusted research to determine one’s communication apprehension (CA) levels, which was defined as one’s real or anticipated levels of anxiety towards communication, to determine religious communication apprehension (RCA). RCA refers to the real or anticipated levels of anxiety towards communication about religion, particularly if others seem to follow different religions. In order to determine RCA, Punyanunt-Carter et al. (2008) created three scales to measure RCA: receiver apprehension test, religious tolerance for disagreement, and willingness to communicate about religion.

Punyanunt-Carter et al. (2008) created the willingness to communicate about religion scale by adding the words ‘about religion’ in the 20-item scale that that McCroskey (1992) had made to test willingness to communicate. The directions on the scale explained to respondents that the questions present situations, and asked them to indicate ‘the percentage of times’ respondents would decide to communicate, with zero representing never and 100 representing always (McCroskey, 1992, p.18).  The items include factors such as if the receiver was a friend, acquaintance or stranger, and whether the context was interpersonal, in a meeting, as a part of a group or public. One example of such an item is, ‘present a talk to a small group of friends’ (McCroskey, 1992, p.18). The researchers reported a Cronbach’s alpha* of 0.95. The current study includes the 20-item scale found in McCroskey’s (1992) research as a relationship between religiosity, media exposure and willingness to communicate about religion is investigated.

My study also included a scale to measure media exposure, developed by Wanta and Wu (1992). Wantu and Wu asked respondents ‘how often in the last week they had read a newspaper, watched a national news broadcast, watched a local news broadcast’ (1992: p.851). The respondents were able to enter their own value, with the lowest possible value being 0 and the highest possible value being 168 (the number of hours in a week). They reported a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.73. This scale was adjusted such that one may combine how often respondents have read both a paper and online newspaper in the last week. To understand the role of the mass media in stigmatizing religion, these items were not limited to religious media. This was the second variable included in this study, which determines the existence of a relationship between religiosity, media exposure and willingness to communicate about religion.

Finally, a religiosity scale was located in a work prepared by a team of interdisciplinary researchers (Lukwago, Kreuter, Bucholtz, Holt & Clark, 2001). The religiosity scale was selected because of its wording, which does not apply only to a certain religion or denomination. The nine-item scale was even more attractive because of its brevity. The items included statements with which respondents were asked to agree or disagree on a 5-point scale with statements such as, ‘I have a personal relationship with God’ (Lukwago et al., 2001, p.69). Lukwago et al. (2001) reported a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.88. These items also inquired about accessing religious media, as such a selection indicates whether one has an interest in religion.

Results

The 94 respondents consisted of sophomores (2.1%, N=2), juniors (27.7%, N=26), seniors (61.7%, N=58) and graduate students (8.5%, N=8). The respondents consisted of more females (77.7%, N=73) than males (22.3%, N=21).

The questionnaire asked students to identify the religion they follow, and they were given several options, including: atheist/agnostic, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or other. Though the majority of the respondents identified as being Christian (66%, N=62), some respondents identified as being atheist or agnostic (14.9%, N=14), or other (19.1%, N=18). Because very few of the respondents indicated that they were followers of Judaism, Islam or other faiths, the categories were collapsed and included in the ‘other’ category. The questionnaire is included in Appendix 1.

While survey research is criticized for the lack of accuracy of samples in reflecting the general, adult population, it is appropriate in revealing correlations between measurable scales. However, a student sample is appropriate in determining how the media might influence the willingness of randomly selected young adults to communicate about religion. Nonresponse bias is indeterminable due to the nature of the electronic distribution of the online questionnaire.

The three variables involved in this analysis involve willingness to communicate about religion, religiosity and media exposure. The willingness to communicate about religion scale considers both the context and the receiver. Media exposure was measured with regards to hours in the last week across eight platforms. The means and the standard deviation for the provided data are summarized in Table 1. Social media and online media were the most popular forms of media and national radio was the least popular medium.

The first hypothesis examines whether willingness to communicate about religion increases as religiosity increases. The willingness to communicate scale examines various situations in which communication may occur: public, meeting, group, and interpersonal. The scale also examines whether the depth of the relationship impacts one’s willingness to communicate by creating the various categories: stranger, acquaintance, and friend. Respondents indicated they were more willing to communicate about religion with a friend, and less likely to do so in a public setting. Numerical summaries are provided in Table 1.

Correlations were run to examine whether a relationship exists between these situations and religiosity. Statistically significant relationships were found and are summarized in Table 2. Statistical analyses were conducted to examine whether a relationship exists between these situations and religiosity. Statistically significant relationships were found and are summarized in Table 3. The total willingness to communicate variable is positively correlated to religiosity, regardless of the context. The findings are summarized in Table 2.

The second hypothesis examines the degree to which media exposure increases as religiosity increases. In order to do so, the media exposure was condensed into four categories: none, low, medium and high. Correlations were run to examine if a linear relationship exist between the variables, and no statistically significant relationship was found. Then, ANOVA was run to examine whether a curvilinear relationship exists, however no statistically significant relationship was found. Finally, an analysis was run between total exposure and religiosity. No statistically significant relationship was found. The findings are summarized in Table 3.

The third hypothesis examines whether media exposure increases as willingness to communicate about religion increases. Again, media exposure was condensed into four categories: none, low, medium and high. Correlations were run to examine if a linear relationship exist between the variables, and no statistically significant relationship was found. Then, ANOVA was run to examine whether a curvilinear relationship exists, however no statistically significant relationship was found. Finally, a correlation was conducted between total exposure and religiosity. No statistically significant relationship was found. The findings are summarized in Table 3.

Independent sample t-tests were conducted to determine whether individuals who self-identified as being Christian reported different levels of willingness to communicate about religion than those who did not self-identify as being Christian. The results revealed that no statistically significant relationship exists t(88)=1.69, p>.05, implying that Christians and non-Christians experienced similar levels of willingness to communicate about religion.

Discussion and Conclusion

The first hypothesis states that there will be a positive correlation between religiosity and increased willingness to communicate about religion. The findings reveal that a positive relationship exists between religiosity and willingness to communicate about religion. More specifically, higher religiosity translated in a higher willingness to communicate about religion. In other words, increased religiosity may be a condition under which the spiral of silence ceases to function.

Lasorsa (1991) found that the spiral of silence does not operate in political contexts in which an individual with minority views has a large interest in politics. The findings of this study are consistent with Lasorsa’s (1991) findings, despite the fact that the spiral of silence was applied to differing spheres of public life. Individuals with minority opinions with regards to religion are more likely to voice their opinion when they report increased religious behavior.

The second hypothesis states that there will be a positive correlation between religiosity and media exposure. The findings reveal that no statistically significant relationship was found between religiosity and media exposure. The spiral of silence effect assumes that the media create perceptions of majority opinion; however, the data suggest that perhaps individuals who are high in religiosity may create their perception of majority and minority opinion from their first-person experiences in their faith-based communities.

Existing literature suggests that individuals with high religiosity may not be influenced by the media when deciding their willingness to communicate about religion. On the surface, this seems inconsistent with the research of Golan and Day (2010), who found higher levels of distrust of network television and newspapers among those who pray more frequently (Golan & Day, 2010). However, the findings are consistent with Loomis’ (2004) argument that more religious individuals interpret mass media messages and navigate popular culture using a religious filter.

The third hypothesis states that there will be a positive correlation between media exposure and willingness to communicate about religion. The findings reveal that there is no statistically significant relationship between media exposure and willingness to communicate about religion. The lack of a relationship is a noteworthy finding, and may be attributed to the fact that the majority of the participants self-identified as being members of a majority as Christians living in the United States. The spiral of silence suggests that individuals use the media to create their perception of majority opinion, and those who believe their opinion is a minority choose not to express it. Future research is necessary to determine whether data collected from members of minority religions yield the same results.

Individuals are not likely to communicate about religion, and this attitude may be influenced by the prevalent view that religion is a private matter. This is especially true of developed nations, which typically grow more secular as they develop (Hadden, 1987). While the United States is generally understood as an anomaly to this rule (Domke & Coe, 2010), it is unclear how the concept of religion being a taboo subject for public discussion influences ones’ willingness to communicate about religion.

Equally important to note is the tendency among more religiously involved people to have first-hand, unmediated experiences that influence their beliefs. This concept would be supported by Golan and Day’s (2010) findings that religiosity is negatively correlated with their perception of online media and positively correlated to perception of online media as a good source for information relating to concerns about one’s community. More religiously involved individuals may feel that online media is intrusive, yet it is also a space for communal relationships and factual information. It could be that more religiously involved people use online media to gain factual information from members of the religious community, which is viewed as an extension of their first-hand exposure to a religious community. After all, many faith communities have a web presence in order to remain relevant in today’s ever-changing world (Waters, Friedman, Mills, & Zeng, 2011).

Limitations and Future Directions

There are several limitations to this study. For example, sampling error is inherent to survey methods. Although the sample size of 94 students is substantial, it is not a representative sample of the general adult population. Furthermore, the majority of the students identify as being Christian—which is a majority religion in the United States. Future researchers should not only duplicate this study with larger sample sizes, but also determine if members of minority religions respond in a different manner than members of mainstream religions.

Despite such limitations, the current study contributes to the field by attempting to determine various factors that may impact one’s willingness to communicate about religion. In essence, this study applies concepts commonly used in political communication to further the current understanding of an under-researched area: religion and the media. The present study addresses factors that may contribute to the expression of religious views by examining willingness to communicate about religion, religiosity and media exposure.[i]

 

References

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About the Author
Mariam F. Alkazemi is a doctoral student at the University of Florida, originally from Kuwait.  Her research includes the role of the media in the relationship of the United States with the Arab and Muslim world.  Her research appears in Middle East Media Educator and in Cases on Web 2.0 in Developing Countries: Studies on Implementation, Application, and Use.  She received her M.A. from Michigan State University and a B.A. (Journalism, 2007) from George Washington University.  Her contributions have been acknowledged in a book documenting the history of a diplomacy non-profit organization, Peace Through People: 50 Years of Global Citizenship.

 

Appendices

 

Table 1.

Descriptive statistics for main variables.

Variable                           Mean               Standard Deviation

Media exposure              18.457                         4.139

National television           2.712                           1.132

Local television               1.883                           1.076

National radio                  1.553                           0.934

Local radio                       2.180                           1.067

National newspapers       1.744                           0.926

Local newspapers           1.978                           1.005

Online media                    3.202                           0.898

Social media                     3.202                           0.934

Religiosity                         2.649                          1.167

Willingness to communicate about religion

25.558                         24.950

Public                                22.333                         25.814

Meeting                              23.248                         26.208

Group                                30.981                         27.402

Interpersonal                     26.359                         25.514

Stranger                            16.547                         21.155

Acquaintance                    23.550                         25.722

Friend                                36.577                         32.065

 

Table 2.

Pearson Correlations: WTC and Religiosity.

Dependent Variable                                                       Religiosity

Willingness to communicate about religion                  .426 p<.01

Context

Public                                                                             .446 p<.01

Meeting                                                                           .417 p<.01

Group                                                                              .387 p<.01

Interpersonal                                                                   .387 p<.01

Receiver

Stranger                                                                           .406 p<.01

Acquaintance                                                                   .479 p<.01

Friend                                                                               .345 p<.01

 

Table 3.

Pearson Correlations: Media exposure.

Dependent Variable                     Religiosity                                 WTC

Media exposure                            -.002                                        -.088

p=.998                                     p=.441

National television                         -.087                                      -.033

p=.418                                   p=.758

Local television                              .113                                      -.048

p=.291                                   p=.656

National radio                                 .019                                       -.071

p=.858                                   p=508

Local radio                                      .111                                       .043

p=.299                                   p=.686

National newspapers                      -.135                                      -.147

p=.207                                   p=167

Local newspapers                           -.123                                      -.132

p=.252                                   p=.215

Online media                                   -.062                                     .052

p=.565                                  p=.624

Social media                                   .148                                      -.025

                                                        p=.166                                   p=.815

 

Appendix 1. Scales Included in the Questionnaire:

Media Exposure:

  1. How many hours in the last week did you watch national television?
  2. How many hours in the last week did you watch local television?
  3. How many hours in the last week did you listen to national radio?
  4. How many hours in the last week did you listen to local radio?
  5. How many hours in the last week did you read a national newspaper?
  6. How many hours in the last week did you read a local newspaper?
  7. How many hours in the last week did you spend using online media?
  8. How many hours in the last week did you spend using social media?

 

Religiosity:

  1. Do you agree or disagree with the following statements? (1=strongly disagree, 2=somewhat disagree, 3=neither agree nor disagree, 4=somewhat agree, 5=strongly agree)
    1. I talk openly about my faith with others.
    2. I often read religious books, magazines, or pamphlets.
    3. I often watch or listen to religious programs on television or radio.
    4. My spiritual beliefs are the foundation of my whole approach to life.
    5. I am often aware of the presence of God in my life.
    6. I have a personal relationship with God.
    7. When I am ill, I pray for healing.
    8. I pray often.
    9. I rely on God to keep me in good health.

 

Willingness to Communicate About Religion:

  1. Below are twenty situations in which a person might choose to communicate or not to communicate. Presume you have completely free choice. Indicate the percentage of times you would choose to communicate in each type of situation. Indicate in the space at the left what percent of the time you would choose to communicate. In order to select a number, please slide the bar horizontally.
    0=never, 100=always.
    1. Talk with a service station attendant about religion.
    2. Talk with a physician about religion.
    3. Present a talk to a group of strangers about religion.
    4. Talk with an acquaintance while standing in line about religion.
    5. Talk with a salesperson in a store about religion.
    6. Talk in a large meeting of friends about religion.
    7. Talk with a police officer about religion.
    8. Talk in a small group of strangers about religion.
    9. Talk with a friend while standing in line about religion.
    10. Talk with a waiter/waitress in a restaurant about religion.
    11. Talk in a large meeting of acquaintances about religion.
    12. Talk with a stranger while standing in line about religion.
    13. Talk with a secretary about religion.
    14. Present a talk to a group of friends about religion.
    15. Talk in a small group of acquaintances about religion.
    16. Talk with a garbage collector about religion.
    17. Talk in a large meeting of strangers about religion.
    18. Talk with a spouse (or boy/girlfriend) about religion.
    19. Talk in a small group of friends about religion.
    20. Present a talk to a group of acquaintances about religion.

 

 

 


[i] *Cronbach’s alpha measures the degree to which a questionnaire is internally consistent.  It is a measure of reliability which ranges between 0 (least reliable) to 1.0 (most reliable).

 

Call for Papers, April and August 2013

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The Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture (JRMDC) is an online, open-access, peer-reviewed publication founded in January 2012. JRMDC will publish two issues in 2013, and we invite submissions on any relevant topic to be received by the following deadlines:

APRIL 15th 2013

AUGUST 31st 2013

JRMDC invites submissions from all academic disciplines in the arts, humanities and social sciences, including but not limited to sociology, anthropology, media studies and theology. Publications will address intersections between religion, media and culture, with a particular but not exclusive focus on digital technologies. Studies of any religious tradition will be considered.

Journal articles should be between 5000 and 9000 words in length, including a 300-word abstract. JRMDC also publishes research reports of 3000 to 5000 words in length, including a 300-word abstract. Authors interested in submitting a book review (500-1000 words) or review article (2500-3500 words) should contact JRMDC in advance to ensure that the titles selected are relevant to the interests of the journal.

All submissions should be formatted according to the Chicago Manual of Style and accompanied by a brief biographical statement including the author’s name, title, contact details, affiliation (if applicable), major recent publications and research interests.

Submissions should be emailed to the Editor, Dr Tim Hutchings, using the address below. Dr Hutchings is happy to discuss article outlines with prospective authors.

Journal URL: www.jrmdc.com

Guidelines for Authors: http://jrmdc.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/JRMDC-Guidelines.pdf

Contact for queries and submissions: tim.hutchings@open.ac.uk

 

The Lord’s Prayer as Song: Performance, Gesture and Meaning (Vol 1 Issue 4)

Amanda J. Haste

Independent Researcher, France
amanda.haste@sfr.fr

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About the Author

Amanda Haste (b. 1957) is an Anglo-American musicologist and musician whose research interests include music in contemporary religious life; identity; authenticity; and the intersection between spirituality and music. She holds teaching and performance diplomas from London conservatoires and an MA in historical musicology from the University of Exeter; in 2009 she was awarded a PhD from the University of Bristol for her research into the role of music in twenty-first-century monasticism. An independent researcher and academic translator based in France, Dr Haste is an active member of All Saints’ Anglican chaplaincy in Marseille and serves on the committee of the Royal School of Church Music (France). She has recently been transcribing and translating archival material for the two-volume series English Convents in Exile 1600–1800 (Pickering & Chatto, 2012-2013), and has also written a chapter for a Canadian book on authenticity, currently under publisher’s review. Other forthcoming publications include ‘A Third Gender?: Expression of Gender Identity in Celibate Monasticism through Words and Music’ (Contemporary Identities [paperback], Ars Identitatis/Sorbonne, 2013/14) and ‘Prayerful Silence and Creative Response in Twenty-First-Century Monasticism’ (Culture & Religion, 2013).

Abstract

The Lord’s Prayer is a central text in Christian liturgy, generally recited rather than sung, often as a communal act of worship. The text has also provided inspiration for many musical settings, a process of ‘musicking’ [musikierung] which takes the text out of its traditional worship environment. The internet – and specifically video-streaming sites such as YouTube – are now providing a medium for the dissemination of stage, screen, studio and audio performances of the Lord’s Prayer as song, and these are now reaching – and speaking to – new audiences up to eighty years after they were made; the fact that individuals continue to post video and audio content of the Lord’s Prayer as song reflects their desire to share something which has moved them, whether musically or spiritually, with a worldwide audience.

In liberating the text from its liturgical context and releasing it as song into classical, jazz, rock, and pop performance arenas, many questions are raised about the transformation of textual meaning and ritual significance. The aim of this study is to examine the meaningfulness of the musico-textual setting for the receiver, firstly through the question of ownership of the text as a communal prayer, and secondly in arguing that perception and reception of the performer are contributory factors in the relative positivity or negativity of the receiver’s response. The research was carried out by examining a selection of the legion twentieth- and twenty-first-century musical settings of the Lord’s Prayer readily accessible through YouTube, using ethnographic data from on-line comments and from the author’s on-line survey of Christian worshippers to explore the issues raised by these musical settings. These include the perceived right of an individual to ‘perform’ a mutually-owned prayer; the loss of ritual functionality engendered by the ‘musicking’ of the text and its release into the popular domain; and the additional layers of meaning afforded to the text by gestures in performance, which can in turn lead to a transformation and renewal of ritual significance for the receiver. The inclusion of hyperlinks to YouTube video content throughout the article encourages the reader to engage with the performances themselves, from which it is hoped that a fruitful discussion of the issues will emerge.

Introduction

The Lord’s Prayer is a central text in Western Christian liturgy. As a prayer, it is generally recited rather than sung, often as a communal act of worship, but the text has also provided inspiration for many musical settings. While some people sing the Lord’s Prayer during the course of their traditional worship in physical churches, an increasing number of individuals are experiencing the Lord’s Prayer as song through concerts, CDs or through video-streaming sites such as YouTube, either as part of their on-line worship or outside a conscious act of worship. This passive reception in a non-liturgical environment raises many questions about the transformation of textual meaning and ritual significance through the receiver’s perception of the performer and of their performance.1

In taking this particular text out of a ritual worship environment and allowing it to become a public performance piece, does this result in a loss of respect and a consequent negation of religious function? In other words, when the Lord’s Prayer constitutes a recognised element of the Eucharist its ritual function is clearly stated in the words of the liturgy which exhort the congregation ‘to pray’ [together] ‘as our Saviour has taught us’, and this ritual function is evident for those Christians who routinely sing the Lord’s Prayer as an integral part of their worship ritual. However, when the text is experienced as song outside a traditional worship environment does this constitute a redrawing of the boundaries within the contemporary shift towards a new entertainment-based ‘worship mall’ culture (Taylor 2008 and Spinks 2010)?

The aim of this study is to examine the meaningfulness of the musico-textual setting for the receiver, firstly through the question of ownership of the text as a communal prayer, and secondly in arguing that perception and reception of the performer are contributory factors in the relative positivity or negativity of the receiver’s response. Throughout my argument I will be drawing on quantitative and qualitative ethnographic data from YouTube user comments and from my own survey of traditional worshippers in the Christian tradition (Haste 2012).2 Finally, I will explore the role of performative gestures in bestowing additional meaning to the text, before concluding with some thoughts on the renewal of its ritual significance through such performances.

Methodology

The empirical base for this analysis consists of data drawn from on-line comments by YouTube users in response to video content of the Lord’s Prayer as song and my own on-line questionnaire (Haste 2012) targeting worshippers in the Christian tradition. These have been supplemented by reference to blogs and by correspondence with composers of some musical settings. YouTube users represent a broad spectrum of religious, social and cultural outlooks whose spontaneous, largely unedited comments offer valuable evidence of sociocultural attitudes. The fifty-eight individuals who responded to my survey, on the other hand, were churchgoers and priests canvassed through churches and social networking sites;3 they were advised of the socio-musicological purpose of the survey and that anonymity was assured. Survey respondents therefore represent a limited demographic (mostly middle-aged churchgoers) whose carefully considered responses were addressed to a specific individual (the author) and offered a specifically Christian perspective. As this study aims to explore the evaluative criteria employed by both self-identified ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’ both data sources have been given equal weighting in my discussion.4

In the first instance, thirty YouTube recordings of the Lord’s Prayer were studied, but due to the ever-increasing number of recordings several criteria were then used for selection of the versions to be included in the preliminary discussion, specifically musical genre, availability and popularity.Musical genre. A variety of musical genres (classical, pop, gospel, jazz) were selected, as were the performance settings (film, TV studio, concert hall, stadium). As the Malotte setting features in a high proportion of YouTube videos by performers, variously in classical, jazz and popular genres, this is reflected in its repeated appearances throughout this paper.

Availability. As on-line sources are notoriously ephemeral, performances were chosen on the basis of their availability on YouTube. The selected video performances have multiple on-line existences, each having been uploaded by more than one source; they have also been online for some time, reducing the likelihood of their being removed due to copyright infringement or originator request.

Popularity. By considering the number of YouTube hits for each YouTube version, I made a selection of high-profile artists considered most likely to have been seen or heard, citing these in the online survey. Four of the twelve were then selected for in-depth discussion and analysis, taking into account the number of YouTube comments and the completed survey statistics, although other factors were taken into consideration. For instance, Charlotte Church had been seen by more survey respondents than Il Divo, but while much of Church’s appeal as a performer is due to her erstwhile role as a child prodigy, the YouTube comments on Il Divo’s performance provided a more interesting exploration of the issues of religious authority and performative gestures; Il Divo therefore became the preferred option.

The Text

The Lord’s Prayer appears in two versions in the New Testament (Matthew 6: 9-13 and Luke 11: 2-4) and is regularly read or recited as a prayer by millions of Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians in hundreds of languages. Many writers have suggested that this is because the Lord’s Prayer is effectively a synopsis of the entire gospel – Tertullian’s ‘breviarium totius evangelii’ (cited in French 2002, 20) – while Bosch believes that ‘the Lord’s Prayer provides us with a kaleidoscopic view of Jesus’ entire message and ministry. It is, for the New Testament, as central as the Ten Commandments are for the Old’ (Bosch 2011, 5). Despite theological differences between denominations the basic content and structure of the prayer are always the same which, as Clayton Schmit says, leads to ‘a sense of solidarity in knowing that Christians around the world are praying together’ and that ‘these words always unite us’ (Kang 2007, n.p.). In setting the text to music this sense of solidarity and unity can be intensified, the ambiguous power of music serving to ‘give the individual a sense of empathetic connection with other people’s experience’ (Wren 2000, 66).

The many translations from Greek or Latin have been updated in succeeding versions of the Bible and the liturgy with minor textual differences, but it is the ‘traditional’ version given in the 1662 King James’ Bible which forms the basis of all the ‘musicked’ versions discussed here.

 

Our Father, which art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy Name.

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,

As we forgive them that trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom,

The power, and the glory,

For ever and ever.

Amen.

Literature Review

The theological implications of the Lord’s Prayer are frequently discussed inboth academic and popular literature – a search of Amazon turns up around 35,000 hits for the Lord’s Prayer – with commentators literally too numerous to mention, and ranging from Rudolf Steiner (1907) and Emmet Fox (2006) to journalists such as Connie Kang (2007). However, we are concerned here not with the theology of the actual text but rather with the possibilities for transformation when the text is set to music. This paper sits alongside the extensive body of literature on the sacramental implications of musico-textual settings in Christian worship, such as Begbie (2007), Wren (2000) and Saliers (2005), and my exploration of the processes involved when this text is released from its ritual function and resonates with the question of ritual context as discussed by authors such as Barrett and Lawson (2001), McCauley and Lawson (2002), Köpping, Leistle and Rudolph (2006) and Turley (2010).

A primary criterion for an activity being accepted as ritual is that it should provide a transformative experience, and this paper examines the ways in which listening to the Lord’s Prayer as song on YouTube represents for some recipients a transformative experience, efficacious in ‘symbolizing theological ideas or social relations’ (Legare and Souza 2012; Sax et al 2010). For others, the ‘song’ remains a performance from the world of entertainment and is manifestly inefficacious, so my discussion of such ritual efficacy is theorised through Schechner’s seminal work in performance studies (1994, 1995, 2003), and particularly his concept of the ‘efficacy–entertainment braid’. Schechner distinguishes between efficacy (ritual) and entertainment (theater) using the following criteria: entertainment should be ‘fun’, ‘only for those here’, and with an audience watching and appreciating; efficacy, on the other hand, demands ‘results’, a ‘link to an absent Other’, and an audience which not only participates but believes. His efficacy-entertainment braid theorises the way in which efficacy and entertainment are not so much opposed to each other [but rather] form the poles of a continuum’, a two-way process by which ritual can become entertainment, and can just as readily transmute into ritual again (Schechner 1994, 120).

In my exploration of the possible effect of performative gestures on these varying degrees of efficacy I draw on the role of performativity in popular music (Schleifer 2011), which appears as a leitmotiv throughout my discussion. The contribution of this paper to the literature therefore lies in its synthesis of these disciplines to examine the decoupling of the Lord’s Prayer from its traditional locus, and its subsequent new role in twenty-first-century culture.

Recordings

Musical settings of The Lord’s Prayer in classical, folk, gospel, jazz, rock and pop genres have been performed and recorded by solo artists and groups over the last seventy years, and this trend shows little sign of abating. Many of these are available on video-streaming sites such as YouTube, including such diverse artists as Mario Lanza (1952b)Mahalia Jackson (1958b)Doris Day (1962b)Perry Como (1969b)Elvis Presley (1971),Marvin Gaye (1981b)Aretha Franklin (1987b) and Charlotte Church (1998)5. A high proportion of these performances feature the classical setting by Albert Hay Malotte,6 but other settings include those of jazz iconDuke Ellington (1965)7 for his first Sacred Concert, and of ethnomusicologist and composer David Fanshawe as part of his 1972African Sanctus.8 A 1973 ‘rock musical’ setting performed by Australian nun Sister Janet Mead was a worldwide hit in 1974,9 and American musician and comedian David Zasloff has also recorded an effective setting for voice and guitar dating from 2002.

The Irish trio of Roman Catholic priests who call themselves – not surprisingly – The Priests, and French trio Les Prêtres, modelled on The Priests, have also recorded versions to great acclaim (The Priests 2009b;Les Prêtres 2010b). Settings of the Lord’s Prayer have often been released to coincide with the lucrative Christmas market: the Beach Boys (1963b) used it as the ‘B’ Side of their Little Saint Nick single (1963a), and Barbra Streisand (1967b) (despite being Jewish) recorded it for A Christmas Album (1967a). Engelbert Humperdinck (1995a) recorded the Malotte setting on two Christmas albums (Humperdinck 1980; 1995b), and in 1999 British singer Cliff Richard (1999b) recorded a version, set to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which he called Millennium Prayer (1999c); the Malotte setting also features on the Christmas Collection (2005) of the multinational operatic boy band Il Divo (2009).

Musical genre and text manipulation

Although there are numerous settings of the prayer, many people will only be familiar with one version, and those who sing it in the course of their worship often assume that theirs is ‘the tune’. Those who feel moved to set the text will choose a musical genre with which they are culturally familiar and which will carry meaning for them, but the music should also satisfactorily mimic the ‘emotional progressions’ of the receiver, with the result that the effect of this ‘emotional mimicry’ can be ‘pleasing or irritating, uplifting or annoying, fulfilling or disturbing’ and can ‘arouse visceral emotional responses’ which can be positive or negative (Wren 2000, 67). Responses are therefore highly subjective and, whereas a musical style which engenders a positive response can be a force for inclusivity and an increased sense of Christian unity, conversely a setting with which a receiver is uncomfortable can become an agent for exclusion. One survey respondent reported that they had adopted a non-participatory role when the Lord’s Prayer was sung at their place of worship ‘because the musical setting in question was off-putting to me in some way and I was torn on whether I could participate’. On the other hand, there are those for whom singing the text is a bonus: an anonymous blogger says: ‘I feel completely disconnected when the Lord’s Prayer isn’t sung or chanted. Music has always been prayer for me and there are certain prayers that just feel lacking somehow without it’ (Sister Mary Martha 2011, under ‘Our Hands, Our Father’).10

Musical settings usually require some manipulation of the text, and in the case of the Lord’s Prayer any reconfiguration of this familiar sacred text can be disturbing. I cite as an example dialogue from the same blog about singing the Lord’s Prayer during Catholic Mass (Sister Mary Martha 2011):

Blog visitor 1:  ‘The part that really, really bothers me, however is that they have actually changed the words to the prayer so that it is sung: “Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, father hear our prayer. And lead us not, into temptation but deliver us, deliver us, from all that is evil, hear our prayer.”[…] But changing the words isn’t acceptable, is it?’

Sr Mary Martha: ‘Well, yes and no. When you sing something sometimes you have to make a couple of changes to fit the words to the music. The changes of which you speak don’t change the meaning in any way as far as I can see.  Although I have heard plenty o’ versions of the “Our Father” sung that don’t change anything. They are all ghastly, in my opinion. There is no cadence to the “Our Father”, it’s not a poem and it can only be shoehorned into music.  But that’s just me.  My heart goes out to you.  Singing the “Our Father” never works out very well.’

Blog Visitor 2: ‘Now, at my church we sing the Our Father and it just drives me nuts. But we don’t even change the words. Just the act of singing it bothers me. But that’s just me, I guess . . . ’

Sr Mary Martha: ‘No, it really, really isn’t just you.’

So singing the Lord’s Prayer can be problematical on several fronts: the resistance of many to singing this prayer at all; the affect of musical genre when it is sung; and the alteration of a text which (when unchanged) offers uniformity and solidarity.

Ownership and the right to perform the text

The sense of solidarity when Christians recite the Lord’s Prayer together is based on its iconic status within the Christian tradition, so how do Christians feel about others singing it? When survey respondents were asked to evaluate the ‘right’ of various groups to sing the Lord’s Prayer, their responses showed evidence of generosity and tolerance such as ‘Jesus gave it to everybody’ and ‘Why would anyone NOT have the right to sing it?’. However, while 97% felt that Christians (specifically Roman Catholic, Anglican and Nonconformists) were ‘definitely’ entitled to sing the Lord’s Prayer, they were far less sure about other faiths, with only 34.5% thinking that Jews ‘definitely’ had the right and rating other faiths (or none) still lower: polytheists including Hindu 23%, Buddhists 21%, and agnostics and atheists 20% (Appendix B).11

Despite one respondent’s assumption that, because ‘Jews do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah [they] would not want to sing it’, the Lord’s Prayer has certainly been recorded by Jewish performers. Richard Tucker, celebrated tenor and formerly a professional cantor in Brooklyn, New York, remained a devout Jew all his life but recorded the Lord’s Prayer in 1967: as he used the Malotte setting, which admirably showcases a singer’s technical and emotional range, this may have been prompted by musical rather than religious motives. Likewise, while Barbra Streisand’s decision to sing it on her 1967 Christmas Album may have been primarily a commercial decision – and one which aroused an ongoing polemic12 – Jewish musician-comedian David Zasloff has felt moved by his own affinity with the text to record his own through-composed setting (2002). Zasloff says that ‘most Jews don’t like The Lord’s Prayer. I think it’s brilliant’ and that he uses the prayer and has read Emmet Fox’s Sermon on the Mountwhich explores the textual meaning (email to the author, 7 February 2012). Zasloff sets the text in its entirety, the final ‘Amen’ extended to form a melismatic section of almost half the total running time, and describes his compositional process thus:

‘Once the words and meaning sank into my being the music came spontaneously. I started hearing the music which felt appropriate to the words. After letting that process continue for a few days I felt it was time to play what I’d been hearing. I sat at the piano and all the music came out effortlessly in one pass.’ (Email to the author, 7 February 2012).

If the rationale for setting a sacred text to music is to increase the meaningfulness for the recipient, this is a successful setting, judging from comments on his website such as ‘[It is] different . . . but still wonderful for the words are the Lords’ [sic]. I think everyone should put melody to this song . . . to make it their own . . . and more meaningful!’ (posted by mamamialove, 2008) (Zasloff 2002). Any doubts among respondents are indicative of the misconception that Christianity is incompatible with Judaism, but it can be argued that, if these are the words of Jesus, and Jesus was also a Jew, Jewish musicians should be entitled to use the Lord’s Prayer. After all, the words are a paean to the god of both Jews and Christians, and make no mention of Jesus himself, much less proclaim him as the Messiah which would indeed go against traditional Jewish belief.

Members of the comparatively new Messianic Jewish movement also argue along these lines: one comment on a YouTube video of Jewish singer Richard Tucker singing the Lord’s Prayer (Tucker 1968) reads: ‘I am a Messianic Jew, and don’t think, – a Jewish Chazzan (cantor) sings the “Avinu shebashamayim” (Our Father) would do a Christian thing, rather does a very Jewish one! What would be more Jewish, than using the Words of the Jewish Messiah? G-d bless You!’ (posted by andrasesorsi, August 2011). Messianic Jewish theologian David H. Stern takes this a step further, asserting that ‘the New Testament is a Jewish book’ (Stern 1998, xxxvi), written by and for Jews, and that ‘the main issue in the early Messianic Community – that is, the “Church” – was not whether a Jew could believe in Jeshua [Jesus], but whether a Gentile could become a Christian without converting to Judaism!’ (Stern 1998, xxxvi).

Despite misgivings regarding non-Christians, Christian survey respondents frequently stressed that they felt it important that the performer, of whatever persuasion, should show respect for the text – ‘I have no problem with anyone singing the Lord’s prayer so long as it is with due reverence and respect for those that do believe in one God’ – and that this would involve a devotional approach. The iconic nature of the text itself is demonstrated by a tendency of on-line commentators to feel protective over it, and a negative comment on a YouTube video of Cliff Richard’s much-criticized Millennium Prayer (Richard 1999b) produced this response:

‘ . . . This is the Lord’s prayer. If [you have] something bad to say [ . . . ] there are millions and millions of other videos on YouTube that you can share your views, but please not on here. Just show some respect.’ (posted by BruceLee335, December 2011).

Appropriateness and sincerity

While survey respondents were keen to emphasise that, although they were for the most part favourable to others singing the Lord’s Prayer, they also said that ‘having the “right” is different from saying it is appropriate’. The term ‘appropriate’ was used frequently, both in the sense of being suitable or fitting for a particular purpose and also, despite protestations of inclusivity, in the proprietorial sense of belonging to or peculiar to someone, as in this thoughtful response:

‘We Christians do not “own the words”, but we can probably say what we believe is their “appropriate” use in singing. [If] I knew the singer despised and thus disowned the words, say, it would no doubt negatively influence my reaction, but that is all. In the setting of an opera or musical, however, I would probably have no real problem with anyone singing them reverently (appropriately), the words having come to belong, in a secondary sense, to the wider world. However, because of the original context of the words, their use as part of an act of Buddhist (etc.) worship, I would in all likelihood find less appropriate.’

This respondent exposes the conundrum of using the Lord’s Prayer as song: if it is not to be used in its original context of Christian worship the (Christian) receiver requires at least that the performance be appropriately reverent, and would like to think that the performer sincerely believes in the words. The problem with the use of the text for worship by other faith groups seems to lie in the fact that there is not even a pretence that they share a Christian belief system. However, if the performance involves the suspension of disbelief, as in opera or musical theatre, the receiver is content with the appearance of reverence, accepting the use of the text in a fictional scenario regardless of the implausibility of the narrative and of the performer’s faith credentials.

As far as real performances are concerned, many commentators testify that a convincing performance is proof of the performer’s sincere belief in the words they are singing, while others recognize that what they are witnessing can equally be the artist performing belief for the benefit of the receiver. Recognition of this may be more forthcoming when the artist is an actor as well as a singer: a posting on a Doris Day tribute site opines that ‘The Lord’s Prayer [is] amongst tracks which give power for contemplation. It’s not difficult to accept that Doris believed every word’ (Pollock 2008).

Sincerity – or the faking of it – and a claim to religious credentials are evidently key to the success of a performance of the Lord’s Prayer, and the film and music industries have gone to great lengths to promote these qualities. Tenor Mario Lanza and crooner Perry Como both had their roots in Roman Catholic Italian immigrant families to the USA, a fact which was put to good use by both men’s publicity machines. Lanza’s rendition of the Lord’s Prayer in the film Because You’re Mine (1952b) is set in a small church (albeit one notably lacking in Catholic images), ostensibly with a simple harmonium accompaniment but swelled with an invisible choir as the music builds to its climax; the song, which is used in this musical comedy to evoke the sincerity and moral values of the character, represents an emotional turning-point in the film.

For Perry Como’s audio recording of the Lord’s Prayer (1969b), the record company RCA Victor went to great lengths to ensure ‘an authentic aura of religious solemnity’ of his performance, cutting the disc in a Manhattan Episcopal church with organ accompaniment and an interdenominational backing choir of 36 mixed Catholic, Jewish and Protestant voices, even though this was to be an audio recording with no visuals. The message from both the visual backdrop in the Lanza film, and the well-publicized interdenominationality of the Como choir and recording location are reminders of the image of ‘tri-faith America,’ specifically Protestant, Catholic and Jewish (Schultz 2011).

Although all these film and audio recordings clearly fall into the category of entertainment, the performance environment is manipulated to emulate conventional worship space and practice, thus situating the performance at the centre of the pseudo-liturgical action. The singers are seen to create – or re-create – the role of a pray-er but, whereas this prayer is normally said privately or communally, here the singer–pray-er takes centre stage and demands the continued attention of the receiver, in other words almost imitating the role of a minister leading a quasi-religious ceremony. One could therefore ask that, if the receiver’s judgement of a performance of the Lord’s Prayer is swayed by the perception of a secular artist as a performer with ‘religious’ credentials, often promoted in order to justify their choice of a sacred text, how much more authority would a performer have were he to be a bona fide priest?

‘The Priests’, a trio of Irish Roman Catholic priests, and ‘Les Prêtres’, a similar trio from France, have both included the Lord’s Prayer in repertoires aimed mainly at the Catholic market. The Priests are just that – a classical trio of practising Catholic priests from Northern Ireland. The success of their eponymous first album (The Priests 2008) led to other recordings and concert tours, with their simple, prayerful a capella Lord’s Prayer appearing on their Harmony album (The Priests 2009a). As the trio prepared to release their first CD, their publicity stated that ‘as The Priests, their music will be religious and spiritually-inspired classics including Ave Maria and Panis Angelicus’ (Amazon 2008). Subsequent reviews focus on the qualities to be expected from men of the cloth, such as one forCatholic.net which says that their voices are ‘not remarkable in a technical sense [but for] ‘the purity, warmth and authenticity they convey’ (Bailey 2008). The same Catholic reviewer shows a willingness to forgive any technical weaknesses and instead defers to their priestly role, noting that ‘these three priests are not here to show off how well they sing, but to instead convey their prayerful love of God and their combined ministries as priests and music ministers’ (Bailey 2008). One has to ask, though, whether any such meaning would be derived from their music were the reviewer not writing for a Catholic audience, and in the knowledge that these were genuine priests.

Les Prêtres are a French trio brought together specifically by the Bishop of Gap to emulate the success of The Priests. Their musical style is even more eclectic than that of The Priests, mixing easy classics with rock backings and secular songs among the religious texts; their polished delivery and slick video presentation have enjoyed considerable success in France. On their Spiritus Dei album (Les Prêtres 2010) they use the Lord’s Prayer as the opening of ‘Spiritus Dei: Sarabande’, in which the Lord’s Prayer (or more properly the Pater Noster) is recited in Latin by Monsignor Di Falco Leandri – the camera-work lending an almost menacingly dramatic ambience to the text – and with this senior cleric adding yet another layer of priestly authority to the text (Les Prêtres 2010b). Other sacred texts in Latin and French follow, all set against Handel’s majestic Sarabande from the Suite in D minor which gives much scope for dramatic filmography. Like The Priests, Les Prêtres’ selling point is their billing as priest-musicians but, although this was the original intention this is not strictly true. While two are indeed priests, the third was originally a seminarian who has since abandoned his priestly vocation (although not the Catholic Church) to train as a sound engineer. This inconvenient fact is often glossed over in the many press articles such as ‘Les voix du Seigneur’ (Chatrier 2010) and ‘Les prêtres font toujours des miracles’ (Pigozzi 2011) which praise the group, offering more evidence that a religious vocation is taken as proof of the sincerity and respect for the text demanded by the receiver.

From ritual to performance

While the Lord’s Prayer can be prayed, unseen, by an individual, its role in the liturgy also defines it as a ritual element, a role that is to be played out communally. This sense is emphasized from the opening words, the congregation praying as one, not to ‘My Father’ but to ‘Our Father’, and referring to themselves as ‘we’ and ‘us’ throughout.13 In a way, the action of reciting the text together is the opposite of a performance scenario, in which a few ‘players’ (such as a troupe of actors playing to a theatre full of people) direct their offering at many; here, the many (worshippers) are addressing their offering to an audience of one (God). However, even though the audience of one is listening to this offering, there are very few who would think of it as a performance per se rather than as a ritualistic act.

There is nevertheless a sense in which all ritual is performed, whether directed solely at a god (or gods) or in the presence of an ‘audience’ of worshippers: in “From Ritual to Theater and Back: The Efficacy – Entertainment Braid” Richard Schechner argues that ritual – that is, ‘an efficacious event on which participants depend’ – emerges, through a process of transformation, into ‘theater’, which is ‘an event which depends on its participants’ (Schechner 2003, 138). My argument here is that this is never truer than when a sacred text (even one so firmly embedded in the ritual of the liturgy as the Lord’s Prayer) is set to music and sung by one performer to an audience of many.

Performance and performative gestures

In The Magic of Ritual Tom Driver defines ‘performance’ as a ‘particular kind of doing in which the observation of the deed is an essential part of its doing’ (Driver 1991, 81), and in the examples I will be using here the ‘doing’ has not only been observed in live performance but continues to be observed by thousands of people through the medium of the internet. Of the many singers and groups who have presented settings of the Lord’s Prayer to the wider world beyond Christian churches, I should like to concentrate on a small selection: the multinational operatic ‘boy band’ Il Divo, the American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, the Irish trio The Priests and the British pop singer Cliff Richard, examining their interpretations in terms of the performative gestures which add layers of meaning to the original text.

Il Divo comprises four male singers and was created by Simon Cowell in 2004. The Lord’s Prayer (Malotte setting) features on their 2005Christmas Collection and their live performance at the Hammersmith Apollo, London, can be seen on YouTube (Il Divo 2009). For the four singers, ranged along the front of the stage in front of an on-stage orchestra, the text is welded to, yet somehow seems subordinate to, Malotte’s sublime musical setting. The composer has set the words freely, interpreting each phrase independently, and through masterful use of tension and release he builds to a consummate musical climax; the expanding vocal range is a gift for any performer, acting as a showcase for their talent, and all these qualities have ensured its lasting popularity among musicians of all persuasions.

In the absence of any religious pretensions, Il Divo’s performance is essentially dramaturgical. Eyes raised to heaven at the start, each band member holds a microphone in one hand, the other hand raised from time to time in conventionally operatic performative gestures, which could be just as easily applied to a love song as a prayer. Despite the sacred nature of the text, this is primarily a musical rather than a religious experience. Despite this, there are still some efforts by receivers to justify the use of the text by endowing Il Divo with a religious affiliation, as in this posting on a YouTube video: ‘II Divo are all catholic [sic] . . . they’re awesome..’ (posted by tonganfoilole69, October 2011) – even though there is no publically-available evidence that this is true – and another saying ‘I would love it if at least one of them was Catholic’ (posted by AlegreFe, 19 January 2007). Such attributions seem to express a wish for solidarity, for Il Divo to be expressing a religious message through the same faith prism as the receiver, although such postings also admit that the voices are still paramount to the religious affiliation of the singers.

Mahalia Jackson (1911–72) was a gospel singer whose interpretation of the Malotte setting of the Lord’s Prayer was a highlight of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, featuring in the 1960 film Jazz on a Summer’s Day [Jackson 1958b]. She can also be seen on YouTube (Jackson [1963]) in a powerful television studio performance which is intense yet subtle in its portrayal. Musically, she separates Malotte’s phrases, allowing time for contemplation of – and on – the text. Her performative gestures represent a sincere religiosity and, whatever the performing environment (TV studio or live concert), her actions suggest a distance between herself and external factors such as the audience. In front of a live audience, she prepares to sing the Lord’s Prayer by deliberately calming her enthusiastic audience and intimating that she needs to be in an appropriate space before starting to sing. When she does begin, it is with eyes closed, or lifted heavenwards; she never makes eye contact with her audience, and her body language is expressive yet contained.

While Jackson’s gestures suggest an emotional and spiritual interiorization, they are also in effect culturally-recognized symbols which convey spiritual engagement with the text in the act of praying. The gestures such as closing the eyes, raising them to heaven, raising hands in prayer, are all communicating the performer’s intentions to an audience and are thus performative. As Schechner asks rhetorically, ‘What is performance? Behaviour heightened, if ever so slightly, and publicly displayed. Twice-behaved behaviour’ (Schechner 1995, 1). At the end of Jackson’s performance, she acknowledges her audience, humbly accepting their rapturous applause. It seems unthinkable that one would applaud a prayer recited in church, so the audience’s response also recognizes that this is a performative rather than a ritual act.

While Jackson is enacting the role of a pray-er, and while she undoubtedly has considerable presence and authority as a singer, she is not assuming the religious authority of a priestess. As I have already suggested, the question of priestly authority can be a powerful force for the receiver, and one which has been utilized by The Priests. In their appearance on the long-running British religious programme Songs of Praise (The Priests 2009b) they sing the text a cappella in three-part homophony, that is to say that all the words are sung by each singer at the same time, much as in a hymn or a chorale, so that the textual meaning remains crystal clear. Their interpretation is notably free of overtly performative gestures, as they stand still in the midst of a ‘church-space’ environment. They have said that ‘When we sing, we don’t simply sing, we pray’ (The Priests 2011), a statement which their very stillness, added to the visual cue of black priestly ‘uniform’, can only endorse. Susan Bailey notes in her review that The Priests’ performances are often ‘blissfully understated, missing the histrionics of dramatic high notes and other theatrics’ (Bailey 2008). While one could construe this as a sign that their priestly authority provides enough authenticity to their performance, it could equally be due to their natural style; in any case, there is a pronounced contrast between their performances and the artful poses and dramatic videos of Les Prêtres.

The final artist to be considered is Cliff Richard (b. 1940), who was a rock’n’roll singer before his conversion to Christianity in 1964; at that point he rejected his previous ‘bad boy’ persona in favour of an overtly ‘Christian’ one, pursuing a more middle-of-the-road style and enjoying an enduring career of over fifty years. In 1999 he recorded a Millennium Prayer, a medley of the Lord’s Prayer and a supplementary secular religious text, both to the traditional Scottish tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (traditionally sung on New Year’s Eve), and released it as a charity record in November 1999 in time for the millennium celebrations. It topped the UK charts for two weeks, but was panned by critics and later earned the title of ‘worst No.1 of all time’ (Daily Mail 2004).

The Millennium Prayer consists of the Lord’s Prayer sung twice, with no textual alterations, followed by a complementary text ‘Let all the people say Amen’ which calls for participation in global action.

Let all the people say Amen

In every tribe and tongue.

Let every heart’s desire be joined,

To see the Kingdom come.

Let every hope and every dream,

Be born in love again.

Let all the world sing with one voice,

Let the people say Amen.

 

While not sacred, this text has clear religious connotations, echoing the phraseology of the Lord’s Prayer and being framed with an ‘Amen’ which is repeated to close down the musical performance. Clearly, the popularity of this combination of the familiar sacred text of the Lord’s Prayer to an equally familiar secular melody provided Richard with a sure-fire number for his live concerts, and the resultant tightly-choreographed production is replicated in many recorded performances. However, while a very public Christian, Richard has tempered this with the need for his music to have wide appeal, and this has led him to tailor his performances to the audience. While the musical and textual content remains identical, his performative gestures are modified to subtly alter his communication of the text – what one might call the ‘message’. For instance, in his stadium performance at the Countdown concert (Richard 1999a) he starts by singing the Lord’s Prayer as a solo, his eyes at first closed as if in prayer, then downcast, and then raised but averted from the audience. His backing singers process around the stage, their choreographed gestures including bowed heads and hands joined as if in prayer, and employing minimal bodily movement. Richard then raises his arms to invite the audience to join him for the reprise of the Lord’s Prayer, the communality of which is reinforced by the backing singers’ movement to the edges of the stage to encourage the audience to sing along.

So far, so conventional in the idiom of pop performance: these gestures raise the text to anthemic status, although its textual message could be said to be confused with the musical message as the melody of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ has such strong associations with the traditional British New Year’s Eve. In fact, many of the audience have crossed their arms and linked hands with their neighbours, moving together in time with the music just as one does at midnight to celebrate the New Year, and it could be argued that the sacred status of the text wrestles with the secular associations of the melody. This is reinforced by the fact that many of the audience are clapping in time with the music from the very start, signifying that for the majority this represents a pop concert environment rather than a time of prayer. For some, however, an acknowledgment of the sacred prayerfulness of the text is evident through hands raised heavenwards in anorant gesture of faith.

As the performative temperature rises, the Lord’s Prayer gives way to the second, secular text, at which point any reservations about singing a prayer are resolved, and the majority of the audience are clapping rather than linking arms. Richard chooses to stress the unequivocally religious ‘Amen’ by assuming the same attitude of bodily stillness as he has at the beginning of the number while the singers melt away into the background, leaving him centre stage. Having finished, he receives rapturous applause. One should note that Richard is a consummate performer, who has been described as ‘never a particularly soulful or emotional singer, but [with] an impeccable pop sensibility (McKormick 2008). In the official Millennium Prayer video (Richard 1999b) the song was originally recorded in front of a green screen (on which a variety of images would later be projected). In this intimate environment Richard is constrained by the need to stay as still as possible for the camera: his performative gestures are therefore necessarily on a smaller scale, and the vocabulary modified, leaving him in an interstitial space between the theatrical conventions of live stage performance and a more intimate need to communicate textual meaning to an invisible audience beyond the camera.

In contrast with the stadium performance, in the official videoRichard (1999b) does adopt other overt gestures of faith, such as raising his hands to heaven in an orant gesture, or with his hands outstretched in the shape of a cross. Such gestures can be considered dualistic in nature, employed either as a ‘learned technique’ (Mauss 1973) or as a sign which communicates meaning, but for which the interpretation of meaning depends on the cultural background and religious stance of the receiver. The plentiful YouTube comments on the official video show a wide range of interpretations, from those for whom the text remains paramount, such as ‘I love this song. It is simply a prayer – the Lord’s prayer. The Lord is good’ (posted by nanzyteeforchrist, August 2011), to those for whom the performative gestures distract from the text rather than add meaning, such as ‘What’s with the cringeworthy hand movements?’ (posted by cupcakefairy87, August 2011).

Clearly, while some gestures can carry a wealth of socially-constructed meaning the reception may not be that intended – liminally or subliminally – by the performer. For instance, stretching the arms so that the body forms a cross can be interpreted as a gesture of faith, or as a convention of stage performance, but a 2010 posting by BigStankingThang says: ‘Look how Cliff sanctimoniously extends his arms. You’re not the second coming of The Messiah, you are Sir Cliff [ . . . ] Richard’ (Richard 1999b).14 For BigStankingThang, this arm-extending gesture carries the idea that it is reserved for someone with religious authority, and they evidently feel that Cliff Richard has exceeded his authority as a ‘mere’ performer in assuming a priestly, even messianic, role. One wonders whether BigStankingThing would have made the same association had Cliff been performing a purely secular text, or whether they would have reinterpreted the ‘cross’ gesture as simply that of a pop singer ‘being’ a pop singer.

The evidence suggests that performing a sacred text such as the Lord’s Prayer brings with it responsibilities, that is, to treat the text with due reverence, and not to exceed one’s authority, and that much of this depends on the receiver’s perception of the performer’s sincerity . . . or at least the illusion of sincerity. One posting (Richard 1999b) reminds us of this essential element: ‘The fact that he doesn’t clap properly destroys the illusion that he is lost in song and ruins the conviction of his performance’ (posted by HeartNotArt, 2010). This contributor has acknowledged that the sincerity of the performer is all too often an illusion, and they are disappointed that, for them, the spell has been broken. The implication is that, without this simulation of reality there is no reality of meaning. As Taylor writes in Entertainment Theology, ‘This simulation of the real found in popular culture has become the new real, more real than the real’ (Taylor 2008, 105).

From entertainment to efficacy

So where, in this illusory world of entertainment, does this leave the sacred text around which these performances have been constructed? The efficacy of the Lord’s Prayer lies, as we have seen, in its provenance as the words of Jesus, its intended use as communal liturgy or as private prayer, and thus the impression of solidarity with the Church worldwide. In transforming it into a performance piece, has the Lord’s Prayer been deprived of the sense of awe and respect demanded by a sacred text and which is an important element in its efficacy? I would argue that, while this metamorphosis may have denied the text much of its conventional ritual function, its efficacy has not so much been lost as reconfigured. As Schechner says, ‘efficacy and entertainment are not so much opposed to each other [but rather] form the poles of a continuum’ describing a two-way process by which ritual can become entertainment, and can just as readily transmute into ritual again (Schechner 1994, 120). His criteria for entertainment are that it should be ‘fun’, ‘only for those here’, and with an audience watching and appreciating, while efficacy demands ‘results’, a ‘link to an absent Other’, and an audience which not only participates but believes.

It is clear from Schechner’s description of the efficacy–entertainment braid that the role of the audience is crucial. In our recorded performances of the Lord’s Prayer, the ‘audience’ exists in several forms:

 

1)     the audience present at a live performance who become an integral part of the process;

2)     the ‘staged’ audience in a film whose reaction to the performance is scripted and choreographed rather than spontaneous;

3)     the receiver listening and/or watching remotely and alone, for instance listening to an

audio recording or watching an internet video.

 

The audience at a live performance is there through choice, and expects to participate in some way. This type of ‘accidental’ audience (Schechner 1994, 194) has parallels with those who willingly attend a religious service and who also expect to be involved in the ritual performance of the liturgy: whereas the concert audience may sing along, move to the music, or simply show their appreciation of the performance through applause, the participation of a church ‘audience’ (usually referred to as a congregation in recognition of their ‘gathering together’ to worship) will usually mean singing hymns and reciting communal ritual elements such as the Lord’s Prayer.

The second type of audience can be seen in film performances such as that of Mario Lanza (1952) which use a staged audience. This ‘audience’ pays rapt attention to the performance, demonstrating in no uncertain terms its transformative effect on those present. This ‘integral’ audience becomes ‘part of the show’ (Schechner 1994, 194) for the receiver watching this on a cinema screen, a television, or on the internet, and is functioning as a single actor in the drama rather than as autonomous individual receivers of the performance.

The third type of audience is comprised of the individuals who receive a performance alone and, in the case of the internet users whose comments have provided ethnographic data for this paper, may have happened upon a performance by chance while surfing the net. As such, Schechner (1994, 194) would describe these as an ‘accidental-aesthetic’ audience, but one in which the individuals function autonomously rather thanen masse and who are therefore resistant to the effects of crowd behaviour; this type of receiver uses subjective reflexivity to interpret the performance according to their own agenda.

In my 2012 survey respondents were asked to rate selected video performances of the Lord’s Prayer on a continuum from ‘wholly prayer’ to ‘only entertainment’, and the results (Appendix C) demonstrate a marked difference between reception of performers known primarily as public entertainers and those with faith credentials. Performances of the Lord’s Prayer by Streisand, Il Divo and Lanza were considered to be either ‘only entertainment’ or ‘more entertainment than prayer’ by the majority of people who had heard them (Streisand 100%, Il Divo 90%, Lanza  80%), while most people thought that performances by those with faith credentials were ‘more prayer than entertainment’ or ‘wholly prayer’ (Jackson 80%, The Priests 85%, Les Pretres 72%). Evaluations of Cliff Richard, however, resulted in a far more even ~60/40 percentage split: of the 34 respondents who had watched at least one of Richard’s performances, twenty (59%) considered them to be ‘more prayer than entertainment’ while thirteen (38%) thought they were ‘more entertainment than prayer’; none of the survey respondents thought the performance was ‘only entertainment’ and only one thought it was ‘wholly prayer’, citing as their reason ‘because he’s a Christian’. These findings reflect Richard’s dual role as pop singer and public Christian, meaning he cannot be easily categorized in the same way as truly ‘religious’ performers such as gospel singers or priests or  entertainers or as those who are manifestly professional entertainers.

Comments on YouTube and from my own ethnographic survey as well as record reviews show that receivers take what they want from these recordings, resonating with Spinks’ premise that in postmodern worship culture we are shopping around for faith (Spinks 2010). This spiritual surfing has distinct parallels with the accessibility, repeatability and participatory role of the YouTube experience, in that internet users are offered not only access to ever-increasing viewing options but also an option to participate in a global dialogue by posting comments. Video content is mainly uploaded by private individuals for whom the viewing experience has proved transformative – whether they have been amused, moved or appalled – and which they want to share, creating effectively a virtual community of real but unseen and usually anonymous individuals connected by their shared, albeit asynchronous, experience.15

Video clips are short, consisting of individual scenes from films, highlights from concert programmes or individual items from TV programmes, facilitating repetition of the most affective part of a performance at the click of a mouse, and the fact that so many people are evidently listening avidly – and repeatedly – to such performances suggests that they are seeking some emotional or spiritual affect from them. This is often borne out in YouTube comments, many receivers specifying that they are not churchgoers but that the recording has affected them deeply, leading them to examine their own spirituality or to think about the text in a different way. While YouTube itself does not provide a transformation of the text, it is acting as a forum, allowing internet users to use uploaded recordings with entertainment value for this purpose and facilitating the type of ‘entertainment theology’ outlined by Barry Taylor (2008).  In his chapter‘Entertainment Theology: Religion Goes Pop’ Taylor suggests that ‘Entertainment theology is simply ideas about God that emerge out of previously legitimized environments and structures of mediation . . . it is [among other aspects] the emergency of spiritually aware art forms; [ . . . ] it is the new philosophical site, the new cultural imaginary.’ (Taylor 2008, 104-5). The responses to performances of a ‘musicked’ Lord’s Prayer which I have discussed here support Taylor’s idea that contemporary theology is based on a ‘worship mall’ cultural experience in which the individual browses the options, selecting and staying with the media which speak to them in the moment. In this way, the receiver can absorb and assimilate textual meaning in an apparently non-ritualized environment, even though this ‘non-ritual’ performance has conformed to ritual expectations in proving to be efficacious in engendering a transformation in the receiver.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I would suggest that The Lord’s Prayer is a text which is so deeply embedded in the Christian consciousness, and whose meaning speaks even to those who have not been brought up in a Christian culture, that it seems remarkably resistant to losing its status as a sacred text. It would appear that a performer’s faith credentials, and especially priestly authority, are consciously rationalized into an expectation of prayerfulness, while performative gestures are subjectively interpreted as either indicators of faith or stagecraft based on the receiver’s own cultural and religious agenda.

Expectations of devotional or ritual functionality may be confounded through its metamorphosis into a performance piece, which in turn stalls the efficacy of the ritual process by emphasizing the theatrical qualities of performance. However, the evident desire to believe in the performer as someone with real or imagined religious authority, who can convey the spirit of the text, demonstrates a willingness to experience the performance as a transcendental process which is expected from efficacious ritual. Thus the text retains its efficacy, albeit in a renewed form, its textual meaning and ritual significance re-imagined within the context of a democratized spirituality.

LIST OF APPENDICES (See PDF)

APPENDIX A  Survey demographic

APPENDIX B  Survey data: The right to sing the Lord’s Prayer

APPENDIX C  Survey data: Prayer or entertainment?

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1 The term ‘receiver’ denotes both listeners and observers. It should be noted that this paper discusses only audio recordings and videos of performances; video content consisting of images added to an audio soundtrack are therefore disregarded.

 

2 Fifty-eight worshippers in the Christian tradition responded to the survey in which they were asked to evaluate their personal responses to the Lord’s Prayer. A detailed breakdown by age and gender is given in Appendix A, with quantitative data related to this discussion appearing in subsequent appendices.

 

3 These were reached though church and diocesan websites, through church music institution the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) and through networking sites Facebook, Academia and Linkedin.

 

4 While the survey demographic (Appendix A) may seem limited, this group is still highly relevant in the light of figures from 2006 which show that (at least in the USA) the 35-65 age group ‘represent the largest YouTube user group’ (Hallerman 2006).

 

5 Recording date. Hyperlink is to video performance (Church 1999).

 

6 Malotte’s melodic setting has proved particularly popular and is frequently uploaded onto Youtube. The music lends itself to effective arrangements in many genres and has been sung successfully by singers in classical, pop and gospel traditions: starting quietly in the low register, each phrase builds on the last to culminate in a passionate climax, with scope for improvisation on the final ‘Amen’.

 

7 Recording date. Hyperlink is to a recent performance (Ellington 2009).

 

8 Hyperlink is to a recent performance (Fanshawe 2006).

 

9 Hyperlink is to a video of Sr Janet Mead incorporating footage of her performing informally (Mead 1973b).

 

10 ‘Sr Mary Martha’ describes herself as a nun from a teaching order in Marina del Rey, California. Although I have not as yet been able to positively identify her as a genuine religious, she is evidently a real person with rational views on religious matters; I am therefore treating the comments of her (genuine) blog visitors – and her replies – as valid ethnographic data.

 

11 Percentages rounded to the nearest whole number.

 

12 An review of Streisand’s Christmas Album posted in 2002 recalls that ‘The closing track, “The Lord’s Prayer,” is an amazing vocal feat; the song was a bit controversial way back when because Barbra is Jewish and she sang a Christian prayer, which had the Catholic clergy upset because no one is to ever sing a prayer and the Jewish felt it was a contradiction’. [“A Christams Standard” (sic),

December 30, 2002].http://www.amazon.com/review/R3OTBAQXVMSCT2/ref=cm_cr_dp_title?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B0000024TV&nodeID=5174&store=music. A recent article ‘May All Your Hanukkahs Be White’by James C. McKinley (New York Times, 18 November 2012) also cites one Jewish record producer’s comment: ‘Yentl herself, and it’s a Christmas recording!’.

 

13 An interesting discussion on individualism can be found on Theology in Pencil(Parkins, 2012).

 

14 Cliff Richard (b. Harry Rodger Webb) received a knighthood in 1995 for services to the music industry.

 

15 Both the ‘shared’ experience of seeing a video clip and the ensuing dialogue are asynchronous, comments being posted as part of an apparently real-time conversation which may be months or even years old. This is a good example of the way in which ‘notions of time have been transformed by computer-mediated communication’ (Jacobs 2007, 8).

 

 

 

Technology Use in the Religious Communities in Israel: Combining Traditional Society and Advanced Communications (Vol 1 Issue 3)

Technology Use in the Religious Communities in Israel: 
Combining Traditional Society and Advanced Communications

Yaron Katz
Bar-Ilan University, Israel
yaron@ykatz.com

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Abstract

The technological development of the electronic media and the changes in their role create a process of transition to using alternative modes of communication, which combine mass media and inter-personal communication. These means are alternative to traditional media; they serve segments of the population which do not receive a suitable expression in the institutionalized media, and provide them with information and advertisement which bypass the limitations imposed on the media. The largest alternative activity taking place in Israel is targeted to the orthodox and Haredi (ultra-orthodox) population, mainly through advanced technological means, such as the internet and satellite transmissions. This study explores the ideological dilemma of using advanced communications technology by the religious public, while trying to avoid its cultural hazards and still using it effectively. It examines the characteristics of technology consumption and the use of new media among the religious target group in Israel.

Introduction

The use of sectarian media is becoming a significant factor in Israel due to technology advancement which enables a widespread use of alternative media (alternative to the official media operating under the government’s licensing system) and alternative advertising tools (which bypass the limitations of the official media). Alternative communications were also developed due to the limitations on the use of the official media, which prevent sectarian groups from acting freely and reaching their audience through the mainstream media. On the other hand, the segmentation of the target groups enables the utilization of technological improvements and changes in the media, mainly among the orthodox and Haredi (ultra-orthodox) sectors [1]. The target audience of the religious and Haredi alternative communications in Israel is rather large, since over half of the population is defined as either religious or traditional. 17% of the public defines itself religious (12% orthodox and 5% Haredi) and 43% define themselves traditional (a group within the religious public that identifies with the common norms of the secular society while confining religion into defined and compartmentalized areas). Only 40% define themselves as secular [2].

The orthodox and Haredi society is making a wide and varied use of mass media and interpersonal communications. The religious communications include printed press, a radio station established by the government and internet websites. The Haredi communications map is richer and includes daily and weekly newspapers, monthly magazines and periodicals, weekly Torah bulletins and internal publications, pirate radio stations, satellite TV broadcasts, recorded sermons, audio and video cassettes, DVD movies and internet websites. The Haredi way of communications is one of the oldest among the sectarian communications factors in Israel, and it places itself as a counter-culture to the other groups that make the Israeli society [3].

In recent decades, scholars have recognized the importance of studying Jewish engagement with media. As Campbell and Golan (2011) suggest, such studies highlight a need for additional inquiry into the role religion plays in shaping media within the Jewish and Israeli context. The goal of the paper is to explore the dilemmas along with the advantages of the sectarian communications employed by the religious public in Israel and delineate the ways that the Jewish traditional society uses advanced communications. These issues are extremely important to understanding the impact of digital technology on sectarian groups and the way Jewish religious communities can benefit from new technology in the twenty-first century. In dealing with these issues, the research relates to the conflict between tradition and modernization, as described by Bailey and Redden (2011, p3), “in the face of religion’s continued vitality in global modernity”.

The way that the religious groups are using new media examined in this research, refers to technological changes as an information source aimed to serve the community interests. New media enables the creation of alternative means to the general communications as a service to the religious public, which rejects, due to reasons of values, any expression forms that stand against its nature. The sectarian society of the religious and Haredi public employs the new communications technology in a focalized way, yet the technological innovations create cultural conflicts between traditional society and global communications technologies.

The use of religious and alternative communications turned into a significant force through technological advancement that allows wide use of alternative means (Horowitz, 2000). Grouping of the target audience allows utilizations of the technological renovations and communications changes, since different groups can bypass the imposed restrictions on official means. In this way, there is a tendency to reach segmented target audiences and create direct connection with sectarian groups without restrictions on broadcasting or considerations and preferences imposed by public supervision.

Alternative media can be defined as the use of new media by special-interest groups while operating outside the mainstream media. Mainstream media can be defined in that context as the official outlets operating as part of the licensing system provided by the government or any other official regulator. The use of alternative media explores all possible means to reach targeted groups. Alternative and new means can generally be considered as additional services to the mainstream media, although in many occasions they are even more effective and thus have a tremendous impact on sectarian groups (Katz, 2007).

There are different approaches of the religious and ultra-orthodox community toward the media and new technology (Levy, 1990; Ilan, 2000; Caplan, 2001; Tsarfati and Blais, 2002). While the extremists deny the use of all media services except intra-community newspapers, as a principled objection to modern culture (Kutz, 1999), the leading and common view regards the media as objective and therefore doesn’t deny their use, as long as they provide suitable religious and moral content (Tsarfati and Liran-Lauper, 2010). This conflict has been intensified with the growing impact of alternative media. The influence of the press and television on the working of democracy has been increasingly criticised (Blumler and Kavanagh, 1999), and the extraordinary opportunities provided by the internet and new media can be used as an instrument of citizenship in which people can learn about alternatives (Sunstein, 2001). Although the ultra-orthodox have lower exposure to computers and to the internet than the rest of the Israeli Jewish population (Cohen, 2011), the adoption of new technology has undermined the authority of the rabbinical leadership and directly exposes the community to the secular world (Barzilai and Barzilai-Nahon, 2002).

Technology poses new challenges to the religious sects. Campbell (2010) argues that religious people are not anti-technology; rather they are constrained by a number of social and faith-based factors which inform and guide their responses to the possibilities and challenges offered by new forms of the media. However, as found by Cohen (2011), the discussion within the Haredi rabbinical leadership about the threat from the internet occurred at the same time as a proliferation of Jewish-related websites, many of which were educational, which made it more difficult for rabbis to impose their anti-internet line.

The paper analyzes firstly the media in the religious and Haredi sectors, arguing that there is a wide use of traditional and new media services aimed specifically at these sectors. It then explores the differing attitudes toward the internet and the challenges they are confronted with, and describes the different uses of the internet by the religious groups. While the use of the internet is taken for granted by the orthodox sect, as part of their integration in society, the objection by ultra-orthodox rabbis to technology is in the threat it is posing to religion and traditional values. Thus the Haredi community has its own alternative communications system that complements the information that their public lacks, due to non-exposure to the mainstream media. On the other hand, the use of the internet by the orthodox sect is a widespread phenomenon, as they complement their mainstream media consumption with services geared for this particular audience. The research found that in addition to basic and general information provided by sites aimed specifically at these target groups, there is widespread use of focused religious internet activities offered to orthodox and ultra-orthodox communities. In the last part, the study examines the characteristics of communications consumption among the orthodox public and the success of a focused address to this target audience. In regards to the ultra-orthodox, it was impossible to check the habits of media consumptions by the Haredi community because people belonging to this sector refused to cooperate with the survey.

The media in the religious and Haredi public

The religious public is unique in its wish to live a religious life and still be part of the entire society so as not to be disconnected from modernization. A study conducted by Gebel (2006) on the attitude of the religious public toward general communications found that the communications consumption by the religious group is similar to that of the secular group. The religious public reads the newspapers intended for the general population, listens to mainstream radio stations and watches channels targeted for the general audience. Still, the study found that there is a negative correlation between the degree of religiousness and the attitude toward the media. The more religious the participant, the more negative his attitude toward general media. Although they constitute the main information means for the religious sector, the attitude of the religious people toward the national media is negative, suspicious and subject to negotiation. Thus, many religious people complement their media consumption with alternative communications system geared for this particular audience.

The changes in the communications map and in the religious society create changes also in the means geared for the religious public. The internet became the main alternative form, and the influence of traditional media lessened. The printed press directed to religious groups, which had existed over fifty years since the establishment of the State of Israel and was sponsored by a political party (Hatzofeh newspaper was sponsored by Mafdal [NRP], a national religious party disbanded in 2008), was sold to private entities, and years later merged with a newspaper geared to the right wing segment (Makor Rishon). At the same time, the government adopted the alternative communication idea and published a tender for a religious radio station (Kol Hai radio station is a national station aimed toward religious audience and financed by commercials. Today, most of the programs address the Haredi public), and a TV channel on Israeli heritage (one group of investors made a bid, and won, however after it conducted economic evaluations decided that such a channel was not feasible). A private TV channel that transmitted via cable and satellite for nearly a year and a half (Arutz Tchelet), geared to the religious and traditional audience, closed down.

The changes in the consumption habits of alternative media raise the question whether the religious communities should remain isolated in alternative media or should they take a leading part in the general media. Although there has been a tendency throughout history to see technology and modernity as essentially in conflict with religion and religious communities (Campbell, 2010), the commercial national channels – Channel 2 and 10 – are founded based on the latter approach, and indeed they transmit several shows with religious and traditional features (Katz, 2009). A similar question applies to the internet as well, which enables communicators on the one hand to directly address focused target audiences and on the other hand, to target a wide range of audiences through popular sites.

The Haredi society tends to be more extreme with respect to religious faith and its attitude toward the media. This sector is comprised of various streams and groups. Among these streams there are differences in ideologies and life styles, as well as the focused connection to internet websites enabling each group to create a social tool which functions as a companion to the life and progression of the community. The main streams in this sector are the Chasidim (31%), Lithuanians (28%), orthodox Sephardim (20%), unidentified Haredim (9%), and national Haredim (7%).

Orthodoxy embodies traditional values accepted for hundreds of years, but it was founded mainly as a reaction to cultural and social changes that occurred in the new era. These changes constituted a danger to the strength and existence of the tradition; empowered the status of the Jewish nation and its role as the Torah carrier; and increased the suspicion toward the modern world. The Haredi leadership lives in a state of threat from spiritual, social, cultural and political phenomena that surround the community. Therefore, the development of the Haredi communication is tied with the acknowledgment that modern tools should be used in order to fight modernization [4].

The Haredi public carved on its banner the principle of segregation, including community life inside self-contained enclaves. These basic assumptions lead the Haredi community in all life aspects: clothing, education, marriage matchmaking and even language. These characteristics are expressed in banning the use of institutionalized communications. The Haredi approach toward the media began with a strict stance, following the rabbis’ strong prohibition against using all communications means, especially radio and television, and later on, this included the internet. As for newspapers, it was prohibited to read general newspapers and as an alternative, newspapers targeted to the Haredi public were published.Additional alternative communication forms developed: radio stations with Jewish content were established, religious movies are distributed as DVDs and on the internet, and a limited use of the internet has begun.

The main reason for objecting to institutionalized communications and developing alternative media lies in Jewish culture coupled with the fear of western culture and secularism, the need for cultural segregation and sectorial coherency as well as the need for a platform for public dialogue unique to these groups. Compared with the secularism of the general society where subjects such as violence, sex and slander play a star role on TV, newspapers and internet sites geared to the wider population, there is cultural strengthening within this public. These cultural differences led to an ideological gap which required developing alternative communications means. Further, since the Haredi public does not have access to a platform to express its opinions and discuss issues relevant to this sector, the alternative media magnify the Jewish identity and unite the public through common dialogue.

The main information sources of the Haredi public for current events inside their community as well as news from Israel and the world are the Haredi media. The exposure to general media is low, since their commercials and the cultural messages which are targeted to the wider population are not suitable for the Haredi public and are deemed harmful to Jewish values and culture. The religious and ideological gap between the Haredi society and the general society distanced the Haredim from access to institutionalized communications. The need for independent communications appropriate for religious values held by the Haredi society induced the development of alternative ideological means to the secular media [5].

The Haredi press serves as a central tool for public dialogue of this sector and enjoys a special status – despite technological changes and the establishment of new media. It feels obligated to provide its readers with informative tools to be able to cope with the seculars and convince those who are not yet convinced in the internal struggles inside the Haredi sector [6]. The Haredi press characteristically reports on desirable norms rather than on events that actually occurred. This is an ideological media aimed at spreading out the religious ideology of the stream which it represents. Caplan (2003) claims that several of the characteristics of the Haredi press are not in line with the common definition of the media study and even contradict it with respect to newspapers as communication tools: the papers’ editors are subordinate to rabbis and Haredi leaders’ decisions and serve as gatekeepers preventing their readers from getting information they perceive as inappropriate, harmful or in contrast with the values of the Haredi society, or that may have negative implications on the Haredi readers’ group.

There are two leading newspapers in the Haredi sector: Hamodia, of the Chasidic faction and Yated Neaman, of the Lithuanian section. In addition, an abundance of weekly and monthly magazines are published [7]. Although the Haredi press is directed toward the Haredi society, in recent years the papers’ editors became aware that their words are being read also by media people, thus they include articles with contents directed toward religious Jews who are not necessarily Haredim or defined as religious. These articles embody a platform for comments on issues related to the Haredi society published in the general media. The Haredi press serves also as a platform for internal struggles inside the sector or for expressing self and inner criticism on social events occurring within the Haredi society [8].

The most popular electronic media is the Haredi radio. Today, dozens of pirate radio stations, illegal and without a license to transmit to the public are operating. The pirate radio stations transmit mainly to defined target audiences, hence, their great influence. The target audiences do not listen to the authorized (legal) radio stations since they do not meet their needs (these stations are too secular for the taste of the Haredi radio stations’ listeners).

The unauthorized radio stations aimed to groups such as Haredim, religious, penitents, and traditionalists who are interested in strengthening their religious values. Though illegal, the radio stations became legitimate among the target public as a means that connects the rabbis and the leaders of the sector with the wide public, as well as a means to transmit religious and cultural values. The prosperity of Haredi radio stations reflects the basic need of a sector, which is far removed from the cultural mainstream, for ideological, religious and cultural dialogue appropriate for its own needs, and unable to find in the authorized radio stations [9].

Satellite transmissions constitute an additional popular form of communications that utilizes technological improvements in order to reach the target audiences in the Haredi and religious sector directly by bypassing the mainstream media. Shas political party transmits via satellite programs featuring rabbis and their spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Shas’ broadcasts are received in hundreds of viewing locations across the country and in many private homes where a satellite dish has been installed.

These broadcasts serve as a very effective propaganda means. Shas’ political power increased greatly due to the transmissions activity, and today, it is one of the biggest parties in the Knesset representing 10% of the Knesset members. Satellite transmissions enable direct contact between the voters and elected candidates and reach various target populations at a relatively low cost. They also overcome logistic problems of assembling huge conventions and provide a solution to logistic problems of physically bringing rabbis and party leaders to attend political conventions. Shas transmissions became very popular among the party’s supporters, and are a basis for extensive Torah learning and social activities, which contribute to the political success of the party [10].

The Haredi community has mechanisms that complement the information that the public lacks due to non-exposure to the official media. A popular communications form is parashat hashavua bulletin distributed in synagogues every Saturday to spread Torah words with reference to daily issues. The bulletin is characterized by content, world view and columns according to the persepective and goal of its publishers. It usually includes 4-6 pages with the following elements (varied according to the type of bulletin and the target audience): one or more main devar Torah (words of Torah) on parashat hashavua and political events, information about Shabbat times, stories with religious background and connection to the parashat hashavua or current events, reference to a social activity of the publisher, a story for children, and questions and answers presented to rabbis. An abundance of leaflets is being published in the religious and Haredi public, since each group and even neighborhood synagogues publish their own bulletin. Another communication means used by the Haredim is the pashkevil – the name for a street flier posted on walls in the Haredi streets carrying a message, mostly negative, against a particular person or an idea [11].

The attitude toward the internet in the religious and Haredi sector

Online communication has gathered momentum in recent years, and it also permeates segments considered more conservative – the religious and Haredi public. The process of accepting the internet by them is slower and more limited than the general public, and often needs to be justified. After all, how could a tool without boundaries such as the internet be accepted without any justifications? Thus, as part of its justification, questions were raised: how such a tool may contribute to the individual in the religious society or to the religious society as a whole? What are the perfections and improvements that could be made today with its help that did not exist previously? The more answers given regarding the capability of the internet to beneficially influence the Torah world and the religion, the more it will be accepted by the public.

The development of the internet presents the religious and Haredi public with a dilemma – should the many opportunities latent in the internet be perceived positively, or should they fear the dangers this tool conceals, mainly the cultural impact of global communication and boundary-crossing technology? The potential threat is cultural – which may crumble the religious and Haredi society and undermine its values and educational basis – emphasizing the effect of the net on the individual personality of the user, mainly of kids and adolescents who are in the process of forming their personality. Accordingly, the question was raised whether the lack of boundaries should cause absolute denial of the technology, or if it should be checked to see if the advantages exceed the disadvantages. Either way, this society could not ignore the existence and development of the internet. This issue was discussed among the rabbis, but it seems that the decision on the mere use of the internet stems in most cases from ideological motives rather than from an explicit halachic ruling. Most of the opinions do not lean on an explicit decision in the binding sources of the Halacha, but draw their validity mainly from the authority and personality of those who make the decisions.

The internet confronts the religious group with challenges. All groups are aware that it creates problems and raises questions, but there are differences regarding the solutions, which stem from a wider view point. The classic orthodoxy sees the internet as an ideological and cultural threat. More moderate elements categorize the internet issue mainly to the field of educational matters, and even among them there are different approaches to possible solutions and different ways of coping with the challenge.

The dilemma of using the internet faced by the Haredi sector is bigger than the one faced by the other sectors, including the orthodox society, since the religious limitations in this sector are stricter. The internet, which by its nature opens all borders and connects its user to a global virtual society, defuses the social supervision mechanism, and as such stands against the Haredi worldview. The main fear stems from breaking through boundaries and its implication on social and value meanings. The rabbis of the Haredi public are apprehensive not only about the content offered by the web sites but also about the fact that the net provides a channel that easily connects the user to different cultures.

As a result of the development of the internet, the Haredi public founded a special court called “special beth din (Jewish court) to stand in the breach of computers”, which published a leaflet stating that there is a severe prohibition on each person in Israel from connecting to the internet and that the use of computers for the purpose of watching games or videos posts a great danger thus, the use of computers should be limited to livelihood purposes only. Other leaflets published in the Haredi sector state that according to da’at Torah (knowledge of Torah) the use of the internet or the television should be banned because they both endanger the holiness of Israel. These leaflets claim that “since the internet is the worldwide biggest leader of delusion of nature, an instigator and seducer to sin and abomination of the worse kind, its user takes part in all the diseases of the spoilt society which penetrates the home and the office, and the spiritual and Jewish state of the internet user is put in danger.” These leaflets express the main concern regarding the mere existence of a tool which breaches all boundaries and enables its user to easily and quickly reach wherever he wants. Hence, the concern is not about the problems created by using the net but about its meaning as a cultural and social factor which bypasses sectorial isolation.

Contrary to the Haredim, the use of the internet by the orthodox is a widespread phenomenon. The most prominent use is of sites that assist in matters of Judaism, such as information on religious services, updates on events in the Jewish world, learning Jewish texts or presenting halachic and moral questions to rabbis. The existence of site filters allow many parents to let the internet into their homes and to feel safe that nothing bad would happen to their kids who may be exposed to sites that stand against the values of their religion. This exposure develops among the young the habit of using the net, and enables each religious person to enjoy a variety of possibilities of religion, education, knowledge and entertainment targeted to the group that he belongs to.

The religious society is characterized by intellectual awareness to culture challenges presented by modern society. Contrary to Haredi society it does not reject cultural changes, but rather tries to extract the good and positive opportunities that it entails. Hence, the religious society does not sweepingly dismiss technological advancement, although it is concerned about the cultural content that it spreads. Though the internet is deemed mainly an educational matter, there is a debate among the rabbis that belong to this sector as to how to cope with its content. Despite the positive attitude toward the possibility of obtaining information easily, there is a fear of the dangers latent in problematic content, mainly pornographic sites. The common opinion is not to object to the internet, but rather turn it into a challenge. Since many sites could directly influence religion and the public, kids should be encouraged to take part in developing these sites. Accordingly, it is preferable to teach people how to use the internet properly, including how to retrieve cultural and scientific information, while keeping in mind that the need of the religious public in relation to the internet is to encourage building sites with positive content.

Another group within the religious public is the observant Jews, called the traditionalists, a group that observes the mitzvoth yet is more permissive. They identify with the common norms of the secular society in Israel and the western world, while confining the Halacha into defined and compartmentalized areas. One of the main distinctive marks is their approach to leisure culture which traditional people regard as necessity; activities that contribute to the mental health and cultural richness of the individual. Accordingly, the use of the internet is taken for granted and as part of integration in society. The mere use of it is not subject to discussion, and even when the way it is used is discussed, there is an approach that stands for exercising more self-discipline than blocking sites or limiting the use of the net. This approach sees the religious society as part of the western world, and as such, it should aspire to integrate in the information revolution [12].

Using the internet for religious purposes

As a result of the objection by rabbis and religious leaders to the internet and to what it has to offer, service facilities attempting to overcome the disadvantages were founded and developed, offering the religious public tools that enabled it to retrieve only the positive and vital attributes of the internet. The religious society was wise enough to extract the advantages of the internet and thus use modern technology to mold and strengthen traditional values. In addition to general information, the internet provides the religious public with matters of religion and tradition, and opens a world filled with opportunities of religious empowerment and quick solutions to many problems and areas such as, questions and answers, Torah lessons, rabbis’ sites, virtual communities, artistic creation and prayers as well as focused advertisements for religious populations.

1. Essential information

Similar to the secular society that consumes essential information about matters it is interested in, the religious public receives from the internet information about current religious issues. The need for focused information for the religious public stems from the fact that in the media intended for the general public there is not much room for the religious public or enough sites that are addressed at the religious consumer. There are Jewish sections in the online news including articles and news related to the religious public, religious culture, columns written by religious writers, and Jewish art. Furthermore, many sites offer updates on issues such as restaurants and halls, daily times (sun rise, sun set, beginning and ending of the Shabbat), or details on ritual bath or prayer times in synagogues. Essential information for the religious public is also transmitted on the radio, since the digital reality enables everyone to build a radio station and transmit on the internet without supervision or censorship. Various religious stations were established on the net, such as Channel 7, Radio Breslev, Kol Haemet, and Radio 2000. An additional alternative use is of television broadcasting on the net, including news broadcast of Channel 7, daily TV programs of Machon Meir and Shoresh site, as well as Channel Hidabroot (communicating), which started on the internet and moved to the multi-channeled media on the national satellite service – Yes.

2. Kosher internet

The need to filter and control web sites and their content creates a phenomenon of the “kosher internet” whereby sites and content suppliers provide services of information filtering. This service helps many religious people to feel safe when they surf the net and take advantage of surfing on safe sites. In this way, the parents have control over the content to which their children are exposed, and even the parents themselves can filter some sites of their choice. Undoubtedly the commercial companies that provide such services would have failed without the open minded attitude exhibited by many religious people who agreed to let the machine into their homes.

The internet provider, Gold Internet, offers a “parental control service” allowing the parents to determine the level of filtering of the websites visited by their children [13]. Bezeq International internet provider offers several tracks of safe surfing in different areas, including a kids’ track as well as computerized filtering of undesired websites. It is also possible to connect to Safe Net, a filtering software of the server which blocks sites of pornography, violence and the like. This provider works in cooperation with Nativ Company, geared for the Haredi sector, offering a package of nearly 1500 safe sites. Netvision Internet provider offers its customers the service of filtering sites through Mesanenet Company which scans in real time each internet page. The provider offers its customers control on the hours of use, restriction on surfing hours, and production of reports on surfing hours and the sites that their children have tried to enter.

Moreshet Server Based Filtering offers different levels of blockage, according to the customer’s request. The company enables choosing between seven levels and changing the filtering level according to the choice of the user – beginning with general blockage of all websites (except for electronic mail) and up to free access to the internet. This service is unique since it is suited for the entire religious public – not only to the young but also to adults who do not want to be exposed to negative sites and can block themselves from using websites according to the selection of the access level.

Rimon internet provider declares that its goal is to protect its customers from negative sites displayed on the internet. It offers its religious and Haredi customers different filtering services for each sector. They can choose one program out of five. The more lenient programs allow access to news and entertainment sites, and if the surfer reaches a site not yet checked, a machine or human test is conducted, a test that lasts about 90 seconds. At the highest degree of blocking, access to most news and entertainment and even professional sites is blocked. If the customer is not satisfied with the result of the blocking, he can move to a different blocking level by clicking a password, unless he had stated otherwise in the definition of “his red line” in his contract with the company. The customer can contact a service representative and add a specific site to the list of private sites he has access to, as long as they do not conflict with the general blocking of the company which prevents access to pornography and violent sites. There are also surfing possibilities for the Haredi public which include different levels, beginning with electronic mail only up to the most open level which allows access to news websites filtered for undesirable articles and pictures.

3. Questions and answers

This form, known as responsa, plays an important role in religion and alternative communications. It contains an archive of religious questions and answers asked by the wide public and responded to by one or more rabbis. The technological advancement renders the Jewish responsa culture accessible and easy to use, allowing it to be rich and diversified on subject matters and responses from different rabbis.

Using the internet to solve religious issues integrates traditional behavior and technological advancement. Many surfers choose to forward their questions via virtual responsa. To date, hundreds of thousands of questions have been presented on the sites Kipa and Moreshet, turning them into the biggest responsa literature in the Jewish world. The fact that each day hundreds of new questions are asked on the different Jewish websites shows that the responsa phenomenon is deeply rooted in the religious society [14].

The advantages of the virtual responsa are many. A question can be asked and a response can be sent in a few hours. It is also possible to address several rabbis and receive different opinions without too much effort or financial investment. Since most of the responsa are recorded on the internet, a large repository of responsa has been created, classified and categorized according to subjects and rabbis, enabling convenient access for each user who seeks an answer to a particular question. An additional advantage is the opportunity to ask questions without being identified. In this way, an observant individual can ask embarrassing questions regarding private and secret matters and get a response without being exposed. Many questions would have remained unasked without a medium that provides secrecy and privacy, hence, many questions concerning issues of sex, for instance, are asked by married couples and teenagers who would otherwise be too embarrassed to ask face to face [15].

4. Torah Lessons

A person who googles the words “Torah lessons” will receive a vast number of web sites offering Torah lessons to read, listen and even watch online. One can also watch live Torah lessons, and even ask the Rabbi questions via email and receive a live response.
The validity of Torah lessons on the internet is controversial. Their advantage is that they are accessible to anyone, any time and any place, while one is sitting in front of a computer. A person can have access to a Torah lesson given in another city or another country, easily and effortlessly. Another advantage is the possibility to choose from a wide variety of lessons on different subjects or by numerous rabbis, so that each person could get a lesson according to the subject of his interest. One can also listen or watch a lesson without allocating specific time or resources. A person can listen to a lesson while he is working at home or in the office, and use his time to learn Torah at any given moment.

The counter claim is that Torah lessons on the net may give people an excuse not to go out to Torah lessons conducted face to face, and hence turn Torah learning into a virtual activity, lacking personal relations between rabbi and pupil and lacking social context. Also, it is claimed that the possibility of watching a Torah lesson at home, when the person is not really present in front of the speaking rabbi, enables him to behave with less respect towards the lesson. A person could, for example, listen to a Torah lesson not properly dressed, answer the phone in the middle of the lesson, or be occupied with other things while listening. Many rabbis feel that this may lead to disrespect toward the Torah, since the person feels that he listens to a computer and not to a rabbi, and thus may behave less respectfully. Yet, despite the disadvantages, one cannot ignore the contribution of the internet to spreading the Torah among many people. Due to this tool many people are exposed to rabbis that they would have never heard of, and to subjects that they did not know, and they can listen to or watch a lesson any time they wish [16].

5. Rabbis’ web sites

In the exact same way that fans build web sites of their favorite celebrities, websites of different rabbis are built in the religious world. The difference lies in the content. On the fans’ sites one may find mainly pictures, forums, music and articles, whereas on the rabbis’ sites one may find mostly Torah lessons given by them, religious rules, stories related to them and the opportunity for Q&A.

The site Tfilot (prayers) offers a search for minyanim (quorum of ten men) for prayers countrywide, according to the criteria of basic or advanced search. Shtaygen – Olam Hatorah Portal is a website providing the function to search for Torah lessons in Israel. The site includes a limited number of lessons given in yeshivas around the country, and the users are asked to contact the site manager in case they know of more lessons. However, since the site does not have a function to allow the adding of a lesson in a clear and orderly way, the users lack accessibility and motivation, and the list remains relatively short. HaEmet Ha’absulutit (the absolute truth) is another web site which offers a list of Torah lessons across the country. The site receives a list of organizations in Israel that offer Torah lessons such as, Lev La’achaim, Shofar, and Irgun Hadaf Hayomi.

6. Virtual communities

The virtual communities on the net (forums) became common and accessible to almost all slices of the population. Also, the religious public places great importance on finding a virtual community according to subject or interest of the user. Religious communities use leading forum sites discussing mostly issues relating to matters of relationships between couples and family.

Tapuz site provides a religious forum but it amounts to less than 50 messages a day. Hyde Park website has 125 forums for religious people of all kinds, under the title Dat and Emuna (Religion and Faith). On the most active forum (Behadrei Hadarim) there is traffic of about 80 messages a day. On Kipa site, which offers 50 different forums, there is traffic of over 300 messages a day in each of their leading forums. The most active forum of the site (pregnancy) has fast traffic of more than 700 messages a day.

7. Creative work

Creative work is yet another area developed by religious individuals surfing the net. The internet, which provides a room and a platform to anyone who wishes to display his talents, is obviously available to religious artists as well. The two leading artistic sites geared to religious people are Tzura and Bikorim where one can publish his or her works of art in the area of writing, poetry, photography, and painting. The sites are managed by alternate editors and monitor the incoming content with respect to modesty, violence and level of artistry. They give exposure to religious artists who would have not dared to or succeeded in presenting their work before an audience. These artists see the internet as home for their art works and talents and through it they reach self realization.

The influence of focused communications on religious groups

It is evident from examining the way the religious and Haredi public use technology that these target audiences have learned how to take advantage of the advanced technology for promoting religious and cultural goals and creating an inner-community dialogue. In the conflict between society and technology, the religious sector in Israel succeeded in realizing the advantages embodied in progress while maintaining the religious and cultural framework. Subsequent to this conclusion, the study further examined the characteristics of communications consumption among the religious public and the success of a focused address to this target audience.

In order to examine these characteristics a survey was conducted among nearly 100 young people aged 20 to 30 who defined themselves as religious. It should be noted that the response to the survey in the religious sector was good. Since the responses were anonymous, the participants from this sector felt comfortable. The participants in the survey were contacted in person, chosen as the best representation of the sector, and interviewed personally. It was impossible to check the habits of media consumption by the Haredi community because people belonging to this sector refused to cooperate with the survey.

The first part of the survey examined the characteristics of communications consumption among the religious audience. It was found that the main communications means used by the participants are (according to the frequency of consumption): the internet, the radio (not limited to stations geared to religious public) and the Shabbat leaflets distributed in synagogues. The communications means that earned low marks were the traditional ones – the printed press and television. The study also examined the variations in internet consumption. Here, the participants did not differ much on the level of consumption. According to the survey findings, all the participants use the internet for electronic mail. Many (over 90%) answered that they visit sites with essential information. Also, great interest was recorded in sites that offer religious contents (around 80% of the participants said that they are using the internet for this purpose). Interest was also found in news sites, money related sites (bills payments and bank reports) and in downloading files from the internet. Less interest was recorded in sites dealing with topics of education and family, and forums and chat.

The second part examined the success of the internet as a focused address to the religious audience, as one of its advantages is advertisement to target audiences. The ability to reach directly and without intermediaries to the orthodox and Haredim communities gives the internet a huge advantage in characterizing and targeting the audience that enter various websites. Leading religious websites display advertisements geared mainly to the religious audience. These advertisements are usually published by organizations and businesses geared to the religious audience, and are focused on issues and products that these target audiences are interested in and cannot find on sites directed to the secular public.

The findings indicate a positive attitude toward advertisements with religious content or advertisements aimed at the religious public, which are perceived as essential information for this sector rather than a means of selling commercial products. On the other hand, a less positive attitude was found toward general advertisements. To the question of what type of advertisements interest or intrigue them and what type of advertisements they would expect to find on sites that offer focused information to a religious public, most of them (90%) answered that they would expect to find on such sites advertisements with religious content, and the majority (about two thirds) answered that they would expect to find advertisements with content of value. Only about 20% of the participants answered that they would expect to find on such sites any type of advertisements with any problems of modesty or violence.

Another area with a focused appeal are the shopping sites geared to the religious-Haredi public. The uniqueness of these shopping sites is that the products they sell fit the cultural requirements of these target audiences and receive rabbis’ approval. On this issue it was found that the participants think that the shopping habits of religious young people on the internet are similar to those of the general population. The absolute majority prefers the shopping sites intended for the general population since they carry a larger selection and the participants do not feel that they should necessarily buy products from religious sites. The participants claim that these sale sites are geared to the Haredi group and not to the orthodox one.

We can learn from these survey responses that the young orthodox generation in Israel is making wide use of the new communications means and consumes these media forms in a focused way according to its preferences. We can further conclude that the general approach of the orthodox target audience toward focused advertisements is positive, and that this audience expects to find focused information, including advertisements with religious or ideological content or advertisements geared to the orthodox public. The obvious conclusion is that the orthodox public makes vast, diverse and effective use of technology, while combining traditional society with advanced communications.
As can be seen from this research, although technology poses new challenges to the religious sects, these groups have learned how to use new media in a way that benefits their religious needs along with their cultural struggle within the secular society and media. The research found that although the orthodox community is open to the challenges and advantages of the alternative media, the ultra-orthodox community is struggling with the possibilities and exposure of the media and mainly new forms of alternative use. However, despite the threat from the internet and new media, there is a proliferation of Jewish-related websites and widespread use of alternative media in this sector too.

Notes

1. On alternative communications in Israel, see: Katz, 2007, Gilboa and Katz, 2001
2. See: Gutman report, 2000.
3. Kaplan, 2003
4. For example, see: Orbach, 2002, Levi, 1990.
5. Tsarfati, 1999.
6. Michaelson, 1990, Levi, 1990.
7. The main Chasidic papers are: Hamodia, Yated Neeman, Yom Leyom, Yom Hashishi, Mishpacha, Hashvua, Hamachneh Hacherdi, Kfar Hadad, and Bakehila.
8. The Haredi papers are distributed to subscribers’ homes and are sold on weekends in newspapers stands and kiosks. Nearly 40% of household in the Haredi sector subscribe to one of the daily newspapers. The number of Haredi newspapers’ readers is high due to the large number of people in each Haredi family. A survey conducted in market watch and brand names survey institutes on the issue of the quality of exposure to the press in the Haredi sector determines that about 68% reads a daily newspaper, 76% of the sector reads weekend newspaper, and the average reading time is about 20 minutes (compared with 7 minutes in the secular sector). 37% of the Haredi sector noted that the recommended newspaper is Hamodia, 29% the weekly Hamishpacha, and 25% the newspaper Yated Neeman.
9. On pirate radio see for example: Limor, 1998, Cohen, 2006.
10. On Shas party see: Fischer, 1999 :Beak, 1999.
11. The bulletins are sponsored by contributions of private people, public entities or associations as well as advertisement and sponsorships. See for example: Rapel, 1991; Cohen, 2000; Meir, 2011.
12. On the characteristics of the Israeli society see for instance: Goldstein and Gitelman, 2001; Horowith, 1999; Kimberling, 2003, Caplan and Studler, 2009.
13. The site determines that “contents” filtering service will protect your children from exposure to porno sites, sites that encourage drugs use, sites of terror and violence, illegal gambling, etc. So you, as parents, can feel safe that their surfing is controlled“.
14. See for instance: Nectstern, 2008.
15. The most recognized Q&A sites are Kipa, Moreshet and Yeshivat Bat El.
16. Leading and recognized websites that offer Torah lessons are the website of Yeshiva Machon Meir, the website of Yeshivat Bat El and Shoresh site

Bibliography

Avraham, E. (2001). The Hidden Israel: Kibbutzim, Jewish Settlements, Development Cities and Arab Towns in the Israeli Press. Academon Press, Jerusalem. (Hebrew)

Bailey, M. and Redden, G. (2011). Editor’s Introduction: Religion as Living Culture, in: Bailey, M. and Redden, G. (eds.), 1-24, Mediating Faiths: Religion and Socio-Cultural Change in the Twenty-First Century. Ashgate, Farnham.

Barzilai-Nahon, K. and Barzilai, G. (2005). “Cultured Technology: the Internet and Religious Fundamentalism”, The Information Society 1 (21), 25-40.

Beak, E. (2001). The Shas Phenomenon and Religious Parties in the 1999 Elections, in: Elazar, D. and Mollov, B. (eds.), 55-100, Israel at the Polls 1999, Frank Cass & Co., London.

Blumler, J. and Kavanagh, D. (1999), “The third age of political communication: influences and features”, Political Communication 16, 209-230.

Campbell, H.A. (2010). When Religion Meets New Media. Routledge, Abingdon.
Campbell, H.A., and Golan, O. (2011). “Creating digital enclaves: negotiation of the internet among bounded religious communities”, Media, Culture and Society 33 (5), 709-724.

Caplan, K. (2001). “The Media in the Haredi Sector in Israel”, Kesher (30), 18-31 (Hebrew).

Caplan, K. (2003). Studying Israeli Haredi Society, in: Kaplan, K, and Sivan. E. (eds.), 78-224, Israeli Haredim: Integration Without Assimilation?, Tel Aviv, Van Leer Jerusalem Institute/HaQibbutz HaMe’uhad Publishing House.

Caplan, K. and Studler, N. (2009). Leadership and Authority in Israeli Society, Van Leer and Hakibbutz Hameuihad, Jerusalem.

Cohen, Y. (2006). “The Religious-News Media Nexus in Israel”, Sociological Papers 112. Social Institute for Community Studies, Bar Ilan University, Israel.

Cohen, Y. (2000). “Politics, Alienation, and the Consolidation of Group Identity: The Case of Synagogue Pamphlets”, Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 3 (2), 247-276.

Cohen, Y. (2011). Haredim and the Internet: A Hate-Love Affair, in: Bailey, M., and Redden, G. (eds.), 63-74, Mediating Faiths: Religion and Socio-Cultural Changes in the Twenty-First Century, Ashgate, Farnham.

Fisher, S. (1999). The SHAS Movement, in: Teoria Ubikoret (Theory and Criticism) 12-13, 329-339. (Hebrew).

Horowitz, T. (1999). “Ideologies, Identification, and Confusion as Causes that Influenced on Voting Patterns of Immigrants from the Former U.S.S.R”, in Arien, Asher, and Shamir, Michal (eds.), The Elections in Israel – 1996, The Israeli Institute for Democracy, Jerusalem.

Horowitz, N. (2000). The Haredim and the Internet, New Horizons, 3, 7-30 (Hebrew).

Gabel, I. (2006). “The Media and the National Religious Movement: Love- Hate Relationship,” in Sectorial Communication in Israel, Chaim Herzog Institute, Tel-Aviv (Hebrew).

Gilboa, E, and Katz, Y. (2001). The Media Campaign: The Shift to Alternative Media, in: Elazar, D. and Mollov, B. (eds.), 223-244, Israel at the Polls 1999, Frank Cass & Co., London.

Ghanem, A. (1998). “State and Minority in Israel: The Case of Ethnic State and the Predicament of its Minority”, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21(3), 428-449

Goldstein, K. and Gittleman, T. (1999). The Russian Revolution in Israeli Politics, in: Arien, A., and Shamir, M. (eds.), The Elections in Israel – 1996, The Israeli Institute for Democracy, Jerusalem.

Katz. Y. (2007). “The Other Media: Alternative Communications in Israel”, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 10 (3), 383-400.

Katz. Y. (2009). “Protecting Local Culture in a Global Environment: The Case of Israel’s Broadcast Media”, International Journal of Communication 3, 1-20.

Kimberling, B. (ed.) (1989). The Israeli State and Society: Boundaries and Frontiers. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Kutz, G. (1999). Issues in the History of Jewish and Hebrew Press, Yaron Golan Publishing, Tel Aviv (Hebrew).

Levi, A. (1990). The Haredim, Keter Publishing, Jerusalem (Hebrew).

Levy, S., Levinsohn, H., and Katz, E. (2002). A Portrait of Israeli Jewry: Beliefs, Observances and Values among Israeli Jews. Israeli Institute for Democracy, Jerusalem.

Libes, T., Peri, Y., and Grebilski, Z., (1996). “How is the True Influence Concealed? Communication and Alternative Communication in the Israeli Elections of 1996”, Kesher 20 (Hebrew).

Limor, Y. (1998). Pirate Radio in Israel, 1998: Research Conclusion. Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Jerusalem. (Hebrew).

Meir, Y. (2011). “Separating Mixture: The Orthodox Community Synagogue Bulletins”, Kivunim Chadashim 24 (New Directions), 122-134 (Hebrew).

Michalson, M. (1990). “The Haredi Press in Israel”, Kesher 8, 11-21. (Hebrew).

Nechtstern, B. (2008) “The Internet’s Influence on the Religious Society in Israel at the Beginning of the 21st Century,” in: Tsuriel, R., & Saft M., (eds.), Mass Communication and Judaism. Keter HaZahav, Petach Tikva (Hebrew).

Orbach, U. (2002) My Grandfather Was a Rabbi: A Religious-Secular Lexicon. Keter Publishing, Jerusalem (Hebrew).

Rapel, Y. (1991). “Synagogue Press”, Kesher 10, 109-112 (Hebrew).

Sheleg, Y. (2000). The New Religious Jews: Recent Developments among Observant Jews in Israel. Keter Publishing, Jerusalem.

Sunstein, C. (2001). Republic.com. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Tsarfati, O. (1999). “The Press in the Service of the Messiah”, Kesher 24, 16-27 (Hebrew).

Tsarfati, O, and Blais, D. (2002). “Between Cultural Gap and Virtual Gap: The Haredi Society and the Digital Media”, Kesher 32, 44-47 (Hebrew).

Tsarfati, O., and Liran-Lauper, D. (2010). “Bless Me For Not Making Me a Woman”, Kesher 40 126-138 (Hebrew).

Biographical Note

YARON KATZ is a lecturer in mass communications at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in media policy and political communications and is author of the books: It’s a Seller’s Market – Mass Media and the Marketing of Politicians (Tel Aviv: Poalim Library, 1999) and Media Policy for the 21st Century in the United States and Western Europe (Cresskill: Hampton Press, 2005).

Virtue, Vice, and Virtual Worlds: A Theological Perspective on Moral Formation (Vol 1 Issue 2)

Virtue, Vice, and Virtual Worlds:

A Theological Perspective on Moral Formation 

Jacob Shatzer

jwshatzer@gmail.com

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Introduction

The virtual is very accessible. What was once the realm of those with access to expensive technological equipment is now available to anyone with a computer and a high-speed Internet connection. The computer serves as a terminal to other worlds, worlds filled with wizards, warriors, and talking animals. Some even prognosticate a mass exodus to virtual worlds, with an increasing number of people spending more time there and demanding the real world to change if it wants them back.[1] As more people move significant portions of their lives into virtual worlds, the way they are shaped there will influence their real-world moral formation, their growth as holistic human beings, and their ability to live within authentic community.[2]

In order to understand what is at stake, this increasingly popular “destination” requires careful evaluation. The following seeks to highlight what is at stake from a Christian theological perspective. First, I will describe this particular perspective along with key theological themes. Second, I will briefly describe virtual worlds with one particular example, Second Life. Finally, I will address pertinent issues of moral formation, bringing the theological perspective to bear on virtual worlds and the particular challenges they can pose to moral formation. While virtual worlds should not be demonized or avoided altogether, Christians must be aware of the unique challenges they can pose to the development of human character and community as defined theologically.

Theological Perspective and Key Themes

Before describing the technological issues to be explored, it will be helpful to set out a basic framework for some theological themes that will prove useful in the analysis. Christian theology seeks to speak humbly about God as he has revealed himself through the Scriptures and through his church. It especially revolves around Jesus’ Greatest Commandment: love God and love the neighbor. This is such a simple command; yet it is so difficult to apply and to carry out, especially with advanced technology in view. What does it mean to love God and love the neighbor in virtual worlds? The following theological themes are drawn from the work of James K. A. Smith, a Pentecostal theologian, and A. J. Conyers, a Baptist theologian. Smith develops an anthropology of humans as lovers, with the proper object of love being God. Conyers works with themes related to community and what it means to love God and neighbor in light of the challenges of modern society. Though each speaks from his particular faith tradition, the themes that are detailed here are broadly Christian and can be appropriated by a variety of faith traditions.

 

Humans as Lovers

In his recent book Desiring the Kingdom, Smith insists on the importance of philosophical anthropology for thinking about education and formation. He lays out two anthropologies that he finds deficient. First, a dominant model that is as old as Plato and rebirthed by Descartes views the human person as a thinker.[3] Protestant Christianity in particular has absorbed this view of the human, resulting in a “talking-head version of Christianity that is fixated on doctrines and ideas.”[4] Second, some argue that thinking operates on the basis of faith, so the human should be viewed primarily as a believer.[5] The idea is that, before we are thinkers, we are believers. While acknowledging the strengths of both positions, Smith ultimately sees both as emphasizing something that is less than primary, and he proposes a different anthropology.

Understanding the human person as lover can be traced at least as far back as Augustine and takes into account the complexity of human existence.[6] Smith sees four key elements in this model: humans are intentional creatures whose fundamental way of intending is love or desire; this love (which is unconscious and non-cognitive) is always aimed at some particular version of the good life; sets of habits and dispositions prime us to be oriented and to act in certain ways; and affective, bodily means, such as bodily practices, routines, and rituals, grab hold of the heart through the imagination and form the person.[7] What the person loves is what the person worships.

This model shifts the focus from the cognitive to the affective aspects of identity formation. Love takes practice, and that practice occurs in ways that many people do not realize. Smith mentions “thin” habits (mundane activities, like brushing teeth, which seemingly do not touch our love or desire) and “thick” habits (meaning-full activities that play a significant role in shaping our identity and our loves).[8] However, there are no neutral practices, whether thick or thin. For instance, thin practices can serve thick ends, such as the daily habit of exercising, which can serve the end of wanting to see one’s children grow up and spend many years of friendship with one’s spouse. Thick formative practices are “meaning-laden, identity-forming practices that subtly shape us precisely because they grab hold of our love—they are automating our desire and action without our conscious recognition.”[9]

“Liturgy” serves as the lens for analyzing practices. Smith defines liturgies as “ritual practices that function as pedagogies of ultimate desire.”[10] This can obviously apply to religious practices, but Smith extends the analysis to “secular liturgies” in order to get at the way humans are being shaped in fundamental ways by cultural institutions that often pass without much careful thought. While some may initially hesitate to apply liturgy to seemingly secular practices, the use is appropriate and helpful because it focuses not on the formation of the liturgies themselves but the way the ritual practices shape human desire.

Smith focuses on three examples. The mall (consumerism) reflects what matters and shapes what matters. The military-entertainment complex (nationalism) seeks to orient allegiance solely to the state. The university, also, is not primarily about information but about shaping imagination and desire so that students will pursue a particular vision of the good life.[11] Secular institutions project a version of what is broken in the human condition, what true flourishing looks like (what should be desired), and how to act in order to achieve success. Simple practices are not innocent, for they form the heart.

This philosophical anthropology of the human as lover and the understanding of “secular liturgies” raise the stakes for understanding virtual worlds from a Christian theological perspective. Smith’s analysis will help focus our attention not only on what people do within these worlds, but how these worlds can serve as forming liturgies.

 

Hearing God’s Call

In The Listening Heart, Conyers seeks to address the crisis of modern culture from a Christian perspective.[12] In particular, he sees societies that have become untethered from any sense of the transcendent and any sense of calling; instead, they focus on the modern celebration of unfettered human will. While this book does not address virtual worlds at all, the themes that Conyers develops around vocation, attention, and community provide a helpful perspective from which to assess virtual “communities” and the formation that occurs within a virtual world.

Conyers laments that modern society has lost a sense of vocation, a sense that was vital for the formation of strong societies in pre-modern times. “The term ‘vocation’ stands for all of those experiences and insights that our lives are guided by Another, that we are responding not to inert nature that bends to our will, but to another Will, with whom we might live in covenant relationship, and to Whom we will be ultimately accountable.”[13] This sentiment of divine call “gives to the society in which it is embedded a certain character that we would find to be distinctly non-modern.”[14]

Four points highlight this distinction. First, “the idea of a call implies an agent outside of the one who is subject to the call.”[15] People are given freedom to respond to a summons; freedom is not an inner-directed impulse but the use of the will to respond. There is a difference between a society that incorporates some sense of vocation and one that explains behavior in other ways. Second, “the summons is often against the will of the one who is called into service.”[16] This stands in stark contrast to post-Enlightenment thought, which often emphasizes reason as a replacement for the idea of vocation.[17] Third, “the calling involves in almost every case hardships that must be overcome in order to answer the summons.”[18] Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Muhammad, Mani, Socrates, Jesus, and Paul all confronted the threat of death by their communities. Fourth, “from the point of view of answering to the summons, the greatest danger appears … in the possibility of being diverted or distracted from the goal.”[19] Conyers notes that “These distinctive features of vocation found in traditional societies help us to mark off what is now different in our own modern and Western culture. While the sentiment is still there in form and in vocabulary, its striking force and its assault upon the ego are all but dissolved.”[20]

One theme connected to this loss of vocation is the grasping after both power and control. Knowledge is sought for the purpose of mastery and control rather than participation in community.[21] In fact, “Power has become the centerpiece of a new kind of harmony, one based no longer on the ‘right relation of things’ in a world that both begins and ends in mystery, but it is a harmony that comes from control.”[22] Control diminishes relationship; the will of one alone is expressed, and conversation and communion are lost.[23] A loss of vocation that emphasizes the individual will and promotes the desire to control castrates the propagation of genuine community.

Attention is the appropriate response to vocation. This “means the overthrowing of ‘vain imaginations,’ the disposal of a self-centered view of existence.”[24] It is important to Christian thought and practice, because prayer consists in attention.[25] “The purpose and end of attention is a transformation in which reality awakens within us, pushing aside the unreal and selfish dreams which had kept us subdued in unwakefulness.”[26] This stance is contrary to today’s world, because “Society prefers the narcotic of refusing to face painful situations believing that, by refusing reality, it is affirming life.”[27] “If vocation is the opposite of a life simply chosen, from among differing alternatives, or among numberless innocuous choices, whether we call these ‘lifestyles,’ or ‘alternate realities,’ then it involves facing and accepting both the limits and the painfulness of that for which we are chosen.”[28]

The opposite of attention is distraction. Conyers argues, “We are distracted. To be modern is to exist increasingly in a state of distraction.”[29] We justify this life of distraction, which tries to pull apart what belongs together in the eyes of faith. The modern human is distracted from knowing in order to participate and instead seeks to know in order to master, which brings separation. The problem is one of our affections; we have failed to love properly.[30] The modern era provides intense opportunities for distraction.

For Conyers, all of these issues come together in the concept of community, which he worries is in danger in the modern setting. “Here is a literal picture of the community that is in any real sense men and women communing together about life: nourished and informed by virtue of their rootedness, oriented toward their destiny, and open in love toward one another—this is the succinct meaning of community, the aim of which is to provide space and give nourishment to the human spirit.”[31] True community is promoted when the members refuse to seek power and control and instead attempt to hear and follow God, living a life that is faithful to God and open to one another. Cultures that promote individualism and control contribute to the dissolution of community; they “imitate the form of community but deny its substance.”[32]

Thus Smith and Conyers help form a theological perspective from which to attempt to understand virtual reality and its ethical implications. Humans are essentially lovers, and we learn love by practice. The themes of vocation and attention serve to drive true community flourishing. Thus “secular liturgies” can be analyzed in order to understand whether or not they shape human affections for this sort of community and human flourishing. Virtual worlds serve as an example of one such “liturgy,” and these themes from Conyers will prove fruitful for analysis and evaluation after we have described what virtual worlds are.

 

Overview and Example of Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is a rapidly developing field, so any reflection will inevitably seem a bit outdated. However, utilizing key research and description of the field, it is possible to outline some basic historical understanding and description of key features in order to move toward theological reflection and engagement. The following provides a general overview before moving to describe Second Life as a specific example of the type of virtual world in view.

 

Overview

In this investigation, the following definitions will be important. Anthropologist Tom Boellstorff defines a virtual world as a place of human culture realized by computer programs through the Internet.[33] However, “Forming a terminology thus presents challenges, particularly because virtual worlds change so swiftly and conceptual imprecision is far from unknown.”[34] It is necessary to establish what characteristics are non-negotiable while allowing room for development as the worlds themselves change with technological innovation.

Here the work of Ralph Schroeder is particularly helpful.[35] He provides a clear definition of “virtual environments” and “virtual reality” technology as “a computer-generated display that allows or compels the user (or users) to have a sense of being present in an environment other than the one they are actually in, and to interact with that environment.” A “virtual world” is a “persistent virtual environment in which people experience others as being there with them—and where they can interact with them.” These definitions highlight both the immersive nature of these environments as well as the persistent quality of “virtual worlds.” They do not cease to exist when a user logs off; people continue to inhabit them, events happen, and things can change. Schroeder succeeds in incorporating the technological needs for virtual reality while distinguishing virtual environments and virtual worlds. Virtual worlds, then, are persistent virtual environments, which are computer-generated, alternative, interactive spaces that rely on the technology of virtual reality.

It is important to realize the “virtual” in these senses is not the opposite of “real.” A virtual world is a type of virtual environment, one that is especially marked by consistent existence. The key distinction of a virtual world is that it endures through time; it still exists even when one particular user leaves. Virtual environments, on the other hand, do not necessarily have this characteristic (for example, some sort of testing environment that is used only at particular times for specific purposes). The focus of this theological evaluation is the effect of virtual worlds on moral formation.

Terms “real world” and “real life” will be used to distinguish the realm of life that does not take place within the computer. This is not meant to imply that time spent in virtual worlds is not real or does not have real consequences; I use “real life/world” for ease of communication and distinction, not to enforce some duality between the two. The user remains “real” even while staring into the screen, but the term “real world/life” helps distinguish between life “in the computer” and life outside it, while acknowledging that all of life is real and has real consequences.

Finally, three terms will be used interchangeably for people who dwell in these virtual worlds. “Users,” “residents,” and “players” are synonyms in this discussion.[36] While some may argue that these are merely games and thus not worthy of careful reflection, it seems clear that they are growing in importance as an increasing number of people spend a greater amount of time engaging them.[37]

Different types of virtual reality can be defined based upon the level of immersion, which is related to the physical configuration that the user interface provides. There are three classifications: fully immersive, using a head-mounted device; semi-immersive, using large projection screens; and nonimmersive, using a desktop-computer-based system (or a laptop). This classification depends entirely on how much the user can perceive the real world while engaged in a virtual world.[38]

The nonimmersive type of virtual reality is of particular interest in this investigation because of its widespread availability and potential to influence a larger proportion of the population than more immersive forms. Another important distinction can be made here. Nonimmersive virtual reality can be divided into the ludic and the paidic. Ludic virtual worlds are “ruled-based games involving direct competition between players,” while paidic worlds “emphasize free play and creativity with less emphasis on rule-constrained competition.”[39] Paidic virtual worlds are also known as “non-game virtual worlds.”[40]

The history of virtual worlds can be narrated from two different angles.[41] On the one hand is development history. As computer technology has advanced, virtual reality has developed as different degrees of immersion and experience become possible. MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) became popular as technology developed the necessary graphic and online capabilities. First, social virtual worlds (or paidic worlds; see above) emerged as graphics became more developed.[42] In these worlds, users navigate an avatar (usually a cartoon-like character) through the world mainly with the purpose of interacting with other users. Consalvo points to a game called Habitat as a pioneer in this field,[43] the first to adopt an open-ended philosophy.[44] This is the philosophy followed in popular games such as Second Life. Second, virtual worlds emerged with more rules and objectives, with more of a traditional “game” feel (ludic worlds; see above). Examples include Ultima Online and Everquest.[45] Another type of MMOG is the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), such as World of Warcraft, which enjoys the greatest degree of popularity.[46] In these games users have different types of characters to choose from (priest, elf, human, etc.) that come with different strengths and responsibilities within the game. Thematically, virtual worlds can be traced to role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, which was popular beginning in the 1970s.[47] In games like this, the players assumed different roles that had certain responsibilities and abilities. The popularity of such games is sometimes traced to certain genres of literature, with J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy providing a large degree of conceptual inspiration.[48] As the technology developed, these types of games themselves became online versions, and new games based on similar themes emerged.

On the other hand is user history. The popularity of virtual worlds did not spring forth from nothing. First, video gaming has steadily risen in popularity since the 1970s. In fact, 40 percent of adults are now regular players, and the average player age is 33.[49] Also, virtual worlds allow creative individuals to construct their own spaces and objects within the world, which connects to the user-created content feature of popular social networking sites and Web 2.0 in general.[50]

Before moving on to a specific example of a paidic virtual world, one objection must be addressed. Since popular virtual reality, especially paidic virtual worlds, essentially connect people together for the purpose of communication, some might argue that this type of virtual reality is merely an advanced communications device that uses avatars and virtual environments to facilitate conversation.[51] If this were the case, these worlds would not merit much reflection beyond other communications technologies. However, there is a key distinguishing factor that must be understood from the outset. Paidic virtual worlds are not merely new communicative media, because users not only communicate using this technology but they also share common experiences that shape them as moral agents. As Sherry Turkle has observed in her extensive research on the relationship between humans and computers, “Virtual communities … allow people to generate experiences, relationships, identities, and living spaces that arise only through interaction with technology.”[52] Also, users often invest such a large amount of time in their avatars that they become extremely meaningful.[53] So, because virtual worlds not only serve as communications media but also as a source for generating experiences, they must be analyzed more carefully.[54]

 

Focusing on One Paidic World: Second Life

Second Life (SL) was launched in 2003. It is “a virtual social network platform that allows its residents to create alternate identities, drawing from real and idealized life,” and “possibilities are endless when in avatar form.”[55] Account creation is free, so there is no cost to basic exploration of the world.[56] There are approximately 14 million accounts, and 40,000-60,000 users are usually online at any given time.[57] Users create their own avatar, whose appearance they completely control by choosing from various options and purchasing accessories. They can interact with any avatars that they encounter. As they move through the world using basic computer navigation, they can type or speak to nearby people. If one user wants to remember another and be notified whenever the person is in SL, they can send a friend request. This helps maintain relationships between visits to the world and enables users to find one another. Travel in the world occurs in three ways: walking, flying, and teleporting, which obviously offer differing degrees of speed and interaction with objects in the world.

As a “paidic” virtual world, SL exists mainly for social interaction and creativity. Users can communicate by typing or speaking to nearby avatars, and the game allows users to create objects by shaping virtual materials and putting them together. Users who do not own land can create in the “sandbox,” but their objects will be deleted after a short period of time. Owning land provides the ability to create and maintain objects, with the quantity being dependent upon the amount of land owned. Such objects can be sold. A thriving in-world economy exists, as users purchase digital items from one another. There is an in-game currency that maintains an exchange rate with US dollars,[58] and user-to-user transactions average around $50 million each month.[59] Clearly, such a popular game is serving as a “secular liturgy” for millions of people.

Since much of the literature on Second Life was published detailing its popularity and potential,[60] there has been a backlash of sorts. Many of the accounts are actually inactive, since it is free to set one up. Many high-profile businesses have sought a presence in SL and have not found it to be a financial success. Some blame this on the fact that no one really knows how popular SL actually is.[61] Another explanation might be that users resent big-name companies intruding on their space.[62] Others see the problem extending beyond marketing within SL and doubt the viability of this particular virtual world in the future.[63] However, SL still demonstrates measurable growth, and metrics show that many still find it worth their time. As of the end of June 2011, there were just over 2.4 million signups. According to data from late 2010, almost 600,000 users use the site each week. Approximately 34,000 have active “homes” in the world.[64] There also remains a bustling in-world economy. In fact, in the first quarter of 2010, user-to-user transactions totaled $160 million.[65] So, while the future of SL no longer reaches the heights and optimism that it did five years ago, it remains a viable virtual world. And, for the purposes of this analysis, it serves as a helpful example of what a virtual world is whether it remains the leading example or not.

All sorts of behavior occur in the world. In the words of one thinker, “Cyberspace creates new classes of imagination and subjective activity. The question of what is ‘real’ and what is ‘fantasy’ as well as the question of when such a distinction should matter … has become newly relevant to the culture at large.”[66] Four types of behavior will be briefly described. The first two tend to be more “negative” in traditional moral description: “griefing” and sexual expression. The second two are more “positive”: collaboration and religious expression. The point of the following is not to construct arguments to evaluate normatively the moral status of these particular actions; instead, it is to describe briefly some morally relevant behavior, whether positive or not.

“Griefing” is basically taking pleasure from causing harm to other players.[67] One SL resident described it as “deliberately doing something that interferes with other users’ Second Life experience.”[68] This can take various forms.[69] On the one hand, the creation of offensive objects can be considered griefing (for example, large signs with real-world political slogans, or objects blocking the view from someone’s home). On the other, the creation of extremely complicated objects or self-replicating objects can be a form of griefing if it is done to slow down other people’s computers or crash the server. While this activity does not do physical harm to people, the activity can still be considered dangerous because of its negative impact on the agent and the victim.[70] There are also less-sophisticated forms of griefing: verbal abuse of other users or other inappropriate behavior such as avatars wearing offensive costumes, or nothing at all.

Sexual expression is a graphic part of Second Life. The creators of the world have made a “ratings” system, so different areas of the world allow more explicit activity than others, and users can be suspended or have their accounts deleted for violating these ratings. However, within the proper areas, sexual expression is allowed and enabled by both coding for actions and speech capabilities. Different users have different feelings about what “fidelity” to a real-world spouse means in the context of SL. Some users even marry other avatars while being married to another person in real life, though these ceremonies are usually secular rather than religious. Some argue that this sexual expression is a healthy and normal event driven by deep emotional relationships established online. Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Lab, insists that, “A lot of the sex relationships in Second Life are driven more by lengthy, meaningful discussions … People have sex in Second Life because they have incredibly deep relationships, not just because they want to have sex.”[71] Other expressions of sexuality have come under more fire in SL. For example, Linden Lab has cracked down on “ageplay,” which involves childlike avatars.[72] Clearly, sexual expression emerges in various forms within SL, and whatever one thinks about where the line for appropriate behavior falls, sex plays an important role in virtual worlds.[73]

On a more “positive” note, SL and virtual worlds in general contain a strong ethic toward cooperation, kindness, and mutual aid.[74] This takes many forms in SL. Some users are quick to give away objects to others, especially newer users who have less. Also, residents are typically quick to invite others to social events, even people whom they have not interacted with in the past. Experienced users also offer their knowledge on subjects such as building and other elements of the SL interface that can be difficult to master. Large groups exist solely for the purpose of helping newcomers to the world. The help often extends into “real-life” problems as well, with people sharing problems and offering advice to one another. While the negative activity often gets more publicity, the dominant ethos is one of kindness and mutual aid.

Religious expression is very common on the Internet,[75] and SL is no exception.[76] In the following, religious practice in general will be described briefly, including helpful information about ritual in general as well as specifics about different religions and their presence in SL. Then Christian religious experience in particular will be treated.

All of the world’s major religions are represented in SL.[77] An important distinction can be made between “ritual online” (religious texts, etc., that are found online but the ritual itself takes place offline) and “online ritual” (in which the ritual practice itself occurs in some sort of online space).[78] Some scholars predict that as virtual worlds become more prominent, the difference between “real-world ritual” and “virtual-world ritual” will disappear.[79] The virtual world promotes a great degree of flexibility, and religious practice in-world must be described on the basis of “clusters” to honor this difficulty to define strict boundaries.[80] Some of this flexibility is likely due to a “filtering” effect, since people may be more comfortable having their avatar participate in a wider range of religious experiences than they would feel comfortable doing in real life.[81]

In the Jewish cluster, various synagogues can be found with Jewish rituals being conducted on different levels. There is a model of the Jerusalem Temple as well as an active synagogue called “Temple Beit Israel,” which serves as a place for worship and religious education.[82] The Christian cluster includes churches such as Ruach Ministry, which offers worship, prayer, and groups for religious discussion in SL (more on Christianity below).[83] There is a large Muslim presence as well, with virtual mosques and even a reconstruction of Mecca.[84] Buddhism and Hinduism are also present, with buildings and objects suited for religious ritual, such as candles, objects for meditation, and even special mats.[85] Some of these spaces and objects are constructed by people who participate in actual religious communities in real life, while others are built for general interest.

Christianity is present in SL in various ways. First, Christian worship occurs within SL, just like the other religions mentioned above. For some people, the issue of acceptance prevents them from participating in real-world worship.[86] Second, some users essentially pray online through their avatar. “Some worship centers have animated poses for pray[er] and worship to assist avatars in kneeling, or raising their arms in praise.”[87] Third, Christians evangelize within virtual worlds as well.[88] Fourth, Christian discipleship takes place as virtual churches host Bible studies and help people with real-world problems.[89] SL residents have found ways to mirror almost everything that happens in real-life Christianity, but with greater degrees of acceptance and control within the virtual community.

A description of SL that neglects to offer some thought on future concerns is incomplete. At this point, it is important to discuss two elements of the future of these worlds: the desire for “etopias” and the impact of SL activity on “real life.”

The communities available in SL and other similar virtual worlds lead some to opine on the promise of future electronic utopias, or “etopias.” There are two ways to think about this concept. First, etopias can be seen as experimental proving grounds for innovation in the real world. [90] In his extensive work on virtual worlds, economist Castronova has argued that these worlds not only offer proving grounds, but they also will force the real world to change if it wants to retain its residents, whom Castronova believes will choose virtual living over real living in greater numbers in the coming years.[91] Even though Castronova’s predictions of a mass-exodus to virtual worlds have failed to materialize to the degree he thought they would, these virtual worlds provide tools and motives for improving the real world.

Second, these etopias can be seen as “schizophrenic utopias” that allow people to develop plural identities.[92] These communities and visions spring from the depth of experience available in virtual communities; “Friendships in Second Life were not always seen as poor approximations of their actual-world analogues: their intensity reveals that it is incorrect to assume that virtual worlds produce only ‘loose’ social ties. Many residents insisted that they had built friendships in Second Life that were as real as their friendships in the actual world.”[93] In fact, “Second Life … sells the American Dream to those struggling to find utopia in real life.”[94] In this version of etopias, the better experience is found only online, and it leads to more and more people choosing to spend more and more time online in order to control their lives in a way that they cannot in the real world.

The concept of etopias quickly crosses over into discussion about the impact of SL on real life. Here, however, I am more interested in discussing behavioral “overflow” as activities within the virtual world spill over into the real world, since a dichotomy between who a person is in the virtual world and the real world can be unhelpful.[95] “Overflow” occurs in two ways: actual behaviors in the real world, and a reconception of what reality actually is because of virtual world experience. The virtual experience is very involved; “The player must learn to act and think a certain way in order to master a game. Player activity, then, is one way video games exert an influence; the player is performing actions, not merely watching someone else perform them, and over a long time, new skills and reflexes are learned.”[96] These new skills and resources shape the way people behave in real life. This includes not only violence, but also positive aspects of sociability. In fact, some psychologists tout the usefulness of virtual experiences for helping people work on identity issues and develop stronger character traits.[97]

Experience in the virtual world also changes the way people view reality. Investing time and energy in these worlds requires adapting ways of thinking and conceiving of the world.[98] Virtual worlds alter the way that people conceive of their real-world relationships. Close relationships forged in virtual worlds, including some “family” relationships, change the user: “No longer is their world solely defined by their immediate RL families, friends and social circles, but they might begin to see how they fit in globally with others on a larger cultural continuum of expression.”[99] Addiction to virtual relationships can lead to withdrawal from real relationships (which will be treated below).[100] As SL and other virtual worlds become more and more common places for people to spend time, these future issues of etopias and behavioral spillover will only become more important, which is why analysis of ethical implications is necessary.

 

Moral Formation Issues

As a “secular liturgy,” virtual worlds shape participants into lovers of certain things and ways of life. This raises ethical questions beyond simply what is a right or wrong action within these worlds. Sherry Turkle has put the question well in her research into the subjective side of human-computer interaction: what kind of people are we becoming?[101] Obviously, there is debate that could occur on what is right or wrong to do in-world; for example, is it a sin to kill my neighbor’s avatar? Or, is it wrong to marry another avatar if I am married in real life? However, this section chooses to focus less on questions of ethics in-world and more on questions of the effects of in-world actions on real-life character development and community. Second Life will be analyzed not from the perspective of virtue in-world, but from the perspective of what sort of “secular liturgy” SL turns out to be, especially with the insights from Conyers in view. Though the information here could be structured in any number of profitable ways, the following uses the previous theological insights as a guiding template for analysis, thus the focus on vocation, attention, and community.

Perhaps one of the most dangerous ethical issues raised is that of control, which asserts self-will over against the concept of vocation in a theological sense. It seems rather harmless to have complete control over one’s avatar’s appearance and experience, but the danger lies in its seeming innocuousness. Games certainly provide a sense of control,[102] and in a way they allow users to “play God.”[103] Some feeling of control does occur in normal life and in a healthy way in human community, such as the control that comes from learning to play a musical instrument. However, virtual worlds offer a sense of control that requires little mastery of some sort of craft.[104] There is one exception: some users develop a great degree of skill in designing avatars and building objects, which does correlate in some ways with traditional understandings of “craft.” But this “control” that is gained by mastery of design and building can be distinguished from the general sense of control and sovereignty over the appearance and experience of one’s avatar. The first is control over certain processes, while the second is more parallel to the idea of “playing God.”

Time spent exercising this sort of control can serve to form the affections in an unhealthy way. This is likely related to each individual and the particular struggles and desires she brings to SL. So, while a person who has learned to live life without having to feel like she is in control all of the time may be able to participate in virtual worlds without having her affections shaped negatively, the exercise of complete control can be harmful to someone who already struggles with a feeling of a lack of control in his life. Seeking complete control through the virtual world can cause people either to seek more control over others in the real world or to flee the unpredictability of real life for more time in a controllable, virtual environment. For instance, a person who is able to control almost everything in their virtual world may struggle to deal with realities of community life, such as submitting to authority or enduring suffering. Conyers’s warning about the problem with power and control for forming authentic human communities comes into play here, because these virtual experiences can cause harm in the way they form people to participate in real-world communities.

Noreen Herzfeld, in an essay on the impact of technology on our views of the body, notes, “virtue ethics warns us that one’s character is formed by one’s habits.”[105] Virtual worlds yield many opportunities to develop virtue or vice, but especially in light of the insight of Conyers, it is important to ask the question of attention. To the degree that virtual worlds serve as distraction from the real world, from real responsibilities, and from real relationships, they serve to take away from the skill of attention that is necessary for developing relationships in community and for prayer. For example, the constant stimulation available in a virtual world can shape a person in such a way that they are not as skilled at things like listening attentively to other people in community. This does not mean that spending time in a virtual environment necessarily leads to distraction, and it does not mean that online relationships cannot be “real” and beneficial. Some users might enter religious portions of SL regularly in order to exercise a habit of prayer with their avatar, and others might develop great patience and empathy interacting with online friends. While such actions could contribute to cultivating attention, the general appeal of the virtual world is more of one toward distraction: get away from “First Life” in order to have a better second one. It is this posture of distraction that is problematic for developing attention, and the structure of virtual worlds tends to encourage this posture. Though exceptions certainly exist, distraction is a danger that must be raised and, surely, addressed.

Virtual communities, even admitting their diversity,[106] seem to have little in common with the robust communities discussed by Conyers, and they perhaps fall into the critique of taking the form of communities but denying the substance of them.[107] There are three particular angles that merit mention here. First, issues of suffering and alienation should drive people into life in community. Instead, virtual worlds invite people to escape: “Digital technology seems to be increasingly considered the means par excellence to liberate the self from material suffering and imperfection and to overcome the alienation of modern life.”[108] A strong concept of vocation refuses to flee the real world, even with its challenges and suffering, for another; instead, vocation requires hearing and faithfully responding.

Second, virtual worlds offer a specter of relationship but, when abused, can harm real relationships: “Friendships and relationships were the source of addiction and the thing most harmed by that addiction.”[109] Further, “Technology increasingly eliminates direct human interdependence. While our devices gives us greater personal autonomy, at the same time they disrupt the familiar networks of direct association.”[110] So while virtual worlds can seem to offer relationships and relief from suffering and alienation, they often circumvent genuine human community in doing so.

Not all online relationships, however, are abused, and evidence does suggest that online relationships can strengthen offline bonds. Based on study of the strength of online and offline networks, some argue “that virtual connectivity extends existing networks, strengthening offline bonds rather than replacing them. Certainly in socially slanted spaces, where interactions meet repeatedly over months and years, research suggests that online social systems form, through which information diffuses.”[111] Evidence suggests that the problem is not online relationships per se, but addiction to these relationships. Also, there are plenty of examples of people playing online games with people they already know in real life, and this can potentially be positive, again depending on use.[112] This angle on virtual and real-world communities, then, is more of a warning against addiction and abuse than against online relationships in themselves.

Third, some use virtual community as a substitute for real-world communities. Recalling Conyers’s definition of community, it is questionable whether these online “communities” can really count in his view: “Here is a literal picture of the community that is in any real sense men and women communing together about life: nourished and informed by virtue of their rootedness, oriented toward their destiny, and open in love toward one another—this is the succinct meaning of community, the aim of which is to provide space and give nourishment to the human spirit.”[113] While online communities are admittedly diverse, it does seem that few examples come to mind that match Conyers’s definition. Online communities lack a rootedness, are oriented not toward a calling but toward a future constructed by force of the will, and are open in love only to others to whom the individual wants to be open.

The relationship between virtual communities and real-world communities is complicated. In fact, it seems that in many cases the “active get more active,” because “people who use the Internet for civic purposes tended to become more actively involved in their community, while those who used the Internet heavily but for other purposes remained relatively disconnected from community activities.”[114] While this research did not focus on virtual worlds specifically, it does demonstrate that the outcome for real-world communities will differ depending on how particular people use and interact in online communities.

Virtual communities need not necessarily become substitutes for real-world communities. Again, it is a matter of abuse to be avoided. Recent research on communities and online relationships indicates that it is not a zero-sum game. In his monograph on presence and copresence in virtual environments, Ralph Schroeder argues:

The debates about our mediated relationships with others that have arisen with “new media” are quite revealing … Recently, for example, the debate has been about whether the Internet contributes to fewer offline relationships and the like (Baym, 2002). Most findings, however, suggest that spending time in mediated relationships, including recently in relation to online games, for example, does not detract from spending time together or decrease the level of engagement in relationships “offline” (see, for example, Williams 2006). If we think in terms of “being there together,” these debates can be put in a different perspective: It is not that purely mediated interpersonal relations should be seen as causing loneliness or being inferior to face-to-face relations and the like; rather, different media provide different possibilities for being there together in the changing landscape of interpersonal copresence. Face-to-face relationships and mediated relationships or time spent in mediated spaces should thus not be seen as a zero-sum game, despite the obvious fact that the amount of time spent in mediated relations and spaces has increased if seen in a longer-term historical perspective.[115]

The idea here is that virtual worlds and the communities that they afford do not necessarily take away from offline communities and relationships. This takes a holistic view of community and relationships: all types are held on equal footing as relationships, with no priority given to face-to-face, physical friends or communities.

Judgment on this issue of the relationship between online and offline relationships and communities pivots on how mediated relationships are evaluated. For someone like Conyers, the very idea of community entails physical presence to one another and to a physical place. For someone like Schroeder, these physical elements are less importance than the sense of “being there together,” wherever “there” might “be.” So, while much current research emphasizes the diversity of online community and potential benefits of this type of relationship, the insight from Conyers would caution against such a non-physical, non-place-oriented notion of community. For Schroeder, it is a question of different types of community. For Conyers, it is a question of true community or no community at all.

Finally, participation in virtual worlds raises the issue of family life, one of the most basic forms of community. This comes out in three ways. First and most clearly, real-world responsibilities are often forsaken for the opportunity to spend more time in-world. Second, relationships in-world can alter real-world family relationships. Virtual environments are often filled with what is called “kin play,” in which different people adopt familial roles in relation to other avatars (for example, my avatar could be the child and your avatar the mother). This can loop back and negatively influence relationships with future generations of real family members.[116] It could also be positive: perhaps compassion and patience learned in a virtual world could yield more of those traits with real family members. However, when virtual worlds offer the opportunity to “trade in” family responsibilities for other activities and even other family members, who are easier to control and interact with because they do not make the same demands as real-life family members, it can form people to avoid others. Third, virtual worlds are one part of how the computer and the Internet are changing the shape of family life. “Living rooms have long been places of leisure, but now they contain an object from the office. Living rooms have also been places for shared activities—eating, watching television, talking—but now they contain something that monopolizes one person’s attention and excludes the others.”[117]

Seeking ethical norms can be a complex task, especially when dealing with something as nuanced as virtual worlds. Lines are blurred. In the real world, it is easier to make norms such as “do not murder,” “do not steal,” and “give to the poor.” But in a virtual world, is it wrong to kill another character if that is the object of the game? What about stealing from others, if it is again within the rules of the game? And who are the poor in a virtual world that requires a certain degree of wealth for entry? The complexity of the virtual world and its relationship to the real world make such norms difficult to advocate.

Virtual worlds are not the first cause of any of the issues that serve to form moral agents. The fact is, people bring themselves to the virtual worlds, and it is their latent traits, whether good or bad, that can be intensified in a virtual environment. Newer research on the Internet’s effects on social involvement, for example, has been called a “rich get richer” model, because those Internet users “who were extroverts and had stronger social support networks enjoyed positive social effects of Internet use, while the introverts and the isolated suffered some degree of decline in social involvement and psychological well-being.”[118] So the issue is not simply “virtual worlds make people do good/bad,” but “virtual worlds provide unique opportunities and temptations that must be considered.” Any norm must avoid absolutizing but instead focus on thoughtful engagement.

One potential complex of norms would be: “Situate virtual life within the greater context of the whole human life, prioritize community, character, and virtue in the real world, and take virtual reality seriously as a secular liturgy forming desire.” The key elements are as follows. First, any ethical approach to virtual worlds must be situated in the context of the human flourishing with all of life in view, not just isolated portions. Second, the “real world” should be prioritized, because any semblance of community in the virtual world may indeed contain genuine goods, but those goods will likely emerge when the virtual community most closely resembles a real-world community. Third, virtual worlds form love and desire that then operates in the real world as agents choose and pursue goals. This cannot be ignored. However, discerning one or even a set of robust norms for something as complex as participation in virtual worlds can prove difficult.

A promising way forward can be found in looking for certain “postures.” By “posture” I mean certain desires, tendencies, and moral vision. Since the theological perspective articulated above focused so carefully on issues of formation, in this section the emphasis will be on how virtual worlds such as Second Life can shape the loves and desires of moral agents, and thus effect the type of people they become. Three postures will be expounded in connection to Conyers, though more could be added.

The “God games” element of virtual reality can have a negative effect on forming people who hear and obey the call of God, even in the face of challenge and hardship. In the virtual world, users become accustomed to a great degree of control. This runs into the warnings mentioned by Conyers’s critique of modernity, in which the desire for control reshapes relationships with others and with the wider world. Even if one does choose to participate in virtual reality, it is important to be aware of the allure of control. In the virtual world control can be enjoyed, but it can make people more controlling in the real world and less able to be part of a community that seeks to follow an external call.

Conyers’s arguments about the importance of attention in the face of potential distraction can serve to form a helpful posture toward virtual reality. This can be brought to bear in two ways. First, virtual worlds can distract people, preventing them from hearing and obeying God’s call. As Conyers noted, the call of God is often to some degree against the will of the one called, and one of the challenges is to resist distraction. Virtual worlds offer the opportunity to abandon the real world for hours at a time, including responsibilities and challenges that may be part of one’s calling. Second, people are formed by those things to which they do pay attention. Some could argue that virtual worlds are a focal point for a great deal of attention, as people spend hours perfecting their avatars, their friendships, and their environment. However, this attention can have negative consequences on moral formation. It emphasizes a focus on projecting a desired self into an environment.

Christians must grapple with the immersive nature of virtual worlds and their attraction to a growing number of people. One important posture in response to virtual worlds is one of robust counter-formation. This connects clearly to Smith’s descriptions of secular liturgies, and practical virtual reality, including but extending beyond Second Life, serve as influential, formative liturgies. Christian communities must acknowledge this, seek to understand what message is being conveyed, and work to provide a counter narrative and counter formation in order to form faithful Christians and strong communities.

 

Conclusions and Further Research

Virtual worlds are growing phenomena, and they demand theological engagement since they carry within them a certain anthropology. They shape people in important ways. They clearly constitute a type of “secular liturgy” that forms worshippers of a certain sort, as James K. A. Smith’s work highlights. Some aspects that can be particularly consequential for developing strong life in community are the issues of attention, control, and vocation, themes brought out in A. J. Conyers’s critique of modernity. Christian theology provides one possible perspective from which to address key issues brought up by virtual worlds, not rejecting them in toto, but evaluating them based on a robust understanding of moral formation, the centrality of character development, and the importance of strong communities.

Virtual worlds invite extensive additional research. This paper viewed virtual worlds primarily through the lenses provided by work by Smith and Conyers. The following four areas, at least, merit addressing. First, the issue of embodiedness and virtual reality needs more treatment. Some scholars see a dangerous anti-body tendency in advanced technology such as virtual reality, since these technologies can reduce the human to a disembodied mind or the sum of information in such a mind.[119] Others argue that virtual worlds include a strong sense of embodied presence and thus are not subject to such criticisms.[120] More work needs to be done to define embodiment and understand whether or not some framing of it can counter the accusation of the disembodied nature of virtual worlds.

Second, sexuality in virtual worlds will require theological analysis as more Christians spend time online.[121] This issue is tied to the understanding of embodiment in virtual worlds. New norms are necessary for the nuances of virtual sexuality and its connections to real-world relationships.

Third, the issue of religious expression in-world invites further study. On the one hand, the flexibility of religious expression in virtual worlds points to a tendency toward syncretism. Whether such practices should be viewed as harmless exploration, spiritually dangerous, or something in between requires careful study and argument. On the other hand, the influence of religious participation in virtual worlds will continue to influence religious participation in the real world, with some people choosing the virtual in place of the real, and others expecting change in the real based on positive experiences that they have in the virtual.

Fourth, education (religious or otherwise) within virtual worlds provides a fruitful avenue for research. As more institutions seek to utilize Internet technology as much as possible, presence in virtual worlds such as Second Life has become more common. Universities involved in learning activities in SL include Princeton, Harvard, Duke, Cambridge, and Oxford.[122] Learning and teaching in worlds such as Second Life will become more common, and research is necessary to discern how best to do this and to evaluate potential losses in comparison to more traditional settings.[123]

 

 


[1] See Edward Castronova, Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

[2] Sherry Turkle has done great work on the subjective side of the human-computer relationship. See especially Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011). Also, Nicholas Carr has recently done excellent work concerning the way our time online can influence and change our brains. See Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: Norton, 2010).

[3] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 41-43.

[4] Ibid., 42.

[5] Ibid., 43-46.

[6] Ibid., 46-63.

[7] Ibid., 62-63.

[8] Ibid., 82.

[9] Ibid., 83.

[10] Ibid., 87.

[11] Ibid., 93-121.

[12] Conyers has also done significant work on the Christian view of history, specifically in relation to the work of Jurgen Moltmann.

[13] A. J. Conyers, The Listening Heart: Vocation and the Crisis of Modern Culture (Dallas: Spence, 2006), 112.

[14] Ibid., 13.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] So one makes reasoned choices rather than depending on guidance from another. Ibid., 14.

[18] Ibid., 15.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 57-60.

[22] Ibid., 79.

[23] Ibid., 92.

[24] Ibid., 121.

[25] Ibid., 119.

[26] Ibid., 121.

[27] Ibid., 126.

[28] Ibid., 127.

[29] Ibid., 55.

[30] Ibid. Conyers’s analysis dovetails nicely with Smith here.

[31] Ibid., 113.

[32] Ibid., 94.

[33] Tom Boellstorff, Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 17.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ralph Schroeder, “Defining Virtual Worlds and Virtual Environments.” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 1, no. 1 (2008).

[36] Some game discussion makes distinctions here. “Users” can be considered too impersonal, so “residents” is used for worlds like Second Life that emphasize sociality and creativity, and “players” is used for rule-oriented worlds.

[37] In his work on virtual communities and worlds, Paul Ford notes three common criticisms about the subject matter. First, some people see the virtual as interesting but with little relevance to daily life. Ford counters that even though people do not spend all of their time in these communities, they are dynamic elements that supply a small but valuable sphere of meaning. Second, some see a lack of depth in the interaction that occurs in these environments. On the contrary, interpersonal interactions in these communities have developed a great level of complexity. Third, some see these communities and worlds as only significant for those on the margins of society. However, the current growth rate of these environments suggests otherwise. These are but three objections to the seriousness of scholarship on virtual worlds, but they serve as an example of arguments that can be made showing that virtual worlds will only become more relevant as more people spend time in them. See Paul J. Ford, “Virtually Impacted: Designers, Spheres of Meaning, and Virtual Communities,” in Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics, and New Media, ed. Mark J. P. Wolf (New York: Peter Lang, 2003), 85-89.

[38] Mario A. Gutiérrez, Frédéric Vexo, and Daniel Thalmann, Stepping into Virtual Reality (London: Springer, 2008), 2.

[39] William Sims Bainbridge, Online Multiplayer Games (Morgan & Claypool, 2010), 1.

[40] For a helpful description of two such worlds, see Kathryn Stam and Michael Scialdone, “Where Dreams and Dragons Meet: An Ethnographical Analysis of Two Examples of Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games.” Online—Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3, no. 1 (2008).

[41] “These perspectives can emphasize the role of virtual worlds in a variety of histories: games (digital or otherwise), communication technologies, online communities, non-linear literature, collaborative story telling and/or performance; not to mention a deeper history of creation and interaction with other-worlds that has persisted since the earliest days of homo-sapiens.” See Calleja, “Virtual Worlds Today,” 16. For recent in-depth accounts of the history of virtual reality, see Phylis Johnson, Second Life, Media, and the Other Society (New York: Peter Lang, 2010), 3-21. Also, see Boellstorff, Coming of Age in Second Life, 32-59.

[42] Some thinkers separate social virtual worlds from MMOGs because they lack the rules and objectives that other games do. However, I choose to keep them together here since they are still very similar and can be distinguished in other ways.

[43] Mia Consalvo, “MOOs to MMOs: The Internet and Virtual Worlds,” in The Handbook of Internet Studies, ed. Mia Consalvo and Charles Ess (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2011), 328.

[44] Gordon Calleja, “Virtual Worlds Today: Gaming and Online Sociality.” Online—Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3, no. 1 (2008): 20.

[45] For more details on these specific games, see Ibid., 27-38.

[46] Eleven million subscribers in 2009. See Phylis Johnson, Second Life, Media, and the Other Society (New York: Peter Lang, 2010), 15.

[47] T. L. Taylor, “Internet and Games,” in The Handbook of Internet Studies, ed. Mia Consalvo and Charles Ess (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2011), 370.

[48] Bainbridge, Online Multiplayer Games, 11.

[49] Dmitri Williams, Nick Yee, and Scott E Caplan, “Who Plays, How Much, and Why? Debunking the Stereotypical Gamer Profile.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008): 993.

[50] Consalvo, “MOOs to MMOs: The Internet and Virtual Worlds,” 329.

[51] For example, Ralph Schroeder views virtual environments as another type of mediated presence and copresence. See Ralph Schroeder, Being There Together: Social Interaction in Virtual Environments (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[52] See Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 12. In another work, she notes, “Involvement with simulated worlds affects relationships with the real one.” See Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 82.

[53] “The point is that many game players invest so much time in their characters, often ‘sharing’ intensely emotional experiences with them, that they can become extremely meaningful.” See Bainbridge, Online Multiplayer Games, 55.

[54] Clearly, it could be argued that every form of mediated communication generates experiences that shape people. For instance, using the telephone was a different experience than speaking directly to a person. For virtual worlds, however, the scope and variety of generated experiences is so wide, and the immersion in them is so deep, that they are more formative in the experiences they generate. Also, virtual worlds provide the opportunity for experiences in which communication is a secondary concern, unlike previous forms of communication technology, which were consistently tied to communication.

[55] Johnson, Second Life, xvi-xvii.

[56] For a helpful description of how to sign up for a typical virtual world, see Edward Castronova, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 29-50. Castronova’s description includes a typical payment method, which does not apply in this case. This chapter still gives a good taste for those who have no previous exposure to these worlds.

[57] Johnson, Second Life, xiii-xiv. This is a more conservative number. Another resource puts the number closer to 17 million accounts. See Kimberly Rufer-Bach, The Second Life Grid: The Official Guide to Communication, Collaboration, and Community Engagement, 1st ed. (Indianapolis, Ind.: Wiley, 2009), 7. It is likely closer to 20 million in 2011.

[58] In 2009, the rate was approximately L$260 to L$270 to the US dollar.

[59] Johnson, Second Life, 265.

[60] For an example of such optimism, see Jia Dai, “Virtual Worlds, Real Brands: A Critical Interrogation of Commodification in Second Life,” in Living Virtually: Researching New Worlds, ed. Don Heider (New York: Peter Lang, 2009). Another example is an article in which the authors speculate that by 2012, 80 percent of Internet users will have some sort of presence in a virtual world like SL. See Paul R. Messinger, Eleni Stroulia, and Kelly Lyons, “A Typology of Virtual Worlds: Historical Overview and Future Directions.” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 1, no. 1 (2008): 2.

[61] Cade Metz, “The Popularity of Virtual Worlds Is Exaggerated,” in What Is the Impact of Cyberlife?, ed. Andrea Demott (Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven, 2008), 14.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Mitch Wagner, “Second Life CEO Looks to the Future, after Massive Layoffs,”  http://blogs.computerworld.com/16303/second_life_layoffs.

[64] User data from “Second Life Grid Survey,”  http://www.gridsurvey.com/.

[65] Don Clark, “Second Life Creator Linden Lab Downsizes, Morphs,” Wall Street Journal, http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2010/06/10/second-life-creator-linden-lab-downsizes-morphs/.

[66] Kimberlyn Leary, “Cyberplaces,” in The Inner History of Devices, ed. Sherry Turkle (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2008), 95.

[67] Bainbridge, Online Multiplayer Games, 41.

[68] Boellstorff, Coming of Age in Second Life, 187.

[69] In other virtual worlds that are more combat-oriented, griefing often takes the form of actual violence against less-experienced players.

[70] Noreen Herzfeld, “Bodies Matter: A New Fad and a Fallacy in the Name of Science,” in God’s Action in Nature’s World (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006), 229. For more description of actual instances of griefing in SL, see Peter Ludlow and M. Wallace, The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid That Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007), 89-107.

[71] Mitch Wagner, “Sex Is Integral to Virtual Worlds,” in What Is the Impact of Cyberlife?, ed. Andrea Demott (Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven, 2008), 49.

[72] Ibid., 44-46.

[73] Again, the point here is not to argue for or against sexuality in SL, but to describe it vaguely as part of the horizon of possibilities in this virtual world.

[74] Boellstorff, Coming of Age in Second Life, 185-87.

[75] Three works are of particular interest for exploring religion online further, outside the context of SL. First, see Lorne L. Dawson, “Religion and the Quest for Virtual Community,” in Religion Online (New York: Routledge, 2004). Two books by Heidi Campbell are also helpful. See Heidi Campbell, Exploring Religious Community Online: We Are One in the Network (New York: Peter Lang, 2005). Her more recent book carries the exploration further: Heidi Campbell, When Religion Meets New Media, 1st ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010). Also, one of the earliest Christian communities online was called the “Church of Fools.” Jenkins provides a unique perspective as a participant from early on: Simon Jenkins, “Rituals and Pixels: Experiments in Online Church.” Online—Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3, no. 1 (2008). Also, Kluver and Chen explore the nature of the spiritual world created by the Church of Fools: Randolph Kluver and Yanli Chen, “The Church of Fools: Virtual Ritual and Material Faith.” Online—Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3, no. 1 (2008).

[76] Technology in general has become an increasingly religious concern. As George Pattison notes, “technology has become a field of ultimate and thus of religious concern: to know or not to know in the manner promoted by technology, to be or not to be the being that technology is making of us: this is now a real and urgent question for thinking as well as for political, economic, and environmental policy-making.” See George Pattison, Thinking about God in an Age of Technology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 4.

[77] The presence of these centers and objects, as well as people participating as religious leaders has led some to explore issues of “technoshamanism” and “cybershamanism,” which has led to some changes in ritual. For more on this, see Libuse Martinkova, “Computer Mediated Religious Life of Technoshamans and Cybershamans.” Online—Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3, no. 1 (2008).

[78] Nadja Miczek, “Online Rituals in Virtual Worlds: Christian Online Services between Dynamics and Stability,” 145.

[79] For more on this, see Michael Caligiuri, “An Examination of Virtual Rituals Found in Online Gaming Communities.” ARC 37 (2009): 119-48.

[80] Kerstin Radde-Antweiler, “Virtual Religion: An Approach to a Religious and Ritual Topography of Second Life.” Online—Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3, no. 1 (2008): 176.

[81] Pablo Martinez-Zarate, Isabela Corduneanu, and Louis Miguel Martinez, “S(L)pirituality: Immersive Worlds as a Window to Spirituality,” 213. For a helpful treatment of religion online and various phases of research into this phenomena more broadly, see Heidi Campbell, “Internet and Religion,” in The Handbook of Internet Studies, ed. Mia Consalvo and Charles Ess (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2011), 232-50.

[82] Radde-Antweiler, “Virtual Religion,” 176-82.

[83] Ibid., 183.

[84] Ibid., 191.

[85] Ibid., 194-202.

[86] For example, one man came to LifeChurch as a cheetah wearing shorts, stating that he only feels accepted at this church, where he can be whatever he wants to be. See Johnson, Second Life, 247.

[87] Ibid., 249.

[88] One pastor of LifeChurch.tv says, “When Jesus told us to go into the world, we took him very literally.” See ibid., 247.

[89] For example, Johnson speaks of a ministry called “Hope Springs Eternal,” where Sher Salmson counsels residents about real or Second Life problems. Ibid., 249-54.

[90] Bainbridge says, “electronic utopias that have the potential to be the proving grounds for real-world social innovation and are already meeting places for real-world subcultures and social movements.” See Bainbridge, Online Multiplayer Games, 89.

[91] See especially part three in Castronova, Exodus to the Virtual World.

[92] Hillis deals with this prospect extensively. See Ken Hillis, Digital Sensations: Space, Identity, and Embodiment in Virtual Reality (Minneaplis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 178-89.

[93] Boellstorff, Coming of Age in Second Life, 159.

[94] Johnson, Second Life, 41.

[95] See Mark J. P. Wolf, “From Simulation to Emulation: Ethics, Worldviews, and Video Games,” in Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics, and New Media, ed. Mark J. P. Wolf (New York: Peter Lang, 2003), 73.

[96] Ibid., 64.

[97] For one example, see Marsha H. Levy-Warren, “Computer Games,” in The Inner History of Devices, ed. Sherry Turkle (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2008), 77-85.

[98] Wolf, “From Simulation to Emulation,” 71.

[99] Johnson, Second Life, 241.

[100] Boellstorff, Coming of Age in Second Life, 177.

[101] Turkle, Second Self, 13.

[102] Ibid., 72.

[103] Herzfeld, “Bodies Matter,” 231.

[104] Jeffrey P. Zaleski, The Soul of Cyberspace: How New Technology Is Changing Our Spiritual Lives (San Francisco: HarperEdge, 1997), 188.

[105] Herzfeld, “Bodies Matter,” 231.

[106] For a helpful treatment of the subject of community in Internet studies, see Lori Kendall, “Community and the Internet,” in The Handbook of Internet Studies, ed. Mia Consalvo and Charles Ess (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2011), 309-25.

[107] Here it must be emphasized that we are using Conyers as our benchmark, not secular studies on community that argue about its definition and whether online communities meet their definition.

[108] Stef Aupers and Dick Houtman, “‘Reality Sucks’: On Alienation and Cybergnosis.” Concilium, no. 1 (2005): 87.

[109] Boellstorff, Coming of Age in Second Life, 178.

[110] Michael Heim, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 100.

[111] Aleksandra K. Krotoski, Evanthia Lyons, and Julie Barnett, “The Sociel Life of Second Life: An Analysis of the Social Networks of a Virtual World,” in Living Virtually: Researching New Worlds, ed. Don Heider (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 50.

[112] For example, see Jeffrey G. Snodgrass et al., “Enhancing One Life Rather than Living Two: Playing MMOs with Offline Friends.” Computers in Human Behavior 27 (2011): 1211-22.

[113] Conyers, Listening Heart, 113.

[114] Maria Bakardjieva, “The Internet in Everyday Life: Exploring the Tenets and Contributions of Diverse Approaches,” in The Handbook of Internet Studies, ed. Mia Consalvo and Charles Ess (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2011), 67-68.

[115] Schroeder, Being There Together, 287-88.

[116] Boellstorff, Coming of Age in Second Life, 175.

[117] Sonia Livingstone, “Internet, Children, and Youth,” in The Handbook of Internet Studies, ed. Mia Consalvo and Charles Ess (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2011), 351.

[118] Bakardjieva, “The Internet in Everyday Life: Exploring the Tenets and Contributions of Diverse Approaches,” 66.

[119] Herzfeld, “Bodies Matter,” 226.

[120] Boellstorff, Coming of Age in Second Life, 134. For more on this, see Beatrice Bittarello, “Another Time, Another Space: Virtual Worlds, Myths and Imagination.” Online—Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3, no. 1 (2008): 246-66.

[121] For a more thorough overview of sexual practices within Second Life in particular, see Boellstorff, Coming of Age in Second Life, 160-65.

[122] Johnson, Second Life, 17. For some challenges involved, see Charles Crook and Paul Light, “Virtual Society and the Cultural Practice of Study,” in Virtual Society? Technology, Cyberbole, Reality, ed. Steve Woolgar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 153-75.

[123] For more on this topic, see Judith Molka-Danielsen and Mats Deutschmann, Learning and Teaching in the Virtual World of Second Life (Trondheim: Tapir Academic Press, 2009).