R.G. Howard, Digital Jesus: The Making of a New Christian Fundamentalist Christian Community on the Internet (New York: NYU Press, 2011), 211 pp.
Reviewer: Paul Emerson Teusner
In the short tradition of research into religion online, the study of Web-connected communities has highlighted many topics of debate and exploration, including the construction and negotiation of religious authority and personalities, the value of online relationships in a “virtual” religious community in relation to offline religious settings, and the power of the Internet to balkanize people, ideas, and beliefs into electronically gated religious enclaves. Robert Glenn Howard’s Digital Jesus: The Making of a New Christian Fundamentalist Community on the Internet offers an insightful contribution to all these discussions through a study of more than ten years of online interactions between American Christian fundamentalists.
At the beginning, Howard presents contemporary Christian fundamentalism through the eyes of two of the many Americans he has interviewed and whose web sites he has explored. Here, he presents fundamentalism as a phenomenon that, while necessarily involving a literalist interpretation of the Bible, and personal responsibility to evangelize, gathers people together through its emphasis on personal experiences of divine revelation and discussions about biblical prophecy and the imminent arrival of the End Times. Furthermore, Howard presents a branch of Christianity that is first and foremost “vernacular,” that is, not defined by formal doctrine or bound by structures and practices of institutions, but born of organic and fluid relationships and everyday discourse.
In chapter 2, the author maps the rise of fundamentalism in American Protestantism in the nineteenth century through to its demise in political and legal spheres in the twentieth, and its survival in vernacular form through radio programming, Evangelical Protestant revival movements, and televangelism. Howard describes a vernacular Protestant fundamentalism that could not be maintained in the rational and literal worlds of institutional religion, politics, and law, but had a message that aligned with the emotional and spectacular values of mass media. Howard shows that, in the United States, it is a mass-mediated religion.
In the next four chapters, Howard traces the development of this religion alongside that of the technology it uses: from Usenet groups and email lists through static pages on the World Wide Web to blogs and other media understood as “Web 2.0” formats. Using careful analysis of online data, together with engaging narratives of his meetings with producers of online religious content, the author explores how these Christians work to create and sustain a common fundamentalist identity, or as Howard names it, a “virtual ekklesia.”
Moreover, the author presents a thorough investigation into the distribution of authority among members of this ekklesia. Howard describes two devices used by those he interviewed: the presentation of unique ownership of knowledge, whether by expert biblical interpretation or receipt of divine revelation, and the engagement of readers in theological and pastoral communication (through the reproduction of email discussions on web pages, or by the moderation of comment threads on blogs). Howard gives to this second device the term “ritual deliberation.” It is “ritual” because the process of deliberating on the divine and its interventions in the world is more useful in promoting one’s identity and authority than its result, because “it does not seek conclusion, but rather repetitious action” (p. 59).
Within this investigation, Howard tracks the development of online technology as a new frame for the mediation of belief and experience, and the affordances given to those religious to explore a new type of church that complements, enhances, and reshapes vernacular Christian fundamentalism as found in radio and television. From Usenet through WWW to social media, the increasing ability of audiences of these religious sites to participate in the production of online religious content has led these original producers to reflect, with increasing caution, on the ways they engage in ritual deliberation and allow others to do the same. As such, Howard explains how technology, belief, and politics are tentatively and creatively intertwined in the formation and distribution of religious authority among a group of people, coming to terms with its own marginalization within a larger Christian context.
Howard presents a balanced understanding of moral values attributed to this technology: having the potential to create equality and tolerance, and yet able to house religious enclaves that reject opposition and dialogue, and foster self-sealing ideologies. Likewise, his approach to this religion is sensitive, but no less critical, describing a movement that is at best wary of, and at most aggressive toward, voices from other forms of Christianity. Most importantly, he does not forget what major social political upheavals and events, especially those of September 9, 2011, have impressed on the religious minds of all Americans, not just those he has studied.
Howard arrives at the end of his investigation to the understanding that those who adhere to “radical certainties” (p. 174) in religion, despite the rhetoric of democratization and globalization that surrounds Internet technology, can create connections with like-minded believers in protected, regulated enclaves. This, I believe, is a highly important consideration for those who study the impact of online communications on religious authority, community, and identity. Furthermore, Howard’s contribution to the growing tradition of research into religious community formation on the Internet is the recognition that all users of the technology are producers of religious content, and participate in the politics and rhetorics that build “ekklesia.” As such, this book is a treatise on the power of the vernacular in the shaping of a religious future.