New Media and the Reshaping of Religious Practice

Paul Harvey

Following up on its recent report "The New Landscape of the Religion Blogosphere," which features discussion of our little blog here along with many other more prominent ones, the SSRC and Immanent Frame have posted short responses from a variety of folks (including myself and more knowledgeable people in the area such as David Morgan and Stewart Hoover) on the question of how (or whether, or if) new media will reshape religious practice. More precisely:

how are new media—from blogs and social networking sites to mobile technologies and other forms of digital connection—shaping and reshaping the practice of religion?

My response (posted again below) speculated on blogging as an updated form of spiritual journaling, a practice familiar from the medieval world to the Puritans and to the evangelicals of the era of the awakenings (keep in mind that this was prepared for Immanent Frame's "Off the Cuff" series, and I take the series title seriously: these reflections are based on nothing more than vague impressions, written "without fear and without research," as somebody once said of a particular history text that we liked to trash in graduate school):

Blogs are becoming something like a combination of spiritual journals and diaries together with personalized newsletters, allowing for people to publicly express their daily thoughts and spiritual practices, for ministers to reflect on sermons past and present, for church members to discuss what their preacher talked about last Sunday, and for intellectuals to issue prompt analytical verdicts on religion in the news and religious trends as reported in the media. The result, I believe, is a continuation of a familiar theme in American religious history—the democratization of religious expression, the relative flattening of authority, and the basic impulse to internalize religious traditions in a personal way. Social networking may have some of that effect (I’m less familiar with religious social networking sites), but may work at cross-purposes as well. For example, Facebook fan clubs for religious celebrities accentuate, rather than flatten out, authority and promote well-known religious spokespeople, as opposed to the decentralized and anarchic world of blogging. Many bloggers, I have noted, keep a list of exercises (personal, academic, spiritual) and give daily or weekly accounts of how well they’ve kept up their disciplines—much like Sarah Osborn did in her personal writings in the eighteenth century, and countless evangelical believers did in the nineteenth. The difference, of course, is that the blog is there as a form of private confessional that holds one publicly accountable.

The technologies are new, but the impulse to personalize, record, and measure one’s spiritual devotion has gone on a straight line from the Puritans to the present.

But maybe, as usual, I'm just late to the party, having arrived after the cool people have left. That at least is the implication of the post by Elizabeth Drescher, who quotes surveys showing the decline of blogging among the younger set, and among those who tend to predict the future of media consumption. She continues:

For one thing, it seems to mean that if we want to understand how digital media practices are impacting emerging religious practice, looking at the religious blogosphere probably isn’t the first place to start. Demographically speaking, with the important exception of gender, the religious blogosphere as it’s mapped in the SSRC report is largely an articulation of mainline religious and academic institutional establishments. Wonderful as the blogs and blogsites studied may be as gathering places for academic and religious thought leaders with a lingering passion for reasonably extended reflection, their very inclusion means that they have participated in a process of institutionalization that is undermined again and again by the very nature of Web 2.0 practice and culture. Fan though I am of many of these blogs, their very status in the various rankings cited in the report places them at the top of a hierarchy that is relatively meaningless in the shaping of religious practice in America. The report, then, picks up the trail of religious change just at the place where it seems to be going cold.

Where might we pick up the scent? The answer, I think, is small: small clusters and communities centered around more or less exclusive and more or less organized social networks, and small communication forms like Facebook status updates and, especially for younger teen girls and young adults of all genders, Twitter feeds. Attending to these micro-forms is something we learned from Steven Johnson’s influential book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. An emergence, Johnson teaches, is lead by ants, not by queens. Small is where we’ll find the contours of new religious identity, community, and practice.

Also included here is a response from our own Randall Stephens, who as usual finds the most amusing quote and is generally wittier than everybody else.


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