Christianity in the Digital Age: New tools to understand emerging cultures

Digital age

Christians, and other religious communities, have long adapted to changes in media technologies.

The emergence of writing, the move from scroll to codex, the printing press, the spread of literacy, the development of electronic media (radio, telephone, film, and television), and the subsequent rise of digital communication (social media, websites, digital publishing) provide obvious examples.

Yet, it distorts the history of religion and media to simply note that religious figures adopt new ways of expressing themselves.

They also resist media change, or alternatively, they adopt new forms of media which they imagine as mere containers for unchanging messages that support unchanging religious practice.

These anxieties and simplifications must be examined, for new media cultures encourage new ways of understanding ourselves and support particular forms of religious practice while making others seem less “natural.”

Resistance to new media and its power is long established.

Jeremiah (chapter 36) reports that the prophet adopted the new form of the scroll to send a word of the Lord to King Jehoiakim, and that the king responds by feeding the scroll into the fire.

Tom Boomershine describes this as the first recorded act of religious resistance to new media and its power.

Judaism was formed in the era of scroll, and the Torah as scroll has a ritual function not replaced by the codex, in which pages are bound between covers.

Christians have also thought that the sacrality of the word is tied to its form.

The early church embraced the codex, the new media of its day, and later Christians wondered whether the word of God and the mission of the church were well served by changes to that form.

Printing made it possible to put vernacular translations of the Bible into the hands of lay people and required the church to ponder the implications of this change.

We saw similar struggles in explorations of whether the word of God could be expressed through film and television, in debates about the value and challenges of Bible apps, and in discussions of whether Christian community can be sustained in digital spaces and through social media.

While some Christians distrust new media, others embrace media change without considering the way that their faith claims and practices will change in new media cultures.

They imagine new media as the arrival of increasingly sophisticated amplifiers allowing an unchanging message to reach ever larger and more distant audiences.

But in fact, different media make possible quite different ways of thinking and relating. Continue reading

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