When Religion Meets New Media. Heidi A. Campbell. New York, NY: Routledge, 2010. 232 pp.
Computers had scarcely been networked before users began to use them for religious reasons. In 1983, religious discussions so dominated the miscellaneous discussion group section of Usenet that net.religion was set up as a forum for exchanges on religious and ethical subjects. Net.religion begat net.religion.jewish and then net.religion.christian. Ecunet, H-Judaic, and BuddhaNet followed. A variety of cyberchurches and cybertemples emerged soon thereafter. Many believers encountered networked computers and saw that they were good.
Of course, religious communities do not always embrace new communication technologies. As late as 1957, the president of evangelical Houghton College proclaimed, “Christians do not attend the movies.” An evangelical minister thirty years later decried television as unwholesome and addictive in his remarkably entitled booklet, “What Jesus Taught About Television.” Some Amish still limit their access to telephones by sharing community telephones located in shanties at the intersection of several farms.
In When Religion Meets New Media, Heidi Campbell, an assistant professor of communication at Texas A&M University, examines how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities have responded to cell phones and the Internet. Campbell is less interested in communication technologies that are accepted or rejected outright because the character of religious communities is challenged more when communities have either to adapt their way of life to new technologies or to adapt new technologies to their way of life. “The process of reconstruction and innovation, in my mind, is the most interesting response to technology,” Campbell says, because “it requires both community members and leaders to reflect deeply on the intentionality of their technology.”
The most fascinating examples of adaptation involve Jewish and Muslim responses to the cell phone. Wary of outside influences intruding on their efforts to live faithfully according to Jewish law, orthodox Jewish communities in Israel prize the cell phone’s portability but reject many of its innovations. They do not want access to the Internet, with its myriad temptations. Nor do they want text messaging, video, or voice mail that could accept unmonitored content such as advertisements for movies, dating services, or gambling. Israeli phone companies have responded with kosher cell phones that bear a stamp that signifies official rabbinical approval. These live-voice-only handsets are programmed to block certain numbers and to accept calls from other phones with prefixes reserved for kosher phones. Kosher phone plans charge double or triple for calling numbers without a kosher prefix, and they levy penalties for calling anyone other than the police, ambulance, or fire department on the sabbath.
If orthodox Jews have found ways to restrict cell phone technology to kosher applications, Muslims have found ways to add religious value to cell phones. Free downloads allow Muslims to install software on their cell phones and Blackberries that alerts users to the five local prayer times, orients users toward Mecca for prayer, allows users to read and listen to prayers, and guides them in the performance of ritual washing and recitation of chapters from the Qur’an during prayer.
Campbell’s Jewish, Christian, and Muslim case studies illustrate what she calls “the religious-social shaping of technology approach” to studying the ways that religious communities respond to digital communication media. This approach, based on the premise that religious communities participate actively in decisions about the use of technology, has four overlapping steps. Understanding how religious communities respond to digital communication requires, first, knowledge of the history and tradition of that community’s media use. How has the community’s position toward and use of different media developed? The second step requires understanding the community’s core values and beliefs. What considerations have guided the community’s positions on how media should and should not be used? Third is the community’s assessment of the new medium’s benefits and harms. How has the community negotiated and implemented its judgment of the medium? The final step is analysis of community discourse that frames its understanding of the technology. How does the religious community actually use the new medium, and how does the community explain its prescriptions and proscriptions to its constituency and to outsiders?
Campbell concludes that new media are most readily embraced if religious communities can use them to proselytize and publicly proclaim core beliefs, to facilitate networking that solidifies group cohesion, to influence the larger society, or to assist practices of piety. New media meet resistance if they permit access to problematic secular content or if their unmonitored use erodes traditional interpretations of sacred texts or the authority of religious leaders.
When Religion Meets New Media is a contemporary study that does not investigate historical responses to telephones or personal computers—or other media, for that matter. This limitation is unfortunate, because as Robert E. Davis demonstrated in Response to Innovation: A Study of Popular Argument about New Mass Media, history can add layers of meaningful experience to first-hand observations, illuminating the patterns of religious responses to the new technologies that Campbell describes. But Campbell’s purpose is to outline a method for studying responses of religious communities to digital media as they emerge, and she accomplishes what she set out to do, making this book a notable contribution to the study of religion and media.
JOHN P. FERRÉ
University of Louisville