Howard, Robert Glenn. Digital Jesus: The Making of a New Christian Fundamentalist Community on the Internet. New York: New York UP, 2011. Print.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Howard’s exploration of Christian fundamentalism online is how many of his points apply directly to the feminist communities in my work. I mean, I suppose that seems obvious—there are going to be similarities in the ways that ideological communities function. But howard also teases out some threads that connect Christian fundamentalism and feminism in ways I wouldn’t necessarily have come to before.
Take, for instance, the evangelical emphasis on testimony and witnessing, on personal experience persuasive form that is not just valid but valued. Is this so different from the emphasis on personal narrative that we see so much in feminist discourse? Does a story about a personal encounter with God function the same as a story about a personal encounter with misogyny? Doesn’t each narrator derive authority from her own lived experience? Howard makes the point that these kinds of personal stories are ESPECIALLY important in digital churches because there is a lack of a.) central authority and b.) geographical encounters, so they serve to both generate authority and develop fellowship within the community. I feel like this is a potentially rich intersection that I will be interested to look more into later. Probably AFTER the exam. J
Anyhow, here are a few of Howard’s other concepts that I found to be particularly useful:
Obviously this isn’t a new term, but Howard defines it differently than I am used to thinking about it. Virtual, in his usage, means “manifest by effect,” a definition that dates back to the seventeenth century, when botanists deemed the “virtues” of certain plants to be discoverable only through ingestion. That is, something that is virtual is, essentially, performative—a virtual community is enacted, not created.
Again, this isn’t an unusual term, but Howard’s explanation of why he chooses the term “vernacular Christianity” over “popular Christianity” can perhaps provide some purchase on exactly what manifestations I want to look at in my own work. The term “popular,” he points out, is in this community often used as a pejorative to demarcate certain Christian practices from “true” Christianity. Vernacular is, like virtual, enacted—it isn’t a failed attempt at perfection but a set of “non-institutional beliefs and practices that exist alongside but apart from institutions.” Although Primiano argues that all religion is vernacular because there is no such thing as authority, Howard argues here for a kind of vernacular authority that is emergent within these communities. Participants in this vernacular Christianity define themselves by their departure from traditional Christian authoritative structures: “The vernacular might support or oppose institutional power, but it is specifically and consciously the power of not being institutional.” The difference between this and feminism, of course, is that there are very few feminist authorities to resist nowadays. Whether there is a functional difference between “popular” and “vernacular” feminism is yet another thing I will want to revisit at another time.
This one is new to me and, I think, quite useful. Basically, ritual deliberation is discussion for discussion’s sake. Participants may explore the import of new information on a larger belief system, but there is no expectation of a definitive conclusion or action being reached—persuasion is often less important than affirming shared beliefs. People may have the same argument they’ve had a thousand times, but in entering into it they are confirming that they are familiar with the shared narrative. According to Howard, participants in these discussions rarely need to explicitly assert their membership in the community because their membership is manifest in the characteristics of their participation.
The internet allows people with shared beliefs to find each other, but just finding each other isn’t enough. Even though they all agree with each other enough that discussion isn’t going to be generative of any new ideas, “if the church is to exist at all, individuals must keep imagining it as a community in which they have a stake. To do that, they must keep up periodic engagements with others online. Ritual deliberation fulfils this need by creating opportunities for engagement” (173).
It’s important to note that Howard found that the more authoritative the tone of the originator of the discourse (on blogs in particular), the less likely people were to engage in ritual deliberation, even if the blog’s proprietor explicitly encouraged discussion and discourse. Ritual deliberation, it seems, can only happen in the vernacular.
Howard points out that the very self-selection and “safe space” isolation that allows these virtual communities to function also isolates them from larger social discourses:
With its enclave aggregation, vernacular Christian fundamentalism demonstrates how the new opportunities created by network media can foster beliefs that the larger society rejects. One danger of this phenomenon is that individuals will construct virtual communities where it is acceptable to maintain intolerant beliefs to which a larger audience would offer resistance.
Let’s be frank: I doubt they would see this as a bad thing. The corrupting influence of worldly ideologies (and the attendant push toward isolating oneself from bad influences) has been a part of Christian discourse since forever. In many cases, these “intolerant” (read: racist, homophobic, sexist, etc.) beliefs are seen as simply telling it like it is; it is the “political correctness” movement that persecutes Christians, not the other way around. And yes, from outside of those communities, the propagation of terrible ideas and the insulation from new ones is an obvious problem.
But: when Howard writes that “[w]hen people filter their understanding of history, theology, public events, and other shared experiences through an ideologically specific enclave, they may become used to holding values that the larger society around them rejects or simply cannot understand” (145), that doesn’t just apply to racism and homophobia. I would argue that feminism often benefits from this very mechanism, allowing the formation of communities with different communicative standards than those found on the rest of the Internet (and in the rest of the world). But those very standards often make such communities seem from the outside to be alien, impenetrable, filled with “intolerant beliefs to which a larger audience would offer resistance.”
As I mentioned several times above, the resonances between the community values of these two groups has the potential to be really interesting, especially given their opposing ideologies. Or, of course, the emphasis on narrative, “safe spaces,” etc. could simply be characteristic functions of all online ideological groups. Only time (and research) will tell!