Academic Seminar From Past to Future: Changes in Media Forms and the Development of Christianity

Two strips of unfolded film
Two strips of unfolded film (photo:
By Li ShiguangAugust 9th, 2022

Recently, Dr. Qian Jie was invited to speak on the topic of "From Ancient Times to the Future: Changes in Media Forms and the Development of Christianity" to share how the global religion was spread in different eras. 

Qian Jie, a scholar in communication who has devoted herself to communication research for more than ten years, spoke on the "Born Because of Love" virtual platform. In recent years, she has begun to focus on religious communication, especially the research on Christian communication in the context of new media.

The following is a summary of the day's seminar:

I. Media once ignored

We can all see clearly the influence of the media on us today. This era has been called the era of new media, and in today's society the community of the Internet. Historically, it seemed that only the mode of production and productive forces would become indicators of society or the times, such as "industrial society" and "agricultural society."

Prior to the Internet era, the form of the media had undergone changes from speech, writing, print, radio, to television alike. Since the popularization of printing, we have entered the era of "mass communication," and the media has also begun to influence the lives of the public profoundly. Books, newspapers, radio, and television alike are all known as mass media. In the perception of the general public, the media is a channel, and it is the information in the media that deserves attention. However, communication science believes that the media is more than a channel. What deserves our attention is not only the information in the media but also the forms of media themselves.

A famous proposition from the well-known communication scholar, Herbert Marshall McLuhan, is that "the medium is the message." That is to say, the form of the medium plays a significant role in the information it carries. His other proposition is, "The media is extensions of the human body." He believes that every new medium will introduce a scale into our lives.

II. Oral and written communication, and early Christianity

Oral communication is the earliest communicating mode and the one used throughout the history of Christianity. In the Bible, we can see "the power of the word" everywhere. For example, God said, "let there be light," and there was light,” at the beginning of Genesis.

The thirty years between the beginning of Jesus' ministry and the writing of the first Gospel, the Book of Mark (written in 60-70 AD), are known as the oral tradition stage of Christianity. There was certainly some writing during this period, but the main channel of dissemination of the Gospel was oral. Oral communication has two characteristics. It is often contextualized. Secondly, the message is easily distorted in the process of oral communication because it is "going in one ear and out the other." As the story of Jesus was told repeatedly, different perspectives and experiences were pieced together into a relatively complete version of the story. Furthermore, these materials were reintegrated to suit specific communication needs on different occasions.

In around 50 A.D., Paul, preaching the gospel throughout Asia Minor and Greece, began to write letters to the early churches that he helped to establish. Epistles are the earliest form of Christian writing. Paul's letters to the church at Thessalonica are considered the earliest writing in the New Testament. The letters written by the apostles to the churches are required to be read in public at the church and to be disseminated among different churches. As the earliest authoritative texts, these letters were not only for the reformation of certain churches but also connected the faith groups in different regions and integrated Christian beliefs and practices.

By the end of the 1st century, all the New Testament books were completed. It was not until more than a thousand years later that the Catholic Church made its first decision on the New Testament canon at the Council of Florence in 1439-1443. The Holy See reaffirmed the contents of Athanasius’ canon, stipulating that the New Testament canon constitutes the four Gospels, Acts, the eight ecumenical epistles (Hebrews, James, two letters of Peter, three letters of John, and Jude), and Paul’s thirteen epistles.

III. Parchment civilization and medieval church authority

The birth and development of Christianity have always been accompanied by the dissemination of writing. In the Middle Ages, the authority of the church reached its peak. During that period, the media played an important role. Some scholars pointed out: "The civilization dominated by the parchment medium led to the monopoly of knowledge through the monastic system."

The parchment scroll was a time-consuming medium. It worked together with the monastic system to create the pinnacle of church authority. During the long period of its prevalence, parchment was so expensive that a parchment Bible was worth as much as a vineyard. Moreover, writing on parchment was very labor-intensive. Scribes could only copy two or three pages in six hours a day, and it took 10-15 months to copy a Bible. The Bible at that time was written in Latin, and only a small number of people could read Latin. For these reasons, knowledge was limited within the high walls of the monastery. The authority of the church reached its peak as a result.

IV. Print communication and the Reformation

Western printing was invented by Gutenberg, a German. In the 15th century, he began to print the Bible in the Western world by movable type. It later became known as the forty-two-line Bible. Printing has directly improved the efficiency of book production and lowered production costs. The sale price of the Bible was also greatly reduced. Errors and omissions were inevitable in the process of manual copying, but the prevalence of printing led to the unification of Scripture. Printing standardized Scripture for communication, which in turn further normalized the religious practices.

In all Western countries that are subject to the Holy See, Latin has been preserved and become a unified worship medium. The entire Catholic world can read unified Scripture and perform unified practices. However, the spontaneous worship was excluded along with its development, modification, and adjustment. The worship in the Roman Catholic Church became rigid.

After the Reformation, the religious lifestyle of Protestants was very different from that of Catholics. One of the biggest differences was the way of receiving teaching, which had changed from relying on church interpretation to reading the Bible for themselves. Priests, who used to be held in sacred status, are no longer the center of religious life. This transformation depends on the integration of the Protestant notion of "everyone is a priest," universal education, and the consolidation of everyday language.

Walter Ong argued that the advent of typography had caused auditory dominance to give way to visual dominance. In his view, vision plays the role of separation, and hearing integration. When a person speaks to an audience, the listeners and the speaker become one. But when the audience becomes readers, the collective whole is broken, and each audience member starts an individual intellectual interaction with the text. The typographical logic develops the "bystander/alienated individual." Since the Reformation, the family has become the most basic unit of church management.

The public is increasingly atomized and individualized in print civilization. Self-help religion is a major change in people's religious lives. Since the Reformation, the family has become the most basic unit of church management. Parents have been told that it is their responsibility to practice religions at home and to educate children and apprentices. The printing business takes advantage of the opportunities to encourage self-help religions. "To help ourselves, fathers could rely on a steady feed of pocketbooks produced by the printing press, such as A Werke for Householders (1530) . . . or Godly private prayers for householders to meditate upon and to say in their families.”

V. Electronic media and the marketization of religion

In 1844, Morse invented the telegraph, which initiated a new era of electronic communication. From the very beginning, electronic communication has been closely related to religion. The content of a telegram sent by Morse is “What hath God Wrought.” In 1924, KFUO (Keep Forward, Upward, Onward) became the first religious radio station. The first to teach on television was Roman Catholic priest Fulton Sheen. He started to hold Mass on religious TV programs in 1952.

The well-known figure who preached through television was Billy Graham. Billy Graham once proudly proclaimed that television was the most powerful communication tool ever invented by man. The audience his live TV broadcast reached each time is millions more than that Jesus did in his lifetime.

When TV occupies people's lives, hidden worries follow. Compared with other religions, Christianity is the most tolerant and open to new media. Christianity often thinks of the development of media a gift from God to people. Every development of the media has disseminated the Gospel to a further distance in a shorter period of time. However, new technologies that people embrace are accompanied by concerns and rethinking. Neil Postman believes that the form of the media will favor certain content, which can ultimately manipulate the culture.

The print civilization has created an "era of interpretation." The era is characterized by complex logical thinking, a high degree of rationality and order, abhorrence of self-contradiction, extraordinary composure and objectivity, and patience to wait for the audience's reaction. Entertainment is the super-ideology of all discourse on television. Whatever the content, whatever the perspective, everything on TV is designed to entertain us. Stott believes that television realistically brings what people have never seen before to homes and conscience. When seeing all kinds of disasters and tragedies on TV, people slip away or turn off the emotional switch. Thus young people's "indifference to the Gospel" may be attributed to the permanent damage of their emotional response mechanism caused by television images.

VI. The logic of the Internet and digital religious life

Will the Internet Dismiss Religious Authority?

Many people think that the Internet is a decentralized, equal, and open space. Well then, will the Internet cause the destruction of religious authority? The Internet has completely broken up the monopoly of traditional information channels. The communication has transformed from a single narrative to today’s multi-narrative. Everyone has a microphone and a camera. There are increasingly more grassroots narratives, bringing completely different perspectives from traditional authoritative narratives.

In such a scenario, it is difficult for the social capital in reality to effectively migrate to the Internet. From a religious perspective, the legitimacy of religious authority is greatly impacted. It is challenging to transfer the social capital from reality to the Internet.

The Internet environment empowers people’s "self." People declare their own power increasingly and believe that they have the ability to find the truth online.

Because of the above, it is likely to cause the emergence of a "religious market" eventually. Today, we can see many religions and denominations presented on the Internet. They have to justify themselves and explain what benefits they can bring to their believers. We are facing a more competitive market nowadays. When the "self" is empowered, people try to assemble their own religion in the "religious market."

In the community of the Internet, we can always find like-minded people for almost any point of view and propositions similar to our own to back us up. These all present challenges to religion. While listening to a pastor’s sermon in the church, believers may use their mobile phones to look up the passage. Are there any information and explanations on Baidu or others? Is the pastor preaching accurately or not? Religious authority is no longer self-evident by nature. What the pastor says is not necessarily correct. A process of negotiation and construction is required for an authority to prove itself.

Can the online community impact the church's appeal of "unity?"

In such a world of uncontrolled and bewildering changes, people tend to regroup around "primitive identities" like religion, ethnic group, territory, nation, and so on.

In 1998, the Barna Group released a social survey report, The Internet Church is Coming. The report indicates "Our research shows that by 2010, 10%-20% of people will mainly or exclusively rely on the Internet as their religious source."

Our vigilance against online churches stems from "fluid identities" and "both isolated and connected ways of communicating." Anyone could hide their identity and join a certain online community without any pressure to commit to the church. If you are not completely satisfied, you can easily quit with a click of a mouse or a mobile phone. This is very different from the commitment and unity in the traditional church.

In 2002, the Vatican released a report entitled The Church and Internet. The following is stated in the report. “Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community. There are no sacraments on the Internet; and even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith… Pastoral planning should consider how to lead people from cyberspace to true community and how, through teaching and catechesis, the Internet might subsequently be used to sustain and enrich them in their Christian commitment.”

In general, pastors emphasize the significance of the Internet in information dissemination. Yet, the majority of them are very careful about holding ceremonies or building churches on the Internet.

As COVID-19 began to spread and social distancing guidelines emerged, the vast majority of transactions quickly offered digital options. Based on Lifeway Research, 92% of Protestant pastors indicated that they provided some type of online sermon or worship service as of March 2020. By April 2020, that percentage had climbed to 97%.

According to the data of December 2020 from the Church of England's website, A Church Near You (allowing people to search for church services and events), the website listed more than 17,000 online services or events, including Sunday communion services, Bible studies, and morning and evening prayers alike. The online services had been viewed nearly 3 million times nationwide, and posts about the weekly broadcast had been viewed 23.6 million times. Among the contributors were the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Duke of Cambridge, Pope Francis, and so on. Viewers were of all ages. Approximately, one in five of them attended church rarely or not at all.

Even though social distancing restrictions in Western countries have been lifted, many are still used to gathering online. If online gatherings become the norm, how do you shepherd an online community? How can the boundaries of an online community be determined? How do you maintain order and who are the authorities in the online community? These are the questions that almost every pastor has to answer today.

The Internet and the Effectiveness of Religious Rituals

In the Internet age, we have seen many religious rituals transferred to cyberspace voluntarily or involuntarily. Can cyberspace be sanctified? Is there a sense of sacredness to rituals that are not attended in person? These questions have made many wonder.

Although we have many doubts, the reality is that online ceremonies do exist, and people do participate in them. Besides criticizing and questioning, it is imperative to ask what has made online rituals possible.

Today, people are entering the era of the metaverse. Perhaps the "metaverse" is a gimmick created by some businesses now. Yet, it is indisputable that the technologies of VR, AI, and even MR are being used more and more in social interactions. As for religious beliefs, some scholars believe that the spiritual life of human beings in the future will be embodied in the extension, crossing, and simultaneous presence of both cyberspace and physical space. People tend to separate the Internet from reality today. Moving forward, the Internet and reality, online and offline are likely to be inseparable. How will believers and pastors face such a new era? We don’t know exactly how it will be, but people’s religious lives will definitely become a blended state of online and offline in the future.

If the television era brings entertainment and secularization to human beings, people may see deeper secularization and further gratification of secular desires in the Internet era. Compared with all previous media, the Internet is a technology that can better cater to "human nature". The "human nature" here includes greed, laziness, pride, pleasure, and unearned gain, etc. In the world of the Internet, there are countless things tempting us and making us addicted. They will profoundly impact and challenge people's religious beliefs.

- Translated by June I. Chen

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