- A Mediated Religion:Historical Perspectives on Christianity and the Internet
Walter Wilson, in his book The Internet Church (2000), advocates that the Internet offers Christians 'the opportunity to reach every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth in the next decade'. The reasons behind such a statement are understandable. At the time of writing, there are more than 1.1 billion Internet users in the world, or almost 17% of the world's population. Usage in North America is highest at almost 70% of the population. As was made clear in the editorial at the start of this journal, while coming off a low base, penetration in the developing regions is growing rapidly. As was made clear through similar statistics at the start of this journal, in the editorial, there is global growth of Internet usage. The ﬁgures are worth reminding ourselves of: in Africa Internet usage has extended six-fold in the last seven years to more than 33 million people, in the Middle East almost ﬁve-fold, and in Asia now almost 400 million people use the Internet.
At such rates of development, Wilson's enthusiasm for the Internet is understandable. But does his apocalyptic enthusiasm need to be balanced with the more sober cynicism of the royal philosopher:
What has been is what will be,and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, 'See, this is new'? It has already been, In the ages before us.(Eccl 1.9–10)
After all, the executive director of National Religious Broadcasters made [End Page 278] a virtually similar claim to Wilson's thirty years ago – about radio and television: 'I believe that God has raised up this powerful technology of radio and television expressly to reach every man, woman, boy and girl on earth with the even more powerful message of the gospel.' German historian Johann Sleidan likewise, even further back in 1542: 'As if to offer proof that God has chosen us to accomplish a special mission, there was invented in our land a marvelous and subtle art, the art of printing.' While some suggest that the expansive, interactive electronic nature of the Internet put it in a category beyond what has been experienced before, one can quote the reaction of a visitor in 1789 to the newly developed Palais Royale, a shopping and gambling arcade in Paris: 'One could spend an entire life, even the longest, in the Palais Royale and, as in an enchanting dream, dying say, "I have seen and known it all"' (Friedburg, 1993: 68).
In an issue such as this, a historical perspective can be instructive,not to dismiss the signiﬁcance of the Internet in a reactionary way by saying there's nothing new under the sun, but to identify similarities in Christianity's interactions with media in the past in order to identify genuine differences (rather than just novelties) of the present.
Understanding Christianity's entanglements with old and new media is best approached through a theoretical perspective that sees both religion and media embedded symbiotically in the overall matrix of cultural life rather than as separate phenomena that simply engage with each other. Christianity is not simply a product of unconditioned divine revelation immune from the mundane conditions within which it arose and developed. All of the different expressions of Christianity are the result of powerful emotional and intellectual drivers involving overt or covert power struggles involving complex economic, political, cultural, racial and social interests that are given meaning and structure within the religious. These interests and struggles are also embodied in different patterns and hierarchies of mediation practices by which they are socialised and which become an inherent part of the content and meansof the struggle. Every expression of Christianity, every experience of spirituality, every Christian idea, is a mediated phenomenon. It is mediated in its generation, in its construction and in its dissemination.In the process of its mediation, it is incarnated with particular grammar, logic, validations, sensibilities, frames, industrial requirements, cultural associations and structures, power relationships, opportunities and...