Dissertation

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Image Credit: "Fishing" by Pawel Kuczynski.

“The Digital Evangelicals: Contesting Authority and Authenticity after the New Media Turn” (In Progress)

TRAVIS WARREN COOPER

Indiana University – Bloomington

Departments of Anthropology and Religious Studies

Purpose and Scope

This dissertation documents the strategies by which contemporary evangelicals seek to build authentic communities in a world they experience as increasingly hyper-mediated, technologized, and resistant to meaningful human connection. Drawing on half a decade of ethnographic fieldwork in the greater Bloomington, Indiana area, this project supplements multi-site research in local congregations with data gathered across a range of online collectives and new media platforms. Emerging Protestants, not unlike other sectors of the population of the United States, describe the late-modern era as rife with social fragmentation and isolation. They understand the world they live in as growing ever more mediated by mobile technological devices that they carry around on their persons and use to manage both everyday lives and church programs. This dissertation tells the paradoxical story of digital evangelical adepts who exploit Internet-enabled new media for their own ends while at the same time criticizing the limitations and deficiencies of technology. Evangelicals use new media to disseminate texts and information, connect socially, and debate theology and politics, even as they talk frequently about the ills of mass advertising and prevalence of other neoliberal, market driven, and capitalist agendas. My research counters popular scholarly and journalistic depictions of contemporary evangelicals as blind adopters or instrumentalist appliers of new forms of technology who conceive of media as neutral communicative forms. Evangelicals theorize deeply about the effects of communications technologies and reject the idea that media are disinterested conveyors or impartial distributors of information.

Thesis

I aver that contemporary evangelicals embody the paradox of the digital era. On the one hand, evangelicals cultivate web presences, build websites, network through popular social media outlets, and share information online through the creating and dissemination of texts and images. On the other hand, evangelicals operate as both eager but critical adoptees of digital tools. I argue in this dissertation that the causal relationship between evangelicals and media runs in multiple directions as evangelicals find themselves constrained and enabled by media forms. New media are challenging traditional authority structures and providing new mechanisms for ecclesial boundary maintenance. Collaborative technologies are also influencing the ways that evangelicals interact with one another on the ground and seek to build meaningful relationships.

Rather than existing as an easily identifiable subculture, evangelicalism subsists and disseminates through online, digital nodes. Contemporary evangelicals establish highly networked publics. In the circulation of texts and discourse through blog posts, podcasts, and microblog social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, evangelicals deliberate about issues of personal and collective identity, religious orthodoxy, and ecclesial authority. Similar to other sectors of the American public, and intimately connected to the issue of theological authority, is the issue of “the authentic.” Contemporary evangelicals are obsessed with identifying and possessing the authentic in their daily lives, and expound much energy thinking up and publicizing strategies by which to do so. This dissertation uses the elusive category of the normative “authentic” as a productive heuristic with which to examine processes of evangelical social and theological formation after the digital turn.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Pervasive Media Ideologies

PART I: Media and Message

Chapter 1: A Genealogy of Evangelical Media Ideologies

Chapter 2: Evangelical Theories of the Digital

PART II: Case Studies: Authenticity Construction across New Media Platforms

Chapter 3: Midwestern Evangelicals and the Search for Authenticity Community

Chapter 4: #FarewellRobBell and the Problem of Social Media Boundary Maintenance

Chapter 5: The Evangelical Feminist Blogosphere and the Cultivation of Online Publics

Chapter 6: Instagram, Socality, and the Problem of Visual Authenticity Discourse

Conclusion: Faustian Bargains and the Promise and Peril of the Digital