How Digital Life Is Changing Evangelical Culture
- ISBN: 9780520379688
- Published By: Univ of California Press
- Published: December 2021
Lots of people want to talk about evangelicals right now—particularly with regard to politics. Since reports surfaced that the majority of white evangelicals voted for Donald J. Trump for president of the United States in 2016 scholars, pastors, theologians, pundits, and others have sought to make sense of this phenomenon and other political controversies that have emerged alongside it—the popularity of QAnon, the emergence of anti-critical race theory and anti-vaccination views, and so on. The amplification of these controversial perspectives by evangelical voices has become a popular topic for editorializing and speculation about the role and power of evangelicalism in contemporary American political culture. But focusing on the political expressions of America’s most populous and diffuse religious movement only illuminates part of the story. The other part is told through the culture of American evangelicalism, a subculture fueled and formed by its engagement with digital media.
Corrina Laughlin’s Redeem All: How Digital Life is Changing Evangelical Culture arrives at a timely moment, making a remarkable and necessary contribution to ongoing conversations about evangelicalism. In this slim but powerful volume, Laughlin emphasizes evangelical culture as the primary way of understanding the movement’s thrust and boundaries. This culture is certainly political, but not exclusively so, and so turning to the ways that evangelicalism engages digital spaces and practices helps unearth the culture’s ongoing constitution. Laughlin’s project examines traditional sites of religious meaning-making, like the church and the mission field, alongside emerging spaces of digital Christian activity, like religious tech start-ups and media enterprises (podcasts, influencer profiles, etc.), to detail and diagnose the ways that evangelicalism is forming and being formed by the discourses and affordances of digital technologies and digital culture.
Redeem All’s primary theoretical contribution comes in the concept of “digital habitus,” which Laughlin builds on top of Pierre Bourdieu’s well-known framework. Laughlin uses the term to describe how digital media facilitate the majority of daily interactions and microinteractions, and argues that the ways that people learn to navigate digital forums like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram replicates larger societal values and practices. The digital habitus “creates digital culture,” and in doing so “it reproduces offline social worlds in the somewhat distorted online world” (10). Cultivating expertise and skill in the digital habitus bleeds back into offline spaces, such that evangelical involvement in technological discourses and culture industries in turn “push, warp, and change the boundaries of their subculture” (7). Evangelicals have long been famous for using the latest technologies to amplify the Gospel, grow churches, and cultivate disciples. But Laughlin’s close examination of key sites of cultural formation in contemporary evangelicalism reveals how the biases of technological culture have seeped into the media ideologies of evangelicalism. And she forcefully argues that this has happened through the acceptance of often secularly formed discourses surrounding technologies and their creators.
Laughlin begins her study in the most obvious site of evangelical meaning-making—the church. This is the only chapter in the book that feels conventional, building on prior scholarship about churches in the digital era. Covering everything from multisite churches to online churches to church livestreams, Laughlin points to ways that digital habiti disrupt traditional understandings of religious authority. In the desire to remain relevant and appeal to a modern audience, churches are turning to tech experts whose familiarity with the workings of complex technologies and social media platforms make them indispensable to church leadership and the actual execution of worship events and services week in and week out.
Consequently, Laughlin turns her attention to less established areas of the evangelical culture industry. Chapter 2 profiles Christian entrepreneurs and businesspeople who advance notions of “redemptive entrepreneurship” as they think through ways to support churches in the digital age and “how to individualize Christian experiences, rituals, and liturgies so that they fit on a smartphone” (52). Chapter 3 calls attention to digital missionaries trying to use smartphones and the internet to witness to the world, only to run into roadblocks in nations whose cultural biases towards technology differ from those in the West—especially the US; in chapter 4 female evangelical influencers are noted for their “popular parochial feminism” and the ways that the amplification of their charismatic authority and feminine style via social media platforms lets them circumvent traditional markers and understandings of authority in even strictly complementarian church cultures; and in chapter 5 Black podcasters are celebrated for their deliberate formation of counterpublics to challenge evangelicalism’s history of racism and draw attention to ongoing systemic inequities. In each of these chapters, Laughlin dives deep into the cultural formations that animate the use of digital technologies to amplify particular messaging, and then explores the nuanced ways that these technologies are, in turn, shaping that message.
The major through line in each of these chapters is evangelicalism’s constant striving for relevance. Each category of evangelical that Laughlin analyzes is engaged in ongoing negotiations with the affordances and discourses of technology, working diligently to cement their place in the modern world. Part of this emerges from the impulse to baptize technology with spiritual purpose. But in pursuing this impulse, Laughlin contends, evangelicals have themselves become susceptible to the influence of the culture of technologies. Integrating technology into evangelical culture allows for the modern world to enter in, such that embracing the digital habitus has significant, unseen, and irreversible consequences for the constitution of evangelical culture.
Laughlin’s deft navigation of diverse scholarly literatures makes this volume a useful and appealing one for a variety of uses and audiences. Scholars in religious studies, communication, and media studies will benefit significantly from the cultural background and theoretical advances detailed here. Even upper-level undergraduates could productively engage with Laughlin’s lucid prose and vividly expressed ideas. Redeem All is an important profile that arrives at a key moment in the negotiation of evangelical identity. Even those who wish to focus on evangelicals and their politics would be well-served by a closer examination of evangelical culture writ large, which Laughlin argues is becoming inextricably linked to the discourses of digital culture.
Zachary Sheldon is a lecturer in the Department of Film and Digital Media at Baylor University and a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication & Journalism at Texas A&M University.Zachary SheldonDate Of Review:December 26, 2022