Book Review, Digital Creatives, by Heidi A. Campbell

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Heidi A. Campbell. Digital Creatives and the Rethinking of Religious Authority. (New York: Routledge, 2021). 236 pages 

Reviewed by Zachary Sheldon
Doctoral Student, Communication
Texas A & M University

Early research on the internet included speculations about how this nascent technology might challenge traditional conceptions of authority. This tension was especially felt in religious contexts where authority has long been predicated on theological training and inculcated in hierarchies. In contrast, the internet enabled individuals to bypass such structures to explore and share their religious beliefs. Religious forums, websites, groups on social networking sites, and even religious segments in video games such as Second Life were established, cultivated, and maintained by individuals operating beyond the purview of traditional denominational or organizational structures. And even as churches and religious organizations began to embrace the possibilities of the internet, questions persisted regarding how religious authority was conceived of or recognized in those contexts. Together, the initiative of religious individuals in online spaces and the adoption of the internet in established religious organizations invited interrogation regarding religious authority, and who new actors and representatives of such authority might be in the digital era. Emerging from nearly two decades of consistent work on questions of authority, digital technology, and religion, Heidi A. Campbell’s Digital Creatives and the Rethinking of Religious Authority is a vivid exploration of these issues that demonstrates ways that digital media experts and their engagement with digital culture are reshaping considerations of authority in contemporary religion.

The focus of Campbell’s work is on an emerging class of religious authorities, which she dubs “religious digital creatives,” or RDCs. These are individuals whose digital know-how and creativity accord them unique influence within their religious communities. Webmasters for religious sites, developers and programmers working on religious apps or content, and communication directors for churches and religious organizations are just a small sample of individuals whose work, skills, and interests can fall into this category, and whose stories are told across the pages of this book. The knowledge of digital tools and culture that these RDCs embody necessarily represents a challenge to the ways that religious authority is traditionally understood. Rather than relying on qualifications like academic credentials or a title/role within an organization, RDCs derive their authority from what they do and what they know about navigating and engaging digital technology and culture online. With this specific tension in mind, Campbell probes at the motivations these RDCs have in using their time and talents for religious purposes, the ways they use their technical skills to support religious organizations and purposes, and the strategies they use to navigate tensions between traditional and emerging notions of authority. These elements combine to produce a “technological apologetic,” a narrative that frames and rationalizes why RDCs do the work that they do, and how this work relates to the religious institutions or communities that they serve.

Taking on the issue of authority in digital religious studies is no small task. Indeed, part of the larger motivation of Campbell’s study is that studies of authority and religious culture have often called upon older theories without necessarily considering the changes in conceptions of authority that have come about due to the algorithmic nature of digital culture. Thus, the first few chapters carefully explore how previous studies of authority have been approached—namely, through notions of authority in role, power, and relational forms. This enables Campbell to bring these classic conceptions of authority into conversation with an innovative consideration of performative authority that helps show how classic theoretical perspectives can be subsumed by newer ideas of algorithmic authority in order to map out contemporary dynamics of authority in digital religious culture. From here, Campbell carefully defines RDCs and delineates their (sometimes overlapping) spheres of activity, detailing how the performance of authority contributes to the media-making narratives and, ultimately, the technological apologetics of the RDCs under investigation. In many academic works, early chapters such as these can be staid recitations of familiar theoretical touchstones; Campbell’s, though, are a careful construction of a systematic lens through which varied kinds of RDCs may be analyzed and understood.

One of the major contributions of this work is the identification of three general categories and several subcategories of RDCs. Drawing from 120 interviews conducted over a five-year period, Campbell names digital entrepreneurs, digital spokespersons, and digital strategists as key actors contributing to the rethinking of religious authority for the digital age.

Digital entrepreneurs are individuals outside of traditional religious structures, possessing professional qualifications and technical talents, who independently use their qualifications and talents to develop religiously oriented digital resources for their faith community. Subtypes of digital entrepreneur include “techies for god,” “theoblogians,” and “internet evangelists.” Techies for God are akin to digital tool designers, creating websites, software, or other online resources in support of particular religious missions. Theoblogians are content creators, rather than technological innovators, who consistently blog about religious topics or theological perspectives, and can gradually build a following online. Internet evangelists are closer to techies for God in developing technological tools, but the aim of these tools is specifically evangelistic in nature. Operating outside the bounds of traditional religious organizations affords all types of digital entrepreneurs’ unique opportunities to influence the public based on what they make and the expert ways in which they deploy and engage technology. At the same time, their work may go unrecognized or even may be perceived as a threat by the same religious organizations they are seeking to support.

In contrast, digital spokespersons are those whose work is done on behalf of specific religious institutions or communities. These can include a wide range of persons occupying specific professional roles including web designers, communications directors, press liaisons, or other public relations professionals. Specifically, Campbell names “media officers and communication directors,” “webmasters and technology teams,” and “online ambassadors” as subcategories of digital spokespersons. Often, these individuals emphasize that their work is far more than the deployment of digital know-how in the maintenance of websites or the composing of press releases for religious organizations. Rather, theirs is work directly engaging the process of curating and maintaining institutional identities for religious organizations in online spaces, and innately bears a theological dimension. These officialized representatives are not necessarily theological trained but are often educated in traditional communication and public relations fields and have become digital media experts on their own as a necessary reality of the contemporary media landscape. As such, part of their identity curation work involves advocating for digital technology, culture, and media literacy within sometimes reluctant theological, organizational, and leadership structures in order to engage churches in ongoing cultural conversations that they might otherwise miss out on.

Finally, digital strategists represent a hybrid positioning of authority between institutional and technological expertise. These are individuals affiliated with specific religious institutions or communities who have developed digital expertise for specific, strategic purposes, namely the extension of the work they already do within their religious community. “Media-driven missionaries,” “theologians who blog,” and “online ministers” are just a few identifiable roles within this category. Digital strategists are thus individuals who use their traditional ministry training in conjunction with acquired digital competency to blend offline and online ministries together in one coherent persona. At the same time, this coherence is subject to tensions as the digital strategist negotiates between their obligations to traditional structures and practices and the expectations of digitally mediated culture. Unlike digital entrepreneurs operating outside the realms of traditional authority and digital spokespersons operating wholly within traditional spheres of authority, digital strategists have a foot in both camps, and so may be seen as a kind of hybrid authority that blends outlook and practice.

Each of these types of RDC performs authority in unique ways that combine classic theoretical outlooks with emergent, algorithmic perspectives on the constitution and performance of authority. These varied performances contribute to the rationalizing work of the RDCs “technological apologetic.” Understanding how RDCs see their own authority and how they frame it in relation to traditional religious authorities, showcases how perspective reveals challenges and opportunities and suggests rhetorical strategies for other RDCs or types of RDCs to position their work to gain wider acceptance.

Campbell’s work here is thorough, provocative, and hopeful. Even as it answers many questions about how RDCs see, frame, and perform authority, it also addresses continued areas for inquiry. The book’s conclusion is timely enough to even address the onslaught of changes wrought to the church and, therefore, to digital religion studies as a result of COVID-19 and the continuing pandemic. Consequently, this work provides a valuable theoretical framework and grounding for future studies of RDCs and authority in digital religion.

Chapters from Digital Creatives and the Rethinking of Religious Authority could be eminently appropriate in undergraduate courses on religion or digital culture. Additionally, the book could be a phenomenal resource in graduate courses on digital culture and media ecology, even absent a concentration on religion. The categories of RDC that Campbell identifies are conceived of in direct contradistinction to traditional religious authority, but could nonetheless be used to probe at questions of institutional and creative authorities in contemporary digital culture.

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