In 1970 Aretha Franklin released one of her many hit singles “Call Me.” The love ballad, inspired by witnessing two lovers reluctantly parting ways to their respective destinations, features Aretha, as only she can, capturing the emotional moment in the emotive chorus, “I love you, call me the moment you get there!” I first encountered this originally-vinyl love tale via in-flight satellite radio. The technological juxtapositions between how and when the song was recorded and the means and timing of my encounter with the song struck me. The emergence of new media would certainly reconfigure the song and the practices that surround it. As opposed to one lover hoping to locate a public pay phone while simultaneously hoping his/her beloved is available on their pre-call waiting, pre-mobile, 1970’s era phone line, today’s version of the refrain would alleviate such strenuous practices by simply directing the lover to, “Text me when you get there.”
Much like Aretha’s song, new media has not only altered the practices that surround our religious faith but also the very content of religious media. The former, perhaps, is more readily observed. Throughout American history, new communication mediums, whether they be pamphlets, newspapers, phonograph records, radios, televisions, or the Internet, have completely transformed how seekers and followers alike encounter and practice Christianity. The recording and selling of sermons on phonograph players forever changed the ways Christians worshipped and encountered sermons in the early twentieth century. For the first time, sermons could be heard, and re-heard time and again in homes across America. Likewise, when the first worship service was broadcast over the radio in 1921, the featured preacher and his Pittsburgh congregation marveled at the new form of church they helped to create when they received a thank you letter from a new church member worshiping with them via radio in Massachusetts. Today, the ability to lie in bed and visually and aurally participate in a worship service thousands of miles away via the Internet is, indeed, a transformative and unprecedented miracle of religious practice and access.
Equally important, but often overlooked, is the way in which new media used to communicate faith not only alters religious practices, but also the very content of faith. Preachers who blazed the trail for recorded sermons on the phonograph had not only to shorten the length of their sermons to align with the time parameters of phonograph records, but their messages were also shaped by the aims of record label marketing. The host of pioneering radio preachers altered their worship services in efforts to reach the broadest audiences possible and, for some, raise funds for production costs. Sermons were shortened, content flattened, and songs and music styles were changed. Today we are left with the question of not only how new media may alter how we practice religion but also how time parameters, aims, aesthetics of television, Internet streaming, Facebook, and Twitter may influence the very content of Christian faith.
The ability of new media to shape both the religious practices of religious media consumers as well as religious proclamations does not necessarily detract from faith. However, it is key for both producers and consumers of new religious media to acknowledge that new media are never neutral tools of communication but play an active role in what and how we speak and hear the gospel. Lerone A. Martin, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Assistant Professor of American Religious History and Culture at Eden Theological Seminary in Saint Louis, MO. He is currently completing a book project with New York University Press that examines the role of the phonograph in American religious history and its relationship to religious practices and consumerism. The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.