The Christian Message in the Era of Electronic Communications

Up until the 20th century, Christianity has been spreading its message through the available traditional means: in the early Christian period, it was the papyrus, followed later by parchment, which was later replaced by paper. The time we live in is rapidly bringing about significant changes in this area, considering the increasing prevalence of the dynamic, electronic media (cf. Plou 1996: 55). The new forms of media differ from the traditional ones in many ways, mainly in the way that information is recorded, the possibilities and speed of its processing and transmission, the amount of data that can be stored on such a medium, the possibility of data exchange, the number of people who can access it simultaneously, and more. In this sense, the emergence of the so-called new media, which combine the telecommunications networks, the multimedia content, and the ability to process data digitally, is particularly important (Rice 1999: 24-25). The internet is the “new medium” par excellence, and it aims to, in a very specific way, unify all the previously existing media, such as the newspapers, the telephone, the radio and television. In this sense, it is worth noting the famous Marshall McLuhan’s thesis that “a new medium never leaves the old one alone until it has found the new forms and positions for it” (cf. McLuhan 2005b: 189), which has proved to be entirely accurate with regards to the internet, whose emergence McLuhan has not lived to see.

Within such a complex communications paradigm, the question arises concerning the fate of the Christian message in the world of electronic communications. This is a very complex issue which goes far beyond the scope of a single lecture, but it can successfully be broken down into several key issues. The first issue concerns the possibility and aspects of the Christian mission using the information and communication realm. This seems self-evident. Indeed, it is indisputable that modern technologies enable the new forms of Christian mission: transmitting an enormous amount of multimedia content, the possibility of interactive communication, sending messages to the farthest corners of the world, and access to data by a large number of people are just some of them. Apart from spatial barriers, it is noticeable that the cultural barriers to message transmission have been broken down as well. The Christian literature is entirely available in the electronic form, with a large offer of multimedia content, and it can be safely asserted that the Christians are following the electronic industry trends unimpeded. Thus, at first sight, it all seems so simple – we just need to make use of the technological innovations before us. The issue, however, is much more complex…

Although the possibility of keeping large numbers of people informed about the Christian teachings has increased, so has the possibility of spreading misinformation and harmful heterodox  teachings as well as schismatic activity. In view of this, Jean Baurdillard’s  observation may be appropriate here, which says that the problem of contemporary civilisation is not the lack of information, but its surplus (cf. Baurdillard 1988: 210), which can be characterised as “information inflation.” Does that mean that the competition in the electronic realm is necessary in order to use up as many of its resources as possible? Orthodox Christianity has never harboured this competitive spirit, and should not aim for it in the electronic age either. It is much better to develop a kind of an “asymmetric” response, which involves forming an autonomous and authorised internet space, where relevant and reliable information can be found. This, however, does not solve the problem either. Namely, even when we form such a mass-media space (which could be a church station, a television channel, not just an internet sphere rounded by portals, although in the future, we will certainly be moving towards a unified media solution), it does not mean that the mission has been successful – being informed about a certain area of church life, does not of itself mean that we participate in it. On the contrary, we may encounter serious deviations from it, where, for example, members of our consumer society “consume” this type of information as they would any other, without being influenced by it in any way, especially if it is similarly “packaged”. Or, worse still, they can consider being informed about church life, as having “paid their dues” to the church. Or they may even consider it to be just like any other piece of news, whose value is thus relativised. At the Christian internet forums a large number of participants frequently use highly inappropriate “slang” expressions. Frequently, in serious theological debates, you notice the use of about twenty different smileys, strange animations (such as cows licking the monitor screen etc.), or even the dynamic content which is totally meaningless. It is therefore essential for each of the mentioned media spheres to carry an unambiguous message of real participation  in the life of the Church (in order to gain the fullness of knowledge of the faith) and an appropriate “look” (which would distinguish it in terms of its value from other types of information in the electronic world).

Another problem concerns the issue of how has the communication among mature Christians changed in the electronic sphere. More accurately, what  and how big has the influence of the electronic sphere been with regards to the true Christian communication that we engage in in the life of the Church? We have examples where cyber-Christian forum groups (and even more the Facebook ones) have developed a particular group “ethos”. These groups can sometimes exhibit greater cohesion, than the actual Eucharistic gatherings, in which their members participate. How else can we interpret the fact that certain internet forums are active at the time when the Holy Liturgy is being served? Is it a case of forming a pseudo-liturgical  ethos or is it something else? Probably the best solution would be the occasional gathering of the members of the “virtual assembly” at real liturgical services in a particular parish community, but this is often impossible because of the distance and time constraints of the forum members.

However, the problem is not only the distance, but also the relativised spatial proximities. What is this all about? It is that the social network user sometimes feels closer to a person thousands of miles away, than to for example, a family member in the next room. This is one of the main mass-media paradoxes, where they have the power to bring people together who are miles apart, and to, on the other hand, separate those who live next to each other.

Shifting identities is an additional problem. A large number of Christians who use pseudonyms in the internet sphere are evidence of that. Naturally, the use of pseudonyms in the internet sphere should be preserved, because of the threat of dissident activity, for example (cf. Clarke 2009: 225), but it is very unnatural for Christian communication. When we add the “avatars” (small pictures next to the profiles) into the mix, things gain an additional dimension. The problems of adverse effects on the liturgical consciousness do not end here –  as  evidenced by an example of a few years ago, when about a hundred young Bulgarian Orthodox Christians  asked their Patriarchate to create a virtual parish for them with Orthodox churches, as part of the internet project “Second life”, since they spend considerable time using  their virtual identities (cf. Sivov 2007). Some might say that the concept of the electronic church should be used to attract young people, but the question is are we, by doing that, saving those same people? The most basic and fundamental question is, how will the people in such a community receive the Holy Eucharist? We here face the problem of the transformative potential of some forms of modern technologies, when it comes to personal identity. The problem arises because the way we communicate with another person, is a formative part of his identity. Let us not forget what Manuel Castells, one of the most famous contemporary sociologists, says about the electronic, networked society of today. He describes it as a “society of networked individuals”, (cf. Castells 2005:12), indicating that it greatly strengthens individualism, which is very problematic in terms of Christian life.

There is another important aspect of Christian communication in the electronic sphere which needs to be critically examined, and it refers to the Christians’ social responsibility. Namely, the Christian theologians are called upon to give a broader civilisational contribution in terms of communication in the electronic age, giving a kind of a fruitful synthesis between the old and the new. The Orthodox Church has always had this kind of civilisational responsibility towards the society  in which it exists – its exceptional cultural legacy is an obvious example of this. The main problem in the electronic sphere is that, to use McLuhan’s words, electronic technologies are “total and inclusive” (cf. McLuhan 2005b: 63-64). The brilliant McLuhan noticed this even at the time when analogue electronic technologies were dominant over the digital ones, which are today far more inclusive and all-encompassing. The main civilisational problem, which we need to recognise is the potential for the replacement of traditional human relationships. This is becoming especially evident with young people, whose physical contact is becoming increasingly superficial, while their electronic communication is assuming ever-richer forms. Similarly, the vocabulary of young people is becoming more impoverished in a face-to-face contact, while in the cyber world it assumes many different forms, which range from using the ubiquitous smileys, to the most bizarre forms of expression. Another civilisational problem which needs to be addressed is a trend of imposing forms of communication which destroy the creativity of direct communication. Facebook, in this sense, is a case in point. Related to this, we should mention the considerations of Professor Jonathan Zittrain in the context of undermining the generativity of the internet, or reducing the creativity of communication in the virtual world (cf. Zittrain 2008: 70-100), given that social networks offer a very restricted mould for exchanging information. In that sense, the Christians find themselves between the rock and a hard place – on the one hand, there is the enticement of social media concerning the effective spreading of the Christian message, while on the other it is indirectly supporting a concept which is very far from being value-free.

The subject of electronic communications, is not just of interest to the theologians, but also to the philosophers, sociologists, and  psychologists. Broadly speaking, it examines the relationship between the man and technology, and the influence of that relationship on the human personality. The dominant, liberal-progressivist school of thought does not offer answers to the mounted problems in this  area. Some scientists therefore, call for the re-examination of the philosophical heritage of the critical schools of thought, as well as viewing the warnings of thinkers like Martin Heidegger in a new light (cf. Feenberg 2000). Admittedly, the challenges before us do not only concern the mass destructions and atomic bombs, that most probably caused Heiddeger’s sharp stance towards technology (cf. Heidegger 1977), but also the conceptual thread of critical thought certainly remains the same: we should not only think of technology simply in terms of its application, but also in terms of its impact on the deepest recesses of our being.

An authorised lecture, delivered on February 23, 2011, at the Faculty of Orthodox Theology in Belgrade, as part of the course in Christian Communicology.


  1. Baudrillard, J. (1988). „The masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media“, у: ed. M. Poster, Sellected writings. Stanford:StanfordUniversity Press. pp. 207-219.
  2. Castells, M. (2005). „The Network Society: From Knowledge to Policy“, у: еd. M. Castells, G. Cardoso, The Network Society: From Knowledge to Policy.WashingtonDC:JohnsHopkinsCenter for Transatlantic Relations. pp. 3-21.
  3. Clarke, R. (2009). „Dissidentity“. Identity in the Information Society,Vol. 1, No. 1. pp. 221-228.
  4. Feenberg, A. (2000). „Constructivism and Technology Critique: Replies to Critics“. Inquiry, no. 43. pp. 225-238.
  5. Heidegger, M. (1977). The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt.New York &London:Garland Publishing.
  6. McLuhan, M. (2005b). Understanding Media: The extensions of man.London andNew York: Routledge / Taylor & Francis.
  7. Plou, D. S. (1996). Global Communication, WCC Publications, Geneva.
  8. Rice, R. (1999). „Artifacts and Paradoxes in New Media“, New Media & Society, Vol. 1, No. 1. pp. 24-32.
  9. Sivov, P. (2007).„Bulgarians Build a Virtual Church, Look for a Priest“, https://www.orthodoxlife.info/.
  10. Zittrain, J. (2008). The Future of the Internet— And How to Stop It. New Haven & London:YaleUniversity Press.

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