Understanding the Paradox of (Im)Perfection: An Actor-Network Approach to Digitally Mediated Preaching
1.1. Three Trajectories for Digitally Mediated Preaching
1.2. Methodological Reflections
2. Theoretical Lenses
2.1. Actor-Network Theory
2.2. Digital Media as Metric Media and Caring Media
3. The Paradox of (Im)Perfection
3.1. Towards a Mode of Visibility and Perfection
It ended up as a contest. There was so much creativity. Everyone was supposed to be visible! It was like competing in the Olympics without having prepared for it!(Group interview)
3.1.1. Thrown into a Visibility Contest
3.1.2. Digital Media and Algorithms as an Actor
- Interviewer (I):
- Do you think in algorithms?
- Yes, all the time.
- Could you please give us an example of this?
- I need to hit it right. When it comes to thinking about algorithms, it is like, as soon as you have understood it, then they have changed it. And it is … you cannot plan, only try and test. Put out things and see what happens, put out things and see what happens … it was right after the summer this year. After the summer. Why don’t people look at our stuff. People were tired [of the digital church experience]. Because we had so many hits during spring, the algorithms liked us. They caught an eye on us. In order to become popular again, we must be visible. We went out and told everyone to publish more of what they are doing [on social media]. If you don’t click on stuff from CofS, you won’t get that kind of stuff in your social media flow. It is a bit revealing when the chair of the parish board asks why we have not published stuff. Yes, but we have. But you don’t click enough [on CofS content]. They [the algorithms] have interpreted [it] as if you are not interested [in CofS content].
3.1.3. Digital Media as a Mimetic Toolbox and Mimetic Rivalry
Social media platforms are created by means of mimetic principles. A framework for precisely mediated desire, in which everyone can behold each other as imitators and models at the same time. Additionally, everyone is equipped with a mimetic toolbox (sharing, reposting, retweeting), which enables the distribution of visibility.(Lindgren 2020, p. 63, our emphasis)
I can recognize the narrative of competition. Not towards other parishes [but among the congregations within our parish]. Yet, this fear-driven need of being visible. We do not quite keep up […] We have a history of internal competition between four different districts/congregations [within the parish]. The contagious mimesis of snowballing. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic. I experienced a great sense of competition […] We had to be visible.
But actually, the number of views. I have felt rivalry in that area. Why does this parish have 5000 views while we have only had 300? Views are interesting from a psychological perspective. What a lot of people like, you [automatically] think you ought to like.
Here, the practitioner seems to confirm the theory of mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry afforded by social media platforms. Lindgren’s concepts are thus a good illustration of the agency non-human actors bring to bear on digital media, and the influence they have on the networks which enmesh practitioners.
3.1.4. Digital Media as an Ethos of Quantification
What does it mean for the church to use social media platforms when they can also be considered ‘a mimetic toolbox’? To what extent should the church contribute to amplifying ‘an economy of attention’ in which various actors compete for people’s attention?
It concerns how to view the church and what kind of church we would like to be. We want to be a church open to everyone … and that it [life] does not always end up as we had imagined it to be, and that is what we would like to communicate. At the same time, the carefully pre-recorded devotions and services that the congregation publishes can easily end up being ‘perfect’ for better and for worse.
Marketing and competition. We have talked quite a lot about competition, and this potential […] in digital media. We have also talked about statistics, but not so much about how it is exactly the same thing. How many people do you have in your youth ministry? It [numbers] becomes a measurement of how good things are. Now we have many confirmands … it would not be so good if we were only 15. That is also a comparison and is clearly related to what we talked about earlier.
3.2. Towards a Mode of Authenticity and Imperfection
[The evening devotions] mean something. It is the most important part of my ministry […] I don’t approach devotion as a production but as worship. We worship together despite being in different places […] It is also something continual. Every Thursday evening until Christmas. At the same time. Continuity.(Kristian, pastor)
3.2.1. Enacting Simplicity, Authenticity, and Imperfection
3.2.2. Enacting Anonymous Spiritual Intimacy and an Ethos of Care
It is interaction. They can send in prayer requests, [a feature] which was added as we went along. They send them in as they write their comments. They are not so many, 20–25 persons […] They comment on one another’s prayer requests. There is more interaction here than when being onsite. It is part of the format […] I respond to comments. One space. On the one hand, it is intimate. Greater proximity than in a sanctuary. Everyone sees the conversations [in the comments]. One is visible. On the other hand, though, [being] anonymous and [safeguarding one’s] integrity. It happens that I am bombarded with prayer requests. ‘I feel so calm with you,’ they might comment. It is the intimate format that people are mostly attracted to […].(Kristian, our emphasis)
4. A Non-Dichotomous Approach to Digitally Mediated Preaching
4.1. Between Perfection and Imperfection
4.2. Beyond the Virtual/Real and Message/Media Divides
Institutional Review Board Statement
Informed Consent Statement
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
The research project was inspired by Theological Action Research (TAR). See for example (Cameron 2010; Watkins 2020).
In the original project, the seven congregations were studied and analyzed separately. In this article, though, such a distinction is not made.
In one of the groups the second workshop turned into individual interviews due to illness. The third workshop took place as a common workshop and group interview with practitioners from both parishes.
For a similar use of terminology, see (Cameron 2010).
For a detailed account of methods and theories, see (Uppsala: Svenska kyrkan, 2022 and in particular Ideström and Kaufman 2022a; 2022b, pp. 18–20). The two most important theoretical perspectives introduced in this sub-project were a socio-material sensibility (ANT) in a very simplified fashion and Lindgren’s use of Girard’s theory of mimesis (Lindgren 2020).
While there are differences between Latour and Law in their approaches to ANT, they also share some of the most profound characteristics of ANT, and we do not distinguish between them in this paper.
We have conducted literature searches in databases such as JSTOR, ORIA, homiletical journals such as the Homiletic, International Journal of Homiletics, in Practical Theological journals such as the International Journal of Practical Theology and Tidsskrift for praktisk teologi.
Gaining this insight from laboratory studies, a microscope, for example, emerged as a significant actor in the knowledge construction of the laboratory.
For a helpful introduction to how ANT can be used in an anthropological study (in this case of Christianity in China) and some of ANT’s critics, see (Chambon 2020, p. 6ff).
See (Mannerfelt 2022) in this special issue.
Latour uses the word translation to describe “a relation that does not transport causality but induces two mediators into coexisting”. (Latour 2005, p. 108).
These observations from the material sparked the idea of drawing on René Girard’s theory of mimesis, and mimetic desire in particular, (Girard 1987) as an analytic device.
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Mannerfelt, F.; Kaufman, T.S. Understanding the Paradox of (Im)Perfection: An Actor-Network Approach to Digitally Mediated Preaching. Religions 2023, 14, 707. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14060707
Mannerfelt F, Kaufman TS. Understanding the Paradox of (Im)Perfection: An Actor-Network Approach to Digitally Mediated Preaching. Religions. 2023; 14(6):707. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14060707Chicago/Turabian Style
Mannerfelt, Frida, and Tone Stangeland Kaufman. 2023. "Understanding the Paradox of (Im)Perfection: An Actor-Network Approach to Digitally Mediated Preaching" Religions 14, no. 6: 707. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14060707