Bible Prophecy Online: Tracing the Virtual Ekklesia

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Bible Prophecy Online: Tracing the Virtual Ekklesia by Mind Map: Bible Prophecy Online: Tracing the Virtual Ekklesia

1. Some possible avenues for future research

1.1. Anti-catholicism

1.1.1. Interpretations of the prophecies in Daniel cite the history of the papacy as fulfillment of the prophecy. Certain spans of the prophecy are labeled the "dark ages of papal supremacy"

1.1.2. Bible Prophecy Truth website's header places an image of the Vatican next to a watermark of 666

1.2. White Nationalist Links

1.2.1. Citation of the US as a critical part of salvation history

1.2.2. One website creator who passed away had an obituary on Red Ice tv

1.2.3. Deeply colonial conceptions of the founding of the US

1.3. Imagery

1.3.1. While much of the analysis for this project focused on text and the significance of text, several websites had dramatic visual elements as well. How is that imagery working differently than the text is?

1.4. Commercialization

1.4.1. While most of the websites that I analyzed do not monetize the content they produce in any significant way, Prophecy Watchers is the complete opposite. What might be the significance of their choice to focus on monetization over simply the transmission of Bible prophecy and conspiracy theories? Is Prophecy Watchers received differently by the broader Bible prophecy community because of its focus on monetization?

2. Internet as Facilitator

2.1. Website structure

2.1.1. Some websites are visually simple, looking like websites that were made 15+ years ago: bible-prophecy.com and acts17-11.com (while it is unclear how active acts17-11 is, bible-prophecy is definitely still active)

2.1.2. Other websites have remarkably fancy graphics: bibleprophecytruth.com and prophecywatchers.com

2.1.3. How an individual interacts with the content produced by the Bible prophecy community

2.1.3.1. The websites are structured in a way that makes it easy for an individual to determine the theological leanings of the website's creator.

2.1.3.1.1. Bible Prophecy Truth has the following headers at the top of its home page: Jesus Christ, The Antichrist, Topic List, Signs of the End, Prophecy Resources. The website's central themes are some of the first things that a user would see upon opening the website.

2.1.3.1.2. The homepage of Acts17:11 is entirely links to pages on different topics, from Mercy to Shame to Fellowship. The top set of links even has the helpful guide of "Start Here"

2.1.3.1.3. In a similar form to Bible Prophecy Truth, Bible Prophecy has several headers at the top of its homepage, the first one when you read left to right is "Topics." The creator of the website has made it incredibly easy for the user to rapidly know what the creator thinks about the topics that the user particularly cares about.

2.1.3.1.4. While Prophecy Watchers breaks from this pattern slightly, it still has an "About" category at the top of its homepage that allows the user to figure out what the authors believe quickly. The slight deemphasis on the ease of access for Prophecy Watchers might be because based on what takes up the most space in the website, the focus of Prophecy Watchers seems to be on selling videos, books, and even cruises all themed around Bible prophecy and conspiracy theory content.

2.1.3.2. One of the primary mechanisms for individuals finding Bible prophecy communities is merely through a search engine.

2.1.3.2.1. "They locate this virtual ekklesia as they seek out the specific topics cued by phrases like ‘the Antichrist’ or ‘predicted in The Bible’, and it is these topics that are the shared beliefs that define this church." (Howard, Vernacular Ideology, 138)

2.1.3.2.2. Community members literally conceive of 'the church' as the meeting of individuals on the internet. (Howard, Vernacular Ideology, 137)

2.1.3.2.3. "Using the internet, an emphasis on the ‘end times’ allowed the most conservative Christians to locate each other among more liberal evangelicals." This highlights the ways that the theological specificity of the Bible prophecy community allows it self to be even more self-sustaining virtually, because its specificity enables it be more easily found. (Howard, Vernacular Ideology, 131)

2.1.3.3. The flow of interaction does not only take place in the virtual world. Especially with the marketable content found within the Bible prophecy community, one individual will purchase the content and then share with other individuals in their real-world social circle. These types of interactions reflect the multi-faceted interactions that sustain this community, interactions occurring on both sides of the real-world/virtual split.

2.1.3.3.1. "I realize what Pamela has just described to me is the perfect representation of the confluence of old and new media. The way she goes about gathering data, the means by which her views of the world are constructed and periodically re-formed encompasses the entire media spectrum. It begins with a simple verbal exchange from one person to another. It’s the sort of peer-to-peer exchange which media gurus lust for and, in some instances, are willing to spend millions of dollars on an aggressive ad campaign to achieve. It’s a genuine word-of-mouth promotion, one that comes from a trusted source such as a friend or member of the family— or better yet, a valued authoritative source such as a religious leader." (Boerl and Donbavand, A God More Powerful, xiv)

2.2. The internet facilitates an increase in ideological (theological) diversity

2.2.1. The literal structure of the internet that the user interfaces with allows for increased ideological diversity

2.2.1.1. "Broadcast media, such as radio and television, while identified as mediums with high entrance costs have nonetheless proved adept at unifying core cultural values, religious beliefs, and political principles. By contrast, the Internet, as a many-to-many medium with much lower entrance costs, has created a plural media environment, one far more conducive to the development of diverse opinions, including religious ones." (Boerl and Donbavand, A God More Powerful, 7)

2.2.1.2. "As evangelicals increasingly turn to the Internet for purposes of religious devotion, guidance, and education, the amalgamating effects of the broadcast age are weakened, resulting in growing theological splintering." (Boerl and Donbavand, A God More Powerful, 8)

2.2.1.3. The internet increases intellectual diversity by giving the individual "an abundance of choice [so that they] often visit sites that appeal to selected interests and which reinforce pre-existing biases." (Boerl and Donbavand, A God More Powerful, 74)

2.2.1.3.1. "The Internet has led America down the path of what he calls ‘accelerated pluralism,' where interest-based group politics are shifting towards more fluid issue-based group politics, consequently resulting in declining institutional coherence." (Bruce Bimber qtd in Boerl and Donbavand, A God More Powerful, 75)

2.2.1.4. The internet offers "audiences specially tailored markets that often appeal to deep personal desires." (Boerl and Donbavand, A God More Powerful, 91)

2.2.2. The internet enables communities like the Bible prophecy community to operate completely separate from any ecclesiastical authority and out of the Christian theological mainstream

2.2.2.1. "The interactive nature of digital practice subverts this construct of authority [that emphasizes the authority of individuals to do and say certain things.] Not only may a designated Christian authority not even be heard in the wider ocean of information, but also, if their so‐called authoritative pronouncement is heard, it is likely to be immediately interacted with through social media: commented on, pulled apart, criticized, defended, and perhaps even lost in a rapid shift to a related topic. The authority ascribed in digital practice is one earned in the process of interaction on specific topics or issues, a type of authority that is more common in oral‐dominant communities than in the aloof, institution‐based authority that most churches have carried into this third millennium." (Horsfield, From Jesus to the Internet, 266)

2.2.2.2. Horsfield (citing Lynn Shoefield Clark) argues that there are four main challenges to traditional church hierarchy (both personal and theological hierarchy)

2.2.2.2.1. Persistence of communication: It is virtually impossible to remove something from the internet, which means that any Church authorities lose their ability to literally destroy content that is outside the theological mainstream. (Horsfield, From Jesus to the Internet, 266)

2.2.2.2.2. Changeability: Content can be easily produced, modified, and replicated. The internet essentially eliminates any form of semiotic control that the Church hierarchy may have had previously. (Horsfield, From Jesus to the Internet, 266)

2.2.2.2.3. Scalability: An issue that is actually minute can be blown out of proportion easily, or a serious issue can be rendered down easily as well. (Horsfield, From Jesus to the Internet, 267)

2.2.2.2.4. Searchability: Information is much easier to track down and so, at least theoretically, no one has a monopoly on any piece of information (Horsfield, From Jesus to the Internet, 267)

2.2.2.2.5. Stemming from his broader study of Christianity and media, Horsfield argues that "in conceptualizing the relationship between media and Christianity, therefore, it is more accurate to see Christianity itself as a mediated phenomenon , one in which the matrix of mediation within which it takes shape at any particular period of history is integral to its character." (Horsfield, From Jesus to the Internet, 286)

2.2.3. Pulling together the two upper branches of this section on the internet and theological diversity, the scholarly sources seem to show that the internet facilitates the creation of communities that are far outside the theological mainstream. The internet, and the splintering that it causes, allows members of communities such as the Bible prophecy community to rapidly find each other on the internet and then create their own mini-virtual social networks (echo-chambers) around their shared interest.

2.2.3.1. Howard, talking about the creators of Acts17:11 writes, "they discovered an internet-based community of likeminded Christians who could share in discussions about their beliefs and values in more specific and intimate ways than they were finding through their real world churches." (Howard, Vernacular Ideology, 134)

3. Defining the Virtual Ekklesia

3.1. Theology

3.1.1. In Digital Jesus, Howard argues that there are four defining characteristics of online Christian fundamentalist communities. (Howard, Digital Jesus, 8-10)

3.1.1.1. Biblical literalism

3.1.1.1.1. "This form of interpretation generally assumes that, even in translation, the Bible has a single, simple, and direct meaning." (Howard, Digital Jesus, 8)

3.1.1.1.2. Because there is the assumption of a single meaning, "individuals deploying this...interprative technique can often simply make an assertion and then [only] quote one or more specific biblical passages that are assumed to prove the assertion." (Howard, Digital Jesus, 9)

3.1.1.1.3. This belief is the grounding for the other three, i.e. the other three only arise based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. Each belief can be traced back to the interpretation of a single verse or group of verses. (Howard, Digital Jesus, 9)

3.1.1.1.4. Biblical literalism is also a key site for communal self-identification.

3.1.1.2. Spiritual rebirth/born-again

3.1.1.2.1. A belief in Biblical literalism drives the belief that one needs to become born again. (Howard, Digital Jesus, 9)

3.1.1.2.2. Howard explains that one primary source for this belief is a literal interpretation of a verse from the Gospel of John in which Jesus says "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3, NKJV)

3.1.1.2.3. Many of the websites I looked at mention this belief as well.

3.1.1.3. Evangelicalism

3.1.1.3.1. The previous beliefs in Biblical literalism and the need to be born-again compell members of this community to evangelize. (Howard, Digital Jesus, 8-10

3.1.1.4. Apocalypticism

3.1.1.4.1. The fourth, arguably defining, characteristic of this community is a significant focus on the end times. While the other three characteristics are constitutive of a myriad of Christian fundamentalist communities, the focus on the apocalypse, and watching for the apocalypse, separates members of this community

3.1.1.4.2. In Digital Jesus, Howard argues that the virtual ekklesia "when a literal interpretation of the prophetic texts gives rise to online ritualized deliberation based on a belief in the 'End Times.' This distinctive fourth trait interlocks both with the radical certainty afforded by spiritual rebirth and the need to 'witness' their shared literalism by giving their adherents a reason to discuss their faith online." (Howard, Digital Jesus, 10)

3.1.1.4.3. Every single website I looked at mentioned the apocalypse

3.2. Structure (or the lack thereof)

3.2.1. The Bible prophecy community is defined by a near complete lack of ecclesiastical structure

3.2.1.1. In Veracular Ideology, Howard explains, "unmediated by institutional documents, religious leaders or community-based churches, those individuals touched by that Spirit enact a sort of virtual church." (Howard, Vernacular Ideology, 136)

3.2.1.2. Through the internet, individuals are "empowered to transcend institutions of religion and enact their own vision of the 'church.'" (Howard, Vernacular Ideology, 126)

3.2.2. The spark of formation for this commuinity seems to be the personal interest on the part of individuals seeking out people who have similar apocalyptic interests and connecting over those interests. (Howard, Vernacular Ideology, 138)

4. Community or Millieu

4.1. Lindlof notes 4 characteristics of communities in general, however he argues that these characteristics do not really fit communities such as the Bible prophecy community

4.1.1. "A unity of shared circumstances, interests, customs, and purposes." (Lindlof, Interpretive Community, 63)

4.1.1.1. While there might be demographic commonalities among the people who interact with these websites confessionally, the only intentional form of unity that exists in this community, at least in the way Lindlof is describing it here, is in shared interests.

4.1.2. "Moral obligations that the community shares, manifested in social rules, etiquette, and ethical codes." (Lindlof, Interpretive Community, 63)

4.1.2.1. As with the ways that virtuality disrupts notions of stability, virtuality disrupts the creation of moral obligations, at least ones that would be identifiable in a non-virtual community

4.1.3. "A community must establish stability over time." (Lindlof, Interpretive Community, 63)

4.1.3.1. What does stability over time look like in a digital space? For example, one of the websites that Howard references in Vernacular Ideology no longer exists.

4.1.4. "Social networks of community furnish the communicative occasions and codes that enable social actors to coordinate their actions, and to know who is inside and who is outside the membership." (Lindlof, Interpretive Community, 63)

4.1.4.1. Of all four characteristics, this one seems to most closely parallel the actual Bible prophecy community. However, as with the other four characteristics, the contingent ability of individuals who interact with these websites to connect with each other in ways that would allow social events and social norms to really develop, seems to point to the ways that virtuality changes and nuances this part of Lindlof's definition as well.

4.1.5. Elements of all four characteristics do show up in the Bible prophecy community, however solely conceptualizing the Bible prophecy community through these characteristics highlights the ways that technology, as a facilitator for this community, blurs and breaks down the analytical framework that Lindlof presents here.

4.2. In contrast to the analytical structure of community that Lindlof describes in the upper branch, he defines interpretive community more around the tools of connection rather than the people doing the connecting.

4.2.1. 5-part definition

4.2.1.1. "An interpretive community is comprised of sets of discursive strategies (not peoples such) that find their expression in tactical 'readings' (or rewritings of text) by social situated individuals and groups...Membership in the community means that a person performs media usage in ways that are recognizable and valued by others as this type of action." (Lindlof, Interpretive Community, 64)

4.2.1.1.1. Biblical literalism, probably the most important constitutive element of the Bible prophecy community, is a quintessential tactical reading practice.

4.2.1.1.2. Many of the websites are structured seemingly to allow a user to quickly identify the theological leanings of the website's creator in order to determine if this is a website that fits within the personal theology of the user. (This is discussed more in the main stem focused on technology)

4.2.1.2. "The individual text always has a polysemic potential." (Lindlof, Interpretive Community, 64)

4.2.1.3. "Communities vary in terms of how intentional and self-conscious they are." (Lindlof, Interpretive Community, 64)

4.2.1.3.1. In Vernacular Ideology, Howard discusses the ways in which two websites, The Watchers (which no longer exists) and Acts 17:11, had links to each other on their respective sites. (Howard, Vernacular Ideology, 131-132)

4.2.1.3.2. Yet many other websites are only linked by common search terms rather than actual links.

4.2.1.4. "Interpretive communities are most easily identified as an audience for a genre

4.2.1.4.1. This part of the definition fits really well with the overarching conception of interpretive communities as based more around texts than individuals.

4.2.1.4.2. Turning to the Bible prophecy community, there is a distinct sense in which the types of content produced (reliant on bible verses and bounded by the four characteristics of online Christian fundamentalism from Howard, biblical literalism, spiritual rebirth, evangelicalism, and apocalypticism,) function as a genre. The structure of the websites is markedly similar in that each seems almost to be offering a curriculum for further exploration of Christian fundamentalist topics and modes of analysis. (This concept is explored more in the main stem focused technology as facilitator)

4.2.1.5. "Interpretive communities are multiple, overlapping, and potentially contradicting." (Lindlof, Interpretive Community, 64)

4.2.2. This definition of community really strongly matches with many of the most significant characteristics of the Bible prophecy community.

4.2.3. The trade-off of this definition is that it de-centers the individual in order to center the practice that is drawing individuals together into a community.

4.3. Lindlof's use of interpretive community as a way to conceive of communities like the one constituted around Bible prophecy in many ways collapses the boundary between community and milieu.

4.3.1. Using Lindlof's definition of interpretive community points to the difference between communities and milieus as being focused on the level of self-consciousness that they community has.

4.3.2. Interpretive community accounts for the lower self-consciousness that defines a milieu while including the more narrow focus of interest that defines a community.

5. Sources

5.1. Secondary Sources

5.1.1. Howard, Robert. “Vernacular Ideology of Christian Fundamentalism on the World Wide Web.” In Fundamentalisms and the Media, edited by Stewart Hoover and Nadia Kaneva, 126-141. London: Bloomberg Publishing, 2009. Accessed December 15, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central

5.1.2. Boerl, Christopher W., and Donbavand, Katie. A God More Powerful Than Yours: American Evangelicals, Politics, and the Internet Age. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2015. Accessed December 15, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central.

5.1.3. Horsfield, Peter. From Jesus to the Internet: A History of Christianity and Media. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2015. Accessed December 15, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central.

5.1.4. Lindlof, Thomas R. "Interpretive Community: An Approach to Media and Religion." Journal of Media and Religion 1, no. 1 (2002): 61-74.

5.1.5. Howard, Robert. Digital Jesus : The Making of a New Christian Fundamentalist Community on the Internet. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

5.1.6. All of the Bible quotations used in this project are from Biblegateway.com

5.2. Primary Sources

5.2.1. "Bible Prophecy Truth," Bible Prophecy Truth. Amazing Facts, n.d. Accessed December 15, 2019. https://www.bibleprophecytruth.com.

5.2.2. VanDruff, Dean, and Laura VanDruff. "Acts 17:11 Bible Studies," Acts 17:11. Acts 17:11, n.d. Accessed December 15, 2019. http://www.acts17-11.com/studies.html.

5.2.3. Stearman, Gary. "Prophecy Watchers," The Prophecy Watchers. The Prophecy Watchers Inc, n.d. Accessed December 15, 2019. https://prophecywatchers.com.

5.2.4. Graff, Ron. "Bible Prophecy," Prophecy Central. Prophecy Central, n.d. Accessed December 15, 2019. https://www.bible-prophecy.com.