The iPhone and Religious Belief by Dr. Jim Trammell

James TrammellBy Dr. Jim Trammell, High Point University

*Recipient of the RMIG 2014 Top Faculty Paper Award

Thank God for the iPhone. I use it to call my mother. I use it to update my Facebook status. I use it to take a picture of my cup of coffee, and then upload the picture to my WordPress blog. I can even use it to compose this newsletter column while riding on the bus on my way to work, then email it the newsletter editor ten minutes before it is due.

And if need be, I learned I can use my iPhone to fight Satan!

The “Shut Up, Devil!” app puts “The power to silence Satan . . . in your pocket!” The app gives would-be Satan silencers “[digital] cars that present Scriptures with personalized application” [sic] to read the devil makes you anxious, angry, or feel sinful in any other way. It’s “app-wide search make[s] it easy to find the Scriptures you need, when you need them.” “Shut Up, Devil” also allows users to “stay on the offensive by setting reminders to speak Scripture aloud,” like the “Reminders” function bundled with the iPhone, but with more Satan-fighting power, apparently.

The “Shut Up, Devil!” app raises some interesting questions. Could I fight the devil without the app? Am I at a disadvantage in fighting the devil if I don’t have an iPhone? Is the devil more easily defeated on the Android platform or Apple’s iOS? If the iPhone is a powerful tool for fighting the devil, do I cheapen its spiritual significance if I put the “Shut Up, Devil!” app next to my Angry Birds app? Is it okay to open the Pizza Hut app and order a large cheese stuffed crust pizza through my phone while using the “Shut Up, Devil!” app, or would that be considered sacrilege? And if that is sacrilege, is there an app I can download that would allow me to receive penance directly to my phone?

Religion and media have been inseparable partners for centuries. As media evolved, so did our engagement with religious faith. Before mass media, we passed our religious faith and traditions through oral communication, relying on perspective of the speaker’s experiences and knowledge to shape religion to the next generation. The printing press moved Scripture from exclusive confines of the Church to the congregants, giving the public agency in their religious practice and fueling the Protestant Reformation. The televangelists of the late 20th century shaped the public perception of Christianity as a faith based on prosperity and entertainment.

The “Shut Up, Devil!” app may be the newest effort to merge religion and media, but it is certainly not innovative. If anything, the “Shut Up, Devil!” was inevitable. Religious apps are only a new phenomenon in as much as the digital tablet is a new medium. If there is anything new about the “Shut Up, Devil” app, it’s in how the app embodies the next chapter in the centuries-long story of religion and media.

I addressed this merger of religious belief and tablet media at the 2014 AEJMC convention in Montréal. My presentation argued that the twenty-first century’s “electronic church” is moving from television to tablets, and argued that the content of Christian apps centers, among other things, on convenience. Just as the iPhone makes it easy for me to call Mom, take photos, and finish this column in the next ten minutes, so do many of the popular Christian apps make it easy for me to locate Scripture, post prayer requests, and, in the case of the Jesus Calling app, read a devotion that says I am special just the way I am.

Tablet media succeed by demanding as little effort from the user as possible. Christian apps also make few demands of the user, suggesting a practical strategy in fighting the devil comes not from a lifetime of prayer and supplication, but from downloading an app. If there is any real power in the “Shut Up, Devil!” app, it’s in the mistaken belief that spiritual and religious exercises are made stronger when they require little effort. The power of the “Shut Up, Devil!” app comes not from its purported ability to hold Satan at bay, but from its ability to turn religious practices into a convenience.

It’s easy to believe that the iPhone really doesn’t do anything new for religious belief. Christians have been fighting Satan for 2000 years without the iPhone, and will continue to tell him to “Shut Up” long past when tablet media are made obsolete by new technologies. But tablet media threaten to redefine what it means to engage with religious faith. Just as the printing press and broadcasting technologies affected how Christians practiced their faith, so can tablet media present a dominant approach Christianity, one that privileges ease and convenience over effort and reverence.

Jim Y. Trammell, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Communication
High Point University

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