Passages divinely lit : revelatory vernacular rhetoric on the Internet
Howard, Robert Glenn
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Howard, Robert Glenn
Since the advent of the public World-Wide-Web in 1992, networked computer communication has rapidly become integral to the daily lives of many North Americans. Many researchers in the humanities and social sciences debate the potential power and nature of the effects of these new forms of communication. Some scholars see dangers in the changing forms of “media literacy,” but others see the Internet engendering new levels of democratic debate at grassroots and personal levels. However, much of this research still lacks the basic methodological rigor necessary to make reasonable claims about actual individual human communicative behavior on the Internet. By melding the behavioral ethnographic methods of folklore studies and socio-linguistics to postmodern methods of rhetorical analysis, this dissertation explores the general hypothesis that Internet media encourage the use of negotiative rhetorical strategies in the everyday expression of vernacular religious belief. By participating in the specific Christian Fundamentalist discourse known as Dispensationalism, this dissertation establishes methods for locating and classifying particular Internet expressions based on their revelatory, experiential, and/or negotiative rhetorical strategies. The hypothesis is explored through a series of five cases related to Protestant Dispensationalism: early American Puritan and Quaker autobiography, 1994 and 1995 Christian e-mail lists, the 1996 and 1997 e-mail campaign of the “Heaven's Gate” religious group, and 1999 and 2000 amateur Dispensationalist web-site builders. Based on e-mail, web-site, questionnaire, and face-to-face interview data, the results of this research have shown that the hypothesis overestimated the power of the Internet to encourage negotiative attitudes in deeply religious individuals. Although the Internet expressions of belief seem to have taken on a style of negotiation, little actual negotiation about religious beliefs or values occurred on the Internet among those documented. Instead, there was a constant exchange of similar ideas which seem to primarily function as attitudinal posturing. Though strong positions were taken and expressed to large and diverse audiences, only a very few individuals were willing to adjust their previously held beliefs as a result of their experiences with Internet communication.