Tan Meng Yoe, Malaysian Christians Online. Faith, Experience, and Social Engagement on the Internet

In: International Journal of Asian Christianity
Melissa Shamini PerrySenior Lecturer; Centre for Research in Language and Linguistics, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, National University of Malaysia, ukm, Bangi Selangor, Malaysia

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Tan Meng Yoe, Malaysian Christians Online. Faith, Experience, and Social Engagement on the Internet. (Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd, 2020), pp. 189; isbn 978-981-15-2835-4; 978-981-15-2833-0 (e-Book).

The book is situated in the field of digital religion, online communities and religious performativity in digital spaces with a focus on the Christian community in Malaysia. It captures the personal stories of Malaysians based on their lived experiences as Christians in the digital age. The author, Tan Meng Yoe, a scholar of online religion and a Malaysian Christian himself, draws from his insider knowledge to conduct an ethnographic and digital ethnographic research involving interviews with Christian (mostly Evangelical) bloggers, web site moderators and church pastors. Through observations and textual analysis of blogs, social networking websites and online news portals, he aims to uncover the different ways in which Malaysian Christians express their religious identity and practices on digital platforms.

The book consists of eight chapters and provides an insight into Christianity in Malaysia and interrogates the effect of online religious practices and engagements on personal spiritual identities and traditional religious hierarchies. It also provides an overall introduction and an engaging discussion on online religious practices and detailed instructions on digital ethnographic research methods. The various concepts and ideas pertaining to online religious practices are viewed through the lens of the Actor-Network Theory (ant). ant perceives a collaborative symmetry between humans and non-humans and accords equal agency to both on the effect they have on lived experiences. Developed in the 1980s, ant has received various critiques by scholars in the twenty-first century. However, it does prove to be a useful lens through which digitally mediated practices can be understood.

In discussing the distinction between the physical and digital spaces, the author posits an interesting notion on the fluid boundaries between offline and online social realities by viewing the cyberspace as a valid and critical part and extension of a person’s everyday life instead of a separate virtual reality removed from one’s lived experiences. The daily expressions of faith are termed everyday religion which is defined as lived religious experiences involving habits, rituals, embodied practices, actions and expressions either in private (home and private spaces) and/or in public settings (including churches and church organisations and spaces). The book does not distinguish between everyday religion and organized religion but instead sees organized religion as having a direct influence on everyday faith practices.

The book sheds light on the various political, cultural and personal factors that influence how Christians express their religious identity as minorities in Malaysia. It delves into the lived religious experiences of a minority community and how cyberspace provides them agency and an outlet for greater freedom of religious and ideological expressions in comparison to physical spaces where minorities may be bound by political, social and cultural norms of the majority. The interviews with respondents revealed the enthusiasm and willingness of lay Christians in using online platforms to express and develop their faith and spirituality. Religious leaders however, caution against uncensored and unregulated content pertaining to faith that could pose a challenge to conventional authority and be detrimental to the development of faith and spirituality of the community.

The book fills a big gap in the area of online religion specifically related to Christianity in multicultural Malaysia—a nation with an active online community that uses digital platforms to express various aspects of its identity. The Covid-19 pandemic saw unprecedented global participation and engagement in online religion by Christians who turned to online services and faith resources for spiritual nourishment following church closures. In highlighting the role and significance of online religion even before the pandemic, the book was certainly ahead of its time and is even more relevant due to a sharp increase in online religious practices amongst Christians in Malaysia even after pandemic restrictions have been lifted. In the book, the author cites Campbell (2010) on the risks of people preferring online religious experiences in lieu of religious experiences in churches. This was incidentally found to be true globally after the pandemic where church attendance has dipped tremendously as many people choose online religious services over physical worship.

In light of increasing online religious engagement in recent times, a point to note as observed in the book, is the importance of embodied practices in religious rituals which can only be performed in physical sacred spaces. This brings into question the validity of engaging in online religious activities devoid of the materials and physical embodiment necessary to fulfill a specific ritual. Although the book proposes that boundaries between digital and physical spaces can be fluid and invisible, boundaries still exist in situations which necessitate physical interaction and engagement and cannot be replaced by a virtual presence or interaction. As recent studies about online Christianity post Covid-19 indicate, a growing number of people worldwide are completely replacing physical attendance at church with online participation. This phenomenon raises the question of whether participation in online worship and service through a digital space enable them to fulfill their religious obligations and gain spiritual fulfilment in the total absence of physical services and activities. The field of online religion is indeed a fascinating one and this book delivers an insight into a subject matter that needs further scrutiny.

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