By Adriana do Amaral Freire & Karla Patriota Bronsztein
Since early 2013, our research has observed religious discourse that has been produced in online spaces. During the first two years, our work concentrated in Christian (both Catholic and Evangelical) religious practices, highlighting the work of charismatic denominations as well. This post, in particular, will deal with Father Marcelo Rossi’s profile on Facebook as a means to approach larger questions that arise from our work. By analyzing samples extracted from Father Rossi’s fanpage (which we call netnographic data), we will discuss concepts such as cyberchurch, engagement, and cyberbelievers. We will also observe in the speech concepts such as contradiction and truth, features that make it stand out, replicating activities, and discontinuous practices (Foucault, 2008). Our study also does not shy away from analyzing discourse from a market standpoint. We will observe the nuances that tie together the ideas of market and marketing using the theory of religious market (Berger, 1985).
Our object, as stated, will be the Father Marcelo Rossi’s fanpage on Facebook and the engagement of the users with it. Father Marcelo is a Brazilian Catholic priest. The atmosphere of his appearances in media often intends to captivate and seduce the believers through the employment of sacred garments and discourses that appeal to the sensibilities of the religious faith. His appearances in social media are interesting as well, since they command a large number of followers, for there we can ascertain what kinds of positions he adopts and what content he publishes. Interactions between users are also of interest to us, for we can use them to measure impact and come to know what kind of engagement Father Rossi’s space encourages.
Raised in a middle class Catholic family, Marcelo Rossi grew up in a neighborhood of São Paulo, Santana, with his sisters Mônica and Marta. The parents, Antonio Rossi, manager of a bank, and Wilma, housewife, ran the family of three brothers. Two traumatic events in his family, the accidental death of a cousin and the disease of an aunt, guided the desire of Marcelo Rossi to become a priest. Marcelo Rossi graduated in philosophy and theology. In December of 1994 he was ordained a priest. Rossi is not only a priest, but also a famous singer from Brazil. In Rossi’s career as a singer he has sold more than 11 million CDs, recording two or three records a year, between 1998 and 2014. He is also considered part of a larger phenomenon of mediated Catholicism from Latin America. The Priest is integrating the Catholic movement of Charismatic Renovation, in Brazil. His CD, “Já deu tudo certo” (in English, “Everything is already good”), was one of the best-selling albums of Brazil in 2013 among other genre of music. On Facebook, Father Marcelo’s fanpage has over 3.8 million likes. In this digital space, he describes himself as a “Brazilian Catholic priest, known for his evangelizing work.”
Hence, our goal is to analyze the discourse in Father Rossi’s page on Facebook from a standpoint of self-promotion and commercial use of the digital space, observing also a few of the interactions between users in the profile. We question which discourses are delivered in the fanpage; which interactions occur among the public; what we are able to measure given the numbers in the profile; and what promotes the materialization of the concepts of cyberchurch, engagement, and cyberbeliever.
Our sample selection of five days, that comprise the week we analyze, generated a table with 13 posts, eight of them made on December 1, the remaining distributed on the other days. Among the eight posts we analyze on December 1, 2014, six of them celebrate the 20 years of Rossi’s priesthood, and two of them encourage prayer and forgiveness. In the other dates, we have two posts that promote the book Kairos, authored by Marcelo Rossi; another one of them contains the download link for his record O Tempo de Deus (in English, “The Time of God”); the remaining two posts contain prayers. Besides promoting his own books and albums, the space is often used to disseminate prayers to Catholic saints on specific themes such as anxiety and depression.
From a discourse analysis perspective, we could point out that this marketing is discontinuous relative to the sacredness required of the actions of a religious leader. Such acts break with the longstanding tradition of religious discourse as spiritual support and contradict the idea of sacredness, imposing a commercial logic to speech.
The emergence of the cyberchurch takes place when the following conditions are met: the meaning of discourse is centered on a more spiritual plane, encouraging a conversation with God, who can provide for everything because he is infinitely wise and truthful. The second condition is met when this space becomes welcoming via discourse and there is a leader who centralizes attention and mediates the dialogue with God, since God is not immediately accessible to everyone and needs a representative on earth. For us, there is evidence of what we are conceptualizing as cyberchurch. This virtual space is where an authorized leader, recognized and legitimized by the believers, professes a sacred discourse and, at the same time and contradictorily, promotes their own products. The digital media profile of Marcelo Rossi becomes the space attended by the believers, who follow the secular content as well as its prayers; and they deposit their faith there as they would in a traditional church.
The digital space has established a regime of truth since all of what is professed in this space is accepted and validated by the public, which accepts the speech and does not question it. Foucault (1984) means by truth a set of procedures regulated for production, law, distribution, circulation and operation of statements. He also states that the truth is connected to a system of power that produces and supports this truth, which induces and reproduces the power. The idea of truth regimes, moreover, could sustain any concept in society, since everything that exists was created and conceptualized by man to be true, and only thus asserting itself as true, can be perennial. Then, we bring the regime of truth from Foucault (1984) for our work to show how the digital space which is legitimized by the religious leader and the cyberbeliever, replaces the real church with cyberchurch.
On Marcelo Rossi’s followers’ profile, in particular, we would not venture to say how engaged he is in the environment we are analyzing. Most of the interactions in the profile of the priest are by believers who repeat the word “amen,” while a few scattered comments contain a full sentence of support. Rare instances mention the authors hardships and pain. We were not able to locate any negative or otherwise contrarian posts on the profile. If the concept of engagement comprises, on Facebook, liking and uttering “amen” at a post, then, fair enough, these are the principal means of engagement employed, besides sharing posts. We do not have the number of average shares and likes for the whole page. However, from our limited observation, we estimate that around half of the users like and share the posts, while we are not able to ascertain whether the same user likes and shares the same content. The profile is open to fan postings, which can be located at the folder “pictures of Father Marcelo Rossi.”
Our observation of the participation and engagement of the believers in the profile gives us real elements for discussion on the cyberbeliever. Like a traditional churchgoer, the cyberbeliever who interacts with Marcelo Rossi’s fanpage looks for their religious leader only to absorb their discourse and extol them with crystalized religious sayings such as “amen” or “hallelujah.” While the comments were not very elaborate, individuals register their presence by liking, commenting, sharing or even posting a few scattered images. Campbell (2005, p. 51) describes the religious users of the internet as “religious surfers,” and states that while online religion does not overly influence offline practices, on the Internet the user is able to find some aspects of religion that conduct him to more spiritual engagement.
The emergence of an online society has been pointed out by important studies in applied social sciences. The belief that a revolution in the ways people interact with each other in society seems to be validated by research that indicates a wide-scale social transformation mediated by communication and information technologies.
The prevalence of proselytizing discourse does not take away from the self-promoting content posted in Father Marcelo Rossi’s fanpage. His religious discourse contradicts the very environment of the Internet and marketing actions he employs.
We highlight here that the religious cyber actors participate in the fanpages as if they were in a real religious environment. In this context, the concepts of cyberchurch and cyberbeliever take shape. As our research evolves, these participants in the digital environment become ever more evident, not just to us, but to other researchers of media and religion as well.
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