I am a reluctant user of verbal adjoinages. But when the issue of the circulation of prayer requests through mobile text messaging came up for discussion last week in an SSRC working group meeting, I could barely suppress the totally hypocritical urge to formulate one. By coupling praying and texting, I emerged with ‘prexting’.
My elation at fathering a new concept naturally turned into disappointment when I discovered shortly after that prexting was already part of the new digital logos, where it is used, rather nefariously, to capture two kinds of practices: first, when someone is busily pretending to compose a text message as a way of avoiding eye contact or making a conversation; and second, when someone sends prank messages, often at odd hours, to another person. In the former instance, there is strategic avoidance, with someone actively pretending (pre-texting?) to compose a text message while apparently not; and in the latter, there is a deliberate effort to make contact, though of the unwanted sort.
Clearly, in its existing mobilization, prexting is, well, not cool. But here comes a chance for renovation. Which explains my proposal here of a reutilization that can make prexting a handy discursive tool for scholars attempting to capture and understand one of the wide range of innovative practices at the interface of religion and the new media. Heidi Campbell’s (2013) concept for these new devotional and interpersonal forms is “digital religion.” The study of digital religion aims to track and comprehend the multiple ways in which devotees of various religions mobilize, negotiate, resist, and revel in new media worlds. It is not just about seeing religion and religious forms through the prism of new media technologies; more interestingly, it is about how nascent media technologies continually transform our perception of faith by overhauling the forms and parameters of religious practice. In short: the ability of new media technologies and platforms to enact new cultures of religiosity.
With the sheer proliferation of academic interest in different aspects of digital religion—Internet spiritualities, the use of chat rooms for religious services, religious blogging, the insinuation of religious elements into videogames, twitter, Facebook, et al—prexting promises to illuminate (1) the deployment of a specific mobile phone functionality for the performance and circulation of prayer; (2) the actuality of SMS messages as a symbol of new interpersonal arrangements and new protocols of communication, whether between religious leaders and their flock, between members of the same religious group, or across faith divides; and (3) the emergence of prayer as a form of ongoing contact and persistent networking which helps to foster solid linkages within and across religious communities.
For different faith groups and individual believers, prexting serves various purposes and its mobilization is dictated by different contingencies. For example, among US-based African Pentecostals with whom I enjoy some familiarity, prexting is sometimes necessitated by a desire to stay in touch with religious mentors with whom a trusting relationship has been established. In such cases, requests for prayer are often—and continuously—made and received through texting, whether as complement or alternative to oral communication. Of specific interest here are immigrants who trace their success in gaining travel visas to leave their countries of origin to the ‘special prayers’ said by their pastors (See pages 31-48 in Religion Crossing Boundaries: Transnational Religious and Social Dynamics in African and the New African Diaspora.) Prexting allows such individuals to nurture and lend solidity and immediacy to spiritual relationships whose quality might otherwise be attenuated by the constraints of space and time.
Another dimension of prexting is, first, the circulation of daily prayers, prayer times, and prayer requests on behalf of co-worshippers, friends, or even total strangers; and second, the circulation of information about prayer or related religious events taking place in actual physical locations. As an example of the numerous forms of religious praxes effectuated and lubricated by new media technologies, prexting reaffirms the sturdiness and dynamism of the connection between the virtual and the real in the world of believers.