Religion and digital culture

In one of 2013’s most viral videos, Fox News’s chief religion correspondent, Lauren Green, interviewed Reza Aslan about his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. “I am a scholar of religions,” Aslan felt forced to insist, over and over, in response to Green’s interrogation about his identity as a Muslim. Green never seemed to accept his repeated assertion of academic credentials, but the interview helped propel Aslan’s book about the historical Jesus to number one on the New York Times bestseller list.

The disconnect between Aslan’s appeal to professional bona fides and Green’s fixation on personal beliefs is just one reminder of how poorly understood the very idea of studying religion remains. The clip’s infectious dissemination on the Internet, furthermore, suggests that the time may be ripe for a fresh presentation of what the study of religion can do—for scholars and journalists, and for the digital publics that made the Aslan interview go viral.

The task before us is to reconsider how we think about religion and the secular in a world that claims to have put everything on the Internet, that takes what goes viral as true. The study of religion might be thought of as a quintessential hack—a practice of exploring, of taking apart, of using whatever means are available for revealing how the machine works, and maybe even of grasping the ghost inside. But the presumed authority in a hacker’s hubris, an academic’s credentials, or an interview’s virality can be as deceptive as it is alluring. The insights that technological metaphors might bring to our understanding of religion must be considered alongside what looking only through the lens of technology leaves out.

In this series on thinking about religion in a digital age, scholars and journalists consider their respective crafts and the media through which they practice.

April 15th, 2015

There is such a thing as a tech chaplain

posted by Shamika Goddard

It is my birthday, and I have taken an emergency house call from one of my professors. She offers to buy me lunch, and then we go into her dining room. She sits in front of her new laptop and explains the demonic forces that prevent her from using email. She has repeatedly tried casting out the spirits of the classroom projector, which refuse to bend to her will every now and again. I begin by asking the professor to take a few deep breaths before we jump in. We tackle these problems, then others that she remembers along the way. I never touch her device: since I won’t always be around, I want her to get comfortable with doing the troubleshooting herself. Every once in a while, I remind her to breathe and to read whenever a box pops up, before closing it. At each step I explain what is happening, what she is doing, what to anticipate, and that it is all invariably okay. By the end of our session, we have managed to tame her mailbox, organize her data, and give her a foothold over the machine. Though she is hard-pressed to admit it, she feels better about using her computer. We agree to make a second appointment.

Read There is such a thing as a tech chaplain.
April 9th, 2015

eBay and the historical imagination

posted by John Lardas Modern

eBay StuffSome seek God in algorithms. Others seek a kind of divinity in the pastness of the past. The former seek to model a metaphysics of calculability. The latter tend to complicate that metaphysics by questioning the very definition of presence.

This was the thought I had while falling slowly asleep in front of the eBay screen. The historian, perhaps to his detriment, has these kinds of thoughts. He senses the flittering screen of the present more acutely than most—the way the past comes in and out of focus, the way it is there and not there, the way it is not even an it save for fleeting moments catalyzed in the materiality of the archive. Wherever that may be, eBay is there.

Read eBay and the historical imagination.
March 24th, 2015

A modest defense of the listicle

posted by Patton Dodd

If, as Umberto Eco tells it, “the list is the origin of culture,” then the Internet may be culture’s apotheosis. So much of the web comes to us in list form. Google searches render lists of results; we scroll all the livelong day (and night) through lists of updates on Twitter and Facebook; news sites like The New York Times and Vox highlight lists of their most popular stories. Blogs are lists of posts; Instagram is a list of images; Reddit is a hive-minded collection of conversations and digital artifacts presented as lists. Even the Bible, on the Internet, morphs into a list—the popular app YouVersion, which has been downloaded over 170 million times, essentially understands (as a matter of its coding) the Bible not as a book or series of books but as a list of 31,102 verses.

Read A modest defense of the listicle.
March 20th, 2015

Religion for commoners

posted by Nathan Schneider

One of the essential early texts of the open source software movement was “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” a 1999 essay by programmer Eric S. Raymond in which he juxtaposes two approaches to developing computer programs, each with an analogy to a fixture of the medieval city: from the top down, like a cathedral, and from the bottom up, like a street market. At the time, open source software development was still largely characterized by a command-and-control (top down) process; Raymond advocated a more bottom-up method. He understood the bazaar (contra Clifford Geertz) as representing a way of harnessing collective intelligence toward collective ends: share the code with the world, and the world will fix its bugs in no time. Partly as a result of Raymond’s essay, the code underlying Netscape went open source, and the community-maintained Firefox browser was born. Much of the Internet—from Linux servers to Android phones—now runs on bazaar-style software.

Read Religion for commoners.
March 3rd, 2015

Give me that digital religion

posted by Kathryn Reklis

Every Sunday night in Omaha, Nebraska, a small group gathers in a United Church of Christ church lobby to watch and participate in a streaming video broadcast called Darkwood Brew. Both the project and the space—which has been transformed into a hip coffee shop—feel more of a piece with evangelical strategies to attract new members than with the trappings of Midwestern mainline Protestants. The crowd itself is relatively sparse, and much older than you might expect for such an experiment: a couple dozen people, most between 40 and 60 years of age.

I visited Countryside Community Church in fall 2011 as a Research Fellow for the New Media Project (housed at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis). Darkwood Brew was one of six case studies chosen for the first phase of the New Media Project’s research into how Christian communities in the United States are using, and theologically interpreting, new digital technologies. On its website, Darkwood Brew is described as “a groundbreaking interactive web television program and spiritual gathering that explores progressive/emerging Christian faith and values.” There is some debate among the participants themselves about whether or not the live stream counts as a church service; despite the fact that the weekly program features bible study, discussion, music, and concludes with the Christian rite of communion, most resist the language of “church” to describe what is happening.

Read Give me that digital religion.
February 24th, 2015

Anatomy of a tweet

posted by Negar Mottahedeh

I fell in love with the Perfect Man at a young age. He was humble, compassionate, strong, disciplined, affectionate, and, in all this, pure and selfless. His climb reached the highest towers. He defended the world against the enemy and his girl from harm. Although defeated in the end, he became the quintessential martyr, the model of meekness.

The Perfect Man of Iranian Shia Sufism prepared me for precisely the qualities that made me fall for King Kong as a child. In my dream-like displacements of Amerika as the land of progress and technology, King Kong’s climb up the antenna-topped Empire State Building represented the Perfect Man’s direct line of access to an otherworldly realm.

Read Anatomy of a tweet.
February 3rd, 2015

Comments don’t replace the news

posted by Tom Heneghan

Pope Francis has called the Internet a “gift from God.” If that’s the case, one has to wonder what message the Almighty wanted to send with this kind of present. The Internet does many good things for religion, such as informing people about each other’s faiths and providing a forum for serious discussion about them. But the same medium that can foster understanding also spreads polarization and deepens existing prejudices. This divine gift sends some decidedly mixed messages.

For a reporter like me, feedback from the public used to consist of occasional letters to the editor, maybe a phone call or a discreet word from a source not completely satisfied with a report. Now, the publication of an online news story is often only the beginning of a long series of exchanges with readers. Some of these are enriching experiences—opportunities to learn more about the subject or to discover leads for further reporting. But many are, frankly, a nuisance and a waste of time.

Read Comments don’t replace the news.
January 26th, 2015

When readers respond

posted by Tanya Luhrmann

Writing about religion in the digital age means that your readers respond. They have, of course, always responded; but in an age of stamps and paper, it required some effort. Now, it requires almost none. I still have the slender file of the paper letters people sent me after my first book came out in 1989. In 2012 I posted a short piece on CNN’s Belief Blog: “If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy.” There were more than 7000 comments. I couldn’t even read them.

Mind you, I didn’t want to. Readers can be unkind—perhaps because the swiftness of the digital writing process means that readers can blurt out the first vehement thoughts they might have edited away if they had to go to their typewriter and type out text on paper, or because the anonymity of posting means that the normal constraints on meanness disappear, or because people think they’re having a conversation just with other posters, and don’t really think of the writer as a fellow creature at all. Whatever the reason, people say horrible things in online posted comments. One gem from my Belief Blog essay: “This lady is (usually) crazy.”

Read When readers respond.
January 21st, 2015

Twitter, scripture and practice: A twessay on #ttQuran

posted by Hussein Rashid

In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful #ttQuran

What is #ttQuran?
We will tell you what is #ttQuran.

What is #ttQuran?
Truly you do not know what is #ttQuran.
To know #ttQuran is beyond.
It is only my ability to tell you about #ttQuran.
#ttQuran is a revelation.

Again, #ttQuran is a revelation.

Read Twitter, scripture and practice: A twessay on #ttQuran.
January 16th, 2015

How to make someone famous for the wrong reason

posted by Austin Dacey

Shahin Najafi - Unplugged Concert in Toronto | Image via Flickr user Reza VaziriShahin Najafi never set out to be a rapper, much less “Salman Rushdie of Rap,” but in early 2012, global notoriety was thrust upon the exiled Iranian singer after an ayatollah issued a fatwa against his single, “Naghi.” No doubt the young songwriter aimed to provoke—the track’s cover art depicts the dome of a well-known Shiite shrine re-imagined as a woman’s breast with a rainbow flag flying from the summit—but his satirical rhymes took aim at much more than Islam or conservative clerics. Nevertheless, Najafi became both victim and beneficiary of “catastrophic celebrity.”

How do you create “catastrophic celebrity”? First, find an artist whose work outrages some representative of a religious tradition, landing the artist in dire circumstances. Next, export the story of the outrage and the resulting drama out of its original cultural context, and count on others to disseminate the story without discovering or exploring this context. Several things result, the combination of which creates catastrophic celebrity.

Read How to make someone famous for the wrong reason.
January 12th, 2015

Religion: The Game

posted by Jason Anthony

Envy the life of a Harry Potter fan. Her imaginary world is barely imaginary. She can walk into the halls of Hogwarts through dozens of not-so-secret doors: eight major-studio films, role-playing chat rooms, video game franchises, a theme park roller coaster, a local Quidditch league, dress-up conventions, fan-authored stories or—and these are completely optional—the books written by J. K. Rowling.

Our twenty-first-century stories have evolved—or returned—to a more participatory format, a phenomenon which in the academy is coming under the critical rubric of cross-media or trans-media. Such stories are no longer discreet entities that exist between two covers but cultural experiences, a wide space to explore. Play Downtown Abbey: the Game. Watch Battleship: the Movie. Jump on the Transformers roller-coaster ride. The “real” form of a story dwindles in importance. On opening night of the 50 Shades of Grey movie, it’s barely a footnote that the story began as fan-fiction on a Twilight message board.

Read Religion: The Game.
January 7th, 2015

The digital is a place to hide

posted by Kathryn Lofton

In the digital age, is anything a secret? What comprises the unknown when a search engine is at hand? These questions have technical answers; they also have existential replies. Perhaps there is no greater artifact of what hides in this information age than the office workplace.

In 1975 BusinessWeek predicted a future we now occupy. “In almost a matter of months,” the article began, “office automation has emerged as a full-blown systems approach that will revolutionize how offices work.” It includes a quotation from George E. Pake, who then headed Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center. “There is absolutely no question that there will be a revolution in the office over the next twenty years. What we are doing will change the office like the jet plane revolutionized travel and the way that TV has altered family life.”

Read The digital is a place to hide.