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The Essential and Complex Relationship of Religion and Media

A monument to Johannes Gutenberg, whose press allowed for the mass distribution of the Christian Bible and every book since, in Strasbourg, Germany. Photo by Glenn J. Mason from London, Britain CC BY

Listening to Chris Cotter and his panelists – Suzanne Owen, Vivian Asimos, and Tim Hutchings – bring up some compelling issues relating to religion and media, I was struck at how integral media is to the message of religion and worthy of academic study.  My own faith, Christian Science, would not exist if the founder, Mary Baker Eddy, hadn’t found a medium through which to share her insights. In spite of the difficulties facing a woman writing on religious matters in the late nineteenth century she wrote and published her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, to crystalise her teachings.

Media is a way a religion presents itself both to its own adherents and to the world beyond.  In the podcast, Tim Hutchings brought up the question of how religion and media need not be seen as two separate issues that occasionally meet, but that religion can be reconceived as a kind of mediation itself.  In fact, religion is always a mediator or a set of practices of mediation between the human and the divine.  This can give it authority for its adherents who see it as trustworthy.  However, while it brings an understanding of the faith to the believer, this very same medium can be less fathomable to the outsider because of the use of particularised language, lack of in depth understanding of the teachings, and so on.

This podcast centres mainly on social media, which might be seen to be a way of bridging the gap, but it raises as many issues as it solves.  Social media is often less representative of mainstream religions, being more the province of individuals expressing and finding their religion in their own unique way.   The speakers on the podcast discovered various issues relating to social media such as isolationism, the anonymity of user names, and concern by those who remain with the more traditional physical forms of worship. These findings are echoed by Christopher D Cunningham in his recent article in Public Space magazine, where he observes,

Social media has provided a venue to channel religious fervour without institutional oversight.  The effect has been a democratisation of religion.  This approach takes church out of religion, undercutting churches’ authority (and ability) to control a narrative and maintain doctrinal boundaries.

Tim discovered this in his research with Christian groups who use digital media. He was faced with the question of who gets to decide if this new manifestation of church online is the true church. He noted the relationships and emotional commitments that the online church group members make feel very real to them.  But he also found that those members of the church who maintained the more traditional worship in physical places felt that they were the ‘real’ church.  This raises the wider issue of who defines a religion, especially in relation to these new online versions, Tim’s solution is to let the group itself decide.

@amishbek#Pennsylvania I’m Amish♬ original sound – user444597131867472

 

 

Above, teen Rebecca Fisher maintains a popular TikTok account. Though her parents were Amish, they left the church when Fisher was a young child, but she considers herself Amish and says she attends an Amish church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Most Amish communities discourage the use of cell phones outside of business and medical or other emergency reasons, and photographs and videos of individuals are also discouraged. Still, the use of social media is increasing, especially among teens who have not yet been baptized and who are permitted, before choosing to join the church, to engage in popular culture in ways more familiar to their “English” (non-Amish) peers.

Identification is a significant issue in religious scholarship because misunderstanding can have adverse, wider consequences, such as misleading stereotypes and prejudice. In my position in the Christian Science Committee on Publication, an office that reviews media discourse about the denomination, I regularly see my faith freely defined by others – church leaders, academics, journalists, writers, playwrights, novelists and so on – often inaccurately and sometimes in ways that are simply wrong and misleading.  This is not new and certainly not confined to Christian Science.  So I can’t help seeing value in Tim’s approach of allowing the group to define itself and listening to them, free of judgment, to find out who they are and what is important to them.

Churches have always used the media to nurture and educate their members.  Today their use of the new digital media may sometimes be clumsy, not well understood, and subject to failure at times, as Tim has seen in his research, but it is the current and future manifestation of the way many religions and religious people want to share and make themselves known.  Tim’s arguments to his university asking them to support his research into religion and digital media are not only valid but essential because, as he says, it offers a lens into studying what really matters in religion “”whatever that might be.”  By extrapolation, studying all the media resources of any religion will cast light on them in a real and profound way. It is how they express themselves – their beliefs, practices, relationships. But the challenge for researchers is to allow religious groups to speak for themselves and not to interpret them through their own particular bias. To gain a clear view of religion from their media takes sensitivity, patience, listening and reflexivity, and this is not easy.

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Media and the Study of Religion

The 2019 conference of the British Association for the Study of Religions, at Leeds Trinity University, was loosely themed on the topic ‘Visualizing Cultures: Media, Technology and Religion’, and this provided an excellent focal point for a discussion of Media and the Study of Religion more broadly. With that in mind, we convened a virtually mediated roundtable discussion with Suzanne Owen (conference organizer), Vivian Asimos and Tim Hutchings speaking with RSP co-founder Chris Cotter. These contributors bring a broad range of expertise and experience to the discussion, with work focusing upon online and digital spaces, the built environment, art, literature, broadcast media, social media, podcasting, and more. Discussion begins with the conference, before turning to how a media approach can help the study of religion, what we might mean by media and mediation, challenges of taking a media approach, the utilization of media in teaching, how to avoid reifying ‘religion’ in the process, and more.

This discussion works well as a companion piece with a number of previous RSP podcasts, including Religion and the News (with Eileen Barker, Tim Hutchings, Christopher Landau, and David Gordon Wilson), Religion and the Media  (with Teemu Taira), Religious Authority and Social Media (with Pauline Hope Cheong), Religion, Violence and the Media (with Jolyon Mitchell), and Visual Culture and the Study of Religion (with Birgit Meyer).

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Media and the Study of Religion

Podcast with Vivian Asimos, Tim Hutchings and Suzanne Owen

(20 January 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/media-and-the-study-of-religion/

Download the PDF of this transcription here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Media_and_the_Study_of_Religion_1.1.pdf

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome, Listeners, to a special roundtable episode of the Religious Studies Project. We had hoped that this would happen at the BASR 2019 Conference at Leeds Trinity, but everyone was too busy, too tired, over-podcasted. And so we thought we would reconvene later on, online. And we’re talking about media and the study of religion. We’ve had a few podcasts touching on this topic before. You know, we’ve had one that Tim – who you’ll be hearing from in a moment – was involved in about religion and the news, and we had Teemu Taira talking about religion and the media. But today we’re going be taking a much broader approach, I think, to the notion of media and the study of religion so: mediation, and the various media in which that can occur. So I’m just going allow the speakers to introduce themselves, and say a little bit about how media crops up in their work. So for those who don’t know, I’m Chris Cotter, I’m one of the co-founders of the Religious Studies Project. And I’m going to let other people speak first, before I scrabble around to try and think about how media comes up in my work. But, Vivian – you’re first on my list here – who are you, and what’s media for you?

Vivian Asimos (VA): (Laughs) Quite a big question, regarding my work! So I’m Vivian Asimos, I recently got my PhD at Durham university, which is currently where I’m still acting at teaching assistant on several kinds of course. And I study virtual story-telling, primarily looking at the internet and video games. So lots of media that I’m looking at, and different types. Sometimes looking at it historically – how things used to be, historically-speaking, for the internet. Obviously not quite the breadth of history as maybe some other people are used to looking at! But seeing how things change over time, and also how this impacts our ideas of supernatural or communication of religion. Those kinds of things. Yes.

CC: Excellent. You are well-qualified to be at this table – this virtual table. And this podcast that’s being mediated to the Listeners’ ears, and we’re recording it via the internet. So it’s already a case study in that. And then we’ve got Suzanne Owen.

Suzanne Owen (SO): Yes, and I’m reader in Religious Studies at Leeds Trinity University. And I’ll just say that the four of us are in four different locations. So that’s possible because of media – digital media. And my research . . . I’ve not focussed on media per se, but it has come in different forms. So in my work with research in Newfoundland I’ve been looking at . . . not digital media, but I guess you might call it hard media? I’m not sure: art work, museum exhibitions and how representations of particular indigenous groups are portrayed, and the discourse in the text that surrounds it. And what they’re emphasising or what they’re hiding. But, I guess, more directly with digital media with the project that Teemu Tiara and I did with the druid network on the registration as a charity for the advancement of religion. There was quite a lot of media discourse that we included in our study, to show the different responses to that registration.

CC: Excellent. And then, I guess, sort-of the driving force behind this podcast is Tim Hutchings.

Tim Hutchings (TH): Hi. I am the Assistant Professor in Religious Ethics at the University of Nottingham. But I’m mostly a sociologist of digital religion. For ten or fifteen years I’ve been studying, you could say, the opposite of the kind of approach that Vivian takes. So my research began by looking at what particularly Christian institutions were trying to do with digital media. So very formalised, institutionalised, traditional versions of religion, trying to produce forms of online community or online ritual that they could recognise as proper Christian church. (5:00) And from there I’ve been fascinated by that ongoing struggle in some ways, maybe, of institutions that are quite slow and ponderous sometimes, to get to grips with a fast-moving medium, or a whole set of media. One of the things I particularly enjoyed studying around that field is seeing the number of projects that don’t quite work out. And the study of religion and media is often the study of disasters and failures and things that are quietly forgotten as quickly as possible! But I’ve looked at projects like attempts to encourage people to read the Bible through digital media, attempts to create online communities, attempts to produce religious mobile apps, and some kind-of emerging conversations online around death and grief. And at the moment I’m looking at a video game. But it’s a video game produced, again, by a Christian organisation to try and teach children about the Bible, more or less. So those are the kinds of things that I’m interested in.

CC: Excellent. And Tim, you’ve also got a journal as well that we should probably mention?

TH: Yes. Thank you. I’m the editor-in-chief of the journal, Religion, Media and Digital Culture, which is published by Brill in collaboration with the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture.

CC: Excellent. And we’ll try and link to that from the podcast page. And, as I said, I would let other people speak before trying to come up with something on this end. So my research . . . I work broadly looking at non-religion – so, basically anything that could be conceptualised as a relational “other” to religion. Primarily, my work has been interview-based and ethnographic. But an interesting way in which, I guess, using mediation comes in is: I’ve done a good bit of work looking at the built environment and how particularly – my field site for my PhD was Edinburgh’s Southside – but how this Southside was felt. And how people’s non-religious lives were sort-of impacted upon by the Christian hegemony of the spaces, and all the sort of conversions and things like that. So a little bit on how space can be seen as media in discourse. But then also, of course, especially when you’re looking at atheism etc., there’s so much stuff online you’ve got to pay attention to. So a bit of that. And then of course there’s also the production of media which we’ll probably be talking about as well. There’s the Religious Studies Project, here, which you’re listening to I suppose. And Vivian, you’ve also got a podcast?

VA: I do. I have the Religion in Popular Culture podcast, where I interview different people in the field of the study of religion and popular culture. Unfortunately, Tim and I keep missing dates on being recorded for it! But I’ve gotten quite a few people that approach things from a variety of different perspectives. And I use popular culture quite broadly, I think, to encapsulate all sorts of different medias and media types and even just the things that we take for granted as being around us every day. So check it out, if you like podcasts and religion!

CC: Well, presumably people who are listening have at least some sort of passing interest in podcasts and religion!

VA: (Laughs.)

CC: OK. I thought we could kick off a little bit. . . . Because, as I say, we meant to try and record at the BASR 2019 conference, which Suzanne organised. And one of the words in the title was media (Laughs). So maybe, Suzanne, you could just tell us a little bit about what the conference theme was and anything that came out of it for you. And then as we were all there we might have some stuff to offer.

SO: Yes, when I was asked to organise the conference, I immediately thought of my colleagues in media, film and culture to help co-organise it. Because I’m the only person in Religious Studies at my institution. And that turned out to be really great collaboration, particularly with Stefano Odorico who is a documentary film maker. And he’s really interested in developing new digital skills among students, and also in research with interactive documentary film making in particular. And one of the things, when we were discussing various titles, we didn’t want to make religion too prominent because he thought that it would be off-putting to people from his side. And so we came up with “Visualising Cultures: media, technology and religion”. In the end it really was a BASR conference, as most of the participants were BASR people (10:00). But I think it was also trying to emphasise that religion is not a rarefied thing, I suppose. Just part of a bundle, in this title. And also to try to emphasise the kind-of collaborative projects that might be happening, or interdisciplinary projects – which, I guess, Religious Studies is by nature, for the most part. But in the way that we might be using different disciplinary skills in the study of religion in order to do our research. And so visualising cultures seemed to capture everything that we wanted to bring to the conference, and to allow people to come that might not ordinarily come to a BASR. And we did get a few participants in that group; they came because of the theme. And most of them did do a study of religion of some kind, but not all of them. So that was really good to see.

CC: Excellent. Yes I mean I saw papers to do with… well it James Kapalo talking about archival work, Vivian, and Jonathan, and few others presenting about virtual worlds .And I remember Michael Dudeck – it was quite an innovative paper – was developing a sort-of virtual constructed religion. He called it the Temple of Artifice. And so his presentation was very interactive, and very on the nose. And I guess sort-of pushed us to think a little bit about what we’re doing in the Study of Religion. Can we be constructing things in that sort of way? It was excellent.

SO: Yes, it’s interesting that Michael Dudeck’s project – where he’s deliberately creating a religion that’s digitally available to participate in – in some ways we’re doing the same thing. But we think we’re doing it for real, I guess. And it’s really good to see that actually, what we’re doing is just as constructed and fictionalised.

VA: (Laughs). I mean, I would probably argue that what I’m doing isn’t for real, and yet it is at the same time. (Laughs). So, yeah. Because what I tend to look at is constructed fictional narratives that people are engaging with. So these are ones that nobody is working at it from say the perspective of like “We’re trying to form this into something.” Very seldom does that happen. And yet it tends to take off in that direction. And so, very often, it’s that sense of real-but-it’s-not, simultaneously. And I think it kind-of reveals a lot about how we actually do see the world as not always being these strict dichotomies between fiction and reality, but that they can be blurred and they often are. And that the internet, and the way that the online story-telling really works, ends up actually revealing that to us.

SO: Yes. And what Dudeck produced was actually real as well. And that word reality and real was used quite a lot in the conference by participants, I noticed.

VA: Yes. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine!

CC: Do you want to say a bit more about that Vivian? You’ve got the air-time!

VA: Yes, sure. You see it a lot even outside of the academic circle, of the “real world” versus the “online world”, or the “virtual world”, or the “digital world”. And essentially what that’s doing is painting this virtual world as being completely not real, and therefore all communities formed, all relationships had, all experiences are therefore painted as not real. Because it’s being put up against the physical world, which is the real world. So I pick “physical world” rather than real, to distinguish. Because I don’t want to take away from the experiences that are actually being had, that are very really felt by participants, by painting them as not real.

CC: Exactly. I mean what is qualitatively different from the experience that someone is supposedly having, whether its mediated through sound,or in a particular building, or through radio waves, or though the telephone, or the television, or online, or in a field, or whatever? These are all just different media that are being utilised. There is definitely a current bias towards the online world as being, in some way, not as authentic. Yet, as I’m sure we would all agree, for many it can be more – quote –”authentic” than the physical world (15:00).

SO: Yes. It’s interesting, because this distinction in fantasy fiction is similar where they have primary and secondary world. And the primary world is meant to be the real world. But there is no real world in fiction, or any kind of representation. And also it’s creating a false boundary, really.

TH: So I struggled with this a lot when I was doing my research about online churches. To try and work out what would be the “other” thing that I was distinguishing this from. And I started off thinking, “Well, it’s online churches versus offline churches”. But that doesn’t make sense. Because lots of those offline churches have websites, or some sort of online presence that maybe you communicate with the pastor of the church by email, or something like this. They’re not digital-free spaces. But they’re mediated differently in some way. And “physical”, to me, didn’t quite work either. Because we use physical technologies, of course, to connect with digital communications as well as anything else. So I ended up talking about “the online” and “the local”: trying to catch that sense of a thing that is defined by the place when it happens, rather than the media through which we . . . or the digital media through which we communicate it. But it’s still not quite right.

SO: Yes, kind-of acknowledging . . .

TH: The other point that I wanted to catch, there, is: one of the moves that is often made in the conversations I hear is to say, “Well, the online and the offline are no longer distinct at all. And we need to abandon this binary.” Which also doesn’t quite work for the groups I’m looking at. Because the value of the online space is partly that it is not the face-to-face. It is – so, as Vivian was saying – it’s real, but it’s sort-of not-quite-real at the same time. Which gives you the freedom to be more playful. So the Centre for Media, Religion and Culture in Colorado, at the University of Boulder, has been talking about digital as a third space – which is helpful, I think. They’ve been writing about this for years and years. Trying to focus on the as-if-ness of a place that is sometimes treated as if it is real, and sometimes treated as if it is just a game, and used as a space to reflect on what happens elsewhere. Because one of the things that I’ve found, in the very kind-of clearly bounded online spaces I was looking at, where people would say, “This website is my church” – or whatever it might be – they would use those to then reflect on everything that was happening elsewhere in the world. But that would include face-to0face, and Facebook, and the rest of internet culture, and the email conversations that participants had with their parents. So, everything that happened outside the boundary. So there was a really important distinction between what happens inside the boundary and outside the boundary, but it wasn’t drawn in the same place as the online and offline distinction. And it wasn’t quite in the same place as the real and virtual distinction. But it was important to people that this was different from a serious real place and a little playful.

CC: I think actually, if I’m correct in remembering, Vivian, it came up in your paper at the BASR, how there’s often this notion that, I guess, “We can’t trust what people say online”. Or, you know . . . Actually, what can happen is that people’s online expressions can, in some ways, be maybe less filtered and more – quote – “real” than they might be in face-to-face social interactions. Am I remembering correctly?

VA: Yes. And it obviously is going to depend on individuals. But what I found was that, at least when talking with academics who have a bit of a bias against virtual worlds – to kind-of paint something more broadly there – they tend to say that because things can be anonymised, therefore you can’t trust anything. What I found during my fieldwork, as well as just from my own personal experience of living in various online spaces at various points in my life, is that there was still an identity that is tied to the username (20:00). And often users can feel more empowered to act in the way that they might not be able to. So, for example, if I’m on, say, even just an academic forum and I’m using a username, I might feel more compelled to be more strict in my opinions, because I’m not going to feel like I’m going to be questioned for being a woman. Like I might, if I’m in a physical space, where people can look at me and see that I’m a woman. So I might feel more willing to express myself when people can’t tell how young I am, how female I am. And I see this play out even on line as well. And, interestingly, I had strange responses, when I was conducting fieldwork, where I had people reaching out to me to discuss their experience on these forums. But they would use throwaway accounts, which essentially means they would create a new account solely for the purpose of our communication and then immediately get rid of it. And this was because they didn’t want what they said to be tied to their identities. So they were anonymising themselves, through what other people see as an anonymous username. Because it’s not an anonymous username. It’s tied to their identity there. It’s tied to their experiences, and lingo, and neighbourhoods that they trawl. And experiences and relationships are all tied to that name in the same way that, you know, those same exact things are tied to my Vivian Asimos name.

CC: Yes. Excellent. So it’s interesting that, although we’re trying to have this broad discussion around media and the state of religion, our focus is quite naturally being drawn to, I guess, online, digital, virtual and so on. And I guess that might be because it’s the latest medium of our times. I guess if we were having this discussion around the time of the printing press or the telephone or the television and stuff, you know, our conversation might be differently inflected. So maybe . . . . Because, Suzanne, you mentioned working with sort-of more, we could call it, traditional forms of media. Do you have any thoughts on your work there?

SO: Yes. And in some ways it is the same kind of research, because I’d interview artists about their artwork. And, of course, some artists portray their art in a kind-of non-conscious way, but I was still able to elicit some kind of discussion about the themes that they’re interested in. Because they were all depicting an extinct indigenous group in their artwork. And I thought there was a way that they could show their relationship to that subject in a non-verbal way, which offered an interesting insight that was different from the way that written texts or museum exhibits represent that group. And I did, I got a really different kind of perspective. So I think different kinds of media can bring out different kinds of insights, for sure, in research. It also reminds me a little bit of when I used to do theatre: there was one time, just for ourselves among the group that were doing the play, we did an experiment with masks where we were wearing different masks. It was just reminding me of what Vivian was saying with online identities, and how the mask then becomes the focus of your interaction. And they’re no longer the person behind the mask, but the mask could be sort-of male, female, androgynous, animal, human, alien. And our relationship, then, just completely changed. And I think that’s the beauty of different kinds of media, that you get really different kinds of responses and interactions.

CC: Time is, bizarrely, moving on as it tends to do. And I do want to get to the idea of how media can be utilised in the teaching of the study of religion. But I couldn’t resist getting a compliment in here about how . . . . I’d be interested in your thoughts. Much of the work that I encounter that seems to be taking a media approach – or looking at media in relation to religion – a lot of it tends to trip up on that sort of critical problem of, “there is something there, that is being mediated” (25:00). I guess, in a lot of this work, there is the assumption that there is religion, or there is, I guess, a deity that is being mediated through things. Rather than, perhaps, talking about a social constructivist approach. I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on that?

SO: Yes. As we were saying before we started recording: sometimes researchers think there is religion out there, and that is being mediated throughout various things like news or digital spaces, whereas we should really look at stuff that’s out there that gets mediated as something. Maybe as religion and discourse –a discourse analysis kind-of approach. Where the contesting . . . that there is something that exists prior to the discourse about it. You know, that religion is not a priori in that sense.

CC: Yes. And I guess you know, Tim, you’ve been talking about working with churches and churches in online space. How did you . . . ? Did you wrestle with that? I’m just allowing the group to define what it is, and then I’m looking for that being mediated online. How did you go about setting your boundaries?

TH: Yes, so around this question of reality – thinking back to my early research in online churches – on the outside of those online communities, one of the big conversations about them was whether this was considered real church or not. Which, from a kind-of sociological perspective is not a very useful category for me! Because, of course, for me there are a lot of different Christian traditions. They all define what a real church is differently. People from those traditions mix up together in online communities. So if you actually push the question, you’ll quite quickly find that people may agree or disagree about whether what they’re doing is real within the same group – and just politely don’t mention it very often. So I tried to allow groups to define themselves and just said, “If you’re calling what you do church, then I’m interested in finding out what it is.” But while keeping in mind that ambivalence, I guess, about who gets to decide whether this group calls itself church, or not? In some cases, the person who set up the thing decided, “Let’s call this the church of such and such”. But actually, if you had conversations with people who had been participating here for ten years every day, multiple hours a day, they’d say “Oh, of course it’s not really church.” So it was an inherently undefined word. And when people did want to claim that word, they often didn’t want to do it in ways that traditional Christian authorities would respect, shall we say? So they might want to say, “OK. So traditionally, my group has said that church has got to do these particular rituals, and you’ve got to have this particular authority structure. I don’t really care about that. What I care about is that I’ve made really important friendships here. It means a lot to me that this is a space where I have very important relationships and real emotional commitment. And so I call it church. And how dare you question whether this is church for me? Are you saying my friendships aren’t real?” Which is fascinating. Because that is not . . . that is . . . I don’t know if it’s a new way of thinking about church. But it’s a way of thinking about what is real that is different from the institutional tradition, perhaps. So – in line with this question about “Is there a previous, pre-mediated thing?” – there are conversations in the study of religion, media and culture for many years now that I’ve found really helpful, trying to reconceive religion itself as a kind of mediation. So people like Jeremy Stolow, and Birgit Meyer, and others, have argued that any study of religion and media that frames it as religion and media, as though there are two separate things, is not catching the really interesting part of the study of the . . . not the really interesting part of the field. Which is that religion itself is always mediated: religion itself can be understood as a kind of media, or a set of practices of mediation. Certain things that are permissible or forbidden, or expected within a certain group, that make connections between the human and the non-human (30:00). And I found that really helpful as a way of positioning what I’m interested in, in this very current study of digital religion, as part of the same kind of thing that all of my colleagues do in their studies of religion across centuries.

 CC: I considered trying to get mediating or mediatising into the title of the podcast. I might make it “Mediation and the study of religion” or something, just to emphasise that. Vivian, I know that you sometimes use the lens of myth in what you’re studying, as well. So, again, how do you decide when it’s religion that’s being mediated and things like that?

VA: (Laughs) I tend to not be too bothered about the word religion. Which might be a bit strange to say, as somebody who is a religion scholar, and in a religion department. But that’s how I see myself, because I don’t think anyone really knows precisely what religion is. And, therefore, how do you try to go about finding it, if you don’t know precisely what it is? So myth, to me, is a much more useful word than religion – although it probably has just as many problematic definitions throughout its history as religion does! But I see myth as being essentially defined by the individual or the community, which means that it’s not up to me – like what Tim was saying about leaving the community to kind-of define for themselves what matters and what doesn’t matter, and what words matter, and what words don’t matter. And seeing how they connect to a narrative in a very meaningful way. So I tend to focus more on myth than on religion, because of that. So I’m a mythographer as well as a religion scholar. And it has gotten me into trouble in the past. And that’s interesting in itself to think about how we, as scholars, are mediating our own understanding of religion onto our own discipline. So, my first year review board, I was asked why I was in a religion department, if I’m not looking at religion? Which I felt like I both was, and wasn’t. So it’s interesting to be told, time and time again, that you’re not studying religion when you feel like you are, but in a slightly different way. Because, essentially, we’re ascribing our own understandings onto our own disciplines, and mediating that through our own podcasts, as well as in books.

SO: I think the problem is everyone does know what religion is, or says that, or thinks that they do. And that’s why there’s so many ideas about religion, because everybody is so sure that they know what it is. Whereas, I think that there isn’t something there anyway. Like with any kind of thing, any kind of abstract subject, it is obviously mediated and created; born out of relationship and dialogue and discussion; and what people portray, or what they define as . . . . So comparing definitions is one of the first things I do with students in first year. It’s to show that there are many definitions of religion, and there are some essential differences between these definitions, and what does that say about it? What are they emphasising, and what they selecting and excluding, to create this thing called religion that they’ve defined? It’s an ongoing sort of disagreement I had with my own supervisor about whether or not you should define what you’re researching. And of course I’m seeing it more as: those that I’m researching are defining terms.

TH: Yes. So, in response to what Suzanne was saying a moment ago about the discourse approach, or discourse analysis approach to religion: an advantage, or disadvantage – depending on how you look at it – of that kind-of approach, I think, is that actually the word religion is very rarely used by the people I’m interested in. Unless they’re trying to step back from their engaged experience and be more analytical about it, and say “Well, maybe this is the kind of religion. . . .” In Christian contexts it’s quite common for people to say, “Well, this is not religion. Religion is that bad thing . . . . We are better than religion, because we are spiritual”, or something like that. Religion, as a term, is mostly imposed by academics onto the field in things like department meetings! (35:00)

SO: Yes.

VA: (Laughs).

TH: “Religion is a real thing because we study this”. But then, reflecting on what Vivian was saying, I had similar experiences myself. And that’s maybe a useful pointer for people listening to this podcast, particularly if you’re just starting out in an academic career. If you’re studying something unusual and exciting to do with pop culture, at some point somebody will say, “Yes – but is it religion?”

CC: Exactly.

TH: And even if that is a made-up word that doesn’t really exist, religion departments do exist. Those are definitely real. And it’s a question that it’s worth, you know . . . It will come up at some point. It’s worth having an answer to it. When people asked me that question, I was left slightly taken aback. So it’s worth anticipating it, before it arrives.

CC: Absolutely. So that brings us quite nicely, I suppose, to our final question. And we’re a little over time, but we’re going to run with it. Because we’ve been talking, there, about students, and about supervisors, and how the subject of the study of religion – whether that’s religious studies, or sociology of religion, or anthropology, etc. – how we mediate the very topic. But I wonder . . . Tim was mentioning, before we started, how institutions are now increasingly wanting us to incorporate media in various forms. And I wonder if anyone’s got any thought about that, or any useful stories or useful failures, and things like that? (Laughs).

VA: This is actually something that more recently I’ve been engaging with, but not using things like the internet or podcasts so much as using the kind-of more traditional media, primarily with pictures, with my students. Normally, as a teaching assistant you tend to not get quite as much creativity allowed to you when it comes to teaching. But I’ve been able to play with it a bit this year, because there’s a new first year module where we’ve kind-of shifted study of religion to being a worldviews approach by Douglas Davies. And the whole conversation on how he’s structured this, and whether or not it’s successful, could probably be an entire podcast episode in and of itself. So I’ll kind-of skip over that. But because it’s a bit more experimental it allows us, as teaching assistants, to be more experimental in our seminars. And one of the things that myself and Danny Riley – who’s a PhD student at Durham University, as well – have decided to do, was to do photo-elicitation – but as a teaching useful tool, rather than as an anthropological interviewing tool. So one of the ideal types that Douglas has set out was a natural worldview. So I asked students to take a picture of what they think embodies a natural worldview. And then we sat around and we chatted about all of the pictures that we had in a variety of formats, asking them very solid questions like, “Which picture makes you feel uncomfortable?” And then we’d sit around, and talk about why we had picked the picture that they had, and ended up revealing a lot more about how people see the world differently from one another – which was always difficult to get to, especially at Durham where most of our undergraduates are all from very similar socio economic, racial and geographical background. So, to be able to pull out their inner thoughts through the images, actually was incredibly useful.

CC: Excellent.

SO: I had a really good experiment with our first year students in Intro Week. They’re just coming in and being inducted. I had them take a photograph of what they think is the heart of the university – to represent it with taking a photo on their mobile phones – and then to send me the photo, and then we can look at the different images. And I got a really nice spread, from obvious choices like the chapel or the bar, or the coffee place. But also some more creative ones, like there was an image they took of themselves to show that the students were the heart of the university. And those were the ones that came to mind. So I’m interested in getting students to produce media and hopefully, in the future, to actually make more sort-of media. We’ve already had them doing little documentaries, or podcasts, or digital things. But maybe to even make something more . . . interactive documentary film making in the future – which is what our university specialises in (40:00).

CC: I think there’s a lot of scope now that everyone’s got a sort of portable – most people, I should say – at a typical UK university will have sort of portable media studio in their pocket, producing video content and audio content. And just one thing to throw in there . . . I always have these great intentions of doing a lot of innovative things that I never quite have time . . . . But what I’ve started to try and do . . . I was getting a bit fed up constantly typing up comments in the student’s essays – and I noticed that in our sort of marking suite it would give you the option to record audio. And I thought that this might . . . because you can get a lot more over in the tone of your voice. The nuance might not come through in text. So I’ve started to try, where I can, to offer audio comments on essays. And I’ve also offered audio feedback on my dissertation submissions, and things like that. I think it’s a way to . . . . You can really emphasise what’s actually important. And they can also tell from the tone of your voice if you actually do like something. And you can be a lot more reassuring. Things can come across maybe quite harsh in text forms. So that’s a way, I guess, of trying to incorporate more innovative things in the teaching on the assessment side. How about you two?

TH: Well, from my point of view, having been in this field of research now for ten or fifteen years, I’ve gone through quite a journey of trying to persuade universities that what I do is a really significant thing that is worth having in their department. Because, to start with, people would say, “Well digital seems a bit niche.” So I’d try and present media as a lens onto studying “what really matters” – whatever that might be. Or perhaps considering media, as we’ve been discussing before, as a way of thinking about religion itself, and how religions, worldviews, experiences and practices really work. What’s actually taken me a bit by surprise, over the last year or so, is to realise that actually the research I’ve been doing – as I slightly pejoratively introduced it, way back at the beginning of this podcast – is basically about big clumsy traditional institutions, struggling to adapt and catch up to a media world that they don’t quite understand, but they’re pretty sure that the young people are really into nowadays. That’s basically the story of what I’ve been doing for my whole career. And suddenly I’ve discovered that, joining a university department, that that’s the institution I’ve joined. That’s exactly what they’re doing! The same conversations that I used to study from the Pope writing in 2002, I’ve now got the Vice-Chancellor of my university saying in 2018 – almost word for word, repeating the same arguments. And the digital has gone from being a niche topic that a few people study, to an imposed agenda for our teaching programmes. It is necessary to ensure that students are learning digital skills for the workplace as well as traditional Humanities essay-writing and examination skills. And so, very suddenly, I’ve found that I’m required to attend a hundred and five different committees, and think-tanks, and organisations, all of which will plaintively say, “Well, we feel like we should be doing something digital.” And that’s going to be a rapidly changing environment, which is very interesting to watch. But we’re starting to have university-wide conversations, which are ongoing, about how we ensure that every lecture is recorded, and how we then ensure that everybody watched the videos. And do we then have any data to suggest that watching videos of lectures actually helps students learn? And how do we replace essays with new forms of assessment that might teach some digital skills? And, in that case, is there any way that we could actually teach some digital skills to the teachers? Which is a bit of a problem that is emerging, I think. It’s very easy to say, “All students need to do a video assignment”. But, apart from Suzanne who has a huge advantage from her colleagues at Leeds Trinity, those of us in traditional Theology and Religious Studies departments probably don’t have a colleague who does a lot of video (45:00). So there’s a hope that sometimes comes up in some of those meetings, that “Of course, our students nowadays will have all of these digital skills. So maybe the students could teach some of those digital skills to the lecturers, in order to have them taught back again for assessment?” So there’s not exactly a solution to that at the moment. It’s also a programme that, by its nature, seems to be essentially evolving. Once you’ve decided that your institution will invest heavily in technology, you then need to upgrade all the technology next year – forever. And once you have taught everybody how to use one system, you need to then give them a refresher course on the next system. So in my own teaching, I’m introducing a new assignment that will require students to produce videos or podcasts and reflect on that experience. But there are a lot of technical challenges to doing that. It turns out when everybody in your class has their own video-making device but none of those devices are compatible with the other devices, you can actually spend weeks trying to work out how you actually upload all of those things into the university systems so that they can be stored properly, and assessed through an online marking system, that was not set up to do any of this! There are probably not enough technical support people in the university for every class to have somebody who is full time just reminding the students which cables they need to use to plug their phones into things. So it’s interesting to see . . . It’s nice to study disasters sometimes, as I said at the start. It’s very important.

CC: Yes. You often find that by the time academics are paying attention to something it’s already out of fashion. (Laughs). Right. We’ve talked a lot longer than I intended, but it’s been an excellent discussion. But we’re going to have to wrap it up, for that sake of our poor Listeners and poor transcriber! Thank you all so much for joining me on the Religious Studies Project.

TH: Thank you very much for inviting us.

VA: Thank you.

SO: Thanks for listening!

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Playing the Field: the Logistics of Religion and Video Game Studies

The field of religion and video games is still new and forming. In its struggle to find itself, it simultaneously competes with a university’s traditional understanding of both education and culture, often involving Gregory Price Grieve’s comment that video games are perceived as “low brow” culture. The view of video games as, again to quote Grieve, “just above pornography,” is a misconception that the academic study of video games is constantly fighting against.

That being said, hearing about Grieve’s success in bringing the study of video games to his university is promising. Not only was he able to establish courses for the study of religion and video games, but was also able to work with his library and university in order to establish gaming centres for students to play games. Having digital media pushed across disciplines throughout the university, as well as having a Digital Media Centre in their library, helps to establish video games and other forms of digital media as important and worthy of study in the university.

Grieve did have an understanding university, which is something important to keep in mind. While his approach to getting video games in the classroom is a format presented to be copied, not everyone is lucky enough to be present in a university that is so understanding. This is especially the case in universities rooted in academic tradition, built on older standards which seldom factor in elements of popular culture. This is not even considering the cost of this kind of endeavour. Even with a buy-in from the library, Grieve’s project still needed $10,000. And this is only considering the technicalities of this new media, and not the thought process of people who still believe that video games are not an important element of popular culture today, or who don’t seem to really care about the “popular” at all. In that sense, there are bigger problems facing some people at less understanding universities than a lack of technology.

The positive reception Grieve has experienced with his students can hopefully begin to be experienced by researchers and teachers in the study of video games in many universities throughout the world. However, there are many elements that still work against progression in the field. Some of the thoughts and actions impeding the growth of the field are, sadly, still present even among scholars in the field. By studying only video games, we impede ourselves and the progress which can be made; there are many aspects of video games which are affecting other elements of popular culture. An example of this are Let’s Play videos, in which players record themselves playing a video game, with commentary and sometimes even recordings of the player’s face (as the Let’s Player PewDiePie became known for), which are then uploaded on video sharing sites such as YouTube. Unfortunately, the popularity of Let’s Plays have been stereotyped almost as much as video games themselves are, an element that is unfortunately heard even in Grieves interview in which he relegates their popularity and interest almost exclusively to “teenagers”, even though the demographic may not be this concrete, especially for Let’s Players who are older themselves, such as Fun Haus. PewDiePIe has over 41 million subscribers, and it is hard to imagine that all 41 million are only teenagers. Not to mention that the fastest growing demographic for gaming content are women over the age of 25.[1]

What Let’s Plays demonstrate for academics of video games is the creativity enjoyed by Let’s Players. Geoff Ramsey, the founder of the Let’s Play group Achievement Hunter has commented on this creativity: “Any time we can take and use [a game] in a way that it wasn’t necessarily intended by the developers, that’s like the best thing in the world to me.”[2] This out-pouring of creativity allows researchers to have easy access to new narratives being created and the emotions they create and share. These new narratives and emotions are not experienced solely by the Let’s Player, but also by those who watch these videos; these narratives are then shared by the viewer to others, and new narratives are created by the viewer in relation to these new narratives. These videos are then not only relegated to the realm of video games, but also to internet studies and realms of internet discourse, particularly when elements of them become shared as memes.

The field of religion and video games is still emerging, and thus still solidifying its own definition and place. What is most important is for scholars interested in engaging with digital media, like video games, to demonstrate to their students, universities, and themselves that video games are a medium worthy of study.

[1] Gautam Ramdurai, “Think Gaming Content is Niche? Think Again,” Think with Google, December 2014, accessed February 2016, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/think-gaming-content-is-niche-think-again.html.

[2] Rooster Teeth, Let’s Play Live: The Documentary, Video (2015), ), http://roosterteeth.com/episode/r-t-docs-let-s-play-live-let-s-play-live-the-documentary

THATCamp Roundtable on Digital Religious Studies

At this past year’s meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore, Maryland, over 70 scholars met to participate in the AAR’s first THATCamp. The Humanities and Technology Camp is an open meeting for those desiring a conference experience outside of the presentation of formal papers. Participants submitted ideas ahead of time to the AAR THATCamp website, but the final shape and content of the event was decided on-site by a vote. In the busy weekend of paper sessions, THATCamp AAR was an oasis of facilitate first, pontificate second. As digital religious studies emerges within the broader digital humanities movement, the Camp was a rather bold move for the AAR, whose interaction has been driven by more conservative timelines.

THATCamp represents one of the bright spots of the digital world and its potential for conference goers. It emphasizes hands-on experience, privileges active learning, and puts expertise and enthusiasm for technology side-by-side. It can be chaotic with its impromptu schedule, but the advantage is the flexibility it offers to solve problems, foster dialogue, and teach digital skills.

Over the course of the day participants had the option to become more familiar with the online curation platform Omeka, learn about the many options for digital publishing, brainstorm ways to harness outside technological expertise for humanities projects, discuss the role of media in the classroom, learn the basics of big data, and even get tips about doing digital ethnography with students. The schedule is still up here, but it was as full a day of information as even the most seasoned technophiles could handle.

For the conference organizers that sat together for a few brief minutes over lunch, there was awareness of both the promises and perils of the digital world. As a fledgling research method whose products are varied and often unique, there is a great need for clear standards of evaluation of “good scholarship in the digital realm.” This should be of special concern to early career scholars who may have to fight for the presence of digital work in their tenure portfolios or in grant applications. This problem would be addressed not only by the development and promotion of open platforms for scholarly work, but also by sincere discussion about basic digital literacy and professionalization with digital tools and methods. Publishers, professional organizations, libraries, departments, scholars, and students–everyone in the academic chain will need to work out their roles for digital methods and digital work.

With so little time, several questions were pre-circulated to help things move along quickly on these topics.

What does it mean to teach or research religious studies digitally?

Does religious “data” make digital religious studies distinct within the digital humanities?

What is a digital religious studies research project you think more people should know about?

How can departments and the field better support digital methods and pedagogies?

For each of the six participants, digital methods and platforms are a key element in their identity as scholars. While there was not an opportunity to to fully explore their contribution and work, if you would like to learn more about them, please use the links below:

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.comlinks to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Religious Authority and Social Media

Throughout the history of the RSP, we have been privileged to feature a number of interviews and responses which have focused upon the interaction of ‘religion’ with information and communications technology, including Jonathan’s interview with Tim Hutchings on Digital Religion, and Louise’s interview with Heidi Campbell on Religion in a Networked Society. However, up until now, we haven’t paid particular attention to the impact of social media upon ‘religion’ and Religious Studies. Today’s interview features Chris speaking with Pauline Hope Cheong of Arizona State University on the topic of religious authority, the impact of social media upon this aspect of religion, and how scholars can potentially go about utilizing this seemingly infinite repository of information and chatter in their research.

As Cheong herself writes:

Given its rich and variable nature, authority itself is challenging to define and study. Although the words “clergy” and “priests” are commonly used, in the west, to connote religious authority, the variety of related titles is immense (e.g. “pastor,” “vicar,” “monk,” “iman,” “guru,” “rabbi,” etc). Studies focused on religious authority online have been few, compared to studies centered on religious community and identity. Despite interest and acknowledgment of the concept, there is a lack of definitional clarity over authority online, and no comprehensive theory of religious authority… (2013, 73)

Hopefully this interview shall go some way to addressing this lack.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.

This interview was recorded in London, in June 2013, at the Open University’s Digital Media and Sacred Text Conference. We are very grateful to Tim Hutchings and the Open University for their support in facilitating this recording, and for just generally being awesome.

References and Further Reading

  • Cheong, P.H. (2013) Authority. In H. Campbell (Ed). Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. Pp 72-87. NY: Routledge
  • Cheong, P.H., P. Fischer-Nielsen, P., S. Gelfgren, & C. Ess (Eds) (2012) Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices, Futures. pp. 1-24. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Cheong, P.H., Hwang, J.M. & Brummans, H.J.M. (forthcoming, 2013). Transnational immanence: The autopoietic co-constitution of a Chinese spiritual organization through mediated organization. Information, Communication & Society.
  • Cheong, P.H., Huang, S.H., & Poon, J.P.H. (2011). Religious Communication and Epistemic Authority of Leaders in Wired Faith Organizations. Journal of Communication, 61 (5), 938-958.
  • Cheong, P.H., Huang, S.H., & Poon, J.P.H (2011). Cultivating online and offline pathways to enlightenment: Religious authority in wired Buddhist organizations. Information, Communication & Society, 14 (8), 1160-1180.

Religion in a Networked Society

CampbellMedia, religion and culture is an emerging area, with much attention being given to four themes, namely authority, community, identity and ritual. Research has focused on a wide range of topics, including different religions in virtual worlds; religion and video games; online cyber-churches and temples; and an exploration into how religious organisations and individuals are accepting or rejecting digital media. Heidi Campbell is one of the leading scholars in the field of media, religion and culture and has written extensively about this topic; providing us with an insight into the relationship between digital culture and religion. For scholars of religious studies, media studies and other related disciplines, the exploration of religion and the internet provides an insight into the relationship between religion and technology and consequently, the possible impact and challenge to traditional religion.

On a recent visit to Edinburgh, the Religious Studies Project (Louise) met with Heidi Campbell (the interview is set in a restaurant and so on occasion you may hear some background noise). The interview focuses on her recent article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (March 2012), “Understanding the Relationship between Religion Online and Offline in a Networked Society”, which presents five key traits of the concept of “networked religion”. These are: networked community; storied identities; shifting authority; convergent practice; and a multisite reality. Campbell presents an overview of each of these traits and concludes by questioning how digital communications technologies might affect religious authority in the future.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Heidi Campbell is Associate Professor of Communication at Texas A&M University where she teaches in Telecommunications and Media Studies. Campbell’s teaching and research explores the social shaping of technology, rhetoric of new media, and themes related to the intersection of media religion and culture, with a special interest in the internet and mobile phones. She has written extensively about media, religion and culture, comprising of a number of journal articles and books, including When Religion Meets New Media (Routledge, 2010) and her recent publication Digital Religion. Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (Routledge, 2012).

Select Publications:

Campbell, H. (2005). Exploring religious community online: We are one in the network. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Campbell, H. (2010). When religion meets new media. London, UK: Routledge.

Campbell, H & Connelly, L. (2012). Cyber behavior and religious practice on the internet, In Z. Yeng (ed.) Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior, (pp. 434-445). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Campbell, H. (ed.) (2012). Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. New York: Routledge.

Campbell, H. (2012). Understanding the Relationship between Religion Online and Offline in a Networked Society, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 80 (1), 64-93.

This interview was based upon the article: http://jaar.oxfordjournals.org/content/80/1/64.abstract

Podcasts

The Essential and Complex Relationship of Religion and Media

A monument to Johannes Gutenberg, whose press allowed for the mass distribution of the Christian Bible and every book since, in Strasbourg, Germany. Photo by Glenn J. Mason from London, Britain CC BY

Listening to Chris Cotter and his panelists – Suzanne Owen, Vivian Asimos, and Tim Hutchings – bring up some compelling issues relating to religion and media, I was struck at how integral media is to the message of religion and worthy of academic study.  My own faith, Christian Science, would not exist if the founder, Mary Baker Eddy, hadn’t found a medium through which to share her insights. In spite of the difficulties facing a woman writing on religious matters in the late nineteenth century she wrote and published her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, to crystalise her teachings.

Media is a way a religion presents itself both to its own adherents and to the world beyond.  In the podcast, Tim Hutchings brought up the question of how religion and media need not be seen as two separate issues that occasionally meet, but that religion can be reconceived as a kind of mediation itself.  In fact, religion is always a mediator or a set of practices of mediation between the human and the divine.  This can give it authority for its adherents who see it as trustworthy.  However, while it brings an understanding of the faith to the believer, this very same medium can be less fathomable to the outsider because of the use of particularised language, lack of in depth understanding of the teachings, and so on.

This podcast centres mainly on social media, which might be seen to be a way of bridging the gap, but it raises as many issues as it solves.  Social media is often less representative of mainstream religions, being more the province of individuals expressing and finding their religion in their own unique way.   The speakers on the podcast discovered various issues relating to social media such as isolationism, the anonymity of user names, and concern by those who remain with the more traditional physical forms of worship. These findings are echoed by Christopher D Cunningham in his recent article in Public Space magazine, where he observes,

Social media has provided a venue to channel religious fervour without institutional oversight.  The effect has been a democratisation of religion.  This approach takes church out of religion, undercutting churches’ authority (and ability) to control a narrative and maintain doctrinal boundaries.

Tim discovered this in his research with Christian groups who use digital media. He was faced with the question of who gets to decide if this new manifestation of church online is the true church. He noted the relationships and emotional commitments that the online church group members make feel very real to them.  But he also found that those members of the church who maintained the more traditional worship in physical places felt that they were the ‘real’ church.  This raises the wider issue of who defines a religion, especially in relation to these new online versions, Tim’s solution is to let the group itself decide.

@amishbek#Pennsylvania I’m Amish♬ original sound – user444597131867472

 

 

Above, teen Rebecca Fisher maintains a popular TikTok account. Though her parents were Amish, they left the church when Fisher was a young child, but she considers herself Amish and says she attends an Amish church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Most Amish communities discourage the use of cell phones outside of business and medical or other emergency reasons, and photographs and videos of individuals are also discouraged. Still, the use of social media is increasing, especially among teens who have not yet been baptized and who are permitted, before choosing to join the church, to engage in popular culture in ways more familiar to their “English” (non-Amish) peers.

Identification is a significant issue in religious scholarship because misunderstanding can have adverse, wider consequences, such as misleading stereotypes and prejudice. In my position in the Christian Science Committee on Publication, an office that reviews media discourse about the denomination, I regularly see my faith freely defined by others – church leaders, academics, journalists, writers, playwrights, novelists and so on – often inaccurately and sometimes in ways that are simply wrong and misleading.  This is not new and certainly not confined to Christian Science.  So I can’t help seeing value in Tim’s approach of allowing the group to define itself and listening to them, free of judgment, to find out who they are and what is important to them.

Churches have always used the media to nurture and educate their members.  Today their use of the new digital media may sometimes be clumsy, not well understood, and subject to failure at times, as Tim has seen in his research, but it is the current and future manifestation of the way many religions and religious people want to share and make themselves known.  Tim’s arguments to his university asking them to support his research into religion and digital media are not only valid but essential because, as he says, it offers a lens into studying what really matters in religion “”whatever that might be.”  By extrapolation, studying all the media resources of any religion will cast light on them in a real and profound way. It is how they express themselves – their beliefs, practices, relationships. But the challenge for researchers is to allow religious groups to speak for themselves and not to interpret them through their own particular bias. To gain a clear view of religion from their media takes sensitivity, patience, listening and reflexivity, and this is not easy.

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Media and the Study of Religion

The 2019 conference of the British Association for the Study of Religions, at Leeds Trinity University, was loosely themed on the topic ‘Visualizing Cultures: Media, Technology and Religion’, and this provided an excellent focal point for a discussion of Media and the Study of Religion more broadly. With that in mind, we convened a virtually mediated roundtable discussion with Suzanne Owen (conference organizer), Vivian Asimos and Tim Hutchings speaking with RSP co-founder Chris Cotter. These contributors bring a broad range of expertise and experience to the discussion, with work focusing upon online and digital spaces, the built environment, art, literature, broadcast media, social media, podcasting, and more. Discussion begins with the conference, before turning to how a media approach can help the study of religion, what we might mean by media and mediation, challenges of taking a media approach, the utilization of media in teaching, how to avoid reifying ‘religion’ in the process, and more.

This discussion works well as a companion piece with a number of previous RSP podcasts, including Religion and the News (with Eileen Barker, Tim Hutchings, Christopher Landau, and David Gordon Wilson), Religion and the Media  (with Teemu Taira), Religious Authority and Social Media (with Pauline Hope Cheong), Religion, Violence and the Media (with Jolyon Mitchell), and Visual Culture and the Study of Religion (with Birgit Meyer).

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Media and the Study of Religion

Podcast with Vivian Asimos, Tim Hutchings and Suzanne Owen

(20 January 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/media-and-the-study-of-religion/

Download the PDF of this transcription here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Media_and_the_Study_of_Religion_1.1.pdf

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome, Listeners, to a special roundtable episode of the Religious Studies Project. We had hoped that this would happen at the BASR 2019 Conference at Leeds Trinity, but everyone was too busy, too tired, over-podcasted. And so we thought we would reconvene later on, online. And we’re talking about media and the study of religion. We’ve had a few podcasts touching on this topic before. You know, we’ve had one that Tim – who you’ll be hearing from in a moment – was involved in about religion and the news, and we had Teemu Taira talking about religion and the media. But today we’re going be taking a much broader approach, I think, to the notion of media and the study of religion so: mediation, and the various media in which that can occur. So I’m just going allow the speakers to introduce themselves, and say a little bit about how media crops up in their work. So for those who don’t know, I’m Chris Cotter, I’m one of the co-founders of the Religious Studies Project. And I’m going to let other people speak first, before I scrabble around to try and think about how media comes up in my work. But, Vivian – you’re first on my list here – who are you, and what’s media for you?

Vivian Asimos (VA): (Laughs) Quite a big question, regarding my work! So I’m Vivian Asimos, I recently got my PhD at Durham university, which is currently where I’m still acting at teaching assistant on several kinds of course. And I study virtual story-telling, primarily looking at the internet and video games. So lots of media that I’m looking at, and different types. Sometimes looking at it historically – how things used to be, historically-speaking, for the internet. Obviously not quite the breadth of history as maybe some other people are used to looking at! But seeing how things change over time, and also how this impacts our ideas of supernatural or communication of religion. Those kinds of things. Yes.

CC: Excellent. You are well-qualified to be at this table – this virtual table. And this podcast that’s being mediated to the Listeners’ ears, and we’re recording it via the internet. So it’s already a case study in that. And then we’ve got Suzanne Owen.

Suzanne Owen (SO): Yes, and I’m reader in Religious Studies at Leeds Trinity University. And I’ll just say that the four of us are in four different locations. So that’s possible because of media – digital media. And my research . . . I’ve not focussed on media per se, but it has come in different forms. So in my work with research in Newfoundland I’ve been looking at . . . not digital media, but I guess you might call it hard media? I’m not sure: art work, museum exhibitions and how representations of particular indigenous groups are portrayed, and the discourse in the text that surrounds it. And what they’re emphasising or what they’re hiding. But, I guess, more directly with digital media with the project that Teemu Tiara and I did with the druid network on the registration as a charity for the advancement of religion. There was quite a lot of media discourse that we included in our study, to show the different responses to that registration.

CC: Excellent. And then, I guess, sort-of the driving force behind this podcast is Tim Hutchings.

Tim Hutchings (TH): Hi. I am the Assistant Professor in Religious Ethics at the University of Nottingham. But I’m mostly a sociologist of digital religion. For ten or fifteen years I’ve been studying, you could say, the opposite of the kind of approach that Vivian takes. So my research began by looking at what particularly Christian institutions were trying to do with digital media. So very formalised, institutionalised, traditional versions of religion, trying to produce forms of online community or online ritual that they could recognise as proper Christian church. (5:00) And from there I’ve been fascinated by that ongoing struggle in some ways, maybe, of institutions that are quite slow and ponderous sometimes, to get to grips with a fast-moving medium, or a whole set of media. One of the things I particularly enjoyed studying around that field is seeing the number of projects that don’t quite work out. And the study of religion and media is often the study of disasters and failures and things that are quietly forgotten as quickly as possible! But I’ve looked at projects like attempts to encourage people to read the Bible through digital media, attempts to create online communities, attempts to produce religious mobile apps, and some kind-of emerging conversations online around death and grief. And at the moment I’m looking at a video game. But it’s a video game produced, again, by a Christian organisation to try and teach children about the Bible, more or less. So those are the kinds of things that I’m interested in.

CC: Excellent. And Tim, you’ve also got a journal as well that we should probably mention?

TH: Yes. Thank you. I’m the editor-in-chief of the journal, Religion, Media and Digital Culture, which is published by Brill in collaboration with the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture.

CC: Excellent. And we’ll try and link to that from the podcast page. And, as I said, I would let other people speak before trying to come up with something on this end. So my research . . . I work broadly looking at non-religion – so, basically anything that could be conceptualised as a relational “other” to religion. Primarily, my work has been interview-based and ethnographic. But an interesting way in which, I guess, using mediation comes in is: I’ve done a good bit of work looking at the built environment and how particularly – my field site for my PhD was Edinburgh’s Southside – but how this Southside was felt. And how people’s non-religious lives were sort-of impacted upon by the Christian hegemony of the spaces, and all the sort of conversions and things like that. So a little bit on how space can be seen as media in discourse. But then also, of course, especially when you’re looking at atheism etc., there’s so much stuff online you’ve got to pay attention to. So a bit of that. And then of course there’s also the production of media which we’ll probably be talking about as well. There’s the Religious Studies Project, here, which you’re listening to I suppose. And Vivian, you’ve also got a podcast?

VA: I do. I have the Religion in Popular Culture podcast, where I interview different people in the field of the study of religion and popular culture. Unfortunately, Tim and I keep missing dates on being recorded for it! But I’ve gotten quite a few people that approach things from a variety of different perspectives. And I use popular culture quite broadly, I think, to encapsulate all sorts of different medias and media types and even just the things that we take for granted as being around us every day. So check it out, if you like podcasts and religion!

CC: Well, presumably people who are listening have at least some sort of passing interest in podcasts and religion!

VA: (Laughs.)

CC: OK. I thought we could kick off a little bit. . . . Because, as I say, we meant to try and record at the BASR 2019 conference, which Suzanne organised. And one of the words in the title was media (Laughs). So maybe, Suzanne, you could just tell us a little bit about what the conference theme was and anything that came out of it for you. And then as we were all there we might have some stuff to offer.

SO: Yes, when I was asked to organise the conference, I immediately thought of my colleagues in media, film and culture to help co-organise it. Because I’m the only person in Religious Studies at my institution. And that turned out to be really great collaboration, particularly with Stefano Odorico who is a documentary film maker. And he’s really interested in developing new digital skills among students, and also in research with interactive documentary film making in particular. And one of the things, when we were discussing various titles, we didn’t want to make religion too prominent because he thought that it would be off-putting to people from his side. And so we came up with “Visualising Cultures: media, technology and religion”. In the end it really was a BASR conference, as most of the participants were BASR people (10:00). But I think it was also trying to emphasise that religion is not a rarefied thing, I suppose. Just part of a bundle, in this title. And also to try to emphasise the kind-of collaborative projects that might be happening, or interdisciplinary projects – which, I guess, Religious Studies is by nature, for the most part. But in the way that we might be using different disciplinary skills in the study of religion in order to do our research. And so visualising cultures seemed to capture everything that we wanted to bring to the conference, and to allow people to come that might not ordinarily come to a BASR. And we did get a few participants in that group; they came because of the theme. And most of them did do a study of religion of some kind, but not all of them. So that was really good to see.

CC: Excellent. Yes I mean I saw papers to do with… well it James Kapalo talking about archival work, Vivian, and Jonathan, and few others presenting about virtual worlds .And I remember Michael Dudeck – it was quite an innovative paper – was developing a sort-of virtual constructed religion. He called it the Temple of Artifice. And so his presentation was very interactive, and very on the nose. And I guess sort-of pushed us to think a little bit about what we’re doing in the Study of Religion. Can we be constructing things in that sort of way? It was excellent.

SO: Yes, it’s interesting that Michael Dudeck’s project – where he’s deliberately creating a religion that’s digitally available to participate in – in some ways we’re doing the same thing. But we think we’re doing it for real, I guess. And it’s really good to see that actually, what we’re doing is just as constructed and fictionalised.

VA: (Laughs). I mean, I would probably argue that what I’m doing isn’t for real, and yet it is at the same time. (Laughs). So, yeah. Because what I tend to look at is constructed fictional narratives that people are engaging with. So these are ones that nobody is working at it from say the perspective of like “We’re trying to form this into something.” Very seldom does that happen. And yet it tends to take off in that direction. And so, very often, it’s that sense of real-but-it’s-not, simultaneously. And I think it kind-of reveals a lot about how we actually do see the world as not always being these strict dichotomies between fiction and reality, but that they can be blurred and they often are. And that the internet, and the way that the online story-telling really works, ends up actually revealing that to us.

SO: Yes. And what Dudeck produced was actually real as well. And that word reality and real was used quite a lot in the conference by participants, I noticed.

VA: Yes. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine!

CC: Do you want to say a bit more about that Vivian? You’ve got the air-time!

VA: Yes, sure. You see it a lot even outside of the academic circle, of the “real world” versus the “online world”, or the “virtual world”, or the “digital world”. And essentially what that’s doing is painting this virtual world as being completely not real, and therefore all communities formed, all relationships had, all experiences are therefore painted as not real. Because it’s being put up against the physical world, which is the real world. So I pick “physical world” rather than real, to distinguish. Because I don’t want to take away from the experiences that are actually being had, that are very really felt by participants, by painting them as not real.

CC: Exactly. I mean what is qualitatively different from the experience that someone is supposedly having, whether its mediated through sound,or in a particular building, or through radio waves, or though the telephone, or the television, or online, or in a field, or whatever? These are all just different media that are being utilised. There is definitely a current bias towards the online world as being, in some way, not as authentic. Yet, as I’m sure we would all agree, for many it can be more – quote –”authentic” than the physical world (15:00).

SO: Yes. It’s interesting, because this distinction in fantasy fiction is similar where they have primary and secondary world. And the primary world is meant to be the real world. But there is no real world in fiction, or any kind of representation. And also it’s creating a false boundary, really.

TH: So I struggled with this a lot when I was doing my research about online churches. To try and work out what would be the “other” thing that I was distinguishing this from. And I started off thinking, “Well, it’s online churches versus offline churches”. But that doesn’t make sense. Because lots of those offline churches have websites, or some sort of online presence that maybe you communicate with the pastor of the church by email, or something like this. They’re not digital-free spaces. But they’re mediated differently in some way. And “physical”, to me, didn’t quite work either. Because we use physical technologies, of course, to connect with digital communications as well as anything else. So I ended up talking about “the online” and “the local”: trying to catch that sense of a thing that is defined by the place when it happens, rather than the media through which we . . . or the digital media through which we communicate it. But it’s still not quite right.

SO: Yes, kind-of acknowledging . . .

TH: The other point that I wanted to catch, there, is: one of the moves that is often made in the conversations I hear is to say, “Well, the online and the offline are no longer distinct at all. And we need to abandon this binary.” Which also doesn’t quite work for the groups I’m looking at. Because the value of the online space is partly that it is not the face-to-face. It is – so, as Vivian was saying – it’s real, but it’s sort-of not-quite-real at the same time. Which gives you the freedom to be more playful. So the Centre for Media, Religion and Culture in Colorado, at the University of Boulder, has been talking about digital as a third space – which is helpful, I think. They’ve been writing about this for years and years. Trying to focus on the as-if-ness of a place that is sometimes treated as if it is real, and sometimes treated as if it is just a game, and used as a space to reflect on what happens elsewhere. Because one of the things that I’ve found, in the very kind-of clearly bounded online spaces I was looking at, where people would say, “This website is my church” – or whatever it might be – they would use those to then reflect on everything that was happening elsewhere in the world. But that would include face-to0face, and Facebook, and the rest of internet culture, and the email conversations that participants had with their parents. So, everything that happened outside the boundary. So there was a really important distinction between what happens inside the boundary and outside the boundary, but it wasn’t drawn in the same place as the online and offline distinction. And it wasn’t quite in the same place as the real and virtual distinction. But it was important to people that this was different from a serious real place and a little playful.

CC: I think actually, if I’m correct in remembering, Vivian, it came up in your paper at the BASR, how there’s often this notion that, I guess, “We can’t trust what people say online”. Or, you know . . . Actually, what can happen is that people’s online expressions can, in some ways, be maybe less filtered and more – quote – “real” than they might be in face-to-face social interactions. Am I remembering correctly?

VA: Yes. And it obviously is going to depend on individuals. But what I found was that, at least when talking with academics who have a bit of a bias against virtual worlds – to kind-of paint something more broadly there – they tend to say that because things can be anonymised, therefore you can’t trust anything. What I found during my fieldwork, as well as just from my own personal experience of living in various online spaces at various points in my life, is that there was still an identity that is tied to the username (20:00). And often users can feel more empowered to act in the way that they might not be able to. So, for example, if I’m on, say, even just an academic forum and I’m using a username, I might feel more compelled to be more strict in my opinions, because I’m not going to feel like I’m going to be questioned for being a woman. Like I might, if I’m in a physical space, where people can look at me and see that I’m a woman. So I might feel more willing to express myself when people can’t tell how young I am, how female I am. And I see this play out even on line as well. And, interestingly, I had strange responses, when I was conducting fieldwork, where I had people reaching out to me to discuss their experience on these forums. But they would use throwaway accounts, which essentially means they would create a new account solely for the purpose of our communication and then immediately get rid of it. And this was because they didn’t want what they said to be tied to their identities. So they were anonymising themselves, through what other people see as an anonymous username. Because it’s not an anonymous username. It’s tied to their identity there. It’s tied to their experiences, and lingo, and neighbourhoods that they trawl. And experiences and relationships are all tied to that name in the same way that, you know, those same exact things are tied to my Vivian Asimos name.

CC: Yes. Excellent. So it’s interesting that, although we’re trying to have this broad discussion around media and the state of religion, our focus is quite naturally being drawn to, I guess, online, digital, virtual and so on. And I guess that might be because it’s the latest medium of our times. I guess if we were having this discussion around the time of the printing press or the telephone or the television and stuff, you know, our conversation might be differently inflected. So maybe . . . . Because, Suzanne, you mentioned working with sort-of more, we could call it, traditional forms of media. Do you have any thoughts on your work there?

SO: Yes. And in some ways it is the same kind of research, because I’d interview artists about their artwork. And, of course, some artists portray their art in a kind-of non-conscious way, but I was still able to elicit some kind of discussion about the themes that they’re interested in. Because they were all depicting an extinct indigenous group in their artwork. And I thought there was a way that they could show their relationship to that subject in a non-verbal way, which offered an interesting insight that was different from the way that written texts or museum exhibits represent that group. And I did, I got a really different kind of perspective. So I think different kinds of media can bring out different kinds of insights, for sure, in research. It also reminds me a little bit of when I used to do theatre: there was one time, just for ourselves among the group that were doing the play, we did an experiment with masks where we were wearing different masks. It was just reminding me of what Vivian was saying with online identities, and how the mask then becomes the focus of your interaction. And they’re no longer the person behind the mask, but the mask could be sort-of male, female, androgynous, animal, human, alien. And our relationship, then, just completely changed. And I think that’s the beauty of different kinds of media, that you get really different kinds of responses and interactions.

CC: Time is, bizarrely, moving on as it tends to do. And I do want to get to the idea of how media can be utilised in the teaching of the study of religion. But I couldn’t resist getting a compliment in here about how . . . . I’d be interested in your thoughts. Much of the work that I encounter that seems to be taking a media approach – or looking at media in relation to religion – a lot of it tends to trip up on that sort of critical problem of, “there is something there, that is being mediated” (25:00). I guess, in a lot of this work, there is the assumption that there is religion, or there is, I guess, a deity that is being mediated through things. Rather than, perhaps, talking about a social constructivist approach. I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on that?

SO: Yes. As we were saying before we started recording: sometimes researchers think there is religion out there, and that is being mediated throughout various things like news or digital spaces, whereas we should really look at stuff that’s out there that gets mediated as something. Maybe as religion and discourse –a discourse analysis kind-of approach. Where the contesting . . . that there is something that exists prior to the discourse about it. You know, that religion is not a priori in that sense.

CC: Yes. And I guess you know, Tim, you’ve been talking about working with churches and churches in online space. How did you . . . ? Did you wrestle with that? I’m just allowing the group to define what it is, and then I’m looking for that being mediated online. How did you go about setting your boundaries?

TH: Yes, so around this question of reality – thinking back to my early research in online churches – on the outside of those online communities, one of the big conversations about them was whether this was considered real church or not. Which, from a kind-of sociological perspective is not a very useful category for me! Because, of course, for me there are a lot of different Christian traditions. They all define what a real church is differently. People from those traditions mix up together in online communities. So if you actually push the question, you’ll quite quickly find that people may agree or disagree about whether what they’re doing is real within the same group – and just politely don’t mention it very often. So I tried to allow groups to define themselves and just said, “If you’re calling what you do church, then I’m interested in finding out what it is.” But while keeping in mind that ambivalence, I guess, about who gets to decide whether this group calls itself church, or not? In some cases, the person who set up the thing decided, “Let’s call this the church of such and such”. But actually, if you had conversations with people who had been participating here for ten years every day, multiple hours a day, they’d say “Oh, of course it’s not really church.” So it was an inherently undefined word. And when people did want to claim that word, they often didn’t want to do it in ways that traditional Christian authorities would respect, shall we say? So they might want to say, “OK. So traditionally, my group has said that church has got to do these particular rituals, and you’ve got to have this particular authority structure. I don’t really care about that. What I care about is that I’ve made really important friendships here. It means a lot to me that this is a space where I have very important relationships and real emotional commitment. And so I call it church. And how dare you question whether this is church for me? Are you saying my friendships aren’t real?” Which is fascinating. Because that is not . . . that is . . . I don’t know if it’s a new way of thinking about church. But it’s a way of thinking about what is real that is different from the institutional tradition, perhaps. So – in line with this question about “Is there a previous, pre-mediated thing?” – there are conversations in the study of religion, media and culture for many years now that I’ve found really helpful, trying to reconceive religion itself as a kind of mediation. So people like Jeremy Stolow, and Birgit Meyer, and others, have argued that any study of religion and media that frames it as religion and media, as though there are two separate things, is not catching the really interesting part of the study of the . . . not the really interesting part of the field. Which is that religion itself is always mediated: religion itself can be understood as a kind of media, or a set of practices of mediation. Certain things that are permissible or forbidden, or expected within a certain group, that make connections between the human and the non-human (30:00). And I found that really helpful as a way of positioning what I’m interested in, in this very current study of digital religion, as part of the same kind of thing that all of my colleagues do in their studies of religion across centuries.

 CC: I considered trying to get mediating or mediatising into the title of the podcast. I might make it “Mediation and the study of religion” or something, just to emphasise that. Vivian, I know that you sometimes use the lens of myth in what you’re studying, as well. So, again, how do you decide when it’s religion that’s being mediated and things like that?

VA: (Laughs) I tend to not be too bothered about the word religion. Which might be a bit strange to say, as somebody who is a religion scholar, and in a religion department. But that’s how I see myself, because I don’t think anyone really knows precisely what religion is. And, therefore, how do you try to go about finding it, if you don’t know precisely what it is? So myth, to me, is a much more useful word than religion – although it probably has just as many problematic definitions throughout its history as religion does! But I see myth as being essentially defined by the individual or the community, which means that it’s not up to me – like what Tim was saying about leaving the community to kind-of define for themselves what matters and what doesn’t matter, and what words matter, and what words don’t matter. And seeing how they connect to a narrative in a very meaningful way. So I tend to focus more on myth than on religion, because of that. So I’m a mythographer as well as a religion scholar. And it has gotten me into trouble in the past. And that’s interesting in itself to think about how we, as scholars, are mediating our own understanding of religion onto our own discipline. So, my first year review board, I was asked why I was in a religion department, if I’m not looking at religion? Which I felt like I both was, and wasn’t. So it’s interesting to be told, time and time again, that you’re not studying religion when you feel like you are, but in a slightly different way. Because, essentially, we’re ascribing our own understandings onto our own disciplines, and mediating that through our own podcasts, as well as in books.

SO: I think the problem is everyone does know what religion is, or says that, or thinks that they do. And that’s why there’s so many ideas about religion, because everybody is so sure that they know what it is. Whereas, I think that there isn’t something there anyway. Like with any kind of thing, any kind of abstract subject, it is obviously mediated and created; born out of relationship and dialogue and discussion; and what people portray, or what they define as . . . . So comparing definitions is one of the first things I do with students in first year. It’s to show that there are many definitions of religion, and there are some essential differences between these definitions, and what does that say about it? What are they emphasising, and what they selecting and excluding, to create this thing called religion that they’ve defined? It’s an ongoing sort of disagreement I had with my own supervisor about whether or not you should define what you’re researching. And of course I’m seeing it more as: those that I’m researching are defining terms.

TH: Yes. So, in response to what Suzanne was saying a moment ago about the discourse approach, or discourse analysis approach to religion: an advantage, or disadvantage – depending on how you look at it – of that kind-of approach, I think, is that actually the word religion is very rarely used by the people I’m interested in. Unless they’re trying to step back from their engaged experience and be more analytical about it, and say “Well, maybe this is the kind of religion. . . .” In Christian contexts it’s quite common for people to say, “Well, this is not religion. Religion is that bad thing . . . . We are better than religion, because we are spiritual”, or something like that. Religion, as a term, is mostly imposed by academics onto the field in things like department meetings! (35:00)

SO: Yes.

VA: (Laughs).

TH: “Religion is a real thing because we study this”. But then, reflecting on what Vivian was saying, I had similar experiences myself. And that’s maybe a useful pointer for people listening to this podcast, particularly if you’re just starting out in an academic career. If you’re studying something unusual and exciting to do with pop culture, at some point somebody will say, “Yes – but is it religion?”

CC: Exactly.

TH: And even if that is a made-up word that doesn’t really exist, religion departments do exist. Those are definitely real. And it’s a question that it’s worth, you know . . . It will come up at some point. It’s worth having an answer to it. When people asked me that question, I was left slightly taken aback. So it’s worth anticipating it, before it arrives.

CC: Absolutely. So that brings us quite nicely, I suppose, to our final question. And we’re a little over time, but we’re going to run with it. Because we’ve been talking, there, about students, and about supervisors, and how the subject of the study of religion – whether that’s religious studies, or sociology of religion, or anthropology, etc. – how we mediate the very topic. But I wonder . . . Tim was mentioning, before we started, how institutions are now increasingly wanting us to incorporate media in various forms. And I wonder if anyone’s got any thought about that, or any useful stories or useful failures, and things like that? (Laughs).

VA: This is actually something that more recently I’ve been engaging with, but not using things like the internet or podcasts so much as using the kind-of more traditional media, primarily with pictures, with my students. Normally, as a teaching assistant you tend to not get quite as much creativity allowed to you when it comes to teaching. But I’ve been able to play with it a bit this year, because there’s a new first year module where we’ve kind-of shifted study of religion to being a worldviews approach by Douglas Davies. And the whole conversation on how he’s structured this, and whether or not it’s successful, could probably be an entire podcast episode in and of itself. So I’ll kind-of skip over that. But because it’s a bit more experimental it allows us, as teaching assistants, to be more experimental in our seminars. And one of the things that myself and Danny Riley – who’s a PhD student at Durham University, as well – have decided to do, was to do photo-elicitation – but as a teaching useful tool, rather than as an anthropological interviewing tool. So one of the ideal types that Douglas has set out was a natural worldview. So I asked students to take a picture of what they think embodies a natural worldview. And then we sat around and we chatted about all of the pictures that we had in a variety of formats, asking them very solid questions like, “Which picture makes you feel uncomfortable?” And then we’d sit around, and talk about why we had picked the picture that they had, and ended up revealing a lot more about how people see the world differently from one another – which was always difficult to get to, especially at Durham where most of our undergraduates are all from very similar socio economic, racial and geographical background. So, to be able to pull out their inner thoughts through the images, actually was incredibly useful.

CC: Excellent.

SO: I had a really good experiment with our first year students in Intro Week. They’re just coming in and being inducted. I had them take a photograph of what they think is the heart of the university – to represent it with taking a photo on their mobile phones – and then to send me the photo, and then we can look at the different images. And I got a really nice spread, from obvious choices like the chapel or the bar, or the coffee place. But also some more creative ones, like there was an image they took of themselves to show that the students were the heart of the university. And those were the ones that came to mind. So I’m interested in getting students to produce media and hopefully, in the future, to actually make more sort-of media. We’ve already had them doing little documentaries, or podcasts, or digital things. But maybe to even make something more . . . interactive documentary film making in the future – which is what our university specialises in (40:00).

CC: I think there’s a lot of scope now that everyone’s got a sort of portable – most people, I should say – at a typical UK university will have sort of portable media studio in their pocket, producing video content and audio content. And just one thing to throw in there . . . I always have these great intentions of doing a lot of innovative things that I never quite have time . . . . But what I’ve started to try and do . . . I was getting a bit fed up constantly typing up comments in the student’s essays – and I noticed that in our sort of marking suite it would give you the option to record audio. And I thought that this might . . . because you can get a lot more over in the tone of your voice. The nuance might not come through in text. So I’ve started to try, where I can, to offer audio comments on essays. And I’ve also offered audio feedback on my dissertation submissions, and things like that. I think it’s a way to . . . . You can really emphasise what’s actually important. And they can also tell from the tone of your voice if you actually do like something. And you can be a lot more reassuring. Things can come across maybe quite harsh in text forms. So that’s a way, I guess, of trying to incorporate more innovative things in the teaching on the assessment side. How about you two?

TH: Well, from my point of view, having been in this field of research now for ten or fifteen years, I’ve gone through quite a journey of trying to persuade universities that what I do is a really significant thing that is worth having in their department. Because, to start with, people would say, “Well digital seems a bit niche.” So I’d try and present media as a lens onto studying “what really matters” – whatever that might be. Or perhaps considering media, as we’ve been discussing before, as a way of thinking about religion itself, and how religions, worldviews, experiences and practices really work. What’s actually taken me a bit by surprise, over the last year or so, is to realise that actually the research I’ve been doing – as I slightly pejoratively introduced it, way back at the beginning of this podcast – is basically about big clumsy traditional institutions, struggling to adapt and catch up to a media world that they don’t quite understand, but they’re pretty sure that the young people are really into nowadays. That’s basically the story of what I’ve been doing for my whole career. And suddenly I’ve discovered that, joining a university department, that that’s the institution I’ve joined. That’s exactly what they’re doing! The same conversations that I used to study from the Pope writing in 2002, I’ve now got the Vice-Chancellor of my university saying in 2018 – almost word for word, repeating the same arguments. And the digital has gone from being a niche topic that a few people study, to an imposed agenda for our teaching programmes. It is necessary to ensure that students are learning digital skills for the workplace as well as traditional Humanities essay-writing and examination skills. And so, very suddenly, I’ve found that I’m required to attend a hundred and five different committees, and think-tanks, and organisations, all of which will plaintively say, “Well, we feel like we should be doing something digital.” And that’s going to be a rapidly changing environment, which is very interesting to watch. But we’re starting to have university-wide conversations, which are ongoing, about how we ensure that every lecture is recorded, and how we then ensure that everybody watched the videos. And do we then have any data to suggest that watching videos of lectures actually helps students learn? And how do we replace essays with new forms of assessment that might teach some digital skills? And, in that case, is there any way that we could actually teach some digital skills to the teachers? Which is a bit of a problem that is emerging, I think. It’s very easy to say, “All students need to do a video assignment”. But, apart from Suzanne who has a huge advantage from her colleagues at Leeds Trinity, those of us in traditional Theology and Religious Studies departments probably don’t have a colleague who does a lot of video (45:00). So there’s a hope that sometimes comes up in some of those meetings, that “Of course, our students nowadays will have all of these digital skills. So maybe the students could teach some of those digital skills to the lecturers, in order to have them taught back again for assessment?” So there’s not exactly a solution to that at the moment. It’s also a programme that, by its nature, seems to be essentially evolving. Once you’ve decided that your institution will invest heavily in technology, you then need to upgrade all the technology next year – forever. And once you have taught everybody how to use one system, you need to then give them a refresher course on the next system. So in my own teaching, I’m introducing a new assignment that will require students to produce videos or podcasts and reflect on that experience. But there are a lot of technical challenges to doing that. It turns out when everybody in your class has their own video-making device but none of those devices are compatible with the other devices, you can actually spend weeks trying to work out how you actually upload all of those things into the university systems so that they can be stored properly, and assessed through an online marking system, that was not set up to do any of this! There are probably not enough technical support people in the university for every class to have somebody who is full time just reminding the students which cables they need to use to plug their phones into things. So it’s interesting to see . . . It’s nice to study disasters sometimes, as I said at the start. It’s very important.

CC: Yes. You often find that by the time academics are paying attention to something it’s already out of fashion. (Laughs). Right. We’ve talked a lot longer than I intended, but it’s been an excellent discussion. But we’re going to have to wrap it up, for that sake of our poor Listeners and poor transcriber! Thank you all so much for joining me on the Religious Studies Project.

TH: Thank you very much for inviting us.

VA: Thank you.

SO: Thanks for listening!

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Playing the Field: the Logistics of Religion and Video Game Studies

The field of religion and video games is still new and forming. In its struggle to find itself, it simultaneously competes with a university’s traditional understanding of both education and culture, often involving Gregory Price Grieve’s comment that video games are perceived as “low brow” culture. The view of video games as, again to quote Grieve, “just above pornography,” is a misconception that the academic study of video games is constantly fighting against.

That being said, hearing about Grieve’s success in bringing the study of video games to his university is promising. Not only was he able to establish courses for the study of religion and video games, but was also able to work with his library and university in order to establish gaming centres for students to play games. Having digital media pushed across disciplines throughout the university, as well as having a Digital Media Centre in their library, helps to establish video games and other forms of digital media as important and worthy of study in the university.

Grieve did have an understanding university, which is something important to keep in mind. While his approach to getting video games in the classroom is a format presented to be copied, not everyone is lucky enough to be present in a university that is so understanding. This is especially the case in universities rooted in academic tradition, built on older standards which seldom factor in elements of popular culture. This is not even considering the cost of this kind of endeavour. Even with a buy-in from the library, Grieve’s project still needed $10,000. And this is only considering the technicalities of this new media, and not the thought process of people who still believe that video games are not an important element of popular culture today, or who don’t seem to really care about the “popular” at all. In that sense, there are bigger problems facing some people at less understanding universities than a lack of technology.

The positive reception Grieve has experienced with his students can hopefully begin to be experienced by researchers and teachers in the study of video games in many universities throughout the world. However, there are many elements that still work against progression in the field. Some of the thoughts and actions impeding the growth of the field are, sadly, still present even among scholars in the field. By studying only video games, we impede ourselves and the progress which can be made; there are many aspects of video games which are affecting other elements of popular culture. An example of this are Let’s Play videos, in which players record themselves playing a video game, with commentary and sometimes even recordings of the player’s face (as the Let’s Player PewDiePie became known for), which are then uploaded on video sharing sites such as YouTube. Unfortunately, the popularity of Let’s Plays have been stereotyped almost as much as video games themselves are, an element that is unfortunately heard even in Grieves interview in which he relegates their popularity and interest almost exclusively to “teenagers”, even though the demographic may not be this concrete, especially for Let’s Players who are older themselves, such as Fun Haus. PewDiePIe has over 41 million subscribers, and it is hard to imagine that all 41 million are only teenagers. Not to mention that the fastest growing demographic for gaming content are women over the age of 25.[1]

What Let’s Plays demonstrate for academics of video games is the creativity enjoyed by Let’s Players. Geoff Ramsey, the founder of the Let’s Play group Achievement Hunter has commented on this creativity: “Any time we can take and use [a game] in a way that it wasn’t necessarily intended by the developers, that’s like the best thing in the world to me.”[2] This out-pouring of creativity allows researchers to have easy access to new narratives being created and the emotions they create and share. These new narratives and emotions are not experienced solely by the Let’s Player, but also by those who watch these videos; these narratives are then shared by the viewer to others, and new narratives are created by the viewer in relation to these new narratives. These videos are then not only relegated to the realm of video games, but also to internet studies and realms of internet discourse, particularly when elements of them become shared as memes.

The field of religion and video games is still emerging, and thus still solidifying its own definition and place. What is most important is for scholars interested in engaging with digital media, like video games, to demonstrate to their students, universities, and themselves that video games are a medium worthy of study.

[1] Gautam Ramdurai, “Think Gaming Content is Niche? Think Again,” Think with Google, December 2014, accessed February 2016, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/think-gaming-content-is-niche-think-again.html.

[2] Rooster Teeth, Let’s Play Live: The Documentary, Video (2015), ), http://roosterteeth.com/episode/r-t-docs-let-s-play-live-let-s-play-live-the-documentary

THATCamp Roundtable on Digital Religious Studies

At this past year’s meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore, Maryland, over 70 scholars met to participate in the AAR’s first THATCamp. The Humanities and Technology Camp is an open meeting for those desiring a conference experience outside of the presentation of formal papers. Participants submitted ideas ahead of time to the AAR THATCamp website, but the final shape and content of the event was decided on-site by a vote. In the busy weekend of paper sessions, THATCamp AAR was an oasis of facilitate first, pontificate second. As digital religious studies emerges within the broader digital humanities movement, the Camp was a rather bold move for the AAR, whose interaction has been driven by more conservative timelines.

THATCamp represents one of the bright spots of the digital world and its potential for conference goers. It emphasizes hands-on experience, privileges active learning, and puts expertise and enthusiasm for technology side-by-side. It can be chaotic with its impromptu schedule, but the advantage is the flexibility it offers to solve problems, foster dialogue, and teach digital skills.

Over the course of the day participants had the option to become more familiar with the online curation platform Omeka, learn about the many options for digital publishing, brainstorm ways to harness outside technological expertise for humanities projects, discuss the role of media in the classroom, learn the basics of big data, and even get tips about doing digital ethnography with students. The schedule is still up here, but it was as full a day of information as even the most seasoned technophiles could handle.

For the conference organizers that sat together for a few brief minutes over lunch, there was awareness of both the promises and perils of the digital world. As a fledgling research method whose products are varied and often unique, there is a great need for clear standards of evaluation of “good scholarship in the digital realm.” This should be of special concern to early career scholars who may have to fight for the presence of digital work in their tenure portfolios or in grant applications. This problem would be addressed not only by the development and promotion of open platforms for scholarly work, but also by sincere discussion about basic digital literacy and professionalization with digital tools and methods. Publishers, professional organizations, libraries, departments, scholars, and students–everyone in the academic chain will need to work out their roles for digital methods and digital work.

With so little time, several questions were pre-circulated to help things move along quickly on these topics.

What does it mean to teach or research religious studies digitally?

Does religious “data” make digital religious studies distinct within the digital humanities?

What is a digital religious studies research project you think more people should know about?

How can departments and the field better support digital methods and pedagogies?

For each of the six participants, digital methods and platforms are a key element in their identity as scholars. While there was not an opportunity to to fully explore their contribution and work, if you would like to learn more about them, please use the links below:

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.comlinks to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Religious Authority and Social Media

Throughout the history of the RSP, we have been privileged to feature a number of interviews and responses which have focused upon the interaction of ‘religion’ with information and communications technology, including Jonathan’s interview with Tim Hutchings on Digital Religion, and Louise’s interview with Heidi Campbell on Religion in a Networked Society. However, up until now, we haven’t paid particular attention to the impact of social media upon ‘religion’ and Religious Studies. Today’s interview features Chris speaking with Pauline Hope Cheong of Arizona State University on the topic of religious authority, the impact of social media upon this aspect of religion, and how scholars can potentially go about utilizing this seemingly infinite repository of information and chatter in their research.

As Cheong herself writes:

Given its rich and variable nature, authority itself is challenging to define and study. Although the words “clergy” and “priests” are commonly used, in the west, to connote religious authority, the variety of related titles is immense (e.g. “pastor,” “vicar,” “monk,” “iman,” “guru,” “rabbi,” etc). Studies focused on religious authority online have been few, compared to studies centered on religious community and identity. Despite interest and acknowledgment of the concept, there is a lack of definitional clarity over authority online, and no comprehensive theory of religious authority… (2013, 73)

Hopefully this interview shall go some way to addressing this lack.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.

This interview was recorded in London, in June 2013, at the Open University’s Digital Media and Sacred Text Conference. We are very grateful to Tim Hutchings and the Open University for their support in facilitating this recording, and for just generally being awesome.

References and Further Reading

  • Cheong, P.H. (2013) Authority. In H. Campbell (Ed). Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. Pp 72-87. NY: Routledge
  • Cheong, P.H., P. Fischer-Nielsen, P., S. Gelfgren, & C. Ess (Eds) (2012) Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices, Futures. pp. 1-24. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Cheong, P.H., Hwang, J.M. & Brummans, H.J.M. (forthcoming, 2013). Transnational immanence: The autopoietic co-constitution of a Chinese spiritual organization through mediated organization. Information, Communication & Society.
  • Cheong, P.H., Huang, S.H., & Poon, J.P.H. (2011). Religious Communication and Epistemic Authority of Leaders in Wired Faith Organizations. Journal of Communication, 61 (5), 938-958.
  • Cheong, P.H., Huang, S.H., & Poon, J.P.H (2011). Cultivating online and offline pathways to enlightenment: Religious authority in wired Buddhist organizations. Information, Communication & Society, 14 (8), 1160-1180.

Religion in a Networked Society

CampbellMedia, religion and culture is an emerging area, with much attention being given to four themes, namely authority, community, identity and ritual. Research has focused on a wide range of topics, including different religions in virtual worlds; religion and video games; online cyber-churches and temples; and an exploration into how religious organisations and individuals are accepting or rejecting digital media. Heidi Campbell is one of the leading scholars in the field of media, religion and culture and has written extensively about this topic; providing us with an insight into the relationship between digital culture and religion. For scholars of religious studies, media studies and other related disciplines, the exploration of religion and the internet provides an insight into the relationship between religion and technology and consequently, the possible impact and challenge to traditional religion.

On a recent visit to Edinburgh, the Religious Studies Project (Louise) met with Heidi Campbell (the interview is set in a restaurant and so on occasion you may hear some background noise). The interview focuses on her recent article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (March 2012), “Understanding the Relationship between Religion Online and Offline in a Networked Society”, which presents five key traits of the concept of “networked religion”. These are: networked community; storied identities; shifting authority; convergent practice; and a multisite reality. Campbell presents an overview of each of these traits and concludes by questioning how digital communications technologies might affect religious authority in the future.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Heidi Campbell is Associate Professor of Communication at Texas A&M University where she teaches in Telecommunications and Media Studies. Campbell’s teaching and research explores the social shaping of technology, rhetoric of new media, and themes related to the intersection of media religion and culture, with a special interest in the internet and mobile phones. She has written extensively about media, religion and culture, comprising of a number of journal articles and books, including When Religion Meets New Media (Routledge, 2010) and her recent publication Digital Religion. Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (Routledge, 2012).

Select Publications:

Campbell, H. (2005). Exploring religious community online: We are one in the network. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Campbell, H. (2010). When religion meets new media. London, UK: Routledge.

Campbell, H & Connelly, L. (2012). Cyber behavior and religious practice on the internet, In Z. Yeng (ed.) Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior, (pp. 434-445). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Campbell, H. (ed.) (2012). Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. New York: Routledge.

Campbell, H. (2012). Understanding the Relationship between Religion Online and Offline in a Networked Society, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 80 (1), 64-93.

This interview was based upon the article: http://jaar.oxfordjournals.org/content/80/1/64.abstract