The Nintendo Power Glove Touches the Hand of God — Religion & Culture in a Digital Age

Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 8.18.00 PMOver the last decade the study of religion has expanded its multidisciplinary reach by looking to see the ways in which religion and culture intersect with media and digital technology. Questions range from “How is religion represented in the media?” to “How are religious organizations using media and technology to promote their faiths” to more ambitious questions about the role media plays in shaping, and perhaps deputizing the role of, religion.

As Dr. Stewart Hoover wrote in Religion in the Media Age“It has been argued that the media are today the most credible sources of social and cultural information, setting the agenda and the context for much of what we think and know about reality. Religion, which addresses itself to such questions, must be expressed and experienced differently as a result.” So too must the study of religion. Increasingly, individual and communal religious actors are engaging with media religiously or encountering religion through various forms of digital media.

The University of Florida's religion department is interdisciplinary in nature. In approaching religion, the program  encourages students to draw on work in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences
The University of Florida’s religion department is interdisciplinary in nature. In approaching religion, the program encourages students to draw on work in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences

However, we would be naïve to posit that it is only the forces of media that impact religion and not vice-versa. As the twenty-first century comes of age, religion continues to prove a potent local, regional, and global force that is shaping the way we interact with, view, and create media. Indeed, both media and religion compete for the central constructive roles in the formation of social solidarity and thus, studies merging the two streams of cultural production are necessary and beneficial to understand religion, and/or media, in the digital age. Hence, the purpose and pertinence of the Graduate Student Conference “Religion and Culture in the Digital Age” held January 24, 2015 at the University of Florida. 

The conference sought to bring together graduate students from diverse academic backgrounds and scholars who conduct research in the digital humanities. The daylong event included three panels and a roundtable with Dr. David Morgan (Duke University), Dr. Stewart Hoover (University of Colorado at Boulder), Dr. Dragan Kujundzic (University of Florida – Jewish Studies), and Dr. Sid Dobrin (University of Florida – English).

The papers presented at the conference, and the topics covered, were diverse and wide-ranging. What follows is a short overview of each panel and the roundtable talk, covering highlights and the most pressing issues and/or questions that emerged from each.

Panel 1: The Creation of Sacrality and the Role of the Audience (Commentator: Dr. Terje Østebø)

Ken Chitwood kicks off the conference with his presentation of a social media "ethnography" among Latina/o Muslims.
Ken Chitwood kicks off the conference with his presentation of a social media “ethnography” among Latina/o Muslims.

To start the morning Ken Chitwood (University of Florida) shared the preliminary results of his two-month social-media based ethnography with the “Latino Muslim Facebook Group.” He shared how by liking one another’s posts (the most common form of interaction on the page), Latina/o Muslims are doing more than having fun on social media. They are intimately, and actively, engaged with creating a hybrid community, crafting a worldview on the borderlands between the digital and real, between being Muslim and Latina/o, and shaping a Latina/o Muslim identity that will be applied online and in the “real” world. 

Also from the University of Florida, Cristina Ruiz-Poveda Vera presented about the role of the audience in transcendental spiritual films, discussing films like Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World” (2007) and Don Hertzfeldt’s “The Meaning of Life” (2005). Entitled, “Film as Temple” the presentation artfully explored the ways in which spiritual movies can often move the viewer beyond themselves much like sacred texts and ritual.

Alfredo Garcia (Princeton University) presented the results of a sociological study entitled, “Tolerance in an Age of Social Media: An Experimental Design Examining Muslims and Mosques in the United States,” in which he and a co-author found that having a Muslim friend, or even interacting with Muslims on social media, did not significantly alter attitudes about the building of mosques in the U.S.

The discussion following this panel revolved around questions of methodology in the digital humanities and whether or not there is such a thing as an “ethnography” of a digital sociality.

Panel 2: Digitized Hinduism (Commentator: Dr. Phillip Green)

Yael Lazar presents about "digital darshan."
Yael Lazar presents about “digital darshan.”

Following this discussion and some refreshments provided by Harvest Thyme Café, Yael Lazar (Duke University) presented her paper examining the use of the internet and its shaping of Hindus, and Hinduism, through the practice of “digital darshan.” Darshan, (Sanskrit: “auspicious viewing”) is the beholding of a deity, guru, or sacred object (esp. in image form). The devotion is perceived as reciprocal in some traditions and the idea is that the viewer will receive a divine blessing. Some Hindus are taking to the internet to perform darshan and receive their blessings digitally, though the potency of such a practice is contested.

Bhakti Mamtora (University of Florida) examined the websites, social media sites, and mobile apps of Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, known as BAPS, a major Swaminarayan organization. She argued that through sleek designs and highly visual and interactive elements, which introduced immediate and personal experiences (e.g. “Daily Satsang”), BAPS is able to help craft technologies that aid individuals in their spiritual endeavors and contribute to the formation of a global tradition.  Mamtora emphasized how this area of Hindu culture and practice, in addition to Lazar’s study, needs more focused research and necessitates a focus on practice to understand the multiple levels of meaning that individuals ascribe to online practices as active social agents in community construction in a digital landscape.

Nick Collins (University of Florida) rounded out the panel by talking about the “digital super nature” available to Buddhist practitioners experiencing the anomic experience of a fractal mind and self. He called the various media online and the networks of connections available to practitioners as an “invisible school” offering an opportunity to enter into the Vedic mind. He wrote, In the contemporary digitally mediated cultural landscape, the traditional lineage lines, forms, and structures of cultural systems, including religious traditions, have become ‘cut loose’ from their (prior) cultural bodies and aggregately integrated into a single, all inclusive spatial-temporal environment, a discarnate, nonlocal, and ever-present now represented by the interconnected digital media landscape.”

He closed by emphasizing the importance for the scholar of such a tradition to “enter into experiential contact with such practices” and “Be a Weirdo” in both society and academia.

Panel 3: The Mediazation of Myth and Learning (Commentator: Dr. Robert Kawashima)

Michael Knippa channels Marshall McLuhan to talk about interpreting the Bible in a digital age.
Michael Knippa channels Marshall McLuhan to talk about interpreting the Bible in a digital age.

The final panel of the day focused on Christian traditions. Chris Fouche (University of Florida) talked about the potential promises and pitfalls for seminaries and other theological institutions offering distance education while at the same time seeking to form deep Christian community. Using Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde seminary project as a litmus test of sorts, Fouche recommended hybrid models for online/offline theological education and underlined just how difficult online education is in the creation of authentic community. 

Michael Knippa (Concordia Seminary, St. Louis) discussed the transformation of interpretation and meaning of biblical texts due to their various media: scrolls, codices, amulets, collections, book form, and digital representations. Pulling on the theory of Marshall McLuhan (“the medium is the message”) he argued that in the shift from print to digital we can’t pretend that the digitization of the Bible will not have an impact on its reception and its message. He offered that digitized Bibles will transform our methods & theories of interpretation, perhaps more mythologically. Only time will tell.

From the up the road in religious studies land, Carson Bay (Florida State University) examined various Christian reactions to the film Noah released last summer (2014). He discussed the film’s platform and whether or not it was perceived as legitimizing or delegitimizing certain narratives in the Bible. Regardless of various negative lines on the reception of Noah among Christians, evangelicals used the movie as culturally-relevant tool for proselytization, with attendant theological corrections (e.g. with ‘the Watchers’ and Noah’s abortive mania). 

The discussion following this panel was the most lively of the day as the discussion centered around McLuhan’s theoretical system and whether or not it was viable. As Dr. Hoover mentioned, these young scholars were entering into a very long, and historical, discussion about media and religion. That was where he, and others, would begin during the roundtable discussion that rounded off the day.

Roundtable Discussion (Moderator: Dr. Manuel Vásquez)

Featuring four scholars each with their own unique, and significant, contributions of the field of religion and digital humanities, the roundtable discussion was the highlight of the conference.

Dr. Vásquez, Dr. Morgan, and Dr. Kujundzic watch as Dr. Stewart Hoover presents his perspective on religion & media studies.
Dr. Vásquez, Dr. Morgan, and Dr. Kujundzic watch as Dr. Stewart Hoover presents his perspective on religion & media studies.

David Morgan’s major interests are the history of religious visual and print culture and American religious and cultural history. He opened by reminding students that this area of study “is not always about being sexy, it’s about contextualizing the new to give it historical depth.” He further offered that it is healthy and helpful to “bring a hermeneutics of suspicion to media studies and the investigation of religion and material culture in the digital age.” Speaking to earlier discussions about ethnography in the digital age he underlined the need for hybrid methods. He said, “There’s no ‘pure’ digital ethnography. We have to develop the tools to track people between both online and offline worlds.”

Echoing Morgan, Stewart Hoover, Professor of Media Studies and founder/director of the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture, underlined that while “the ‘digital age’ is different, we must view religion and media through an historical lens…looking at the issues our research presents over time.” Furthermore, he talked about how he is not interested in studying the media on the screen people are viewing, but watching the people who are watching the media. Beyond this ethnographic perspective, he encouraged researchers in this area to think cosmopolitan-ly. He closed stating, “religious transnationalism, globalization, and the like must be considered in our study of religion & digital media.”

Kujundzic and Dobrin each added their own perspectives, with the former focusing on the post-modern lens and the study of religion and media and the latter bringing his perspective from literature studies to the consideration of religion in print media, film, music, and digital media. 

Feeling as if they had drank water from a firehose all day long, the participants and presenters retired to the Keene Faculty Center for a reception to interact and continue the discussion.

As wine glasses clinked and the conversation circled back to the various topics presented throughout the day the general conclusion was that the day was a success. Not only were the papers and topics scintillating and interesting, each in their own regard, but the atmosphere of the conference was prosperous in that it brought together core academics and new scholars to discuss an apposite interdisciplinary field that is of special interest to anyone concerned with religion, digital media, or the intersection and intermeshing of the two in the 21st-century and beyond.

Special thanks to Dr. Manuel Vásquez, Dr. David Hackett, Dr. Terje Østebø, Dr. Phillip Green, and Dr. Robert Kuwushima for their support of the conference. Thank you also to the conference’s graduate student organizers Prea Persaud, Jason Purvis, and Caroline Reed for their efforts in making this first annual grad conference with #UFreligion a major triumph and contribution to the fields of religious studies and digital humanities.