Opening Thoughts on the Digital Religion Conference, 2012

I am often struck by the interchangeability of North American cities at night. Although Boulder is new to me, while looking out the window of my shuttle bus late Thursday evening I was presented with a rather predictable combination of street lamps and store signs. However, as I left my hotel room this morning to start my cold, windy trek to the conference, I was greeted by the magnificent Flatirons, towering high over the assorted coffee shops and gas stations. This sight shot through my prized cynical shield, filling me with both unspeakable awe and a profound regret that I would only be able to appreciate them from afar, perhaps never to set foot upon them. An incredible backdrop to what I have already found to be a truly stimulating conference.

Although I unfortunately missed Thursday’s activities due to a flight delay, I certainly feel intellectually energized by the sessions that I attended on Friday. Heidi Campbell’s keynote speech reinforced her enviable ability to map out our area of study and locate productive pathways for future research. Her concept of networked religion highlights the necessity of exploring the complex and ever-shifting webs of religious associations that individuals forge both online and off. As demonstrated by studies of lived religion, this is time-consuming and messy work that often resists easy generalizations. Yet, it is crucial groundwork for building broader understandings of digital religion.

I found Campbell’s focus on storied identity and the public performance of personal narratives particularly intriguing and in tune with recent developments that I have observed online. For example, not long ago Facebook unveiled “Timeline,” a new profile template for users that promises them the chance to “tell (their) life story” ( Whereas the old profile featured a small picture of the user in the left hand margin followed by a long list of “friends,” the new template fills the top of the page with a picture chosen by the user, and the number of friends listed on the main page is limited to six. The result is an increased emphasis on who you are as opposed to who you know, and it would be interesting to examine how individuals are using this new template in the construction of their public religious identities.

In the session "Motif & Symbol in the Video Game Context," Rachel Wagner asked the provocative question “is it possible to play religion like a game?” and outlined points of potential overlap including structured rules, a sense of purpose, and the requirement of “player” effort. Nathan Walter demonstrated that even in the goriest of video games, there are often opportunities for players to make moral decisions that they would unlikely face in their daily lives. Although not central to his discussion of Jewish computer games, I noted Vincent Gonzalez’s reminder to recognize the significance of “non play,” examining the motivations and contexts surrounding the refusal to participate in particular religious video games.

To open the session that I participated in, "Humor, Commentary & Consequence," Timothy Fallis argued that the Internet is a “safe space” for religious humor, which has often been denied a place on television and radio. I contributed with an overview of the “Farting Preacher” videos, a series of absurd remixes of the televangelist Robert Tilton that have made it difficult for him to start an online video ministry. As part of my presentation, I briefly discussed the concept of “Recreational Christianity,” coined by one of my interviewees to describe his use of televangelist programs and events for entertainment purposes only, with no spiritual investment. The existence of “Recreational Christians” warns us against assuming motivations behind particular practices that we may observe in the media. I invite you to watch the following clip: What appears to be a genuine baptism is actually the infiltration of a televangelist program by an avowed atheist who detests the host and his ministry, and who views this video as a trophy of her conquest. I was also intrigued by Jeffrey Garber’s discussion of the complex theological themes explored by the mysterious author of the webcomic "Sinfest," and am wary of visiting the site ( for fear of getting hooked by yet another quality online product.

My day ended with "Online Christianity: Technologies and Spaces." Sam Han offered an informative overview of activity in the online campus of While he suggested that the preaching and discussion on the site is certainly not “theologically robust,” there exists a sacred sociability among the gathered “worldmates” who chat, pray, and praise God with “written chat singing”. Finally, Tim Hutchings talk on “CyberBibles” introduced me to the wide variety of ways in which Christianity’s central text is being transformed in our digital age. From solar-powered mp3 Bibles geared towards the mission field, to mobile phone Bible apps particularly popular in the United States, these products offer a number of investigative opportunities surrounding issues such as materiality, evangelism, and even the surveillance of one’s devotional habits by online Bible study buddies.

Great stuff everyone! I look forward to the remainder of the conference and meeting more of you over the next two days.