Final Thoughts: International Conference on Digital Religion, 2012

Many thanks to Drs. Stewart M. Hoover, Nabil Echchaibi, and everyone involved with the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture for hosting such a fantastic conference! As should be the case, I left Boulder with a full notebook and a buzzing brain, ready to return to my dissertation work with fresh insights on a number of topics. However, the one concept that has remained in the forefront of my mind since my first session on Friday is that of authenticity.

In his book "Culture and Authenticity" (2008), Charles Lindholm discusses how humans, individually and collectively, are rabid hunters after what is real and true, a quest heightened by the profusion of so much judged to be fake and false. Lindholm asserts that this is essentially a spiritual search, which is often accomplished through the purchase of “commodified authenticity”. I often chewed on this thought during my brief daily strolls around Boulder. While walking along Pearl Street, I noticed a photocopied check posted in the front window of a small book shop. The slip, signed by beat author Jack Kerouac, promised payment to a liquor store, and an adjacent note indicated that the “real” check, among other pieces of literary ephemera, could be purchased inside. Just down the street was the children’s store “Real Baby”. I am a new father, and am still trying to understand what the alternative might be. Queried for a late-night food and beverage recommendation, the front desk clerk at my hotel referred me to the pub next door, although she warned that it was part of a chain. I opted for the microbrewery a few blocks down to taste a “real” Colorado beer.

The importance of authenticity was also explicitly and implicitly reinforced throughout the sessions that I attended. Heidi Campbell opened her talk on Friday by describing her camping trip to a remote Florida island. Although she planned to “revel” in “being off of the grid” for a while, solar chargers and a new cellphone tower ensured active iPhones for the campers. While this situation nicely set up her discussion of our networked world, I wonder what her desire to periodically distance herself from the digital (which I am certain that many of us tethered to our laptops by the nature of our work share) means for our assumptions of what is authentic human experience. As well, while we are increasingly attuned to the “back and forth flow” between the online and offline in the religious practices of our research subjects, what can the desire to sometimes disrupt this flow in our own lives teach us about ourselves as observers and interpreters?

The most explicit discussion of authenticity came from Deborah Whitehead, who has examined issues of credibility in the authorship of evangelical “mommy blogs”. Whitehead offered the immensely entertaining example of the Denver Bronco’s star quarterback Tim Tebow, whose public displays of faith both on the field and off have spurred on considerable debate as to whether he is a genuine and dedicated Christian, or a manipulating opportunist who only performs his signature prayer stance when the cameras are rolling. Whitehead also discussed the central role of authenticity in how Christian groups and individuals process the enormity of the Internet, and the valuable religious work that is the investigation and identification of purported frauds.

During the session focused on video games, I sensed some anxiety about what it might mean to be an authentic researcher of media and religion. In-depth familiarity with video games, an insider status recognized as so valuable in other types of cultural studies, appeared to be something best kept under wraps. One participant “admitted” the importance of video games in the social life of his family, while another audience member “came out of the closet” to reveal himself as a fan of first-person shooters. Jeremy Stolow, speaking on Saturday evening, raised my own anxiety about the remarkable lack of thought I give to the unnatural space and time opened up by the common light bulb. “Electricity created the remarkable artificial world we live in,” he remarked, a concept taken for granted “until the lights go out”.

Of course, probing into the authentic is a central task of theology. Following Dr. Campbell’s keynote speech, a question was raised as to whether religious members of Second Life were just there to be “cool,” or to engage in “serious theology”. Paul Teusner and Ryan Torma asked: “What makes a meaningful religious experience for iPhone users?” Finally, Jeffrey Mahan, during Sunday’s session focused on fandom, offered some instructive and amusing thoughts on the subject. As a theologian, Mahan strives for deeper engagement with the authentic in his quest to fashion “purer and better religion”. For some, Mahan, suggested, this search results in unique assemblages of religious and popular culture fragments. As an example, he described an evangelical acquaintance who is also a practicing “Dudist,” a devotee of the slacker/stoner philosophy extolled by the lead character in the Coen brothers’ 1998 film, "The Big Lebowski". Mahan spoke in the voice of the critic: “Surely this is only a game!” Yet, this woman had presided over a “Dudist” marriage for her friends; I picture a dirty housecoat instead of a priest’s robes, a White Russian in place of a communion cup. Mahan recalled Mark Twain being asked if he believed in infant baptism. “Believe in it,” Twain is said to have replied, “Hell, I’ve seen it done!”