Mary Hess - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - 13:33

Pastoral practice is a constantly changing field, which means that digital publications are able to be much more responsive than are print books or journals. Here are five sites worth bookmarking or putting in your RSS readers.

State of Formation is a multi-authored publication that was founded by the Journal for Inter-religious Dialogue. Written by an intriguing group of younger scholars and pastoral leaders, State of Formation engages a wide variety of religious traditions, and frequently comments on challenges having to do with new media and pastoral practice.

Call&Response is a multi-authored publication focused within the Christian landscape that is published out of Duke University’s Divinity School. While this publication comments on many topics that are not directly connected to the media, religion and culture conversation, nevertheless it frequently points to recent scholarship from that conversation noting pastoral elements and implications to be found there.

GlobalVoicesOnline (search for the keyword “religion”) is a wide-open space for blogging and other forms of citizen media which report on news around the globe. While there is no central editorial voice at this site, the sheer diversity of the voices present makes it a fascinating site to visit regularly.

Odyssey Network Videos is very much not a text-oriented publication, but rather a video-blog with reporting from the US context. The site is clearly multi-faith in orientation, and not afraid to engage very current news issues, while yet maintaining a pastoral orientation.

The Jesuit Post is the most recent of these sites, begun in 2012. It is written by Jesuits (a vowed religious community within Catholic Christianity), and brings a wide-ranging but deeply grounded perspective to pastoral engagement with media culture.

Finally I would note that several “old” media publications (Tikkun, the National Catholic Reporter, Christian Century, Sojourners, and so on), regularly report on media issues with a nuanced awareness of the complexity of the media, religion and culture conversation, and with an eye towards pastoral practice.

Mary Hess - Wednesday, July 18, 2012 - 11:03

Putting together a brief overview of what’s going on with “theological education, religion and digital culture” is a daunting task.

Is “theological education” only what occurs in departments of theology and/or free standing seminaries? Or is theological education also something that occurs in religious studies departments, not to mention in settings in which undergraduates are learning about theology? What about theological issues that are raised in the midst of popular cultures?

I’m reminded of the distinction that was recently reiterated by John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas (in A New Culture of Learning). That is, are we teaching “about” a stable body of knowledge, or are we learning "through" engagement with the world? My own writing has tended to take the latter stance, that theological education is best exemplified through engagement with religious practice – whether one is a believer in that specific practice, or not. Here I would point you to two of my books, Engaging Technology in Theological Education: All That We Can’t Leave Behind (Rowman&Littlefield, 2005), and Teaching Reflectively in Theological Contexts (Kreiger, 2008).

I have been deeply impacted by the work of media scholars who take reception theories and cultural studies very seriously, and I have also learned an enormous amount from scholars exploring new media environments (people like Mimi Ito, danah boyd, Lisa Nakamura, David Weinberger, Clay Shirky, Yochai Benkler, and Lawrence Lessig).

Where does that lead in exploring “theological education and new media”? I’m going to answer that question in two ways, and hope that this first entry will not prevent you from reading the second. Those two streams are, one, the theologians whose theological (philosophical) work is giving us room to engage these changes more effectively within theological education; and two, the pastoral leaders who are finding ways to embrace new media in ways that are deeply grounded both in pastoral practice and nuanced engagement with media. One final caveat: although I teach and work in interfaith settings, the following resources are drawn from within Christian theological settings, as that is the context within which I am most fluent.

In this first post, I’ll start with theologians who are taking nuanced engagement with culture seriously. I think the following five books are essential reading:

(1) Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

This book is a compelling and serious examination of the ways in which Christian imagination takes shape from the earliest communities following Jesus to today. Jennings unmasks the destructive ways in which supersessionism, colonial powers and a general tendency to align with “power over” rather than “power poured out” has contributed to hegemonic Christian practice. In many ways the book is a grim indictment of Christian imagination, but it is also a vivid and hope-filled exploration of the many Christian alternatives which persisted alongside of dominant narratives. Given Jennings’ thoughtful engagement with critical cultural studies, and his innovative exploration of the arts (particularly jazz, the blues, and certain kinds of storytelling), the book paves a way for a deeply Christian theological engagement with new media, even though that is not its explicit goal.

(2) Jolyon Mitchell, Media Violence and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

This book is the single best theological engagement with a wide range of current media, religion and culture scholarship of which I am aware. Mitchell considers a wide range of media genres – everything from video games and films, to news media and photojournalism – bringing a keen theological engagement with representation of violence to the task. The book is a brilliant and significant contribution to the emerging conversation taking place at the intersection of media studies, Christian ethics, and practical theology. It’s also a model for bringing to bear a diverse array of disciplinary lenses respectfully and fruitfully, while keeping a focus on a specific topic – media violence. I was particularly struck by the innovative way in which he engages ritual theory and liturgical practice.

(3) John McClure, Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011).

This book is an excellent exploration of digital audio technologies and the ways in which they have entered into music production – particularly as represented in the vibrant music scene in Nashville, Tennessee, where McClure is on the faculty at Vanderbilt Divinity School. The book is grounded in some of the best of the recent engagement with audio and the ways in which soundscapes contribute to meaning, as well as bringing a mature theological imagination to bear. McClure is particularly adept at pointing to the resonance that exists between preaching and crafting songs, a process of “mashing up” tunes with layers of meaning.

(4) Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).

This book first appeared more than a decade ago, and is an accessible and engaging introduction to various “theories of culture” as they have entered into Christian doctrinal reflection. While Tanner does not engage digital media at all, not surprising given the book's date of publication, she does work through a variety of perspectives on how “culture” is to be understood, concluding with a postmodern engagement with fluid notions of “culture” as a medium in which meaning is created, circulated, negotiated with, and contested.

(5) Brad Hinze, Matthias Scharer, Jochen Hilberath. The Practice of Communicative Theology: An Introduction to a New Theological Culture (Crossroads Publishing Company, 2008).

This book grows out of a pedagogical practice that is particularly common in German-speaking Catholic communities across Europe, and which is spreading into other settings (this book is the first comprehensive English translation of that work). Drawing on the theorizing and practice of Ruth Cohen, a psychoanalyst known for her work in theme-centered interaction, this form of theological engagement is rigorously grounded in actual communities, and is a dynamic communicative process featuring nodes of “I” (an individual person’s reflections), “we” (a community’s or group’s reflections), “it” (the logos or heart of a specific doctrine), and the “globe” (distinctive reflection centered in and through the surrounding world contexts).

While this form of theological reflection is only beginning to be used intentionally or in a focused way in relation to digital media (cf. my own work), its pointed attention to these four nodes inevitably means that people reflect in the midst of their lives, and thus in the midst of new media.

Heidi Campbell - Thursday, July 5, 2012 - 13:44

A recent set of posting on the Association of Internet Researcher's email list generated an interesting list of sources reflecting on and/or challenging the notion that technology in general and the Internet in particular is "ideologically neutral". I would like to share a selection of sources \ for those who might be interested in also exploring these debates.

Daniel Chandler, Shaping and Being Shaped Engaging with Media article from 1996 in the Journal of CMC

Susan Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting

Ellul, J. (1964). The technological society (J. Wilkinson, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1954)

Andrew Feenberg, Questioning Technology

Andrew Feenberg's Critical Theory of Technology (1991), which lays out a very useful heuristic distinction between instrumental ("technology is neutral"), substantive, and critical perspectives on technology development and use.

Mary Flanagan, Daniel Howe, Helen Nissenbaum, Embodying values in technology: theory and practice, Information Technology and Moral Philosophy, Eds. Jeroen van den Hoven, John Weckert, chap 16, Cambridge, UK Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Johnson, J. (1988). Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer. Social Problems, 35(3), 298-310. [Bruno Latour's article which he published under Johnson pseudonym]

Marcus Leaning (2009)The Internet Power and Society: Rethinking the Power of the Internet to Change Lives, Chandos: Oxford.

Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New

Arnold Pacey, Technology: practice and culture, Amherst, New York, Controlling technology: contemporary issues, Ed. Eric Katz, Andrew Light, William Thompson, Prometheus Books, 2007,

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Tom Streeter, Selling the Air: A Critique of the Policy of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States

Sally Wyatt, (2008) *Technological Determinism is Dead*; Long Live Technological Determinism. The Handbook of Science & Technology Studies, MIT Press.

Langdon Winner's "Do Artifacts Have Politics?", also to be found in his book "The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology".

"Algorithmic Ideology. How capitalist society shapes search engines",

Ruth Tsuria - Wednesday, June 20, 2012 - 03:29

Turku, the old capital of Finland was the host city for the 'Digital Religion' Symposium which was held by the Donner Institute for Research in Religion and Cultural History. Prof. Hannu Salmi, who welcomed us to the Symposium, explained that Turku is an old Finnish word for 'marketplace'. And indeed, the conference in Turku was a marketplace, an Agora for ideas.

Although dominated by a European crowd (many of whom are members of the 'Nordic Network for Religion and Media') the conference started with the American 'rock star' Prof. Heidi Campbell ('Rock star' being a title she received at the international conference held earlier this year in Boulder, Colorado). Campbell set the tone for a conference that will deal not only with the phenomenology of religion online and/or online religion, but also with the theories and methods used to understand these phenomena. After establishing the five characteristics of the research made so far (convergent practice, multi-site reality, networked community, storied identity and shifting authority), she finished with the statement that the future of Media and Religion studies is in nuance examination and critical thinking. Mostly, it seems that religion online should not be seen as a separate or independent occurrence – the relationship between online and offline seems to be a prominent aspect in the future of this field. I later felt that the issue of online and offline religion became a 'sacred concept' throughout the conference, present almost in every session, explicitly or implicitly.

For example, Prof. Jolyon Mitchell, one of the keynote speakers, tried to examine the translation which occurred when Passion Plays were transmitted online – were we watching the same play? Did the religious feelings changed when watching it offline or online – and what were those changes? Mitchell put a spin on the notion of offline-online relationship by bring into mind the concept of 'translation'. Another interesting example was Claire Clivaz's crusade to put the manuscripts of the New Testament online, which – not surprisingly – raises issues of authority within the Christian world of manuscripts.

What I found interesting in Turku, is that – much like its name, the conference itself became a marketplace of ideas from a variety of religions. True, Christianity has been the dominant religion talked about, but by far not the only one. Islam (and Islam video gaming! Given by Vit Sisler), Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, and monks, druids and vampires were all explored online and offline.

Lastly, but most importantly, the Finns know how to treat their guests. In both nights of the Symposium we were treated – on the first night we went on a boat to a small island just outside Turku, where we ate and danced, and on the second night we traveled to a marvelous old manor were we ate (but didn't dance, sadly). Every day we enjoyed music performed by locals, and being so high north, we got to experience whole days and night of light.

The Donner Institute marked the Symposium as a success, and I couldn't agree more. However, the need to keep on exploring the right tools to understand religion and media is only growing, as the relationship between online and offline becomes blurry and the question of 'what is religious?' becomes harder to answer.

Stephen Garner - Sunday, June 17, 2012 - 05:07

My career prior to theology was in computer science, and whilst in that environment I was intrigued by the amount of ‘God-language’ used by colleagues to describe their computing work, as well as the stories of ‘technology as saviour’ being told by technologists and others around the world. My PhD in theology allowed me to further explore these narratives, together with religious accounts of technology. My research focused upon the speculative narratives of salvation being told by the transhumanist community – that through technology we can seize control of our own evolution and become like ‘gods’ – in dialogue with Christian engagement with technology through the motif of human beings as bearers of God’s image and likeness (see Journal of Evolution and Technology 14/2; Colloquium 37/2). Using the theological metaphor of human beings as ‘created co-creators’ to examine different theological responses to technology and transhumanism, I argued that human beings might live well as ‘hopeful cyborgs,’ maintaining a critical balance of both apprehension and hope about human technological agency.

My current research is drawn out of that initial project looking at Christian responses to emerging technologies and media, and continues to develop the ‘created co-creator’ metaphor in dialogue with social justice themes. Other related research includes reflection upon theology, spirituality and the Internet, including religious lament and the new media, and the positive and negative visions of the posthuman in popular culture, where technology can serve as a either a transcendent medium or dehumanizing force respectively. I'm also interested in popular culture as a site for doing contextual theology (Studies in World Christianity 17/2).

Further reading related to technological narratives of salvation can be found in the following resources:

  1. Graham, Elaine. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture. Manchester Studies in Religion, Culture, and Gender. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.
    Explores historical and contemporary relationship between technology and being human with connections to religion, cultural studies, and popular culture.
  2. Cole-Turner, Ronald. Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technology Enhancement. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2011.
    A recent collection of essays by established and emerging scholars exploring theological perspectives on transhumanism. Contains my essay ‘The Hopeful Cyborg’ which looks at the intersection of the cyborg with images of hybridity located within Christianity.
  3. Hughes, James. Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004.
    An overview of differing technological optimistic trajectories and the spectrum of transhumanism from an insider within that community. Hughes also has Buddhist connections.
  4. Maher, Derek F., and Calvin R. Mercer. Religion and the Implications of Radical Life Extension. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
    A collection of essays exploring different religious perspectives (including atheism) towards technology in general and gerontological technologies in particular.
  5. Waters, Brent. From Human to Posthuman : Christian Theology and Technology in a Postmodern World. Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006.
    Addresses the relationship between technology and being human from a Christian theological perspective with the aim of assisting with Christian discourse, deliberation and discernment for living well in contemporary technoculture.

Chris Helland - Monday, May 14, 2012 - 09:32

My early research into online religious activity developed a system of classification that recognized a distinction between online religion (where the religious activity actually occurred in the online environment) and religion online (where the medium was used as a tool to facilitate religious activity in the “offline” world). This dichotomy was useful in a very general way for trying to make some sort of sense out of the explosion of religious expression that was showing up on the World Wide Web. It also helped demonstrate the different ways the medium was used for religion: many-to-many forms of communication where the end user could participate online in various forms of religious activity—and one-to-many online communication where the religion is dispersed in many of the ways religion had been mass communicated in the past (much like radio, television, and the printing press).

Although the framework was helpful as a very general heuristic tool there were issues that were not properly addressed by the system of classification. As several scholars argued (e.g., Cowan, Dawson, Young) having a dichotomy is not as representative as recognizing a scale between these two forms of online expression—and in many cases religious groups will provide both forms. It still remains helpful to see how and when different groups communicate in different ways—particularly as Web 2.0 develops and online user-generated content becomes more standard—but a clear distinction between the two is linked to recognizing a separation between life “online” and “offline” and for most Internet users that distinction never really existed.

As I have continued to study online religious activity the one clear shortcoming I had when I developed the theory was arguing that people are only “doing” religion when they engage religious activity in a form of reciprocal exchange, communication, or communal participation (online-religion). In my examination of online activity associated with Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan Government in Exile, it became very clear that many people within this tradition do religion online by watching the Dalai Lama perform ritual activities and communicate information about their religion—of course many religious traditions function in this way. This activity is clearly “religion online” and the flow of information is absolutely from one-to-many. However, it is also a way of “doing” religion, much like sitting at the feet of the guru to receive a blessing or teachings, it is a powerful form of religious engagement and one that happens online now much more frequently with the development of new technologies that can broadcast HD and HP (high powered) sermons from charismatic religious leaders and teachers.

Examining how new media is impacting religious activity and how people “do” religion is exciting and interesting work. I have listed five articles that have helped me think about how people do religion online—there were a lot of good articles and scholars to choose from and I apologize in advance for only being able to post five of them.

1) MacWilliams, Mark (2006). Techno-Ritualization: The Gohozon Controversy on the Internet. Online—Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 2(1). Avaliable online at:

Through a detailed examination of Nichiren Buddhism, Soka Gakkai International (SGI), and the American Nichiren Buddhist Independent Movement, MacWilliams examines the controversy over ritual practice and authenticity of the sacred when the “Gohonzon” is produced online and made accessible through the Internet. In this very detailed article MacWilliams demonstrates that one-to-many communication online can be a very powerful force for religious engagement. His work also shows how controlling this flow of information can have significant impact on religious organizations and individuals.

2) Miczek, Nadja (2008). Online Rituals in Virtual Worlds: Christian Online Services between Dynamics and Stability. Online—Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3(1). Avaliable online at:

Miczek examines two forms of online Christian ritual activity to further develop the ritual transfer theory. Her work highlights the changing processes that occur when ritual is transferred into cyberspace and how ritual can “fail” if a number of criteria are not met. In this article she explores how it is (or is not) possible to create an online activity that becomes a form of real ritual engagement for the participants.

3) Grieve, Gregory P. (1995). Imagining a Virtual Religious Community: Neo-Pagans and the Internet. Chicago Anthropology Exchange 7: 98-132.

Although most people credit O’Leary with publishing the first scholarly article examining online religious activity, the recognition should go to Gregory Price Grieve for his research article that came out one year earlier. Like O’Leary, Grieve was fascinated with the development of neo-pagan online communities and ritual activities in the early years of the Internet and World Wide Web. Unlike O’Leary, who examined ritual transcripts after-the-fact, Grieve did significant online ethnography and online fieldwork to explore the activity. This included interviews, surveys, and meeting with participants “off-line” at the World Parliament of Religions in 1993. His article explored the aspects, qualities, and characteristics of neo-paganism that made it compatible with online activity—particularly the manner in which their ritual (and ritual imagination) functioned.

Grieve’s early article drew upon a number of theoretical frameworks to develop and clarify what he was seeing online. This includes work from Benedict Anderson, Weber, Eliade, Baudrillard, Turner, Catherine Bell, J.Z. Smith and Walter Ong. Although this article was written almost 20 years ago it is still worth a read.

4) 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.

In this recent article, Campbell explores the developing shifts and intertwined relationship occurring between broader Western culture and the online religious environment. She develops the concept of “networked religion” as a tool for exploring the larger picture of what is occurring when we talk about religion and the Internet. Networked religion has five components or characteristics: networked community, storied identities, shifting authority, convergent practices, and multisite reality. Campbell’s article challenges the dichotomy between life online verses life offline and explores how life in a networked society impacts religion in the society. She makes it clear that these two things cannot be separated out—Western society and culture has changed significantly with the development of the Internet and World Wide Web and religion is not immune from these changes—or a separate sphere that somehow operates outside of our networked world.

5) Helland, C. (2005). Online Religion as Lived Religion: Methodological Issues in the Study of Religious Participation on the Internet. Online—Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 1(1). Available online at:

In response to Glenn Young (2005), I explored the limitations of the Online-Religion/Religion-Online framework in relation to ritual practices. The original paper was presented at the University of Heidelberg online ritual studies conference and helped me clarify my understanding of online religious activity and the limitations of one-to-many forms of communication in the online environment.

Heidi Campbell - Saturday, May 12, 2012 - 07:54

Presentations at the mystic media conference at the University of Fribourg-Switzerland, 10-12 May 2012, brought together a variety of disciplines (Art history/archeology, Communication, Religious Studies, History) to look for the connections between religious rhetoric and meaning making and various forms of communicative medium. Mystic Media was used as a fluid concept talk about at how various mediums have become infused with spiritual meaning or engaged with different religious practice and communities across time. For me the key theme which emerged was the importance of grounding reflection of religion and media in broader historical and theoretical context in order to make a true and vibrant interdisciplinary conversation possible. Together through presentations and conversations it became clear we shared conceptual links in our work even if our approaches varied greatly.

I was very interested that a number of speakers demonstrated that the connections between mysticism and mystical discourse and various communicative technologies is not new. There is a long tradition of communicative artifacts to be infused with religious significance. Othmar Keel from the Univ of Fribourg argues this can be seen as far back as the significance given Egyptian Scarabs as religious-like postcards to the afterlife enacting mystical narratives of the regeneration power of the sun god. We also hear about the practice of “drinking the Quran” and how consuming verses as a therapeutic practice points to the need to pay attention to what happens “behind the back door” instead of in front of the “mosque” when we consider media consumption practices. Thus studying the mystical nature of contemporary media requires a broad historical approach and cultural perspective.

It was also provoking see how ancient religious discourses, imagery and ideas are often evoked to mark off the mystical significance of technological and scientific innovations, and how such speech acts lead to reinterpretation of their initial meaning in both playful and trangressive ways. This was seen in a talk given by Kocku von Stuckrad from Univ of Groningen as he unpacked references to the Human genomic project, which were described as “unlocking of the book of nature/life” which shifted the notions from God having written this text to humans now being given power of the text. We see that that the social significance of different technologies is often explained with mystical imagery and religious texts and discourse have become interpretive frames for explain the cultural importance new medium.

In conclusion I see that studies of digital religion should not only continue to include diverse conversational partners, and situate itself within larger studies of historical-cultural media practices, but also expand to consider aspects of material religious practice in relations to digital technologies and cultures.

Gregory Grieve - Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 10:36

My book Digital Zen: Buddhism, Virtual Worlds and the New Economy will be published by Routledge in 2013. The impetus for the book was when I first logged on to Second Life in October 2007 and found myself sitting in full lotus position, meditating next to a bear. The “bear,” like me, was currently logged onto Second Life, a 3D interactive world of over 20 million residents in which users interact with one another through animated avatars. He might have been in same room, or on another continent. Along with twenty-one other practitioners, I—or really my avatar—was sitting at the Upaya Mountain Zen Retreat (UZMR), a community whose members describe themselves as an “owned and operated Buddhist practice center in the virtual universe of Second Life.” To say the least, I was perplexed. What did these people hope to gain by sitting at their keyboards, while their avatars remained silent and motionless? What relationship did silent online meditation have to physical Buddhist practices, which are often characterized as leading to direct bodily experiences?

Virtual Buddhist Communities, such as the UMZR, tend to stand under the weight of three suspicions. First, because they are virtual, online religious communities are often dismissed as unreal, or at best just play. Second, because they are part of popular culture they are perceived as not really serious. Finally, because they are Western forms of an Eastern religion they are frequently rejected as inauthentic, or even virtual postcolonial forms of orientalism. However, the three years of ethnographic study (2007-2010) conducted by my research group, the Cardean Virtual Research Team, displays that these Second Life residents had very real, authentic and serious reasons for practicing Zen Buddhism in virtual worlds. They were not fools. For some it was pragmatic. Digital religious practice on Second Life affords isolated and solitary practitioners a Buddhist community, if only a virtual one. As the bear, whose user in real life lived in a small Alaskan fishing village said to me, “we log on so we can sit [meditating] together” (personal communication, October 2008). For a sizable minority of residents it was spiritual. Many of the practitioners maintain that online practice has an ethical or spiritual element because by pointing out the constructed nature of reality virtual worlds lead to “awakening,” an Non-heritage Buddhist term which corresponds to the Sanskrit word “bodhi,” and points to the knowledge possessed by a Buddha about the nature of reality. For practitioners of digital Buddhism, awakening typically means to be mindful of desire. As a Second Life notecard, given to me by the Resident Mystic Moon, read, “ . . .in the addictive culture of capitalism, remember the hungry ghost who desires more and more of what can never satisfy ” (personal communication, November 2009).

Digital Zen argues that these pragmatic and spiritual reasons indicate that Buddhist practice in the virtual world of Second Life is both a product of, and a response to the New Economy. On the surface, understanding religion on Second Life is significant because of the increasing dominance of digital media not only in daily life but also in the practice of religion. As Lorne Dawson and Douglas Cowan write, “[t]he Internet is changing the face of religion worldwide” (2004: 1). As the Pew Internet and American Life Project (2009) “CyberFaith: How Americans Pursue Religion Online,” demonstrates every month twenty-five percent of Americans search for information about religion online. On a deeper level, the religion being practiced online, reflects the changes in religion caused by the New Economy that are occurring more generally across contemporary culture. As Charles Ess suggests, as everyday life in contemporary society is increasingly lived in an online-offline connection, religion “impacts and is impacted by these transformations.” In other words, analyzing Buddhist practice at UMZR is important not just for comprehending religious practice on virtual worlds, or even digital religion more generally, but it is key for understanding the “religious imaginary” of the New Economy, the way average people see religion and use religion to make sense of, and organize, the world around them.

For those interested in the study of non-Heritage North American Buddhism, ethnography, New Economy, and virtual worlds I suggest five books:

Bartle, Richard. Designing Virtual Worlds. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2004.

Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Modernity. New York: Polity, 2000.

Dibble, Julian. My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World. New York: An Owl Book, 1998.

Prebish, Charles. Luminous Passage: The Practice of and Study of Buddhism in America. Berkley: University of California Press, 1999.

Chris Helland - Tuesday, March 27, 2012 - 19:03

6 am comes early when you are jetlagged. I had arrived in Dharamsala, India the afternoon of March 7 with the hope of attending a teaching on the Jataka Tales and an “empowerment ceremony” from the Dalai Lama on the morning of March 8. My goal was to experience the teaching and ritual first hand and then examine its online representations to assess the overall differences between the experiences. This combined with interviews of participants, monks, and the people responsible for the Dalai Lama’s website was some of the primary research for my current project “Virtual Tibet: Maintaining Identity through Computer Networks.”

I have really begun to enjoy researching the impact of the Internet and WWW on the Tibetan situation. For a diaspora community, Tibetans in Exile are at the forefront of utilizing this new communications medium to promote their cause and maintain their community. This is happening on several levels—with what can best be described as “multi-site networked approach.” With the use of the Internet, there has been a marked development that has shifted the usage of various forms of media away from “media spectacle”—that, historically, garnered attention to focus on the cause of the Tibetan situation—to shifting focus internally on connecting with the diaspora community. This is a multi-site network because it happens in 5 different “spheres” of Internet influence that are connected explicitly and implicitly throughout the World Wide Web. The website groupings are the Tibetan Government in Exile (; Tibetan News Websites (broadcast in English, Tibetan, and Mandarin around the globe—including “over” the Great Firewall of China); Cyber-sanghas and comprehensive community-based websites; social networking sites; and Monastic and Religious Websites (the primary example being

Another factor that makes the study of Internet usage within the Tibetan situation unique is that there is no demarcation or socially structured dualism between life “online” and life “off-line”. In fact, in 1996—when the WWW was still a relatively new creation—monks from the Namgyal Monastery performed a variation of the Kalachakara Tantra to create a blessing for cyberspace. (These are the monks that perform ritual ceremonies for the Dalai Lama and the current monastery where I was sitting in the dark and cold on the morning of March 8). Their view is that cyberspace is part of the space that makes up the universe and it was now a place that we moved through in a variety of different ways. Their prayers and blessings were focused upon the motivation of the Internet users and they believed that this would influence them to be more positive and that the benefits of using the Internet and WWW would also then be more beneficial to humanity. There is no “official” position or rules set up for regulating behavior online—because the rules set out for proper behaviour of the individual (whether they are a lay person or a religious specialist) apply to all the places a person goes and all the things the person does, whether they are online or not.

By 6:30 am I had staked out a pretty good place to sit and was trying to observe the people around me as much as possible. The Dalai Lama would be giving the teachings in Tibetan, and then they would be simultaneously translated into a variety of languages. English is broadcast on channel 92.8 but unfortunately some people from Russia had set up a giant FM antenna a few feet from me to snatch a little bit of bandwidth so they could broadcast their translation—this made reception a bit of a challenge. After a couple of hours waiting, the Dalai Lama entered the complex and began a series of rituals and blessing that would precede the teachings. Despite the cold (and my somewhat cramped legs)—it was an enjoyable experience. The Dalai Lama is charismatic and an exceptional teacher—the 80% or so of the translation I could hear over the occasional squelching of Russian was insightful and illuminating to say the least. The ritual component was dynamic. All the people present were given the opportunity to undertake the Chenrezig Initiation as monks handed out red blindfolds and small red strings. I happily participated—being a Buddhist within the Mahayana tradition, and saw this as a most auspicious experience. However, again due to my limits in understanding Tibetan and the difficulty with translation reception on my radio, I missed several phrases of the ritual. Despite that issue, when everything was concluded I felt deeply honoured (and lucky) to be able to have received the initiation from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Drawing upon the framework developed at the University of Heidelberg for assessing the transfer of rituals to the online environment (see Miczek 2008), the next step is to conduct interviews and contrast the experiences –my own included. To view the teachings and ritual online see:

Tim Hutchings - Thursday, March 1, 2012 - 06:27

I’m currently working on my first monograph, an ethnographic study of five online Christian churches. I published early findings in Information, Communication & Society 14(8). In “Contemporary Religious Community and the Online Church”, I argued that the distinction between online and offline is flexible and open to negotiation. Many online congregants welcome their family and friends into their online and offline gatherings, but this decision isn’t consistent or universal. Others worship online to find a secure space away from the surveillance of family and local church. Scholars shouldn’t lose sight of this double reality: religious media, like religion itself, is both part of and separate from everyday reality.

If you’re interested in finding out more about online churches and the debates they provoke, here are the five resources I’d recommend.

1) J. Hadden and D. Cowan (eds), 2000, Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises, New York: JAI Press. Chris Helland’s classic distinction of “religion online” from “online religion” never really worked for online churches, but working out why not is a good way to start thinking about issues of authority, change and what counts as “religious practice”.

2) The Barna Group, 1998, The Cyberchurch is Coming. This report (and a 2001 update) interpreted terribly flimsy survey data to predict massive migration from local to online churches. That didn’t happen, but these studies have cast a long shadow over Christian discussion.

3) Online: The Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 03.1, 2008. Online published a series of great articles about online churches, including 5 in this issue. Simon Jenkins’ contribution is an excellent account of Church of Fools, written by one of its founders.

4) D. Estes, 2010, SimChurch, Grand Rapids: Zondervan. This is still the only book-length discussion of online churches. Estes’ enthusiastic study isn’t perfect, but you need to read it – and it sparked some very interesting debates among hostile Christian bloggers.

5) K. Sporre and G. Svedburg (eds), 2009, Changing Societies: Values, Religions and Education: Working Papers in Teacher Education 7. Two of the articles in this collection discuss churches in Second Life. Jim Barrett sees a “rhetoric of the holy” at work in online church design – a very useful approach to the limits of religious innovation.


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