Blog

Annalise Ousley - Monday, June 1, 2020 - 15:38

The following blog post is an edited excerpt from an essay appearing in the Network’s second eBook Project entitled Religion in Quarantine: The Future of Religion in a Post-Pandemic World. This book features personal and research reflection on how their understanding of religion is being altered and shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. The eBook is available for FREE download at: https://oaktrust.library.tamu.edu/handle/1969.1/188004

Faith Under Quarantine: Lessons from Camus
Daniel Conway

Pandemic in the Past
Long before I was made aware of the COVID-19 virus, I decided to ask my undergraduate students to read The Plague [La peste] by Albert Camus (1947). I also scheduled this reading assignment for the end of the Spring 2020 semester, which, as it turns out, meant that the students would be reading and thinking about the quarantine of Oran while enduring their very own quarantine in Texas.

The central figure of acknowledged religious authority in The Plague is Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest who ministers to the Catholic faithful of Oran. Intending to account for the provenance and possible remission of the plague, Father Paneloux takes to his pulpit to deliver the sermon:

“If today the plague is in your midst, that is because the hour has struck for taking thought. The just man need have no fear, but the evildoer has good cause to tremble. For plague is the flail of God and the world His threshing-floor, and implacably He will thresh out His harvest until the wheat is separated from the chaff. There will be more chaff than wheat, few chosen of the many called. Yet this calamity was not willed by God” (Camus, 1991, p. 95).

Father Paneloux accounts for the outbreak of plague as the consequence of God having “turned His face away from us,” which he interprets as a proportional response to their persistent habit of taking for granted His “divine mercy”(Camus, 1991, p. 96). According to Paneloux the plague is an undeserved gift from God — and so, evidence of His love — albeit in the form of a stern admonition to return to the path of righteousness. As Paneloux explains, God has unleashed the plague as a means of claiming their full attention (p. 97).

Later on, a young boy, Philippe Othon, son of the local magistrate, has been stricken by the plague. Can it be said that this child, innocent by all accounts, deserves the plague as a punishment for his sins? Even if one were inclined to classify the youngster as collateral damage in a larger exercise of divine retribution, one would be hard pressed to see the justice and mercy of the deity whose will includes the suffering of blameless children.

Young Othon is injected with an experimental serum that is meant to relieve some of the worst symptoms associated with the plague. The hope attached to his recovery is thus suggestive of the larger hope for a more comprehensive victory over the plague. But the serum does not work as planned, and the boy’s condition continues to deteriorate. If anything, the serum exacerbates his suffering. What deity has ordained this ordeal?

Father Paneloux does not duck the ensuing challenge to his faith. In a second sermon, he dramatically raises the stakes of his exhortation to his parishioners: If the death of the innocent child is incident to God’s will, he advises, then it must become incident to the will of God’s faithful. Rather than question the justice and mercy of his God, that is, Father Paneloux questions the value he and others have attached to the life of an innocent child. In effect, his second sermon transforms the boy into a convenient scapegoat whose painful, seemingly pointless death allows the faithful of Oran to align their will with the will of Paneloux’s God.

Pandemic in the Present
I often ask the students to read The Plague and evaluate the wisdom of Father Paneloux’s quarantine-prompted sermons. This year was different because we were contemplating the quarantine of Oran while complying in real time with quarantine measures imposed upon us under the plague-like conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the questions I raised with my students were not received as abstract, academic, or hypothetical.

Owing to their own experience of quarantine, my current students have been unusually attentive to the rhetorical power of Father Paneloux’s sermons. As they now know, conditions of plague and quarantine intensify the desire for answers and amplify the need for meaning. Even those students who disagree with Father Paneloux, including those who deem him evil, cold, or heartless, have been able to appreciate the power of his appeal. What Father Paneloux understands is that in times of crisis and uncertainty, people need to be united. The world they face together must make sense, even if the sense made of it is unflattering or daunting to us. Under such conditions, Father Paneloux realizes, any explanation of the plague, including the victim-blaming explanation he serves up, is preferable to no explanation at all.

Reflections on Studying Pandemic
I will close this essay with three reflections:

First, drawing on their unique, first-personal experience of quarantine, my current students have exhibited a keen appreciation of the role of religious figures and religious authorities in stabilizing a society or polity rocked by uncertainty. They are aware that Father Paneloux’s sermons were meant to succeed as secular interventions, independent of their merit as spiritual interventions.

Second, alert to the rhetorical effect on them of Father Paneloux’s sermons, my current students have been unusually adventurous in considering the merit of Camus’ opposition to hope. Typically, Camus does not receive a sympathetic hearing. In the past, his opposition to hope and his relentless attention to the meaningfulness of the present moment have struck my students as extreme. My current students are similarly reluctant to give up their hopes for the future, but they are significantly more sympathetic to the imperative to create meaning for themselves in the here and now. Even if they are not yet willing to live a hopeless existence, they understand that some expressions of hope can be as devastating as the onset of plague.

Third, and finally, current students are noticeably more alert to the (admittedly counterintuitive) suggestion that an aspiration to “sainthood” is possible for those who do not believe in God. Jean Tarrou, the hero of the novel, characterizes this model of “sainthood” in starkly privative terms, i.e., as a lifelong quest to minimize the harm one does to others.

Daniel Conway is Professor of Philosophy and Humanities and Affiliate Professor of Film Studies, Religious Studies, and Law at Texas A&M University.

Sources
Camus, A. (1972/19910. The plague (S. Gilbert, Trans.). New York: Random House/Vintage International.


Annalise Ousley - Thursday, May 28, 2020 - 16:44

The following blog post is an edited excerpt from an essay appearing in the Network’s second eBook Project entitled Religion in Quarantine: The Future of Religion in a Post-Pandemic World. This book features personal and research reflection on how their understanding of religion is being altered and shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. The eBook is available for FREE download at: https://oaktrust.library.tamu.edu/handle/1969.1/188004

COVID-19, Sanctuary, and the Future of American Religion
Felipe Hinojosa

I grew up in Brownsville, Texas. It is a town perfectly placed on the southernmost tip of Texas in a region known as the Rio Grande Valley. Most of the families have left the neighborhood where I grew up and Lincoln Park — the park I used to cross every day on my way to J. T. Canales Elementary — is gone, flattened by Interstate 69. But perhaps one of the biggest and most visible changes is the oddly placed border fence built in the early 2000s as part of the Bush administration’s move to secure the border.

The border fence is much more than an eyesore in my hometown. It is a failure to see the beauty — and the contradictions — of border life. And while the fence in my hometown and the president’s chatter about building a “border wall” along the U.S./Mexico border have made things more difficult, they have not stopped people from finding a way to connect with and support one another. People like Mike Benavides, a school administrator, founded the group Team Brownsville, whose members come together to help those seeking asylum in the U.S. In the summer of 2018, Team Brownsville started taking things like food and other necessary items to the hundreds of asylum seekers from as far away as India, Cuba, Colombia, Bangladesh, El Salvador, and Honduras, all waiting in the Mexican border town of Matamoros to present their case to U.S. authorities.

In 2019 a group of drag queens organized a protest along the US/Mexico border in Brownsville to voice their opposition to the border wall and to raise money for LGBTQ asylum seekers. The leader of the group, Beatrix Lestrange, a.k.a. “Joe Colon-Uvalles,” commented that the goal “is to use the beauty of drag art and performance against the hateful, racist and xenophobic rhetoric that is being projected unto our communities.” Drag queens from throughout the Rio Grande Valley have since gathered in public parks to proclaim, “We are here to bring joy, positivity, beauty, drag, culture to whatever this is,” pointing to the border fence (Leaños, 2019). These heroic acts of resistance are part of a long tradition of resistance along the borderlands. And it is this radical tradition — and the love that emanates from it — that will carry us forward in a COVID-19 America. Let me explain.

In the 1980s, a powerful movement of religious leaders, community organizers, and activists opened the doors of their churches to provide sanctuary to refugees fleeing war and violence in Central America. In the years between 1980 and 1983, an estimated 1.5 million people left their homes in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala to come to the United States. The Sanctuary movement emerged as a way to offer people a place to stay and many came with hopes of gaining asylum in the United States. However, gaining asylum status proved difficult. The U.S. government categorized immigration from Central America as motivated by economic interests rather than a genuine need to escape war and violence. For U.S. officials, granting asylum to Central American refugees also meant an admission of guilt and responsibility for the very violence that U.S. foreign policy helped create and continued to fund (Smith, 1996, p. 162). As a result, a majority of refugees were denied asylum. This reality lit the fire of Sanctuary movement organizers who believed they had a moral obligation to open the doors of their churches and synagogues to give sanctuary.

My church in Brownsville, Texas, participated in this movement. Iglesia Menonita del Cordero, a Mexican American working-class congregation, opened its doors to refugees from Central America and for a few years housed several hundred people at a time. Of course, I had no clue about what they were experiencing at the time. I had no sense of their struggle, their worries, and certainly no idea of what they had left behind in their home countries. But one thing that has stuck with me, that I have never forgotten, are the faces of the people I met. Under unimaginable stress and trauma, they seemed hopeful to me. I clearly remember the leadership of church members who worked around the clock to make sure people were cared for, that they had what they needed, and that they made contact with their relatives. This scene — of churches stepping up and opening their doors to offer critical services for refugees and undocumented immigrants — was repeated across the country. However, for their courage, religious leaders were surveilled, imprisoned, and their places of worship deemed criminal.

These risks that were taken must serve as a model for how religious groups should respond in the midst of this current pandemic. In this COVID-19 world in which we all now live, it will be more important than ever for churches to enact politics of love prepared to serve refugees, immigrants, small business owners, single parents, families with sick relatives, and people who have lost their jobs because of COVID-19. While the social distancing and shelter-in-place orders will ease, the economic disaster will remain with us for the foreseeable future. It is in the midst of this, that history, and the Sanctuary movement in particular, can remind us of the moments when the saints carried us.

Felipe Hinojosa is Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University. His teaching and research interests include Latina/o and Mexican American Studies, American Religion, Social Movements, Gender, and Comparative Race and Ethnicity.

Sources

Leaños Jr., R. (2019, February 26). Texas ‘dragtavist’ drag queens stage border wall protest. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/02/26/697958528/texas-dragtavist-drag-queens-st....

Smith, C. (1996) Resisting Reagan: The U.S. Central America peace movement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Annalise Ousley - Monday, May 25, 2020 - 11:48

The following blog post is an edited excerpt from an essay appearing in the Network’s second eBook Project entitled Religion in Quarantine: The Future of Religion in a Post-Pandemic World. This book features personal and research reflection on how their understanding of religion is being altered and shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. The eBook is available for FREE download at: https://oaktrust.library.tamu.edu/handle/1969.1/188004

Zooming into Passover
Claire Katz

My Passover Seder this year was a bit of “on the one hand,” “on the other hand.” On the one hand, we did not have our typically large crowd of friends sharing matzo, matzo ball soup, gefilte fish and horseradish, brisket, and our flourless chocolate cake. On the other hand, because the pandemic closed the schools, our elder daughter was home from college, my husband was home instead of being at a conference typically held over this time, our younger daughter would not need to rise early the next morning to head off to school, and I was home all day to prepare food. A rare experience, we actually had our Seder on the traditional first night of Passover rather than waiting until the weekend when it would be convenient for our guests and for us.

That evening, just before we started the Seder, we called my mother who lives in a retirement community in Atlanta, Georgia. Her apartment building was on complete lockdown after one of the residents tested positive for the coronavirus. But just after we hung up, my younger daughter suggested we call her back on FaceTime and have her be part of the Seder. So, we did that — we called her back on FaceTime and set the phone on a corner of the dining table so that she could see everyone.

Although it’s possible we would have thought to do that under “normal” circumstances, I don’t think that we would have. Shifting our lives into our houses for long periods of time, working from home, and having no places to congregate, we have moved much of our social lives — whether teaching, work meetings, or social gatherings — to Zoom or other online platforms.

We are now socializing online not only with people far away but also with people who live near, thus changing how we think about what it means to socialize. The most mundane of activities like having a drink together are no longer possible. Thus, moving to an online version just to say hello means we are now thinking differently about how to connect with people.

Temple Israel in Memphis, Tennessee, is my “home” synagogue. I have been a member of the congregation since 1992 — I had an adult bat mitzvah there in 1995, my husband and I were married there in 2000, and we had our younger daughter’s baby naming with our rabbi in Memphis in 2004. I am tethered to that synagogue and was grateful when I could stream their services for the High Holidays.

Experiencing services in this way is certainly not as meaningful as being present in person, sitting in that beautiful sanctuary, looking around at familiar faces I have seen over so many years. But I was grateful nonetheless to be part of a service that has always moved me and to hear a sermon from rabbis who always make me think and feel deeply about my relationship to Judaism.

The social isolation from this pandemic, however, has pushed us to think differently about how to visit with people, how to socialize, and how to engage in religious ritual, because now we must. The move to online social gathering is not even close to ideal, but it also opens a space for a possibility that did not exist previously — for family and friends to participate together in a ritual when, even under normal circumstances, they would not have been able to do so. But not being able to share a meal together will for me always be a marker of how impoverished the online ritual is.

On the one hand, the pandemic pushed us to find creative ways to honor the traditions and rituals of a holiday that is normally celebrated around a table with friends and family. And I am grateful for the technology that allowed us to do that. On the other hand, nothing can take the place of people sitting side by side, of passing the food, sharing homemade matzo ball soup, hiding and searching for the afikomen.

When I think to the future, I worry about the future of religious practice specifically for Judaism, which relies so much on sharing food and sharing our tables, not only celebrating but also mourning in a community with others. What will a minyan look like over Zoom? What will it mean to sit Shiva with someone who has lost a family member?

Zooming with loved ones who are far away, who would not be able to join us under the best of circumstances, is wonderous gift. But nothing can really take the place of actually breaking bread — or in this case, breaking matzo — with those about whom we care. I do not have the answers for how Judaism will need to think about these practices, I only know that something very special will have been hollowed out of Judaism’s soul if we are not able to practice our religion in the physical presence of others.

Claire Katz is the Murray and Celeste Fasken Chair in Distinguished Teaching in the Liberal Arts and Professor of Philosophy at Texas A&M University, where she is currently Associate Dean of Faculties. A specialist on the work of Emmanuel Levinas, she teaches and conducts research at the intersection of modern Jewish philosophy, contemporary French philosophy, philosophy of education, and feminist theory.


Annalise Ousley - Thursday, May 21, 2020 - 19:36

The following blog post is an edited excerpt from an essay appearing in the Network’s second eBook Project entitled Religion in Quarantine: The Future of Religion in a Post-Pandemic World. This book features personal and research reflection on how their understanding of religion is being altered and shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. The eBook is available for FREE download at: https://oaktrust.library.tamu.edu/handle/1969.1/188004

Religion Embracing and Resisting Cultural Change in a Time of Social Distancing
Heidi A. Campbell

Since the mid-1990s, I have studied how religious communities responded and adapted to the then-new cultural phenomenon of the internet (Campbell, 2005). Just as is seen with the introduction of any new media, the internet garnered a range of responses, from those who wildly praised this innovation and called for religious groups to utilize it to those who warned of the potential threats and called for its rejection. This continuum, where one side promotes and adapts to cultural change and the other advocates to resist cultural change, is also very evident in the ways religious groups have responded to coronavirus. Some churches are readily embracing digital technologies to maintain their work, while other groups actively resist government intervention. The aim is to consider how and why they have made these responses, and what the implications may be for the future practice and study of religion.

Embracing Technology for Religious Practice: Practical Implementation Reveals Religious Focus

One of the most interesting adaptions to observe over the last three months has been how religious groups in America have embraced digital technology to continue what they see as their core functions as religious communities. Specifically, many congregations making the transition from face-to-face worship to online forms of meeting.

Surveys of over 1,500 pastors conducted by a collaboration of church consultancy groups in March, found the overwhelming majority of churches moved from offline to online-only services during the pandemic. While the initial survey found most pastors reported feeling “forced” to make this transition, reimagining church as a mediated experience was quickly embraced by many (MacDonald, Stetzer, & Wilson, 2020). The follow-up survey in late April reported pastors were beginning to get a handle on the new technologies and most church leaders surveyed had adopted either a transfer or a translation strategy in bringing their services online (MacDonald, Stetzer, & Wilson, 2020).

Transferring church online involved simply broadcasting or livestreaming traditional worship services on the internet, trying to replicate the look and feel of weekly gatherings as closely as possible. Translating church online involves some innovation to worship rituals and spaces. These innovations show a very pragmatic response to this cultural shift — churches transferred their worship services online in the most efficient way possible to fulfill what they see as their central mission, offering members a form of Sunday gathering.

While the survey reported giving attention to building connection within the church and then an outward missionary outlook as being other areas of concern for church leaders, the overwhelming focus was on moving the religious services online, which raises an important question (MacDonald, Stetzer, & Wilson, 2020):

When did religion in America, specifically Christianity, become primarily event focused?

Religious groups have used church attendance and membership growth as evaluative tools for institutional vitality. When individuals’ commitment to public rituals and gatherings become the central way most religious institutions evaluate religious commitment, we see a very instrumental understanding of religion promoted. The use of ritual events as the basis for determining community membership or investment defines community primarily in institutional and place-based terms. In many respects, this embrace of digital technology by churches is based on supporting a very narrow and traditional notion of what religious community is all about.

Resisting Religious Regulation: Debating Religious Liberty vs. Communal Responsibility

One area of strong resistance from religious institutions is the cultural changes forced upon them due to social-distancing requirements. Many churches have framed government regulations imposed on them as more than just annoyances – for some, they have been framed as a full-on onslaught against their religious freedom and their concern is not wholly unfounded. On Easter Sunday, members of Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, being fined $500 per member for their attempts to navigate around the 10-person-or-less public gathering edict by instituting “parking lot worship.” Here, members sat in in their vehicles in the church parking lot and listened to the pastor preach via their car radios (Reynolds, 2020).

Churches have focused their protests against public-gathering regulations that have prevented religious groups from freely meeting as a violation of their First Amendment rights (Gjelten, 2020).These protests revolve around a careful rhetorical debate between the constitutional right of Americans to the free exercise of their religion and the demonstrated need to protect public health at this time of pandemic. Some groups have critiqued moves towards creating “virtual church” that relies on internet streaming services and platforms as settling for an inauthentic expression of the church (Perkins, 2020). By presenting health regulations and social distancing as a violation of religious liberty these groups set up an “us versus them” dichotomy. They not only present themselves as victims of governmental oppression of their right guaranteed by the US constitution, but as the true church of authentic believers that has not been swayed by liberal rhetoric about following governmental guidelines.

What this all comes down to is a question similar to that posed above, i.e., the centrality of the worship event defining American religious practice. Cries for freedom of worship are underpinned by an assumption: If the church body is not physically gathered, then it cannot truly or fully exist. This creates a very limited idea of what religion is and what the church is and represents in culture.

Challenges for the Future of Religion

According to my research over the last three decades, peoples’ understanding and practice of community have shifted (Campbell & Osteen, 2020). The reality is that most people experience community as a social network of relations. This means that for most people, community is something that is dynamic and changeable, holds multiple connections, and is determined by personal needs and choices. This idea of the network challenges most religious groups’ understanding and practices of community (Campbell, 2020). I believe this essay, as it reveals religion as event- and program-based, suggests that religious groups may need to rethink their dependence on older models of community and religious commitment. It also amplifies the need for awareness that religious communities now function on a network model, a fact made visible by offering mediated online gatherings and revealing the rhetoric of the religious resistance against social distancing.

Heidi A. Campbell is Professor of Communication at Texas A&M University and director of the Network for New Media, Religion & Digital Culture Studies (http://digitalreligion.tamu.edu). She is the author of over 100 articles on digital religion that involve studying the intersection between religious practices online and offline. She is the author of 9 books, including When Religion Meets New Media (Routledge, 2010), Digital Religion (Routledge, 2013), and Networked Theology (Baker Academic, 2016).

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

Campbell, H. A. and Osteen, S. (2020). Research summaries and lessons on doing religion and church online. Retrieved from https://oaktrust.library.tamu.edu/handle/1969.1/187806.

Campbell, H. A. (2020, May 4). Distancing religion online: Lessons from the pandemic prompted religious move online [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://contendingmodernities.nd.edu/global-currents/distancing-religion....

Reynolds, J. (2020, April 12). Democrat governor of Kentucky orders police to take down tag numbers of church-goers, other Easter gatherings so government can impose two week quarantines on citizens. Tennessee Star Online. Retrieved from https://tennesseestar.com/2020/04/12/democrat-governor-of-kentucky-order....

Gjelten, T. (2020, April 17). Opposing church closures becomes new religious freedom cause. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/17/8376985....

MacDonald, A., Stetzer, E. and Wilson, T. (2020, March 27). How church leaders are responding to the challenge of COVID-19. COVID-19 Church Survey Summary Report. Retrieved from https://www.dropbox.com/s/svuvurdwmnkgaha/COVID19%20Survey%20Summary%20 Report%20v5.pdf?dl=0.

MacDonald, A., Stetzer, E., and Wilson, T. (2020, April 14). How church leaders are responding to the
challenge of COVID-19. COVID-19 Church Survey Summary Report: 2nd Round Survey. Retrieved from https://exponential.org/resource-ebooks/response-to-covid-19/.

Perkins, T. (2020, May 5). Religious liberty means COVID-19 restrictions cannot target churchgoers. Religious News Service. https://religionnews.com/2020/05/05/liberty-and-security-are-allies-not enemies-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/.


Annalise Ousley - Wednesday, May 20, 2020 - 15:51

The project is compiled by Dr. Heidi A. Campbell, professor of communication at Texas A&M University and director of the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies. Being in Germany at the beginning of pandemic, she watched firsthand how the COVID-19 virus caused rapid social and cultural shifts amongst various religious groups in the country. This raised her attention to how digital media became the default platform for mediated religious worship and the potential implications of these sudden shifts for people’s practice and understanding of religion. Religion in Quarantine is separated into two sections. The first offers snapshots of how scholars reflected on their personal religious journeys and adapting to new emerging forms of religious practice during these times of sheltering-in-place. The second section features essays by faculty and student researchers reflecting on the ways the pandemic has impacted how they do and view their own research on religious groups on a variety of themes.

Campbell’s goal for Religion in Quarantine is to bring attention to the unique research done by scholars at Texas A&M University who are actively reflecting on the shape of religion at this time. The work also intends to highlight the insights these scholars can offer to broader conversation on how these shifts will influence the future of religion in America. As she states in the book’s introduction, these essays “…engage with emerging debates and dialogues of how religious groups are adapting, especially to the current limitations created by physical distancing and the move from offline to online expressions of religion.” Together, this compilation of essays speaks “…to what we might learn from religious responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and how this might help better us understand cultural-religious changes emerging that are re-shaping the future of religion.”

This edited collection is offered as a free eBook available in PDF, ePub, and a mobile-friendly version. The PDF version of Religion in Quarantine is available as of May 20, 2020 online. The ePub version will be released online on May 27, 2020. All versions can be downloaded freely via the OakTrust Repository, hosted by Texas A&M University Libraries.

Heidi A Campbell is available for interviews related to this book and her research on Digital Religion studies. She can be contacted via email at heidic@tamu.edu.

Abstract:

Religion in Quarantine: The Future of Religion in a Post-Pandemic World, is an eBook collection of essays written by religious studies faculty and graduates students from Texas A&M University. The first section of essays are narratives from different professors on their own spiritual journeys during the pandemic lockdown. These are very personal reflections where scholars reflect on their experiences of and connection with a specific religious community both as practitioners and scholars. The second-half essays feature reflections from faculty on recent research projects and how that work has been influenced by the pandemic. Here, faculty focused on how current conditions and trends observed in religion’s negotiation with the culture of COVID-19 have caused them to critically reflect on their own religious studies-focused research. Investigating a variety of religious traditions--including Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism--each essay considers what future of religion might look like in light of the changes facilitated by the current COVID-19 pandemic and the potential challenges this may raise for different religious communities.


Annalise Ousley - Monday, May 18, 2020 - 21:36

The following blog post is an edited excerpt from an essay appearing in the Network’s second eBook Project entitled Religion in Quarantine: The Future of Religion in a Post-Pandemic World. This book features personal and research reflection on how their understanding of religion is being altered and shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. The eBook is available for FREE download at: https://oaktrust.library.tamu.edu/handle/1969.1/188004

Transformation in and from Quarantine
Donnalee Dox

Religion and social quarantine together provide an open space for social transformation by moving attention from the abstractions of transcendence to in-body experiences of health.

Transformation and Disruption
Responses to the COVID-19 quarantine thus far have focused on how social necessity has disrupted religion. We focused immediately on adaptations of Spring rituals: Easter services held in drive-in movie theatres, Seders shared virtually over Zoom, and the Hajj pilgrimage cancelled (Wikipedia, 2020). In April 2020, critical distance from the transformative potential of transcendence is as instinctive as social distancing. Yet, in such an uncertain time, religion’s proposition of transcendence offers potential for regeneration, renewal, and transformation.

As we ask how religious practices are adapting to socially imposed constraints on human contact and move online, we might also ask what the sense of transcendence, that fundamental unknowingness, offers for reconceiving social organization — from factory farms that incubate viruses, to production and distribution of medical supplies, to religious institutions themselves. Appreciating the potential for religion to transform a crashing social order requires taking transcendence as a proposition, examining ways humans interpret that proposition, and following where those interpretations lead. We might reflect on transcendence as the virus reveals, in the Greek meaning of apocalypse, new relationships between bodies and societies.

Embodiment and Transcendent Health
As quarantine disrupted visible body-to-body religious gatherings, it also disrupted the ways those gatherings bind people’s bodies — eyes, mouth, skin, nose, ears, and organs — to a shared sense of transcendence. This sensory dimension undergirds what Anne Taves (2009) calls the “special things” that identify religious experience. Quarantine immediately disrupted this embodied sense of transcendence, but also by rearranging familiar sensations in virtual environments invited new associations and new engagements with old knowledge.

The disruption of quarantine also brought out a subtler aspect of sensation in religion, toward which this essay now turns. Religion, broadly construed, may emerge from a sense of body and spirit intertwining, corporeal sensing itself becomes humanity’s encounter with divinity, the human body the site for the encounter. Contemporary thinking about religion tends to construe body and spirit as a duality, as mapped by Haag and Bauman (2012), among others. In this framework, transcendence is a discursive problem to be solved by discourse. However, as my own inquiries have shown, people’s sense of the interplay between embodiment and transcendence may not be oriented in this dichotomy. This religion proposes bodies, with all their sensory capacity, as the point in which people unknow the familiar to know divinity.

The pandemic has placed the human body everywhere in people’s awareness as we are surrounded by death and suffering seeking in our uncertain ability to restore health and life. A variety of spiritually oriented physical practices in America link bodily health with transcendence. Such practices are subject to critique, especially around issues of culture, social class, and solipsism. Critiques notwithstanding, I think we will want to take more seriously the various ways people in America link bodily health with transcendent spirituality. Bodily health may become more central to religious belief and practice as we move through this pandemic.

These practices are also adapting to quarantine. Their response has been to grapple with the virus as a human condition with transformational, if not transcendent, possibilities. Of the many and varied practices, these few give a sense of that response. The nonsectarian Garrison Institute, a meditation center in western New York state, offers a “Virtual Sanctuary,” addressing the problem of physical distance with an invitation to a deeper meditation practice:

How do we use this time to move towards connection and intimacy, rather than recoil in fear and further emotional isolation? How can we find the intimacy that is always available moment to moment? (Garrison Institute, n.d.)

Across the country, Spirit Rock, the well-known Buddhist retreat center in California founded by Jack Kornfield, aims for a skillful response to quarantine. Spirit Rock’s programs, resources for self-care and sangha (community), have moved online as Digital Dharma, which includes nonresidential retreats. The idea of a nonresidential retreat redefines the traditional religious experience of retreating from familiar activities and surroundings into solitude. Quarantine itself is already a form of enforced retreat from social interaction. A nonresidential retreat becomes a way of “practicing deeply in our living spaces” (Spirit Rock, 2020).

The sense of embodied spirituality in these practices intervenes when bodies are vulnerable, with full awareness that some bodies are more vulnerable than others. While the physical closeness of shared practice and retreats so often described as “energy” has been disrupted, these practices take a transformational attitude toward the present moment, social as well as individual. Health, as a soteriological aim, compels meeting the suffering of others with one’s own body, and the willingness to perceive in one’s own body an order with the status of the sacred. Taken seriously, this proposition of ordered corporeality and sacred bodies may reveal epistemological and experiential grounds from which to address the current social chaos centered on suffering bodies.

I encourage us to look for how physical health becomes more prominent in religious thinking and practice, to seek in religion’s proposition of transcendence ways to mitigate the human-predicament ways of chaos, death, and suffering, and to remember that in the world’s mythologies, humans oscillate between chaos and order, knowing and unknowing, life and death.

Donnalee Dox is Professor of Performance Studies and Interdisciplinary Religious Studies. She has published on medieval intellectual history, contemporary spiritual practices, dance, ritual, and contemplative practices.

Sources
DanceMeditation. (2020). Retrieved from https://dancemeditation.org/product/spring-dancemditation-online/.

Garrison Institute. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.garrisoninstitute.org/.

Haag, J. & Bauman, W. (2012). De/constructing transcendence: The emergence of religious bodies. In D. Cave and R. Sachs Norris (Eds.), Religion and the body: Modern science and the construction of religious meaning (pp. 37-55). Leiden: Brill.

Spirit Rock. (2020). Nonresidential programs. Retrieved from https://calendar.spiritrock.org/non-residential-programs/.

Taves, A. (2009). Religious experience reconsidered: A building-block approach to the study of religion and other special things. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wikipedia. (2020). Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on religion. Retrieved from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_of_the_2019–20_coronavirus_pandemic_on_religion.


Annalise Ousley - Monday, May 18, 2020 - 19:27

Digital Religion Publications, an imprint of the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies, announces the publication of its second eBook: Religion in Quarantine: Reimagining on the Present Future of Religion. This eBook is a compilation of essays written by faculty and graduate students work within Religious Studies at Texas A&M University.

Since March, most of the world has been under a Shelter-in-Place order or quarantine. This has made a significant impact especially on Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups in America whose traditional celebrations of Easter, Passover, and Ramadan were disrupted. Social distancing policies that prevented these groups from meeting also required these groups to reimagine their sacred holidays as mediated and separated community encounters. These sudden shifts have caused both religious practioners and scholars to reflect deeply on these experiences, considering the current impact and future implications of socially distanced religious practices.

Be sure to keep watch here on our website and on our social media for scholar reviews on our new ebook.


Annalise Ousley - Thursday, May 14, 2020 - 11:09

Digital Religion Publications, an imprint of the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies, announces the publication of its first eBook. “The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online” is an experiment in trying to create an accessible international dialogue between church leaders, theologians, and media scholars. The book is a collection of 30 essays in which pastors, professors, priests, and entrepreneurs explore the challenges and opportunities created for churches during the current global COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the past month, most churches around the world have been forced to close their doors due to the need for social distancing and local lockdowns in order to fight off the spread of the virus. The result has been an unplanned and swift transition towards technologically-driven forms of gathering. Many church leaders have felt out of their comfort zone while experimenting with doing church online. At the same time, scholars and theologians have been studying new trends in how churches are performing worship online. These experts have also found themselves in the spotlight recently, being asked to offer practical and theological advice to religious leaders on churches and technology during this time of transition.

“The Distanced Church” brings together these two groups in a format where they can offer lessons learned, answer questions that have been raised, and present insights gleaned from researching and doing religion online. Contributors come from ten different countries—within North America, Europe, and the Antipodes—and represent 12 different Christian denominations including Mainline, Catholic, and Nondenominational churches.

The project is spearheaded by Dr. Heidi A Campbell, professor of communication at Texas A&M University and director of the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies. She has studied religious groups’ use of technology for two and a half decades. Her goal was to collect key stories and research expertise reflecting on the response of churches to the pandemic, and to publish them in a quick and timely manner. The goal is to get this material out to those who will most benefit from a project of this nature—religious communities wrestling with the sudden move from offline to online ministry through digitally-mediated contexts.

Written, edited, and published within three weeks over March and April 2020, this edited collection is offered as a free eBook available in PDF, ePub, and a mobile-friendly version. The PDF version of “The Distanced Church” is available as of April 20, 2020 online. The ePub version will be released online on April 27, 2020. All versions can be downloaded freely via the OAKTrust Digital Repository at Texas A&M University: https://oaktrust.library.tamu.edu/handle/1969.1/187891 AND https://oaktrust.library.tamu.edu/handle/1969.1/187892

Heidi A Campbell is available for interviews related to this book and her research on Digital Religion studies. She can be contacted via email at heidic@tamu.edu.

EBook Citation: Heidi A Campbell, editor. (2020). The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online. Digital Religion Publications-Network for New Media, Religion & Digital Culture Studies. College Station, Texas.


Morgan Knobloch - Tuesday, February 11, 2020 - 12:48

Growing up as an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem, Dr. Ruth Tsuria spent her childhood immersed in the historical roots of religion. “When I was a little girl, I actually wanted to be a rabbi,” Tsuria said. “But as I got older, I left religion from a personal place and became more interested in how it influences politics and society. I began to wonder why we need religion and decided to pursue that in my studies.”

Led by her curiosity, Tsuria began to explore the intersection of modern technology and religious practice. To recognize the significance of her findings, the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies named Tsuria the winner of the 2019 Digital Religion Research Award. “I feel so humbled and proud to receive this award,” Tsuria said. “It is truly an honor.”

Tsuria gave a presentation based on her award-winning article titled “Conservative Judaism in the Digital Age” at Texas A&M University on January 23, 2020. Her presentation examined the past, present and future of digital religion through the case of Conservative Judaism. Tsuria’s analysis of the interaction of Conservative Jews with new media notes how technology is changing the way people practice their faith. She found that neglecting the use of digital media actually correlated with the decline of regular synagogue attendance among Conservative Jews.

“In the past, the Internet was separate from our daily lives,” Tsuria said, “but now it is intrinsically intertwined in almost every aspect of our lives. It is changing the way we do friendships and dating, and it’s no wonder it’s changing the way we practice religion.”

Tsuria’s study of religion began in Jerusalem, where she completed her undergraduate degree in religious studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She then moved to Denmark to earn her master’s at Copenhagen University before coming to Texas A&M University for her doctorate.
Now, Tsuria continues her research as an assistant professor in the College of Communication and the Arts at Seton Hall University. She works to develop theoretical approaches to studying online discourse and the interaction between technology and society. In addition to the Digital Religion Research Award, Tsuria has earned several awards for her researching, including the “Emerging Scholar” award from the Religion in Society Research Network as well as a a dissertation writing fellowship from Texas A&M’s College of Liberal Arts.

“When I began studying media and religion, I thought the influence of new technology would lead to the breaking of religious traditions,” Tsuria said, “but I’ve found that is generally not the case. As I examine religious discourse online, the archiving power of the internet preserves what people are saying about their religious practices, thus further establishing religious norms for society and helping preserve tradition.”

Tsuria’s passion for technology and religion keep her curiosity brimming with new research questions. “I feel like a detective anytime I’m working on a project,” she said. “I absolutely love what I do, and I think that’s the key to success in anything.”

Through her research, Tsuria has found that society’s religious roots influence even what appears to be secular today. “In the last 20 years, we’ve seen that there is not any separation between religion and state or any aspect of life, really,” she said. “Even secular approaches can be traced to some type of religious thinking because people need a system to help them make sense of life. That’s why we need to study religion. If we ignore religion, we ignore a major aspect of what shapes society.”


Callie Burch - Monday, December 9, 2019 - 11:10

Call for Submissions for the 2020 Digital Religion Research Award

The Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies (NMRDC;
http://digitalreligion.tamu.edu) is pleased to announce the call for published works (an article or
book chapter) for consideration for the newly established Digital Religion Research Award.
This award is to recognize outstanding research in the area of Digital Religion studies, which
explores the intersection between religion, technology and digital, networked cultures.
Preference will be given to research engaging with the work of Heidi A Campbell, Director of
the Network, who is considered a pioneer in the field of Digital Religion Studies. As a Professor
of Communication at Texas A&M University Campbell has written numerous articles and books
exploring religious communities use of the Internet, as well as key theoretical works in the
study of digital religion.

The Award Committee is made up of members of the Advisory Board of the NMRDC Network.
To be considered for this award, submissions may explore themes related to the practice and
understanding of religion in online and offline spaces, rhetoric of digital technology, ethical
implications of network or mobile technologies, religious engagement with emerging media and
how forces of the secular and religious interact in digital cultures. Interdisciplinary works are
encouraged, as well as those addressing at least two of the following fields: Area Studies,
Communication, Ethics, Game Studies, Gender Studies, Information Science, Internet studies,
Philosophy of Technology, Media Studies, Religious Studies, Sociology of Religion and/or
Technology, and Theology.

Submissions will be evaluated based on the quality of their: (1) advancement of knowledge in
the area Digital Religion Studies (2) application of Campbell’s approaches and concepts, (3)
originality and creativity of research topic, and (4) clear organization and presentation of
overall argument.

The winner of the 2020 award will be given a plaque and be invited to give a talk at a special
session of the 2020 International Society of Media, Religion and Culture conference where the
award will be given. Travel expenses of up to $2000 (USD) to the conference site in Sweden,
along with conference fees and housing expenses will also be covered.

Only single authored works are accepted. Book chapters from a single authored book will also
be considered, however that work will be judged only on the basis of the specific chapter
submitted and should be further explained or contextualized in the submission narrative.
Applications and articles may only be submitted for award consideration once. Published
materials submitted must have appeared in print between Jan 2018 to Dec 2019, to be eligible
for the 2020 award. Please send a PDF or electronic copy of the article/chapter to
digitalreligion@tamu.edu along with a 1-2 page letter, addressed to the committee, which
provides an abstract of the work to be considered and a narrative that explains how your article
meets the stated evaluation criteria.

Submission deadline is February 25, 2020
Notification of the award will be sent out in April 2020.


Pages

Subscribe to Blog