Heidi Campbell - Wednesday, March 12, 2014 - 10:08

A recent study shows how digital and social media has allowed one of the largest international religious and benevolent organizations to keep in touch with its more than 10 million followers worldwide, and help them in their mission to provide humanitarian relief.

Tzu Chi, or the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, exemplifies a growing trend towards digital innovation among religious organizations.

Tzu Chi was established in 1966 in Taiwan by a 29-year-old Buddhist nun. She recognized that the Buddhist virtue of compassion could be achieved in practical innovative ways, such as activism and donation, rather than in traditional Buddhist approaches such as mediation. Today, Tzu Chi has millions of members in 50 countries and provides significant humanitarian aid all over the world.

However Tzu Chi leaders saw a need to help members find ways to show compassion on a daily basis. This is where social media started playing a crucial role, by helping Tzu Chi supporters to maintain contact with each other and offering members around the world opportunities to get involved in aid outreach and environmental conservation.

“When clergy and members of a religious community get involved in online activities, it helps religious organizations spread their vision and mission globally. This means daily online communication plays a vital role in building such organizations,” according to Pauline Hope Cheong, Associate Professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University, and the study’s lead author. The study was published in the journal of Information, Communication & Society in January 2014.

“The use of new media not only helps to advance the spiritual knowledge, but also helps to increase a sense of unity, belonging and commitment to public service among community members,” Cheong adds.

The Tzu Chi community has developed, for example, a unique icon-based online religious sign language that is shared only by members, allowing them, with a few keyboard characters, to say “Giving thanks” or “Praying piously” online. This use of the special religious symbols and other community specific communication strategies reinforces a sense of family among the members.

Tzu Chi’s innovative use of digital media—from posting teachings and mantras on a YouTube channel—to allowing members to share prayer requests on Facebook, also demonstrates what is described as “Engaged Buddhism.” This form of Buddhism focuses on putting Buddhist philosophy into action to alleviate human suffering and to advance human well-being. In “Engaged Buddhism,” media technology becomes the gateway for deeper spiritual and social engagement.

Cheong notes that while other scholars have presented social media as a problem and a threat to religious authority, their study shows social media is “an essential tool that helps reinforce a religious leader’s positions and their community creed.” By embracing social media, religious leaders make themselves more approachable and relatable, which helps them gain the support and trust of their members and volunteers.

Overall this study demonstrates that digital media practice helps religious organizations expand their influence and authority around the world.

For the full text of study, “Transnational Immanence: the Autopoietic Co-constitution of a Chinese Spiritual Organization Through Mediated Communication,” authored by Pauline Hope Cheong, Jennie M. Hwang and Boris H. J. M. Brummans visit:

Summary of research provided by the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies (, which seeks to show how digital religion shapes our everyday lives and world.

This report also appears on the Religion News Service website at:

Wendi Bellar - Sunday, February 16, 2014 - 23:10

Craig Detweiler uses his book “iGods: How Technology Shapes Our Spiritual and Social Lives” to argue for a theology of technology in the Christian world. He argues that the ever invasive and ubiquitous digital tools available in today’s society become replacements for a relationship with and reliance on God, and concludes by offering a prescriptive through his version of a technological theology. The God he is talking about is Christian in origin as is Detweiler, who teaches at Pepperdine University. The book is designed not necessarily for an academic audience but for parents, teachers, and pastors who need to help young people navigate their “hyperconnected and distracted” lives.

Detweiler begins the book by defining technology, by situating modern technology within a tradition that stretches back to the Roman Empire. He argues Jesus was a technologist of his day, using all the newest tools in his craft. He also argues that technology is art as well as science: “At its best, technology is a creative act, merging thought with matter and time,” (p. 25). Detweiler points to the many facets and affordances of technology and argues that technology is not neutral; it is a tool that can be used for good or for bad.

After laying the groundwork for the reconfiguration of technology, Detweiler discusses Steve Jobs and the cult of Mac followed by a history of the internet and ecommerce through the lens of Amazon and Google. He moves on to focus on social media including Facebook and Twitter before addressing how the demigods of technology fight for iGod status in users’ lives. The conclusion lays out his “telos of technology” that argues against the utopian, liberating theology of technology; he ends by suggesting a Christian perspective that emphasizes an “embodied, incarnational faith” in the digital world.

The literature is well supported and the content satisfactorily organized. However, there is a troubling thread of technological determinism woven throughout the book. Even the title contains deterministic language (i.e. technology shapes our lives). Detweiler is also fond of quoting Marshal McLuhan, the father of technological determinism. It would be beneficial to more clearly explicate the theories on which his view of technology rests. Although determinism seems to be prevalent throughout, Detweiler does argue that users have the agency to refocus their views and uses of technology, albeit through the guidelines of God’s Word.

As an instructor in communication technology, I can see the potential benefits of including this book in a reading list. However, instructors at public institutions would be hard-pressed to structure a class solely around this book. Detweiler’s work should be well supplemented with other texts as it provides a view of religion and technology that is limited specifically within Christian framework. As a social science researcher, the value of this book lies in its ability to clearly state a Christian theology of technology that provides a framework through which to analyze future studies within this particular community.

Heidi Campbell - Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 15:36

Reading religious Internet memes is not always as easy as it seems. The way memes are created, designed and distributed results in them both affirming and undermining religion — sometimes at the same time.

Internet memes are a popular way of communicating online, yet while they may seem playful, their messages are often quite serious. Memes are digital images that combine pictures with and succinct texts, to communicate playful yet pointed messages about politics, pop culture and religion.

A recent study of religious Internet memes, conducted at Texas A&M University, found that while many people have readily used this genre to spread religious beliefs and ideas, there may be consequences to doing so.

Researchers at Texas A&M University found two distinct communication strategies in their comparison of different religious-oriented meme genres. Some memes used religious icons and characters such as “Buddy Christ” or Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Other memes more generally targeted Christians, Muslims or Jews. Both frame religion in interesting, yet problematic, ways.

“This study shows how memes enable people to spread religious ideas, and at same time, critique religion.” said Ruth Tsuria, a PhD student at Texas A&M University and one of the authors of the report, “Reading Religion in Internet Memes” published 31 December 2013.

Memes using religious icons and people tend to spread generalized assumptions about religion through humor, often leaning on negative framings of religious values, practices and traditions.

For example “Advice God” memes use the Judeo-Christian God as depicted in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam—God is often depicted as a harsh, unethical or suspicious (i.e. “Thou shall not commit adultery / sorry Joseph”).

“Using religious symbols and ideals this way helps undermine dominant religious narratives or worldviews”, said Heidi Campbell, Associate Professor of Communication at Texas A&M University and project coordinator.

Memes focused on specific religious traditions or communities use humor to share their beliefs or rituals with others in respectful ways.

The Muslim Meme Facebook page, for example, presents an image of Aladdin from the Disney movie by the same name telling Princess Jasmine “I can show you the world/but first we have to do nikah” (nikah is “marriage” in Arabic)

Researchers observed this meme affirms Muslim values, yet also shows that such memes require certain levels of religious and cultural literacy to be fully understood and their humor and meaning may be lost for mainstream audiences.

Overall, the study shows that Internet memes often “essentialize religion,”—that is, they simplify complex ideas about religion into basic ideas that reinforce, and sometimes challenge, important notions of faith.

This can be a problem because a meme designed to promote positively a community’s religious identity can easily morph into a public critique.

Campbell says unpacking religious memes requires that audiences develop religious literacy to fully understand the intended meaning and develop an awareness of how a meme’s humor affects frames positively or negatively. Audiences should also consider how meme circulation and placement online shape meaning-making and discussions about specific faiths.

For the full text of “Reading Religion in Internet Memes” visit Study research diaries can be found online at COMM 663: Digital Religion:

This story has also been released with Religious News Service at:

Heidi Campbell - Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 17:38

Philosophy, Theory and Critique Division of the International Communication Association ICA is sponsoring a preconference at the upcoming meet in Seattle Washington entitle “Media and Religion”: Betwixt and Between. The event is to be held 22 May 2014, 9:00 AM - 5 PM
at the Husky Union Building on the campus of University of Washington.

This preconference bring into conversation a variety of approaches common within the study of media, religion and culture, in order to showcase the diverse perspectives scholars of Communication have taken in the study of this interrelationship. “Media and religion” is a phrase used to describe a growing cross-disciplinary field of research. Communication scholars have noted interesting social and cultural implications of the intersection of media and religion on several levels. Given the complexity of the relationship between media and religion, we advocate moving beyond the simple questions of “How is religion represented in the media?” and “How to religions use media to promote their cause?” to consider broader and deeper theoretical investigations of this evolving interplay. We suggest media may evoke and create a sense of wonder, transcendence, and flow, which in many ways approach experiences often assigned to the religious realm. To put it with Victor Turner’s classical essay on Liminality, religious media events, as well as media as a religious event, call into question simplistic social ontologies by being “betwixt and between” purely religious and purely media contexts.

The goal of the preconference is to spotlight current scholarly methods within media and religion studies in order to highlight key theoretical concepts and problems – both for those working in the field, and for those who wish to gain first-hand insight into this area of Communication research. Through papers, panel presentations and shared conversation amongst participants this event aims is to draw scholarly attention to the relationship between media, religion and culture in its multiple intersections.

The preconference will consist of a morning session featuring two keynote panels of recognized scholars whose work intersects with the field of media and religion. The afternoon will involve two parallel panels of papers selected from abstract submissions, and a closing summary panel. Invited and confirmed speakers/respondents include:

Menachem Blondheim, Hebrew University
Heidi A Campbell, Texas A&M University
Nick Couldry, Goldsmiths University of London
Stig Hjarvard, University of Copenhagen
Stewart M. Hoover, University of Colorado-Boulder
Elihu Katz, Hebrew University/Annenberg-East
Mia Lovheim, University of Uppsala
Knut Lundby, University of Oslo
Paddy Scannell, University of Michigan
Günter Thomas, Faculty for Protestant Theology-Ruhr-University Bochum

The preconference is supported by generous contributions from the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, Routledge and the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies.

It is also supported by the Media and Religion Temporary Working Group of the European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA) and The International Society for Media, Religion, and Culture.

Further details and registration information is found at

Kyong James Cho - Monday, January 6, 2014 - 17:57

Brett T. Robinson's Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs is written from the perspective of a media ecologist and proposes that there exists an intimate relationship between religion and technology. The book makes several underlying assertions: that technology now occupies the place that religion traditional held in society; that Jobs' spiritual-religious experiences informed his philosophy of technology and subsequent approach to business and design of Apple products; and that technology is imbued with implicit religion. Religion in the work is not explicitly defined (and neither is implicit religion), but it appears to be used loosely to refer to traditional religions such as Buddhism, transcendentalist or metaphysical thought, and even a sense of magic and mystery.

In addition to drawing our attention to the relationship between religion and technology, Robinson follows another line of thought to another point. Using the works of media scholars such as McLuhan and Ellul, Robinson makes some observations regarding the Faustian bargain of technology which makes our engagement with it more complicated than mere consumerism. Scattered in a few places throughout the book are prose which reveal what Robinson really thinks of all this: while the Faustian bargain seems like a fair trade, in the end we lose more than we gain, including our free intellectual capacity and our true god(s). In the concluding page of the book Robinson writes:

“Technology is ultimately a false god. From the Tower of Babel to the atomic bomb, man's attempts to apprehend godlike powers often do not end well. The most pervasive tension . . . is that the more we use media technology the more our interior lives shrivel under the artificial glow of the screen” (p. 106)

Appletopia is a book with two key theses: there exists an intimate relationship between religion and technology, and that technology ought not replace religion. These are interesting assertions which could be more thoroughly developed in the book. For instance, a more detailed exploration of how Apple technology usurped the role of religion for its fans, or unpacking the implications of the implicit religion espoused in Apple ads or other pop culture phenomena could in themselves be topics for stand alone texts. The unique contribution of the book is perhaps the focus on Jobs' spiritual-religious experiences and how they informed his work and Apple, yet this is lost in the other points made throughout the book. The second thesis, the normative statements about technology and religion from a media ecology perspective, is interesting and important, but deserves more explicit exploration here in order to reveal what the author sees as the impact the Apple phenomenon may have on our understanding of this intersection.

In all, Appletopia gives a glimpse into how Jobs' spiritual-religious background shaped Apple and contributed to the cult of consumerism. The book is suited to a broad non-academic audience due to its broad and descriptive treatment of the subject. Yet it does offer scholars a well-documented exploration of the Apple fandom as religion that could serve as a spring board for further, in depth exploration of religion and technology.

Wendi Bellar - Saturday, November 16, 2013 - 01:06

Daniel A. Stout’s 2012 book, geared toward the undergraduate student, offers a foundational look at the field of media and religion by demarcating key concepts, tracing the history of scholarship, reviewing theoretical and methodological approaches from related fields, and focusing on specific media forms. While the book may not be the best source for more experienced scholars or scholars who focused specifically on new media and religion, it is perfect for professors of religion and media to introduce undergraduates to the field.
First, the book begins with a broad sweep key concepts such as “Media as Religion” “Personalized Religion” and “Levels of Analysis.” A brief history covers everything from ancient rituals to the Internet age. Stout also expertly introduces new students to theoretical concepts such as mediatization, media ecology, and secularization. However, other media-related theories, such as the mediation of meaning, mediation of sacred forms, and the social shaping of technology are not discussed and professors may have to supplement these areas with other readings. Perhaps the most useful elements in beginning and subsequent chapters are the “Key Term” and “Questions to Ponder” sections. These elements provide a starting point for students and professors to develop insightful in-class discussions. Another unique feature, the last chapter of the book, includes a classroom activity in which students act out a play that engages them with the often sensitive topic of religion and media.
The next section of the book focuses more on specific mediums and genres, such as the Internet, news, entertainment media, and strategic communications. While all of the chapters provide historical and current information on each medium or genre, the Internet chapter provides the most interest for religion and new media scholars as it is the only one that deals specifically with technology. The chapter is very basic but does a good job of briefly outlining the issues of authority, community, and identity in terms of religion online. Because the book was written fairly recently, new media and religion scholars may find the lack of social and mobile media chapters disappointing.
In conclusion, "Media and Religion: Foundations of an Emerging Field" provides exactly what it offers, “… an ideal introduction for undergraduate students in need of a foundation” in religion and media. The book is a good text for religion and media professors to introduce and engage student with theoretical and practical concerns. However, if professors want to engage more with new media scholarship they may need to supplement the reading list.

Heidi Campbell - Monday, November 11, 2013 - 15:23

The study of new media and religion has emerged over the last decade and has grown out of the larger sub-field of media, religion and culture studies. Often times scholars and students new to these areas can feel a bit isolated as they seek to gain fluency simultaneously in the multiple disciplines which are required for fruitful conversation. Indeed it can be a challenge to connect with other scholars and publications related to this area of study. However, take heart there is growing interest and attention being given to media, religion and culture studies and finding publishing outlets and places for conversation is easier than you think.

At a recent seminar for graduate students interested in studying the intersection of Communication and Religious studies in my own department I presented the following list of publications, centers and upcoming events for those new to field and looking to expand their awarenes of the breadth of research being done in these exciting areas. I am sharing them here for others who will also find these resources of interest and use.

Journals Publishing work in Media, Religion and Culture Studies:

Journal of Communication and Religion:
Journal of Media and Religion:
Journal of Religion and Popular Culture:
Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture:
Journal of Contemporary Religion:
Online-Heidelberg Journal of Religions on Internet:
ASIR: Advances in the Study of Information and Religion:

Associations and Centers working at the intersection of Media, Religion and Culture Studies:

Religious Communication Association (NCA):
International Society for Media, Religion and Culture:
Center for Media, Religion and Culture:
Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture:
Center for the Study of Information and Religion:
Digital Islam:
NYU Center for Media and Religion:
CODEC: Christian Communication in the Digital Age:
Nordic Research Network on the Mediatisation of Religion and Culture (MRC):
Mediating Religion Network:

Upcoming Conferences:

ISMRC-Bi-Annual Meeting 2014:
CISR: Annual Conference on Information and Religion 2014:
ICA PreConference on Media and Religion 2014:

Aya Yadlin Segal - Tuesday, October 22, 2013 - 13:14

How do you give a voice, even a body, to a virtual wink? This was the main focus of a lecture and workshop led by Professor Greg Grieve of UNC-Greensboro held last week at Texas A&M University and co-sponsored by the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture.
These events provide an overview about the formation of a virtual ethnographic method in the research of Second Life, as portrayed in the forthcoming book: Digital Zen: Buddhism, Virtual Worlds and Online Meditation (2014).

The participants of the Virtual Ethnography workshop got a “hands on” experience building their own avatars and exploring the act of winking on Second Life. The Virtual Ethnography workshop guided by Dr. Gregory Grieve provided the participants with the opportunity to fully engage as researchers on Second Life platforms; reflect on the ethics of such research and come face to face with possible difficulties and hurdles of online ethnography.
Within the workshop we were asked to wink at a random avatar and to reflect upon that wink’s meanings and outcomes.

Drawing upon Geertz’s interest in the act of winking, we discussed the similarities and differences between virtual and actual ethnographies. It was agreed among all participants that the act of entering Second Life as a virtual field of research was similar to the act of entering an actual ethnographic field, as the researcher has to understand the limitation, language and norms of Second Life. We discussed the issue of authenticity in the online research, and raised questions regarding avatars as authentic identities. We asked if such identity can be studied in the field of digital religion, leaving the answer open to personal interpretation of each participant.
Additionally, we found different reactions to the act of winking. Those who were actually able to use the emoticon of a wink properly received a wide array of reactions from other avatars in Second Life: a booty call, a bite from virtual vampire, a ban from participating in a religious environment and a motherly advice on how to conduct on Second Life.

The main conclusion of the workshop is that conducting an online ethnography on second life requires a good amount of familiarization time with the platform before engaging in the research itself.

Gregory Grieve - Thursday, October 3, 2013 - 09:34

With a generous gift from the Henry Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs, on September 27 and 28th, 2013 the NYU Center for Religion and Media, hosted an event that explored the religious digital mediation in cultural forms of a globalized Asia. The conference explored questions about the role of digital media and religoin in personhood, political movements, human rights, and religious organizations. The presenters emphasized the importance of articulating the aesthetic constructions of religion as they are mediated and circulated in digital culture. As always, I want to thank Angela Zito (NYU) and Faye Ginsburg (NYU) from the Center for Religion and Media for hosting another insightful, interdisplinary, and ground breaking event.

Presentation abstracts can be read here:

Presenter biographies can be read here:

More Information available here:

Heidi Campbell - Thursday, September 26, 2013 - 14:48

The following is a statement presented by Heidi Campbell, NMRDC director, at the Religious Newswriters Association 2013 conference on September 28th for a panel on Digital Faith and Ministries use of Social Media (see: Below is her brief response to the opening question: "How is the Internet transforming faith?"

A key underlying observation which has informed my research into religion in digital culture over the past decade is this, studying religion online highlights larger societal shift in how religion is conceived on and lived out both offline and online. Through my work that has investigated a variety of phenomena --from religious blogging and the practices of religious digital creative to the rise of the Jewish kosher cellphone and Islamogaming-- I have seen a noticeable trend towards what Religious Studies scholars call “Lived Religion”. Lived Religion is a framing that sees religion as dynamic, experiential and rooted in the everyday life of its practioners. While traditional and organized religion is typically tied to a particular spiritual worldview where core belief dictate religious practice, lived religion notes that individuals and communities live out their faith in ways that may differ from official religious dogmas or traditions. This trend is echoed in many of the recent research studies of the Pew foundation which point to trends of “spiritual, but not religious or “faith without affiliation” and that religious belief is often assembled by adherents from a variety sources rather than a singular tradition.

I have found that digital culture often exemplifies lived religion, as language and images of the sacred becomes tools online to be played with, modified, and reassembled as people use social media to create personalized understandings or expression of the religious. This trend matches what media scholar Henry Jenkins describes as the move towards “participatory culture” within new media. He argues that the power of digital culture lies in its offering people new opportunities to engage in interaction, co-creation and collaborative authorship. For example YouTubers or Meme creators are able to draw images, texts and ideas from multiple sources to create new texts that remix original meanings, and so are freed from authorial intention and agenda. New media enables users to produce and consume media and information simultaneously. The Internet becomes a space where people can express their individual passions as well as find their tribe of those who share their collective identity.

So new media encourages interactive play with religious ideas, the broadcasting one’s convictions, and creating new spaces to carve out and express alternative religious identities online. This changes and challenges established relationships and structures, within many religious communities. Digital media has given rise to new breeds of armchair theologians, spiritual innovators and religious thought leaders through their experimentation with online communication. We see this in how many people now create visual devotionals in Instagram, Tweeting their faith claims, make public their spiritual mashups on Pintrest and use Facebook to perform and brand their religious identities.

In 2012 article I published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion*, I summarize these tendencies by describing what I argue is a move towards “networked religion”. This is where people experience and live out religion online in ways that are shaped and informed by the structures and affordance of network culture. Networked religion is defined by 5 core traits. Networked community which suggests communities function as loose social networks with varying levels of religious affiliation and commitment. Storied identity which sees the religious self as malleable rather than fixed, so individual online seek to create a unified self through constructing and connecting themselves to distinctive narrative. Shifting authority that notes there is a shift occurring between traditional religious leaders and power structures due to the rise of new gatekeepers and religious authority roles online. Convergent practice that highlights how digital space encourages the blending of religious practices and information from multiple sources in ways that build a self-directed form of spiritual engagement. And Multi-site reality which highlights how the online world is consciously and unconsciously imprinted by users’ offline values, so there is a flow and connection between online and offline ways of being.

These traits exemplify key trends within religious practice and culture online. Yet I argue these are trends are also seen in religious practice offline as well. This means careful study of religion online reveal dominant popular conceptions and framings of religion. So in summary, our digital networked reality encourages us to live in flexible religious affiliations, moderated by individual preferences and to seek out experiential connections, over connecting to bounded communities established and maintained through traditional hierarchies. This has encouraged many of the religious innovations we see online, which this panel seeks to discuss in more detail today.

*Campbell, H. (2012). Understanding the relationship between religious practice online and offline in a networked society. Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 80(1), 64-93. URL:


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