A View from the Pew

Given that the digital intersects with almost everything in daily life now – at least for the 4.5 billion people around the world who own one or more mobile devices -- it would be nonsensical to assume that religion is one area of life untouched by the advent of the digital age.  In fact, religion and spirituality play significant roles in digital cultures.  Online religion sites, for example, emerging at a time marked by the “implosion of the secular” (Graham Ward), have been among the fastest-growing sites in digital social space.  To cite just one example, the Bible app YouVersion is equal in terms of users, to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  And a host of religious practices -- both very old and entirely new -- are flourishing online.  To stay within Christianity alone, these practices range from broadcasts of worship services over the internet to virtual altars, online chapels, cyber rosaries, prayer apps with streaming video and image galleries, memorial sites, online pilgrimages, and digital Advent calendars.  There are also communities of faith that exist online alone, for example in web-based interactive virtual reality environments.  And these digitally-mediated religious sites are ceaselessly expanding.  The internet by now even has its own patron saint, St. Isidore of Seville (+ 636), known for his encyclopedic gathering of knowledge and information.  Various prayers invoking St. Isidore’s intercession float around in cyberspace.  The same is true for memes that invoke St. Anthony of Padua to help with finding lost websites.  Last not least, there is a substantial industry surrounding digitally-mediated religious practices, offering, for example, inspirational screensavers, memes, and, yes: Pope emoji. 

This vast new world of digitally-mediated religious practices calls for new ways of inquiring into religious practices.  In particular, it calls for new scholarly tools.  Religious studies and theological inquiry are not alone in confronting this shifting terrain.  The digital turn is not only transforming established scholarly disciplines but also creating new fields of inquiry.  One key reason for this transformation is the emergence of novel materials and sites generated by digital communication technologies.  Scholars who in the past studied texts are now confronted with digital materials that fuse text, images, audio, video, and other non-textual formats.  Moreover, these materials are not stored in brick-and-mortar libraries and archives but located in cyberspace, in digitally-mediated repositories.  The new transdisciplinary field of digital media studies, and more specifically of digital humanities, has arisen in response to this shift.  Scholars from a host of disciplines are now engaging these new media, from history, literary criticism, and anthropology to sociology, gender studies and ritual studies, to name just a few disciplines that religious studies and theology have drawn on in the recent past.

Digitally-mediated religious practices put pressure on established scholarly categories, tools, and interpretive lenses, and thereby offer an incredible opportunity to re-think cherished convictions and longstanding assumptions in a field.  If for nothing else than that, digitally-mediated religious practices deserve scholarly attention.   If you want to see what that might look like for the field of liturgical studies, check out my recent book @ Worship: Liturgical Practices in Digital Worlds (Routledge 2017).


With the digital world infiltrating every aspect of the modern world, traditional religion and spirituality are not exempt. The incorporation of digital technologies into religious worship is already occurring on global and local levels. Even the Roman Catholic Church, an institution that some claim is stuck in the past, is embracing new technologies. Its popes have communicated to the faithful worldwide through the social media platform Twitter since 2012. In my own Catholic community, Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale University, a smartphone application named “Cloud Hymnal,” digitally shares liturgical resources for church services. Religious institutions and communities are logging online simply because many of their believers already use digital media. The shepherds are pursuing the flocks. The digital also provides an opportunity for evangelization where religious leadership can spread the message among a wider, more diverse group of people. The Church of England supplies the best example of this, with Archbishop Justin Welby actively pursuing new members via Twitter. During this past Christmas season, the Church launched (and Archbishop Welby promoted) a digital campaign called #JoyToTheWorld. Online users were asked to find and attend one of the Church of England’s offline Christmas services. Local churches and their congregants were encouraged to post online photos and videos of their celebrations. There is also the incorporation of spiritual practice in the virtual world. Christians are baptizing via the video conferencing app Skype. Buddhists are meditating through the 3D virtual world of Second Life. These new practices prompt the questions: Can and does God work through Wi-Fi? Are online religious practices as valid as offline religious practices? Will there come a time when online worship is not just a supplement to brick and mortar worship, but the norm? These were some of the questions addressed in Professor Berger’s Digital Media, Religion, and Theology course at Yale Divinity School. This study of intersection of digital media and religion drove the class to approach and reexamine broader theological questions like what it means when we say that religion is a living process? How important is physical matter to religious ritual? Is there such thing as unmediated access to the divine if we are always in a physical body? This nascent field of digital religion has personally left me with more questions than answers, but through these debates my own preference of traditional brick-and-mortar worship over cyber religious practices has been challenged.

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