The Third Space and Beyond: Review of Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds
Laura Rutter Strickling
University of Maryland Baltimore County
Citation: Strickling, Laura Rutter. “The Third Space and Beyond: Review of Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 10, 2013. doi:10.20415/hyp/010.r07
Abstract: Review of Campbell, H. (ed.). (2013). Digital religion: Understanding religious practice in new media worlds. New York: Routledge.
In this age informed by social media, religious self-expression online has become an accepted part of religious identity and practice. For example, through the Net, Jesus has his own Facebook page, the Buddha tweets, and worshipers can download a variety of religious mobile phone apps that facilitate praying toward Mecca or connecting with the Pope. Digital Religion: Understanding religious practice in new media worlds, is a book that attests to a growing interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion and new media. Presented as a scholarly apologetic for the emerging subfield within Internet, media and culture studies, the text maps out key research and prominent themes, provides case studies from a variety of fields, and stands as an interdisciplinary framework for the study of digital religion.
Heidi Campbell, editor of this book, attributes the fluid, flexible nature of the Internet to having created a landscape where new forms of religiosity can take place online. Similarly, the fluid dynamic of the Net has facilitated a reconceptualization of the study of digital religion toward examining religion not only as it is performed and articulated in cyberspace, but also how digital media and cyberspaces are being shaped by religious practice. To illustrate, the study of early cyberchurches reveals a focus on emulating aspects of offline church services by using technologies, such as podcasts, to offer sermons, singing, and limited engagement between members of a congregation. But with the rise of the virtual world, religious groups are now embracing, as well as shaping a variety of technologies, such as Second Life, to create online experiences that offer interactive worship via avatars, or "kosher" cell phones that block access to "indecent" material.
Digital Religion explores six central areas of inquiry: ritual, identity, community, authority, authenticity, and how religion can be understood in the digital realm. The text also includes a chapter on ethical issues that one might confront when employing research methods and practices in this subfield. Thematic chapters are partnered with case studies that provide varying methodological approaches, and notwithstanding the variety of disciplinary foci in this book, the reader will note the interconnectivity of the studies as themes overlap from chapter to chapter. For example, questions of authenticity are addressed in the chapters on ritual. In his case study, Heinz Scheifinger considers how the Hindu ritual, puja, practiced online can constitute a valid form of religious expression. In the view of some Hindu worshipers, "there is no reason why deity cannot inhabit cyberspace" (p. 124). Not only can worshipers connect with deity online, but they claim that "because gods and goddesses cannot be affected by impurity they can actually have a positive impact in cyberspace" (p. 125). Louise Connelly's case study of virtual Buddhist meditation also includes a discussion on the authenticity of this online ritual. The author argues that even though the virtual ritual lacks aspects of the traditional Buddhist sensory experience, "seeing is part of the embodied experience of feeling" (p. 132). Because the purpose of ritual is to gain greater understanding and spiritual awakening, she states that virtual artifacts can contribute toward this aim.
Authority is another theme woven throughout the chapters on identity, community, authenticity and religion. The Internet, that allows for the consumer to also be the producer, facilitates a decentralization of knowledge that harbors the potential to undermine religious authority. Studies suggest, however, that the Internet can facilitate both the weakening and strengthening of religious authority by creating a forum, not only for conflict but also, for understanding and accommodation. In his case study, Charting frontiers of online religious communities, Oren Golan defines a religious enclave "as a cultural system that ensures insiders will conform to the collective's worldview" (p. 155). While religious community practices foster inner solidarity, parameters of conforming can simultaneously be monitored by religious authorities. Golan reports that in the case of Chabad, an ultra-orthodox Jewish group, the community is strengthened through web presence and by select religious authorities who actually promote its use. The Internet is considered an outreach tool that spreads its world view by highlighting the group's religious practices and advancing godliness, "our [Internet outreach] was set up strictly to deal with the outside world ... technology is here for a purpose, for something positive" (p. 158). In contrast to other ultra-orthodox Jewish communities who prefer to reign in Internet access, Chabad's Internet use has gained increasing support from its institutional leaders.
In terms of further research, Campbell suggests that, even though the separation between "religion online" and "online religion" has become increasingly blurred, the distinction is still a useful construct. (See Helland, 2000). But Campbell further argues that this demarcation does not address the "third space" where lived religious practice and digital culture meet. She states that this hybridized and fluid context requires new logic that evokes unique forms of meaning-making. Religion that is taking place in a digital environment becomes informed by new media ideology which can alter, not only practice, but also the meaning-making process itself.
It is unfortunate that Campbell does not explore in more depth the question of media ideology as another lens from which to examine emerging forms of religion that might not fit within the conceptual parameters of the third space. Kopimism, for example, is a religion that is not just informed by new media ideology — new media ideology is the religion. Founded principally by Isak Gerson in 2010, Kopimism is a legitimate missionary ministry whose dogma is Internet file-sharing. The congregation's value system is based on the axioms that the Internet is holy and that all knowledge is sacred, therefore the circulation of knowledge and the act of copying is also sacred. Individual pastoral care and confession are conducted with Kopimist priests, or Ops, who are morally obligated to assist upon request. Digital worship services take place via compatible internet protocol to ensure that those in attendance can communicate. This is followed by the holiest act of Kopimism which is for participants to copy, remix and distribute as much information as possible among each other. The final part of the worship service is to engage the public in the practice of Kopimistic values. The meeting ends with all members submitting "thx" to their congregation. (See Kopimistsamfundet.org, 2013). Kopimism represents a transcendence of the third space beyond "where lived religious practice and digital culture meet" toward lived digital culture as religion. In the third space, "digital" may stand in for previous forms of religious practice and become a means of mediation, but in the Church of Kopimism mediation itself is an act of worship.
In his blog response for Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies, Kyong James Cho critiques Campbell for defining digital religion as "a bit too all encompassing" (Cho, 2013). Cho quotes Campbell's description of digital religion as "the technological and cultural space that is evoked when we talk about how online and offline religious spheres have become blended or integrated" (p. 4). Kopimism is an example of how this conceptualization of digital religion is not broad enough for this emerging area of inquiry. This new religion calls for a reframing from digital religion to the digital as religion. In the last chapter, Stewart Hoover, contributor to Digital Religion, correctly positions the research and trajectory of the book as "a valuable and generative start," because future investigation of religion and new media will likely lead us through the third space and beyond. The digital as religion is perhaps the brave new spiritual frontier.
Cho, Kyong James. (March 14, 2013). "Good Reads: More reflections on "Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds." Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Cultural Studies. «http://digitalreligion.tamu.edu/blog/thu-03142013-1327/good-reads-more-reflections-%E2%80%9Cdigital-religion-understanding-religious» Retrieved August 12, 2013.
Helland, C. (2000). "Online-religion/religion-online and virtual communities" in J.K. Hadden and D. E. Cowan (eds.) Religion on the Internet: Research prospects and promises. New York: JAI Press, 205-23.
Kopimistsamfundet.org: The first church of Kopimism for the U.S.:: Database be with you. «http://kopimistsamfundet.se/english/» Retrieved August 13, 2013.