The recent annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion gave me a chance to connect with scholars of religion and media across the academy who work on a growing subfield called “digital religion.” Digital religion is the name given to online religious practices and offline religious practices as they are transformed by digital technologies. Heidi Campbell, a leading scholar in this subfield, says that digital religion “describes the technological and cultural space that is evoked when we talk about how online and offline religious spheres have become blended or integrated.”
Though most of the scholars working in the fields of digital religion come from the fields of media studies, Internet studies, or the social scientific study of religion, in reading Campbell’s new edited volume Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, I was struck by how the case studies for New Media Project—with our decidedly more normative task of helping Christian leaders become theologically savvy about new media—have discovered a similar blending or integration of online and offline practice in congregations that most successfully employ digital technologies as part of their common life. Online or digitally mediated practices are not a foreign body imposed on the body of Christ, but an extended sphere where the church learns to be church together.
I was also struck by how theological reflection can often lag behind these other scholarly practices. Campbell traces the history of digital religion as a scholarly subfield through three waves of research. In the first wave (in the early to mid-1990s) Internet scholars tried to “weigh utopian and dystopian discourses about how the Internet would save or ruin the world as we know it.” Maybe because theologians love the imperative to judge and discriminate, it is easy to get caught in this wave. Parsing out whether digital technology is a challenge to theology, a necessary evil, or a salvific gift can be important work (and it can yield good arguments over drinks with colleagues!), but it may not actually be the most important theological task.
In later waves of research the discipline of digital religion shifted to more realistic descriptions of what was actually going on with religion online: paying attention to the people and communities who were making religion online and trying to understand trends and themes that were emerging in digital religious practice. The most current wave in digital religion scholarship is a move to even broader theoretical and interpretive frameworks.
Here, perhaps, is the richer theological ground: interpreting theologically the practices that are already emerging in congregations and providing resources for other faithful people to do the same. I like to think that for the most part this is what the New Media Project has been doing. Learning from the broader field of digital religion can only enhance this work as we go forward.
 Heidi Campbell, ed., Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (New York: Routledge, 2013), 3-4.
Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Assistant Professor of Modern Protestant Theology at Fordham University (starting Fall 2012) and the Co-Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary.
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