Wednesday, April 29th, 2015
Over twenty-five years ago, the fields of Church history and religious studies experienced a theoretical shifting towards the project of lived religion. That project took scholars to places rarely before considered legitimate – outside of pews, out of churches, and into the everyday lives of people “on the ground.” Lived religion, as described in David Hall’s anthology, focuses on the material, “on-the-ground” aspects of religion in everyday life and deals with questions of religious “authenticity.” Part of the lived religion project legitimized areas of religious life previously under-studied; religious expressions, practices, and rituals previously deemed unworthy of study. Those same questions of authenticity and legitimacy are now emerging in the area of religion and digital media.
To further the project of lived religion, we must consider the ways in which people live their lives through mediated experiences. That is, the ways people are living lives today through digital media and social networked-presences. According to religion scholar Greg Price Grieve, digital media has become one of the most important avenues for people to practice, articulate, and discuss their faith, but scholars have been preoccupied with “scripture and the printed word,” and have delegitimized contemporary religious life by saying that the digital world is not real or authentic enough to be considered true religion. By ignoring smartphones and apps we obscure the ways in which many people today pray the rosary, read the bible, or text with preachers. Just because some scholars consider media new, novel, or a fad does not give us reason to ignore it.
Of course, many scholars of religion and church history are doing this work well. Some of this work began with material culture projects, such as David Morgan and Colleen McDannell’s works. These mediated religious artifacts, such as purity rings (Heather Hendershot’s Shaking the World for Jesus), Jimmy Buffett concerts (Eric Mazur and Kate McCarthy’s God In The Details), and Tupperware (David Chidester’s Authentic Fakes) encourage scholars to look in unlikely places for the lived experiences of everyday life. Scholars such as S. Brent Plate, Diane Winston, and Lynn Schofield Clark, among others, argue that television and film construct people’s lived religious experiences. The growth of digital media has led scholars like Heidi Campbell and Rachel Wagner to study Internet memes, cellphone apps, and virtual reality. These scholars excel at engaging with questions of mediated religious experience. Even so, we need more scholarship on this new frontier of lived religion, and especially more historical works like those of Jane Iwamura, Tona Hangen, Jonathan Walton, and Judith Weisenfeld (to name a few).
The authentic religious practice and expression created in the digital age cannot be understood without historical contextual analysis and the comparative historical approach that scholars of church history bring to the table. Productive work creating media lineages across mediums could present new perspectives on contemporary figures. In my own work, I braid together lineages of Catholic media figures, Catholic comedians, and Catholic news anchors to develop a fuller contextualization of Stephen Colbert, a political and religious satirist, comedian, and late night host. Because of the topics I study, I am confronted with people’s assumptions about what constitutes religion and Church history. William James said it most succinctly, religion “signifies always a serious state of mind,” and even many of today’s scholars hold James’ characterization as presupposed fact, using James to argue that media and popular culture are not serious enough. However, just because it is on television, on YouTube, or on smartphones, does that mean we can judge it as “less-than-authentic” and “not-real” religion? No, because everyday life is lived in media-filled worlds whether we engage media in our work or not.
Scholars, especially those in my own niche of American Religious History, need to pay more attention to media; we need to see it as complementary, supplementary, and constitutive of religion. Looking at media is not a sub-interest for those technologically-attuned scholars or those who teach online courses or MOOCs. The media realm is intricately tied to authentic religious experiences in everyday life and asking questions with that in mind will only make our work more engaging, relevant, and connected to religion “on-the-ground.” Marshall McLuhan’s adage applies here: the only thing the fish does not see is the water. In the contemporary landscape, humans swim in a pool of media, and scholars would be remiss in forgetting to look at the water all around us.
Stephanie Brehm is a doctoral candidate in the Religious Studies Department at Northwestern University. She studies religion, media, and popular culture in contemporary American life. Her work focuses on religion and humor, combining methodologies from ethnography, history, cultural studies, and media studies. Before coming to Northwestern, Stephanie graduated with a B.A. from Florida State University and an M.A. from Miami University of Ohio.
David D. Hall, Lived Religion in America: Toward A History of Practice (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997).
Gregory Price Grieve, “Religion,” in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2012), 104.
 For more on digital media, apps, and smartphones, see Rachel Wagner, Godwired: Religion, Ritual, and Virtual Reality (Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge, 2012); Rachel Wagner, “You Are What You Install: Religious Authenticity and Identity in Mobile Apps,” in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2012), 199–206.
 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 1902), 37-38.
*Image courtesy Wikimedia.