Early Christian reactions to ‘cyberspace’

I now have a new article accepted by the journal Internet Histories, due later this year. Here’s a summary.

Technology, ethics and religious language: early Anglophone Christian reactions to ‘cyberspace’

The article falls broadly into two halves, both concentrated not so much on the history of the Internet and Web as technologies as on the kinds of terms Anglophone writers used in order to understand them. The time frame is what I’ve called the ‘long Nineties’, beginning in 1989 and ending in 2001.

Between 1992 and 1996, as Thomas Streeter has shown, ‘the Internet ceased to be imagined as merely a cluster of imperfectly connected technologies that interested computer scientists and became instead an integral system with an agency of its own to promote change: change that could not be resisted, only shaped’. This was followed by ‘a remarkable effusion of writing in English between 1996 and 2001 that addressed the spiritual and ethical implications of the coming technological revolution. At the same time as the dotcom bubble inflated, writers across Europe and North America were seeing visions of future utopia and dystopia fashioned by this seemingly unstoppable technology.’

The first half pays particular attention to language, and the degree to which discourse about the Internet was cast in religious terms. The article looks at the whole range of metaphorical and metaphysical framings of the internet and Web: from purely metaphorical talk of the ‘soul’ of the Internet (meaning an idealised culture of its users), to its use as a metaphor for God (and of God as a metaphor for the Internet). These ideas were related to the notion of the ‘technological sublime’ (David Nye), but some went further to attribute to the Internet something very much like a consciousness and (at the extreme) a manifestation of the divine. There was little in this complex bricolage of concepts and images from several religious traditions to form anything like a coherent theology of the Internet, and the very imprecision of the concepts involved was part of their valency across apparently antithetical fields of discourse. I suggest that contemporary imaginings about the Web were one example where religious sentiment, broadly defined, had transferred its focus to something other than mainstream religion. If the secularisation of language has never been completed (assuming it could ever be), it should be no surprise that moral and ethical debate was often conducted in terms derived from the Christian history of the West.

The second half looks in particular at Christian reactions to the Internet in general, and this pervasive use of religious language in particular, since its very syncretism was a source of acute discomfort to those Christians attempting to understand it. It first puts these reactions in a longer context of Christian criticism of computerisation more generally, dating back to the early 1980s and indeed earlier. Some Christians responded simply to the likely effects of particular manifestations of life online, seeing ethical challenges in relation to economic and social exclusion, and the subtler impact on the health of interpersonal relations; others, though in the minority, elaborated a semi-mystical evolutionary understanding of the Web, inflluenced by Teilhard de Chardin, that had parallels with those more influenced by pagan or Buddhist thought. Others again set aside high-flown imaginings, either positive or negative, and adopted the Web as a pragmatic means of achieving their ends. I concentrate in particular on some of the reactions to shifts in the conceptual vocabulary of the West in relation to personality and the soul, human capability and its limitations, and the relationship between humankind and God. The more overheated rhetoric that surrounded virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the capabilities of the network seemed to threaten the Christian notion of human uniqueness and the right relationship of fallen imperfect humans to their Creator.

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South Riding religion

A slight digression in this post in my fictional clergy series, to take in Winifred Holtby’s fine South Riding. It was published posthumously in 1936, but is set in the years between 1932 and 1935 in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire, which is inspired not by present-day South Yorkshire but rather the East Yorkshire coast and wolds.

It is well known that Alice Holtby, the author’s mother, disliked the novel intensely and opposed its publication. This was despite Winifred’s protestations that, though some of the details were clearly derived from her mother’s career, Alderman Beddows was not Alderman Holtby, the first female alderman on the East Riding County Council. Despite this, and despite the range of characters deployed, we are clearly invited to understand the headmistress Sarah Burton as the closest representative of Holtby’s own views, and this extends to Sarah’s religion, such as it is. Raised by her Methodist mother as an Anglican, as a means of social advantage, the girl grew into a young woman who was sceptical both of her mother’s faith and that into which she had raised. Her mother’s Methodism was both theologically complacent and (in its imaginative repertoire, of washing in the Blood of the Lamb), repellent. ‘Resignation, acceptance of avoidable suffering, timidity and indecision, she found contemptible. The world is what we make it, she would preach [to her pupils]. Take it – and pay for it.’ Her code was one of taking responsibility for one’s own decisions: ‘we must do it ourselves, she thought: we are our own redeemers.’ (Book 2, chapter 6)

Flamborough. Photo by akademy, via Flickr: CC BY-NC-ND-2.0


South Riding is unusual amongst novels of its time in taking the inner experience of faith seriously, even if in the final instance it is not to faith that Holtby looks for the solutions for the social problems in need of solving. The nature of providence runs through the thoughts of several characters, as they grapple with unfolding events. Sarah has no place for providence, if all that is meant is a resignation to one’s lot in the face of circumstances that, with greater determination, could be changed: ‘through her mind passed a procession of generations submitting patiently to all the old evils of the world – to wars, poverty, disease, ugliness and disappointment, and calling their surrender submission to Providence.’ (Book 4, chapter 2) And it is in Alfred Ezekiel Huggins, Methodist lay preacher, haulage contractor and local councillor, in which we see the antitype to Sarah’s bracing faith.

In other novels in this series (as in the case of Robert Tressell), belief is made nothing but a smokescreen to hide self-interest or class conflict. Holtby’s craft is subtler that this. Huggins’ desire to serve his community is every bit as genuine as Sarah’s, and his distress at the hardship he sees is real. His piety is also not feigned; indeed, it is ever-present. But his belief in the guidance of the Lord at every turn is no admirable quality here, no marker of the completeness of his devotion. Instead it emerges as both frivolous – a trivialising of the action of God in the world – and as a much too convenient rationalisation of the petty materialism, corruption and snobbery which others, with clearer sight than Huggins, are able to exploit.

Yet, Sarah’s scepticism is of a gentle kind; in particular, there is room still to feel the imaginative force of some of the Christian images as expressed in the arts: the ‘superb tumult and affirmation’ of Handel’s Messiah shook ‘even so fierce an individualist, so sceptical an agnostic’ as she. ‘He was despised for our transgressions … with His stripes were are healed’ was the text, and ‘her senses were swayed by the image, but her mind could not accept its implication.’ (Book 2, chapter 6) And it is not only the great works of religious music that retain a power: for another character, the popular religious ballad The Lost Chord, largely disdained by professional musicians, is nonetheless evocative of a ‘queerly huddled group, the solemnity of Sabbath, the memory of good religious thoughts’ (Book 6, chapter 5). This openness to aesthetic experience is contrasted with Mr Drew, another Methodist, and self-appointed moral overseer of the public libraries on behalf of the Watch Committee. The novels of Aldous Huxley, Virgina Woolf and Naomi Mitchison attract his ire, but without his needing to quite read them all the way through. (Book 5, chapter 4)

Though the several Nonconformist characters emerge more or less badly from Holtby’s story, they are least present, a social reality in the South Riding. The contrast is with the established Church of England, which serves a largely ceremonial role, part of the order of things but with no purchase on life as it is lived. In the golden autumn of 1933, as the harvest is brought in, the parish church of Yarrold is an ‘exquisite height… a legacy of twelfth-century devotion, its delicate grey stone melting into the pale quivering summer sky.’ Land, church and town form a tableau in Holtby’s ‘English landscape’ (the book’s subtitle), ‘a gentle landscape of English rural life.’ (Book 5, chapter 6) But there are no characters for whom the parish churches play anything much more but an historic part. Miss Sigglesthwaite, impecunious daughter of a clergyman, dutifully attends church on Good Friday while she struggles with advancing age, domestic gloom and professional failure in Sarah’s school (Book 3, chapter 5). The farmer Robert Carne sits in the pew he owns, but his God is ‘the God of order who had created farmers lords of their labourers, the county and the gentry lords over the farmers, and the King lord above all his subjects under God.’ (Book 7, ch. 6) Meanwhile, of Mr Peckover, the rector, we learn little. He is a governor of the High School, of limited private means to send his own daughters anywhere better, and somewhat conscious of having a degree from Manchester, rather than Oxford or Cambridge. And of him there is little more. In the great struggle of local government to build a new Jerusalem, peopled by men and women of good will and initiative, the established Church counts for little. South Riding is a valuable corrective to the weight of novels set in the rural south of England, where the balance between church and chapel was quite the reverse.

Bernstein in Chichester

2018 is the centenary year of the birth of Leonard Bernstein. Among the many events to mark the year is the Bernstein in Chichester festival, which celebrates Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, commissioned for Chichester Cathedral by its dean, Walter Hussey.
I shall be speaking about Hussey at a symposium event on April 20th (booking details here), and then curating an exhibition of archival holdings about the Psalms later in the year, including some of Bernstein’s letters. It will be shown first at the West Sussex Record Office, and then in the cathedral. This short essay was written for the festival website.
My own book on Hussey’s patronage of the arts is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester between 1955 and 1977, was the most significant patron of the contemporary arts for the Church of England in the twentieth century. The Bernstein in Chichester festival celebrates his most famous commission of music for Chichester, the Chichester Psalms. But there was more music than this for the cathedral: works from William Walton, Lennox Berkeley and others. For his church of St Matthew Northampton (where he was vicar for nearly twenty years before coming to Chichester) there was more music: from Lennox Berkeley, Gerald Finzi (Lo, the full final sacrifice), Michael Tippett and (most famously) Rejoice in the Lamb, by Benjamin Britten, with whom he became a lifelong friend.

Hussey in the late 1940s. Image from West Sussex Record Office, all rights reserved.

Though music was perhaps Hussey’s first love, his own collection of painting and sculpture was the basis of the collection at Pallant House in Chichester. Visitors to the cathedral can see commissions from John Piper, Graham Sutherland and also Marc Chagall; Chichester is one of only two churches in the UK that contain Chagall stained glass. At Northampton two commissions by Hussey still face each other across the church: one by Sutherland, and the other, Hussey’s first, from Henry Moore.

In 1943, in wartime Northampton, still under blackout conditions at night, why did Hussey, provincial parish priest, decide that a revival of the religious arts should be his life’s work? (This, to be sure, was not his first thought, but within a few short years he had achieved national and international recognition for his project.) Hussey was not given to much theological reflection on why he, a priest, should be trying to commission contemporary art for the church at a time when such activity was at a low ebb. But Hussey was led by his senses. Deeply moved as a young man in London by the art he could see and the music he could hear, he could not see why the close relationship between church and artist he saw in the medieval churches of England should not be restored. Leaving the justification to others to make, he decided just to do what he could in a practical way. Unencumbered by any sense of his place in the pecking order, his first successful commissions were from Britten and Moore, who came to be arguably the two greatest exponents of their arts that England produced in the twentieth century.

Kenneth, Lord Clark, a Hussey ally from early on, described him as ‘aesthete, impressario and indomitable persuader’. It was this persistence and sheer self-confidence which led him to approach Leonard Bernstein on the basis of the briefest of meetings in New York some years before. But it is this chutzpah that is the hallmark of Hussey’s way of working. Artistic commissions in the twenty-first century tend to be committee affairs, with stages of consultation with all those with an interest in a project. Hussey was a patron of an older school: he kept his eyes and ears open, decided what he liked, and went all out to persuade an artist or composer to work for him, and to raise the money to pay for it. Chichester, Northampton, and the English church in general are the richer for it.

Murder in the cathedral

When some months ago I read Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle for this series on clergy in fiction, I thought I had perhaps found the novel with the largest number of clerical characters (four in all.) I had not reckoned, however, with Holy Disorders, a detective novel by Edmund Crispin. It was first published in 1946 by Gollancz, and subsequently in an inexpensive Penguin Classic Crime edition in 1958. Featuring Crispin’s sleuth Gervase Fen, it is an entertaining tale of murder and black magic set around the south-west cathedral city of Tolnbridge. An attempt has been made on the life of the cathedral organist, and suspicion falls on the several clergy of the cathedral.

Cathedral at night (Salisbury).
Image: Lee Hughes (Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND-2.0

There are five clerical characters, all of them lightly drawn but with some deftness. Both bishop and dean are absent, for reasons we never know, and the cathedral is overseen by the precentor, Dr Butler. The precentor has the frame of a giant, and ‘the coldest eyes … ever seen in a human being.’ High-handed with clergy, organists and his family, Butler cuts a remote and unpopular figure. Canons Spitshuker and Garbin, one a Tractarian, the other a Low Churchman, busy themselves in furious and inconclusive disputes about doctrine: ‘unlike parallel lines, it was inconceivable that their views should ever meet, even at infinity.’ The two are also divided by class and wealth: Spitshuker, rotund and complacent, descends from a family long connected with the church; Garbin, a scholarship boy from a poor family, has a more personal, more earnest view of his vocation. A scholar, of the Albigensian heresy, Garbin suspected the precentor of plagiarising his work; an offence over which he almost resigned his canonry. The chancellor, Sir John Dallow, is the expert in the long and dark history of witchcraft in Tolnbridge: it is easy to become an expert when one has almost nothing to do and considerable wealth to support one in doing it. Finally, there is the young July Savernake, vicar of a nearby parish, who spends half the year living beyond his means as the curé bon viveur, and the other as the poor parson. He also has designs on the hand of Frances, the precentor’s daughter.

Crispin’s world owes a good deal to Trollope, and may well have been inspired by another murder in the cathedral, that written for Canterbury by T.S.Eliot a decade earlier. The cathedral provides a convenient setting for a complex plot: a group of people with relationships and rivalries of long standing, which live in close proximity in a small town, around a building with many doors, dim lighting and many secrets. But it is purely incidental that these characters are clergy. The plot never engages their conduct as religious professionals; there are no points of decision that are dramatic by reason of the faith of the person who must decide. At heart, Holy Disorders is a morally conventional tale in which a murderer is brought to book. Crispin has no design on the reader’s conscience; no desire to dramatise the place of the national church at the end of a world war. His purpose is simply to entertain, in which purpose he succeeds.

Cultural Heritage Infrastructures in Digital Humanities: a review

Cultural Heritage Infrastructures in Digital Humanities.
Agiatis Benardou, Erik Champion, Costis Dallas and Lorna M. Hughes (eds). Routledge, 2017.

[This review first appeared in the LSE Review of Books.]

The digital turn in humanities research over the last three decades has enabled the asking of new research questions: the availability of fresh tools and techniques, as well as digitised objects to which to apply them, has opened up angles of enquiry on almost any subject. This was already deeply felt in the pioneering humanities computing projects of the 1980s, but the pervasiveness of the internet has prompted thinking at national and international levels, particularly in the 2000s, about how those new kinds of research might best be enabled in a networked, geographically dispersed context.

At the same time, the policy environment for humanities research has been inflected by external forces: the energy directed towards ‘cyber-infrastructure’ for the ‘hard’ sciences; the increasing pressure on the custodians of cultural heritage (publicly funded galleries, libraries, archives and museums (the GLAM sector) in particular) to maximise the use of their holdings. Also, in Europe especially, there has been an emphasis on a common heritage of European civilisation that ought to be studied comparatively as part of a more general projection of the European ideal. As a result, the European Union has funded, and continues to fund, ‘research infrastructures’ for the humanities in varying shapes and sizes, although it is not alone in doing so.

However, as the editors of Cultural Heritage Infrastructures in Digital Humanities point out, there is as yet little reflection available on the impact these research infrastructures have had both on the academy and the wider public (5). This collection of essays is a very valuable contribution to that process of assessment, and deserves to be widely read. It will be of interest not only to humanities scholars, but also to those in the GLAM sector concerned with user engagement and access, as well as policymakers in and around government.

The eleven chapters presented fall into several kinds. Readers most specifically concerned with the broad strategic issues concerning infrastructure provision – i.e. which services these infrastructures should provide, to whom and using which technologies – will be best served by contributions from Seamus Ross; Veerle Vanden Daelen on the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI); Agiatis Benardou and Alastair Dunning on Europeana; Sharon Webb and Aileen O’Carroll on digital tools in Ireland, and; Tobias Blanke, Conny Kristel and Laurent Romary’s chapter, and the editorial introduction. Other contributions focus not so much on these wider issues as on individual disciplines or on particular tools and services. Although edited by scholars from Australia, Canada, Greece and the UK, the focus of the collection is weighted towards Europe; while the collection is none the worse for that, there is still room for reflection on the situation in other contexts.

Some common themes stand out. The collection is shot through with a refreshing awareness of how crucial engagement with the user is in creating a service that meets their needs. This is welcome indeed, since there is no shortage of digital services that serve their users less well than they might, largely because those commissioning, designing and building them did not stop to ask what users required. The well-documented example of Project Bamboo in the United States disappointed the hopes placed on it largely for this reason, and is acknowledged here.

This reviewer was also reminded once again of the sheer particularity of humanities scholarship both in terms of method and the kinds of materials in use, which points up the difficulty of creating infrastructures that suit more than a small number of scholars. A juxtaposition of Gertraud Koch’s essay on anthropology and that of Christina Kamposiori, Claire Warwick and Simon Mahony on art history serves to make the point: different humanities disciplines often make use of very different kinds of digital objects, and where they do use the same materials, quite distinct working assumptions are made about them. Furthermore, disciplines are also marked by varying levels of digital skills amongst their practitioners. Given all this, the challenges in designing services that meet all these needs are formidable. The experience of EHRI – providing a service that allowed scholars to discover materials in many archives relating to the Holocaust – shows the difficulty of creating such a service even for what, on the face of it, is a relatively clearly defined class of resources.

Despite all the stimulating and useful material this collection provides, a question mark remains over whether persistent organisational and technical structures are the best way of fostering research in the digital humanities. The question is met head on by Blanke, Kristel and Romary, who rightly acknowledge the complexity of creating large semi-permanent distributed digital services to connect very diverse individual tools and resources, especially as both the needs of users and the technologies available change rapidly and asymmetrically with each other. Beyond this book, however, the wider debate about how to enable distributed humanities scholarship is still often framed in terms of the shape that such infrastructures should take; their desirability in principle is not often stated as such, but is assumed. Andrew Prescott has rightly taken issue with the whole metaphor of infrastructure as an unhelpful way of imagining what is required. To envisage things in terms of infrastructure implies permanence, rigidity, standardisation. An alternative case might be made for the metaphor of the ecosystem, with which Blanke and colleagues also make play.

One can imagine a scholarly ecosystem in which individual libraries and archives concentrate on understanding their own users and designing services to meet their specific needs, whilst exposing data in a maximally open but passive way for others to access as and when they need to. Some of the funding currently directed at intermediate technical structures might instead be used to develop this local capacity. At the same time, funders might also invest in three other things: observing and reporting on the directions in which research in each community is heading (in the manner of the now defunct AHRC Digital Methods Network and other projects, as noted on pages 4-5); developing the individual technical skills of researchers in exploiting those resources and in making their own tools; and supporting the development of many community-specific tools and projects in response to demand, on the condition that those same tools are openly available for reuse and adaptation as needs change. To be sure, several of the existing infrastructures do some or all of these things, but it may be that that is all they should do.

This is not necessarily to advocate such a way of working, but merely to pose the question of whether the infrastructural paradigm is necessarily the only way available. This reviewer, at least, remains to be convinced that the demand for infrastructures that federate access and analysis has been shown to be present amongst end users. But while Webb and O’Carroll rightly suggest that the idea that ‘if you build it, they will come’ (129) has had its day amongst those who create individual tools and services, is it not alive and well at the infrastructural level? As a minimum, we ought to ask whether the dominance of the infrastructual paradigm is not due to its appeal to large providers of content and its comparative simplicity to fund and administer, rather than its intrinsic rightness as a way of fostering research. Readers will differ on the answers to this question, but anyone concerned with the future of digital humanities research will find much to ponder in this timely and important collection of essays.

The edited collection: pasts, present and future

I’m delighted to be able to announce that I now have a book bearing this title under contract with Cambridge University Press. It is part of a new series called Gatherings: short monographs on aspects of contemporary scholarly publishing. It should be published in 2019.

Image from Flickr (GoToVan), CC-BY


In recent years, the edited collection of essays has undergone a crisis as a form of scholarly publishing. Without fanfare or particular crisis event, the perception spread that publishing in such collections was less prestigious than in journals; that such chapters were less visible to readers, and less acceptable to those assessing a scholar’s work; and that publishers were in retreat from such volumes.

This volume sets out to explore the forms that the edited collection has taken in recent decades, the roots and shape of the present crisis (if it is indeed rightly so called), and the possible futures for the form.

It focusses on the humanities, and history in particular, while drawing also on publishing trends in theology and in musicology. It is also focussed particularly on the UK, but in comparitive context with other nations, particularly the United States.

Walter Hussey and the Arts: a review

The first review is now in of my book on Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts. It comes from David Stancliffe, now retired as bishop of Salisbury and formerly provost of Portsmouth cathedral, only a short distance from Hussey’s Chichester. It is published in Art and Christianity, 93 (spring 2018), the bulletin of Art and Christianity Enquiry, to which body Stancliffe is an adviser.

Hussey in the late 1940s. Image from West Sussex Record Office, all rights reserved.

Since the review is an extended one, it gives Dr Stancliffe space to reflect at length on Hussey’s legacy as reflected in the book. As well as praising the book’s perceptiveness, he comments that ‘Webster has done a really brave job in making the most of Hussey’s achievement without glossing over the major difficulties’, and it is on these difficulties that he expands, elaborating and largely confirming my own argument.

But rather like the new Coventry Cathedral of the early 1960s, Hussey seems to have viewed commissions in isolation rather than as part of a coherent whole. It was Coventry’s architect, Spence, who described the building as a jewel-case for the series of commissions it contained, and in a way this is rather what Hussey’s commissions feel like. There were some notable works of art, and some remarkable juxtapositions, like the Sutherland Crucifixion opposite the Henry Moore Madonna and Child in Northampton: but was there a theological – let alone a liturgical – rationale for placing these two striking works of art where they could speak to each other across the space? Certainly nothing in Hussey’s writings articulated this, and the contexts of his musical commissions reveal no lasting sense of the place of music within the developing liturgical life of the church.

On my noting of Hussey’s lack of interest in architecture:

For me, this gap is a major failing, as it deprives Hussey’s commissions of their key raison d’être. At a time when the timid post-war reconstructions had a stylistic cross-roads before them, to have been unaware of the liturgical and architectural implications of decisions about what and how to build seems more serious than a ‘lacuna’ to me. It has reduced Hussey’s influence from what might have been a major force in the liturgical and artistic development of the church in the second half of the 20th Century to an interesting but essentially amateur patronage of a series of disconnected objets d’art.

He also takes up the question I raise (and others have raised) about the depth of Hussey’s vocation as a priest:

This raises the question as to how far was Hussey a convinced apologist for the Christian faith, with a deep sense of priestly vocation at his core, and [conversely] how far did the offices he held within the Church of England [simply, or incidentally] allow this talented patron of the arts the opportunities he craved to fulfil his vocation as a patron of the arts?… Certainly the Church of England and its cultural life would have been the poorer without his ministry, yet there is curiously little either in his writings or in the way the commissions present any kind of coherent theological or spiritual statement that suggests a deeper sense of vocation, or indeed much sense of Hussey’s own spiritual insight.

Would, in other words, Hussey still have been a private patron even had he not followed his father and elder brother into the ‘family business’? It is an intriguing question, but an impossible one to answer. But I should not like to dismiss the possibility out of hand: Hussey had private means, although not to the same degree that the Church and other donors provided, and so it would have been possible. We should be careful not to dismiss Hussey’s piety, which he took seriously enough, but the question mark remains. Had he taken up some other profession and become a private patron, we might have been discussing a different question: does art commissioned by private individuals, rather than the Church, still meet the definition of ‘sacred art’? Must there be something more than the intention of either or both patron and artist to meet that definition? Must sacred art in fact be housed in a church, or some other shared space of a worshipping community?