Lecture: Understanding religious networks in the archived web

Back in April I was in Jerusalem to give a paper at a two-day conference on web archiving at the National Library of Israel. The majority of the lectures are now available on YouTube, and mine is below.

It draws on material from three projects, some published, some not. The first was my forthcoming piece on religion in Web history in the Sage Handbook of Web History; the second, another forthcoming piece on cross-border religion in the Irish web (due later this year), and thirdly, this (so far unpublished) paper on British creationism.

(It starts about 28 minutes in).

British creationism in the web archive

Some time ago (2014) I wrote a short post on some work I was doing on the link patterns in the archived UK web surrounding the web estates of British creationist organisations. That post has since attracted a certain amount of attention, including a citation or two. I have not yet pursued formal publication of that work, but I did give a short paper at a conference in 2015 which provides fuller documentation of the case. With all the necessary caveats about its status as a preprint, without having been through formal peer review, I make it available here: Reading British creationism in the web archive (ReSAW conference, June 2015, Aarhus, Denmark)

Early Christian reactions to ‘cyberspace’

I now have a new article published by the journal Internet Histories, which is available online. 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.

Evangelicals, culture and the arts

[This is an edited extract from a forthcoming essay in the Routledge Research Companion to Evangelicalism, edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones. It should be published in 2018.]

One evening in the early 1960s Michael Saward, curate of a thriving evangelical Anglican parish in north London, went to the Royal Festival Hall to hear the aged Otto Klemperer conduct Beethoven. As the Polish violinist Henryk Szeryng played the Violin Concerto, Saward unexpectedly found himself

‘sitting (or so it seemed) a yard above my seat and experiencing what I can only describe as perhaps twenty minutes of orgasmic ecstasy. . . . Heaven had touched earth in the Royal Festival Hall. . [It was]  . .  a taste of [God’s] work as creator of all that is beautiful, dynamic and worthy of praise . . . speaking of his majesty in the universe which he has made, goes on sustaining, and fills with his life force, the Holy Spirit, who draws out of humanity an infinite range of talent, skill and glorious creativity in artistic works.’

Saward’s words were part of a memoir and not a work of theology, but they challenge many received views of the relationship between evangelicals and the arts. Here was a graduate of the conservative theological college Tyndale Hall, Bristol, sitting in a concert hall, listening to a German Jew conduct a Polish Jew in a piece of wordless secular music, and yet attaching such significance to the experience. Even though music was the art form most likely to be appreciated within the evangelical constituency, rarely does the historian find such a positive evaluation of the arts, their effects, and their place in the theology of creation and of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Evangelical theologies of culture have at root been theologies of the Fall. Anglican Catholics in England in the twentieth century began to recover a much older incarnational sense, thought to have been lost since the Reformation, of human activity as a subordinate participation in the work of creation. Not only could the maker of a work of art communicate something to the viewer about the aspect of creation that he or she was representing; the act of making could also in some sense be co-operating with God. In contrast, the evangelical view of human capability has tended to be more pessimistic. At its strongest, this view was that sin so defaced the divine image in human beings and so clouded their perception that their unaided attempts at understanding God and creation would be at best partial and incomplete, if not indeed corrupted and thus useless. Any attainment of virtue would be accidental, the product of external influence rather than any effort on the part of the individual. To attempt to create anything of beauty would be futile, and all participation in secular activity prone to the corruption of pride and self-interest.

At base, this is the centre of theological gravity in what remains, even after thirty years, the most sustained historical treatment of the question of evangelicalism and culture in Britain, Evangelicals and Culture by Doreen Rosman (1984). In the early nineteenth century, Rosman found many individual evangelicals who were able to engage in the arts in positive ways, and indeed to delight in their performance. However, evangelical theology was never able to develop its instinctive rhetorical claim on the whole of human life into a framework that could comfortably encompass the arts. Unable to sanctify the senses, it was often forced instead to seek to subjugate them. Evangelicals ‘were never confident to assimilate such worldly activities within the framework of their world-denying theology.’

This chapter examines evangelical encounters with the arts in several modes: as both consumer and performer in the apparently ‘neutral’ sphere of the home; as users of the arts in the context of public worship; as users of the arts as tools for evangelism; and as moralist and reformer of the artistic pursuits of others. It concerns itself mainly with music, literature, the visual arts and drama, and its examples are drawn chiefly from Britain and the USA, and from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That said, its overall analysis makes a claim to be applicable to the evangelical movement as a whole.

In certain cases there were evangelical principles that went to the very basis of the art form concerned, such as the stress on the intelligibility of words sung to music, which as a result were both widespread and persistent. At the same time, there were other evangelical concerns, such as the taboo on attendance at the theatre, which were not so much issues with the medium itself, but a particular social context in which it was produced. As a result such prohibitions could be, and were relaxed at other times and in other places. Evangelicals at times enthusiastically embraced certain art forms and individual works; at others they rejected them on principle; in other circumstances the story was one of resistance, adaptation, and the replacement of secular versions with safe and edifying substitutes.

Implicit in much of the chapter is a wider question: how far was evangelical engagement with the arts conditioned by the cultural power that they were able to exercise in general, and the extent to which their cultural presuppositions were shared with their neighbours? At the height of influence of British evangelicalism in the mid-nineteenth century, evangelicals shared many of the same presumptions as their neighbours about the moral purpose of the arts, and about the conditions that should surround their production and reception. As Elisabeth Jay has shown, this cultural closeness was mirrored in the degree to which evangelical life itself was the subject of the Victorian novel; an interest which waned as did evangelical influence in society, reaching a terminal point in Samuel Butler.

In contrast, evangelicals in late-twentieth-century Britain and America found themselves marooned by the processes of secularisation in societies in which any consensus about the purpose of art had fractured, and in which middle-class consensus on morality (the consensus that mattered) had disintegrated. It is no coincidence that this period saw a spate of evangelical writing on the supposed death of Christian culture in the west as reflected in the arts, by figures such as Francis Schaeffer and H.R. Rookmaaker. In this context of perceived cultural and moral crisis, the paradox was that evangelicals were in confrontation with secular artistic production for its godlessness, whilst domesticating its forms for their own purposes – in popular church music, or in religious drama – to a greater extent than ever.

Evangelicals and sex on the Internet: a book review

Kelsy Burke
Christians Under Covers. Evangelicals and sexual pleasure on the Internet
Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016
978-0-520-28633-7

[This review first appeared at Reading Religion. What follows is a shortened version]

Evangelicals, we are led to believe, have a problem with sex. On both sides of the Atlantic, if the mainstream media knows anything about Christians and their views on sex, it is that Christians cannot agree, and particularly on the status of gay relationships and the nature of marriage. These debates are complex, but the stereotype of the Puritan, whose conservatism covers not only the contexts in which sexual intercourse is permissible but also which forms it may take, has tended to color all evangelical thinking on sex a single shade of grey.ch-under-covers

Kelsy Burke’s new study of evangelical sexuality websites tells a new, finely nuanced and wholly convincing story. Her raw material is close readings of a group of websites — message boards, blogs, and, yes, sex toy stores — supplemented by extensive survey and interview evidence. In them Burke uncovers a “new evangelical sexual logic”, in line with an older principle: that sex is to be between married, monogamous heterosexuals. Within those bounds, however, the Christians Burke observes find spaces online in which they are available to work out, individually and in dialogue with others, the most pleasurable and fulfilling ways to enjoy their relationship with their spouse. Here is there no Manichaean duality of body and spirit, no ascetic mortification of the flesh. Users present their own prayer, personal testimonies, and interpretations of scripture in an iterative form of “lived religion,” that fills in the empty spaces within the bounds of official interpretation on matters that are rarely broached face-to-face in local churches.

For scholars of the Web and of the Internet (Burke rarely distinguishes between the two), there are many suggestive and intriguing lines of enquiry here. Acting anonymously might, on the face of it, be expected to present difficulties to the Christian. Burke’s subjects short-circuit any unease by means of a stress on the omniscience of God. One might be acting anonymously, but God is one’s witness as to the integrity with which one conducts oneself. Evangelicals have often attempted to create safe spaces and alternatives to the cultural products of a corrupt world—Christian film, Christian holidays, Christian heavy metal. Here, we see Christians creating safer stores for sex aids, in which they may be purchased without the unacceptable messaging that would surround such a sale in a secular store. Also interesting are the ways in which authority is constructed. Evangelicalism has historically been amongst the least clerical among Christian traditions in its control of which voices are heard and which may be trusted. Here, even that relatively loose emphasis on external validation by an institution is unpicked; those who create and maintain these sites do so on the basis of their marriedness, their personal piety, and their sense that they are under the gaze of an omniscient God.

If there is one area in which I would have wished to see more, it is on the nature of the Web itself. One of the governing myths of the Web is that it is a boundless space of infinite possibility, free from control, in which users and site owners may create their own reality. But each website is in fact an amalgam of conscious and unconscious design choices made by site owners, embedded in the software applications they develop themselves or license from others. These choices are made both in anticipation of and in response to the needs of users, insofar as they are known. How a website looks, and the things it allows users to do and not to do, are part of this story, into which the author might have gone further. It would have made an already fascinating and suggestive study even richer.