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another forthcoming piece on cross-border religion in the Irish web (due later this year), and thirdly, this (so far unpublished) paper on British creationism.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).

A vicar in the country

Next in my series on fictional clergy is Mr Keach from J.L. Carr’s 1980 novel A month in the country, who is dealt with only briefly but (as with much else in what is only a short book) Carr achieves much with economic means. Birkin, our principal character and narrator, arrives at a small Yorkshire village in the summer of 1920 with a job to do. In fulfilment of a will, he is to investigate and (if needed) uncover and restore a medieval mural painting in the village church. He is greeted by an unsympathetic Keach, a relatively young man of perhaps thirty, neat, but ‘pale-eyed, a cold, cooped-up look about him’. Keach fusses and quibbles about small things: expenses, Birkin’s living arrangements (he intends to sleep in the belfry); we see a cramped, fiddly, irritable man, without grace or hospitality. His offence in Birkin’s eyes is compounded to his indifference to the mural; Keach had asked the executors to agree to an alternative use for the 25 guineas but was rebuffed: Birkin’s presence is a burden he has no choice but to bear, along with the scaffolding that occupies his church. Clergy were often caricatured as culpably indifferent to the arts, and Carr’s priest is so shown here. Keach worries that a painting about the chancel arch will distract his congregation from their worship. Worse still, Birkin could, he supposed, fill in areas that had disappeared. ‘Incredible! I thought. Why are so many parsons like this! Must one excuse their defective sensibility towards their fellows because they are engrossed with God?’

The mural painting at St Mary’s church, Goring-by-Sea. Image: Peter Webster

But Carr’s vicar is a more sympathetic character than this, or rather, more pathetic, in need of our pity. One of the great tasks of the reforming Church of England after 1945 was the rationalisation of parsonage houses, and indeed of parishes themselves. Already by 1920 clergy were often in the wrong place, marooned by demographic change, and in houses built on a different scale for an earlier time, and Keach is one such. Carr draws the vicarage as dark and foreboding to the point at which one almost expects to encounter a ghost, and Alice, Keach’s wife is driven to nightmares by its encircling trees, out of control, and the air, pressing in as if in a compression chamber. Leaving the overtones of Gothic horror aside, the vicarage itself is of a not uncommon type. Keach shows Birkin the vast empty house, that could have accommodated a large family and its domestic staff, now scarcely furnished, with room after room left as empty as on the day on which he and his wife arrived. ‘In this wilderness of a house’, they ‘huddled together for the comfort of each other’s company. Neither cares to be alone in the awful place’. The Keaches struggle on in its enveloping shadow, with some small comforts: a card table, his violin, an altar made of a trunk covered with a bedspread: ‘they shouldn’t have been made to live in it’, Birkin decides.

Keach’s predicament goes beyond his vicarage, however. Alice wonders whether he should not have been happier in the south, Sussex perhaps, rather than in the rural north, with people more like themselves, but the crisis to which he gives voice is in reality not one of location. In the last scene in which we see him, as Birkin has finished his work, Keach’s sense of his own superfluity and failure emerges. ‘The English are not a deeply religious people’, he says; their observance is largely out of habit, that at Christmas or Harvest merely ‘a pagan salute to the passing seasons’. They have no need of Birkin save as a ‘removal contractor’ at the rites of passage of weddings and funerals. And Birkin has, unwittingly, twisted the knife. Keach had, it turns out, hoped to be of pastoral use to Birkin, a man returned wounded from the war: ‘you have come back from a place where you have seen things beyond belief, things which you cannot talk of yet can’t forget, but things which are at the heart of religion’. Yet Birkin, like all the others Keach has tried and failed to reach, has passed the time of day, spoken of the weather, ‘and you have hoped that I shall go away.’ Though there is no suggestion that Keach is himself in any crisis of faith, he is diminished, reduced to irritability and pettiness, by a sense of waste, of a vocation unfulfilled.

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.

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.