Technologies of Religion: a review

[The version of record of this review appeared in the journal Internet Histories  ]

Sam Han
Technologies of religion. Spheres of the sacred in a post-secular modernity
Abingdon, Routledge, 2016
ISBN:978-1-138-85586-1

Technologies of Religion, by Sam Han of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, offers both more and less than the description from its publisher would appear to indicate. Its main impact is as a work of critical social theory, and specifically concerning the cosmogonical, or ‘world-making’ qualities of contemporary religion as it meets new (and in particular, digital) technologies. Han is concerned to show that new technologies and religion come together to form ‘spheres’ (or ‘worlds’), that no longer correspond to the categories of the classical sociology of religion as associated with Durkheim or Max Weber. Gone is much of the stability and hierarchical longevity associated with authoritative institutions; Han’s spheres are in constant flux, unbounded, networked. These ‘modular assemblages’ have a kind of promiscuity, as different worlds or spheres form network connections with others, across which certain elements (traditionally separate) may ‘resonate’ according to their ‘affinities’ (p.30).

In a short review it is difficult to fully sum up Han’s theoretical argument, developed stage by stage in close dialogue with philosophers, aestheticians and sociologists and occupying very nearly half of the book’s 113 pages of text. (Particular attention is paid to Peter Berger, Mircea Eliade and John Milbank amongst others). Perhaps of most interest to readers of this journal, and historians of religion more generally, is Han’s engagement with recent readings of Max Weber, and with classic secularisation theory more generally. Students of secularisation have often tended to understand ‘religion’ and ‘technology’ as antipathetic: that the growth of new technologies, along with modernisation in general, has in general acted as a solvent of traditional religious belief and the organisations which support it; an assumption which has often been carried over into scholarship on religion and the Internet. Han wants to show that the two, far from being antipathetic, in fact exist in a relationship of mutual support which is ‘ontologically creative’ (p.31). Scholars of religion and the Web have in recent years themselves moved away from such an oppositional model of the religion/technology relationship, and have begun to unpick the ways in which religion and the Web mutually influence each other; Han’s work provides a welcome boost to that process.

Chapters 3 and 4 are an examination of some of the theoretical themes worked out in relation to Bright Church, a large ‘multi-site’ evangelical church which operates on several ‘campuses’ in the United States. Here Han seeks to show that the multi-site model of church – in which a single preacher’s message is simultaneously videocast to each campus – places traditional ideas of religious space into play in a new way. Han also examines the ways in which the presence of technological objects in the worship space may be read as constitutive of the message being conveyed. Chapter 4, examining both Bright Church’s own graphical user interface and its use of Facebook, is concerned with the nature of religious communality. It is in these two chapters where the weaknesses of the book show most clearly.

Although it is not Han’s main concern that it should be otherwise, his thesis of the ontologically creative nature of religion and technology is curiously ahistorical. This is a shame, since a greater engagement with the history of religion and the media has potential to strengthen his case. His reading of the design of the worship space and the technological fixtures and fittings within it is suggestive, but it could have benefitted from a greater consideration of the means by which earlier ‘technologies of religion’ – candles, music, paintings and sculpture, priestly vestments, liturgical vessels, and the movements of people and objects – have created the ‘atmosphere’ that he analyses in terms of projector screens and mixing desks. Similarly, the book’s analysis of the means by which identification is created between a worshipper and a physically distant preacher would bear some juxtaposition with scholarship on religious broadcasting on radio and television and its reception, or on the circulation of recordings of worship music from ‘celebrity’ worship leaders for use in the home.

More generally, this reader was left with the impression that, whilst Han’s theoretical framework may well be a fruitful one, it is by no means established from the empirical data presented, which is thin. Han focusses on Bright Church alone, which raises the question of how typical it may be of other churches, Christian or otherwise, with multi-site operations. Only some twelve pages of documentation of Bright Church are given, in which small space is included an observation of the worship at one of its several campuses as well as readings of associated Christian technological literature, and of the online church interface; Facebook is given a single page. Han asserts (p.62) that the experience presented at Bright Church New York may safely be taken as typical. Whilst clearly true of the presentation (since it is controlled from a Global Operations Center in Oklahoma), the experience is surely modified by the physical size and shape of the room, the number of people present, as well as by the use of local musicians. There is also little discussion here of the perceptions of the worshippers themselves, either those present in person in New York or engaging with Bright Church online, and also relatively little from those responsible for its leadership. A much deeper and wider empirical engagement would be needed to ground Han’s theoretical work than is on offer here.

These cavils aside, Han’s study presents many fertile lines of enquiry for historians of religion and the Web. It is well written, although it is often dense and heavy in its use of jargon terms and will tax those without a close acquaintance with the theoretical work with which it is in dialogue. At £90 for only 129 pages it may stretch some budgets, but once in hand it will repay attentive reading.

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New sources in Lambeth Palace Library

The Lambeth Palace Library annual review for 2016 details its new accessions and completed cataloguing, and as in previous years I pull out some highlights for the period since 1945. They include:

(i) amongst the papers of the archbishops, recently catalogued are papers from a series of meetings of the primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion, from 1981 (Washington, D.C), 1983 (Nairobi), 1986 (Toronto), Cyprus in 1989 and in Northern Ireland in 1991. There are also four meetings of the Anglican Consultative Council included in the series. Given the stresses in the Communion that have emerged into plain view in the 1990s and since, these papers will be key to understanding the pre-history of those disputes.

(ii) also catalogued are papers from the second phase of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) beginning in 1983, as are papers for the Roman Catholic section of the Council on Foreign Relations;

(iii) the CFR papers relating to the Russian Orthodox church are now also catalogued, covering the period from 1931 to 1981;

(iii) as a biographer, also of particular interest to me is a file of correspondence between Robert Runcie and the author of a rather indiscreet biography of him, Humphrey Carpenter; the book caused a minor sensation, much to Runcie’s discomfort.

(v) scholars of Anglican evangelicalism will be very grateful to see the completed cataloguing of the papers of Michael Harper, ecumenist and leading figure in the charismatic movement. The papers extend from 1961 to 2003.

They may all be found through the Library’s archive catalogue.

Reflections on Web Archiving Week 2017

Once in a while, the unplanned turns out to be as good if not better than the planned. It had not been the intention that the annual Web Archiving Conference of the IIPC should be combined with the second conference of ReSAW (the Research Infrastructure for the Study of Archived Web Materials). However, they came together in London last week, with intriguing results.

One of the great pleasures of the event is the diversity of both speakers and delegates: the institutions represented by the IIPC were there in strength, but also present were the largest assemblage of researchers I have yet seen. These include not only people from computer science and related fields – a group that has been engaged in this space for a while – but also an enlarged contingent of scholars of media and communications and several of the humanities disciplines. At the Archives Unleashed datathon on Monday and Tuesday there was a particularly creative meeting of scholars, technologists and archivists – the crucial nexus of relationships for making successful tools and services. The whole week was marked (for me) by a refreshing openness to the perspectives of others, a frankness about difference, and a collegiality without hierarchy which (if it can be sustained) bodes very well for the future.

If I compare this discussions last week with those in this community perhaps three or four years ago, a number of differences stand out. As I’ve tried to show in my short history of Web archiving, direct engagement between archiving institutions and researchers came relatively late in that twenty year history, and even four years ago there was still a sense that researcher engagement was still only very exploratory. We now seem to have reached the stage where substantial attention is being paid to understanding the needs of users as a preliminary step to developing new tools and services (of which there were also many exciting examples). Here I’m bound to mention the research study that I (as Webster Research and Consulting) carried out for the Parliamentary Archives, which Chris Fryer and I presented, but I also have in mind papers on citation practice (Nyvang et al), the research data management issues involved (Zierau and Jurik), and what users need to know about the materials they use (ie. what to do about descriptive metadata), a theme taken up variously by Bingham, Dooley et al, Maemura et al. The variety of different use cases both discussed in the abstract and demonstrated in concrete reminded me of how varied the user base for web archives is (or could be) and how much we need as fine-grained an understanding of those different users as possible. As Ben Steinberg of Harvard noted ‘How we [ie. the providers of services] think archives should or could be used may not be as pertinent as we imagine…’

Another theme for researchers that surfaced several times at the first ReSAW conference in Aarhus two years ago was the need to understand the offline as context for the online. In Aarhus the particular point was about the need for oral history and for analysis of print and manuscript sources to understand how web materials make it online to begin with, and the theme was taken up last week by Federico Nanni and (in passing) by Gareth Millward and Richard Deswarte. There were also reminders here that a full history of the Web will need to take account of the history of computing more generally (Baker and Geiringer), the interaction between the Web proper and other content delivered online, notably social media (Castex, Schafer et al, Day Thomson), as well as the wider social and intellectual context in which the Web is embedded (Schroeder, and my own paper on the religious language of the Web) .

What of the future? Delegates who followed the same tracks as me may have come away with a sense of the diversity of analytic approaches to the study of the Web, and impressed with the depth at which scholars are now seeking to understand the methodological challenges they face. The aim, however, must be to build on this reflection to a point at which the Web archive becomes simply one type of scholarly source amongst many in the production of substantive scholarly insight on history, sociology or literature as Gareth Millward noted. I look forward to the day when I can go to mainstream historical conferences and hear contemporary history written using the archived Web.

There is also, I think, a challenge to the community at large in navigating a path through the diversity of new technical development and analytical need on display here, to decide which elements best serve users in particular situations, and so should brought forward and made part of ‘business as usual’ operations. Some will be incorporated by web archives themselves, others maintained by communities of interested scholars, others probably commercialised. The IIPC has a part to play here, while remembering that a significant part of this new thinking is taking place outside the membership. At least one person on Twitter thought a combined conference like this was worth repeating, and it would certainly be a way of developing the listening process between archives, users and developers that is required.

Finally: I celebrated the diversity of the conference when viewed in terms of professional background, but in another sense there is still much to do in terms of geography. I counted some 17 or 18 nationalities represented here, a joyous thing in a fragmenting world, but nonetheless overwhelmingly from Europe and north America. The archiving and study of the Web, a global medium, still remains dominated by certain countries.

My thanks are due to all those involved in organising such an excellent event: Jane Winters as host at the School of Advanced Study (University of London), and Olga Holownia of the IIPC and my former colleagues at the British Library which also contributed most significantly. It was my pleasure to be a part of both the IIPC and the ReSAW programme committee, and to hear such a fine set of papers.

 

Barbara Pym’s priests

So far in my series on the Anglican clergy in British fiction, we have encountered just one clergyman in each novel, or two at the most; in Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle (published in 1950 but substantially complete by 1936), there are no fewer than four, two of which at least take a substantial part in the narrative as a whole. Set in an unnamed English village, it is the Archdeacon, Henry Hoccleve who features most prominently. The Archdeacon in different hands could have been an entirely unsympathetic character: cantankerous, vain, condescending and inhospitable to guests and parishioners alike. Like many clergy a devotee of poetry, he was susceptible to a literary allusion ‘and was delighted, in the way children and scholars sometimes are, if it was one that the majority of his parishioners did not understand.’ He is only saved from monstrosity by the subtle puncturing of his pomposity that Pym administers at every turn, and the unrequited devotion of years of Miss Belinda Bede, the spinster who, with her sister Harriet, are the heart of the book. (More than one writer has suggested that Belinda and Harriet are Pym’s imagining of her sister and herself in later life.) Even then, Belinda in a moment of reflection notes that ‘he had very few of the obvious virtues that one somehow expected of one’s parish priest’ (chapter 1) There is, however, more to dear Henry than mere social conformity and protectiveness of his status, as we see him contemplating mortality amongst the gravestones in the churchyard. For all its subtle criticism of the gap between expectation and reality in Hoccleve’s ministry, Pym’s portrayal has none of the hostility of that of Robert Tressell. .

The three other clergymen have less fictive work to do but are still better developed than many stock characters. Mr Donne the new curate is blank and pale and, though often present, makes little impression. Father Edward Plowman is the rather ‘Romish’ rector of the neighbouring parish: he wears a biretta, uses incense, and dislikes the Archdeacon as much as he is disliked in turn. Harriet, though, would rather like to attend his church if it were not so far to walk, since he preaches sermons that people can understand, and is ‘such a fine-looking man too, like Cardinal Newman’ (chapter 2) This competitive churchmanship recalls Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter, written at a similar time.

Rather more of a rarity is Theo Grote, the colonial archbishop of Mbawawa, no longer the beautiful willowy curate that Belinda had known as a student, who is accommodated at the vicarage in as uncomfortable a fashion as the archdeacon can decently arrange. The novel predates both the growing to independence of the Anglican provinces in Africa and the growth of any real knowledge of the colonial churches amongst lay Anglicans in England, and so the bishop regales the parish with lantern slides of his flock and their curious dress and customs (chapter 16). Also rather rare in English fiction is the set piece in chapter 18 where all four men are at supper at the vicarage, in which one of Pym’s most devastating criticisms is delivered in characteristically oblique way.

‘Miss Aspinall was radiant .. glittering with beads and chains and agreeing rapturously with everything that everybody said. This was rather difficult with four clergymen present, as with the exception of the curate who hardly ventured an opinion on anything, they tended to disagree with each other wherever they could…. It was such a pity, Belinda reflected, that clergymen were so apt to bring out the worst in each other… as a species they did not get on, and being in a small country village made things even more difficult. These embarrassments would not arise in London where the clergy kept themselves to themselves in their own little sets, High, Broad and Low, as it were.’

A neater skewering of the partisan spirit in the inter-war Church of England I have yet to find.

After having tried several publishers, Pym succeeded in having this, her first novel, published by Jonathan Cape in 1950. It was the first of six in a similar vein before she was unceremoniously cut adrift by Cape, after which she could find no publisher until the late 1970s. The ODNB puts this abrupt descent into obscurity down to an increased appetite for fashionability (and thus profitability) at Cape under editor Tom Maschler. It may be that part of this unfashionability was the volatile mood of English Christianity in the early 1960s, in which such delicate miniatures, celebrations of the stasis of English village life, were increasingly out of place. Iris Murdoch’s atheist priest in The Time of the Angels was perhaps a closer reflection of the crisis of confidence into which the Church of England had talked itself. Pym’s portrait is also from the inside, a portrait of the Church of England by one who loved it as Belinda loved the Archdeacon. A reception history of Pym might well show that over time, fewer and fewer writers and readers could receive a book like Some Tame Gazelle, imaginatively complete in the 1930s, as a reflection of their own social reality; the vogue that Pym belatedly experienced after 1977 was surely in a different, more distanced mode. (For just such a recovery of the rural religion of the 1930s and 1940s as emblematic of a lost world, see John Fowles’ Daniel Martin.)

New article: On digital contemporary history

A little article of mine has just appeared in the Danish historical journal Temp, based on a lecture given in Copenhagen to the Danish Assocation for Research in Contemporary History in January 2016.

It suggests that there has been a relative lack of digitally enabled historical research on the recent past, when compared to earlier periods of history. It explores why this might be the case, focussing in particular on both the obstacles and some missing drivers to mass digitisation of primary sources for the 20th century. It suggests that the situation is likely to change, and relatively soon, as a result of the increasing availability of sources that were born digital, and of Web archives in particular. The article ends with some reflections on several shifts in method and approach, which that changed situation is likely to entail.

By the kind permission of the editor, I make it available here.

Title:  Digital contemporary history: sources, tools, methods, issues
Details: Temp: Tidsskrift for historie, 14 (2017), 30-38.
Download the PDF

Evelyn Waugh’s modern churchman

Mr Prendergast, the hapless protagonist of Evely Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1928), is one of the more unusual clerical characters in this series. The majority of the men we have met so far are either country parsons or urban priests; they have also all been incumbent when we meet them. Prendy, by contrast, we encounter in two quite different contexts: the undistinguished public school Llanabba Castle, staffed by the shady and variously disgraced, and then prison. Prendy, you see, had Doubts, of which we learn in his own words. Newly installed as rector in the genteel obscurity of Worthing, Prendy had a neat, well-decorated church, and local society enough to entertain his mother, when she was not busily making new chintz curtains for the drawing room. Most pleasant it all was, until Prendy was all of a sudden assailed by doubt. Not about the more familiar matters of which religious controversy were then made, such as the miracles of the Bible or the consecration of Archbishop Parker: ‘no, it was something deeper than all that. I couldn’t understand why God had made the world at all…. I’ve not known an hour’s real happiness since.’ (part 1, chapter 4)

Vincent Franklin as Prendy in the 2017 BBC adaptation

As often the case with Waugh, the funniest lines are only asides, as Prendy asks his bishop for help: ‘he said he didn’t think the point really arose as far as my practical duties as a parish priest were concerned.’ The questions of ultimate purpose were an indulgence when set beside the practical need to keep the Church running as a social reality. But the passage, only a few paragraphs long, is a poignant dramatisation of the crisis of faith, and occurs early enough in the novel that it is not overwhelmed by the grotesqueries that are to come. But Prendy continues to teach, if that be the right word, while the boys mercilessly mock his wig, and he continues to maintain an interest in ecclesiastical obscurities. ‘Are you sure he is right in the head?’ asks the local vicar at Sports Day after discussing with Prendy the apostolic claims of the church of Abyssinia. ‘I have noticed again and again since I have been in the Church that lay interest in ecclesiastical matters is often a prelude to insanity.’

Readers who know the novel will know of the grisly and senseless end with which Prendy meets. But the path which brings him and Paul Pennyfeather (the novel’s main character) together again in prison is a neat satire on a certain trend in the Church of England. Much to the irritation of Dr Fagan the headmaster, Prendy resigns from Llanabba as ‘he has been reading a series of articles by a popular bishop and has discovered that there is a species of person called a “Modern Churchman” who draws the full salary of a beneficed clergyman and need not commit himself to any religious belief.’ (part 2, ch.4) Prendy cut a rather pathetic figure at Llanabba, but not unsympathetic. He is a victim of a sudden and inexplicable collapse in faith to which he responded honourably by resigning his living; a misfortune which parallels that which landed Pennyfeather at Llanabba. The reader is, I think, invited to share Dr Fagan’s incredulity that it should be possible to be such a ‘Modern Churchman’; it smacks of disingenuousness, intellectual evasion. Of course, jobs in parishes are hard to come by for men who commit to no belief, and so Prendy ends up as prison chaplain to Pennyfeather. Waugh invites us to read Prendy’s modern churchmanship in parallel with the modern and enlightened methods of the prison governor, Lucas-Dockery; methods so blind to human nature that they lead directly to Prendy’s death. In Decline and Fall Waugh shows the reader the predicament of a secularised generation, but the ‘Modern Churchman’ is no answer.

Paul Avis reviews Archbishop Ramsey

I’m very pleased to be able to point out another favourable review of my book on Michael Ramsey, this time from the Anglican priest and ecclesiologist Paul Avis, visiting professor in the University of Exeter. Editor of the journal Ecclesiology, Avis devotes his whole editorial for volume 12, issue 3 to the book, and Ramsey at large.

Avis’s piece is more than simply a review, and is worth reading in its own right for his remarks on Ramsey, Luther and the Cross. He also notes Ramsey’s much noted personal eccentricity, which I have suggested that this could be explained by a retrospective diagnosis of autism. However, his observations on my book are uniformly positive.

Webster’s study is marked by well-paced narrative, perceptive analysis [and] a few correctives to [Owen] Chadwick’s picture…  Altogether Ramsey emerges as an impressively capable and indeed prophetic Archbishop of Canterbury. Like the other excellent recent reappraisals of Archbishops of Canterbury […] this new study shows an Archbishop of Canterbury of greater stature, especially in this case politically, than many have previously thought. Ramsey was perhaps overall the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury of the twentieth century’

It is published by Routledge at £25 in paperback; read other reviews of it here.