Friday, February 27, 2009

Christian Research Journal: cyberspace and the assault on reality

As I scanned the magazine titles at Barnes & Noble yesterday the cover picture and title from Christian Research Journal 31, no. 6 (2009) caught my eye, with "cyberspace and the assault on reality." This cover feature points toward an article by C. Wayne Mayhall, the journal's associate editor, titled "What Price Cyber space?" I have been researching and reflecting on the cultural, social, and theological implications of digital or cyber identity and cultures for a while now, and was pleased to see a Christian publication exploring this arena as well.

As I read the article I appreciated that Mayhall and the publisher recognized the significance of cyberspace in culture, and that its subject matter was worthy of interaction from a Christian perspective. However, in my view, while the article is better than many Christian treatments of both the Internet and other aspects of popular culture, it still tends towards the critical, even somewhat alarmist end of the spectrum, rather than a more positive and balanced stance of critical engagement. The following aspects of the publication's discussion of cyberspace would seem to bear this out.

First, the cover image and title convey a message of threat and attack, perhaps even supernatural and evil in its source. The image of the creature on the cover will likely invoke the symbolism of the satanic and demonic, rather than a monstrous creature from any number of fantasy games available on the Internet. In addition, the cover title positions the subject matter as an attack to be defended against and postures Christianity as once again under attack and largely or wholly at odds with yet another aspect of popular culture.

Second, the article is correct in drawing attention to concerns about problematic aspects of cyberspace that have resulted in some individuals (explored within the article and in a sidebar on Internet addiction), but the broader context is not presented that contrasts these unfortunate episodes with the vast majority of Internet users who do not demonstrate such problems. We should also keep in mind, as anthropologist and Second Life ethnographer Tom Boellstorf has written, "scholars of cybersociality [have] long cautioned against analogizing biological dependency to virtual contexts." In his research he "did not find the notion of addiction etically useful; it did not transparently diagnose an existent psychological disorder" (Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human [Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008], 176).

Third, in keeping with the cover imagery and title, the main thrust of the article focuses on critique by asking whether Christians should understand virtual reality as a form of "viral reality," that is, as "a toxin or poison." Mayhall answers this question in the affirmative and states that if abused, "VR can be an assault to all that makes our world have meaning." He then explores this assault through the acronym of "P-R-I-C-E" which stands for assault on place, assault on reality, assault on identity, and assault on community, and then concludes his article with a call for a return to essentialism.

In response a few thoughts come to mind. While I appreciate that Mayhall prefaces his concerns with the inclusion of "if," if abuses occur within cyberspace we might expect difficulties in certain areas, the author does explore the positive aspects in each of these areas where new experiments in play, creativity, identity, and creativity are taking place. It would have also been helpful to remember that new forms of technology and artistic expression have always impacted human conceptions of self and community. Cyberspace is but the latest expression of this, which also includes the ability to create extremely realistic and immersive environments, thus intensifying the experiences associated with these new conceptions. Finally, Mayhall seems to envision a far greater divergence between actual world concepts of place, reality, identity, and community than seems warranted by those expressed by video game players and digital culture participants in academic research on this topic.

Mayhall's article makes for an interesting contrast with my chapter, "God, Video Games and Digital Cultures: Theological Reflections on the imago Dei and Cybersociality," for the proposed volume Halos and Avatars to be edited by Craig Detweiler of the Brehm Center. My discussion draws upon the inductive theological method of Peter Berger in his book A Rumor of Angels that is informed by anthropology as well as sociology, and which results in a search for "signals of transcendence," by which he meant those "phenomena that are to be found within the domain of our ‘natural’ reality but that appear to point beyond that reality.” In my chapter I present the thesis that aspects of the cybersociality experienced in video games and digital cultures represent signals of transcendence that can be understood as an expression of human beings in their reflection of the divine image. The biblical concept of the imago Dei (humanity created in God’s image) is expressed through our activities as homo cyber (the virtual human), including homo ludens (humans at play), homo fantasia (the fantasizing and imaginative human), and homo faber (the human as maker, in this discussion the maker of cultures).

My theological reflection in these areas will be dialogical and reflexive as I bring theology and popular culture into dialogue and consider not only what theology may “say” to digital technologies, but also what these technologies may “say” back to the church. Such a dialogical and reflexive posture is crucial, because as Gordon Lynch reminds us,

"Judging popular culture on the basis of our own preformed religious and cultural assumptions, without allowing the possibility for these to be challenged or changed in some way by our study of popular culture, will not help us become better cultural critics or more thoughtful theologians." (Understanding Theology and Popular Culture)

I encourage those interested in theological reflection on cyberspace to add Mayhall's views to the mix of perspectives on the issue while also being open to a broader and more positive assessments of this phenomenon.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Supreme Court Rules on Summum Case

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled against Summum, a religious group based in Utah, in a lawsuit involving the city of Pleasant Grove which had been ordered to allow Summum to place a religious display alongside the city’s Ten Commandments monument in a local park.[1] In their ruling, the Supreme Court said that city municipalities can decide what should be allowed in public parks without their being a conflict with the First Amendment. Summum, from a Latin term meaning “the sum total of all creation,”[2] finds its origins in founder Claude Rex Nowell in 1975 who claimed to have encounters with intelligent beings who “work the pathways of spiritual evolution.”[3] Nowell would later change his name to Summum Bonum Amon Ra. Summum philosophy includes seven Principles of creation aimed at helping the individual integrate existence, worship within pyramids, and meditation, all designed to lead to the goal of the religion: “Awakening you to your spirit is what Summum considers to be genuine religion.”[4] The group has also attracted media attention with its incorporation of mummification processes which were introduced in the 1980s.


[1] “Supreme Court rules against Summum in Ten Commandments Case,” The Salt Lake Tribune, February 25, 2008,
[2] Jessica Ravitz, “Summum: A glimpse inside,” The Salt Lake Tribune, November 12, 2008,, accessed November 13, 2008.
[3] “Welcome to Summum!”, Summum website,, accessed October 3, 2007.
[4] Ibid.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Will Do Scholarship, For Food

Last week I discovered a great resource in the form of the Mormon Social Science Association. As the name indicates, this is a professional association devoted to the academic study of Mormonism from the perspective of the social sciences. Membership is a bargain at $10 annually, and I have found it very helpful as in the case of receiving some bibliographical suggestions for research on my PhD on Mormon narrative from the noted Mormon sociologist Armand Mauss.

Another interesting aspect of the site was its mention of scholarships for graduate studies in Mormonism through The Fellowship in Mormon Studies as part of The Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah. Through a grant from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, The Tanner Humanities Center has established the Eccles Fellowship in Mormon Studies. The award has been designated to support two doctoral students in researching and writing their dissertations. This program is described as follows:

"This fellowship targets Ph.D. candidates across the United States and the world who are researching the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its members, and Mormon culture in the fields of History, Anthropology, Sociology, Education, Economics, Business, Political Science, Religion, or Literature. Through publications, work in the classroom, and in public forums, these future academics, writers, and teachers will have an impact on the study of Mormonism and on students and the general population.

"This fellowship is the first in the United States and the world to focus specifically on Mormon Studies. In offering this opportunity at the University of Utah, the Center recognizes the important and unrivaled archival resources for research located in Salt Lake City and Utah. It also begins to redress the imbalance of opportunities facing those who choose to study Mormonism as opposed to Judaism, Catholicism, or Islam. This fellowship will also enhance the recent trend that seeks to raise Mormon Studies to a new standard of academic excellence."

This is a great idea. If Mormon studies is to be taken more seriously as an area of academic research, and if a greater understanding of Mormonism is to take place through scholarship, then financial support must be provided that will enable scholars to pursue their research interests. As I have mentioned in a previous post, I am scheduled to begin a PhD research program through the University of Durham under Douglas Davies, and in order to do this I will need to raise the tuition for the six-year part-time program. Unfortunately, it does not appear that my circumstances and research program through University of Durham qualify for the Fellowship Applications for 2009-2010. If any of my readers know of those interested in supporting the academic study of Mormonism through individuals, fellowships, grants or other sources please get in touch with me. I feel like the individual in the picture accompanying this post: I may not be doing academics for food, but I'd like to do it with a scholarship. Hopefully I won't have to hold up a sign outside Wal-Mart.

Blogging as Storytelling Popular Among Mormons

Religion Dispatches includes two stories related to Mormonism that caught my attention, both dealing with the narrative aspect of the faith, and in this case its connection to the weblogging.

The first story is titled "Birth of the Bloggernacle," which talks about the large numbers of Mormon bloggers, many with a significant reading audience (would that my blogs had as many readers!), who share their life stories, and their faith, through the web. As the byline for the story describes,

"Mormons are natural storytellers, they say, and commanded by the church to research family history and take an account of their lives. LDS and the internet: a match made in heaven."

The second article moves from a general consideration of the popularity of blogging in Mormonism to a specific example of this in a Mormon mom's blog. This article is titled "'Not a Fan of the Undergarments': A Mormon Mother Blogs." The byline for this article is more provocative than the one referenced above:

"A Mormon mommy blogger ponders spiritual laziness, gay marriage (fine with her), projectile vomiting, the evils of daylight savings time, and the relationship between Mormon-mom perfection and antidepressants."

Religion Dispatches can be found here.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Paper and Panel at Life, the Universe & Everything Symposium

Yesterday I presented my paper at the Life, the Universe & Everything Symposium on science fiction and fantasy at Brigham Young University. The title of the paper is "Cinefantastique to Theofantastique: Fantastic Cinema and Interreligious Dialogue." In the paper I bring together various facets of an argument and conclude by suggesting that science fiction and fantasy films can serve as a venue for interreligious dialogue. Tomorrow I will be part of a panel discussion at the symposium with the title of "Science Fiction as Ambassador." Copies of my paper are available by email upon request.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Dreaming Cyborg Dreams: Virtual Identity and Religious Experience

Religion Dispatches has an interesting story that touches on my research interests in synthetic worlds or cybersociality. The story is by Rachel Wagner and it is titled "Dreaming Cyborg Dreams: Virtual Identity and Religious Experience." Wagner introduces her story with the following:

"In this essay, I look at four types of immersive new media that address the issue of religious identity: Waco Resurrection, a religiously-inspired first-person shooter, Noah’s Ark, a religious online reality show; Roma Victor, a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game, and religious experiences in the online world of Second Life.

"In each of these examples, the level of immersion in online identity plays a very powerful role in shaping the authenticity of religious experience, as channeled through those digital representations of self that virtual natives call their avatars.
Wagner's article provides an interesting glimpse into the concept of virtual identity and how this connects to a sense of religious identity as experienced in synthetic worlds.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Science Fiction at Odds with Christianity?

Today I was doing some research as I (hopefully) wrap up a paper on science fiction and interreligious dialogue for a presentation at a conference at Brigham Young University next week, and as I did so I stumbled upon an article by James Herrick in Christianity Today magazine. The article is titled "Sci-Fi's Brave New World," which is largely a summary of Herrick's book Scientific Mythologies (InterVarsity Press, 2008). The article, like the book, rightly recognizes the mythic significance of science fiction in Western culture today, but takes an unfortunately defensive posture for Christianity as a result. As a result, Herrick misses the opportunity to have a deeper appreciation of the significance of myth and science fiction (as well as the related genres of fantasy and horror), reflecting a stunted theological imagination all too frequently found among evangelicals in regards to speculative fiction in literature, television, and film. This type of approach will not inspire the next generation of C. S. Lewis' or J. R. R. Tolkiens to engage the West in its current journey toward re-enchantment.

For two good critiques of Herrick's book see James McGrath's review, as well as Gabriel McKee's review at The Internet Review of Science Fiction. For examples of more positive and promising interactions between science fiction and religion see McGrath's blog Exploring Our Matrix, McKee's blog SF Gospel, and my own TheoFantastique.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Presentation at CESNUR Conference

My abstract submission to the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) was accepted for their conference in Salt Lake City to be held 10-14 June. The program may be viewed here, and registration can be processed here. Following is the abstract I submitted:

"From 'Cults' to Cultures: Bridges as a Case Study in a New Evangelical Paradigm on New Religions”

Several cultural segments have helped contribute to the marginalization of the new religions in the United States over the past several decades. In Protestantism the driving force toward marginalization has been the evangelical counter-cult movement. The counter-cult has existed as a cultural phenomenon alongside the secular anti-cult, but it has followed a decidedly different trajectory. With its interest in doctrine and Christian worldview it has tended toward a boundary maintenance stance connected to polemic denunciation of new religions. This has served not only to delineate the boundaries between evangelicalism and the new religions, but also to marginalize the new religions in common perception within evangelicalism, and at times it has contributed to the strained credibility of the new religions in the public sphere as well. An unintended consequence of the counter-cult approach to new religions was the marginalization of the counter-cult itself, not only in the academy but also in how it was perceived by the new religions themselves, the very groups the counter-cult wishes to engage.

In recent years a new paradigm has developed among evangelicals that is multidisciplinary, academically informed, and concerned with a more responsible understanding of the new religions and engagement with their adherents. This paper and workshop will sketch the prevalent evangelical approach of past decades and will contrast this with the emerging paradigm. A specific example and case study will be considered in a new evangelical approach to Mormonism developed by Salt Lake Theological Seminary and promoted by the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Christian Study of Religions: Moving Beyond Dismissal and "Gotcha"

I recently engaged the thinking of two scholars with similar ideas as to how Christians ought to approach other religions. I pass along my brief comments on their thinking through this post.

The first scholar is the late Eric J. Sharpe who was professor of religious studies at the University of Sydney, Australia. I was reminded of his work and its importance to developing a theology of interreligious dialogue in an interview I did a while back with Harold Taylor who recommended one of Sharpe's books, Faith Meets Faith: Some Christian Attitudes to Hinduism in the Nineteenth & Twentieth Centuries (SCM Press, 1977). Although I've only managed to get through the introduction so far due to my backlog in my reading list, one comment struck me. In referring to Christian attitudes of dismissal of non-Christian religions Sharpe wrote, "It was all very well for the Christian to have a biblical theology of devilry in high places with which to account for such intransigence, but the missionary (particularly if he or she happened to be a scholar) could not always rest content with such an abrupt dismissal."

Sharpe's comments overlapped with a statement made by Gordon Melton recently during his visit to Salt Lake City where we had an opportunity to have lunch. Melton commented in essence that when you study religions with the goal of only or largely learning where you disagree with them then you come away with a very limited understanding of them.

I find it interesting that two scholars coming at the study of religions from different academic perspectives and different locations internationally nevertheless find common ground in recognizing the need for a broader research agenda and understanding by Christians as they learn about other religions.