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28 Feb

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It’s a Digital December

9 Dec

The weather outside isn’t so frightful in Southern California as it has been lately elsewhere, but the chill in the air is encouraging me to spend a bit more time at my desk.

In previous posts I discussed the database development I was undertaking to map the network of spiritual warfare literature and spiritual warfare practices. I was never very satisfied with the progress I was making. Discussions with colleagues about Omeka‘s progress as an archival platform convinced me I had too easily dismissed its flexibility and depth.

So I dove in and committed to Omeka as my platform. Rather than host the site at Omeka–which I found unbelievably slow to load–I have installed it on my on web space. You can see the project in its earliest development at dmcconeghy.com/spiritualwarfare/. Dmcconeghy.com will be my future  homepage, but I haven’t yet finished fixing the WordPress installation to be the way I want it to be. When I finally get around to that, then I’ll discontinue this site or use it as a mirror.

I faced an early challenge today when, while installing plugins to expand Omeka’s capabilities, every page turned into a blank white screen. After a few minutes of panic, I found the answer I was looking for on Omeka’s site–one of my plugins was not 2.0 compatible. ItemRelations was the plugin in question. It appeared to be a way to interconnect the items more thoroughly. I’ll have to think about how I want to achieve this without the plugin. Tags are certainly an option, but they don’t seem very flexible. As I try to begin mapping the documents visually, I will find out whether they can be called upon easily.

There’s a lot of legwork in this stage of the project. I’m trying to establish some standards for item entry. I’m learning how Omeka has coded the backend so that I can design pages that do more of what I want them to. I have many documentation items to read about the various plugins I’ve installed and how they work. The data entry is comparatively straightforward. How to then use that data in the way I want to, well that’s not so clear.

As I learned in this year’s THATCampAAR, the vision of your project matters. I have an audience in mind for the early and mid stages of the project–fellow scholars. I’m about to begin recruiting some of them and I hope to convince them of the benefits of participation. In the later stages of the project, I see ways to include a broader audience that includes members who actively practice what I only study academically. The contributor plugin will allow annotations and data-entry about spiritual warfare documents, people, and practices. Eventually, for instance, I hope to be able to invite people to add their church to the list of congregations that have done prayerwalks. Or even more excitingly to add the routes of their prayerwalks on a map.

I have plenty of time to develop this over the next year. If you’re interested at all in the technical or academic side of things, let me know. I’m definitely open to partnerships and collaborators. I have felt odd so far declaring myself the “creator” of this entry or that item, but it is inevitable. There is really no biography of C. Peter Wagner, for instance, apart from the limited offering on Wikipedia. See C. Peter Wagner, which I will compose based on my own primary research and will be fully annotated and referenced. You can tell that the Dublin Core elements of the item entry are currently obscuring a better presentation of the basic details of Wagner’s biography. That’s among the many elements I’ll be fixing as I go along.

Winning the Internet? New Media @ the AAR 2013

27 Nov

[Apologies for typos or multiple posts of this blog. WordPress seems to be having a technical issue preventing me from updating it successfully.]

Winning the Internet: Religion and the New Media

In the circles of the New Media, you couldn’t have assembled a bigger set of rock stars than the panel K. Reklis gathered at this year’s American Academy of Religion. Here was the lineup:

Kathryn Lofton, Yale University

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, The Huffington Post Media Group, New York, NY

Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Social Science Research Council, Brooklyn, NY

Diane Winston, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

The simple by-lines don’t really quite capture the value of this panel. Raushenbush, for instance, built the Huffington Post’s Religion division from the ground up. He’s the senior editor of a unit that gets 250,000 hits a day for topics on religion.

Jonathan VanAntwerpen has been more instrumental than any other figure in facilitating pushing the scholarly dialogue on secularism into the public sphere. The Immanent Frame, the Social Science Research Council’s multi-faceted blog, contains some of the most dynamic thinking on religion anywhere in print or online.

Kathryn Lofton edits one of the affiliates of The Immanent Frame: Seek | frequencies. This is collaboration with unconventional religious webzine Killing the Buddha (whose editor Jeff Sharlet was scheduled to appear but was replaced with Winston) extends the topics to prayer and spirituality. Lofton also has her hands into the editing side of Religion in American History, Religion Dispatches, and once upon a time was a contributor to Patheos.

Diane Winston, perhaps more than any of the previous figures, was on the ground floor of the development of earliest online collaborations between religion scholars and journalists. She is now the head of Religion Dispatches, which has become part of USC’s Annenberg School, and I have a feeling she’ll find a way to make RD an even more critical online magazine for religious studies informed discussions of faith and politics.

These folks are at the heart of the New Media. They are expanding the boundaries of journalism, publishing, academic writing, and religious studies. Of all many issues they raised during the panel, however, one stood out: Paul Raushenbush’s claim that HuffPost Religion’s goal is to “win the internet” by being at the top of the list when people search for religion.

Raushenbush made an excellent case for why it is vital for someone to want to “win.” It is necessary, he said, to preserve the quality and integrity of information. This is the internet as the Wild West. Can a dark stranger ride into town and save the day? Will they bring righteous violent justice? Will they offer tempered lawfulness? In short, will our savior be benevolent?

The issue with HuffPost, as so many colleagues perceive, is not just the danger of a for-profit journalism source funded by tabloid gossip. It is the danger of a consensus by what so often appears to be mob rule or whimsy or click-bait. It changes content—“explainer” pieces are the HuffPost’s most popular—and it changes the kind of people who are entitled to create the content. In some ways, what HuffPost has done for content and creator is radically progressive. They put basic educational content, often by insiders, at the forefront. That has value.

The desire to win, however, strikes me and many others as off-putting. Is religion something we win with? How does that make our scholarship any different than evangelism? Or in less coded language, aren’t we risking putting the popular reception of our work ahead of the work?

Then again, perhaps one of the reasons the humanities is in so much trouble (and the academy generally) is that we haven’t fought to win. [I’m not even sure we all agree that we’re playing the same game.] We’ve been content to pretend that sincere work merits attention on its own, and we have far too often forgotten to frame that work in a way that will attraction attention. This is more than vinegar and flies. Playing to win means taking control of the rules of the game. HuffPost undoubtedly uses meta-tagging and writes its posts to please search engines. Search Engine Optimization is a part of the game that can be rigged and cheated.

Of the rules that the HuffPost has set for its victory, one of the most curious is that its authors and content be relentlessly positive. Don’t disparage other faiths, Raushenbush advises his authors, elevate your own faith. This is not turn the other cheek; it’s pretend you aren’t being slapped. It’s a very significant obstacle to serious journalism. Criticism is necessary. An attempt to identify the truth, to pursue it aggressively, is the hallmark of excellent writing. Being positive is mostly okay. In most circumstance and for many things, we should attempt to elevate the good and not denigrate the bad. (My wife would say I’m terrible at this.)

The problem comes when your desire to be positive limits your ability to be negative when negativity is called for. Sometimes one must call a spade a spade. Homosexuals do not cause climate change. Or, given the recent announcement of the Supreme Court birth control case, one must recognize that scientifically the morning after pill is not an abortifacient.

As a religious studies scholar who specializes in American history, I have a variety of ways of being cautious. I give my subjects the benefit of the doubt. I validate their perspective and write about it honestly. In my work my goal is never to disparage the groups I’m studying. It’s counter-productive. It doesn’t get at the truth of the questions I’m asking.

The crucial thing about the New Media, however, is that if it is really attempting to win the internet, then its questions have become the kind that make truth claims possible for authors. We have room to make these as secular citizens writing about religion. It is no longer the domain solely of religious believers to make explicit the faith claims of their analyses. (Sure, ethnographers have been doing this for longer, but religious studies has always had a confessional problem.)

Winning in the new media means asking questions that are winnable. As far as I can tell, those questions aren’t the ones that we’ve been trained to ask. This placed us (religious studies) at a disadvantage. We’re on our way to overcoming it. We’re certainly not there yet, nor do we want to casually let others determine where we end up.

So take this time to consider your participation in the new media’s reconstruction of discourses about religion. No doubt some are exceedingly positive; others have hidden risks that reveal the costs of this new landscape. Explore freely, but tread carefully. And don’t forget to SEO your site.

In RGST? Get a Comic Now.

26 Nov

Proof that Comics Have a Place at the RGST Table

Saturday morning’s AAR session on comic books, “Heroes, or superheros?,” was a spirited example of the vibrant dimensions of the study of religion in popular culture in religious studies today. In a room filled with both men and women, I heard four fascinating papers that used “religious transcendence” to bridge the gap between “comic books and comedic performances.” In conjunction with the Religion and Science Fiction group’s session on “Seen and Unseen,” however, the true merits of comic books emerged.

In the earlier panel, the overlap between film studies became a moment to reflect on the generous body of theoretical literature that exists for religious studies scholars to drawn upon to analyze visual material. Christine Atchinson’s paper was somewhat over-laden with theory, but it impressed upon me the truly interdisciplinary qualities of popular culture research. We are not an interpretive island but rather one archipelago of a vast continent of materials. The regionalism (or specialization) inherent in a topic as broad as popular culture fosters a vibrant pluralism. We can be syncretic in the best possible ways. Or, more meta-theoretically, pastiche is impressive when we’re all bricoleurs.

Then Brenda Beck gave a fascinating presentation on her work adapting an Indian folk epic into an animated TV series. I was way out of my area, but this didn’t stop me from seeing the merits of her work. Visual presentation of folk material allowed her to highlight and embed the animation with scholarly interpretations. Class was a big issue in her folktales, and she was able to help the artists emphasize this element. It’s an important lesson. When we translate items visually we must choose what to encode. All of those choices made interpretation matter. If you have a sensitive and careful analyst, then those choices can really inform your audience about issues they might have overlooked. Perhaps we should, hint hint, make more effort finding objects and ideas that deserve visual translation. I’ve long thought that I wanted to make YouTube shorts on religious topics. Getting students to make short Vines is another option. You don’t need your object to be long—just long enough to say one thing in an interesting way.

Finally, A. David Lewis’ paper (read by Isaac Weiner because Lewis’ had travel problems) was a provocative analysis of Islamic heroism as the solution to the denigrated Western superhero comic model. Lewis’ complex analysis merits its own post, and I think I may have agreed on Twitter to do that for him, but I took away a key meta-point. Provocative arguments are worth making. They help us rise to the challenges of using theory effectively. They focus our use of sources. They compel response. And they make excellent conference papers. A. David Lewis has created a Storify for many of these items. It’s well worth your time.

The value of provocation continued in the Science Fiction panel’s outstanding papers on comics.  The first, by Southern Methodist University’s Christopher Dowdy, used Captain America, both in print and film, to explain the many ways in which Captain America’s body became a place of inscription for racial and religious elements. The way Captain America (in a subversive retelling of Captain America’s origins as a eugenic collaboration between American and Germany) rejects and embraces bodies suggests the character can be located at the center of discussions of scarred black bodies. This is a messianic suggestion and Dowdy played freely with liberationist theological implications. His slides are online for you to get some sense of the material he highlighted. The final comic oriented paper in the session was Peter Herman’s “Rotting Corpses in Pulp Horror,” a Buddhist reading of the Walking Dead and its implication for the way one deals with decaying bodies in the world post zombie apocalypse. As I did for all the papers I heard, I tweeted extensively throughout.  Rather than risk mangling these authors’ arguments, you might look at the notes I took and contact them directly for the real deal. (Storify forthcoming to compile the comic tweets.)

So what else must be said to convince you (or your skeptical colleagues) that comics and graphic novel analysis has a true purpose and place in religious studies? We’re not only influencing the creation of animated items (Beck); we’re not simply skillful readers of race and embodiment (Dowdy); we’re not just using comics to demonstrate the power of classic Buddhist texts and their philosophical theses (Herman); we’re all of these things because every moment we spend with these items is a step closer to understanding how, why, and in what ways religion is drawn into, developed inside, and lived through popular materials. This is not mere finger pointing. We’re not simply saying “there it is.” We’re capable of saying what it means that religion is there. Often times that meaning is not only useful for our understanding of racism or a religious tradition, but the very construction of religion itself.

So if you haven’t picked up a comic lately, head down to the local comic book store and ask them for a recommendation. You won’t regret it.

The AAR’s First THATCamp

25 Nov

The moment was overdue, but that didn’t make it any less satisfying. The American Academy of Religion’s first THATCamp, spearheaded by Christopher Cantwell (UM-KC), was a resounding success. Of the 90+ registrants, about 70 made it to the day-long pre-conference camp.

THATCamp stands for The Humanities and Technology Camp. It’s the brainchild of the perennially progressive George Mason University. It is an event for less structured conferencing. There are no papers. Topics are chosen democratically. Leadership consists primarily of facilitation. There are workshops to demonstrate digital techniques, but on the whole THATCamp is built to be an un-conference.

At the AAR in Baltimore, at least the first time around, the ethic, style, and mood of THATCamp may not have been perfectly un-conference-y. The desire to hold on to the structure of performance and leader/audience did not disappear as much as they could have. As folks do with so many things, we were practicing our practice. We played at being dissimilar from conference conventions—and I mean this in all the best ways because it was fun, invigorating, and exciting. Perhaps next year we can do even better and be the even more radical alternative to paper reading that the AAR deserves. Although we did not manifest the ideal, I can say without hesitation that my own experience was first-rate.

I began the day by joining a session on digital collaboration. How do you find the people you need to make your project succeed? At least the conversation started there. After fretting about funding digital projects, finding ways to see technical experts as true collaborators and not contractors, and several other topics, we finally hit a point of true clarity. Sitting next to me, Chris Cantwell had an “a-ha” moment. I was taking notes, which are available publicly as a Google Document, and I had to slow Chris down so I could get it precisely. He said,

“When devising a project, the question is not who do I need to build this project, but what communities do I want this project to connect to? It’s the relationship between the project and its communities that determines who you need to build something.”

The other dozen or so folks appeared to agree. It was a powerful moment because it was a flat rejection of what I had previously believed was the biggest hurdle in advancing my own digital projects—a lack of expertise. If only I could figure out, I thought, what kind of technical challenge I’m wrestling with, then I could finish this project. That was the wrong way of going about things. It is the project’s audience that determines its form. It is the project’s creators that bring their communities with them. If we hire technical contractors, then all of the real problems with a project remain unsolved. We need to work with collaborators that enrich the project and its community—not seek out solutions to technical hurdles.

This assumes, at least in part, that the technical hurdles will still need to be overcome. For me, though, it was a warning that getting stuck on the technical materials had also caused me to get stuck on the conceptual one an fail to use collaboration to advance the project and not just its suite of technical features. That’s a worthwhile takeaway.

In the next sessions I focused on ways that I might be collaborative digitally. First, I went to a session on digital publishing and then to one on blogging and writing online. Nathan Schneider, a former colleague at UCSB and now author of two excellent books, figured prominently in both. I have heard Nathan explain his drift away from the academy before (at an academy session no less). In many ways he was much, much smarter than I was for leaving the program with a master’s degree and heading off into the world. One of the things he learned—and has shared his excellent views on repeatedly—is that scholars reap many different kinds of rewards when they write outside of the academic book culture. More than ever, it is clear that we are no longer beholden to our University Press masters. While they still hold substantial estates—and I’d be the first to hope my book project is welcomed into the inner keep—their livelihoods are endangered by the radical proliferation of publishing alternatives.

These two back-to-back writing sessions convinced me that I had also made an error in setting my own small cottage so far from the other great estates. I don’t mean that A Lively Experiment has been a failure. It has and will continue to serve the purposes I have given it. It is my forum for semi-academic writing for a public audience. I’m doing some of my private thinking in public. I’m not quite an open book, although I’m trying to head more and more in that direction, but I am a book that can be opened. My research is on display before it is “on display.” This alone is a subversion of print culture in the academy. The cynic in me (or the me that tries to think like hiring committees) thinks it has also reduced my professional output. That’s a pitfall to be sure, but it’s a risk I’ve already accepted and which I’m addressing.

The error I think I’ve made is in not building better roads between my private cottage and the towns that support the manors and estates. Why not be more aggressive in joining these communities? I’ve told myself and even others that part of the problem has been a lack of definition in my public voice. I still write much too fully in the scholarly idiom. (See what I did there?) If I can’t turn myself to the vernacular, I’m going to have trouble setting up a place to stay in some of these communities. So the biggest question of my day, one that was unresolved at the end, was how one cultivates that public voice. This is something religious studies does poorly. Our sister/mother field, theology, does this far better. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned there just as there are from standouts like Nathan Schneider, Stephen Prothero, or, and don’t throw stones at me, Reza Aslan.

In the end, my THATCamp experience was thoroughly satisfying. I felt it spoke to my needs and my aspirations and my abilities. It also challenged my ideas about what those needs, aspirations, and abilities should be. That’s an impressive day of work at the academy and I’m so very thankful to have been a part of it. I will certainly have more to say about the experience as I hear from others how their days in the THATCampAAR‘s other sessions. I will share those immediately when I come upon them.

AAR 2013 Baltimore Twitter Madness

24 Nov

I have been tweeting profusely at all of the sessions I’ve attended. I’m afraid I haven’t yet found the time to summarize the key points for the blog. I plan on doing this soon–perhaps even a bit today. As I said before, however, the action for now is on Twitter. Set up a search for #aarsbl and follow along with me at http://www.twitter.com/dmcconeghy/

Today I’ll be at panels on religion and video games, the Newberry Library’s work on entry-level religion courses, and Remembering Robert Bellah. 

AAR THATCamp Pre-Blog

22 Nov

I’ll write a full write up of my day at the American Academy of Religion’s first THATCamp (the humanities and technology camp). Right now I want to suggest everyone check out our busy day of tweeting by heading to our hashtag collection on #tagboard.

I think I was the biggest offender/promoter, but plenty of other fascinating and exciting voices out there. Twitter was represented very well, and I’ll post a full set of participants next week if I can get Chris Cantwell to share the list with me. 

Check back this weekend and next week for a ton of blog posts about this year’s AAR conference in Baltimore, MD.