Tag Archives: religion

Viral Religion — Twitch Plays Pokemon, part 2

21 Mar

In Neal Stephenson’s famous science fiction novel Snow Crash, religion is presented as a kind of virus capable of rewriting the basic operating system of the human brain. With recent works such as T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back, the sense that religion re-writes the mind and its perception of reality has received new legs. (It’s an very old argument that can be seen in the works of Freud, Durkheim, and Marx.) What’s notable about Snow Crash and the point that Luhrmann and others have revived is that religion is a product of intentional effort. We may speak of religious experiences as emerging from places beyond reason, but institutions of religion are conscious creations.  Religion rewires us. When we play at religion we get better at understanding the game we participate in and its rules. We are practicing our practice. That effort makes us adepts, experts, and professionals.

The recent Twitch Plays Pokemon (TPP) phenomenon, which I wrote about last week, continues apace. It takes serious effort to follow TPP. It runs 24 hours a day as players around the globe control the game from their home computers. I manage to follow along only by the generous updates offered by community members online. The latest version of the game, Pokemon Crystal, took nearly two full weeks to finish. At every moment fans are creating new interpretations of the game and its awkward, halting game play. Fan art occupies more than half of the popular subreddit for TPP. Participants in TPP exert continuous forward pressure on the TPP mythos. They actively elevate the game play into the religious realm. It is their effort that spurs the complex narratives. And like a virus replicating in a healthy culture–TPP creates its world and in that effort has become more adept at creating that world. Much like the world occupied by the evangelicals Luhrmann describes (or the cult followers of Asherah in Snow Crash), this is an environment that nurtures itself.

It is on this point  of effort and conscious invention that I want to dwell today (as TPP begins its journey on the next game in the series, Pokemon Emerald). First, let me outline a point of pre-existing mythology in Emerald. The world occupied by the protagonist has two major forces vying for control–Aqua and Magma. Team Aqua wants to expand the oceans of the world; Team Magma wants to expand the world’s landmasses. As a creative, productive force, magma is contrasted with the chaos that would emerge with a return to the sea. In the game both sides are ridiculous. They are the kind of bumbling evil that pervades Scooby Doo. As mythical forces, however, they are the division of earth and water. What’s missing is the tempering force of sky. The give and take of water/earth is an endless cycle. It’s a literal eternal battle, too, between two legendary Pokemon. Only a third force can break the stalemate that rocks the world.

As fans of TPP brace themselves for the start of a new adventure, they already know several layers of mythology. Nearly every one of them will have played Emerald themselves. They will be aware of its pre-existing canon. So too are they aware of the canons of the games that precede Emerald’s myths within the Pokemon world (having played both Crystal and Red in TPP already). And yet there are further layers added from the playing of Crystal and Red in the community. The deities and myths that have been elevated in the last month are now givens for the new TPP world.

I think the community is getting much more than they bargained for when they signed on for the first play through. The creative outlet that the game gave to its fans is now a recognized as one of the exercise’s benefits. It is as much an exercise in the formation of mythology as it is a social experiment about the limits of cooperation within a limited digital medium.

Last week my brother asked whether I saw any religious studies potential in the affair. I replied immediately and without hesitation that I did see scholarly promise in TPP. Part of me sees the exercise’s contribution as time compression. Where else can you see the birth and evolution of mythology laid bare before your eyes with such precision? Another part of me recognizes that it is the virality of experiment and its memes that renders it immediately useful for religious studies. So often we lack a good case study to explain the way in which digital religious lives operate today. This is religion online as opposed to digital religion, I know, but I think there is a mix of both here that makes TPP so exciting.


This post was set to post Friday, but some technological glitch held it up. Since the TPP Emerald game has already begun, let me say a brief word or two about the latest version. Users were initial struggling with the option of choosing a boy or a girl character. With no democracy mode in this play through–full anarchy mode all the time so every command is executed–the first hurdle appeared when a boy was selected, then a girl, and then a girl again. The failure to sustain the initial choice led the community to speculate on the psychological or even criminal events that might have led to the final selection. The following items, posted on Reddit, highlight these and other developments over the weekend, including the permanent release of the character’s starter Pokemon, the capture of multiple versions of a hyena Pokemon, and the repeated failures to make game progression due to a rock-paper-scissors battle that had the community in perpetual loss.

[All images linked to their original posts on Reddit.]


A is for Anarchy


Definition of Insanity?


Only Doge?


After the community released Torchic, the Pokemon they started the game with, there was quite a lot of mourning. This comic, for instance, summarizes the complex emotions some of the community was feeling.

Farewell Torchic


And then folks started arguing that another pokemon, which evolves like a cicada and leaves a ghostly pokemon shell behind, was really hosting the lost Torchic’s spirit or soul. You can read more about that in this post which references the manga Fullmetal Alchemist.

The sense of loss and anxiety is palpable, while the number of posts emphasizing a community in decline suggests the initial period of euphoria of the new adventure is wearing off and moving on to other darker emotions. Needless to say, it’s a wild time over at TPP Emerald.



Serious Games — Studying Religion in Video Games

23 Oct

Over at The Critical Religion Association’s blog, there is an interesting post by Jonathan Tuckett (University of Stirling) about credibility and the study of video games. Tuckett recently presented on the religious theme of The Elder Scrolls at the BASR/EASR. He expressed his worries as “the “ludicrosity” of the whole affair.” Here’s what happened:

Later I was among the contestants for a recording of the second RSP Christmas Special (you can hear me make a fool of myself at the first one here). During the game, which had a large audience definitely featuring some prominent academics, I was joking with my colleague David that unless he started asking questions on Skyrim (where the latest Elder Scrolls game is set) I wasn’t going to know very much. I had already flunked the question on the books of the Bible and was then stumped by a question on the Unification Church. It was during this aside that I happened to get a glimpse at some of the prominent academics who were listening to our brief exchange. It was then that the idea of ludicrosity returned to me. The looks I saw can only be summed up in one way: “Is this guy serious?” I don’t mean to criticise them for giving me those looks or thinking in that manner. I can completely sympathise with them because on one level if I had been in their position I would probably be thinking the exact same thing.

Later, Tuckett demurrs, arguing that he does “do not wish to criticise those who would think that the study of video games in Religious Studies isn’t a credible activity. I understand their scepticism. We’re breaching new territory, charting a region on the social scientific map that we may very easily fall off.” Then he points to the work of William Sims Bainbridge, whose more recent blogs are a bit unusual for a religious studies approach, as both a representative of the possibilities and dangers of this subject.

Here’s my take on things:

1. William Sims Bainbridge’s latest work, eGods, is exactly the kind of work Tuckett appears to be doing with The Elder Scrolls. They may use different theoretical paradigms, but both Tuckett and Bainbridge take seriously the myth-making at the heart of the fictional worlds created in video games. Tuckett didn’t spend a lot of time explaining his project, but I’ve read Bainbridge’s work and it inspired my next project on the supernatural in interactive entertainment (i.e., video games).

2. Tuckett says there were 8 competing panels, so attendance was low at his session. Panels are not attended for lots of reasons. It’s tempting to assume that low attendance is because of our presentations, but more often it is because of competing panels, inconvenient time slots, or a half-dozen other factors that are out of our control. That’s rough, but there it is. Of course, one way to redeem the panel may be to publish its papers online and share them freely. We can’t be everywhere, so even a summary blog post can go a long way toward increasing the conversation!

3. I take issue with anyone who would criticize the serious study of video games. Unlike Tuckett, I would criticize them, and I don’t see a lot of reason to defend their hypothetical myopia. Nor does it seem appropriate for them to be casting dirty looks about. I think we all know by now that there are really no topics that are off-limits so long as we can clearly demonstrate the academic merits of a project. Just 20 years ago the study of material religion was in its infancy. Material religious objects have been around for millennia. But we didn’t put the pieces together until recently in a way that fit the guild’s model of study. Video games, by contrast, emerged just 40 years ago. In that time they have become one of the pillars of popular culture. They inspire fashion, fiction, and film. More important, they inspire fans–that word rooted in fanatic, which means one “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion.” Part of what I hope to show in my own future work on games is how devotion in games is becoming a substitute for more traditional types of devotion. The mythical worlds of the games may be the very thing that is satisfying the spiritual needs of many of our religious nones. The rising overtness of religious elements in video games attests to this trend. There’s no academic reason they should be left outside our field of vision.

4. Moreover, the religious aspects of video games are not even remotely in doubt. Even if the industry wasn’t worth more than a billion dollars, we could easily argue its merits on participation alone, which is also in the billions. Asia’s youth are rampant gamers. And games are now pervasive in our screen-laden Western societies. Even the most banal games–those which contain only the barest element of narrative context–often rely on religious themes and mythology as their premise. The sophisticated narrative worlds top-tier (a-list) games create are more detailed and more thorough than all but a few fictional worlds (say, Tolkien’s). [See my earlier post of The Binding of Isaac and blasphemous gaming for a bit more on this point.] The tepid religious elements of most science fiction novels, for instance, do not compare at all with the detailed mythology of the world where the Elder Scrolls takes place. Just as religion intersects fiction and television, so too does it exist in games and the lives of gamers. I’m incredulous that folks would think to exclude it from professional study.

The religious elements are overt, plentiful, and extremely well integrated into the experience of gamers around the world. These often include websites, real life roleplaying, and fan fiction (both professional and amateur). It is a global playing field that freely combines religious elements from major religions around the world. Buddhism can be found almost as easily as Christianity, and video games have even managed to depict a number of ancient religions in interesting ways that build on the work of archaeologists and ancient historians (see the Total War series). It’s a vibrant gaming world, and shutting our eyes to it won’t do us any good as we try to account for the way that religion and religious themes appear in our time.

5. In sum, I’m thrilled to hear that Tuckett is fighting the good fight for video games. I’m also frustrated to hear him give room for its critics. They do not have a place to stand. When and if they appear, they will need to be criticized. The best way to do that–unlike this hasty response–is to produce elegant and persuasive scholarship on the topic. That is the only response that is worth our sustained effort. It’s not worth fighting a territorial or canonical battle. Those of us that want to expand the canon will win out if we can demonstrate the merits of our contributions. It’s not about “reaching a sense of credibility.” That implies we are bringing something to the table that is not credible to begin with. For the social scientific world, this may simply be a question of method and paradigm, but in the religious studies world this problem is a phantom. We find “religion” wherever and whenever it may be and do our best to understand it with the appropriate methodological tools. The methods are not our masters–our religious subjects are. If video games help in the task of illuminating them, then let the parade of scholarship begin. Don’t aim to reach a sense of credibility; Produce work that matters.

Finally, this November’s AAR has several papers on games and an entire panel devoted to their study. I’ll be there. I hope to see you there, too. No cosplay required.

Every Page is Spiritual Warfare (part 2)

10 Oct

This post continues yesterday’s discussion, which started with an annotated selection from Francis Frangipane’s The Three Battlegrounds.

In my work, I tend to focus on the construction of cosmic-level strongholds as the basis for confrontation between public/secular imaginaries and private/religious ones. They are fundamentally world founding because they structure perceptions of truth and reality. They are orientating, and this jives with a diverse selection of classic definitions of religions including those provided by Durkheim, Feuerbach, Frazer, Otto, Marx, and Geertz. How far do the rabbit hole of definitions do we want to go? Depends on how fractured you’re willing to be in applying definitions to a part of what spiritual warriors are up to.

Religion Stencil

Religion Stencil (Photo credit: murdelta)

One of the reasons I continue to study spiritual warfare texts is that I believe they suggest an inadequacy of most definitions. While I have a lot to say on this issue (I hope I’ll have room for it in my first book), let me give a quick run-through here. My religious subjects appear to be defining not just one but two worlds–the secular and the religious. For them, only one world has a legitimate Truth claim. The secular world’s claim to be reality (or a more objective version of a reality that we all share) is not merely fraudulent. Nor is it some kind of objective container for competing religious perspectives. For my subjects, the religious world is the only world and the secular world’s view of things is utter heresy or apostasy.

Analytically, the crutch of the issue lays with J. Z. Smith, however. While I see my subjects claiming that the religious world has not just primacy but exclusivity, do I affirm their beliefs? I can confirm they feel that way most of the time. But like Smith’s ritual agents reenacting the bear-killing ritual in “Bare Facts of Ritual,” we can’t be sure spiritual warriors aren’t simply performing the world the way they wish it would be.

As they say to young scholars, fake it till you make it! If that is the case, then how are my subjects behaving differently than their “secular” counterparts? If, as a scholar, I deny their ontological claims, then I will likely struggle to convey not only the conviction of their beliefs, but also the consequences of those beliefs. In religious studies, we’re pretty cautious about these. At the very least we want to give our subjects the benefit of the doubt. More often, we give them full range of expression without direct judgment.

In anthropology, which more religionists should study, this is the perennial problem of emic/etic or insider/outsider perspectives. Anthropologists carefully delineate the boundary between the local perspective of subjects and the global perspective of scholars. (I should note that some excellent work on this has been done by Robert Orsi in Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them.) In ethnographic studies, this makes a lot of sense (and is all the more fascinating when it breaks down, as in Mama Lola).

Though I may include more ethnographic elements in future iterations of my project, my present work is historical and rooted in published texts. There’s much less room to separate emic and etic when you rely on 20 year old spiritual warfare manuals. The format of my sources discourages this division. I can only take my sources seriously if I see them as documents that attempt to be coherent, serious participants in the worlds they describe. They could be winking, but if they are, I don’t have the resources to say so.

Could I just take a side and say what I think? Sure. I’m not categorically unwilling to do this. I’m just unconvinced it is appropriate or helpful. If I have to step outside of my subjects’ perspective and in so doing dispute the very core of their beliefs, then what have I gained? Shouldn’t my theory tolerate equally my potential dissent and my subjects’ affirmations? In short, shouldn’t religious theories explain how religion actively produces and shapes its secular counterpart?

I suppose this means I’m saying that religion is not just about religion. That’s probably a good thing. Our discipline routinely gets criticized for its failure to define its object of study sufficiently without self-reference. (Woe unto you if you begin by saying that religious studies is the study of religion!)

Part of the challenge of existing definitions is that they often self-exclude religion’s products as pieces of the equation. That’s surely our field’s history of Protestant belief-bias. Only recently have we been able to fully marshal our energies to acknowledge and study material products. Even Durkheim dissed the totems and churingas in the end. But today we still haven’t fully wrestled with the production of non-belief, non-material things. The secular world is one of these types of products. And as unlikely as it may seem to some, it’s a dynamic, shifting product that spiritual warriors are working actively to change in their favor. (I suppose saying that the secular world exists beyond belief is fairly positivist of me, but remember that I’m describing the religious world created by my religious subjects’ projection of secular worlds from their religious one.)

You can think of it as a world-view if you like, but I tend to avoid that world because of its strongly negative connotations in my source material. Instead I call it an imaginary, a way of imagining the world that shapes our ability to act. (And yes, I borrow this from Charles Taylor, the scourge of contemporary high theory.) It is the basis for believing an action is appropriate and likely to succeed, and it includes the whole body of elements that exist to support those actions. For spiritual warriors, it means not simply the theological arguments for the validity of warfare, but also the spiritual gifts used in battle, the paradigm to interpret secular foes, and, paradoxically, the secular society that legally supports their rights to fight for their supremacy of their version of reality.

If you think that fits an existing definition of religion, then be sure to post a comment below. I’d love to hear from you! Agree or disagree, just let me know you made it this far with me.

World Religions in Sid Meier’s Civilization 5

11 Aug

As I prepare an article for a volume on the World Religions Paradigm (WRP), I’ve been rereading classic works such as Russell T. McCutcheon’s Manufacturing Religion and Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions. In the midst of John Kerry’s comment that were he to return to school today he would study Comparative Religions, it is evident we need more discussion of the way “religion” has been constructed and deployed. Michael J. Altman has an excellent post on Medium.com with his recommendations for how Secretary Kerry might revise his understanding of religions. I don’t intend anything quite so grand, but I do want to point out how freely the WRP works itself into unusual niches in our lives. Sometimes its appearance can be pretty confusing, as I found in the case of a popular computer game.

Sid Meier’s immensely popular game franchise Civilization has been the go-to turn-based strategy computer game for nearly two decades. Since the release of Civilization in 1991, gamers have logged millions of hours conquering the world hexagon by hexagon. As the ruler of an ancient civilization, players must found cities, gather resources to feed their populations, build armies to defend their lands, and research technologies that mirror humanity’s rise to the present. For the level of commitment some players have to the series, check out this account of a man who has been playing the same game for over a decade!

One of the more recent versions of the game, Civilization 5: Gods and Kings, added religion as a core mechanic for gamers to enhance their empires. You can select various traits that give bonuses for possessing certain resources or tiles. Desert tiles, for instance, produce very little food and can make it harder for your cities to grow. Often you might avoid placing cities in areas where they would be surrounded by lots of desert. One religious trait you can adopt adds a bonus for desert tiles, making them much more desirable.

Civilization V

Civilization V (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is probably enough in the details of religious attributes to merit another post or two in the future. For now I want to emphasize the way in which the world religions are constructed in the game. Players begin by accumulating faith (usually by building a shrine which takes several turns to build and has a maintenance cost every turn). Eventually they accrue enough faith to found a “pantheon” and select an initial gameplay bonus.

After even more faith a “Great Prophet” is born and players can choose to found a religion and select two more gameplay bonuses. While one is always free to found a fictional religion, the preset options are primarily the standard core of World Religions. The 13 choices are listed alphabetically (and not tied to chronology, culture, or geography): Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Protestantism, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism, Tengriism, and Zoroastrianism. [Originally there was only “Christianity,” but an expansion split Christianity into Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox Christians.]

If a player accumulates enough faith a Great Prophet appears and s/he can found a religion.

While faith is universally represented by a dove carrying a small green branch, each of these religions is represented by an icon. The icons serve one primary purpose:  when multiple religions exist in a city, the small icons fit in the pop-up HUD to display the breakdown of a population’s religious affiliation. There are also no bonuses for pairing religions with traits that might appear appropriate to their historical or cultural pasts. You can have Buddhist Cathedrals or Catholics that receive a bonus from temples. It’s a massive and confusing religious buffet.

And as I see it that is part of the problem. The choices of traits are not confined to particular religious traditions. Players are not penalized for mixing and matching, nor must they take both good and bad traits. This format presents all religions as functionally equivalent–the name is irrelevant.

I can understand from a designer’s standpoint that this mechanic is meant to offer players diverse bonuses that are appropriate for their particular circumstances in-game. It works, too. It is immensely satisfying to find your economy or scientific research pulling ahead because you carefully planned your religion’s abilities.

From a religious studies stance, however, every time I found a religion in a game of Civilization, I find myself cringing at the underlying consequences of the whitewashing of historical and cultural context. Why should the Protestants get a bonus in the desert! Why are the Tengriists getting bonuses for printing presses? How are the Buddhist monasteries generating so much wealth for my cities? It’s a endless hodgepodge.

On the one hand, I want all the many thousands of Civilization 5 players to run out and read Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One rather than Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions or Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. Implicitly and explicitly, the game makes it possible for its players to treat the world’s religions as simply different paths up the same mountain. Prothero lays out the case for laypersons that these “world” religions simply do not believe in the same deity. When Civilization makes it inconsequential to pick Zoroastrianism over Buddhism, they’ve made it easier for gamers to think there is little difference between the two. [Note I say “easier.” I don’t believe the game is responsible for getting its gamers to think much about the differences among any of its religions–that’s the problem!]

The beliefs of many faiths are mutually exclusive or, at the very least, perennial antagonistic. The attempt to synchronize world religions is not simply an effort of categorization (scholars being scholars) but of faith and its role in creating and shaping scholarship. It is the product of a certain way of looking at the world and a certain way of judging its people’s beliefs and behaviors. Because we know that the WRP is so profoundly entangled in the rise of enlightenment rationalism and Protestantism in the West, at least we have a chance to develop a very good sense of the biases and contortions of the categories. This, I suppose, is the other hand: even Prothero’s work can be fundamentally misleading.

One of the great challenges in avoiding the WRP is stepping outside of the boxes into which we’ve placed religious lives. It’s not easy and there are pitfalls that the game exposes. Civilization is a game that puts players at the dawn of time and hopes they’ll survive until the present day and beyond. This inevitably compresses (or obliterates) not simply the details of the lives that would render the WRP less powerful, but also the differences of time, space, and culture that led to the possibility of the WRP in the first place. It doesn’t matter whether I pick Catholicism or Islam–the game doesn’t care and there are no consequences to my selection. I guess that means that religion has been so spectacularly reduced by the game that its arbitrary-ness is more evident than its special-ness. As I said, a hot mess.

At least the gameplay is still spectacular.

Are all evangelicals charismatics now?

1 Feb

[Here’s another post with an open-research question bent. Feel free to share your thoughts.]

Selection bias is a dangerous thing. Neck deep as I am in neo-charismatic literature about the growing overlap between “new evangelicals” (i.e., those coming out of the NAE in the 1940s) and the “third wave” of the charismatic spirit (e.g., Peter Wagner), it can easily feel as if all conservative evangelicals are charismatics now.

Just to be clear that I’m not headed entirely off the deep end: the answer to this post’s title question is clearly, No, not all evangelicals are charismatics. 

And yet the complex union of conservative religious groups of all stripes under big tent Republicanism have provoked some very complicated theological intersections. One need not go far for double-takes at the curious umbrella that attempts to cover Mormons like Mitt Romney as well as Catholics like Bobby Jindahl or Paul Ryan and seemingly non-charismatic evangelicals charismatics like Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann and then also welcomes unabashedly charismatic figures like Sarah Palin. (I’m being generous here, too. Bachmann and Perry are likely using some range of spiritual gifts in their worship.)

I commented in a previous post about the way that Donald Miller has attempted to frame the emergent features of this post-baby boomer religious marketplace. Apart from my earlier criticisms, one of the major hurdles of a metanarrative of “new paradigm” churches is that it desaturates the dynamic range of Christian activities that we see in America today. There’s much more going on in the, forgive me, Culture Wars than can be captured if we look solely to evangelicals as the counterparts to mainline denominations (or to metaphysicals). This doesn’t even begin to address the challenges of fracturing evangelicalism into liberal and conservative branches (as recent posts over at The Immanent Frame have addressed).

My research on power evangelism suggests that the more fundamental concern of churches is not their political affiliation but rather their embrace or rejection of spiritual gifts. If we were to see fundamentalists as non-evangelicals (tricky business I think), then the split among conservative evangelicals today started in the 1940s between evangelicals ready to engage with the world and those more willing to retreat from the world as fundamentalists had done. (This is tricky as well.) Among those two groups of evangelicals the next major question was whether they came to embrace the charismatic renewal of the late 1950s and 1960s or, further, what appears to be another set of charismatic renewals in the 1980s.

It’s a tangled web, right? Even if you pick some feature like spiritual gifts then there are still some serious theological gaps you might have to bridge. Are these gifts the sign of Christ’s immanent return? Are they the tools Christians will use to usher in the 1,000 year kingdom? Millennialism–whichever side of the 1,000 years you place Jesus’s return–continues to play a central role in the activities of Christians today.

My dad likes to tell a story about his time at the University of Arizona during the presidential candidacy of George McGovern. Living among a group of well-educated graduate students in the sciences, his peers were convinced that George McGovern was headed for a landslide victory. In those remarkable days between 24 hour news and Twitter, it was still possible to be ignorant of cultural trends in a non-willful way. (Sorry, dad.) When Nixon won his 520-17 victory over McGovern (just Massachusetts and the District of Columbia voted for McGovern), Arizona’s McGovern supporters were stunned.

I wonder when I look at the evangelical landscape today to what degree there are biases in our views about what evangelicalism looks like in American today. Could it be that evangelicalism–that of Billy Graham, Dwight Moody, Charles Fuller, and so on–is less alive today than we think it is in Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, Charles Colson, James Dobson, and so on. 

When you’re in the forest all you can see is the trees around you. What do you do in your research to get a better of the forest you’re in? How do you avoid thinking all there is is forest? What do you do when you hit the tree-line?

It’s SLSW or Bust

30 Jan

As I’ve been furiously writing and editing my dissertation to make an end of quarter deadline, one of the major elements of my project that has kept me focused is the distinction made between the three levels of spiritual warfare advocated and practiced by third wave evangelicals (or neo-charismatics). It clarifies my work because unlike others who have recently written about demons–say Michael W. Cueno’s American Exorcism–I can always remind myself that my focus is only a a fraction of the picture.

Here’s the basic spiritual warfare breakdown. This version is taken from Peter Wagner’s 1997 Praying With Power, but there are many other near-identical versions of it in the spiritual warfare literature:

Ground-level spiritual warfare confronts demonic spirits that molest individuals. This is personal deliverance: casting out demons.

Occult-level spiritual warfare exposes organized forces of darkness such as witchcraft, shamanism, satanism, Freemasonry, Eastern religions, New Age and the like.

Strategic-level spiritual warfare involves wrestling with principalities and powers and rulers of the darkness as Paul defines in Ephesians 6:12

There are many, many works on ground-level spiritual warfare. It’s also a great source of inspiration for Hollywood horror films. The fascination with personal deliverance has left its pentecostal and Catholic quarters for the wider waters of popular culture. I don’t know that it was a great move–it’s surely resulted in an explosion of pseudo-science and pseudo-religion–but it has been profitable and popular.

Occult-level spiritual warfare is less well studied and less frequently practiced. Evangelicals (and Catholics) have long waged a war against non-Christian religious traditions. The most threatening of these are traditions that can be practiced alongside Christianity. A recent example would be the treatment of yoga in schools, but many others fit this billing. Some of these traditions are openly anti-Christian, but most are dangerous simply because they are not Christianity. It doesn’t have to be much more complex than that, but for occult-level warfare these traditions are seen, unrepentantly, as the domain of Satan. Good intentions mean nothing here, this is a hard and fast line being drawn.

Strategic-level spiritual warfare (or SLSW) is, pardon the theory-talk, a structuring structure. In a significant way, it is framework for the other forms of spiritual warfare. SLSW says that the forces of darkness are organized and hierarchical. This corporate evil is the means by which smaller units of organized darkness (occult-level) multiply. Sure, you can fight the New Age bookstore. The problem is that you’ve only dislocated and disrupted the middlemen. In a drug-metaphor, ground-level warfare attacks junkies, occult-level attacks local dealers, and strategic-level confronts the cartels. Why bother harassing every junkie if the drugs will continue to flow downstream to other users?

The work I do with SLSW is trying to explain, practice-wise, why this form of spiritual warfare is so concerned with the world in spatial ways. A colleague, Sean McCloud, is writing a whole book about the first level of spiritual warfare. His work will deal considerably with the therapeutic and materialistic qualities of this level of warfare. Those elements are present in SLSW but significantly diminished because of the way this ‘umbrella’ level of warfare sees its first priority as participating in a cosmic battle between Satan and God.

Remembering the three levels of warfare keeps me focused because I know I don’t need to say everything about spiritual warfare. There is no book, yet, that successfully explains why all three of these levels of warfare are necessary and how they work and why they are all coming together in the 1980s. Pieces of the story are clear: deliverance ministry has a long history in American pentecostalism. After a brief hiatus around WWII, exorcisms came back into fashion in the 1960s and then exploded in popularity in the 1970s after popular culture picked up on the practice and sensationalized it.

But the pieces of the story that explain occult warfare? Very murky. The pieces of the story that explain spatial and territorial demonology that is at the heart of SLSW? Almost absent. I’m working on it, but I’m also thankful I don’t have to account for everything just yet.

DIY Digital Religious Studies

14 Jan

I raised the question–is there such a thing as digital religious studies?–so you’ll forgive me if I continue to try to find an answer. I feel like I’m fumbling in the dark. There’s already backlash against digital humanities (see the Dark Side of Digital Humanities at this year’s MLA). And yet we plod on, stumbling and fumbling because we’re not even sure what’s so digital about digital humanities or what digital humanities even offers and so forth. What a quagmire, right?

Let me start simply: Religious studies as a discipline justifies itself because it takes religion seriously, on its own without explicit reliance on history, anthropology, geography, literature, sociology, psychology, or any other field. That’s my perspective at least. Why are we not history? Because our primary aim is not to explain the past. Or if we follow William Cronon’s definition of history because our primary responsibility is not relative to documents. Why are we not sociology? Because the analysis of society isn’t our goal. And so on.

In religious studies we care about the difficult-to-define object we call religion. We fight, constantly, about what religion means and the (often serious) consequences of the biases in our definitions. Beware using Marx to argue “religion is the sigh of the oppressed people… the opiate of the masses.” Or A. N. Whitehead’s idea that “religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.” Or Freud’s contention that “religion is an illusion.” These are not un-baiased perspectives and each carries not only the weight of understanding their context (marxism, rational-scientific atheism, psychology) but the restrictions they place on religion as an object.

This is the classic problem of categorization, right? If birds are always egg-laying animals that fly, what do you do with Ostrich, Emu and long-dead dodo? If religion is about solitariness, then what is to be made of mass prayer movements or megachurches? If religion is an illusion then is there nothing “really real” behind it? Why would “the masses” continue to let themselves be oppressed by religion? Doesn’t it offer anything for them that isn’t a haze of good feelings?

So I have two concerns about digital religious studies. One is shared with all digital humanities: what is so digital about them? The other is shared with religious studies: how does the digital help us to define/explain/clarify/explore/narrate religion and religious things, people, experiences, and events.

When I see geographers using digital methods like highly data-driven map visualizations, I see obvious advantages: easy assembly of huge data-sets, powerful interpretive/analytic tools, broad audiences enabled by curating theses items in the public sphere, and so on. What’s the equivalent move for religious studies? In history, if we follow Cronon on documents, it’s the digital space for archiving and interacting with documents that would otherwise be non-digital and trapped in archives, lacking interface with textual analysis, etc. In religious studies what would that mean?

No answers today, just fumbling. But before I end I want to make one point very clearly: In religious studies there is a subfield that studies “digital religion.” This is not at all the same as digital religious studies. Digital religion as a field looks at religion on the internet. This ranges from analyses of Second Life to folks that use Twitter as a prayer journal. It’s a thriving subfield that finds religion on the internet, not necessarily a methodological shift that says digital technologies offer new modes of analysis or presentation.

To a degree this is nitpicking–digital religion often must rely on digital religious studies for its work–but the idea that the digital enhances our ability to study religion makes the two non-synonymous.  The difference is, to use an academic religious studies phrase from J. Z. Smith, a difference that makes a difference.

So we’re flying by the seat of our pants here: Discipline that struggles to define itself. Method that struggles to define itself. Troublesome, right? Guess there’s nothing to be done but to do it ourselves. That’s the way of things–in both fields! In religious studies we continuously re-define religion because we are continually expanding the things we are studying as religion and the way we are studying religion. It’s who we are.

Digital humanities seems to be the same way, which is why we’ve had, perhaps, more trouble than we should have adopting it as the next wave of theory. We’re still stuck (in a good way) in the spatial turn of the 1990s. Yes, I know, for philosophy (and most other fields) that spatial turn happened in the 1980s (or earlier). But we’re still making progress with that new analysis–I’ve even made it a speciality of mine because it is still so powerful. If the next wave is coming, let it be the digital humanities of this past decade and not some other scholarly turn from the 1990s. But if we want it to happen we’ll have to take the lead and do it ourselves.