By Meredith Doster, Emory University
In a 2011 presentation at the Personal Democracy Forum, activist Jim Gilliam presented his conversion story from fundamentalist Christianity to a new found religion: the Internet. Expertly wielding evangelical epistemology, Gilliam described a series of personal and family medical tragedies that resulted in a crisis of faith: “God had forsaken me, but the doctors hadn’t … I watched as a small bag of marrow emptied into my arm. I walked out of the hospital two weeks later, replenished with the blood of a stranger. I was determined to move on with my life, so I gave my heart to the Internet.” Recalling another medical emergency involving a lung transplant, Gilliam reflected on the power of connection:
“As I was prepped for the surgery, I wasn’t thinking about Jesus, or whether my heart would start beating again after they stopped it, or whether I would go to heaven if it didn’t. I was thinking about all the people who had gotten me here. I owed every moment of my life to countless people I would never meet. Tomorrow, that interconnectedness would be represented in my own physical body: Three different DNAS; individually they were useless, but together they would equal one functioning human. What an incredible debt to repay. I didn’t even know where to start. And that’s when I truly found God.
God is just what happens when humanity is connected. Humanity connected is God. There was no way I would ever repay this debt. It was only by the grace of God, your grace, that I would be saved. The truth is, we all have this same cross to bear. We all owe countless moments of our lives to people we will never meet … We all owe every moment of our lives to each other. We are all connected. We are all in debt to each other. The Internet gives us the opportunity to repay just a small part of that debt. As a child, I believed in creationism. Today, we are the creators. We each have our own unique skills and talents to contribute to creating the kingdom of God … We are the leaders of this new religion. We have faith that people connected can create a new world. Each one of us is a creator, but together, we are the Creator … Today I breathe through someone else’s lungs while another’s blood flows through my veins. I have faith in people, I believe in God, and the Internet is my religion.”
Gilliam is not alone in contemplating the saving grace of digital connectivity. Media and marketing scholar Brett Robinson’s 2013 book Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs investigates Jobs and his Apple kingdom as a prime example of the symbiotic relationship between media innovation and religious belief. While some question the compatibility between religion and technology, communication scholar Heidi Campbell coined the term “networked religion” to describe the ways in which religious communities cross permeable boundaries between online and offline worlds, creating new networks that expand our understanding of religion. Campbell offers the categories, “networked community, storied identities, shifting authority, convergent practice, and multi-site reality” to interrogate the wide representation of “Religion, Religions, Religious” across a variety of digital platforms, including blogs, discussions forums, e-zines, twitter feeds, and Facebook.
Social media challenges extant definitions of acceptable scholarly sources. Nonetheless, Religion and Media scholars are charting new digital territories, encouraging the examination of virtual worlds as religious publics woven into the fabric of our daily lives. Countering the pervasive secularization theory that positions media technologies in opposition to religion, scholar Jeremy Stolow writes: “Instead, the field of religious symbols, practices, and modes of belonging has been radically extended through the colonization of a dizzying range of genres, technologies and forms: from popular history and pop-psychology book to websites, cartoons, trading cards, posters, rock music, bumper stickers, television dramas, scientific treatises, package tours and sundry forms of public spectacle.” Identifying mediated technologies as prerequisites of the “global present,” Stolow believes in Gilliam’s Internet religion and asks scholars to take seriously the framework that moves beyond the constellation of religion and media to the nuanced consideration of religion as media.
While the Internet might seem an unlikely candidate for religious devotion, we are not too far afield from more orthodox fare. If, according to John 1:14, “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” could a 21st century update not expand our understanding of sacred words to include Tweets and Facebook posts? Contemporary theological forays into posthuman constructions demonstrate that technologies create possibilities for reconceptualizing core tenets of religious identity to include digital realities, resulting in bold concepts such as Cyborg Christology that express the embedded nature of technology and religion.
In an era that frames digital access as a human right, the Internet seems to have become the new gospel. As a recent NY Times article describes, leading technology firms are collaborating with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to improve communication networks across the globe in an effort to increase Internet access in so-called “Second” and “Third World” countries. The initiative’s website Internet.org describes their mission: “Today, the internet isn’t accessible for two thirds of the world. Imagine a world where it connects us all.” With a tagline “Every one of us. Everywhere. Connected.” Internet.org echoes Jim Gilliam’s enthusiasm for the power of connectivity. The virtual highways of the world wide web represent a modern day Damascus Road, offering the potential of connection, transformation, and reflection at the core of many religious experiences. Where the Internet might take us, devoted acolytes and impartial participants alike, remains to be seen.
This article appeared at Interpreting Religion: Methods and Theories, August 2013.
Campbell, Heidi. “Understanding the Relationship between Religion Online and Offline in a Networked Society.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 80/1 (March 2012): 64-93.
Stolow, Jeremy. “Religion and/as Media.” Theory Culture Society 22 (2005): 119-145.