When Heidi Campbell crossed the Atlantic to do graduate work at the University of Edinburgh in 1996, a new electronic tool called the “Internet” became a comfortable lifeline for staying in touch with friends and family. She was captivated by the new technology, ending up doing her Edinburgh doctorate on church and another new internet-enabled phenomenon, virtual communities. (For the uninitiated, virtual communities are groups of computer users who know and interact with each other electronically, not in person, at least much of the time.)
Rather than settling anything, Campbell’s work raised a host of questions. Can you have authentic community if it is not embodied (that is, experienced in person)? Can ritual be mediated electronically? A virtual remembrance service surfaced on the internet, led to an online discussion, which went on to ask if Christian communion can be offered and accepted online. Can confession be heard through email, or puja practiced on a Hindu website? How do we define theological authenticity? How can authority be exercised virtually?
Coming back to this country, Dr. Campbell published Exploring Religious Community Online in 2005, and worked hard for the rest of the decade to establish media and religion as a legitimate field of academic study. It was new and multidisciplinary and didn’t fit neatly into anthropology, sociology, or communications. Academia is not known for ever jumping at ‘the newest thing.’ To make her case Campbell dedicated herself to gathering the disparate resources, websites, blogs, and publications on new media and religion being created, she discovered, by scholars around the world.
Following fellowships at Oxford, the University of Edinburgh, and with the Pew Foundation, in 2005 she joined the communications faculty at Texas A & M University. She’s written three books and edited three more, published dozens of articles and book chapters, and she consults on media matters with all sorts of religious institutions. Invitations to lecture have taken her to universities and conferences in Auckland and Las Vegas, Dublin and Istanbul, Finland and Qatar, and numerous others across Europe and the U.S.
Back in Texas, Campbell secured seed funding from the university to create an electronic resource center on new media and religion. Initially she and her students created a wiki website (which allows interaction with its readers). This evolved into a blog, and in 2010 the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies was established. The goal was “to create an online resource center for researchers, students and those interested in investigating the intersection of new media, religion and digital culture.”
Creating a Treasure Trove
The Network is not for the general reader – just serious students of new media, religion, and digital culture. You apply to join; if accepted, the website and its multiple resources are free to use. It is a treasure trove.
Two-hundred and fifty scholars around the world have joined, and the Network provides ways to communicate with them. Job openings in new media, religion, and digital religion are posted, and you are able to make your own contributions to the blog. A bibliography with more than 500 articles and books has links for finding them all. A news section surveys major publications and related journals, upcoming conferences and workshops, and posts relevant news stories.
Having access and learning how to use ‘big data’ and collecting more than 400 religious apps (we used to call them programs, and they didn’t come on your phone back then) are the newest chapters of the Network’s growing library of resources, opening up research opportunities undreamed of in a pre-digital world. In short, anyone interested in religion and the internet has a growing digital library and an engaged, connected community waiting at the Network, an extraordinary gift.
Heidi Campbell’s most recent book (reviewed by Claire Davis in this edition of TIO), is titled Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (2013). In the words of a scholar at the University of Oslo, “Digital Religion is a watershed publication that documents and defines the field, one that will quickly establish itself as an essential teaching text and reference volume.” In it, 23 scholars contribute chapters on ritual, identity, community, authority, authenticity, and religion, followed by ten case studies examining these different themes as they appear in the online religious activities of various religious traditions, ancient and new.
It goes without saying that the interfaith movement sweeping the world, like TIO, would be impossible without computers and the internet. Heidi Campbell’s pioneering work, and the academic community she seeks to engender, help us understand what that means and how best to use the technology in fostering a peace-and-justice loving, Earth-supporting interfaith global culture.