Thoughts on Digital Religion from Turku, Finland – a Marketplace of Ideas

Turku, the old capital of Finland was the host city for the 'Digital Religion' Symposium which was held by the Donner Institute for Research in Religion and Cultural History. Prof. Hannu Salmi, who welcomed us to the Symposium, explained that Turku is an old Finnish word for 'marketplace'. And indeed, the conference in Turku was a marketplace, an Agora for ideas.

Although dominated by a European crowd (many of whom are members of the 'Nordic Network for Religion and Media') the conference started with the American 'rock star' Prof. Heidi Campbell ('Rock star' being a title she received at the international conference held earlier this year in Boulder, Colorado). Campbell set the tone for a conference that will deal not only with the phenomenology of religion online and/or online religion, but also with the theories and methods used to understand these phenomena. After establishing the five characteristics of the research made so far (convergent practice, multi-site reality, networked community, storied identity and shifting authority), she finished with the statement that the future of Media and Religion studies is in nuance examination and critical thinking. Mostly, it seems that religion online should not be seen as a separate or independent occurrence – the relationship between online and offline seems to be a prominent aspect in the future of this field. I later felt that the issue of online and offline religion became a 'sacred concept' throughout the conference, present almost in every session, explicitly or implicitly.

For example, Prof. Jolyon Mitchell, one of the keynote speakers, tried to examine the translation which occurred when Passion Plays were transmitted online – were we watching the same play? Did the religious feelings changed when watching it offline or online – and what were those changes? Mitchell put a spin on the notion of offline-online relationship by bring into mind the concept of 'translation'. Another interesting example was Claire Clivaz's crusade to put the manuscripts of the New Testament online, which – not surprisingly – raises issues of authority within the Christian world of manuscripts.

What I found interesting in Turku, is that – much like its name, the conference itself became a marketplace of ideas from a variety of religions. True, Christianity has been the dominant religion talked about, but by far not the only one. Islam (and Islam video gaming! Given by Vit Sisler), Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, and monks, druids and vampires were all explored online and offline.

Lastly, but most importantly, the Finns know how to treat their guests. In both nights of the Symposium we were treated – on the first night we went on a boat to a small island just outside Turku, where we ate and danced, and on the second night we traveled to a marvelous old manor were we ate (but didn't dance, sadly). Every day we enjoyed music performed by locals, and being so high north, we got to experience whole days and night of light.

The Donner Institute marked the Symposium as a success, and I couldn't agree more. However, the need to keep on exploring the right tools to understand religion and media is only growing, as the relationship between online and offline becomes blurry and the question of 'what is religious?' becomes harder to answer.