Heidi Campbell - Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 15:36

Reading religious Internet memes is not always as easy as it seems. The way memes are created, designed and distributed results in them both affirming and undermining religion — sometimes at the same time.

Internet memes are a popular way of communicating online, yet while they may seem playful, their messages are often quite serious. Memes are digital images that combine pictures with and succinct texts, to communicate playful yet pointed messages about politics, pop culture and religion.

A recent study of religious Internet memes, conducted at Texas A&M University, found that while many people have readily used this genre to spread religious beliefs and ideas, there may be consequences to doing so.

Researchers at Texas A&M University found two distinct communication strategies in their comparison of different religious-oriented meme genres. Some memes used religious icons and characters such as “Buddy Christ” or Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Other memes more generally targeted Christians, Muslims or Jews. Both frame religion in interesting, yet problematic, ways.

“This study shows how memes enable people to spread religious ideas, and at same time, critique religion.” said Ruth Tsuria, a PhD student at Texas A&M University and one of the authors of the report, “Reading Religion in Internet Memes” published 31 December 2013.

Memes using religious icons and people tend to spread generalized assumptions about religion through humor, often leaning on negative framings of religious values, practices and traditions.

For example “Advice God” memes use the Judeo-Christian God as depicted in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam—God is often depicted as a harsh, unethical or suspicious (i.e. “Thou shall not commit adultery / sorry Joseph”).

“Using religious symbols and ideals this way helps undermine dominant religious narratives or worldviews”, said Heidi Campbell, Associate Professor of Communication at Texas A&M University and project coordinator.

Memes focused on specific religious traditions or communities use humor to share their beliefs or rituals with others in respectful ways.

The Muslim Meme Facebook page, for example, presents an image of Aladdin from the Disney movie by the same name telling Princess Jasmine “I can show you the world/but first we have to do nikah” (nikah is “marriage” in Arabic)

Researchers observed this meme affirms Muslim values, yet also shows that such memes require certain levels of religious and cultural literacy to be fully understood and their humor and meaning may be lost for mainstream audiences.

Overall, the study shows that Internet memes often “essentialize religion,”—that is, they simplify complex ideas about religion into basic ideas that reinforce, and sometimes challenge, important notions of faith.

This can be a problem because a meme designed to promote positively a community’s religious identity can easily morph into a public critique.

Campbell says unpacking religious memes requires that audiences develop religious literacy to fully understand the intended meaning and develop an awareness of how a meme’s humor affects frames positively or negatively. Audiences should also consider how meme circulation and placement online shape meaning-making and discussions about specific faiths.

For the full text of “Reading Religion in Internet Memes” visit Study research diaries can be found online at COMM 663: Digital Religion:

This story has also been released with Religious News Service at:

Heidi Campbell - Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 17:38

Philosophy, Theory and Critique Division of the International Communication Association ICA is sponsoring a preconference at the upcoming meet in Seattle Washington entitle “Media and Religion”: Betwixt and Between. The event is to be held 22 May 2014, 9:00 AM - 5 PM
at the Husky Union Building on the campus of University of Washington.

This preconference bring into conversation a variety of approaches common within the study of media, religion and culture, in order to showcase the diverse perspectives scholars of Communication have taken in the study of this interrelationship. “Media and religion” is a phrase used to describe a growing cross-disciplinary field of research. Communication scholars have noted interesting social and cultural implications of the intersection of media and religion on several levels. Given the complexity of the relationship between media and religion, we advocate moving beyond the simple questions of “How is religion represented in the media?” and “How to religions use media to promote their cause?” to consider broader and deeper theoretical investigations of this evolving interplay. We suggest media may evoke and create a sense of wonder, transcendence, and flow, which in many ways approach experiences often assigned to the religious realm. To put it with Victor Turner’s classical essay on Liminality, religious media events, as well as media as a religious event, call into question simplistic social ontologies by being “betwixt and between” purely religious and purely media contexts.

The goal of the preconference is to spotlight current scholarly methods within media and religion studies in order to highlight key theoretical concepts and problems – both for those working in the field, and for those who wish to gain first-hand insight into this area of Communication research. Through papers, panel presentations and shared conversation amongst participants this event aims is to draw scholarly attention to the relationship between media, religion and culture in its multiple intersections.

The preconference will consist of a morning session featuring two keynote panels of recognized scholars whose work intersects with the field of media and religion. The afternoon will involve two parallel panels of papers selected from abstract submissions, and a closing summary panel. Invited and confirmed speakers/respondents include:

Menachem Blondheim, Hebrew University
Heidi A Campbell, Texas A&M University
Nick Couldry, Goldsmiths University of London
Stig Hjarvard, University of Copenhagen
Stewart M. Hoover, University of Colorado-Boulder
Elihu Katz, Hebrew University/Annenberg-East
Mia Lovheim, University of Uppsala
Knut Lundby, University of Oslo
Paddy Scannell, University of Michigan
Günter Thomas, Faculty for Protestant Theology-Ruhr-University Bochum

The preconference is supported by generous contributions from the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, Routledge and the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies.

It is also supported by the Media and Religion Temporary Working Group of the European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA) and The International Society for Media, Religion, and Culture.

Further details and registration information is found at

Kyong James Cho - Monday, January 6, 2014 - 17:57

Brett T. Robinson's Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs is written from the perspective of a media ecologist and proposes that there exists an intimate relationship between religion and technology. The book makes several underlying assertions: that technology now occupies the place that religion traditional held in society; that Jobs' spiritual-religious experiences informed his philosophy of technology and subsequent approach to business and design of Apple products; and that technology is imbued with implicit religion. Religion in the work is not explicitly defined (and neither is implicit religion), but it appears to be used loosely to refer to traditional religions such as Buddhism, transcendentalist or metaphysical thought, and even a sense of magic and mystery.

In addition to drawing our attention to the relationship between religion and technology, Robinson follows another line of thought to another point. Using the works of media scholars such as McLuhan and Ellul, Robinson makes some observations regarding the Faustian bargain of technology which makes our engagement with it more complicated than mere consumerism. Scattered in a few places throughout the book are prose which reveal what Robinson really thinks of all this: while the Faustian bargain seems like a fair trade, in the end we lose more than we gain, including our free intellectual capacity and our true god(s). In the concluding page of the book Robinson writes:

“Technology is ultimately a false god. From the Tower of Babel to the atomic bomb, man's attempts to apprehend godlike powers often do not end well. The most pervasive tension . . . is that the more we use media technology the more our interior lives shrivel under the artificial glow of the screen” (p. 106)

Appletopia is a book with two key theses: there exists an intimate relationship between religion and technology, and that technology ought not replace religion. These are interesting assertions which could be more thoroughly developed in the book. For instance, a more detailed exploration of how Apple technology usurped the role of religion for its fans, or unpacking the implications of the implicit religion espoused in Apple ads or other pop culture phenomena could in themselves be topics for stand alone texts. The unique contribution of the book is perhaps the focus on Jobs' spiritual-religious experiences and how they informed his work and Apple, yet this is lost in the other points made throughout the book. The second thesis, the normative statements about technology and religion from a media ecology perspective, is interesting and important, but deserves more explicit exploration here in order to reveal what the author sees as the impact the Apple phenomenon may have on our understanding of this intersection.

In all, Appletopia gives a glimpse into how Jobs' spiritual-religious background shaped Apple and contributed to the cult of consumerism. The book is suited to a broad non-academic audience due to its broad and descriptive treatment of the subject. Yet it does offer scholars a well-documented exploration of the Apple fandom as religion that could serve as a spring board for further, in depth exploration of religion and technology.

Wendi Bellar - Saturday, November 16, 2013 - 01:06

Daniel A. Stout’s 2012 book, geared toward the undergraduate student, offers a foundational look at the field of media and religion by demarcating key concepts, tracing the history of scholarship, reviewing theoretical and methodological approaches from related fields, and focusing on specific media forms. While the book may not be the best source for more experienced scholars or scholars who focused specifically on new media and religion, it is perfect for professors of religion and media to introduce undergraduates to the field.
First, the book begins with a broad sweep key concepts such as “Media as Religion” “Personalized Religion” and “Levels of Analysis.” A brief history covers everything from ancient rituals to the Internet age. Stout also expertly introduces new students to theoretical concepts such as mediatization, media ecology, and secularization. However, other media-related theories, such as the mediation of meaning, mediation of sacred forms, and the social shaping of technology are not discussed and professors may have to supplement these areas with other readings. Perhaps the most useful elements in beginning and subsequent chapters are the “Key Term” and “Questions to Ponder” sections. These elements provide a starting point for students and professors to develop insightful in-class discussions. Another unique feature, the last chapter of the book, includes a classroom activity in which students act out a play that engages them with the often sensitive topic of religion and media.
The next section of the book focuses more on specific mediums and genres, such as the Internet, news, entertainment media, and strategic communications. While all of the chapters provide historical and current information on each medium or genre, the Internet chapter provides the most interest for religion and new media scholars as it is the only one that deals specifically with technology. The chapter is very basic but does a good job of briefly outlining the issues of authority, community, and identity in terms of religion online. Because the book was written fairly recently, new media and religion scholars may find the lack of social and mobile media chapters disappointing.
In conclusion, "Media and Religion: Foundations of an Emerging Field" provides exactly what it offers, “… an ideal introduction for undergraduate students in need of a foundation” in religion and media. The book is a good text for religion and media professors to introduce and engage student with theoretical and practical concerns. However, if professors want to engage more with new media scholarship they may need to supplement the reading list.

Heidi Campbell - Monday, November 11, 2013 - 15:23

The study of new media and religion has emerged over the last decade and has grown out of the larger sub-field of media, religion and culture studies. Often times scholars and students new to these areas can feel a bit isolated as they seek to gain fluency simultaneously in the multiple disciplines which are required for fruitful conversation. Indeed it can be a challenge to connect with other scholars and publications related to this area of study. However, take heart there is growing interest and attention being given to media, religion and culture studies and finding publishing outlets and places for conversation is easier than you think.

At a recent seminar for graduate students interested in studying the intersection of Communication and Religious studies in my own department I presented the following list of publications, centers and upcoming events for those new to field and looking to expand their awarenes of the breadth of research being done in these exciting areas. I am sharing them here for others who will also find these resources of interest and use.

Journals Publishing work in Media, Religion and Culture Studies:

Journal of Communication and Religion:
Journal of Media and Religion:
Journal of Religion and Popular Culture:
Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture:
Journal of Contemporary Religion:
Online-Heidelberg Journal of Religions on Internet:
ASIR: Advances in the Study of Information and Religion:

Associations and Centers working at the intersection of Media, Religion and Culture Studies:

Religious Communication Association (NCA):
International Society for Media, Religion and Culture:
Center for Media, Religion and Culture:
Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture:
Center for the Study of Information and Religion:
Digital Islam:
NYU Center for Media and Religion:
CODEC: Christian Communication in the Digital Age:
Nordic Research Network on the Mediatisation of Religion and Culture (MRC):
Mediating Religion Network:

Upcoming Conferences:

ISMRC-Bi-Annual Meeting 2014:
CISR: Annual Conference on Information and Religion 2014:
ICA PreConference on Media and Religion 2014:

Aya Yadlin Segal - Tuesday, October 22, 2013 - 13:14

How do you give a voice, even a body, to a virtual wink? This was the main focus of a lecture and workshop led by Professor Greg Grieve of UNC-Greensboro held last week at Texas A&M University and co-sponsored by the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture.
These events provide an overview about the formation of a virtual ethnographic method in the research of Second Life, as portrayed in the forthcoming book: Digital Zen: Buddhism, Virtual Worlds and Online Meditation (2014).

The participants of the Virtual Ethnography workshop got a “hands on” experience building their own avatars and exploring the act of winking on Second Life. The Virtual Ethnography workshop guided by Dr. Gregory Grieve provided the participants with the opportunity to fully engage as researchers on Second Life platforms; reflect on the ethics of such research and come face to face with possible difficulties and hurdles of online ethnography.
Within the workshop we were asked to wink at a random avatar and to reflect upon that wink’s meanings and outcomes.

Drawing upon Geertz’s interest in the act of winking, we discussed the similarities and differences between virtual and actual ethnographies. It was agreed among all participants that the act of entering Second Life as a virtual field of research was similar to the act of entering an actual ethnographic field, as the researcher has to understand the limitation, language and norms of Second Life. We discussed the issue of authenticity in the online research, and raised questions regarding avatars as authentic identities. We asked if such identity can be studied in the field of digital religion, leaving the answer open to personal interpretation of each participant.
Additionally, we found different reactions to the act of winking. Those who were actually able to use the emoticon of a wink properly received a wide array of reactions from other avatars in Second Life: a booty call, a bite from virtual vampire, a ban from participating in a religious environment and a motherly advice on how to conduct on Second Life.

The main conclusion of the workshop is that conducting an online ethnography on second life requires a good amount of familiarization time with the platform before engaging in the research itself.

Gregory Grieve - Thursday, October 3, 2013 - 09:34

With a generous gift from the Henry Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs, on September 27 and 28th, 2013 the NYU Center for Religion and Media, hosted an event that explored the religious digital mediation in cultural forms of a globalized Asia. The conference explored questions about the role of digital media and religoin in personhood, political movements, human rights, and religious organizations. The presenters emphasized the importance of articulating the aesthetic constructions of religion as they are mediated and circulated in digital culture. As always, I want to thank Angela Zito (NYU) and Faye Ginsburg (NYU) from the Center for Religion and Media for hosting another insightful, interdisplinary, and ground breaking event.

Presentation abstracts can be read here:

Presenter biographies can be read here:

More Information available here:

Heidi Campbell - Thursday, September 26, 2013 - 14:48

The following is a statement presented by Heidi Campbell, NMRDC director, at the Religious Newswriters Association 2013 conference on September 28th for a panel on Digital Faith and Ministries use of Social Media (see: Below is her brief response to the opening question: "How is the Internet transforming faith?"

A key underlying observation which has informed my research into religion in digital culture over the past decade is this, studying religion online highlights larger societal shift in how religion is conceived on and lived out both offline and online. Through my work that has investigated a variety of phenomena --from religious blogging and the practices of religious digital creative to the rise of the Jewish kosher cellphone and Islamogaming-- I have seen a noticeable trend towards what Religious Studies scholars call “Lived Religion”. Lived Religion is a framing that sees religion as dynamic, experiential and rooted in the everyday life of its practioners. While traditional and organized religion is typically tied to a particular spiritual worldview where core belief dictate religious practice, lived religion notes that individuals and communities live out their faith in ways that may differ from official religious dogmas or traditions. This trend is echoed in many of the recent research studies of the Pew foundation which point to trends of “spiritual, but not religious or “faith without affiliation” and that religious belief is often assembled by adherents from a variety sources rather than a singular tradition.

I have found that digital culture often exemplifies lived religion, as language and images of the sacred becomes tools online to be played with, modified, and reassembled as people use social media to create personalized understandings or expression of the religious. This trend matches what media scholar Henry Jenkins describes as the move towards “participatory culture” within new media. He argues that the power of digital culture lies in its offering people new opportunities to engage in interaction, co-creation and collaborative authorship. For example YouTubers or Meme creators are able to draw images, texts and ideas from multiple sources to create new texts that remix original meanings, and so are freed from authorial intention and agenda. New media enables users to produce and consume media and information simultaneously. The Internet becomes a space where people can express their individual passions as well as find their tribe of those who share their collective identity.

So new media encourages interactive play with religious ideas, the broadcasting one’s convictions, and creating new spaces to carve out and express alternative religious identities online. This changes and challenges established relationships and structures, within many religious communities. Digital media has given rise to new breeds of armchair theologians, spiritual innovators and religious thought leaders through their experimentation with online communication. We see this in how many people now create visual devotionals in Instagram, Tweeting their faith claims, make public their spiritual mashups on Pintrest and use Facebook to perform and brand their religious identities.

In 2012 article I published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion*, I summarize these tendencies by describing what I argue is a move towards “networked religion”. This is where people experience and live out religion online in ways that are shaped and informed by the structures and affordance of network culture. Networked religion is defined by 5 core traits. Networked community which suggests communities function as loose social networks with varying levels of religious affiliation and commitment. Storied identity which sees the religious self as malleable rather than fixed, so individual online seek to create a unified self through constructing and connecting themselves to distinctive narrative. Shifting authority that notes there is a shift occurring between traditional religious leaders and power structures due to the rise of new gatekeepers and religious authority roles online. Convergent practice that highlights how digital space encourages the blending of religious practices and information from multiple sources in ways that build a self-directed form of spiritual engagement. And Multi-site reality which highlights how the online world is consciously and unconsciously imprinted by users’ offline values, so there is a flow and connection between online and offline ways of being.

These traits exemplify key trends within religious practice and culture online. Yet I argue these are trends are also seen in religious practice offline as well. This means careful study of religion online reveal dominant popular conceptions and framings of religion. So in summary, our digital networked reality encourages us to live in flexible religious affiliations, moderated by individual preferences and to seek out experiential connections, over connecting to bounded communities established and maintained through traditional hierarchies. This has encouraged many of the religious innovations we see online, which this panel seeks to discuss in more detail today.

*Campbell, H. (2012). Understanding the relationship between religious practice online and offline in a networked society. Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 80(1), 64-93. URL:

Kyong James Cho - Sunday, September 15, 2013 - 21:31

As with other fields of study, it is important for the field of new media and religion to chronicle its evolution. Hojsgaard and Warburg's (2005) work observed three waves of research in new media and religion, the first wave being quite polarized between Utopian and Dystopian forecasts while the second wave learned to nuance the findings to avoid this (now obvious) false dichotomy. At the time of writing Hojsgaard and Warburg observed that the third wave was imminent, characterized by a “bricolage” of scholars from different disciplines contributing to the budding field. A fourth has been proposed characterized by refined methodologies and typologies (Campbell, 2012). The trend is a maturation of the field, beginning with case studies and exploratory research to building on those early studies and proposing perspectives and approaches unique to the field.

I believe that the next appropriate stage in the field of new media and religion (or digital religion) is critical engagement with theories from the disciplines that our researchers come from, and continuing development of theories and methodologies unique to the field. Cheong, Fischer-Nielsen, Gelfgren, and Ess's Digital Religion, Social Media, and Culture (2012) offers a good starting point to the growth of the field. It proposes itself as an anthology in the vein of Hojsgaard and Warburg's edited volume. Its approach to the Internet is nuanced in that it observes a moderate scale of change emblematic of the attitude of the second wave, avoiding wholesale forecasts of previous studies. The edited volume contains contributions from scholars in media studies, communication, theology, religious studies, and sociology, reflective of the bricolage of the third wave. I think one of its key contributions to digital religion is in its critical engagement with broader theories. Fischer-Nielsen's chapter on Danish Pastors on the Internet, for example, engages with secularization theory and strategies of established churches. Hutchings' study on his extended ethnographic research with online churches engages with mediatization theory, networked individualism and networked collectivism, and religious social shaping of technology (RSST), an approach born from within digital religion studies by Campbell (2010). These engagements are crucial not only because incorporating broader new media theories clarify digital religion, but because digital religion helps build a clearer picture of of the landscape of social engagement and use of new media.

I think one phrase in the book is emblematic of the climate of digital religion. In the second chapter of the book, Knut Lundby writes, regarding the question of virtual churches, “The quality of virtual and other Net church expressions, I will argue, becomes crucial if they add to the experience of a 'real church' for people” (p. 37). “Real church” in quotes here refers not to the virtual church, but church experience in general. I think these quotation marks surrounding the general experience of “real church” is reflexive of the attitude that there is a sort of tension with the arrival of new media. The virtual is not a parallel universe as much as it is weaved into the fabric of religious life; the effects are complex.

While the edited volume limits itself almost exclusively to the study of Christian religion and theology, and doesn't focus so much on innovative methodology in digital religion, it is an important lynchpin in the development of digital religion. Continued progress in the field of digital religion, I believe, is further engagement with broader theories to substantiate, qualify, or dispel them, and develop more theories and approaches unique to the field.

Wendi Bellar - Thursday, August 15, 2013 - 22:37

As a young scholar studying religion and new media I have not been exposed to much literature mentioning, much less focusing on, the role of gender. Mia Lövheim’s new edited volume, Media, Religion and Gender: Key Issues and New Challenges is helping to fill that gap as well as encouraging more critical analyses of the intersection among the three areas.

The book opens with chapters focusing on literature that does exit in this area, how feminist and queer theories have and can shape the field, and methodological concerns and implications. These first chapters provide an excellent foundation on which the rest of the book is built. The following chapters are specific case studies focusing on different areas such the testimonial practice of Christian women through different media formats; gender representation in religious journalism; gender and sexuality constructed in Vodou online discussion forums; Muslim women using new media to claim religious authority; and US cultural discourse on masculinity, media and religion.

Perhaps the most helpful case studies for new media and religion scholars were those that focused on online-offline life and social media. For example, new media like Facebook and Twitter are often lauded as tools through which users have their voices heard on their own terms. Klassen and Loften’s chapter analyzing how women give testimony about their faith through new media opportunities, however, problematizes these new platforms. Rather than becoming a liberating form of communication, they see these testimonial performances through social media as a further commodification of the Christian woman’s experience that takes place in an environment of increased theological judgment.

While Kalssen and Loften’s chapter problematized new media practices, others showed how they could be transformational and transcendent. Although not focusing solely on new media, Petersen’s chapter does show how social media participation was an essential part of the meaning-making process for teens’ understanding of romance and spirituality portrayed in the Twilight series. Likewise, Boutros used a transnational feminist approach to show how participatory media, like discussion forums, can foster “new forms of cultural productions” of gender and sexuality as well as “new social relationship around religious identities,” (p. 108).

Media, Religion and Gender provides a good overview of feminist and media theories, some discussion of methodological matters, and case studies that begin to fill the gap in the literature. However, the book is heavy on feminist and mediatization theories while only contributing one chapter to studies of masculinity, and one chapter with some discussion of queer identity. While there is a need for more focus on queer and masculine theories, the edited volume is still an essential guide for the growing discussion surrounding gender in media, religion, and culture studies.


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