An iPhone Convert in More Ways than One

31 08 2010

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, May 24, 2010

I’m a Blackberry girl. My closest friends and family can attest to the fact that my BB and I are rarely apart from each other. My partner has an iPhone, and I occasionally go over to the dark side. In all honesty, it has better (cooler) applications. To date my favourite iPhone app is the Ocarina (iPhone flute), or it was, until I discovered iChristian, a free application which “contains the minimum required information to become a Christian.”

The App leads the would-be believer through the standard evangelical message of salvation citing scriptural evidence of God’s love (John 3:16), human sinfulness (Romans 3:23 and 6:23) and the necessity of sacrificial atonement (Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:8-9). The App concludes with the common image of Jesus standing at the door of the potential adherent’s heart (Revelation 3:20). Our tech-savvy convert is invited to receive Jesus and pray the Sinner’s Prayer (see previous link) through which she assumes the Christian identity as a ‘child of God’ (John 1:12). The newly minted Christian is then instructed to follow up on their commitment:
  • Tell someone else about your faith in Christ.
  • Spend time with God each day. It does not have to be a long period of time. Just develop the daily habit of praying to Him and reading His Word. Ask God to increase your faith and your understanding of the Bible.
  • Seek fellowship with other Christians. Develop a group of Christian friends to answer your questions and support you.
  • Find a local church where you can worship God.
Interestingly, the new believer is not directed to be baptised which is common in most online salvation templates (both those used by Christians to convert their friends, family and strangers and those, like the iChristian application, which guide the user through the process on her own).

Upon completion of the conversion process the believer “may register as a Christian” and have his or her name and email address listed on the website of the company that created the App.

Materiality and Transcendence

The use of the cell phone for religious activities has been documented by Inken Mädler (2008) whose work focuses on the way that cell phones represent for adolescents a means by which they generate and express identity. She examines the ways that the cell phones function as both a medium for religious symbols and a (lived) religious symbol itself. Mädler argues that the cell phone serves as a venue in which relationships might be created and ordered. Many of the teens in her study reported that they felt an intimate connection to their cell phone, and it served as a “symbol of the self” (18) and a storehouse of “sacred memories” of the individual’s biography (19). We develop, Mädler argues, in relation to physical items.

The use of the cell phone as a material location for Christian conversion is not all that surprising or even innovative (the Gideon’s have been leaving bibles in hotel rooms for over a century hoping that a would-be convert might lead himself—or, as they would have it, be led by God—through the conversion experience). For Protestant evangelicals, especially, the iChristian application complements their emphasis on solitary introspection, which stands in opposition to the preferences of other forms of Christianity emphasising community or clerical authoritarianism. With this in mind, I suggest that the iChristian phone application reflects a conflict between materiality and transcendence, which anthropologist of Christianity Webb Keane (2007) identifies as one of the core concerns of Protestantism. He points out that while Protestant conversion has paradoxically served as a model for enacting agency (a paradox since, theologically speaking, the agency should be God’s), it remains a human activity in which human practices enable self-transformation (see Keane 2007: 56; see also Keane 2002).

i[am]Christian

Both Keane and Mädler point to interiority as the primary concern of their subjects and examine the way that material objects become a location for a process involving self-generation and transformation to occur. The iPhone itself is an ideal venue for these themes, as Mädler’s research specifically suggests. Indeed, the very name of the iPhone, with the first-person personal pronoun at the beginning, lends itself to the process (I assume that this is not merely a coincidence but rather represents clever market research). The iChristian application continues this linguistic word play by registering the user on an international list of individuals who have likewise pursued salvation and may proudly declare (in 200 characters or less) that “I am a Christian” through the iChristian app. This pronouncement that transformation has occurred is an important part of the contemporary evangelical conversion process (see Stromberg 1993; note that the first directive for the new adherent is to share their faith/status with someone else).

In the ancient world this declaration, “I am a Christian” served to generate a new identity. As Judith Lieu (2002) explains the term ‘Christian’ itself is used infrequently and perhaps we could say anachronistically in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16). The term gains currency among would-be martyrs for whom explicitly stating, “I am a Christian” was the appropriate response to an interrogator in early Christian martyr literature. In fact, according to Lieu, “the label ‘Christian’ belonged pre-eminently to the martyrs,” who even in death emulate Jesus but less so to other Christians (2002: 221). Lieu explains that in this literature an understanding of those who die as Christians are not conceived of as victims but rather as agents through whom “a new way of understanding is created and maintained.” She goes on to argue that from the perspective of the text, “the determinative moment is not the death, however extended or graphic, nor even the preceding torture; rather it is the declaration Christiana sum (2002: 213). This performative spoken declaration is so powerful, according to Lieu, that for some well-known martyrs (e.g. Perpetua, Tertulian and Polycarp) the statement “I am a Christian” is represented as a self-conception in which ‘Christian’ surpasses and subverts ethnic, national, civic or familial identities (in the case of Perpetua, her father is so distraught at this new identity that he comes close to physically assaulting her and gouging out her eyes).

This emphasis on the performative statement as indicative of an inner transformation is one of the core characteristics of contemporary evangelicalism. From the perspective of the iChristian app, I was able to nonverbally transform my partner into a Christian by clicking a few hyperlinks, scrolling through the Sinner’s Prayer and sending his name to the app’s designer. Contemporary evangelicals, for the most part, do not have to worry about eye gouging as a result of the declaration but I may need to when my partner finds out that I also sent them his email address (the app promised, but did not deliver, a certificate indicating his new status).

References:

Keane, Webb (2002). “Sincerity, “Modernity,” and the Protestants.” Cultural Anthropology 17(1): 65-92.

Keane, Webb (2007). Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lieu, Judith (2002). Neither Greek nor Jew: Constructing Early Christianity. New York: T &T Clark.

Mädler, Inken (2008). “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In On Cell Phones. About the Materiality of Life-World as a Challenge for Religious Education.” Pp. 13-23 in Lived Religion: Conceptual, Empirical and Practical-Theological Approaches: Essays in Honor of Hans-Günter Heimbrock. (eds). Heinz Streib, Astrid Dinter and Kerstin Söderblom. Leiden: Brill.

Stromberg, Peter G. (1993). Language and Self-transformation: A Study of the Christian Conversion Narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press.




Reality TV, reality me.

31 08 2010

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, February 12, 2010


This blog post begins with a confession: I love reality television, like really love it —in fact, I might be addicted. As is often the case with graduate students, when I like something, it is for the selfish reason that it reminds me of my project. That’s right! Reality television makes me think about my research on contemporary liberal Protestants. Specifically, it reminds me of the ways that Evangelical Protestant conversion rhetorics are mirrored in non-evangelical environments.

Religion and Reality TV

I am certainly not the first person to note the religious elements of reality TV. Many have commented on the ways which shows like Survivor or Big Brother seem to replicate the liminality of an initiation ceremony à la Victor Turner. Others have taken note of the genre’s explicit religious references: prayers and religious discussions by contestants, the God-like powers provided to the audience who are often given final judgement over the fate of the contestants, the overly ritualised ceremonies of elimination, so on and so forth. Still others have reflected on the fact that after having passed through this period of testing and undue suffering, the contestants are granted celebrity status similar to that of the mythic heroes of old (although whether or not one designates them as heroes or so-called Z-list celebrities depends on one’s own affection or lack thereof for the genre).

The upcoming season of ‘Survivor: Heroes versus Villains’, which premiered last night, is banking on the hero designation from its fan-base. This season features a Manichean casting of the ten most benevolent against the ten most malevolent contestants from past series (the American version of the show is in its twentieth season). Astute observers of the show will note that rather than the familiar slogan: ‘Outwit, Outplay, Outlast’ this season’s catch phrase has apocalyptic undertones: ‘Return, Revenge, Redemption.’ If last night’s episode is meant to set the standard, it is clear that the show is seeking to complicate the hero-villain dichotomy by suggesting that the status of hero is retroactively applied after all the chips have been played.

Their Eyes were Watching Us


Scholars of reality TV (yes, there is a vibrant discourse on the topic) have found that while many cultural commentators dismissively presume that audiences are attracted to reality TV by some sort of sick voyeurism, the majority of viewers tune-in specifically because they seek an experience that is simultaneously authentic and performed. According to Hill (2005) reality shows have “capitalized on this tension between appearance and reality by ensuring that viewers have to judge for themselves which of the contestants are being genuine” (70). This quest for a determined authenticity appeals to the inner-Calvinist, which Weber tells us we all possess as members of Western society, and echoes concerns of the “frozen-chosen” about who is and who is not predestined for salvation.

In reality television the tension between the performed self and the authentic self is addressed in the contestant’s one-on-one interviews with a silent, off-camera interviewee (who stands in for the viewing audience). In CBS’s Big Brother these interviews take place in a special location of the house known as the Diary Room, which is off-limits except for these moments of introspection. In their interviews, contestants reflect upon their actions; these monologues often resemble a confession of sorts explaining, or perhaps justifying, acts of deception within the game. The audience, having been provided with “the whole story,” is therefore able to determine whether or not the deception (dare I say, sin) is forgivable.

The winner is ultimately selected by either the television audience or the other contestants themselves. In Survivor and Big Brother the two finalists are subjected to one final grilling, or judgement, during which they are asked to account for all of their past actions. In this context their past sins are arranged narratologically in such a way that we are made to understand that while they may have deceived so-and-so it was done for the greater glory of the game (evidenced by their position in the final two). With liturgical exactness, all of their past sins are brought to light by the former contestants, and they are ultimately deemed worthy or unworthy—see Susan Hawk’s infamous snake and a rat speech from the finale of the first season of Survivor as an example.

These various depictions and presentations of the self are what I find most fascinating about reality television, as they seem to follow a pattern and adhere to tensions evident in contemporary Protestant narratives of transforming identity (I refer specifically to the conversion experience most popular among evangelical Christians which advocates a new self brought about through the process of having been ‘born again’).

It’s Just a Game; It’s Just your Life


The recognition that “it’s just a game” is common in shows like Survivor, Big Brother and The Amazing Race, which establish themselves as competition-based. A second genre of reality television, the Makeover Show, intersects intimately with the so-called real lives of real people.

Popular series such as TLCs ‘What Not to Wear,’ the Slice Network’s ‘Last Ten Pounds Bootcamp’ or NBC’s ‘The Biggest Loser’ are specifically focused on exposing its subjects failings and enacting a permanent physical, psychological (and moral) transformation. In What Not to Wear, the participants are unknowingly filmed for weeks to expose their many fashion faux-pas and then subjected to 360 degree mirror in which their favourite outfits are mocked and critiqued. They are schooled in the laws of fashion and are then sent out into the world to attempt to abide by the new rules. The initial attempts of the contestants are never successful, and after a tear-filled recognition that they cannot save themselves from their fashion failings, the perfectly assembled co-hosts swoop down to save the day. In the Slice Network’s ‘Lat Ten Pounds Bootcamp’ contestants’ cupboards are raided and their junk-food consuming sins are exposed for all to see. The hosts make the offense especially clear by dumping pounds of lard and sugar on the floor to represent the calories consumed each week by the lethargic glutton. NBC’s hit series ‘The Biggest Loser’ follows a similar pattern: contestants are stripped naked and dramatically confronted by their obesity on a weekly basis. They are asked to account for each calorie consumed and each minute of physical activity. Each week those who lose the least amount of weight are eliminated until the final individual must stand alone in judgement providing a full account of his or her actions. In each instance the problem is recast as a moral dilemma (contestant A does not respect her body; contestant B has a weakness for potato chips; contestant C is living in the past—evidenced by her inability to give up her nineties-styled hair scrunchies and neon pants). These problems and others are overcome by hard work and the right program: as long as she follows the correct diet/exercise/colour coordination she will find relief.

In each instance the champion emerges as a new self–the unfashionable heroine is decked out in the latest trends; Ali Vincent loses 112 lbs in Season Five of The Biggest Loser; and contestant after contestant on The Last Ten Pounds weeps because she is finally able to fit into her wedding dress/string bikini/skinny pants.

The Makeover Show provides a neatly packaged thirty minute/one hour/or season-long transformation of the old self into a new (and better) self. In the end, despite the humiliation, the subject represents his or herself as improved and redeemed. Affirming for the viewing audience that the process was “the best thing ever,” participants understand themselves as having received deliverance from their food/bad fashion/etc. sins. This transformation, they tell us, would have been impossible were it not for the actions of the hosts and the good people at [insert major television network here].

The ultimate thanks, however, goes to the individual herself. She enacts agency and brings about her own physical (moral) transformation. A revelatory moment of self-awareness and an inner-desire for change prompts her to take that initial step, that first act of faith to contact the producers and audition for the show.

The resemblance to Protestant conversion rhetoric is telling; participants in the Makeover Show follow the traditional model for a Christian testimony. The Pauline echoes of the new self are palpable. As with the final vote ceremonies in Survivor and Big Brother, the subject summarises all of the events into a concise and coherent narrative of transformation. The past self is no more as the new and better self emerges; this transformation is visually signified to us by new clothes, better hair and a fitter body, as well as the many declarations that now, at last, they feel fulfilled.

Confession and Obsession


It all starts with that initial recognition that something is not right—the public confession on the part of the reality television subject ensures the ultimate resolution and transformation. So maybe there is still hope for me. I have after all taken the first step. I have confessed my addiction in this very public forum of the Religion Beat Blog – I’ll be waiting for my million dollars and my new and better self but until then I’ll be tuning in to Survivor on Thursday nights.




The Origins of Ray Comfort’s Darwin: Text as Authoritative Object

30 08 2010

Originally Posted at The Religion Beat, November 30th, 2009

A Crisp Wednesday Afternoon on Campus

University students and free things apparently go hand-in-hand. Pizza is best. Or any kind of food really. But books, especially controversial ones, are guaranteed to attract a crowd. It was just this thinking that enticed throngs of students last week outside the University of Toronto’s Sid Smith Hall (and other campuses across North America).

– Would you like a free 150th anniversary copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species?”

— Indeed, I would.

And indeed I did. My research examines the ways which contemporary Christians interact with texts and the creation of textual identity. While I’m specifically interested in the ways which Christians interact with and evaluate texts from antiquity (those deemed both canonical and non-canonical), I see this specific use of the Origin of Species as an interesting case study through which we can begin to analyse interpretive communities and their understanding of authoritative knowledge.

The Controversy: Ray Comfort’s Online Fame

There have been a plethora of online commentaries, internet blogs posts, and facebook groups featuring the Comfort edition of Origin of Species that highlight the irony and insolence of the Comfort introduction and, of course, point to the fact that this “abridged” version of the text leaves out the four key evidence-for-evolution chapters, aligns Darwin’s theory with Nazi party rhetoric, and condemns other faiths. Those who have not had the opportunity to read up on the controversy can take a look at recent posts at Religion Dispatches, or on the blog of Butler University religion professor James F. McGrath. Also of interest is the counter-site created by the National Centre for Science Education with its pithy title, Don’t Diss Darwin which provides flyers and bookmarks for those who would like to launch a counter counter-Darwin campaign. Those who would like to hear it from the horse’s mouth itself (that is, from Comfort) can watch the well-circulated ‘Atheist Nightmare’ youtube video that earned Comfort the moniker ‘Banana Man’.

Bibles, Sound-bites and Bananas as Objects

In the era of thirty-second sound-bites, Comfort’s over-the-top approach is not surprising, and anyone familiar with Christian evangelism knows that the practice of distribution of texts (bibles and tracts) runs deep in American history.

Indeed, many argue along with Paul C. Gutjahr that it is the bible, over and above geography, political leadership (as in the monarchy), or language, that has served as a cornerstone in the formation of American collective identity. Along the same lines, historian David Paul Nord traces the history of the distribution of biblical texts and tracts (often freely distributed) in antebellum America. Nord reveals that the distribution of texts by various missionary outposts was supported by the both the conviction of sola scriptura, as well as a home-grown emphasis on the democratisation of knowledge which asserted that each individual had the agency and capacity to form a correct opinion once presented with sufficient (in this case biblical) evidence.

More recently the involvement of Christians in the marketing, promotion and distribution of block-buster films and books (most notably Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and the popular Left Behind series) reveals that the market for biblically-themed narratives hold high currency for evangelists who recognise that the bible itself has become a hard sell.

For religious scholars studying evangelistic practices the bible as a text must be considered along-side the bible as object. To quote again from Gutjahr:

One of the most fascinating aspects of the study of the Bible in the United States is how important the material character of the book is in complementing its contents. There are times when a Bible’s packaging is as important to its cultural use as are the words it contains. Often Americans “read” a Bible before they look at its words. The material nature of Bibles can send messages by being displayed on a parlor table, resting on a pulpit, or being used to swear in an incoming president.

For Gutjahr, the role of the bible and its interpretation, publication and distribution accompanies an examination of the message and the medium of other sacred texts in America (e.g., Joseph Smith’s, Book of Mormon; Mary Baker Eddy’s, Science and Health; L. Ron Hubbard’s, Dianetics, as well as the Bhagavad Gita and the Qur’an).

To this list one could add various texts such as the Origin of Species or the works of Richard Dawkins that have become increasingly important to devotees of the so-called New Atheist Movement. In fact, on online atheist discussion boards, the Origin of Species is often suggested as an alternate text for those who are required to swear an oath in court. Like Gutjahr’s assessment of the bible, Darwin’s text is “read” as part of a larger conversation and narrative which originates in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial that dealt with issues surrounding access to education, Christian identity markers and interactions between religious and legal institutions.

The Interpretive Function of the Text

It should not surprise us that the use of a non-Christian text (along with movies, tracts and even blogs) to promote proselytization is an attractive one. What is of interest and demands both scholarly study and popular discussion is the means through which the Origin of Species (albeit in an altered, abridged format) becomes (presumably unintentionally) aligned with sacred texts and made authoritative through this process of distribution. I suspect that Comfort is banking on the fact that while (much like the bible), many people talk about the Origin of Species, very few actually take the time to read it closely. His introduction is clear, plainly written in a large font which stands in sharp contrast to the small font and Victorian style-writing of the rest of the book.

For those who might not even read Comfort’s introduction, the book jacket very clearly refers to evolutionary theory as part of an unfinished investigation which “a wealth of scientific discoveries since 1971” has dismissed.

Indeed as scholars of interpretive communities will tell us, one of the best ways to refute opponents is to draw them into one’s own discourse and translate their terms as unfinished revelation. Comfort does this by suggesting that Darwin’s theory is no longer viable from within the scientific community itself and then offers his reader an alternative worldview which the reader can immediately act upon by praying the sinner’s prayer.

A Working Model

But isn’t this what religion has always done?

Professor Jim Linville reporting on the (somewhat related) Conservative Bible Project points out:

Religions are always innovating, changing and evolving (I just had to get that word in!). Humans create them, consume then and then fiddle with them to make them better suited to their changing needs. Yet, religions are often portrayed as as [sic] timeless. A novelty quickly becomes the way one has always done things. Innovate like hell and do it conservatively.

As an example, Linville points to the suspected ‘deuteronomistic redaction’ of the biblical book of Jeremiah, in which a community with affinity for the book of Deuteronomy reworked certain passages so as to align them more closely with its terms and ideologies.

Similar examples include the gospel writers of Matthew and Luke and their adaptations of the gospel of Mark, the Q-source and other now-lost sources. In fact the author of Luke tells Theophilus that:

I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write and orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1:3-4, NRSV).

This suggests that some of sources available to Theophilus are disorderly, problematic or just plain wrong. While it seems unlikely that Luke would have appended his interpretation directly to these “incorrect” accounts (the way that Comfort has done with the Origin of Species), nevertheless, the practices are not dissimilar. Theophilus is presumably aware of alternative versions of the gospel’s narrative and is maybe even relieved to have a text that more clearly aligns with his own religious and ideological sensitivities. Our modern preferences concerning knowledge and ideology leave us horrified by Comfort’s project, but we cannot deny that his is a venture rooted in ancient practices which, over time, (as in the case of the Gospel of Luke) are permitted to stand (by both devotees and scholars) as the normative version of the text.

What remains of interest is the use of Darwin’s text as a dismissed object with which to promote Christianity. I am suggesting that what it appears that Comfort is doing is simultaneously attributing an authoritative (sacred) status to the Origin of Species as an object while also dismissing its worth as an authoritative (scientific) work as a text. I would be interested if readers of The Religion Beat can identify this practice in other contemporary religious (and non-religious) forms and practices.

Scholarly References

Paul C. Gutjahr (2001). “The State of the Discipline: Sacred Texts in the United States,” Book History 4: 335-370.

David Paul Nord (2004). Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America. Toronto: Oxford University Press.








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