The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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The disaggregated divine

We talk about college, we talk about media, we talk about industries in general, now here’s an interesting window into the church. Because of course, if everyone else is coping with the consequences of the digitization of aspects of their worlds, why should the clergy be exempt?

Televangelism has been around much longer than I have. But it remains a very particular type of worship, looked upon by old-school churchgoers as lowbrow, lazy, sensationalistic, stuffed with cheap visual thrills. In other words, they regard it much the same way “serious” media consumers tend to regard television generally.

Digivangelism, on the other hand, could be something altogether different. Much like the rest of the Internet, it can go in two directions – more vulgar and shallow than the worst televised atrocity, or even more genuine and fervent than the communal physical worship experience. In his essay, “In Defense of Virtual Church,” Pastor Douglas Estes is clearly aiming for the latter, but seems to strike many believers in the comments as merely making a case for the former.

Estes specializes in one manifestation of the virtual church, perhaps the most obvious. As far as I can tell, he’s most concerned with the concept of church in virtual worlds (like Second Life), which I find a little disappointing. But he’s acquired at least one really thoughtful critic, who’s promising to take on these ideas in a four-part series called “In Defense of Physical Community.” As you might expect, Nicholas Carr gets name-dropped in part one, but I have high hopes he’ll go beyond that in parts two through four:

  • The Cultural Implications of the Internet
  • The Physical Limitations of the Internet
  • The Ecclesiological and Scriptural Implications of Online Church

I think this is a fascinating conversation. It’s another front in the high-church/low-church wars that are still raging over the Internet and its effects on our culture. But this time it’s actually about church! When people refer to old-school journalists as a “priesthood,” they’re employing a droll metaphor. In this context, when someone talks about the priesthood, they’re for real.

The Catholic in me – the boy who led his high school’s worship team, who carried around a copy of the Catechism to reference in doctrinal debates – is also dying to see how this turns out. I can imagine a journalism that consistently uses the best aspects of the Web to deliver a deeper understanding than any form of journalism we’ve seen to date. And I can sort of squint my eyes and picture a spiritual experience online that stirred me more than the scent of wood and holy water, the thumbing of an ashen cross onto my forehead, a whispered “Peace be with you.” I’ve had spiritual experiences online before, but I’ve never seen what I would call an online church. For a lover of the Internet and its potential, the possibility is deeply exciting.


Thanks for these links. This is a discussion I have a lot of interest in too. I study communication, and am very invested in questions of church and worship. I’ll check in on the rest of that series, that guy seems on the same track as me.

In general, I say this about virtual church:
things it has: the ability to talk to other people and get to know them personally and intimately. (some) accountability. probably enables discussion more than physical church. also makes life easier for people who might be disabled or ugly or bad-smelling or not dressed well.
things it doesn’t have: potlucks. body and blood. hugs.

based on these arguments, virtual church is superior to megachurch, inferior to small local church. But I can imagine situations where it might be the best thing going.

I think the thing that has really blown my mind on this front are Skype-based multi-continental reading/discussion/singing groups. There is something really disorienting about eating dinner with someone and having them drop references to “it’s like so-and-so was saying in lecture,” or “I got this new tune for that song from so-and-so” when the so-and-so’s involved live half way around the world, and until a few weeks ago such references would have certainly meant there was a physical program.

The other thing that has blown my mind are cell phone videos of pilgrimages. I think the fact that so many Indians have cell phone video cameras has effectively forced priests to stop excluding cameras, so suddenly all these ancient places are opening up to photography, but there’s also something about a cell phone video that makes you feel the crowds more—plus everyone else in the video is also taking a video.

I don’t think that it will ever compete with “real life”—if anything, watching those videos has me browsing ticket prices. But I do think that it can make diasporas feel less lonely, and can provide a lot of comfort to the homebound, which is pretty magical.

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