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.
So I was browsing Download.com (as I, you know, sometimes do) and noticed an interesting app. It was #36 or something on the most-downloaded list at the time—right up there next to WinZip and “Download Accelerator Plus.” It was a little program called Athan.
The athan is the call to prayer that you hear in Muslim countries, five times a day. Usually broadcast on tinny loudspeakers, it’s become a cliche of international reporting, an easy atmospheric effect. “Then, the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to pray—distant, spectral—echoed through the streets.” Something like that.
It sounds like this. I tried to find a video that was more representative of actually hearing an athan in a Muslim city; it’s never so well-recorded, never so in-your-face. It’s more like the emergency sirens that cities rev up here in the U.S. on the first Tuesday of every month (or whatever)—you can hear it everywhere, but it always seems to be coming from somewhere else.
(Here’s something I don’t know: Do mosques in the U.S. or Europe play the athan over loudspeakers? Are they allowed? Probably not, right?)
Now, to be clear, I am a serious atheist. I am not dabbling in Islam. But even so, this app really called out to me (ha!) for two reasons. One, nostalgia. I do remember the athan—distant, spectral—from my time in Dhaka. Two, structure. I’m building my days entirely for myself now, and finding that it’s a challenge to split them into pieces. When does this thing end, and that one begin? It’s arbitrary. So—admittedly this is silly—I thought hey, this works for folks! Let’s give it a spin!
I am 100% glad I downloaded it, if only to see the interface.
Wow. Do you want the athan from Mecca or Medina? How about one from Egypt? They’ve all been sampled. Do you want the dua after the athan? What juristic method will you be using for the asr prayer? (The default is the one preferred by Imams Shafii, Hanbali, and Maliki.)
It might sound like I’m poking fun, but I am absolutely 100% not. One of my favorite intersections—and one of the most underreported—is the one between technology and religion. And an app like this lets you not just read about it, but sort of explore it.
And, come on: 42,305 downloads on Download.com last week! This is significant. This is a piece of culture, a piece of people’s lives.
Weirdly, it is now a part of my life, too. The volume is set really low, so the fajr athan at 5:43 a.m. doesn’t wake me up. I can’t even hear it in the next room. But the athans do play, and they do offer a gentle reminder to pull myself out of my laptop and look around.
And sometimes—this is the fun part—I’ll be listening to my writing soundtrack Pandora station, and the athan will start up, and it will suddenly be the coolest technology/religion remix you’ve ever heard.
(I’m totally on some watchlist now, aren’t I?)