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June 9, 2006

Religion and Cyberspace and Echols Church

A book released last year, edited by scholars Morten T. Hojgaard and Margit Warburg, brings us a reminder that one form of popular movement that has and continues to innovate the way the Internet is being used are religious movements.

In Religion and Cyberspace, a collection of academic work on the impact the Internet has had on various religious movements focuses not on the particulars but the overall way that one of the deepest human values in all culture--faith--has expanded with new means of communication.

Few movements are more grassroots and more "fan"-driven than religious movements (if you consider the faithful "fans" of their deity). Last year at MIT, when we were instructed to conduct an in-depth interview with a media content producer, I called back to my hometown baptist church in Echols, Ky., and contacted the pastor there, Darrell Belcher.

While many people who don't follow the Christian movement closely (especially since most strictly Christian programs only appear in places like Trinity Broadcasting) don't realize how media-savvy religion can be, Darrell discussed with me the importance of an oratory performance and the art of preaching, which he believes is often lost on those who study the craft in a seminary instead of being born with that gift of reaching people. Further, Belcher talked with me at length about the transmedia experience of transferring his sermons to video and to radio, both of which he has done.

Darrell had never done any Internet-related projects but said that he saw it as yet another tool to reach people, another communication forum. And that's what attracted me to learn more about Hojsgaard and Warburg's book. According to reviewer John Shelton Lawrence, whose review in the latest Journal of American Culture is how I learned about the book, a distinction made in most scholarship about religion stems from a comment made by A. Karaflogka, who cites the difference between "'religion on cyberspace' (where a religion merely uploads its usual wares to a server) and 'religion in cyberspace' (where new forms of worship are mediated by computer networks and reside there exclusively)" (247).

Similarly, Darrell talked to me at length about what a disaster one would have if they were unable to adapt their sermon appropriately for the radio medium, yet try to recreate the atmosphere of a church meeting by learning how to address the home listener versus the live congregation.

Regardless of one's religious affiliation or lack of one, these distinctions are important for all transmedia content. As Darrell realizes with radio preaching and as scholars who distinguish between on and in cyberspace acknowledge, media content is just not that interesting if some degree of medium specificity isn't kept in mind. I mean, sure you can video tape a play and put it on screen or transport clips from a show and put it on the Internet, but it will be imagination and new concepts of content that will drive new media and transmedia opportunities. And that's one message the industry can learn from.

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