Technologies of Religion

Spheres of the Sacred in a Post-secular Modernity

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Sam Han
Routledge Research in Information Technology and Society
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , February
     2016.
     132 pages.
     $145.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138855861.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Technologies of Religion: Spheres of the Sacred in a Post-secular Modernity, Sam Han gives further coherence to the contemporary phenomena of “religion without religion,” or the myriad of ways in which religious transcendence is being rewritten and practiced in a postmodern age. According to Han, our neat and tidy theories of religion and technology, nestled as they are in modern notions of secularization theory and technoscientific principles, lack the explanatory power to describe contemporary religious practices as they are mediated by digital technologies. His central thesis is that “religion and new media technologies come together to create ‘spheres,’ or digital environments that recast prior theological definitions of religious participation and community” (12). Fighting against the modern desire to neatly compartmentalize conceptual schema such as religion, media, and culture into a hermeneutical vacuum, Han instead follows the lead of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in creating concepts that not only “work through” preceding scholarly analytics but also make sense of the events at hand.

The central concept Han regenerates is that of “worlds,” or the totalistic cosmologies that give ontological credence to one’s environment. Han moves through the frameworks established by modern thinkers such as Émile Durkheim, Peter L. Berger, and Mircea Eliade, who each attempted to think religion through holistic and thoroughly bounded schematics. Recalling Jacques Derrida’s genealogical insight that religio means both “to bind back” and also “to gather or assemble,” and taking note of Martin Heidegger’s idea that modern technology possesses substantive world-forming capabilities, Han writes that worlds in the digital age “are no longer neat entities but are modular milieux, dispositifs, and assemblages” that connect and bind previously detached worlds in a way that permits recombination and ontological resonation (30). Borrowing from Jean-Luc Nancy, Peter Sloterdijk, and Mark C. Taylor, Han suggests that contemporary religion and digital technologies offer a “stronger” theory of world-forming that does justice to universalization without also falling into the trap of totalization. The question at hand, then, is no longer one concerning the relationship between (supposedly) isolated, totalistic concepts like religion, culture, and technology, but how these concepts themselves internetwork and relationally complicate one another. The question, in other words, is about resonation, or about how these entangled networks possess the potential to “produce new situations and contexts by putting into play different systems and networks” (47). Han writes that these world-forming habits ought to be considered anew because “the worlding of contemporary religiosity takes on a distinctly different flavor than the totalizing models of ‘cosmos’ that mid-century sociology and history of religion largely purported. It is the theory of worlds…informed by digitization, which I believe to be operating in the theological conceptualization and practice use of digital technologies in contemporary American Protestantism, especially among multisite churches” (49).

Enter Han’s empirical analysis taken from “Bright Church,” a pseudonym for a real evangelical multisite church stretching across the Midwest and Atlantic regions. Han analyzes Bright Church’s theology of space as it is deployed by its complex high-tech audiovisual systems. These technologies impart a sense of connectedness, or an enacted social theory of space not only among the congregants engaged in a worship “experience” at any particular Bright Church site but also through the co-operating network of Bright Church sites, which operate simultaneously through an intricate technological “Global Operations Center” that strings together a flawless performance across multiple time zones on any given Sunday. Han invokes Sloterdijk’s “bubbles” as a form of life that best describes this technologically-enabled “liturgical aesthetics”: churches are drawn together within a liturgy that “emphasizes sensory, affective experience” (57). In this way, multiple heterogeneous bubbles or polyspheric worlds converge in a given worship space, where everybody from the “praise team” to the “lead pastor” attempts to foster a transcendent atmosphere (Greek atmos: vapor, sphaira: globe or ball) or “some kind of invisible entity within a specific space” (67). Digital media technologies are those that “activate certain affective capacities of (the) audience vis-à-vis perceptual experience” (68), and thus play a constitutive role in orienting the worshipper’s affect in these “environments of feeling” (72).

Following from this, digital technology also reinterprets and redraws classical and modern interpretations of a church’s social dynamics. Take a church’s “community,” for example: extracting from what is written above regarding the Sunday worship “experience,” Han writes that the active processes of building community amongst one’s church fellows has been transformed by a “communitarian dynamic,” whereby one engages a non-active (but not necessarily passive) mode of subjectivization that emphasizes a “watching-with,” which itself provides an experience of “feeling-with” (72). In other words, bonds are generated in the collective, affective experience of a Bright Church Sunday morning production even if, to the casual observer, very little active participation can be registered amongst the congregants. Han also explores Bright Church’s online dynamic in order to investigate how the shared, common practices of Internet platforms shape “the vicissitudes of the relations that act as the glue for community” (76). Through online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, Bright Church’s online community is rooted in an infrastructure that mediates both the online and offline worlds of its congregants in numerous ways. Community in an entity like Bright Church, therefore, is no longer rooted in modern, privatized notions such as individual membership and the prioritization of belief in the individual’s mental life; on the contrary, it is rooted in the sacramental “communality of proxemics,” or the “collective experience of intimacy or closeness through emotion, affect, and feelings”(86).

Han’s is a work that is theoretically exciting, critically sharp, and discursively rich. In combining a robust theoretical analysis of contemporary thinkers while keeping an empirical eye toward praxis, Han weaves together a book that ought to be essential reading in what is now a burgeoning discourse on the relationship between religion and technology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeff Appel is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Denver.

Date of Review: 
December 28, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sam Han is a Seoul-born, New York City-raised interdisciplinary social scientist, working in the areas of social and cultural theory, religion, new media and globalization. He is currently Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore and Adjunct Research Fellow at the Hawke Research Institute of the University of South Australia. He is author (with Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir) of Digital Culture and Religion in Asia (Routledge, 2015), Web 2.0 (Routledge, 2011),Navigating Technomedia: Caught in the Web (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007) and editor (with Daniel Chaffee) of The Race of Time: A Charles Lemert Reader (Paradigm Publishers, 2009).

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