Promoting Religious Literacy in a Digital Age

August 18, 2016
Dudley Rose
HDS professor Dudley Rose


The Pamphlet is a new podcast devoted to the surprising history of Unitarian Universalism, including its connections to pirates in the colonial era and to Communist spies in the 1950s. HDS alumnus Sean Neil-Barron, MDiv ’15, who cocreated the podcast, says its title points back to the cheaply printed tracts that helped spread religious viewpoints to the masses, often generating spirited rebuttals in the process.

Today, paper tracts can still be found on the occasional street corner, but they have largely been replaced by podcasts, tweets, and Facebook status updates, which can be just as contentious as the old pamphlets. Rapidly evolving technologies, especially social media, have forced religious leaders and scholars of religion to consider the advantages and drawbacks of these powerful tools in communicating with people around the world. 

HDS students, alumni, and professors are helping to pioneer the use of new technology in the realms of religion and religious scholarship. Take, for example, the growing number of podcasts; viral videos of debates about religion; the construction of online Sikh communities; the taking of “Tech Sabbaths;” and a book about how best to be a Christian minister in a digital age.

To introduce students to the possibilities and pitfalls of this emerging world, HDS professor Dudley Rose offered a class this spring called “Ministry in a Digital Age.” Students learned the debates around the use of technology by faith leaders and worked on digital projects of their own.

Rose said the majority of students focused on building websites integrated with social media. Some of these web presences served conventional ministries, such as a student advertising his services as a traveling preacher. Others were less traditional: a foundation for the preservation of historic buildings or a therapy business based on spiritual principles.

Engaging discussions

Some of the digital projects took different forms.

“One student, Emmanuel Escamilla, started an organization that teaches high school kids in less advantaged areas how to code, so his project was to build a sophisticated platform for students to remotely ask questions of the teachers, who were often located elsewhere,” Rose said.

Another student, Ariana Nedelman, MDiv ’18, worked on producing a podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. Though this was her first podcast, Nedelman is no stranger to the world of tech. Before coming to HDS, she worked as social media manager at PBS Digital Studios and helped produce a vlog (video blog) series based on Jane Austen novels. This summer, she was an intern at On Being, a public radio program about faith and ethics.

The Harry Potter podcast is an outgrowth of an unorthodox book club started by Vanessa Zoltan, MDiv ’15, and Casper ter Kuile, MDiv ’16, based at Harvard’s Humanist Hub where Zoltan is an assistant chaplain. There, people who mostly did not identify with existing spiritual traditions gathered to read the Harry Potter series deeply and mindfully, as if it were an ancient sacred text.

“I attended the meetings at the Humanist Hub and immediately saw the potential in how well everyone talked together. So with the podcast, we wanted not just to proselytize but to make it a conversation, like the group was,” Nedelman said.

Each episode of the podcast is a discussion between co-hosts Zoltan and ter Kuile about a single Harry Potter chapter. With a lively, bantering style, they delve into the text by speculating on characters’ motivations, drawing ethical lessons, bringing their own biography to bear on the story, choosing specific characters to bless, and applying spiritual reading techniques, such as the Christian practice of imagining oneself into a Scriptural narrative. In order to widen the conversation beyond the two co-hosts, a voicemail from a listener is played, offering a new perspective on the last week’s chapter.

The conversational format creates a sense of intimacy, which for Nedelman is one of the great advantages of mediums like podcasting and video-blogging.

“You don't have to be extraordinary or good enough for TV in a vlog, and that's what people are attracted to. For instance, there's an emerging genre of illness diaries where people vlog about their cancer treatments or record diaries of their gender transition. It has the ability to open up these experiences you wouldn't otherwise have access to,” she said.

Even as these new media can feel more personal, they invite unlimited participation from around the globe, a power Nedelman finds inspiring.

“One reason I’m in [divinity] school is because of the spaces created by fandom to come together and love something together and discover themselves in dialogue. The general advantage of any Internet project is that you have so many people talking to each other who would never come together otherwise.”

Zoltan was excited to broaden the reach of the Harry Potter discussions, which are aimed at a religiously unaffiliated audience usually defined more by a lack of belonging than by a sense of community.

“People would write to us and say, ‘I wish I lived nearby,’ so a podcast felt like a natural next step,” she said.

The series has already generated an impressive response.

“We get such sweet emails from people about what the podcast means to them,” Zoltan said. “We’re already averaging about 1,000 listens a day, which was our goal for six months from now; so that's fun. People are responding to how sincere we are in our approach, which is what we were hoping for. We’re trying to model sincerity and love.”

Communicating context

Technology’s ability to unite widely dispersed people according to shared interests or identities is also important to Simran Singh, MTS ’08. He is a professor of religion at Trinity University in Texas, a senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition, and a member of the Sikh faith.

Sikhs are a religious minority in the United States who are little understood by the general population and are sometimes confused with Muslims. For Singh, Twitter is a tool with which to educate people about Sikhs and the issues they face, as well as to network with others of his faith.

“When I was growing up in Texas, I had very little idea what was happening with the Sikh community in other parts of the U.S. Now, we are connected in a way that it is almost impossible for me not to know when something is being reported about Sikh Americans, whether it occurs in Seattle, Washington, Texas, or Cambridge,” he said.

Singh also pointed to social media’s potential as a platform for advocacy.

“We are now seeing incredible leaps in social progress—from education to political legislation—being facilitated through social media. For the first time in more than a century since arriving in the U.S., Americans are beginning to recognize Sikhs within the national milieu—and I believe that social media has played an important role in that development.”

Reza Aslan, MTS ’99, is another scholar of religion and HDS alumnus with a lively social media presence. The author of books like the bestselling Zealot, about the historical Jesus, and No God But God, on the history of Islam, Aslan comments on religious topics and current events through his Twitter account, which has 182,000 followers.

“I think what Twitter allows is for public thinkers to build a kind of brand, so that whenever events take place around the world that fall into one’s wheelhouse, people can come to you for perspective on those events. This is part of what it means to be a scholar in the world, which is what I think we’re all called to be,” he said.

For Aslan, this calling has led to multiple viral videos of him debating news anchors. In one interview, he rebuts generalizations about Islam by pointing out the religion’s diversity of practices around the globe. In another YouTube clip, which has been viewed 1.6 million times, Aslan explains repeatedly to a disbelieving anchor why being Muslim does not disqualify him from writing a scholarly book on Jesus.

Aslan said HDS is where he decided he wanted to aim for a wider audience as a scholar.

“Social media is like expanding the classroom, except you have huge numbers of students who are looking for precisely the kind of nuance that is so often missing from these conversations, particularly in the 140-character world of Twitter.”

Though Aslan has embraced the platform, he also acknowledged its drawbacks.

“When you only have this limited space to make some grand statement on religion and politics, two big subjects, you can easily be misconstrued, and that has happened to me on numerous occasions. I have a better filter now, where I’ll write a tweet and then say, There’s no way for me to communicate what I really want to in a nuanced way in 140 characters, so perhaps it’s better left unsaid.”

Singh, too, wrestles with this problem.

“One of the most important ideas I learned at HDS was the need to recognize the complexities underlying everything that we encounter. When communicating with the public, I try to simplify the ideas so that they are comprehensible, yet at the same time, I try not to oversimplify to the point of distortion or misrepresentation.”

Ministry in the digital age

Still, the need to engage with the evolving technological landscape usually outweighs the risks, for clergy as well as scholars. Rev. Keith Anderson, MDiv ’00, wrote a book on how Christian pastors can best use the new resources available to them, The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World.

Anderson found that his digital ministry enriched aspects of his traditional ministry.

“I started putting these two-minute Bible study videos on YouTube, where I’d reflect on different passages, and I realized it became part of my sermon preparation because I was doing it early in the week, thinking about the text, and boiling it down to a couple of minutes.” He then laughed, “Which is often the hardest thing for preachers!”

More generally, Anderson said time spent on social media can be a form of pastoral care.

“For me, it’s just become an extension of the ministry I already do, because so many parts of our lives are now digitally mediated. This is a way my parishioners choose to engage with me, and I’m happy to engage with them in whatever ways they feel most comfortable.”

Dudley Rose, however, voiced concern about how social media can blur lines between a pastor’s personal and professional roles. Facebook, for instance, only allows one account per person.

“This is something that works pretty well when everything is going well. What happens if a pastor gets into a messy divorce and he’s conflated those lives?”

Many people also mentioned technology’s tendency to split our attention. Casper ter Kuile, co-creator of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, deals with this problem by taking weekly “Tech Sabbaths,” during which he completely disengages from his phone and computer for 24 hours.

“For me, what matters is being choiceful [sic] about my use of technology. It empowers and allows so much connection, but can be very addictive! A weekly tech Sabbath has been such a helpful practice for me—I notice how much I depend on constant connection. And I finally get some reading done.” 

While acknowledging the downsides, Anderson remains optimistic about digital technology’s potential for pastors and other religious leaders, especially as membership declines in traditional Protestant churches in America.

“We need to be willing to fail forward and find our way into what works and what resonates, which is something the church struggles with. Being trained as a pastor, I feel like I was told everything needed to be a finished product, whether it was a sermon or a newsletter article. But I think we need vulnerability, to learn along the way and to share what we’re learning through social media.

“No one would have expected Pokémon Go to be the next big thing, but now churches are hosting Pokémon gyms, inviting people onto their grounds. It’s hard to anticipate where the next thing is going to come from, so we just have to be really responsive.”

—by Walter Smelt