The digital cathedral: Visual and immersive faith formation

Posted Mar 18, 2014 | New Media Project

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By Keith Anderson, guest blogger


This is the fourth in a five-part series on Keith's forthcoming book, The Digital Cathedral.

Keith Anderson“Everything in a Gothic cathedral tells a story which in turn opens onto the narrative being spun by God.” ~ Robert Barron, Heaven in Stone and Glass

One of the major trends in social media over the last two years has been the explosion of image-driven content. The web is shifting from a text-driven to an image-driven medium, leading some to call this next iteration of the Internet the “visual web.”

Post-modern stained glass

At the forefront of this move to the visual web are the social media sites Pinterest and Instagram. Pinterest describes itself as a “visual discovery tool” with over 70 million users. Users create “boards” onto which they “pin” content. These “pins” feature the image and minimize the text, creating a visually rich environment. People use it to collect recipes, home improvement ideas, videos, and more. Some use it to save and share inspirational quotes and images, while others use boards as ways to collect creative ministry ideas.

Instagram, the elegant photo sharing app owned by Facebook, boasts over 150 million users, with 55 million photos uploaded every day and a total of over 16 billion photos shared on the site. Users can apply “filters” to their pictures, giving them distinctive looks that were once only achievable using desktop photo-editing software. Instagram photos can be shared on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and other social media platforms.

Elizabeth Drescher has described Pinterest boards and Instagram feeds as “post-modern stained glass.” They tell a deeper story than text alone—an unfolding story that opens, as Robert Barron suggests, onto a larger narrative, both of their own lives, and, for many, God.

Visual and immersive

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this shift toward the visual. From cave paintings to YouTube, humans have always used images to communicate. Today the digital tools—software, mobile devices, and low-cost data storage in the cloud—are enabling us to communicate in this way far more easily.

This shift is yet another important connection to the idea of the digital cathedral.

Cathedrals themselves are visual feasts. They are filled with symbols, carvings, stained glass, murals, and inscriptions. Every surface of the cathedral tells a story. They communicate the lives of the saints, local history, church history, and Biblical stories. As many have noted, medieval cathedrals were built in a time of low literacy, and so these images and symbols were a primary way of teaching the faith. 

Meanwhile, as you trace a particular stone carving with your finger, stare up at a certain stained glass window, or, today, listen to a guided audio tour, the environment of the cathedral itself is shaping you.

The cathedral is an immersive experience, with the images, architecture, people, and religious ritual all serving to shape those who enter the space. As Marshall McLuhan would say, the media (the space itself) is the message. In his classic work, The Medium is the Massage, he writes, “Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible. The ground rules, pervasive structure, and over-all patterns of environments elude easy perception.”

Part of the genius of cathedrals is the way they affect and shape us simply by being inside them.

The same can be said of our digital environment. The challenge for those practicing digital ministry today is to recognize and harness the ways in which our social media environment is shaping us and find creative ways to form people in faith.

Lent Madness

One example of that visual and immersive faith formation is Lent Madness. Begun in 2010 as the brainchild of The Rev. Tim Schenck and now in partnership with Forward Movement, Lent Madness is an ecclesiastical version of college basketball’s March Madness. Thirty-two saints face off in a single elimination tournament, and the winner is crowned with the "Golden Halo.”

Throughout Lent, guest bloggers detail the lives of the saints. Schenck and his colleague, The Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement, post videos of their Skype conversations about how the Madness is unfolding, and readers vote for their favorite saint. Last year 50,000 people visited the site.

In an interview, Schenck shared, "I call it stealth formation because there are ways where it doesn't actually feel like Christian formation like you're sitting in a class between services but it is. My take is that faith formation takes many, many forms. Some of them are kind of overt. Come sit in a classroom and we'll talk about the gospel of Mark. Some are a little sneakier like Lent Madness. People are learning a tremendous amount and they're having fun and they don't necessarily realize just how much they're learning until they're in the middle of it.”

Harnessing the visual web

Today ministry leaders must take the visual web seriously, cultivating a presence on Instagram and Pinterest, incorporating images into Tweets and Facebook posts, as well as their teaching and preaching. Even more, leaders must understand the ways our environments—digital and physical—shape us and harness content and spaces to form people in faith.

The Rev. Keith Anderson is a pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, PA. He is the author, with Elizabeth Drescher, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse 2012). His forthcoming book is called The Digital Cathedral. He blogs at pastorkeithanderson.net.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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