The Institute for Communication and Religion within the College for Communication and the Arts recently hosted internationally renowned scholar Heidi Campbell, Ph.D., for a master class on how digital media is reshaping the way people engage with their faiths.
Campbell — who is currently the Harron Endowed Professor of Communication at Villanova University — taught the class of approximately 25 specially invited students and faculty about her theory of networked religion, which proposes that the internet is loosening the traditional boundaries of religious communities and allowing believers to view and practice their faiths as they prefer both online and offline. This loosening spans five different dimensions, including the fact that people today can commune with likeminded believers online and “pick and mix” what they believe from different religions they learn about on the internet.
After providing an overview of each dimension, Campbell invited class participants to discuss how they have experienced networked religion in their own lives. She also talked about the impact this new way of living faith has on traditional organized religions — which are still struggling to adjust.
“How people understand religion is changing, sometimes in ways that challenge religious institutions and communities,” Campbell said, explaining that people are experiencing a disconnect when they encounter traditional values at an offline place of worship that conflict with the aggregated set of beliefs they have cultivated on the internet. “In some respects, religious institutions have to respond to or at least understand online culture. But in some ways they can’t fully adapt. There are certain kinds of theological boundaries and traditions that they have that make them say ‘There’re some things we can’t buy into that (the internet) is encouraging.’”
The question of how to reconcile the online and offline religious worlds is exactly why it is so important to have discussions about faith and the internet, according to Campbell. The guest speaker shared in an interview that religion has emerged as a key factor affecting people’s identities and how they navigate the digital world in the 21st century. Yet many people do not realize just how much they are influenced by what they consume online, she said.
Thus, Campbell was happy to expand people’s understanding through the master class and special podcast recording for the ICR, which she acknowledged as a highly unique institution.
“There are very few places that are looking seriously at how religion, media and culture are intersecting,” Campbell said. “But the role that media plays in religious institutions I think is a really important area for exploration. So I applaud Seton Hall for wanting this initiative and doing some work in this area.”
The ICR was just as thrilled to host the scholar. When introducing Campbell’s master class, Ruth Tsuria, Ph.D., a steering committee member and former student of Campbell’s, pointed out that with over 60 published articles and several books Campbell is among the world’s foremost scholars in religious communication. Thus, Institute Director Jon Radwan, Ph.D., said getting her to share her “cutting edge” research with the University’s students and faculty was truly an honor. Having Campbell lead a master class instead of a public lecture was an especially valuable opportunity, Radwan added.
“For a normal class, students are under pressure about grades and things like that,” Radwan said. “But for a guest master class, students can be themselves and relax a little bit and ask questions that might not get asked when they’re under pressure for a grade and the focus is on the next assignment rather than enlightenment. In a master class, the students can also learn from each other and benefit from one another’s questions.”
Those in attendance certainly appreciated the chance to experience a lesson from Campbell. Jocelyn Rogalo, a Visual and Sound Media major and Catholic Studies minor, found the master class to be a perfect blend of her academic interests. Rogalo was particularly fascinated to learn the extent to which people live out their religions online, recalling Campbell’s example of how a group of people created their own Anglican congregation within the online world Second Life. She also appreciated the chance to discuss Campbell’s material with other participants during the event, adding that she even had a long conversation with another student about what they had just learned after the class ended.
And while Rogalo said her own belief system largely consists of Catholic values, she acknowledged that she sees the theory of networked religion in her own life. Specifically, she shared that learning about others’ faiths online enables her to better relate to them.
“Even if I don’t accept [others’ beliefs] as a part of my core beliefs, I still have the knowledge to create dialogue with someone who believes that,” Rogalo, who also interviewed Campbell for a podcast that will soon be released on the ICR website, said. “And I can respect them as my neighbor and respect them as my friend even if I don’t know them personally.”
Tsuria also loved getting the chance to hear Campbell speak — though the theory of networked religion was nothing new to her. With Campbell as her professor, Tsuria learned all about the theory as a doctoral student at Texas A&M University, where she said Campbell’s mentoring helped make her the researcher she is today. So when the ICR started thinking about what guest speakers to bring in this year, she knew exactly who to recommend.
Tsuria is glad Campbell was able to come, too, and not just because it gave them a chance to catch up. She stressed that the theory of networked religion is a crucial concept to understand because it gives people the tools to discuss how the online and offline realms influence each other. And those tools are definitely important to have in today’s complex digital world.
On top of that, Tsuria pointed out that becoming associated with someone of Campbell’s caliber shows just how significant the Institute is becoming.
“It helps puts the Institute on the map,” Tsuria said. “It helps take us to the next level and shows that serious conversations about communication and religion are happening. And they’re happening in all formats.”
Looking ahead, the ICR wants to offer even more opportunities to have those conversations. After hosting acclaimed journalists William McGurn and David Gibson last year, Radwan said the Institute wished to expand its programming scope this year by bringing in scholars to talk about the relationship between various religions and communication. Campbell was the first such guest, and the ICR director said he is next looking into hosting a researcher to discuss Hinduism this spring. He is also interested in recording more podcasts with scholars in addition to creating courses that reflect the Institute’s mission.
In the meantime, Radwan hopes the master class attendees learned much from their lesson with one of the top minds in the field of communication and religion. They should also plan for even more opportunities to enrich themselves as the ICR continues to expand, he promised.
“I would like students to know that the Institute, and by extension the College and the whole University, cares about getting them the best,” Radwan said. “We want to bring the best knowledge directly to our students. Students can look forward to quality events providing in-depth knowledge because that’s what helps us grow. That’s what helps us become enlightened.”
To learn more about the Institute for Communication and Religion, please visit the Institute’s website.
About the Institute for Communication and Religion
Launched in Fall 2017, the Institute for Communication and Religion within the College of Communication and the Arts provides a nexus for ongoing scholarly exploration of communication topics critically important to religion and society. Guided by the spirit of ecumenical and interreligious cooperation, the Institute seeks to engage in public dialogue and debate, promote academic inquiry and support the religious dimension of creativity — all while upholding the values of servant leadership, curricular innovation and intellectual excellence. For more information about the ICR, visit the Institute's website or email Jon Radwan, Ph.D., at firstname.lastname@example.org.