iSpirituality: Religous Apps and Spiritual Practices

Religious apps for the iPhone and iPad have been in the news lately.  In “Religion on Your iPhone?”, Lisa Fernandez discusses a variety of apps created for Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists.  The Apple app store is, if nothing else, an apparently ecumenical space.  Among the various religious apps, however, “Confession: A Roman Catholic App” has probably received the most attention and a good deal of it seemingly misguided.  The folks at Get Religion have broken down some of the misleading news stories related to the app and the Catholic League collected a few of the offending headlines including:

• “Can’t Make it to Confession? There’s an App for That”
• “Catholic Church Approves Confession by iPhone”
• “Bless Me iPhone for I Have Sinned”
• “Catholic Church Endorses App for Sinning iPhone Users”
• “Forgiveness via iPhone: Church Approves Confession App”
• “New, Church-Approved iPhone Offers Confession On the Go”
• “Confess Your Sins to a Phone in Catholic Church Endorsed App”
• “Catholics Can Now Confess Using iPhone App”

Bottom line: the app is intended to help prepare for confession and is not intended to substitute for face-to-face confession.  There is no virtual priest, and there is no virtual absolution.  As Terry Mattingly put it at Get Religion,

This app is actually a combination between a personal diary and the “examination of conscience” booklets and tracts that Catholic and Orthodox Christians have carried in their pockets, wallets and purses for generations.

You may also want to take a look at Maureen Dowd’s rather snarky take on the Confession app in her NY Times column, “Forgive Me, Father, For I Have Linked.”

Click image to see WSJ video report

The Wall Street Journal has also recently posted a video report on religious apps:  “From apps that let you tweet Bible verses to those that help you face Mecca or pray the right Hebrew blessings with the right foods, some of the pious are embracing mobile technology.”  The story follows the usual pattern:  new thing > positive reaction to new thing > negative reaction to new thing > conclusion offering moderating position.  Concerns, voiced mainly by a Christian pastor, include the danger of disengaging from the face-to-face community and misdirecting the focus of religious experience onto the device and away from God.

Professor Rachel Wagner, author of the forthcoming “Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality,” also appears in the report and frames the issue as a struggle between relevance to contemporary culture and faithfulness to ancient traditions.  She suggests that what is at issue is the degree of interactivity with the ritual or practice that the apps allow.  As she puts it, “Those religious groups that want to stay true to their traditions are going to allow less wiggle room.”  It’s not entirely clear from the segment what exactly Wagner means by interactivity, but I suspect she has in view the flexibility of the rituals.  In other words, interactivity implies that ancient rituals may be reshaped by their re-presentation in new media.

Putting the issue this way recalls Paul Connerton’s thesis in How Societies Remember.  In Connerton’s analysis,

Both commemorative ceremonies and bodily practices therefore contain a measure of insurance against the process of cumulative questioning entailed in all discursive practices.  This is the source of their importance and persistence as mnemonic systems.  Every group, then, will entrust to bodily automatisms the values and categories which they are most anxious to conserve.  They will know how well the past can be kept in mind by a habitual memory sedimented in the body.

In other words, embodied practices or rituals represent the most durable mode of remembering.  This is in part because they are less likely to be questioned and altered than knowledge encoded in spoken or written texts.  The core of a tradition’s identity then is wrapped up in its rituals and embodied practices; changes to the rituals and practices effect changes to collective memory and identity.

Consider, for example, that while the Reformation clearly involved the reformulation of key doctrines, it also restructured the embodied rituals of Catholic practice and re-ordered the material conditions of worship.  Bodily habits such as crossing oneself and material conditions such as the architecture of churches changed as much as doctrinal standards.  I suspect one could argue convincingly that for laymen and women, the changes in embodied practice and material conditions of worship were more significant than abstract doctrinal reformulations.

Anecdotally, I vividly recall some years ago being in a certain Protestant context and witnessing a young boy being pulled up rather brusquely from a kneeling posture during prayer with the very straightforward admonition, “We don’t do that here!”  It apparently smacked of Catholicism.  A particular vision of the faith was thereby inculcated by regulating the body.

With this in mind, then, the most interesting thing about religious apps may not be their content, but the way that they insert themselves into the embodied experience of worship and religious practice.  This may occur through the use of a cell phone to access the apps during worship.  (Remember how easy it is to spot someone who is being attentive to their cell phones by simply observing their posture.)  It may also occur through the way an app repackages a ritual or practice for digital mediation, perhaps abstracting bodily elements while preserving more mental components.  In either case, religious apps are likely leave their mark by subtly reshaping the way the body engages in worship and spiritual practice.

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