ChurchRater is a kind of Yelp for church-goers.

Folks can rate the churches they visit with a star system as well as comments of at least 25 words in length to give a sense of the  experience.

Upside: To me, the most interesting of ChurchRater is when a church leader will request honest feedback–as in the case of Prairie Lakes Baptist church in my home town.

As someone who has moved to a new community in the past year, I can appreciate how a site like this could be helpful for those who are seeking a new faith community.

It will have to reach a critical mass to be truly helpful, but it’s an interesting concept.  So far, some are paid reviewers while others are volunteers.  As for me, I still need to visit the community myself to get a sense, but this kind of transparency is good for the early stages of getting a feel for a place.

Downside: Seems to encourage the commodification of faith and reinforce the negatives of American consumer culture, as hinted at in this video clip with one of the founders, Jim Henderson.

On February 1, Craig Detweiler, an associate professor at Pepperdine with a M.Div. degree from Fuller unveiled a fascinating mashup:  video games + theology.  He calls it Halos and Avatars:  Playing Video Games with God.

It looks like an interesting read, one in which Detweiler edits a cluster of chapters that cover the theological significance of gaming in an open-minded way.

From learning storytelling to contending with religious pluralism to encountering moral complexities in Grand Theft Auto, this one is sure to spark some provocative thoughts.

Pop Theology provides an interesting review of the book here.

If you’d like to find out more about Detweiler‘s particular combination of culture and faith, you might enjoy his blog, Dr. Film.  Here, the conversation typically covers politics, popular culture & film.

For an interview with Detweiler about Halos and Avatars:  Playing Video Games with God, watch this:

An Interview with Craig Detweiler, author of HALOS AND AVATARS from J. Ryan Parker on Vimeo.

Highlights of the video include implications about:

  • storytelling in gaming & how it can makes Christians nervous who have an understanding of a closed canon
  • Islamogaming as a way of reclaiming stereotypical characters so that they aren’t always the enemy
  • how gaming can challenge linear understandings of time & straight, progressive history (a la Run Lola Run)
  • using younger scholars to provide input to the book because of the way they are “closer to the ground”
  • gaming as a source of mediated religious community, rather than a cause of isolation
  • reframing of the notion “born again” when digital natives experience a sense  of being born again with each online persona they inhabit

These kinds of intersections (God and gaming, cinema culture and religion) are at the edges of faith and will be hot spots to watch in the next decade.

Social Contagion Theory

If you haven’t yet encountered the social contagion work by Nicholas Christakis & James Fowler, I highly recommend it, especially in Connected:  The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

Their research focuses on social networks and the impact of your friends’ friends’ friends (three degrees of separation!) on dimensions of your life: from health to finance, from smoking to violence.

Then, it challenges you to question your impact on your connections–how do my exercise habits make it more likely that my friend Mike’s wife, Sarah’s mother will have healthier exercise habits?

Their research handily disrupts binary thinking; especially questioning the dichotomy between individual and collective responsibility.

Faith & Social Networks

They also have some provocative insights into the link between faith and social network connectivity.  According to Christakis & Fowler, some people anthropomorphize God, which allows them to understand God to be part of their social networks (even to the point of drawing their relationship with God on their social network diagrams.)

This can create a phenomenon where everyone in the social network feels closer to each other, because they are all only one degree removed from each other; all connected through the network node of their deity.  As they put it:  “A key function of religion, in other words, is to stabilize social connections.”

The Brain & Religious Experience:  Hard Wired for Connectivity?

This is further supported by evidence obtained through study of the brain–linking religious experience with particular brain phenomenon.  See Chapter 7 of Connected for more on faith, human nature & connectivity:

For example, functional MRI studies show that during religious feelings and altered states of consciousness, the parts of the brain that regulate the sense of self in time and space actually stop functioning.  This contributes to the sensation that ‘all are one’ and may help us overcome a built-in rigidity in the way we perceive our position with respect to others.  In essence, the brain is fooled into believing that social boundaries do not exist or, equivalently, that everyone is connected to everyone else….In this way, a religious movement can bring together disparate groups of people to achieve a common goal, from caring for the poor to building great structures to, alas, launching wars on rival groups.

This interesting clip overviews key concepts from Connected (though isn’t about faith specifically): 

In the next decade, will neuroscience give us more of a glimpse into our spiritual brains?

In the Feb. 11, 2010 issue of Neuron, Italian researchers report on their experiments surrounding the personality trait of “self-transcendence” which is meant to be a measure of spiritual orientation.

Through analyzing self-transcendence scores of brain tumor patients both before & after their tumors were removed, they made another step towards drawing the link between brain activity and spirituality in a measurable way.


Here are the highlights of their work–full article downloadable here:

  • Self-transcendence is a stable personality trait measuring predisposition to spirituality
  • Brain damage induces specific and fast modulations of self-transcendence
  • Self-transcendence increases after damage to lt and rt inferior parietal cortex


  • The predisposition of human beings toward spiritual feeling, thinking, and behaviors is measured by a supposedly stable personality trait called self-transcendence. Although a few neuroimaging studies suggest that neural activation of a large fronto-parieto-temporal network may underpin a variety of spiritual experiences, information on the causative link between such a network and spirituality is lacking.
  • Combining pre- and post-neurosurgery personality assessment with advanced brain-lesion mapping techniques, we found that selective damage to left and right inferior posterior parietal regions induced a specific increase of self-transcendence.
  • Therefore, modifications of neural activity in temporoparietal areas may induce unusually fast modulations of a stable personality trait related to transcendental self-referential awareness.
  • These results hint at the active, crucial role of left and right parietal systems in determining self-transcendence and cast new light on the neurobiological bases of altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviors in neurological and mental disorders.

For those interested in learning more, here is an accessible summary in Science Daily.  Thanks to Mark Schar for pointing me towards this fascinating research!

Performance of Religion

In the past couple of years, some of my classmates and friends from divinity school have begun dealing with some interesting quandries surrounding the question “Where does one DO church?”

For some time now, many have believed that you don’t have to be IN the church, synagogue, temple etc. to perform a religious practice.

From outdoor services or meditation to social justice work, the acts of the faithful have long been performed in locations outside of the conventional four walls.

The latest frontier of this question takes religious leaders to the online frontier–where can one perform the communal acts, the rituals, and the meditations that constitute religious experience?

Upcoming Conference

From July 30-August 9, 2010 scholars will gather at Bremen University to talk about online religion, seemingly from 2 perspectives:

  • how to research online peformance of religion in an ethical manner
  • how the online forum changes the experience of religion from the religious practitioner’s perspective.

Some of the most promising sessions to me are on these areas of religion in virtual worlds:

The mission of this conference is to fill a gap in research around the performance of religion in virtual worlds:

The Web is changing the face of religions worldwide. With the emergence of so-called Virtual Worlds a further step towards a completely new field of research was done, since these environments offer new possiblities to meet, communicate and to perform religion.

The results of conversations like this one will help my divinity school classmates–and others to make sense of this new frontier that has now begun to reach mainstream religious folks across all the world religions.

By 2020, where will we be performing our religious rites?  How will philosophies & theologies respond to this new realm of experience?

Though demographics provide only one glimpse of the complexity of religious expression world-wide, numbers do allow a window into the key areas to watch in the next decade.

In this recent Pew study, the “center of gravity” of the Muslim faith in the next decade resides in Asia (defined here quite broadly, from China to Turkey), with more than 972 million of 1.57 billion global Muslims total (approximately 23% of the estimated global population today).

Together, North and South America have only 4.6 million of this total global population so far, though globalization continues to drive further religious diversity and a move away from national or regionalized religions.

So what does this mean for religious understanding and polarization between Muslims and non-Muslims in the US context, moving forward?  The challenges are clear.

Gallup’s Center for Muslim Studies as well as the collaboration between Gallup and the Coexist Foundation point to alarming polarization between Muslims and non-Muslims in the U.S.

For example:

  • Islam is the most negatively viewed of the major world religions
  • People in the U.S. are more likely to express prejudice toward Muslims than other religious groups.

Among the drivers of this polarization?:

  • Lack of knowledge about Islam
  • Lack of personal relationship with someone who is Muslim.

Data visualization tools give us the ability to take numbers or words on a page or computer screen, and to overlay a sense of order and meaning onto them by allowing us to visualize the same exact data set in new, relevant, and sometimes context-specific ways.

One of my favorite popularized versions of data visualization comes from Wordle, which enables users to utilize simple word frequency counts to visualize the key thrusts of a given text.  Here, for example is a Creative Commons licensed image representation of last night’s State of the Union address:

At a glance, it allows you to see the key themes, catch phrases, and priorities.  Better yet, this data visualization becomes more meaningful when you compare similar data inputs to each other, looking for differences.  For example, here is a comparison of McCain (top) & Obama (bottom) nomination acceptance speeches at the Republican & Democratic National Conventions, done by Flickr‘s Thomas Hawk:

Interesting comparison! No further comment necessary 🙂  Recently, a company called WordBloom has applied data visualization tools to the Christian faith by enabling users to visualize their sacred text. Think of this as a next generation Bible concordance (cross-referenced indexing tool often used by preachers or lay leaders to prepare sermons & Bible studies.)  Here are some examples of the capabilities:

Word-study around a particular English word:

Or, view a word cluster to illuminate the definition of a Hebrew or Greek word, such as with the Greek ischuo (strength/power/health) below, along with links to passages in which that word appears.

There are at least 2 promising elements of data visualization tools for people of faith:

  • They have the potential to support a democratization of sacred texts–no longer does a lay person have to own a multi-volume biblical concordance to be able to have a robust in-depth study of their scriptures.  As users are able to visualize the Christian message in different ways, perhaps new insights will stretch them and help them grow in their spiritual journey.
  • Inter-religous data visualization that could map sacred texts of faiths in a much more accessible and lightweight way than ever before, have potential to increase understanding between peoples.

My sense of Wordbloom in particular, is that they’ve gotten a great start at an inexpensive way to offer this tool (only $36 for an individual annually.)  Also, they purport to be supporting charitable work (and they transparently acknowledge it is evangelistic work) through 10% of their proceeds.

One challenge, however, is that data visualization is only as good as the data with which you’re working, and in this case, Wordbloom‘s data inputs seem to be limited to specific translations of the Bible, such as the King James version, or particular Biblical dictionaries or commentaries which will always be biased by a particular lens of interpretation (full list of data inputs, as well as those they are working on adding can be found here.)

Overall, an exciting development–looking forward to seeing more of these tools in the next decade!

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