TechKnow: Sacred, Techsavvy, and Holy

Technology has been a major part of my life ever since I go my first computer. Since then my living room floor has always been littered with hastily opened gadget boxes. It never occurred to my young brain, then, that technology and my religion, Islam, would ever cross paths. It wasn’t until I became a teenager did I realise that my religion has a lot to say about my use of technology.

My father always had opinions on the interests that I and my siblings developed. Reading fiction was not approved; instead, we were encouraged to read academic textbooks and Islamic guidebooks. The house was a controlled environment where any objectionable items were hidden. Privacy was not an option.

I was given a top-of-the range computer so that I could use the many computer-designed educational programs available and do computer projects for school. There wasn’t much else one could do. A year after receiving the computer, I wanted an Internet connection. My father agreed: the Internet would be used as a tool to help with my homework. At the time not many people knew the power granted with a simple computer, phone line, and modem. My teenage years were spent alone in my room, surfing the ever developing Internet; reading, learning, exploring everything I wasn’t allowed to do in my ‘physical’ life. Naturally, I began wading into the murky waters of that which wasn’t allowed by my religious upbringing . . . and started downloading music and movies. To me the Internet was freedom.

Many people who grow up in two very different cultures learn to live a dual life; one that pleases their parents, and one that pleases them. In my restricted world, technology was one of the ways I accessed the outside world — and by using a tool my father actually approved of, no less! Little did he know. He allowed me to indulge my passion, but to him the computer and the Internet were strictly for educational purposes. To me it was a creative and educational outlet to the western world of media, pop culture, and all things that did not lie comfortably with my father’s religious beliefs

The pattern with my father of differing intents for technology approved/technology used continued. My first walkman, with built in radio, was given to me as a great innovation for listening to pre-recorded Islamic sermons. To me, it was a great way to stay up late at night listening to music on the radio. My first mobile phone was considered a reassuring tool for my father; he always knew that he could reach me. For me, it was surreptitiously used to stay connected with my non-Muslim friends. My first MP3 player was considered a clever device for downloading lots of new Islamic content from the Internet. To me, it was an awesome way to download all the new music I had access to online — something I considered an essential outlet for my ‘western’ teenage soul.

Father slowly cottoned on to what I was doing with my gadgets. Accessing such material online was simply not acceptable to him (nor was the three digit phone bill and his American Express bill which I had used to purchase other new toys online). These discoveries led to the demise of my Internet connection.

However, once I had realised the power that I gained from a simple cable that connected my computer to the rest of the world I was hooked. I yearned for the day when I could have access again. My plan was set in motion – manipulate father as only the eldest son can – and a year later I got myself a wireless Internet connection. Little did he know I also got cable TV to watch on my new TV and a DVD capable new computer. That didn’t stay secret for long. As me and my siblings grew older my father let us have the technology we wanted, he knew we might be using it for purposes not suited to his tastes but he relented, and allowed us the autonomy.

My passion for information technology rubbed off and as my father grew, at first reluctantly, then more enthusiastically tech savvy, he realised the joys of such technology for himself. These days, he has a swanky computer, mobile phone, MP3 player, and PDA. He uses them for business, to stay connected with family, and to listen to those Islamic sermons available as MP3 files. Meanwhile, as a teenager, I used mine to surf the net, chat to my ‘misguided’ friends, listen to hard house, and generally not be a very good teenaged Muslim.

Years later, and some things have changed. At my sisters wedding in Dubai this year, there were no cameras allowed due to the religious restrictions placed on portraying the form by Islam; see around the Muslim world that Islamic art is geometric, and not representative of living forms. Consequently one of the things my father is strongly against is photography and TV. This is not necessarily what everybody at the wedding believed, though. When he wasn’t around everyone whipped out their camera phones – and went snap happy. The bridge and groom most certainly wanted to remember their big day in photos. We all knew what we were doing was wrong. My cousin literally dropped her phone when I told her my father was coming.

As my father ‘softens’ his stance on our use of technology, over time, Islam probably will, too. At least religious groups will incorporate new technologies to further their aims. For those Muslims who may have been distracted by the music downloads, we can get right back on track by subscribing to the five times per day prayer time SMS service with free inspirational quote. Text and ye shall be redeemed. — Yusuf Osman

My Church is Bigger Than Your Church… Way Bigger!
Unlike my Muslim co-columnist, Yusuf, I’m what Baptists call a “backslider”. Backsliders are people who, though they’ve been baptised, no longer attend church. I feel no guilt about it because my conversion process was less than voluntary or complete. My mother nudged me in the ribs for five years until I reluctantly went forth and accepted “Jesus Christ as my personal saviour.” And though I was drenched in “the blood of the lamb”, the baptism was nothing like in the movies. There was no congregation waiting on the riverbank as I and the other sinners waded in the water to be dunked under (crucified) and brought back up (resurrected). Instead, we went one at a time into a tepid, enclosed tank inside the church. The congregation looked bored. Being germ-phobic, I didn’t feel renewed with my thoughts trained on my new relationship with God. In fact, it would’ve been rare to ever find me thinking holy thoughts in church.

But that was long ago. Now, in times that seem space age by comparison, I think of all the technology that, were it available to me as a youngster, I could’ve employed to get me through four hours of sermons, hymns, calls to prayer, and passing of collection plates every Sunday. Imagine how a Game Boy, PDA, or even a Tamagochi would’ve made those years of long, slow Sundays happily fly by. During the time I did attend church (through the ’80s), I don’t recall “Man’s Relationship to Technology” as a sermon topic. There were no confrontations between technology and religion because the edicts were so clear: you don’t need condoms (lo-tech, but nonetheless a technological innovation) because you’re not having sex. You don’t need the pill or abortion because both are against God’s will. Cars were clearly okay (especially Cadillacs, for our particular flock) because the public buses didn’t run on Sunday to allow city workers to obey the Fourth Commandment; that is, “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” Perhaps the Church Mothers who sat in the first few pews of the church cast a suspicious eye if the bassist got a little too funky with a riff during “Way Up’a Yonder”. but never was there a question of the new Casio keyboard being an untoward addition to Sunday Service.

With the rise of the technology-happy “megachurch”, it would appear that Christianity has wholly embraced technological wizardry. According to the Hartford Institute for Religious Research (, a church gets mega status if its weekly attendance is over 2,000 people. Despite worldwide views of the US as hyper-religious, megachurches aren’t unique to the world’s superpower. Brazil, several African nations, and Korea boast megachurches with as many as 250,000 members. Un-ironically, one of the churches, World Changers Church International, self-reports over 15,000 members and is led by Reverend Crefio Dollar. With a prophetic name, Dollar is but one of many charismatic preachers behind the key ingredients to the megachurches: money and spectacle.

The Christian Right and its megachurches have more effectively harnessed Internet technology than secular entities; their use of websites, email, and advanced phone systems blurred the boundaries between church and State with election time campaigning for candidates that upheld their vision of a religious state starting in the late ’70s. Televangelist Pat Robertson and his Christian Broadcasting Network are no longer solely diversifying their holdings across media forms (radio, terrestrial, cable) and around the world. In an article on Christian Capitalism, Luisa Kroll writes that megachurches have mega-bank. They believe that owning recording studios, publishing houses, prison satellite networks, and holdings all contribute to promoting the glory of God.

Production values have always been a part of religion, often in the form of spectacle, and megachurches are no different. I’ll admit that seeing high-tech depictions of the parting of the Red Sea and a burning bush would probably have made a believer out of me when I was young. And while megachurches don’t use their technology to re-enact those miracles they can claim to use technology that rivals the 2004 Athens Olympics and the U2 Vertigo Tour. Witnessing, for instance, acts of faith healing on a massive plasma screen makes vivid the adage that seeing is believing.

In Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (Yale University Press, 1998), Colleen McDannell reveals how Americans believe they need to see, hear and touch God. And while her focus is on kitsch in the form of t-shirts, bumper stickers (“God’s My Co-Pilot”), figurines, and porcelain plates, we can easily extend her argument to the megachurch phenomenon. Gone is the hymnal in the back of the church pew. Now, one need only follow the highlighted words projected on the Jumbotron screen. Crystal Cathedral Ministries produces one of the most widely broadcast Sunday morning services, Hour of Power. On the air for over 34 years, Hour of Power is seen and heard worldwide on terrestrial, cable, satellite, and radio. Not to be left behind by the technological revolution, this holiest of 60 minutes is also viewable online via streaming video and promises 24-hour online, live chat, prayer and counselling.

At the basis of most Judeo-Christian religion is one’s personal relationship with God. The technologies employed in megachurches, then, both personalize and atomize parishioners. I’ve not been to a megachurch, but a friend who has described it as “being alone, in a group, with God”. The focus of megachurches would seem to be bringing individuals into the collective, whether seated in the congregation or viewing at home via television or the web. And with technologically savvy generations born into a consumer electronic culture, the gadgets and computerization of church service will quite quickly become normal.

But, I suspect the drive to expand on their technology to draw in large crowds will reach a saturation point. Already in secular life we’re experiencing an incipient backlash against celebrity culture’s excesses and the materialism it inspires. I suspect the next trend in organized churchgoing will tout the virtues of a back-to-basic approach to worship. Like many entities struggling with technological innovations, megachurches will go through a period of trial and error to find a balance between production values both in their brick & mortar establishments and online. Notably, questions of faith, God, and devotion seem to be left out of the equation as megachurches focus on how the message is delivered, rather than the actual message. It’s as if the content provider is more concerned about the layout of the page, rather than what’s on the page. — Kimberly Springer

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