Supposedly this newsletter promises that I am working on it, and at the moment the “it” is Pandemic Religion.
Pandemic Religion is a digital archive that aims to collect and preserve the experiences of individuals and religious communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. John Turner, our colleagues at RRCHNM, and I started it a little over a month ago. The site allows people to contribute memories, documents, photos, websites, and the like. We are following the playbook that RRCHNM came up with to respond to September 11th and Hurricane Katrina, a playbook best described in this article by Sheila Brennan and Mills Kelly. Collecting historical materials online has taken on special urgency during this pandemic since so much experience has moved online.
To date we have received about one hundred contributions and have some reasonable hope that contributions are increasing, so do not despise the day of small things. One of my worries at the beginning of the project was that we would simply get a thousand screenshots of Zoom services. Instead, I’ve been surprised at the willingness of many contributors—who are entirely unknown to us—to reflect deeply on their religious experiences. I’d encourage you to browse what we’ve collected so far: many items give evidence of a great deal of creative responses to the time.
We have a lot of questions that we would like to know about how this pandemic is affecting American religious practice. I’ll mention just one. This pandemic may be global, but it has shrunk my actual horizons to practically nothing. I now read the local news with more urgency than the national news. I rely on the government of Virginia more than the federal government—an awkward position for someone with my first name. I’ve driven to work just once since March, a journey of just eight miles with no traffic that felt impossibly distant.
Churches like to think of themselves as local institutions. Undoubtedly the pandemic and resulting mass unemployment have led many churches to renew their efforts to serve local communities. But many churches, I suspect, are not actually local institutions. Many draw on a membership which travels some non-trivial distance to hear a favored preacher, or to attend some preferred parish.
The pandemic confined (most) churchgoers to their homes, but it also moved services online, where distance is meaningless. How many people, I wonder, are attending the services of a church they do not attend in person? Certainly not all churches have had the resources or know-how to move their services online. One of the clergy at my church mentioned that they knew of “visitors” to our online services. And what about people whose family is distant? Services online may afford the opportunity to “attend” the same service as a child or parent in a way that could never be done in person.
None of this is new, of course. Radio broadcasts, televangelism, and more recently the phenomenon of churches with satellite campuses where services are broadcast from the main church have tended to allow churchgoers to collapse physical distance in the pursuit of preferred affiliations. But I do wonder how even basic practices like church attendance are changing during the pandemic, and whether the pandemic will become an inflection point. For now, the answer is that I don’t know, and we are hopeful that the site will help uncover some evidence for this and other such questions.
Perils of the Overworld
I heartily commend to you Robin Sloan’s newsletter, “Perils of the Overworld.” Sloan is writing about how he is writing and developing a video game in progress. If you’ve read his novels, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough, you’ll know why you want to read the newsletter. But even if you haven’t, I know you will like his newsletter if you’re subscribed to this one. His newsletter is exactly what I was hoping this one would be if I, uh, did interesting work and was a good writer. 😆
Reading: David King, God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism.
Listening: The Spotify playlists for the characters from Halt and Catch Fire.
Playing: Outer Wilds.
Working on: Historical map of Catholic dioceses in North America, which I hope will be done soon.
Planning: Next week is a week of re-thinking and renewal. All obligations that are not contractual or sacramental will have to justify their continued existence.