Edward J. Blum, Associate Professor of History at San Diego State University
Since I teach classes in American Studies and American Religious History, I often combine topics and themes from both. One of the connective tissues is the role of technologies and technological innovations. There is opposition to them, uses of them, and deployments of them as well. There is a terrific secondary literature on the links between religion and technology throughout American history. On the uses of print media before the Civil War, there is Candy Gunther Brown’s The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880. On the rise of the radio there are books like Tona J. Hangen’s Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion, and Popular Culture in America. On the emergence of Hollywood and everything from the early film industry to obsessions with physical enhancements like face lifts, there is Matthew Avery Sutton’s Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. On televangelism, there is Jonathan Walton’s wonderful book Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism, which examines how these churches became pseudo-television studios.
One of the best books I have used to teach is one on contemporary religious entrepreneurship by sociologist Shayne Lee and historian Phillip Luke Sinitiere. Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace examines how Joel Osteen, Paula White, T. D. Jakes, Rick Warren, and Brian McLaren have created gigantic followings for themselves by innovatively using new technologies, organizational structures, and aesthetics to compete for followers in the marketplace of American religion. Each chapter focuses on a particular pastor or leader, and this has lent itself well to my students finding or selecting a person or organization to study her, his, or their uses of technology.
Bringing this book (and the themes from the others) into student research, I have turned many of my classes onto the world of ROKU. A small piece of digital machinery and a storehouse of internet digital media, ROKU provides apps that link televisions to the internet. There, one can stream Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime. But what my students have found is also that several religious organizations have moved quickly and decisively into the ROKU realm. Perennially listed in the “Top Rated” category is the “Mormon Channel” for instance, which features video on the faith.
At the Mormon channel, one can locate speeches from church leaders, music from church choirs, and cartoons for children. Students can analyze the channels from any number of angles (and since the material rarely changes, they can view it repeatedly without fear of it going away). In the scope of religion, a student may ask how the Mormon channels presents the faith – its rituals, sacred texts, and inspirational leaders. Of financial interests, one can investigate who is paying for the channel and how it makes money. One could interrogate gender and racial presentations or how the architectural backgrounds add layers of meaning to the videos.
It strikes me that ROKU channels can be a wealth of resources for students to study and, in the realm of American religion in American Studies, they strike me as a place to follow the lead of Lee and Sinitiere in following the flows of money and meaning, the making of images and idols, and the repackaging of representations and traditions.
A typical assignment for my classes would be: locate a ROKU channel that has something to do with “religion.” Analyze its contents vis-à-vis the main themes and topics in one of our course books (Holy Mavericks, Aimee Semple McPherson, or Redeeming the Dial). Write a 4 to 6 page essay, double spaced, using the material from ROKU as your evidence to extend the analysis (or challenge it) of that done by the scholar. Be sure to pay attention to representations of race, class, gender, sexuality, and politics; also be sure to attend, as best you can, to whom the intended audience is for the ROKU material. Students who do not have access to a ROKU device may instead examine a well-developed webpage by a religious organization, ministry, or tradition.
To grade the assignment, I break it down into a series of steps. First, of course, is the identifying of a topic (a particular ROKU station). Then, I have students bring to class an example to share (perhaps a short video) for analysis. This is where the group has the opportunity to work through various ways of approaching the topic. Following this is an outline, and then finally before the final paper I have them bring in 3-4 paragraphs of their work to share where they put pen to paper in analyzing their source material.
This assignment allows students to research widely, but have limitations in the digital realm. It also compels them to think through the ways technologies mediate individual and group identities, religious community and belonging, and the ways the digital spheres have become vital to expressions of the above.
I would love to hear how others teach the links between technological development and other facets of American Studies.
Edward J. Blum is an associate professor of history at San Diego State University and the co-author of the recently published The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (2012).