Brief Book Review – @Worship: Liturgical Practices in Digital Worlds

@Worship: Liturgical Practices in Digital Worlds by Teresa Berger

Who should read this? Anyone interested in the future of Christian worship in light of the social and ritual changes of the digital age

Why? It’s the most significant treatment of how the digital age is already ushering in a paradigm shift in Christian worship practices. Regardless of one’s position on the relationship between worship and the digital world, cultural changes necessitate a theological and ritual response. The Church must read the signs of the times and respond.

What’s the main point? While providing an overview of new liturgical practices in the digital age, the book moves beyond these and begins to ask questions that cut to the heart of the Christian ritual system. It explores the role of materiality in Christian worship, challenges our preconceived notions of participation, and perhaps most fundamentally, begins to reframe our understanding of mediation (of persons, of sacraments, of presences, of the divine).

Why is this book significant? There are few comprehensive treatments of how the digital world challenges the Christian tradition to reinterpret itself in light of the new forms of communication, mediation, and meaning making present in the digital age. Berger’s book outlines a research agenda for scholars, rather than claiming to have a final answer to the way worship and the digital worlds should relate to one another.

What intrigued me most? Berger does a phenomenal job of rooting @worship within the larger history of Christian worship, showing how even @worship is in strong continuity with the Christian tradition. While @worship presents new challenges to the Christian ritual system and the theological principles underpinning it, such challenges are not new. @worship can help refine and enliven the Christian tradition.

Kudos. Berger takes up an understudied dimension of modern liturgical life and prayer. Her work is well researched. She has immersed herself – even as a self-described digital immigrant – into liturgical practices among the pixels. This becomes clear in the bibliography, which contains a “List of select digitally mediated sources and resources.” These will be indispensable for those wanting to engage directly with digitally mediated prayer and liturgy.

Implications. The implications Berger draws from her treatment of liturgical practices in digital worlds cannot be overstated: the digital world demands that the Christian tradition reimagine its understanding of presence and mediation. To add my own anecdotal evidence, the experiences of players in RPGs like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online challenges Christians to further investigate our understanding of presence and mediation. In these games, participants develop an avatar who represents them in the digital world formed by the RPG. At first, I was skeptical about how “real” the relationships and communities could be that were formed in these games. However, I have had the pleasure of dabbling in the world of RPG’s thanks to a close friend of mine. I have gotten to see the strong and very real bonds that are formed between players in these games. This sometimes spills out into the “real,” or more preferably, the analogue world. These relationships are still very real even if they never enter the analogue world.

Extending Berger’s work. As Berger notes throughout her work, the Christian tradition is built on various forms of mediated presence. My own work on the “virtual” presence of the bishop in the assembly as a result of the bishop’s blessing of chrism has sparked my interest in digital meditation. It has led me to think about different forms of mediation, a number of which Berger takes up in her book. Some forms of mediated presence are physical: we bring the eucharist to the sick who are not able to come to church to show their connection with the assembly, bishops consecrate and bless the oils that are then distributed to the parish assemblies, etc. In a sense, the eucharist becomes an avatar of the ecclesial community and the oil serves as an avatar of the bishop. These point to the “virtual” presence of the assembly and the bishop when the participant or bishop is not present in the assembly.

But not every form of mediated presence is physical. In the early church, ecclesial communion was established and maintained primarily through the inclusion of other bishops in the diptychs. Even today this occurs, as Berger points out, when Pope Francis is mentioned in the Eucharistic prayer. Moreover, the communion of the present faithful with the saints who have gone before us is primarily expressed through prayer. Physical and non-physical mediation is not confined solely to ecclesial matters and persons. In the sacraments the presence of the divine is physically mediated: through water and word the Holy Spirit is bestowed, through bread and wine Christ is given, etc. These physical elements are transformed by words into “avatars” for the divine. They again point to our “virtual” communion with God. But the mediation of the divine is boundless, and often comes to us in prayer and other forms of mediation that are nonphysical as well. Thus, Christianity (and the Christian ritual tradition) is at its heart a religion of multiple forms of mediation, all of which are real.

The construction of the Christian ritual system demands, in my estimation, that digital mediation must be treated – in one form or another – as a real form of mediation. What this means for sacramental practice remains unclear.

Cautions. I would like to add a caution to those articulated by Berger: Digital worlds touch on the ancient tension within the Christian tradition between the physical and the spiritual. The early Church, for instance, worked against a gnostic spiritualizing interpretation of the person of Christ. Just as then, the incarnation demands that we today take seriously the physical world around us. At the same time, the risen, transcendent Christ has sent the unbounded Paraclete among us, allowing for his presence to permeate the world. As a result, we as Christians are not bound solely by the physics of the world. Digital worlds, and their mediation of presences, reminds us of this. The danger of digital worlds lies in the ease in which they can usher in a Neo-gnosticism. However, the Christian tradition has always navigated the tension between the babe in the manger and the transcendental Christ. I have no doubts that the Christian tradition today can learn from digital worlds and embrace them, while remaining grounded in the physical world around us.

Final thoughts. Berger’s book is a must read. Not simply because it begins an important discussion on the relationship between our worship practices and the digital worlds we are creating, but because Berger shows how it is that these digital worlds force us to reengage with the heart of the Christian tradition. Her work is especially appropriate to the Easter season, where we grabble with the central mystery of our faith: Christ crucified, risen, and ascended; Christ who is no longer in the tomb; Christ who sends the Spirit upon us and who says to Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” In this Easter season, Berger reminds us that our God not only walks beside us, but “also moves among pixels.”

Teresa Berger, @Worship: Liturgical Practices in Digital Worlds. Routledge, 2018, xvi + 146.

REVIEWER: NATHAN CHASE

Nathan Chase was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. Nathan holds a B.A. in Theology and Philosophy from Boston College in Boston, Massachusetts, an M.A. in Liturgical Studies and an M.A. in Theology with a concentration in Systematics from Saint John’s School of Theology•Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota, and an Advanced Masters in Church History from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Beligum. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *