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A 1500 word essay on the following: Analyse how everyday life is now experienced through Internet-mediated activities of information and communication with reference to Community and faith/religion. Instruction: analyse how everyday life is experienced through Internet-mediated activities of information and communication on Community and faith/religion. Online – Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3.1 (2008) 95 RITUALS AND PIXELS EXPERIMENTS IN ONLINE CHURCH SIMON JENKINS Back in the late 1970s, I was among a group of theology graduates who launched a small magazine called Ship of Fools. We subtitled it, ‘the magazine of Christian unrest,’ because we wanted to ask critical questions about the church and satirise the unintentionally laughable side of the Christian faith, both historically and in the contemporary world. The Scottish politician Nick Fairbairn used to say: ‘One of the great difficulties of Christianity is that it keeps falling into the hands of the wrong people.’ We wanted to debate, satirise and create laughter about that, from a committed faith position. We believed that selfcriticism is an important part of faith. On April Fools Day, 1998, we relaunched Ship of Fools as a net magazine (at We immediately found the net very conducive to what we wanted to do – much more conducive than print had ever been. Entering the net was like entering a new world for us, a world which was more fluid in terms of communication, and where your readers (to use the old language of print) became active participants in what you were doing. Ship of Fools very quickly became popular not just as an online magazine, but as a virtual community. Each month it currently attracts over 130,000 visitors, who look at 2.7 million pages. The community dimension of Ship of Fools is delivered via bulletin boards. The boards function like a genuine community, with people getting to know each other, pray for each other, meet up in real life, and sometimes marry each other, too. There have been six marriages I know of, and I was Best Man at one of them. In 2002, one of our members, whose alias on the boards was Miss Molly, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She decided to share the last three months of her life with us, in a thread she posted called ‘Fields of Gold’, named after the song by Sting. ‘It will be a sort of diary,’ she said, ‘a place to post my musings, and a place where I will try to answer any questions you may have about this time in my life.’ Online – Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3.1 (2008) 96 Figure 1: Ship of Fools website. The response from the community was amazing. The hospital where Miss Molly was being treated received so many bunches of flowers, cards and other gifts that the nursing staff asked her if she was a film star. She received practical and emotional support during those months, including a quilt which was put together by a team from pieces sent from all over the world. After three months, and almost 1,000 posts on the thread, Miss Molly died. This episode had a very powerful effect in strengthening the bonds of the community. Looking at events such as this, over the nine years we’ve been running online community, we’ve often asked ourselves if we could ever be a church, or ever run as a sort of alternative church online. But we always reached the same answer of No, essentially because we believed that running an act of worship online would need a greater sense of place than we had. We felt that the key difference would be to have somewhere that looked and felt like sacred space, and which gave a visible metaphor for people meeting together. And that was something we just did not have. Online – Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3.1 (2008) 97 The Ark: Internet reality gameshow (2003) The following year, in 2003, we were able to realize a big project which created 3D space online. Here was the concept we followed: ‘Have you ever found yourself wondering what it would be like if you got some of the best known characters of the Bible together in a bar for a drink or two? How would they get on, these saints and sinners, these heroes and villains of the Bible? Would Moses compare beard lengths with John the Baptist? Would Eve offend Paul with her figleaf costume? It’s inevitable that some of the great saints would find it hard to spend even a few minutes in each other’s company.’ That was the key idea at the heart of the project we called The Ark. This was how it worked. Twelve real people, sitting at their computer screens round the world, logging in and playing the role of a biblical saint or sinner, onboard a virtual Ark for 40 days and 40 nights. The divine dozen would play games, complete tasks, overcome crises, discuss the big issues of the day and argue over whose turn it was to muck out the gorillas. All in full view of a global audience, watching them on the Internet. In this project, we were funded by the UK’s Jerusalem Trust, and worked with Specialmoves, a new media agency in London. We put out a call for contestants in the three months before we launched, and over 1,000 people round the world responded, wanting to become a Bible hero. Out of all our applicants, we eventually chose our 12 Arkmates. Six were from the UK; four were from the US (from New York, Washington DC, New Orleans and California); and the final two were from Canada. They included three priests, two youth workers, a teacher, a psychologist and an astrophysicist. The contestants all logged into the game to play it live and were in full control of their online avatars. They keyed in what they wanted to say, hit return, and their speech appeared onscreen in floating speech bubbles. They could move their avatars around via point and click and do a good amount of gesturing. Online – Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3.1 (2008) 98 Figure 2: The Ark Chapel. The Ark was online every day for an hour in the evening over 40 days, so it was a longrunning story. Up to 4,000 people per day logging into The Ark environment, either to watch the live action, or follow recorded highlights, or just to explore for themselves. The Ark was quite a large environment, with seven rooms on two floors, plus two lower decks for storage and animals, which included pairs of elephants, alligators, zebras – and a single tyrannosaurus rex. Gradually the contestants were voted off The Ark by our audience, with each contestant walking the plank, until just one of them stepped ashore on Mt Ararat to claim fame and a fortune of £666. The Ark still remains online, and can be visited and explored at: We learned many things from running The Ark gameshow, but two really stand out… First was the contestants’ emotional involvement in the game. This was expressed in their immersion in the 3D world, the strong relationships which developed between the contestants, and the way they bonded with their online identity. ‘It was one of the strangest, most intense experiences I’ve ever had,’ said the person playing the role of Esther. ‘I didn’t think the interactions would feel so real,’ said the contestant playing Simon Peter. The second standout point was this. Each Sunday during the game, we turned The Ark’s spacious living room into a chapel, and gave three of the Arkmates the task of preparing Divine Service for everyone else to join in. When we saw how this worked, with preaching, Online – Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3.1 (2008) 99 Bible readings, prayers and discussion, it planted an idea in our minds that this might be a way to realise the idea of online church. How would it be if we detached the chapel from The Ark and ran it week by week as a virtual church? What we saw happening in The Ark’s chapel eventually grew into Church of Fools. Church of Fools (2004) Church of Fools wasn’t the first attempt to run religious services online in a 3D environment. That had been happening for some time inside existing virtual worlds, especially when people wanted to get married online. The first-claimed such marriage happened inside AlphaWorld, one of the oldest virtual worlds on the net, and took place on May 8th 1996 between Janka and Tomas, a young couple living in the US. Janka and Tomas spent several weeks planning their wedding, constructing the special pavilion for the event, making avatars for themselves, sending out invitations and… well, you get the idea. Just like a ‘real-life’ wedding, there was a lot to do. They also had to think about crowd control, because their wedding, being a first, was likely to attract a lot of people, some of whom might want to wreck it. The event lasted three hours, and participants reported that it felt like they had ‘been somewhere and done something’. After the online ceremony, Tomas, who was in Texas, drove 3,100 miles to Tacoma, Washington, to be with his bride – which was said to be the longest delayed ‘you may kiss the bride’ in history! Just three weeks before we launched Church of Fools in May 2004, a Catholic Mass was attempted in a huge cathedral inside Second Life. This was an unofficial Mass, of course, because the service wasn’t backed by the Catholic Church. Rafin Grimm, who built the church, appeared in an avatar with splendid angel wings, and led the Lord’s Prayer. The service followed the liturgy for the Roman Mass, and included the giving of the peace, although it stopped short of blessing virtual bread and wine. After the service, Grimm told the worshippers who had gathered: ‘I didn’t build the church for anyone to have the Catholic religion forced on them…It was not meant to convert, just to let you see what a Mass is generally like in the Catholic church.’ Online – Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3.1 (2008) 100 Figure 3: Church of Fools. OmegaX Zapata, who led the Mass, said, ‘I am certainly not a real minister, nor do I do this sort of thing in real life…I wanted to bring more real-world things into Second Life so people could experience them if they couldn’t in real life.’ As far as is known, services didn’t continue inside the cathedral, so this was a unique event. When we came to build Church of Fools, it was different in many ways from what had come before. We were building a dedicated church environment (in Shockwave), rather than adding something to an existing online world. Church of Fools was self-contained as an environment and a project. We had also decided to run it as a three-month experiment to see if sustained online church was possible, and if it would have any value. For all we knew, it would be dull and wouldn’t work very well, and then we could all forget about it and go home. We had three underlying aims: 1. We wanted to try translating church into the medium of the net. It was to be a genuine experiment, seeking visitor feedback, to find out if online church is a viable way to ‘do church’. 2. We wanted to create moments of genuine depth and spirituality, helping people feel they were connecting with God, themselves and others. 3. We wanted to educate and inform people who would never darken the doors of a church about Christian worship and fellowship. We hoped to break down the barriers people have about going to church. Online – Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3.1 (2008) 101 Just as the Methodist church leader John Wesley took his preaching out of churches and into the fields and streets in the 18th century, we wanted to take church to where people are in the 21st century – on the Net. In keeping with the Wesley connexion, we were sponsored by the Methodist Church of Great Britain – and also by the Bishop of London – and that was a huge plus. It was good to be backed by real-life churches which had an interest in the virtual world, too. Although we were non-denominational, we wanted to be in the mainstream of trinitarian orthodoxy, and so we planned to use Anglican, Celtic and other liturgies in running our services. The Church of Fools environment We had plenty of discussion about what Church of Fools should look like, and considered modern as well as ancient styles of architecture. But since we wanted to appeal to people who never went to church, we decided that we wanted a church which said ‘church’ as soon as you saw it. Which meant pointed arches, stained glass, pews and other familiar items from historic church architecture. Since our church was going to appear in the medium of computer games, we thought this ecclesiastical style would create atmosphere and give the whole thing a playful, experimental edge. And we were curious to see how people would respond to such a religious-looking environment. The whole building was able to accommodate just over 30 visible avatars, which made the building look quite full. The church sanctuary contained the spaces you would normally find in a sacred Christian building. There was a nave, with wooden pews for seating. There was a chancel, which contained an altar with a cross, a pulpit and a reading lectern. Out of these three objects, we only used the pulpit and the lectern, but it was valuable to have the symbol of the cross as a visible sign of what we were doing. Online – Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 3.1 

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