Can “Religion” Be Among This Year’s Standout Innovators?

Artwork by Douglas Boin.

A Vatican communications officer is coming to Austin’s annual tech conference, as the community welcomes a host of faith-themed panels. But who’s influencing whom?

When Pope Francis came to the Mexican border city of Juárez, in February 2016, the Catholic communities of Texas and New Mexico faced a problem. Going to see the Pope would be easy; Juárez sits opposite El Paso on the other side of the Rio Grande. Getting back across the U.S. border was something many didn’t want to risk.

Helen Osman, the chief communications officer for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) from 2007–2015, was part of a team that came up with a solution. Working with the USCCB, local officials, the Catholic diocese, and the Vatican, they hit upon a way to make the border — momentarily — disappear. Francis would be live-streamed into the Sun Bowl in El Paso. From the stadium’s 60x34 foot Jumbotron, with its 15HD pixel layout, Francis led Catholics on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico divide through a creed and customs centuries’ old.

“They felt they were there with him celebrating the Eucharist,” Osman says. “It was really touching to know that using technology and communications we were able to make that happen. Through technology, he crossed the border.”

Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas (7 June 2016). Photo credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Public Domain.

This month, Osman will work her magic again at the South By Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin. She has invited one of the Vatican’s leading voices on digital communications to present to the annual conference, which showcases new talent and trends in technology, media, music, and film. Osman’s panel, “Compassionate Disruption,” will feature a conversation with Irish-born Bishop Paul Tighe of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture. It will be the first time any official from the Vatican has attended SXSW.

“This is the classic idea of how innovation works,” Osman says. “Not being afraid to show people you’re outside the box.”

The story of how specific faith communities have embraced technology over time is well-known. Ever since the marriage of stylus, parchment, and ink, Christians have been turning to the “latest tools” to spread their message: from the colorful panels of Medieval manuscripts to the moveable type of Gutenberg’s Bible to the moving pixels of modern television.

Throughout last century alone, iconic media figures like Bishop Fulton Sheen, Mother Angelica and an explosion of U.S. televangelists found creative ways to bring their message into people’s living rooms. With Pope Francis, that now includes stadiums on the other side of national borders.

Yet technology’s power — to pass through walls, to build digital bridges and virtual communities across real divides — is something that can transcend any one religion. The Vatican may be reaching out to the brave new “digital continent” through its Twitter handle @Pontifex (the Latin word means “bridge-builder”). But with attacks against the American Sikh community in the news, violence against America’s Jewish community, and a pervasive Islamophobia stoked President Trump’s immigration order, bridge-building is no longer just for the Pope.

The time is right for thinking differently about how and where people find meaning in their lives — and how to use technology to form better bonds with each other.

Alongside Osman at SXSW will be a host of Muslim journalists, consultants, writers, and scholars who are ready to combat Muslim stereotypes in the media, on television, and in film.

“Everyone is talking or tweeting about us,” writes Eman Aly, in an overview to the panel she organized about Islam, “From Trump to Trolls: How Muslim Media Fights Back.” “It’s exhausting having to defend, explain and rebut trolls, extremists, and otherwise well-intentioned folks who’ve been fed ignorance and fear.” Joining Aly in the SXSW line-up is Camille Alick, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Arab Film Festival, whose panel (“Authentic Muslim Voices Tell Their Stories”) is one of two at SXSW which will address similar issues; the other is “The Secret Life of Muslims Explores Muslims in the Media.” They join an ever-growing line-up of bloggers, podcasters, and videographers — from all religious traditions— who are knocking down the digital walls that divide faith communities from each other.

With people now watching 1 billion hours of YouTube videos daily, YouTube itself has become one of the newest frontiers in this arena. “With ten minutes of education, you can feel smarter afterwards,” says Andrew Henry, who runs a popular channel, Religion for Breakfast. The son of a Baptist missionary who made videos to serve his church’s needs, Henry aims for neutrality but doesn’t shy away from unconventional topics. His commentary on late-night talk-show host Stephen Colbert’s “unpredictable” treatment of religion has, in one month, been viewed over 12,000 times.

ReligionForBreakfast (YouTube) is “an educational channel dedicated to the academic, nonsectarian study of religion.”

Not everyone will accept “religion’s” presence at one of the country’s most pre-eminent technology festivals. Ancient beliefs are not exactly famous for excelling at innovation, and many — particularly among the atheist community — are still adamant that, in 2017, religion should just die out. To borrow a concept from evolutionary biology, belief can sometimes seem like an outdated, antiquated holdover of an earlier age: humanity’s software flaw, a glitch in need of an update.

Bridge-building is no longer just for the Pope.

Clearly, the time is right for thinking differently about how and where people find meaning in their lives — and how to use technology to form better bonds with each other. As the co-host of the podcast Thinking Religion, Thomas Whitley, phrased it: “At its best, social media allows you to form communities that you otherwise couldn’t form.” Thanks to technology, that’s true now whether you’re attending a virtual mass with the Pope or typing deep spiritual questions into a Google search box at home.

This post appeared March 7, 2017, in slightly different form at The writer is Editor-At-Large of OnFaith and co-organizer of the panel, “Gutenberg to Google: How Tech Can Transform Faith,” a conversation between Sally Quinn, Shawn Bose and Jon Meacham, March 15 at SXSW.

Featured voices from OnFaith, the online community for faith and spirituality.

Douglas Boin

Written by

A writer driven by what is novel. An editor committed to what is compelling. A professor and a champion of causes.

Featured voices from OnFaith, the online community for faith and spirituality.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade