Guest Post: John Soboslai, Assistant Professor of Religion, Montclair State University
In the course evaluations from my Understanding Religion classes, students routinely wrote “this class should include more videos.” After initially shrugging off the request as students simply wanting to watch movies, I began to recognize the pedagogic insight behind their words. Students’ lives are, to a great extent, mediated through digital media, so I could understand their desire to have their education reflect that experience.
In response to their requests, I began exploring video options. I was particularly interested in recordings of ritual practices. These generally happen in sacred spaces, and reading about them often fails to capture the full sensory experience that permeates them.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the videos did prove effective in anchoring our analytical discussions. They also served to demystify unfamiliar practices. However, I also ran into a few challenges.
First, identifying academically-useful, balanced, and non-devotional videos proved challenging. Recorded services were plentiful, particularly as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, but the clips were usually long and without context. Sitting through 90 minutes of a Mass or Shabbat service is a lot to ask of students who are used to blazing fast transitions. The standard single, stationary camera position also makes for a dull proceeding.
In addition, even when short, useful, and somewhat- neutral clips could be integrated, watching videos is still largely passive learning for the students. Watching movies may connect with their media habits, but it can also encourage inactive consumption rather than critical engagement.
I want my students to have digital experiences that are interactive and give them control of their learning. I also want these experiences to be appropriate for a college classroom, providing reliable and suitable information about religion.
Then, I discovered a virtual reality (VR) experience called Zikr: A Sufi Revival. Sufism is often referred to as a mystical movement within Islam, and the ritual zikr is fundamental to the practice. During a zikr (also transliterated as dhikr), participants intone the Names of Allah, and the recitation is often accompanied by body movements, such as swaying or slow rotations. For practitioners, a zikr can be incredibly powerful, but imparting that emotional essence to college students can be difficult.
Zikr: A Sufi Revival allows users from around the world to feel that emotional power. The immersive experience, created by Gabo Arora and Sensorium Studios, allows users to experience the practice directly. It also incorporates brief inquiries and conversations with practitioners, all while being delivered through an HTC Vive VR headset! Users could, to some extent, be at the ritual itself. The Zikr experience even included haptic feedback mechanisms to increase involvement. For example, students could essentially join in the ritual by playing virtual instruments.
MUYA: The Multimedia Yasna Project offers a similar multimedia exploration of the Zoroastrian Yasna ritual. Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest faith traditions, emerged in prehistoric Iran. The primary set of texts is called the Yasna and it is written in the ancient language of Avestan. During Yasna ceremonies, these liturgical texts are recited as a way of strengthening what is good in creation and right with the world.
The MUYA project merges a VR experience of this ritual with interactive explanations of the Avestan language and the scripture behind it. Directed by Prof. Almut Hintze at the School of Asian Studies at the University of London, the experience results in a comprehensive examination of the ritual while also serving as an important piece of cultural preservation.
VR projects such as these offer a new modality for teaching and learning about religious ritual that differ from site visits. Site visits have long been a popular part of many religion survey courses. In those situations, educators use the opportunity to enter sacred spaces and speak with religious professionals as a way to increase understanding and empathy.
However, classes fortunate enough to visit religious sites usually do so at times where the sites are inactive in order to avoid disruption and allow for conversations with religious professionals. Zikr and MUYA show us the possibility of witnessing active practices first-hand while simultaneously learning more about their origins, symbolism, and dynamics.
VR could also bring those benefits to a wider audience. Curating a collection of immersive experiences of various sacred practices could potentially anchor religious studies pedagogy by approximating presence while also providing novel experiences for users.
Creating a VR Library
In June of this year, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities, I convened with a set of scholars and digital experts to explore this very idea. Over the course of two days, historians, visual anthropologists, and scholars from diverse religious traditions collaborated with a variety of technology professionals. The gathering also included members of Indigenous and Afro-diasporic traditions, groups that are often marginalized in the problematic ‘world religions’ paradigm.
Our overall goal is to create a set of resources using stereoscopic (360°) video and ambisonic (3d) sound recording. In addition to approximating presence, these resources would also incorporate explanatory interviews and interactive information. During this first conference we explored issues of selection, authenticity, interactivity, effective immersion, and other questions regarding the potential resources.
But, there is still much work to be done! In upcoming Religion Matters blog posts, I will invite you into our discussions. And, as part of this process, we can also initiate a wider conversation around both the potentials and perils of using VR as a medium for learning about religious practices.
John Soboslai has been teaching in the department of Religion at Montclair State University since 2016. He has published articles on martyrdom and self-sacrifice in a variety of religious traditions, as well as co-authoring God in the Tumult of the Global Square with Mark Juergensmeyer and Dinah Griego in 2015. Recently, he has begun exploring ways of incorporating technologies like geographic information systems and digital media in teaching his students about religious practices.