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The Virtual Construction of The Sacred – Representation and Fantasy in the Architecture of Second Life Churches



This study aims to construct a typology of the visual style of Christian spaces in the online virtual world of Second Life (SL). Virtual worlds offer diverse new possibilities for architectural style, unrestricted by gravity, weather or scarcity of materials. These new regions also operate largely beyond the control and indeed awareness of established religious authorities, so they can also offer users new opportunities to reconsider the social structure of their communities. This research project aims to survey religious responses to these new potential freedoms. Research to date on religion in SL has focused on small samples of spaces or activity, but we found 114 Christian spaces. An overwhelming number of the locations we visited featured a Christian church building. 81 of 114 included a church building that reproduced a recognizable offline architectural style, and only 9 included a church with an entirely different style. Only 15 Christian locations had buildings that cannot be characterised as churches.
Stefan Gelfgren and Tim Hutchings
This study aims to construct a typology of the visual style of Christian spaces in the online vir-
tual world of Second Life (SL). Virtual worlds offer diverse new possibilities for architectural
style, unrestricted by gravity, weather or scarcity of materials. These new regions also operate
largely beyond the control and indeed awareness of established religious authorities, so they can
also offer users new opportunities to reconsider the social structure of their communities. This
research project aims to survey religious responses to these new potential freedoms. Research to
date on religion in SL has focused on small samples of spaces or activity, but we found 114
Christian spaces. An overwhelming number of the locations we visited featured a Christian
church building. 81 of 114 included a church building that reproduced a recognizable offline
architectural style, and only 9 included a church with an entirely different style. Only 15 Chris-
tian locations had buildings that cannot be characterised as churches.
Keywords: virtual worlds, Second Life, online religion, digital religion, digital humanities
This study aims to construct a typology of the visual style of Christian spaces in the
online virtual world of Second Life (SL). Previous studies have reported that religious
practitioners are active in Second Life, creating spaces representing a wide variety of
religious traditions. Visitors to Second Life can engage in Buddhist meditation (Grieve
2010), pray in a mosque (Derrickson 2008), visit a synagogue (Voloj 2008) or attend
a neopagan wedding (Radde-Antweiler 2007). Christian spaces are particularly
common, reflecting the popularity of Second Life in the United States and other areas
with a strong Christian presence and a high grade of Internet connectivity.
to date has only focused on small samples of SL spaces or activity. This article will
examine the visual styles of all Christian spaces in Second Life in December 2011, ena-
bling the authors to assess the diversity of design in this field. We will conclude by ana-
Nordic Journal of Religion and Society (2014), 27 (1): 59–73
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lyzing our typology using concepts drawn from the study of digital religion, archaeol-
ogy and media studies.
Virtual worlds offer diverse new possibilities for architectural style, unrestricted by
gravity, weather or scarcity of materials. Substances that were once expensive and dif-
ficult to work with, like gold or marble, can be simulated with ease; vast stone walls
can be erected and demolished instantly. These new regions operate largely beyond the
control and indeed awareness of established religious authorities, so they can also offer
users new opportunities to reconsider the social structure of their communities. This
research project aims to survey religious responses to these new potential freedoms. In
a time when religious faith and practices are contested and traditional institutions
dwindle (Martin 2010), we might expect to see evidence of new experimental activity
emerging in virtual worlds, reflected in new kinds of architecture. Our typology of all
Christian places in Second Life allows us to test this hypothesis and establish the extent
to which it has been fulfilled.
Second Life and Christianity
The virtual world of Second Life was launched by the California-based company
Linden Labs in 2003. Registration is free, but members («Residents») can choose to
pay to rent sections of land. Residents can also create their own items in-world and sell
them to one another. These items could take any form, but popular options include
clothes, houses, furniture, landscapes, plants and animals. Residents appear in-world
as «avatars», and can design and adorn these in any form they choose. Humanoid char-
acters are most common. Avatars can perform gestures, which can also be designed and
sold by Residents. Second Life offers an unusual opportunity for low-cost virtual cre-
ativity and social interaction (for an introduction to Second Life see Boellstorff 2008).
Religious believers were quick to adopt the new technology for their own ends, and
Christians began offering virtual forms of education, worship and evangelism within a
year (Au 2004), following a long tradition of embracing new communications media
(Campbell 2010; Gelfgren 2012b).
Second Life has changed significantly over time, bringing a range of consequences
for the churches within it. An intense wave of media attention began in 2006 and
peaked in 2007. By 2009, attention had dwindled to such an extent that the BBC could
publish an online article asking «What happened to Second Life?» (BBC 2009). Unsur-
prisingly, Linden Labs presents a different story: according to quarterly economic
reports published during 2010 and 2011, the Second Life userbase remained steady,
with around one million individuals logging in each month for a total of 100 million
hours (Linden Labs 2011). The total area of land owned by SL Residents remained at
2000 km
, a slight increase from the end of 2008. Linden Labs stopped reporting usage
statistics in 2011, suggesting to some observers that the real picture may be less posi-
tive than the company claims (Au 2012). Second Life is no longer growing, and may
be declining, but it’s certainly true that there remains a great deal of activity in-world.
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Stefan Gelfgren and Tim Hutchings: The virtual construction of the sacred
Academic researchers have long been interested in the emergence of religious
rituals in virtual worlds. One of the first articles to discuss online religion focused on
this topic, and a steady stream of research has addressed virtual ritual ever since.
Schroeder, Heather and Lee (1998) examined «E-Church», a small Christian world in
a networked virtual reality system, and mention a church building with an altar and a
number of crosses. Research in Second Life has also reported the prevalence of tradi-
tional visual styles. According to Hutchings (2010a) «a visitor to Epiphany Island,
home to the Cathedral of Second Life, will most likely be struck by two things: the
intricate care that has gone into its construction, and the resemblance of almost every
element of that construction to offline Christian architecture and the natural world»
(2010a: 67).
According to Christian commentator Douglas Estes (2009), this design decision is
temporary and inadequate. Christians in Second Life «felt that at this early stage in the
process, people need to see an architecture they recognize as church», but if churches
continue to reproduce recognizable forms «over the long-term… they will never grasp
the potential of being the church in the virtual world» (2009: 106–107). At least some
Second Life church-builders appear to agree. According to Miczek (2008) there is «a
wide range of churches» in-world. Miczek describes Koinonia, a large wooden hall, as
an example of «a new ritual place» (2008: 168). According to its designer, «the chapel
or church is meant to be open - modern/post-modern - and comfortable, not pews
facing an authority figure… there are no doors… that is intentional» (2008: 164). At
Epiphany Island, architecture is used to symbolize the continuity of the virtual church
with the Anglican tradition. At Koinonia, the absence of traditional church architecture
symbolizes a disconnection from tradition that carries its own theological message.
The collapse of media attention impacted Second Life religion in several ways,
diminishing the expectations of rapid growth and future significance displayed by
Estes (2009). Hutchings (2010a) encountered Christians who disliked Second Life
intensely and entered it purely to evangelize, attracted by stories of mass immigration
and moral depravity and hopes of building a quick following. Such individuals may
now have been attracted to other online media such as blogs, Facebook or Twitter. The
stability of the Second Life economy suggests a second important theme, however: a
maturing of the virtual world and its long-term Residents, which may also have conse-
quences for church styles. Finally, specific Linden Labs policies may be relevant, par-
ticularly the 2011 decision to end the discounted rate previously charged to educational
and non-profit groups for land rental (Linden Labs 2010).
Methodology and results
This study aimed to find and analyse every Christian place in Second Life. The first
search was undertaken in December 2011, with additional locations added in May 2012
by comparing our collection with lists compiled by other Second Life users. We iden-
tified locations primarily through the Second Life search function, searching for terms
like «Christian», «Jesus», «church», «chapel» and «cathedral». We also searched for
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Christian groups, looking for references to places. In total, we located 114 Christian
sims. All of our search terms were in English, but we did find Christian places created
by non-English speaking groups – Swedish, Finnish, German, Spanish, Japanese,
Egyptian – who had included English words in their location descriptions. In each case,
we visited the location, described its characteristics and the architecture of its buildings
and landscape, and recorded any messages published to the Second Life directory or
made available as notecards for visitors. We did not try to interview designers or visi-
An overwhelming number of the locations we visited featured a Christian church
building. 81 of 114 (71 %) included a church building that reproduced a recognizable
offline architectural style, and only 9 included a church with an entirely different style.
Only 15 locations included buildings without any churches, offering alternative spaces
such as nightclubs, cafés and meditation centers instead. 9 locations had no buildings
at all; landscapes with hills, rivers, trees and flowers had been created in some loca-
tions, while others offered space for events, social activities and fellowship. Many
churches have a small area nearby designated for sociable interaction, and some devel-
oped elaborate social spaces including places to sit, dance floors, cafés, fishing and
avatar sports.
We designated 67 of all 114 sims as Protestant, based on theological or denomina-
tional statements contained in their self-descriptions. There does not seem to be a
pattern connecting different architectural styles to specific Protestant traditions, but
approximately one third listed a denominational affiliation, one third claimed to be
independent and the remainder did not declare either way. 25 sims are Roman Catholic,
5 are Orthodox, and we were unable to assign any tradition to 17. 13 of the 67 Protes-
tant sims focus on socializing, but none of the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox places
are designed with this as a major feature.
Overall, we found that the vast majority of these virtual places feature a traditional
church building – a rectangular structure with walls and a church door, pews, an altar
and a pulpit. The majority of these places are Protestant. Protestant locations are also
more likely to be designed to facilitate socializing and fellowship among visitors.
Roman Catholic and Orthodox sites are more inclined to emphasize personal contem-
plation and meditation.
Building Christian places in Second Life: five categories
In theory, the options for Second Life architecture are limited only by the technology
and the architect’s skill. Many of the 114 spaces we observed included buildings that
were clearly recognizable as Christian churches, but others explored more unusual pos-
sibilities. We found detailed copies of Protestant churches with lines of pews and Cath-
olic shrines with images and statues, but also churches that floated like bubbles in the
air with gold, glowing walls.
The Basset Hills Fellowship Church is an extreme example of recognisability, a
careful copy of an American Baptist church in white plaster and red brick. There are
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Stefan Gelfgren and Tim Hutchings: The virtual construction of the sacred
parking facilities for cars, with designated parking spaces for people with disabilities.
A cross stands on the lawn draped with a mantle, a symbol of the resurrected Jesus.
Inside the church the setting is equally traditional, with a pulpit in front facing orderly
rows of pews. There is a crèche, and bathrooms for both genders. A sign outside the
church announces that worship services are hosted every Sunday morning.
Serenata demonstrates a quite different approach. This «Christian Spiritual
Renewal Center» has created an imaginative landscape on an isolated island. Green
mountains, a lagoon, colorful trees, shrubs and flowers are tied together by pathways
and small bridges. There are small shrines, an abbey in the air built on glowing plat-
forms and an empty basilica with a richly ornamented floor, all constructed from white
and pink marble and gold. There are recognizable elements here, but they have been
combined in ways that could only be achieved in virtual space.
Christian churches in Second Life can be divided into four categories according to
architectural style and function:
1 «Ornamental churches» – spaces that resemble offline church buildings and are
identified as «churches», but which do not serve as places of Christian worship.
2 «Protestant reproduction churches» – spaces that copy their architecture from the
denominational or independent Protestant traditions.
3 «Roman Catholic and Orthodox reproduction churches» – spaces that copy the
architectural styles of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.
4 «Fantasy architecture» – places and churches that do not reproduce models from the
physical world at all.
Non-church architectural forms will be discussed below as a fifth category.
1. Ornamental Churches
This first category refers to spaces that are designed as Christian churches but are not
intended as places for Christian worship. Ornamental churches serve a range of func-
tions, including art, education, commerce and romance. Some are carefully-designed
replicas of specific physical buildings, created to allow Second Life users to «visit» a
famous landmark such as the Koelner Dom (Cologne Cathedral). Others are created to
add character and «authenticity» to villages and towns with a historical theme, attract-
ing visitors to nearby shops and places of residence. Church architecture also appears
in sims used to host wedding rituals, allowing avatars to play with religious imagery
and symbolism as they celebrate their in-world relationships. Our research method
relied on searching the Second Life directory, so we have only identified spaces that
are listed there as «churches» or «chapels» – the full number of ornamental churches
and places resembling other Christian spaces is likely to be higher.
The Alba Chapel also looks like a traditional Anglican stone parish church, with
stained glass, pews and an altar. Behind the altar we find an automated priest, Father
Mosely, who will conduct a wedding ceremony according to an adapted version of the
form used in the UK for civil partnerships. According to a sign, Alba Chapel was «built
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with a church/chapel theme in mind, we, the owners/builders of this place, some of us
are not religious at all; others are quite spiritual in our own fashion … this means that
what you will not find here is a preachy, dour atmosphere. We strive to provide a peace-
ful, civil environment where every visitor of any or no religion is welcome, provided
that the same spirit of tolerance is adopted by our visitors.»
2–3. Reproduction Churches
Categories 2 and 3 also cover places that resemble architectural styles taken from reli-
gious traditions in the physical world, with a church building as a main feature. These
spaces are distinguished from Category 1 by attempts to encourage forms of explicitly
Christian activity. Church architecture follows a wide variety of traditions and styles,
of course, and many of these different traditions have been reproduced in Second Life.
We have identified just two broad categories, to simplify our typology.
2. Protestant Reproduction Churches
A number of Second Life spaces choose to affiliate themselves in their directory entry
with a specific Protestant denomination. Traditions represented in Second Life in this
way include the Lutheran state churches of Scandinavia, the Anglican Communion,
Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists. Some claim to be outreach projects sponsored
by specific churches offline or connected officially to specific denominations, while
others have been created by private individuals.
The Anglican Cathedral of Second Life was created by a lay Anglican businessman
from New Zealand as a way to gather Anglicans around an innovative mission and fel-
lowship project, and quickly associated itself with dioceses in England and New Zea-
land. Regular online services adapt liturgies of the Church of England for Second Life
worship, adding sermons but retaining a focus on scripted prayers and responses. The
Cathedral’s architecture reproduces many standard elements of grand Gothic design,
including a stone tower and flying buttresses, while the interior is decorated with a
stone altar, incense burner, candle stands and wooden pews. Large flags fly outside,
bearing the logo of the Anglican Communion. The Cathedral stands at the crest of a
hill, in front of a large open space with a fountain (or, in the winter season, a fireplace)
as a focal point for gatherings. Further buildings are dotted across the island, including
a meeting hall, a parish house and a smaller chapel, and a winding corridor joins these
buildings to a crypt underground.
Not all Protestant churches in Second Life are so keen to associate themselves with
a specific denomination, but even among independent churches a recognizable style is
common. Alafia Country Church, home of Life’s Word Ministries, describes itself in
the Second Life directory only as a «Bible based, God fearing church» and outlines a
brief creed: «the ONLY way to get to Heaven is through Christ». Alafia occupies a flat,
grassy plain, backing onto the sea. Apart from two picnic tables and a path, no attempt
has been made to landscape or decorate this area. The single, large, rectangular build-
ing is constructed from plain dark stone, topped with a flat slate roof that rises sharply
in the centre to a stone spire. Windows are filled with stained glass images of Jesus and
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Stefan Gelfgren and Tim Hutchings: The virtual construction of the sacred
nature, contemporary but figurative. A semi-circular wooden porch with white stone
columns covers three large open arches, leading into the church itself. Inside, the
white-carpeted space is open, lined with widely-spaced pews. Steps lead up to a
balcony area. The pews are arranged in a semi-circle to face a stage, featuring a crouch-
ing stone angel and a wooden altar topped with a Latin Bible and a red rose. Signs
around the church display inspirational Christian sayings: «Have you prayed about it
as much as you’ve talked about it?»
3. Catholic and Orthodox Reproduction Churches
Roman Catholic spaces are relatively common in Second Life, and some Eastern
Orthodox spaces can also be found, but the style of architecture and visitor engagement
here is quite different from the Protestant spaces described above. These places and
their churches tend to reproduce elements of Catholic and Orthodox visual culture as
aids to private and shared prayer, instead of designing large venues for preaching, con-
gregational worship and socializing.
At the Grotto and Garden of Our Lady of Lourdes we find a tiny ivy-wreathed stone
church with a rough-hewn wooden roof, stone pews, an altar with a cross and two can-
dles, and a Celtic cross. There are also stained glass windows depicting female angels.
This is broadly similar to the churches in categories 2 and 3, but a path leads uphill
beyond this church to a space loosely modelled on the grotto at Lourdes, south-west
France, where the Virgin Mary appeared to St Bernadette in 1858. A range of poseballs
offer different options for kneeling and standing in prayer before a statue of Mary.
Further uphill, a second, larger stone church serves as a sales point for prayer cards,
icons and religious animations.
There are relatively few Eastern Orthodox churches in Second Life, but these also
reproduce elements from historical tradition. The Hram Svetog Save/St Sava Orthodox
Christian Church associates itself with the Serbian Orthodox Church. It features a large
cupola in white marble atop a small square church without pews, reproducing common
features of Orthodox churches. An iconostasis divides the church from the sanctuary.
Anyone could enter this sanctuary through two side doors, an opportunity that is highly
restricted in physical Orthodox churches, but the sanctuary is designed with some
restrictions for use: the central door or «Beautiful Gates» is however only an image,
impossible to open, and the space behind the gates in front of the altar (the most sacred
space in a physical church) cannot be entered.
4. Fantasy Architecture
Categories 1–3 have all described spaces with buildings that closely resemble offline
styles of church architecture, but this realistic approach is not universal.
The sprawling complex of the Church of the Dawntreader stands alongside the
ocean. A notecard introduces the church founder, a Presbyterian minister from New
York, and explains that the church welcomes visitors from «all sexual orientations and
backgrounds» to encounter «Sweet Christianity». The notecard ends with a glowing
tribute to «our hero, the Irish monk Pelagius», a figure more commonly regarded as a
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heretic in Christian tradition. Pelagius’ defeat by Augustine was a defeat for «the way
of Jesus», according to this notecard, because Pelagius taught moral responsibility, the
goodness of all creation and the goodness of sex.
The focal point of the Dawntreader complex is a building without walls, con-
structed on a wooden platform pushed out into a bay by stone ramps. A ring of tall
stone pillars circle this platform, joined together by a ring of tracery. The pillars come
together to support a stone cupola and a series of enormous brass bells. This space is
largely empty but includes two rows of chairs, facing a central altar, a cross, and a view
over the bay to the tree-lined shore where waves can be seen crashing against boulders.
This space also features a pulpit, a baptismal font, a Bible and a large, brightly colored
glass angel. Elsewhere around the stone-paved complex, the visitor can find trees,
fountains, seating areas, a dancefloor, and a memorial wall «in honour of heroic RL
women». A statue of a lion stands at the centre of a grass labyrinth, in reference to the
Christ-like character of Aslan from CS Lewis’ Narnia stories (the church is named after
another of Lewis’ Narnia stories, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) (Lewis 1952).
5. Beyond Churches: Other Forms Of Christian Architecture In Second Life
Christian communities have long pursued a dual strategy in their use of space, main-
taining a church building but also conducting activities in public areas. One motivation
for entering public space is the desire to attract non-churchgoers into shared activities
and to offer a satisfying alternative to keep fellow Christians away from allegedly dan-
gerous secular environments. This strategy goes back at least to the 18
century Evan-
gelical movement and the invention of «religious leisure». Evangelicals started brass
bands, soccer teams, choirs and hosted parties (Brown 2001; Gelfgren 2012b). We find
places with a similar purpose nowadays in Second Life. These spaces are not described
as churches, but they are an essential part of Second Life Christianity.
The Bible Islands form a small archipelago centered around a large log cabin, built
close to the sea with a dramatic ocean view. Bible Islands describes itself as «a neat
place where there are all kinds of Bible studies, along with fellowship with others who
come.» Inside the two storey house there are a variety of Bible-based slideshows,
bookshelves with books to download and cozy sofas. It is a place designed for meetings
and studying rather than conventional forms of worship.
The Fire Escape is a Christian nightclub that aims to provide a «safe and entertain-
ing atmosphere where minds can be at ease» – helping visitors enjoy virtual dancing
without encountering sexualized music, attire or conversation. The design of the space
recreates elements of an offline secular nightclub, including strobe lighting and a DJ
mixing desk, but crosses and pictures of Jesus mark out its Christian purpose.
Online and Offline Religion
Academic attention to the internet, including online religion, has moved through three
stages or waves from the 1990s to the present day (Højsgaard and Warburg 2005). In
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Stefan Gelfgren and Tim Hutchings: The virtual construction of the sacred
the «first wave», commentators emphasized the novelty of online forms of religion,
conceptualizing the internet as a «cyberspace» separate from and competing for partic-
ipants with offline communities. In the «second wave» of research, scholars recog-
nized the diversity of online religion and paid more attention to its broader historical
and social contexts. The «third wave» of research moved on from mapping life online
to consider «how online-offline interaction and integration point towards findings
about life in an information-dominated culture» (Campbell 2011: 241). For Lundby,
«the church in cyberspace is church in the world, simply because Net communication
has become part of everyday life» (2012: 31). These three waves represent a progres-
sive deepening of analysis into online phenomena, and are repeated cyclically as each
new technology emerges (Campbell 2011: 243). It is now argued that online churches
must be seen in their contemporary and historical context (Gelfgren 2012b).
Popular Christian analysis of online churches has rarely progressed beyond the first
of these waves. Douglas Estes (2009), author of the only book-length study of online
churches to date, claims that Second Life congregations are «unlike any church the
world has ever seen», with «the power to break down social barriers, unite believers
from all over the world, and build the Kingdom of God with a widow’s mite of financ-
ing» (2009: 18). These new evolutions of church are desperately needed, because «the
virtual world is by far the largest unreached people group on Planet Earth» (2009: 29).
Estes’ enthusiasm is rare among Christian commentators, many of whom see online
churches as unwelcome competition. For Bob Hyatt (2009), for example, online
churches are dangerous because they lure the unwary away from local congregations
by promising an easier but ultimately inadequate alternative. Estes and Hyatt differ in
their theology, but both see online churches fundamentally as alternatives to local con-
Academic researchers have consistently argued that online religious activity com-
plements local churchgoing without replacing it (Campbell 2005; Clark et al. 2004).
According to Hutchings (2011), online churches also complement local engagement.
Hutchings studied five examples in detail and reports that between two thirds and three
quarters of the members of each were attending a local church regularly. Those who
did not attend a local church had almost all done so in the past, before illness or nega-
tive experiences – not the lure of the Internet – caused them to disaffiliate. For the
majority of participants, however, local churchgoing remained a necessary part of their
religious activity. There are exceptions to these general trends, of course – Hutchings
did identify individuals who chose not to attend an offline church simply because their
online experience was better, and also reported online conversions – but they are rela-
tively few in number.
This integration of online and offline religion is crucial to understanding the forms
of virtual architecture. If the majority of online church participants have been raised in
local churches and are closely familiar with particular denominational styles of archi-
tecture, and are seeking to augment their local church participation online rather than
to rebel against it, then we might expect the kinds of architecture they build online to
closely resemble those denominational forms. This continuation of online and offline
forms may in some cases be a function of familiarity, an automatic reproduction of
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well-known styles without conscious evaluation (Hutchings 2010b). Most likely
church-going Christian builders simply see no reason to alter the designs they know
since they are primarily attracting already convinced churchgoers.
Reproduction as Skeuomorphism
Achieving familiarity can be challenging, requiring an intense investment of time and
skill to create textures, details and structures that can be regarded as «realistic». Even
when a Christian landowner assembles their buildings and landscapes entirely from
elements purchased in the Second Life marketplace, considerable work is often
invested in selecting exactly the right textures, structures and furnishings. It is worth
remembering that these familiar details often have no practical value in a virtual world.
Avatars do not need seats to sit on when their virtual legs never tire. Buildings do not
require roofs in a world without rain, or pillars and walls to hold those roofs up in a
world without gravity. Architecture can serve some functions in-world, for example in
creating private spaces by shielding areas from view, but almost every «realistic» detail
is – to borrow a term from archaeology – skeuomorphic.
A skeuomorph is defined as a decoration «derived from structure» (Colley March
1889: 166), the imitation in one material of forms necessary in the original. Skeuomor-
phism appears to be a common strategy among designers working when a new medium
is introduced into their culture, «a stylistic means of altering the implicit or attributed
values of different materials» (Frieman 2010: 33). Skeuomorphism has been under-
stood by archaeologists as a conservative response to progress, using decoration to help
a culture feel comfortable with a new material and to anticipate its uses by framing it
within a familiar aesthetic: «a pot that looked like a basket would have been easier for
a Neolithic people to understand, use and desire» (Frieman 2010: 34). A new style can
then emerge as a culture grows accustomed to the new material and discovers its
unique properties. This theory is very similar to some common explanations of the
familiar style of online churches: church-builders are designing spaces that visitors can
understand and use (Miczek 2008), and new styles will emerge in future as online con-
gregations gain confidence (Estes 2009). Rachel Wagner (2011) claims that religious
rituals and video games both «draw upon previous stereotypes or genre specifications,
creating expectations and familiarity in performer–players, who know what to do in
new manifestations of the game or ritual since they have seen this kind of things
before» (2011: 7). The term «skeuomorphism» is currently popular among digital
designers, and the idea that skeuomorphs are essentially conservative has led many to
condemn their use in interfaces by companies like Apple (Hobbs 2012).
This approach does explain certain features of virtual architecture. The initial
design of the Anglican Cathedral of Second Life was entirely realistic, but over time
certain traditional features have been replaced with new designs. The spiral staircase
of the conference hall was replaced with ramps in 2010, easier for avatars to navigate,
and the hall’s walls were removed entirely. Any visitor to the island can now see at a
glance if a group has gathered and fly straight in to join them. The traditional pews of
the main church were altered to include seating for avatars too small for full-sized
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Stefan Gelfgren and Tim Hutchings: The virtual construction of the sacred
chairs, responding to a trend in avatar creation. In 2012 the whole cathedral was
replaced with a new design that includes fewer details and is therefore easier to view
on a slower computer. These are all shifts away from realism toward designs that are
more appropriate in a virtual world, suggesting that the cathedral community is becom-
ing more comfortable with non-traditional styles.
Convention and familiarity are not the only understandings of skeuomorphism pro-
posed by archaeologists. A less valuable material can be given a higher value by imi-
tating a high-status object. As Frieman (2010) points out, «the manipulation of material
culture is a supremely important part of identity construction and the creation of com-
munities» (2010:35), and this imitation process can be subversive: appropriating a
foreign material to produce a familiar artifact can be a way to reassert the primacy of
indigenous culture and aesthetics and strengthen group identity.
This suggests an alternative, complementary set of interpretations of virtual archi-
tecture. Online churchgoers are not just cautious or pragmatic when they invest time in
creating realistic virtual designs. They may also be responding to a perception that
physical churches in a traditional style have a higher status than non-realistic virtual
spaces, and trying to raise their own status within their virtual world and in relation to
their offline churches by accurately quoting that traditional style. A recognizable archi-
tectural style can help to reinforce the denominational or theological distinctiveness of
a congregation, encouraging participants to perform and maintain their group identity
by visually referencing their values, shared practices and heritage.
Frieman (2010: 35) suggests that skeuomorphism can be a way to comment on cul-
tural change. This motivation is also relevant to online churches, which can in some
cases deliberately accentuate the differences between the physical architectural tradi-
tion and the virtual reproduction. Placing park benches on the roof of the Cathedral or
dancing after services can be understood as playful ways to emphasise the lack of phys-
ical limitations experienced in Second Life, toying with and recombining new and tra-
ditional forms. At the same time, these games can be interpreted as commentary on the
limitations of religious traditions, celebrating the opportunity for individuals outside
the formal religious hierarchy to take a leading role in designing religious spaces and
Reproduction as Remediation
This discussion of skeuomorphism has much in common with Bolter and Grusin’s
(1999) analysis of remediation, the representation of one medium in another. Remedi-
ation does not always reproduce structure as decoration, but like skeuomorphism this
process can also affect both old and new media, refashioning each to absorb the other,
and it can also be used as a strategy to claim status and comment on change. New forms
of media always rely upon old forms of media.
The most relevant part of Bolter and Grusin’s (1999) analysis here is their identifi-
cation of two logics of remediation: immediacy and hypermediacy. Each promises to
connect the viewer to something real and authentic, through alternative but connected
strategies. Immediacy seeks to erase the medium altogether, immersing the viewer
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Nordic Journal of Religion and Society 27:1
directly in the subject that is mediated. This is ultimately impossible, because the
viewer can never sustain this unconsciousness. Immediacy therefore shifts into hyper-
mediacy, its opposite. Hypermediacy draws attention to the act of mediation, which
itself becomes the real experience.
Christian worship and architecture are full of examples of immediacy and hyper-
mediacy. The worshipper longs for the immediate, unmediated presence of God, but
this cannot be sustained unaided. Instead, churches seek to mediate this experience
through multiple mediating technologies and spaces, including various forms of arts,
symbolic rituals and symbolic artifacts. These multiple mediations generate and
protect sacred space and sacred experience, which must be immediate. To enjoy Chris-
tian music simply as music, without experiencing an immediate connection to God, is
missing the point.
If we apply this analysis to Second Life, we find another explanation for the recog-
nisability of virtual Christian architecture. Bolter and Grusin (1999) observe that
judgements of «immediacy» and «hypermediacy» are socially constructed, differing
between groups and generations: «what seems immediate to one group is highly medi-
ated to another» (1999: 71). Some groups experience God in sacred spaces, while
others see only architecture. Some enjoy the talent represented in great religious art and
display that art in galleries, while others meet God in plastic reproductions. The crucial
difference is the understanding of media and mediation developed in that particular
group. Christian churchgoers learn that certain designs, styles and practices offer
immediate connection to God, and they learn that others do not. Sacred space has a par-
ticular look and feel, and other space does not. For certain churchgoers, a detailed
reproduction of a Baptist church, Gothic cathedral or Marian shrine in Second Life
promises immediacy, erasing the virtual medium to connect the viewer to something
real. Each kind of architecture can be understood as a set of symbols that designates
sacred space within a particular religious tradition. If a Christian churchgoer has
learned to experience beautiful natural environments as a space of immediate access to
God, then reproducing those environments in-world can also be a way to generate
virtual sacred space.
This argument echoes recent suggestions by Second Life scholars. According to
Derrickson (2008), the sacred virtual space of Islamic sims is «a result of the detailed
reconstructions of spiritually-charged physical loci, and... behavioral regulations
encouraged by sim owners in the treatment of those virtual spaces.» For Barrett (2010)
the selection and recombination of design elements in virtual sacred spaces reflects a
«rhetoric of the holy», generating sacredness through the sharing of symbols acknow-
ledged as holy within the group (2010: 20). As Barrett points out, this demonstrates the
importance of religious literacy for participation in these groups and their experiences:
the participant must be able to read the symbols appropriately. Our argument here is
that to acknowledge symbols as holy means to perceive them as transparent, as imme-
diate mediations of sacred experience.
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Stefan Gelfgren and Tim Hutchings: The virtual construction of the sacred
This article has undertaken a survey of the visual design of every Christian space the
authors were able to find in Second Life. 114 sims were discovered, most including
some kind of church building. Most of the sims were Protestant, but a minority self-
designated as Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. The architectural style of these
114 sims was overwhelmingly traditional. A minority had developed new styles,
explicitly rejecting church architecture or exploring the possibilities of a virtual world.
There are some limitations to this study. Our list of 114 Christian spaces includes
those listed in the Second Life search directory, or in lists compiled by other SL users,
but some choose not to list themselves and could easily be overlooked. Hutchings has
interviewed a designer who creates elaborate spiritual spaces inside giant quartz crys-
tals and hollow trees, hidden away on her forested island. She sees these spaces in
dreams, she explains, and creates them as an act of worship. She hopes visitors might
find them, but does nothing to publicise their existence.
Most importantly, we have limited our attention in this study to architecture and text
description. In subsequent research, we will follow up these initial observations with
enquiries and interviews with designers to find out more about their understanding of
their creative work. Ethnographic case studies will also be undertaken, to assess the
actual activities occurring at some of the churches described here.
Our research so far demonstrates that virtual architecture can serve a range of psy-
chological, practical and symbolic purposes. For some, a traditional church may
simply be the most obvious choice, something familiar and recognizable. For others,
an exceptionally detailed reconstruction may afford a degree of distinction, raising the
status of a sim above those of lesser quality. Details may be altered to make a space
easier to navigate in-world, or to include whatever the builder has happened to find in
Second Life’s shops. A recognizable architectural style also helps visitors work out
what to expect in a particular place. As builders and visitors become more comfortable
in-world, «realistic» details may be replaced. Traditional and non-traditional objects
may be juxtaposed, as skeuomorphic or hypermediate commentary on the relative
value of materials. Architecture also serves another purpose, however, which may be
more enduring: as the remediation of a sacred space in which God is believed to be
«immediately» present. Christian virtual space is the visual manifestation of a spiritual
imagination, seeking to generate the kind of place in which God may be encountered.
A quick search (Feb 4, 2014) for places related to «church» gives 326 hits, and «Christian»
gives 121. This can be compared with «mosque» and «Muslim» with 4 hits each, and «syn-
agogue» and «Jewish» with 5 and 11 hits respectively. This gives however a mere indication
of the presence of different religious traditions since within for example the church category
we find places such as «the Church of the Cannibal Christ» and «The Church of Divine
. As a comparison «university» gives 619 hits, «museum» 225, «erotic» 614, and
«sex» 3298 hits.
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... This concept reflects the inter-relationship between religion, media, and culture. Some examples of such interaction manifest as cyber, online or e-churches, religious radios and blogs, online prayers, online or e-bible study, virtual pilgrimages, televangelism (i.e., religious TV broadcasts), etc. Literature emerging from the study Religions 2022, 13, 121 2 of 15 of digital religion focuses largely on the written narrative (Hoover and Echchaibi 2012;Helland 2016), and not necessarily on the graphical and visual expressions of religious spaces, despite the suggestive evidence that virtual representations of religious buildings may facilitate a spiritual experience similar to the ones in real houses of worship (Gelfgren and Hutchings 2014). The E-Church 1 concept was one of the first manifestations of digital religious practices which relied mainly on religious textual discourse rather than graphical representation of the sacred cyberspace (Schroeder et al. 1998;Campbell 2005;Hutchings 2011). ...
... Indeed, digital heritage portrays the intersection of cultural heritage and digital media (Parry 2007). Though scholars believe in the importance of the visual representation of digital sacred architecture in digital religion (Gelfgren and Hutchings 2014;Campbell 1995), research is still lacking from the design fields. This paper attempts to fill this gap by proposing an empirical method to assess the extent of the spiritual experience conveyed as emotional responses to virtual sacred architecture. ...
... The literature review established Christian spaces as more commonly existing in the digital realm, especially in the United States (Gelfgren and Hutchings 2014). As a result, this study examines the spiritual experience in a virtual Christian church, whereas it establishes a platform that can also be applied to other religious buildings (i.e., mosques, synagogues, Hindu and Buddhist temples, etc.) To test the empirical methods' applicability, a case study of one church's architectural typology is used. ...
Full-text available
Digital technology became a substantial component of daily life activities where people grew less dependent on the constraints of the physical world. Recent developments of new media platforms have led to important changes in religious practices, resulting in digital religion. However, there is a lack of empirical research assessing the effect on the spiritual experience. Some elements of sacred architecture, light for instance, influence the perception and experience of space. Light is a symbol of the sacred as it uplifts the worshiper’s soul and contributes to the transcendental experience. This paper proposes an analysis of a contemporary space, cyberspace, in framing the sacred experience. The focus is on light and its effect on the spiritual experience in a virtual church. The method employs an empirical approach, adapted from the social sciences scholarship, to examine the extent of the spiritual experience(s) manifested by the participants as emotional responses to the sacred space. The findings highlight people’s experiences of the cyber-sacred space and offer insights into the design of those spaces. This spiritual event could be considered a spiritual appreciation of architectural elements translated as subjective emotional responses to virtual sacred architecture. Such study bridges the research of architecture and social sciences in creating a platform for the empirical exploration of virtual ‘built’ environments. It provides a quantitative approach to a phenomenological concept of digital religion and the future of spiritual practices related to virtual sacred architecture. The importance of the study lies on the designed methodology to assess the effect of light on the spiritual experience in virtual sacred architecture.
... Some scholars (Merleau-Ponty,1964) believe that perception of space should not be limited to the visual, tactile, and audible, but should include all the senses at once. Others, (Gelfgren & Hutchings 2014) voice that virtual representations of religious buildings might facilitate a spiritual experience somehow similar to religious buildings in reality. Therefore, the virtual sacred space can create a spiritual experience that is detached from the physical fixed house of worship and can accompany worshipers on the move (Fig. 1). ...
... Another example is the Christian virtual spaces encountered in Second Life 2 . This game is a multi-user virtual environment, which serves as the visual manifestation of spiritual imagination, where God may be encountered (Gelfgren & Hutchings, 2014). It is considered a space where spirituality can be experienced. ...
Conference Paper
Full-text available
Today, in a world continuously shattered by displacement, the recreation of physical houses of worship that provide a spiritual relief and reaffirmation of an inner constancy becomes arduous and almost impossible. People find themselves with no place and no specific time to continue their spiritual rituals. Hence, there is a great need to explore new ways to express the sacred with no specific physical place. This paper explores how spiritual experience can be created with digital/virtual architectural solutions in situations of displacement.
... In a previous study in which all Christian places (at that time 114 places) within SL were mapped and categorized (at the end of 2011), it was noticed how a majority of Christian places are designed according fairly traditional concepts throughout the Christian sphere -including Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions alike (Gelfgren & Hutchings 2014). In another related study, the hybrid nature of the Church building (both the virtual and the physical) was emphasized, and it was claimed that there is a relation between the physical and the virtual church building and how they both attempt to reach -or transcend -into the realm of the sacred (Gelfgren 2014). ...
... The study by Gelfgren and Hutchings (2014) aimed to get an overview of the visual look of all the places. The authors categorized the churches in five different styles, including 'ornamental churches', 'Protestant reproduction churches', 'Roman Catholic and Orthodox reproduction churches', churches with a 'fantasy architecture', and a fifth category with 'non-church architectural style'. ...
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p>With the starting point of all Christian places (114 places) in the virtual world Second Life (SL), this article aims to study how SL is part of a negotiation process between old offline media and new online media, between established traditions and innovation. The questions addressed in this article are how such places are constructed, the constructor’s intentions and how they are related to established traditions. The idea behind this study was that the owners (studied through a questionnaire) set the agenda for what is going on at the place they own, and for how the places are constructed. The virtual world gives almost endless possibilities to create any form of place for Christian community and celebration, and people are limited only by their imaginations, but still tradition play an important aspect of the constructions. Concepts such as ‘remediation’, ‘hybridity’, and ‘affordance’ are used to interpret the places and their relation to traditions and the so called real world. </p
... Since the 1980s several religious groups emerged online, embodying different virtual religious expressions: cyber-churches (Gelfgren and Hutchings 2014), online prayers (Young 2004), online pilgrimages (Brasher 2004), 'godcasting' (Campbell 2010), and godblogging. This online religious effervescence prompts researchers to observe the presence of religious groups on the Internet from different points of view. ...
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This article provides a focused review of researches undertaken within Digital religion studies in the last three decades, specifically highlighting how religious communities have been studied and approached within this area. It highlights the dominant theoretical and methodological approaches employed by scholars during what is being described as the four stages of research on religious communities emerging over this period of time. Thus, this article presents the findings of key studies emerging during these stages to illuminate how the study of religious communities online has evolved over time. It also offers insights into how this evolution specifically relates to the study of Catholic community online. Finally, a theoretical analysis is given, assessing current research on religious communities within Digital Religion studies, and approaches for future research are proposed.
This netnographic study examines Reform Jewish rituals transmitted by virtual platforms, Facebook and Zoom, during the COVID‐19 pandemic. Reform Judaism, which supports modern liberal theology, has adopted the usage of technology for Shabbat services. The transition from the physical space to the virtual one challenges the performance of the ritual: Rabbis change the ritual's structure, and during online services, the congregants have different feelings toward the congregation and their own spiritual worship, made manifest in changes in their usual religious gestures. A positive result of the move to the virtual space is that though the Reform Jewish congregations, as non‐Orthodox communities, have been excluded by the state, virtual prayers further expose Reform services to Israeli society. However, this might hinder societal support if it is shown that the community can conduct its services without an actual formal space. This study illuminates the intersection of virtual space, religious praxis, and political conflicts.
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In this paper, we report on interviews with 11 Shia content creators who create and share graphic, bloody photos of Tatbeer, a religious ritual involving self-harm practices on Ashura, the death anniversary of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson. We show how graphic images serve as an object of communication in religious practices with the local community, the inner-self, and a wider audience. In particular, we highlight how content creators appropriated, in their own words, “ugly” photos to preserve the authenticity and beauty of their rituals while communicating their own interpretation of such rituals to others. We suggest that ugliness may be regarded as a useful resource to inform systems that seek to invite dialogue with marginalized or minority groups.
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Mapping Three Waves of Research“First-Wave” Research on Religion and the Internet“Second-Wave” Studies of Religion Online“Third-Wave” ResearchFuture of Research on Religion OnlineReferences
Godwired offers an engaging exploration of religious practice in the digital age. It considers how virtual experiences, like stories, games and rituals, are forms of world-building or "cosmos construction" that serve as a means of making sense of our own world. Such creative and interactive activity is, arguably, patently religious.
This book offers a mature assessment of themes preoccupying David Martin over some fifty years, complementing his book On Secularization. Deploying secularisation as an omnibus word bringing many dimensions into play, Martin argues that the boundaries of the concept of secularisation must not be redefined simply to cover aberrant cases, as when the focus was more on America as an exception rather than on Europe as an exception to the ‘furiously religious’ character of the rest of the world. Particular themes of focus include the dialectic of Christianity and secularization, the relation of Christianity to multiple enlightenments and modes of modernity, the enigmas of East Germany and Eastern Europe, and the rise of the transnational religious voluntary association, including Pentecostalism, as that feeds into vast religious changes in the developing world. Doubts are cast on the idea that religion has ever been privatised and has lately renetered the public realm. The rest of the book deals with the relation of the Christian repertoire to the nexus of religion and politics, including democracy and violence and sharply criticises polemical assertions of a special relation of religion to violence, and explores the contributions of 'cognitive science' to the debate.
In the context of Internet Research, Virtual Worlds offer a new environment to meet, communicate and perform rituals - the so called Online-Rituals - in a virtual reality, irrespective of geographical and real-life body conditions. The most prominent ex- ample for such worlds that have existed since 1998 is the privately-owned, subscrip- tion-based 3D application Second Life. An increasing number of residents use this World not only as a kind of virtual playground but as an enlargement of their real-life possibilities that has to be taken seriously: The users are both socially and religiously very active and consequently transfer real-life activities and therefore also rituals into virtual space. With the shift of technical boundaries former seeminlgy fixed religious and ritual frameworks will be modified and transformed. Different wedding rituals designed and performed in Second Life, for example, show the possibility to identify processes of ritual transfer and of ritual patchworking.
‘Online churches' are Internet-based Christian communities, seeking to pursue worship, discussion, friendship, support, proselytism and other key religious practices through computer-mediated communication. This article introduces findings of a four-year ethnographic study of five very different ‘online churches’, focusing on the fluid, multi-layered relationship between online and offline activity developed by Christian users of blogs, forums, chatrooms, video streams and virtual worlds. Following a review of online church research and a summary of methods, this article offers an overview of each of the five groups and identifies clear parallels with earlier television ministries and recent church-planting movements. A new model of online and offline activity is proposed, focused on two pairs of concepts, familiarity/difference and isolation/integration, represented as the endpoints of two axes. These axes frame a landscape of digital practice, negotiated with great care and subtlety by online churchgoers. These negotiations are interpreted in light of wider social changes, particularly the shift from bounded community towards ‘networked individualism’.
This paper explores the social interaction among participants in a church service in an online multi-user virtual reality (VR) environment. It examines some of the main features of prayer meetings in a religiously-oriented virtual world and also what sets this world apart from other virtual worlds. Next, it examines some of the issues of research ethics and methods that are raised in the study of online behavior in virtual worlds. The paper then analyzes the text exchanges between participants in a virtual church service and some of the ways in which these compare with the content of a conventional church service. Finally, the paper draws out some implications for our understanding of the relation between interaction in the virtual and in the “real” world.
“Online churches” are Internet-based Christian communities, pursuing worship, education, support, proselytisation and other religious goals through computer-mediated communication. This paper draws on three years of participant observation and 50 interviews to investigate reliance on the familiar in the aesthetics and sensory experience of online religion, a trend that previous researchers have noticed but not fully explained. I use two ethnographic studies to explore the range of motivations that can guide this common strategy and consider visual design, use of sound, avatar gestures, awareness of co-presence and the physical activity of the computer user. Key factors include the desire to “frame” participant expectations, “ground” online experience, demonstrate theological “authenticity” and encourage participatory leadership, and these achievements are used to validate experimentation in other areas. This strategy is not uncontested, however: “outsiders” are frequently deterred by styles that “insiders” consider “normal”, and both churches have begun to explore new forms of architecture, ritual and communication with no clear offline parallels. New blends of familiarity and innovation are emerging, indicating some of the future directions of online churchmanship. My two case studies, the Anglican Cathedral of Second Life and Church Online, reflect two key trends among online churches: the proliferation of small-scale independent congregations and the increasing involvement of wealthy institutions. The empirical and theoretical dimensions of this paper are innovative and timely, drawing attention to the professionalization and domestication of online religion and the rise of the “online campus”, key developments that deserve considerable scholarly attention.