James S. Bielo and Claire Vaughn: Materializing the Bible: A Digital Scholarship Project from the Anthropology of Religion

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 How do people transform written scriptures into experiential, choreographed environments? This question organizes the digital scholarship project, Materializing the Bible (MB), which is curated collaboratively by a faculty director and undergraduate research assistants. Launched in July 2015, MB is dedicated to understanding how Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews create places themed by biblical narratives. The project is multi-functional. It is curatorial, detailing nearly 500 sites around the world. It integrates ethnographic and archival data, fostering methodological transparency and exploring mixed-media representational strategies. Finally, it is designed for pedagogical use, providing resources for students in the anthropological and critical study of religion to engage questions of social theory, method, and analysis. In this chapter, the project founder (Bielo) and an undergraduate assistant who worked on the project for several years (Vaughn) examine the origins and development of MB, with a particular emphasis on how its theoretical grounding in material religion interacts with the affordances of a digital platform.

Global Phenomenon, Local Places

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 As a comparative project, MB emerged from an anthropological case study. From 2011-2016, I (Bielo) conducted ethnographic fieldwork on the cultural production of, and touristic engagement with, Ark Encounter: a creationist theme park in the U.S. state of Kentucky. The centerpiece of the ethnographic labor was two and a half years of fieldwork with the creative team who led the park’s design. Most of this fieldwork took place in the team’s design studio, sitting in cubicles with the artists as they created concept art, wrote exhibits scripts, and conceptualized how to choreograph visitor experiences. The centerpiece of their creative labor was a re-creation of Noah’s ark, inspired by a literalist reading of Genesis as actual history. Opened to the public in July 2016, the re-created ark features more than 100,000 square feet of themed space. Onboard, displays use multi-sensory techniques to teach the creationist worldview.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 When my ethnographic access to the creative team ended in June 2014, the research adapted in two ways. First, ethnographic attention was reframed from the team’s creative process to the attraction’s publicity strategies and creationist visitors’ engagement with the park as religious tourists. Second, in collaboration with undergraduate research assistants, we asked how Ark Encounter fits among other kinds of sites that transform written scripture into experiential, choreographed environments. By contextualizing Ark Encounter in this way, we hoped to illustrate how something like a creationist theme park is not only revealing vis-à-vis the cultural and political ambitions of Protestant fundamentalism, but also with respect to a broader kind of Christian material practice and interdisciplinary dialogues about material religion (Promey, ed. 2014).

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 After all, Ark Encounter is not the only token of its type. Selected sites have accrued significant attention. For example, The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida has been variously interpreted as heritage entertainment detached from archaeological evidence (Rowan 2004); as a spectacle past eliding the presence of Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims in Jerusalem in favor of a “purest apostolic form” (Wharton 2006: 222); and, as a spatial enactment of Christian Zionism (Lukens-Bull and Fafard 2007). Scholars have also analyzed sites in comparative perspective. Burke Long’s Imagining the Holy Land (2003) explores how biblical Palestine has been replicated numerous times throughout American history, typically remade in the theological and sociological image of its re-creators. In Sensational Devotion (2013), Jill Stevenson explores how “evangelical dramaturgy” works to affectively instill core religious commitments at places like The Great Passion Play (Eureka Springs, Arkansas) and the Creation Museum (Petersburg, Kentucky).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The most dedicated comparative analysis of biblically themed attractions is Timothy Beal’s Roadside Religion (2005). Focusing on ten sites in the continental United States, Beal argues that these places are extensions of religious selves and ambitions. They exist as theological, biographical, and aesthetic imprints on local landscapes. Through their creations, designers and builders publicly display their stance toward scripture and their unique version of spirituality. Sara Patterson presents a similar argument in Middle of Nowhere (2016), a case study analysis of Salvation Mountain in the southern California desert. The mountain is a several-story high, 100-yard long heap of adobe bricks (straw bale hay, water, clay), discarded car tires, and other scavenged and donated desert finds, all covered by thousands of gallons of paint. Leonard Knight began the project in 1984 after a born-again conversion experience, watched five years of work wash away in a massive rainstorm, and began again, working continuously until his death in 2014. A Sea of Galilee is the only direct biblical replication; the remainder materializes a singular biblical interpretation: “God is Love.” Through his creative labor, Knight built a sacred space, an emplaced mirror of his theological conviction, and a popular destination for ecumenically-minded Christians, inter-faith activists, outsider artists, and other travelers seeking “weird” America (Bishop, Oesterie, and Marinacci 2009).

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Scholars have expertly demonstrated how individual sites have fascinating histories and how idiosyncratic places can advance our understanding of key issues in the study of religion (from affect to embodiment, sacred space, and ritual creativity). What remains, and what we aim for with MB, is a genre-wide analysis, a comparative accounting of the material, ideological, and experiential forms that constitute and emerge from the seemingly disparate sites that materialize the Bible. As we demonstrate below, engaging this task on a digital platform opens valuable possibilities for analyzing and representing data.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Empirically, MB aims for both breadth and depth. For the former, the project has a global aspiration to identify and describe all sites that are arguably part of the phenomenon of materializing the Bible. With more than 250 sites, the United States hosts more than any other nation. However, we have also identified more than 230 extant sites in 43 other nations: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bosnia, Brazil, Canada, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, England, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Mexico, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, Slovakia, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, Ukraine, and Wales.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Within this global range, the project differentiates among four kinds of attractions: re-creations, biblical gardens, creationist sites, and Bible history museums. The latter three are consistent aesthetically and discursively, while “re-creations” is more diverse and encompasses everything from miniature and “life-sized” replications of Holy Land sites to Passion Plays and other biblical theatre productions, “exact” models of various biblical references (e.g., Moses’ Tabernacle), and others. Our hope is that users of MB will learn from this comparative arrangement, recognizing the diversity of media forms mobilized to materialize the Bible.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 To complement this curatorial and analytical breadth, MB zooms in on specific attractions to explore how biblical texts are materialized in particular places by particular people with particular ambitions. Attractions draw from shared scripts (from archaeological data to Disney imagineering and ritual tradition), but they are always actualized in relation to local cultural contexts. A range of elements intersect to make and maintain each attraction, such as topography, interpretive and sensory annotations (e.g., onsite signage), props (e.g., guidebooks), architectural materiality, and the public circulation of images and sounds through social media and commodities. As we explore individual attractions we draw together these various elements through ethnographic and archival data. Joining ethnographic and archival materials is a key dynamic of MB, integrating thick descriptions of how sites are choreographed with their development over time. In this way, MB complements related digital projects, such as MAVCOR, which offers virtual immersion into religious attractions via 360-degree panorama photography (see Promey and Floyd, this volume).

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In 2017, the American Academy of Religion published a set of guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship projects.[1] Based on their schema of “types or genres of scholarly digital work,” MB integrates four types: archive; essay/exhibit/digital narrative; teaching resource; and gateway/clearinghouse. We engage these four types of digital work through multiple interactive features. (1) Each attraction is identified, briefly described, and hyperlinked to either an official webpage or web address with useful information. In addition to extant re-creations, biblical gardens, creationist sites, and Bible history museums, an additional page focuses on non-extant and proposed attractions. (2) A “Map” portal uses Google technology to display the attractions on a global geo-political map. Four colors – designating re-creations, biblical gardens, creationist sites, and Bible history museums – enable visitors to visually explore where attractions are located and clustered. (3) A “Tours” portal explores individual attractions, combining fieldwork photography and/or video; publicity materials (e.g., promotional videos); archival scans; hyperlinks to relevant data and/or scholarship; and, narrative description. (4) An index for a physical archive of project materials is maintained, including visitor materials and related religious ephemera dating from the early 1800s to the present. Selected archival materials are digitized for viewing and download, arranged by textual genre: attraction maps, brochures, guidebooks, postcards, and news stories. (5) Finally, a “Scholarship” section includes an interdisciplinary bibliography of scholarly publications that address specific attractions and discussion questions written for university courses.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Having outlined the project’s origins, the empirical phenomenon it is dedicated to understanding, and the general scope of the digital curation, we can now examine how the project engages its orienting theoretical inspiration. The central question animating the following discussion is this: how do the project’s analytical themes of material religion translate to a digital platform?

Project Argument and the Affordances of Digital Representation

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The field of material religion emerged from a “media turn” in the study of religion, which recalibrates the center of gravity to the sensational forms and social processes of mediation (Engelke 2010). The media turn has emphasized how religious actors use different kinds of materiality – from physical objects to technological apparatuses and the human sensorium – to construct and perform religious experience, learning, communication, and sociality (Plate, ed. 2015). The central theoretical conceit is that mediation is constitutive of religious worlds, not an incidental byproduct (Promey, ed. 2014). Religious actors use material forms to address the central problems that define their religious tradition(s), such as authority, belonging, and presence. The media turn puts to rest tired ideologies that resist, doubt, or deny the fact that religious life is fundamentally entangled in life’s gritty and polished materialities.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 In the case of materializing the Bible, human relations with scriptural texts are mediated by embodied experience, architecture, art, and the multi-sensory choreography of space. The attractions curated on MB – from creationist theme parks to biblical gardens – make a promise to visitors. They promise that the power and meaning of sacred texts will be revealed or rediscovered. Visitors are invited to “experience,” “engage,” “interact with,” “see,” and “step into” the Bible. Through this physical encounter, attractions seek to persuade visitors that they should develop an affective intimacy with scripture.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The invocation of “affect” is pivotal. As a conceptual apparatus, affect is valuable because it draws our attention to the entanglements that develop among structural forces, sociality, ideology, materiality, and subjectivity (Supp-Montgomerie 2015). This project begins with the premise that “the Bible” as a cultural category is not reducible to a printed text that people read, interpret, memorize, and discursively circulate. “The Bible” has historically been performed through a wide range of experiential registers: from stained glass and other artistic media to film, video games, and toy objects. We have the story of Noah’s ark in Genesis 6-9, and we have (among many others) Edward Hicks’ widely reprinted 1846 painting, the 1928 romantic melodrama film Noah’s Ark, the 1991 Bible Adventures game for Nintendo, craft and mass-produced wooden playsets designed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and now a young earth creationist “theme park” centered on a “life-sized” replica of Noah’s ark.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 These transmedial performances have multiple functions – religious pedagogy, devotion, fun, and evangelism – but their capacity to be efficacious in any function is grounded by an affective relation. Any cognitive knowledge that religious actors develop about scripture is anchored by the development of intense bodily and emotional bonds with scripture. While these affective bonds can certainly support an authoritative view of scripture, they also engage religious actors in an ongoing authorizing process where the aura of scripture is internalized. The ambition is to experience scripture from as many angles as possible, in as many sensory configurations as possible, because just as “the Bible” is inexhaustible for readers it is also experientially inexhaustible.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Attractions like museums, gardens, and theme parks testify to the power of sensory affect. The arrangement of bodily experiences in choreographed space registers effects on and through the sensations of visitors. Ark Encounter, for example, is not merely about teaching creationist biblical history, it is about getting caught up in the multi-sensory presentation of that history. This argument echoes historian Vanessa Agnew’s depiction of re-enactment as a form of “affective history,” in which the past is imagined through the “physical and psychological experience” of individuals (2007: 301). This mode of performing history aspires to provoke the body, for the body to respond in ways that may or may not have the consent of language or cognition. For example, Agnew (2019) describes the sensorial ambition of “gooseflesh,” which affective history seeks to achieve as an involuntary aesthetic evaluation. Contrary to the fact that bodies are encultured to respond to particular stimuli in particular ways, gooseflesh promises the consumer of affective history that they are experiencing something timeless and unmediated.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Sites that materialize the Bible construct and elaborate this kind of affective intimacy with scripture through choreographed place. Before considering some examples from our curation, we review below some representational affordances of working within digital platforms.

Digital Affordances

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Compared with print-based scholarship, digital scholarship entails authorial and user affordances that open new analytical and representational possibilities (Cantwell and Rashid 2015). Consider three affordances that are particularly germane to the work of MB.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 First, digital platforms are interactive, enabling users to navigate content in ways that are personalized, self-paced, and self-directed. This is expressed through a variety of features, from search functions to hyperlinks, downloadable files, and data visualizations (e.g., maps, timelines, animated graphics). Interactivity can also take the form of participatory media, as users respond to and circulate content across other digital platforms (e.g., Twitter). Functions such as liking, sharing, commenting, and (re)posting enable users to integrate a digital project into their online networks.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Second, digital platforms are multi-modal. In addition to written text, they can host audio, video with sound, digitized scans of written texts and 3-D objects, Virtual Reality simulation, and a wide variety of images (from basic photographs to 360 degree panoramas). Multi-modality enables project creators to present analyses in multi-sensory ways, and enables users to have an immersive experience of data and argument. Digital projects have massive storage capacities, which allows tremendous amounts of data to be integrated. The significance of this should not be underestimated, particularly in the context of print publishers struggling to remain financially viable due to production costs.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Third, digital platforms are open ended, meaning that digital scholarship projects can function in a condition of “perpetual beta” (Cantwell and Rashid 2015: 17). Existing content can continually be edited or removed, new content can continually be added. These adjustments can happen in response to critical peer review, ongoing data collection and analysis, the emergent nature of knowledge production, and innovations in digital technology. Moreover, content and format changes can be published with little lag, often in real time as a project’s analysis advances. This open-ended capacity aligns with the function of data, resource, and knowledge aggregation, in which digital projects operate as curated portals for entry into specialized subject areas.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 With these broad observations identified, we now pivot to this chapter’s primary question: how have the affordances of working on a digital platform shaped MB’s curatorial, analytical, and representational work?

Connecting Ethnographic and Archival Data

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 An enduring methodological interest in both anthropology and religious studies is how to meaningfully integrate two forms of qualitative data: ethnographic and archival. How can we historicize the densely textured, localized nature of ethnographic data? And, how can we illustrate the contemporary resonance of historical phenomena? Digital platforms enable scholars to embed data into multi-modal representations, which creates valuable opportunities for accentuating the interplay of past and present, ethnographic and archival. This embedding of data exceeds merely highlighting illustrative examples, it alters the reading/viewing/listening experience by heightening the transparency of data collection and analysis. For example, consider MB’s virtual tour of an attraction in northern Kentucky.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Covington is a small city in northern Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. On its southwestern edge – tucked away on the backside of a residential section, at the end of a No Outlet road, set atop a steep rise that affords a gorgeously unobstructed view of the Cincinnati skyline – is a place called the Garden of Hope (see Figure 1).

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26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Figure 1: Scene from the Garden of Hope (Covington, Kentucky). Photo by James S. Bielo.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 The Garden opened to the public on Palm Sunday 1958, consummating the nearly 20-year vision of a Southern Baptist minister, Reverend Morris Coers. After three pastorates in Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan, and two terms in the Indiana state legislature, Coers accepted the senior pastor position at a Covington Baptist church in 1945. Coers became well-known in the city as the host of local radio and television ministries, but his ambition exceeded pulpits, politics, and mass media preaching. In 1938, he had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was inspired to create a place that would be a beacon for all who could never make the trip themselves. In a 1956 interview with the Cincinnati Times-Star, Coers is quoted: “we expect to attract thousands of tourists from all parts of the world – persons who will never have the privilege of walking in the Holy Land.” After four years of fundraising, he purchased the 2.5-acre hilltop plot.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 The Garden of Hope’s centerpiece is a 1:1 scale replica of Jerusalem’s Garden Tomb. As a biblical site, the Garden Tomb is contested. Many Protestants (especially evangelicals and fundamentalists) claim that the tomb, located outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, is where Jesus was buried and resurrected. However, this claim is rejected by mainstream biblical archaeology and dismissed by the majority of the world’s Christians who claim that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher inside the Old City houses both Golgotha and the burial-resurrection site (Kark and Frantzman 2010). Despite its controversial status, the Garden Tomb has come to be more satisfying for Protestant pilgrim-tourists who favor the open-air garden feel over the Old City Church, which is busy with Catholic and Eastern Orthodox ritual elements (Ron and Feldman 2009; Kaell 2014; Feldman 2016).

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 As a thoroughly Protestant attraction, Kentucky’s Garden of Hope elides all traces of this disputed historicity. Neither the Church of the Holy Sepulchre nor archaeological arguments against the Garden Tomb’s veracity are mentioned in Coers’ late 1950s newspaper interviews, in the written text of onsite signage or visitor pamphlets, or in tour guide performances. The Garden of Hope’s appeal to authenticity happens through this process of erasure, and through the immersive ambition of creating a surrogate experience of biblical land in Kentucky.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 In addition to his own Holy Land pilgrimage, Coers’ claim for the Garden of Hope’s “exact” replication was his relationship with the Garden Tomb’s warden. From 1953 until his untimely death in 1967, Solomon Mattar helped care for the Tomb in Jerusalem and guided pilgrim-tourists. Coers’ noted in a December 1956 interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, “I have been collaborating long distance with the warden of the garden in Jerusalem. He arranged for an architect to draw exact plans of the tomb of Christ. I have arranged to have these plans followed in the minutest detail.” To accompany this architectural precision, Coers planted numerous botanical species indigenous to Jerusalem throughout the attraction. By mobilizing the sight, feel, and aroma of “cedars of Lebanon,” juniper, and different flowers the Garden of Hope appealed to the natural world of scripture to help transport visitors.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Today, without Coers’ devotional labor, few of these species remain and the botanical aspect of the experience is lost from his original vision. However, another claim to authenticity via the natural landscape continues. Scattered throughout the attraction are four stones, each associated with a biblical story and originating from the corresponding location in Israel-Palestine. For example, one of the stones is located inside the Garden’s chapel, a replica of a 16th century Spanish mission church. Along with worship services, the chapel was primarily intended for weddings, a practice that Coers initiated in 1958 and that continues today. During the ceremony couples stand atop a pink stone embedded into the floor, which signage explains “is from the Horns of Hatton where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.” The other stones, as signage onsite explains, come from the Western Wall, the Jordan River, and the Samaritan Inn.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Reverend Morris Coers realized his 20-year vision, but he enjoyed it for only two years. He died in his sleep in late February 1960 after multiple health difficulties. With Coers’ passing, the Garden fell into a lengthy cycle of disrepair, sale, purchase, repair, disrepair, sale, and so on. Following a major restoration effort to re-open the Garden in 1998, a volunteer tour guide was hired who still guides visitors today. Steve, a 70-year old Covington native, has “shown it to over eight thousand people” since he started in 2003. In summer 2016, the site entered a new, and newly popular, phase of its life. The opening of Ark Encounter, located 40 miles south of Covington, has sparked the organization of bus tours to the area. For example, the company Ohio Travel Treasures arranges for groups to take an Ohio River cruise featuring gospel music, visit the Ark, the Creation Museum (another creationist ministry open since 2007, located 20 miles west of Covington), the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption (a replica of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral) in downtown Covington, and the Garden of Hope.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Drawing together ethnographic and archival materials, we created a virtual tour of the Garden of Hope in July 2017. The tour integrates fieldwork images, video, and audio; narrative description; a 3-D model of one Holy Land stone; and, digitized scans of local newspaper stories and other archival texts. The aim is to connect the attraction’s history with the contemporary guided tour, and ultimately offer visitors to MB a virtual glimpse of the embodied experience of being onsite.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 To tell the story of the attraction’s origin and development, we use three forms of archival data. First, courtesy of the Cincinnati Public Library’s digitized collections, we integrate scans and downloadable copies of local newspaper stories reporting on the Garden of Hope. Second, courtesy of the Garden of Hope’s own informal collection of materials donated by the Coers family, we integrate archival data from the process of building the Garden. This features a January 1958 calendar, with each day including Coers’ handwritten notes detailing the construction’s progress. Third, we acquired post cards (c.1965) produced for the attraction through eBay. We juxtapose these post card images with contemporary fieldwork images to help conjure a sense for how the appearance of the attraction has changed over 60+ years. Along with fieldwork photography that alternates between close-up and mid-range images, we integrate video recording clips that capture key moments from Steve’s guiding performance.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Because the virtual tour is designed on an open-ended platform, we continue to adjust content over time. For example, throughout spring 2018 I (Vaughn) led the process of adding a 3-D model to the virtual tour. Using photogrammetry techniques, I started with one of the smallest objects onsite: a display of stones from the Samaritan Inn referenced in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Starting from the bottom of the display, I photographed in levels circling the object, until reaching the top. This required about 120 photos. From here, I imported the photographs into Agisoft, a stand-alone software product that performs photogrammetric processing of digital images and generates 3D spatial data. I then grouped the images by level. Third, I aligned the images and built dense cloud point, mesh, and texture. The latter steps require not much more than clicking and waiting roughly one hour per step. Finally, I exported the model from Agisoft into Meshlab, an open source software which allows for viewing and manipulating 3-D spatial data. However, this first rendering encountered several problems (see Figure 2).

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Figure 2: Initial Meshlab rendering of display; Samaritan stone display at Garden of Hope. Screen shot and Photo by Claire Vaughn.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 For starters, I could not export the file as a 3-D model. I was only able to export the .obj file. I had the .jpg files, the uploaded photographic images, but I could not merge the two together. After exploring the program further, I realized that I needed all three files: .obj, .jpg, and .mtl. The .mtl is the file which joins the .jpg files to the .obj. In other words, having all three together enables color and texture to be added to the 3-D model. The rendering problems owed to the lack of mapped spatial data, creating the empty spaces where the software could not recognize all of the photographic data points.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 On a second attempt, I restarted the process with one of the Garden’s other Holy Land stones: the 500-pound block from the Western Wall. I recorded the same number of pictures, about 120, but they were more spread out compared to the first display. They covered more of the stone’s surface area and were also more precise in terms of my distance from the display. I repeated the steps in Agisoft, though I took more time grouping the photos so that they would align more precisely, thus creating more representative spatial data. After four hours of clicking and waiting, the 3-D model rendered; this time, with more data points. When I exported the model from Agisoft, the program produced three files in the same folder: .obj, jpg., and .mtl. I then imported those files into MeshLab, which allowed me to view and manipulate the model from all sides as well as zoom in and out. The second model is dramatically improved: more complete, more data points mapped, with color and texture added. In turn, this 3-D replication appears rather realistic and much closer to the stone display at the Garden of Hope compared to the first rendering (see Figure 3).

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Figure 3: Second Meshlab rendering of display; Western Wall stone display at Garden of Hope. Screen shot by Claire Vaughn; Photo by James S. Bielo.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Our goal is to repeat this 3-D modeling process for each of the components at the Garden of Hope, ultimately joining them to build a cohesive 3-D model for the entire attraction. MeshLab includes a measurement tool that allows point-to-point measurement, which means that this whole attraction model would be to scale. MeshLab also allows the inclusion of textual and audio-visual annotations, which means that we are able to layer in various forms of ethnographic material (e.g., images of visitor interaction with the site; videos and transcripts of tour guide performances at different site locations).

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 From archival scans to fieldwork video and 3-D models, these data work as embedded material, meaning that users of the digital project can either capture or download them for their own analysis. Rather than simply following (and trusting!) our selected narrative representation of the Garden of Hope, MB users are able to interact with the primary sources. By embedding data in this way, there is increased transparency of both our decisions of research methodology and analytical decisions of interpreting archival and ethnographic data. Users can read the original news stories, select from a wide range of archival and fieldwork images, view/listen to unedited fieldwork video, and explore a 3-D object replica. Ultimately, embedding data also responds to some brute material realities of publishing research in print media. Whether the venue is a journal or a book, there are limitations that structure how representations can be composed. Word counts are enforced. The number of allowed images is monitored. Reproducing color images is monitored even more closely. Multi-modal, interactive material must be rendered in the two-dimensional form of written text accented with limited imagery. As an author, being able to share your data as embedded content in addition to your own analysis and representation opens new possibilities for contributing to comparative scholarship. As Promey and Floyd (this volume) discuss, such digital affordances offer particular potency for studies of material religion. If religious worlds are constituted through the media of bodies, technologies, and objects, then being able to share more of those media in a wider range of formats advances both methodological rigor and theory-building.

Embodied Presence

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 The interdisciplinary field of material religion is interested in how multiple media can create and re-create affectively dense cultural dispositions (e.g., identity, belonging, commitment). As a result, the field has focused intensely on how humans engage their religious worlds with a full-bodied presence. The concern with multi-sensory experience aims, in part, to counter historical ideologies that reproduce sensory hierarchies that elevate a single sensation – such as vision or sound. As David Morgan notes in his analysis of religious visual culture: “seeing is not disembodied or immaterial and vision should not be isolated from other forms of sensation and the social life of feeling” (2012: xvii). In turn, material religion scholars insist on a model of integrated sensation, in which every sense always exists in dynamic relation with other senses as well as other materialities such as places and technologies.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Embodied presence is a foundational premise for both the empirical phenomenon of materializing the Bible and for MB as a digital scholarship project. Creators of, and visitors to, these attractions do not merely visually consume the sights of biblical replication. They walk through them. They experience them as ritual spaces where the outside world may still intrude, but where choreographed experiences of visual fields, sounds, smells, and felt textures are central to the experience. The effectiveness of these attractions as devotional, pedagogical, and enjoyable spaces is decided in part by how they immerse people as embodied visitors into a biblically themed world.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Attractions that materialize the Bible situate visitors in physical space, function via an embodied encounter with that space, and require visitors to move through space. This movement is often guided narratively, in which physical progression aligns with progression through a theological or historical account. Digital techniques such as 3-D models, simulations, and audio-visual recordings of movement are strategies for representing emplaced experience. An additional technique MB uses is to collect the tourist artifact of “park maps,” and allow visitors to comparatively explore attractions through this familiar textual device. Park maps are especially useful as a kind of visual technology that contributes to the embodied choreography of attractions.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 For example, one kind of attraction replicates the Way of the Cross (or, Stations of the Cross), a mobile ritual that follows Jesus’ path on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, from condemnation by Pontius Pilate to Resurrection.[2] The modern form of the Stations as a devotional ritual was codified by Catholic Holy Land pilgrims in the 15th century, and replications began soon after in sites such as northwestern Italy’s Sacred Mount of Varallo in 1486 (Hood 1984). While it is exceedingly common for Catholic, Anglican, and other denominational church buildings to re-create the Stations as small art installations, MB focuses on outdoor replicas that feature life-sized three-dimensional statues arranged on a prayer path (see Figure 4). None of these attractions seek to re-create the Via Dolorosa as a physical place, and they vary widely in how elaborately the individual stations are designed and in how they make other claims to authenticity. For example, in 1936 a Catholic parish in southeastern Michigan completed an outdoor Stations and today entices visitors with this description: “The hill upon which [the Shrine of] St. Joseph stands very closely approximates in size and contour the Mount of Calvary. Historically, the distance from the crucifixion to the tomb is only 65 paces, the exact distance in the Irish Hills Way of the Cross.”[3]

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 Figure 4: Example of outdoor, “life-sized” mobile Stations of the Cross attraction: The Shrine of Christ’s Passion (St. John, Indiana). Photo by James S. Bielo.

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Among the park maps we have collected on MB, several feature Stations replications. Users can examine the maps to compare how this walking prayer ritual is spatially choreographed across attractions. For example, they can question how the walking paths are shaped; the respective distances between individual stations; the landscape placement of the Stations on attraction grounds and local topography; and how devotional elements are integrated. Altogether, the park maps help reveal how the emplaced experience of movement through space, physically and narratively, works within this kind of attraction.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Another aspect of embodied presence that MB has sought to re-create is auditory visuality; that is, the ways in which sonic experience shapes visual experience. This is especially valuable for attractions where the soundscape is choreographed for visitors. Consider Ark Encounter. If this attraction is designed to teach the creationist worldview, then sound is a key sensorial resource designers have mobilized toward this ideological end.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 As visitors approach the queue line to enter the re-created ark, they first encounter the park’s baseline instrumental soundtrack. Composed uniquely for Ark Encounter, and written to connote a “Middle Eastern” musical aesthetic, the soundtrack runs on a constant loop throughout the three decks. Onboard, as you walk through and among selected exhibits, this baseline soundtrack is replaced by auditory annotations that stream down from overhead speakers located inside exhibits.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 This auditory shift happens immediately upon entering Deck One. You are surrounded by animal cages stacked one on top another, and the narrow walkway turns sharply to wind among the cages. One soundtrack, playing at a lower volume but directed nearer to visitors, features an indiscernible mix of animal sounds. They are lively, even a bit unhinged by the storm. Then, there is the second soundtrack, playing louder but projecting from a further distance: a loud, unnerving mix of booming thunder, cracking lightning, and pouring rain.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 Other auditory annotations range widely. On Deck Three, one of Noah’s daughters-in-law works contentedly in a replication of the family’s kitchen. The orchestration streams down from overhead: she hums peacefully, even delightedly, while a knife chops vegetables methodically and scrapes them to the side. On Deck Two, the “Pre-Flood World” exhibit is a winding walkway that moves through five spaces: creation, Garden of Eden, the Fall, “Descent into Darkness” (i.e., the extravagant sinfulness of the generations preceding Noah), and the Flood. These spaces and themes are performed through a series of elaborate dioramas and colorful murals, framed along the way by minimal textual framing and scriptural citations. The striking visuality of the dioramas and murals is annotated aurally. Amid the “Descent into Darkness” section, a large wall mural depicts a dramatic scene of “pagan” ritual in which humans are sacrificed to appease a “false god.” And, a diorama depicts a cheering stadium crowd as they gaze down upon humans fighting with each other, an armored Nephilim, and an attacking dinosaur. Overhead, a cacophonous arrangement plays on a two-minute loop: raging fires, a duel of colliding and sliding swords, raucous crowds, and human screams. There is little interpretive space to imagine anything except for death-by-combat staged for a blood-thirsty public.

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 Perhaps the most indelible auditory imprint in my experience of Ark Encounter comes from the “Fairy Tale Ark” exhibit on Deck Two. Approaching the exhibit, your visual field is immediately drawn upwards to a series of animals lining the top of the entrance. They are certainly cartoon-ish, but they somehow exceed that description. In my initial field notes I (Bielo) described them as looking “zany, even slightly imbalanced or crazed,” signified by their eyes, facial expressions, and jumbled arrangement. The longer I stared at them, the more an unsettled affect sank in (see Figure 5).

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 Figure 5: Entrance to Fairy Tale Ark at Ark Encounter. Photo by James S. Bielo. 

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 Unlike some other exhibits, where a wooden rail bars visitors from entering the space, you must step into the Fairy Tale Ark. Once inside the small room, there are two dominating features. The smaller of the two and positioned on the wall to your left, is a snake-encircled sign. It reads ominously, dialogically voiced as Satan himself: “If I can convince you that the Flood was not real then I can convince you that Heaven and Hell are not real.” The primary display is positioned directly in front of you, covering the entire wall. It is a collection of nearly 100 Noah’s ark themed books written for children. Most are in English, though a few are written in Spanish and French. They are arranged neatly on six rows, interspersed with other ark-themed kids’ toys and games, housed directly behind glass panes.

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 Two textual annotations frame visitors’ reading of the collection. First, three rows up from the bottom, a series of small books are lined across side-by-side. The features of their book form suggest an antique collection of fables, and they present the “7 D’s of Deception.” For example, “Destructive For All Ages” explains: “The cute fairy tale arks are not only marketed to children, thousands of items featuring whimsical arks have been made for adults too. The abundance of these fanciful objects attacks the truthfulness of Scripture.” At the center of the display is a larger, again fable-looking book, that is voiced in a rhyming, fairy tale register. It begins: “Once Upon a Time, there was an old man of god. His name was Noah and his task was quite odd. One day, the Lord said to build a little boat, ‘Make it nice and cute, but who cares if it will float…’”

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 The cartoonish, fable-ish, and simultaneously playful-ominous aesthetic teaches a singular lesson. A literalist reading of Genesis – complete with an actual Flood, actual ark, and actual Noah and family – is lampooned every day by the ubiquitous circulation of “fairy tale” arks. This lampooning is no accident, but who is to blame? The snake-encircled sign suggests devilish agency. The bounds of responsibility widen in the text of “Discrediting the Truth,” which identifies “many atheists and other skeptics” as directly culpable. The “abundance” of unrealistic ark representations targets children, impacts everyone, and is an orchestrated “attack” on the authority and historicity of literalist scripture. It is, in short, conspiracy.

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 The arresting affect of Fairy Tale Ark’s visual and textual experience is heightened by a subtle, but powerful sound shift. When you enter the exhibit, the upbeat baseline soundtrack from the hallway shifts to a very different tune (again, playing on a two-minute loop). It reminded me of a dream sequence in a film, perhaps an animated film, where something terrible is about to happen. Interspersed throughout the dream-y instrumental is the sporadic sound of children laughing. The volume of their voices steadily increases and they transform from young children playfully giggling to teenagers laughing in mockery. The exhibit’s ominous message of a secular conspiracy is enhanced by this eerily disturbing auditory annotation.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 As we consider how to represent Ark Encounter on our digital platform, we are keen to capture the park’s shifting soundscape as an integral feature of the emplaced experience. The first step for creating a virtual tour of this attraction is to make high quality audio-visual recordings of the auditory annotations inside exhibits. For examples like Fairy Tale Ark this involves a few seemingly minor, but actually important decisions. First, the recording needs to align with the two-minute loop. Second, the video recorder needs to be positioned nearest the overhead speaker, which is not the optimal filming location. Because the speaker is positioned above the center entrance, our recording spot is just right of the entrance, rather than the far-right corner, which would enlarge the visual field. Finally, we aim to record at a time when some visitors are present but that avoids peak traffic. Too many people will drown out the sound and be visually distracting. However, having a few people in the frame illustrates how the visitor experience includes others interacting with the exhibit. Whatever approach we take to the virtual tour’s final design, it will prominently feature a series of audio-visual clips, offering users a partial re-creation of the shifting soundscape onboard the ark.

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 As a project grounded in material religion, MB is deeply concerned with how matters of embodied presence at particular attractions translates to what users encounter through our digital platform. How can we mobilize the affordances and techniques of digital representation to reveal and re-create the integrated sensorial experiences of being onsite? As we continue to curate the ethnographic and archival material collected for this project, we will continually revisit this question. Indeed, one of the exciting elements of developing this project digitally is the iterative process of collecting and analyzing data, experimenting with representational techniques, returning to data, discovering existing and emerging affordances, returning to data, and so on.


60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 Materializing the Bible is a digital scholarship project, originating from the anthropology of religion and directed outward to other anthropologists, scholars from other disciplines, as well as other public audiences. Our primary aim is to curate a collection of ethnographic and archival materials that examine how religious actors transform written scripture into experiential, choreographed environments. We approach this empirical phenomenon with depth and breadth, exploring the global and historical diversity of this practice as well as zooming in on particular places. The curatorial, analytical, and representational work of this project is grounded in the interdisciplinary study of material religion, which means we seek to closely examine how people aesthetically engage ritualized spaces.

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 We do not approach digital scholarship as affording wholly new or fundamentally different possibilities in contrast with print scholarship. In many ways, what makes for meaningful digital scholarship is what makes for meaningful scholarship irrespective of the medium. However, a range of curatorial, analytical, and representational practices are renewed in a digital context. Some of the brute, and often stymying, limitations of print publishing are relieved. Vivid description need not be any less vivid, but it is greatly enhanced by the integration of embedded data and multi-modal techniques. The number of high quality color images need not be closely policed. And, engendered by the nature of perpetual beta, the results of rigorous analysis can continually be refined and the means of representation can continually be bolstered through open and inventive platforms.

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 One of this chapter’s organizing claims is that key themes in material religion, such as embodied presence and emplaced experience, are especially well suited for representation on digital platforms (cf. Averts and Counts, this volume; Promey and Floyd, this volume). Three affordances of digital scholarship are particularly resonant with MB. First, interactivity has guided our process. We hope that MB draws users into its empirical orbit and enjoy moving from one attraction to another. There is no single pathway for navigating the project, and we encourage this non-linearity. Through hyperlinks to attraction homepages (which themselves often contain a wealth of digital materials), embedded data, and visualizations (such as our global map of attractions), we invite users to develop their interests within the pedagogical frame we have set. Second, the multi-modal character of digital platforms enables users to engage the forms of integrated sensation that make the physical attractions compelling for visitors. It is one thing to represent the auditory annotations onboard Ark Encounter through a combination of narrative description and still images; it is yet another to allow users to witness the shifting soundscape amid a choreographed virtual tour. Third, the open-ended quality of digital scholarship enables the project’s research and findings to develop in dynamic ways. Theoretical and methodological insights can be integrated into our curatorial work as they emerge, generating a deeply iterative process constantly oscillating between analysis and representation.

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 This latter observation, that digital scholarship can operate in a never finalized way and is therefore open to iterative development, is especially vital in the context of responding to peer reviews. As of July 2019, MB has received two critically constructive reviews, published in the Journal of Heritage Tourism (Engberg 2018) and American Anthropologist (Mohan and O’Dell-Chaib 2018). Both reviews raise useful observations for refining the project’s design and content. For example, Engberg (2018) helpfully suggests that a more interactive search function would allow project users to explore attractions by multiple variables, “dates for the building of the parks, denominational affiliation, regions, size, number of visitors, etc.” (84). In response, we are building a database of comparable variables to help guide users through the project. And, Mohan and O’Dell-Chaib (2018) astutely observe that our multi-modal representation of attractions in the “Tours” portal would be improved by accounting for “the possible pluralities of encounters at these sites” (846). In response, future tours will commit to integrating the voices of multiple visitors, ideally visitors who bring divergent ideological or somatic dispositions to the attraction. This iterative process illustrates the dynamism of digital scholarship projects, as they are able to revise in response to reviews as they are published over time.

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 To close, I (Vaughn) reflect on my role as an undergraduate research assistant for Materializing the Bible. I began working on the project in October 2016, my first semester at Miami University. After reviewing MB, we engaged work on digital scholarship (e.g., Cantwell and Rashid 2015) and religious tourism (e.g., Beal 2005), and discussed potential project additions. My first major contribution was to assist arranging archival, textual, and fieldwork material for the “Tours” portal. I then assisted with ethnographic fieldwork at the Garden of Hope, including interviews, participant observation, writing field notes, recording audio-visual data, and audio transcription. This led to the 3-D imaging analysis discussed earlier and, ultimately, working independently with archival material at the University of Dayton’s Marian Library and fieldwork at Catholic shrines in Alabama and Ohio.

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 Throughout my work on MB, it has been essential to foreground questions of audience and how different technologies provide opportunities for rendering data. My experience with 3-D imaging was particularly instructive. When we first discussed this possibility, we knew we were interested, but were unsure how to proceed. With support from archaeological colleagues (namely, Dr. Jeb Card and fellow undergraduate Megan Ashbrook), I began the process and refined my understanding of the technology and its application to MB. The best way to learn is by doing, which I found to be true repeatedly in this project. The more I practiced a particular research activity, the more confident I became in my abilities as a researcher and scholar. I have relished the opportunity to develop these skills and hone my approach to fieldwork and analysis.

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 Ultimately, I am grateful for the experiential learning opportunities MB has provided. Writing this, nearly three years after first joining the project and now entering my final year as an undergraduate, I am reminded of why this faculty-student collaboration has been impactful for me. The freedom to try and fail, and try again, was instrumental in my development as a student. To be trusted and taken seriously as an undergraduate researcher encouraged me to continually accept new responsibilities and to creatively explore the affordances of digital scholarship.


67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 We would like to thank Kristian Petersen and Christopher Cantwell for their editorial guidance. We are also grateful to Steve Cummings for his hospitality at the Garden of Hope. Selected portions of this chapter appear courtesy of the journal Religion, revised from “Immersion as shared imperative: entertainment of/in digital scholarship” (48(2): 291-301).


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69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 —. 2019. Gooseflesh: Music, somatosensation, and the making of historical experience. In The Varieties of Historical Experience. Stephan Palmie and Charles Stewart, eds. 77-94. London andNew York: Routledge.

70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 0 Beal, Timothy K. 2005. Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith. Boston: Beacon.

71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 Bishop, Greg, Joe Oesterie, and Mike Marinacci. 2009. Weird California: Your Travel Guide to California’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. New York: Sterling.

72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 Cantwell, Christopher D. and Hussein Rashid. 2015. Religion, Media, and the Digital Turn: a report for the Religion and the Public Sphere program. New York: Social Science Research Council.

73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 Engberg, Aron. 2018. Digital Scholarship Review: Materializing the Bible. Journal of Heritage Tourism 14(1): 83-84.

74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 0 Engelke, Matthew. 2010. Religion and the media turn: a review essay. American Ethnologist 37(2): 371-379.

75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 0 Feldman, Jackie. 2016. A Jewish Guide in the Holy Land: How Christian Pilgrims Made Me Israeli. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

76 Leave a comment on paragraph 76 0 Hood, William. 1984. “The Sacro Monte of Varallo: Renaissance Art and Popular Religion.” In Monasticism and the Arts, edited by Timothy Gregory Verdon, 291-311. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 0 Kaell, Hillary. 2014. Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and Holy Land Pilgrimage. New York: NYU Press.

78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 Kark, Ruth and Seth J. Frantzman. 2010. The Protestant Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, Englishwomen, and a land transaction in late Ottomon Palestine. Palestine Exploration Quarterly 142(3): 199-216.

79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0 Long, Burke O. 2003. Imagining the Holy Land: Maps, Models, and Fantasy Travels. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

80 Leave a comment on paragraph 80 0 Lukens-Bull, Ronald and Mark Fafard. 2007. Next Year in Orlando: (Re)creating Israel in Christian Zionism. Journal of Religion and Society 9:1-20.

81 Leave a comment on paragraph 81 0 Mohan, Urmila and Courtney O’Dell-Chaib. 2018. Curatorial Authority in Digital Scholarship: A Review of Materializing the Bible. American Anthropologist 120(4): 843-848.

82 Leave a comment on paragraph 82 0 Morgan, David. 2012. The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press. Patterson 2016

83 Leave a comment on paragraph 83 0 Plate, S. Brent, ed. 2015. Key Terms in Material Religion. London: Bloomsbury.

84 Leave a comment on paragraph 84 0 Promey, Sally M. ed. 2014. Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice. New Haven: Yale University Press.

85 Leave a comment on paragraph 85 0 Ron, Amos S. and Jackie Feldman. 2009. From spots to themed sites – the evolution of the Protestant Holy Land. Journal of Heritage Tourism 4(3): 201-216.

86 Leave a comment on paragraph 86 0 Rowan, Y. 2004. “Repacking the pilgrimage: Visiting the Holy Land in Orlando.” In Marketing Heritage: Archaeology and the consumption of the past, edited by Y. Rowan and U. Baram. 249-266. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press.

87 Leave a comment on paragraph 87 0 Stevenson, Jill. 2013. Sensational Devotion: Evangelical Performance in 21st Century America. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

88 Leave a comment on paragraph 88 0 Supp-Montgomerie, Jenna. 2015. Affect and the Study of Religion. Religion Compass 9(10): 335-345.

89 Leave a comment on paragraph 89 0 Wharton, Annabel Jane. 2006. Selling Jerusalem: Relics, Replicas, Theme Parks. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

90 Leave a comment on paragraph 90 0 [1] rsn.aarweb.org/articles/draft-aar-guidelines-evaluating-digital-scholarship (accessed: July 25, 2019)

91 Leave a comment on paragraph 91 0 [2] The number and order of the Stations of the Cross can vary slightly. Perhaps the most common variation is whether the 14th station (burial in the Tomb) is the final stop or whether a 15th station (Resurrection) is added.

92 Leave a comment on paragraph 92 0 [3] Source: https://sites.google.com/site/stjosephbrooklynmi/stations-of-the-cross (accessed: July 25, 2019).

Source: https://opr.degruyter.com/digital-humanities-and-research-methods-in-religious-studies/james-s-bielo-and-claire-vaughn-materializing-the-bible-a-digital-scholarship-project-from-the-anthropology-of-religion/