After attending a February 10th discussion with multimedia artist Laurie Anderson at Columbia University, Columbia Religion Professor Courtney Bender wrote a response that reflects on the roles of technology, spirituality, and religion in American society. Bender opens with an anecdote that Anderson told about her time as artist-in-residence at NASA:

When the digital information comes back from satellites it is translated into “photographs.” As there is no color in space, it is someone’s job to choose which colors the heavens will be in the pictures and photos that are circulated all over the world. […] It seems that NASA had not given proper value to this peculiar and powerful task. […] When [Anderson] asked him why he chose the colors he did, he responded that he thought people would like it.

For Anderson, this was a missed opportunity: someone had assigned a bureaucrat an artist’s job. Bender extends Anderson’s view, arguing that it’s also a site of American Spirituality:

It is his job—and that of countless others—to create American spirituality and the feeling that it is all around us, that we can see it everywhere yet can’t pin it down, that it might take us somewhere better than now, and that it is somehow outside us. It has to be produced somewhere, or many somewheres. Those somewheres include the technological and scientific spaces that rightly refuse a positive connection with religion, spirituality’s unsteady partner.

Rather than think of technological spaces as purely secular, Bender urges us to see the ways in which they’re entangled in an American spiritual culture. She makes a similar argument in her recent book, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination, in which she demonstrates the ways in which discourses of spirituality, religion, and the academy (scientific and non) are variously interwoven, sometimes overlapping and sometimes out of step.

Click here for a recording of the Laurie Anderson event.

Courtney Bender is Associate Professor of Religion at Columbia University and author of The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (2010). She is also co-editor of After Pluralism: Reimagining Religious Engagement (2010), published by Columbia University Press in partnership with the Institute for Religion Culture, and Public Life.