«Digital storytelling and collective religious identity in a moderate to progressive youth group Lynn Schofield Clark and Jill Dierberg, University of ...»
Case Study - Identity
Digital storytelling and collective religious identity in a moderate to progressive
Lynn Schofield Clark and Jill Dierberg, University of Denver
Final version to be published in Digital Religion, Heidi Campbell, Editor, London:
Routledge, 2012. To cite, please consult authors for final version and final publication
Storytelling has long been an important aspect of memory and identity. People tell
stories about their past as a way of underscoring concerns about their present and future, as Ochs and Capps have argued in their influential research on narratives (Ochs & Capps, 1996). We choose to tell certain stories as a means of communicating our concerns with particular audiences, and when our stories are received positively, we feel affirmed in our sense that we, and our stories, hold value. As Lovheim has noted in her chapter on identity in this volume, digital media offer new means of constructing religious identities, both as such media mediate self-representation and as they offer enhanced means of social interaction. As individuals use digital tools to produce and share religious narratives, they perform a certain form of self that is enacted in relation to others. Digital media therefore contribute to trends in the personalization of religion, as individuals can reflect on their own narratives and can also participate in collective reflection on what it means to assume a religious identity in a particular context.
As Nancy Ammerman has noted, our religious identity narratives occur at the intersection of two kinds of stories: autobiographical stories about ourselves as individuals, and stories of religious traditions, sacred actors, shared experiences, and religious institutions that help to shape the meaning we attach to our autobiographical stories (Ammerman, 2003). Whereas much of the literature on religious identity and spiritual narratives has focused on how individuals tell these kinds of religious identity stories, the case study presented here explores the collective aspects of religious identity storytelling, in which a group of young people who were members of a moderate-to-progressive faith community were given an opportunity to create a narrative of identity using digital storytelling.
Case Study: Digital Storytelling Digital storytelling has arisen as a movement that teaches ordinary people both narrative development and digital authoring technologies, enabling them to tell meaningful stories that are of significance to them (Lambert, 2006; Davis & Weinshenker, 2011). Perhaps now more than at any previous moment in history, people can use digital authoring technologies to bring longstanding interests in storytelling into conversation with multimedia production techniques (Gauntlett, 2011; Jenkins, 2006; Lessig, 2008). What sets apart a digital storytelling experience from the production of a news package, a promotional video, or a do-it-yourself production is that digital storytelling engages participants more directly in a process that focuses on the construction of the story to be told. Group members who participate in a digital storytelling project are therefore encouraged to see the story that emerges as “their” story rather than a story or a commentary put together by experts. Group members who wish to engage in a digital storytelling process often seek the help of a facilitator, whose work can range from providing instruction on certain aspects of the process to overseeing both story development and the final production’s technical aspects.
Because of its accessibility and ease of use, digital storytelling has come to be of interest among religious groups, particularly among communities that wish to counter misinformation or stereotypes that might lead others to make false assumptions about who they are or what they stand for. The process of constructing an identity narrative in digital storyteling allows participants to recognize their agency and claim their right to tell their own story. (Hess, 2010). In their study of digital storytelling among Norwegian youth, Kaare & Lundby (2008) found that the digital storytelling process also enabled young people to consider what it meant to create what they considered an “authentic” narrative of individual religious identity within their particular context. The case study reviewed here similarly found that the young people involved in digital storytelling needed encouragement as they sought to connect their individual biographical narratives with those of their religious traditions. It differed from the Norwegian study in that rather than creating individual narratives, participants were encouraged to work together to construct a collective religious identity narrative.
Methodology The research project titled, “Digital Storytelling and Religious Formation” had its start after a six-month interview-based research project that explored the cultures of religious youth groups (Dierberg et.al., 2009). Clark wanted to further develop the research relationship with a local Jewish and a local Lutheran (ELCA) congregation to consider how they might benefit more directly from our interaction with them; as researchers we wondered how we might not only write about but work with these groups. This turn to a redefinition of roles between researcher and researched is consistent with calls for greater reflexivity in ethnographic projects that seek to work with communities “to capture and build upon community and social movements,” as Fine and Weiss have written (Fine & Weiss, 1998, pp. 277-278; see also Fine, 1994; Dimitriadis, 2001). Gary Knutson, the youth leader at Christ Lutheran Church where Dierberg had been the primary contact, expressed willingness to extend this relationship, but stipulated that Dierberg needed to attend weekly meetings as a volunteer so as to build trust within the group. She did this for two months. Then, she began engaging the young people in the digital storytelling process. As part of that process, she led discussions concerning what members of the group felt were most important to them as a group. This chapter is based on fieldnotes from the experience of creating the digital story over a six month period and subsequent interviews with the five young people and the youth leader who had been most centrally involved in its production.
Discussion The narrative of collective religious identity Members of the group decided that their group’s collective life could be captured in relation to three stories: (1) the story of how they were unique and how they differed from other Christian communities, as captured in the catch phrase “We’re different”; (2) the story of how they felt they engaged in community service as a means not only of changing their communities, but also of changing themselves; and (3) the story of how they took these experiences of transformation and made them a key part of how they accepted others into their youth group community regardless of who they were, what they believed or what they struggled with personally. This latter idea was captured in the phrase of their youth group leader, who related this accepting ethos to a life of living out a relationship with God through living out relationships with one another: “Incarnational relationships are it.” (Personal interview with Knutson, 4/06/09).
Once the group had identified three central stories that they believed characterized who they were, Dierberg encouraged them to think about how they would express those stories visually through photos and film footage. Young people gathered photos from key moments in their experience with the group, and in consultation with the group members, Dierberg and other members of the research team developed a set of questions for oncamera interviews with members of the group. Members of the team then scripted and edited a final version of the story.
The resulting digital story opened with a photo and video montage of young people interacting with one another and with those of the community. Then, the young people discussed their youth group as a “safe space” in which young people could be themselves, could raise questions about beliefs and behaviors, and could find acceptance among their peers. In a second section, group members discussed the ways in which their experiences of service had transformed their understandings of people whose life experiences differed from their own. The third section included statements about and images of mutual support and shared experiences. The 15-minute video also included photo and video montages of the young people engaged in conversation with one another and in service projects involving people outside their group (CLC Video, 6/02/10).
“I wish I would have been in the film” Immediately after it was completed, group participants who hadn’t been in the film expressed some regrets about their absence, which was a sign that the resulting video expressed a group narrative of which they wished to be a part. These regrets came from students who had been invited but had declined to participate in the video’s production.
One youth, Kelsey, explained this common regret, and noted, “If we did the process again, I think we would want to include more youth group members.” (Personal interview with Kelsey Veeder, 10/20/10). Another youth, Hailey, shared similar sentiments: “I feel that more kids would want to voice their opinions, even if they seemed like they wouldn't.” (Personal interview with Hailey Johnson, 10/20/10). Perhaps these regrets voiced after the fact emerged because it had difficult for participants to envision ahead of time what the final video would look like or how it would represent the group as a whole.
As a result of this experience, group members at Temple Emmanuel were invited to view an incomplete version of their group’s video that highlighted only two young people on screen. After that screening, ten other young people volunteered to participate in the interviews so as to have their experiences represented in the final digital storytelling product. The Christ Lutheran Church video might have similarly looked different had there been an opportunity for its further development.
Shared Communal Identity Overall, members of the group and the youth director reacted positively to the finished digital storytelling product. They recognized themselves in the completed video, as Kelsey stated: “I do think the video accurately portrays the youth group. It represented the strong relationships we share and the love that we have for each other.”(Personal interview with Kelsey Veeder, 10/20/10). Another young person, Kyle, even suggested that some of the youth have become more aware of what the youth group is all about after the process. “I think this video accurately portrays this youth group in a way that not even some of the kids realized until they saw it,” he said (Personal interview with Kyle Russell, 10/19/10).
When asked if the video allowed them to better understand who the group is in relation to the community, the answers were surprising. It seemed the video allowed the group, as a whole, to take ownership of who they believed themselves to be in the context of the local church as well as in the wider Christian community. In the context of the local church body, for example, Kyle reflected, “I believe it made us feel as though we really are part of the church as a whole, not just a separate entity that helps the church out occasionally.”(Personal interview with Kyle Russell, 10/19/10). Hailey suggested: “I think that the adults in the congregation should see [the video]. They need to have their eyes opened about how truly smart and genuine we are about these topics” (Personal interview with Hailey Johnson, 10/19/10). Overall, it seemed that the video allowed the youth an outlet through which to voice their sense of identity for, and in relation to, the larger church body. When speaking of this relationship to the wider church, Hailey noted that she believed that the video helped her and other group members to articulate both how they were different from other more conservative Christian groups while affirming that their group held value that was apart from, rather than inferior to, those other groups.