St. Marien Church and Alexanderplatz TV tower, Berlin, Germany.

by S. Brent Plate

It’s 2012: religious attitudes infuse televised U.S. Presidential race debates, top-grossing movies liberally borrow from ancient mythologies, Japanese manga tell stories of Buddhas and Christs, atheists write best-selling books, Islamists vie for power through social media in the wake of the Arab Spring, the Apple Corporation develops a cult-like following–as do the Boston Red Sox–while Glee fans gather at a sanctified time and place to show devotion to their show. The intersections between religion and media are seemingly endless.

Over the next several months, I will be interviewing scholars who are investigating the places where religion and media meet. Since The Revealer itself began alongside NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, this seems a logical venue. The hope is that these intersections will provide a forum for a broad range of scholars, but also make scholarly work accessible to a general public interested in such topics. After all, as the initial examples above suggest, they are inescapable even if we don’t think of them in terms like “religion” or “media.”

But what do we mean by those terms? And how will they be employed here?

By “religion” I initially mean something like the rituals, creeds, symbols, ideas, practices, bodies, and mythologies that help create communities, a seemingly ordered social structure, and purpose for living. These facets also entail that those in authority within religious structures have a propensity for power which can be used for good or ill. Sometimes religion triggers violent reactions; sometimes it develops peace plans. Sometimes religion answers questions to life’s most persistent questions, and sometimes it raises new ones–doubt is as important as faith. Sometimes God is part of this; sometimes she is not.

By “media” I initially mean something like the technologies, tools, songs, books, drums, bodies, and electronic devices that humans (and other animals) use to help create communities, a seemingly ordered social structure, and purpose for living. These facets also entail that those in authority within media empires have a propensity for power which can be used for good or ill. Sometimes media provide information and connection, and sometimes it frustrates us, lies to us, and makes us feel lonely. Sometimes “media” means the “news media”; sometimes it means the printing press.

What is meant by each of these terms, as well as the conjunction “religion and media,” are questions that will persist through these interviews. Part of the point is to show that the intersections can go in many directions. There are linguistic, cultural, gender, geographic, ethnic, technological, and religious differences involved.

What follows is the first half of a two-part interview with six scholars working on religion and media around the world, conducted via email over the past year and a half. We begin by offering assessments of the field of study, arguing why it is important to pay heed to the religion-media relation, not merely as scholars, but as informed citizens and consumers, fathers and sisters.

Participants

Jolyon Mitchell, Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues, and Professor of Communications, Arts, and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Rianne Subijanto, Ph.D. Student at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at University of Colorado, Boulder, researching Islam, popular culture and religious authority, including television and broadcasting policy in Indonesia.

Diane Winston, Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, Professor of Contemporary African Christianity and Pentecostal/Charismatic Theology, Trinity Theological Seminary, Legon, Ghana.

Benjamin Dorman, Permanent Member, Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, Associate Professor, Faculty of Foreign Studies, Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan.

Stewart Hoover, Professor of Media Studies and Religious Studies and Director, Center for Media, Religion, and Culture, University of Colorado at Boulder.

S. Brent Plate: From your own perspective (where you teach and/or research), what are the most pressing issues/topics today in religion and media? Why is the relation between “religion” and “media” important to understand now? Any examples are welcome.

Jolyon Mitchell: The conversation has clearly moved beyond the two older paradigms employed by many who originally studied religion and media. These two paradigms, the “dangers” of media use and the “opportunities” for media use, were based upon the assumption of powerful media and passive audiences. Moving on from these perspectives has led to a new set of questions emerging. These include:

  • What resources are available for researchers when they seek to go beyond the contrasting ‘dangers’ and ‘opportunities’ paradigms?
  • Over the last 30 years there has been a critical turn towards the audience, and an increased rigor in thinking about the nature and locations of reception. This leads to questions such as how far does the consumption of popular media make audiences more open or closed to, or even playful with, specific religious traditions?
  • What popular cultural and non-textual resources are most useful to study for researchers working in the field of media and religion?
  • The relation between “religion” and “media” is vital to understand if you also wish to understand aspects of most of the major or ongoing recent political conflicts.

Rianne Subijanto: The rapid spread of media technology in different parts of the world (thanks to the global market!) has led to the increased presence of both religion in media and media in religion. This has shaken the seemingly stable structure of religious community as well as identity. For example, it has become more difficult to define what it means to be a Muslim since the tragedy of 9/11. Because of the media’s tendency to link Islam with terrorism, we have witnessed a rise in Islamophobia. Muslims have reacted to this in many different ways, including expressing their own complex identities, feeling that they have to ‘respond’ to this negative reporting. Media are at the center of this because they are what make content go global and local voices get heard. As a result of this, things that used to be considered ‘sacred’ or unquestioned are now being talked about. This ranges from challenges to traditional authority—hence, a demand to democratize authority; reformation of Muslim society; the question of re-interpretation of the Qur’an from a more egalitarian point of view; to the demand for the Muslim identity to be made visible in public and to be recognized not within “we vs. the other” framework but in terms of their more complex identities. This is also a challenge for ‘Western’ politics. The Muslims cannot be ignored as outsiders anymore. For them to co-exist with the ‘rest of the world,’ their rights need to be fully recognized. This has posed a challenge to the realization of the rights ensured by the First Amendment in the USA and the concept of secularism in some European countries.

The studies of who gets access to the media and how cases are reported are critical. [ . . .] The field of media and religion has been interdisciplinary and I see this as an opportunity to capture the complexity of the process of social change, the contradictions in it as well as the particular/unique phenomenon that occurs. While I think it is important to learn the specific case studies in different parts of the world with their different historical, sociopolitical contexts, it is also vital to bear in mind, and assess deeply, the globalizing characteristics of media technology, including the question of their transnational ownership. Our scholarly duty is to offer an in-depth assessment of whether or not the media impede or accelerate the process of social changes.

Diane Winston: Both my teaching and research aim to make media consumers more intentional and more discerning. Most people think they know what religion is, but they actually have very little knowledge of specific traditions’ histories and theologies much less the sociological, cultural and political factors that make religion salient. As news consumers, this means we don’t expect or receive solid information about the role of religion in world events. We get little bits and pieces–most designed to titillate, infuriate and obfuscate. You can see the results in our public discussion of issues ranging from Park51–the proposed Islamic culture center in downtown NYC–to Israel/Palestine to stem cell research.

As a teacher, I address these shortcomings by offering alternatives to current coverage in my journalism class, and by teaching a course on religion, international relations and the media that looks at how these three areas shape public opinion. I also address these issues on www.trans-missions.org–a website that critiques media coverage and representations of religion.

Mainstream news media does such a poor job of storytelling–creating narratives that help us understand our world and our responsibilities–that television has taken over the job. The explosion of cable stations–and concomitant economic changes, has enabled the development of dramas that reflect today’s most complex issues and ideas. I am fascinated with TV series such as 24, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Weeds, Nurse Jackie,  Convicted, True Blood, and Treme that pose basic religious/spiritual/ethical questions: What does it mean to be a human being? What are my responsibilities to society? Who is my family?  What is a good life? How do I know right from wrong? These shows post such fundamental questions in the context of today’s most pressing issues: immigration, terrorism, economic hardship, bioengineering, and governmental ineptitude.

If you study news media or entertainment media, the connection between religion and the media becomes clear. Both religion and media seek to be authoritative sources for meaning making. They are domains that seek to set public and private agendas, to structure the understanding of our world, to ritualize our activities and to set the boundaries of our community. Both are totalizing; both have aspects that can be turned to utopian and dystopian ends, We need to understand what media is and does, what religion is and does and how they can collude to enrich our world or condemn us to bread and circuses.

J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu: The rise of new religious movements in Africa coincided with the media explosion that occurred in the last three decades of the twentieth century. The extensive use of media by Christian organizations, especially Pentecostal/Charismatic movements, means that they are virtually shaping Christian opinion in Africa and their spirituality is become normative for Christianity. This means an understanding of the relationship between religion and media is needed to appreciate the ways in which religions are influencing African society through their media use. For example, in an interview on Ghanaian television, a charismatic pastor had claimed that Jesus wore designer robes to justify his preaching of the prosperity gospel and the flamboyant choices he makes in life. Those who trust his word have taken this as truth and propagate it in their own churches.

Ben Dorman: The most pressing topic is the difference between scholarly definitions and understandings of “religion,” and media representations that affect public understandings of “religion.”

The word “religion” (Jpn: shūkyō) in Japan is often broadly understood in society to be something that has no connection to many people’s lives. Surveys of college students consistently reveal a widespread suspicion of “religion,” whereas others indicate that many Japanese have what some have termed to be an “allergy” to religion. I can confirm this from my own experience of teaching in this area. Furthermore, “religion” for many Japanese appears to indicate group control, fanaticism and blind belief, and sometimes financial wrongdoing. Yet, many Japanese actively engage in practices and ceremonies that can easily be categorized as religious, such as celebrating at shrines, offering prayers for the success of a particular venture, or participating in Buddhist funeral rites. Although the numbers of those who identify themselves as being affiliated with a particular religion, or would consider themselves to be “religious,” is extremely low, a large percentage of the population would conduct rituals and ceremonies that they might prefer to consider as being part of Japanese “culture.”

The assumptions behind the term “religion” affect how the establishment press deals with religion. Since the postwar period, religion has played no part in the education system, and understanding about religion is limited. Many journalists, as with most other Japanese, have little or no knowledge of religion and would not write reports on religion unless the case involves a “foreign” religion such as Christianity or Islam, particularly if the case involves a country outside Japan. As such, many Japanese become educated about religion through media that have little or no knowledge or interest in related issues. While this may not be unique to Japan, there are over 100,000 religions registered under Japan’s Religious Corporations Law yet most of these will never appear in the establishment press.

Japan experienced a shocking case of religious terrorism in 1995 with the sarin gas attack perpetrated by the religious group Aum Shinrikyō, which also committed numerous other crimes. The case made headlines all over the world and related issues dominated Japan’s broadcast and other media throughout the year. Before 1995 there were a number of popular television programs on supernatural phenomena, or featuring foreign spiritual celebrities like Uri Geller. After the gas attack such program were unceremoniously pulled from the air. Aum advocated yoga and other spiritual techniques that were gaining in popularity amongst young people in general. Thus, there was a concerted effort in broadcast media to avoid any mention of unorthodox spiritual practices. By the early 2000s, television programs featuring fortune telling or aura reading began appearing on the air. Thus, the media companies began to capitalize on the popularity of certain practices once they felt a safe distance had been established from the horrific crimes of Aum and the public’s palpable concern for safety from wayward religions. The effects of the criminal actions of one religious group on society and on the media in general, were enormous, and the case demonstrates the brittle relationships between media and religion in contemporary Japan.

Fortune tellers, aura readers, and other “spiritual healers” who appear on television may make reference to practices that can be seen as being religious but are more often than not connected to “Japanese culture.” The word “religion” is generally avoided, even though religious groups may also conduct similar practices. The term is simply too complex for media to unpack, and so the subject is generally avoided.

Stewart Hoover: At the moment, the way that new means of mediation, and new framings of religious symbols, ideas, values, and claims, is changing the nature of religious authority.  Also how religion is understood in relation to structures of power and practices of politics in specific settings–these being in fundamental ways questions of discourse, and thus subject to media and mediation.

SBP: If and when you use the term “media,” what do you generally mean by it?

JM: I like to extend the narrow functional usage of the word media which primarily associates it with radio, television and the press, to also include more traditional media such as books, paintings, and plays as well as newer media such as films, computers, and mobile phones. It can also be useful to distinguish between primary, secondary, and electronic media.

The word “media” is currently used in a number of different ways. Two usages are particularly noteworthy. First, “media” can be used to refer to the actual or main means of mass communication, such as the newspaper, the radio and the television. This contemporary meaning is less than one hundred years old. The initial assumption was that hearts, minds and pocket-books could be wooed by these powerful media tools, though this enthusiasm was soon tempered as the limitations of individual media power became clear. Nonetheless, these early optimistic expectations of mass communication have endured in several ways, including the taken-for-granted assumption that different forms of media can now provide almost instant communication across vast distances to large numbers of people.

Second, others write about or talk of “the media,” not in reference to the actual forms of communication, but rather to describe the institutions and communities of journalists, editors and other professionals who make up the communications industry. In this second sense, “the media” is often used in a similar fashion as “the press,” as a way of either describing the institutions which produce the papers and the programs, or to refer to those who work as journalists and broadcasters. The media is therefore also used as a collective noun to describe both the organizations that provide news, information and entertainment for the public, and the people who provide this service, such as journalists, editors, and producers.

It is important to maintain the plural form for “the media,” as this provides a more accurate description of the multi-layered and highly complex organizations, communities, and technologies which make up the media. There is a sense in which the media as a singular entity is a social construction which does not fully reflect reality. The media is a not a single, homogeneous mass, even if it is often treated as such by those who are disparaging of journalists or the journalistic profession.

Elsewhere I have defined the word “media” as “a channel that enables communication to occur.” On further reflection, this definition needs to be stretched to do justice to how people now interact both with different media and with their communicative environments. Media are far more than simply channels or mere instruments of communication. Consider the word’s actual singular form: “medium.” This older word can be used to refer to “a channel, method or system of communication, information or entertainment.” This is a far broader definition and begins to reflect more accurately the different media people embrace, even if it doesn’t include the media-scapes that they inhabit. It will be valuable for the development of the field of media and religion to extend the narrow functional usage of the word media which primarily associates it with radio, film, television and the press, also to include more traditional media such as books, paintings and plays as well as newer media such as computers, the internet and mobile phones. By defining media more broadly many new areas of study become pertinent to this field of study.

RS: I use the term “media” loosely to include all kinds of mediations, representations, and material realizations. Therefore, for example, the Islamic headscarf on a Muslim woman’s body, or the body in general, can be considered a “medium” when being assessed within the rubric of governmentality or bio-politics. On the other hand, in terms of media technology, the word “media” refers largely to mass media of journalism, communication and entertainment as well as the Internet. What is important when thinking about the media is not only to think about it as technology and hence how it creates different aesthetics and ethics of production/consumption, but also in terms of its role in and its relation with the society, and vice versa.

DW: I pass

JKAG: I use media to refer to any material medium that is used to communicate to people either individually or en masse.

BD: I normally use the term to refer to “media” and the “mediators.” Naturally the recipients of “media” are a crucial link in this as well.

In relation to my work, “media” usually means three things: (1) media that are external to religious groups (that is, media that religious groups do not own or control to any major extent, such as established newspapers and their affiliates, or television, or internet blogging); (2) media that religious groups do produce and control, and; (3) media produced by individuals claiming no religious affiliation (through books, blogs, and so on).

SH: Any material, conceptual, or symbolic (used advisedly of course) object and its/their practices. Not limited to “the media” and their institutions, technologies, and structures.

But popular media, commodified and materialized imbrications of the religious, etc., are important, as are the public rituals around their deployment.

—–

We will continue this discussion in the coming weeks. Also, keep an ear out for forthcoming audio interviews when Rachel Wagner will discuss her recent book Godwired, Kelly Baker will discuss her recent book The Gospel According to the Klan, and Greg Grieve will chat about religion and video games. 

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. His recent books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World; and Blasphemy: Art that Offends. With Jolyon Mitchell he co-edited The Religion and Film Reader. He is co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.

 

Image: St. Marien Church and TV tower, Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany.  Via blog.travelpod.com