Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by S. Brent Plate.

 

By S. Brent Plate

This is the second part of a two-part interview with six scholars working on intersections of religion and media around the world. The first part appeared earlier this summer at The Revealer. In his introduction to that article, Plate wrote:

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… they are inescapable even if we don’t think of them in terms like “religion” or “media.”

 

Participants

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

Rianne Subijanto, Ph.D. Student at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at University of Colorado, Boulder, and research assistant for the Center for Media, Religion and Culture. Subijanto’s research interests have centered around 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.

SBP: Do media technologies change the practice of religion? Examples?

Rianne Subijanto: Yes and no. If what we mean by “the practice of religion” is the spread of religion, then I’d say that they do. Let me clarify that with an example of my own study about an Indonesian celebrity TV preacher, Aa Gym. As a preacher and an entrepreneur, Aa Gym gives Islamic teachings creatively through many different kinds of media, including text messaging, Internet, self-help books and television. This is a revolutionary approach to Islamic preaching and something that is possible because of the availability of different kinds of media technologies of his time. Hence, the teaching no longer only makes use of traditional aural aesthetics, but it also adopts other kinds of aesthetics, such as tele-visual for TV. His method might be popular but the teachings adhere to mainstream Islamic teachings. This is related to the other type of “practice of religion.”

If “the practice of religion” refers to the symbolic/sacred practices of prayers and religious doctrine, it is not yet clear if media technologies have effected any changes, at least in the case of Indonesia. The Internet, for example, has provided a more participatory arena for people to engage with their faith, Examples of such virtual religious participation include programs for giving and receiving counseling via the Internet regarding issues of marriage and divorce, as well as lay people preaching on Youtube. However, it has not been accepted as a place to do the ritual of the five daily prayers virtually. In short, Muslims still do the physical five daily prayers which cannot be replaced by going to an online mosque.

Media technologies do change the way Islamic leaders/preachers establish their authority and open up the way Islamic teachings/jurisprudence/laws are discussed and debated. However, to determine whether or not they have transformed the symbolic practice of religion, as well as the doctrines, requires further study.

Diane Winston: As a journalist and a journalism professor, I’ve seen that media technologies can enhance and expand the practice of religion but I am not convinced that they are changing it. People can find each other online and organize through social media to enable the development of new religious communities. (Among my favorites are fan communities around cult TV shows.) But even though the means of organization are different today, the purposes and activities of these religious groups are constant: People want to share a story, belong to a community and experience something beyond the normal.

J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu: Technologies do [engage the practice of religion] because the nature of the media determines the parameters of the message, the discourse, and how religion comes to be understood.  Among the Pentecostal churches in Ghana, for example, televangelistic videos are edited to reflect the self-importance of these churches.  Also the mediation of prophecy through modern media means that people can now touch or even place water on TV sets as a healing evangelist prays power into them for therapeutic purposes.

Ben Dorman:  Although Japan appears to be some years behind other Asian countries such as Korea in terms of the spread of the Internet and related information and services, increasingly temples and shrines are displaying information related to their physical sites as part of an attempt to draw the public’s attention to them. Although this does not necessarily change the practice of religion as such, it does change the way these organizations represent themselves (e.g. as part of traditional Japanese culture that needs to be preserved). Virtual pilgrimage sites exist yet to my knowledge there is little to show that this indicates a significant change in practices. On the other hand, there is evidence to show that religious and spiritual practitioners such as healers and their clients are using technologies like Skype for online rituals and readings. These can be considered  non face-to-face contact points. Also there are a number of fortune telling sites that do not require face-to-face contact. This may suggest that although the location and access to religious sites and attendant practices is not significantly affected by new technologies, practices that involve individual counseling may be increasingly affected by these technologies.

Stewart Hoover:  Yes. Visual technologies (use of PowerPoint or videos in services, for example) have become more and more integrated into religious services, and have changed the nature of that practice. The visual was once contested (and of course still is) but is increasingly at the center of even Protestant religion. Its claims to facticity and authenticity are increasingly influential on the ways “the religious” think about what they are doing. Such things as the ritual of “self-spectatorship” through which adherents observe themselves being observed on television screens is one small example.

SBP: How are the relations between religion and media different in various regions of the world?

JM: Complex. There is much to be learnt from how interpreters in different parts of the world, beyond the media and religion field, have analyzed different aspects of media technologies, media production and media consumption.

RS: If there is a difference, it would be in how the structures of the community/society influence the relations between religion and media. In a country that is static and communal and where power is not as dispersed, such as Indonesia, religion is regulated under one unified body of authority. In Indonesia this is the Ulema council for Islam. The use of media reflects this. My research on the Indonesian Muslim blogosphere, for example, shows that a challenge to authority is not something commonly discussed in blogs. While the medium allows democratic participation, most implicit and explicit discussions of Islamic teachings are in support of the mainstream orthodoxy. On the other hand, studies of the blogosphere in Europe and the US have shown that blogs display characteristics of the public sphere. In these regions, we can find open criticism of religious authority.

Moreover, the problems of Islam in a country with Muslims as majority and one with Muslims as minority are also different. Where Muslims constitute a majority, it is essential to learn how this religion influences the state. This is then followed with the question of how identity politics is institutionalized politically and culturally, how the Muslim majority relates with the minority and how it negotiates its privilege and power. Media are an essential avenue to study this. In the US, as a minority, Muslims are struggling for their voices to be heard and to get a space of recognition culturally and politically. The heated debates on the Park 51 mosque in downtown Manhattan show that media and the structure of the society allow these debates to be made public and for people to have access to this conversation.

JKA: In Africa the lack of proper censorship WOULD LOVE TO KNOW WHAT HE MEANS HERE BY PROPER CENSORSHIP rules means that there is no control over what is preached or what claims are made, no matter how wild they may be.

BD: The Japanese establishment press generally only cover stories about religion when they involve some kind of incident. While “foreign” religions, such as Christianity or Islam, may be reported, Japanese religions are virtually ignored. On the other hand, there is a booming market in “spirituality” that is manifested in books, magazines, and television programs.

Aspects of religion, such as ancestor veneration, healing, divination, and spirit readings are big business in Japan not only because they not only tap into traditional values. Many of them offer “alternative” possibilities that can become faddishly successful (and fads are a part of everyday life in Japan). However, the word “religion” is actively avoided with these practices because the connotations of the word “religion” for many Japanese either means something foreign or separate from their daily lives or something that should be regarded with suspicion.

SH: A complex and layered situation. They are different, but I’ll only address one level that is important and fascinating: the extent to which a global media imaginary increasingly determines practices in regional settings. It’s not simply cultural imperialism, but the global media panopticon conditions both engagement and formal practice in many places in the world. Resistance, too.

SBP: How might the work being done by scholars on religion and media be useful, interesting, or provocative to non-academics? What are the implications of this research for socio-political life in general?

JM: There should be more case studies in academic work that relate to new media and film and contemporary news. There are many implications of this research for socio-political life, including providing the resources and environments where “religion can speak peace to religion.”

RS: I think the job of a scholar is to assess fully social phenomena and to communicate our findings back to the public. To do outreach to the community, we need to think about utilizing the available media, such as films, dialogues, TV programs, blogs and newspaper columns. This is why our work is interdisciplinary; we also need to cooperate with other leaders in the community, to learn and be involved in influencing the direction of their activism/policy making and social change in general.

DW: I have been intrigued by papers on online religion ten years out. Most of the researchers explained that the cosmic changes that researchers expected did not come to pass. Organized religions have learned to use the Internet and some new religious movements may have come together but basically the technology has been more of a tool than a paradigm-shifter. These results are important to folks engaged with institutional religions as well as to researchers. Likewise useful to non-academics were discussions of branding. Online religion has influenced how religious groups can tell their stories, who they can reach and what they can do once they attract consumers.

Most provocative–whether one is an academic or not–is that more and more of our lives can be conducted through the media. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign showed how media can transform politics. But media is likewise affecting religion, changing the sources of authority and the form of story-telling.

JKA: The work is useful although most of the time it benefits the academy most. There should be some attempt to make the work or some aspects of it relevant to practitioners.

BD: A great deal of what the Japanese public learn about religion and religious groups comes through the often unfiltered lenses of media workers who are not trained in explaining the interactions between religion and society. Therefore academic work might help non-academics by simply raising awareness about media literacy and the implications of not knowing how stories are constructed. Social harmony is highly valued in Japan, and the printed word has always been held in high esteem. Questioning how media represents issues is a new and very challenging area for most people. Media technologies allow for more people to access more information and the academy has a role to play in facilitating this.

SH: Scholarly approaches might help us understand how something like the Florida Quran-burning pastor comes to prominence, negotiates himself and is himself negotiated on the boundary between “religion,” “politics,” “risk,” “panic,” etc.

SBP: The final question: What question would you want to see asked in discussing the relation of religion and media?

JM: How far, how much, to what extent have the popular electronic media, such as films, web sites, television and radio programs become the places where people consciously and sub-consciously seek their moral and even religious edification?

What has been largely left out of the conversation so far? Issues of social justice and environmental sustainability and their relation to media and religion will not go away.

RS: When talking about religion and media, we usually think about the case of North America and Western Europe. We need to see what’s going on in other regions of the world, especially the postcolonial countries. Most studies of religion and media in these postcolonial countries have been within the paradigm of media use and representation.

I would like to challenge all of us to think about media as part of the process of development in the “South”/”East” dominated by first world/capitalist hegemony and as part of neoliberal globalization. We also need to consider how this paradigm provokes us to ask different questions in regards to the relation between religion in these places and the media. In terms of global content and aesthetics, how global are the particular phenomena in particular contexts? How does the process of “indigenization’” occur alongside a global transformation? Are there other questions invisible or missing outside the common questions on authenticity, authority and the boundaries of sacred and profane? Moreover, we should also seek to develop comparisons and contrasts between different parts of the world, and try to theoretically connect and fill in the missing dots. The media have a globalizing tendency; the challenge is that the structure and the context of the society we are studying are different.

DW: Who is benefitting from new engagements of religion and media; and what is the impact on media consumers?

JKA: Within the limits of technological constraints, what would the outline of a course in Religion and Media look like when offered: 1) within a Seminary Setting, and 2) when offered within a university department for the study of religion?

BD: Do media actually change the way people practice or consider religion, or do they reinforce traditional values in increasingly new formats? To what extent do the conditions in specific regions affect the ways we understand, research, talk about, and teach on the relationships between religion and the media?

As per my above comments, local conditions play a major role in the ways we consider and reflect on religion and media. Speaking from the perspective of someone coming from an area studies background, I believe it is important for everyone studying this area to avoid generalizations that may not apply to all parts of the world.

SH: Is it a field?

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.