Saturday, November 1, 2008

Are Religion and the Media Compatible?

By Shona Chandani

Religion and media are two of the most influential forces in people lives and in human culture. Are these institutions two separate and irreconcilable pods or can they find a happy balance of co-operation? Is it possible for their ideologies to have similar nuances?

Even back as far as the early 1970’s there have been investigations and reports on how the secular media and religion interact. No other generation has had the freedom the new media has given to discuss, explore and practice religion and this has sparked massive interest from all sides; scholars, journalists and the public.

In the contemporary world the media are now moving at the centre of the western religious experience, projecting our culture and values to the rest of the world. It is a huge part of the way we communicate; it can connect the entire world in just a few seconds. Our culture, values and customs are all shaped by what we see on TV, read in magazines and newspaper and download from the internet.

Different media has the power to shape our religiousness. A pioneer in understanding this, and using the media to promote her religion was Aimee Semple McPherson. For the period between the two world wars she built a mass media empire designed to bring people back to the church. McPherson also used media within her church services which helped make them immensely popular. While religion can be given meaning by the media can also be given credibility by religion; it’s understanding and responsible promotion of it.

Similar to the argument why politics and religion should always remain separate, some say that because of this religion and media should be kept in two separate pods because their ideologies could never mesh. There was once an invisible line drawn around religion protecting it from scrutiny but it has long since been dissolved by the ever growing and universalising media. It is important that we begin to think more clearly about the possible consequences of this technology for religion, even though we are still only at the dawn of the Internet age and fumbling over ourselves to understand it.

There is a distinct difference between religious media and mediated religion. There is a thriving religious, largely Christian, media in Australia, the UK and America. In Australia alone there are 34 radio stations, over 300 narrowcast stations and 9 TV channels devoted to religious media. This is completely separate to the secular media’s interaction with religion. On the surface the universe of discourse that religion inhabits is completely separate from the workday world of the press. Although, many religious organisations have high stakes invested in the media.

Scholars are now trying to find the common ground to provide a mechanism for interaction between the two. Hosseini considers three approaches to defining the relationship between media and religion. The Functionalist, Essentialist and Interactive approaches. The Functionalist outlook generally sees the media a mere tool used by religious concepts and notions. There are serious criticisms of this argument as being shallow and erroneous. The essentialist approach claims that the media intrinsically have an independent cultural and historical identity therefore in their interaction with other aspects of life the compatibility or lack-there-of with other entities should be fully taken into consideration when reflection on their relationship.

Hosseini’s own view is the interactive approach. This theory tries to find a way to interconnect the two important elements. The considerable expansion of mass media in since the 1970’s has led religious leaders to call for interaction between arguably the planets two largest social institutions. The Vatican has even expressed a very positive view of the interaction between media and religion describing it as a divine gift and blessing. Hoover stresses that religion cannot be reduced to an individual experience; it is not confined to a sacred domain bit in inseparable from culture. As the media is also inseparable from and gives meaning to human life these two entities should naturally work together.

Jay Rosen, a media critic and reviewer, has a slightly different idea; he believes that journalism, and by extension the media, is itself a religion. Rosen identifies eight categories in which he compares elements of journalism to those of a religion. He highlights an interesting feature of the media; there is a priesthood of the press with a high church, ceremonies and rites of passage. The Journalists Creed was written by Walter Williams in 1906 to be a code of ethics for journalists. It reads very much like a religious text; part indoctrination, part theology and part sanctity. Finally, the media has a God... the public. They are considered to be the controlling or guiding force of journalism. The morality of journalism itself stands for the way things should be. It’s implicit belief — you could call it faith — is that people can make a difference when they know what is happening in their world.

As religion continues to infiltrate mainstream media, journalists are finding themselves with more opportunity to report on religious issues or less choice to not. For journalists the religion beat holds appeal because of its versatility, reporting ranges from hard news to politics, social issues and world events. It is impossible to political events, like the US presidential election, without a fairly extensive knowledge of religion these days. The Journalism School and Columbia University even offers a combined course is journalism and religion.

How do journalists keep neutral when writing about religion, be it their own beliefs or something completely different? Goldman said he avoids criticizing any religious belief, except in the most extreme cases of violence or danger. “I see my role as to tell the story and not put a value judgment on it,” he explained. The press plays an extremely important role in the way that religion is understood by those outside of it. “The media often falls into extremes and not the mainstream because they’re boring,” he said. “The press isn’t interested in Muslims that say ‘we condemn violence.’” Rosen says that “The public climate is partly our creation, they said. If it turns murderous, we need to admit our part in that. And find some way to redemption”.

Having pushed the boundaries as far as possible with food, sex and sport it was only a matter of time before religion got the reality treatment. In a society obsessed with the make-over it is unsurprising that faith is getting one too. These shows are one of the few ways religion has infiltrated mainstream television. Major networks like MTV are getting on board the new phenomenon.

The leading religious network in India, Aastha has developed a program that’s part Idol, part Songs of Praise. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, star of TLC’s Shalom in the Home, is now a celebrity. It is one of the stations most highly rated shows pulling in about 700,000 viewers, this makes it more popular than some of its home improvement and fashion and makeover programs. According to the Rabbi "It's a show about family," said Boteach, who is known as Rabbi Shmuley. "To the extent that religious thought can be brought to bear on healing them, then of course, I do that. But these truths are universal . . . applicable to men, women and children of every denomination, every way of life."

The show has proved so popular that TLC is now launching another spiritually motivated show. On the British Islam channel, eight mosques competed for the title of Britain’s Model Mosque in 2007. The organisers were not only keen to show other mosques what their possibilities are but to dispel fears about Islam of non-Muslims. While they also appreciate the popularity of reality TV with younger audiences and the effectiveness of this medium in reaching generation Y the show should not be interpreted in a non-religious way. They want a smooth transition of power to the next generation and this TV program can facilitate this by involving them. Secular programs are also using religion to attract audiences. The Dr. Phil Show uses essentially religious narrative and indoctrination to attract participants and hook audiences. It was found that TLC’s A Wedding Story supported current hegemonic religious views but it has the potential to show audiences more diverse religious portrayals.

These shows allow people to experience other faiths and belief systems far different from their own in a non-threatening, entertaining and accessible way. The Aastha show has been praised because “It also shows how religious leaders and activists are trying to use new media to appeal to young Indians, who are increasingly exposed to, and attracted by, Western culture.” The show is to be less about competition and more about teaching young people to appreciate more traditional religious music. If religion is going to engage a new generation it needs to be enjoyable. The major problem with these shows is that they give, at best, a watered down version of reality. They cannot depict any particular religion in any specific detail. Engstrom and Semic believe that despite this and although A Wedding Story reaches a limited audience it is the perfect, unthreatening way to introduce lesser known religions through a common ritual.

Using data from several search engines it is clear that religion is flourishing online. There is a plethora of religion and religious information available on the internet. You can do everything from attending services to go on virtual pilgrimages to consulting with a rabbi or priest. There is an ocean of online communities are thriving and religion is just getting its feet wet. Blogging, Facebook, email and online communities have become as popular, if not more so, than face to face communication. Even dating is now done largely online. If religious organisations don’t keep up, they’ll fall into obscurity. Online is a place where religious freedom can reign supreme in a sometimes painfully PC world. The Internet has truly become a haven for an abundance of alternative religions and spiritualities, from lesbian witchcraft to white-supremacist apocalypticism.

Cyberspace allows freedom because it removes the stigma of living a atypical religious lifestyle. There is a definite difference between religion online and online religion however. Religion online is the extension of existing religion into cyberspace where online religion is a new phenomenon; entire religious movements that have come to be on the World Wide Web.

Religion online has triggered notable changes in the traditional religious experience also. Heidi Campbell came to several conclusions from her research into religion in computer mediated communication (CMC). Online religion has not replaced the traditional church service; it is not causing people to shy away from real world participation. People did note that relationships are lacking in the offline church. There are however serious limitations to how far relationships can progress online.

Trustworthiness and truth are very difficult to determine without physical contact. Users of online church and religious communities highlighted that their characteristics are a vision of what the church or Christian community could be like. When the online community may not be complete in some respects users find that the spiritual connection and freedom they find on the web is not something they can get in the real world.

Ritual and myth are essential elements of religion. Cyberspace and its far reach have transformed traditional ritual space and time. For years television has been bringing people from their home into the action, the internet is now doing a similar service.There are some criticisms or religion going digital; some say that the web is a dehumanising medium and has no place in the spiritual field. Helland found that the greatest difficulty with online religion was keeping pace with its rapid development. The scale at which online religion and religion online is growing is phenomenal.

There is no consensus between scholars as to the exact nature of the way media effects culture and religion, only that it does. The nature of the relationship between media and religion is constantly changing as technology advances and spreads. The media are the ultimate conveyors of messages so most organisations will find it necessary to interact with them and religion is no longer protected from this. Modernity has given man a renewed thirst for meaning; this seems to be leading to the revival of religion in the modern sphere which is largely controlled by the media. Religion has begun to make savvy decision with regards to using the media, particularly TV, radio and the internet. The media too has stepped up its religion coverage, journalists are more aware than ever of religious issues. If religion wants to remain a seminal institution, to appeal to the next generation, it must find a way to work in harmony with the media. Their ideologies must also find common ground and this is well on the way to being achieved.

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