Friday, November 12, 2010
The 1990’s saw the television program Xena: Warrior Princess (‘XWP’) become a popular mainstream vehicle for feminism. Set in an ancient, fictional meta-world of religious and spiritual plurality, Xena introduced the concept of the independent and strong female heroine, whose supernaturality provided purchase from which to launch modern feminism from an inaccessible and insular concept to a widely appealing and positive doctrine. ‘XWP’ was integral to the contemporary generation’s developing perceptions of gender as fluid, not binary (Gauntlett, 2002). Xena was one amongst a range of courageous women popular for their physical, emotional and spiritual strength as role models for adolescents (Gonick, 2006, p. 10), alongside other characters such as Buffy Summers of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ or the Halliwell sisters of ‘Charmed’, that are all but extinct in current popular culture (Busch, 2006). Xena’s effectiveness as a feminist role-model would not have been possible without her supernatural qualities and those of the meta-world she inhabited. This paper will discuss ‘XWP’s value from a media theory perspective, before focussing on its approach to feminism and gender representation, and the importance of supernaturality as a tool to engage audiences. It will also discuss the show’s approach to religious plurality as a device for mass-appeal.
Popular culture has a responsibility to audiences to provide positive role models, however this is disturbingly rarely provided. From the beginning of the series, XWP situated itself to be an agent of social change. Noted media theorist Albert Bandura provides an explanation as to why mainstream media is so effective in influencing social behaviour in his model for Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication. It states that people are generally unwilling to adopt new practices until they can see the benefits of them, which is why entertainment media is so important in facilitating social diffusion through implanting ideas to adopters. These effects can also be entirely socially mediated; they can be experienced by people who have never even been exposed to the media however they are influenced by its effects on the original audience, or ‘early adopters’ who have been exposed (Bandura, 2001).
There is much debate over Xena’s feminism. Some theorists argue that her origins belie her feminist message. Her character was introduced in the series “Hercules, the legendary journeys” as a cruel, ruthless and immoral warlord, however while being romanced by Hercules, a man, he convinces her to use her power for good, not evil. Thus began the spinoff show “Xena: Warrior Princess”, and while Hercules does feature in it as a love interest and morally positive influence, he is not individually credited with her reformation as he is in “Hercules”. The significance of her origin is debatable when discussing her contribution to media as a feminist role model, however modern feminists generally agree that a more positive feminist message would have been to have Xena either reformed through her own devices, or influenced by another woman (D’Erasmo, 1995; Magoulick, 2007, p. 730). Morreale (1998) credits Xena as the first lead woman in a television series as the archetypal hero on a quest. She is a strong feminine woman with masculine qualities, and the show appeals typically to men with action-based adventure, as well as women, with fantasy and spiritual themes. However, Morreale argues, while Xena is outwardly feminist, stories are told in a traditionally patriarchal fashion. It is this ambiguity that made ‘XWP’ so popular across so many demographics, and at its height it was among the top ten syndicated television series worldwide; indeed its very name is ambiguous. “Warrior” implies a strong, powerful and masculine person, whereas “Princess” softens its inference, defining Xena as feminine and even to an extent vulnerable (compared to if she was called a “Queen”, for example).
Her attire is practical and functional; leather installed with metal breast plates, however the bottom half is split and short, and her cleavage is emphasised, presenting her as an object of strength and utility but also as one of desire. Xena’s choice of weaponry is also gendered; her primary weapons are her sword, symbolic of the male sex, and her chakram, a hollow, round disc symbolic of the female. While she uses her sword more regularly, her chakram requires more skill to master, is more powerful and often the tool that ultimately ends the battle; it is also her signature weapon and later in the series is imbued with the power of the gods (Nelson, 1997, para. 16).
The portrayal of men in ‘XWP’ frames it as a feminist program. There is no male that Xena cannot defeat in battle, though some come close, such as Ares, God of War. Furthermore, her enemies are almost always male and immoral, however her primary, recurring enemy who becomes her most formidable match in battle is a woman, Callisto. Ares is also a recurring character, and was usually bested by Xena in battle due to his weakness of being in love with her. The only male regularly recurring character is Joxer, who provides the comic relief, and is consistently seen to be a blundering idiot, pathetic and ineffectual, especially when viewed beside Xena and her sidekick Gabrielle. Xena also does not exhibit what Morreale calls “Appendage Syndrome”, where the “Warrior Queen” figure is seen as connected to her nearest masculine figure (Morreale, 1998, p. 2). Xena’s father left when she was young, her brother is deceased, and she had to give up her son at birth to his father’s family. Though she learned some fighting skills from her brother, her most powerful battle skills are learned from other women, some of which were good and others villains.
Xena’s subversion of traditional feminine representations is especially apparent when her character is required to adopt disguises. Often, she must ‘disguise’ herself as a normal woman (to get past guards, for instance). When she does this, she wears much more feminine clothing with soft yet bright colours, usually dresses. She also changes the way she walks, from bold, confident strides to slower, less deliberate steps, softens her facial expression from her trademark glare, and affects her voice to be breathy and more high pitched from her normal, deep tone. In this guise she presents a parody of women and femininity as she sees it; she laughs more generously at men’s jokes and tolerates their sexist leers more than she would as ‘normal’ Xena. When she fights, she reverts to her normal self and uses devices of her feminine affectations to taunt her opponents, such as punching them and then covering her mouth in feigned, wide-eyed shock and saying, in her ‘feminine’ voice: “Oops!” This shows that the character is self aware of her personal subversion, and proud of it, and also critical and derisive of men’s weakness to it. She sees ‘traditional’ women as complacent and weak, and always expresses her relief at the end of the ruse to be back to her usual strong self.
Approaches to gender in ‘XWP’ are very much ahead of their time, and concepts addressed by it have rarely been attempted in subsequent mainstream entertainment almost fifteen years later. Xena’s ambiguity allowed ‘XWP’ to mainstream the concept of gender as positioned on a spectrum; a concept explored by de Beauvoir (1953), as opposed to a masculine/feminine dichotomy, and it also challenged other gender perceptions. The recurring character of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, for instance, had a very liberal, ‘masculine’ approach to sex (Marks & Farley, 2005, p. 184), and was seen with multiple sexual partners throughout the series, without the need to form emotional attachment to them, and discarding them at her whim. A season two episode titled “Here she comes… Miss Amphipolis” included a transsexual character Alex, as a male-born participant in a female beauty pageant. When Xena realises Alex’s secret, she acknowledges that they are both ‘acting’ as ‘women’, and she says, without shock, hesitation or personal struggle, that he had every right to participate as the other women, saying “May the best person win” (emphasis added). This sensitive, positive treatment of transsexual people has not been seen in any mainstream entertainment program since. Furthermore, Alex was heterosexual, expressing attraction to Xena, further challenging the erroneous heterosexist stereotype of transsexual men as automatically homosexual as well (Gerhardstein & Anderson, 2010, p. 362).
The plot device of the pageant also was further example of Xena’s approach to femininity as a performance and her disdain for those that conform to it. She calls the contestants “underdressed (and) overdeveloped bimbos”, while Gabrielle calls pageants “a feeble excuse for men to exploit and degrade women”, to which the male organiser responds “Since when do we need an excuse?” As the episode progresses and Xena assumes her disguise she begins to sympathise with the female contestants as they all have important reasons for being there, however they still conform to feminine values of using their beauty instead of other faculties, as well as community based values (instead of traditionally male individualistic nature) (Winstead & Griffin, 2002, p. 489), for example one is there to get money for her poor family, another is there to protect her village from impending war. Despite the developing sympathy, however, Xena’s disdain at having to ‘act’ feminine is clear when she rapidly changes her facial expression from blowing kisses to rolling her eyes, or from battering her eyelids to sneering.
The episode (and indeed most of the series) also presented men only as one-dimensional, lecherous and weak, perceiving themselves as ‘owners’ of the women they sponsor in the pageant and completely preoccupied with competing with the other men using ‘their’ women as pawns. Incidentally, the beginning of that episode is one of the more humorous yet overt messages of female power in ‘XWP’; it opens with a gang of men leering and chasing the beauty contestants on a beach, who are then saved by Xena and Gabrielle throwing clams at them, in a display of characteristically unsubtle symbolism.
Another feminist message of ‘XWP’ was in the strength of Xena’s relationship to Gabrielle. Their relationship began with a young, naïve and audacious Gabrielle idolising Xena from the stories she’d heard about her, and following Xena to satisfy her lust for adventure. Xena initially resists however eventually allows Gabrielle to accompany her on her travels. Gabrielle serves to ground Xena and act as her moral conscience, keeping her on the path of goodness, and reminding her of the strength and value of her reformation (Pattee, 2000, para. 9). In turn, Xena is integral to Gabrielle’s personal development, teaching her survival skills including combat and weaponry. Their deep connection, love, admiration and mutual respect for each other presents an extremely positive role-model for girls and relationships, and it consistently presents the two women as influencing and encouraging each other’s personal and spiritual growth as individuals and partners. Male romantic interests for either of the women rarely last more than one episode; however their underlying friendship is only ever temporarily threatened, and is the one constant and most significant source of strength for both women throughout the series.
Xena is often haunted by her past and is sometimes tempted from her path of goodness, by what Carl Jung would label her ‘male shadow’. According to Jung, normative masculine and feminine concepts are archetypal images within our collective unconscious (Carr, 2002, p. 478). In addition to this, there is a gendered concept of the shadow that influences people to act outside their gender’s stereotype; the ‘male shadow’ is feelings of aggression, conflict and domination, and the ‘female shadow’ is feelings of social conformity and restriction to society’s gender norms (Jung, 1954). These shadows are inherently dark in nature (thus the term ‘shadow’) and provide an antithesis to our primary gender identity, and it is from this conflict that more a complex sense of gender identity arises. Both are closely linked with feelings of guilt, which Xena is constantly plagued by. It is the influence of the male shadow that provides her compelling inner conflict and the struggle to transcend her instinctual drive to allow it to rule her. The shadow concepts are not exclusively destructive; it is the regulation of their influence with the person’s existing gender qualities that present complex protagonists and undermine the binary perception of gender (Calvert, Kondla, Ertel, & Meisel, 2001, p. 34), reinforcing the spectrum approach.
The true nature of Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship has remained the subject of fierce debate long after the program ceased airing. It was widely believed that the two were lesbians, and while they were regularly psychically intimate such as holding hands or putting their arms around each other’s waist, they only kissed romantically around three times; an insignificant number across 134 episodes involving about as many heterosexual kisses. The writers of ‘XWP’ took advantage of the audience’s curiosity, frequently alluding to a romantic relationship between the women, and it was not until it had stopped airing that the producers and actors admitted that they were lesbians, with the creator Rob Tapert (who also wrote, directed and produced the show) clearly saying that he wished he could have included clearly homosexual characters and relationships in the show however he could not lest it alienate audiences (Minkowitz, 1996, p. 3).
Some argue that the women being lesbians detracts from the show’s feminist message. They argue that it presents a stronger argument for feminism if the women possess a strong connection yet are still heterosexual, as this is more contradictory to people’s expectations of gender representation (Stein, 1998). It is too convenient, they argue, to present two women independent from men as lesbians instead of two independent heterosexual women, who place friendship before romance the way men traditionally do. Independent heterosexual women are threatening to men, they argue, whereas an attractive lesbian couple who still flirt with and engage sexually with men are objects of hyper-sexual male fantasy. The ambiguous sexuality also cemented ‘XWP’ as a cult show to a lesbian audience, and is widely heralded as the original and most normalising depiction of lesbians in mainstream media (Pattee, 2000, para. 16).
Discussion of ‘XWP’s feminist gender representation is integral to exploring its supernatural themes, as it was arguably their main function to act as an effective vehicle for modern feminism. ‘XWP’ would not have been so successful in mainstreaming feminism were it not steeped in spirituality. The supernatural themes of ‘XWP’ are what made its feminism so widely accessible to such a vast audience. By giving Xena supernatural strength and powers from the pantheon of the gods, as well as endowing her most powerful enemies with supernatural qualities to match her (such as Callisto becoming a goddess), she was removed enough from normal yet strong independent women to be a non-threatening yet still feminist icon. Modern Feminism has a lot of critics, and is often denounced as being exclusionary, misandrist and the field of ‘angry lesbians’ and women who do not respect men (Minnick, 1998). Xena presented an ‘other’ who remained relatable and venerable despite her extremely progressive feminist ideals which would have been dismissed in any purely female character, by both male and female audience. Her supernaturality acted as a vehicle and gave her licence to be more aggressively feminist than other, human, popular culture icons of the time and arguably since.
The significance of spirituality is also an important part of ‘XWP’. The show involved classical ancient Greek, Roman and Norse mythology, as well as Hindu, Judaic, and Christian theology, and Taoism, which were all allowed within the same time period due to the writers’ lack of regard to chronological or geographical accuracy (Jones, 2000, p. 404). Xena’s personal spirituality was also quite fluid and she never aligned to a specific one, however she and Gabrielle were often called on to protect spiritual leaders, especially Eli, modelled on the Judeo-Christian Jesus, and she most frequently battled or was assisted by ancient Greek Gods (Fillingum, 2009). She never aligns to a specific spiritual path, nor expresses a need or desire to, however Gabrielle, who is presented as more in touch with her personal spirituality, chooses (after various failed attempts) to follow Eli, in his religion of peace and non-violence. Ultimately though she is compelled to rationalise a return to violence in order to save Xena’s life, and while she remains a ‘follower’ of Eli, her divergence from his path reinforces the strength of her and Xena’s relationship, as well as the concept of an individual and fluid approach to spirituality. This widely inclusive approach also maintained ‘XWP’s mass-market appeal to a spiritually diverse audience. Gabrielle also is significantly influenced by the spiritual rituals of the Amazons when she becomes an Amazonian Princess, and, briefly, a Queen (Durham, 2001, p. 204).
Never before, or since ‘XWP’ has a television program with a supernatural heroine been so popular while maintaining Feminist ideals. Other supernatural heroines such as Buffy Summers of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ or the Halliwell sisters of ‘Charmed’, though generally feminist (albeit in a diluted form), have not had the same success across such a wide audience as ‘XWP’ (Minkowitz, 1996, p. 74). Other popular television series without supernatural themes have had actively feminine protagonists, such as ‘Maude’ or ‘The Golden Girls’, however their audiences were predominantly female and the leading characters lacked the ‘masculine’ qualities that were allowed in Xena due to her supernaturality. Another factor of ‘XWP’s popularity was the time it was produced; it began to air while television was still the most popular form of media-based entertainment in the home (Havick, 2000). It has since been replaced by the internet and as audiences turn away from the increasingly hegemonic nature of free-to-air programming, they are spoiled for choice when they can consume entertainment of their choice from anywhere in the world instead of just what television network executives choose to broadcast (Hoover, 2006).
Xena: Warrior Princess was a significant cornerstone in mainstreaming Modern Feminism thanks to its supernaturality. Contrary to what one would expect, its transcendental spirituality was integral to the accessibility of its progressively feminist doctrine, and its perfect timing of the series ending just before the Internet’s revolution of how people consume media cemented Xena’s unrivalled position as the most popular supernatural, feminist heroine that ever was and arguably ever will be on television. The show’s creators fulfilled their moral responsibility to audiences by encouraging and inciting change using tools explained by Bandura’s Social Cognitive theory. The complex Jungian approach to gender archetypes normalise gender as positioned within a wide spectrum; a relatively isolated phenomenon in the history of mainstream media both prior to and after the conclusion of ‘XWP’ in 2001. There has been a disappointing regression to the binary masculine/feminine dichotomy in current mainstream media, which is arguably congruent to the decrease of supernaturally themed programs. By limiting textual contexts to realistic realms, writers are depriving themselves of plot devices that serve as unique conduits of culturally radical doctrine, not only to the detriment of their own success in an increasingly competitive media environment, but also to the detriment of audiences and wider society which relies on media to facilitate social progress and development.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Sport has often been compared to religion, and some would even consider it a religion in its own right. In particular, baseball is a common subject of study when debating the question of whether or not sport is a religious activity. Much like a religion, baseball does allow individuals to find and understand their identities within a greater community: the network of fans, or followers, supporting a given team. By focusing on the specific fandom of Boston Red Sox supporters, this paper examines whether baseball should be considered a religion in itself or simply a component of popular culture with many similarities to religion. It discusses this fandom in the broader context of American popular culture using Emile Durkheim’s concept of collective effervescence, as well as through Chris Rojek’s related idea of secular celebrity religion. Ultimately, it uses Samuel Sandmel’s theory of parallelomania to conclude that, while baseball does function like a religion in American culture, it cannot be considered a religion in and of itself.
It is true that there are a number of parallels between sport, in this case baseball, and religion. While discussing the possibility of the “Church of Baseball,” for example, David Chidester highlights four general areas of comparison: religion and baseball both ensure a sense of continuity, foster the creation of a community of belonging, involve a sacred space of home, and engage in sacred time of ritual (Chidester 745-746). All of these similarities are played out in the story of the Boston Red Sox and their fans. The Sox experienced an 86-year Word Series drought, failing to win the championship between 1918 and 2004. Just as God’s faithful look towards redemption with hope in their hearts, continuity was created as generation after generation of Red Sox fans carried on the hope that each year was their year until, finally, their decades of suffering were rewarded with a win in 2004 (“Here’s Hoping” 5). Similar to adherents to a religion, Red Sox fans are part of a distinct and passionate community with its own style of dress (apparel featuring the team’s logo), hymns or chants (“Let’s go Red Sox!”), practices and traditions (singing “Sweet Caroline” during the seventh inning of every home game), and even its own name (“Red Sox Nation” or “Fenway Faithful”). Red Sox fans also find community by taking part in the common practice of defining themselves in relation to the Other through their intense rivalry with the New York Yankees; for fans, the Red Sox are clearly “Us,” while the Yankees are “Them” (Magdalinski and Chandler 3). Boston’s baseball stadium and home of the Red Sox, Fenway Park, represents Chidester’s concept of sacred space, while the juxtaposition of ritualized time (nine innings in each game with a break in the middle of the seventh, for example) with moments of enthusiastic ecstasy, like after a crucial win during the playoffs, demonstrates his idea of sacred time. These examples based on the Boston Red Sox illustrate that it is possible to draw parallels between religion and the sport of baseball, but this descriptive definition of baseball as religion is not enough to deem the game a religion in and of itself. Similarities can be found between religion and many areas of popular culture, such as music or television series, so a deeper connection would be required to qualify baseball in particular as a religion.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim proposes a theory for looking at religion within a society that delves beyond the kind of surface comparisons discussed above, a theory he calls collective effervescence. He asserts that religion reinforces social ties and norms, therefore bringing people together in community, through this collective effervescence, or group energy, which is ultimately attributed to the sacred (Cary). In other words, individuals taking part in an activity, whether sponsored by an institutionalized religion or representing an area of popular culture, actually feel a distinctive energy as they come together in community, and they ascribe this feeling to the sacredness of the given activity in which they are participating. This theory of collective effervescence provides another link between religion and baseball specifically. Both the idea of God and the idea of belonging to a fandom like Red Sox Nation are social constructs which are considered religious because they bring and bind people together, aiding followers to understand their place within a larger social network (Xifra 194). Just as members of a particular congregation often feel increased religious fervour when worshipping among fellow believers, Red Sox fans are more likely to reach ecstatic highs when surrounded by other loyal fans; they are bonded through their dedication to the game, which is therefore raised up to a level of sacred importance.
This parallel between religion and baseball is more profound than the superficial similarities discussed previously because it actually affects the way people interact and understand themselves in relation to others. Analysing baseball through the social theory of collective effervescence highlights its status as an ideological practice that, like religion, helps socialize individuals into their community, in this case, Red Sox Nation (Magdalinski and Chandler 4). The shared experience of ecstatic moments among fans draws them together in their faith for their team, just like highly emotional religious experiences within a congregation enforce the beliefs of that community. For Red Sox fans, this shared faith has involved sticking by their team through an 86-year losing streak, through which they actually “bonded by this epic failure” (Saporito, Gregory and Wulf). All along, despite decades of disappointment, the Sox believed they would one day come out on top (Crepeau 113). This concept of redemptive suffering, which is also a major component of many religions, has linked generations of Red Sox fans who have never even met, and acceptance of it is part of the process of socialization into Red Sox Nation. Another aspect of this socialization, of the inculcation of faith in the Boston Red Sox, is participation in their intense rivalry with “that barnstorming assemblage of all-stars, that billionaire’s vanity toy, also known as the New York Yankees” (Cooper). In the true spirit of collective effervescence, when Red Sox fans come together for a game against New York, the anti-Yankees energy is almost tangible. Rooting against the Evil Empire brings Sox fans together almost as much as rooting for their own team. These social ties created within Red Sox Nation through fans’ worship-like treatment of baseball do demonstrate Durkheim’s concept of collective effervescence, but is this enough to consider baseball a religion? Questions remain; for example, who would be the god, or the source, of this religion?
Related to Durkheim’s collective effervescence theory is Chris Rojek’s notion of secular celebrity religion. Just as fans imbue entire areas of popular culture, such as baseball, with sacred meaning and significance, they also often raise individual athletes up to a religious status. According to Rojek, “[c]elebrities offer peculiarly powerful affirmations of belonging, recognition and meaning in the midst of the lives of their audiences” (172). Similarly, followers of different religions rely on a higher power to provide substance and meaning to their lives. In the case of baseball, these celebrities would be the athletes, the individual members of a team like the Red Sox, and Red Sox Nation certainly does put its players on pedestals. During the ultimately successful 2004 bid for the World Series, for example, pitcher Curt Schilling played on an injured ankle, the tendon sewn in place to prevent it from coming out of the sheath. During this game his sock became quite badly bloodied, an image that remains sharp in the minds of Red Sox Nation. Aside from the obvious religious metaphors involved in this image, those relating Schilling’s sacrificed ankle to Christ’s bloody sacrifice on the cross, it also links to religion in less readily apparent ways. Just like Christ and His life are held up as examples for believers to follow, Schilling’s brave performance is used by Red Sox fans to symbolize the mustering of courage and endurance to overcome a given adversary (MacDonald 18). In keeping with Rojek’s idea of secular celebrity religion, Schilling is lifted up to sacred significance as his fans revere his physical sacrifice, using his example to guide and empower their own lives.
However, the worshipful treatment of an athlete by fans does not necessarily make him or her a god. In reality, the media often plays a large role in transforming celebrities, such as baseball players, into larger-than-life figures for their fans to worship. In other words, there is not something intrinsically sacred about baseball or its players; rather, America’s media portrays the game and its athletes in a way that prompts fans to think of them as held up above the ordinary citizen. These depictions have a profound effect on the attitudes of fans towards their team, since it is basically inevitable for Americans to engage with some form of popular media culture on a day-to-day basis (Beaudoin 13). In today’s television-obsessed, internet-saturated world, culture is perpetuated and passed on primarily by print and electronic media (Albanese 5). At the same time, media helps create the very fandoms that ultimately worship their favourite teams through broadcasting games on television and radio, aiding fans in supporting their teams even when far from home (Juffer 9). Therefore, the way that the media chooses to discuss baseball, an integral component of American culture, helps mould fans’ outlooks regarding the game. In the case of the Red Sox, religious terminology and imagery abounds, casting the team and its players as sacred entities. Articles with titles like, “In Boston, Some See Hand of Higher Power” feature pictures of players like former Red Sox left fielder Manny Ramirez pointing to the sky in an apparent salute to God (MacDonald 18). Meanwhile, Time Magazine’s article “Holy Sox!” discusses the “messianic belief” and “redemption story” experienced by Sox fans during the 2004 season (Saporito, Gregory and Wulf). This use of such overtly religious imagery and language is a clear attempt by American media to raise the Red Sox up to a sacred level, a tactic that deeply influences fans of all ages. “Believe in Boston” was Red Sox Nation’s battle cry during the 2004 race to the World Series, and apparel proudly proclaiming the wearer a member of the “Fenway Faithful” is all over Fenway and the surrounding sports bars on game days. Sox fans see their team as a sacred source of and reason for faith, just like the media has portrayed it.
Between the abundant religious undertones in media coverage of the Red Sox and the fans’ highly emotional attachments to their team, baseball clearly has a religious side to it, but the question of whether it can actually be considered a religion in itself remains. In relation to texts, Samuel Sandmel, former president of the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, coined the term “parallelomania” to describe the tendency towards “‘extravagance among scholars which first overdoes the supposed similarity in passages and then proceeds to describe the source and derivation as if implying literary connection flowing in an inevitable or predetermined direction’” (qtd. in McCloud 10). This theory of parallelomania can be expanded to consider the relationship between popular culture fandoms and religion: though there are similarities between fandoms and congregations, they are often not thorough enough to render a given area of popular culture the same as a religion (McCloud 10). Despite the similarities in ritual between religion and baseball, the collective effervescence that manifests itself during gatherings of fans, and the way in which fans treat players with worshipful respect, these parallels are ultimately too broad and superficial to deem baseball a religion. While they can constitute part of a definition of religion, the descriptive and functional parallels between religion and baseball discussed in this paper are not enough to form a solid definition of baseball as an actual religion. For example, the descriptive approach of finding parallels in ritual can be used on almost any aspect of popular culture to make it seem like a religion; as for collective effervescence and fans’ relationships to athletes, not every activity that serves to build community and identity can be considered a religion (McCloud 10). In accordance with Sandmel’s theory of parallelomania, it can be said that while baseball can function in a similar manner to religion in American culture, it cannot be considered a religion in its own right.
As William Herzog II, vice president for academic affairs at Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts, states, “[b]aseball is just a game. [...] It doesn’t feed the hungry, or care for the sick, or settle disputes between warring nations. And yet [...] there is something ineffably stirring and nearly transcendent about sitting in Boston’s Fenway Park [...] [t]here are a lot of things about baseball that tug at the heartstrings” (Burke 18). Baseball, in its own right, is not a proper religion. Though it does bear resemblances to institutionalized religions, in the end it does not serve the same purpose. However, at the same time, there is an intensely emotive side to baseball by which faithful fans can partake in “nearly transcendent” experiences, a phenomenon which highlights the parallels between religion and baseball that do exist. Though baseball and religion are not deeply similar enough to be considered equals, an examination of the fandom of Red Sox Nation demonstrates baseball’s ability to function like a religion in American culture and, perhaps more importantly, in the hearts of its fans.
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Beaudoin, Tom. “Liturgy in Media Culture: Working Creatively with a Sign of the Times.” America 185:8 (2001): 13. Web. 26 Oct. 2010.
Burke, Daniel. “Rites of spring ring in ‘Church of Baseball.’” The Christian Century 127:10 (2010): 18. Web. 26 Oct. 2010.
Carey, Jolinda. “Durkheim: Religion and Society: The sacredness of Ozzfest and Durkheim’s social theory of religion.” suite101.com.Suite101, 2 Jul. 2006. Web. 26 Oct. 2010.
Chidester, David. “The Church of Baseball, the Fetish of Coca-Cola, & the Potlatch of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Theoretical Models for the Study of Religion in American Popular Culture.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion LXIV/4 (1996): 745-746. Web. 26 Oct. 2010.
Cooper, Rand Richards. “Nice Guys Finish Last: ‘Still, We Believe: The Boston Red Sox Movie.’” Commonweal. 18 June 2004. Web. 26 Oct. 2010.
Crepeau, Richard C. “Divine Wrath: The Goat and the Bambino.” NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 13:1 (2004): 113. Web. 26 Oct. 2010.
“Here’s Hoping.” The Christian Century 122:1 (2005): 5. Web. 26 Oct. 2010.
Juffer, Jane. “Why We Like to Lose: On Being a Cubs Fan in the Heterotopia of Wrigley Field.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 105:2 (2006): 9. Web. 26 Oct. 2010.
Macdonald, G. Jeffrey. “In Boston, some see hand of Higher Power.” The Christian Century 121:23 (2004): 18. Web. 26 Oct. 2010.
Magdalinski, Tara and Timothy J.L. Chandler. “With God on Their Side: An Introduction.” With God on Their Side: Sport in the Service of Religion. New York: Routledge, 2002. Web. 26 Oct. 2010.
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Tuesday, November 9, 2010
An exploration of the relationship between news and religion
In a democracy, Journalists have incredible power to control public agenda, opinion, and political priorities. Unfortunately, if the journalist reports in a bias way, this could lead to negative representations being given to the public. Often religion is the target of such bias. This essay will discuss the relationship between religion and news media, first from the perspective of the news including journalist, and how they report religion and secondly discuss how religions react to the news coverage and how religions themselves make their own media to counter the views put forward in mainline news in print and television. This essay will also voice the opinions of three Australians, for whom religion and media is an interest, occupation or an area requiring urgent attention.
Unfortunately, for our purposes, Australian media does not give the best examples of journalist bias against religion. The United States of America offer the best examples of the clash between journalism and religious organizations. The U.S. has perhaps the greatest tradition of religious involvements in society, and a journalistic tradition of reporting on such involvement. Because of this, it may be inevitable that there should be a clash. Journalistic critics constantly challenge the validity of stories about religion. They aim to ensure that stories on religion are presented in a morally objective manner, free of media and journalistic bias. Commentators and critics of the journalism industry are largely undecided as to whether journalists are religious or unreligious. According to Goldberg, surveys indicate that journalists are not religious people. He argues that this fact is almost certain to affect their coverage of religion. He states, “Journalists think they are the only species on the planet who can keep their biases in check because they’re professionals. Well, I don’t think that’s true.” Mattingly states that “We need journalists who can treat religion with empathy and also skepticism, quote people accurately, show respect for the lives of their sources, and stop mangling the technical, yet often poetic, language of religious life.” Many modern stories about or involving religion have to address the role of the “other”. The “other” in society is often an object of fear and ridicule because it is unknown, unexplored, and not understood. This could perhaps be another reason for the issues surrounding religion and news media/viewer. Often the “other” (in this case a religious “other”) is “foreign” both to the journalist and to the reader. The journalist has a difficult job in describing this “other” to an audience for whom it is not familiar. For a journalist to effectively write about the “other” they must first understand it, or at least endeavor to understand it, and then begin the difficult task to describing it to the reader. When done effectively, stories about the “other” can shape and change societies attitudes to it. However, when done poorly, with bias, this can lead to public fear, hatred and often alienation of the “other”. One such religious group that have had to deal with poor journalistic representation is the Australian Islamic community.
Given that more than half of all news media comes from the United States, it is obvious that it would have not only a Western viewpoint, but also an American one. Ramji, in his article Representations of Islam in American News and Film: Becoming the ‘Other’, claims that anti-Islamic sentiment in news media can be traced back to the Gulf War. News during this time avoided discussions and articles detailing the context of the War, for example, the events leading up to it, and frequently included coverage of malicious demonstrations of Arabs and Muslims. The media also often used double standards, particularly in relation to the UN sanctions. Despite the fact that many were appalled and outraged by the racist coverage, the reporting continued largely unquestioned. Another significant attack my the media on Islam took place in the Bosnian conflict. The Croats were associated with words such as “Catholic”, “Westernized”, “technologically advanced”, and “sophisticated”; were as the Serbs were categorized as “Eastern Orthodox”, “Byzantine”, and “primitive remnants of the Ottoman empire”, which automatically associated it with Iraq. Muslims, in this case, were completely outside the Western cultural domain, therefore ‘alien’ and ‘other’. Early reports coming from the scene of the Oklahoma bombing in April 1995 read that police suspected Islamic terrorists were responsible, despite the fact that there was no evidence to support this claim. Nonetheless, this false information resulted in many Arab-owned businesses being targeted, and investigations of several Middle-Eastern individuals. This instance is particularly horrifying considering the perpetrator behind the attack was a right-wing American Citizen. I spoke to an Australian Muslim, Aalam, who agreed to share with me his thoughts on the representations of Muslims in Australian news media. He believed that the media was often biased against Muslims. He said that the frequent media stories on Muslim extremists and suicide bombers added to public fear about his faith. He states “It isn’t that they always say that Muslims are bad, it is just the amount of negative publicity that adds to outrage”. I asked him if he believed that positive stories about Islam would change the public’s view on it, and he agreed, but he added “There would need to be a lot of them to outweigh the negative ones.” This false representation of the “other” has often lead to demonstrations of public outrage, for example, the Cronulla Riots. It has also been largely responsible for negative public stereotypes of Muslims and Islam. This has certainly come from the media, either from journalist bias, false reporting, or overexposure to negative stories.
In order to gain an Australian journalist’s perspective, I interviewed journalist Ellen-Maree Elliot on how she would approach writing a news story on religion, and how she felt religious bias was portrayed in the media. She insisted that portraying an accurate story without bias was paramount in the business of news journalism. Reports must be factual, adhere to the journalistic code of ethics, and give the views of every side of the story. When possible, it was also preferable to interview a religious leader involved. She stated, however, that it is incredibly difficult to completely avoid bias, even if your opinions are not specifically told. She stated that “a journalist’s bias can show through from the words they use, the people they choose to interview, and how far they will go to peruse an interview or information”. Elliot said that an extremely bad example of journalism was the inclusion of religion surrounding the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain. She stated that many journalist reporting on the story chose to include the information that Azaria’s mother, Lindy Chamberlain, was a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist church. This information had nothing to do with the disappearance, yet the implications of cultish behaviour, sacrificing of children, and cold and emotionless parental attitudes, led to a “trial by media” and subsequent guilty verdict.
Elliot insists that if religion has nothing to do with the story, then it should not be mentioned at all, lest it lead to a similar situation. This is widely considered to be one of the worst examples of ethical journalism in Australia. Elliot also claimed that the ABC and SBS tend to be better in their broadcasting of religious stories, where as channels Seven, Nine and Ten tended to be less informed. She believed this was because journalists working for commercial networks were under greater pressure to find and report stories that are both newsworthy and profitable. From this, we can learn that even if a journalist does not state their bias, it can become clear. Money often gets in the way of good journalist, because stories that have a positive religious angle, or ones that do not portray religion in an extremely negative light, do not sell newspapers or guarantee viewers. Sensational stories sell, and unfortunately in the business of journalism, it is as simple as that.
The question, however, still remains. What can be done to correct biases and falsities in journalist’s reporting? Porterfield suggests that the first step is an obvious one, that journalists should realize that they are only human, and they will have biases. If biases are realized, then they can be kept in check. Another recommendation could be combating ignorance, because it is usually through ignorance that biases develop. Another obvious solution could be greater religious education for journalists and editors alike, so that obvious and blatant biases can at least be eliminated from stories at the final stage, if not eliminated all together. There are some religious groups that have decided to avoid biased journalists by creating and publishing their own media. An excellent example is the Watchtower and Awake! magazines distributed my members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. These magazines are printed in 182 languages and distributed in approximately 400 countries. These magazines contain both religious doctrine and education, as well as topical news stories on (among other things), natural gas, the Commonwealth Games, and the Global Financial Crisis. I asked Peter, a distributer of Watchtower and Awake!, if he felt these magazines are an efficient form of media for both the distribution of Jehovah’s Witness doctrine and news stories. He agreed, adding that the wide distribution assists people to not only learn about Jehovah’s Witness faith and current topical issues, without the interference of money-conscious journalists. He stated, “People can hear the good news of God, as well as learning something new about the world of God”. In a post-9/11 world, Islam suffers greatly from biased and pessimistic media. To combat this, Daily Muslims, a news site for U.S. and Canadian Muslims has been established. Daily Muslims publishes hard news articles on a variety of topics, completely free of (often) unnecessary anti-muslim views and biases. It is a shame, however, that these forms of “religious media” are not widely viewed or read. Often, the only exposure to media that Australians have is the nightly news on commercial television and radio stations, and mainstream newspapers. Whilst a site like Daily Muslims does offer unbiased news for Muslims, it does not offer it to those who are already biased or produced, the general public.
The unfortunate nature of media bias is that we only know if we have they have acted wrongly in the aftermath of an incident. Though this new tradition of media made by religion is amiable, however they are often themselves biased and are not widely distributed for community. Those that have prejudices (often created by the media) do not read unbiased reporting. The unfortunate fact is that today sensational stories sell newspapers, and sensational stories are often incredibly bias, blatantly wrong, or not grounded in context that is so vital to stories about religion, specifically religious conflict. Perhaps if television stations and newspapers ran more positive headline stories about religious groups then it would slowly change public opinion, however, there would need to be quite a few to outweigh the current amount of negative publicity. Religious education for journalists, editors and producers would greatly assist the current situation, as it would ensure that biases and false information never makes it to air or print. The best that can be done with instances of extremely bad journalistic exploitation of religion, however, is to learn from them and hopefully ensure they never happen again.
Anonymous. (2009). Religious news coverage is suffering, says journalism professor. The Christian Century. 126 (12), 15.
Baker, R. T. (1955). Religion and Journalism. Religious Education. 50. 361-364.
Khiabany, G. (2010). Iranian Media: The Paradox of Modernity. New York: Routledge.
Mattingly, T.. (2009). Getting Religion in the Newsroom. In: Marshall, P., Gilbert, L. and Green-Ahmanson, R. Blind Spots: When Journalists get it wrong. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 151-155.
Mitchell, J. et al. (2003). Mediating Religion: Conversations in Media, Religion and Culture. London: T & T Clark.
Porterfield, K. H. . (2007). Religion. In: Sloan, D. and Burleson Makay, J. Media Bias: Finding it, Fixing it. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. . 50-64.
Schmalzbauer, J. (2005). Journalism and the Religious imagination. In: Badaracco, C. H. (Ed.). Quoting God: How media shapes ideas about religion and culture. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press. 21-36.
Shandler, J. (2009). Jews, God, and Videotape: Religion and Media in America. New York: New York University Press.
Stout, D. A. (Ed.) (2006). Encyclopedia of religion, communication, and media. New York: Routledge.
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. (2010). Watchtower & Awake! Magazine. Available: http://www.watchtower.org/. Last accessed 29th October 2010.
 Porterfield, K. H. 2007. Page, 51.
 Quoted by Porterfield, K. H. 2007. Page, 52.
 Quoted by Porterfield, K. H. 2007. Page, 52.
 Mattingly, T. 2009. Page, 151.
 Ramji, R. From Mitchell, J et al. 2003. Page, 65.
 Ramji, R. From Mitchell, J et al. 2003. Page, 67.
 Ibid. Page, 68.
 Name changed to protect privacy.
 I was asked not disclose this man’s full name, and thus have not.
Monday, November 8, 2010
A New Wave in Christianity: Exploring the Universal Religion Pentecostalism and Why it Appeals to Millions of People
This paper will examine how Pentecostalism has transitioned from its founding in 1906 to today using a variety of different techniques to appeal to new converts.
With over 500 million members, Pentecostalism in one of the largest Christian denominations in the world, with its flexibility and adaptability, Pentecostalism caters to almost every type of person, from any background, in any country, and all social classes. As a religion that is famous for its emphasis on a relationship with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, Pentecostalism is considered by outsiders to be crazy, but serves a community for its members. Pentecostalism is an appealing religion to millions of people as it enhances the lives of its members, while from the inside it fills the hearts and souls of the parishioners, it is not a perfect religion, but one that is considered to be fragmented within its own sect and uninterested in the teachings other religions by outsiders. With two camps clearly defined: Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals, it is important to understand both points of view: why Pentecostalism is so appealing to millions of people and the criticism surrounding Pentecostalism. It may not be a perfect religion, but Pentecostalism uses a variety of techniques to draw people in and create converts.
In Christian tradition, the Catholic Church was born from a miracle when the Holy Spirit ascended upon the 12 apostles and blessed them with the ability to speak in many languages, this event is known as the Pentecost, a day celebrated 50 days after Easter Sunday. As written the Bible:
When the Day of the Pentecost has fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as fire…And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance…Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them (Acts 2, 1-4 and 41).
The birth of Pentecostalism took place in the same way in 1906. As Philip Hughes writes in The Pentecostals in Australia, “…William Joseph Seymour [a black preacher in Los Angeles], had become convinced that is people prayed with sufficient fervour and intensity, God would respond with a new ‘Pentecost’ in preparation for the end of the world” (Hughes 2). According to history on April 9, 1906 Seymour watched one of his followers become overwhelmed with the Holy Spirit and begin speaking in tongues and so the revivalist movement of Pentecostalism began (Anastas 32). After witnessing this miracle, Seymour founded the Asuza Street Mission, which mixed races, but this phenomenon did not last long, but Pentecostalism continued to thrive and grow (Anastas 34).
Today, Pentecostal churches are the fastest growing group of churches in Christianity, with over a quarter of all Christians considering themselves Pentecostals (Gooren 1). As Mark Jennings wrote in his article “Won’t you break free”, “Pentecostals have clearly demonstrated an ability to adapt to the times, and perhaps part of the appeal of the movement in post-modernity is the generally conservative, morally prescriptive stance couples with a definite experiential element that is now devoid of some of the more “loony” elements of the past” (Jennings 166). This adaptability Jennings discusses is on element that makes Pentecostalism appealing. In Jennings article, he discusses his experience at Breakfree Church, a Pentecostal congregation in Perth. During his time at Breakfree, Jennings noticed the importance music played in all of the services. While Pentecostalism is traditionally recognized as the religion where people speak in tongues, according to Jennings, “At Breakfree, however, speaking in tongues was generally confined to the prayer meeting, where a committed core of participants gathered in the hall before the service” (Jennings 166). This transformation from speaking in tongues publically, to a small group privately praying and speaking in tongues is one way the Pentecostal Church has changed. By making the services more welcoming and less chaotic for visitors and new members of the Church, Pentecostalism has become more approachable and appealing to people. Breakfree’s use of music is another element that draws people in, not only is music used as a technique to begin a spiritual experience with God, but music makes the service more lively and memorable to new converts.
Glossolalia is an important practice in the Pentecostal Church, but today more emphasis is placed on the experience one has with the divine, rather than the practice of speaking in tongues. As Jennings states, “Pentecostalism [is] a religion on manifestation” (Jennings 171), speaking in tongues is not the only way Pentecostals display their experience with the divine. During his time at Breakfree, Jennings saw that music was one tacit used to allow the congregation to commune with God. Jennings writes, “What sets Breakfree Church- and Pentecostals churches like it- apart here is the deliberate manner in which music is used to try and draw people away from the outside world to a space where God is to be experienced” (Jennings 163-164). Timothy Wadkins also described his experience at a Pentecostal Church in El Salvador, saying, “…the gifts of the spirit are emphasized, and Sunday celebrations are animated with raised hands and open weeping….Healings are regular occurrences” (Wadkins 27). Both of these descriptions of events that take place during Pentecostal services are examples of how Pentecostalism is a religion of display, where showing everyone that you have a relationship with God and the Holy Spirit is important. By displaying one’s relationship with the divine, Pentecostalism sends the message that anyone can have a divine experience, it is not something that needs to be taught as in other religions.
The manifestations of belief that take place during worship for Pentecostals are directly connected to the core doctrines of the Church, which Joel Robbin presents in “The Globalization of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity”, Robbins writes, “ Jesus offers salvation; Jesus heals; Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit; Jesus is coming again” (Robbin 121). These core doctrines make Pentecostalism portable, they are easy to teach to converts and by speaking in tongues, performing healings, using music as a way to connect with God, and through television Pentecostals are able to make their relationship with the divine frequent, memorable, and fun.
Media also plays a large role in converting people to Pentecostalism and helping Pentecostals make worship a daily ritual. Lynn Clark examines the media’s influence over religion in her book From Angels to Aliens, according to Clark:
….mass media have been associated with religious change in at least two important ways. First, the invention of the printing press established an alternative center of power that challenged the church’s authority to define the issues that we expressed to the public…. Second, the media, and the entertainments media in particular, have played a role in religious change, in a fundamental way, (Clark 224-225).
Today, television is one of the key ways religions such as Pentecostalism are able to reach so many people daily and how members are able to maintain such a strong faith. It is easy to turn on the television for 20 minutes a day and watch a sermon from your living room, people are able to experience the Holy Spirit from the comfort of their own homes on a daily basis. Bobby Alexander found in his book Televangelism: Redressive Ritual viewers of shows such as “Hillsong” and the “707 Club” have ritualized their preparation and participation, Alexander writes, “82% [of survey participants] indicated that they participate in the worship format of the program; 82% pray along with the telecast; and 37% read the Bible along with the program. (Alexander 199). These three statistics elucidate how television promotes worship. These viewers are not just watching “Hillsong” on a Sunday morning while eating their pancakes, they are wholeheartedly participating; using television as a way to reach viewers that may not be able to attend church or to reach members daily, Pentecostalism appeals to so many because one does not need to leave one’s home to have an experience with the Holy Spirit.
The Pentecostal Church does more than convert people, it also creates a community for millions of people. While in El Salvador, Wadkins interviewed numerous converts to Pentecostalism and what he found was that many of them all had similar stories. Wadkins writes, “Prior to ‘getting saved’ they [converts] suffered from the effects of depression, gang violence, drugs, marital strife…Their lives began to change only when they took responsibility for their predicaments, acknowledged the saving work of Christ on the cross, and received the healing power of the Holy Spirit” (Wadkins 28). By joining the Church many of the converters Wadkins spoke to were saved not only spiritually, but physically as well. Henri Gooren, also found that lives of many Pentecostal converters were changed once they joined the Church. In his review of “An Introduction to Pentecostalism”, Gooren agrees with Allan Anderson’s optimism about the Pentecostal Church saying, “these new communities sometimes filled the gaps created by socio-economic and religious disintegration and offered full participation and supportive structures for marginalized and displaced people” (Gooren). By creating a system that allows disadvantaged groups to move up in the world and that helps those in need, Pentecostalism appeals to not only to advantaged middle-class citizens, but poorer third world countries as well.
While Pentecostalism appeals to million of people globally, within the religious community there are several issues surrounding Pentecostalism and their beliefs and relationships with other religions. In his book, Gathering the Faithful Remnant, author Philip Powell criticizes Pentecostalism and the history they so proudly promote. Philip writes, “Pentecostals…frequently revise history and claim or imply that many of the great heroes of the “church” support their position [to begin the church’s history with scripture]. All too frequently they do this on the basis of very flimsy evidence and in some cases no evidence at all” (Powell 367). Philip argues that Pentecostals change their history in order to better fit the word of God and that written in the Bible. Philip believes that by changing the religion’s history with little or no evidence, followers will begin to doubt and lose faith (Philip 367). Changing the history of Pentecostalism to better-fit scripture is a valid concern. Pentecostalism promotes spirituality and the word of Jesus Christ, but altering the history would be considered lying. As a Christian denomination with so many members, it is important for the Church to be completely honest and Philip is correct in saying that as this phenomenon continues those converted will begin to question the legitimacy of the Church and its doctrines.
Upon its founding the Pentecostal Church was considered by many to be a phenomenon that would pass and a church of fanatics. The Catholic Church did not understand the history of Pentecostalism or consider Pentecostalism a valid religion for a time, but in 1960’s as the ecumenical movement began in the 1960’s and the Catholic Church opened their doors to the idea of promoting Christian unity, Pentecostals became suspicious and pulled away from the movement. Peter Hocken writes in “Christian Unity?” about the misunderstanding and suspicions the Pentecostals felt in regards to participating in the ecumenical movement alongside the Catholic Church saying, “The Evangelical and Pentecostal suspicion that the ecumenical movement lacked a spiritual foundation and was just a human effort to merge denominations finds no support in the origins” (Hocken 163). This fear that rather than promoting Christian unity the ecumenical movement became a ploy to merge dominations is still present today, and many Pentecostals are uninterested in the teachings and similarities they share with other Christian dominations. While different Christian dominations teach different doctrines, it is important to have a united front and respect for the teachings of other religions. The Pentecostal fear of losing its identity is legitimate, but Christian unity is also important. In order for Pentecostalism to grow it must put aside its fear of other institutions and its suspicions of other structures and teachings (Hocken 167).
Pentecostalism has transformed from a religion founded in Los Angeles that fell apart because of race to a universal religion with over 500 million members. Today, Pentecostalism is no longer considered a religion of fanatics or “holy rollers”, but as a Christian domination that promotes a strong relationship with the divine and an unquestionable belief that the scripture is completely true (Hocken 162). Through its multimedia approaches televised services-to music as a core element in worship Pentecostalism is continuously attracting new converts. Speaking in tongues is no longer the only image associated with Pentecostalism, today millions of converts from around the world would agree that Pentecostalism transformed their lives for the better and provided a community where they could worship and receive personal aid. While there are downsides to Pentecostalism: changing the religion’s history to better fit the Bible and fearing and being suspicious of the ecumenical movement and working alongside the Catholic Church to promote Christian unity, Pentecostalism is a religion that appeals to millions of people because it provides a community inside and outside of worship. Pentecostalism is a flexible and adaptable and as other religions struggle to find their place in the modern world, Pentecostalism will continue to transform to meet the needs and desires of its members, making it one an appealing religion that will only continue to grow.
Alexander, Bobby C. Televangelism: Redressive Ritual Within a Larger Social Drama. Atlanta: Scholar , 1994. Print.
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Clark, Lynn Schofield. From Angels to Aliens: Teenages, the Media, and the Supernatural. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.
Gooren, Henri. “An Introduction of Pentecostalism: Global Charismatic Christianity By Allan Anderson.” Rev. of An Introduction to Pentecostalism: Global Charismatic Christianity, by Allan Anderson. Ars Disputandi 4 (Oct. 2004): n. pag. Print.
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Powell, Philip L., and Aeron Morgan. Gathering the Faithful Remnant. Healesville: Christian Witness Ministries, 2002. Print.
Robbins, Joel. “The Globalization of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity.” Annual Review of Anthropology 33 (2004): 117-143 . Print.
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Examine how Islam is portrayed in the media, especially in the aftermath of the 2001 September 11th attacks. What are some of the effects of this portrayal on the Islamic communities globally and locally?
This essay examines how Islam is portrayed in the media, and how this representation of Islam has affected Muslim communities in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and my hometown, Singapore. To set the parameters of my essay, media is defined as broadcast and print news media. In studying the portrayal of Islam in the media, I am using two theoretical frameworks by Bourdieu and Baudrillard, reflected in their essays ‘On Television’ and ‘The Precession of Simulacra’ respectively.
Media coverage on 9/11
The terrorist attacks on the iconic Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, or commonly known as 9/11, marked a watershed in US, and probably, world history. The attacks were planned, executed, and staged perfectly that no one, not even the media, would have missed the succession of events that brought down a powerful country which prides itself in its defence and warfare. The perpetrators of the attacks, the Al-Qaeda, justified their violent act as part of their crusade against the infidels––the Americans. Their religious affiliation to Islam then became the spotlight of the news coverage both on TV and in print. In this essay, I will examine three areas of Islam that have been on the news, and how they have been presented so far. These areas cover topics such as Jihad, the Koranic verses, and Syaria penal laws.
The media and its medium: ‘manufacturing our consent’
According to Marsden and Savigny (2009:1), ‘The media provide the basis from which we can gain knowledge and understanding of our contemporary environment, yet they are not passive conduits for communication’. The phrase, ‘passive conduits for communication’, gives us the impression that the media are not just presenting us with the news per se, but in a way, influences what we think through the narrative frames of the news. Journalists do define the parameters of what we think through the framing of the news, and what constitutes the ‘news’. Within the framework of narrative frames, the political influence on news production also plays a key role in determining the type of news for public consumption.
This political influence is evident when, in addressing the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration clearly demarcated the distinctive line between the notion of ‘us’ and ‘others’, so that Americans, both Muslims and non-Muslims, would feel united as one, and rally for one another. In reality, hate crimes were happening in the US; tackling this problem meant that President Bush had to step in and construct a framework that separates the Muslims in the US (‘with us’) from the Muslims outside of the US (‘against us’) (Ibrahim, 2010:118). The other Muslims, who were not in the confines of American soil, were treated as the ‘others’––a brand of Islam which advocates Jihad. The discourse of ‘otherness’ primarily focuses on the religion of Islam, which is inherently violent, and directs hatred at America. The media presents this ‘violent’ nature of Islam through the narrative frames, when terrorism is equated with Islam, and creates a conflation of the terms such as ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islam’.
The conflation of the terms, ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islam’, presents itself as an area which is highly contentious: is it a coincidence or is it consciously ‘manufactured’ by the media to influence how we (readers or audience alike) think? To respond to this, I would like to quote Bourdieu who states that even before the news reaches us on TV or in print, it has already been subjected to ‘censorship’ and various levels of decision making, in which the journalists ‘retain only the things capable of interesting them and “keeping their attention”, which means things that fit their categories and mental grid; and they reject as insignificant or remain indifferent to symbolic expressions that ought to reach the population as a whole’ (1998:330). The content that makes up the news has to be ‘interesting’ and ‘attention-grabbing’; thus, scenes that denote violence in strikes and rioting are preferred to a peaceful demonstration. The interviewees are also selected carefully, and usually these are people who are loud, young, and angry (Ibrahim, 2010:120).
The process of news selection is also crucial. In Bourdieu’s description, we see how news is filtered in many layers (within the journalist’s decision making matrix and through the management) and at the end of it, the essence of it, or even the truth, might be dissipated. News that ‘ought to reach the population as a whole’ gets swept aside, and what gets aired on TV is clearly news that focuses only on ‘contentiousness, scandal, or the offbeat’ (Underwood, 2002:130). What gets presented in the media then is through the journalist’s (and the management’s) lens: an overgeneralised and oversimplified connectivity theory that links terrorism with Islam, just because the perpetrators happen to be Muslims and are proud to be citing Islamic verses when interviewed on TV. At the end of it, the credibility of the news is questionable. However, are readers or the audience able to discern this, or have they been conditioned to this type of news?
To respond to the question of whether the audience is capable of discerning the credibility of the news or whether they have been conditioned to consuming the news as it is, McChesney (2003:310) claims that ‘professional journalism is on the decline, and over the years, the audience is used to the sub-standard reporting’. He also cites Westin (2000:5) who deduces that ‘the audience has become accustomed to shoddy reporting to the point that the average viewer does not necessarily expect quality journalism…the mass audience cannot perceive the difference between a well produced story and a below-average one’. The conditioning is there, and the quality of journalism has definitely met the expectations, but the bar set is not high. The audience is used to the below-average news that they are not able to discern the difference between good and not so good quality news.
In my opinion, the concern lies not just with the quality of the news, but the way in which journalists frame their news to ‘manufacture [our] consent’ (Herman and Chomsky, 1988). Are we ‘tricked’ into forming our own opinion with the media’s manipulative news framing? To a large extent, we are, especially now when media conglomerates are controlled by a select few. The same news footage gets reproduced several times, up to a point that it leaves an indelible mark on the audience (and to a certain extent cloying too). I would like to term this mass reproduction of news as ‘canned news’: they have been ‘manufactured’ by the media conglomerates, and ‘delivered’ straight to news stations worldwide.
Further, Bourdieu (1998:330) also adds that ‘these journalists can impose on the whole society their vision of the world, their conception of problems, and their point of view’. This imposition is not done in an explicit way, but done in a manner that is only discernible if one is aware of the inner workings of journalism. What is presented is one journalist’s point of view, and the audience believes that it is the real representation of events. However, an event itself has many perspectives and points of view––what is real, and what is the truth can never be presented in one ‘plenary’ platform. This phenomenon is reflected in Baudrillard (1994:468) when he writes:
Whence the characteristic hysteria of our times: that of the production and reproduction of the real…What every society looks for in continuing to produce, and to overproduce, is to restore the real that escapes it. That is why today, this “material” production is that of the hyperreal itself…Thus everywhere the hyperrealism of simulation is translated by the hallucinary resemblance of the real to itself.
From the above quote, we see how the production and reproduction of the real are happening in our society today. But it is not only the society that makes this phenomenon ‘materialise’: the media also play an important part in creating this hyperreality. The simulacrum is as close as the real thing, but the real cannot be presented in any form. Paradoxically speaking, the simulacrum is the real itself.
Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality is also echoed in Horkheimer & Adorno’s (2002:58) ‘The Culture of Identity’ when they posit that ‘language which appeals to mere truth only arouses impatience to get down to the real business behind it. Words which are not means seem meaningless, and the others seem to be fiction, untruth.’ This paradox reflects the sad state of how truth is downplayed or altogether dismissed in the media. The continuity of this paradox represents itself in the form of a Mobius strip––there is no beginning or end. The culture industry continuously duplicates ‘appearances’, and as a result, the truth is obliterated.
Misinterpretation of Jihad
After 9/11, when the world knew about the perpetrators’ religion, more attention was given to Islam, especially how the terrorists made use of the term, ‘Jihad’, to justify their actions. Journalists who presumably had no background knowledge of Islam nor were fluent in Arabic language, presented Jihad as Holy War. This is a common problem with any language when it is translated; there is usually no corresponding accurate meaning when some words are translated into English. More often than not, a transliteration occurs, not a translation. And this is what usually happens when journalists look up Arabic words in Arabic-English dictionaries. According to Ibrahim (2010:118), ‘one of the ongoing problems with western coverage of Islam is that Jihad is always translated as a holy war.’ This was also demonstrated when ABC’s Bob Woodruff did a news coverage in Islamabad, where, according to him, ‘is where the recruits…study the Koran and they learn about Jihad, or Holy War’ (cited by Ibrahim, 2010:119).
This concept of Jihad can be misconstrued not only by non-Muslims, but also by Muslims alike, especially if they lack background knowledge in Arabic. Therein lies the problem where Jihad can be manipulated to suit one’s personal agenda. This is clearly illustrated by Osama Bin Laden who claimed that his Jihad was ‘against the United States and killing of Americans is the core of his faith’ (cited by Ibrahim, 2010:119). The phrase, ‘the core of his faith’, would be a gross misrepresentation of Islam, in which the core values are definitely not ‘killing of Americans’. Genocide is never advocated in the Koran, let alone killing of Americans.
When the press presents a radical view (especially by Bin Laden) that is not balanced by other perspectives, especially from an Islamic scholar’s point of view, the audience or readers see only one perspective, albeit a bigoted and incorrect one, of a religion. An audience that is not aware of the limitations of news coverage will believe what the news anchors report, and readers who are not aware of editorial biases will consume the written words as the truth. This phenomenon is attested to by Baurillard (1994:473), who writes that ‘one remains dependent on the analytical conception of the media, on an external active and effective agent, on “perspectival” information with the horizon of the real and of meaning as the vanishing point’. The idea of dependence is crucial here, as we as receivers of information, rely on the media’s objectivity and efficacy in producing “perspectival” information or a balanced viewpoint.
The lack of contextualisation
Although the media purportedly report news at an objective level, media analysts question whether this objectivity can be achieved in light of human biases, and the limited perspectives offered not just through the journalists’ viewpoints, but the panoptic nature of television. When the topic of religion is covered in the news, there are many factors that can affect the understanding of the readers or audience. Within the short time constraint given to journalists to cover a topic on religion, it is virtually impossible to find multiple perspectives that will result in a balanced report. The lack of contextualisation also exacerbates the problem––according to McChesney (2003:304), ‘A second flaw of journalism is that it tends to avoid contextualisation like the plague…Coverage tends to be a barrage of facts and official statements. What little contextualisation professional journalism does provide tends to conform to official source consensus premises’.
The lack of contextualisation is palpable when Koranic verses on war are taken in isolation, and incorrectly reflect the real ‘terror’ of Islam. When the 9/11 terrorists used Koranic verses to justify their violent actions, or their crusades, the reporters aired their views without consolidating this with other viewpoints, especially from the perspectives of Islamic scholars. This gives an incorrect view of what Islam is, and Ibrahim (2000:119), cites Edward Said’s observation:
Much of what one reads and sees in the media about Islam represents the aggression as coming from Islam because that is what ‘Islam’ is. Covering Islam is a one-sided activity that obscures what ‘we’ do, and highlights instead what Muslims and Arabs by their very flawed nature are. (Said, 1997: xxii)
Most of the time, the news coverage is on Arabs, whom the audience usually associate with Islam; the problem is, Arabs are not a homogenous group of Muslims––there are also Arabs who are Christians. Arabs and Muslims have become synonymous that there is no distinction between race or ethnicity with religion. This is just one example of a conflation of terms.
Another example of a conflation of terms is ‘Islam’ and ‘terrorism’. The 9/11 attacks became a preamble to many more terrorist attacks that occurred in Bali, London, and Bali. The perpetrators who executed these attacks more often than not claimed affiliation to Al-Qaeda, and inevitably, the conflation of the terms Muslim/Islam and terrorist has resulted. The terrorist has a face now, and profiling (by government watchdogs all over the world) has just been made easier. When the news covers terrorist attacks, and show young, angry, masked Muslim men with their rifles chanting, “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” (God is Great! God is Great!), the audience makes the connection of terrorism with Islam. Further, every time Osama Bin Laden is mentioned, he is seen with a firearm, and rallying the Mujahideens. The constant play of these images definitely makes an impact on the audience, and ‘manufactures’ the association of terrorism with Islam.
Impact on Muslims worldwide
The 9/11 attacks not only created chaos and cacophony worldwide, they also spurred a spirit of Islamic revivalism and more inter–faith dialogues in some countries such as Tony Blair’s Faith-to-face foundation, and the Inter-Religious Organisation in Singapore. Hopkins (2008:44) cites Bloul, 2003, when she observes that even though ‘Islamophobia in the media has grown over the recent years, the rate of Islamic ethnicisation has also increased’. Islamic ethnicisation entails Islamic ‘oneness’, and probably has elements of Islamic revivalism when Australian Muslims, despite their race, nationality, or political affiliation, become united (Hopkins, 2008:44). They identify with the challenges that Muslims around the world face, and empathise with the difficult journey that some Muslims embark on, especially in light of the 9/11 attacks.
In Singapore, Islamic revivalism is evident when issues such as allowing Muslim girls to wear the hijab or head scarf in government schools are brought forth and contested. Being a pluralistic society, the Singapore government is aware of racial and religious tensions, and attempts to appeal to Singaporean Muslims to be ‘moderate Muslims’ and place their national loyalty above everything else, especially race and religion. Tan (2007:26) notes that ‘one consequence of Islamic revivalism is that Muslims may find it increasingly difficult to put national interests above the personal desire to take one’s faith seriously––even if it means expressing one’s religious views in the public arena’. While it is clear that there is a clear demarcation between one’s duty to the country and obligation to his/ her faith, Islamic revivalism tends to blur this line. Currently, Singaporean Muslims practise their religious beliefs in the private sphere; however, when religious issues are brought up in public spheres, the government has to tread on this ground carefully lest racial or religious riots are created. History has taught Singapore that this could happen, especially in the case of Maria Hertogh. The lessons from history have ensured that the government will try its every means to prevent such events from happening again.
At the same time, the rise in Islamic revivalism also brought about the world’s attention to Islamic Syaria laws, especially the penal laws, which transgress the international law of human rights. In Australia, particularly, ‘there appears to have arisen a disturbing sense that Muslims are un–Australian and that Islam poses a threat to the Australian way of life’ (Akbarzadeh & Smith, 2005:2), as cited in Hopkins (2008:44). The question of whether Syaria laws sit well with the concept of democracy has been explored in the current affairs programme, ‘Insight’, which was aired on SBS One on Tuesday, 2nd November, 2010. The title of the segment was ‘Fear of Islam’, and the question of whether anti–Islamic sentiment was on the rise was explored. The question seemed rhetorical to me, and the title was, for want of a better word, distasteful. What it invited was a whole barrage of criticisms from the audience, who were ill-informed about Syaria penal laws, and an ‘expert’ who was formerly a Muslim. SBS’s attempt to address the problem of anti–Islamic sentiments that are on the rise in Australia is applaudable, but rather than attaining enlightenment, it opened a can of worms, where more problems were created.
Islamophobia in Australia is a phenomenon beleaguering Australian Muslims since the turn of the century; according to Dunn, Klocker, & Salabay (2007:564), ‘contemporary anti-Muslim sentiment in Australia is reproduced through a racialization that includes well rehearsed stereotypes of Islam, perceptions of threat and inferiority, as well as fantasies that the Other (in this case Australian Muslims) do not belong, or are absent’.
Dunn et al. cites Kobayashi and Peake (2000:393) who define racialization as “the process by which groups ‘are identified, given stereotypical characteristics, and coerced into specific living conditions’ which often involve ‘social/spatial segregation’ or otherwise ‘racialized places’. [Additionally], this process is not necessarily based on racial differentiation (genetics, skin colour, etc), but through asserted cultural features, such as religious performances”.
Thus, racialization, through the description given above, does not mean categorising groups according to their race, but according to religious beliefs and practices. The ‘well rehearsed stereotypes of Islam’ are probably a result of the media (mis)representations of Islam or an overgeneralisation of what Muslims are like, while the concept of the ‘other’ shows the marginalisation of Australian Muslims, who are at the periphery of mainstream society. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent terrorism acts have exacerbated the situation for Australian Muslims because Dunn et al. cites Dreher (2005:11–14, 20–21) that ‘hijab-wearing Islamic women have reported higher rates of racist incivilities and attacks than have Islamic men or those women not wearing forms of cover’.
The hijab is the most distinctive Islamic dressing that signals others that the hijab-wearer is a Muslim. It is also this distinctive form of dressing that subjects the women to ‘racist incivilities and attacks’ because it is the symbol for a Muslimah (a Muslim woman). Hopkins (2008:44) cites Göle (1996:1), stating that ‘No other symbol than the veil reconstructs with such force the “otherness” of Islam to the West’. The hijab is not the only topic that is in the news; the niqab or the burqa has also gained a lot of attention in the news. In France, the niqab or the burqa has been banned for security reasons; as mentioned earlier, the face of terrorism has been placed on the Muslims, both men and women. The conflation of the terms, ‘Islam’ and ‘terrorism’ has now extended to Muslim women as well.
Racialization also occurs in United Kingdom. Dunn et al. (2007:567) cites Hopkins (2004:269), whose interviews with young Muslim Scots reveal the following:
Young Muslims who visibly display markers of ‘Muslimness’, whether this be through dress, through having a beard or simply through skin colour, are more likely to be marginalized through everyday racism and lack of access to employment than Muslims who do not visibly display their ‘Muslimness’.
This notion of ‘Muslimness’ does not only occur in United Kingdom, but in Singapore too. According to Ramakrishna (2009:8), ‘contentious issues among this [Muslim] community include the perceived lack of representation of proportionate numbers of Muslims in sensitive appointments in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)… the recent ban on wearing headscarves or tudung by Muslim schoolgirls attending national schools, and the penchant of a number of employers to require Mandarin proficiency as a job requirement, a prerequisite many Muslims consider a form of economic discrimination’. Thus, the problems faced by Muslims in UK and Singapore are in the same vein: marginalisation and job discrimination.
Islamophobia in the UK, however, is on the rise, especially with the establishment of the English Defence League (EDL), which is against the spread of Islam and Islamic extremism, and Syaria laws in England. The EDL carried out mass demonstrations and have, on several occasions, turned violent. The EDL members proclaim their downright hatred towards Muslims, and the membership is growing every day.
Although there have been no physical attacks on Muslims in Singapore, or any establishments such as the EDL in Singapore, it’s a totally different story in cyberspace. There have been incidents when some Singaporeans were charged in court for sedition against the Muslims in Singapore. The Singapore government takes a strong stand against such acts that could disturb peace and stability in Singapore.
Religion is definitely a terrain where the media has to tread carefully. There are many compelling forces that can create religious tension in the world, and the media are one of the big players in the industry that can make or break the tension. While the picture painted of Muslims around the world is bleak, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, there are efforts to dispel the misconceptions that non-Muslims have about Islam, such as Tony Blair’s face-to-faith foundation, and the Inter-Religious Organisation in Singapore. At the same time, Muslims also need to stand united, and speak out against the libellous statements against Islam, the injustices that are inflicted upon them, but at the same time, tackle these issues in a level-headed manner.
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