Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Understanding Media and Religion

Review Article by Kellee Uhr

Hjarvard, media and religion
Stig Hjarvard’s article ‘The Mediatization of Religion’ (2008) explores religious change through media consumption and the ways social groups establish religious view and apply it into the everyday. Through the process of mediatization, western societies that have deregulated media industries subsume religious issues and representations into mass media. This process leads to ‘banal religion’, where the disempowering of recognised religious institutions leads to a dominance of a hybridised belief system that blends folk religions, tradition religious symbols and pop culture characterisation. Hjarvard uses the process of banal religion as way to translate the implications of media consumption leading to religious and spiritual guidance and a sense of community.

The increased presence of generalised religious themes in the media through social activities such as ritual, worship, mourning and celebration (2008, p. 10) are examples of the de-secularisation of media and a renegotiation of sacred activities that broaden the scope of meaning and interaction. The growth of supernatural themes in popular culture is assisting this change. The representations of the supernatural world have developed into a rich exploration of characters and narratives, making the supernatural appear natural (2008, p. 9). The seriality of weekly televised drama, computer games and film assist in making religious themes through the supernatural a familiar phenomenon. Media and pop culture have developed into its own institution in contemporary society and as a consequence, other institutions such as religion become dependent on these communication and representation tools and have to rely on them to communicate with the broader community. The media becomes the formal authority to provide information and moral orientation while still entertaining the community and exploring narrative about society itself (2008, p. 13).

Hjarvard’s uses three theoretical frameworks to explore media as an agent for religious change, media as conduit, media as language and media as environment. By reconceptualising Michael Billing’s ‘banal nationalism’, Hjarvard creates ‘banal religion’ as a way to explain the mediatised expression of belief through popular culture and entertainment. It is through this process that the repercussions of the media become relevant, where individual religious and spiritual concerns become consumer entertainment and original meaning becomes blurred. The entertainment agenda is of higher priority than spiritual expression. When considering the representation of institutionalised religion through the media, it is important to consider Hjarvard’s argument.

Hoover and understanding transition
Hoover’s chapter explores the dominance of media as a centralized and dominant social and cultural force and how this position has changed recently from a ‘mass’ phenomenon to a more fractured, specialist audience base. This has allowed media to diversify and commodify its marketplace to explore a variety of themes and narratives. The nature of religion is also undergoing a transition period, moving from unified systems to a more individualised, wholly spiritual condition. Hoover explores the media’s symbolic inventory and integration into large social and cultural themes and values (2006, p. 56).

Hoover explores four media contexts where religion is present: news and journalism, religious broadcasting and televangelism, religious publishing and entertainment media. By outlining these four areas, Hoover emphasises where religion exists in its own right in media. It is the convergence of media and religion that is the key argument in Hoover’s chapter. Contemporary religion doesn’t exist in media culture and social practice in a totalising term, the media is a more diverse, atomised and targeted medium of communication. This ‘new religious scholarship’ requires a fundamental shift in how we engage with entertainment media and religion itself (2006, p. 71). Hoover argues that the line between secular media and religious media is increasingly more blurred and it is the development of a new ‘religious/symbolic marketplace’ in the media that has gone relatively unnoticed by religious authorities and institutions (2006, pp 74-76).

Hoover argues that a ‘seeking’ sensibility of the audience is attuned to culture and therefore, media but also to one’s own individual life trajectory and history. By outlining key ‘personalities’ of contemporary religion (born-again Christians, mainstream believers, metaphysical believers and seekers, dogmatists and secularists) to outline an evolving religious culture Hoover emphasises the transitory nature of religion not only to media communication and consumption but also to community and society as a whole. The relationship between religion and spiritual belief, media communication and personal worldview is a constantly evolving concept with each element influencing the other.

Arnaudin and Mormon Vampires
Arnaudin critically analyses the popular culture phenomenon, The Twilight Saga and its links to Mormonism and Mormon literature. Author Stephanie Meyer is a devout Mormon, born and raised. Arnaudin argues that due to Meyer’s faith, and its inherent presence in her daily life, The Twilight Saga books and subsequent films all explore key elements of the religion while not being simply religious scripture or advertising. By never explicitly mentioning the faith, Meyer creates a world that is spiritual but not specifically institutionalised.

Arnaudlin takes keys aspects of the characters and makes comparisons to scripture and narratives from Mormon literature. Discussions between the vampires, the Cullen family, are filled with notions of redemption, souls and the meaning of life. Arnaudlin argues that regardless of characterisation, the central themes of the series are the existence of souls and the value of good deeds, agency, sex and marriage, family structure and conversion. Arnaudlin also argues that references to Meyers’ faith in The Twilight Saga are so subtle that it has allowed for the series to reach a broader audience that are unaware of her faith and simply view the phenomenon as entertainment with supernatural themes.

The use of supernatural characters overshadows the obvious themes of Mormonism in The Twilight Saga. To the audience, the supernatural and its relation to the natural are key point of interest. By placing questions of life and spirituality into the storylines, Meyer only fuels the mediatization of religion and acts as an inherent feature of Meyers writing style and faith.


Contemporary religion and spirituality is incorporated in everyday media, from popular culture, news coverage and entertainment. Through a rise in supernatural themes, media explore new concepts of religion and often use this as a way to disguise traditional religious institutional messages. Hoover and Hjarvard argue that media and popular culture can never be devoid of the spiritual as these mediums themselves brand religion and spirituality. Consumerism and consumption of media and culture are so linked to contemporary life that books and films such as Twilight are popular. The Twilight phenomenon is an example of the supernatural being used as a natural framework to explore and express religion and spirituality.  

Arnaudin, E.B. “Mormon Vampires: The Twilight Saga and Religious Literacy” Master’s paper. University of North Carolina, 2008.
Hjarvard, S. “The Mediatization of Religion: A Theory of the Media as Agents of Religious Change.” Northern Lights. 6.1 (2008): 9-16.
Hoover, S.M. “Media and Religion in Transition.” in Religion in the Media Age, London: Routledge, 2006.

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