Media and Religion

views updated


MEDIA AND RELIGION . The media have come to play an ever more prominent role in social and cultural life since the emergence of the so-called "mass media" in the late nineteenth century. Before that time, even though the media through which social and cultural knowledge were shared (oral transmission, ritual performance, writing, visual representation, and printing) were vital, they were more tacit and transparent to the processes they enabled. Today, in a range of social and cultural contexts, the media are foregrounded, even determinative.

The mass media emerged as the result of interacting technological and social developments. Mechanized printing, which developed with the industrial revolution and found its way into mass-market communication in Britain in the 1870s, brought about major changes in production, in reception, and in the political economy of media. Mass production allowed media to be financially supported by advertising instead of direct sales of newspapers or magazines. The resultant economic logic saw readers as audiences and sought to maximize their numbers. This coincided with the increasing concentration of populations in urban settings, removed from the social and cultural supports of the village and town. These audiences began to be thought of as "mass" audiences, and the content of media began to reflect more generalized class tastes.

A debate has raged ever since over how the resulting relationship between the mass audience and the mass media is to be seen. To some observers, the media ideologically dominate the audience. To others, the media act as a kind of cultural canvas on which is inscribed the more or less common themes, ideas, and discourses of the culture. To still others, the media are important as palliatives, replacing the lost connectedness of pre-industrial village life. For most, the class and taste orientation of mass media necessarily has meant that they are at least not the preferred communicational context for the authentic business of the culture.

These structural realities and social assumptions have come to condition the way the media function in relation to culture, and therefore, religion. The media are connected with generalized "mass" tastes. They are industrial and technical and thus are seen as artificial and their abilities to authentically articulate cultural and social artifacts, symbols, and values are suspect. They are commercial, and thus necessarily traffic in commodified culture and cultural experience. At the same time, though, they are intrinsically articulated into the fabric of modernity in ever-deepening ways. Thus, while social and cultural structures and institutions might wish to exist outside the boundaries of media culture, it is increasingly difficult for them to do so. These realities define the role that media play in the evolution of modern and late-modern religious institutions and practices.

The role of the media is not only social-structural, it is also geographic and semiotic/aesthetic. And, as the scholarly study of the interaction between religion and media has developed in recent years, it has become obvious that these three aspects of mediatization interact in interesting ways in the formation of the religious-media landscape. A phenomenology of media and religion in the twenty-first century would see media and religion in a number of different relationships.

Religion Using Media

There is of course a long and deep history of mediation of religion. Various religions have been typified by means of their relationship to various media. It is commonplace to think of the development of the religions of the modern West as having been affected in major ways by moveable-type printing. In the twentieth century, a number of religions developed specific and particular relationships to the mass media. In most cases, these relationships were defined by the assumption of a kind of dualism, separating the "sacred" sphere of authentic religious history, claims, faith, and practice, from a "profane" sphere represented by the media. Islam, for example, is widely thought to eschew mass mediation, and particularly mediated visual depiction. The asceticism of Buddhism is also thought to separate it from a media sphere dominated by materiality and material concerns. Jewish scholarship has stressed the importance of "the book," but has tended to think that other modes of communication and representation were less worthy.

At the same time that Christian thought has assumed the sacred-profane dualism, Christianity in the modern and late-modern West has come to exhibit a range of responses and relationships to mass media, and the Christian relationship has come to be in some ways definitive, due to the fact that the media of the Christian West have come to dominate the media worldwide (a situation that has begun to change in small ways). Christian groups were among the earliest publishers in both Europe and North America. The evangelical impulse in Christianity seems, over time, to have given it a particular cultural interest in publication. All Christian groups (and most non-Christian groups and other religious movements in Europe and North America) have historically produced printed materials such as tracts, pamphlets, newsletters, magazines, Sunday school materials, and books. Missions programs, including Bible societies, have also been prolific publishers.

The nonprint media have been a less comfortable context for most religions, however. In the twentieth century, as the establishment religions of Europe and North America confronted the emergence of the mass media, these groups began a struggle for definition and cultural ascendancy that continues unabated. The dualist assumption brings with it a suspicion of the media of the "profane" sphere. While the medium of print has long been understood by religions to be an appropriate context for the conveyance of religious ideas and values, the succeeding waves of non-print "new" media have been seen differently. Probably as a result of their association with secular entertainment and thus secular values, film, broadcasting, television, and digital media has, in its turn, met with suspicion on the part of religion and religious authorities.

The most significant exception to this has been the case of Evangelical Protestantism. Beginning with the earliest days of radio, Fundamentalist and later Evangelical individuals and groups have seen great promise in these new technologies. It can even be argued that through the careful use of film, radio, and television, that what now is known as "neo-Evangelicalism" found its place in the religious landscape. Billy Graham, for example, who became one of the most significant Evangelical leaders of the twentieth century, was an active producer of media of all kinds, and is widely regarded as having risen to prominence in part as a "media figure." This further suggests a central role for mass media in religious evolution, as the mediation of Graham and the Evangelical movement generally played a large part in establishing their legitimacy. The phenomenon of televangelism, which emerged in the 1970s in North America and then spread, as a form, to much of the world, further contributed to the definition of religious and political landscapes. Such use of media by religion is not without its dangers, however. As a number of scholars have noted, religion has had to make compromises in order to fit into the structural and other conditions and limitations of the media form.

Media Using Religion

Traditionally, the media have been most involved in the presentation of religion through journalism. The mass media era began with the development of a mass press, and in addition to the development of new audiences and new economies, it also developed new content. Before the mass press, most press in Europe and North America were partisan in one way or another, beholden to political, clerical, even corporate authority. The new economy of mass publication meant that the press could be freed from patronage, and that new readers and audiences would be coming to the press for a wider range of material than in the past. The result was the notion of newspapers and magazines as public records, presumably speaking from positions outside the narrow perspectives of special interests. This kind of journalism needed to find its voice, and new models of journalism and new roles for journalism in public and political life emerged.

In the case of North America, religion has not necessarily been part of that mix. For most of the twentieth century, religion was seen by journalism to be a story of religious institutions and their practices and prerogatives. At the same time, these institutions were treated with deference, when treated at all. There was much evidence that religious institutions, at least, were of fading importance as the century progressed, and journalism generally assumed that secularization was moving ahead apace. It was not until late in the century that religion came to be seen as "hard" news, largely as the result of news events such as the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the rise of traditionalist religious movements worldwide, and the emergence of Evangelicalism as a political force in North America. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, put religion much more squarely on the "news agenda," with increasing coverage of religion per se among European and North American journalism.

Religion and Media Converge

The entertainment media have had an independent relationship to religion and religious content. There has been a tendency for these media to see the relationship in dualistic terms, evidenced by such things as the separate best-seller lists maintained for religious and non-religious book titles. The religious "market" for commercialized religious films, magazines, and books is now a multi-million-dollar industry worldwide, but is still thought of as a separate field from the dominant, and larger, "secular" market.

In that secular market, there are important examples in most major media and across most of the century. Early in the century, the so-called "Biblical Epics" such as The Ten Commandments and The Robe became major breakthrough films, attracting large numbers of conservative Christians and Jews to theaters for the first time. Later in the century, an explosion of book and magazine publishing devoted to spirituality, therapy, and self-help became one of the major trends in that industry.

In entertainment television, a range of new programs and series began to appear in the 1990s, featuring both explicitly and implicitly religious themes. Globally syndicated U.S. programs such as Touched by an Angel, The X-Files, Buffy: Vampire Slayer, The Simpsons, and Northern Exposure integrated a wide range of religious sensibilities, from traditional, to spiritual, to New Age, to Pagan and Wiccan. The situation became even more diverse in the digital media of the internet.

These trends resulted from changes in both religion and the media. For the media, rapid change in the structure and regulation of the electronic and digital media led to an exponential increase in the ubiquity and number of such channels fed into homes worldwide. A simultaneous increase in the differentiation of printed media into smaller and smaller "niche" markets meant that the media were both motivated to seek out new content and audiences, and to become increasingly able to provide material suiting specialized tastes. At the same time, religion was also undergoing great change, described in the case of North America as a "restructuring" that de-emphasized the traditional religious institutions. At the same time, religion increasingly became focused in the religious practices and meaning quests of individuals.

This new, more autonomous religious individualism, called "seeking" or "questing" by sociologists, naturally articulates with a mediated culture that can and does increasingly provide resources related to that project. Thus, a market for commodified religious symbols, rituals, and other resources arises, made possible by emerging attitudes oriented to religious and spiritual issues, and by a media system that can provide for increasingly specialized and focused tastes. The result is the gradual erosion of whatever bright line might have once existed between the "sacred" world of legitimate religious media and a "profane" world of secular media. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, that division is less and less obvious. It has become, for all practical purposes, one media culture.

There are important antecedents to this convergence of religion and media. In the case of North America, which largely led these developments, Protestantism has long tolerated, even encouraged, the development of religious commodities, religious markets, and religious spectacles. American Christianity has thus long had a nascent culture of mediated religious commodities and has cultivated in succeeding generations tastes and interests in such approaches to faith and spirituality.

Religion and Media Interact

The evolving relationship between media and religion, then, is best seen as an interaction between them rather than an effect or influence one may have on the other. Increasingly, scholars of religion and media are describing this interaction in its reception and the experiences of individuals and groups as they encounter media culture and work to inhabit religious lives in relation to it. This can be seen on both radically local and radically global levels. On the local level, in a wide range of contexts, the interaction between media culture and religious culture comes alive in the ways individuals and groups use the various cultural resources available to them to make meaning in their lives. This is seen most readily in the field context, where observers encounter evidence of negotiated relations between the lived local and the mediated non-local. As anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod reflects in her essay, "The Interpretation of Cultures after Television":

In Writing Women's Worlds, I suggested that we could write critical ethnographies that went "against the grain" of global inequalities, even as we had to remain modest in our claims to radicalism and realistic about the impacts of these ethnographies. Television, I believe, is particularly useful for writing against the grain because it forces us to represent people in distant villages as part of the same cultural worlds we inhabitworlds of mass media, consumption, and dispersed communities of the imagination. To write about television in Egypt, or Indonesia, or Brazil is to write about the articulation of the transnational, the national, the local, and the personal. Television is not the only way to do this, of course [b]ut television makes it especially difficult to write as if culture and cultures were the most powerful ways to make sense of the world. (Lila Abu-Lughod, 1999, pp. 110135)

On the global level, media and religion interact in events such as the national and international experience of the September 11 attacks and their aftermath. The direct experience of the attacks was mediated, and the fact that the attacks in New York took place in the world's leading media center made the images available and accessible, live and in real time. Whatever national and international processes of existential reflection and ritual mourning ensued, those processes were largely mediated as well. Media were also implicated in the widespread impression of distance and misunderstanding that was invoked. The media should be the primary means by which the developed West knows the Islamic East and vice versa. That the Islamic East was self-defined in large measure by religious identity places the media at the center of whatever misunderstanding may have led to or exacerbated the attacks. Further, a measure of the Islamic critique of Western culture is rooted in a moral reaction to the profanity and licentiousness found in the largely American popular culture that floods the developing world. Thus the media are taken to represent religious culture whether they intend to or not. Finally, the media were and are the primary context for the national and global rituals of commemoration and mourning around the event, thus assuming a role not unlike a "civil religion" in this regard.

Identity, Reflexivity, and Globalization

Beyond the evolution in media and religion already discussed, the convergence and interaction between religion and media in late modernity are responsive to a number of social and cultural trends. Three stand out. First, the convergence and interaction are most clearly felt in the project of the self and religious identity. As theorists of late modern social life have suggested, the project of the self is perhaps the dominant concern of the age. As social life has become more and more complex and rationalized, the means of support available in the social sphere have withdrawn, leaving individuals increasingly to their own devices. This has driven individuals inward, to a quest for the self. This quest turns outward, however, to seek and appropriate resources relevant to its task, and the commodities of the media sphere are among the most obvious and available such resources. To the extent that the project of the self is a religious project, this becomes an important role for media in the formation and shaping of religious identity.

The second of these trends is reflexivity. Prominent theorists of late modernity recognize the role of mediation in the encouragement of a reflexive mode of consciousness. Reflexivity results from the access to sources and contexts of knowledge that offer individuals a self-consciousness of place that is historically unprecedented. With this reflexive knowledge comes a sense of autonomy in spheres of normative action, including self and identity. In late modernity, mediation plays a major role in our knowledge of place and location, and thus is implicated in important ways in the reflexivity that today defines much of the religious quest for self and identity.

Finally, globalization and what is coming to be called "glocalization," the blending of a global concept to a local application, are definitive trends. The media are major global and globalizing industries, of course, but their implications extend well beyond their structural and economic relations. To the extent that globalization is a fact, it results in large measure from the capabilities of the media to provide global interconnectivity, socially, culturally, and religiously. The media are, after all, "consciousness industries," and among their capabilities is the conveyance of cultural symbols, forms, and texts related to the deepest human desires for connection and belonging. They can transcend space and time, and frequently do provide, for a variety of "imagined communities," a connectivity across space and time that is unprecedented in its depth and speed.

Increasingly, the media can be seen to be active in the negotiative frameworks that underlie glocalization as well. The media are no longer thought of as determinative or dominant, as noted. Instead, they provide, to reflexive individuals and communities, senses of the structured relations of local, national, and global life, and symbolic and other resources relevant to making sense of that life. This involves the constructive negotiation of that consciousness, those contexts and those resources. What results is an imbrication of the global and the local, a reflexive consciousness of place within those frameworks, and senses of self and group identity relevant to this awareness. Religion is a fundamental quest, as well as an important dimension of these relations. Thus religion and mediation interact in fundamental ways in the ongoing development of global and glocal consciousness.

But the globalized world is not only a place of harmony, it is also a place of conflict and struggle. Among the social and cultural relations increasingly accessible today are those between conflicting worldviews. In the case of religion, the media can and do offer much information about the religious "other," but that does not necessarily lead to increased understanding. The Anglican Church, for example, learned during their struggles over gay ordination in the early part of the twenty-first century, that a global media context made those deliberations accessible worldwide, increasing the intra-communal tension as African Anglicans could have real-time access to the debates taking place among North-American Anglicans. As globalization and glocalization move ahead, international media will continue to place before religion challenges to self-understanding and inter-religious understanding.

Media Effects on Religion

Given this discussion, there remain a number of ways that the media affect religious institutions and practices. First, the media increasingly set the context for religion and spirituality, and help define their terms in contemporary life. The 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, for example, both invoked a public debate about contemporary religious faith and presented a new set of images and symbols through which that aspect of the Christians' story will be understood for years to come. The performer Madonna, through songs and music videos, presented influential interpretations and juxtapositions of important Catholic symbols and artifacts. Because of their position in the culture, the media are now the context within which the most widely-held discourses in national and global culture take place, and religion and religious discourses must find their way within that larger context.

A second effect of media on religion is in the area of commodification. Contemporary social and cultural experience is becoming increasingly commodified, and the media sphere plays a major role in this trend. Religion is not immune to commodification, and indeed, there is a long and deep history of it in some traditions. In the mass media age, it makes sense to think of culture as a marketplace of symbols and ideas. Cultural commodities of all kinds, including religious ones, are valued and exchanged in that marketplace.

The third effect of media on religion is in the consumption and reception of religious symbols and discourses. The secular media define the terms of access for religious and spiritual material as it enters the public sphere. In the field of contemporary Christian music, for example, the ability of religiously motivated musicians to "cross over" into the mainstream, a desire by some, is constrained by a set of expectations established by the conditions under which the public, secular, mass media operate. The primary one is the expectation that to be public, such material must appeal to general as opposed to narrower, sectarian tastes. In both popular music and book publishing, separate "lists" continue to be maintained.

The fourth effect, then, is that in this and many other ways, religions can no longer control their own stories if they wish to be present in the public sphere and in public discourse. The terms of reference, the language, the visual and linguistic symbols, and the conditions under which religion becomes public are all matters determined by media practice. It is possible for religious groups and individuals to remain separate from this process, but they then surrender opportunities to be part of the public culture. Even groups that aspire to separation, such as the Amish, find it increasingly difficult to do so.

This relates to a fifth effect, that it is no longer possible for religions to retain zones of privacy around themselves. Increasingly, and as a result of the reflexivity of late-modern consciousness, individuals today expect a level of openness from public institutions. As religious groups and movements interact with the commercial and governmental spheres, they begin taking on the attributes of publicness and are thus seen to be subject to media scrutiny, journalistic and otherwise. Both the Roman Catholic Church, in its struggles over scandals and vocations crises, and the Anglican Communion (and other Protestant bodies) as they face the question of gay rights, have found that the conversation is not and cannot be a private one any more.

A sixth effect is that, as was noted earlier, the media bring individuals the religious and spiritual "other." In the context of globalization/glocalization, this is felt in the increasing cross-national and cross-cultural exchange of information, symbols, images, and ideas, circulated through journalism, through popular culture, and through the personal media of the digital age. In the context of the increasing international flow of persons, both through travel and through immigration, the media have become active in providing information about the "others" who are now arriving next door or in the next town. The media are now becoming the authoritative context for interreligious contact and dialog. At the same time, they can and do provide information about some traditions that other traditions find to be scandalous.

A seventh effect of media has been discussed in some detail already. That is that the media are today a major source of religious and spiritual resources to the "seeking" and "questing" sensibilities that increasingly define religion in the developed West. This is related to an eighth effect, that it has been suggested that the media have the potential to support the development of "new" or "alternative" religions. This has been thought by some to be a particular potential of the new digital media. The Internet provides opportunities for interactive relations among focused networks of like-minded people. Thus they might well be a context where those networks could develop into religious movements of their own. This of course remains to be seen.

Finally, an effect of media on religion is the central role that the media play in national and global rituals around major public events. Beginning with the Kennedy assassination and continuing through royal weddings and funerals, crises such as the Challenger, Columbia, and Columbine tragedies, the death of the Diana, Princess of Wales, and of course the September 11 attacks, the media have come to accept a central role in a new civil religion of commemoration and mourning.

The relationship between media and religion is a profound, complex, and subtle one. While the media have grown in cultural importance over the past century, and religious institutions and movements have contemplated how to respond and experimented with ways of accommodating to this new reality, a relationship has developed that now determines, in important ways, the prospects and prerogatives of religion into the twenty-first century.

See Also

Religious Broadcasting.


Abu-Lughod, Lila. "The Interpretation of Culture(s) after Television." In The Fate of "Culture," edited by Sherry B. Ortner, pp. 110135. Berkeley, Calif., 1999. A provocative scholarly reflection by an anthropologist on the extent to which television is now integrated into cultural and religious life, as a local and worldwide phenomenon.

Appadurai, Arjun. "Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology." In Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, edited by Richard G. Fox, pp. 191210. Santa Fe, 1991. An influential survey that reveals and assesses the phenomenon of emerging global cultures.

Brasher, Brenda. Give Me That Online Religion. San Francisco, 2001. A pioneering study of internet religion, which considers the possibility of the digital media coming to a central place in emerging religious practice.

Bunt, Gary R. Islam in the Digital Age: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas, and Cyber Islamic Movements. London, 2003. The first comprehensive account of Islam in the internet age. Provides evidence of a growing accommodation between Islam, in both traditional and non-traditional forms, and the digital media.

Clark, Lynn Schofield. From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural. New York, 2003. A fieldwork-based cultural analysis of emerging religious sensibilities in youth culture articulated by and through the media culture.

De Vries, Hent, and Samuel Weber, eds. Religion and Media. Stanford, Calif., 2001. An influential compendium of essays and field reports focusing on the intervention of media into religious memory, history, and practice.

Eisentstein, Elizabeth. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. New York, 1974. The definitive study of printing and its relationship to clerical and state authority. Contains important insights into how printing became publishing and thus the foundation of the modern mass media.

Ginsburg, Faye, Brian Larkin, and Lila Abu-Lughod, eds. Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain. Berkeley, Calif., 2002. A significant and influential collection that has helped define the development of a scholarly discourse on media within anthropology. Many of the contributions deal with religion in specific contexts.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Mass., 1991. An influential social history of the emergence of public discourse and its integration into social, political, and communicational contexts.

Hendershot, Heather. Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture. Chicago, 2004. A comprehensive study of Evangelical relations to the media and popular culture. Contains important insights into Evangelical self-understanding and understanding of the possibilities in media technologies.

Hoover, Stewart M. Mass Media Religion: The Social Sources of the Electronic Church. London, 1988. The first field study of religious television audiences, it established the extent to which these programs had important symbolic value in representing the ascendancy of Evangelicalism in the culture more generally.

Hoover, Stewart M., and Knut Lundby, eds. Rethinking Media, Religion, and Culture. Newbury Park, Calif., 1998. An edited collection focused on the emerging scholarly field of media and religion studies. Largely social-scientific in orientation, the contributions look at media and religion in a variety of contexts worldwide.

Hoover, Stewart M., and Lynn Schofield Clark, eds. Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media: Studies in Media, Religion, and Culture. New York, 2002. A collection concentrating on humanistic, historical, and critical analysis of the practice of religion in the media age.

Mahan, Jeffrey, and Bruce Forbes, eds. Religion and Popular Culture in America. Berkeley, Calif., 2000. An edited volume containing significant scholarship from the field of religious studies focused on media culture and popular culture.

McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity, Religion, and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, Conn., 1998. A field-based study of major contexts of popular religious culture. Provides an excellent introduction to the commodities and artifacts that have historically defined American religion.

Morgan, David. Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images. Berkeley, Calif., 1999. The definitive account of the role of material culture in American Protestant piety, with special attention to visual artifacts. It includes both historical and contemporary reception analysis.

Roof, Wade Clark. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton, N.J., 1999. The definitive account of the individualistic "seeker" phenomenon among baby-boom and post-boom generations in the West and in the United States more specifically. Gives particular attention to the role that cultural commodities, including media commodities, play in religion and spirituality among these generations.

Schultze, Quentin J. Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1992. A thoughtful reflection on the implications of the digital age for religious community and religious practice. Contrasts the mediated digital context with religious community in traditional terms.

Underwood, Doug. From Yahweh to Yahoo!: The Religious Roots of the Secular Press. Urbana, Ill., 2002. An award-winning history of media and religion that looks at the institutional relations and integration of religious and non-religious media.

Winston, Diane. Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army. Cambridge, Mass., 2000. An in-depth historical look at the central case of religion encountering publication and commodification in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Salvation Army proves to be an excellent case-study of the costs and benefits of the interaction between religion and media.

Wuthnow, Robert. After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s. Berkeley, Calif., 2000. An influential account of the relationship between individualistic religion and the contexts of faith.

Stewart M. Hoover (2005)

About this article

Media and Religion

Updated About content Print Article