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Religion and Media

TitleReligion and Media
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2012
AuthorsMahan, J
JournalReligion Compass
Date Published1/2012

This essay describes the emerging field of religion and media and outlines key issues at play in the field. The field focuses both on the media and their content and on the reception of media among various publics as ways to examine the location of religion, the nature of religious practice and the complexity of religious identity and authority. On the one hand, studies reveal how religious institutions and leaders use traditional and new media, and command of emerging media grants some institutions and leaders increased voice and authority. On the other, we find evidence that in the emerging media culture, authority shifts from traditional locations such as sacred writings, traditions and religious authorities to the individual internal authority of religious consumers involved in religious self-construction. Those in the field typically argue that religion has always been mediated and that studying the mediation of religion is necessary to the understanding of religion.

There is a great deal of religion, or something that looks a great deal like religion, to be found online and in modern media. Students in a Colorado bible college celebrate communion online, leading to online discussion by their denomination’s theologians of whether this is appropriate (J. Dulce, personal conversation). In Ghana Christian videographers create popular melodramas that portray traditional African religious practice as spiritually powerful but evil (Mitchell in Mitchell & Plate 2007). American Mormons use media to correct what they see as media misrepresentations of their faith. In the cyberspace environment of “Second Life” it is possible to worship online at Temple Beit Israel (Crabtree 2007) while in Israel Orthodox Jews create web browsers that block material inappropriate for religious Jews (Campbell 2010). And, Elvis fans make seemingly religious pilgrimage to his home (Doss 1999). In these examples what seem to be “two ontologically distinct spheres – the spiritual and the technological – collide” (Meyer 2009, p. 1). This activity has not gone unnoticed by scholars. There is vibrant interdisciplinary conversation about religion and media in fields including religious and theological studies, cultural studies, media studies, art history, anthropology and sociology.

The conversation considers what attention to media and mediation tells us about the nature of religion itself. Methodologically, social scientific and cultural study approaches predominate. The conversation emerged out of research in quite varied cultural contexts and has found location in scholarly associations including the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature. It began to find independent organizational structure with an invitational meeting held in Uppsala, Sweden, in 1994. This led to the establishment of the International Study Commission on Religion, Media and Culture (1996–2005) whose work has continued in a series of international conferences with meetings in Boulder (1996), Edinburgh (1999), Louisville (2004), Sigtuna (2006), Sao Paulo (2008) and Toronto (2010). Work is underway to establish the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture at the conference scheduled to be held in Eskisehir, Turkey (2012).

Key areas of study include:

• How religious practitioners, movements and institutions use media and are shaped by their adoption or rejection of new forms of media• The interpretation of the way they are portrayed in media and• How they attempt to control media content.But, also

• The appearance of religious themes and images in popular entertainment• The ritual use of seemingly secular entertainment and• The fetishization and consumption of religious images and objects.We know that “religion” is a complex phenomenon uniting diverse practices and beliefs. The same can be said about “media”. We ought not to talk too easily about “the media” in the singular as though there were a single media message, impact or interaction with religion. While together the various media may constitute media cultures, our examples are of a particular form of religion and a particular medium in cultural context.

Many of the participants in this conversation are located in media studies departments and they are likely to define their work as being about “Media and Religion”. This reversal of the terms is worth noting. Just as religion scholars argue that the connection helps them to understand and define religion, colleagues in media studies suggest that it helps them understand media more clearly. They argue that media does not simply treat religion as a subject; but carry out some of religion’s ritual and interpretive functions.

With the establishment of the regular study of religion and media within the guilds and the launching of a scholarly society, it becomes appropriate to recognize “religion and media” as a distinct interdisciplinary field. This essay identifies the field and points to some key figures, concerns and insights while recognizing that, as with any emerging field, much remains in flux.