Soul Searching in the Digital Age
From 1996–2005, the International Study Commission on Media, Religion and Culture (ISCMRC) broke new ground in charting the emerging frontiers where technology, society, and religious faith converge. The commission hosted ten conferences in eight countries spanning five continents. In addition to carving out new areas of collaborative and cross-disciplinary research, the commission’s work inspired a generation of young doctoral students, led to the creation of new academic programs at universities around the world, and opened a fresh window into the ways in which media is changing how people think about and practice religion. David Scott wrote this 7,200-word monograph under commision from the ISCMRC. In it he reviews the theoretical and practical work of the commission and considers its enduring influence in areas from academic research to media production.
By David Scott
It was in the mid-1990s when Adán Medrano realized that what he had was a failure to communicate.
As a chief grant adviser with Stichting Porticus Foundation, a large Dutch philanthropy, Medrano was reviewing another raft of costly proposals from Catholic bishops and other religious outfits wanting to build new radio and television stations or expand existing ones.
It was a time of rather spectacular failures in Catholic media.
A few years earlier the Diocese of Tucson, Arizona was forced to sell its cemeteries, lay off workers, and slash salaries by ten percent to deal with red ink totaling $33 million from its imploding TV operation.
In a move that symbolized vividly the wider problems, in 1995 the United States bishops finally pulled the plug on their Catholic Telecommunications Network of America (CTNA), which had lost more than $1 million a year since its launch in 1981.
Despite the red flags and cautionary tales, the pitches for new media ventures continued to mount on Medrano’s desk.
Medrano is a pioneer in Latino telecommunications—an award-winning producer of TV series and documentaries, founder of an influential film festival, and long-time media consultant for the U.S. bishops and other church agencies.
But after nearly thirty years in the business, he’d come to detect a disconnect—between religious leaders’ notions about faith and media and the realities of the new cultural and high-tech environment.
“There was this series of horrible fiascoes, but people still thought building television stations would be a magic, ‘silver bullet’ that would solve all the problems of the church’s presence in the world,” Medrano recalls.
With the blessing and financial backing of Stichting Porticus, Medrano launched a think-tank to study the larger questions of religion in what he describes as “a mediated world”—an emerging global culture of instant and constant communication being created by digital and electronic technologies.
“It was really their idea,” Medrano recalls. “Stichting Porticus officials were as concerned as I was about these larger issues. They suggested that perhaps a think-tank would be the best way to address these issues.”
For the next decade, a diverse, loosely knit band of roughly a dozen scholars, activists, and media producers broke new ground in analyzing trends and charting the emerging frontiers where technology, society, and religious faith converge.
Calling themselves the International Study Commission on Media, Religion and Culture (ISCMRC), they backed innovative research and fostered creative new approaches to media production.
The commission hosted ten conferences in eight countries spanning five continents. Along the way, it helped bring together an international and interdisciplinary network of like-minded theorists and practitioners—all dedicated to understanding the place of religion in a “media age.”
The formal work of the commission came to an end following a conference in Melbourne, Australia in July 2005. But commission members and others say its influence will be felt for generations to come.
“The commission was in the right place at the right time,” says ISCMRC member Lynn Schofield Clark, a former TV producer who now heads the University of Denver’s Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media. “The commission’s work expanded the boundaries of study in both religion and the media and is still contributing in very significant ways.”
In addition to carving out new areas of collaborative and cross-disciplinary research, the commission’s work inspired a generation of young doctoral students, led to the creation of new academic programs at universities around the world, and opened a fresh window into the ways in which media is changing how people think about and practice religion.
Beyond instruments and institutions
One sign of the commission’s influence is that its guiding assumptions and approach—considered maverick and unconventional a decade ago—are now commonplace among both scholars and media producers.
“At the start of our work, very few people were looking seriously at religion and media from a cultural perspective,” says Peter Horsfield, a theologian and authority on the history of the church and the media at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.
What he and other commission members call their “cultural approach” means studying media and religion like an anthropologist might study a people’s way of life—taking into account not only habits and customs, tools and myths, but also environment and history.
This marked a sharp break with traditional approaches that tended to focus on religious institutions and considered the media essentially as vehicles for delivering messages.
Such “institutional” and “instrumentalist” assumptions were perhaps appropriate in an earlier era. Back then, mainline religious institutions were pillars of Western societies. The media at the time were limited mainly to a handful of TV and radio broadcasters sending one-way signals to receivers fixed in people’s homes.
But commission members say old-line ways of doing research can’t explain sweeping changes in the religious landscape. Nor are they much help in understanding the global culture being created by powerful media that are portable, interactive, and blur distinctions between the content of messages and the medium used to deliver them.
“From the beginning we wanted to challenge the ‘instrumentalist’ notion that media are simply a message-delivery device,” explains David Morgan, a commission theorist and an art historian at Valparaiso University in Indiana. “Our work represents an important shift to a keen interest in practice and everyday life.”
The big questions, ISCMRC members say, are not about the “content” of media messages or how those messages are delivered from point A to point B. The more fundamental issues are how the media figure into people’s ordinary lives and how people use media to make sense and give meaning to their lives—especially religious and spiritual meaning.
The ISCMRC’s cultural perspective represents a new direction for both religious studies and media studies. But commission members stress that the cultural and social reality they’re exploring is nothing new.
“It is mistaken to assume that only modern religions make use of media,” Morgan says. “All religion has always been mediated.”
Commission members say religion can never really be understood solely by studying official beliefs and norms for living. In every religion, beliefs and norms are “mediated” to believers through a matrix of different media, including symbols and signs, oral traditions and proclamations, texts and rituals, even art, music and architecture.
Morgan and his cohorts make it their business to study things that earlier generations of scholars ignored or dismissed as so much pious kitsch and sentimental bric-a-brac. They say the artifacts of “lived religion,” many of them mass-produced—paintings, statuettes, medallions, souvenir trinkets, family Bibles, prayer cards, and more—yield a rare glimpse into how people experience religion in their everyday lives.
“Meaning-making is not an abstract process,” Morgan says. “People tell you what they mean far more by what they do than by what they say.”
Regarded as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the material culture of religion, Morgan has studied such varied “media” as: popular portraits of Jesus; illustrated proselytizing tracts used by 19th-century British missionaries in Asia; scapulars worn in Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary; and Protestant devotional art in present-day Ethiopia.
He has also studied perhaps the world’s most widely recognizable depiction of Christ—a profile of a heavenward-looking Jesus with blue eyes and soft, flowing hair, painted in the 1940s by Warner Sallman, a Protestant artist from Chicago.
American soldiers carried this image in their wallets when they went into battle in World War II. Missionaries brought it to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Still today it can be found hanging on walls in homes and institutions in countries around the world.
Morgan gathered and analyzed testimonials about the image from more than 500 ordinary believers. “When I would ask people about what that picture meant to them, I would get heartfelt responses, and often narratives about this particular inexpensive reproduction,” he explains.
From the start, the commission’s work was characterized by this concern for “visual piety”—how using and looking at religious articles not only reflects people’s faith, but actually helps form their beliefs and religious identities.
During a conference in Quito, Ecuador, commission members toured a shrine that was the site of hundreds of ex-voto offerings made by pilgrims to express thanks for some favor granted by God or the saints. They also observed and discussed local customs, such as the practice of having Catholic priests bless new automobiles with holy water.
Commission member Siriwan Santisakultarm contributed a poignant study that drew on her upbringing in a small Catholic village in Thailand in the 1960s.
An award-winning TV reporter and producer and an advisor to Thailand’s Catholic bishops, Santisakultaram evaluated the effects of modernization on a culture once centered on godparents, storytelling, and annual feasts like one in which believers festooned boats with flowers and banners for a “floating procession” around the village.
“Rapid cultural change has influenced a movement away from the traditional media for faith communication,” she found. “The ultimate impact is the lessening of one’s Catholic identity and understanding of one’s role as a Catholic in a Buddhist culture.”
The ecology of the new media culture
Seen through the commission’s lenses, modern audio-visual and digital-electronic media look less like trucks and trains that haul merchandise and freight between different locales. Instead, the media seem more like an entire ecosystem—forming the virtual habitat in which modern men and women live and move.
“Especially in urban settings, we exist in an environment of media,” says Horsfield. “People today spend pretty much their whole life in the context of mediated messages”
From information on packages to ads on billboards, road signs, Muzak, the morning paper, TV, radio, and the Internet—Horsfield estimates the average person spends 90-95 percent of every day awash in media and mediated messages.
The electronic media, in particular, form the backdrop and the soundtrack of modern living. Where once there were only a few networks broadcasting programs over the airwaves aimed at a mass audience, there are now a plethora of media outlets—including cable, satellite, wireless, and Web-based services, “narrowcasting” programs over hundreds of channels for specialized, niche audiences.
In a world in which terms like “the information superhighway,” “podcasting,” “Google,” and “YouTube” are a part of everyday speech, Medrano says the media now “form and inform our habits, relationships, conversations, and identities.”
This is confirmed from hundreds of interviews conducted between 2001–2006 as part of two research ventures—the Symbolism, Media and the Lifecourse Project and Symbolism, Meaning, and the New Media @ Home—projects led by the commission’s founding chairperson, Stewart Hoover, and commission member Lynn Schofield Clark.
Hoover and Clark discovered that media, especially television, videos, and DVDs, were an all-powerful presence, a “given” in every household—even in the most traditionally religious ones.
“The ubiquity, pervasiveness, or inescapability of the media was taken for granted by them,” says Hoover, who directs the Center for Media, Religion and Culture at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
The media set the tempo and schedule for most households, and also provided family members with a common language and a shared set of experiences, Hoover found.
Media isn’t just a conversation-starter—often it is the conversation. Catch phrases or one-liners from popular TV shows easily pass into the families’ daily argot.
For Americans it might be what happened on last night’s episode of American Idol. In Chile, it might be the antics of Don Francisco and his Sábado Gigante(Giant Saturday) variety show. But around the world, a big part of what people talk about—at the family dinner table or around the water cooler at work—is what they’ve been watching on TV.
“Television increasingly tells us not necessarily what to talk about, but what is being talked about,” Hoover explains.
Those interviewed by Hoover and Clark rely on the media for far more than entertainment. For them, the media serve as a gateway into a broader conversation they feel is going on “out there” in the culture. In this sense, he says, the media function as a kind of “cultural currency”—purchasing for users access to information about what’s important, newsworthy, and fashionable.Finding faith in cyberspace and beyond
As the number of media outlets has proliferated, there has also been a striking rise in religious programming, not to mention new attention being paid to spiritual and moral themes in ordinary news and entertainment programs.
In an earlier generation, the media’s concern for religion was limited to an occasional news story and airing such Christian figures as Rev. Norman Vincent Peale and Bishop Fulton Sheen, who became household names in America in the 1950s and 1960s. In many European countries, religious programming was defined by pious inspirational shows funded by national “church taxes” and aired on church-run stations like KRO and NCRV in the Netherlands.
Today, all that has changed. The likes of the Protestant Trinity Broadcasting Network and the Catholic Eternal Word Television Network broadcast worldwide around the clock over satellite, cable, and the Internet. Dozens of religious programs air on Ghana’s four television stations, including shows like Restoration Hour, Calvary Crusaders, and Mystery Body Church.
There is also a burgeoning global industry producing popular Christian music, books, and other products. On the Internet, sites like Beliefnet.com abound. Experts say that with some 200 million pages devoted to God or faith, religion now runs neck-in-neck with sex as the most sought-after subject on the worldwide web.
In more traditional media, news about debates and trends within denominations and other groups has become regular fare. Religious perspectives are now a routine dimension of mainstream news coverage of issues ranging from abortion to war.
But the convergence of religion and media is most obvious on television and in other pop culture media, especially in America, which continues to dominate the global entertainment market. The surprise commercial success of CBS’ Touched by an Angelin the mid-1990s spawned a wave of spiritually minded TV series, including: 7th Heaven and Joan of Arcadia. Religious themes and issues crop up routinely in Latin American telenovelas like Simplemente Maria (Just Mary) and Los ricos también lloran (The Rich Also Cry).
The religious “turn” can also be seen in popular movies, music, and books.
In recent years religious allegories like The Lord of the Rings and The Matrixtrilogy have proven to be box-office smashes, as have more literal dramas like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Religious page-turners like The Da Vinci Codeand the apocalyptic Left Behindseries spend months on the bestsellers lists in different countries, while Gregorian chants and singles like Joan Osborne’s “(What if God Was) One of Us” top American pop music charts, and are exported around the world.
What’s going on here? According to ISCMRC members, the commercial media are tapping into a real, deep-seated and growing thirst for spirituality and “the transcendent,” especially among the younger generation.
Big media companies have figured out that religion “sells,” Hoover agrees. But, he quickly adds, there is something more profound at work here than marketing schemes and consumer fads.
“It used to be that religion would be represented by having a character in a show who was a priest in a collar,” he notes. “But today, media producers know people in their daily lives are more and more involved in religious seeking, so religion more and more shows up in the content of programs. This is a new phenomenon. No one would’ve thought it possible 10 years ago that popular media would have so much religion in them.”
Underlying this new phenomenon are deep and fundamental changes in the way people perceive and practice religion, according to the ISCMRC.
The commission’s research confirms a significant shift in the religious center of gravity—away from institutions and toward individuals.
While mainline denominations show signs of fragmentation or restructuring, people are increasingly seeking spiritual paths outside the confines of traditional churches and religious institutions.
In fact, the commission’s work challenges the so-called “secularization theory”—the long-held scholarly hypothesis that religion would inevitably wither as modern society became more affluent, educated, and technologically astute.
As ISCRMC research has shown, the exact opposite has happened. The world today has grown more religious, not less so. But how people understand and live out their beliefs is taking dramatic new forms.
If there are new markets for religious programs, products, and services, in part that’s because people increasingly approach religion like discriminating buyers moving from stall to stall in a vast bazaar, browsing and sampling amid a myriad of spiritual options.
“What we see is a shift away from just adopting beliefs received from a particular church or established religious authority,” says Horsfield. “Instead people are in the process of actively constructing their own religious identities. And in doing that, they’re drawing on a whole range of symbolic and practical resources.”
There is no single profile, but today’s seekers of the sacred tend to see their faith lives as something that’s up to them to choose and create. Mixing and matching tenets and practices from various spiritual traditions, they fashion these disparate elements into a personalized religious identity.
It’s true that many of them feel alienated from organized religion or reject specific church doctrines or practices. But even those still affiliated with mainline churches show a strong desire to be authors of their own spiritual stories and destinies, says Hoover.
“They think religion is something that they need to know about, and they’re not going to turn that responsibility over to a priest or religious authority to tell them what they should believe or how they should live,” he explains.
Religion as a lifestyle brand
Increasingly the media are playing an important role in this self-construction of religious identities. Clark’s extensive fieldwork has focused on the use of new media by young people and families. In her interviews with young people, she finds they’ll often refer to popular songs, films, and TV shows to express their spiritual yearnings and struggles with good and evil.
Often, too, they are consciously trying to make statements about their faith through the clothes they wear, the music they listen to, and the things they watch on TV. In many cases, they’re also using new media to show their faith to the world—uploading videos about themselves to YouTube, or creating personal pages on social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.
Clark has coined the phrase “religious lifestyle branding” to describe this new “material” expression of faith.
“They want to ‘brand’ themselves as religious persons,” she says. “And in a consumer culture they express this by what they purchase or their media consumption. All of those things become part of a package that enables young people to pick and choose how they want to be seen by others.”
Her work has shown that this trend toward religious branding cuts across faith lines.
Thomas Nelson, Inc., one of the world’s top Christian publishers, has sold more than 1 million copies of Revolve, a devotional Bible for teen girls that’s formatted like a glossy fashion magazine and includes tips on eyebrow plucking and dating.
Young Hindus are throwing “rave” parties featuring Bhangra, a traditional Sikh form of ecstatic dancing and singing. Native Deen, a Muslim hip-hop group, is rapping for pre-teens with lyrics like: “M-U-S-L-I-M, I’m so blessed to be with them!”
Churches have always had to deal with atheism and agnosticism—the anguished soul wrestling with whether God really exists or not. More recently, they’ve faced religious “indifferentism”—growing numbers who find themselves able to live perfectly well without any religious devotions or concerns.
The new religious individualism, however, confronts old guard churches with an unprecedented test—ardent believers who have little or no use for organized religion.
“The fact is there are a lot of people who care very much about living out a life of faith,” Clark says. “But increasingly they aren’t finding the tools they need to do that within traditional religious communities.”
Perhaps more daunting for established religions are Hoover’s findings—that the tendency to individualism and religious lifestyle branding extends even to evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, and other members of mainline churches.
“This is not just a phenomenon found among younger generations or only among people who consider themselves liberal or progressive,” he says. “Self-described evangelicals and conservatives, too, are using this same language.
They really want to be responsible for their own faith and to pick and choose from a variety of sources to support their faith.”
From Ghana to Hollywood
If such attitudes are far more advanced in the United States and other Western industrialized countries, commission members are also tracking similar movements across the globe.
From the start, the commission’s work presumed the wider context and reality of “globalization”—the growing financial, political, and cultural connections being brought about by new telecommunications and information technologies.
The ten international consultations the ISCMRC hosted were freewheeling, high-minded affairs. Commission members invited an ecumenical and multi-disciplinary cast: media scholars and anthropologists, icon-painters and filmmakers, journalists and human rights activists; theologians, religious educators, philosophers, and historians. Represented in the dialogues were: Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Buddhists, and others.
Meeting in such far-flung places as Bangkok, Thailand, Accra, Ghana, and Hollywood, California, they discussed a dizzyingly wide range of topics: Gramscian cultural theory; the nature of the icon in Greek Catholicism; youth culture and “the constant contact generation”; Pentecostalist strategies for converting indigenous Ecuadorians; themes in recent Japanese anime, and more.Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, a Methodist minister and theologian from Ghana, was just finishing his doctorate degree when he met up with the ISCMRC at one of these conferences.
He discovered in the commission’s approach a fertile method for studying the spiritual reality in his part of the world.
“In West Africa there have never been firm lines between the spiritual and secular,” he says. “We employ religious discourse in everything we do. The Nigerian president can say he was named to his post by divine appointment. When things are not going well economically, people perform religious sacrifices. Even in sports, athletes will go to a shrine or a pastor for help before a big game. Religion encroaches upon life in every way, and the media are a very convenient tool, whether you are talking about televangelism, popular literature or journalism.”
Asamoah-Gyadu joined the ISCMRC and went on to serve as a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Center for World Religions. Presently, he is academic dean and teaches at Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Ghana.
In his research, he is keen to understand how new Pentecostal sects are using media in their “spiritual warfare” to root out stubborn indigenous African customs and beliefs.
In 2001 alone, independent producers in Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, and Togo issued an estimated more than 700 direct-to-video films. All but a few of these, he says, were created to serve “a religious agenda.”
Saved By Grace, for example, tells the story of a middle-class Nigerian woman trying to rescue her foundering marriage. She turns first to a local fetish priest. He gives her a magic charm that he promises will revive the husband’s faded love. When the charm fails, the woman pays a visit to the local “prophet.” He tries to seduce her.
Almost as a last resort, she runs to the newcomer on the religious block—the young, charismatic Christian preacher. At his urging, she gives her life to Jesus, is baptized, and starts praying and studying the Bible. The story ends on a happy note, with the woman reconciled to her husband and the two attending services together.
Video-films like this one are “selling like hotcakes because they use realistic everyday stories to communicate their religious message,” Asamoah-Gyadu says.
Another ISCMRC member, Jolyon Mitchell, has detected a similar agenda in “horror” videos being produced in West Africa.
Mitchell, who directs the Media and Theology Project at Edinburgh University in Scotland, says these films often portray indigenous African religious figures as being in league with evil spirits and as “catalysts or agents of horror.” Ministers from old-line missionary churches—Methodists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans—are depicted as well-meaning bunglers lacking in any real spiritual power. Once again, the heroes are the new Pentecostal or charismatic pastors.
“They are typically portrayed as dynamic and spiritually powerful,” Mitchell explains. “They often use accoutrements of power, such as mobile phones or computers, alongside a large black leather-covered Bible. Frequently, it is they who overcome or help to overcome the evil forces which let loose the agents of horror.”
In countries like Mexico, Venezuela, and Brazil, where the dominant Catholic faith faces stiff competition from insurgent neo-Pentecostal sects and growing secularization, a different dynamic is at work.
Germán Rey, a commission member who teaches communication at the Pontifical Javeriana University in Bogatá, Columbia, has studied the telenovela—a soap opera-like genre that’s wildly popular in Latin America.
He says this genre reflects widespread anxiety about social changes and a popular desire to shore up old ways and values.
The typical story line of a telenovela is often a morality tale that “underscores virtues and vices and usually tells a story that promotes the former and punishes the latter.” In addition, Rey says, the telenovela reaffirms such traditional spiritual roles as that of priests as wise confidants and mothers as guardians of family beliefs.
The irruption of world religions
With the worldwide explosion of new religious movements, the core themes identified by the ISCMRC could generate crucial insights for negotiating the volatile landscape of the 21st century.
The irruption of a politicized and militarized Islam in opposition to the West is only the most urgent example of how important the dynamics of religion, media, and culture may prove to be in the century ahead.
“9/11 really concretized the way in which religion is becoming a very significant player in global politics and is using media very effectively,” observes Hoover, referring to the Islamicist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Dramatic images of the September 11 strikes were flashed around the world in an instant—making them the first acts of war to be witnessed globally in near “real time” and changing the face and conduct of warfare forever.
And, as many have observered, the Islamicist movement itself is tied together and coordinated by decisive use of the Internet and satellite media, along with older media such as videos and even audiocassettes.
Members one branch of the movement, the Egyptian group, the Muslim Brotherhood, use political Web logs or “blogs” to advance their ideological agenda and to recruit new members. Suicide bombers record their last will and testaments on videotapes that are then used to attract new “martyrs” to the cause—a phenomenon highlighted in Paradise Now, the 2005 film by noted Palestinian filmmaker, Hany Abu-Assad.
The interface of globalization, media, and culture adds still another dimension to what some are calling a “clash of civilizations.”
Indeed, as Hoover notes, the Islamicist critique of Western culture is “rooted in ideas about the West derived from our own popular culture”—namely American movies, TV shows, and pop music widely available around the world.
“Imagine your impression of the values of our culture if you had only those sources to rely on,” he adds by way of explaining the terrorists’ fears and contempt for the West.
The events of September 11 and their aftermath also underscore another important emphasis in the ISCMRC’s work—how the media increasingly perform religious functions in contemporary culture.
America has always had a long tradition of civil religion—the local pastor leading a prayer before the Friday night high school football game, for instance. But in the digital age, the media are often being used to fulfill such civil-religious functions, in ways subtle and not so subtle.
Commission member Mary Hess, who teaches educational leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, saw this at work in the week following the September 11 attacks.
Hess presented to the commission a close study of two television programs aired in response to the attacks—a “national service of prayer and remembrance” broadcast live from Washington’s National Cathedral, and a telethon aired to raise money for victims and their families.
For Hess, the “official” service—which featured dignitaries like President George W. Bush, Rev. Billy Graham, and a host of spiritual and political leaders—revealed the limitations of old-line religious approaches to the media.
Presented in the format of a live news event, the televised service featured traditional prayers and Scripture readings, a sermon, and the singing of familiar hymns such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The result was that the viewer was put in the position of being an outsider looking in at others worshipping. “In the audience, we were like voyeurs, passive observers without any means of sharing in the worship we were watching,” Hess explains.
By contrast, the telethon featured big-name celebrities like Bruce Springsteen and Faith Hill performing without fanfare on a humble, dark stage illuminated only by candlelight. The performers spoke familiarly to the television audience, almost like neighbors, exhorting them to empathy and acts of charity and generosity.
Though not an explicitly “religious” event, the intimacy of the setting established a sense of community and participation and stirred a broad range of spiritual emotions, Hess says. “It invited us into a pattern of reflection and a posture of humble search that on multiple levels was worship.”
The mediated spirit
ISCMRC members believe the new media culture has caught established churches and religious institutions flat-footed and off-guard.
Church leaders don’t seem to recognize that they’re living in a revolutionary moment, says Horsfield, a former pastor in the Uniting Church of Australia, a denomination formed in the 1970s by reform-minded Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists.
His 2002 multimedia disc, The Mediated Spirit, explores the role media has played in the development of Christianity—from the oral and manuscript culture of the early church to the challenges of the electronic and digital era.
Church history, he argues, has always been shaped by efforts to grapple with new forms of communication.
He points to controversies in the early church over whether the faith should be taught exclusively through preaching and oral instruction. Many, he points out, rejected the use of written texts, believing that the true faith could not be passed on through such impersonal “mass” media. Echoes from these early dust-ups can be heard in present-day debates over televangelists, “megachurches,” and religion on the Internet, he adds.
There are also important parallels between the economic, cultural, and religious dynamics surrounding the new media and the commercial and technological changes that helped fuel the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.
Analyzing the Reformation through the prism of media and culture, commission historians say widespread literacy combined with the invention of the printing press and the economic needs of a nascent publishing industry to help the protesters spread their ideas quickly and cheaply to a mass audience.
“Martin Luther was able to effect his reformation, not just because of the quality of his ideas, but also because he had the support of the commercial printers of his time,” Horsfield explains.
“They were looking for good material in vernacular German. Luther wrote in a down-to-earth style that sold well and he was willing to write short tracts that could be printed on one sheet of paper in between bigger jobs they had. So, he sort of met the printer’s industrial needs and was a good commercial proposition for them. They, in turn, gave him access to a much wider market for his ideas.”
ISCMRC members are cautious about venturing predictions. But it’s clear that the new media, driven by technological innovations and global market forces, are already starting to upend old status quo antes.
“For the first time since the beginning of the Christian era, a communications system other than writing is the most powerful medium of non-face-to-face communication,” Horsfield says.
When speaking and writing were the main ways to get ideas across and to persuade people, the church was on solid ground—or at least on equal footing with other elements in the culture. Church leaders could be confident about at least gaining a hearing for their message through preaching and delivering Bibles, tracts, books, and other printed materials.
But in the emerging culture being created by electronic-digital and audio-visual communication, the solid ground they once stood on is crumbling. In this emerging culture, communication and persuasion mainly take place through media the church is only now beginning to understand.
These developments pose a series of formidable challenges to the churches in the years ahead.
The rise of independent-minded lifestyles of belief, along with the flood of new media sources for religious ideas, have broken the monopoly old-line churches once held over the things of God and the sacred. Old orthodoxies are now simply another brand option in a marketplace of personalized spirituality.
In this world, church leaders can no longer hope to command or control how their church is portrayed in the media or how their traditional symbols and teachings are used or interpreted.
The U.S. Catholic Church learned this lesson the hard way in the early 2000s, as a scandal involving priest sex-abuse was uncovered and unfolded in the media.
“There is no doubt that a new media culture contributed to the sense of crisis,” says ISCMRC member Frances Forde Plude, who teaches communication at Notre Dame College in Cleveland and studied the scandal for the commission.
While church leaders can’t tamp down on unwanted news or demand fairness in the media, ISCMRC members say the churches nonetheless can’t afford to continue their adversarial posture toward the media.
Christian leaders have always sought to protect believers from false teachings and other threats to the faith. Centuries ago, this meant suppressing the distribution of certain “media”—phony gospels and other texts—deemed to be heretical.
This basic attitude continued into the modern period, as church leaders cast an often wary eye on the popular media—scrutinizing the content of first movies and later TV for images and messages that might harm the faith and morals of believers in the audience.
Such concerns are beside the point in a media age, commission members say. Even the most conservative and traditional of the faithful who fill the pews on Sunday are comfortable living the rest of the week immersed in a media culture.
“People are not passive recipients of media messages—this applies for ‘religious’ or ‘Christian’ people, too,” Hoover insists. “They now participate in the media-web of culture—not because they are coerced or duped into doing so, but because they choose to do so. They get enjoyment out of it, and it’s meaningful and authentic for them.”
Rather than worrying about media’s potentially negative “effects,” Medrano believes church leaders should have their ears tuned to what believers today are saying about the media.
Referring to Shakira, the Latin pop sensation, he says: “When someone sings to you a song that Shakira sang and says, ‘This defines me,’ or ‘This has been really moving to me,’ we have to understand that for them this is may be an important site of encounter with the sacred. The point in understanding media culture is that it’s the individual who interprets and makes meaning through his or her interactions with material culture. In the church, we have to accompany them in their search, and help them to deepen and expand their encounters with the sacred.”
Silence and the retreat from technology
Christian churches possess a wealth of resources and perspectives to offer in this new material culture of religion.
In the media age, Medrano says, the church should think of itself as “a storehouse of symbolic, narrative, and sacramental resources.” The church’s educational mission is to find ways to make this spiritual treasury—stories of heroes, saints, and martyrs; ancient devotions, hymns, customs, and practices—inspiring for a new generation seeking wisdom, enlightenment, and transcendence.
Hess points to the power inherent in the church’s 2,000 year-old traditions of prayer, meditation, and monastic detachment from the world.
“These practices of prayer and silence are a great gift the Christian tradition offers,” she says. “But we can’t offer that gift by simply asserting that silence is a good thing and that what pop culture has done is somehow wrong. We have to draw people into that practice and help them understand how it opens them up to listen more widely to God.”
Clark agrees that the churches can play a valuable role in “giving young people permission to ‘unplug,’ and go ‘off-line.’”
“It can be something as simple as offering ‘retreats from technology’—a short time to create their own space apart from all of the social networking that they do with these technologies,” she adds.
Indeed, the church’s traditions could prove to be a kind of prophetic counterpoint to the constant whir and hum of a 24/7 personal media culture of BlackBerrys, Treos, and the craving for constant digital stimulation, a culture where people are always “on-call,” compulsively surfing the Web and checking for new e-mail and voice messages.
The churches, Medrano says, must also take a hard look at their own media productions. Too much church-sponsored programming still consists of televised worship services or devotions, and “talking heads” teaching from a podium or pulpit.
As a result, he says, few people watch religious programs—less than one-third of the population, and even those who do, admit watching only two hours or less per week.
“Television marketing studies have revealed, time and again, that people in general do not want to watch religious TV programs,” he says. “But they do want to watch moral or ethical programming—and the examples people give are programs which illustrate morality through a storyline.”
In his own work, which he produces for church agencies through his Houston-based company, JM Communications, Medrano seems to be quietly charting a new direction for church-sponsored media.
In award-winning productions like The Soul of the City, Hope in a Time of AIDS, and Portraits of Faith, Medrano often employs a familiar newsmagazine or documentary format. But he pushes at the boundaries of the genre with a storyteller’s eye for shadow and light, color and detail, and an evocative, symbolic use of natural elements and the sights and sounds of daily life—clear water flowing in a shallow river bed, a hoe breaking up hard, dry earth, a candle burning against a clear night sky. In addition, his productions are characterized by a focus on popular culture, grassroots initiatives, and the insights and perspectives of ordinary men and women.
A decade after the ISCMRC’s founding, the powerful interconnections it identified among media, religion, and culture cannot be denied.
There are daily reminders of the new awakening of ancient religions going on around the globe—militant Hindus and Muslims in the Middle East and Pacific Asia; an emboldened and politicized Christianity in America; a neo-Pentecostal revival throughout Latin America and Africa.
New religious movements keep springing up, while older ones increase in size and strength. Umbanda—a syncretistic Brazilian sect founded in the 1920s that melds African and South American folk religions—now numbers 20 million members in twenty-two countries. There are now more than three million adherents in fifty countries to Cao Dai, a blend of Confucianism, Taoism, and other Eastern faiths started in Vietnam, also in the 1920s.
The power and ubiquity of the media are also increasingly in evidence. The media today do far more than carry information or news. More often they are catalysts and key players in the events themselves.
Again, this is perhaps seen most clearly in the American context, where the new media culture is most highly developed. Before a lone gunner went on a killing spree at Virginia Tech University in April 2007, he first recorded a “multimedia manifesto” and sent it off to a TV network, which then spread it around the world via satellite and the Internet.
News of that shooting rampage appeared first, not on TV or in the newspapers, but on Web sites like LiveJournal.com. And the news wasn’t being reported live by media professionals but by victims and eyewitnesses—a terrified student text-messaging as she hid from the gunman under a desk; another student using his cell phone’s video camera to capture the eerie scene of an empty campus with gunshots ringing in the distance.
The new media are transforming American politics, as well. This year for the first time, a presidential candidate announced her bid for the presidency, not in a news conference, but with a video posted on her Web site. The 2008 campaigns are the first to see the new media—podcasts, Web casts, blogs, YouTube, and the like—being deployed for everything from fundraising to conducting interactive town hall-style meetings.
And there are signs that the new media are rapidly refashioning churches in their own image. In Protestant “megachurches,” defined as those with more than 2,000 persons attending a typical service, worship has gone digital—with theatre-size TV screens and state-of-the-art sound systems. Many megachurches also own publishing and recording operations, including Web sites offering services such as downloadable “video-on-demand.”
Even the once-staid Anglican Church is riding the new media wave. More than 150 local churches in seven countries now conduct “U2-Charists”—communion services in which traditional hymns are replaced by piped in recordings of the songs of the pop group U2, along with TV screens that broadcast the songs’ lyrics and inspirational images.
This is the new world and the new age that the churches find themselves in.
Yet, despite the commission’s considerable success and influence in academic media and religious study programs, Medrano’s original goal—to change how church leaders approach the media—has proven more elusive.
Church leaders have yet to fully grapple with the implications of the commission’s work. And Medranos says the task for the churches remains what it was when he founded the International Study Commission on Media Religion and Culture more than a decade ago.
“The hope was—and still is—that church leaders all over the world will move from an ‘instrumentalist’ view of how they can use audio-visual materials to improve their teaching, to asking how they can understand the audio-visual culture to rethink their religious education project,” he says.
• The International Study Commission on Media, Religion and Culture