Religion and Media in the 21st Century

In the 21st century, religion is difficult to imagine detached from the dizzying array of media that amplify and circulate its ideas and practices. People are now beginning to recognize the significance of this development, but there are few academic locations where the necessary interdisciplinary academic expertise is available for understanding these processes across diverse traditions, past and present.

In the contemporary world, the ways that religion and media mutually construct each other are part of globalizing processes, yet the specific trajectories of cultural meanings driving events cannot be understood apart from their local conditions. This bifocality, which looks at both the global and the local, is essential to any work hoping to comprehend such phenomena. For example, the spectacle of burning bodies of Falun Gong protesters in Tiananmen Square took place in part because of the expectation that this event would be witnessed on the televisual world stage, where freedom of religious practice has different meanings than it does in China. The constantly running fax machine installed at the grave of a prominent Hasidic rabbi in Queens, NY, becomes the unlikely local but powerful focus of the spiritual aspirations of a worldwide community of Jewish believers. The broadcast on Indian television of Hindu “mythologicals” in the early 1990s helped to escalate the rise of the Hindu National Party and religious violence within India; their overseas broadcast helped to mobilize support for that cause in the global South Asian diaspora.

In other words, contemporary mass media have an extraordinary capacity to collapse both space and time in ways that have profound implications for religious experience. They can bring people together who are at a distance from each other spatially, thus making almost instantaneous processes that might have taken years in the past. For example, the televisual experience of Christian ministry, proselytizing on the Internet, and the fomenting of religious violence over the radio contrast with older forms of communication that mediated religious community building more slowly.

Religious ideas, of course, have circulated through a variety of media for millennia. Spectacles such as the crucifixion or the revelation of divine knowledge in different textual forms have been crucial in shaping religious experience. Rather than assuming the connection between Religion and Media to be uniquely modern, we understand their relationship to encompass a broad range of phenomena: from the historical circulation of portable print texts such as Buddhist sutras and the Jewish Torah; to the spread of Koranic tafsir throughout the Muslim world on audiocassettes and the worldwide circulation of Christian evangelical broadcasting, and most recently, the proliferation of religious practices of all sorts on the Internet.

Despite these developments, the relationship between religion and modern mass media has been, until recently, remarkably understudied. In 1996, Hoover and Venturelli argued that religion and media are each other’s blind spots, particularly in the representation and analysis of non-western religions in the West. This neglect, with the exception of a few works, is particularly striking, given the significance of the rapid uptake of all kinds of media in the expression, circulation, and representation (or misrepresentation) of religious life worldwide.

In the last five years, several important new edited anthologies have been published that frame the emerging scholarly field of Religion and Media. These include: Stewart M. Hoover and Knut Lundby’s Rethinking Media, Religion and Culture (1997); Hent DeVries and Samuel Weber’s Religion and Media (2001) and Stewart M. Hoover and Lynn Schofield Clark’s Practicing Religion in the Age of Media (2001). One can see a shared project and trajectory in these works: to recognize the significance of the study of media as an aspect of religious practice. Representing different intellectual traditions, this new work moves beyond a prevailing intellectual prejudice against popular media as a degrading influence on, if not an antagonistic competitor with, religious life. These anthologies recognize in the religious use of media such as television, the renewed appearance of classic themes in the study of religion such as charisma, authority, ritual, suffering, salvation, and community.

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