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Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media: Explorations in Media, Religion, and Culture

Editor: Stewart M. Hoover, Lynn Schofield Clark
Publisher: New York: Columbia University Press, 2002
Review Published: December 2003

 REVIEW 1: Christopher Helland

Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media, edited by Stewart M. Hoover and Lynn Schofield Clark is a publication developed from the Media, Religion, and Culture conference, held in Boulder, Colorado in 1996. It was the second in a series of academic gatherings to discuss this topic. The first occurred in Uppsala, Sweden, the third took place in Edinburgh, Scotland, and a fourth conference is planned for September, 2004 in Louisville, Kentucky. These are significant and well attended events, drawing a wide range of scholars from across the globe. In this way, Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media captures the true interdisciplinarity of the event and also its cross-cultural appeal.

Hoover and Schofield Clark perform a very commendable job in editing and arranging the diverse group of papers into a coherent and cognizant text. Each section is arranged in a manner that approaches the issue of practicing religion in the age of media from different perspectives, theoretical approaches, and methodologies. Sections are divided based upon issues addressing religion/media in the public and the private sphere, official (or elite) religion and popular religion, mainstream verses marginal forms of practice, explicit and implicit religious expression, direct and mediated experiences, and also demarcations between geographic boundaries and national and cultural contexts. Although the conference occurred in 1996, contributors continued working upon their papers and research projects for the publication.

The volume brings to the forefront some of the significant issues surrounding media and religion in our contemporary culture. From the onset, it is made clear that exploring the impact and interconnectedness between religion and media is a complex and difficult undertaking. In the first place, religion in the contemporary environment is a complicated issue in and of itself. Although traditional forms of religious practice and affiliation have declined drastically in the past fifty years, religion and spirituality permeate the very fibers of our culture. Despite falling church attendance, people are still very much religious -- and are still interested in the ultimate questions of meaning that religions seek to answer. Secondly, "the media" continues to transform and develop, "collectively coming to constitute a realm where important projects of 'the self' take place -- projects that include spiritual, transcendent, and deeply meaningful 'work'" (2). In this sense, religion and media are converging and transforming each other, developing and altering in tandem. Hoover and Schofield Clark's book is not simply about "religious media" or "mediated religion"; these are narrow frames of reference that do not reflect the diversity of this phenomenon. Rather, their goal (along with the contributors) "is to describe in some detail moments and locations where we can see active the kind of religious, spiritual, transcendent, or meaning–centered practice that seems to be evolving with reference to, and in the context of, media culture" (4).

The book begins with an introduction and overview by Schofield Clark, establishing a context in which to view the current world of religion and media studies. This is a well-presented section that highlights changes that have occurred in religious participation patterns post reformation and also several key issues and advancements in media studies which have developed in the last few decades. The overview recognizes some of the significant advancements that are unfolding in both disciplines, showing how we have gotten to where we are, and the possible future of interdisciplinary studies on this topic. Schofield Clark notes that this type of work is not sectarian in nature, nor is it developing merely for religious institutional usage, but rather it is creating a new paradigm in which to view and interpret religion and media in our contemporary culture.

Chapter two begins with an admirable essay by David Morgan titled "Protestant Visual Practice and American Visual Culture." In this section Morgan demonstrates the close and intertwined connection between developing media technology in the United States in the nineteenth century and the expansion of an evangelical belief system. His work examines the "new mass culture of printed material" organizations such as the American Tract and Bible Societies employed to expand their evangelization abilities. Using a number of primary sources, his chapter supports an argument made by David Nord (1984) that these Evangelical Christian societies can actually be attributed with the invention of mass media in the United States. He builds upon this premise in a very convincing and detailed approach, demonstrating the manner in which these organizations correlated "Faith in the Word made flesh . . . into the word made of ink and paper" (42). Despite that "ink and paper" being mechanically mass-produced. Readers may be disappointed with the length of Morgan's article; unfortunately it appears that he has to cut short his discussion due to editorial constraints. This happens in several sections of the book and reflects the venue the submissions were derived from, namely conference papers with time limitations on their presentations. Fortunately, many of the works were further developed and more substantial versions of their arguments are available elsewhere. For instance, Morgan (1999) has a completed manuscript on this topic.

In the following section, Erica Doss examines the sacred and religious aura that is developing over Elvis in her chapter "Believing in Elvis: Popular Piety in Material Culture." Her work demonstrates just how complicated religious practice and belief is in the contemporary environment, exploring issues of implicit religion and spirituality beyond the constraints of traditional religious organizations, practices, and even beliefs. This is followed by three chapters that examine how religion is mediated in the public sphere through various forms of media. This is a very interesting section and as the editors note, the chapters "reaffirm the notion that religion as it is expressed is often quite different from religion as we see it when it is associated with formal institutions" (87). J. Shawn Landres challenges those reading his paper to expand their notion and concepts of what constitutes sacred space. This is done through fieldwork and a very detailed case study examining Asian American Murals in Los Angeles. It is a theoretically insightful and well-grounded piece that challenges the reader to consider the substance of sacred space, how it is created, how it is maintained, and how its boundaries fluctuate based upon perception. This is followed by a chapter by Diane Winston, who examines the performed religion of the Salvation Army from the 1880s to the 1920s, and Michele Rosenthal account of TV criticism that appeared in the "Christian Century" magazine during the 1940s to 1960.

Section three of the book presents two interesting case studies that investigate the process through which the news media come to construct stories about religion. The first study by John Schmalzbauer is a detailed ethnographic piece that explores the manor in which twenty Catholic and evangelical journalists balance their relationship between faith and work at the upper levels of New York and Washington, DC journalism. Through detailed interviews, Schmalzbauer presents a theoretical paradigm that demonstrates the varying responses people of faith have when they are called upon to report religion and religious issues. He proposes that "Catholic and evangelical journalists translate their religious conviction into professional discourse through what I call multivocal bridging languages, which combine vocabularies drawn from both journalism and their religious communities" (168). By using this form of language, journalists of faith are often able to put forward material that runs counter to issues of objectivity by presenting issues within the genres of human-interest journalism and advocacy journalism. Schmalzbauer notes that these individuals do maintain, what he calls, the rhetoric of objectivity and in fact may respond in several different ways when it comes to dealing with issues of religion within media. This is followed by Mark G. Borchrt, who writes on the Southern Baptist controversy and how this became manifest and displayed within press.

Section four of the book examines implicit religion and mediated public ritual. This is a controversial section of the book because it challenges readers to "retheorize an understanding of ritual for the media age" (201). Carolyn Marvin pushes the boundaries of classification of ritual by asking the reader to consider that "fundamental rituals of social, cultural, and national identity revolve around powerful themes of the body and blood sacrifice" (201). Her study examines criminal justice "sacrificial" rituals within the framework of implicit civil religion. Ronald Grimes follows with a chapter simply titled "Ritual and the Media" which presents a very detailed account of the complex and intertwined relationship between media and ritual -- ritual that is both explicitly and implicitly religious. His chapter highlights how media both mediates ritual and also can develop and embrace ritual acts, becoming an aspect of that which is occurring. In his overview, Grimes presents a very detailed literature review of current material on ritual and media studies, focusing on performance-oriented theories of ritual as a starting point for the developing study.

Part five of the book examines religion on the Internet, examining explicit religion within a new media context. In the first chapter, Bruce Lawrence raises several important issues in his examination of Islam being presented on and through the Internet medium. In particular, he examines how different groups within Islam are attempting to establish control and authority within cyberspace. His chapter highlights the difficulty the tradition faced, and is still facing, due to questions of authority and legitimation online. He also rightly questions the relationship occurring due to online demographic diversity, arguing that countries with Internet access and accessibility disproportionately affect the content of what is available on the Internet -- and this is not representative of the diverse Islamic tradition, which has a significant number of its adherents in countries without Internet access. Jan Fernback follows with a chapter examining Internet ritual based upon a case study of neopagan online interaction. In her chapter she has to overcome several theoretical obstacles, including developing a ritual theory framework that allows for online interaction to be classified as ritual. Fernback solidly argues "while cyberspace is a ritual site of religiosity, it can also serve as a site for the reconstruction of embodied rituals in a textual mode" (266). Although she provides several examples of online interaction, she does not demonstrate or analyze any "traditional" forms of online ritual. This is a shortcoming and also raises the question that perhaps actual online rituals (not simply discourse and exchanges concerning ritual) are much more rare than had been initially presented by a number of scholars (including my own work, Helland, 2000). Further research is needed on this topic, and a conference specifically organized to address this issue is planned for the University of Heidelberg in October of 2004. The final paper by David Nash is an exceptional essay that challenges scholars examining religion on the Internet to see that the types of interaction occurring through this medium have a historical precedent and are not wholly unique. As a case in point, Nash draws from the history of the British Freethinkers, demonstrating the parallels that occurred within their interactions (using press, radical news papers, and meeting halls) with the online interactions that are occurring today. Despite the similarities, Nash also recognizes the unique aspects of Internet communication and the advantages this medium has given to contemporary Freethinker Movements.

Part six of the book examines specific religions and specific media in a national and ethnic context. This is an important dimension to the study of media and religion, since a great majority of the work done on this topic focuses upon the West, and the United States in particular. The section begins with a short but astute and extremely well written chapter by Alf Linderman. In it he develops a balanced theoretical view concerning religious television reception. Due to the clear and concise manner in which the chapter is written, Linderman is able to present several complicated methodological and theoretical issue in a language that makes them accessible to non-experts in the field. Through a specific case study concerning religious television reception in Sweden, Linderman demonstrates how a shift in methodological approach can reinterpret and build upon previous findings, developing new frameworks that add depth and complexity to the issues being studied. This is followed by Michael Berkowitz who expounds the force of images in developing religious and ethnic-national identities, examining Jewish images in the United States and Britain during the development of the Zionist Movement and the creation of a Jewish State as a case study. The third paper in this section is an excellent contribution by Knut Lundby. In the chapter he examines the differences between American Televangelism and African Anglicanism, through a detailed case study concerning the ongoing religious transformation occurring in Tsanzaguru, Eastern Zimbabwe. Through fieldwork, Lundby demonstrates the complexity involved over issues of religious representation and national identity occurring in Africa. He developed the case study particularly to "invite questions of identity in relation to an indigenous cultural form linked to a colonial past" (330). In the study, he reveals the intricacies of religious representation in an age of globalization, competing national identities, countercultural challenges, and community formation.

The book concludes with a somewhat problematic paper. In "'Speaking in Tongues, Writing in Vision': Orality and Literacy in Televangelistic Communications," Keyan Tomaselli and Arnold Shepperson develop a theoretical model, based upon televangelist communication practices, to aid the success of community broadcast media. Expanding upon a communications transmission system originally developed by Eris Michaels (1990), the authors attempt to demonstrate why some forms of communication are successful upon the community-based levels. The difficulty with the paper is the manner in which Tomaselli and Shepperson describe televangelism. According to the authors, "Televangelsits connect with their audiences by offering some kind of intelligibility to people for whom local and familiar ways of going-on have begun to break down" (345). They also assume that people who watch these forms of program are functioning at a particular level of intellectual development -- in their own words, individuals "whose worlds have not been forged on a need for expert intellectual literacy" (347). Tomaselli and Shepperson also argue that the "lure of televangelism, then, can be seen in the way its practitioners offer to reconnect a community in crisis with its vision of what has always worked" (349). This is further reduced to stating that, "[t]he success of the electronic church lies precisely in their ability to engender strong emotional interpretants in their congregants. The strongest emotion readily experienced by anyone is fear, and the fear of death that underpins eschatological and soteriological anthropologies has a powerful appeal when introduced into communities that have undergone some major crisis of experience" (356). Although this may be true in some cases, it appears to be too broad an assertion when discussing a multi-billion dollar a year business in the United States alone. Televangelist appeal is an extremely complex issue. For instance, Dr. Mike Murdock preaching on how to obtain God's prosperity on the Black Entertainment Television channel is an entirely different event than Pat Robertson preaching on the Christian Broadcasting Network concerning Jesus' love. And although there may be fundamental aspects of the communication system that enable the theory presented to work in some cases, the authors do not recognize that an enormous number of "electronic churches" fail or never succeed, despite the organization employing exactly the same communication techniques and networks as the successful televangelists organizations. This, for the most part, can be attributed to the charisma of the individual presenting the message, another aspect of the appeal of televangelism not considered in the theory.

Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media: Explorations in Media, Religion, and Culture is an exceptional book. Through various methodological approaches and truly interdisciplinary research, the contributors have presented a vital picture in understanding the role religion plays in media and media plays in religion. This book should be required reading for anyone pursuing media studies at the graduate level. It would also be highly recommended for those studying religion and contemporary culture and for individuals interested in the way religion and spirituality continue to advance and transform to keep pace with societal developments.

Helland, Christopher. "Online Religion/Religion Online and Virtual Communitas," in Jeffery K. Hadden and Douglas E. Cowan (Eds.), Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises. New York: JAI Press, 2000.

Michaels, Eric. "A Model of Teleported Texts." Continuum 3, No. 2 (1990): 8-31.

Morgan, David. Protestants and Pictures: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Age of American Mass Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Nord, David Paul. "The Evangelical Origins of Mass
Media in America, 1815-1835." Journalism Monographs (1984): 1-30.

Christopher Helland:
Christopher Helland is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology of Religion at the University of Toronto, Centre for the Study of Religion. His dissertation focuses upon online religious participation patterns and he has several publications on this topic, including: "Surfing for Salvation," Religion (32:4); "Online Religion/Religion Online and Virtual Communitas," in Jeffery K. Hadden and Douglas E. Cowan (Eds.), Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises (JAI Press); and, forthcoming, "Popular Religion and the World Wide Web: A Match Made in [Cyber]Heaven," in Lorne Dawson and Douglas Cowan (Eds.), Religion Online/Online Religion: Finding Faith on the Internet (Routledge).  <c_hella@yahoo.com>

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