Religion and the Media
by Carlos A. Valle
The Rev. Carlos A. Valle is General Secretary of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC), 357 Kennington Lane, London SE11 5QY, England. This article is from Media Development, World Association for Christian Communication, London, 1992.
In the New Era of Religious Communication, Pierre Babin offers a striking contrast of world-views which helps to indicate the potential which TV and other media may have to affect our religiousness. To begin with Babin introduces us to the practice among some indian tribes living in the Canadian wilderness, of plugging their children's nostrils and covering their eyes after birth, the better to atune them to the noises of the forest in which they will have to survive. Then, in stark contrast to these 'hyper-auditory' individuals, made alert to the subtlest natural sounds, Babin invites us to consider the modern American adolescent, reared amidst the clamour of competing mass media (such an individual will have logged some 20,000 hours of viewing by the age of sixteen). Is it possible that individuals with such different degrees of media exposure would have similar ideas about God and the transcendent? Could their sense of the holy be thought to follow even remotely similar contours?"(1)
"Religion and Media" is a vast theme. I will offer only a few ideas, comments and questions here that might help future dialogue and reflection. References mainly will focus on television which has come to be the dominant medium. At the same time religion is spoken of in a very broad sense, which includes a feeling of transcendence, a cosmovision, an ethical evaluation, an emotive element and a certain personal commitment.
1. Society and media
There are at least three considerations to take into account in dealing with the theme. First of all, the pluralist character of modem society. Social mobility and geography give rise to conglomerates of cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. This happened in several countries in Europe, which mostly after WW II opened their borders to receive immigrants from Eastern European countries and from some Asian countries because they were short of labour. This plurality is closely related to a secularist development that need not necessarily be understood in a negative way. As David Bosch reminds us: "One now distinguished carefully between 'secularism', which one rejected, and 'secularization', which one welcomed and propagated."(2) In other words, the world has reached a certain point of autonomy - human beings have now come of age [D. Bonhoeffer] - which affects, for example, the religious sphere. Thus, its relationship with the churches has become more critical, less submissive, more individualist. The influence of the Enlightenment, which among other things proclaimed that everyone was an autonomous individual, has an immediate effect on Christianity and on Protestantism in particular. The church lost its central role, the individual had the right and the ability to know God's will, and the individual could decide what to believe.
Second, the place of media in modem societies. The source of information and value training is more and more often the media. A well-known theologian used to say that we have to read the Bible and the newspaper together. But what newspaper? Which newspapers tell the truth, bring the information of what really is happening in the world? Who decides what the news and its contents are to be?
The process of privatising the media offers a particular model of communication that, undoubtedly, will affect all religious expressions, In public service the supreme criterion is the presence of society and its institutions and respect for religious and cultural traditions. In private service the objective is to reach the largest audience in order to obtain the greatest profit. What chance do we have of knowing ourselves and others' problems, needs and dreams, if our voices and theirs are forced to pass through filters that hold back all that affects the interests of the owners of the media? Today these filters are located in a handful of large centres that dominate the information and communication in our world.
Third, the nature of the media. The audio-visual media (cinema, television, etc.) populate their hours with an immense number of people in an endless attempt to excite our senses. Very deep areas of the human being are reached by the senses. The media invade our privacy, and we still do not know the effects that such a multiplicity of stimuli have on us. Religion and affectivity are closely related and all religious expression in the media is stamped by its affective impact. The mass media have shown signs of producing, above all, the destructuring of the human being. The fragmentation of the image, of information, the manipulation involved in 'montage', creates a kind of partial 'truth', which prevents authentic communication. Mina Ramirez, a sociologist from the Philippines, reminds us: "The most subtle form of dominance is that of the mind. The most detestable sort of dependence is not material but spiritual: people have lost the power to think critically for themselves. The moment people lose this power, they are not able to communicate. They can only ape." (3)
2. From uncritical acceptance to total resection
The attitudes of people of religion towards the media are extremely varied from uncritical acceptance to total rejection of media's presence in the life of society.
The advent of the mass media was well received by the churches, although they expressed certain fears. For this reason, firstly, they tried to reduce the media to being instruments at their service. Secondly, they considered themselves the only ones fit to teach their correct use. Thirdly, they had a marked distrust of the audience, which had to be protected, directed and controlled. Generally, paternalism leads to domestication.
Today, the biggest criticism levelled by people of religion is that media are usurping religion's place in society. That is to give shape to a value system and to express the essence of a culture. For some people, for example, television has come to be a kind of religion. As if its secret role were to tell us how the world- ip, how it works and what it means. Therefore they think that the technological cosmovision offers at least three threats to religion. Firstly, it is derailing the greater part of interests, motivations, satisfactions and energies that are the purpose of religion. Religious people have feared the media especially because the media threaten traditional religious values and beliefs. They see how, as one result, the churches are emptying. Secondly, religious language is being appropriated. New symbols, images and rites are being created. "The mass media - especially television - have taken command of the power of myth ... One role of myth is to situate us, to define the world and our place in it."(4) Thirdly, religious themes that have no connection with organised religion are being developed. This is welcomed by some independent evangelistic groups shaped by a remarkably uncritical faith in the media.
3. Religion and media: three responses
What can we say about the use of mass media for religious ends? There are multiple replies, but here are at least three.
First, Malcom Muggeridge(5), a veteran English communicator with a long career in the world of radio and television, thought that one should do without television because it is a medium that traffics in fantasy, that creates images and ideas that are not true and does not have and cannot have any relationship with truth. For him, the medium is an autonomous element capable of creating its own dynamic and, therefore, its own communication structure. Yet faith can be lived, received and shared outside society's structure and, so, the media are not only unnecessary but harmful. Muggeridge saw using mass media as a "fourth temptation" which Jesus would have rejected because in reality "this medium, because of its very nature, does not lend itself to constructive purposes." On the contrary, media "are giving to Christian society something which is dangerously destructive."
This position is based on a conception of faiths considered as timeless in order to maintain its purity and integrity. Without overlooking the manipulative and deceptive purposes of the mass media, it should not be forgotten that this same atemporal concept is used by those who make use of the fantasy of the media to communicate very effectively the fantasy of their own "gospel".
Second, according to Neil Postman(6), any religious celebration in the media requires an environment invested with a certain sacrality. To do this certain rules of behaviour are needed which are denied by the circumstances in which a religious programme is watched. People eat or talk or distract themselves with other activities and the way of behaving required by the religious celebration is lacking. But there is more - for Postman, the screen is saturated with profane happenings, associated with the world of commercialism and entertainment. In a way it supposes that religion can be successful on television only if it offers what people want, which presumes the trivialisation and emptying out of content. In this respect, we should accept a certain kind of warning against mass media because their manipulative intentions are more obvious. But this complex reality must not lead us to believe that a retreat to more traditional forms will simply provide us with the possibility of avoiding all contamination in communication. Has the Christian community always been unpolluted? Since when have only angels preached from pulpits?
Third, Giorgio Giradet(7), an Italian Waldensian pastor, believes that one can find an alternative to extreme positions like the total rejection of Muggeridge, or the marked optimism he finds in the "electronic church" and in Pope John Paul 11. For him, that alternative has to take five things into account: (a) the importance of the media in a context that includes technical, financial, political and cultural aspects; (b) that using an electronic medium, like it or not, is a political act; (c) doing everything possible not to isolate the medium from reality; (d) preventing technical questions from alienating the medium from reality (problems of quality, montage, etc.); (e) encouraging public participation, forestalling passivity. He concludes: "The struggle for and insistence on possible and sensible use of the media of mass communication centres in the end on reflection about the church." We have to accept that in our world today mass media are more and more becoming the most important source of information and entertainment for us. We also need to recognise that they can play a significant role in encouraging participation in the search for a more just and peaceful world.
We live in a pluralist society in which the relationship of people to organised religion has been weakened. And yet spiritual needs appear more evident. Is it possible and desirable to use the media as new channels for manifestations of the spirit? No simple answer can be given to this question. Many different considerations have to be taken into account: media ownership, legislation, professional rivalry, economic interests, social and cultural mores, the media as supermarket of religion, guidelines for commercial advertising as a communication criterion and many more. What must not be forgotten is that communication is not offered to mass audiences. People receive, select and interpret the messages sent to them from their own social and cultural viewpoints and, on the basis of that interpretation, draw their own conclusions. For this reason, a genuine encounter between media and religion carries with it an attitude of respect for the dignity of people.
1. Chris Arthur, Introduction to RELIGION AND THE MEDIA, University of Wales
Press, Cardiff, 1993, p. 13.
2. David Bosch, TRANSFORMING COMMUNICATION, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 1996, p. 326.
3. Mina Ramirez, "Communication as if people matter: the challenge of alternative communication" in THE MYTH OF THE INFORMATION REVOLUTION, Sage, London, 1986, pp. 104-105.
4. Gregor Goethals, "Media Mythologies", in RELIGION AND THE MEDIA, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1993, p. 25.
5. Malcom Muggeridge, CHRIST AND THE MEDIA, Hodder and Stoughton, London,1977.
6. Neil Postman, AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH, Viking Penguin, 1985.
7. Giorgio Giradet, IL VANGELO CHE VIENE DAL VIDEO, Ed. Claudiana, Torino, 1980.
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