Religion, Media and the Public Sphere

The idea of religions engaging in new technological media is most compellingly curious when we consider that it is not something that has happened before.

Initially, my reaction is to think that this engagement isn’t something new because media has always been progressing and public spheres have always been changing. But the first part of this isn’t true. Media has never done what it’s doing right now – perhaps best described as a whirlwind in which one must constantly re-invent oneself (through Bebo, MySpace, FaceBook, LinkedIn, etc.) and no one has ever had the same kind of opportunities that allow instant access and global connectivity. The effects are starling when one considers that it was only a small number of years ago that university life consisted of running around with “physical books” and “actual pens”. Nowadays, the very idea of being without a phone or laptop is shocking.

With such strict expectations in our media lives, what are our expectations of other things, including religion?

We no longer expect films to be in the cinema, or even on DVD; they are streamed. We are beginning to feel the same way about books, though there still lingers an expectation of physical paper for many of us. In this way, our expectation for stories is slipping away from the physical/’live’/real ceremony (including news).

We no longer expect physical contact and ‘live’ interaction with our wider friendship groups. But we do expect family to be there for us (not just online), don’t we? Or is that becoming another social network?

We (particularly as students) expect to let our hair down with drink or drugs in the same kind of way we have before.  We expect to get examined/interviewed/judged in the same kind of way as before. These are examples of ‘ceremonies’ which are still physical/real/’live’. However, our images of Sci-Fi are increasingly restricting events, processes and consumption to technological media.

Religion is, I would argue, a little more exempt from this. It is difficult, even, to think of examples of media-sization of the religious or numinous in sci-fi…

…sometimes religion (unless it has become ‘outdated’, which is common) remains as the sole power that is larger than the science involved: e.g. Star Trek, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Time Bandits. Elsewhere, the media-sization of religion is merely a joke: the “You’ve got prayers” divine e-mail account from Bruce Almighty is a perfect example. It is as if we think it ridiculous for God to be reduced to media representation. How He can fit into a tablet or a smartphone is ridiculous.

(Perhaps, though, this is no more ridiculous than the idea of God being contained in a book; but this is a thought for the philosophers.)

What this all means practically is that religion as media in itself has yet to be taken seriously. However, this is all from a secular, Western point of view. For those in Egypt or Israel whose access to technological media is perhaps slightly limited, and for whom religion is a huge part of their lives, it makes sense for their engagement in media to evolve along religious lines. i.e. if I was a fundamentalist Egyptian Muslim who wanted to watch TV, I’d want to watch an Islamic program. But perhaps I’d still have a pretty clear idea that my physical praying and trips to the mosque were of utmost importance.

In the case of TB Joshua, we have a strong counter-example. From and through his website, Emmanuel.tv, one can perform many of the religious practices that otherwise might be physical/’live’/real. However, we talked in the lecture about the fetishization of media. And I think it would be reasonable to suggest that Emmanuel.tv is a media-sization of a pastor. It facilitates religious practices as a fetish item, and religious communication as a medium (in the way of a pastor).

Despite this assertion, Emmanuel.tv does illustrate a space into which religion can be made into media. It is the structural, performative and assistive facets of religion that can be emulated by religion. There remains a quality of the numinous which cannot be captured, but perhaps our vision into the future will develop until it is not unusual to find the numinous in new forms of media. It remains to be seen.

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