It doesn't take a PhD to see that religion and the media often intersect, intermesh, and play off one another. Whether it's a commercial about cell phone charging starring God as the protagonist (read "#SuperBowl religion") or how al-Dawla al-Islamiyya (ISIS) uses social media to advance its cause through digital propaganda, religion & digital media are constantly in conversation as forces in the globalized world.
While it may not take a PhD to recognize this interchange of religion & media, it may take one to navigate its ins and outs and properly apperceive its many nodes and nuances. Last month (January) I had the honor of meeting Dr. Stewart Hoover of the University of Colorado Boulder at the University of Florida's "Religion & Culture in a Digital Age" conference.
Dr. Hoover is Professor of Media Studies and adjoint of Religious Studies at UCB. He is the founder/director of the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture and his research interests focuses on the media audience and reception studies. He utilizes approaches founded in the fields of cultural studies, anthropology, and qualitative sociology. He is well-known for his work theorizing and explaining media and religion, particularly the phenomenon of televangelism and also, more recently, religion journalism.
What follows is my interview with Dr. Hoover talking about his current interests, getting a broad survey of the field, and also some discussion of what opportunities this area of study might offer both the serious academic looking for a topic to dive into (ah hem, grad students) and the arm-chair religious student attempting to apperceive the dual forces of religion and media in the 21st-century.
What got you interested in studying the intersection of, and interplay between, religion and media?
I’ve always been interested in media and in culture. I grew up in a small town with a diverse ethnic and religious culture, and was I think conscious from a young age of how cultures define people and vice versa. Since it was a small, rural, community, I also became interested in how metropolitan cultures condition peripheral ones and how those at the peripheries negotiate their relations with the wider world. And, religion was an important element of these processes, and has only grown in prominence in the years since thee 1979 revolution in Iran, the rise of Evangelical politics in the US, the growth of global Pentecostalism, and then of course 9/11.
And, of course, at the time I was starting out, there were few of us doing this, so it was a way of having a voice and a project.
What are you interested in at the moment or working on right now?
We have a research project underway with colleagues abroad which is a comparative analysis of media ambivalence in daily life. A lot of ambivalence is religiously-based, but we find fascinating layers and embrications in the ways media cultures work into the lives of our informants.
I’m also developing work in the media and religious authority, and in connection with that, on the history of Establishmeent or Ecumenical Protestantism in relation to media and media culture.
How relevant is this discussion and why do people, in academia and at the popular level, need to be thinking about it?
It is very relevant. Academic and other discourse lags way behind in understanding the extent to which contemporary culture is inflected with religion, with near-religion, with anti-religion, and with spiritualities of various valences and the extent to which you cannot understand this without attending to media cultures. So, across a range of fields, we have an incomplete scholarly project as a result of this neglect.
You wrote, “It has been argued that the media are today the most credible sources of social and cultural information, setting the agenda and the context for much of what we think and know about reality. Religion, which addresses itself to such questions, must be expressed and experienced differently as a result” and intimated that religion and media compete for the central constructive roles in the formation of social solidarity. Explain this:
It is simply that the media must be taken for granted. They are ubiquitous and definitive. They are where we spend our time, they are what we attend to, they are what we talk about with each other, they are thee common language and common cultures today. To exist today, institutions and cultures and communities must increasingly exist in thee media. Media languages set the agenda of what we talk about, the terms of those conversations, and they traffic in, and influence the broad public consensus where such a thing exists. Religions, to the extent they are public (and they are increasingly so) must submit themselves to the demands of the mediated cultural marketplace.
Religion and media can collide, but they can also combine and crossover each other at times. Talk a bit about the sometimes positive, and negative, senses of the interaction between religion and media.
I think that religion and media do, in fact, enhance one another. The most fundamental way this is true is that the media sphere today is a primary sphere for the generation of religious symbols, discourses, communities, affinities, etc. this is even so for the established and historic confessional faaiths, but is more so of course for emergent traditions, discourses, communities, and subgroups. Media culture is producing or generating religion today, more than ever before, and that is not so much a collision or even an interaction between “media” and “religion” as it is an entirely new space of generation. This is most obvious in digital media, where my colleagues and I have been theorizing about emergent “third spaces of digital religion.”
You mentioned that it is important to situate the study of religion and media in its historical context. How do we avoid the allure of the “newness” of such a subject?
Through intellectual rigor and discipline. Good histories demonstrate the utility of not being caught up in the present. We need to attend to and listen to those.
Most people would have a familiarity with Macluhan’s “the medium is the message.” You take a more meaning-based approach. Why this is preferred over a medium approach?
Among the several problems (for me) with “medium theory” are two primary ones. First, as it is applied, it is over-general. Its claims are not specific enough and thee kinds of “effects” or implications it proposes are hard to specify and attribute to media, mediation, etc. A second problem is one of scale, medium theories tend to look on too grand a level, and fail to helpfully describe what is happening in spheres of actual, historically-embedded practice. They also often stumble into a kind of class-based “taste” arguments, where the kinds of meanings and functions attributed are judged in nearly moral terms. I’ve always found it much more enlightening to do field research on what people actually do with media, and build theory “up” or “out” from there. That allows us to see the many ways that media and mediation are integrated and layered into the fabric of lived lives, and to see that media “affects” of the kinds suggested by medium theorists are often too grand.
What is the relevance of the “globalization” or “transnationalism” discussion in the realm of religion and media studies?
This would be a treatise if I actually answered it. I’ll just say that it is more obvious all the time that we must look at things in a global context. Not only do media enable religious and cultural transnationalisms of a variety of kinds. A global view provides powerful insights into the meanings and functions of mediated religion in many local contexts.
What religion, in your opinion, is the most mediated? If you don’t feel you can answer this, why not?
Wow. Lots of pretenders. My favorite to look at now, because it is so complex, is neo-Pentecostalism. But is it the “most” I don’t know…
What BIG question or area of study would you recommend a young scholar or interested individual go out and tackle in this field?
History, history, history……that is, take on historiography and historicism in relation to thee range of phenomena that seem to present themselves ever and always in media and religion.
That, and authority, and the ways that structures of authority condition or determine or afford our understandings of these important questions
Thank you Dr. Hoover for your time and consideration and being part of the conversation here at www.kenchitwood.com!