I attended two sessions at the recent meetings of the International Communication Association (my primary scholarly home) that came into conversation with one another in the hearing and reflecting.

The first was an otherwise very fine Popular Communication Panel, “Sounds Global: Popular Music, Politics, and Discourse.” The second was a plenary panel titled “Do Disciplines Matter?”

In the “Sounds Global” panel, we were treated to a rich set of papers dealing with particular locations of popular expression, with varying implications in gender, politics, globalization, and violence. One paper dealt with the trajectory of image-making in pop music, looking at a popular female Korean Wave group. It followed their evolution in form toward international markets and noted the sexual, gestural, and gendered dimensions of this shift. A second looked at rap music in the Turkish Community in Germany as a resistive force, with an elaborate and layered analysis of the ways this has evolved in the form of specific groups and rappers. The third focused on popular and generational online discourses of resistance In Iran, including reflection on media meta-discourses, including tensions between Iranian and diasporic media voices. A fourth concentrated on mediated resistance in Norway in the wake of the Otoya massacre carried out by an ultra-nationalist skinhead.

In the panel on disciplines the discussion centered around the conundrum of disciplinary distinction and rigor on the one hand and the need for interdisciplinarity and dialogue on the other. Both are important, one can be emphasized at the expense of the other, etc. but, the first panel illustrates yet another value of disciplinarity.

Each of the presentations connected its chosen phenomenon with the deep and rich panoply of culturalist theory-making around identities, mediation, and public representation. The paper from Korea focused on how the particularized and original effervescence of this pop group was gradually integrated into the global pop-culture (specifically the “Korean Wave”) scene and the concessions it made and the gestures, expressions, and representations that marked this evolution. These included gestures of gendered bodily display and discursive performativity. The paper on dissident rap in Germany looked at the work of male and female rap artists in the immigrant community and the means and methods of distinction and particularity they adopted, negotiating evolving standards of “German-ness” in relation to “other-ness,” and the tools of cultural distinction and difference available to them. The Iran paper looked at the affordances of digital and other media to support voices of resistance and dissidence in Iran. Youth culture, in particular, is rising in new and nuanced ways against the dominant public cultures of Iran, and these media artists want to assert a uniquely Iranian voice in what has become a global flow of diasporic discourse, much of it dominated by voices outside Iran. Finally, the paper that looked at the Norwegian massacre concentrated on a specific hip-hop group that arose in the aftermath, voicing immigrant concerns about the ultra-nationalist streams of influence present in the mainstream parties in Norway.

Each of these papers referred to important literatures related to culturalist media analysis. Feminist, post-colonialist, intersectionalist and polymediatic ideas were brought to bear. All were good and all were compelling.

One very obvious thing was missing: religion. Each of these papers trod turf rife with religious history, conflict, meanings, attributions, claims, and exclusions. It is hard to think about standards of public performativity around culture in contemporary Korea without at least framing the role that Protestantism has played in framing public culture there, particularly as regards women, their roles and their representations. The resistant voices in Germany were Turkish, and thus at least nominally rooted in Islam and its histories and traditions of expression, meaning-making, and politics, and its internal struggles over forces which wish to articulate valid and legitimate claims to different visions of modernity—this project heavily inflected by Turkey’s experience with integration or non-integration into Europe. The public culture of Iran is, of course Shia Muslim. There is so much to be learned about the capacities and affordances of religiously-inflected cultures such as Iran’s to support or nuance or layer resistance, and the cultural and symbolic resources that might be involved. Finally, ethno-nationalism across Europe is heavily and troublingly inflected with religion. (Anders Brevik, the shooter in the Otoya massacre was an example of this—many headlines read “was Brevik a Christian terrorist?”). Modern Europe is, of course, stunningly secular (particularly in comparison with the US), but this ethnonationalist development seems in layered and nuanced ways to be inflected with religion, with “the religious,” or with “cultural religion” (see, for example the debates over religion that arose during the drafting of the European Constitution).

So what is my point here, how does this relate to disciplines in the field of communication?

Each of these papers could have benefitted greatly from a careful review of these religion-related dimensions. Why didn’t they? I asked the question of religion in the panel, and it was clear that all four panelists agreed that it was a gap. So why did this occur? It was not the fault of these young scholars.

It is simple. There is a gap in the literatures–in the discipline(s). There were no widely-circulated articles, no contending theories, no commonly-known arguments to refer to, as there were in the other literatures that *were* referred to to great benefit to these projects. The fields of mass communication, cultural studies, and media studies, in which these papers were situated, have a gap in knowledge when it comes to religion. Much could be said and written about this and about why this is the case.

To the question of the value of disciplines, this is a value: they provide frameworks, languages, theories, methods, arguments, and ongoing trajectories of scholarly discourse. They cannot be ignored. Could any of the papers I’ve described have “gotten away” without referring to gender or to post-colonial theory?

So, for a lot of not-so-good reasons, there is still a scholarly “blind spot” around religion, and our scholarship and broader public knowledge are the poorer for that fact.

The death of Fred Phelps today marks a turning point of some kind, I am sure.  I don’t wish to overplay his significance, or be complicit inImage his self-promotion, and I certainly disagreed with both his practices and his theology.

Nonetheless, Phelps’s “Westboro Baptist Church,”  which appeared from the outside to be less “church” and more “advocacy organization,” achieved a great deal in terms of publicity.  It would have been more effective, perhaps, if the rhetoric had not been so strained.  The tenuous connection between progress on gay rights and deaths in war made so little intuitive sense to the general public mind.

There is an element of the Phelps phenomenon that interests me as a student of media and religion. That is the curious challenge his efforts posed to journalism.  Was it a “church?”  Was it “politics?”  “What was it?”  The fact that it claimed to be a “church” certainly afforded it a zone of legal protection (and advocacy by even the ACLU from time to time), but it also seemed to give it a similar zone of deference from some in journalism.   When it occurred, this deference was rooted in a long-standing convention whereby journalism chooses not to investigate religions on the basis of their truth claims.  Journalists who would not be shy about looking under the skirts of corporate power have become weak in the knees when it comes to religion, time and again.

Was this good professional practice in the case of Fred Phelps?  Surely not.  Why not include in every story about Westboro a note that it was a marginal expression of a marginal faith, that it represented so few people that it was hardly worth legitimating?

To do so would have meant engaging in a kind of evaluation that journalism rarely does when it comes to the religion beat.  As a result, Westboro got a kind of “pass” from the press. It will be interesting to see whether the post mortems on Phelps involve any self-reflection on these issues.

A number of commentators have begun to focus on subtle shifts in language and meaning as Vladimir Putin re-purposes the Russian project.  The claim to Crimea is rooted in a more “ethnically-pure” vision of “Russian-ness.”  As Homi Bhabha has noted with regard to the crisis in Balkans in the 1990s, such projects of purification (and this, thankfully, seems to promise only to be a rhetorical, rather than a physical process of “purification”) in fact require a great deal of cultural “work.”

As in the Balkans, this cultural work will necessarily involve religion.  This role for religion, as a “marker” of national or ethnic identity, illustrates the complexity of accounting for “the religious” in contemporary public culture.

It will be interesting to see how journalistic coverage of the crisis treats the role of “religion” if at all.  Will it consider it to be important enough?  Will it convey the subleties?   Prior experience does not make one hopeful.

There is current news of the prospects of explicitly “Christian” media.  There is a long-standing dynamic in the media marketplace focused on the boundary between secular and “Christian” titles and products.

Many Christian artists have aspired to “cross over” between these domains, and there has been an understandably evangelistic aspiration to do so.  The idea, seemingly, is to pull off a kind of legerdemain where an unsuspecting secular or general audience would stumble onto a Christian message without intending to do so.

A secondary impulse is presumably to provide “safe” programming for Christians at large in the common culture.

Whichever is the objective, this has existed within a larger, long-standing, claim that the secular media are somehow inimical to the Christian message.  There is lots of literature on this, from the scholarly, to the popular.  (For a good account in the scholarly literature, see Michael Lindsay’s ambitious book, which contains a chapter on the topic).

This conversation got new spark this week with two incidents.  First, it was announced that the Motion Picture Academy had decided to rescind an award nomination for best original song.  The rebuffed song is “Alone, Yet Not Alone,” composed for a film by the same name.  The film is a feature effort by a group of film makers loosely identified with the ominous “Dominionist” branch of Protestantism, and features an anachronistic story line pointing to the triumph of white, Christian culture on the North American continent.  An account of the controversy, and of the film, can be found here.

The Academy’s reasons for this action had to do with alleged influence over the nomination process.  The original nomination was, indeed, a surprise, and there were lots of questions about how it had happened in the first place.  Regardless, this action has unsurprisingly fueled a response on the right side of the religious culture wars.  The narrative is the expected one, that “the media” are irredeemably hostile to Christianity.

This is a very complex issue, one that is not treatable in blog length, other than to point out that this conflict is actually inevitable.  No individual religious perspective could hope to find its way, as a differentiated cultural object, into common circulation without being “marked” in some way.  Otherwise, what is the point?  And this “marking” will necessarily make it marginal. There is nothing that can be done about this, in spite of the position of some—including the “Dominionists”—that a particular religion should be at the center of culture and politics, a sort of “state religion” familiar from places like Iran.

Those concerned with the prospects of Christianity in public, mediated culture, though, can take heart from the other news of the week: Amazon’s decision to start its own Christian imprint “Waterfall Press.”  Most major book publishers have long had Christian lines, and so this is kind of unremarkable.

It also does not address the larger issue, as these Christian imprints continue to operate with that marking on them, and thus function more as a haven for the Christian reading public (and Christians do read and buy books) than as an actual “leavening” of the culture—to paraphrase a common sentiment.  What this imprint will offer will be a whole range of books from commentaries to self-help, to spirituality, to “Christian Fiction” (the most interesting of all—see Alone Yet Not Alone above).

But, in a discourse that often paints “the media” with a broad brush as the bete noire of the Christian world, this is an example of those media instead reaching out to that audience.

What hovers over this whole argument are two larger questions/issues.  First, that all of this demonstrates how definitive, and in most ways uncontested, the role of the market is in valuing and organizing religion through its control of the religious marketplace.  Second, that within that marketplace there are some fundamental affects on religion. In this case, that to enter the media marketplace, they must necessarily differentiate themselves, and find their “brands” in a horizontal marketplace of “supply,” and thus relativized and unable to make unique truth or values claims outside that framework.

My New Years’ Day reverie was jarred by a historic moment.  Among the award-winning floats was the entry from the AIDS Health Foundation.   Its theme was “Love” and its central feature was a wedding cake on top of which a gay couple was being married by a clergy-woman-of color.

The float was also comprised of other Gay and Lesbian Couples.  A real watershed.  And the prepared script for the on-air commentators clearly highlighted the moment, giving a brief narrative of the couple-being-married.  It was all very clear–as long as you were watching the coverage on the Hallmark Channel–which we were.  Hallmark’s on-street commentator dutifully read the script, observing that doves had been relased from the float to commemorate the moment.  While it was not in close-up, the cameras stayed on the float while the now-married exchanged a first kiss.

(Checking online, I noted there had been some controversy in advance).

Thanks to modern technology, I was able to check out the coverage of the event on NBC, which I had recorded on my DVR.  Well, over there, Al Roker seemed to have gotten–or improvised–a different script.  He stressed the work of the Foundation, as the camera stayed discreetly distant from the action on top of the float. He did repeat the theme of the float, that love was the best antidote to AIDS. But that was about it.  Almost as an afterthought, he ended his commentary with a terse “…best wishes to the happy couples….”

So on NBC, you’d have to have tried a bit harder to ge the point of the float.  But at least they showed the float, ABC chose to break for a commercial and skipped both the marriage float and the one that immediately followed it (see below).

Back on Hallmark, an ironic–and religiously significant–juxtaposition.  The float immediatly after the AIDS entry was from the Lutheran Laymen’s League, a group that would decidedly *not* be copacetic with a gay marriage message.  It turned out that they had doves, too (or perhaps all the doves were theirs!)  The script for that float, as ready by the Hallmark crew, rather blandly repeated the common media bromides about the good works of religion and the League.  An uncomfortable conicidence (at least for those in the audience who were attuned to the current religious culture wars) was elided and glossed.  But that was better than NBC, where the truth of the moment was conveniently glossed over.

Religion was explicit in both floats.  On the AIDS Foundation float, a cleric-of-color performed an actual act of that office, a radical act that publicly and visibly in an excellent context for ritual public education.  But religion was not explicitly recognized in the official narrative read by the commentators.  The Lutheran Laymen’s float showed religion in the form of a little chapel surrounded by what appeared to be happy clerical couples of a certain age, and the text directed commentary toward the uncontroversial and tacit banality into which religion has been confined in American media discourse.

 It was a breakout moment, but one that evidenced some insights into what we are able to talk about and how.

I’ve long argued that U.S. journalism does a generally poor job of covering religion. There are, of course, good religion reporters, especially at the major papers (there used to be more).  But that’s just the “religion beat,” where religion can be cordoned off from the rest of the ongoing story of politics and culture.

This is again made obvious in the case of religion and the Tea Party.  A recent HuffPost piece on this by veteran religion reporter Deborah Caldwell presented some tantalizing evidence.  For example, who knew that Ted Cruz’s father is a megachurch pastor?  The article makes an even more telling and perhaps disturbing connection. Caldwell points out that Cruz Senior and other forces in the Tea Party movement are not just conservative Christians, they are allied with the darkly ominous Restorationist branch of Protestantism. Restorationists are millenarian but in a unique way. They long for an end times that involves the restoration of conservative Christianity as a kind of state religion in the U.S.

Now, this view does not seem to dominate Tea Party rhetoric.  Some Prominent Tea Partiers seem far more populist than they are Evangelical.  But, the core of Tea Party rhetoric, in particular its moralism and individualism, coincides nicely with the religious rhetoric of the Evangelical Right, and some of its rhetoric about the proper role of government echoes Restorationism.

My point is not to make that point, but to wonder aloud why there is not at least a bit more exploration of religion in the Tea Party in the mainstream media coverage of the movement.

It seems like journalism today is no better than the journalism of the past at seeing religion as a dimension of other stories—particularly politics stories—rather than just something that exists and persists at the margins.

 

A fascinating story from the Associated Press ran in several papers last week. It purported to chart the rise of a seemingly self-contradictory phenomenon: atheists who seem drawn to gather in church-like groups.  There are apparently a number of these around the world.  Members are reported to be pretty self-conscious about seeking the trappings of religion without the center figure of a “God.”  A photo that accompanied the story showed atheists at “worship,” a picture that could easily have been from any megachurch.

Atheism without God but with church?  It seems very different from many other trends, including the rising number—also noted in the story—who claim “no religion.” The story also links to the growing number who are “spiritual but not religious.”  These churched atheists seem to me to be more like the other side of that phenomenon, the small number who claim in surveys to be “religious but not spiritual.”  That is, rather than complying with the growing trend for religious people to be religious outside of formal structures, these atheists seem to want the structures, but not the spirituality, or the belief, or whatever we assume to be at the core of religion.

The reason this is so seemingly incoherent is because it is.  Atheists have a hard time being, well, “just atheist” in this culture.  America is swimming in religion, even today with growing numbers of unchurched.  Belief defines American culture, and the absence of belief is very hard to maintain.  Many atheists find themselves having to portray their atheism as a kind of belief, not as a rejection of belief.

This is evidence of the conditioning frame of religion in the culture and yes, in the media.  The mediation of religion has presented a form—the megachurch—which is the definitive current form.  Its mediation also conveys symbols and gestures of “the religious,” a conditioning frame that determines the terms of discourse about religion and about irreligion.  So, like religious authorities who must today exist in a mediated public frame, these megachurched atheists find themselves adapting that frame to an argument for a kind of religion without God.

That it is simply not a religion at all is testament to how determinative the mediated public religious sphere is.

This is not an easy time for Catholic media commentators. At least, for those media commentators who wear their Catholicism more or less on their sleeves.  For voices on the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum, there must be some discomfort with a new Pope who seems to be shaking things up and is apparently able to articulate more progressive language and ideals in ways that are publicly accessible.

There is a long tradition of Catholic commentary and some of the best–E.J. Dionne and Gary Wills, for example–have helpfully addressed contemporary cultural and political issues through the frames of their faith backgrounds.

There are others, though, who seem to see the situation as a confrontation between Catholic faith and contemporary culture, seeking to re-assert some version of Catholic faith as a balance against its dangerous trends.  Bill O’Reilly is a prominent (though conceptually trivial) example, as in his recent book on Jesus.  A far more substantive voice is Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times and frequent contributor elsewhere, including The Atlantic.  I have written about him before, most notably last winter during the Papal transition.

A column this week again caught my attention.  As I noted earlier, one has to read Douthat’s actual understandings of the role and place of Catholicism inferentially rather than directly, and that is obvious in this piece, titled The Promise and Peril of Pope Francis.

In it, Douthat presents an interesting provocation.  Noting that the historical trend  of the “past 40 years” has been for conservative and strict religions to flourish and progressive religions to fade.  In fact, he wants to argue that the liberal wings of all religions have simply disappeared into the broader culture, leaving little room in the middle.  What is left of the middle, he asserts, “…isn’t institutionally Judeo-Christian in the way it was in 1945. Instead, it’s defined by nondenominational ministries, ‘spiritual but not religious’ pieties and ancient heresies reinvented as self-help.”

This is where inference is necessary.  What is missing from this picture, to Douthat?  Clearly it is clerical authority, or “…organized faith…” as he calls it. And this organized faith is what constitutes religion to Douthat and to many conservatives.

I’d like to suggest that the evidence points to a different continuum than the one he proposes.  It is also possible to see that through the instruments of the culture, including the media, it is increasingly possible today to imagine and inhabit faith and spirituality without the legitimation of doctrinal authority.   That means that what Douthat fears on behalf of the new Pope is in fact the reality of modern life and modern culture: that there are ways of being religious, even Catholic, that defy traditional categories.  It also means that the indicators he uses to measure decline, attendance, etc., actually measure changing practices vis a vis clericalism and traditional authority.

Conservatives and traditionalists may lead parishes and movements that thrive and grow, but will do so in a refugium at the edge of the culture, an edge that may become smaller and smaller as time goes on.

A story out of the Vatican this morning seems to mark a turning point for the Catholic Church in Latin America.

Pope Francis (or “Papa Francisco” as he is known in the region) has authorized a rapprochement with liberation theology, the reformist movement of a generation ago directed at social justice for the region’s poor.  Liberation theologians were not popular with the past two popes, who actively suppressed the movement and marginalized its leaders.

That has now changed, according to news reports detailing how Gustavo Gutierrez, a prominent liberation theologian, has been invited to the Vatican for a chat.

Some coverage has already demonstrated what will be a too-easy version of this event.  The narrative that the recent marginality of the liberationist movement is a result of the power of the Vatican will predominate.

This ignores important realities on the ground. One is that liberation theology is suffering both from church pressure and from competitive pressures from the surging neo-Pentecostal movement across the region. As one informant said to me in my recent interviews in Brazil, “…the church has stated its preference for the poor, but the poor now prefer Pentcostalism…”    And, there are good reasons for this.  The church’s turn to the poor–such a theme of Francisco’s papacy so far–can be too easily read as a message that “…it is good, even noble, to be poor….”  But, as my informant, a former senior Catholic official, put it to me, “…the poor don’t want to be poor, they want to be rich.”  And the neo-Pentecostal discourse is all about “increase,” meaning health and wealth.

An even more important factor is the media, through which the Pentecostalist symbolic argument about wealth, success, and transcending poverty, is available across the television dial and through magazines, tapes, DVDs, radio, and of course, through the intense and spectacular mega-church services.

So, while the institution of the church may have played an important role in marginalizing the liberationist argument, a parallel institution of material and marketplace religion has placed an even more convincing argument before the people in their daily lives and in their communities.  It is not only about what the church does or aspires to, it is also about what it is up against in the media age.

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