My weekend began with a lecture to the kind of group public scholars love:  well-read, engaged, open to new insights, ready with good, compelling questions.  It was a real shot in the arm for a career that has always had to justify itself and its significance.  My lecture, and a workshop the next day where five of my colleagues presented their work in a wide range of media, contexts, and articulations, all revolving around the mediation of religion in contemporary life, showed how important and increasingly relevant, scholarship can and should be.

Leonard Pitts’s column in today’s Washington Post raised the stakes for scholarship and for education.  Pitts’s concern is about the potential threat posed to American democracy by a future president who shares our current President’s ability to manipulate media discourse but who actually is ideologically focused and competent.  Pitts ends by calling for renewed efforts in education to learn from this experience and head off a future digital-media demagogue with rededication to the classics of philosophy, history, law, etc.

Curiously, but not surprisingly, Pitts neglects something absolutely critical to contemporary education of the kind he points to:  media literacy.  Yes, it is a curricular topic, becoming established at colleges and universities across the country. And, its objective is precisely what Pitts has in mind: to equip citizens with the knowledge and skills they need to exercise their democratic rights–and to cherish and ensure the future of democracy–skills in discernment, practice, politics, social relations, and communication.  These are, of course, the very skills that have always been thought of as essential to democracy (what liberal education at Universities such as mine was supposed to be about).  It’s just that today those skills need to be tempered and honed to articulate into the rapidly-evolving means of communication.

It is not surprising that Pitts, as a journalist, missed “the media” in his curricular desires.  Journalists seem to find it difficult to step outside their own context.

I would like to argue that in addition to these topics, one more is increasingly critical: religion. Religion plays an ever-more important role in contemporary culture and politics, and the way religion is mediated is of increasing importance and demands literacies of its own.  That is why I read another item in today’s news with interest.  My local paper covered–quite unproblematically–on the front of its local section–and with somewhat shameless promotional photo essays online–the services of a new “pop-up church” that our local magachurch unveiled yesterday.  There are two learnings here:  First, that religion can become news when it looks like commerce or does something that reporters and editors find unusual, photogenic, or trendy.

Second, and more important, a signal to those of us who want to think about relations between religion and media:  evolving trends like multi-site churches reveal that scholarship needs to understand marketing, branding, and the economy as powerful mediations of religion in contemporary times.  Many of us have known that all along, but it needs to find its way into our scholarship and into public discourse and public understanding of religion.

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