I’ve been working for years to get more religion on the agenda in my own field (media or communication studies).  A new research project at our Center has given me the opportunity to focus more directly on that project by bringing together scholars from media and scholars from religion in a rich conversation.

We are pursuing that in two ways right at the moment. First, we’re working on developing a platform through which these conversations, along with explorations we are all doing at the intersection of media and religion can be done collaboratively and publicly.

Second, we’ve had some success this year in getting two formal panels on the program of the International Communication Association (ICA) meetings in Prague in May.  ICA is the senior and most substantive of the various academic communication-studies associations.  It is also my “home” association. This is a big and satisfying step, and an accomplishment (that I won’t take full credit for–there are other colleagues who also deserve recognition for making this happen).

As I’ve begun working on my own interventions in these, I’ve started thinking about media and religion in a way that can identify an “object” through which I could investigate and interpret relations between them.  I’m particularly interested in Protestantism, and this has me thinking about the way various religious traditions or sensibilities choose to instrumentalize communication.

More on this later, but I’ve had an insight into one of the vexing problems those of us who want to push theory in media/communication studies ahead as regards religion: the conceptual dead-end provided by James Carey’s classic work on “Ritual” theories of Communication.  I’ve come to realize that the binary he presents is too narrowly drawn (or rather that it is missing a “third” cell).  Carey poses the problem of communication theory being either “instrumental” or “ritual.”  He suggests we must begin thinking about the possibilities of a ritual paradigm.  Good as far as it goes.

It is clear that Carey’s notion of ritual is rooted in religion and specifically in the religion he knows best–his own Catholicism.  For the Catholic imagination, communication could be instrumentalized through some version of closely-circulated and hermetic ritual practice, neatly bounded by moral imaginaries focused on identity and shared meaning.

I may be preparing to argue, though, that this view misses an essential historicist point.   That is that the dominant forms and paradigms of communication in the American experience are Protestant, not Catholic, and that for Protestantism, communication is instrumentalized around a different set of logics.  Thus, a more commodious definition of the place of religion in our theories of public communication would need to move beyond Carey’s simple binary opposing “ritual” and “transportation” models. In fact, what Carey defines as this latter–secular–paradigm could instead be seen as deeply embedded in the dominant religious frame of the American project–Protestantism.

As I said, more on this in due course.

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