Welcome to the Thursday, May 3 stop on the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg's Blog Tour on Religion and Media! As a historian, I am intrigued by the many ways in which religion influences American society (and vice versa). I had the honor of posing a few questions on this subject to Dr. Mary Hess. Dr. Hess is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and a Roman Catholic layperson with a background in both American and media/cultural studies. She blogs at www.religioused.org/tensegrities; more information regarding her publications and research interests is available on the Luther Seminary Web site. Please join us in this conversation; we look forward to your questions and comments.
1) Where do you see theology most deeply expressed in popular culture today? Has this changed over time, and if so, how? What might this signify for the future?
Many years ago Christian historian named Margaret Miles wrote a book called "Seeing is Believing" where she made the argument that we tend to work out our arguments about moral action more often in the movies than in public philosophical arguments. I think her insight may be even more true today. Most of what we care deeply about is only engaged in complex ways in fiction. It's hard to find much in the news that allows for ambiguity, or that attends carefully to historical context. I don't mean to say that we only do this in film, or even that we do a lot of thoughtful work in films! But I think that in order to find places where real theological questions are being engaged in complex ways, you have to go to movies -- or better yet, to long form narrative television (that is, shows that spread their content over many, many episodes in complex narrative arcs).
That's a long-winded way of saying that I think you can find theological questions being raised in a lot of popular culture, but that the more sustained the narrative the more likely you are to find thoughtful reflection. Once I've said that, then I can turn to almost any genre of popular culture and identify interesting work. But theology in popular culture is never as systematic or clear as it is in philosophical arguments.
I'll give you some examples. I think of series like "Six Feet Under," "Deadwood," "Battlestar Galactica" and so on, as examples of television shows that ask difficult questions about human and divine agency; about loss, hope, despair; about forgiveness and reconciliation; about redemption and sanctification. But these shows don't offer uniform -- or even all that recognizable -- theological platforms. They aren't "didactic" about Christian doctrine, for instance. But they do evoke perennial questions, and offer thoughtful reflections.
There are a lot of popular musicians who do this, too. I think here of the music of Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and U2 to name just a few of my own favorites.
And there are novels -- the Harry Potter series, for instance, are perhaps our most current analogue to the work of C. S. Lewis.
You asked "has this changed over time"? Yes and no. Theological themes have always emerged in popular cultures. At different times in history these themes have been overt and intentional or implicit and hidden. At some times there has been public condemnation of popular culture, and at other times popular culture has been valorized as an explicit carrier of theological content.
I think perhaps what has changed the most in our current era is that the tools for creating and distributing popular content are more accessible than at any previous time in our history. We are moving into what might actually become a truly "participatory" global culture. We're not there yet, but we have the possibility. Blogs, for instance, are a widely accessible form of sharing content. All you need is access to the net, and you can share content in a blog. Yes, we need to think about various digital divides. Yes, we need to be conscious of helping people access and use blogs wisely. But the bottom line is that we now have a medium that is accessible to just about anyone, and which creates a platform for global communication. That is unprecedented and we are only beginning to sense the possibilities.
2) What in the history of Christian engagement in popular culture might inform a thoughtful approach toward the media today?
The example I find myself using most often has to do with how Christian churches dealt with the advent of television, at least in the United States. Christian churches tended to respond in one of two ways. Either they were deeply excited about the possibilities for using television to spread the gospel widely, or they were deeply worried about the ways in which television content was damaging and potentially destructive of Christian faith.
At first glance those two positions might seem very different from each other. But if you think about it, both pretty much assume that the creator of the content controls its meaning. In the first instance Christians saw television as a way to pipe their content to many more people over a much wider area. In the second, Christians saw television as piping negative content directly into people's homes. Television was the "pipeline" through which content was poured, and the person receiving the content was considered to be a pretty passive recipient of that content. So more conservative evangelical churches helped to create the entire Christian broadcasting and publishing world, and more liberal Protestant churches focused on media literacy education, which was going to somehow "inoculate" people against negative content.
Frankly, I don't think either approach was all that successful in the long run. What we've learned, instead, is that media -- whether television, film, digital media, etc. -- are environments in which meaning is made, and the producer of a message does not control its reception. Media literacy educators learned, for instance, that far from "inoculating" people against negative content, we tended to inoculate them against religious community -- because people didn't want to 'give up' the television they loved, and were far more willing to turn their backs on religious community.
So a thoughtful approach to media today takes very seriously the "agency" of the audience. Scholars of digital media speak about "participatory culture" -- by which they mean that consumers of media are very often the producers of it as well. Spaces such as YouTube, flickr, facebook, and so on are the focus of more and more of our attention.
I believe that Christian communities -- indeed, any religious communities -- need to venture into these spaces and reflect on how religious meaning is made there. Rather than boycotting them -- which is something many Christian communities have suggested that we do (a stance which reminds me of early media literacy educators) -- or entering into them entirely uncritically (a stance which reminds me of Christian broadcasting) -- we need to support people in learning how to produce their own messages in these media, and in doing so learn how to be critically engaged with them (which is actually the stance of current media educators). (See, for instance, NAMLE: http://namle.net/).
3) What can new media teach the church? What can the church teach new media?
Wow -- what a huge question! I think I'll start by referring your readers to some wonderful books that explore the shifts that have happened, historically, as new technologies arrive. Books like Elizabeth Eisenstein's "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change," or Jeremy Stolow's work, his book "Deus in Machina" is about to come out. A great short book which is very accessible, is Elizabeth Drescher's book "Tweet if you [heart] Jesus: Practicing church in the digital reformation."
I think part of what new media in OUR era (because there are new media in all eras) might teach us is how to take seriously people's desire to participate and contribute. As Clay Shirky suggests, new media help us to see and take advantage of our "cognitive surpluses." We're learning -- and here Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown's book "A New Culture of Learning" is particularly instructive -- that inquiry-driven, project-based, portfolio-assessed learning is more effective and compelling than our previous more teacher-centered forms of learning have been.
At the same time this more explicit attention to tacit learning requires us to think about what it means to learn through "indwelling" -- and this is one place where churches have much to teach new media. At our best, people in religious communities know a lot about how to shape meaning in spaces that are communal and collective. We know a lot about what it means to "know" when certainty is not the final goal. As Anne Lamott is fond of pointing out, the opposite of faith is not doubt, it's certainty. So how to shape hope in the midst of despair? How to think about ultimacy when faced with mortality? These are questions that communities of faith have much to bring to, and we lodge it most often in the deep bones of our traditions, in the ways in which we "indwell" particular spaces and particular questions. Those of us who are actively participating in new media have much to learn from these traditions.
Here's a question for your readers: What are the historical lenses you think most necessary to put on when thinking about new media and religion?