In Matthew Engelke’s essay Religion and the Media Turn he examines recent collections of essays that investigate the “media turn” in religious studies. They focus on the idea of religion as essentially mediation, which involves a turn away from belief toward materiality and practice. While this movement is not organized and “nobody is yet passing out membership cards”, there is an emerging body of solid literature that demonstrates how religion is not returning, but returning to focus.
Religion needs material practice. A focus on practice facilitates a shift from concentrating purely on the message of a text, image, or sound (transmission view?) to considering the medium in its many dimensions (ritual view?). Considerations like who controls it, to which human sense is it directed, what does its audience do with its messages, how are religious dispositions transformed by these media, etc. This results in movement away from belief and toward materiality, away from formalism and toward practice.
Culture is not a thing but a process. However, we can only measure it by its material “things”. Much of human life involves rending the invisible, or mediating it into our sphere of perception. Mediation scholars can learn from religious scholars in continuing to create corpus on the subject. Two concerns that may assist their study are “relations to” and “relations of”.
“Relations to” have to do with “how mediation positions people and their gods in relation to one another. They are concerned with distance and, often, presence” (376). The nature of a medium can factor into calibrating the proper distance between the human and divine. Technology can close the gap in some cases, but it also transforms the “aura” of a text. Distance and proximity also relate to control: the more widely disseminated a text is, the harder it is for its sender to control its distribution, reception, etc. This seems to be increasing exponentially from the days of Guttenberg (where one person controlled a certain printing press and thus every bible that came from it, to contemporary digital media where remix, bricolage, and transmedia dictate that most cultural texts are a sort of “leftover stew” made up of other cultural bits and pieces.
“Relations of” power and empowerment have to do with whether a particular medium or text is a path to freedom or enslavement, to authentic devotion or debilitating hypocrisy? This will also help us understand how religious mediation differs from other kinds of mediation (political, economic, etc.). It mediation as a concept a solid, objective tool that can be applied where we wish? If we examine how stained glass windows affected and moved (spiritually or emotionally) medieval folk, would our findings help us understand how television does the same thing today?
AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 371–379, ISSN 0094-0496, online ISSN 1548-1425.