In Media and Religion: Foundations of an Emerging Field, Daniel Stout has laid out some basic perspectives on the nascent field of media and religion. This field can be approached from any number of angles (sociological, anthropological, psychological, etc.) but generally demonstrates one of two characteristics: organized religion as it is found inmedia, and elements of religion that people experience through media themselves (religion in the media, and media as religion). Religion and Media are inextricably bound together. “Religion is defined by individuals in everyday life; it should be studied wherever and whenever it occurs” (47). “Lived” religion?
Stout advocates the use of another term in addition to “religion”: numinous. Since “religious” can have negative or limiting connotations, looking for the “numinous” in cultural texts or trends can broaden the search and dialogue about a given topic. To be numinous, something must: stir deep feeling (affect), spark belief (cognition), include ritual (behavior), and be done with fellow believers (community). This four-part framework is a helpful tool.
Stout traces the history of mediated belief from ancient Egypt, through Greece and the Reformation to the current information age that allows for seemingly infinite choice. It is a time when religion is no longer captured by stable and static definitions: “religion or more broadly, the numinous, can be experienced any time at any place through the use of the media” (11).
Stout does a very brief treatment of chemical states of the brain during various activities (flow, meditation, trance) and of world religions and denominations as they utilize various media. The cultural religions of Oprah, Elvis, Grateful Dead and Jimmy Buffett fans (deadheads and parrotheads), trekkies, and sports all provide their fans with some degree of numinous activity. The rise of the “megachurch” demonstrates the tricky and tangled relationship between religion and media, between secular and divine culture.
Different approaches to media can be utilized in various ways of critiquing it. Didactic criticism is a dualistic way of examining a text—it is either positive or negative. Audience response criticism lets the people decide what is good or bad (rock music was once shunned, now it is embraced in many churches). Formalism examines the content of a text (plot, character, etc.) as it may or may not promote religious themes. Ethical criticism deals with the artist’s integrity or morality in creating a text. Marxist criticism looks at media in the larger context of economics and politics. Media literacy is a necessity for religious leaders.
Stout examines the Internet, entertainment media, and the news to uncover the numinous potential within each. The flexibility of the Internet makes it relevant to the needs of most; while authority of some of its sources can be dubious, the ease of social networking and multi-mediated experiences provides all the elements of religion: community, ritual, belief, feeling. Entertainment media do the same (and are increasingly intertwined with the internet) and emphasize through storytelling that communicates universal truths. The news media provide a complex set of possibilities for the numinous; people can have their communities or beliefs strengthened, but where they turn for news matters. The power of choice and authority goes for other media also.
Advertising and religion have many things in common. They are both goal-oriented and persuasive in nature. “When new media emerge, advertisers and religionists move quickly to exploit them for their purposes. Advertising and religions have enjoyed a reciprocal relationship; they make use of each other’s techniques and tactics” (114). Furthermore, the essential elements of advertising (salience, persuasion, call-to-action) are also necessary in a sermon. In the view of Neil Postman (who fantastically suggests putting Jesus in a wine commercial due to his miracle in Cana; it would end with the tagline—”one sip, and you’ll be a believer too.”), “the overproduction of religious symbolism undermines its sanctity and historical significance” (119). This is what Stewart Hoover calls symbol flattening: a condition where symbols (cross, star), are no longer held in a hierarchical relationship to other (secular) symbols. Stout notes that sex is losing its shock value in advertising and may be replaced by religion to capture one’s attention. Overall, advertising is a complex form of communication and its potential for the numinous is difficult to study.
Stout, D. A., (2012). Media and Religion:Foundations of an Emerging Field. New York and London: Routledge Publications.