Religion in the Media Age: A Review

Religion in the Media Age: A Review March 16, 2008

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As the previous post makes clear, religion and media interact in contemporary culture in complex ways. Not only does media struggle to represent religion, religious folk face the often daunting task of participating in a media culture that does not understand their value system or directly contradicts it. If Henry Jenkins can analyze convergence culture as the ways in which different media increasingly intertwine and how individuals and communities respond to them, in Religion in the Media Age, Stewart M. Hoover assumes this convergence as part of our new technological nature and thus focuses on how individuals make religious meaning through their encounters with converged media.

Hoover begins his introduction by arguing, “The realms of ‘religion’ and ‘media’ can no longer be easily separated, and it is the purpose of this book to begin to chart the ways that media and religion intermingle and collide in the cultural experiences of media sources” (1).  More specifically, Hoover is interested in the ways in which individuals make religious meaning vis a vis encounters with media.   To conduct this study, Hoover recognizes the importance of the “recovery and invigoration of ‘popular culture’ as a valuable context for religious meaning and exploration” (3).  Though Hoover includes a brief theoretical and methodological history of culture and media consumption, he is much more focused on the ground-level participation taking place in domestice spheres across the country.  This marks his text as a unique contribution to the ongoing study of the relationship between religion and popular culture.  He adds, “What is most significant about this project is its focus on practices and outcomes of media consumption, and its attempt to bring social theory and analysis to bear on those issues” (5).

At the heart of his research is the attempt to “try and understand people’s efforts at making meaningful, coherent narratives of themselves as active participants in their social and cultural surrounds, and the extent to which media and religion, individually and in interaction, are resources to that narrative-building” (20).  In analyzing the ways in which individuals talk about media, Hoover notices three “levels of engagement:”  experiences in the media (initial encounters), interactions about the media (cultural exchanges), and accounts of the media (meaning-making or narrative-building).

Hoover relies on “the taxonomy of ‘Baby-Boom’ religiousity” developed by Wade Clark Roof.  He stresses that rather than proscriptive categories, Roof arrived at these distinctions based on the ways in which his informants thought and talked about religion and spirituality.  Roof’s categories include born-again Christians, mainstream believers, metaphysical believers and seekers, dogmatists, and secularists.  Roof describes each of these groups, and Hoover adds to the definition his assumptions about how each group might interact with media based on their religious beliefs, or lack thereof. After conducting and analyzing interviews, Hoover and his colleagues found that more similarities existed between the groups than differences.  He writes, “The most important of these commonalities derives from the idea that the media–and particularly television–seem to constitute a ‘common culture’ in which all of these families live and to which all of them–on some level–wish to subscribe” (200).  This “common culture” also reveals the ubiquity of media in contemporary society and the inability of individuals to avoid it or parents to fully police their children’s interaction with it.

Another commonality across the spectrum is that all of the families express some idea of a “hierarchy of acceptable media.”  This hierarchy inevitably places “screen media” at a lower level with books and music occupying a higher position.  Ironically, all of the families interviewed own one or multiple television sets and watch it frequently if not ritually.  Perhaps the most interesting finding of Hoover’s research is the difficulty with which the interviewees articulated the connection between their religious or spiritual values, beliefs, and behaviors with the media.  Hoover transcribed the recorded interviews verbatim and the preponderance of fits and starts and ohhs, ahhs, and hmms reveal the reality that people do not actively consider this connection when engaged with the media.  Moreover, they do not primarily cite their religious convictions as influential of what they choose not to consume.

Hoover follows up his interviews with a reflection on the relationship between religion and media in two specific instances, post-9/11 and the 2004 presidential election.  His reflections on these events are not particularly groundbreaking; however, his understanding of the religious function of media is certainly something to keep in mind as our contemporary culture (and hopefully our churches) becomes increasingly media-savvy.  The ability of localized Sunday sermons to gain a world-wide audience is only part of this functionality.

Ironically, one of the strengths of Hoover’s book is the failed expectations of his study about which he is open and honest. Working with the aforementioned categories of Christianity, Hoover and his associaties made some assumptions about how these groups would differ in their encounters with media. We might readily make these assumptions as well. The “born-agains” will strictly avoid secular media and turn to more specifically “religious” fare. “Seekers” will be more open-minded about media content and exhibit freer interaction with media. As Hoover quickly shows, we couldn’t be more wrong. The “seekers” that he interviews are just as concerned about media representations of sex and violence as their more “conservative” counterparts, but perhaps slightly more concerned with racial and gender stereotypes. The “born-agains,” though they may not be avid viewers, are certainly knowledgeable about more “scandalous” programming and even reference particular television episodes or characters.  Again, all of the interviewed participants are keen on maintaining a sense of autonomy in their consumption of media and are not necessarily bound to instructions by religious leaders or professionals.

One of the few negative aspects of Hoover’s text is its emphasis on television at the expense of other forms of media. Again, while Hoover recognizes that media encompasses print, film, television, news, video games, and music, anything other than television seems like an afterthought. Hoover stresses that he and his research team tried to remain as objective as possible in the interview process and to not “steer” the conversation and overtly influence the interviewees’ responses. For all purposes, the book reads as if they accomplished this task; however, I do not believe that asking more questions about specific forms of media, rather than continuing the television discussion, would have betrayed their intentions. For such a wonderfully written and well-researched book, this critique might sound petty, but it would have been both interesting and informative to hear how the participants make meaning from their use of other media.

While Hoover’s book is certainly entertaining and informative, it is also encouraging, especially to a student of religion, film, and popular culture.  He concludes, in part, “The ‘where’ of our inquiries here has been the ‘where’ of domestic life and the social network relations that immediately surround it.  What is needed next are more focused, ‘located’ studies of those times, places, and occasions where questions of value and action are brought to bear in the lives of people such as the ones we’ve seen here” (290).

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