Cyberpilgrims : Media, religion, culture and spirituality
"Religion and spirituality seem ever more obvious in popular music, television, film, and in books."
How do the media reflect our experiences and reflections? Media do stand between ourselves and the world around us. The generation of seekers and pilgrims grows up with magazines, television, mobile phones and the Internet. They offer information, entertainment and a social network.
Though the Internet is becoming rapidly popular, traditional 'print' media are still selling very well. And, interesting for the topic of spirituality, spiritual magazines are abundantly available. Take, for example the Magazine 'Happinez' with 100.000 readers in the Netherlands. The magazine contains articles about Buenos Aires, Fortune Telling, and interviews with philosophers, articles about true guru's, cosmetically surgery, love and relations, the astrological compass and much more. The design is beautiful and contains many full-color photos. Interestingly, there are many advertisements for anti-aging crèmes besides more 'spiritual' advertisements for astrology, meditation, hypnosis and yoga. As 'inspiration', there are pictures of painted naked bodies that are painted by a French-Moroccan artists, that are illustrated with quotes like "What we call the naked truth, is often colored", "Memories, education, religion, experience form patrons that obscure your true self".
Many pages are filled with 'shopping'; shawls, shoes, biological food, crèmes, baby clothes, and books. A bit further, we find a 'dharma lecture about the search for the truth', inspired by Buddha. An article from the category 'health' treats the psychological consequences of secrets. In an article about spirituality, the author warns against the dangers of sects. The article about 'truth' is based on an interview with a psychiatrist who argues that people have to face their true situation, and not invent stories about their selves that are not true. Happinez is a perfect illustration of modern spirituality. The magazine is a 'collage' or 'bricolage' of spirituality, authenticity commerce, psychology, and focus on mental and physical perfection. It coincides with the (post) modern search for perfection and authenticity.
In this chapter I will investigate the relationship between media, religion, spirituality and culture. I will take a look at (1) the history of media, (2) theories about audiovisual media of and (3) the features of cyberspace.
A very short history of media
Media and religion have always been closely connected. The great monotheistic religions rely heavily on scriptures that have even acquired the status as holy and divine revelation. Because literacy was something for the elite, doctrines and reflection about these texts was not possible for the illiterate mass. They relied on oral traditions, stories, symbols, paintings, festivities and rituals for their religious participation and experience. There has always been bias between literate tradition and oral tradition, where literacy has been perceived as superior, and oral tradition as superstition.
With the invention of the book printing, the 'Gutenberg galaxy' started. Many more people were able to read books such as the Bible. This affirmed and enforced the religious hold on religious and moral discourse, but was also a reason why the reformation with its 'sola scriptura' could actually happen. Pamphlets, propaganda and books supported the whole reformation process.
In the nineteenth century, literacy became more and more common, and so became devotional literature. The British historian Callum Brown describes how this contributed to the religious discourse and religious identification in Great Britain. Christian predication, fiction and pamphlets heavily influenced the evangelical discourse on believing, morals, heaven and hell, conversion and sin. Later on, magazines, television and radio became more important as media providing meaning to the public discourse. After World War II, public discourse was still full of traditionalism, focussing on the family, home and piety.
In the 1960's, the power of Christian discourse disappeared. Brown argues that it was always the women who were portrayed as the ideal religious figures. But they were portrayed less and less as pious and obedient but as self-aware women. This was visible in pop music, magazines, newspapers and television. Women, according to Brown, kept men in church during the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century. In the biographies of people growing up in the 1960's, there was no place for sin and conversion. The whole Christian narrative had lost its value. Browns description of the 'Death of Christian Britain' shows how important discourse had been in creating a Christian culture, and how this changing discourse showed the end of it.
Theories about audiovisual media
In the twentieth century, technological innovation made radio and television, the 'mass media' possible. Especially television seemed a threat to literature and reflection, because it is primarily a visual medium. Manuel Castells argues that the emergence of visual media frustrated the elite. They thought it would make the mass lazy and take the content for granted. Because audiovisual media are a very important part of the social discourse, it is necessary to take a closer look to theories about media, especially the media of the twentieth century. The radical difference with the ages before is the development of audiovisual media: television, radio and cinema.
"In the conditions of modernity, the media do not mirror realities but in some part transform them. But this does not mean that we should draw the conclusion that the media have created an autonomous realm of hyper reality where the sign or the image is everything."
The effect of visual media is a concern of worried parents, clergy and politicians. Do media affect us in the way we behave? There are several opinions about media in the field of media studies. They are often divided into three fields : (1) Media Theory, which focuses media that structure the experience of the audience, (2), Political Economy, where media are seen as extensions of capitalist power, (3) Cultural Studies, where popular media content is seen as 'text' that represent several narratives. The audience is actively constructing meaning out of these texts.
Media theory: The medium is the message
"I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism."
A Global Village? | Source
Marshall McLuhan, the famous media theory scholar, at first wasn't that positive about new technology and new media, until he understood that they were essential to the new culture, and could, apart from negative consequences, be part of a new global culture, a global village. Scholars like Harold Innis and his famous pupil McLuhan have formed the Media theory. McLuhan argues that technological mediation is a condition of culture. Media communications affect the practices of everyday life and are extensions of the human experience. He speaks about media as prosthetic extensions of our senses. The new media, according to McLuhan, create new communities and new identities because they combine the global and mutual proximity, forming a global village. When millions of people watch the same television program, they are part of this global village. Media theory scholars like McLuhan very much stress the importance of the medium. The medium is the message. This does not mean that the content is not important, but it is subordinated to the medium. The 'Gutenberg galaxy' with its written culture, caused fragmentation because people were able to reflect, and could separate thought and action.
The new visual media are more directly appealing to human experiences, and therefore radically different. McLuhan has large visions of these new visual media, especially the computer. The computer can provide universal understanding, harmony and peace. It will be an extension of man like the mystical body of Christ. This global village and a world of harmony of peace have not been realized. This is also what Stephen D. O'Leary concludes about McLuhan's maybe all too optimistic views.
"The potential to realize McLuhan's vision may be there, implicit in the technology, but I believe that it will take more than the technological capability to make this dream a reality. Osama bin Laden and his associates seem to be adept in the uses of technology, but evidently have little interest in the project of knitting humanity into one family and creating a perpetual collective harmony."
McLuhan argues very clearly that technology, and thus the medium itself, is a determining factor in the construction of culture. Oral culture maintained the tribal system, literacy caused fragmentation, and new visual culture will bring everyone together.
Hitler used the mass media to promote his nazi ideology
The political economy theory with its famous Frankfurt School of Adorno, Horkheimer and others represented the opinion that mass media could manipulate reality. The proponents were heavily influenced by Karl Marx' distinction of owners and workers. Mass media were seen as the new ultimate instruments of ideological manipulation and social control. The political and economical elite would more or less brainwash the mass by selling needs and ideologies in order to keep their status quo. The worst example was the nazi propaganda that has contributed to promoting war and indirectly the holocaust. Many of the adherents of the Frankfurt School were Jewish scholars that had fled to the United States. Their view, especially about radio and television, was that these mass media manipulated the ignorant mass that were unable to reflect themselves and question the messages they received.
The theories of the Frankfurt School have been highly criticized. The media scholar Manuel Castells argues that all messages of sounds and images hardly have impact on social behavior. In 1991, people in western countries received an average of 1600 advertising messages per day. People responded to only 12 of them, positively as well as negatively. People select what they want to see and to what they behave.
"From the cultural studies viewpoint, we need to pay attention to mainstream media and culture such as fashion, television programs, music, and video games because they are rich sources of social meaning that provided us with resources and reference points for giving significance to the world around us and for expressing and constructing our identities, our sense of who we are."
In the 1960's, with scholars like Fiske, Morley and Katz, the 'active audience theory' was developed. Where academics of the political economy theories disregarded popular culture as propaganda of the economical and political powers, proponents of cultural studies saw all forms of media as texts that were imbedded in culture. They recognized that popular culture was important and not per sé bad. Actually, people enjoyed watching television! They were not just passive couch potatoes that were being injected with propaganda; they constructed their own meaning. Though the big media companies might have 'encoded' their messages, the audience decoded those messages and created meaning and context. Stewart Hoover points that since the reception of television takes place in the domestic space of the house, television is integrated in the context of daily life. People enjoy or are irritated by media texts, they talk about what they see with their friends, and they understand themselves through images and ideas that they watch and hear. While watching a soap opera, a middle class housewife could maybe identify with a mother that was having a conflict with her husband, while a teenage girl might sympathize with the daughter that is trying go become independent. Umberto Eco wrote in 1977 that the message has a signifying form that can be filled with different meanings. Therefore, he concludes, there is no mass culture.
What the 'active audience' shows, is that, though we may watch the same, we all create our own meaning. This also applies to religious or spiritual television programs, such as 'Hour of Power', or 'Oprah Winfrey', with its emphasis on self-realization. Stewart Hoover conducted research to television in the family, and concluded that the relationship between media and religion is very complex. Each person decodes the messages from his or her own perspective. He argues that
"Audiences seem to know more about what is going on in relations between religion and media than they are often given credit for. They are engaged with media in a variety of ways, and are able to position themselves with some ease with reference to the claims of the media sphere."
Cyberspace, the network of electronic communication, is often a synonym for the Internet. The Internet is the interactive medium of the moment. Manuel Castells calls it the "Information Superhighway." On webpages, text, images, movies and sounds are integrated. This is what Bolter and Grusin call remediation: several media, like text, images and movies are integrated with other media, like web pages. Many scholars, including Stewart Hoover see the power of the Internet for religion.
A stunning array of websites has emerged, specifically focused on religion and spirituality. These range from those directed self-consciously at traditional religious movements (…) to those (…) intended to be pan-religious or meta-institutional, to those focused on new, "fringe," or emerging religious or spiritual sensibilities, to those that seemingly intend to become religious movements themselves, to sites devoted to religious "pod-casting," to quasi-religious sites such as those for fans and bloggers of various kinds, to sites that are self-consciously "anti-" or "ir-religious". This is particularly significant to the idea that the media may be changing, because Internet and Web-based practices are particularly individualistic, self-directed and generated, and - in the case of the Web in particular - are thought to be fundamentally interactve.
Turning Cyberspace into Sacred Space
The Internet, contrary to radio or television, is interactive, and very diversified. It is a source where religion is abundantly sought and found. According to a survey in 2004, there were 51 million pages on religion, 65 million churches online, and 82 million Americans used the Internet for religious or spiritual matters.
Religion and media do not always go together. For example television has met with a lot of resistance, because it would promote non-Christian values and undermine proper culture. However, especially in the United States, Christian groups create their own media channels to promote Christian Lifestyle. Examples are the before mentioned Pope who sends SMS message to participants of the World Youth Days, online prayer groups on social networks like MySpace and Facebook, prayer chains for actors and music stars, and the Christian version of YouTube, called Godtube. On Godtube ('Broadcast Him'), you can find movies of Christian artists and preachers, log in to a virtual network, access an online prayer wall (complete with mystical music) where you can find prayers like 'Prayer for Bruce', 'My mother has a tumor', 'My brother Jarred went to church'. And last but not least, "Seek answers from the Virtual Bible and other members." The new media, also called social media, are characterized by their interactivity and possibilities for new forms of communication; chat, forums, emails and movies all contribute to the multimedia possibilities.
The miracles of Facebook
With the development of new media, some scholars like Henry Jenkins were even more optimistic about the chances of the 'audience', or 'consumers'. They could produce their own media content! Jenkins speaks about 'participatory culture' . The audience is not longer the audience, but producer and audience at the same time. With the Internet, and phenomena like Youtube, we can construct our own websites, profiles, and movies. Nowadays, people can create websites without technical skills. Jos de Mul described in 2002 how people could present themselves on a personal homepage, and could construct an image of who they are. To be able to construct a homepage, some knowledge about web design is very helpful. Today, even this knowledge is not necessary anymore; personal profiles can be made with a few clicks of the mouse. Because the Internet is not mass medium but with a few channels, but a commoditized medium, we do not need Hollywood, the big music labels and the television companies in order to get the information and entertainment we want. This is of course an exaggerated view, but Jenkins is very positive about the possibilities of private individuals to create their own content and thus creating and changing the media.
Media are means that mediate culture and meaning, also when it concerns religion and spirituality. Religion has been mediated by oral traditions, literate sources, and, in the twentieth century, audiovisual media. Views on the role of the media are diversified. Some emphasize the power of the medium, some the power of the companies behind them and other the power of the audience. Though in many Christian circles, media like television, are considered to encourage immoral behavior, Christian media offer their message using the newest media, with Godtube as an example where text, images and sound are integrated. Research shows that many people use the Internet as a source four spiritual questions and answers.