October 20, 2005
-- David Morgan
Christianity has never been shy about using visual and print media to undertake its work of evangelism, devotion, worship, and socialization of the young. From icons to mass-distributed tracts and bibles, from radio and television broadcasting to the Internet, the Christian use of media has taught modern advertising and public relations as much as Christians in turn have learned from secular media production. Like many other religions, Christianity has generally been message-driven.
But getting the word out is not merely a question of information delivery. It consists of diverse practices that form much of the culture of religious belief—so much so, it would seem that one should regard the communicative activities of Christianity today as a kind of "media piety." One ought not talk about religion and media as if they were two discrete domains. In practice, the two are intertwined in a single field of experience. Believers practice their religion in the use and experience of various media.
It would be surprising if the latest communication and media technologies weren't being applied to religious life. And in fact religious entrepreneurs are actively promoting the use of podcasting and blogging today, just as their predecessors a generation ago were experimenting with desktop publishing and email, and as the generation before theirs put audiocassettes and recorded music to work in worship services.
A recent New York Times article on downloading missed church services to one's iPod, called "godcasting" by one Protestant pioneer of the medium, reminded me of a pamphlet published by the American Tract Society around 1825 on how best to spend the Sabbath when one is unable to attend church (tract no. 34, "A Sabbath at Home"). One imagines that the iPod provides an experience preferable to the one illustrated in the tract, where a man is depicted kneeling before a chair, praying with face buried in hands. But the intention remains the same in each case: Convenient media are deployed to provide useful substitutes to church services—though not enduring ones, since both Protestant purveyors of pious media artifacts—tract and iPod—would have their "customers" attend church often.
What's new about podcasting besides the convenience of novel technology to match the hurried lives of people today? Essentially nothing—and that is important, because it ensures that the new medium fits the old message. While it is the case that new media like podcasting and blogging accelerate the already rampant pace of consumerism and privatization, they do not depart from the trajectory that was established long ago, in the late eighteenth century, when mass print began to emerge in the West in the form of tracts, bibles, novels, newspapers, and magazines.
The point of new media uses for old purposes is to renew connection with the younger generation, those people whose media literacies and preferences are often pointedly distinguished from their parents' and grandparents' uses of media. Media are one of the key ways in which cohorts form and maintain their sense of identity.
For these religious media producers and their customers and parishioners, media are gap-fillers, practical solutions to a familiar problem. But they are also something else that is important to recognize. In both cases, a common medium—print and digital music player—is transfigured into a religious medium. These media are not relegated to the margins of everyday life by use restricted to the Sabbath. They help believers locate the presence of the sacred in the midst of the workaday world, which is where their media competition reigns.
Another new media invention, the "Praystation Portable," promoted by the Catholic Insider, appropriates the widespread technology of any portable mediaplayer, morphing "playstation" into "praystation." This is doing something that Protestant and Catholic media proponents have done for a long time, and often to good effect: taking the battle for souls to the turf of profane life.
Of course, that is no assurance of success; religious media are as susceptible to a fickle marketplace and unpredictable consumers as any other media commodity. But the very fact of finding the sacred in the commonplace is for many Christians already a victory.
David Morgan is Duesenberg Professor of Christianity and the Arts and of Humanities and Art History at Valparaiso University, and author of The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice.