April 12, 2010
Media New and Old
— Martin E. Marty
Every ten years a Religion Communication Congress meets, as it did last weekend in Chicago. I attended, as is my decennial habit. Though I could not stay to the end, I did get to chair a panel on “How Social Change is Changing Media Coverage of Religion.” The hundreds of attendees got to hear sundry biggies in the communications-and-religion fields, had good times, and did other things which are very important to those/us in those fields. The RCC and associated hosts performed well, as they have done ten and twenty and more years ago.
The theme was “Embracing Change: Communicating Faith in Today’s World.” Faith at RCCongress means “many faiths,” denominations, agencies, service organizations, et cetera. Picture every person in all of them being very busy these years, as the breathless pace of developments in communications – we don’t have to spell them out here! – and the drastic changes in the context of what is covered or addressed by these communicators should induce anxiety beyond that which afflicts people in this business even in quieter times. This brings us to the point that is relevant to the mission of Sightings.
Against all odds, the Congress folk, aware as people in communications are trained to be, are jostled but not undone by the changes and challenges. Some have been dragged screaming into the technical world in which they must operate. No one seems secure or untroubled. Yet the plenary sessions, the workshops, the interviews, the hotel hall chats, also confirmed that these survivors from earlier communications eras (which were ending around 1970 when RCCongresses got started) relish the tasks to which they feel called. They know that what Joseph Schumpeter observed about capitalism is true in their field, that “creative destruction” makes old instruments, methods, and treatments obsolete. Keynote homilist Pastor Otis Moss III had the gathering learn to chant “Moses is dead!” (Joshua 1:2), not because values associated with Moses are outdated, but because the means of continuing his work keep changing -- and no one can hide from the changes.
Much of the talk had to do with the failure of most media and messengers to reach and serve and gather newer generations, who never did know “Moses,” as well as the indifferent seculars who had never been touched. Still, for all the realism in diagnosis and practical envisioning going on, the Congress people did not seem to be done in. The historian in me says: Moses “dies” in every generation. The promised land is always partly out of reach. If I, a print media hanger-on shaped in the middle of the twentieth century, were starting out now, I would be bewildered, tempted to be immobilized by questions: How would I get the ear of these generations when pop culture provides their mental and spiritual environment? How would I keep up in an internet world which adds new data and opinions by the second? Should I try to? Which gatekeepers should I trust, and should there be gatekeepers? How best would I put my journalist-school learning to work?
But while I would keep asking such questions, others would have moved on, inventing, experimenting. One hears little at such congresses of jettisoning the traditions which the name Moses evokes. One hears much about how hard it is to reach, converse with, and learn from the hoped-for publics. I would lose credibility if I suggested that someone has the formula for dealing with radical change. But I would also lose it if I reported on people defeated.
For Further Information:The RCCongress website is www.rccongress2010.org.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.