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Horsfield, Peter, Mary E. Hess, and Adan M. Medrano (Eds.). Belief in Media: Cultural Perspectives on Media and Christianity.

Horsfield, Peter, Mary E. Hess, and Adan M. Medrano (Eds.). Belief in Media: Cultural Perspectives on Media and Christianity. Aldershot, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004. Pp. xxiv, 243. ISBN 0-7546-3830-8 (hb.) $89.95 or 50.00 [pounds sterling].

This volume, one of a series on media, culture, and religion featuring work by the members of the International Study Commission on Media, Religion, and Culture, presents conference papers and explorations of the research by the group. Therein lies both the strengths and the weaknesses of the book. The book's benefit lies in its look at the ongoing research and thinking of a particular research group and an international one at that: Members come from Australia, Colombia, Ghana, Italy, Mexico, Scotland, Thailand, and the United States. Among the weaknesses of the book are its paradoxical insularity and its lack of exposition of key ideas. The insularity arises from the members' familiarity with each other's work; the lack of exposition, from their presumption that their audience knows their previous work.

In his introduction, Peter Horsfield describes "four core issues" for the group:

1. In what ways can we say that the media have come to occupy the spaces traditionally occupied by religion? ...

2. What is the relationship of religious authority to modes of symbolic practice? ...

3. How must we re-think the relationship between religion and the media? ...

4. What does this new situation imply about epistemology? (pp. xx-xxi)

Each essay in the book addresses one of these questions and Horsfield suggests various ways to read the book, depending on one's prior acquaintance with key fields of study (communication or religious studies). However, even this is not enough to orient the non-expert reader.

Robert White's concluding essay ("Major Issues in the Study of Media, Religion, and Culture") may well be the better place to start, as he attempts an historical overview of the study, addressing questions such as "Why and to what extent are the media a source of symbols for constructing religious identities?" (p. 198) and "In what sense are the belief systems constructed with media symbols 'religious'?" (p. 202). These questions are largely sociological and accurately represent the approach of some members of the group; they do not account for other, more historical (Santisakultarm, Chapter 12; Plude, Chapter 13), pedagogical (Hess, Chapter 11), or theological (Goizueta, Chapter 3) approaches. Surprisingly for a book dealing with media and religion, it is only here, half-way through the final chapter that anyone offers a definition of religion. White quotes Greil and Robbins:
 Religion is not an entity but rather a category of
 discourse whose precise meaning and implications
 are continually being negotiated in the
 course of social interaction. Religion from this
 perspective is not a concrete "thing" which may
 be either present or absent in a society, but rather
 an idiom, a way of speaking about and categorizing
 actors' experience. (qtd. p. 203)

Such a definition certainly helps and offers an insight into the direction of the study group's work. However, the various essays in the volume do not seem to distinguish among different meanings of "religion." Among others, the reader encounters all of the following: religion is an institution, a belief system, individual acts of piety or worship, a mediated reality, a response to a metaphysical reality. Perhaps one should expect such variety in a collection such as this, but the editors could have provided a bit more guidance.

White's essay also highlights another difficulty, though whether with the book or whether with the larger area of study is hard to determine. How much is the shift in the study of religion and culture a shift in how people construct identities or a shift in how scholars posit its occurrence? Has the reality changed or merely its description? Or is the description itself (the "category of discourse" mentioned by Greil and Robbins) the reality? Such questions plague the overall enterprise. Another example comes in Horsfield's attempt to sketch the "contours in a changing cultural terrain" (Chapter 2), where he runs into the hermeneutical problem of reading Niebhur's Christ and culture debate in contemporary terms. What Neibhur regarded as "culture" in the mid-20th century may well not be what later scholars envision by the same term.

These practical difficulties do not lessen the value of this book; they identify, perhaps, what the International Study Commission faces in its attempt to synthesize an approach to media, religion, and culture.

In addition to the essays already mentioned, the book presents three broad approaches: a cultural perspective (Part I), a section on mediated Christianity (Part II), and a look at Christian institutions (Part III).

Part I presents the work of several scholars, in addition to Horsfield. Lynn Schofield Clark ("Reconceptualizing Religion and Media in a Post-National, Postmodern World: A Critical Historical Introduction") provides a quick overview of some approaches to study. These include media coverage of religion, the connection between communication technology and religious authority, the use of media by religious groups, the use of media in (and as) ritual, the intersection of theology and film studies, Christian subcultures' engagement with media products, and young people's redefinition of religion (pp. 14-15).

Roberto Goizueta ("Because God is Near, God is Real: Symbolic Realism in US Latino Popular Catholicism and Medieval Christianity") gives both historical and theological interpretations of the use of symbols in Latino Catholicism, ascribing its differences from Anglo-Catholicism to the rise of nominalism in later medieval Christianity (p. 38). His point is well taken, for all too often scholars presume that their world view is the only world view and that the legitimacy of other groups or cultures falls away from an academic-centric norm.

In Chapter 4, Juan Carlos Henriquez ("Notes on Belief and Social Circulation (Science Fiction Narratives)") argues that "the most incisive works linking theology and communication, or more precisely the phenomena of belief with those of their social circulation" (p. 49) can benefit from research into symbolic exchange. He illustrates his theoretical model with an appeal to science fiction discourses, which often reconstitute theological questions as possible world questions based in science fiction.

Part II ("Mediated Christianity") takes the reader on a world tour. Here one encounters studies of Pentecostal media images in sub-Saharan Africa (J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu in Chapter 5), of the Latin American telenovela (German Rey in Chapter 6), of the use of visual media in Ethiopian Protestantism (David Morgan, expanding his work on visual images in Protestantism in the U.S.), of the morality tales in West African video films (Jolyon Mitchell), and of Web religion and the Internet (Stewart Hoover and Jin Kyu Park, in Chapter 9). Each study gives a snapshot of media and religion, but they function more as undigested research reports. One can hope that the authors will develop the topics in more detail and with more theoretical weight.

Part III (Media Culture and Christian Institutions) presents similar research, but organized more by religious institution (here, largely Roman Catholic) than by geographic region. Adan Medrano gives an account of his work as a producer of religious media for the Catholic Church in the U.S. Siriwan Santisakultarm discusses how the Catholic way of life has changed in Thailand due to a combination of migration and media presence, while Frances Forde Plude tracks similar changes in the U.S., in the media coverage of the sexual abuse scandals. Mary Hess ("Rescripting Religious Education in Media Culture") gives a more theoretical view of changing religious education. In this chapter she attempts to correlate how the various regional meetings of the International Study Commission (Bangkok, Quito, Hollywood) either provided data to support such a rethinking or provided challenges to be met by an as-yet-to-be-developed approach. Similar to Part II, this part also proves somewhat frustrating. The case studies, while interesting, seems to run in different directions, theoretically, methodologically, and analytically.

Belief in Media, then, raises many issues in the study of media, religion, and culture; it offers fewer developed theories or even paths to understanding. It is less unified than one might hope, but it gathers a great deal of information. As a work in progress, this may well be the best that one can expect.

The book features an index and a bibliography. In addition, each chapter has its own reference list.

--Paul A. Soukup, S.J.

Santa Clara University
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Author:Soukup, Paul A.
Publication:Communication Research Trends
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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