Re-Mediating Religion by Turning Up the Social Media Volume on Social Justice
Earlier this year, one of our award-winning Bearings contributors, Kelly Baker, wrote a piece about the challenges, for white people in particular, of thinking through and talking about racism. Especially with other white people, including goodhearted, well-intentioned, ideologically liberal white people. Often, we just don’t want to hear about it.
We get it. Racism is bad. Horrible. Insidious. But we vote right. We’re trying to change the system, you know, from deeply, deeply within. All of which may lead some of us to ask, “Could we give just turn down the volume on all this for a minute?”
The silence around race among progressive whites, including those with religious leanings that might ground their moral outlooks and practices, is further muted by what is apparently a growing silence around religion itself. A recent survey by the Pew Forum found that almost half of adults in the U.S. seldom or never discuss religion outside of the family. Close to another 20% only broach the subject a few times a year. Outside of family relationships, two-thirds of Americans avoid conversation about religion.
As I’ve recently discussed elsewhere, there are no few problems with Pew’s understanding of what counts as “religion” and, in the case of the most recent survey, how religiously identified people are categorized. Still, it seems clear that we’re all less comfortable talking about the beliefs, sensibilities, values, and practices that we consider “religious” or “spiritual”—and that’s bound to include those things that relate to social, economic, and racial justice.
When I assigned Kelly’s post (along with a powerful post from Jamye Wooten that also addressed racial justice and certain kinds of silencing) to students in my undergraduate Media and Religion class, what stood out most to them was the extent to which Kelly experienced churches not as mediators of prophetic justice, but of comforting silences.
In my class, we draw on the work of communications theorist Stig Hjarvard, who argues that media functions in three ways: as a conduit—a mostly innocent transporter of ideas and symbols from one person or community to another; as a language—a genre inflected by various cultural circumstances, especially entertainment and commercial ideas, images, and practices; and as an environment—a social reality within which people interact in different ways depending on the technical character of differing platforms and who is hanging out in them. We also think about NYU professor Angelo Zito’s discussion of religion itself as media—a way of engaging the sacred, discussing the sacred, and providing environments within which the presence of the sacred can be explored in community.
What my undergraduates highlight again and again in Kelly’s piece (and, in a slightly different way, in Jamye’s discussion of “preacher pacifiers”) is that church has not often been a place where information about justice, conversation about justice, and the nurturing of action toward justice is cultivated. When Kelly writes, “I have loved and left plenty of churches because they didn’t care about social justice or the communities outside of their walls,” it rings true for most of my students. They recognize too much of their own church experience when she testifies that “Sermons were crafted to make congregation members feel better about themselves, with no push to direct us outward. High-level, theoretical commentary regarding universal humanity and the limits of community allowed us to avoid uncomfortable conversations about specific, real-world pains.”
This silencing of uncomfortable conversations doesn’t have to do, of course, only with racial justice. My students and I talked last week, for instance, about the mediatization of religion—about how religion and what it means in everyday life are shaped by its representations in various media. They pointed to the current controversy over the rejection of full inclusion for LGBT faithful in the United Methodist Church and to the resignation of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s daughter, the Reverend Canon Mpho Tutu-Van Furth, from the priesthood of the South African Anglican Church after her marriage to a woman. They noted the weird alliance between conservative evangelical Christians and Donald Trump as evidence of a lack of religious concern for economic and wider, globalized social justice. Students were insistent that these concerns—concerns that are central to their own ideas of justice and that they see in wider media depictions of religion—never came up in worshipping communities.
“When I go to church with my parents,” one of my students wrote in a short essay about her reading of the Baker and Wooten posts, “we sing pretty songs and we hold hands. Sometimes the priest will talk about making the world better in a general way, but we don’t actually do anything.”
She added, “I feel like Kelly Baker: The only places you really hear about all this other stuff is online or with social media.”
Now, clearly, this isn’t entirely true. It’s not an entirely fair reading of the robust religious social justice work done by millions of committed people of faith. But, from within our churches, this work—and the commitments that fuel it—is often hard to see and hear. From outside, it’s very often barely a whisper in the wind. And, in the absence of our own voices, our own stories, our own mediating of real, lived religious experience in the various new media spaces that increasingly shape our offline and online realities alike, religious communities often mediate, instead, a profound, deafening silence on justice and compassion.
But the thing is, I’m pretty sure the kids are listening nonetheless for something more. That’s why I was grateful to have a long-distance, digitally integrated guest lecture from Jim Kast-Keat, of Middle Collegiate Church in New York, whose “Thirty Seconds or Less” podcast series engaged even the most cynical of my undergraduates. They were amazed that a pastor would actually have the media savvy to put together ways of exploring the spiritual and moral complexities of everyday life that would resonate with young adults.
But it isn’t just that Jim knows how to pump out a message through new media technologies—to use media as a conduit. My students could see that he was fluent in new media as a language—as a way of being in conversation with diverse others—and that this fluency enables him to create a digital environment where people can gather, discuss, maybe argue a little, and strategize for action.
I was no less delighted to come upon a wonderful PechaKucha presentation—a method of sharing ideas and experiences by showing 20 images that are talked about for about 20 seconds each—by UCC pastor Dan De Leon of Friends Congregational Church in Bryan, Texas. When Dan shared compelling images and stories that reflected his congregation’s engagement in all manner of justice work and the intricacies of his own ministry practice, my often apathetic students were duly impressed both by the ministry and its media sophistication. “It’s all so Instagrammable!” one student enthused. “Why don’t we see more of that?”
Why don’t we?
Well, for one thing, because too many religious leaders—as my digital friend Kathleen Wooten of the New England Meeting of Friends recently pointed out to me—continue to believe that the new media technologies and practices of young people in particular are unable to mediate faithful practice in the Church and in the world. And it’s true: Instagram, Snapchat, YikYak and a panoply of changing social media platforms that are attractive to my students and other young adults will not mediate religion as we’ve known it for the last 100 years (and/or as Pew and other religious demographers keep looking for it, primarily in congregational settings).
But new media can challenge us to re-mediate religion, to turn up the social media volume on social justice so that the many conversations and actions religious practitioners are, in fact, having can begin to deliver us (as that old media classic, The Book of Common Prayer enjoins us) from the presumption of turning to religion “for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” If my undergraduates have taught me anything, it’s that when young people hear these social justice conversations, both in the context of offline worship and online social media, they plug in. When they don’t, they assume we just don’t care.
Kelly Baker argues that her ongoing—and perhaps annoying, for some people—insistence on talking about racial justice in public spaces (e.g., in this blog, on Instagram, on Twitter, and so on across the interwebs) constitutes an act of “loving in public” that she struggles to find in offline religious communities. She is, I think, calling us to a new mode of witness and proclamation—to be digitally-integrated prophets. Are we up to the task? Or are we ready to fade into silence?