Creating Technology for Social Change

Why Media Studies Should Pay More Attention to Christian Media…

I have been pleasantly surprised by how much interest has been generated by last week’s announcement in the blog that Comparative Media Studies and the MIT Communications Forum was hosting a special event focused on Evangelicals and the media. So, I wanted to be sure to let you know that the webcast version of the event is now available.

Some people have asked why our program would help to host such an event. There are a number of reasons why media scholars should care more about the use of media by this particular population:

1. This event brought together representatives of two of the largest and most influential media ministries operating today — James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. While they often operate in a world apart from mainstream commercial media, their work has enormous reach. For example, Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, has sold more than 20 million copies, making it the bestselling nonfiction hardback book in history, though many of those copies sold through Wall-Mart or Christian bookstores
which do not necessarily register in the tabulations of the New York Times best-seller list. Similarly the Dobson organization has run a major media empire since the late 1970s.

2. As Diane Winston explained during her opening remarks at the Forum, Evangelical Christians have been key innovators in their use of emerging media technologies, tapping every available channel in their effort to spread the Gospel around the world. I often tell students that the history of new media has been shaped again and again by four key innovative groups — evangelists, pornographers, advertisers, and politicians, each of whom is constantly looking for new ways to interface with their public.

3. Anyone who wants to understand how niche media works in this country needs to understand what’s going on in Christian media. It’s hard to call Christians a subculture when most studies suggest that the vast majority of Americans claim some religious faith and most claim to belong to some mainstream Christian denomination. Yet, because the most hardcore members of these groups feel alienated from much of commercial popular culture, they have created their own alternative cultural sphere — producing their own television programs, films,
music, games, magazines, comics, you name it. We can learn a lot by studying the strategies by which this alternative popular culture is produced, distributed, and consumed, often depending heavily on viral marketing to get the word out without having to rely on mainstream media channels.

4. While we often talk about “conservative Christians” as if the evangelical movement spoke with one voice, the term evangelical actually describes a range of different religious, cultural, and political perspectives, as was clear as we begin to see the contrast of perspectives between the two media ministers who spoke on this panel. One important educational function an event like this can play is helping people to recognize and understand the diversity of the
evangelical movement and thus push past some of our stereotypes. Getting ready for this event, I shared with my students a broad range of Christian-produced media from the rather hardcore music videos of Carman to news reports on Rick Warren’s conversations with Barack Obama. Some of what we watched — including some materials from Dobson promoting abstinence education — upset some of my students, while other materials fit more comfortably within the consensus of the class. (We often justify showing other controversial content on the grounds that we want to “challenge” our student’s preconceptions. Well, maybe it is time we challenged our student’s preconceptions about “crazy Christians.”) My students learned something by simply observing the personal style, the language, the tone, even the delivery of the speakers, as well as listening to the ways they answered questions from the audience.

5. Academic institutions may have an important role to play in supporting and sustaining conversations between conservatives and liberals in the face of the growing divisiveness of American politics. I am eager to use some of the programming we do through CMS to bring together people who may come from fundamentally different ideological perspectives in a context where we can have a civil conversation designed to help us understand what others believe and why they believe it. I was personally very pleased with the tone of the conversation — the questions from the floor were smart and respectful and the speakers saw this as an occasion to encourage reflection and dialog rather than as a chance to prostheltize to our community. Indeed, I think in this context, the speakers were more frank in addressing core concerns than they would have in a more confrontational context, allowing us to get a better glimpse into how they think about and deploy media.

I should acknowledge that Timothy Stoneman, currently a visiting scholar in the Science, Technology, and Society program was the person who first proposed this session and assisted in recruiting the speakers. He is doing interesting work about the use of radio by evangelical missionaries, a project which sheds light on a somewhat earlier chapter in the history of Christian media.

By the way, we’ve gotten questions about whether our sessions with Jim Ross and Mick Foley, recent guests to the CMS program from World Wrestling Entertainment, will be available via podcast. We have fallen a little behind putting up the podcasts on the web due to a range of other activities but these events were recorded and I will let readers know when they go up on our site.

Meanwhile, if Christian media is not interesting to you, might I suggest checking out the podcast of advertising guru Alan Moore’s recent talk at the CMS program. Moore’s work will be familiar to readers of this blog through an interview I did with him earlier this year.

[Note: This post originally misidentified Dr. Dobson as Charles rather than James. I don’t know where my brain was at since I have been following James Dobson since the 1970s. I might have crossed him with Charles Stanley, who was the minister of a mega-church in Atlanta when I was growing up. Sorry for the confusion.