Media and Religion in Any Classroom

By: Rick Clifton Moore (Boise State University), RMIG Teaching Chair.

 

Doing my best to impersonate one of those insufferable “foodies,” I was scanning restaurant lists from San Francisco the other day. Yes, AEJMC 2015 is just around the corner.

 

The difference between a cosmopolitan city such as San Francisco, and the smaller cities and towns where many of us live is quite stark. In considering this contrast as it applies to restaurants, I drew two conclusions, valid or not. One was that big city eating establishments can narrow their individual culinary offerings more than those in smaller communities can. For example, the Golden Gate city has a place like “Castagna” that focuses narrowly on cuisine (yes, that’s probably what they call it) from the beautiful Provence area of southern France. Smaller cities are lucky to have a general French restaurant. My second conclusion is related to this. Those unenviable “French” establishments in more remote burgs often have to hedge their bets. They may need to add something recognizable to the menu, or even to their advertising, to get customers in the door. Indeed, I’ve sometimes wondered if a person could make a good living travelling from town to town in middle America selling sign addenda that read, “…and American food.”

 

I think this is an apt metaphor for all of us in RMIG who teach at different kinds of institutions. Some of us have the luxury of working at universities with significant offerings in mass media, and the specificity of our classes allows us to have one or more option in “Religion and Media.” Newer members of the group who teach at schools without such narrow catalog offerings might not be aware that RMIG once collected syllabi from some of these schools. The list is still online and can be seen here. http://www.religionandmedia.org/syllabi/

Admittedly, some schools that offer narrow classes in media and religion are not analogous to large metropolises. They simply have made a commitment to the sub-discipline for one reason or another.

 

The point of this essay, meandering as it might be, is that those of us teaching at colleges without such specific, narrow courses still have plenty of opportunities to integrate religion into our curriculum. And, I think we can do it in ways that nobody would think inappropriate. In other words, the customer is not going to say, “Hey, don’t throw herbes de Provence in my mac and cheese!” In the end, I want to suggest that there might be some advantage in sharing information about “Religion and Media” in a class that is not so labeled. I’d like to argue that the recent controversies in France, aptly enough, and the U.S. related to artistic representations of Muhammad provide a good example of this. There are many curricular areas much broader than “Religion and Media” where discussion of this topic is wholly á propros, maybe even de rigueur.

 

One place where I hope all of us would realize that discussion of the above-mentioned controversy is appropriate is in media law and/or ethics. Certainly this is one of the most common classes in media programs around the country. And, discussion of the Muhammad cartoon imbroglio fits the parameters of it without question. For example, most texts used for a media law class delve into questions of “hate speech.” To what extent is causing great offense to a group by purposely and publicly acting in a way that we know greatly offends their religion align with any formal definition of this term? Or, looking at the recent events in Garland, Texas, one might have a class discussion related to government response to such speech. Most media law classes study the case of Schenck v. United States in which Oliver Wendell Holmes famously declared that the government has the right to regulate speech that poses a “clear and present danger.” Does the process of openly declaring one’s intent to publicly offend a religious group fit this description? Who is responsible for ensuring that free speech doesn’t evolve, or devolve, into something approaching a “danger”?

 

Certainly there are issues that can spread beyond the confines of the class just described, though. This is worth noting, as many of our students are more interested in questions of how to attract audiences than they are with questions about whether their communication is legal or ethical. Along these lines, many colleges have courses that deal with the aesthetics of media, and in these there are good connections with the topic being discussed here. At its root, the issue being discussed is the extent to which a communicator adjusts his or her message based on attitudes of the audience. That is a classic issue in aesthetics. Do true artists ignore the reactions of those who view their art?

Of course, most of our students don’t think of themselves as “artists.” With the exception of a few in our classes who have studied auteur theory and want to direct “cinema,” most whom we teach want to be journalists, or broadcasters, directors in mainstream Hollywood film. Even so, these students will someday have audiences, and should recognize that the issue of offense with audiences should concern media professionals of any stripe. In the context of the current topic, showing them Saturday Night Live’s riff on the “Draw Muhammad” controversy could stir some useful conversation. Presumably the show’s writers and producers spent ample time during the week determining how to generate laughs in the midst of a cultural phenomenon that resulted in the spilling of real blood during the previous six months.

Beyond law and aesthetics, many of us teach courses in media that are more sociological than professional. Certainly in these contexts, discussion of religion is completely reasonable. And, questions related to the recent cartoon controversy are no exception. How do particular messages, especially messages related to religion, come to be represented in the media? How is it that some aspects of religion seem to be rarely portrayed except when they are associated with violence? How do these kinds of messages affect societal values? To what extent do media reflect the power dynamics of the society in which they are imbedded?

 

Interestingly, one person who raised that last question is not a sociologist, but one of America’s most famous cartoonists, Garry Trudeau. Students might find his argument about the power of humor to be quite interesting (http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/04/the-abuse-of-satire/390312/). Those who are familiar with the cartoonist’s work will be surprised to hear his proposal that satire is inappropriate when used against “the powerless.” Certainly that’s a common sociological concept. If students find it interesting, they might also want to read the retort of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/opinion/sunday/ross-douthat-checking-charlie-hebdos-privilege.html. As he usually does, Douthat provides keen religious insights to the topic at hand, but continues interrogating the issue of “power.”

Let it not be said, then, that professors at remote outposts without a “Religion and Media” course do not have significant opportunities to help their students investigate the religious dimensions of mass communication. No matter what the general catalog descriptions of their classes, these instructors can certainly find ways of requiring students to think critically about religion, something that has always been an important part of human experience.

Of course, some students might not want to spend much time thinking about matters of faith and spirituality. Here, a professor could potentially find advantage in teaching a course with broader boundaries. For one thing, students inclined to avoid a class titled “Media and Religion” might very well be found sitting in one titled “Media and Audiences. And, to return to a metaphor with which I began this essay, I would suggest that students enrolled in a course with a broader label may actually have fewer preconceptions about what should and should not be discussed therein. Of course, if we’re dubious whether our pupils will be attracted to any of these offerings, we can do what many restaurants in middle-America do. However, our curriculum committees may be surprised when we request permission to add “…and American food” to the titles of all our catalog classes.

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