Why Should Media Matter to People of Faith?

Media frame the important stories of our lives.
If people of faith don’t participate in this framing, their values are left out
of the discussion.

Mainline and progressive religious groups have a history of holding media and popular culture in low regard. Television, for example, is often viewed as corrupting, polluting and trivial.

I recall a conversation years ago when I advocated listening to country music as a way to understand the narratives revealing the concerns of working people. A religious leader with whom I was speaking cut off the conversation abruptly by proclaiming that country music is “cheap grace: it’s just people crying in their beer.”

This executive worked in the same organization I now work in! But the attitude is common. Mass media and the diversions it offers are viewed as being beneath us. And this is dangerous.

In fact, church leaders in the 16th century held the same attitude toward the popular tracts written by the protesting theologian, Martin Luther, and printed for mass consumption. The disregard for the medium by Roman Catholic leaders left the field open to the Protestants to churn out sermons, treatises, pamphlets and Biblical commentaries that changed the way people perceived the church and faith. Abandoning the media to these reformers put the established church behind the curve and it took years, if not centuries, to catch up.

Country music is not the ninety-five theses. But the use of new media for the distribution of ideas relevant to the everyday lives of people is relevant. The media frame the concerns. While Catholic leaders relied on tradition, liturgy and visual representations of the stories of faith, Protestants saw the medium of the printing press as a means to emphasize scripture alone as the source of authority in faith, and the medium was an opportunity to tell that story widely by taking it directly to the people.

The printing press broke down the gatekeeping function of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Reformation was well ahead of the capability of the church to deter it.

Two points are worth considering. First, the medium shaped the message. By allowing the reformers to take their message directly to the people, the source of authority shifted significantly to the individual reader. It put information directly into the hands of the people. This was revolutionary. And equally important, the Protestant reformers framed the issues and were prolific in getting their framing before the people.

Their contention that authority resides in scripture and can be perceived by all believers changed the course of Christian faith, and the church.

The failure to take media seriously makes it possible for those who do engage in the public dialogue through media to frame the issues and set the values according to their understanding and those who don’t engage don’t get heard. At least, they don’t get heard widely.

Strange that those who inherit this tradition have forgotten it. Today faith and values are being framed in multiple ways as evangelical entrepreneurs engage the Internet, television, radio and other media while the mainline groups stand apart or withdraw altogether. The framing of important issues is left to others.

And while it’s accurate that media professionals missed the boat for a number of years by ignoring religious coverage, it’s not quite so true today. Media coverage is still marked by the trivial and marginal–see the Discovery Channel documentary Lost Tomb about a purported burial site containing the bones of Jesus. (An op-ed by Michael Medved in USA Today discusses this with appropriate critique, in my opinion.)

But the issue remains. If you don’t tell your own story, someone else will. And you may not like what you hear. That’s why media should matter to people of faith.

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