[Book Review]Handbook on Religion and Communication
Yoel Cohen and Paul A. Soukup (Eds). Handbook on Religion and Communication. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2023, pp. 551. ISBN: 9781119671558 (Hardback).
In the introduction of the new publication Handbook on Religion and Communication, the editors Yoel Cohen and Paul A. Soukup affirm that “Religion has not disappeared but has changed” (p.1). This comprehensive handbook comprises 33 interconnected chapters written by esteemed academics and experts who meticulously explore how religion continues to be incessantly communicated, albeit in transformed ways, due to distinct cultural contexts, technological advancements, and disruptions caused by natural or human factors.
The book is organized into eight parts or themes, each spanning around 45-50 pages and featuring two to five chapters: 1) Theoretical Context; 2) Theological Perspectives; 3) Religions as Actors; 4) Individual Religious Communication; 5) Media Institutions; 6) Functional Perspectives; 7) Cultural Perspectives; and 8) Approaches in New Technologies. The interconnected nature of these chapters serves as one of the book’s greatest strengths, symbolizing a cohesive network that reflects the complexities of contemporary communication.
Theoretical Context (Part I) is intertwined in four chapters. Schofield Clark and Heidi Ippolito open it with an information-rich historical survey on the academic approaches to communication, media, and religion. They highlight decolonization, intersectionality, AI, communication as a human right, regulation, privacy, and transparency. There is a need for a more holistic account of the complementarity among humans, technologies, and the world, which raises the question: If communication is a human right, where should such right be universally based? (p.19). Stephen Garner responds by tracing research on the marriage between religion and communication in human societies. Commendable is how a particular religious tradition negotiates and uses new media (technologization of religion) and how technology can be more efficient through its religious shaping (spiritualizing technology).
Public theology in the public sphere is interposed, asking: Should effectiveness be based on the instruments or on the message and method itself, making the communication more meaningful? Paul Soukup believes the message (content) is primary. He examines how major religions have addressed communication based on key theological foundations and applications for communication. One judges the suitability of the media based on the content and meaning from their respective sacred books. Robert Fortner adds ethics in communication here as indispensable in any human activity. He examines the similarities and unique perspectives of the major religious traditions in their assumed or declared purpose of communication. Ethics might vary from one religious tradition to another, but they are not so different as to be unrecognizable by others. It becomes free and independent from the chains of any religious belief.
Theological Perspectives (Part II) are explored in five chapters. Mary Catherine Kennedy discusses the “mediatization” of religion, emphasizing how being a Christian is greatly shaped by media as an information source. It dictates how information is transmitted, experienced, and lived in rituals, morals, and community formation. Despite this seeming control, faith tradition remains an indispensable and valid moral compass. Yoel Cohen and Hadi Enayat link this discussion by examining ethical guides for communication in both Judaism and Islam. Traditional forms of authority continue to play a significant role, where the memorization and recitation of sacred texts influence religious cohesion.
Anthony Le Duc and Keval J. Kumar associate this with an examination of religious tradition and communication in Asia. These traditions have never been uniform or monolithic, characterized by sects and cults and centering on “orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy” (p.99). They have been transmitted from oral traditional media to the new digital mass media. Joseph Muyangata and Mark Fackler highlight the uniqueness of African traditional religions (ATR), emphasizing strong culture, ritual, and ancestral veneration. The focus is on self-identity, relationships, and the manifestation of divine presence in the clan, tribe, and religion. The sense of God is communicated through how he relates humanly – how he speaks, how he hears. This makes religion truly become the story of humanity with its joys, dreams, and sorrows. There is a seeming dichotomy of perception regarding the ubiquitousness and absence of atheism in the media. For Teemu Taira, both claims are true. There is the presence and absence of religion in the content (media information) and the content creators (media professionals) themselves. There is a need to clarify the media’s attention-seeking logic that blurs authentic human value.
Religions as Actors (Part III) is composed of five chapters. Jim McDonnell begins with an overview of religious broadcasting, discussing online and digital broadcasting of religious programs and recommending comparative cross-cultural studies. The aim of digital technology is for individuals to be masters of the media, not the reverse. Televangelists are masters of the media. Soukup describes the history of televangelists, highlighting their success through effective storytelling in television and social media live-streams, which create parasocial relationships with audiences and symbolically manifest the “commodification of religion” in media outlets. Carlo Nardella explores public relations and advertising of media outlets, involving the “marketing of religion” with an understanding of economic resources, competition, marketing codes, techniques, symbolic capital, knowledge of public relations, and survival in a consumer culture.
In addition, Gregory P. Perreault, Mildred F. Perreault, and Monica Crawford offer religious situational crisis communication strategies where the collective response of different faith groups is paramount. These strategies include denial, bolstering, differentiation, and transcendence. Media coverage plays an important role in responding to crises, requiring faith engagement, where Amanda Sturgill's work on web presence becomes crucial. Web presence complements and is complemented by the affordances and particular modes of communication of religious communities. Faith groups have a real opportunity to excel in the creation and promotion of online presence, thereby altering the landscape of faith expression offline.Top of Form
Individual Religious Communication (Part IV) continues the intertwining in three chapters. It commences with the juxtaposition between pastoral ministry (doing theology) and communication (the method of doing theology) by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome. She discusses the scope of pastoral ministry, the role of theology in pastoral communication, and approaches to media through it. God’s self-communication is the root of any theology of communication. Digital tools lead to a digital culture where such theology is lived. Building on this leitmotif, Damian Guzek and Piotr S. Bobkowski explore piety, religious identity, and the media. They note that while the role of religion in people’s lives may be waning, the presence of religion in the media is increasing. There is a “progressive secularization” seemingly displacing religion and piety, which is observed in the multidimensional presence of those against religious belief and those without it.
There is a need to reinforce the orthodoxy of religious identity, particularly for Mary Hess, concerning youth, their subcultures, and their education. She highlights the challenges facing young people growing up in a pervasive digital culture, including their diminishing and displaced education and participation in religious interactions. For Hess, education in faith equates to meaning-making and authenticity in how and what young people communicate. She poses the question: Is religious education to be seen only as part of church ministry or as a discipline in the academy?
Media Institutions (Part V) is divided into five chapters. The first institution is the mediatization of religion discussed by Knut Lundby, which reshapes public religion evident in the automation of data collection. Religious traditions are cultural systems, and institutions rely on media for their communication. With the mediatization of religion, individuals and institutions rearrange traditional elements from “world religions” and redistribute them through modern cross-media narrations. The second institution is religious news media. Cohen traces the period when media shied away from religious news, highlighting the conflict between Church and state. He tackles questions regarding the religious background of journalists covering religious issues and the accessibility of religion news sources to reporters. The digital age has expanded religious news reporting virtually.
The third institution is entertainment, which, together with pop culture, generates tension with religion and religiosity, as discussed by Allan Novaes. He equates pop culture with media culture and discusses its challenges, intersections, and perspectives. They can serve as agents for social change, promoting equity and diversity. The fourth institution is religion in film, explored by Joel Mayward, who examines “the presence of religious characters, practices, locations, symbols, or texts within the diegetic world of film” (p.317). Mayward explains the syntax of the narrative dialogue of religion in film, which he calls “theocinematics” – theology in motion that synthesizes theology, phenomenology, and film theory. The fifth institution is documentary film and religious faith, conceived from a historical perspective by John P. Ferré. He emphasizes that documentary film is the founding genre of cinema and argues that documentaries, laden with layers of perception and meaning, deserve broader study as symbolic artifacts of media and religion.
Functional Perspectives (Part VI) is arranged into five chapters, initiated by Myna German, who explores the function of communication media in creating global communities of religious identity and belief. It traces the evolution of media and highlights mediated religion as a means of shaping religious identity. Johannes Ehrat associates this with meaning. His work reviews the acknowledgment of religious meaning within semiotic/sign communication and the interpretation of meaning derived from it. Experience takes precedence over speculation. Gnana Patrick concretizes this experience in the interface among religious rituals, pilgrimages, and festivals. He considers rituals as realities embedded in daily relationships rather than rites institutionally performed. For Johanna Sumiala, such relationships are symbolically manifested in a ritual engagement with death, which today has become a media event containing mediated acts of public mourning, witnessing, and sacrifice – all having religious or spiritual undertones shared through digital media.
Cultural Perceptions (Part VII) is divided into five chapters. Chiung Hwang Chen opens it with a review and assessment of scholarly works, highlighting the intertwining of gender, sexuality, and race/ethnicity issues. He underlines imbalances in several resources. Felicia Katz-Harris follows this with an overview of the cultural reality of material religion, which is recontextualized in public spaces and spheres, including churches that also serve as repositories and loci for interaction, participation, and ritualization. Rituals themselves are part of material religion, communicating dynamic social contexts and lived experiences. Within these lived experiences, Ruth Tsuria and Jason Bartashius explore the intertwining of religion, sexuality, and gender. They argue that throughout history, religious traditions have constantly sought to control sexuality and gender norms. Media raises awareness of these mediated social representations of sexuality, eliciting distinct opinions and responses.
Another cultural and distinct social representation is discussed by Míriam Díez Bosch and Alba Sabaté Gauxachs – authority. They consider media as transforming accepted understandings of authority, with media playing a key role in religious authority. They state that “despite its central role in religious studies, the definition of authority remains elusive due to different contexts, disciplines, and approaches” (p.478). To reinforce authority, religions have embraced media as allies and have utilized media to be closer to their adherents. Finally, Robert A. White examines the role of religion in development communication among major religious traditions and how they have used media to contribute to socioeconomic development and respond to basic human needs.
Approaches in New Media (Part VIII) is discussed in two chapters. The first chapter is an exposition and analysis by Díez Bosch and Josep Lluís Micó on the impact of the internet and mobile technology on the major world religions. They emphasize the reality that while new media offer benefits for religious communities, some communities are still hesitant to use them. This hesitation is also reflected in the Catholic Church’s historical perception of media as “monstrocities.” However, a healthy negotiation between religion and new media continues to this day. The second chapter is focused on the landscape of online religion, presented by Rohit Chopra. He outlines a quadruple evolution of online religion: pre-web, static, interactive, and social web. Each period carries its own fears and promises that have shaped the current state of religion and digital communication – virtualized, profoundly altered, and incessantly evolving.
Overall, this new Handbook on Religion and Communication has excellently interwoven what it richly offers with what it promised to communicate and achieve. References are extensive, and the minimal overlaps in topics are explicable considering the depth of its content and scope. Akin to religion and communication, the handbook is certainly a mediated treasure.
Norman Melchor R. Pena Jr, SSP
Saint Paul Seminary, Philippines