The Mass Media and Faith: The Potentialities and Problems for the Church in Our Television Culture

Article excerpt

This essay examines the meaning and impact of the message about Christian religious institutions delivered by the mass media, especially television. Drawing on the insights of media theorist Marshall McLuhan, the argument seeks to broaden an understanding of these media, and, proposes that although it might seem that contradictory messages are conveyed-on the one hand, that the church is irrelevant; on the other, that religion is important-these are fundamentally the same. There is a "primary" message, shaped by the use, nature, and structure of a particular medium; and this message powerfully affects the patterns in which humans receive and comprehend information. Understanding this primary message, as related to portrayals of religion in the media, is an important part of the church's task as it faces the problems and potentialities of a mass-mediated culture.

Season five, episode two, of Sex and the City is entitled "Unoriginal Sin." Miranda, one of the four main characters-all of whom are perpetually single females living in New York-has had a baby. The father of the baby is her ex-boyfriend Steve, and the pregnancy was unplanned. Steve has asked to have some role in his son's upbringing, but Miranda is the primary caregiver. In this episode, Steve, a lapsed Roman Catholic, suggests that they have the baby baptized; his reasons for suggesting this are twofold: it would make his mother very happy, and it would be a sort of insurance policy on their son's eternal life. Miranda is absolutely horrified. She considers atheism to be the only choice for intelligent and modern human beings, and the Sex and the City program on the whole supports this viewpoint with very little nuance.

Miranda eventually agrees to the baptism, but on her conditions. She meets with the Roman Catholic priest in order to discuss the baptism and is able to demand that in the ceremony, there be no mention of "original sin," "the devil," "evil," "heaven," or "repentance." Only then does she feel comfortable in allowing the sacrament to proceed. In a voice-over, the show tells us that "the Church agreed to her demands because, in this day and age, the Church is like a thirtysomething woman in New York: desperate."1

This episode offers us a snapshot of a very real message continually delivered to our Western society through the mass media: religious faith is untenable and the church, in trying to maintain itself as an institution structured around this obsolete faith, is desperate. However, this is not the only message of the mass media concerning religious faith. In fact, in our post-9/11 culture, with George W. Bush as President of the United States, there is another, and apparently contradictory, message in strong circulation.

The March 27, 2004 issue of TV Guide features a cover story entitled "God and TV." The article describes the plethora of television shows that center on issues of religious faith, including new shows Joan of Arcadia and Wonderfalls, as well as relatively veteran programs like 7th Heaven.2 God, the article suggests, is a popular and sellable commodity in todays culture. Both a rabbi-Saul Berman of Sharr Shalom Synagogue in Toronto-and a Jesuit priest-John O'Brien, director of the Jesuit Communications Desk-are quoted as pointing out that the media is simply picking up on the spiritual nature of human beings and on the questions of faith that have arisen in our society since 9/11.3 Bill Roberts, president of Canada's faith-based Vision TV network, further explains that "making the faith experience for individuals more accessible, more meaningful and less, well, sort of dire is good. If you look at any of the great spiritual traditions from Buddha to Christ, you know these were very popular and culturally close individuals. They were culturally close to their people."4

Unlike the Sex and the City episode, this magazine article tells a very different story about religious faith: religious faith is an important part of North American culture and can be found helpfully represented and reflected in the mass media. …