Last week I got to go play in London to go to a session on religion in the news. Rather than being a regular seminar it was a book launch for Religion and the News, a new edited volume by Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower (which I now own… inevitable, maybe, but it does suggest that the event caught my interest). There were two strands of the conversation that caught my interest, in particular – a strong inclination for greater religious literacy across the board, and some thoughts about the kind of religious stories that play in the media and how that works itself out.
The first strand basically stated that we would be better served as country if we had media coverage of religion that was actually literate about religion – as it would then be able to engage with religious issues critically – but not meanly. And personally it was actually quite challenging. I might be a relatively well educated human who goes to seminars on religion and media and who has a decent working knowledge of her own religion, but actually, sitting there, I realised that I know practically peanuts about any religion that isn’t my own. Beyond Year Eight R.E lessons when we did a term on Islam, a term on Judaism and a term on Christianity, anything I’ve picked up has come, largely, through travel and – problematically – the media. I think one of the reasons I enjoyed the British Museum’s recent Haji exhibit so much was that it gave me more of an insight into something I knew very little about – and from a perspective that wasn’t just ‘this happens, this is what happens, this is why this religion does this’, but also tried to take in something of why this matters.
This is kinda key in a call for religious literacy as something that would be benefical for a society that might actually understand how it works. If you don’t care about why religion and/or faith matter to people, if you don’t have an empathy for those people – even if you don’t agree with them – then you’re not really doing them justice and neither are you really going to understand what’s going on in any given situation because you’re effectively saying that a particular element doesn’t matter. Which is a really good approach when dealing with faith and religion, mmm?
I maybe biased in favour of faith and religion generally (although, at some point in this conversation we should probably to clarify ‘religion’ as a concept – set of beliefs? rituals? orthodoxy?), despite acknowledging that they throw up their share of slightly concerning people, shall we say, but I do think that we might be better off if we took the view that clearly religion has had a very important place in our nation’s history and cultural development and we’d understand both of those things and ourselves a lot better if we thought about that without automatically assuming that it is inherently problematic (which a lot of us do, a lot of the time, including some of us Christian types) and without trying to thow out that bathwater with the babies that are a generally predominating belief in God, or a the extistence of a particuar religious majority (or even, maybe, an established church). I mean – the English language without the King James Bible or John Donne, Christmas without the Messiah?
The best line of the seminar was – in my paraphrase – “We’re neither religious nor secular – we’re just confused.” A part of that is because most of us don’t know a lot about more than one of the religions that are prevalent in our culture – and a part of that is about the way the media talks about religion.
A Rabbi who was there said that, for many in religion, ‘PR’ and ‘media’ are dirty terms, because they feel judged by the media. The obverse of that is that the PR and Media of religions and religious organisations often get treated with suspicion by a media that is suspicious of proselytising (and a culture, too – we don’t really do fervent ideologies of anything, en masse, except when it comes to The Beatles). But, as the aforementioned Rabbi went on to say – pretty much every religious text does some storytelling and some PR. We do need to own up to that, and own it – and tell our stories well, making them relevant and comprehensible – and yes, you can do that without selling out your beliefs. If you can’t, you’re just not trying hard enough. Or else your religion has a bigger problem…
There were a couple of things worth thinking about in this bit of the discussion. One, which I might well come back to at another time, talked a bit about an ‘intellectual arrogance’ that plagues those of us who care about how religion is talked about and perceived – which is that we either can’t or don’t want to get into populism, because we don’t trust it and occasionally we think it’s a bit grubby. We like Radio Four and our Broadsheet Of Choice, we may cope with Radio Two (with some gentle ribbing), but we don’t really want to spend time talking to the Daily Mail or the tabloids. We quite like the local press though, ‘cos we like localism. And this is annoyingly true – but it’s also perhaps not as problematically as we think, since it is where most people are at a lot of the time, and we would probably do well to consider being less snotty about it – as in doing so we cede the debate to all other comers. And we don’t trust all other comers. So, let’s think about that in future.
And the other bit about the kind of religious stories in the media – which is a chicken and egg situation of the stories the media tells us and the stories we like to read. We like sensation, we like to be shocked or outraged, or painfully misunderstood and the media gies it to us. Who will ever know which came first…
Given recent events, my mind took itself to the recent vote on women bishops. I would have been angry and disappointed by the outcome anyway – but following the aftermath in the media, I was simultaneously annoyed by both sides (though, clearly by the side I disagreed with more) – but also depressed, because by jumping up and down either happily or angrily we all – myself included – make it that much harder to move on and try and get to a solution in an amicable fashion. My own little outburst on this blog may have been cathartic, but it led to a few awkward conversations with friends who disagree. It’s not the end of the world – but it does mean that you have to be prepared to put in some extra legwork to your relationships in the future (at least, if you don’t have the kind of the relationship where you argue all the time anyway – and most of us can’t sustain more than a couple of them, it’s too tiring). Maybe we’d all do our religions a favour better if we didn’t let the media guide the shape of our conversation? And maybe the media would do us all a favour if it didn’t try and frame religious converations – or any (or all) conversations – in terms of conflict?
And now I’m off to read my book and think about how.