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Centre for Media Studies, School of Arts

Contemporary and Classical Issues in Religion and Media

Course Code:
Course Not Running 2015/2016
Unit value:
Taught in:
Full Year

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

At the end of the course, a student should be able to demonstrate…

  • Coherent knowledge of the main theoretical approaches in Media Studies and the Study of Religions together with their applicability globally, including notably the non-Western world.
  • A detailed knowledge of how academic arguments are constructed in Media Studies and the Study of Religions, how to analyze their presuppositions and how to approach religion and media globally without introducing Eurocentric assumptions.
  • A detailed knowledge of specific aspects of the mass media with specific reference to contemporary religious thought and practice in a global context.
  • A clear recognition of the different disciplinary approaches of the Study of Religions and Media Studies, and to analyze materials making use of each, while also learning to appreciate the different presuppositions involved and also their respective uses.
  • How to evaluate the role of the mass media in religious representations and experience in different societies.
  • How to analyze discursive diversity: that of academic intellectual practice as against religious and media practices in different societies.
  • A critical analysis of advanced techniques of reading and studying audio-visual materials to appreciate how arguments are presented and composed, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to present the findings.

Scope and syllabus

The course is the core theoretical element for the proposed MA Religion and Media, and is designed to articulate the various other components of the degree. As such it has two main objectives.  The first aim is to provide students with a critical understanding of the main theoretical approaches in the two distinct disciplines of the Study of Religions and Media Studies. In the modern world, not least in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, people’s knowledge of religion and engagement with others increasingly takes place through broadcast media or the Internet and mobile phones. Conversely media and film often involve implicit religious presuppositions, which is how they are able to engage with audiences. Important as the shift is from textual and face-to-face dissemination of religion, analyzing and understanding the processes involved is not straightforward because it requires some knowledge of two different disciplines. The second aim is to familiarize students with the richness and diversity of contemporary Asian, Middle Eastern and African (and diasporic) religious and media practice and experience by requiring students to engage with case studies and online materials.
The purpose of the course is to explain the main theoretical approaches in the Study of Religions and Media Studies relevant to understanding the complex ways in which religion is now mass-mediated and religious ideas (often implicitly) permeate media content. Each term of the core course therefore has two distinct purposes. The first is to review the relevant schools and approaches in the respective disciplines. The second is to examine a range of topics in which media and religion are intertwined. This disciplinary coverage is also designed to give intellectual coherence to the other elements of the degree, which consists in one unit of options drawn from the Study of Religions and one unit of options from Media Studies.
For the Media Studies term of the core course, the proposed topics are:

  • Why do the media matter to religion?
  • Media technologies and determinism
  •  Ideas of mediation and communication
  •  ‘Traditional’ media – Orality, image, text and performance (ritual, theatre)
  •  Broadcast media – the heyday of hierarchy and dissemination
  • New media – the return of dialogue?
  •  Religion, media and politics in the contemporary world Culture, religion and the rise of soft power – hegemony

For the Study of Religions’ term of the core course, the proposed topics are:

  • Theories of Religion, particularly anthropological approaches examining religion in the public sphere
  • Religious notions of mediation, transcendence and immanence
  • How different media shape religious practice; issues of embodiment, ritual, performance, sensory and aesthetic disciplines
  • Graven Images; religions’ refusal of mediated faith
  • Transnational and global faith communities, and the internet
  • Representations of religion in the news media, both within the West and more widely; a particular emphasis on the representations of religious revivalism and violence
  • Politics of media representations of diasporic religious practice in the United Kingdom. Particular case studies: coverage of African traditional religions (especially ‘witchcraft’), and British Muslim ‘radicals’.

The course starts from the recognition of the impossibility of declaring a specific field of non-Western religion or media. So the course will question assumptions about the cultural neutrality of technologies of production and assumptions of the objectivity of media content to explore the extent to which specific cultural and religious presuppositions have been naturalized. The course will draw upon two broad schools within media studies, namely sociological and mass communications approaches, which are particularly relevant for understanding present changing configurations of religion and media (a notable example is the Middle East) and cultural studies, which inter alia enable a critique of textuality in an increasingly visual media world and expose the workings of hegemony in complex and increasingly ‘consumer-friendly’ ways.
The course asserts that religions continually assert themselves in the public sphere. Religious practice in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and in global diasporic communities, call into question the distinction between sacred and secular. Media practices stand at the interface of religions’ engagement with the non-religious. Through using a wide range of traditional and new media to represent themselves to each other, and to outsiders, religious practitioners assert themselves as distinctive forms of public life, and often contend the hegemony of nations. At the same time, outsiders, observers, critics, sceptics and state-builders craft their own representations of religion in the public square through broadcast and news media. The course investigates the politics of such representations, particularly evaluations of religious practice proffered by media institutions located in the Western world.
The term will conclude by reviewing a range of questions. What can we learn from the study of the complex relationships between religion and media? Does a simple distinction of Western and non-Western hold up in what is often claimed to be a global world? To what extent does the course oblige us to rethink media and religion as two substantially different and unrelated congeries of practices? To what extent do the proliferation of mass media change the nature of religious experience and consciousness? And to what extent do religious ideas permeate notionally secular media production?

Method of assessment

Coursework:one 5,000 words essay or one 4,000 words essay and not more than approximately 15 minutes of video or audio-recording, or 50 still images (50%); one 5,000 words essay or project or one 4,000 words essay PLUS not more than approximately 15 minutes of video or audio-recording or 50 still images.