chapter  2
14 Pages

Media, Meaning and Method in the Study of Religion

ByChris Arthur

In his study of the Ituri Pygmies, Colin Turnbull describes the key role played in their religious life by the molimo, or sacred trumpet. This is used by the tribe’s elders to ‘waken the forest’, on whose complex webs of life the Pygmies utterly depend. Eventually, having gained their trust, Turnbull is shown the molimo, which is treated with great reverence and secrecy. To his surprise, the Pygmies’ most sacred object turns out to be a length of metal drainpipe (Turnbull 1961, pp. 72-73) . A similarly arresting example of how an unlikely object may be invested with religious meaning was reported in 1993 from San Francisco. A traffic bollard, dumped some years ago in that city’s Golden Gate Park, had come to be regarded by many as a sacred object. Hundreds of worshippers, some from as far away as India, have travelled to San Francisco to pray, meditate and make offerings of flowers and incense in front of this latter-day lingam.1 Such instances powerfully underline Mircea Eliade’s (1958, p. 11) contention that ‘we cannot be sure that there is anything that has not at some time in human history been transformed into a hierophany’. Eliade gives this generic name to the diverse evidence which shows how people have variously understood the sacred (rituals, myths, cosmogonies, symbols, sacred places, scriptures, ceremonial costumes, shamanic dances, and so on). Hierophanies are the raw material of religious studies. Given that human religiousness expresses itself over such a staggering range

of forms – everything from traffic bollards to the Summa Theologiae – it is, presumably, important for religious studies to try to cultivate a sensitivity to the variety of media through which its subject matter finds voice, otherwise we may end up uncritically assuming that religion admits of much neater definition and more clear-cut boundaries than is in fact the case. Yet there is a tendency in the subject towards what might be called ‘media-blindness’. Such blindness not only fails to take into account the range of media involved in religious expression, but also ignores what Len Masterman (1985, p. 20) sees as the first principle of media studies, namely that ‘media are symbolic systems

which need to be actively read, and not unproblematic, self-explanatory reflections of reality’. Masterman offers a simple illustration of the way in which this principle

tends to be ignored. An art teacher holds up a painting of a horse in front of a class and asks what it is. The invariable reply is: ‘it’s a horse’. The teacher shakes his head and asks again. Eventually the distinction between a horse and its representation on canvas is established. The same point is made in Rene Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe across which is written: ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’.2 Perhaps books about religion should bear similar disclaimers on their covers. By alerting us to their existence as media, this might help to avoid the intellectual solecism to which those who study religion are occasionally prone – judging Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Muslims against the blueprints found in books about them and finding the living representatives wanting. I want to do three things in this chapter. First, draw attention to some work

which challenges – I think effectively – the tendency in religious studies towards media-blindness; second, examine something of the impact of media on religious thinking; and third, suggest some arguments for adopting a more media-conscious approach to studying religion.