Godsdiens en die media

Februarie 23, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

Ek het gisteraand deelgeneem aan ‘n gesprek oor godsdiens en die media wat deur die Kaapstadse Intergeloofsinisiatief georganiseer is. Ek was veronderstel om as teoloog en voormalige joernalis te praat. Hier is dit dan. Laat hy val waar hy wil!


“Ethics in Print Media: How Can Faith  Communities Encourage Ethical Coverage?”


(Cape Town Interfaith Initiative, 22 February 2010)

Ethical discussions about religion and the media usually deal with how the media should approach religion (a topic on which my esteemed co-panellists will, no doubt, provide valuable insights), but tonight I’d like to turn the question around by asking how religious communities should approach the media.

This is a theological question, which does not arise for all media managers and practitioners, but only for those who themselves belong to a religious community, and of course for other members of those communities. It is a question that I can only address in a relatively informed manner from the perspective of my own religious tradition, the Christian tradition, and within that tradition as someone largely shaped by the Protestant, and more specifically Reformed, tradition. Other Christians and adherents of other faiths will have to judge whether or not what I have to say is at all helpful to them.

Let us begin with a question asked by the character Judas Iscariot towards the end of the classic rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Judas, speaking (perhaps surprisingly) from heaven, and looking back on the events of Jesus’ life and death, poses the following question to Jesus:

Everytime I look at you I don’t understand

Why you let the things you did get so out of hand

You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned

Now why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?

If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation

Israel in 4BC had no mass communication …

Why indeed? Did Tim Rice have an answer in mind when he wrote these lyrics? Is it a coincidence that it is precisely the traitor Judas who struggles to understand why Jesus opted for such a disastrous marketing strategy? Are we to understand that the value of a free media so often celebrated in modern liberal discourse – the media’s supposed contribution to democracy and thereby to human dignity – can be questioned? Would Jesus, with his philanthropic, humanist proclamation of God’s rule have found an ally in the modern media?

The Gospel of Matthew (4:1-11) relates how the Spirit of God drove Jesus into the dessert, and gave him the strength to withstand the temptations with which the Devil taunted him: turn these stones into bread; jump from the highest pinnacle of the temple, God’s angels will carry you down safely; all the kingdoms of the world I will give to you if you bow down and worship me …” In the film Jesus of Montreal this last temptation is illustrated powerfully when Daniel, who plays the role of Jesus in the local parish’s Easter play, and subsequently identifies radically and dangerously with that character, is taken to a wealthy film maker’s lavish office, which looks down from up high over the city of Montreal, and told that he could have the world under his feet if only he would sell the rights to the play to the film company. Clearly, an impressive show of power and fame, effective brand building – what Martin Luther called a theology of glory, as opposed to a theology of the cross – is not what Jesus is about.

The enormous power of the media, so coveted by all who want to make a name for themselves, is a temptation to Christians from two opposite perspectives.

First, there is the temptation to try and harness that power for the sake of promoting the church – of making it more attractive and popular, more acceptable within the reigning culture. I use the word “reigning” advisedly, for believers can thereby be enslaved by the power that they so covet – by the values and priorities of the media machine. Many forms of televangelism, religious advertising, ecclesial communication strategies, mass evangelistic crusades and Christian publishing inisiatives illustrate this abundantly.

Yet it is not only in our worship of media power, but also in our hostility and opposition towards it, that we Christians often lose perspective and stray from our calling as followers of Christ. This happens, inter alia, when publications are threatened with all kinds of sanctions because they publish articles critical of religion – as happened some time ago to the Sunday newspaper Rapport, which forced the editor to get rid of a columnist for the sake of preventing massive financial losses to his publication. Or when perceived “enemies” of the faith are personally insulted and condemned publicly in the most undignified manner, as happened recently to my former colleague prof. George Claassen when he dared to ask critical questions about religion in schools.

Granted, critics of religion are also sometimes guilty of crudely insulting and deliberately misrepresenting and stereotyping Christianity and other religions, but surely that should not serve as an example to be emulated by the followers of Jesus? What happened to “turn the other cheek”, “love those who hate you” and “don’t repay evil with evil”?

The theologian David Bosch once wrote that Jesus as he is often presented by Christians has such impressive muscles that one does not notice the marks of the cross. These kinds of power play – whether harnessing the power of the media in a manipulative way, or fighting fire with fire – ultimately rest on a deep seated fear and insecurity, a lack of faith, among those who call themselves believers. After all, according to the Bible, it is not by force that Christ rules, but through the apparent weakness of self-denying sacrificial love.

Linked to this is the question of perception. Because, in our culture, visibility has become an ultimate concern, religious people tend to do everything in their power to increase their visibility and to manage perceptions. Even concrete projects, such as those relating to helping the poor, are often chosen and conceptualised consciously with an eye to how it may help give the church a more positive image. One of the most common complaints about the media from religious circles is that religion does not get enough attention, followed by the complaint that when religion is reported on, it is in a one-sided or misleading way, or focussed only on sensational stories, rather than also pointing to the many positive things coming out of religious communities. In this, religious people do not differ from politicians and celebrities in general! But is this obsession with how we come across, with how others perceive us, Christian?

A constant theme in Mark’s Gospel that has puzzled Christians through the centuries is the so-called “Messianic secret” – the fact that whenever someone concluded from Jesus’ miracles that he is the promised Messiah, he did not encourage them to go out and declare this to the world, but ordered them not to tell anyone. The most widely accepted explanation of this is that Jesus was well aware of the mistaken ideas associated with the title of Messiah in the mind of his followers and others. It was only after his crucifixion that the disciples understood what this title meant when ascribed to Jesus as the suffering servant.

John’s Gospel (6:66-67) recalls how, after Jesus had made some particularly unpalatable utterances, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him”. To the few who were left behind, he asked: “You do not want to leave too, do you?”

When “great multitudes went with him,” says the Gospel of Luke (14:25), Jesus did not regard this as a welcome marketing success, but warned them to “count the cost” (27, 28, 33): “whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple … whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.”

No wonder, then, that, according to the Gospel of Matthew (6:1-2, 5), Jesus counseled those who would follow him: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do … to be honored by men … And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing … on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”

This is the very opposite of the value system mockingly sketched in the film My Favorite Year when the character played by Peter O’Toole, a celebrity actor, attends a party to his honor, and replies to someone who greats him with a “Nice to see you!” with the quip “Nice to be seen!”

Jesus’ ethic of invisibility is based on his understanding of God: “No-one has seen the Father,” he says (John 1:18, 6:46). In the Biblical witness power and glory, like “being seen”, have a mysterious and unexpected character. As Paul puts it in 1 Timothy (6:15-16): “God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal”, “lives in unapproachable light” and is the one “whom no one has seen or can see”. This reminds one of Isaiah 45:15: “Truly you are a God who hides himself.” What does it mean, then, when believers are called to “be holy as (God) is holy” (Leviticus 11:44, 19:2)? Surely not that they should aim to steal the show?

A final observation. Christ’s victorious struggle, according to the New Testament, “is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). These and similar words are often wrongly understood as referring to some esoteric mystery, but in the context in which they were written they were aimed at very tangible and visible powers – specifically the seductive military, cultural and ideological power of the impressively visible Roman Empire.

Paul and the other New Testament writers, like their prophetic predecessors in the Hebrew Scriptures, understood very well what we, in a post-modern society, are only beginning to learn: that public discourse is not merely a carrier of information, but also a power that can oppress. This also applies to the discourse of a free press in an exemplary liberal democracy. Paul’s reference to what cannot be seen – to “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” – expresses the insight that the dynamics of social structures have a mysterious life of their own and are stronger than the power of individuals. If you don’t believe me, ask the editor of a bestselling newspaper who would like to publish serious news on the front page, but knows from experience that any such reckless adventure will result in immediate loss of revenue and could result in her losing her job.

Faith communities can serve the media best by critiquing it, by demystifying and desacralising its assumed values, by exposing the many ways in which it can and does go wrong, and the way in which it so often functions as a power beyond human control. Prophecy, in the Bible, precisely as merciless unmasking of the truth, functions as the judgment of God, which then turns out to have been merciful because liberating.

There is a power that is stronger than the “rulers”, “authorities” and “powers”. That power is neither us as individuals, nor the political and economic structures we create. It is the liberating power of truth – not the factual, empirical truth for which some journalists rightly strive, but the prophetic truth of which Jesus spoke when he said (John 8:32): “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

What the media needs in order to report ethically and in the service of humanity is to be freed of romantic illusions about their craft by hearing the unpalatable truth about the powers by which they can so easily be enslaved. It will be a blessing to the media and to the communities it seeks to serve. This liberating message religious communities can only bring if they themselves put their trust in the God who hides himself, and not in the frantic quest for visibility.

13 antwoorde op Godsdiens en die media

  1. Dankie. Dit is stof tot diep nadenke…

  2. Dis omtrent ‘n mondvol.
    Geluk met die toespraak
    en voorspoed.

  3. No! They will murder you in a secret like CS Lewis for The Screwtape letters book. And like Aldous Huxley for A Brave new world book. Then they will take a focus of the devious deeds and kill a president, like JFK, so nobody ask too much question of Lewis and Huxley.
    Now again, when someone of wise who will do it good in universy, try open the eyes of people, they make it look like he embrace a demonic, not expose it.

  4. I’m not sure I understand what you mean. CS Lewis was not murdered, and The Screwtape Letters has been, and still is, a bestseller.

  5. He was murdered, with Huxley and a JFK on a same day. Too many people listen to him on a radio!

  6. You are mistaken. Neither Lewis nor Huxley was murdered, but it is true that all three of them died on the same day. Lewis died of cancer soon after his wife did.

  7. Poison, not a cancer.

  8. Na die lees van hierdie bydrae wil ek die Nederlandse spreekwoord vir myself toevoeg: “Lee vat, hou toe jou kraan; dalk sien hul jou vir ‘n volle aan.” Alhoewel ek groot belangstelling in beide kommunikasie en teologie het,kan ek niks anders byvoeg, as bewondering uitspreek nie. Ek is dankbaar dat my “constituency” van die christelik-gereformeerde tradisie deur ‘n bekwame denker en kommunikator behartig is by so ‘n geleentheid. Dankie.

  9. Media want to sell something they call “news” to masses of people. And, there we are: “Sex and Crime”, and that is quite a distance away from what we call “Religion” (or, what it should be…) Besides, most people working in the Mass-Media-Scene are people who are very seldomly closely attached to families (married? children?)and – even more unthinkable – churches, because their work forces them to be “independant”, available at any time of the day to take that photograph of the derailed train immediately. The non-derailed train is of no concequence. Non-derailed religion is boring. The masses that the media want to address at all times are the same masses that decided to have Jesus nailed to the cross, but the same mass of people did not hear that he, Jesus, whilst hanging there, told the poor devil hanging next to him that he will be saved …

  10. Religion is also about “sex and crime”! That’s the point of contact between religion and the media. Ek wil ook nie ontken dat die media soms waardevolle werk doen nie. Die moeilike ding vir mediamense (soos ek!) om te erken, is egter dat die media ook skade doen, en nog moeiliker is die feit dat hierdie skade nie hoofsaaklik deur “verkeerde keuses” of “slegte mense” veroorsaak word nie, maar deur ‘n soort outonome dinamika, die mediadiskoers of media-industrie, wat sterker as enige individu in, of verbruiker van, die media is en ons almal onderdruk. Interessant genoeg het die redakteur van die Cape Times tydens die gesprek hieroor met my saamgestem, al het al die ander mediaverteenwoordigers daarmee verskil.

  11. Nou laat jy my bloos.

  12. Die eintlike probleem van die media is sekerlik die moderne tegniese moontlikhede: In die verlede het die joernaliste van ‘n koerant of radio elke dag saamgesit en elkeen het ‘n “storie” ontleed en ondersoek. Dit het verskeidenheid gebring. Vandag kan maklik tien koerante of ander media dieselfde storie van net een enkele joernalis druk en daardeur die “storie” vanuit net een enkele oogpunt beskou, sonder enige kommentaar. Dit is eenvoudig goedkoper en vinniger, maar die werklik interessante deel van enige nuus, die verskil van sienings daarvan, het dikwils daardeur heeltemaal verlore gegaan of is selfs ongewens (en word dus nie gepubliseer nie)

  13. Jy’s reg, maar dit gaan nie net oor die tegnologie self nie. Koerante neem veels te min mense in diens, so niemand het tyd om ondersoekende joernalistiek te beoefen nie. Die bottom line is als.

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