Introduction
There is no need to repeat the statistics that today people all over the world spend a lot of time with mass media. The role and meaning of media in people’s life have become hot topic of discussion and debate. People get most of their information from the media, and reality for many is what the media present. The media make them feel real and worthwhile, significant and important. Symbols and metaphors of media explain and clarify how the world works, and they constitute an unstructured and unpredictable education about what is important and unimportant in life. The media have become the real story tellers of our time and the definers and interpreters of reality for modern people . All this ultimately means that the media today are playing a crucial role in the life and culture of people and in their visions on world, society, God and spirituality.In the religious and church circles, however, many are inclined to think that the mass media, and the popular culture created by them, are mere entertainment and fun. The media are often considered sensuous and profane, trivial and unholy. Many ‘holy’ people think that the mass media and popular culture have nothing to do with God and spirituality. There is also a tendency to blame the media for many of the ills and evils in the society. In other words, there is a lingering prejudice that the expressions of modern popular culture are sinful and or at least a hindrance to spiritual growth. There is certainly a taboo attached to mass media and its bi- product the popular culture.But Christians are called to look at every reality from a faith perspective. As Christians we are confronted with certain faith questions concerning the media world. As Christians how do we express and experience the gospel values in modern media? From a faith perspective what do the modern media tell us about life and reality in general, about human hopes and aspirations, about human anxieties, struggles, about fate and destiny?This paper is a modest attempt to study and explore the possibilities of seeking God in mass media and popular culture. The specific questions raised are the following:1. Do the modern mass media provide us with opportunities to experience God and his loving goodness?2. Do they tell us stories of God and provide us with occasions to learn and teach about God?3. What is the religious and spiritual significance of the modern mass media and mass culture?
1. Mass Media and Mass Culture
The modern mass media of communication together have created a new culture called popular culture or the mass culture. It is true that popular culture as a way of life has always existed from primitive times, but it has become more complicated and sophisticated with the advent of mass media. The common understanding about popular culture is that it is the culture constructed mostly by the mass media of communication, both artistic and commercial, which the majority of people consume and enjoy. It is the culture that appeals to and expresses the taste, values, beliefs and behavioral patterns of most people. It is the the culture of the masses, the common people. It is the main stream culture of modern people and they affect the values the masses construct, and they reflect the values they have already constructed.In mass media productions and programs, the forms, the shape, ideas, and values ultimately come from the masses, the people themselves. Hence the mass culture constructed by the mass media often reflect and indicate popular human life and values. There are media scholars who argue that popular media productions are enjoyed by people because they reassure the masses that there is meaning and purpose in life. There are also scholars who make a distinction between ‘high art’ and ‘popular art’ and who argue that the so called ‘high art’ generally communicate the idea that life is absurd and meaningless, where as ‘popular arts’ tend to communicate a positive and hope filled approach to life. It is this search for meaning and purpose inherent in mass media that makes it an appropriate area for spiritual and theological reflection.Christians believe that God speaks to them through life and realities, through objects, events and happenings. The same Christian sensitivity requires us that we keep an open mind about the possibility of seeking and finding God and Gods goodness in and through the mass media and popular culture. In other words, if we believe seriously that in the past God has spoken to us through persons, objects and events of everyday life, then we must also concede the possibility that in the sacramentality of the ordinary people, in their hopes, fears, love and aspirations today we can legitimately experience God and his loving goodness. We can also argue that if masses of people find articulation and representation of their own experience of God in popular arts, artifacts and culture, the same media can be means by which God reveals himself to us.Catholicism has more reasons to look at the cultural influences, especially at mass media and popular culture from a faith perspective, because Catholicism at its best moments has always embraced an empirical sensitivity. In its early days it appropriated to its worship every thing that was good, true and beautiful in the popular and pagan world around it. It is said that the fire and water symbol of the Easter vigil, for example, was lifted in fact from the pagan fertility rituals.
2. Spirituality: A Fresh Understanding
The word spirituality is ambiguous. For many it refers to matters other worldly and abstract, pious practices or individual salvation. There are many opinions about what is ‘spiritual’. However, among humanist there is a wide agreement that the spiritual is a sense of the sacred and a reverence for and union with an ultimate reality. Some spiritual writers classify spiritual experiences into many categories like mystical, paranormal, charismatic, regenerative etc. Whatever may be the philosophical and technical meaning of ‘spiritual’, it is essentially an experience of being born again, renewed, revived and being filled with new hopes about life. Leaving aside its many philosophical and technical meanings, in this paper I would like to consider it as any immediate contact with reality that transforms one for better, an act through which a person becomes aware of himself/herself in relation to the world and an ultimate reality.For Christians the sacred and the secular are inextricably mixed. Christian heritage indicates that a number of its ceremonies, rituals and symbols in fact emerged from a pagan past. In the nature religion of our ancestors the rituals were a joining together of gods and humans to fight the chaos and confusion in the world. Christianity has always absorbed any religious and spiritual experience which seem to disclose the presence of God. It does not shun the ordinary spiritual experiences of the people. Christian history reveals that by and large, it is a religious heritage in which the world is seen as a metaphor of God. In other words, searching for God was a part of the Christian life in every epoch and it was affected by the culture and attitudes that were in vogue at any given time. Thus the search for God today as in the past is not just a theological problem. It also has important pastoral and cultural implications. But unfortunately, today, the cultural influences, both positive and negative, are not reflected upon, not articulated in our search for God. Too often it operates in a vacuum.The fact that Jesus took our human flesh is the theological justification for looking for grace and God experience in mass media and popular culture. If Jesus took on human flesh and if Jesus was part of the material things of this world then everything is sanctified. Everything is grace, and everything will tell something about God. Grace can be found and experienced in everything and everywhere. Therefore, we need not be ashamed of looking for God in mass media just because people seem to like and enjoy them. Rather, it is high time that we re-articulate our insight and understanding about popular media and culture in order to seek and experience God in and through them. Because a full comprehension of the catholic Christian tradition requires respect not only for its theological dimension but also for its imaginative dimension.
3. Culture, Spirituality and Creative Imagination
Culture and spirituality are interrelated, because both take their origins in the creative self. Both originate from human search for meaning and purpose. Even though many untruths have crept into modern culture and modern spirituality, especially in modern popular culture, both in culture and in spirituality the basic pursuit is after truth. Animals do not have culture or spirituality because they cannot reflect on their imagery. The mass media of communication are cultural expressions of our time and they too are results of creative imagination. Without creative imagination there is no mass media constructed or consumed.Christian spirituality tells us that God is communication and God’s communication does not come to an end. If God continues to communicate through time, history and culture, we can seek and experience Him in and through modern media of communication because for some realities to be sacramental and holy, it is necessary that all realities be capable of being sacraments. Woks of culture and art are metaphors and symbols. As metaphors they attempt to organize, interpret and communicate human experiences from one imagination to another. Therefore, we could say that works of popular culture, especially well conceived films, TV programs and other popular cultural productions are possible sources for metaphors of God.Good works of culture, both artistic and commercial, attempt to organize and interpret experiences, and, in this process can, reveal God and his loving goodness directly or indirectly. What the media consumers need is proper training to discern and interpret their media experiences and to seek and find God and God’s goodness in them. Good works of art and culture are committed to the pursuit of truth. The artist and the media producers seek the beauty and the mystery of the real in order to charm others with what they have discovered. The core of their discovery and the method of communicating the truth is creative imagination. It is in the combination of rationality and imagination that the work of art and culture is born. In the same way, the consumers of art also have creative imagination and it is in their creative imagination that they receive, interpret and enjoy the works of art and enjoy and make sense of them. In sum, without creative imagination, there is no culture created or consumed, and without skills and discipline imposed upon the energies of the creative imagination there is no communication and sharing of experiences.
4. Media and God Experience
Though religious experience begins in the imagination, it does not end there. It can go to the conscious mind, and it is especially present when it pauses to listen during the creative process. That is why spiritual and religious experiences do not remain merely at the emotional level. If spiritual experiences are primarily activities of creative self, we may apply the same principles of creative imagination to scan the images and sounds of the of the mass media and see if spiritual experiences are possible in and through the audiovisual expressions of mass media .In his book ‘Religion a Secular Theory’, sociologist Andrew Greeley(1982) proposes a sociological theory of religious imagination. He proposes nine principles to study and understand the mass media from a spiritual perspective and to seek God in media experiences.1. Human nature has a built in propensity to hope. Death and resuscitation research, dream analysis etc. demonstrate this persistent tendency of humans to hope.2. Humans have the capacity for experiences that renew their hope. Historically and psychologically this is believed to be the origin of the image and the concept of God.3. While any reality may trigger a ‘grace experience’ there are certain realities, because of their power, are especially likely to trigger ‘grace experience, and hence are considered sacraments par excellence.4. Such ‘grace experiences’ are recalled first of all in the imagination and then they are filtered through the entire personality, and sometimes they affect the whole person in an enormous and overwhelming way. Even long after the experience is over, the residue may remain in the imagination, capable of recollection and resonance.5. Such grace experiences can become a communal event when a person is able to link them with the over arching experience of his/her religious tradition and when s/he perceives a link between his/her experience of grace and the tradition’s experience of grace.6. The principal sacraments in human lives are other human beings and relationship with other human beings. Just as much of the story of any one’s life is a story of relationship, so each person’s religious story is a story of relationship. Therefore, God experience reveals itself mostly through loving human goodness.7. The purpose of religious discourse is not only to communicate doctrinal propositions but much more to stir up in the other person resonance of similar experiences which the discourser himself/herself has had.8. While religious teaching deal with ideas, propositions and concepts, it must also stir up imaginative resonance by using stories, images, poems, fantasies etc.9. The purpose of religious ceremonies, rituals and celebrations is ultimately communication and sharing of experiences. This can be effectively achieved by evoking images from the surging imaginative dynamics in the preconscious, and by restructuring the configurations of those dynamics.According to the above sociological theory of religious imagination, there are four phases or aspects in a person’s spiritual experience:1. The experience itself2. The image or symbol which stores the experience3. The story by which the experience is shared with others and4. The community of those who share the imagery and stories and who provide each other with an interpretative repertory for encoding the experience.Application: Finding God in Mass Media and Popular CultureWe believe that our God is a communicating God and His self communication does not come to an end. We have seen that God’s self communication occurs not only in churches and temples and in the interludes of worship and organized prayers, but also in and through graceful persons, events and objects of every day life. In other words, the spiritual and the sacred are experienced first in the secular and then is correlated, represented and communicated through liturgy, prayer, worship, celebrations etc.We have seen that imagination is the source of religious and spiritual experiences. It is reality that we experience first and only after our total personality is absorbed by the experience of reality do we attempt to order and organize, interpret and articulate spirituality. In other words, both in secular and spiritual experience reality comes first, and hence, we cannot speak about God unless we first encounter Him in reality that impinge on our imagination . We have seen that Christianity from the very beginning has embraced the works of art and culture as an essential part of its spiritual experience. Today the mass media take up events and stories from real life and explain and present them in current language, symbols and myths that people understand and feel comfortable with. Often they mend the tears of ordinary people in the fabric of meaning, hope and love. TV, for example, brings to the lives of people, visions of ideas and dreams, events and happenings, imagination and fantasy, history and geography that they would never personally experience in their day-to-day lives.
5. Media Interpret Life and Values
As the major story tellers of our times, TV and other popular mass media serve a myth poetic function maintaining communal beliefs and shared values. Through the narration of various stories, TV dramas and movies often function in a society as religious narratives function in religious communities. In this sense we can say that the media are like prophets of popular religion in contemporary society and the innumerable stories and dramas are like sacred text for the people viewing them, and therefore, they should be interpreted also as sacred text.The TV programs, for example, may be compared to church sermons. According to some media scholars, like church sermons, they too require certain prescribed forms of rituals before participation. TV as a modern prophet has served modern people by formulating three religious beliefs and myths and by interpreting life and enduring values for people. First of all, TV has taught people that good will triumph over evil and it repeatedly assures them that the forces of good will be the ultimate victors in the battle against evil. Secondly, TV narratives repeatedly tell people that evil exists only in the hearts of few evil people, and ultimately it is love and goodness that rule the world. Thirdly, it teaches people that godliness exists in the good and effective actions of individuals and that God’s redemption and saving action works in and through human beings. In short, TV as a modern prophet has taught the masses to have hope in life , and this indeed is a spiritual experience.
 6.Media as Modern Liturgy
Liturgy is community celebration of God experience. Going to movies in a movie theater or watching TV programmes with the entire family can be like taking part in a liturgical celebration. For example, the situation comedies, detective shows, family stories, soap operas and action shows serve as liturgies for people, because as in liturgical celebrations in these shows the viewer is driven to the set with expectations and hopes .As faith is expressed through the broad scriptural themes like creation, fall, redemption, second coming etc .in the liturgical celebrations of the institutional church in these programs the basic tenets of hope- filled themes are held together by various dramatic elements like story, plot, characters, setting and other audio visual elements. Just as the faith and beliefs of the faithful in the church are not always made explicit in a particular sermon or in one particular liturgical season of worship, the faith and hope of the television viewers also are not made fully explicit in one or two shows. They become evident only in the broad sweep of a number of televised series and narratives. As in church liturgies, the narratives on the tube tell people what they wish to believe, and invite them to participate in the story of popular culture. However, unlike the real church which claims its authority from on high, the television and other media narratives derive their prophetic power and authority from the congregation of faithful viewers. Thus the mass media today have become like popular liturgical services and celebrations.
7. Media Present Stories of Hope
There are other ways too in which ‘religion’ and spirituality get on into media presentations today. For example, the deepest religious implication of TV is that it presents a theology of hope by exploring human experiences in an unending and repetitive way. By its narration of life and realities TV has become much like sacred scriptures. Very often well made TV programs take up stories from the day-to-day lives of ordinary people and build on questions that most of he people are asking at a given time. And as the readers of sacred scriptures the TV audience wait for the messiah, the hero, the protagonist to come and redeem a sinful or conflict situation. As they watch and listen these stories they wait for true enlightenment and wisdom to solve their own personal problems and conflicts. These dramas and stories allow them also to imagine the consequences of their own choices, decisions and actions, and provide them opportunities to imagine that in spite of those consequences there is still hope for change, a better world tomorrow.
8.Leisure and Fantasy as God Experience
From the beginning the mass media have been a leisure time activity. Religious/ Spiritual experience also has been closely linked with the nature of leisure time. In moments of religious community celebrations and spiritual activities, people recall the meaning of their life, their deepest values, and get in touch with the well-springs of human existence.. It is the sheer goodness of what is, what we are, and what we see around us that we affirm and celebrate in our religious celebrations and spiritual activities. They are special moments when we set aside the daily chores, and life is celebrated simply for the joy of it. In fact they are privileged moments to explore ourselves, and are occasions for integrating our life and deeper values. They are moments for more intuitional union with the ultimate Mystery of life.
In the above sense we could say that the modern mass media like TV, cinema the Internet etc. have taken on the fantasizing, free-association character that we look for in leisure, religion and spirituality. Contrary to much thinking and debate about how the media manipulate and do harm to people, the moments with the media are the times when people can free-associate individually and with their friends and families. Since the mass media experiences are essentially metaphoric, symbolic and connotative, they are at their best in telling dramatic and fictional stories and in producing the finer and lyrical emotions of love and in releasing human tensions.
9.The Quest for Meaning in Media
Much of the pleasure of modern mass media comes from seeing the meaning of life and world being restored. In many ways the media invite us to enter into the process of constructing meaning of life through the stories we watch and listen. By inviting us to identify or not to identify with the heroes and other characters of the story they make us write our own life stories, or at least to draw inspirations to construct our life stories as we wish and dream. Since much of the raw materials of images, icons, and possible plots of the mass media programmes are taken from our own immediate world, the social context of families, friends and neighborhoods, the mass media selectively suggest what meanings, values and symbols may be more important for us.
Film and TV as dramatic art forms are ideally suited for the portrayal of the passion and quest for meaning . Because of their unique power to depict action in time and space, they can show the human person in search of meaning through many cinematic techniques like visual and aural images, composition of frames, movements of the camera and characters, the proximics and editing. Usually in movies, this quest for meaning often takes the form of a journey. Thus we have any number of films (La Strada, Shadow lands, The Mission, Forest Gump Field of Dreams, and innumerable Indian films) that depict the human quest for meaning in life or about a quest of some kind. Good films can challenge our misconceptions, question our untested values, and broaden our narrow perceptions. They can invite us to explore interpersonal relationships, as well as the impact of our decisions and choices on others and ourselves. They can illumine, elevate and delight the human spirit.
10. Media Experience as Spiritual Rituals
Studies on the cultural anthropology of performance indicate that theater and mass media like TV provide people with cultural experience as ritual. As in religious rituals, there are three experiential moments in mass media . In the first phase, the individual is drawn out of the community into a ritual, a symbolic context. In the second phase, the individual or the whole community undergoes an experience of cultural freedom and an exploration of new options. And in the third phase, the individual returns to the world of everyday life with a new sense of freedom and option from the ritual experience. In this sense TV has become the most important ‘liminal experience’ for most people today. Because of its narrative story telling structure that is centered around the perennial mythic theme of conflict and resolution, and because of its folkloric style, TV brings people into a national and international archetypically mythic frame works, and as in religious and spiritual experiences, it helps people to relive the great mythic formulas pitting good and evil in struggle. The themes of the texts may not be explicitly religious or spiritual always, but the logic of structures are often religious and spiritual.
The media are the mythology of our day. They are the vehicles for continuing the old traditions by recasting it in terms of current situations and circumstances. A good example of this is the play of good and evil in modern media and the significance of heroes and villains in media. One of the key themes in all the TV programmes and modern films is the powers of life, the conflict between a universal spirit that works for the good and a dark force of evil that works against the universal good. Thus, many critically acclaimed TV programs allover the world have addressed the problems of the violent relationships, the tragedy of incest, of nuclear holocaust, the plight of abused children, rape victims, the mentally and physically handicapped and the like. There have been a number of TV programs on the problems of corruption and bribery, drug addiction, teenage suicide etc. In this sense we could say that the media have now become the only “continuing education” available to many people all over the world to help them learn and think about sin, grace, transformation, hope, love and justice, and to cope with contemporary problems and issues.
11. Paradigms of Love Relationship
There is one more way in which the mass media, especially the TV, fulfills a sacramental role. By giving visible shape to many invisible values, many TV programs present vivid and appealing paradigm of love to vast group of audiences. Even in an ordinary and mediocre program we see virtues like patience, trust, honesty, generosity, and forgiveness, and other values like truth, beauty, goodness etc. beautifully portrayed, and applied without drawing explicit moral conclusions and ethical principles. Many programs often hint lightly at the skills and traits which are needed to sustain love, friendship and fraternity, all needed for happy and meaningful love relationship. It is said that some media programs have even medical and healing power. For example, research studies have indicated that some old film comedies and entertainment programs have the power to induce great medical and healing effect on audience, especially on sick and suffering people.
Conclusion
In the final analysis, all works of art especially modern popular media are channels of grace. They do contain moments of grace and God’ goodness in them, especially when they try to assign meaning to life and realities. Even when they assert that life is meaningless and absurd most of them implicitly try to explain and present the mysteries of life and realities. Directly or indirectly most of the media programs try to deal with ontological questions like: What are we ? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? What is most real in our lives? .What is the meaning of pain and suffering? What is our identity as human beings? etc. In secular works of art and media there may not be any direct attempt to point at the ultimate meaning of life. And yet a spiritual and discerning person can find profound, if not always explicit, meanings of life, love and relationships. There are also secular works of media and culture which are implicitly religious — where powerful religious symbols husk in the unconscious or preconscious, and which create implicit or preconscious ambience of meaning. Every now and then we also get some works of art and media which are purely theological and which deal directly with God and spiritual themes, and which deal directly with the very meaning of life and grace.
It is also important to keep in mind that when we talk about spirituality and god experience in media we do not necessarily mean that the modern media deal with lives of saints or stories of the church or religion or priest and the like. The fundamental question is how the modern media deal with human life and love, truth and beauty, friendship and fraternity faith and justice. When we talk about moments of grace in media and popular culture the core question is if the modern media and media experiences help us come closer to God through our perceptions of forms and frames, images and sounds, stories and dramas, characters and play of colors. There may not be strictly any Christ or God characters in films and TV programs, but often they contain plenty of God and Christ characters in a symbolic and metaphoric manner. We come across them in modern media as alluring, gentle, passionate kind and loving characters of God’s goodness, beauty and truth. The modern media present epiphanies and revelations of God in so many ways, by pointing our hearts and minds to a supreme reality and by elevating us to higher and finer aspects of life and values. As we know, often people come closer to God and to his loving goodness through senses and colors, through feelings and forms, through images and sounds and stories than through formal verbal theological dogmas, formulas and concepts.
If one believes that grace is everywhere, it seems very likely that it may be found and experienced in and through modern media too. Therefore, it is necessary today to develop a spirituality of the popular media. Modern people need a spirituality that helps them to recognize the sacred - God’s self communication as he manifests himself in the wonders of this world and secular life. In other words, if we believe that the crucified and the risen Jesus is the metaphor par excellence of God, the Catholic religious sensitivity demands that we find God and his Grace in the modern popular works of media and popular culture.
However, it may be also added that there are many media programs and programming that are trivial, cheap, vulgar and unimportant. This is because the works of modern media and culture are also subject to misuse and abuse, especially in the form of idolatry and pantheism. But the instinct that God is radically absent from popular culture can make the universe a bleak and more dismal place today. Therefore, the question to be asked of any work of popular culture and media is whether it provides powerful metaphors to suggest significantly the presence of grace. We also need to ask if the modern media illumine the possibilities of life in a grace suffused world, and if the grace experienced in the works of popular culture bring more life and vitality to our personal corporate life and values? If it does, God can be experienced through popular mass media of communication.

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THEOLOGICON Project


THEOLOGICON  is a name derived from the Greek words Theos+Logos+Eikon, referring to God’s self-communication in Jesus Christ, the Word (Logos) and the Image (Eikon) of the Father. Christianity is a religion of communication.

Christian theology originated in the oral culture and has matured in the print (text) culture. Today’s predominant mode of multimedia communications integrate sounds, images and texts to construct and express meanings. It calls for an aggiornamento of the content and method of theology and pastoral communication.

Theologicon is a digital threshold of communication theology.

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