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The written text for this section (Study the text in conjunction with the audio lecture of 29 minutes duration)
In secularised, Westernised societies, the dominant cultural theme is consumerist and capitalist and this has become the principal shaping influence on people's thinking about life – and therefore on their spirituality (Hamilton, 2003). The term secular spirituality has been used to describe the situation (Ashley, 2000; Crossman, 2003; du Toit, 2006; Mason et al. 2007). However, many would be unlikely to characterise their thinking as a form of ‘spirituality', particularly in the sense of the conscious cultivation of ‘reflectiveness'; the more relevant concern for them would be ‘lifestyle'. But because all lifestyles have embedded values, one could still use the term secular spirituality by default. This usage is helpful for drawing comparisons with religious spirituality.
Appraising the health of people's spirituality thus becomes one of the important evaluative roles of education generally and religious education in particular. Hill (1990) summarised this critical role as the interrogation of one's cultural conditioning – the educational context for this Section. It proposes an analysis and interpretation of contemporary secular spirituality with particular reference to the way in which it is mediated by contemporary cultural imagery.
This material gives special attention to the role of the visual in mediating and shaping spirituality. The trajectory of the arguments also implies a pedagogy that can be useful in the professional development of educators, in engaging them to think through the issues. Similarly, it could inform pedagogy for school students in investigating how cultural change has affected spirituality, and for learning how to ‘read' the visual clues that show how people are interpreting the meaning of life.
The term ‘mise-en-scène' is used in film and drama studies to interpret the meaning of the story being told (Bordwell & Thompson, 2003). It is the framework or subtext that helps make sense of the actions of the characters – like the ‘fabric' or ‘trajectory' of the story (Monaco, 2009). It is a commentary on what is happening in their lives, an interpretation of why they are responding to their situation in the way they do. In particular, it is about the way people respond to the cultural visual cues and clues that condition the way they think and feel about life. The mise-en-scène involves a dynamic interplay between story, clues that give meaning to the actions in the story, and presumptions about social reality that underpin the story.
One brief example illustrates the complex notion of mise-en-scène:-
Shifting the focus of the term from film/media studies to trying to identify and read the mise-en-scène of people's everyday lives can help with the interpretation of contemporary secular spirituality. It identifies the framework or story line within which they search for and articulate goals and aspirations for life. This approach illustrates the ways people refer to, and interact with, cultural meanings that end up having a shaping influence on what they think about life and how they behave. Mise-en-scène can be a useful analytical lens for investigating spirituality.
While the principal concern here is contemporary, relatively non-religious, secular spirituality (Smith & Denton, 2005; Hughes, 2007), mise-en-scène will be used historically to contrast this with traditional, medieval Christian religious spirituality, highlighting how and why spirituality has changed so much. The reasons for the comparison are threefold: firstly, the visual plays a prominent role in each; secondly, many people have a complex mixture of the traditional and the contemporary in their spirituality; and thirdly, most of the religion curricular in Catholic schools (the area of application of special interest to the author) tend to be traditional in orientation. How this analysis might apply to other religions like Judaism, Islam, Hinduism etc. will not be considered here.
There have been fundamental changes in Christian spirituality since the middle ages, but especially over the last 60 years. But basically, human beings are the same across history, drawing on culture to help them make sense of the world they live in and of their own experience. They need some sort of meaning to serve as a moral compass and to help them articulate their goals and aspirations for life. As noted in Section 3, in their own ways people work out practical answers to the questions posed in Paul Gauguin's painting entitled D´où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? 1897 – Where have we come from? What are we? Where are we going? There is a fundamental, genetic human need and aspiration to construct a mise-en-scène about life – even if this is not articulated as such by the people themselves, because some values stance is always implied in human behaviour and lifestyle; and even if the meaning that some despairingly choose is that there is ‘no meaning'.
Why start with medieval spirituality?
The reason for the surprising starting point of the analysis with medieval Christian spirituality needs to be explained – as well as the need to show how this might help elucidate contemporary secular spirituality. To elaborate on the first reason noted above: In medieval times and today, visual imagery made/makes a significant impact on people's mise-en-scène for life. Medieval Christians, most of whom were illiterate, learned their beliefs from stories at home and in homilies and through liturgy, and in cultural productions like morality plays. But what was enduringly prominent was the visual depiction of their faith in the architecture and religious art of their churches. As explained in more detail later, through the geographical dominance of the spires of village churches and city cathedrals, the awe inspiring structure of these edifices, and the church frescoes, statues, paintings and relics, their beliefs and aspirations for life were taught, assimilated and continually validated and reinforced. It was estimated roughly that in 12th century France there was one ecclesiastical structure for about every 200 people. Their churches were like the first ‘picture theatres' and their art like the first ‘powerpoints'. Here, visual elements were fundamental in shaping and sustaining their religious mise-en-scène. For many, this may have been the only visual imagery they were ever exposed to.
Today, the visual remains important for the construction of meaning and purpose in life for both religious and non-religious people. But in Westernised countries, the culture is saturated with visual imagery. People have instant digital access to exponentially large volumes of imagery that can affect their imagination of what life should be like. Just as medieval Christians could not escape the dominance of the religious mise-en-scène of their time, people today cannot really avoid the atmospheric presence of the consumer lifestyle complex attested to by media imagery; they have to take it into account as they chart their way through life. Some will go along with the cultural flow in a passive way; hopefully, education can persuade others to take a more discerning stance.
Contrasting the ways people in these two periods related to the visual aspects of their culture will show up significant differences in the focus, emphasis, beliefs, values and presumptions about life and the spiritual dimension. It will show how the different ‘iconographies' generated very different estimates of what the ‘good life' means. It will be argued that the centrality of the visual imagery in both contexts justifies the comparisons; and the results suggest that in many ways, contemporary consumerist lifestyle functions like a ‘religion', one which projects a coherent, global social reality, and which holds a dominant sway on the way people think about life and a powerful conditioning influence on their values and behaviour.
So special attention will be given to ‘decoding' the ways personal meaning is mediated by the visual. This can also be described as ‘decoding the iconography', showing how visual elements have meaning-making symbolism, and which propose values and validate beliefs. This involves critical interpretation of the meaning of imagery. It borrows from the generic use of the term iconography in the visual arts where it is a study of how artists use visual elements as references and allusions that generate meaning (Panofsky, 1983; Van Straten, 1994). Also, the word has a secondary specific meaning referring to the production of religious icons in the Byzantine and Orthodox Christian traditions (Cormack, 1985; Kenna, 1985). Both of these usages are pertinent here because artifacts in both the Eastern and Western Christian traditions have long been regarded as icons which were considered to connect believers with the religious world and the realities of salvation history (Schiller, 1971); they made salvation history present again and they drew the believer into that realm promoting reflection, devotion and prayer. This still happens for religious people today. But for many, even those who identify themselves as religious, the images in popular culture that dominate their mise-en-scène are very different.
The pervading Christian world view encapsulated in their art helped Medieval Christians interpret their world. Today people also have a pervading visual imagery about life; they have to reference their personal meaning to the globalised, intimate visual culture that is everywhere around them and to which they can have instant access. In the contrasting situations, there are significant differences in the types of visual items and how people relate to them, and in how they communicate meaning. Understanding these differences is not only important for comprehending the evolution of secular spirituality, and how people can have various mixtures of religious and secular elements in their spirituality, but, as noted above, it can also be used fruitfully as a pedagogy in religious education.
Marshall McLuhan 1911 - 1980
McLuhan and media studies: How the new media, especially Television, can shape people's thinking about life.
He tended to regard the developments as inevitable and positive. Rather than talk about the ways in which media might influence people personally in both healthy and unhealthy ways, he described how they would learn, communicate and act through the media. For McLuhan, electronic media (especially television) became the "great educator" (McLuhan, 1956, 1970; Beale, 1987). He discounted formal education:
McLuhan, and other media researchers from the 1960s onwards established beyond doubt that the new electronic media would have a shaping influence on how people got information, how they communicated and how they were entertained, as well as on what they thought about life – this affected the ways in which they constructed personal meaning, and ultimately this would flow over into beliefs, values and behaviour.
Pierre Babin 1925 - 2012
Pierre Babin -- How media studies and McLuhanist ideas can enhance and inform Religious Education
The French scholar Pierre Babin quickly responded to McLuhan's ideas applying them to religious education (Babin, 1970). He conducted two national programs for Catholic religious educators in Australia in the 1970s. He introduced Photolanguage (1969) which was used for many years in Australia in school retreats and adult professional development programs.
There were two principal elements to his approach. Firstly he proposed a fundamental need to understand what he called "audiovisual man" (sic); in other words, education needed to take into account the changed ways in which individuals construct meaning and values as influenced by new media, especially television. Secondly he proposed that an understanding of how media work should inform pedagogy. His practical work with students usually involved the development of the "audiovisual montage" together with a special emphasis on SYMBOLISM, which used colour slides, music and commentary. He proposed that the best in audiovisual techniques and content should be used in the service of educating in the faith tradition. More recently, he reflected on what this meant in an internet age. (Babin & Zukowski, 2002).
Harvey Cox 1929 --
Harvey Cox a United States theologian who tried to make sense of the growing secularisation of Western cultures and who identified the people's popular religion is something that was not always congruent with official, 'organised' religion, and he saw how elements of culture could seduce people away from a healthy spiritual identity.
But because of the dominant theme of narrative in film/television, meanings and values were always embedded parts of the story; and the widespread and free availability of these meanings/values made them readily accessible to people even at a relatively unconscious level. Hence it is not implausible that film/television could serve a religious function for people to varying degrees. For example: In a sense, the talk-show hosts have become the new priests, presiding over people's review of persona life. Morality is presented but usually in a simplistic good-evil polarity with the middle ground missing, the very place where in real life most moral decisions are made. The celebrities and TV personalities have become the new ‘saints'.
Kuhn's ideas from the 1960s about the personal influence of film/television and how the Christian church might understand and relate to the electronic media showed both an astute diagnosis of culture in his own time as well as a prophetic insight into the developments that would unfold into the 21st century. For example he addressed each of the following issues:
Raymond Williams 1921 - 1988
Raymond Williams the Welsh sociologist differed from McLuhan primarily in the way he considered that the media needed to be appraised within a broader cultural framework including the economy – media studies needed to be part of wider cultural studies. He saw an important need in a 'critical' role for education.
Whereas McLuhan saw the personal influence of media as inevitable, Williams singled media out as a social construction that needed to be evaluated critically (Williams, 1974, 1976, 1980). He pointed out that if cultural meanings were taken-for-granted as ‘reality' rather than as ‘consciously constructed reality', they would remain invisible and not open to critique and evaluation. Precisely because culture (including media) was socially constructed, it should therefore not be treated as something that is a given and inevitable, and whose consequences and implications had to be accepted relatively unquestioningly. He proposed cultural agency: that rather than being ‘passive consumers' of culture, people should become ‘active constructors' of culture (Williams, 1980, 1995). This meant the critical interpretation and evaluation of cultural meanings, and consequent action flowing from this evaluation, even if this was just within the boundaries of individuals' own small life worlds. They had the capacity to change and develop their own attitudes and values. They did not have to just drift along blindly accepting what the popular culture was proposing in terms of ideals, imaginations, beliefs and values.
Taking elements of culture as givens in an uncritical way was simply giving in to the power of those who were principally involved in shaping the main contours of contemporary consumerist culture. The cultural critique proposed by Williams resonated with the thinking of the critical theorists dating back from the 1930s. Williams' treatise on television from 1974 was remarkably prescient in that it remains pertinent today in the issues it identified, some of which could even be applied to contemporary internet social networking (Williams, 1974).
Neil Postman 1931 - 2003
Neil Postman: US scholar focusing on entertainment and education -- the need for educational critique.
Concerned about the potential personal influence of media, Postman, at New York University, was another voice like that of Williams proposing that the relatively rosy picture of media/technology painted by McLuhan was naïve; it needed systematic cultural critique
One of the significant differences between McLuhan and Postman was in their views of the role of school education with respect to the mass media. Aware of the potentially negative influence of mass media, McLuhan predicted that “Education will one day become civil defence against media fallout” (McLuhan, 1964, p.326). But generally he felt approvingly that television was the ‘great educator', that its educative influence was inevitable and that schools were too wedded to an outmoded book-literacy culture (McLuhan, 1956, 1970). His contemporaries noted his dismissive view of education that included the well-known phrases: School education is “marching backward into the future” and “children interrupt their education each day to attend school.” (Collins, 1971; Benedetti & DeHart, 1997).
Postman was conscious of this influential educational role of television which in a sense had its ‘own curriculum' which revolved almost exclusively around living for the moment, on entertainment and on being immediately and intrinsically gratifying. In his book Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in an age of show business (1985), he argued that television was skewing people's perceptions of life through its overwhelming orientation towards entertainment: “Whether we are experiencing the world through the lens of speech or the printed word or the television camera, our media metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, colour it, argue a case for what the world is like.” (Postman, 1985, p. 10.). Note the parallels with the earlier ideas of William Kuhns. Because it shapes people's conditioned expectations for entertainment, television tends to have a trivialising effect on politics, education, religion, journalism etc. That courtroom trials could become public entertainment is an example. Wolf (1999) wrote about the ‘entertainment economy' and how media conglomerates were conditioning people's life expectations. The genre of reality television and the social media are developments that illustrate Postman's argument more forcefully these days.
Postman considered that television was young people's ‘First curriculum' with school coming in second. TV was (at that time) the main component of an information environment which resulted in a culture ‘overdosed' on change. While the prominent co-author of the famous book Teaching as a subversive activity (1969) which highlighted the critical role of education, Postman felt that the evaluative role of education needed to be complemented with a conserving role.
This concern about the potentially damaging aspects of rapid technological change (Postman, 1993) was the basis of Postman's (1979, 1996) ‘thermostatic' view of education. It meant that school education should help counter-balance the current biases of the culture. When the culture tended to be tradition-bound, promoting innovation was a valuable educational contribution; conversely, when the rest of the cultural environment is changing rapidly through technology and electronic communications, it is important for education to help conserve tradition. An appreciative, historical perspective on cultural traditions is not necessarily contrary to being critical; rather, it can provide an informed diagnostic view on how best to adapt to change, and it can help people understand the cultural forces and events that have a subtle shaping effect on their personal development.
Referring to the critical perspective that hopefully schools might engender in young people, he claimed that “What has the most relevance to students is that which the information environment least provides them.” (Postman, 1979, p. 131). This was consistent with his earlier colourful statement that all children were born with “inbuilt crap detectors” and that a key role for teachers was to help refine this instrument (Postman & Weingartner, 1969, p. 16).
1. (Example) Jonah Sachs
2. Phil Cooke. Selling religion as a 'brand' and similarities between religion and brands.
Phil Cooke (Marketing/Advertising) Recent thinking about the way consumer culture functions like a religion – especially in ‘branding': The title of chapter 4 of Cooke's (2012) book, Unique: Telling your story in the age of brands and social media, is "A new religion?" Cooke considered that commercial branding functioned like a religion; it created a receptive 'resonance' in consumers by propagating the following feelings: sense of belonging; being part of a select community; experiencing collective rituals; and, having a shared belief system. These are characteristics of religions, and hence Cooke considered that branding was "becoming a type of religious experience in America." (p.64). He added that there were "some intriguing parallels that are difficult to ignore. In many ways, corporate America is subtly attempting to replace religion with branding, at least in the West." The parallels can be identified; but the claim that business corporations are part of a conspiracy to replace religion seems unrealistic. The religious function of consumerist advertising is more an unintended consequence.
Cooke's interest in this question stems from his work as a media consultant to religious and not-for-profit organisations. His view of branding was not as strongly focused on the problems with commercial/consumer branding as was the case with writers like Klein (2000). Refer to the discussion of branding in the second part of this Section. He regarded branding as a broader phenomenon that operated across many sectors including the national, political, sports, religious, and volunteer etc. For him branding meant using the media and advertising with integrity to ‘tell the story' of a particular organisation, person, service or product in a compelling way. In a world where there was both hyper-connectedness and hyper-distractedness, he sought ways of helping organisations to get their unique message across where the message was not always held in high regard by the popular culture. In short, he was working for a better branded Christian church.
Cooke's argument is as follows:
Beaudoin, in his book Consuming faith: Integrating who we are with what we buy (2003), claimed that the 'brand economy' could give people some sense of meaningfulness to life in the same way that religion did in the past. His interest was in encouraging Christians to take a more discerning stance in their engagement with consumerism.
Hanlon (2003) was also interested in the way that consumer brands functioned like belief systems. In his book Primal branding, he proposed a "Primal code" in which he identified seven key areas where he felt that consumer branding intersected with religion:-
Lindstrom (2007) too wrote about links between branding and religion. He thought that the activity of marketers and advertisers engaged in commercial branding was directly influenced by their awareness of the functions of religious faith. He proposed 10 areas where there were parallel functions between religion and branding – as if the former provided a useful template for consumer branding to follow. His 10 characteristics overlapped to some extent with Hanlon's seven; Cooke (2012, p. 79) referred to them as the Ten Commandments of Branding.
The focus of the writers noted above has been on relationships between religion and commercial branding. The project here has a larger scope – it is concerned with the way in which the advertising-media conglomerate mediates a global religion of consumerism. For Catholics, it is interesting to note that this theme resonates with comments about critical interpretation of culture in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium by Pope Francis (2013). The Pope used semi-religious imagery to highlight the economic imperative that drives consumerism:
3. Douglas Atkin Make consumers into 'true believers'. What can advertising learn from religion and religious faith
The Study continues in Part 2. Either follow the link here or start from the part 2 file in the Section