Paul A. Creasman, Ph.D.
Arizona Christian University
Abstract: This essay proposes new directions for research into the intersection of Christian communication and media studies. Starting with Schultze’s “God Problem” I show how much research into religion and media limits itself to audience surveys and general histories, or ignores questions of faith and media altogether. Rather, I suggest three considerations for researchers when exploring the relationship between Christianity and media: greater mythological diversity, examining the role of media in human-God communication, and understanding how media forms limit the kinds of faith messages that can be shared. Such considerations have implications not just for researchers but for teachers as they challenge us to find new ways to engage students with important questions of faith and media.
Keywords: God-problem, Christianity, media studies, religion and media, mythological diversity
In 2004, communication scholar Quentin Schultze gave a keynote address to the Religious Communication Association titled “The ‘God Problem’ in Communication Studies.” The ‘God Problem’ as Schultze defined it is academia’s inability to address questions of communication that invoke the potential that God is real and speaks to His creation. As Schultze describes it, “If God exists, and if God communicates with human beings, how can we study communication comprehensively without taking in to account the agency of God?” Put another way, how can researchers claim to understand communication comprehensively if they ignore the potential role God plays in the process? Put still another way, how can we continue to ignore the role God might play in human communication when most Americans still claim to believe in God? If God is god of everything, shouldn’t that belief inform how we communicate? Why aren’t we studying THAT?
“The God Problem” in communication research has not always been a ‘problem.’ Schultze tells us the communication discipline used to heartily entertain such possibilities. But the issue has become increasingly pressing in the last 300 years as the idea that God is real and speaks to His creation “represented an unpopular, potentially even subversive research agenda that called into question the naturalistic assumptions of modernity.” The Age of Enlightenment ushered in a long, slow march toward supremacy of human reason over transcendent truths. Ultimately, Schultze casts doubt upon most of modern communication scholarship but his criticism is not that scholars simply ignore questions of God or are trying to subvert religion in general. It is that academia isn’t asking the right questions. Or, more to the point, they don’t know how.
Communication scholars, Schultze says, appear steadfastly devoted to statistical probability and data gathering, intent on predicting outcomes of human behavior. “Our social-scientific research tends toward the study of human communication as a means of discovering mere probabilities–the likelihood that messages will produce predictable effects,” Schultze writes. “Our task becomes identifying more and more of the ‘factors’ that supposedly operate within the closed system [of human behavior]. We call for more data, more research, more factors. Today, many of the studies are so narrowly focused on constricted details, it is becoming increasingly difficult to integrate the countless findings into a coherent whole.” This results in a type of methodological ‘naval-gazing’ where endless mounds of data refer to communication concepts invented by researchers. Rather than seeking out what the natural world might tell us, we settle for an artificial one, replete with man-made mechanized models of the universe. In addressing questions of God, this is wholly inadequate.
Part of my purpose here is to relate Schultze’s concept of the “God Problem” to media studies. Most properly, Schultze’s ruminations relate to studies of human communication and how a paradigm of God-human interaction would change the field and the type of questions researchers might ask. Schultze envisions exciting new kinds of “delightfully subversive” questions that might arise when we ask how our communication is affected by religious belief. The field of media studies is in dire need of new kinds of questions.
The Broadcast Education Association, a professional organization of scholars and researchers to which I belong and have belonged for many years, is in some ways guilty of “The God Problem.” A quick scan of their flagship publication, the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media (JBEM), reveals that between 2011 and 2018 exactly one article addressed any issue involving religion, faith, or God—a 2017 article examining grief and the use of digital media in the Church of Sweden. There were other studies that danced around issues of faith and belief, such as one article that applied Moral Foundation Theory, one article that examined “Inspirational Reality TV” (meaning shows like SuperNanny and Extreme Home Makeover) and one article whose title cheekily declared “There’s No Wi-Fi in Heaven.” Rather, over the same time frame, the journal has devoted space to no less than 30 articles investigating politics and media; at least 12 investigated Twitter. Four separate articles all investigated the impact of broadcast coverage of three separate Olympics and at least two articles researched the impact of media…in Germany.
BEA’s second key journal, Journal of Radio and Audio Media, fared a bit better over the same time frame, with three articles examining religious media; two of those, however, are broad review essays examining the history and current state of evangelical media use. One book review in the journal examines how early radio helped shape American perceptions of Jews and a second book review examined the life of Jewish performer Eddie Cantor.
Methodologically, much of what we see in BEA’s journals reflects the “cybernetic sender-receiver” model of communication Schultze criticizes. Despite a bit more acceptance of diverse research methods like historiography, the dominant mindset of JBEM leans toward this modern paradigm–scientific identification of endless causality and predictability. How else to explain nine studies of Facebook, nine studies of video/online gaming, and two studies of FIFA viewing in the last seven years? I know soccer/football is viewed as a religion in other parts of the world and soccer stars are akin to gods, but that’s different.
In 2016, I was a member of the steering committee dedicated to the formation of a new interest group within BEA–a group committed to studying religion and media. As the steering committee began its work, I was taken aback that BEA never previously had an interest group centered around religion and faith. Given the prevalence of religious angles in most of today’s news, I figured our scholarly community would rush to address these questions. Not so. But, at the 2016 convention, BEA began the process of forming a “Religion and Media Interest Group” and through a series of fortunate events, I ended up on the steering committee. I’m pleased to say that in November 2016, the group was formally recognized by the BEA and at the 2017 convention, the Religion and Media Interest Group held its first panel discussions.
Near the end of Schultze’s “God Problem” talk, he offers some directions for future research. Taking his premise and applying it to media studies, I’d like to ask, “What might scholarship in religion and media look like if we honestly addressed The God Problem?” What diverse kinds of questions might our new interest group ask as we pursue research that investigates the intersection of media and religion? In a latter article, Schultze notes, “The variety of overtly religious phenomena worth studying through the lens of communication studies is staggering.” I’d like to propose just three areas that might be fruitful for research.
First, we should endeavor to better understand the role that media play in God-human communication, not merely human-to-human communication about God.
In most communication contexts, media mediate—that is, they are in-between parties. They translate our experiences. A journalist’s summary of the day’s events is mediated to us, the audience, by the web, television, radio or perhaps newspaper. In such scenarios, it is easy to understand why researchers would be interested in predictive outcomes. We want to know how audiences react to messages. How can producers maximize impact? How can they maximize sales and clicks? These are practical questions. But when elements of personal faith are introduced and we start thinking about media that communicates to God, the paradigm changes somewhat. Indeed, some religious media producers look for data that helps to improve the impact of their productions, but what I am suggesting is that predictable outcomes may not be the only motive at work in religious media, particularly those aimed ‘upwards.’
Soren Kierkegaard described faith, particularly Christianity, as a leap. It is a faith that is, in many ways, absurd and irrational. The God of the universe humbling himself, sacrificing himself is paradoxical to any notions of religious power or authority. Taking Kierkegaard at his word, predictable outcomes when it comes to God and media may be nearly impossible to identify. I’m not suggesting that faith is irrational and therefore, not worth examining. Instead, rather than limiting ourselves to examinations of the end result of religious media consumption, we have the opportunity to explore motivations—the “why we do it” questions.
Schultze notes that religious individuals hold different worldviews and subscribe to different truths about the universe than non-religious individuals. This results in different assumptions about how and why we create and use media. As noted above, some religious groups are motivated to use media by the desire for converts–a measurable outcome–but others may be motivated by other factors, such as servanthood, contrition, or worship. Imagine a study of media that aims to explore media creation as personal worship.
Questions of worship further throw the models of media use out the window. Rather than using media to mediate experiences between two persons, worship contexts posit media being the mediator between man and God (we talk to God through the media). And if worship is personal, why use such a public forum as media? Could it be that media has transformed worship, or ultimately, how one views God? By researching the differing assumptions of both religious content creators and consumers, we can begin to unpack the nature of faith itself. Interesting questions, indeed.
Freed from the confines of mere predictability, we can turn our attention to an abundance of other “understanding”-related questions, such as exploring the media-related assumptions of various faiths. Western religious media seems dominated by expectations of constant evangelization and conversion. What about the assumptions of eastern religions? How do those worldviews drive media use and creation in those countries? At a time when fear and snap judgments about foreign counties and foreign faiths are in the news every day, a little more understanding can only serve to help bridge those divides.
Addressing these distinct kinds of media questions leads me to a second possibility for media research and that is wider methodological diversity. If we are to pursue greater understanding of diverse faiths, we need to explore greater methodological diversity, too. Much of the mathematical research conducted in the field relies upon measuring concepts and categories created by researchers themselves or displays page after page of variable factors generated through computer-aided analysis.
I’ll concede that some personal bias may be at work here, but while I’m sufficiently fluent in statistical analysis, I’ve always been somewhat suspicious that math (and a computer) can tell us about human personality. In my teaching career, whenever I have taught research methods, my students inevitably question the ability of numbers to adequately describe (and define) concepts of God. If my undergrad students can sense something may be amiss, why can’t our research journals do the same? In the same way that McLuhan and Postman reminded us that content must be mindful of its form, so too should our research methodologies fit our questions and our subjects.
Therefore, I’d encourage a return to face-to-face interviewing, allowing our research subjects to speak to us in their own words. With technology increasingly encroaching on our personal relationships and possibly decreasing our empathy for others, we need to return to research methods that will allow us to explore the depth, nuance and complexity of human relationships and faith. An ethnography of religious media producers is just begging to be conducted. Jay Howard’s Apostles of Rock, an exploration of the Christian music community is a well-known example of this, but it nearly 20 years old. We can do more.
And finally, speaking of form, I would propose a research area that is near and dear to me–understanding the limits of how media communicate about God. Some media simply have difficulty communicating transcendent ideas. One complaint I often hear, particularly from my undergraduate students, is how pedantic religious media, particularly evangelical media, can be. The basic assumption that many religious media practitioners/content creators operate under is that direct, propositional language is the only means of communicating about one’s faith. Televangelism and even religious movies alike are seemingly burdened by a desperate need to communicate the tenets of the faith as fast as possible in the simplest language as possible. In many cases, such productions create a ‘boomerang effect’–rather than audiences engaging with the message, they tune out. In deference to Ben Armstrong and his text “The Electric Church,”  just because you are on the air, doesn’t mean people are watching you or believing you.
Modern electronic media traffic in the fleeting, the visceral, the now—both in content and in form. Yesterday’s news and prognostications are quickly forgotten, buried in an avalanche of quick cuts, moving cameras and short segment after short segment. Yet, religion as a concept requires reflection, deliberate thought, and time, all the things media is increasingly not. I would propose that we spend dedicated effort to understanding how messages of faith can cut through these limits or how media producers seek to adapt messages of faith to new media. I would like to see studies that explore faith and creativity that strive to understand not only how producers might craft faith-filled messages appropriate for different mediums, but also how audiences understand them. If predictability has any utility in this equation, it might be in what it can tell us about ourselves and how we perceive and evaluate religious messages.
I am aware that at least one author who sees the process of adapting faith messages to different media as fundamentally changing the nature of the faith. One might argue that in its most extreme form, the medium becomes the message—that is, the media becomes the object of veneration. If that’s the case, it only heightens the importance of understanding the nexus of media and faith.
 Quentin J. Schultze. “The ‘God Problem’ in Communication Studies.” Journal of Communication and Religion 28 (2005): 1.
 Schultze, “God Problem.”
 Ibid, 11.
 Ibid, 6.
 Timothy Hutchings, “’We are a United Humanity’: Death, Emotion, and Digital Media in the Church of Sweden.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 61(1): 2017. 90-107.
 Quentin J. Schultze. “The Nature and Future of Religious Communication Scholarship.” Journal of Communication and Religion. 33 (2): 2010. p. 195.
 Ben Armstrong. The Electric Church. Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1979.
 Shane Hipps. Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith. Zondervan; Nashville, 2009.