Practical Spiritualities in a Media Age

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Editor(s): 
Curtis Coats, Monica M. Emerich
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     2015.
     296 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781474223164.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Practical Spiritualties in a Media Age, a collected edited by Curtis Coats and Monica Emerich, is a compilation of essays dealing with, at their core, “people and their practices” (2). The book has three main goals: to explore the spaces betwixt and between media, religion, culture, and spirituality; to understand the quandaries of ordinary and extraordinary in the life of the participant/practitioner; and finally, to examine categorical turns related to “media studies; religious studies; and media, religion, and culture studies” (2).

Just as defining religion has plagued scholars for decades, defining “spirituality” and “media” have also proven difficult. The authors in this collection choose “to create definitional boundaries” (3) that will use “rich scholarly discourse to define [their] use of the term ‘spiritualties’” (3). Broadly speaking, historical precedent is utilized to ultimately “argue for a more grounded, relational view … to see how and where practical spirituality expresses not just in the single focused act of ‘the spiritual’ but also as it echoes through, informs, and shapes the everyday life where most of us experience our life history—the ordinary” (6). The authors in this collection are interested in not only “what people do to express their spirituality but also what they might wish to do, change, speak, or create” (6). Practical spiritualties, in sum, are the “mundane and mysterious,” relational and inward, sacred and daily case studies that point towards layered understandings of manifestations of the spiritual and spiritualties in the media age. 

Media, as a category, wrestles with differences between “things” and “processes.” For the authors and editors of this anthology, “media are not just things …. Rather, media are also accumulations of processes, all of which are deeply human and deeply relational” (14). Thus, “media” is inherently relational: it is not just a place for relationships. Spirituality and media, over the course of the eleven essays, push definitional and relational boundaries, engaging “the ways and places in which spiritualties form and are plied in a Media Age” (16). 

Practical Spiritualties is comprised of eleven different chapters that are “organized to highlight different way points along life courses” (15). Each chapter offers new and engaging perspectives about the role(s) of media, culture, and spirituality and/or religion, and works as a pseudo-glossary, introducing new terms that are applied within the chapter itself. For example, Marion Bowman’s chapter on Glastonbury Castle defines “vernacular religion” (51), engaging scholar Leonard Primiano, the pioneer of the term. Jeremy Garber’s chapter (chapter 6), and Jeffrey Mahan and Ruth Ann Ritter’s chapter (chapter 3), utilize the phrasing “spiritual but not religious” in highly different ways while still relying on accessible language and explanations. 

While each chapter shares the common thread of media and religion, community and communal engagement appear as the second major theme of the anthology. From hula-hoop communities to the jam band phenomenon, spirituality far surpasses individualistic notions—especially with regards to media engagement. The scholars of this text were careful to consider varying types of media beyond what could be considered “popular media.” Social media, material culture, online community forums, and even the “digital metaphor” that Mahan and Ritter discuss, are all valid and viable ways that media has shaped (and will continue to shape) the “spiritual but not religious” intermediary spaces (56).

Each chapter engages different media theorists or media theories, but Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand and Martha Smith Roberts, authors of “Hula Hoop Spiritualities,” depend on Stewart Hoover’s “ground-breaking work on media, religion, and culture.” Hoover’s approach shifts away from traditional investigations of “media in terms of the effects on daily life” and instead “investigat[es] … media’s integration into the lived daily experiences of spiritual actors” (78). It is from this perspective that Gray-Hildenbrand and Roberts suggest that scholarship should “investigate media from the perspective of the media audiences” (78). This pervasive theme, and the useof Hoover’s theory, not only speaks to the chapter itself but to the entirety of the anthology. The voices of “media audiences” range from interviewing participants to reading Facebook group postings, and it is through this active engagement with human voices and emergent media material and trends that scholars of religion and other disciplines can carefully navigate this field. 

Overall, this anthology mixes advanced analysis with user-friendly jargon, making it a perfect reading companion for introductory classes or advanced seminars. The introduction alone presents theory and themes useful for new scholars to the field of media and religion. The editors conclude the introduction, and preface the book, by stating: “The bridge between religious studies to human communications spans to media studies because of the ubiquity of media and the system dependency on media for spirituality meaning, identity, and community in late modern life, at least in the lives of those discussed in this volume” (13).

Not only do Coats and Emerich rely on this statement to frame the anthology, but each chapter, using specific contexts and voices, reiterates this relational turn in religious studies and media studies with examples and personal narratives, truly seeking a more relational focus for practical spiritualties that occur in a “web of mediated interactions” (13).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Madison Tarleton is a doctoral student at the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology, studying Judaism, art, and media.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Curtis Coats is assistant professor of communication studies, Co-director of Film Studies, Millsaps College.

Monica Emerich is post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Media, Religion and Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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