The Media and Religious Authority

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Stewart M. Hoover
  • University Park, PA: 
    Penn State University Press
    , August
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book is both a fascinating mélange of essays, and a versatile collection that could be utilized in a variety of settings. Sandwiched in between essays that provide an excellent introduction to the issues, as well as a thoughtful conclusion, the book contains seven detailed case studies that range across a very wide religious landscape.

Stewart Hoover’s substantial yet accessible introduction to the book notes that recent scholarship in both religious studies and the sociology of religion believe that “what is important in religion is what is produced by practice, not what is intended by traditions and institutions” (16). From within that perspective, it is clear that “the media, the media sphere, and media practices of production, consumption, reception, popular remediation, and cultural circulation are at the center of that production” (18). Hoover uses Max Weber’s articulation of authority—legal, traditional, and charismatic—as a key to exploring how religious authority is produced, and as a jumping off point in turning to more Habermasian questions of how consent to such authority is produced.

Peter Horsfield continues in this vein, using a close examination of how twelve specific factors—radiated social position (social capital), recognized general or specific knowledge, recognized experience or wisdom, charisma, ideological authority, sacred texts, religious teaching authority, appointed leader or bureaucratic office, rituals, martyrs and saints, proverbial wisdom, and visual memory—function to legitimate religions through performance and symbolic construction. His essay traces the transformation of such legitimation through time in the Christian context, demonstrating that authority is not inherent but rather constructed “through active contest between different centers of power, in which media … are crucial components not just in positioning someone as a person of authority, but in constructing and maintaining the hegemonic worldview in which that authority makes sense” (64).

Alf Linderman then draws on Grace Davie’s definition of “vicarious religion” to consider how it is that in the largely secularized Nordic countries, media becomes a key resource for maintaining access to religious symbols and practices: “Having religion on the programming schedule of the Swedish public services broadcaster is a way to make certain that religion is ‘out there’ if you ever end up in a situation when you need it” (76).

Part 1 of the book—the section which explores the theoretical frames then used by the authors in part 2—concludes with Pauline Hope Cheong’s assertion that the “key to understanding contemporary religious authority is the recognition of its discursive, relational, and emergent nature” (84).

The seven case studies are as follows:

  • Bahíyyah Maroon’s consideration of “moral identity and new media” (specifically satellite television) in Moroccan Islam
  • Emily Zeamer’s exploration of metaphysical relationships with “all the realms of nature” in modern Thailand
  • Joonseong Lee’s description of “cyber memorial zones and shamanic inheritance” in Korea
  • Montré Aza Missouri’s study of post-colonial “third cinema”—particularly the film Sankofa
  • Alexandra Boutros’ consideration of “transnational flows in the spiritual marketplace,” which is “Techno-Vodou”
  • Karina Kosicki Bellotti’s investigation of “evangelical media for youth in Brazil”
  • Christine Hoff Kraemer’s study of the graphic novel Blankets, which has strong Christian themes

Part 2 of the book closes with Lynn Schofield Clark’s “afterword,” which functions to draw an integrating thread from Part 1’s theorizing through the emerging complications of the production of religious authority described in the various cases. Clark reminds the reader that “two central and related questions emerge, then, that link issues of authority and social change: how do some people or groups go about claiming authority, and how do those same people or groups come to have authority ascribed to them by others?” (254). The book’s authors provide a range of fascinating responses to these questions, in the process reflecting what Clark terms “a poststructuralist sensibility that foregrounds not what leaders of religion intend, but what people actually do in their everyday lives, and how such collective practices become encoded into ideological systems that are then challenged or affirmed within the symbolic workings of mass-mediated storytelling” (260).

This book could function well in a variety of advanced courses—media studies courses looking to problematize meaning-production through various media, religious studies courses seeking to broaden students’ understanding of religious authority, and so on. I believe it could have a significant impact in graduate theological contexts because it makes accessible complicated sociological observations which necessitate rethinking theological frames.

My primary criticism of the book is fittingly included in Clark’s afterword: that the book pays little attention “to the ways in which emergent commercial media entities—notably Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple—are participating in the struggle for commercial dominance that, by default, has large implications for the organization of power and authority in society” (263). There is at least the appearance of more explicit participatory capacity in such digital media, further complicating the performance of religion and any attending authority built thereby. In the era of DonaldTrump, when there is strong contestation around what constitutes “truth,” questions of religious authority produced through digital social media are of crucial societal importance. This book provides an excellent starting point for such consideration.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary E. Hess is the Patrick and Barbara Keenan Visiting Chair in Religious Education at the University of St. Michael's College, University of Toronto.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stewart M. Hoover is a professor in the Department of Media Studies and professor adjoint in the Department of Religious Studies and is director of the Center for Media, Religion and Culture.



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