Book Review

Enqi Weng, Media Perceptions of Religious Changes in Australia: Of Dominance and Diversity, Oxon/New York: Routledge, 2020, pp. 252, ISBN: 9780429201387 (ebook). US$27.74.

Felicitas Becker, Joel Cabrita and Marie Rodet, Religion, Media and Marginality in Modern Africa, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2018, pp. 332, ISBN: 9780821446249 (ebook). US$79.99.

The field of religion and media continues to advance and transform, reflecting the co-constitutive nature of the subjects as well as the diverse and dynamic ways in which religious individuals, communities and other stakeholders including governments, corporations and activists engage with and respond to the operations and offerings of media technologies and platforms. Given the rise and ubiquity of digital technology, the field has taken a distinctly digital turn which has directed much scholarly attention to the sub-field, Digital Religion Studies, which is purported to already be in its fourth evolutionary wave (Heidi Campbell and Giulia Evolvi, ‘Contextualizing current digital religion research on emerging technologies’, Human Behaviours and Technology 2(1) (2020): 5–17). Scholars appear to suggest a divergence between the fields of Religion and Media, which presumes a longer history of media and deploys a more expansive definition of mediation and mediatisation, and Digital Religion Studies, which claims a later genealogy aligned with the subfield of Religion and Internet Studies.

By foregrounding the function, utility and meaning of older and newer, both smaller and larger forms of media within the contexts of religion and public life in Australia and Africa, the books under discussion in this review feature more nuanced approaches to the subject. The fields of Religion and Media as well as Digital Religion Studies are largely dominated by theories, concepts and methodological orientations that are informed by the epistemological frames and contextual settings of scholars and schools of thought emerging from North America and Europe. Both books offer refreshing alternative perspectives that are empirically novel, and in foregrounding the geographical, historical, social, political, economic, religious and epistemological orientation of two contexts that do not feature prominently in the canon, position Africa and Australia as legitimate sites of knowledge production about religion and media in their own right.

The importance of diversity, both in and of academic research, goes beyond punitive interpretations related to identity politics, since it raises urgent questions about the ways in which the academy and scholarly silos recreate and reinforce the very patterns of exclusion, invisibilisation and marginalisation that we scrutinise elsewhere. When as an African religion and media scholar, I was approached to review Media Perceptions of Religious Changes in Australia: Of Dominance and Diversity by Enqi Weng I requested the opportunity to include a reflection on the edited volume Religion, Media and Marginality in Modern Africa edited by Felicitas Becker, Joel Cabrita and Marie Rodet, one of the few recent edited collections in the study of religion and media that focus on Africa. I made this request not because I am interested in a comparative exercise but rather on account of the striking nature of the many creative and critical collaborations and possibilities that two contexts that have existed on the margins on the field are scrutinising and developing.

Media Perceptions of Religious Changes in Australia: Of Dominance and Diversity is an extended study of religion and public life in Australia. This book arrives as long overdue and pioneering in its orientation; as Weng informs us, the last extended study on this topic in Australia was published in the 1980s. It offers a historically grounded and conceptually rigorous account of the ways in which the multiple relationships between religion and media have developed within the context of Australian public culture. The study is enlivened by a compelling case-study, a national broadcast television programme, which is convincingly conceptualised as a critical Australian public sphere. By adopting a dual methodological approach, inclusive of content and discourse analysis, Weng has provided a detailed portrait of the programme, including its institutional context, format, content and participant engagement, that further cements the perspectival optic into Australian public culture that is promised in this book. Weng argues that media discussions maintain, produce, circulate and sustain narrow and limited understandings of religious diversity. She illustrates how the media ignore and neglect the internal diversity of religions by persistently presenting limited and overly simplistic representations and understandings of religions. Furthermore, Weng shows how even though this media pattern of simplification and homogenisation extends to the dominant religion, Christianity, it does not in fact harm the social standing of the religion since media predominantly represent Christianity in ways that reproduce the power and privilege of its normativity in Australia.

In addressing the inadequacies and oversights of media’s engagement with religion, Weng develops and applies an intersectional analysis of these media discussions and surfaces how ideas about race, gender, national origin, and class are lenses through which religion is filtered. Weng does not shy away from the entanglements of religion and politics. Indeed, she highlights how varying political sensibilities inform how dominance and diversity are conceptualised, produced and circulated. Weng frames fair and accurate religious representation as not only a media duty but also as a moral imperative. In noting the glaring absence of Aboriginal Australians and Aboriginal spirituality from the programme, Weng highlights the role that public media can play in the pursuit and enactment of social justice. This is Weng’s first monograph, and her more recent scholarship expands particularly on the themes of race, racism and racialisation and the prospects that a decolonial approach to the study of religion may bring, which she begins to unpack in Media Perceptions of Religious Changes in Australia.

The second book under discussion is Religion, Media and Marginality in Modern Africa edited by Felicitas Becker, Joel Cabrita and Marie Rodet. This collection of scholarly contributions explores how mediatised religious communities negotiate and exist in diverse formation and expressions of margins including the nation, cultures and other religions, and how media are intimately entangled in the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion. In paying special attention to the conditional and changing character of media forms across time and space, the editors provide an approach to marginality in Africa that both acknowledges and goes beyond emphasising the myriad and complex socio-political and economic challenges that the people of the continent face. It is rare that explorations of Muslim and Christian media forms on the African continent are brought together in the same collection. More often the religions are treated separately. Although the collection does not expand the scope of religion beyond these two traditions, this approach imbibes a greater comparative element than has previously been offered by scholars. Ten chapters run the gamut from the colonial to the current, include reflections on eight countries and are organised around three core themes. The first theme explores Muslim and Christian media use during the colonial and post-colonial periods in Ghana, German-East Africa, Zambia and Kenya. The second theme explores media function and duality in the negotiation of religious and national identities in Mali, South Africa and Nigeria. The third and final theme explores how religious practitioners used media to negotiate and contest issues of power, authority and innovation in the Congo, Mali and South Africa.

In Religion, Media and Marginality in Modern Africa the authors intentionally seek to move beyond the limitations of binary thinking about media. The media spectrum is expanded to include ‘bureaucratic marriage records, handwritten manuscripts, photographs, oral performances, and other small scale media projects with limited circulations to private radio, print media and social media’ (Becker et al., p. 1). The editors argue against tendencies that seek to prescribe an evolutionary approach to the study of media, ostensibly differentiating between old and new, electronic and digital, and instead suggest that ‘old and new media coexist on a single spectrum of media practice in Africa’ (Becker et al., p. 2). This orientation to the study of religion and media in Africa, especially given the disparate ways in which media technology, infrastructure and consequently media access have developed across the continent, is useful because it embraces how media culture has unfolded with the particularity of African locations, cultures and institutional contexts and highlights its entanglement with the historical and contemporary socio-political conditions that characterise the media landscape and produce its publics. While Weng’s media subject fits firmly in the realm of mass-media, her emphasis on a national broadcast programme underscores the continued salience of public broadcasting in Australia especially in this digital age. Weng, too, suggests that media forms and the public sphere they produce develop alongside each other and not in isolation or as evolution.

Both texts adopt expansive and generative approaches to the meaning and function of ‘religion’. According to the editors, the contributions ‘implicitly challenge any fixed notion of “religion” as a stable descriptive category with predetermined attributes’ (Becker et al., p. 24). The collection thereby offers diverse, divergent and contextually specific reflections on what religion is and how it is expressed. Of course, this produces many tensions and contradictions among the chapters, which remain necessarily unresolved. Similarly, Weng suggests a liberal approach to religion. In doing so she offers an analytical framework for understanding religions’ various applications and functions within the context of media discussions and Australian public culture. Weng adopts the ‘religion as a spectrum’ approach to understanding the complexities of the character of religion. Along this spectrum three overlapping anchors produce a complex framework for unpacking its public functions. First, conventional religion refers to mainly institutional forms of religion. Second, common religion signals everyday embeddedness of religious beliefs, and third, the secular-sacred ascribes religion-like qualities to events, objects, persons and systems that are considered secular. The religion as a spectrum approach offers readers a clear methodological strategy for both uncovering and organising the perpetually fluctuating meanings and functions of religion. The broad treatment of religion and media in both texts is underwritten by convincing empirical evidence and rigorous analytical engagement, which substantially expand the critical and creative scope of the field.

The books are interdisciplinary in scope and will appeal to those scholars working across the humanities, arts and social sciences who are both interested in the subject matter of religion and media and reading beyond the contexts that are featured in the established canon of the field. Furthermore, these texts may be particularly useful for inspiring and assisting a fresh cohort of religion and media graduate students from marginal and marginalised contexts to confidently approach the field from theoretical, methodological and epistemological orientations that centre the Global South.

Dr Lee-Shae Salma Scharnick-Udemans

Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice

University of the Western Cape