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Communication without community: American religion and the world

1 November 2012

Fifty years ago Marshall McLuhan was saying that electronic media were turning the world into a global village. Television brought events like the Vietnam War and the Six-Day War into the homes of millions of people around the world. And that still happens, as the world learnt of the devastation caused hurricane Sandy in the north-eastern USA. But Marshall McLughans vision of globalisation didn’t quite come true as he envisaged it, and much of that commmunication is one way. When the USA catches cold, the whole world sneezes. I saw all sorts of expressions of sympathy for people in the USA from Facebook friends and others in other online forums, but while they had all heard of hurricane Sandy, most of them had never heard of typhoon Son Tinh, which killed almost as many people.

And so when blogger Macrina Walker wrote Bad Religion | A vow of conversation:

I recently read Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics and thought that it might be an idea to say something about it. I hadn’t intended reading it as the nation referred to in the subtitle is the U.S.A. and I tend to get irritated at the way American concerns dominate so many conversations.

she immediately qualified it by adding this:

However, when a (South African) friend started posting quotes from it on Facebook, my interest was piqued and I realised that America has, after all, been exporting its bad religion around the world for a long time now. Or, perhaps more responsibly said, that the societal forces that give rise to developments in American religion are also present elsewhere, although the details, and even some of the trends, may vary. One of the key questions in my mind as I read the book was how what Douthat describes both does and does not relate to South Africa.

Another South African friend, Allan Anderson, who has spent the last couple of months in months in North America, writes on a similar topic on Facebook, from a somewhat closer vantage point:

You don’t like Romney the Mormon pastor but you will vote for him coz you hate Obama the African American Christian. Please unfriend me first if you want to share anti-Obama posters on Facebook. This is supposed to be a social network and I sure don’t want to socialise with the venom I see here.

The phenomenon he describes is surely an instance of the “Bad religion” that Douthat writes about, and it is something that I too have noticed. There is very little to choose between most US presidential candidates. Obama showed that his “change you can believe in” was quite unbelievable. Under Obama’s administration the US government is still killing people in the Middle East and elsewhere, just it did under George Bush and Bill Clinton before him. Guantanamo Bay is still open. Where the candidates differ is in the nastiness of their supporters. Romney supporters are, on the whole, far, far nastier than Obama’s, at least to judge by their pronouncements in internet forums. And many of them claim to be Christian.

As viewed in online forums, American political campaigning seems to be all about vilifying the people you don’t like, rather than saying what you do like or want. Well, in that respect, South Africa is no different. Read any Sunday newspaper and it’s all about personalitires and nothing about policies. They’ll tell you who’s in and who’s out, but will tell you nothing about what they stand for and what their policies are. The difference is that I don’t see lots of people saying online that all true Christians should support Zuma or Malema or Zille or whoever.

I nevertheless think that Macrina’s key question is an important one — how does the bad religion that Douthat describes relate or not relate to South Africa, and other countries as well.

Back in the 1980s American bad religion swept into South Africa from the USA like a storm surge. If it wasn’t visitng speakers from the USA, it was audio and video tapes of their teachings, distributed by local churches in South Africa, and listened to by thousands on their car tape players in traffic jams, in study groups and the like. And, thougyh on a smaller scale than in the USA, a lot of this material was broadcast on radio and TV as well. It helped to shape a kind of generic Protestantism that is widespread today, not only in South Africa, but throughout the continent.

Yet the American “bad religion” that was imported was also modified. It was intrerpreted in terms of local culture and local theology. I noticed some of these differences at the recent Anglicans Ablaze conference in Johannesburg Anglicans Ablaze | Khanya:

…the biggest difference was perhaps that expressed by Bishop Graham Cray, from England, speaking on Transformed by the Holy Spirit, when he said that Christians are being called out of “consumer Christianity which exists to bless me, to a missional Christianity which is called to bless others”.

Anglicans Ablaze Conference, Johannesburg, October 2012

2 Comments leave one →
  1. James the Thickheaded permalink
    1 November 2012 2:18 pm

    Interesting perspective. Though defensively on FB and Linked-in, my joke is that I call them by what I think they REALLY are: anti-Social networks. Behavior of “my life as a consumer object” is the first clue, which the film about Mark Zuckerburg only confirms. Christianity aside for the moment, these are push media rather than any sort of true interactive mechanism and the most active folks tend to be in sales. That said, our youth group found it very, very effective in signing up a wonderful group of kids for Habitat for Humanity. On politics, I would suggest what is missed in your comments is something I think may be at play: the stridency is the result of marginalization. The difference between the two parties is the Establishment (Democrats) vs. the Others (Repooblikans)…where the Establishment is not necessarily in control always, but in that 1970’s term: Commanding Heights.

    As to the christianity, I wish we could blame bad religion on the US, but if the UK had been better at it, then no religious emigres would have fled to the US in the first place… and I say this not to tar Jolly Old so much as to say it wasn’t invented in the US. There are those who would tar Jolly Old with turning religion from any sense of real flesh and blood incarnation to something more of a sense of style – and fine at that! – but you’d have to put a quarter in William Tighe’s box for that bit. But to give the US credit, its abilities at mass culture as played out in the field of religion are what seem to me the source of making these problems more noticable – even inescapable. Funny thing is… this bad religion is now taken as “the” or at least “a” norm…. that identifying oneself as a christian in many ways means people think of and dislike you not for whom you understand yourself to be, but for what they dislike in others. And what they dislike in others isn’t all that likable: It’s a message of christian ideology or christian branding rather than about Christ and his message. Having said all that, the challenge of changing this is immense.


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