Visual Religion in Media Culture

Hoover, Stewart M. "Visual Religion in Media Culture," in David Morgan and Sally Promey (eds.), The Visual Culture of American Religions. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001.

Stewart M. Hoover examines the portrayal of religion in visual media through a reading of “Northern Exposure,” a television program in the early 1990s. To his analysis, Hoover relates an interview with a woman talking about her experience watching soap operas. Hoover asserts that understanding the role played by media in contemporary religious experience is warranted by the fact that media has come to play a significantly influential role for its American audiences.
“Northern Exposure” exemplifies a visual representation of religion through portrayal of several religiously themed undercurrents Hoover loosely describes as “spirituality.” Pastor Harding, a character in the program and its direct religious representation, is a young, conventional clergyman attired in robes most closely identified with Roman Catholic priests. Harding’s conversation with other characters show, in Hoover’s view, a confrontation between “traditional” religion exemplified in Harding’s views and the new “seeker” religiosity of other characters. Harding’s character in general portrays isolation from the network of lived relationships in the context of its claims, beliefs, and discourses. This underscores media’s understanding of traditional religion being in decline and mostly unable to address the crises of modern, suburban life.
Barbara, the woman who watches soap operas, brings a religious perspective in congruence with her upbringing to her interpretation of the shows she watches. Watching the shows itself is something her religion proscribes. Hoover interprets this as exemplifying how people take pleasure in the show itself and derive further pleasure in the resistance represented by viewing it.
Hoover concludes that the media provide an important cultural context for American religion: it provides the imagery itself, as in Pastor Harding’s character and thus shows how traditional religion is understood in the media; second, religion, as in Barbara’s case helps define what she consumes from the media. In either case, media and religion together form a highly interactive space, each influencing the other in ways not entirely understood.