Media and religion debated at UEA in Norwich

Religious persecution, secularization and the media image of the church were addressed by a panel of academics during a Question-Time style debate on the relationship between the media and religion at the University of East Anglia in Norwich on Monday (April 15). Mark Sims and Mike Wiltshire report.

ReligionMediaUEA430Some aptly controversial comments were made during a two-hour debate on the relationship between religion and the media where UEA students, members of the public and a panel of academics met to discuss questions such as whether the mainstream media should be concerned about causing offence amongst religious groups.
The panel included Dr Lee Marsden; a Senior Lecturer of the UEA’s School of Political, Social and International Studies, who expressed his frustration with British Christians’ ‘bleating’ about their persecution in the media, when their country’s calendar and constitution is based around Christianity, whilst Christians in places such as Syria are killed for their beliefs.
In addition, Dr Marsden felt that, whilst the media as a whole should not aim to cause thoughtless, ‘gratuitous’ offence, this did not mean that they should shy away from controversy or divisiveness. He warned of religious commentators’ attempts to ‘close down debate’ by encouraging ideas such as ‘any criticism of Israel being seen as anti-Semitic’.
Professor Jolyon Mitchell of Edinburgh University said that: “the media should cause offence in order to challenge abuse of power.”
Regarding the church’s reaction to increasing secularization, Dr Marsden said: “religious ‘actors’ (meaning spokespeople) must use secular language and focus on the logical merits of their statements, rather than telling people ‘God said...’,”
He added that: “Fundamentalist churches are the only ones worth paying attention to, the more traditional ones are irrelevant...if you want to see growth and impact on people’s lives, look at the ‘fundamentalists’ (a broad term he used to include evangelical and charismatic churches), not the Church of England.”
Regarding how the church can improve its media image, Dr Marsden said: “if (the church) wants to get noticed, (it must) do something newsworthy, otherwise, sink into obscurity.”
Professor Kim Knott, from the University of Lancaster, said that: “religion has always used contemporary media” and today’s churches are using a greater range of communications.  Even the Pope has a Twitter account.
Evangelicals, Pentecostal Christians and less-traditional churches tend to use the new media more effectively than other religious groups, “in areas such as evangelism, teaching and divine encounter” while also using more secular language and  appeal to reach today’s generation, said the panellists.
At the same time “determined atheists” react quite strongly in the media on questions of faith and questions of science and religion.
Because of news and entertainment values, Prof. Knott reminded listeners that the secular media “isn’t there to spread the good news of religion.”
Drawing the debate to a close, Dr Martin Scott, of the UEA School of International Development, said that the church needed a ‘sexier’ image, with a Professor Brian Cox-style figure with a more scientific perspective to engage a secular audience.
Dr Martin Scott chaired the Monday afternoon discussion between a floor of UEA students and members of the public, with a panel consisting of Doctors Marsden and Scott, visiting Professors Mitchell and Kim Knott as well as Dr Eylem Atakav (UEA School of Film, Television and Media Studies) and a third-year Politics student. It followed an interactive morning workshop between students and Professors Mitchell and Knott to devise questions for the afternoon session.
Pictured left to right are Prof Jolyon Mitchell, Prof Kim Knott, Dr Martin Scott, Pietro d’Arcano, Italian-Canadian undergraduate, Dr Eylem Atakav and Dr Lee Marsden.

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