Book Review: Strong Religion, Zealous Media

Strong Religion, Zealous Media: Christian Fundamentalism and Communication in India
By Pradip Ninan Thomas (SAGE Publications: Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, 2008, pp. xvii+207)

Pradip Thomas’ recent book, Strong Religion, Zealous Media: Christian Fundamentalism and Communication in India needs to be seen in the context of the current interest in academic circles in ‘public religion’ – i.e., religion that spills out of temples and churches and homes into the public arena. The dominant form of public religion in our times is undoubtedly religious fundamentalism in which the creed, culture and cultus of religion are monopolized by certain interpretations that are frozen in history, and typically serve the interests of the traditionally dominant sections of the society. The inclusive and life-affirming dimension of religion in public life has been displaced in recent decades by a militant form of religiosity that is intolerant of other perspectives (in one’s own and other religions), and that is hegemonic and assertive. Thomas’ book is located decisively in this socio-religious context.

The book is unique for at least two reasons. One is the author’s methodology. Most studies on Christianity in India have been scholarly works that emerge from seminars and the academy. These carry valuable theological and social insights but reflect little the thinking of the ordinary people. Thomas, however, bases his book on empirical studies that reflect the thinking of the ordinary people, and not merely of religious leaders. The book, therefore, gives us a clear perspective on the meaning of religion, fundamentalism and the media for the ordinary people. Secondly, the book is unique in the significance of the topic addressed by the author, namely Christian fundamentalism in India. This is a topic which all – both Christians as well as other religious leaders and secular scholars – are generally weary of discussing. While there is a wealth of literature today on Hindu fundamentalism in India and on Islamic fundamentalism elsewhere, there is indeed a dearth of materials on Christian fundamentalism in India. Studies such as these reiterate the fact that fundamentalism is not merely a problem of ‘the other’ but a universal phenomenon affecting all faith communities. Such self-critical studies are also important for building up a viable dialogical relationship in a pluralist context.

The book is divided into four sections. Section I titled, ‘Locating the Study’ is introductory in nature and deals with some of the key issues related to religious fundamentalism and the media in the Indian context. The chapters included here deal with aspects such as religious fundamentalism, the media, a brief account of Christianity in India and the impact of Pentecostalism and Neo-Pentecostalism as the most recent wave sweeping across Christianity in India. Section II provides the theoretical basis for the study. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of the role played by culture in social domination is discussed here in the context of the contested nature of Christianity and mediated Christianity in India. Section III focuses on some specific aspects of Christian media in India – cable, satellite broadcasting, cyberspace etc. – and their role in the emergence and sustenance of Christian fundamentalism in India. As a case study, the mega evangelistic meetings organized a few years ago in Bengaluru by Benny Hinn of the United States are discussed here as “key enablers and reinforces of a fundamentalist Christian identity and a global Christian fundamentalist umma”. Section IV contains the concluding chapter in which, based on the theory and praxis discussed previously, an alternative approach “from a collaborative, inter-faith perspective” to religious broadcasting in India in the future is suggested.

The primary geographical location of the study is Chennai, both because of the proliferation of Christian institutions and organizations in that city and also, due to the writer’s familiarity with the place.

A few points that emerge from the book are briefly addressed below:

Primarily, the book outlines how Christian fundamentalists today, unlike members of mainline churches, use the media as a powerful tool in conveying their message. Thomas discusses how Christian broadcasting in India has strengthened and reinforced the notion of belongingness to a Christian umma, and the extent to which that has weakened ties with the concept and reality of India as a nation (p. 188). One of his central themes is that “Christian fundamentalists, like their Islamic counterparts, belong to a global umma and harbour real and perhaps imagined, even delusional, longings directed towards making all of God’s people Christian” (p. xv). Since the area of Christian broadcasting and other forms of media in India have been almost monopolized by the evangelical and fundamentalist groups, the message that has mass reach is decisively sectarian and, to an extent, fundamentalist. The challenge before the mainline churches, the author argues, is to promote “a vision of Indian Christianity that is inclusive, that accepts the richness of other faiths and that is socially responsible”.

Secondly, Thomas wonders if Pentecostalism – another global phenomenon – too is contributing to the fracturing of national identities and the creation of larger and wider allegiances. He argues that there is a radical disconnect between such homogenizing projects and the aspirations of the pluralist societies, particularly in the South. “This global, universalising project has been contested by those who either have been disenfranchised by this process or marginalised or whose identities and aspirations are inspired by an altogether different, transcendentally inspired code of ethics and way of life” (p. 20). In fact, all through the book, the writer seemingly portrays Pentecostalism as a face of Christian fundamentalism. There is a certain amount of truth in this premise, especially as several tele-evangelists and mega church leaders are Pentecostal or Neo-Pentecostal in orientation. It is, however, also important to note that Pentecostalism has a face that is liberative and reformative as well. In several parts of the world, Pentecostalism arose and spread rapidly as a protest movement against unjust economic and social structures as well as an institutional and hierarchal church. In relation to Pentecostalism, in fact, Thomas asks some pertinent questions: “Why is it the case that the message of conservative Christianity has greater inter-denominational acceptability today?” (p. 129). He also asks whether global Pentecostalism has led to the formation and assertion of a specific Indian Christian identity and to the displacement of traditional identities. These are questions that need to be pursued further. While the answers Pentecostalism provides are often inadequate and unsustainable, a realistic and sensitive assessment of this universal phenomenon is important.

Third – the writer acknowledges the crucial role played by religions in the struggles for justice and in promoting mutual understanding and dialogue among different sections of the society (p. 190). He, however, points out that the fundamentalist sections in all religions – particularly Christianity – with their insensitive and rather abrasive message of salvation, tend to upset the sensibilities of people of other faiths. In a secular society, the propagation of one’s own faith is part of the freedom of religion; in a pluralist society, however, the how of such sharing becomes crucial. While kerygma is central to the soteriology of messianic religions, the understanding of salvation in Indic religions (moksa) follows a totally different logic. Such fundamental differences in the worldviews of different streams of religion become critical when we discuss the role of religion in public life. The recent tension between the Hindus and the Christians in certain parts of India can be seen as a situation in which dialogue has broken down between different religions and mutual suspicion has taken over. Thomas argues that in the current context, the Christian media – often inspired and funded by Christian fundamentalists in the West – reinforces inter-religious tensions and rivalries (p. 45).

This well-written and solidly documented book, the first in-depth cultural and social analysis of the growth of conservative forms of Christianity within the Protestant tradition in India and the many ways in which these new churches use the media, is highly recommended reading for students, researchers and social scientists involved in religion, media and inter-faith issues and for all those who are interested in exploring new avenues in public religion.

~ JMA

 

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