Sex, Religion, Media

Dane S. Claussen

Drawing its chapters from theses, dissertations, and ongoing research programs, Sex, Religion, Media takes its name from three institutions that are said to shape America's attitudes, values, and rituals on a daily basis. The book's editor, Dane S. Claussen, has authored Anti-Intellectualism in American Media: Magazines and Higher Education (2002) and has edited and contributed to two books on the "Promise Keepers" (Claussen, 1999, 2000). He offers Sex, Religion, Media to fill what he perceives to be a gap in the literature on media-sexual-religious issues from a variety of political and research perspectives.

Claussen argues that the American (and apparently Canadian) media lack the competence to effectively portray, report, or provide analyses of subjects combining religion and sexuality. Two reasons are suggested for this lack of competence: the first is that media workers, in particular journalists, are not educated to negotiate the often perilous terrain that blends the sacred and the secular. And second, Claussen cites the media's denial of, or dishonesty about, religious organizations' views of human sexuality. The book is an attempt to highlight these shortcomings in a forum that includes journalism, mass communication, history, sociology, religious studies, and various perspectives of faith.

The book's 19 chapters are organized into four subsections. The section headings are somewhat perfunctory in the sense that they do little to articulate a central argument for the book. It seems instead that the book was sectioned in order to accommodate what is a wide range of scholarship. The result is that the sections of the book are loose and certain chapters could, depending on the schema brought by the reader, seem better placed in sections other than those in which they appear. The individual chapters, while not organized into a coherent whole, reflect quality research that draws primarily on textual analysis, content analysis (qualitative and quantitative), rhetorical analysis, and historical-archival research.

The first section, addressing engagement and avoidance of sex and religion in media production, provides analyses of how the media either strikes a balance between religious and secular audience demands or, in the case of the news media, avoids reporting on Church sex scandals that continue to rock the foundations of faith. Iain A.G. Barrie's chapter "A Broken Trust" re-creates, through interviews, content analysis, and archival research reveals how the Canadian media failed the public by skirting coverage of Catholic Church sex-abuse scandals in Ontario and in Newfoundland. Barrie concludes that reporters' lack of experience with religious controversy and the stifling influence wielded by the Church on the media exacerbated the effects of the scandals on both victims and on the faithful. Meanwhile, Barrie observes, the journalistic establishment continues today in its ambivalent stance toward religion.

In the second section, dealing with media content, conservatives, sex, and the "liberal establishment," conservative Christian and critic of popular culture Donald Wildmon is the focus of two chapters. Robert R. Mendenhall's chapter "Responses to Television" rejects sensationalism to frame Wildmon and his organizations within the social conflict theory of mass media development as one of a number of competing and conflicting interests operating within the popular media. Natalie Jo Brackett-Vinyard demonstrates through her content analysis in "Media Coverage of the Man the Networks Love to Hate" how print media fail to make logical and accurate arguments when reporting on Wildmon's crusades against media depravity.

The chapters in Section 2 specifically criticize the media's tendency to misrepresent or mock the perspectives of the faithful. Todd Rendleman seeks to put forth a fair representation of the evangelical Christian with his audience analysis of the film The Rapture, but he fails to provide the detailed subject responses and depth of analysis to accomplish his goal. Rendleman fails to explore meaning beyond the surface level of his respondents' brief statements and draws very obvious conclusions. As a consequence, his respondents appear one-dimensional and lacking in introspection, mirroring how they might be depicted by a liberally biased media.

Chapters in the third section, on media content, liberals, sex, and the "conservative establishment," range in topic from biblical Web sites addressing sexuality to the gay and lesbian religious movements to news reports focusing on new religious movements' (i.e., cults') perceived deviant sexual practice. In this section, Herman R. Foushee uses content analysis in his chapter "Cult Sex" to identify the media's tendency to focus news reports on new religious movements' perceived sexual deviancy. This provides a worthwhile case study of the media's efforts to construct and maintain a social reality, standing in contrast to preceding chapters that attest to the news media's reluctance to report the sexual scandals of revered religious institutions.

The final section, on media agenda-setting and cultivation of religion and sex, looks to the future by attempting to assess the impact of religious-sexual-media discourse in the lives of youth and their families as they reconcile sexuality with spirituality. A standout in this section is Justin Jagosh's "'Oh God, My Kid Is Gay!'" which is also the final chapter of the book. The author argues that religious parents of gay and lesbian children are caught within a negative social reality of homosexuality co-constructed by stereotypical television images and religious beliefs.

I previously described the book as a forum, a descriptor that seems particularly relevant here as I revisit the range of research methods, theories, and spiritual standpoints that this work assembles. The book is certainly relevant to the fields of journalism, media, and mass communication but has a capacity that far exceeds any one academic discipline - and therein lies its strength. Although much of the book positions the nexus of sex-religion-media as competing interests, it seems appropriate that it ends with a chapter that recognizes how the nexus can collude to create problematic representations that are ultimately the individual viewer's responsibility to deconstruct and understand. Though not deliberately organized in this way, I see the book proceeding from macro-level analyses of the social reality created in the nexus of the discourses of sex, religion, and media through to a micro-level focus on individual agency as it pertains to making meaning from this presented reality. Read in this way, the book creates the expectation that future researchers revisit the individual as a site of meaning. As faith, sexuality, and media literacy evolve, the previously posited relationship of the book's title institutions as shapers of American culture can no longer be assumed as absolute.

References

Claussen, Dane S. (2002). Anti-intellectualism in American media: Magazines and higher education. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Claussen, Dane S. (Ed.). (1999). The Promise Keepers: Essays on masculinity and Christianity. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.

Claussen, Dane S. (Ed.). (2000). Standing on the promises: The Promise Keepers and the revival of manhood. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.



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