God on the airwaves 

The convergence of media and religion

By Russ Cooper

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The 2005 Danish cartoon controversy involving illustrations of the Prophet Mohammed. How about ads on buses stating "God probably doesn't exist"?

Communications Studies professor Jeremy Stolow on religion in headlines. Magnifying glass

Communications Studies professor Jeremy Stolow on religion in headlines.

Now more than ever, the blending of religion and media is raising questions. Trying to make sense of this trend is what drives Communication Studies Professor Jeremy Stolow.

"I'm quite keen to develop public engagement about religion and media. It's really an underexplored area," he says. "There's a growing awareness that religion occupies an unprecedented place in public life, but, at least in Canada, this issue barely exists in the university curriculum. It is a quite shocking absence if you ask me."

One of his particular interests lies in the relationship between religion and technology and how religious actors engage with, and are changed by, evolving technologies.

"Historically, think about the ways new inventions such as the telegraph, the camera, the phonograph or radio were viewed as having miraculous promise, but also as having terrible repercussions," he says. "Today, in a time of rapid technological change, we are confronted by a whole new set of questions about technology and the religious imagination."

Getting on top of these issues is at the top of his list. Stolow is part of an international network of scholars extending the study of religion and media into a wide range of topics such as religion and biotechnology; religion, art and the museum world; or religion, media and the electoral process.

Stolow is excited to foster a research culture here at Concordia, hoping to train students and to explore ways to collaborate with local and international researchers in the future.

Stolow came to Concordia in 2008 after a five-year stretch at McMaster. Currently, he's teaching the undergrad COMS 220: History of Communication and Media and the graduate-level COMS 608: History of Media.

In January, Stolow was appointed to the International Advisory Board of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University, a research hub where he served as a post-doctoral fellow in its inaugural year 2003-04. One of the few non-U.S. scholars in this non-rotating appointment, he's the only member of the board who's not a full professor at a major research university.

"I was quite surprised by this invitation," he says. "Quite frankly, it's an unprecedented honour."

The centre is one of the world's leading institutions for interdisciplinary and cross-cultural scholarship, pedagogy, and public knowledge of religion and media, looking in-depth at the role of religion in public life and news, and how and why its transmitted the way it is.

Stolow has recently completed his latest book Orthodox By Design, a volume 15 years in the making. The forthcoming book, with the University of California Press, closely examines Brooklyn-based ArtScroll, the largest and most important Orthodox Jewish publishing house in the English-speaking world. His investigation probes methods ArtScroll has used to shape the ways readers interact with the books: how books are acquired by communities, their extensive catalogue (which includes cookbooks, adventure novels and legal guides), all the way down to typesetting and illustrations.

“ArtScroll is a major cultural force in contemporary Jewish public culture and it has often courted controversy as a ‘fundamentalist’ entity, an example of a more wide-scale ‘slide to the right’ in Jewish religious life," Stolow notes.

His study challenges easy conclusions about the ways so-called religious fundamentalist messages actually function in today’s media-rich environment. He argues the public life of ArtScroll books provides an instructive case study for exploring how religious movements today are defined by their efforts to claim authority, manage desire, de-legitimize competitors, win followers, and cultivate a market niche; in this case, the rapidly growing religious book market.

"The lessons are relevant not only for modern-day Jewish society, but for a wide range of cases in which religion is being redefined in and through its engagements with modern media,” he says.


Concordia University