REL433: Art, Media, Technology and Religion

What is the difference in the experience of listening to the story of Mahabharata from a storyteller, reading that story as a text, seeing its various scenes depicted through paintings or sculpture, staging its narrative as theatre, or/and watching its televised version (say, for example, the extremely popular one on Indian national TV in late 1980s and early 90s)? What about the prophetic stories, whether biblical or Quranic? Are reading scriptural passages about these prophets or/and having these prophetic stories narrated to us through the pulpit the same as watching The Ten Commandments, Noah, Exodus, or/and various Jesus movies? What difference does it make if the medium of image is religiously barred for depicting these prophetic figures, for example predominantly within the Islamic tradition, thus preventing iconic, theatrical, televised and film depictions of these prophets?

All these questions point to probing the nature of ‘medium’ within which the religious ‘message’ finds itself, and by which it is shaped. Yet so far in your study of Religion and religious traditions, the focus perhaps has been on content, ideas and thought – on the message – and much less so on the medium through which religious ideas and sensibilities find expression. If then in regards to medium it is not it that we see (as Barthes’ quote above suggests), how much our seeing and understanding is affected or limited by our unawareness of the medium’s invisibility? Our study is built on the assumption that the crucial role of medium, technology and art in communicating religious ideas and thought, and in shaping the way religious convictions and ideas are experienced, tends to be much underappreciated. Medium may not be the message itself, yet it is too closely intertwined with the message to be taken lightly or ignored altogether. These themes cannot be explored properly unless one pays close attention to the nature of a particular medium or art form – and corresponding technologies that make it possible in the first place. Furthermore, theory alone will not be enough; it will have to be complemented by experience of various art-forms and media, and accounts from those who practice it. Some experiential engagement with the various media and art forms, therefore also becomes necessary. Religious communities, and their scholars and theologians have often spoken about these matters, about the role of art, the impact of the “technological revolution” of modern times and for and against various art forms, media and technology. Their voices will matter as well.

Our study is an ‘exploration’ of these and various other interrelated themes. Drawing therefore widely on theories of art, media and technology and discussing examples from several major religious traditions, we will probe the reality of art, media, and technology and explore how they form, inform, perform, and transform religious life and its various expressions.