Can the Media and Christian Faith Be Reconciled?

Author Speaks of "New Wines for New Cultures"

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OTTAWA, OCT. 25, 2002 ( Guy Marchessault, director of the Social Communications Program of Saint Paul University, has just published a book on the relation between the media and the faith: "Médias et Foi Chrétienne: Deux Univers à Concilier" (Media and Christian Faith: Two Realms to Reconcile), Fides Editions.

He talked with ZENIT about the questions raised in the book.

Q: Does reconciliation between the media and the Church have a price?

Marchessault: I would say yes and no. Yes, it has a price, if one thinks that the relation between the Church and society means a loss of power over the right of the hierarchies to communicate the public word. From now on, this word is the privilege of the media, according to their own interests -- which are increasingly financial -- which does not always correspond to the interests of the Church. One can regret this, but it is a fact.

It seems to me that the challenge, here, is of another order. Since we know perfectly well that the information technology, which influences all the cultures and subcultures of the world, makes and unmakes reputations, creates an essential visibility for serious social actors, and has become the agora of all discussions and exchanges of ideas, the media being what it is, we must ask, How can the Christian faith be present there?

Not to be there, means to disappear from the map, to disappear from the culture, to disappear behind the closed doors of presbyteries or sacristies. The law of "perception" is fundamental to the culture of information technology.

Given the above, how can the Christian faith be present in the media? Pope John Paul II opens a door for us when he recognizes in the media the quality of being a new culture. That implies processes of acculturation and inculturation. Given the media, it is an imperative "missionary" process from which, henceforth, no one will escape.

Q: One understands here the importance of language.

Marchessault: Exactly. One of the first objectives is to be attuned to every culture, is to take the trouble to understand persuasive and symbolic language.

It is what I recommend should be done: to identify the privileged languages of the media, and then compare them to the privileged language of the Church over the last few centuries.

This comparison is instructive, in the sense that it enables one to understand how -- in the struggle against the Reformation, then against modernism -- special attention was given in education to apologetics, to demonstration, to notional explanations, when at the same time the popular expression of the faith in symbolic and artistic terms was disappearing or losing its meaning for the majority of mortals.

The media, which by its nature is the "popular" means of communication, calls for appropriate language in terms of expression of the faith -- not so much theological or dogmatic doctrine, or rituals, but above all witness, personal and collective witness.

Q: Why is there still this ecclesial fear of the media?

Marchessault: The Church was afraid, and some of its followers continue to be afraid of the media, fundamentally for three reasons:

One, the most frequently mentioned reason is the "immorality" of the media. One is aware of the importance of moralization, especially sexual, in the course of the two or three last centuries. The media gave support to a certain freedom of customs that played against it at the moral level, such as wearing apparel, dark movie halls, etc. That has always caused fear.

Second, one reason that is evoked less often was remembered higher up: The Church has lost the right to communicate the public word, hence she has lost the interpretative monopoly of the meaning of the world, because her vision of the world has become just one approach among others; which places her in concurrence with all other imaginable ideologies, on the same level, in the world fair of worldviews.

The third reason can only be formulated with difficulty: the need today for a totally new inculturation of the faith.

In losing her monopoly on the public symbolic word, the Church found herself suddenly without a tool to proclaim the faith. New wines for new cultures. The wonderful theological and catechetical terms that served previous generations suddenly lost their relevance. Those old expressions that came from the Christian humanist culture -- which originated in the Middle Ages -- were defended for too long.

To address new cultures is all together a new experience -- at least in the West, as opposed to the experience lived in countries known as "of mission."

To express the faith again in pertinent words and gestures for young people, today in the West, constitutes an incredibly difficult challenge. Grandparents use words that are rejected by their own children and totally incomprehensible to their grandchildren; parents no longer dare speak about the faith to their children, not having any adequate language tools with which to feel at ease; children are raised increasingly as unmitigated "unbelievers."

Hence, their feverish search for meaning in life, through all their physical experiences: sexuality, drugs, strong sensations, etc.

Here, I think everything remains to be done; a new notional/symbolic language is yet to be created, thanks to which the faith will find the words to express itself today. Then, the media will be able to relay its messages with unheard-of savor.

Q: Will conflict always characterize the relation between faith and the media?

Marchessault: There will always be conflict between faith and the media. But, in my opinion, this conflict is not first expressed in situations which one thinks of spontaneously: immorality, aggressive treatment of religious institutions, distortions of the contents of officials' speeches, etc.

Rather, it resides in what I will call the danger of prophetic disquiet. What to say? To make more money, the media works according to market procedures, constantly adjusting its products to the expectations -- conscious or unconscious, real or supposed -- of the public to which it caters. Therefore, it never contradicts its public, under pain of losing its support and, therefore, its revenue.

The Church cannot play this game without danger. First, because she holds certain principles. But, even more so, because in the name of the Christian faith itself, she must examine herself and denounce unacceptable attitudes, even if widespread. It is the first step for any prophet.

The second is to identify the living forces that can give a positive sense to life.

Starting from these denunciations and living forces, the third step is to pass to transformative action.

Now, the greater part of people are not ready to receive this type of message -- including Christians who are tranquil in their faith. Hence, it will pass with greater difficulty in the media.

When the public is in dissonance, it cancels its subscription, or changes channel. A challenging and prophetic presence of the Church is at the same time a source of surprise, but also of fear with the popular public, which is that of the media.

This is why the relation between the media and the faith will always be problematic, in one way or another.