Why does Media representation (for christians) even matter?

You know how the saying goes, the media portrays the NHS in crisis overall – yet everyone loves their local hospital, fights for it and want it to be kept open, facilitated and the core provider of health services in the UK. But ask people on the street about the NHS overall and theyll say something different, depending on whether they have used the services recently or not.

One of the earliest lectures I attended as part of my Youthwork degree at ICC, was that on the media representations of Young People. Often nearly always bent towards the negative (even their success at exams is skewed to reflect ‘easier exams nowadays), but young people are portrayed with hoods, as closed off, as in groups/gangs, at fault for many of societies ills. We learned and saw how the narrative of negativity around young people shaped government policy, as what might be said to be the Daily Mail brigades were reacted to. Though the moral fear about young people created by such stories is not new.

One of the things in church based youthwork is to maintain challenges these narratives, as they can be often the ones that church people ingest the most frequently and then shape whether they as people will bother volunteering to do youthwork in the church, or dictate how to treat young people. When as we know, God sees young people differently…doesnt she?

So on this basis, media representations of young people in society, as a youthworker are important- because they shape attitudes, narratives and policy. (and thats before we get the new wave of ‘millenial bashing’)

However, there is also a complete surprise in the local situation. When a group of volunteers encounter and interact with young people on the streets for the first time, they are often surprised, saying ‘that went better than i expected!’ – why what did you expect… ?  Well id heard so much about young people…… So again, the universal media narrative is the default norm, but this is often overcome because in the right kind of environment, and with the right kind of approach, young people are barely anything like the media portrays them. They cant be. boring young people all 99% of them arent newsworthy. Though its also fair to say that the services that provide for and with young people (as many of the 99% need mental health support, or counselling, or universal youthwork that barely exists)  and the plight of this is also less newsworthy, because it is about young people. And so, if the media doesnt care positively about young people, then it is going to care less about paying for services for them. The anti youth bias continues.

So, fast forward to the last two weeks. Not for the first time there is a conversation going around about ‘How Christians are portrayed in the Media’ and an open letter by the evangelical preacher J John. Im not going to share the link, but it is in this response piece by Bryony Taylor, which is well worth a look, to at least balance the scales on media portrayals of christians: https://bryonytaylor.com/2018/03/21/representation-of-christians-on-the-bbc-my-response-to-j-johns-open-letter/

A few reflections;

  1. Its a bit self indulgent. Surely Christians can protests about media portrayals of more oppressed communities in society than themselves. Young people perhaps, LGBT, Women (in general), people from other countries (but no), Muslims.
  2.  I wonder is there anything worse about Christianity than putting across a victim complex. And being seen to be that way.

But overall does it matter- and why does it matter?

For one thing, I do go on at this point. The perception, is that the media is somehow meant to be on the side of the christian church in the UK. That’s the perception within the church, in the main. Along with this is the belief that if there is religious stuff on TV then this will make the church relevant and cause people to think positively about the church and then go along to it. Negative media representation obviously damages this approach. It is about relevancy to the evangelical, that’s one of the whole aspects of the strategy. Being relevant has meant being involved in the media. When i was growing up it was Steve Chalke on the TV – somehow he was trendy for young people.. (!)

In a way I wouldnt want the BBC to think it had to respond to J John about his complaint, because that might mean that they werent genuine about what they might try and do in the future. What the christian church would be better at doing was actually doing stuff in their every day locality that was meaningful, provocative and risk taking to and with local communities- that the BBC couldnt help but write positive stories about the church. Like the methodists who protested against the arms depot and challenged the courts.  But many other countless examples. Lets face it, christians doing foodbanks in Newcastle were the heroes in ‘I Daniel Blake’.

If people in every day local communities had a positive experience meaningfully of their local church- then universal media representations wouldnt matter. It has become the great ‘hang up’ on one hand we pour christian celebrity status on the bakers from bake off (Martha Collinson) who profess faith, the brit award winners (stormzy) – and they become ‘role models’ – yet at the same time decry the media for challenging portrayals. We cant have both cakes and eat them. But even this rush to get christians in the media is part of the same approach. Stormzy might be the coolest thing since Ice Cubes. And Broken the most powerful portrayal of priesthood since well The Passion of the Christ. None of it is of any importance until people locally become connected and surprised by the church. One of the ways that this could happen, is if local churches forgot their own oppression, and connected (even more) with those who really do face it.

There is moment in the film ‘Pride’ (2014) where a character uses the media as a way of  telling tales about the ‘Gays and Lesbians’ who had gone to the village to support the striking miners in the miners strike. The response to the character from one of the support group leaders was ‘ well i dont believe the media about what they say about us (the miners) so why do i about them (the Gay fundraisers)’. We either think people cant make up their own mind and uncritically believe everything they hear in the media, or as christians we might surprise by being different in the local area. If we’re doing good works, with love, then the media cant touch us, and if we react it gives fuel to their fire, not ours.

Bryony is even more prolific than me; here is her second response, on developing a theological response to media courting: https://bryonytaylor.com/2018/03/22/representation-of-christians-on-television-a-theological-response/



Roche & Tucker, Youth in Society, 1995

Garratt, Roche, Tucker, Changing experiences of Youth, 1997


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