Emory Report

June 8, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 33

Theology students examine
worship in the electronic age

In addition to preparing for the pulpit, students at the Candler School of Theology are studying television ads, music videos and current films to learn more about the ways in which the electronic media are providing-or not providing-images of religious and moral life.

"One of my students went to a contemporary worship service recently and overhead someone say: 'Wow, that was almost as good as a movie!' Those perceptions are not going to go away; they are a central part of our culture," said Don Saliers, Parker Professor of Theology and Worship. Saliers is teaching the experimental course with Michael Boomershine, a 1996 Candler graduate and media consultant.

Whatever electronic images may be teaching society at large, future church leaders must have the moral imagination to deal with the issue head-on, said Saliers. "Because more and more students are coming out of a very visual environment, it's important for them to study the kinds of human images that are being projected in the electronic media and ask what those images are doing to our perceptions of ourselves and society."

Saliers said the course has three purposes: Students examine communications theory and learn how to "read" visual media, or become media literate; they discover how to begin to interpret and critique these dominant visual images; then they ask what relevance such images have for the way the church communicates theological truth.

Saliers and Boomershine invited several guest presenters to help students sort out questions and issues behind the images. For a session on African Americans in film, Riggins Earl, professor of ethics and society at Interdenominational Theological Center, showed clips from Spike Lee's Get on the Bus. He discussed the film's religious diversity and its images of black Americans as moral agents. Will Coleman from Columbia Seminary led an analysis of Julie Dash's acclaimed film, Daughters of the Dust.

Students also are exploring how television advertising shapes our images of "the good life," a particular interest of Saliers. "At the beginning of the course we showed a video montage of TV ads that was extraordinarily powerful," he said. "The aesthetic strength of these ads is phenomenal, yet clearly they are also radically ambiguous" in their moral stance and underlying values.

Saliers and Boomershine say they are attempting to challenge students-who will someday help congregations navigate the persuasive and powerful images of popular culture-to stay tuned in to the moral and religious dimensions of those images. Saliers suggests students ask questions such as: What is this television show, film or ad saying about "the good life" and how to live it? What does it suggest about how to live humanely?

"When we ask those kinds of questions about popular culture, we probably will find we disagree with many of its images," said Boomershine. But he and Saliers hope students won't stop there. "We want students to take the next step," Boomershine said, "to use their own moral and religious imaginations to produce images of the good life."

-Elaine Justice

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