Nov 29, 2011

The medialization of pentecostals

The Los Angels Daily Times reports the birth
of American pentecostalism at Azusa Street.
One of the stranger things about American religion in the 20th century has to be how completely, totally medialized pentecostalism was. 

In some ways, there's no group more resistant to modern American culture. No group more intent on being separate, on being foreign. Especially in the early days, and with the groups that were holiness. This resistance persists too in the more polished versions, and in even the most recent developments of the movement. Yet, even at the most anti- and counter-cultural moments, pentecostalism is whole-heartedly mediated by media.

I've been doing some research, as I'll be teaching American Pentecostals next semester, and it's fascinating to see how pentecostals use media today. Miracles on YouTube, for example. And how it was in these early moments, like Azusa Street in the LA Times.

There're elements of medialization in all sorts of American religions, of course. One sees the sense of media, the mediation, even the self-conscious mediation, and the affects all across the religious landscape. Billy Graham's tamer suit, the mass weddings of the Unification Church, the telegenic Pope, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' current add campaign, & so on. Many have used media. Many have learned from media. Many have only been able to imagine themselves & present themselves & position themselves through modern media.

With pentecostals, though, it's so thorough. There's no part of it, no movement of it or way it has been experienced that hasn't been presented or represented in media.

Even from the beginning.

All three waves of pentecostalism's history have been represented by and through media. All work, fundamentally, as media spectacle. They make sense, specifically, in terms of the media of their day.

I wonder if it wouldn't even be possible to map the three so-called waves onto to the major developments in mass media in the 20th century. Maybe: the first outbreak with newspapers & radio, your basic mass media; charismatics with cable & 24-hour television; 3rd wave with social media & the internet.

It's a thought.