Case Studies

RLPI Symposia adopt a case study approach to the subject matter at hand.  The Symposium on Religious Literacy and Business: Media & Entertainment will focus on four case studies that engage different dimensions of the media and entertainment industry, from high-level theoretical frameworks for assessing media effects to pragmatic strategies for integrating principles of religious literacy into production.

Each of these areas offers numerous, content-rich dynamics that can provide the foundation for productive conversation and greater reflection on the benefits of religious literacy and means to cultivating it.  While some general themes and questions apply to all four cases, we suggest that panelists and attendees consider the specific guiding questions below for each case. We also strongly recommend reading the Religious Literacy Project's Method in addition to the individual case studies in preparation for the symposium. 

Making Audiences: How What We Watch Shapes Who We Are

Given recent media consumption trends as tracked by The Nielson Report, we can expect that by the end of 2018 the average adult in the United States will spend upwards of 11 hours each day consuming media through a variety of devices. It is no exaggeration to say that our lives are saturated by media. There is thus an acute need to understand how we are shaped by watching, listening to, interacting with, and creating media. After all, how can we possibly understand who and what we are if we do not understand the effects upon us of what we do day in and day out? Our immersion in this media landscape raises significant questions about the way media affects our individual lives as well as the ways we understand and engage the broader culture.


For those who study religion and strive to improve the public’s understanding of religion, the role of media in contemporary culture should be of particular interest. From one perspective the ritualized nature of media consumption, combined with much of the thematic content in contemporary film and television, suggests ways in which media itself takes on a religious dimension. More salient to this panel, however, is that the sheer amount of time most people spend consuming media suggests that entertainment media is where people most often witness religions other than their own. Whether through thematic content, the depiction of rituals, or the portrayal of certain characters, film and television may well be the primary site where Americans encounter other religions. Because of this, we would be wise to consider how people’s understanding of religions is conditioned by their media experiences and how media may function to improve or hinder the religious literacy of the public.


Over the past decades significant work has been done on how media affects audiences, but little of that work has focused on the particular issue of religious literacy, or even audiences’ experience of and opinions about religion—especially as conditioned by entertainment media. Thus this panel asks what we can learn from scholars and professionals whose work, in a variety of ways, engages the effect of media on the public. How do those who create media programming explicitly intended to promote social change think about the power of narrative, of drama of comedy? How do scholars who study the role narratives play in shaping beliefs and effecting behavioral change think about the role media can play in positive cultural change? How does the way media functions, and how do the ways in which we are immersed in it, help us explore and assess the potential for using media to improve contemporary understanding of religions?


Suggested Reading

Islamophobia, ISIS, and Authentic Muslim Narratives: Television’s Potential Role

Stories are Better than Lectures at Teaching Us About Health

The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump (behind paywall)


Guiding Questions

1. How can media be harnessed to effect positive changes in perception and behavior? In what ways are different forms of media and genres of narrative particularly effective and why?


2. How does media shape how people see who they are? How do people use stories to orient themselves? 


3. In what ways do the affective qualities of various genres (drama, comedy, reality tv) shape and change how viewers experience and respond to the world around them?


4. How does media function to create social groups? What role does media play in shaping how cultural subgroups perceive and interact with each other?


5. How have technological innovations in media (such as: live streaming, binge watching, micro-targeted advertising, social media etc) unified, divided, or multiplied audiences?


6. In what ways does media participate in and respond to the political and cultural fracturing of the American public?


7. How does media function to create the experience of a dominant culture? How does media enable groups to move between experiences of being marginalized by or aligned with dominant cultural paradigms? How do subgroups use media both to define and strengthen themselves as well as to position themselves in relation to what they see as the dominant culture?


8. How do scholars of contemporary religion think about the relationship between religion and media in shaping culture?


9. What roles might contemporary media, and especially entertainment, play in shaping a public that is both more knowledgeable about religions and better equipped to understand and engage people from different religious backgrounds?


10. The pedagogical space of media and entertainment is different from the pedagogical frame of the classroom. How does thinking about the the way in which M&E operates as a pedagogical field help us think about how M&E can promote better religious literacy among the public?


Entertaining Religion: Themes, People, and Plots in Entertainment Media

In recent years, scholars have paid significant attention to how journalism influences American audiences’ perceptions of religion, but news media is far from the only source of information on the subject. The dramatic fictional narratives featured in film and television allow viewers to enter into a new world, as do reality television and documentary films. Like novels, film and television can introduce viewers to experiences outside their own lives, including religious ideas and practices. At the same time, depictions of religion on screen can reinforce viewers’ existing assumptions, rather than challenging them. And viewers may feel validated by seeing their own religious traditions or other worldviews represented on screen, or they may feel alienated by portrayals that do not resonate with their own experience. Any of these reactions, however, contribute to how viewers understand religion--whether their own or someone else’s--and how it operates in culture.


Recent films and television shows offer plenty of opportunities for viewers to encounter a wide range of religions, from the familiar to the fictional. Representations of Islam have expanded somewhat in scope, moving beyond tired plots about terrorism and national security (though those remain prominent) to portray Muslim characters with more complexity in Halal in the Family, Quantico, The Big Sick, and others. Various forms of Christianity appear on everything from political dramas like The West Wing to sit-coms like Black-ish to the award-winning film Silence. At the same time, the Christian film industry continues to churn out films tailored to the aesthetics and morals of a loyal conservative Christian audience. For more liberal audiences, there is Transparent, which has been called “the most Jewish show on television,” not only because of the religious identity of its protagonists but also because of the themes it explores. But religion on screen is not limited to depictions of familiar religious traditions. Shows like Westworld, Game of Thrones, The Leftovers, and The Handmaid’s Tale explore religious ideas and institutions through science fiction and fantasy, asking deep political, sociological, and theological questions and offering oblique commentary on reality.


This panel focuses on current and classic depictions of religion in American media in a variety of forms and genres. Participants will discuss multiple ways religion appears in media and to what ends.


Suggested Reading

How 2016’s Movies and TV Reflected Americans’ Changing Relationship with Religion

Homeland is the Most Bigoted Show on Television

Why America’s Handmaid’s Tale Doesn’t Look Like Hulu’s

A Journey Into the Righteous, Risk-Averse World of Faith-Based Films

Transparent is the Most Profoundly Jewish TV Show in History

Guiding Questions

1. What qualities characterize a religiously literate film or show? What are the dramatic conventions that foster or hinder complex and nuanced representations of religious individuals, communities, and ideas?

2. In what ways do media representations of religion limit what audiences recognize as expressions of religion and who they identify as being legitimate adherents of a religion?

3. How do representations of religion and race intersect in contemporary entertainment media?

4. How does media explore the roles of religious identities in American culture? On the one hand, what role does media play in the ongoing process by which religious groups claim a place as “American”? On the other hand, what role does media play in determining how audiences view other religious groups with regard to dominant notions of American identity?

5. How does media use physical landscape as a metaphor for both interiority and relationality?

6. What potential do fantasy worlds hold for improving religious literacy? In what ways can shows like Westworld, Star Trek, and Game of Thrones help audiences think about religions and religious themes in more complex and nuanced ways?

From Script to Screen: How Content is Made and Why It Matters

The frequent presence of religion on screen indicates that at some point in the creative process, writers and producers must learn something about the traditions they depict. The question is, how does this process take place? Some draw on firsthand experience, either their own or a collaborator’s. One of television’s most famously religious characters, President Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing, was written as Catholic at the request of Martin Sheen, the actor who played Bartlett for seven seasons. “I wanted him to be Catholic so that I could personally relate to every issue in a moral frame of reference,” Sheen explains, and Bartlet’s character reflected Sheen’s own progressive Catholicism. Other showrunners seek out experts to advise them on their religious content, usually either religious leaders or scholars of the relevant tradition. For instance, the creators of CBS’s Living Biblically worked with a priest and a rabbi in an effort to make the show both accurate and inoffensive. Similarly, Michael Schur consulted two philosophy professors when writing The Good Place, which offers a comedic crash course in philosophy.

For highly controversial shows, another tactic is to quell or circumvent critique by hiring the critics as consultants. For instance, after being vociferously critiqued for Islamophobia, the showrunners for Homeland hired attorney and law professor Ramzi Kassem, who had been one of their loudest critics, to help them adjust their portrayal of Muslims and Islam. As the New York Times put it, he became “Homeland’s paid conscience consultant.” Similarly, Netflix hired Thomas Williams, a former priest and current Rome correspondent for Breitbart News, as a script consultant on the new series The Pope. The show explores the relationship between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis as the latter became pope in 2013. Williams’ mandate was to ensure a fair representation of the more conservative Benedict, potentially heading off criticism from conservative viewers.

But religion is, of course, a lightning rod for controversy, and expert consultants can only do so much to avoid it. In the film Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers reveal the comedy of the idea that asking religious leaders for advice can circumvent controversy. Set in 1950s Hollywood, the film’s topic is the production of a fictional movie about Jesus Christ, “the greatest story ever told.” The head of the fictional film company is concerned about not offending religious viewers, so, to cover his bases, he gathers a rabbi, a Protestant pastor, a Catholic priest, and a Greek Orthodox priest to advise him on how to depict Jesus. The ensuing argument about Jesus’ divinity demonstrates important distinctions within the religious traditions represented, delivered with characteristic Coen comedic flair. More importantly, it shows the impossibility of getting everyone--or even a few religious leaders--to agree on one interpretation to be showcased on screen.

When it comes to depicting religion, writers and producers must choose which part, or parts, of a tradition to represent. Given the internal diversity of religions, their propensity to change over time, and the profound influence of cultural context, these choices are manifold and complex and the results significant. How can storytellers and producers be faithful to the stories they are trying to tell and to the complexity of religious landscapes? How do they handle the pressures to simplify religion, pressures that easily reinforce only the loudest, most convenient, or traditionally authoritative voices, pressures that can easily lead media to replicate and reinforce significant imbalances of power and distortions of reality?

This panel focuses on the technical aspect of content production, exploring how the religious dimensions of entertainment media are created. Who decides what the content is? Where does the information come from? What is the process from both creative and corporate angles? Participants will discuss the nuts and bolts of how and why certain choices are made and explore how scholars (and the RLP) could support writers and producers engaging in with religious themes.

Suggested Reading

Can Television Be Fair to Muslims?

CBS Hopes Viewers Will Want to Watch, If Not Live, Biblically

And, Scene: Hail, Caesar!

“Extra” Cardinals Invade the Vatican (No Blessings Included)

He Didn’t Like Homeland. Now He’s Advising It



Guiding Questions

1. To what extent are media creators aware that their narratives shape how Americans think about religion? How can greater awareness be fostered?


2. Where do writers, directors, producers, and media executives get their information about religion? To whom do they turn or with whom do they collaborate?


3. How do writers, directors, producers, and media executives think about the ways in which they depict religion? What are they trying to communicate about religion?  What are their intended messages and what motivates them?


4. How do media creators negotiate tensions between accuracy and complexity on the one hand, and the demands of narrative arc and character development on the other?


5. What constraints in the industry or the culture inhibit media companies from generating complex depictions of religious individuals, communities, and ideas?


6. How does the intended audience shape the ways media creators approach and depict religion in their work?


Saving Stories: Religious Literacy as Social Responsibility?

Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, refers to an array of corporate practices that can differ significantly across industries. In the world of Media & Entertainment CSR refers to a set of practices that yokes together campaigns understood to promote some form of identified social good, such as recycling, anti-bullying, girl equity, or HIV/AIDS prevention, with a marketing structure that offers potential long term benefits (‪‪including audience loyalty) to the organizations involved. Over the past few decades media corporations such as Turner Broadcasting Systems and Viacom have developed creative and savvy campaigns that include messaging built into script content (such as themes or issues in a serial TV show), public service announcements, online games, and competitions that offer the possibility of real world rewards (like receiving funding for a community project or being featured in a media event). ‪‪These campaigns begin with the general assumption that 10% of the audience is already interested and engaged while close to 90% are not aware or not vested in the social issue. They are then engineered to create awareness, shift attitudes, and change behavioral intent with the goal of long term behavioral change. Thus the goal is two tiered: the first goal is to simply create awareness and affect intent. The second goal, the gold standard, is behavioral change. Behavioral change takes long-term investment and ongoing forms of quantifiable measurement.

Despite the fact that religion appears regularly as part of popular content in adult oriented shows such as Westworld, Game of Thrones, Homeland, The Good Place, Transparent, as well as in shows geared to younger audiences, to date Media & Entertainment CSR projects have not considered religious literacy a viable issue to tackle in CSR campaigns. This panel will explore the contours of contemporary Media & Entertainment CSR and ask what it might look like to use Media & Entertainment based CSR to promote religious literacy in the American public.

Suggested Reading

What is Corporate Social Responsibility, and Does It Work?

The Thriving World, the Wilting World, and You

Can a TV Sit-Com Reduce Anti-Muslim Bigotry?


Guiding Questions

1. What might a CSR campaign to promote Religious Literacy look like? What are the promises and limitations of trying to promote not only foundational knowledge about the world's religions but also an understanding that religions change over time, are internally diverse, are culturally embedded and are capable of exerting both constructive and destructive cultural and political forces?

2. What are the tensions, constraints, and challenges that may arise in using CSR to promote religious literacy? What tensions do media creators experience between the pressures of the bottom line and the aspirations to support positive social change? Given that media is, after all, a business, how can media creators balance the demand for profit with a commitment to promoting constructive social values, including religious literacy?

3. In designing a CSR campaign, who determines what counts as a “social good” or “positive change”? How are those choices shaped by the context of the neoliberal corporate world? To what extent does that limit the possibilities of what can be imagined as social responsibility?

4. CSR has been critiqued by some as a public relations strategy that makes capitalism more palatable to those who are exploited by it. To what degree is CSR a worthwhile way to effect positive cultural change even if it masks certain economic and corporate realities of neoliberal capitalism?

5. How can we persuade media executives, writers, and producers to engage with religious literacy as a new form of CSR? What kind of support or trainings could scholars provide as technical experts to assist in efforts to promote religious literacy as social responsibility? 

6. What are the best strategies to assess the impact of social responsibility efforts in this industry? How can we measure change in awareness, intent, and behavior? What is the power of celebrity in shaping audiences and promoting social values?

7. What are the next steps forward for the media and entertainment industry to promote religious literacy? What can the RLP and other scholars of religion offer to content developers and other in the industry? At what point in the process should this collaboration occur? What mechanisms are in place or can be created to foster this collaboration?