Monday, June 4, 2018

Critiquing Clichés in the Classroom

Maya Aphornsuvan recently graduated with a BA in Religious Studies and Political Science from Elizabethtown College. Working with Richard Newton, she explored social theory in the study of religion. To conclude her coursework, Maya created a short video series companion to Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin’s Stereotyping Religion. She tells us about the project in this guest post.

Maya Clare Aphornsuvan
Elizabethtown College

For the past semester, I have been working on my own video series titled Maya Clare Cares About Religion. It may seem strange to many that a Political Science and Religious Studies double major is interested in doing work in the world of media, but this video series has been a project in my mind long before this academic year.

I have always held the media up in high regards, and I most certainly agree with people being critical of what we consume. However, I believe the media reflects what is valuable in society, and it is clear to me that we now live in a time and age where data, science, and statistics matter more than concepts and theories that invisibly run how we function and how we relate to one another. A problem I encounter with the media is that we continue to talk about topics we don’t consider to be as important as things we can create charts and graphs for, so when we come across the topic of religion in discussions, for example, we simply say that religion is a personal matter, and therefore, everybody can discuss it on television freely. Take John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight as an example. What makes Oliver’s show addicting is that he manages to go in-depth into an issue and offer extremely detailed notes, as well as craft a well-rounded understanding for viewers while keeping people glued to their screens with his sense of humor. I am a fan of Oliver’s show, but when Oliver comes across the topic of religion, I find myself disappointed. And this is not only with him, but I find this in a wide range of successful and opinionated television and radio hosts. The show becomes a 20-minute-long session of roasting religious leaders, poking fun at those who follow religious teachings, and criticizing the irrationality behind people’s decisions.

What Oliver and many other news presenters and personalities fail to even attempt to understand is that “religion,” as we understand, is not a “problem” only certain people come into contact with, nor is it a way to distinguish fools from the bright ones. Those who are clearly religious, as I aim to point out in my series, are perhaps similar to those who claim to be against religion yet live their lives doing religious things without realizing it.

We, the public, ignore the importance of understanding our relationship with “religion” but we are so quick to giving our two cents on it. I find it fascinating that no news outlet would bring on a commentator with no knowledge of international politics to explain current world affairs, yet the discussion of religion and myths surrounding claims regarding religion are thrown around liberally.

This brought out frustrations in me. The media is responsible for doing their research before presenting a topic, and the public is responsible for critically analyzing what they take in. But this relationship between the media and the public does not seem to exist the same way conversations about politics or economics do when it comes to religion. Therefore, I decided to try to tackle some of these frustrations and create a video series that would debunk certain ways we, the public, talk about religion.

Last semester I had the opportunity to use Malory Nye’s Religion: The Basics (Second Edition, Routledge 2008) as my guide in class. It was through Nye’s guidance that I was able to articulate my definition of religion as follows: religion describes the ritualized activities and resulting experiences that define a common group, and they take it as meaningful while others would call it out of the ordinary.

Through my understanding of religion, I then use Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Cliches (Bloomsbury 2017) to analyze and understand each chapter more thoroughly, and I decided to create videos that correspond to the different chapters in the book.

The common understanding of religion as something that exists in its own lane does not apply to me; as a Buddhist from Thailand, I have often struggled with separating my Thainess from Buddhism, and it has resulted in nothing but more confusion. Therefore, In the creation of my videos, I make sure to always keep this in mind and use my “Thainess” and “Buddhistness” in presenting the content. I value presenting information in a humorous way and it is my goal to bring the topic of religion closer to the public, as well as create a more “user friendly” guide to how the media and the public can perhaps change their relationship regarding the topic of religion. My video series is only my first attempt at doing so, but my goal is to continue on finding ways to bring more thought into the presentation of religion in the media.