August 04, 2008

A Study on the Media and New Christian Right in India

(Published in: Spectrum, August 3, 2008)

Wake-up call for traditional church

Book review by Papri Sri Raman

Strong Religion, Zealous Media
by Pradip Ninan Thomas. Sage Publications. Pages 207. Rs 495

The book is a result of a two-year study done in Chennai by Pradip Ninan Thomas, an associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Queensland, and naturally an academic point of view.

"(It was) inspired by a comment about conversions and riots in Gujarat by the writer William Dalrymple in an article several years ago," Thomas told IANS.

"It suddenly opened my eyes to the fundamentalism that is getting entrenched in Christianity across the world, in Brazil, (South) Korea, Africa and also in India." One of the reasons why Thomas took up the study of modern-day Christian fundamentalism in Tamil Nadu is because as many as 62 million people in the southern state follow the religion.

"Chennai is today considered the fastest-growing hub of Christianity in South Asia," he says.

His study is preceded by Lionel Caplan’s 1987 work "Fundamentalism as a Counter-Culture: Protestants in Urban South India" and Susan Bayly’s 1994 study in southern Tamil Nadu and Kerala, "Christians and Competing Fundamentalism in South Indian Society".

Thomas has left himself open to criticism that he is playing directly into the hands of rising Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism by choosing to investigate how neo-Christian camps in India use the media and its audio-visual power to hypnotise their constituencies with "good news", miracles and blessings.

Thomas writes that "Christian fundamentalists", like Islamic fundamentalists, "belong to a global umma and harbour real and perhaps imagined...longings directed towards making all of god’s people Christian".

Thomas says he himself is a practicing Christian, but that it is time "mainstream churches" begin looking at "Christianity in India and begin going to the media more" to halt what he calls "Karaoke" Christianity.

His concern is delivered in his critique of the media-supported Joshua project, the Christian Broadcasting Network and the evangelism of GOD TV, the 700 Club, Num TV of the Chennai-based organisation Jesus Calls, the Rede Record TVNetwork belonging to Brazil’s Pentecostal movement and such other mass followed sects.

He fears that more and more the "worship experience on a Sunday" is being overtaken by rallies like those organised by Benny Hinn Inc (in the US).

"Politics of mis-recognition certainly applies to Christian broadcasting in India," Thomas notes.

The book takes a close look at India’s Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal movements, their use of radio, television, merging church space with multi-media.

Thomas says his book is a "wake-up call" to the traditional church in India to recognise the danger of fundamentalist incursions into a faith that is largely seen as beneficial and peaceful, surviving for several thousand years in a multicultural, multi-religious space, which this subcontinent has provided.

Warning against "evangelic spectacles" and various "brands of exclusive Christianity", Thomas gives the example of "militantly pro-conversion events" like the "Every Tribe, Every Tongue" convention in 2006, attended by political bigwigs like P. Chidambaram and from the self-proclaimed atheist Dravidian party the DMK and 20,000 others who had gathered in Chennai from all across tribal India.

The International Living Mission supported the event; the stated objective of this group is: "In India itself there are more than 500,000 villages that have never heard about Jesus. There is neither a church nor has any missionary been in these parts. Our responsibility as the chosen one of God is to make an opportunity for these people so that they too can hear the word of God." Such events generate "new meaning for religion and politics, simultaneously mixing the religious with business and finance, creating spectacular events and media personalities," Thomas points out.

"Liberal Christians...along with many others in India certainly have serious misgivings about this kind of aggressive proselytisation," Thomas says.

"The traditional church is, however, reluctant to admit it and take action against this, especially in the face of rising Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism." The traditional church "keeps quiet" because it "feels the need to maintain unity" among Christians of all denomination, Thomas says, advocating that traditional religion, including traditional Christianity, should search for a media model like Canada’s "Vision TV" to reach out to India’s pluralist multitude. — IANS