Religion today: Themes and issues
Religion today: Themes and issues

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Religion today: Themes and issues

1.3 Representation

Representation is a complex idea, or set of ideas, but it is extremely important in relation to studying religion. Representing religion might mean being an official delegate of a religion, or it might mean trying to explain a religion to someone unfamiliar with it. Representation in the religious context might mean the use of an image to portray a divine figure or religious ideas, or it could refer to how a religion is characterized by either insiders or outsiders. Therefore, the sorts of question we need to be asking in relation to representation in the context of religion today are:

  • What is being represented?

  • What means (texts, web sites, film, symbols, rhetoric) are being used?

  • Who is doing the representing and who is being represented?

  • Are they insiders or outsiders, scholars or co-religionists, authority figures or ordinary members?

  • How representative is this characterization?

  • Is a majority view necessarily more representative than a minority one?

  • What message is sent by a particular representation?

  • What consequences do representations of religion have, both positively and negatively, in religious terms and in the broader context of society and politics?

In considering representation, we need to bear in mind the fact of diversity within religions as well as between religions. Diversity within particular religions can be so great that different groups within the same faith tradition would represent it in extremely different ways. Catholic and Protestant Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists, each have very different perspectives on their traditions from their theoretical co-religionists, for example. Moreover, members of one religious group frequently represent or characterize other groups, religions, traditions or cultures in a partial or actively misleading way. The way that a religion represents itself to its own members and to the outside world need not be the same.

It need hardly be pointed out that issues of representation can have extremely serious consequences. The representation of Jews as ‘Christ-killers’, or the outrageous ‘blood libel legend’ which emerged in twelfth-century Europe that Jews murder Christian children and use the blood for ritual purposes, have persisted with disastrous anti-Semitic consequences. History is littered with tragic examples of conflicts in which groups representing themselves as agents of the divine justify extreme violence and acts of inhumanity against those characterized as enemies of the divine. Immensely varied new religious movements are often all demonized as ‘brain-washing cults’ by the anti-cult movement (ACM), and Muslims (regardless of their actual theological and geographical diversity) are regularly characterized in some sectors of the western media as uniformly dangerous, violent fundamentalists.

Representations of the Hindu epic the Ramayana on Indian television in the 1980s, for instance, had a profound effect, not simply on popular devotion but on the rise of right-wing Hindu political organizations. Material culture (e.g. pictures, costume, food, buildings, symbols, artefacts) has an important role in expressing and maintaining faith traditions and also provides a variety of representations. However, the extent to which the richness and complexity of a belief system can be represented or grasped through religious artefacts is something that is considered later in this course, when we examine some of the issues and controversies raised by the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. You will see footage of this museum later in the course.

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