Many scholars exploring and contributing to conceptualizations of the religion-media nexus over the past fifteen years approach religion as a set of practices of mediation to which media are intrinsic.1 Media are understood here in a broad sense that includes mass media and social media, as well as other objects that are made to act as transmitters in linking their users with each other. Paying attention to media proves to be a productive entry point into grasping the ways in which religious practitioners connect with each other and a professed “beyond,” rendering it tangible, senseable, and real, and accessing special power(s). In this sense, media are at the core of the politics and aesthetics of (religious) world-making.2
Methodologically, it is helpful to focus on media and mediation in specific religious groups to understand how God(s) and spirits become real for their members and how religious worlds of lived experience emerge and are sustained. Much scholarship concentrates on moments in which established mediation practices are challenged and new media are adopted and adapted into practices of religious mediation, thereby enabling religious groups to reform. But a focus on media is also a revealing entry point into the decline of religious traditions, because it can alert us to the afterlives of their media in secular frames of heritage or art.
What happens to religious objects that once were employed in practices of mediation to connect with the spirit world or with the Christian God and that have now become defunct and abandoned, surviving in secular frames? What can these objects be made—or asked—to mediate now? Which connections with the past could they now transmit? I want to pursue these questions by looking at two types of discarded religious media that became “matter out of place” in new secular settings: Ewe “fetishes” in a German ethnological museum, and figures of Mary and Jesus in Dutch secondhand stores.
Take, for instance, the collection of legbawo assembled by the missionary Carl Spiess (1867-1936), who was active among the Ewe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in what is today southern Ghana and Togo. The missionaries of the Norddeutsche Missionsgesellschaft, to which Spiess belonged, qualified the indigenous religious practices as “idolatry,” and strongly criticized the use of various power objects that conveyed spiritual power to protect, bind, and harm or even kill. Spiess and other missionaries instructed the Ewe converts to burn these objects. But there was an afterlife for some of these objects in Germany. Spiess collected many legbawo that are now kept in the depot of the Überseemuseum Bremen, where some are on display in a vitrine in the museum’s splendid, publicly-accessible magazine. (Many thanks to curator Silke Seybold who takes care of and introduced me to the collection.)
Thinking about the legbawo as media is helpful to trace their social lives by identifying layers of mediations in which the objects operated. The first layer concerns their use as transmitters of spiritual power for the Ewe, and the second their interpretation as “fetishes” or “idols” that mediate “primitive” religion and “heathendom”—for many Ghanaian Christians up until today. While these two layers are diametrically opposed in regard to the valuation of these objects, they converge in acknowledging the power enshrined in these objects. The transition of the legbawo into museum objects raises intriguing issues. What might they mediate after being placed in the secular space of the museum depot? Have they been fully secularized and disenchanted, or do they still retain some degree of their original power? What might these objects mean and mediate for the Ewe people today—a highly valued religious past, evidence of idolatry, or traditional art?
Of course, the answers will depend on the stances of their beholders. For me, as a researcher, these and similar objects are silent witnesses of a longstanding, unequal encounter between the Ewe and German missionaries in a frontier zone of Western colonial outreach. The point for critical scholarship and curatorial work is to make them speak and act as postcolonial media that can transmit the layers of mediation contained by them. Approaching them as media is to make them alert us to a history of longstanding and embarrassing colonial entanglements.
Jesus and Mary
The Netherlands are de-churching at rapid speed (just 24 percent of the population identifies as Catholic and 15 percent as Protestant), with one church per week closing down. This implies that the media around which Catholic lived piety evolved are being discarded at a massive scale and can be found in secondhand stores or the ateliers of artists. Statues of Jesus, prints of the Sacred Heart, and all kinds of similar artifacts are placed in unfamiliar environments as part of weird or even surreal assemblages. While the Catholic Church has developed detailed protocols for dealing with the ecclesiological, sacred artifacts that are on the move in the aftermath of the deconsecration of defunct church buildings, the flow of Catholic media from people’s attics and cellars is uncontrollable. These artifacts belong to the category of devotional images that emerged in the thirteenth century and were designed to make believers feel empathy and the presence of the divine. Discarded by radical Calvinists and destroyed in iconoclastic attacks in the sixteenth century, in the aftermath of the Counter-Reformation and the baroque period, such images nonetheless remained important media in Catholic devotional practice, up to our time.
But now, they are put aside as “sacred waste,” reminding beholders of a Catholic past that no longer holds to many former believers. The question is what these artifacts are made to mediate in the secular settings in which they are recycled for new purposes. One intriguing development that follows in the slipstream of de-churching concerns the reappraisal of a European Christian—or even Judeo-Christian—tradition. From this angle, Christian material culture is revalued and secularized as religious heritage. This means the revaluation of Christianity in a secular frame, in which it is culturalized and heritagized, and hence found apt to be shared and endorsed even by nonbelievers. Often these formerly-Catholic and now secular media are made to speak and act in a way that reiterates a nostalgic recuperation of a once Christian past, or even informs populist modes of “hijacking religion” into exclusivist identitarian programs. The challenge for critical scholarship is to make these discarded and revalued, once Christian and now secularized, media transmit the complexity of the role of Christianity in the European past, and beyond.
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Intriguingly, Catholic images were brought to Africa to replace the indigenous images dismissed as idols by Catholic priests, and then both categories of images were dismissed as “fetishes” by Protestant missionaries who emphasized the Word as the sole medium of the divine. What might happen when we put the discarded legbawo of the Ewe, and similar images of other African peoples, in conversation with the discarded images of Mary and Jesus (as done by way of experiment in the Bode Museum Berlin)? What might these objects, that became “matter out of place” in their present, secular contexts, tell us about human striving for power and powers in our deeply entangled, postcolonial world? How do such old religious media matter in secular contexts? Which memories, stories, and powers can they mediate and transmit?
The answers to these questions require detailed historical and ethnographic research. For such analysis, it is highly productive to approach these objects as media. For a focus on media is not only fruitful to grasp religion in action, but also, and especially, to unpack the secularization of religious media in the frames of art, culture, and heritage.
See, e.g., Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber, Religion and Media (2002); Marleen de Witte, “Spirit Media: Charismatics, Traditionalists, and Mediation Practices in Ghana” (2008); Patrick Eisenlohr, What Is a Medium? (2011); Matthew Engelke, “Religion and the Media Turn: A Review Essay” (2010); David Morgan, Key Words in Religion, Media and Culture (2008); and Jeremy Stolow, “Religion and/as Media” (2005).↩