As the sun was winking out, the doors of three mosques, two Hindu temples, and two Hispanic Pentecostal churches were swinging open for services on two blocks on Jamaica Avenue near the hospital. The evening air was warmer, a momentary break from the winter. So, worshippers and shoppers lingered outside on the sidewalks.
The three mosques, a Hindu temple, and a Pentecostal church were right next to each other. Congregants patted each other on the back, a couple talked shop about their businesses, and a few small children wandered in and out of the adults. The temple shared space with a store. You could see in the window that the worshippers’ seats were lined up in a narrow column completely down the long floor space, past the detergent, the cereals, the chutneys, and the spices, to an altar riotous with colors and gods. The mosque two doors down also had clear plate glass windows in which you could see first a low wall of cubby holes for shoes, then the pale green worship space. The imam was comfortably leaning on his side on the floor talking to someone. Across the street, another Hindu temple’s neon sign flashed “Mandir” in rosy and purple colors. A couple of doors down on that side of this local God’s Row a formally dressed Hispanic lady with long black hair authoritatively pushed open the door to the Pentecostal church with frosted windows that were lit up.
The street in this poor area felt gently alive, full of religious mysteries and tales. The hallal shop was inserting three-foot long shish-kabobs down like swords into a furnace. You could also see the Chinese cook next door hitting the sides of his wok with a spatula while a small Buddha looked on. The doors were open and different smells accompanied the walkers down the street. The inhabitants felt in all their senses that they were at home. Their bodies, hearts, and faces were happy on this happy street. They moved as if moving through the joys of life in which every sense was caressed.
New York City is an intensely alive place. Taken together, the sensory dimensions of New York City are themselves a type of thick truth for its inhabitants. They are reasons people come here and stay. Online news media can offer a much more accurate sensor for the seven senses at work here in religion news stories (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, believing and remembering). Online news is a “you are there” platform in which the viewer’s experiences are deepened through a fuller reporting, than found in print, of the sensational in the news. Consequently, the online viewers are better prepared to make decisions about life in New York City.
The multiple religions of the city utilize the senses in different ways. For example, Roman Catholicism visually displays its doctrine through its architecture and rituals. The popular phrase “smells and bells” sums up the role of the senses of smelling and hearing in Catholic worship. Or, to take another example, whoever has grown up in a Chinese Protestant church knows about the plain, slightly cluttered church space that is faintly perfumed by the lingering aromas of the cooking that takes place for the meals after the worship service.
The sensual complexities are closely tied to the way emotions are defined, mixed, valued, and used with religious faith and practice. The New York City-based historian Gertrude Himmelfarb called these morally-ordained sensual emotional complexes, “sensibilities.” The Catholic Cathedrals inspire awe and visual delight. The slight aroma left over from previous cooking in a Chinese Protestant church evokes a subliminal sense of being at home in the family of God. In comparison to online reports, print religion news cannot as easily convey the awe and visual delight of Catholic settings. Nor can print journalism give as easily the full sense of the cooking and fellowshipping at a Chinese church. Through an online video or podcast, you can hear the “wok hei,” the wok’s hot aroma arising from its sizzling and ringing as the food is tossed.
There are at least three good reasons that digital religion reporting can pioneer sensual news reports on religion.
First, online religion news stories can be really effective in simultaneously supplying objective knowledge about religion and a subjective personal knowing of the actors and their religious lives. The experience of walking down Jamaica Avenue is one of tuning one’s eyes, ears and nose to the tangible, while stopping to hear a story of God’s convicting a conscience or the impact of a dream in one’s marriage brings you to the intangible of the heart, the mind, and the supernatural. Both are intensely real in the feelings that they provoke and hugely practical in their consequences.
You can think of online religion reports as the supplier of two arts: the visible decoration; and the subjective art of religious lives. Facts are colored with places and objects but also filled with personality and aspirations. Between the reader and the religion news personalities, there are facts as well as feelings.
Second, the art of religion news reports creates an in-between world in which the viewer can take the initiative to explore new religious actors and spiritual worlds. This in-between world of religion news reports provides a reliable guide for the viewer to discover the facts and the values of someone else’s faith plus a recognition that there are greater depths about faith and life to be explored.
Studies of liminality, the place between borders, caution that those spaces are not only places of freedom to try out and to see another side of the social and religious worlds. They are also places of apprehension, lawlessness and dissolution. The art of religion news is to give an invitation to explore another religion without forcing its claims onto the audience.
Third, digital media is at the forefront of a technological revolution that provides cheaper, faster, and newer ways to produce and distribute high-touch news reports. We are familiar with many of the technologies like multimedia, interactive, and data-driven experiences that you can’t put into print. Virtual reality is coming, and many more new ways of gathering and reporting religion news. Consequently, it allows the audience a fuller exploration of the sensory depths in news events. Only tasting and smelling can be distributed better by print media through things like smell strips and sample product distribution.
Next: Showing the soul. The 7 senses of the art of religion news in the digital age. Part 2