God Seen Through a Purple Haze

May 4, 2008 • Specialist Journalism • by

St. Galler Tagblatt, 07.03.2008

It came to pass at a time when godlessness ruled German lands that the media found their religion again.
“Doped up Moses on a God trip”: this is how Swiss tabloid Blick recently rejoiced at a juicy story indeed: Benny Shannon, researcher at the Psychological Institute of the University of Jerusalem, claims that the prophet Moses was under the influence of potent drugs when he received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

This is what it says in the Old Testament. Well, the second part of that statement, at least; while the first one is to be found in the philosophical review Time and Mind. Equally blessed media, for instance- heute, 20 Minuten, Bieler Tagblatt, Swiss television and many other media channels all circulated Shannon’s preaching: in Biblical times, hallucinogenic drugs formed an important part of the religious rites of the Israelites. Shannon, therefore, doesn’t believe that supernatural powers were involved in Moses’ revelation, nor does he think that we are simply dealing with a legend. No, this man, Moses, was high and on a regular basis. He was also high when he saw the Burning Bush. What makes Shannon, the scientist, so sure is the fact that he had similar experiences during his travels along the Amazon, when he consumed certain substances taken from the local acacia trees. In the Bible – Oh! what a miracle! what a revelation! – acacia trees are mentioned many times. Where there’s a tree, there’s a substance, and where there’s a substance, there’s a Moses – all doped up on his mountain so high… STOP, this is trance-inducing!

Instead, let’s take a closer look at what this is all about. While Blick jokingly took this story as an explanation for why there isn’t an 11th Commandment that reads “Thou shalt not get high”, for Elisabeth Hurth, theologian and author, a story such as this simply is another example for the current “popular mediatisation of religion”, a development that is turning religion into a “media mega-trend”. Still, it is the media, not the people, which currently turn towards religion again – while Christian Churches of all denominations continue to cost-cut themselves to death, as a response to their dwindling flocks. Hurth devotes not less than four chapters of her new book – Religion im Trend oder Inszenierung für die Quote (“religion as the new it-thing, or boosting ratings with religion”) – to show how in particular the tabloids, taking German Bild as her prime example, have become the pulpit of our time. For it was Bild which prayed with the victims of 9-11: “Dear Lord, please stand by us!”, and it was Bild which raised the troubled question after the tsunami disaster of 2004: “Where was God?” Last but not least, it was Bild again which blessed the Germans with the ingenious headline “We are Pope!” In reality, of course, the German tabloid stands for everything you may or may not believe, recommending faith in God today, and offering the latest moon horoscope tomorrow.

However, at present there truly are a lot of people who seem to be engaged in a kind of religious trip. As a few cases in point: German entertainer Hape Kerkeling’s experiences on his pilgrimage along the St. Jacob’s Way are available in all book stores; German television just has anointed Father Paulus Terwitte host of his own talk show, while Swiss television (for its programme “Sternstunde Religion”) has done the same with Hans Küng, former friend and companion of the current Pope… Moreover, since the attacks on the World Trade Center the media report on an almost daily basis on conflicts involving God’s warriors and religious fundamentalists. While the Swiss media, on their part, offer an extensive coverage of national debates on Muslim headscarves or the planned construction of mosques and other sacred buildings.

What is the media’s stance towards religion, really? At the universities of Zurich and Fribourg (Switzerland), new research projects have been launched that are intended to shed more light on the role of journalists and the mass media in a religious context, taking a closer look at the symbols, myths, rituals and stereotypes used by, for example, Swiss television, in its portrayal of different religions.

What should we do until the sixty-four thousand dollar question will finally be answered? Pope Benedict XVI has recently called upon Catholics to abstain from the media for a while. During the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday, he proposed, people should deepen their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, enter into a state of inner peace where they can fathom God’s will – and distance themselves “from the constant onslaught of voices and pictures”. The media duly circulated this call for turning them off. Why shouldn’t they have? For when religion is becoming more and more of a media buzz word, and less and less of a true life plan – there surely is no danger ahead.


Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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