I spoke today to somebody in South Africa who was preparing to make umrah, or “minor” pilgrimage to Mecca, and was intrigued to discover that she’d won the tickets by calling into her local radio station. I find fascinating how this scenario mixes two worlds, at least from an American perspective. In the States, unless a Christian radio station is involved, lucky radio callers generally land tickets to a concert, sporting event, or perhaps a trip to be “pampered” at one of the popular vacation destinations (Cancun, Disneyland, Las Vegas, etc).
Speaking of Christian radio, over the years I have logged in many an hour listening like some wartime code breaker to folks like James Dobson, Chuck Colson, etc. For years, I was a near fanatical listener to Hank “The Bible Answer Man” Hanegraaff of the Christian Research Institute, tuning in like clockwork to his show weekdays 7:00-8:00 p.m. on Washington DC’s WAVA 105.1.
Still, as much as I appreciated (and occasionally even found inspiring) these programs’ message of self-improvement and God-centered living, I often lamented the absence of other Christian voices on the dial. Not necessarily liberal ones (in fact, the Christian religious commentary I’ve found the most stimulating has tended to be the conservative end of the spectrum, at least regarding doctrine). What I wanted, and still wish for, was Christian radio with more epistemological humility—commentary with the courage to acknowledge the complexities and ambiguities of faith and sacred history—as opposed to providing pat answers from on high. For me, much of contemporary Christian radio is philosophically marred by arid binary thinking, knee-jerk scripturalism, and cold individualism camouflaged with pieties about personal responsibility as traditional spirituality.
This state of affairs in Christian radio is ironically reminiscent of how Salafi media outlets and Web sites dominated the early years of the Islamic Internet (see Peter Mandaville’s Digital Islam: Changing Boundaries of Religious Knowledge? and Gary Bunt’s Islam in the Digital Age). They were the first to establish appealing, professional Web sites providing scholarly resources, news, and community forums geared to Muslims. As result, these groups though relatively small in number within the Muslim community outgunned their philosophical rivals for years online; their “full-spectrum dominance” only coming to an end in the late 1990s. And like many evangelicals on the radio today, they fail to remember that even the strictest literalism is ultimately an interpretation or that no one is free of bias or a priori assumptions.
Which reminds me: where are the mainline Protestant and Catholic radio shows? To turn the post-9/11 tables on American Christians, why don’t non-evangelicals “speak up” more in the media to show what Christianity really is? Why do most popular discussions of Christian faith seem to be in evangelical hands when over two-fifths of American Christians are, according to a 2004 survey either mainline Protestant (20%) or Catholic (22%), compared to the third who are evangelical? These denominations may be, sadly, on the decline, but they’re hardly extinct.
Getting back to our sheep, as the French say, I’m sure there’s no shortage of analogous secular prizes on the South African dial, but the fact that this even exists (i.e., is a viable motivation to a large enough chunk of a radio station’s listeners) seems to me an indication of how much more diverse in some notable respects South Africa is compared to other Western societies. It’s a fascinating (and in some ways still troubled) crossroads of cultures, races, and religions.
I lived in France (10-12% of which is Muslim) in the early 1990s and used to listen round the clock to Radio Beur and Africa-1, but can’t for the life of me remember now whether they did things like this.
Incidentally, I really miss those stations. Nothing like being able to hear the latest exuberant Zouk or Rai hits on the radio as opposed to the lifeless schlock so often passed off as pop music in American life.