ARTS, RELIGION AND THE NEW SOCIAL ORDER: EMERGING TRENDS OF
MEDIATION IN AN AGE OF GLOBALIZATION
Esekong H. Andrew. Ph.D.
Department of Theatre Arts, University of Calabar, Nigeria
The relationship between arts and religion as culturally interactive phenomena may not be
strange, but the dimensions of synergy are complex and increasingly so in an age of globalization
where art has evolved from its basic visual, literary and performative formalisms to a sophisticated
institution supported by a network of media that traverse time and space. Similarly, religion has
metamorphosed from the popular Marxist perception as “the opium of the people” to a multi-
faceted institution, addressing not only the spiritual but also other wide-ranging social, political,
cultural, economic and other needs. Supporting movements have also emerged within religious
systems to echo the advocacy for a new social order through transparency, accountability, religious
and cultural harmony, health awareness and other issues. The interests, though divergent are
meant to address common and practical societal needs. It would appear that religious institutions,
in a bid to cover extended interests in newly defined territories now incorporate performance-
enhancing elements from allied disciplines. This is particularly apparent in Nigeria, the location of
this study where the major religions: Christianity, Islam and African Traditional Religion employ
visual, performing and media arts to reach expanding audiences. The thesis of this paper, therefore,
is that the ability of religion to perform its newly assumed tasks effectively is dependent, among
other things upon the mastery of applied elements of visual, performing and media arts as
promotional tools in mediating a new social order.
Art is basically a means of self-expression and communication. Beyond these basic
functions lay multi-faceted applications through which art can be used to address complex human
problems. The visual, performing and literary arts have been applied to issues arising from social,
cultural, economic, political and other interactions of man. They communicate cultural values to
audiences (and readers) in time and space, using various genres. This paper is focused on the socio-
cultural (religious) sector where art has become increasingly relevant in communicating and
propagating religious values and mediating a new social order in Nigeria.
The presence of art in religion is not a strange phenomenon. From time, art has always
been functional in creating substances or images on which conjectures of the Supreme Being in
various religions could be concretized. Many carvings have been used in African Indigenous
Religion to represent gods, goddesses and their mediators. In the Christian religion, images of
Christ, the cross and the prophets, all of whom existed before the invention of the camera and other
image-capturing devices have been recreated by artists to enable adherents visualize the
personalities. Similarly, the crescent and the star have been created as visual symbols for Islam.
Beads have also been crafted for prayers and recitations. In the words of Stirner:
Art is the beginning, the Alpha of religion, but it is also the end, its
Omega. Even more, it is its companion. Without art or the
idealistically creative artist, religion would not exist, but when the
artist takes back his art unto himself, so religion vanishes…whenever
art strides forth in its full energy, it creates a religion and studies of its
source…(Art) produces a shape that might serve as an object of the
Following the submission of Stirner and all the examples of religion-representing art earlier
cited, art is either used as an image of worship or as a medium for worship and propagation of
Art is also a critical tool and its application in religious criticism has generated a few
controversies. These are instances where artistic expressions conflict with religion. British Chris
Ofili’s collage, The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) in elephant dung has been offensive to Christians,
particularly Catholics. Jerry Springer’s The Opera shown on BBC 2 in the United Kingdom,
January 2005 was alleged by a group known as Christian Voices to be sacrilegious as it showed
Jesus in a nappy. Perhaps the most topical are the series of cartoons showing Muhammad in a
variety of satirical situations, published by Danish newspaper, Jyllands – Posten on September 30th
2005. The cartoons greatly offended extremist Moslems who responded violently in the Moslem
world and parts of Europe. The controversy is reminiscent of the one whipped up by Salman
Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a novel that was considered blasphemous by Moslems, hence the
declaration of death sentence (fatwa) on the author by Ayatollah Khonemi in 1988.. Similarly, the
Indian artist, M. F. Husain’s series of paintings, depicting Hindu gods and goddesses in sexual
relationships is offensive to Hindus. In every case mentioned here, reactions have been based on
heightened religious sensitivity of individuals and groups. On the whole, art has been more
compatible than confrontational with religion. Over the years, new artistic media have emerged to
support traditional art forms and to play new roles in publicity and communication and religions
explore the potentialities of these new art forms towards publicizing their traditional and expanding
Artistic Communication Media and Applications
Communication media consist of both arts and technology, but it would appear that media
artistic considerations elicit a wider discourse. Edmunson remarks “Art today is the most radical
possible criticism of all the clichés and conventions of the media” (17). Consequently, in
categorizing media in terms of sources of delivery, reference is frequently made to traditional and
contemporary artistic media. Traditional in this sense includes drawn, painted, sculpted, printed,
and oral forms. Contemporary communication media of the 20th and 21st centuries, which are
mostly technology-based, include television, video, film and Internet. It must also be stated that
many contemporary media develop from basic traditional types. Granted the categories of
communication media are clearly delineated, what attributes would then qualify each medium to be
described as artistic? To address this issue, we must re-examine common elements and principles of
artistic composition which Gilbert and Macarthy refer to as “the vocabulary of art” (24). The
ingredients making up the vocabulary of artistic composition differ according to the art form. The
principles and elements, of visual expression are different from those used in performing and
literary arts. But generally, certain elements and principles are common to all. The elements of
shape, form, light (colour), space, time and motion; the principles of unity, variety, balance, rhythm
and emphasis are found in almost all artistic creations. It can therefore be assumed that every
medium of communication that engages some of these elements and some principles of artistic
composition is an artistic communication medium. In the light of this definition and assumption, we
can begin to examine selected traditional and contemporary media and their modes of application
for communication. They are selected on the basis of relevance to religious publicity and impact on
society. Three broad classifications are made here for an adumbrated discussion as follows:
- Two-dimensional visual and print media – Painting, graphics etc.
- The performing arts - music, theatre and dance
- Electronic media - Television, Radio, Video, Film and Internet.
Two-dimensional media, particularly painting and graphics have been used in
communication from prehistoric times. Billboards, posters and handbills are particularly useful in
reaching out to wide audiences. The print media use textual and pictorial forms of expression. Its
peculiarity lies in the mode of production, the volume and circulation of produced items.
Sophisticated printing procedures using computers and process rotary printing machines now assist
rapid production of messages and ideas. Enhanced transportation enables wide circulation of
materials to literate audiences. The artistic character of the textual and pictorial elements adds value
to printed materials and goes a long way towards influencing readability. The print medium is the
main method of conveying literary ideas.
The performing arts, consisting of music, dance and theatre have gained unprecedented
acceptability in Nigeria. Performances can either be made live or transmitted to audiences via radio,
television or any other screen medium. The themes can be regulated to align with popular interests
and to project ideologies. An ideal performance consists of a plot, characters, theme, language,
melody and spectacle. The articulation of these principles is a matter style and the function for
which the production is meant. Theatre on its own is a composite art, which unifies all the other arts
into one-cohort production.
The electronic media are technology-based and digital technology is widely used in the
transmission of audio-visual images via satellite to unlimited audiences across the globe. Ideas are
broadcast mainly through the radio, television, video, film and Internet. The video/film industry is
not only technology-based, but it is supported by a range of artistic specialties in scripting, acting,
lighting and designing. The Internet is also a component of the electronic-based communication
media. This medium provides an interactive forum for discourse and analysis of contentious issues
that may be raised by users.
These communication media have been so highlighted to trace their relationships to the arts
and to potential audiences, representing society, and to indicate the potential of each medium to be
used as an art form in mediating new socio-religious interests.
Extended Religious Interest and the New Social Order in Nigeria
Religion, being an integral part of culture is a way of life in many cultures. In Nigeria, like
in many other African centuries, religion is a passionate issue that can hardly be discussed lightly.
In a country of more than one-hundred and fifty million people, the United State Department of
State in their International Religious Freedom Report, says that 50% practice Islam, 40% are
Christians and 10% practice exclusively Traditional Indigenous Religions or are agnostics. This, no
doubt is a country of religious people who can become emotional if their religions and belief
systems are cast in bad light. Because of actual or perceived religious differences, uncountable riots
have erupted and lives have been lost in Nigeria. The passion attached to religion is understandable
because in a country where the socio-economic conditions are unstable, religion appears to be the
only hope for liberation. An attempt to destroy the fundamental structures of any religion in Nigeria
is like destroying the last foundation of hope for survival. The widely quoted words of Marx
become apt in describing the place of religion in Nigeria:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless
world, the soul of the soulless condition. It is the opium of the people
(Emphasis mine). The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of
the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to
give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give
up a condition that requires illusions. (en.wikipedia.org/opium)
The metaphorical use of the word opium by Marx was probably derived from the
overwhelming importance of opium as a painkiller the 19th century. Religion, like opium, becomes
like a sedative to suppress the social injustice inflicted by insensitive governance in Nigeria. On the
negative side, reactions to any perceived attack on religion, coupled with unwholesome practices
and display of double standards by religious leaders seem to portray religion in bad light and seen
to downplay any positive influence religion may have in the Nigerian society.
On the positive side, religion in Nigeria appears to have enormous potential for addressing
contemporary social problems in Nigeria. Fagan’s study of the impact of religious practices on
social stability gives considerable evidence that religion is not all about violence and deceit. Fagan
cites matrimonial stability, poverty reduction, morality, drug abuse, crime, mental health and
depression as areas on which religion has exerted enormous positive impact (1 and 2). Religious
groups are gradually withdrawing from traditional dogmatic positions to explore areas of
comparative advantage in contributing towards improving the quality of life of the citizenry and
towards building a new social order. Chiappalone rightly submits that “traditional religious dogmas
are receding, divisive forces” and really hold little promise in creating social change.
Multiple pseudo-religious organizations have now emerged to address rising socio-cultural
and economic problems in society. For instance, churches and religious fellowships now engage in
micro credit schemes and financial contributions. The Presbyterian Church of Nigeria established a
micro credit finance company, managed by a Board of Trustees in Yaba, Lagos, 2007 with the
mandate to empower interested members of the public, particularly members of the church with
loans and credit facilities. Similarly, Islamic interest-free banking and credit schemes have been
introduced in some banks and financial institutions controlled by Moslems in Nigeria for the
benefit of fellow Muslims. Churches, fellowships and moral reform organizations initiate religious-
based educational organizations, build schools and centers for science and research. The Adventist
and Living Faith Churches own Babcock and Covenant Universities respectively in Nigeria.
Similarly, religious missions own many secondary and primary schools in Nigeria and religion
forms the basis for educational curriculum in such institutions. Religious groups and humanitarian
societies build hospitals or equip existing ones; they build motherless babies and old peoples’
homes. Religious groups have been incorporated into the national HIV/AIDS advocacy and
sensitization plan. Religious institutions and leaders are key facilitators in the enlightenment
campaigns. The belief is that the charisma of religious leaders and religious indoctrinations will
help effect attitude change. Church sessions have been interrupted for health talks, and prominent
Bishops and Reverends of the Christendom and the Sultan, the spiritual leader of Muslims in
Nigeria, frequently appear on the media for health sensitization campaigns. Religious groups
engage in real estate business and transportation services. The catholic mission is one of the largest
owners of real estate in Nigeria. More business organizations and humanitarian interests are still
cropping up under the canopy of religion. This is understandable because religious identity forms a
strong basis for mutual trust and business partnership. People with similar religious backgrounds
are more likely succeed as business partners. Nigerians seem to patronize religious based business
initiatives with the hope that they will receive a fair deal. Even though many hide under the canopy
of religion to swindle, there are still high chances that organizations founded on the basis of
religion will run smoothly and successfully. The speculation is that such organizations will adopt
high moral principles and that management is likely to be dominated by cleric influence. Public
scrutiny is also expected to elicit transparency in management of such organizations.
With this evidence of extended interest in extra-religious enterprises, religion can no longer
be dismissed with a wave of hand. The dimensions and areas of interest are chosen to serve
practical societal needs, some of which are in areas where government has failed woefully. While
the intensions may appear honest, it is not certain whether this is a change of strategy in the
expansionist tendency of religion? But even if this was the case, the short-term benefits are
worthwhile both from the viewpoint of providers and beneficiaries.
Extended engagements of religious institutions seem to revolutionize tenacious religious
practices in unexpected dimensions. Social, services initiated by Christian or Muslim
fundamentalist or by African indigenous religious groups cater not only for adherents, but also for
the general needs of the masses. This indicates that religion in its contemporary structure, replete
with its pseudo forms can, indeed, be a uniting rather than a conflicting, divisive force. The passion
with which the people practice religion is transferred into the management of religious-based social
organizations. The effect is that such ventures generally achieve a high level of success.
Commenting on pseudo-religious organizations in the Christendom, which he refers to as Para
Churches, Hadden observes that the success of these organizations is related to the partial
autonomy granted by their parent religious bodies to them. Such autonomy, he argues, “allows a
much greater degree of flexibility for innovation than is possible within an established
organizational hierarchy” (1). Expansion of interest by religious groups into successful social
ventures does not indicate a failure or loss of interest in the traditional role of catering for the
spiritual needs of adherents. There rather appears to be a repackaging, which lumps basic religious
functions with the pseudo functions. By so doing, religion attempts to reorganize its resources for
optimal advantages and for wider productivity. Religion’s greatest advantage is having a good hold
on the people, who in turn, provide all the other vital resources. It then becomes an issue of
showcasing latent potentialities, an issue of publicity. This is where religion explores the existing
partnership with the arts and the benefits derivable from the media in communicating its activities.
Religion and Arts: Publicizing a New Social Agenda
It has already been stated that religion and art mutually support each other. Religion is
influential and followers help in generating enormous wealth. With influence and wealth, religion
can support its pseudo interests. Art helps to showcase religion from its dominant architectural
edifices to its wealth, influence, ideologies and expansion programs. Art is used as an instrument of
publicity in generating consciousness towards a new social order.
Religious programs are publicized using artistic billboards, banners, posters, handbills and
other print items. Many religious groups have permanent billboard sites in major cities where they
advertise their periodic programs. Billboard designs are now printed on flexi materials, which can
easily be replaced when the need arises, unlike earlier varieties that were painted on site. A
significant percentage of jobs handled by large digital printing companies in Nigeria originate from
the church. Small-time printers also reap a fortune printing posters and other publicity materials.
This boom in patronage of graphic arts and printing by religious groups can be explained in terms
of extended interest and the need to advertise them.
Arts and publicity extend into the act of worship in all the religions. In Islam, Koran recital
is an oratorical art that is often featured in competitions. Moreover, the motions of prayers follow a
specific ‘blocking’ that must be performed in unison by every participant for the desired decorum
and effect. In orthodox Christianity, worship also follows certain patterns of recitals, chants, songs
and movements. Perhaps no other religious group engages art in the act of worship more than the
Pentecostal Christians. Many intellectual pastors adopt artistic, oratorical and elocutory skills to
gain audiences’ attention. Paul Adefarasin of the ‘House on the Rock’ in Lagos, Nigeria stands out
for developing a peculiar rhetoric, deliberately stressing the last words of his sentences while
preaching. Yet, he does not speak with such emphases in normal conversations. Many other pastors
develop the art of speaking in tongues; a language pattern that stresses on sounds, rhythm and
rhymes and in most cases does not convey meaning to the ordinary listener.
In terms of performance space, most churches adopt the setting of theatrical performance
venues; some adopt the thrust and others the proscenium setting. The altar, representing the stage, is
usually designed elaborately for visual emphasis. Other components of performance – music and
spectacle, replete with lighting and sound effects are also used to enhance the worship experience.
Music has become an indispensable feature in Pentecostal worship. Eskor Toyo, a professor of
economics and social critic, while addressing a congress of academics on mediocrity in aspects of
life and governance in Nigeria once remarked. “Their religion has become pop music.” 1 This
reference obviously was made to (Pentecostal) Christianity where music has become a ‘Christian
ministry’ in its own right. Numerous music ministration groups abound as well as music ministers
who flood the music market with countless audio and video productions for a willing and growing
Similarly, drama ministries abound in churches and frequently dramatize Bible stories for
live audiences in church. Many drama ministries have metamorphosed from dramatizing Bible
stories to creating video films based on professionally written scripts. Helen Ukpabio‘s Liberty
Gospel Church is known for producing popular movies to propagate Christian ideals. This film
ministry engages professional Nigerian home video film actors and technicians to ensure good
quality delivery. Professional dance groups have also emerged from churches. The Spirit of David
(SOD) dance club is an example of such groups that propagate Christianity by ministering through
dance. In many churches, dance is a free for all exercise. Worshippers regard dance sessions as
opportunities for self-expression and demonstration of freedom in worship. Dancing skills of
worshippers may be varied, but church dance seems to be choreographed by an unseen spiritual
element that causes everyone to respond ecstatically to a common rhythm.
Religious groups have engaged media arts extensively for religious broadcasting.
Electronic communication revolution has played a critical role in religious broadcasting. The
effects of electronic communication systems are global, virtually instantaneous, and simultaneously
transmitted to a wide audience. Perhaps no group of people was so quick to realize and embrace the
potential of electronic communication as evangelical Christians who now seem to dominate the
airwaves. The major strategy now adopted by Pentecostal Christians is a massive presence in the
nation’s mass media. Televangelism, said to be an American creation, (Hadden, Televangelism 2)
now assumes a global dimension and has been fully assimilated and explored by Nigeria
evangelists. Ihejirika chronicles the interaction between Nigeria Christians and the media, tracing
the use of the electronic media for evangelism in Nigeria to 1974 when Bishop Benson Idahosa of
the Church of God Mission began television broadcasts on Mid-Western Television. Rev. Ayo
Oritsejafor soon followed with the television Program Hour of Deliverance and Pastor W. F.
Kumuyi of The Deeper Life Church programmes. By the 1990s the Nigeria Electronic media was
saturated with Christian religious programmes. Ihejirika expounds:
There are a hundred and one preachers, healers, counselors, exorcists and
singers, belonging to the Christian denominations, who buy airtime on
national, local and private radio and televisions to proclaim their
fundamentalist message. Some pay for space in newspapers to publish their
messages. The most notable figures among them are: Tunde Bakare of the
later Day Assembly; Chris Oyakilome of Christ Embassy; Matthew
Ashimolowo of Kingsway International Christian Centre; Enoch Adeboye of
Redeemded Christian Church of God; Mike Okonkwo of the Redeemed
Evangelical Vision; David Oyedepo of the Faith Tabernacle…(4)
A comprehensive exploration of the media by the Christians can best be illustrated by Chris
Oyakilome’s Believers’ Love World,2 a well packaged programme that starts with an introductory
montage, followed by promotional jingles on programmes of the Christ Embassy Church;
preaching and adverts of books written by the pastor. The program finishes with ‘Atmosphere for
Miracles’, a comprehensive deliverance and healing package for worshipers and viewers. The
distribution of this program to media houses is so wide that there is hardly a media house that does
not feature Chris Oyakilome’s programmes in Nigeria. Many religious groups have adopted the
multi-media approach in media evangelism, producing and distributing audio and videocassettes
and compact discs to members and interested persons. The home video industry has developed to
join in the propagation of religious ideologies. Recently, the Internet has been introduced to
provide an avenue for interaction and analytical criticisms. Meyer describes this development as
the Pentecostalite Public Culture, which she explains consists of a plethora of cultural expressions
channeled through different media, many of which resonate with Pentecostal views and morals
The relationship between religion, art and the media is towards mediating a course in the
social system. The process begins with promoting the existence of a religion and the values in its
system; highlighting the contributions of the groups to society and ultimately, establishing control
over the social system. Once this happens, religious leadership could contribute to or attempt to
control the polity and the state at large. Art is only a tool for realizing a broader game plan. This
strategy is perhaps a resuscitation of an earlier technique used by the missions that invaded Africa
in the era of the colonialists to build schools, hospital and to provide other social services to lure
the local population. The Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist and a number of other
missions used the same strategy. The leaders of these Christian religious groups together with
Islamic leaders became key figures commenting on and regulating Nigerian polity. Their voices
became strong in the advocacy for good governance. The changing political scenario in Nigeria
and the compromising stands of some religious leaders in politics may have eroded their
influences. The Bishops, Reverends, Sultan, the Imams and the indigenous chiefs have become
figureheads who are only influential in their religious domains now. This loss of relevance may
have caused the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) with a membership of more than twenty
million Nigerians to develop a social agenda:
To become a force of change not by following the politicians but by
winning souls…if we can get at least eighty percent of the people in
Nigeria born again, you can be sure a Christian will be the president. You
do not even need to spend a kobo to get them; you won’t even need to be a
rich man before you became president because the people will say you are
the one they want and you must be there…(Marshal-Fratani 308)
Ihejirika summarizes that the ultimate aim of this social agenda is the creation of path-ways
through which the Pentecostal Churches in Nigeria can ascend from the fringes to the centre of the
national public sphere in order to assume control of the social hegemonic power hitherto
monopolized by the state. Every person or group in Nigeria seems to be aiming at political power
and the state machineries for social control. And there is a serious stampede towards the media to
publicize positive ideologies. Christians and Muslims use artistic media principally as a
propaganda tool thereby establishing a tight bond between religion and the media in the quest for
power and control. It is possible that this romance will continue as long as art creates and sharpens
In concluding this paper, one cannot overlook the existing issues of contention that must be
straightened for continuous co-existence between arts, religion and society. To this effect,
parameters must be set as blueprint for effective partnership. Perhaps the greatest contention is the
issue of transparency on the part of religion. The questions that crop up frequently are:
- Is religion sincere in its quest to create social change by establishing relevant institutions or
is it interested in seizing power and ultimately establishing control over the state?
- If religion is sincere, why is it desperate to market itself using the arts and the media, which
can add gloss to reality thereby, distorting it? The argument here is that a good product
does not need much publicity; it markets itself.
As regards the first question, there is no doubt that the real motive of religion is to take
over the world. This motive can be traced to all the religious wars for expansionism and
dominance that have been fought across the globe. The jihads, the inquisitions, the crusades and
the numerous religious riots in Nigeria were carried out for the same motives, namely to expand or
retain territories and to gain followers. The strategies for expansion may have changed following
civilization, but the intentions remain. But it is not possible that the world or even Nigeria can
adopt only one religion. If only religion will limit its scope to a realizable proportion - to help
spiritual development of adherents and to prepare them for eternity. And for the present, to develop
structures that could help effect social change for the benefit of the citizenry. If these were done,
the second issue would be resolved and religion, replete with its extended interests would be worth
publicizing using the arts and the media. Without this realistic approach and greater transparency
religious publicity will continue to generate more controversies than solutions.
1 Professor Toyo was addressing the congress of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU),
University of Calabar Branch on the 5th of April, 2007.
2 The NBC tried to sanction the program because of unsubstantiated claims of miracle, but media
houses revolted because of the overwhelming income received from the program.
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