The Interplay of Religion and Popular Culture in Contemporary America

There was a time when the realms of popular culture and religion did not meet — at least in an academic or analytic sense. The space betwixt, between, around, and interpenetrating each was relatively unexplored. Into that gap came God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture with the contention that to understand American religion today researchers must enter the interstitial spaces — the borderlands — that straddle the boundaries between religion and popular culture.
Today, the field of religious and popular culture studies is rich in both depth and diversity. From the exploration of popular culture as a “hyper-real” religion (Adam Possamai), to the examination of aesthetics and material religion (S. Brent Plate and David Morgan), audience-centered surveys of media (Stewart Hoover), and delineation of “authentic fakes” (David Chidester) the research on religion and popular culture is varied and voracious.
In part, the plethora of studies currently available and the profusion of contemporary projects emerged out of the work of McCarthy and Mazur in both editions of God in the Details. Recognizing that the field itself is fluid and that observations of present popular culture phenomena can be obsolete almost as quickly as they were relevant, the editors were sure to release a sequel to their original 2000 work with a 2011 second edition. The principles at play in their particular approach to religion and popular culture still stand.
McCarthy contends — in both her writing and this podcast — that popular culture is an important site for understanding religion in American culture, principally because of the de-institutionalization of religion and the concomitant rise of alternative, assorted, and atypical religious conglomerations and practices. As such the hybrid “third spaces” (Homi K. Bhabha) that proliferate in the contact, cooperation, co-option, and conflict that exist between religion and popular culture offer ample opportunity for resonant readings of religion in the 21st-century.
Indeed, religion and popular culture are engaged in a dialectic of exchange and  interpenetrative feedback, where religion expresses itself in popular culture, popular culture expresses itself through religious memes, religion reacts to popular culture’s representations, and popular culture reacts to religion. Yet, the two cannot be so easily divided into separate categories. Often, religion and popular culture are all mixed up.
Thus, it is helpful that McCarthy proposes that, “[b]oth the field of popular culture studies and the material it examines…seem to be growing at a pace that outstrips the analytical categories and methods available” (Mazur and McCarthy, 3). McCarthy makes the point that the conventional distinction between religion and popular culture is perhaps worth calling into question. At the very least, it is necessary to pay attention to, listen and learn from, and discern the meanings of the “intersection of religion and culture in the ordinary experiences” of individuals across the globe. This is paramount not only terms of understanding and interpreting materials and productions, but of cultures and people, of sodalities and social interlocutors. Mazur and McCarthy wrote, “the borderland where religion and culture meet in popular expression is also a borderland of another sort….these quasi-religious popular culture sites serve as points of intersection — sometimes harmonious, often conflictual — for people of very diverse and disparate identities” (Ibid.) This is ever more important in a world defined by time and space compression (David Harvey) and wherein there are multiple modernities (Shmuel Eisenstadt), which allow for manifold altars upon which religious beings rest their hopes and dreams and find succor and order amidst the chaos (Peter Berger).
To engage in this type of analysis, McCarthy looks to the theoretical constructs of anthropologist Clifford Geertz to not necessarily pin down religion in popular culture, but to wrestle with its workings. Specifically, the idea is to find where individuals are imbuing systems of meaning with significance. This looks more at what religion does than what religion is and allows for research that looks “more widely for the religious meanings attached, explicitly or not” to various media (5), materials, and activities such as eating, dancing, or binge-watching House of Cards.
And yet, in exploring the interstices running along the contours of religion and popular culture researchers must not neglect the embodiment and praxis of religious expression (Manuel Vásquez) in popular culture and vice-versa. This field is not solely one of text or discourse analysis, but is an opportunity to investigate how audiences interact with, how bodies are shaped by and shaping, and how material elements express the mutual and messy forces of religion and popular culture. Without this line of analysis we risk a one-dimensional view of the dynamics at play here. While the text and media of popular culture are important (television, online content, comic books, CDs, etc.) they must be located in time and space, in the rhythms and rhizomes of bio-cultural contexts and communities, and as the result of processes of production and consumption. Indeed, students of religion must immediately recognize that there is something more to popular culture than immediately meets the eye.
McCarthy does this well as she explains the ways in which the musical lyrics, evocations, and concert experience of Bruce Springsteen speak about the possibilities — however mute they may be — in the midst of the chaos introduced by the aperture between “The American Dream” and America’s reality. She not only scrutinizes “The Boss’s” lyrics and the intimations of salvation that exist therein, but sees that deliverance for Springsteen’s fans is not found in disembodied verbiage, but manifest in expressive vibrations of music and dance at a Springsteen concert.
McCarthy came to this line of inquiry quite personally — as a fan of Springsteen growing up in the Northeast. This is not a minor point. While it is paramount that we consider the theoretical foundations for perusing religion and popular culture, which was the aim of the above, it is also pertinent to take a methodological interlude. How does one come to study religion and popular culture? McCarthy talks about the fact that this type of research started as a side project and was invested with personal history and taste. This is not to be frowned upon, but followed.
Taking her lead, those who might want to take up the study of religion and popular culture are encouraged to start small and with something that distinctively engages them. This is a wonderful opportunity for researchers — emerging and established — to chart their own trajectories and check out new contours in the fields of religious, media, cultural studies, or more. It is my contention that, in general, such fields will benefit from a proliferation of studies that engage both reader and researcher and come from a multiplicity of perspectives and personal histories.
For my part, this may mean the analysis of audience interactions and the construction of new genres in the interplay between the music of Kendrick Lamar and black bodies in Los Angeles. It may mean looking at the ways in which identity is constructed, or covered up, in the logos and lore of a popular rugby team named after Muslim armies during the crusades. Perhaps it is found in the probing of the popularity and the pertinence of Muslim superheroes alongside the interviewer of this podcast A. David Lewis.
All of these lines of scrutiny, and others, are perhaps worthwhile. The caution is, as McCarthy rightly notes, in asking whether or not the material bear the weight of analysis. After all, she said, “sometimes a rock song is just a rock song.” Furthermore, it is important that once we determine that the content is promising that our methodology take into consideration both text and practice, ideas and matter, bodies and beliefs, in the interplay and interaction between religion and popular culture.
2 replies
  1. Avatar
    Sean McBride says:

    Well written and informative; it would be nice if literary/cultural criticism were able to merge with informed discussions of history and psychology, etc. Many of the discussions on this site rekindle the faith I had in the field as an undergrad.

    However, I am skeptical of whether the field of cultural studies, or religious studies overall, can be described as “growing”–speaking as someone who earnestly presented research at two R.S. conferences and found no traction, in 2012. It’s especially bizarre considering how increasingly relevant (and critically lacking) it is to political discourse in this country. The public is naturally interested in it, but popular writers are ignored or discounted in classroom discussions, while the public looks to academics and finds little or no useful contributions to the discussion. Reza Aslan presented himself as an exception to this rule, and sold many books due to that, but he does not represent the dynamic future of this field. Jeff Sharlet and the “Killing the Buddha” project comes closer to a productive discussion, but they are virtually underground. Meanwhile, religious studies is watered down to near homeopathic levels in popular shows in the Oprah network, or Krista Tippett’s toothless Sunday radio conversations.

    The field has been growing since the early sixties, but not in the sense of a magnificent oak tree with many branches. To me, it seems more like kudzu that gets trimmed back and grows again in cycles, whether because of university budget cuts or the politics of internal discourse and authority in a field with no established set of principles. We can continue spreading out to the “borderlands,” but it’s not much use if the public still doesn’t understand the use of such research. That is why most R.S. graduates end up in the “interstitial spaces” of food service or social work.

    Had I sensed more cohesion, or any signs of a sustained conversation (progressive interest in topics that might carry over from one year to the next), I might be preparing to get my Ph.D. right now. Maybe I’m wrong, but there seems to be stagnation and a lot of self-pleasuring that perpetuates stereotypes of humanities. To outsiders (which is virtually everyone not engaged in the field) it just looks like spinning wheels. Religion means re-connection. That is not what most academics seem to be doing.

    • Avatar
      Essi Mäkelä says:

      I find this line of thought familiar in a way. There is a need for a coming out of the ebony tower and there is also some talk about it, but very few attempts to actualize it. We started an “Ask a Religious Studies Scholar” -service on Facebook in Finland and have many people contributing from BA’s to PhD’s, but since it’s voluntary and the questions are very often more theological than RS per se, the activity on the site is quite slow. We get questions, but only a few get answers. Perhaps people are busy doing something more important than explaining again and again what is the connection of Islam to terrorism and why a question on Christian Theology would be better targeted to a theologian or a priest than our community. Very probably people just have more pressing things in their everyday lives, but it’s an awesome site which I would hope to see more lively and I can’t do everything myself.

      Anyway. I feel like the field itself is not dead, it’s just up to us young scholars to update it to the 3rd millenium. There are some very good and active scholars in Finland at least, but we still need a lot of work to make religion less of a Christian Theological question and trying to update the public discussion on what we actually think about religion nowadays. The question on Christianity = religion is probably very much high-lighted in Finland due to our demographics, but I have bumped into such ideas elsewhere in other Western Countries outside of the academic RS circles.

      I’m not sure if we’re just one tree being trimmed down, but instead we have a mangled old bush of an oak tree trying to outshadow all the saplings that try to grow up from it with a goal of destroying the mother tree. I’m not sure if a field like RS could be merely one oak tree since the subject is such a crazy piece of rhetorical liquid. But I think the new saplings (eg. cognitive studies or perhaps gender studies) could be less venomous towards the mother tree. Every time a new field or thread springs up, it feels like it is trying to “explain everything”, “explain everything better than the earlier fields” and to take over the whole subject (not literally, more like rhetorically) instead of trying to fill in a part that has been missing, but what we need is something that does not overtake the earlier growth (looking at your trimming-metaphore here: not trimming the whole tree too much). I don’t know why it is such a minefield to begin with, maybe that’s the insecurity of a comparatively young field, but RS could be more powerful a field in a whole if different branches agreed to contribute to the tree in whole and not just wanting to take the best place in the sun.

      I’d say we’re in a turmoil, but not necessarily dying. Does your tree metaphore refer to a blindness towards the history of the subject? What kind of a field would you wish RS to be if you could decide?


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