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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.

The Subtle Body

Jay Johnston is a senior lecturer in the Department of Studies of Religion at the University of Sydney. A distinguished interdisciplinary researcher, Johnston is known for her scholarly explorations and elucidations in areas of research concerning subtle bodies; embodiment and intersubjectivity; feminist studies; religion and material culture. In her fascinating books Angels of Desire: Esoteric Bodies, Aesthetics and Ethics (Equinox Publishing, 2008) and Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body (Routledge, 2013) co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, she establishes innovative theoretical and methodological examinations of notions of subtle embodiment as a shared narrative negotiating the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, and how subtle intersubjectivity is a unique experience of the lived human body within both Western and Eastern religious discourses. Other current projects include the ARC Discovery Project: The production and function of art and design elements in ancient texts and artefacts of ritual power from Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean region with Iain Gardner, Julia Kindt (Sydney); Erica Hunter (SOAS) and Helen Whitehouse (Oxford), and Wellbeing Spirituality and Alternative Therapies with Dr Ruth Barcan.

During the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, Damon Lycourinos had the pleasure of interviewing Jay regarding her work on the subtle body and alternative notions of intersubjectivity, addressing both the theoretical and methodological implications for the academic study of subtle embodiment, and what the future might hold for this in the academy and beyond.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Religion, Space and Locality

Over the past decade or so, the academic study of religion has become infused with a (re-)appreciation of the importance and impact of space, place and location upon its field of study. Of course, scholars have for a long time been aware of the need to situate ‘religion’ in context, however, the spatial analysis goes far beyond mere description of physical or cultural spaces, attending to the materiality and embodiment of ‘religious’ actions, thoughts, feelings, expressions etc and the reciprocity between individuals and the many different physical, social, intellectual, emotional, historical etc spaces in which they move.

At a basic level, we can all think of obvious examples of formalised sacred spaces – but what about the religious character of ostensibly secular locations such as street corners, restaurants, or university campuses? What has been the effect of the development of, and engagement with, the internet? What about physical spaces which are transitory in nature, such as shared or multi-faith worship spaces, airport prayer rooms, or sports halls? What are the effects of our own bodies and the embodiment of others? What are the spatial properties of extension through time and across the globe? In this podcast, Chris is joined by Professor Kim Knott, Professor of Religious and Secular Studies at Lancaster University, and author of The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis (2005), to discuss these questions, to present the methodology she developed to attempt to tackle such questions, to give practical examples of this methodology in a number of different contexts, and much more. In fact, the air conditioner in the room where this interview was recorded acts as a prime example of the impact that a ‘space’ can have…

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And please, take moment to rate us.

In the conclusion of her recent article in the journal Religion (2009), Knott asks ‘What are the scholarly merits of studying religion in local perspective?’ She replies:

An examination of specific places (whether physical, social or discursive) and localised religious groups, places and activities challenges the conception of ‘World Religions’ as unities focused on discrete, systematic sets of traditions, and normative beliefs and practices. In fact, it is possible that some religious people and organisations forged in particular localities become more interconnected and akin to each other than they are to those at a distance with whom they share a formal religious identity. […]

Studying religion in locality also signals a move away from the modernist regime of collecting, classifying and comparing data towards  seeing religion as a plural, dynamic and engaged part of a complex social environment or habitat that is globally interconnected and suffused with power. Re-engaging it with what has traditionally been seen as its ‘context’ helps us to reconnect ‘religion’ with those other categories – ‘society’, ‘politics’ and ‘economics’ – from which has been separated for the purpose of classification and study (Fitzgerald, 2007). In focusing intensively on particular bodies, objects, groups or places, we begin to see the difficulty and erroneousness of distinguishing ‘religion’ from other social fields in order to investigate it without meaningful reference to its context. Such an act of scholarly reconnection inevitably requires a multidisciplinary and polymethodic process that brings a researcher into engagement with others within and beyond the study of religions who approach the study of that body, object, group or place and what goes on within it from sociological, geographical, cultural, historical, anthropological and economic perspectives using a variety of fieldwork and textual methods. (2009, 159)

Kim Knott is Professor of Religious and Secular Studies at Lancaster University. She works on contemporary religion and the ‘secular sacred’, and their interrelationship. She developed a spatial methodology in Jolyon Mitchell, in L Woodhead and R Catto (eds), Religion and Change in Modern Britain (2012). She participates in a large programme of research on ‘Religion and Diversity’, funded by the SSHRC in Canada and hosted at the University of Ottawa, and has been an international advisor in international projects on ‘The Religious Lives of Migrant Minorities’, ‘Religious Pluralisation in Europe’, ‘Living with Difference’, and ‘Multi-Faith Spaces’. She has been on working groups, commissioning panels and advisory boards for several UK research council research programmes: ‘Religion and Society’, ‘New Security Challenges: Radicalisation – A Critical Reassessment’, and ‘Connected Communities’. She is currently on the editorial boards of the journals Religion, South Asian Diaspora, Journal of Contemporary Religion and Fieldwork in Religion and was General Secretary of the European Association for the Study of Religion (2005-10) and President of the British Association for the Study of Religions in the 1990s. A full bibloography and more information can be found on her departmental web page.

[From 1 October 2012 she will also be Chris’s supervisor when he begins his PhD in Religious Studies at Lancaster University]

This interview was recorded at the Why are Women more Religious than Men?” and David Morgan on Material Religion.

References:

  • Knott, K. 2009, ‘From locality to location and back again: A spatial journey in the study of religion’, Religion, 39:2, 154-60.

Material Religion and Visual Culture: Objects as Visible, Invisible and Virtual

© Louise Connelly

 

David Morgan, Professor of Religion at Duke University, has written extensively on the subject of material and visual culture. In a recent interview with Christopher Cotter, he provides an overview of the field of material religion and introduces his new book The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).  In this review, I briefly tease out some of the themes from the interview, present a few snippets from some of Morgan’s publications and finally, question whether virtual objects can be viewed in a similar manner to physical objects.

The interview commences with Morgan stating that early studies of religion often focused on purely the study of belief and philosophy rather than everyday occurrences. The field of material religion, however, provides a shift in this approach and includes the examination of “everyday life, popular media, things that people practice with, clothing, spaces, pictures” and the media in which “allows for religion to happen as a sensory phenomenon”. The examination of these areas enables an understanding of the importance of objects and the relationship that people have with them. This area of study is found in many of Morgan’s publications, including his new book, The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).

Embodiment, Seeing, Experiencing and Believing

Morgan states that the aim of his new book is to respond to a critique of visual culture studies over recent years. He highlights how religion happens visually, maintaining “that seeing is not disembodied or immaterial and that vision should not be isolated from other forms of sensation and the social life of feeling” (2012: xvii). He explains that the origins of the study of visual culture focused primarily on the object and not the history, ethnography and biography of the object.  Thus, he highlights how the perception and usage of the object may change depending on the social context. In The Embodied Eye he provides a number of case studies and examines areas such as, the relationship between embodiment and vision; what is means to see; objects; feelings; and in the concluding chapter questions whether “mental or visionary phenomena belong to visual culture?” (2012: 185). Morgan unpacks this question by querying what it might mean to see the unseen and ultimately, exploring the relationship between images (visible and invisible) and culture.

In other publications, such as “Visual Religion”, attention is given to the importance of how the object is viewed. This can help us to review the relationship between objects and religion, as “Visual practices help fabricate the worlds in which people live and therefore present a promising way of deepening our understanding of how religion works” (2000: 51). This raises our awareness of the importance of the relationship between the object, seeing and experience and so it could be argued that “seeing is part of the embodied experience of feeling, and therefore is properly understood as a fundamental part of many religious practices” (2009: 133). Objects help to construct the world that we live in and become tools to help us make sense of the world around us. Therefore, it is more than just the object, it is about seeing the object, engaging with it and experiencing. Pattison provides an explanation for the triad of object, eye and cognition by stating that “it is not the eye that sees, though sight would be impossible without it. It is the eye-brain working together in an integrated system that creates visual perceptions. These complex perceptual representations constitute our knowledge and experience of reality” (2007: 48).

During the interview Morgan discusses a potential connection between commodification and capitalism. He provides an example of an image which depicts Santa Claus praying before a cross, thus highlighting the intersection between popular culture and religion. For some, this type of image depicts the loss of religion to commercialism and problematizes the relationship between the sacred and the profane. Morgan’s work is not only fascinating but invaluable for understanding the importance of visual and material culture in the study of religion and religion in everyday life.

Virtual Images and Visual Culture

I would like to briefly continue the above discussion and shift the emphasis to focus on objects and virtual reality. This raises a number of questions, including whether or not we can consider virtual objects in the same way as the visible and invisible objects of the physical world and what implications, if any, this has for not only the study of religion but religion itself. There is not space to explore this in depth. However, it is important to initiate such discussions due to the many parallels which could be drawn between the objects used in ritual and communities found in the physical world and those found in the virtual world.

If we take the example of the Buddhist prayer wheel, traditionally this is spun by hand, releasing the prayer and therefore, obtaining merit for the person. The gaining of merit is intrinsic to the Buddhist concept of salvation. However, online, the physical act of touching a prayer wheel is not possible. This leads us to question whether virtual objects can have the same purpose and consequently the desired soteriological outcome. Moreover, what does it mean to “touch” the virtual object?

In some situations, such as those found in the online world of Second Life, creators of the virtual Buddhist prayer wheels design them to replicate those found offline. Often, the virtual prayer wheels are designed with the intention that an avatar must “touch” and spin them. Based on interviews, one creator of virtual Buddhist prayer wheels maintains that there can be the same meritorious results as long as it is spun with the same intention (Connelly, 2010: 18). In this example, the virtual object, at least for some, can have the same purpose to those found offline.

Examining new media and the common themes of authority, community, identity and ritual can prove complex and challenging. The study of religion on the internet includes scholars from a number of fields, such as sociology, psychology, anthropology and more. “This focus and interdisciplinary approach is reflected in a growing scholarly discussion” (Campbell and Connelly 2012: 435). Accordingly, this enables us to widen our understanding of how people are engaging with religion and objects within everyday life – both in the physical and virtual spaces.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

Bibliography

  • Campbell, H. and Connelly, L. (2012). “Cyber Behavior and Religious Practice on the Internet”, in Z. Yan (ed.) Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior. IGI Global.
  • Connelly, L. (2010). “Virtual Buddhism: An Analysis of Aesthetics in Relation to Religious Practice within Second Life”. 4.1 ed., Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet
  • Morgan, D. (2000). “Visual Religion”, Religion 30, 41-53.
  •              . (2009). “The Look of Sympathy: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Social Life of Feeling”, Material Religion 5, 132-155.
  •              . (2012). The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling. University of California Press: California: London
  •  Pattison, Stephen. (2007). Seeing things: deepening relations with visual artefacts. London: SCM Press.

Additional Resources

Co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief, published by Berg Publishers, Oxfordhttp://www.bergpublishers.com/?TabId=517

David Morgan, Duke University, http://www.duke.edu/~dm127/Site/Intro.html

 

Material Religion

The study of religion and materiality is an important and fast-growing sub-discipline in the contemporary Religious Studies scene. According to the editors of the premier journal in this area, the aptly named ‘Material Religion‘, scholars in this area

explore how religion happens in material culture – images, devotional and liturgical objects, architecture and sacred space, works of arts and mass-produced artifacts. No less important than these material forms are the many different practices that put them to work. Ritual, communication, ceremony, instruction, meditation, propaganda, pilgrimage, display, magic, liturgy and interpretation constitute many of the practices whereby religious material culture constructs the worlds of belief.

In this interview with Chris, Professor David Morgan takes the listener on an exciting tour of what this field has to offer, providing his own definition of material religion, and discussing empirical case studies and theoretical insights relating to religion in popular consumer culture, the sacred gaze, space and place, the internet, and more.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And please, take moment to rate us.

David Morgan is Professor of Religion with a secondary appointment in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1990. He has published several books and dozens of essays on the history of religious visual culture, on art history and critical theory, and on religion and media. His most recent book is The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (California, 2012). Recent works include: The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America (Routledge, 2007) and two volumes that Morgan edited and contributed to: Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief (Routledge, 2010) and Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture (Routledge, 2008). Earlier works include Visual Piety (University of California Press, 1998), Protestants and Pictures (Oxford, 1999), and The Sacred Gaze (California, 2005). Morgan is co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion, and co-editor of a book series at Routledge entitled “Religion, Media, and Culture.”

This interview was recorded at the Religion and Society Programme‘s ‘Sacred Practices of Everyday Life’ Conference in Edinburgh in May 2012, and we are very grateful to all involved for facilitating this discussion. It also forms part of a short series of podcasts on Material/Embodied religion, continuing next week with Marta Tzrebiatowska on “Why are Women more Religious than Men?”.

Podcasts

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.

The Subtle Body

Jay Johnston is a senior lecturer in the Department of Studies of Religion at the University of Sydney. A distinguished interdisciplinary researcher, Johnston is known for her scholarly explorations and elucidations in areas of research concerning subtle bodies; embodiment and intersubjectivity; feminist studies; religion and material culture. In her fascinating books Angels of Desire: Esoteric Bodies, Aesthetics and Ethics (Equinox Publishing, 2008) and Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body (Routledge, 2013) co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, she establishes innovative theoretical and methodological examinations of notions of subtle embodiment as a shared narrative negotiating the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, and how subtle intersubjectivity is a unique experience of the lived human body within both Western and Eastern religious discourses. Other current projects include the ARC Discovery Project: The production and function of art and design elements in ancient texts and artefacts of ritual power from Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean region with Iain Gardner, Julia Kindt (Sydney); Erica Hunter (SOAS) and Helen Whitehouse (Oxford), and Wellbeing Spirituality and Alternative Therapies with Dr Ruth Barcan.

During the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, Damon Lycourinos had the pleasure of interviewing Jay regarding her work on the subtle body and alternative notions of intersubjectivity, addressing both the theoretical and methodological implications for the academic study of subtle embodiment, and what the future might hold for this in the academy and beyond.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Religion, Space and Locality

Over the past decade or so, the academic study of religion has become infused with a (re-)appreciation of the importance and impact of space, place and location upon its field of study. Of course, scholars have for a long time been aware of the need to situate ‘religion’ in context, however, the spatial analysis goes far beyond mere description of physical or cultural spaces, attending to the materiality and embodiment of ‘religious’ actions, thoughts, feelings, expressions etc and the reciprocity between individuals and the many different physical, social, intellectual, emotional, historical etc spaces in which they move.

At a basic level, we can all think of obvious examples of formalised sacred spaces – but what about the religious character of ostensibly secular locations such as street corners, restaurants, or university campuses? What has been the effect of the development of, and engagement with, the internet? What about physical spaces which are transitory in nature, such as shared or multi-faith worship spaces, airport prayer rooms, or sports halls? What are the effects of our own bodies and the embodiment of others? What are the spatial properties of extension through time and across the globe? In this podcast, Chris is joined by Professor Kim Knott, Professor of Religious and Secular Studies at Lancaster University, and author of The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis (2005), to discuss these questions, to present the methodology she developed to attempt to tackle such questions, to give practical examples of this methodology in a number of different contexts, and much more. In fact, the air conditioner in the room where this interview was recorded acts as a prime example of the impact that a ‘space’ can have…

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And please, take moment to rate us.

In the conclusion of her recent article in the journal Religion (2009), Knott asks ‘What are the scholarly merits of studying religion in local perspective?’ She replies:

An examination of specific places (whether physical, social or discursive) and localised religious groups, places and activities challenges the conception of ‘World Religions’ as unities focused on discrete, systematic sets of traditions, and normative beliefs and practices. In fact, it is possible that some religious people and organisations forged in particular localities become more interconnected and akin to each other than they are to those at a distance with whom they share a formal religious identity. […]

Studying religion in locality also signals a move away from the modernist regime of collecting, classifying and comparing data towards  seeing religion as a plural, dynamic and engaged part of a complex social environment or habitat that is globally interconnected and suffused with power. Re-engaging it with what has traditionally been seen as its ‘context’ helps us to reconnect ‘religion’ with those other categories – ‘society’, ‘politics’ and ‘economics’ – from which has been separated for the purpose of classification and study (Fitzgerald, 2007). In focusing intensively on particular bodies, objects, groups or places, we begin to see the difficulty and erroneousness of distinguishing ‘religion’ from other social fields in order to investigate it without meaningful reference to its context. Such an act of scholarly reconnection inevitably requires a multidisciplinary and polymethodic process that brings a researcher into engagement with others within and beyond the study of religions who approach the study of that body, object, group or place and what goes on within it from sociological, geographical, cultural, historical, anthropological and economic perspectives using a variety of fieldwork and textual methods. (2009, 159)

Kim Knott is Professor of Religious and Secular Studies at Lancaster University. She works on contemporary religion and the ‘secular sacred’, and their interrelationship. She developed a spatial methodology in Jolyon Mitchell, in L Woodhead and R Catto (eds), Religion and Change in Modern Britain (2012). She participates in a large programme of research on ‘Religion and Diversity’, funded by the SSHRC in Canada and hosted at the University of Ottawa, and has been an international advisor in international projects on ‘The Religious Lives of Migrant Minorities’, ‘Religious Pluralisation in Europe’, ‘Living with Difference’, and ‘Multi-Faith Spaces’. She has been on working groups, commissioning panels and advisory boards for several UK research council research programmes: ‘Religion and Society’, ‘New Security Challenges: Radicalisation – A Critical Reassessment’, and ‘Connected Communities’. She is currently on the editorial boards of the journals Religion, South Asian Diaspora, Journal of Contemporary Religion and Fieldwork in Religion and was General Secretary of the European Association for the Study of Religion (2005-10) and President of the British Association for the Study of Religions in the 1990s. A full bibloography and more information can be found on her departmental web page.

[From 1 October 2012 she will also be Chris’s supervisor when he begins his PhD in Religious Studies at Lancaster University]

This interview was recorded at the Why are Women more Religious than Men?” and David Morgan on Material Religion.

References:

  • Knott, K. 2009, ‘From locality to location and back again: A spatial journey in the study of religion’, Religion, 39:2, 154-60.

Material Religion and Visual Culture: Objects as Visible, Invisible and Virtual

© Louise Connelly

 

David Morgan, Professor of Religion at Duke University, has written extensively on the subject of material and visual culture. In a recent interview with Christopher Cotter, he provides an overview of the field of material religion and introduces his new book The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).  In this review, I briefly tease out some of the themes from the interview, present a few snippets from some of Morgan’s publications and finally, question whether virtual objects can be viewed in a similar manner to physical objects.

The interview commences with Morgan stating that early studies of religion often focused on purely the study of belief and philosophy rather than everyday occurrences. The field of material religion, however, provides a shift in this approach and includes the examination of “everyday life, popular media, things that people practice with, clothing, spaces, pictures” and the media in which “allows for religion to happen as a sensory phenomenon”. The examination of these areas enables an understanding of the importance of objects and the relationship that people have with them. This area of study is found in many of Morgan’s publications, including his new book, The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).

Embodiment, Seeing, Experiencing and Believing

Morgan states that the aim of his new book is to respond to a critique of visual culture studies over recent years. He highlights how religion happens visually, maintaining “that seeing is not disembodied or immaterial and that vision should not be isolated from other forms of sensation and the social life of feeling” (2012: xvii). He explains that the origins of the study of visual culture focused primarily on the object and not the history, ethnography and biography of the object.  Thus, he highlights how the perception and usage of the object may change depending on the social context. In The Embodied Eye he provides a number of case studies and examines areas such as, the relationship between embodiment and vision; what is means to see; objects; feelings; and in the concluding chapter questions whether “mental or visionary phenomena belong to visual culture?” (2012: 185). Morgan unpacks this question by querying what it might mean to see the unseen and ultimately, exploring the relationship between images (visible and invisible) and culture.

In other publications, such as “Visual Religion”, attention is given to the importance of how the object is viewed. This can help us to review the relationship between objects and religion, as “Visual practices help fabricate the worlds in which people live and therefore present a promising way of deepening our understanding of how religion works” (2000: 51). This raises our awareness of the importance of the relationship between the object, seeing and experience and so it could be argued that “seeing is part of the embodied experience of feeling, and therefore is properly understood as a fundamental part of many religious practices” (2009: 133). Objects help to construct the world that we live in and become tools to help us make sense of the world around us. Therefore, it is more than just the object, it is about seeing the object, engaging with it and experiencing. Pattison provides an explanation for the triad of object, eye and cognition by stating that “it is not the eye that sees, though sight would be impossible without it. It is the eye-brain working together in an integrated system that creates visual perceptions. These complex perceptual representations constitute our knowledge and experience of reality” (2007: 48).

During the interview Morgan discusses a potential connection between commodification and capitalism. He provides an example of an image which depicts Santa Claus praying before a cross, thus highlighting the intersection between popular culture and religion. For some, this type of image depicts the loss of religion to commercialism and problematizes the relationship between the sacred and the profane. Morgan’s work is not only fascinating but invaluable for understanding the importance of visual and material culture in the study of religion and religion in everyday life.

Virtual Images and Visual Culture

I would like to briefly continue the above discussion and shift the emphasis to focus on objects and virtual reality. This raises a number of questions, including whether or not we can consider virtual objects in the same way as the visible and invisible objects of the physical world and what implications, if any, this has for not only the study of religion but religion itself. There is not space to explore this in depth. However, it is important to initiate such discussions due to the many parallels which could be drawn between the objects used in ritual and communities found in the physical world and those found in the virtual world.

If we take the example of the Buddhist prayer wheel, traditionally this is spun by hand, releasing the prayer and therefore, obtaining merit for the person. The gaining of merit is intrinsic to the Buddhist concept of salvation. However, online, the physical act of touching a prayer wheel is not possible. This leads us to question whether virtual objects can have the same purpose and consequently the desired soteriological outcome. Moreover, what does it mean to “touch” the virtual object?

In some situations, such as those found in the online world of Second Life, creators of the virtual Buddhist prayer wheels design them to replicate those found offline. Often, the virtual prayer wheels are designed with the intention that an avatar must “touch” and spin them. Based on interviews, one creator of virtual Buddhist prayer wheels maintains that there can be the same meritorious results as long as it is spun with the same intention (Connelly, 2010: 18). In this example, the virtual object, at least for some, can have the same purpose to those found offline.

Examining new media and the common themes of authority, community, identity and ritual can prove complex and challenging. The study of religion on the internet includes scholars from a number of fields, such as sociology, psychology, anthropology and more. “This focus and interdisciplinary approach is reflected in a growing scholarly discussion” (Campbell and Connelly 2012: 435). Accordingly, this enables us to widen our understanding of how people are engaging with religion and objects within everyday life – both in the physical and virtual spaces.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

Bibliography

  • Campbell, H. and Connelly, L. (2012). “Cyber Behavior and Religious Practice on the Internet”, in Z. Yan (ed.) Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior. IGI Global.
  • Connelly, L. (2010). “Virtual Buddhism: An Analysis of Aesthetics in Relation to Religious Practice within Second Life”. 4.1 ed., Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet
  • Morgan, D. (2000). “Visual Religion”, Religion 30, 41-53.
  •              . (2009). “The Look of Sympathy: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Social Life of Feeling”, Material Religion 5, 132-155.
  •              . (2012). The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling. University of California Press: California: London
  •  Pattison, Stephen. (2007). Seeing things: deepening relations with visual artefacts. London: SCM Press.

Additional Resources

Co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief, published by Berg Publishers, Oxfordhttp://www.bergpublishers.com/?TabId=517

David Morgan, Duke University, http://www.duke.edu/~dm127/Site/Intro.html

 

Material Religion

The study of religion and materiality is an important and fast-growing sub-discipline in the contemporary Religious Studies scene. According to the editors of the premier journal in this area, the aptly named ‘Material Religion‘, scholars in this area

explore how religion happens in material culture – images, devotional and liturgical objects, architecture and sacred space, works of arts and mass-produced artifacts. No less important than these material forms are the many different practices that put them to work. Ritual, communication, ceremony, instruction, meditation, propaganda, pilgrimage, display, magic, liturgy and interpretation constitute many of the practices whereby religious material culture constructs the worlds of belief.

In this interview with Chris, Professor David Morgan takes the listener on an exciting tour of what this field has to offer, providing his own definition of material religion, and discussing empirical case studies and theoretical insights relating to religion in popular consumer culture, the sacred gaze, space and place, the internet, and more.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And please, take moment to rate us.

David Morgan is Professor of Religion with a secondary appointment in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1990. He has published several books and dozens of essays on the history of religious visual culture, on art history and critical theory, and on religion and media. His most recent book is The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (California, 2012). Recent works include: The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America (Routledge, 2007) and two volumes that Morgan edited and contributed to: Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief (Routledge, 2010) and Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture (Routledge, 2008). Earlier works include Visual Piety (University of California Press, 1998), Protestants and Pictures (Oxford, 1999), and The Sacred Gaze (California, 2005). Morgan is co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion, and co-editor of a book series at Routledge entitled “Religion, Media, and Culture.”

This interview was recorded at the Religion and Society Programme‘s ‘Sacred Practices of Everyday Life’ Conference in Edinburgh in May 2012, and we are very grateful to all involved for facilitating this discussion. It also forms part of a short series of podcasts on Material/Embodied religion, continuing next week with Marta Tzrebiatowska on “Why are Women more Religious than Men?”.