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.

Human Consciousness & Religious Reality

It was real to me. There I was, curled into a corner, comforter wrapped around my shaking limbs and sweating torso, twisted in terror in the sinister hours of the morning. The salt of my tears were laced with the visceral reality of a specter, a monster, or some strange creature slowly scratching its course along the hallway outside my bedroom. I never saw the demon. I eventually fell asleep in exhaustion, still crimped into the corner of my room. The memory of those tormenting moments is still forbidding and physical for me, etched forever into my consciousness. Was it ontologically real? That is beyond the purview of my recollection. Was it real in my mind? Damn straight.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal, the RSP talked with the man who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University about his recent works Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011) and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010).

In these works, Kripal shared how participation in what we call “the sacred” is a critical element that undergirds religious understanding and activity. From his perspective, human consciousness qualifies, as well as anything else, as “the sacred” itself, and must therefore be addressed and wrestled with by any self-respecting student of religion.

Particularly, Kripal argued that generally marginalized authors who have attempted to theorize the paranormal be treated as central to the religious project, even though their work deals with marvels deemed outside both mainstream scientific and/or religious parameters. These authors, Kripal contested, are “authors of the impossible,” but that does not make them charlatans or crackpots. Although Kripal does not come to conclusions about the ontological reality of these phenomena, and maintains a scholarly agnosticism, he does insist that the paranormal must be understood on its own terms (Authors of the Impossible, 158). Though these marvels may not be appreciated as “real,” they cannot be simply explained away or dismissed with snark or sarcasm either (all too often the case among “respectable scholars”).

Kripal fleshes this out in Mutants and Mystics, which acts as a case-study of sorts, applying the aforementioned theory to the symbiosis between paranormal believers and the production of superhero pop culture. As Kripal pointed out, many of the most popular science fiction and superhero creators were metaphysicists and New Age apostles. They imbued their fantasy narratives with spiritual themes that revealed that the sacred resides in each one of us and we, ourselves, are the superheroes, the true miracles of the divine world. Yes, indeed, behind the veil of science in the sci-fi genre, there is a touch of the ethereal, he asserted. This perspective lends itself to a “new anthropology” where, in the words of Kripal, “the Human [is] Two (and One),” which, “is the neuroanatomical, cognitive, and spiritual bedrock of the paranormal and its fantastic both-and, physical-mythical, masterful-mental, real-unreal expressions in popular culture.” (Mutants and Mystics, 333)

All-in-all, Kripal’s outlook stands as a corrective to purely anthropological, political, or economic analyses of religion as social construct. Counteracting strictly Durkheimian models, Kripal re-centers “the sacred” — posited as “consciousness” — as not only important to understanding religion, but as its critical point of departure. Essentially, Kripal calls out the religious studies world for not having a sufficient appreciation of the power of imagination and invites scholars and the interested public into a new comparativism that moves away from strict materialism.

As an ethnographer of religion, I appreciate this remedial position. I first encountered Kripal’s work as a journalist covering religion in Houston, the home of Rice University. This led to multiple conversations between the two of us about religion, the study thereof, and academia in general. While we come from two different perspectives and ask critically different questions as we approach the same topic, I value Kripal’s emphasis on the conscious as the seat of “the sacred.” While he readily admits that he is not concerned with the sociological questions of religion, and instead recasts some of the Otto and Eliade perspectives on “the numinous,” his viewpoint impacts me as an ethnographer.

I am often frustrated by the lack of empathy from the perspective of sociologists and ethnographers who study religion (and, for that matter, historians, political scientists, economists, and armchair scholars), but do not take the reality of religious experiences seriously. There are certainly exceptions to this rule (Daniel Levine’s Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism immediately comes to mind), but in general the great swathe of scholars dealing with religion too easily dismiss the complexity of human consciousness, the power of the psycho-social, and the reality of the sacred.

As Kripal intimated in the interview, the applications of his perspective reach beyond New Religious Movements or paranormal phenomena and include historical analyses and contemporary studies of local and global religioscapes. Immediately, I can think of ethnographers working on the use of amulets and talismans in West Africa, the role of dreams in conversion to Christianity and/or Islam, or Pentecostal healing practices in Latin America.

While these cases may be summarily theorized by many as elements of social control, political context, or economic realities there is ample need to appreciate these occurrences as they occur — as real to those experiencing them. Although researchers should not treat them as ontological fact, they can at the very least be approached as “real” in respect to the human conscious.

And yet, the problem occurs when these experiences contradict each other. Take, for example, dreams that lead to conversion (or occur during the process thereof). While not the majority, I discovered in my own research that some Latina/o Muslims convert because of mystical dream experiences. One “revert” related the content of a dream wherein, “Allah spoke to me and told me I have to change.” Another related that she “had the same dream three times” in which she was in Mecca, wearing a hijab, and felt close to her other Muslim sisters there. Soon after she converted to Islam. Interestingly enough, these experiences mirror reports of many missionaries and Christian converts in the Middle East who also claim that dreams are playing a significant role in Muslims converting to Christianity. Furthermore, there is evidence that dreams have frequently played a role in conversions throughout history, including the mass conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the 7th-century. What does the reality of these experiences mean when they seem to lead in different convictional directions?

Further, while Kripal’s points about consciousness and the sacred prove a potent corrective, they cannot stand on their own in the study of religion. Even if Kripal himself is not concerned with religion as a social construct, we cannot neglect the social realities of religion. In fact, rather than treating the human as two (and one), perhaps we should theorize the human as three (and one). First, as a “conscious subject” (which Kripal makes us critically aware of); second, as an “embodied physicality”; and third, as a “socially constructed being” shaped by their social context and a conscience collective (to invoke Durkheim).

Regardless of these critiques and ruminations on my part, Kripal’s theory deserves attention and examination on the part of religious studies scholars. There certainly is no easy answer in dealing with such complex discussions such as human consciousness and religious reality, but that is no reason why we should not pursue it from multiple perspectives and ends, which Kripal worthily invites us to do.