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Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture

Many of our discussions at the Religious Studies Project focus upon the complex intersections between ‘religion’ – whatever that is – and ‘popular culture’. And justifiably so. Indeed, our good friend and colleague Vivian Asimos of Durham University has been producing the very interesting “Religion and Popular Culture Podcast” for a while now. But what about Religious Studies (as a field of study), and the people who do it, in popular culture? When we initially thought about this, we could certainly come up with a list of academics and “bookish” people who are somewhat problematically and wildly inaccurately portrayed in popular culture – from archaeology’s Indiana Jones and paleontology’s Ross Gellar to archivists’ Rupert Giles and linguistics’ Louise Banks – but we struggled to come up with many examples of the study of religion as we, here at the RSP, know it. Luckily, today’s guests have given the question much more attention! Given that popular cultural representations are more likely to shape public perceptions about what the study of religion is and who does it than either direct experience in the classroom or statistics about graduation rates and job placements, we hope that you will agree that we should try to understand what these perceptions are. In this podcast, Chris speaks with Professors Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey about this fascinating and important topic. This interview is based on a recently published article – From Middlemarch to The Da Vinci Code: Portrayals of Religious Studies in Popular Culture – a shorter version of which has been published in blog form as Casaubon’s Revenge: Popular Representations of the Scholar of Religion.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture

Podcast with Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey. (8 October 2018)

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Collins_and_Tobey_-_Representations_of_Religious_Studies_in_Popular_Culture_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): Many of our discussions at the Religious Studies Project focus upon the complex intersections between religion – whatever that is – and popular culture, and justifiably so. Indeed, our good friend and colleague Vivian Asimos, of Durham University, has been producing a very interesting religion and popular culture podcasts for a while now. But what about Religious Studies, and the people who do it, in popular culture? When I initially thought about this, I could certainly come up with a list of academics and bookish people who are somewhat problematically, and wildly inaccurately portrayed in popular culture – from archaeology’s Indiana Jones, and palaeontology’s Ross Geller, to archivist’s Rupert Giles, or Linguistics’ Louise Banks. But, I have to admit, I struggled to come up with many examples of the Study of Religion, as we – here at the Religious Studies Project – know it. Luckily, today’s guests have the question much more firmly in focus. Given that, as they argue, popular culture representations are more likely to shape public perceptions about what the Study of Religion is, and who does it, than either direct experience in the classroom or statistics about graduation rates and job placements, we hope that you will agree that we should try to understand what these perceptions are. So joining me today, to discuss this fascinating and important topic, are Professors Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey. So first off, Brian and Kristen, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Brian Collins (BC): Thanks for having us.

Kristen Tobey (KT): Thank you.

CC: I’ll just say a little bit about who you are. Brian Collins is Associate Professor and the Drs. Ram and Sushila Gawande Chair in Indian Religion and Philosophy, at Ohio University. He’s the author of The Head Beneath the Altar: Hindu Mythology and the Critique of Sacrifice, and various essays on Hinduism and the Study of Religion. And his second book, The Other Rama: Matricide and Varṇicide

In the Mythology of Paraśurāma – apologies for the pronunciation – is forthcoming from SUNY press. And Kristen Tobey is Assistant Professor of Religion and Social Sciences at John Carroll University, in Cleveland, Ohio. And her research treats religious identity formation and communication in the contemporary United States. And she’s the author of Plowshares: Protest, Performance and Religious Identity in the Nuclear Age. So that’s where you’re coming from. How did you get interested, then, in this question of the representation of the Study of Religion in popular culture? It doesn’t necessarily sound like it’s your main research focus. So how did you get into that?

BC: Well, shall I answer this one Kristen?

KT: Yes, go first.

BC: I asked Kristen to join me, and she graciously did. And together we worked on a project. But it started out because – and I think both of us had an idea at some point – we study religion, and we have to actually tell people that we study religion and then see what they think we do. So very, very infrequently does someone have an actual idea of what the Study of Religion, in the university, entails! You know, I teach classes in Hinduism and Buddhism and if you take both classes, students– who are in the same class – typically ask you: “Why are you teaching this? I thought you were a Hindu.” Or, “Why are you teaching this, I thought you were a Buddhist?” Because I’m teaching both classes. So the idea of studying religion as an academic subject is a mystery to most people. And I say, “Well if they don’t know, what do they know? And where do they get the information?” So I started watching a lot of movies on TV, and I consumed a lot of junk culture. So I saw a few people, here and there, who seemed to be, basically, doing what I do – but not in a way that I recognised! And so I had to cast a wide net and see what impressions were out there.

KT: (Laughs.) I face the same thing. Less from my students, because I teach in a Catholic school so they’re familiar with religion teachers – although not quite the same way I tend to do it. But I face this a lot with my research subjects who are very suspicious of the idea of someone studying religion academically, because the examples that they see, as Brian says, in pop culture, are so very strange. So when Brian asked me to join this project I was really excited, for that reason – and also because my research usually deals with how religious people either present themselves, or are presented. So to think about another piece of that – as you said, Chris: “Well, how is the field presented? How are the people who do it presented?” That was very interesting to me, and thinking about questions of identity.

CC: Wonderful. I should have said in the introduction, of course, that part of the reason that we’re having this conversation is that the two of you have just published an article – I say just – June 2018 – in the Religious Studies Review (5:00) which was called, “From Middlemarch to the Da Vinci Code: Portrayals of Religious Studies in Popular Culture”. So that will give a hint, to the Listeners, of where we might be going with our in-depth examples, here. But before we get to Middlemarch and The Da Vinci Code, how did you go about selecting your cases and just conducting this study in general? As I say, I struggled . . . I mean Robert Langdon, from The Da Vinci Code, kind-of came to mind but, as we’ll discover later on, that’s not really Religious Studies, is it? Sorry! There’s a siren going on outside, as well! That’s typical here.

KT: I’m just so glad that’s you and not me! (Laughs).

CC: Ah. They’re not coming for me, Listeners. Yes. So, Robert Langdon certainly came to mind. But I really struggled to think. So, how did you go about even finding your case studies?

BC: Well, for me, I did have to think about. That’s a methodological question we had to ask at the very beginning. And I compiled a list. I said, “Indiana Jones sort of reminds me of a person who does religion, but he’s clearly identified as an archaeologist. So I wanted to find people that weren’t clearly identified as archaeologists or classicists, or anthropologists. There’s a different article, two articles, by anthropologists in literature and movies that we cite in our article. But they seem to be studying something like what we do. So I eliminated people like parapsychologists and clearly identified historians, so there was a sort-of middle ground. Robert Langdon is a “Religious Symbolist” which is a totally made-up profession, at a real university! Whereas Casaubon from Middlemarch, the other big example that we treat, is . . . . Well what is he identified as, Kristen? Just a scholar?

KT: He’s identified as a scholar, but he’s very clearly engaged in work that would be recognisable for a historian of religions. Pretty much in the mould of somebody from that era. So it was actually, in many ways, a pretty accurate depiction. But as far as garnering the case studies and garnering the examples, I remember Brian – was it years ago maybe? Or do I just have a skewed chronology on this? That you sent round an email to maybe half-a-dozen people, saying “Hey, I’m thinking about this. What examples can you think of? And one thing that was really striking to me was that, as those emails came back to you, most of them were from horror movies, right? The vast majority of these characters were in scary movies, doing scary things. You know, summoning demons, or whatever else. So, as far as characters that we might actually recognise as doing the work that we do, Casaubon is one of very few examples.

BC: Yes. That’s what I did. I crowd-searched the research! It’s easier to get someone else to do the research for you, I find! So I came up with a list and then I said, “. . . like these people. Anybody else you can think of,” again, “that’s not identified clearly as something else?” And so I did get a long list. There were comic books on there. There were podcasts on there. There were movies, mostly horror movies on there. There were a few novels on there. And some of the ones I ended up having to eliminate . . . they were the sort-of archivists. There were a lot of archivists – like the Giles, from Buffy, that you talked about. And that was a limit case for me. I didn’t know whether to include those or not. But I feel like they’re somewhere in the mix. But, for our article, we didn’t discuss them. Archivists have a family resemblance to the archetype of the Religious Studies person. But we ended up leaving them out, because they’re . . . if you asked who they are, somebody can tell you that they’re an archivist, and not a religionist. The case is that nobody is identified as an historian of religion or a religionist. Partly that’s our fault. We have no easily identifiable, transferrable job title from university to university, nor even a place at university that can consistently be found. So it was just that way in the representations, too. We had to kind-of make decisions along the way, and narrow it down.

KT: Yes, with the very memorable exception – and tell me if I’m getting ahead of things here – of Emily Dumont in Black Tapes, right? I think she’s one of just a handful, really, of three or four, who was actually introduced as a professor of Religious Studies. But then it turns out what she does is not really like what professors of Religious Studies do at all! But she’s one of the few who actually get that label attached to her.

CC: Excellent. Well we can get to that . . . The Black Tapes is a podcast that I, unfortunately, had never heard of when I read your article – but you do a good job of discussing it (10:00). So it would be quite good for us on the Religious Studies Project Podcast to discuss that. But I’ll just also mention that I put out on Twitter last week that we were doing this podcast, and we got a couple of responses. I asked, what were your personal favourites and bugbears? So Richard Newton at the University of Alabama said that he likes Professor Jamal in Mooz-lum. He said that there was an emphasis on good questions over simple answers, embrocation of race and religion, and examination of the insider/ outsider problem. And then another character that you discuss is in the Hulu series, The Path. And what came back? We had Tylor Tully saying that he had really enjoyed The Path on Hulu, and their inclusion of a Religious Studies scholar – particularly their treatment of an emerging religious tradition. But then Joel Bordeaux said that the religion professor on The Path is probably the worst he’s ever seen: invited as a guest to a class, openly deriding their tradition, conducting secret sexual relationships with research subjects, deliberately intervening in communities he’s studying, and so on! So you might want to respond to some of that, and then maybe tell us about Emily Dumont.

BC: Well, I think Emily Dumont is interesting. I do want to talk about Jackson Neill from The Path actually. It’s one of the best examples, and it came very late in this project, which was . . . . I was watching the show and I said, “Now I have to go back and rewrite a large part of this!” And I did. But Emily Dumont . . . The Black Tapes is a podcast. It’s a sort of like The X Files. It’s told in the style of a true crime serial-type podcast, where they’re investigating supposedly true occurrences, and the characters are meant to be real people. So it blurs the line between fiction, and reality, and journalism. But they interview people and they interview a religious studies scholar. And she is specifically interested in demonology. She’s described as very sort-of informally dressed. She described her as an over-grown high school freshman with a Ramones T shirt and a funky haircut. And sort of irreverent. And also speaking about Chemtrails, which is strange conspiracy theory about air travel, or something – I don’t really understand it! But it was bizarre X Files-type stuff. And it was put in the mouth of a Religious Studies professor. Elsewhere on the same podcast there’s a different Religious Studies professor, who openly derides her as crank – even though she’s in a university and he’s not – who takes a really hard-nosed, scientific, some would say a kind-of reductivist view of religion. And his job is to disprove . . . . Miracles are a pretty common theme. The job is either to disprove religion or to become a leader of religion. But in the case of Emily Dumont, she’s marginalised as someone who’s sort of a joke. And that’s a little disconcerting. I think that a podcast like that, you’re likely to have people who went to college, an audience who went to college, and somewhere along the way had a class. So I feel like this person seems to me that it was drawn from some experience of some whacky Religious Studies professor. I mean, that was my read on it. What did you think, Kristen?

KT: I think that’s possible. But I also think that podcast is doing something really odd, in that it’s conflating paranormal studies – paranormal activity – with religion in a wholesale, non-nuanced way. Because we do have this Emily Dumont character who’s very childlike, who’s very gullible, who represents one possibility, right: a person who’s involved in Religious Studies and the paranormal because of naiveté, let’s say. But then there’s the other character, Richard Strand, who is very sceptical, very perceptive. He’s not a Religious Studies professor, but he was a Religious Studies major, we are told. So we have these two extremes, both attached to the field of Religious Studies, but then . . . . And I should say, I only managed to listen to the first half-dozen or so episodes before it became too scary for me (laughs).They were interesting, but it was too scary and I couldn’t continue. But throughout those first few episodes we get other characters being brought in, who are also sort-of oddly attached to religion. For example, one character who is described as being – and I’m pretty much quoting here – “what theologians would call a Biblical Demonologist.” (15:00) As far as I know, there is no such thing as Biblical Demonology – though I’m not a theologian, so maybe there is and I just don’t know! Maybe. But that’s what I mean when I say that it’s as though the paranormal and Religious Studies are just completely layered on top of one another in this show – or podcast, rather – in some ways that are kind-of interesting, and some ways that are really bizarre. And there doesn’t really seem to be any explanation – at least in the first half a dozen episodes – of why that’s the case, or how those particular choices are being made. So, yes, maybe there is something very specific going on, in that one of the creators had a professor that that is modelled upon. But maybe there’s something else happening, which is just that it’s a podcast dealing with sort of odd, supernatural, paranormal stuff and there’s nowhere else that it makes sense to house that, other than in Religious Studies.

CC: Yes.

BC: I mean it’s odd, because it would have been ten years ago – a parapsychologist, I mean they used to have those in movies all the time. The people that investigated hauntings and psychic phenomena and stuff. I mean the Ghostbusters are . . .

KT: Ghostbusters! Sure!

BC: They’re in parapsychology lab. They’re doing (audio unclear). So what happened to that, I don’t know. But why it became religion, here . . . . But nothing recognisable as religion is ever studied! Now that said, I was inspired to teach a class on religion and the paranormal and it became the most popular class that I teach, because of seeing these movies. So that’s good, I guess!

CC: Absolutely.

BC: And some people write about it. We mention that in the article too. There a new sort of, newish, wave of books dealing with religious experience and paranormal experience, from different angles. Ann Taves, Geoff (audio unclear) – both from very different points of view. So there is some of that. But I don’t think anybody knew that as they’re making these characters. I think that’s coincidental, or a part of a larger zeitgeist.

CC: Exactly. I’m just keen that we keep pressing on, because I do want to get Jackson Neill, but we’ve got to get to the Da Vinci Code and everything before. So maybe, quickly. . . . In your article, I think you were just saying that Jackson Neill, although he may not be the most morally upright of scholars in that sense, actually, what he’s doing perhaps quite closely resembles what we would consider to be the Study of Religion?

BC: Well, he’s an Americanist, just like Kristen. Which is why I pointed him out to her, very early on. He’s doing a kind of ethnography, which is what she does. But what he does, that she doesn’t do – as far as I know – is give major talk shows advertising his book!

KT: (Laughs) No. Just this. This is my 15 minutes of fame right here!

BC: But he had a sexual relationship with his informant. He inserts himself in the life of this new religious movement, which is uniformly referred to as a “cult” throughout the TV series. All sorts of things that seemed like he had to go through IRB to do, but had no problem doing. He’s eventually sort-of discredited, and they turn against him. But it’s so realistic that it almost feels like that this is something that people would believe references the Study of Religion in the academy! And it does, in the sense that we do that kind of work – we do talk to people about their experiences – but what we don’t do is try and undermine some tradition with an exposé.

KT: Right. And I think another thing that is important about that character is that one of the tropes we identified in a lot of these representations is a thread of hypocrisy. So, yes: maybe he’s a good scholar, or maybe he’s doing actual scholarly work that resembles what an Americanist ethnographer might do, but then he’s got this potentially sort of shady sexual stuff going on. I am hard -pressed to think of a depiction of, say, a math professor – right? – where there is a plot that has to do with sexual behaviour. Whereas it comes up over and over again in these Religious Studies characters, as though people using these characters are doing it in order to identify a hypocrisy that’s inherent to studying religion!

BC: Yes, I think so.

CC: Which would scan with my intuition, anyway. So, just so we can absolutely get to it . . . You discuss how a lot of these characters can sometimes end up on a sort of pathetic-heroic spectrum. You’ve got your nerdy, weedy scholar working away, (20:00) pale-faced and not much interest in real life, and then you’ve got the Indiana Jones’s running around: they’re dashing – wonderful knowledge . . . . And so you set up this comparison really well, in the article, between the Reverend Casaubon from George Elliot’s Middlemarch, and then Robert Langdon from Dan Brown’s books, Angels and Demons, Da Vinci Code, and so on. I’m afraid it’s been over a decade since I read Middlemarch, but it was nice engaging with it again through your article. Can you maybe, just for the next five minutes or so, give a brief introduction to these two characters and maybe sort of set them up against each other, the different models of the Study of Religion?

KT: Yes, I’ll start with Casaubon who appears first in, of course, George Elliot’s Middlemarch in the 19th Century. He is sort-of the quintessential example of a dry, dusty, pedantic scholar, who only cares about his books. As I mentioned earlier, he is doing work that is very recognisable as History of Religions. He’s trying to compile sort of a massive comparative mythology. We learn later on in the book that he doesn’t actually have the language skills to do this, that he will never finish this fruitless project, and most of the characters – ultimately, pretty much all of the characters in the novel – think that he’s ridiculous, and think that he’s so intellectually obsessed that he’s out of touch with real life; it compromises his virility; he doesn’t deserve the love of the beautiful protagonist; and so on, and so forth. So he is pretty much a paradigmatic example of intellectual obsession that, basically, ruins everything else about him. And something interesting that we noticed, as we were thinking about his character, is that even in more recent and contemporary updates, where other characters are treated somewhat differently and more sympathetically, Casaubon never is. So, for example, there’s a very recent YouTube series that is updating Middlemarch. It’s you know, young, attractive students on a college campus. And many of them are socially awkward in some way, but still endearing. Whereas Casaubon – who is now, in this rendering, a graduate student working on some completely obscure dissertation topic that would probably fit in Philosophy of Religion, for example – he’s still a really unpleasant character. There’s still this linkage between intellectual obsession and unpleasantness. No-one likes him. He’s unlikeable, because he is sort of a sham scholar, let’s say. He’s obsessed with this intellectual project, but he doesn’t really have the skills to do it successfully. So “weak”, “pathetic”, “unlikeable”, all of these adjectives continue to attach to him, even in contemporary updates.

CC: Yes. And on a surface level, your gut reaction is that that’s going to be quite different to the character in Dan Brown’s work, who we see portrayed in film by Tom Hanks who’s America’s – if not the world’s – most loved actor, in some ways! That’s quite a different character. But not so different, I believe?

BC: Right. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like Tom Hanks. It’s like the Jimmy Stewart of our generation. He’s much beloved, and he’s this. But one thing that’s interesting about him that’s the same- and I’ll talk about what’s different about him in a minute- but it’s the sexual aspect. I mean I think that Casaubon is really a neutered character, right? He has no sexual drive, or sexual energy associated with him. He’s seen as sort of a dried-up old husk of a person, whereas Langdon has a different kind of asceticism, in that . . . Dan Brown uses the term “good clean fun”. It’s all about good clean fun, which means that . . . . Indiana Jones has a different female love interest in every movie. They have a “will they, won’t they?” . . . and of course they will! But in all of the movies based on The Da Vinci Code books, I mean the books about Robert Langdon, his female lead is not in any kind of a romantic relationship. They even have a handshake! It’s the most chaste hero/heroine relationship one can possibly imagine. In the first book she’s the descendent of Jesus Christ – which is a meaningless thing anyway, thinking about 2000 years of generational history – but it’s someone who you can’t imagine having sex with someone on a movie or on screen, right? It’s a very . . . He’s also a very consciously non-sexual, de-eroticised character (25:00), unlike the one’s we talked about before. But what he does is really instructive. I think that nobody has done more to get the Study of Religion in the public consciousness than Dan Brown: the Catholic reaction to those books; the sort-of revival of interest in conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, and what have you. It never really went away, but it certainly got more . . . And that was what became the shorthand for the Study of Religion – is studying the secret conspiracies behind all the fakeness of religion. And that’s what he does. But everything he says about religion is nonsense. And we also learn that he’s not even the person who teaches Religious Studies. That’s somebody else at Harvard, who we never meet. But he has this particularly narrow focus on religious symbology, without any explanation of what a symbol is, and mistaking symbols, cyphers and codes for each other. It’s a very . . . it’s a very thinly researched book, right? There’s lot of work on the conspiracies but, as far as what he’s doing, what we see him doing in classrooms, what we see him talking about, what passes in his dialogue as profound knowledge – that the Feast of Sol Invictus has something to do with Christmas, and blows everybody’s mind (laughs) – really speaks to the depth of ignorance about the Study of Religion. Which I think is an indictment really, for me, anyway. If this just goes over without a ripple, then: how have we not established – in any meaningful way – what we do in the classroom, and what we do with our books?

CC: Indeed, yes. And someone else pointed out that one of the biggest errors, perhaps, in the portrayal is the completely full lecture hall that . . . (Laughs) he’s teaching to – of attentive students!

BC: And the bottomless budget that he has!

KT: That, too.

CC: So, I mean, we could go into in-depth on these characters, and obviously we direct the Listeners to your article which we’ll link to from the podcast page, to get really into the analysis of them. But towards the end of the article you ask, through this comparison exercise, what kind of picture have you formed of the fictional religious studies scholar? And then, also, about what emerges about religion as an object of study. So perhaps, using the examples that we’ve discussed thus far, could you tell us a little bit about what we can say about the generic fictional Religious Studies scholar, in a nutshell? And maybe, how religion is conceived?

BC: Well the one thing that’s interesting about the Langdon character is that he’s the only one that gives us a real definition of what religion is as an object of study. Now it doesn’t . . . I’ll quote from the book. The book is The Lost Symbol, which is a later book in the series. And he says to his class – this is in the article, too: “‘So, tell me. What are the three prerequisites for an ideology to be considered a religion?’ ‘ABC’, one woman offered: ‘Assure, Believe, Convert.’ ‘Correct.’ Langdon said, ‘Religions assure salvation. Religions believe in a precise theology and religions convert non-believers.’” It’s a self-evident – to him and to everyone else in the class – rote definition of religion. It’s not very useful to me. It has nothing to do with symbols, interestingly, which is the foundation of the Study of Religion as he does it. But it does give you a very pat definition of what religion is. Assure, believe, convert: these are all these verbs that imply control over a crowd, over a group, over minds. It’s a very cynical and, of course, one dimensional – well, it’s three dimensional technically – but thin definition of religion. And it’s the only one we really get. The question of what religion is never comes up for anybody. Which, considering the amount of ink that we’ve spilled over the last 50 years trying to figure out what that is, that does not translate into the representations as we have them.

KT: Yes, it’s pretty interesting that all we have is this very thin, superficial, reductive definition, which might well be a definition that works well for some religious scholars. I find it a bit odd, but that’s just me. Because it seems to me that what Religious Studies does best is sort-of the opposite of thin and superficial. And nowhere in this examination of characters do we see anyone who’s doing the thick work of Religious Studies. (30:00) So, what is religion? Assure, Belief and Control – or something like that?

BC: Convert.

KT: So, then, what is religious studies? As Brian says, it’s this very simplistic endeavour that has to do with recognising a very simplistic dynamic at play. In other words, in these depictions we don’t see Religious Studies scholarship as being about critical empathy; we don’t see it as being about rigorous analysis; we don’t see it as being about robust comparison – which to my mind are the things that it does best, and the things that it can help students to do best. So we get not only a wild misrepresentation of what religion is – that is it’s always about coerced conversion and that sort of thing; it’s always about shadowy mystery and espionage – but we also get a very unfair misrepresentation of what Religious Studies is doing and – by that same token – is not doing.

CC: Well the flip side of what you’re saying there, in the Casaubon character we would have Religious Studies being the sort-of dry, study of texts, and very esoteric search for some sort of higher knowledge that is beyond relevance to the social world. So it’s either something that’s irrelevant bookish and not of interest, or something that’s sort-of swashbuckling, and uncovering of conspiracies, and releasing people from coercive control – neither of which are very accurate depictions of what any of us do!

KT: Or ghost-hunting! Sometimes it’s about ghost-hunting, don’t forget! But, yes included in none of those things is there the important skills that Religious Studies, when done well, actually can and should inculcate.

BC: Well, what you also find is Casaubon is a textual scholar, a clear-cut textual scholar. And I would have expected that to sort-of hold through time. But increasingly they’re not textual scholars, even though we think that’s what we all are, and that’s something to overcome. I mean, that’s the critique: “too text-based”, or whatever. But, mostly, they’re going into cults, or they are talking to believers – and usually believers who are radical in some way. So they seem to be out in the field looking at miraculous events and bizarre beliefs, as they sort-of characterise them, more than they are reading books or comparing. Comparing is the one thing that’s almost never done, except for with Langdon in this very weird kind-of comparison. But outside of him there is almost no comparison. It’s just studying the one thing that’s their dissertation topic; that’s their tenure portfolio; or that’s, usually, their personal dark obsession – which drives them into becoming serial killers, often!

KT: Right.

CC: So we’re over time here, which is fine because we’re going to get to wrapping up and I would say, Listeners, do check out the article where you can read a lot of this stuff that we’re just skimming over, in a lot more detail. But my final two questions I wanted to throw out would be: what can “we” do about this portrayal? So – it’s a similar thing with the media, for example. A lot of my colleagues and I are always moaning about the media never really get things right about religion, “It’s terrible! It’s awful!” But I never really hear solution: “What can we do about the portrayal of religion in the media?” So what, potentially, could we do about the portrayal of Religious Studies in popular culture, or beyond? Any suggestions, based upon your thinking about this?

KT: I’ll try this one. Public scholarship could be an important mitigation here: the extent to which actual Religious Studies scholars are doing the actual work of Religious Studies, in a way that can be seen by the public. That could be one mitigating force against theses sort of wild misrepresentations that we have.

BC: I feel like that it starts with students. I mean, we come into contact with a lot of students over the course of our careers. And it’s not just Religious Studies. I think they often don’t figure out what any of the faculty members do most of the time, because we don’t talk about it. It’s sort-of opaque, for some reason. So, I think talking to students about our work, about our interests, about how we got interested in it – I think it’s useful, I think it’s helpful, it clarifies things (35:00). It makes our position clear. And we can do that on a small level, more. I think we could all, everybody in the academy, could better engage with our students about who they are, and what they do, and how they’re compensated, etc. But I think we could especially do that. Now the interesting thing is, over the time I was writing this article, we had the affair of Reza Aslan, here in the States, who had a rise . . . the first real rise to power, or rise to prominence, as the first real public intellectual in Religious Studies – only to be fired, pretty quickly, for making a comment on Twitter about President Trump, after a few episodes of his show – Believer – which was widely derided by scholars of religion. As was his book about Jesus. What was it called? Zealot. So here we have a failed, missed opportunity to have a public intellectual presenting a model of this kind of work. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the last time we try that. Maybe that’s the place to start. You know, a plot where you save the Pope from a radical Catholic assassin is going to be more interesting than a plot where you translate a text, but it doesn’t have to be about plot, it can be about . . .the old . . . the stuff they used to do on the BBC, where they had long-running, long-form shows to educate the public, in way that is also engaging. And I think that can be done again.

CC: And you know, maybe, if you’re burning the midnight oil, we could all be writing those novels, writing those screenplays that we all wish we were seeing. Is this it, for you, with this project then? Or do you have plans for future research, future publications? What’s next for you?

BC: I think Chris is writing the screenplay, based on the article.

KT: That’s’ right. Look for the screenplay. Just kidding! Not really. No, I am developing a class on religion and pop culture and a lot of this stuff is sort of feeding the mill for that. Brian, what about you?

BC: Well I think that the natural next place to go would be a panel at the AAR – bring in more people to talk about it. And that seems to me like . . . I don’t know if we need another article any time soon. But, bigger conversation – a public conversation about it at our annual meeting here – would be helpful.

CC: Excellent. And hopefully this podcast and your article will kick off a bit more of that conversation, and we can look forward to a future where the discipline, the field, is represented a bit more accurately. But, for now – thank you so much Brian and Kristen. It’s been wonderful having you.

BC: Thank you.

KT: Thanks, Chris.


Citation Info: Collins, Brian, Kristen Tobey and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 8 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/representations-of-religious-studies-in-popular-culture/

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Muslim Superheroes

A. Dave Lewis joins us again for a discussion of representations of Muslims in superhero comics. We talk about some positive representations, like Kamala Khan, Marvel’s new Ms Marvel, and some less-than-positive portrayals, like Frank Millar’s Holy Terror! We talk about American comics as a product of the immigrant experience, and how comics made by Muslims play with the conventions of the genre. And we talk about how to use these texts in the classroom, as a powerful tool for exploring representation, media and religion. And what is the “wormhole sacred”?

You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Wu-Tang comic books, canned tuna, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Muslim Superheroes

Podcast with A. David Lewis (28 May 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Lewis- Muslim Superheroes 1.1

David Robertson (DR): Well, it’s my pleasure to welcome A. Dave Lewis to the podcast once again. Dave is one of the few, if not the only one of our regular guests to be both an interviewer and an interviewee. Well I might be the only other one, strangely enough! But it’s certainly . . . it’s been a little while since he’s been on. So it’s my pleasure to welcome him back. So thanks, once again, for joining us!

David Lewis (DL): Alright, ok. It’s good to be here!

DR: Good. Well this time we are going to be talking about Muslim superheroes, partly jumping off your recent edited volume with Martin Lund, called Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam and Representation. Obviously, there’s quite a lot for us to unpack here. So maybe we could start with you just telling us a little bit about why you decided to focus specifically on Muslim superheroes?

DL: Actually it comes from an earlier collection that I did, called Graven Images, with Christine Hoff Kraemer And when we did that collection, we had a number of contributors give us perspectives from religion all over the world, and historically. But to be frank we, as the editors even, found the Islam section to be light. And given that that was growing as a focus of my own studies, given that that was growing as focus in my own personal life, it’s something that I, in part, wanted to remedy. Now there had been some work out there done, particularly on Islam and comics as a medium in general, but not on this hallmark genre. So I approached Martin and said that I was interested in this – not just the dearth of research on Muslim superheroes, but also the increasing number of Muslim superheroes that we were steadily finding in mainstream US comics. And from there we reached out, and put a call for papers out. And I also tapped a few people that we knew had similar interests. And we tried to synthesise the limited information that was out there, in this volume, as well as inject it with new ways in which we could explore the topic.

DR: Great. And as a topic I think there’s a number of really interesting aspects that make Islam and superhero comic, specifically, a particularly rich field for us to explore. We can talk about those in a little bit more depth, then. For a lot of people – and I’m a comic fan so I ‘m playing devil’s advocate a bit here – the idea of the superhero seems to be particularly tied to an American context. It seems to have a lot to do with the American dream of America’s role in the world. So, looking at the way that particularly the American comics have dealt with Muslims is particularly fraught with interesting data.

DL: Oh, hugely. And not only is it fraught with . . . particularly in a post-September 11 context, or even earlier than that, during the hostage crisis of the ’80s . . . . But, really, so much of this engagement has been passed over and forgotten, not necessarily chronicled. I reached back as far as I could, looking for not the earliest Arab character in superhero comics, nor the earliest Muslim character across all genres, but I was really trying to pinpoint: when did this genre in its infancy begin to engage other religions, other than ostensibly the Christian norm? And I became, actually, rather enamoured with what I found, which was a character in 1944, going back just a few years into the first superhero boom (5:00), called Kismet, Man of Fate . And not only did I start studying this character I found that I took sort-of a shine to him and wanted to start writing further adventures from him, since he had fallen into the public domain.

DR: It would be quite interesting to look and see if there were similar portrayals of Muslim characters in the British wartime comics. There was a lot of those still around when I was a kid, you know, telling these true life World War Two stories. Because, of course, at that time a lot of soldiers would have come into contact with Muslim soldiers, especially those serving in North Africa and places like that.

DL: Absolutely.

DR: Much different contexts than we have now.

DL: Without question. Although I won’t say it’s surprising that it would have entered the British consciousness far earlier than the US popular consciousness, given as you said, you know, colonial engagement and, more widely speaking, the theatre of battle. Whereas, for the US, we have been very slow to become aware of Islamic culture, despite it being not only important in the 20th century – being important historically, classically, without the classic philosophers. But no, it would not surprise me in the least to see more Muslim representation – both good and bad, you know, both fair and then highly stereotypical – in British war genre comics than in US superhero comics, as a latecomer.

DR: Indeed. Of course, superhero comics as a genre – I don’t need to tell you that there’s many other genres of comics of course – but the superhero genre, in particular, seems to be tied to the American immigrant experience, doesn’t it? So, I mean, that’s another resonance.

DL: Very much so. In fact I think it was Danny Fingeroth’s book, Disguised as Clark Kent, where he points out that the American superhero genre really is largely reflective of the immigrant experience. And you can just look at the pantheon of superheroes. You either have aliens of very different varieties, Atlantis like Aquaman, Kryptonians like Superman, Amazonians like Wonder Woman, or you have the dispossessed, sort of orphans in either the literal or the figurative sense- that’s where you get your Batman, your Captain America, your Spider-Man. But the genre – particularly when it was formed in the late 30s – early 40s, here in the US – was absolutely about congealing into a shared American experience, rather than there being one quintessential, pure American experience. And that has gotten, many times, lost in the history of the genre. I think if there’s been any time to best recapture it, it might be now – as superheroes are moving from comics as a fringe medium, largely speaking, to cinematic blockbusters. And people who may never have been caught dead with a comic book are now shelling out however-many-bucks to go see them live on the big screen.

DR: Yes. That’s something which has changed dramatically, even in the time I’ve known you and we’ve been talking about comics. It’s gone from a very fringe interest, as you say, into the biggest genre in cinema right now. And perhaps that’s why we’re seeing a number of very high profile Muslim characters coming into mainstream comics at the moment. Now Ms Marvel is an obvious example. Can we talk about her a little bit, maybe?

DL: Absolutely Kamala Khan Ms Marvel: born and bred Jersey girl, but with a Pakistani background, who is a fan of superheroes – who’s actually a fan fiction writer – finds that she is incredibly imbued with the power of a polymorph, meaning that she can change the size and shape of her body at will (10:00). She has been become, really, the frontline character – I don’t like using the word frontline – maybe the banner character for Muslims, in superhero comics. She certainly caught on with a large section of readers, especially with Marvel attempting this diversity initiative. The problem with her, if there is any problem – it’s a terrific character, and written by a terrific team with G. Willow Wilson – if there’s any problem with the character it’s that most people just know her for being Muslim.

DR: Right, yes.

DL: The character doesn’t come off as often in discussions where religion is not the focus, or where diversity is not the focus. And I only say that’s a problem because that does give her an upper limit, a ceiling of sorts. We can talk about, and generalise, what Captain America does, right, or what Ironman does, or even what Superman does, but we don’t yet have – as popular as Ms Marvel is, or as Simon Baz the new Green Lantern is, or any number of characters – we don’t yet have that Muslim character who is transcending their Muslim-ness, necessarily, into storylines so compelling and so iconic that audiences are keeping up with them. Maybe Ms Marvel is starting to tilt that way. She is a member of The Avengers and The Champions now. But I think the only context a lay person would know about her in, is in this religious and diversity-centred context.

DR: Right. And she reminds me, actually, a lot of Miles Morales. I think there’s a few clear parallels. I mean, Miles Morales is the black Superman

DL: Spider-Man.

DR: Spider-Man, yes, sorry. The black Spider-Man, introduced around the same time in Marvel.

DL: Black and Latino, he’s actually . . .

DR: That’s right. Yes, he is. He is similar to Ms Marvel, has become a hugely popular character, is also a superhero fan, interestingly. I hadn’t thought of that until you mentioned it, just now. But similarly, he has had difficulty crossing . . . has had some success crossing into the mainstream, but is still almost always talked about in terms of his ethnicity, rather than simply his being a compelling character. But that might be starting to change now. I don’t know if you know that when they made “Spider-Man: Homecoming” they were talking about whether they should use Miles Morales, because they were facing the fact that they had to relaunch this character for the third time. And it was decided against it, because: “a black superhero film can’t make any money at the box office, right?”

DL: That’s changed. I think that’s been disproven pretty solidly, recently.

DR: Yes, I think we’ve completely thrown that out the window! But there is now a Miles Morales animated movie coming out.

DL: That’s true and, just going back to “Spiderman: Homecoming” for one minute – not to stray too far from the subject of comics and religion – I do want to point out that they did cast Donald Glover in that movie in a small part, but his part there is actually playing the uncle of Miles Morales. So we haven’t been introduced to his character yet, but they have laid down the groundwork for integrating his character.

DR: Absolutely.

DL: But I think you put your finger on one of the problems there, David, which is that these characters are always becoming known as a subset of another character. I mentioned Simon Baz, he’s now the Muslim Green Lantern; we mentioned Miles Morales, he is the Black or Latino Spider-Man.

DR: We also had the female Thor as well, recently.

DG: Female Thor; there’s the Batman of Paris, a Muslim Batman of Paris, Nightrunner, And even Ms Marvel is inheriting a mantel from the former Ms Marvel, now Captain Marvel – who’s going to get her own movie. So we haven’t quite gotten to the point where we have a Muslim character whose core identity, partly, is Muslim but also is forging a superhero narrative in their own right (15:00). And the reason I keep coming back to superheroes – I feel like this is worth saying: you are absolutely right, there are any number of genres out there when it comes to comics. Almost as limitless as any other medium. However, A: comics are often judged in terms of superheroes, and B: as you mentioned earlier, superheroes are largely an American-made product, or an American-originating product. They’re the closest we have to what Richard Reynolds calls a Modern Mythology. So the reason I keep returning to the superhero is, basically, this has to be the testing space for whatever religious theory or criticism we’re bringing to this medium. Is comics superheroes and superheroes comics? No, absolutely not. And I would never limit either one in that way. But if we can’t talk about the superhero comic in terms of the subject that interests us here, religion and representation, then that challenge is going to keep presenting itself. Until it can be brought into this space it will always be penultimate.

DR: I had a thought, actually, when I was reading the book. You mentioned that . . . most of the examples we’ve given today, in fact, except for the Green Lantern, are Marvel characters. And what you’re saying there, about modern mythology, I think is the reason why. DC characters are harder to represent as having a religion, because DC write more mythologically. DC characters are essentially gods. So it’s much harder to represent religion, ethnicity, gender issues and these kinds of things, because they relate to humans. But the classic argument is that while DC are gods, Marvel are always telling metaphors for being a teenager. So Marvel characters are much better suited to these kinds of discussions about identity and representation, because that is the Marvel style.

DL: And I think that’s true historically, right? DC has been around longer as a unified company. And Batman and Superman reach back further than the Fantastic Four, or Spiderman or the X- Men. But I think there is the opportunity to challenge that just the same. I mean, we could focus on Superman’s alien-ness instead of his godliness. Or we could focus on The Flash – he really is your most mortal and your most human of heroes but he gets elevated to this god-like Hermes status, at least in popular consumption. So I don’t think that either company has to be locked into these positions. And there have been a number of times that Marvel has experimented with sort-of the more godly figure with its characters. But, yes, I think if you had to do a fast summary of each one, you get Marvel with its very human heroes being raised to an elevated status that they may or may not be able to handle, and DC superheroes being sort-of gods – but more gods with feet of clay, or gods with an affection or a tie to humanity. That said, neither approach precludes any spiritual or religious material. I thought it was when . . . . This was a Justice League annual back in the year 2000. It was pre-September 11. But they did try to introduce a Muslim character at that time called The Janissary. And The Janissary, she was a fine character. But the more interesting thing that came out of that particular issue is, does Wonder Woman, an Amazonian, a princess, a goddess-like character – and, at certain times, practically portrayed as a goddess – does she wear a hijab? Is she either subject to the cultural norms of the society she finds herself featured in, or does she transcend that (20:00)? Or does she even find it alien to her? Because she has proof of her own gods and not of an unseen Allah. So these can be engaged in any number of ways, if the companies, frankly, see a profit motive for it.

DR: Yes. I’d like to dig into some other examples. Ms Marvel: there’s been a few papers and stuff and people can go and read more widely, and obviously we can point them to your book where there’s a lot of good examples. But I want to bring up a few sort-of perhaps more problematic examples. One that you don’t talk about directly in the book, but was the first time I became aware of this as an issue in comics, was Holy Terror.

DL: Oh, yes.

DR: Which was originally going to be a Batman book.

DL: It was originally going to be Holy Terror Batman, punning on the whole 1960’s television Robin catchphrase: “Holy terror, Batman!” And it was pitched by Frank Miller of “Dark Knight Returns“ and “Sin City“ and “300“ fame, to DC. And DC thought about it and ultimately rejected it. So he reworked it as his own independent book, I believe with Legendary Comics.

DR: Yes. And I don’t know an awful lot about Frank Miller, but I’m guessing his politics must definitely be towards the more right-wing end of the spectrum?

DL: They have absolutely grown that way over the years. I can’t say if he’s always held a right-wing position. But I do recall that shortly after September 11th there were any number of charity relief books that were being published by various companies. And it struck me that he contributed a very militaristic piece. Like: “Get ready for our thunder! Get ready for our power! You’ve woken a sleeping giant!” And since that time his work has turned quite . . . I would almost say radically to the right. And in Holy Terror he reworks a Batman archetype into a character that I believe he calls The Fixer.

DR: That’s right.

DL: And The Fixer is intent on wiping out terrorism. But the only form of terrorism showcased in the book . . . basically terrorism becomes synonymous with radical Islam, with extremist militaristic radical Islam. And having it enjoin us . . . that lens really portrays an Islamophobia that’s concern isn’t terrorism – or else we could look at spots around the world that are unrelated to Islam, where terrorism is being employed. He really takes a turn there towards a xenophobic fearing of “the other” and one that stands, in his view, in opposition to America and the American norms and democracy. It’s worth noting that one of the works that he did which followed this up, which followed up Holy Terror, was that he returned to Dark Knight Returns for a third time. He did Dark Knight Returns, Dark Knight Strikes Back– which happened right as September 2001 struck, and may have actually changed the way he concluded that story. But then he returned with Dark Knight III: The Master Race, which is, in very brief summary, all about basically Kryptonians – Superman’s people – coming to terrorise and dominate humankind. And only Batman and Superman can save us. And it rings the same bells of, basically, this xenophobia against an outside religious group that seems to be, from his perspective, aggressive, and attempting to conquer. So these are things that he has pursued in a rather, I find, distasteful manner – but definitely in a forthright manner. He’s not hiding or being cute about it (25:00). There are a number of other comic creators who are injecting anti-Islamic themes into their content without saying so explicitly. But when we focussed on Muslim Superheroes as a book we said that that’s less our concern, tracking Islamophobia in comics – which is its own tremendous topic, and there has been some great work done it – but more looking at how they’re trying to integrate the heroism and the principles of, frankly, US heroism or Western heroism to interface with what are perceived Islamic ideals.

DR: I would be quite interested to know a little bit about black Muslim superheroes, because obviously that’s another important aspect of Islam in a America, historically speaking. Presumably here we’re going to be mostly talking about the pre-9/11 situation.

DL: One of our chapters is a terrific piece on basically reading earlier black superheroes and we can point to John Stewart as a Green Lantern or point to The Falcon, Captain America’s partner, as I believe our contributor calls them, “crypto-Muslims” or “proto-Muslims”. Basically, if you’re a New York writer of comics, which is where the two – DC and Marvel, the two major superhero companies – were stationed, what you’re seeing of black strengths and black presence, in the news and in your environment, is either the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam. Black Panthers being not the superhero Black Panther, but the group.

DR: Although there is a direct connection there. Stan Lee took the name of the character directly from the Black Panthers.

DL: Yes, I’d heard different reports on that. I’ve heard that it either entered his consciousness, or he did conspicuously think . . . I don’t know the exact details, there. But yes, you can read a lot of black characters in comics, in the 60s as well as the 70s, as what we call crypto-Muslims. But then you can go forward and find actual black Muslims in a number of comics, particularly around the 1990s. Milestone comics had Wise Son. Marvel comics featured Josiah X who was a Muslim, a black Muslim preacher who also had a family member experimented on in Captain America’s super soldier programme. So they definitely exist. But even here, they did not have yet the nuance or just the enjoyability of characters like Simon Baz; like Kamala Khan, Ms Marvel; like Excalibur; and a number of others. These were very serious, angry, severe characters. And being included is terrific; being represented is important. But often their full humanity wasn’t portrayed, I dare say. And that could be because they were not being written by black creators, or minority creators. They were white – usually male – creators’ imagination of the black man and of the black Islamic man, rather than a more authentic experience. I don’t want to be mischaracterised as saying that only black writers can write black characters, only Muslim writers can write Muslim characters. That’s not what I’m suggesting at all. But I am suggesting that when you have a gulf, and a conspicuous gulf, between such characters and their creators that’s something that has to be examined and looked at cautiously.

DR: Yes. Absolutely. It’s actually quite a good link, then, into my next question which was (30:00):foundationsuperhero comics which come out of the Islamic world, and which perhaps play with and reframe some of the American context, in the creation of their own superheroes and superhero teams. Can you give us a couple of quick examples of those?

DL: Yes, absolutely. And, again, we dedicate at least two, if not three, chapters in the book to this topic. The most notable of them – the Ms Marvel equivalent, the most well-known – would be The 99, which came out of Kuwait. And this was actually spearheaded by a professional psychologist, Naif Al-Mutawa. And the issue they ran into – at least according to our contributor in the book – is that there were any number of superhero genre elements that they could reproduce with Muslim characters, except for two. And that was the hyper-sexualised nature of the superhero – and you could start with the skin-tight costumes if you like, but you can also look at their physique and physicality and go from there. The other thing that they were cautious about – other companies were less cautious, but this was a challenge for The 99 – was their resolving everything, or nearly everything, with violence, which was very much an image that Dr Al-Mutawa wanted to move away from. He wanted these comics to be inspirational of solving conflicts with other powers, with other abilities, with conflict resolution or with building and such. So they struggled with that. Other companies like AK Comics – which were admittedly less successful – out of Egypt, they were more embracing of those two additional elements, but they did not last nearly as long as The 99. So we don’t yet have . . . now there are more publishers, even today. One that comes to mind is Youneek Studios, and that’s spelled Y-O-U-N-E-E-K, which is an African company. And I think they’re doing a terrific job of sort-of trying to thread the needle in the way that the Black Panther movie does: being genuinely African, right, but also still delivering on narrative elements that audiences have come to expect, rather than being some weak copy of an American superhero or diverging into its own sub-genre. This is a challenge because the American superhero has characteristics not only that may not translate into other cultures and religions, but may have ones that the American superhero industry itself doesn’t want to fix: again referring back to the issues of violence and sexuality; also looking at misogyny, patriarchy, heteronormativity. How much it can be changed by a non-white and non-Christian group, before it becomes unrecognisable, is the challenge of the day.

DR: Indeed. We’ve been talking a while now and we could go on quite a while more, I’m sure. But I’ve got a couple of questions to wrap up, then. One is: I particularly liked the little chapter at the end of the book that you and Martin Lund contributed, which talks about the idea of using these in schools. I absolutely love the idea of using an issue of Ms Marvel, for instance, as a text for students to engage with these issues.

DL: It seems like not only the natural outgrowth of these things, but also the raison d’être, you know, the whole: are we just studying these things for our amusement? And just as an exercise? Or is there something to be done here? Can we include a call to action? And, as I said, the most natural call to action is to bring this into the classroom, and let students have a foundation where they can engage with it (35:00). And I think, as we know in the final chapter, this doesn’t have to be head-on. We’re not proposing that we need Muslim superhero classes, and we need Muslim superhero curriculum and degrees given out on Muslim superheroes. We’re actually suggesting that instead this genre, and this religious interaction with the genre, can be a powerful way to explore historical events, to explore cultural differences, to explore media bias and media studies. So we really just want to open this to the educator, who may not be an expert in comics, or may not be an expert in Islam – and certainly not the two combined – but will see the inherent value of working on materials that access student’s attention in a novel way.

DR: Right, and using popular cultural texts – be they comic, or television, or films, or whatever – I think, actually, can be a more powerful way of introducing the students, and teaching the students the critical skills. If we start with academic texts then getting the students to be able to read the biases and the positionality of the papers can be quite tricky, because academic language is very qualified and very specific. But using popular texts to start with, and teaching them to read them as media texts, we can do a lot to train them in that way of critical reading that they can then take on and apply to more obviously academic texts.

DL: And this has long been true. Educators have tried to incorporate music in the classroom, and incorporate film in the classroom. And really, any medium that isn’t a text book that can sort-of take these students unawares into learning, or into critical thought, is always welcome. We highlight the comic book because of our fascination with comics in its dual-channel delivery system: its verbal, visual, creative engagement with the reader that will work for a number of students in particular, who don’t have to be comic book fans themselves but may be looking to light up different hemispheres of their brain at the same time. That, a lecture, or a strictly prose textbook, would not be able to do.

DR: Absolutely. As a final closing kind-of point here: is there any further thought on how the work that you’re doing in the book and elsewhere . . . what can it tell RS? How can these kinds of analyses, then, enhance Religious Studies more broadly?

DL: Well, I think that a particular area . . . two come to mind. The first is that we talk often about lived religion, right? And we often want to explore how religions are either evolving or being expressed in a modern context, and then tracking that against the religion, historically or classically. And I want to point out that comics are a relatively cheap and very evocative space in which to track that sort of lived religious experience. Whereas television is highly scripted and highly censored in many cases. And film, while perhaps less censored, is again driven by a huge profit motive. Comics, while a business and while a business that wants to sustain itself, has a greater freedom with the most reach. So, that would be my first response. That if we’re trying to do a present-day lived anthropological read of religion in popular culture or interpretation, comics is an ideal space. One further argument to have – and this is a little more radical on my part . . .

DR: OK, we like that.

DL: I wrote about this for an up-coming book (40:00). This is going to sound wonky, but I have the perspective that comics, when read intensely, when read seriously, when read genuinely, can lead to their own transcendent experience. Now, this is going to make me sound like someone who’s drunk the Kool-Aid . . .

DR: (Laughs).

DL: Inasmuch as we say frescos, and tapestries, and stained glass windows, and sculpture can all really unlock, as arts, the human mind to some spiritual dimension, I want to suggest that there are comics out there that could do similar. That can actually, by their . . . . And I think the way I phrase it in this up-coming text is that, by basically going down into the mundane, down into the print, and the ink, and the paper of the comic, it can actually trip us and flip us towards the sacred, towards what lies behind it: the “real real” – and here I’m being very Eliade in my language. But I’m exploring that more and more. I’m not necessarily saying you’re going to get that from your average Superman comic off the rack, right? And I’m not saying it’s better to read Ms Marvel than go to a Mosque. I’m not saying anything of that sort. But I am suggesting that we can’t rule out this medium as having its own access to potentially transcendent experience. And in the chapter that’ll be coming out I think later this year, I make the argument for why it’s not just legitimate but actually might be favourable to view them in this way.

DR: There are some inklings of that in Graven Images. We can maybe pick this conversation up in a year’s time, when I interview you the next time. It does sound a bit wonky – but as somebody who reads The Invisibles every year, you know you’re not going to get an argument from me!

DL: That actually is a terrific example of precisely the sort of comic that you can deal with. And, actually, I came up with a fantastic, really out-there, crazy term for it! We’ll talk about it next year.

DR: Yes. We’ll pick it up next time.

DL: I call it the “wormhole sacred”. So, be sure to ask me next year about the wormhole sacred!

DR: Excellent. I will do that. Let’s put it in the diary already! Until then, though, I would urge listeners who’ve enjoyed the conversation to check out Muslim Superheroes. And I’ll just say thanks, A. Dave Lewis, for joining us again!

DL: I love coming back. Thank you so much for having me!

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Lewis, A. David and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Muslim Superheroes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslim-superheroes/

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Drawn to the Gods – Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programs

If you were asked to name the TV programs with the most religious content and references what would you name? 7th Heaven, Supernatural or perhaps Games of Thrones? How many of us would name animated television series such as The Simpsons, Family Guy or South Park? These television series are amongst the most religions on our screens. Indeed, 95% of The Simpsons episodes, 84% of Family Guy episodes, and 78% of South Park episodes contain explicit religious references. These animated comedy shows are critically influential in teaching viewers about religious people and religious institutions. The commentary created via the intersection between humour, satire, and religion in these TV shows, particularly in their own context of America, creates an interesting image of what it supposedly means to be a “good religious American”. In this podcast Associate Professor David Feltmate, author of Drawn to the Gods: Religion and Humor in The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy, chats to Breann Fallon about the manner in which these three television shows create a broad commentary on religion for the general public. Feltmate highlights the central place these animate programs have in the proliferation of ideas about the spiritual and the religious, as heavily consumed mediums of popular culture.

You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, candy, pocket knives, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Drawn to the Gods: Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programmes

Podcast with David Feltmate (11 December 2017).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Feltmate_-_Drawn_to_the_Gods_1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): If you were asked to name the TV programmes that were most religious, had the most religious content and references, which ones would you name? Seventh Heaven, maybe? Or Supernatural? Or perhaps Game of Thrones? Well, I was wondering how many of us would actually name The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or South Park. Because, did you know that 95% of Simpsons episode, 84% of Family Guy episodes and 78% of South Park episodes contain explicit religious references. These animated comedy shows are critically influential in teaching viewers about religious people and about religious institutions. The commentary created by the intersection between humour, satire and religion in these TV shows – and specifically their context of America, creates an interesting image of what is supposedly meant to be a good religious American. To discuss this topic today I have with me Associate Professor David Feltmate, the author of a fantastic new work entitled, Drawn to the Gods: Religion and Humour in the Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy. Dave is Associate Professor of Sociology at Auburn University at Montgomery. He received his PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Waterloo in 2011. His research areas include the Sociology of Religion, religion in popular culture, humour studies, social theory, new religious movements and religions and family. His book, Drawn to the Gods is available from New York University Press and is the topic of our discussion today. Thank you very much for joining us today, Dave.

David Feltmate (DF): Thank you for having me.

BF: So, I’m really interested in how this book came about. Why did you choose to write a book on The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy?

DF: So, this book really started in the winter of 2005. I was fresh out of my masters’ degree at Wilfrid Laurier University. I was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. And I was teaching sessionally, like a lot of people do. And I was teaching a course on religion and popular culture. And I had set the course up. We did a week on Christianity in popular culture. So we’d do a crash course in Christianity and then an example of Christianity in pop culture, or whatever. And what I realised was, these classes had 65 students in them each: I would have three students that really paid attention every day, five students who would tune in for the topic of the day, and most people were just kind-of there to get credit and they weren’t paying attention. And I thought, well, Jeez there’s a lot of really interesting and relevant pop culture stuff. But the way that I started to get them to listen was, I would start quoting Simpsons references at them at the front of the room. And at the time, in Canada, there was a Canadian comedian named Brent Butt. And he said with a good cable package you can get three hours of The Simpsons every day. And he was pretty close to correct at that point in time. And so this stuff was just ubiquitous, everywhere. And that’s what drew students back in. They knew these religious references but they had no understanding of the religious traditions at all. They were just coming in and experiencing it for the first time. Which led me . . . because I knew I was going to go on and do a PhD, which I did at the University of Waterloo. And I said, “Well, they’ve got to have learned something, what did they learn? What were they being taught through these jokes?” So that’s what I went off to study. And so I wrote my dissertation on The Simpsons and that’s sort-of, the very early awkward stages of the book that’s there now. And my supervisor, Doug Cowan, I remembered distinctly, one day he said, “OK. Your dissertation is done, but it’s not a book yet. It needs comparative data.” “Well,” I said, “The obvious comparative data is South Park and Family Guy.” And now they kind of look like legacy programmes, but that’s where it came from. These shows were widely known, they were critically acclaimed and people are learning religious material from them. And I wanted to know what they were learning. And over time it evolved into: how were they learning this through humour? (5:00) Because a lot of the literature that I was reading on The Simpsons or South Park – there’s still not much written on Family Guy – I just found that people did not ask the question: why are these things funny? They simply worked on the assumption that they were. But I know people that don’t find them funny. So I had to ask, what is it about humour that enables people to transmit this information – transmit it in a humorous way – but why are they seeing these things as humorous? Because I know that some people are not going to. They’re either not going to get the joke, or they don’t think the joke is funny in the first place. So that’s where this book comes from: from teaching and thinking about what it means to talk about religion and religious diversity through humour.

BF: So in the book you talk about this idea of sort of using satire and comedy, and how that is bringing religion to a broad audience, and this idea of broad commentary and how this is really teaching the general public about religious people and religious institutions. And I thought we could talk about some specific examples before we sort of talk about the general takeaways from the book. And there are some really interesting examples in the book. I personally like the ones from The Simpsons because – I don’t think I watched every episode of the Simpsons, like you probably did, but I’m pretty close – I do really love the Simpsons. And I’ve watched a lot of Family Guy as well. I think it’s really interesting that you say there’s not a lot written on Family Guy, actually. Because I would have thought there would have been quite a lot on Family Guy, which is an interesting point on the side.

DF: Unless it’s exploded in the last year or so after the book was finished, and it was out there, and I just kind of need a break from reading all of the literature. No there really wasn’t a lot on Family Guy.

BF: Well, there’s a project for any RSP listeners who are looking for a little article to punch out there: Family Guy there for you! But I thought, maybe, we could start with your favourite example from any of the shows, maybe a new religious movement example? I thought maybe you could start with one of those?

DF: Oh man! Do I have a favourite? I don’t know if I have a favourite. I know I’ve watched “Homer the Heretic” the most, but that’s not a new religious movements example. Well, it depends on how you define new religious movements.

BF: That’s a great example anyway.

DF: Yes, well that’s the classic. That’s the sort of Simpsons’ religion urtext from Season Four. And it used to be that I could pretty much close my eyes and see that entire episode playing out before me. So the reason that I really love that one is that it encapsulates so much of what would become the running narratives of religion in the Simpsons. There’s this sort-of back and forth with Christianity. There’s an open display of Hinduism and Judaism, and all of these different kinds of religious traditions that are on display, and a part of this – a part of Springfield but also a part of the American fabric. Which when you consider that that episode was released in what, ’92 . . . ?

BF: It’s early.

DF: I think it’s ’92. Well it’s season four, but I want to say it’s November ‘92. Just a second, I’ve got the book here. It’s going to drive me nuts if I don’t . . . .

BF: The interesting thing about Homer the Heretic – correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s the one where he eats the chilli isn’t it?

DF: No that is . . . the name is in Spanish and I can’t remember, but it’s “The Mysterious Voyage of Homer: El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer”. And that one is Season Eight. Yes, that one’s a great one, too. I love Johnny Cash as the Coyote that offers spiritual wisdom. And Homer says, “Should I get rid of my possessions?” And the Coyote just laughs at him and says, “No. If anything you need more possessions. You don’t even have a computer.” (10:00) And, yeah, “Homer the Heretic” was ’92.

BF: So what happens in “Homer the Heretic”?

DF: So in “Homer the Heretic”, Homer decides, “I don’t want to go the Church,” one day. And he has the best morning of his life, and he attributes it all to not going to church. But Marge has dragged the kids to Church, and so there becomes this marital strife between the two of them over Homer not going to church. He says he forms his own religion, and so he starts doing things like – one of my favourite examples is that he calls into work from the bar and says that he can’t come in, because it’s a religious feast day. And he looks up… They say “What feast day?” and he sees a sign that says “Maximum occupancy” and he says “Maximum Occupancy”. “Click”. Those kinds of jokes really play on this ongoing sentiment in the United States that to be a good American you’ve got to be religious. And you see this come about all the time in political discourse in the USA, when people are talking about candidates. Atheists are among the most distrusted groups, in terms of large polls in the USA. And that’s still today. And this part of the discourse and debate around Donald Trump, is that people can’t figure out why Evangelicals continue to support, or came out to support Donald Trump when he’s so opposed to the kinds of values that they claim to represent, certainly, in all of his actions and everything he espouses to. And The Simpsons was sitting there 25 years ago now, saying, “Hey, this is okay. It’s okay for people to drop out of church.” Then God visits Homer in a dream and says to Homer, “You’ve forsaken my church.” And Homer says, “Well, I try to be a good person and I love my kids. I just want to sleep in on Sunday mornings.” And God listens to Homer for a minute, because Homer says, “Why should I spend every Sunday morning hearing about why I’m going to Hell?” And God goes “Hmm. You’ve got a point there. You know, some Sundays I’d rather just be watching football.” And Homer says, “So, I figure I should just try to live right and worship you in my own way.” And God says, “It’s a deal!” and then ascends into Heaven. And that’s really part of this larger spiritual-seeker narrative – the ability to pick and choose among different religious options – that has become part of the way that Sociologists of Religion, anyway, talk about the United States. And all of these religious options . . . . Like, I live in a city of 200,000 people, roughly. And there are close to a thousand churches in the area. And if you don’t like what’s going on in one of them you can literally. . . . I mean, I went to Church this morning and there’s a church across the street and another church in the parking lot. I was like: “It’s church row over here!” And if I didn’t like what was being said in my church, I could literally walk out the back door and in two minutes be in another service. And that’s just among Christian denominations! At least, now, I live in the American south, so it’s different than other parts of the country. The United States is different in its different regions. But that narrative of spiritual seeking, anyway, by the ‘90s had become part-and-parcel, part of the fabric of the United States of America. And that’s what I like about “Homer the Heretic”. It really introduces this spiritual-seeking – worshipping God in your own way, do what you want to do, that’s fine, just don’t try to impose it on anybody else – that I really found became the core of The Simpsons. So, I don’t know if it’s my favourite, because I love other episodes. I love “The Joy of Sect”, which is the Movementarians, which is just such a great name for a new religious movement. And, as I show in the book there are all these kinds of quick visual references to numerous new religious movements. So it works really well as a display of the cult stereotype. (15:00) And in South Park the Blametologists, as well, are like that. And I really like to study that because again at the University of Waterloo I was working with Douglas Cowan and Lorne Dawson. And people who study new religious movements would be familiar with those names. And I never went in to study new religious movements, I went in to do religion and popular culture, but I said, “Well I’m working with two of the top scholars in the world in new religious movements, I’d be an idiot not to pick this up and learn from them.” And what I found was that these shows were able . . . . Let me go back here a second. If you go into a classroom now and you ask people what a cult is, they’ll usually be able to give you some kind of idea, like it’s a bad religion, it’s a group of people who follow some leader and they don’t think for themselves, they’re often associated with dangerous kind of religions. And then I say, “OK, so you know all of this. How many of you have ever met somebody who’s in a cult?” And nobody raises their hand. Or I shouldn’t say that: I’ve had one person who knew somebody who was in a group that he considered a cult. And so I had to start asking, “Well, where you get this idea from?” And Joseph Laycock has a good article in The Journal of the American Academy of Religion on this as well, called “Where do they get those ideas?” So I don’t want to steal Joe’s thunder. What it was is, over time, these images and ideas about cults were repeated through mass media, through jokes, through television, to the point that you could create completely fictitious groups like the Movementarians, with numerous references to all of these other different groups like Rajneeshpuram is in there, certainly the Unification Church. There’s a mass marriage scene which is just . . . . I like to, in classes, take a picture of a Unification Church mass marriage, and that scene – just a screen shot – from The Simpsons and say, “Look! They’re almost identical!” And what it was, it was able to play on a legacy of particular framing in terms of fear. So that now, generations who have never really encountered some of these movements have a heuristic with which to interpret them. So I thought that was really relevant. That’s definitely one that I like.

BF: This idea of, you know, the TV show being the lens through which a generation can interpret religious people and religious institutions . . . .You said that the Simpsons was sort-of advocating this idea of spiritual-seeking. Do you think that’s the same for South Park and Family Guy or do you think they advocate something different?

DF: No, I think each one advocates its own thing. I think South Park is all about individual creativity.

BF: OK

DF: So, there’s a couple of South Park episodes: “Go God Go” and “Go God Go XII”, I think is the number. And that came out when Richard Dawkins released The God Delusion, and it was a best seller. I think The God Delusion is really the book that made this sort of Four Horseman of the New Atheists movement with Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett who had books out before Dawkins and then Christopher Hitchens who had one out afterwards. But I think The God Delusion is really the book that broke the tidal wave for all four books to become this kind of marker in time. And when it came it in the audio commentary Trey Parker and Matt Stone were talking about how Penn Jillett of Penn and Teller was saying , “You guys have got to come out as atheists,” or whatever. And Trey Parker’s going “But, I’m not an atheist. I don’t necessarily believe in God the way that other theists do . . .  .”  (20:00) But with South Park they don’t like organised religions, but where individual creativity is promoted, enhanced, allowed to flourish through religious expression, they really don’t have a problem with it. What they have a problem with are hypocrites, or people who say things that they just think are stupid. Right? So their feud with Scientology, versus how they treat Latter Day Saints, is a good example of that. The episode “All about the Mormons” from South Park, which has (sings) “Joseph Smith was called a prophet, dum dum dum dum dum.” And dum dum dum eventually turns into “This whole thing is dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb!” But the Mormons are the nicest people ever to come to South Park. And at the end of the episode, the Mormon kid, Gary, just looks at Stan and says, “All I ever wanted to do was be your friend, but you were too high and mighty for that. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy.” And I won’t finish that quote because there might be children listening at home. That, compared to the Scientology episode, “Trapped in the Closet”, which basically came out of . . . . They were asking, “Can we say Tom Cruise is gay?” And they say, “Well, no. That would be libel.” “Well, can we put him in a closet and have him refuse to come out of the closet?” “Yeah, you could do that.” Well, they did that, but they also ended up making fun of Scientology at the same time. And they were just vicious towards Scientology, saying that it’s a big fat global scam. Well that’s because they see the two different religions very differently. They don’t think Scientology produces good people the way that the Latter Day Saints do. And that’s where you can find – in those comparative nuances – is where I think you can find the real standards that South Park puts out there. And Family Guy? Family Guy is atheist. Seth MacFarlane has come out as a very prominent voice in atheist circles and early on in the programme there was . . . . So, the first three seasons of Family Guy there’s more willingness to play with the possibility that religious identities might be good things. But by the time you hit about Season Six or Seven, all the religious traditions are treated as stupid, and in some cases, very dangerous.

BF: That’s really interesting that the three project something completely different, because what people can take from them – you know, the images that they’re getting about religious people in religious institutions, that kind of broad commentary – is so varied. And that idea of, you know, spiritual-seeking is so varied. And one thing I found really interesting in the book were the examples about atheism and spiritual-but-not-religious in the three different TV shows. Because talking about, just then, the different, you know: The Simpsons as being spiritual-seeking and South Park as being this idea of creativity and then Family Guy as being atheist. Then their representation of atheism and as spiritual-but-not -religious in each show is very different. And I think it’s very interesting to see atheism and spiritual-but-not-religious in this context. Because I don’t necessarily know if it’s something that we see on TV a lot.

DF: No. And for me one of the big things was . . . . So, I’m also trained as a Sociologist of Religion and in the United States, whenever a major survey of religious affiliation is released, so let’s say the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life releases a major survey, it gets boiled down to “the number of Christians versus everybody else” in media play. (25:00) And one of the things that I was noticing, really early on, is there’s almost a fight in political and popular culture in the United States over who owns the “unaffiliated”; who the unaffiliated are. Even that term is a problem because it assumes that they’re not just being themselves and their own distinct group, just like Christians and Jews and Muslims. And if you start looking at American religious statistics, there’s a couple of thousand different denominations that get lumped into different families for statistical purposes. But there was this real question, and I saw this coming from New Atheists, people like Domar, where he would claim that people who weren’t affiliated with religion were somehow atheists like him. And I started looking at the numbers and looking at what people in those groups were saying, and I went, “You know, spiritual-but-not-religious is really a catch-all category for all kinds of stuff.” In terms of what people are doing on the ground, it’s a very creative place, where two people would say, “Well, I’m spiritual, but not religious,” and the grounds you would have to compare what they’re doing is the fact that they both say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” And I think The Simpsons in one way, and South Park in another way, kind of capture that. And how they treat atheism in all three programmes is also distinct, right? Like South Park tends to treat atheists like they would other religious extremists. In one episode, “Red Hot Catholic Love”, which is on one hand about the Catholic sexual abuse scandals that were coming out of Boston at the time when that episode was released. When the people in town find out that the kids are being abused in the Catholic Church – not in the local Catholic Church but in the Catholic Church over all – they all decide to quit and become atheists. And one of the sub-plots in that episodes is that Cartman discovers that if you stuff food up your butt, you end up pooping out your mouth. And so, long story short, all the atheists, basically . . . . The surgeon general says, “Oh yes, this is a much healthier way to eat.” So all the atheists start shoving food up their butt and crapping out their mouths. And one of the punchlines in the episode is, Father Maxi, the Catholic priest says, “You just sit around spewing a bunch of crap out of your mouths”, while one of the atheist is busy literally crapping out his mouth. And that really, I think, is one of South Park’s attacks on atheism: they see it as too extreme. Going back to “Go God Go XII”, there’s really this sense that . . . . They’ve got this race of enlightened sea otters in the future and the Wise One comes out and says about Richard Dawkins, and I’m paraphrasing here: “He had some great ideas but that doesn’t mean that he was correct on everything. Maybe, just believing in God makes God exist.” And then all the other otters gang up and kill him. And in the future, you know atheists in those episodes, atheists are at war with each other over what all the atheists should call themselves. So it’s not like atheism solves the problem of religious violence, which is what a lot of atheists were claiming at the time – or at least prominent ones. So, yes. For me, anyway, in terms of writing the book, it was thinking about the ways that we can get people to think about atheists as atheists, and people who say they’re spiritual-but-not-religious as spiritual-but-not-religious. And maybe there’s some overlap in individuals, but maybe these should be two sort-of separate categories in the way that we start thinking about religious groups and publics, certainly within the United States. And you could speak better for the Australian situation than I can.

BF: (30:00) I think we probably should take a moment to talk about . . . . We’ve had all these really great examples about the different sort-of faiths in the TV shows that you bring up in the book. And I think there’s a lot that we could take away from the book as Religious Studies scholars or Sociologists, as well. What do you think the major take-aways from the book are?

DF: I think the first one is: popular culture is something you have to pay attention to. It should be part of the data of a Religious Studies education. In a lot of cases, we teach religion and popular culture as large cash-cow courses in universities, meant to kind-of pull students into the discipline and then get put into quote-unquote “real” coursework at upper levels. And I think that undervalues the work that’s going on, that popular culture producers are doing themselves. So, one of the first takeaways is: this is deep, detailed material. I read through the book and there are days when I go, “Oh man, why didn’t I include that example, or this example?” I threw out way more than I put in, which a lot of people will tell you about their books. So there’s still. . . . I’m done working on these three series. But hopefully, somebody else will pick it up and in four or five years go, “OK! There’s new material here!” Maybe there’s been a new direction taken. I mean, South Park, for the last two years has done really interesting serial episodes throughout their seasons that are completely different from the stuff they were doing when I was writing the book. And who knows? I mean, the next season could turn completely into a massive story arc in which a particular religion or combination of religious traditions become major players. And that could change the argument that I make about South Park. Because these are still ongoing programmes and South Park is able to change directions very quickly – depending on where Trey Parker and Matt Stone want to go – unlike The Simpsons and Family Guy, which are such big productions that trying to turn those ships at this point would be incredibly difficult. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is: jokes aren’t just jokes. . . would be the way that I would put it. Humour is grossly understudied as a means of transmitting religious information. And this is one of the arguments in the book that we haven’t talked about a whole lot. But I talk about religious satire as running on sort-of two different tracks in the book. There’s the sense of, it’s religious satire in that it’s jokes about groups that are considered religions. So there are Mormon jokes in there, there’s scientology jokes. There’s two chapters on all different types of Christians, there’s Jews, there’s Muslims, there’s Buddhist and Hindus, Native American religious traditions. Because that’s where the data was. But at the same time, I argue that the humour itself is doing this work of bringing people into, and here I use a modified version of William James’ definition of religion: socialising you into an unseen order. And that, to me, has become – for me personally – one of the major take-aways from this project; that humour itself really socialises people and audiences very quickly, but with a ton of information flying at you, into a particular worldview. And we don’t pay enough attention to the way that humour is doing that. (35:00) Humour is treated as something frivolous but, at least through working with this data, I found that it was far from just joking. I found it to be an incredibly powerful way of getting across that sense of “it’s funny because it’s true.” And this book is sort of written to say, “No, things are never funny because quote-unquote “they’re true”. It’s funny because people think they’re true. And what are the consequences of socialising people into a big picture of how religious diversity should work, based on the jokes that they tell about religious groups? So, I think those would be the two biggest . . . . There’s also this last one that I always find myself bringing out now because, yeah, I’ve been told I’m a crotchety old liberal arts professor even at the age of 35. But I really do think there’s something valuable to thinking through the stuff that we are consuming. A bad episode of The Simpsons will get millions, literally, more viewers than will ever read my book. Unless, by an act of God, this becomes some sort of international bestseller. And I’m sure University Press would love if that happened, I know I would! Sitting down, thinking critically, assessing why we find certain things funny, asking ourselves, what was actually portrayed in this episode? Why do I get this joke? Because one of the experiences that scholars of religion can bring to programmes like this is, if you have a history of studying anything in religious studies – let’s say you’re a specialist in reform Judaism – you know more about, Reform Judaism than I do, because I’m not a specialist at all. But you can sit down and you can ask: OK, when they portray Jews, how are they doing that? What images are they drawing upon? What additional information can I bring into this conversation to change the way that people would look at this joke, this data? What are the advantages and disadvantages? That old-fashioned critical thinking approach. And the reason that I really like the Simpsons and South Park far more than Family Guy is that I think the Simpsons and South Park have within them a spirit of keeping that critical thinking tradition alive, far more than Family Guy does. And you can do this just by turning on your TV. And I wrote this book, in part, for students in those religion and pop culture classes, those large classes where people will show them an episode of The Simpsons, or South Park, or Family Guy and you can learn to do this from the get go. And that’s a really important vital skill for sitting down and asking who you’re going to be as a person, as a citizen, in this world. Because, at least for me, for example, when I was much younger I would laugh at racist jokes, before I ever met people of different races. I grew up in a predominantly small town, white New Brunswick culture, although there was a large Native population nearby. And it was after meeting people from different backgrounds that I went back, and I thought about jokes that I used to laugh at, and I thought, “You know, they’re really not that funny, now that I know people that fit. So why did I laugh?” And I changed my behaviour accordingly. And thinking about laughter at jokes – why you laugh, what you’re doing when you laugh. Jokes transmit a ton of information, very quickly. (40:00) And the more you can think about them, and the better you can think about them, and the clearer you can think about them, the more you can understand the relationships that are going on in the society around you. And then you can start asking what you want to do with them. And that’s kind-of where I left the book at the end. I left it open-ended, in the sense that I want readers not to stop with the book. I want them to keep thinking after they’re done reading it. So that would be the third take-away.

BF: Well, I definitely found the book left me thinking about pop culture. And everything I watch now, you laugh and you think – you’re right – why did I laugh at that? Why is it funny? And, you know particularly with The Simpsons and South Park and Family Guy, there is so much thought that goes into every single episode. And I really think that, you know, the academy is really kind-of clicked onto the politics side of those shows. They’ve clicked onto the idea that they’re commenting about Trump, or they’re commenting about American politics. But they haven’t really clicked onto the idea that they really comment about religion. And I think you’ve really clicked onto that. And it’s something that we can go beyond those three shows and really look further into pop culture at things that, perhaps we thought – you know, I hope I can say this – things that we thought perhaps weren’t worthy of our time before; these shows were a bit low-brow and low-culture. But they’re actually bringing out these ideas that people are consuming en masse. And they are conveying these ideas about religion, and this broad commentary, that people are consuming en masse. So thank you so much for joining us today. There are so many things in this interview that we can take forward and we can think about and talk about. So thank you so much for joining us again, Dave.

DF: Thank you for having me.

Citation Info: Feltmate, David and Breann Fallon. 2017. “Drawn to the Gods: Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programmes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 11 December 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 8 December 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/drawn-to-the-gods-religion-comedy-and-animated-television-programmes/

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Popular Culture, Dr. Who, and Religion

 

It’s a big universe, and sometimes things get lost in time and space. For instance, this 2013 interview with Dr. James F. McGrath was recorded but then fell into a metaphorical black hole (i.e. the potential podcast series never debuted). Fortunately, his discussion of topics including the soul, the religious ethics of artificial intelligence, and the function of science fiction on informing audiences’ spiritual sensibilities all remain (relatively) timeless. To start, he addresses the unique challenges of working across disciplines in pursuit of analyzing popular culture currently, then shifts to an exploration of religion’s study in the future. Along the way, McGrath and interviewer A. David Lewis namecheck famous characters such as Captain Kirk and Doctor Who in the effort to illustrate complex notions of the soul embedded in secular entertainments. Enjoy a trip to the past — that looks to the future!

You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Chia Pets, hot sauce, and more.

From the Ku Klux Klan to Zombies

Many of us only know about the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan through film and television, and much of what we see blurs fact and fiction. Distinguishing each side of that messy divide is the prolific Kelly J. Baker, exploring how media portrayals of the hate group have influenced audiences and, in turn, fed back on its own members. This previously unaired interview conducted by A. David Lewis from 2013 sketches out the rise of the KKK on the large and small screen, its relevance to discussions of religious terrorism today, and perhaps even a link to Baker’s other work on zombies in popular culture.

Gospel According to the Klan
The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930
Kelly J. Baker

This interview was recorded by A. David Lewis – who has been an interviewee on the RSP twice in the past – for a separate project. As fate would have it, the interview has made its way into our hands and we are delighted to bring it to you now.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Video Games and Religious StudiesReligion and Film, Religion and Literature,Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, ornaments, puncture repair kits, and more.

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.

Playing the Field: the Logistics of Religion and Video Game Studies

The field of religion and video games is still new and forming. In its struggle to find itself, it simultaneously competes with a university’s traditional understanding of both education and culture, often involving Gregory Price Grieve’s comment that video games are perceived as “low brow” culture. The view of video games as, again to quote Grieve, “just above pornography,” is a misconception that the academic study of video games is constantly fighting against.

That being said, hearing about Grieve’s success in bringing the study of video games to his university is promising. Not only was he able to establish courses for the study of religion and video games, but was also able to work with his library and university in order to establish gaming centres for students to play games. Having digital media pushed across disciplines throughout the university, as well as having a Digital Media Centre in their library, helps to establish video games and other forms of digital media as important and worthy of study in the university.

Grieve did have an understanding university, which is something important to keep in mind. While his approach to getting video games in the classroom is a format presented to be copied, not everyone is lucky enough to be present in a university that is so understanding. This is especially the case in universities rooted in academic tradition, built on older standards which seldom factor in elements of popular culture. This is not even considering the cost of this kind of endeavour. Even with a buy-in from the library, Grieve’s project still needed $10,000. And this is only considering the technicalities of this new media, and not the thought process of people who still believe that video games are not an important element of popular culture today, or who don’t seem to really care about the “popular” at all. In that sense, there are bigger problems facing some people at less understanding universities than a lack of technology.

The positive reception Grieve has experienced with his students can hopefully begin to be experienced by researchers and teachers in the study of video games in many universities throughout the world. However, there are many elements that still work against progression in the field. Some of the thoughts and actions impeding the growth of the field are, sadly, still present even among scholars in the field. By studying only video games, we impede ourselves and the progress which can be made; there are many aspects of video games which are affecting other elements of popular culture. An example of this are Let’s Play videos, in which players record themselves playing a video game, with commentary and sometimes even recordings of the player’s face (as the Let’s Player PewDiePie became known for), which are then uploaded on video sharing sites such as YouTube. Unfortunately, the popularity of Let’s Plays have been stereotyped almost as much as video games themselves are, an element that is unfortunately heard even in Grieves interview in which he relegates their popularity and interest almost exclusively to “teenagers”, even though the demographic may not be this concrete, especially for Let’s Players who are older themselves, such as Fun Haus. PewDiePIe has over 41 million subscribers, and it is hard to imagine that all 41 million are only teenagers. Not to mention that the fastest growing demographic for gaming content are women over the age of 25.[1]

What Let’s Plays demonstrate for academics of video games is the creativity enjoyed by Let’s Players. Geoff Ramsey, the founder of the Let’s Play group Achievement Hunter has commented on this creativity: “Any time we can take and use [a game] in a way that it wasn’t necessarily intended by the developers, that’s like the best thing in the world to me.”[2] This out-pouring of creativity allows researchers to have easy access to new narratives being created and the emotions they create and share. These new narratives and emotions are not experienced solely by the Let’s Player, but also by those who watch these videos; these narratives are then shared by the viewer to others, and new narratives are created by the viewer in relation to these new narratives. These videos are then not only relegated to the realm of video games, but also to internet studies and realms of internet discourse, particularly when elements of them become shared as memes.

The field of religion and video games is still emerging, and thus still solidifying its own definition and place. What is most important is for scholars interested in engaging with digital media, like video games, to demonstrate to their students, universities, and themselves that video games are a medium worthy of study.

[1] Gautam Ramdurai, “Think Gaming Content is Niche? Think Again,” Think with Google, December 2014, accessed February 2016, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/think-gaming-content-is-niche-think-again.html.

[2] Rooster Teeth, Let’s Play Live: The Documentary, Video (2015), ), http://roosterteeth.com/episode/r-t-docs-let-s-play-live-let-s-play-live-the-documentary

Video Games and Religious Studies

The project of legitimating new cultural commodities into the canon of interpretative objects can be lengthy process. In this interview with University of North Carolina at Greensboro Associate Professor Greg Grieve, video games are presented as a content moving from the margins to the center of the intersection of religion and popular culture. Grieve explains how he integrates play and critical analysis into his course, and narrates the process by which his university’s library created a space to support his innovative classroom work.

invented religions, allow users to create and experience virtual religious spaces, and much more. Students often come to video games in need to critical tools to move beyond play to critical thinking with/about games, but Grieve’s laboratory methods create miniature experimental situations for students to assess gaming content alongside the gaming experience. Like many other technical tools, games in the classroom require not just some elements of hardware but also new techniques, methods, and theoretical models. This is challenging, yes, but in Greive’s opinion the hurdles are well-worth the results: invested students, powerful classroom experiences, and content that is as diverse and rich as any other popular culture materials.

This interview was recorded at the 2015 AAR Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

**We are aware that the audio quality this week is not up to our usual standards, but we hope that the content of the interview more than makes up for this. Apologies.** 

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on Invented Religions, Religion and Film, Religion and Literature, Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You might also be interested in the article Locating the Locus of Study on “Religion” in Video Games, written by our own Jonathan Tuckett and David Robertson. You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, video games, indulgences, and more.

Conference Report (and rant): Fandom and Religion, Leicester, 2015

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by our very own Venetia Robertson, RSP Editor and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

The University of Leicester hosted the Fandom and Religion conference this July 28-30 in affiliation with the Theology, Religion and Popular Culture network. A reasonably small conference with just over 30 presenters and 50 attendees, organisers Clive Marshall and Isobel Woodcliffe of Leicester’s Lifelong Learning Centre ran the event smoothly with the help of attentive session chairs and the professional staff at the clean and comfortable College Court conference centre. The Court was truly the home of the conference—with all of the sessions, meals, drinks, and most of our accommodation being there (and with little to do in the surrounding area)—one could be excused for experiencing a bit of cabin fever by end of the week. Still, when tomorrow morning’s keynote speaker is ordering another pint at midnight, we’re probably all glad that bed is just a few steps away from the bar. I want to talk about the papers I saw, and those I wish I’d caught, because that’s primarily what a conference review should be, but I’m also going to take this opportunity to give the study of fandom and religion in general some evaluation, as this conference both pointed out to me the breadth and the dearth of this relatively new academic field.

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One of the main draws of this conference for me, and why I was willing to endure the very long plane trip to get there, was the keynote line-up. I heard of this event at last year’s Media, Religion, and Culture Conference, and was excited to see that it would be featuring excellent speakers like Kathryn Lofton (who sadly had to pull out), and scholars whose work my own is intimately connected to, like Chris Partridge and Matt Hills. The way these thinkers combine innovative thinking with the analysis of meaning-making and popular culture highlights, and inspiringly so, the importance of this area of investigation. Partridge and Hill’s plenary papers, ‘Fandom, Pop Devotion, and the Transfiguration of Dead Celebrities’ and ‘Revisiting the “Affective Spaces” of Fan Conventions: Sites of Pilgrimage, Sacredness, and Enchantment… or Non-Places?’ respectively, were both illustrative of the fruitful amalgamation of approaches from media, cultural, and religious studies when examining these developments. I brought together Partridge’s concept of occulture with Hill’s hyperdiegesis in my own paper on how medieval female mystics and modern fangirls use relational narratives with their ‘gods’ to reify sacred subjectivities from within the patriarchal cultures of Christendom and geek culture. On the whole, the conference represented multi- and inter-disciplinary methods, with scholars of anthropology, psychology, music, digital cultures, and literature alongside those of religion. There was, however, in the overall makeup and theme of Fandom and Religion, an unmistakeably strong theological bent—but more on that in a moment.

Though it meant having to miss out on what I heard was a great session on fan experiences in Bob Dylan, indie, and Israeli popular music scenes, and a session on comics and hero narratives that I would have no doubt enjoyed, I felt very satisfied with the methodological offerings from Rhiannon Grant and Emanuelle Burton that dealt with the tensions of canon and fanon, interpretation and creativity, group consensus and personal gnosis, that affect religious and fan communities alike. With a mix of midrashic, pagan, and Quaker approaches to truth and authority, this panel had my mind whirring. Papers on the commercial and the communal aspects of the Hillsong and the role of music in the Pentecostal mega church system provided fascinating insights (and stay tuned for more on this from Tom Wagner). Offerings from Bex Lewis on the Keep Calm and meme on trend and Andrew Crome on My Little Pony fandom, Bronies, and Christianity, proffered some intriguing ways in which viral cultures enable believers to remix media for religious purposes and find the sacred within the secular. Film and television were well represented with talks on American Horror Story, the Alien franchise, small screen vampires, children’s programming, and anime, though I unfortunately could not get to those sessions. Sport, fiction, and celebrity were of course popular topics, with a Harry Potter themed session, and talks on football and faith and evangelism amongst skaters and surfers. Two talks I again missed but would have liked to have caught were the inimitably odd Ian Vincent on tulpas and tulpamancy and François Bauduin’s talk on the Raelians, for what I’m sure would have been a robust discussion of how these esoteric movements translate into the online sphere, and how this affects notions of authenticity and creativity.

11222652_10156115964950413_6985333271960933871_oWhile this program certainly presents a swathe of relevant subjects in the field of fandom and religion, there were several key moments that made me realise that some central issues had gone by the wayside. It struck me that this was a very “white” conference: there were, even for a small number of papers, strikingly none that I could see on non-Western peoples or traditions. A tiny fraction looked at non-Western media and non-Abrahamic religious beliefs. Searching the abstract booklet I found Islam mentioned once, Buddhism only in passing, and no references to countries with historical, pertinent, and I would say seminal engagements with religious fandoms (Japan, India, Vanuatu are just a few examples). When pointed out during the ‘feedback session’ that concluded the conference two responses were offered: one, that there was no one writing on these topics, and two, that it’s a shame that it looks like the conference lacked diversity but that the organizing body does have one Jewish member… In her keynote, Tracy Trothen remarked on the subject of religion and sport that when we say ‘religion’ we usually mean ‘Christianity’, which I had initially interpreted as a reflexive moment on the ‘god problem’ the academy continues to have, that is, the perpetuation of “the myth of Christian uniqueness” despite the reality of pluralism and secularization, but unfortunately it merely signaled the habitual preferential treatment of this one theological outlook. The suggestion that “no one is writing on these topics” is patently false, but is indicative of the core issue I had with this event: it wasn’t just saturated with a Christo-theological focus in material and approach because that’s representative of the academy, but rather it seemed it was primarily interested in representing that viewpoint—and this is something I don’t think was made clear from the outset.

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For example, the website for this conference followed on from the flyer that had first alerted me to the “international, inter-disciplinary conference,” and stated that its purpose was to “explore interactions between religion and popular culture” which sounded great. “What is happening to fans as they express their enthusiasms and allegiances? Has fandom replaced or become a form of religion?”—cool, interesting questions, I thought. Compare with this description from a CFP I, after the fact, found elsewhere: “A Major Conference for Faith Community Practitioners and Academics,” “including a session solely for faith community practitioners.” There were actually several ‘practitioner’ sessions, and it seemed clear after a while that ‘faith community’ meant Christian worship. It became explicit from the first day with our welcome that in part this event was for not just religious people but those active in their Churches to learn not so much about, but from fandoms. I am used to attending academic conferences with a notable number of ‘practitioners’ present, they may even present non-academic papers. I am also used to having to define religious studies as a separate disciplinary enterprise to theology. But what I wasn’t expecting in Leicester, and I don’t think I was alone here, was to be at a conference where religion, theology, and Christianity were so automatically synonymous that it didn’t seem to occur to the organisers that major non-Christian themes in religion and fandom had been overlooked in their selection of papers, or even that such themes were major. I wasn’t expecting to feel like such an outsider, as a religious studies academic at what I had thought was an academic religious studies affair.

To be fair, now that I have delved deeper into the faith-based networks that organised this event (Donald Wiebe). However, this issue goes beyond the academy, and this became obvious when a reporter for a religion-themed program on BBC4 interviewed some of the conference’s speakers. What thankfully doesn’t make it into our few minutes of fame in this radio segment is the interviewer’s clear discomfort with the idea of converging ‘obsessive’ fans and their ‘low brow’ media with ‘devoted’ believers and their ‘respectable’ forms of the divine. “Are they [typical othering language] just crazy?” he asks me of fans, and makes me repeat my answer several times in order to get something “more quippy, less academic”, and, I suppose, more damning to confirm his perception that there are right and wrong forms of meaning-making. Journalists from The Daily Mail also tried (but failed) to get a talking head, so I guess things could have been worse.

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

I certainly don’t mean to detract from the importance of making niche areas like fandom and religion studies visible on an international and interdisciplinary scale, or the much-appreciated effort that went in to the organisation and contribution of this conference and its participants: there was indeed a wealth of interesting, useful, and high-quality papers. Nonetheless, as a reflection on the state of popular culture and its integration into multi­-religious studies (not to mention the relevant spheres of civil/quasi/alternative/implicit religion etc.) I feel these criticisms need timely evaluation. And I have some heartening thoughts to that effect: there is a blossoming field of intersectional work on these topics at the moment if one takes the time to look! The promotional material available at Leicester, interestingly, confirmed this, and I include some pictures of it here. I think it’s telling that Joss Whedon studies has had its own journal, Slayage, for over ten years, but to find more journal articles on a vast panoply of religion and fandom junctures you can try the Journal Of Religion And Popular Culture, the classic Journal Of Popular Culture or the newer Transformative Works And Cultures and the Journal of Fandom Studies, whose book reviews keep on top of the most recent additions to this field. This conference also saw the launch of the comprehensive volume, The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture (which ranges in price between $277 AUD on BookDepository to a whopping $405 at Angus and Robertson), edited by John Lyden and Eric Mazur, as yet another example of the popularity of this topic in contemporary scholarship. I’m also pleased to say that my paper will be a chapter in the forthcoming volume for INFORM/Ashgate, Fiction, Invention, and Hyper-reality: From Popular Culture to Religion (edited by Carole Cusack and Pavol Kosnáč) alongside some brilliant minds exploring the relationship of spirituality to conspiracy theories, Tolkein’s legendarium, Discordianism, with a handful of, yes, practitioner’s accounts, this time from Pagans, Jedis and Dudeists—it’s sure to be a vibrant, diverse, and illuminating contribution to the discussion on fandom and religion.

 

 

Pilgrimage as Tension

That we now understand that people undertake pilgrimages for more than pious reasons has been one of the most significant advances in ‘pilgrimage studies’ to date. In Paulina Kolata’s interview with Prof. Ian Reader this is illustrated with a number of examples, though it is important to note that Reader shies away from a definition. For those who insist on the definition of terms this is a problem, of course, but I suspect the omission was deliberate. Among the reasons for this that are discussed is the notion that any term developed in one cultural-linguistic group will immediately face translation problems when being applied to another. Nonetheless, there is a tacit definition in use for the purposes of the interview which appears to be ‘travel connected to institutional religion’. The exception to this is ‘secular pilgrimage’ which Reader attaches to themes of popular culture, informal religious iconography and meanings, and, less obviously, questions of personal and collective meaning, all of which take place outside the jurisdiction of an institutional religious group. Questions of definition aside, there is an important theme Reader returns to a number of times throughout the interview; that pilgrims do a lot of stuff that is not ‘religious’ that scholars in religious studies have thus largely ignored.

In lieu of definitions, Reader asks questions about popularity and attraction, and, when prompted by Kolata, about meaning. By these routes a general picture of pilgrimage emerges. There are, Reader argues, certain conditions that must be met for a pilgrimage site to become successful and popular. Amongst these, infrastructure and marketing are important. Entertainment, Reader argues, has always been a part of religion and always a part of pilgrimage. In Western scholarship, however, there has been some kind of Protestant-informed unease with enjoyment when it comes to religiosity. This has given rise to a certain idea of pilgrims as serious travellers – a notion of pious, mobile flagellation in search of absolution – which contrasts with a domain of tourism in which entertainment is dominant and thus is frivolous and demanding of a scholarly shun (Digance 2006). But this dichotomy, Reader notes, is not present in many other traditions around the world. Furthermore, regardless of scholarly dismissal, pilgrimage sites are often places of entertainment – food, performances, conviviality, sex – regardless of culture or dominant religious group, and this is an important part of what attracts people. The reasons people might go on what they call ‘a pilgrimage’ are complex. Amusement may be as important as communion, escape from everyday life as important as prayer. But, and this is an important point that does not come up in the interview, they may not be the reasons a person may give when asked by fieldworking scholars. This is where a question asked by Kolata about the meaning of pilgrimage practices brings Reader to the heart of the interview’s thesis. Common themes in pilgrimage traditions, Reader infers, are metaphors of the journey of life, and, simultaneously, an escape from the realities of that life.

Reader’s argument is compelling and raises some important and intriguing questions. In my own work on spiritual tourism (Norman 2011) the themes he highlights were no less common,[1] and I too emphasise the importance of looking at the whole picture of a travel site or tradition in order to triangulate data and draw reliable conclusions. The working model Reader suggests is one that understands pilgrimages as travel to religious sites in which the motivations of travellers are a mixture of piety, curiosity, escape, boredom, transformation, and any number of other ‘non-religious’ and ‘religious’ reasons. The point, as noted in the interview, is that traditions of travel, apart from anything else, have probably always been, in part, about getting away from home and seeing something new, satisfying some human urge for mobility, to explore, to see new things, and to learn. In addition, popularity is also a factor as people desire to go where others also go. This is complicated by Reader’s assertion that piety is not a prerequisite for pilgrimage, though this, of course, depends on who one asks. Even a cursory examination of the historical record of pilgrimage traditions in Europe illustrates that pilgrims have always been suspicious of the peregrinatory status of other pilgrims. The overall point, however, is that from the outside, pilgrimage traditions are those traditions of travel in which meaning and/or transformation are portrayed as important, but that in practice hang in tension with other equally important, though less acknowledged motivations and desires.

For my current work, this notion has some important implications. At present I am working on the qualitative analysis of interview material gathered as part of the Shamatha Project, examining the effects of an intensive three-month shamatha meditation training retreat. If people have gone on pilgrimage to sites they consider special (as Taves 2012, would put it), but, as Reader contends, also in order to escape the everyday, to seek entertainment, and to ‘go to popular sites’, then in the phenomenon of people in Western societies going on Buddhist meditation retreats, we ought to be able to find evidence of those other ‘non-religious’ factors. At least somewhere and somehow. This, of course, assumes we are willing to consider ‘retreat tourism’ or ‘contemplative tourism’, as I’m going to neologise it here, in the same light as the range of vastly different traditions of travel that we are otherwise happy to lump under the ‘pilgrimage’ label. And I am, as are others (Eddy 2012), because if we look at some of the sociological studies of retreats and their touristic dimensions we can find some evidence of just such complex approaches (e.g. Voigt et al. 2010). An important implication is that, far from being simply about a journey towards truth, or of transformation or progression towards enlightenment or mindfulness, retreat practices in the West will also be about escape from the everyday, about seeing somewhere new, learning, and, overall, about being something different from normal for the retreatant/traveller/pilgrim.

Of course, the first step in testing the model Reader puts forward (albeit somewhat tacitly) is rigorous, qualitative research that investigates the interplay of expressed motivations, outcomes, and actual practices. I am confident enough in Reader’s model, especially in the light of my own research on spiritual tourism and on World Youth Day (2011), to predict that a complex mix of contesting interests held in tension is what will be found, at least in Western meditation retreat contexts. Certainly if we look at some examples of successful and popular retreats, like Spirit Rock Meditation Centre in California, we find the signs Reader predicts: good infrastructure, coordinated marketing, catering for many tastes and approaches, escape from the everyday, social gatherings apart from the practice, and so on. As opposed to undermining the special status of retreat practices, research showing such observations would, in fact, emphasise the sociological importance of retreat experiences for retreatants. Retreat visits/pilgrimages often are, by design, by intent, and in practice, journeys of significance for a range of personal and social reasons. But we cannot turn our eyes from the supposedly non-sacred, hedonistic, entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, or to put it simply, the enjoyable dimensions of retreats. For many who enter a retreat, just as for those who go on other pilgrimages, the journey is a special tradition of travel, a journey redolent with meaning, precisely because it occurs in response to complex personal and social motivations that are held in tension.

References

Digance, Justine. “Religious and Secular Pilgrimage: Journeys Redolent with Meaning.” In Tourism, Religion and Spiritual Journeys, edited by Dallen J. Timothy and Daniel H. Olsen, 36–48. London: Routledge, 2006.

Eddy, Glenys. “The Vipassana Retreat Experience: A Consideration of the Meditation Retreat as a Religious Paradigm of Travel.” Literature & Aesthetics 22, no. 1 (2012). http://ojs-prod.library.usyd.edu.au/index.php/LA/article/view/7574.

Norman, Alex. Spiritual Tourism: Travel and Religious Practice in Western Society. London: Continuum, 2011.

Norman, Alex, and Mark Johnson. “World Youth Day: The Creation of a Modern Pilgrimage Event for Evangelical Intent.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 26, no. 3 (2011): 371–85.

Taves, Ann. “Special Things as Building Blocks of Religions.” In The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, edited by Robert A. Orsi, 58–83. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Voigt, Cornelia, Gary Howat, and Graham Brown. “Hedonic and Eudaimonic Experiences among Wellness Tourists: An Exploratory Enquiry.” Annals of Leisure Research 13, no. 3 (January 1, 2010): 541–62. doi:10.1080/11745398.2010.9686862.

[1] I’ll put aside my wish to respond to Reader’s dismissal of ‘spirituality’ apart from noting the ironic similarity it bears to the dismissal of dimensions of pilgrimage he had just been discussing.

Religion and Literature

How can studying literature help us to study religion? And what the question even mean? In this interview, Alana Vincent, Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Chester, sets out some of the interesting intersections of these two fields. We can glean ethnographic or historical detail from literary works, and sometimes read particular insider discourses in their pages. We can read literature as a “sacred text” – or indeed, “sacred text” as literature”. Does literature, as a form where imagination is allowed free reign, provide a space for authors and readers to explore ‘matters of ultimate concern’, within or without religious institutions?

DSCF0481This interview was recorded LIVE! at the University of Chester on the 15th of October, 2014. Thanks to Chester and to Dawn Llewellyn for making the event possible. The interview leads directly onto the roundtable “Narrative, Ethnography and Reflexivity” which will be broadcast this Wednesday.

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.

Studying Vernacular Religion in the US

Vernacular religion is a subject which fascinates us here at the RSP, because in keeping with our critical perspective, it challenges that idea that neat categorical boundaries may be drawn, and reminds us that when attempts are made to draw them, particular interests are being served. David Robertson was given the chance to sit down with Leonard Norman Primiano – one of the pre-eminent scholars of that field – at the BASR 2014 conference in Milton Keynes earlier this month, and we are delighted to bring you the fruits of that meeting today.

The Virgin Mary and Child Jesus with Saints, 1882, Oil on Wood, 13 1/4 x 17 3/4 inchesPrimiano begins by describing how he came to study vernacular religion as a young scholar under Don Yoder, who introduced the ethnographic study of “folk religion” to the US academy. We discuss the relationship between the study of religion and the study of folklore, and he then introduces some of his ongoing research. Particular attention is paid to the case of Father Divine and the Peace Mission movement, an indigenous US communitarian religious movement, now in terminal decline. Of particular interest is Primiano’s emphasis that vernacular religion should not be considered beside mainstream religion; rather, vernacular religion is all religion as it is encountered in the field.

Primiano is Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pennsylvania. He has published widely – please click his photo in the right-hand column above for details of his recent publications. He is currently curating Graces Received, an exhibition of painted and metal ex votos from Italy at Cabrini College until October 26th, 2014. It will open at Indiana University’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures in January for the Spring semester.

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.

Demons, possessions, and exorcisms: Sean McCloud on “Spiritual Warfare”

How should one approach the study of demons and spiritual warfare? In this conversation with University of North Carolina, Charlotte professor Sean McCloud, demons, possessions, and exorcisms that might have once been considered fringe or marginal elements of the American religious scene are now part of a robust “haunted” or supernatural landscape.

Today the spiritual warfare movement that began in mission fields in South America and Africa is now institutionalized in the charismatic New Apostolic Reformation churches as well as popularized in film and cinema. Where should we place haunted objects in the world of religious studies? What do we do with figures like Peter Wagner who led the supernatural movement and then found himself attacked by his allies?

What we find is a transnational interest with demons that has yet to be fully charted or explained. McCloud argues that rising supernatural interest coincides with consumerism and neoliberal capitalism. In the spiritual warfare manuals that serve as his primary data, capitalist and even therapeutic language seems to mark this as a product that borrows from a wide range of 20th century themes. Even perceived enemies of evangelicalism—like the soft metaphysical stylings of The Secret—become fodder for incorporation into the spiritual warfare paradigm. Welcome to the supernatural turn!

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.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

Picture 118While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

By Travis Warren Cooper, Indiana University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 5 June 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Paul WIlliamson on Serpent Handling (3 June 2013)

In one melancholic and chilling scene in director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), leading man Brad Pitt’s rendition of the famous American outlaw sits outside his Missouri home. He holds snakes in his hand, both as an allusion to Jesse James’s revivalist family background and intertextual echo of earlier filmic portrayals of the outlaw’s capricious and violent personality.

The Jesse James of the historical record was not an Appalachian serpent-handling Pentecostal, of course. But Hollywood likes to blend its symbols, especially its religious ones, and tends to prefer homogenized provocation over denominational specification. In an earlier Revisionist Western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), Robert Duvall―an actor now known for his critical portrayals of charismatic religions in films such as The Apostle (1997)―stages a prophetic utterance to determine Northfield,

Minnesota as the next site of exploit. This revival-type soliloquy, along with the snake-handling allusion of the 2007 film, construes Jesse James in terms of both violent outlawry and religious extremism. If film is to any degree a barometer of cultural perceptions on a subject, both Pitt and Duvall’s scenes are commentaries on the close relationship between religion and violence. Serpent-handling is one visible face of these tensions.

A lightning-rod of controversy, serpent-handling is a contentious practice on multiple levels. As popular media attest, the ritual is a filmic symbol of North American religion. More specifically, it is an iconic metonym of U. S. Pentecostalism. Protestants live deeply material lives, as scholars have argued (McDannell, 1995), and some of them interact with prayer cloths, guitars, bottled anointing oils, thick hymnbooks, and worn family Bibles in densely intertwined networks of objects and quasi-objects of the Latourian sort (1993). In obedience to what they see as clear biblical mandate, snake-handling Pentecostals take up canebrake rattlers and copperheads—and on rare occasions, cottonmouths or diamondbacks—living objects that have the potential to strike and kill their bearers. Snakes are living agents and dangerous ritual objects.

That religion manifests in violence often finds itself made light of in pop cultural depictions, such as in Duvall’s expert mimicry of a Southern preacher’s drawl as he gives his pseudo-prophecy. Is this an uneasy laughter, a nervous chuckle, of sorts, that holds cultural anxieties at bay, and perhaps allows viewers to laugh off these ambivalences? Cultural depictions of serpent-handlers are often cynically comical in their accounts. Moe Szyslak, a character in The Simpsons, brandishes bandaged hands and refuses to join Homer’s new religion, saying, “I was born a snake handler, and I’ll die a snake handler.” More recently, comedian Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a Democratic Congressman from North Carolina in The Campaign (2012). In this irreverent parody of the American political system, Brady attempts to assuage the public’s concern that he is not really a Christian by joining a serpent-handling congregation. All this occurs after his political opponents shame him for not being able to publicly recite the Lord’s Prayer. “I have the power in me!” he exclaims, dancing in a group of other handlers at the front of a small church that brims with visibly ecstatic worshipers. “I could do this forever. These snakes love me.” Brady’s glee is short lived, though, as one of the snakes predictably strikes, sinking its fangs deep into his forearm. He rips it out, uttering a string of expletives. But even as his sight blurs and he breaks out in feverish sweats, Brady manages to turn the situation for political gain.

In terms of scholarly representation, however, comedies such as The Candidate and long-running favorites like The Simpsons simply get it wrong. While they evidence a cultural uneasiness with the practice, they do not accurately portray the marginalized group in focus. Comical films stereotype and homogenize fringe religious practices; scholarly study elucidates complex social and cultural minutiae. While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions. But this is just harmless slapstick comedy, one might claim. It would be all fun and games if it were not for the fact that cultural understandings—public opinion informed by (and informing) common stereotypes—often exhibit themselves at the legislative level.

According to one of the most recent and most thorough studies of Appalachian serpent-handlers, “legislatures and courts have had little real knowledge of serpent-handling churches and therefore have little basis on which to judge whether serpent handling is dangerous to others” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 214). In 1940, Kentucky passed the first law banning “intentional exposure to venomous reptiles” in religious gatherings. Tennessee and Virginia delivered bans of their own in 1947. North Carolina and Alabama followed suit in 1949 and 1950. Notably, North Carolina and Georgia have legislated even further by prohibiting the preaching of beliefs about snake handling, rather than simply banning the practice itself. “Thus in North Carolina and Georgia even preaching from Mark 16:17-18 could be interpreted as a violation of state law,” the authors lament. These sorts of state actions “not only infringe on religious practice but on the right to religious belief as well.” West Virginia, in 1963, passed a bill that made the handling of poisonous serpents a misdemeanor. Both Georgia and Alabama ratcheted up the legal consequences of serpent handling by bringing the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony (Ibid., 208-217).

Two of Hood and Williamson’s arguments are that stereotypes influence legislation and legislation has tended to unconstitutionally limit the practices of snake handlers. Overall, Americans tend to resist approving of religions that might bring physical harm to its devotees. “It is implicit in a commonsense view that religion must be ‘good’ and should not condone rituals that can maim or kill. While this is a reasonable position, it also can be viewed as a prejudice. Why cannot religion legitimately endorse a practice that can maim or kill?” Ultimately, they argue that “despite the fact that serpent handlers are injured and killed, their faith may be both sincere and valid” (Ibid., 209). Stereotypes and prejudices against fringe religious groups like serpent-handlers do not realize the cultural specificity of the rituals, the meaning derived by participants from performance in it. To be certain, the authors do not shy from describing the violent nature of the practice. They go to disquietingly specific lengths, in fact, to describe the physical effects of snake bites and admit that increased handling of snakes actually increases rather than decreases the potentiality of attacks (Ibid., 87, 85).

Besides attempting to accurately document the rituals of their subjects, the authors contextualize and humanize the snake-handlers, putting faces on the people who engage in the rituals and find theological meaning from the practice—regardless if it is dangerous. Since the origins of U.S. Pentecostalism, they point out, there have been under a total of 100 documented fatalities due to serpent-handling rituals. In the interview, Williamson points out the irony that state governments feel the need to prohibit the religious practice while turning a blind eye to excessively dangerous sporting activities. Consider, for instance, that between 1931 and 2008 some 1,013 fatalities occurred due to athletic participation in the sport of (American) football (Mueller and Colgate, 2009), a (quasi-religious) ritual in its own right. Further, the authors examine stereotypes themselves, finding that when exposed to ethnographic data, critical outsiders actually softened their opinions and became more empathetic in their understandings of the handlers (Hood and Williamson 2008, 222). Practitioners do die from snake bites, but these deaths are uncommon exceptions. The snake-handling rituals, in terms of safety, are actually quite contained: “Experienced researchers know that church members and observers are not endangered by others who are handling serpents.” There is also “no documented case of a non-handling member being bitten by a serpent handled by another believer” (Ibid., 214). Those who handle are consenting adults, to apply a term with heavy cultural baggage, and as little as ten to fifteen percent of congregants handle the snakes in services. Children do not participate, and those not handling the serpents sit apart from the ritual as it proceeds. In short, Hood and Williamson find that serpent-handlers have largely been misrepresented in both cultural stereotypes as well as legal precedent. They intend their study to address some of these issues.

My response to Hood and Williamson’s theses is mixed. With Russell McCutcheon’s critic/caretaker binary echoing in my mind (2001), passages arguing that the faith of the handlers “may be both sincere and valid” through an application of Soren Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 209) seem to me at first to step well beyond the qualifications of the scholar of religion. What place do scholars have in evaluation of the quality and sincerity of a group’s theological systems of belief and action? Further, are academics scholars or activists? Are we to study particular people groups or argue on behalf of and in support of them? At points the authors come across as explicit advocates or spokespersons for these marginalized Pentecostal churches. We would do wrong, however, to dismiss the work as it is the most sustained and nuanced study on the subject to-date. Have not subaltern studies scholars taught us that all academic writings are political acts, produced within privileged positions of power and prestige? Scholars, especially those studying living peoples, cannot ignore the fact that we have ethical obligations towards our subjects of study. For those of us who work with human subjects, pre-research training and approval through Institutional Review Board (IRB) requirements are constant reminders of these obligations. As primarily an ethnographic work, Hood and Williamson’s study rightly falls under the category of critical ethnography as it assumes “an ethical responsibility to address processes of unfairness or injustice within a particular lived domain,” in anthropologist D. Soyini Madison’s words (2005, 5; emphasis original).

There are no easy solutions for these issues. Hood has gone as far as calling for those who have died from snake-bite related complication to be lauded for their willingness to follow biblical mandate (find the Washington Post article here). In response, other scholars have allowed for an empathetic respect, of sorts, but reject that lauding need occur. Still others argue that endorsement via lauding, respect, and empathy is a less relevant construct that should have little bearing on whether or not a scholar effectively understands a phenomenon. Toward the end of Brad Pitt’s scene, he turns the tables on viewers’ expectations. He discusses with the young Robert Ford how good the snakes taste fried, how he gives snakes the names of his enemies before he eats them. Then in one fell action he flattens the heads of the serpents across a table and decapitates them. If one doubts the allusion to the Pentecostal ritual, a woman vocalizes “Amazing Grace” in the background. The decapitated snakes writhe around the outlaw’s arm. This is only one possible interpretation of a symbolically polysemous scene, of course, but one cannot help but read into it one’s own theorizations. Is this not serpent-handling with a shocking twist, a bloodied reversal of viewer expectation? Pitt adds violence to violence as he underscores the controversial American ritual. Films of this sort obscure the ritual¾making it even more foreign and violent, so to say¾but as scholars of religion we must work to elucidate and understand it.

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.

About the Author

Picture 118Travis is an associate instructor and doctoral student at Indiana University (Bloomington) in religious studies and anthropology (doctoral major and minor emphases, respectively). His primary research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, revivalism, and televangelism, with excursions into theory of religion and the body, materiality, cognition, gender, media, anthropology of film, and visual culture. Travis is an ethnographer by methodological trade. His published works include “Marjoe Gortner, Imposter Revivalist: Toward a Cognitive Theory of Religious Misbehavior” (PentecoStudies 12.1 (2013): 83-105, and “‘Cooking with Gordon’: Food, Health, and the Elasticity of Evangelical Gender Roles (and Belt Sizes) on The 700 Club” (Religion & Gender 3.1 (2013): 107-123. He also writes informally about his academic work on his personal blog, “Mythology & Footnotes.”

References

  • Hood, Ralph W. and W. Paul Williamson. Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
  • Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Madison, D. Soyini. Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005.
  • McCutcheon, Russell T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Religion: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Mueller, Frederick O. and Bob Colgate. “Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, 1931-2012.” Unpublished paper, prepared for the American Football Coaches Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association, and The National Federation of State High School Association, 2013.

Podcasts

Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture

Many of our discussions at the Religious Studies Project focus upon the complex intersections between ‘religion’ – whatever that is – and ‘popular culture’. And justifiably so. Indeed, our good friend and colleague Vivian Asimos of Durham University has been producing the very interesting “Religion and Popular Culture Podcast” for a while now. But what about Religious Studies (as a field of study), and the people who do it, in popular culture? When we initially thought about this, we could certainly come up with a list of academics and “bookish” people who are somewhat problematically and wildly inaccurately portrayed in popular culture – from archaeology’s Indiana Jones and paleontology’s Ross Gellar to archivists’ Rupert Giles and linguistics’ Louise Banks – but we struggled to come up with many examples of the study of religion as we, here at the RSP, know it. Luckily, today’s guests have given the question much more attention! Given that popular cultural representations are more likely to shape public perceptions about what the study of religion is and who does it than either direct experience in the classroom or statistics about graduation rates and job placements, we hope that you will agree that we should try to understand what these perceptions are. In this podcast, Chris speaks with Professors Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey about this fascinating and important topic. This interview is based on a recently published article – From Middlemarch to The Da Vinci Code: Portrayals of Religious Studies in Popular Culture – a shorter version of which has been published in blog form as Casaubon’s Revenge: Popular Representations of the Scholar of Religion.

You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Aluminum foil, Zucchini, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture

Podcast with Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey. (8 October 2018)

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Collins_and_Tobey_-_Representations_of_Religious_Studies_in_Popular_Culture_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): Many of our discussions at the Religious Studies Project focus upon the complex intersections between religion – whatever that is – and popular culture, and justifiably so. Indeed, our good friend and colleague Vivian Asimos, of Durham University, has been producing a very interesting religion and popular culture podcasts for a while now. But what about Religious Studies, and the people who do it, in popular culture? When I initially thought about this, I could certainly come up with a list of academics and bookish people who are somewhat problematically, and wildly inaccurately portrayed in popular culture – from archaeology’s Indiana Jones, and palaeontology’s Ross Geller, to archivist’s Rupert Giles, or Linguistics’ Louise Banks. But, I have to admit, I struggled to come up with many examples of the Study of Religion, as we – here at the Religious Studies Project – know it. Luckily, today’s guests have the question much more firmly in focus. Given that, as they argue, popular culture representations are more likely to shape public perceptions about what the Study of Religion is, and who does it, than either direct experience in the classroom or statistics about graduation rates and job placements, we hope that you will agree that we should try to understand what these perceptions are. So joining me today, to discuss this fascinating and important topic, are Professors Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey. So first off, Brian and Kristen, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Brian Collins (BC): Thanks for having us.

Kristen Tobey (KT): Thank you.

CC: I’ll just say a little bit about who you are. Brian Collins is Associate Professor and the Drs. Ram and Sushila Gawande Chair in Indian Religion and Philosophy, at Ohio University. He’s the author of The Head Beneath the Altar: Hindu Mythology and the Critique of Sacrifice, and various essays on Hinduism and the Study of Religion. And his second book, The Other Rama: Matricide and Varṇicide

In the Mythology of Paraśurāma – apologies for the pronunciation – is forthcoming from SUNY press. And Kristen Tobey is Assistant Professor of Religion and Social Sciences at John Carroll University, in Cleveland, Ohio. And her research treats religious identity formation and communication in the contemporary United States. And she’s the author of Plowshares: Protest, Performance and Religious Identity in the Nuclear Age. So that’s where you’re coming from. How did you get interested, then, in this question of the representation of the Study of Religion in popular culture? It doesn’t necessarily sound like it’s your main research focus. So how did you get into that?

BC: Well, shall I answer this one Kristen?

KT: Yes, go first.

BC: I asked Kristen to join me, and she graciously did. And together we worked on a project. But it started out because – and I think both of us had an idea at some point – we study religion, and we have to actually tell people that we study religion and then see what they think we do. So very, very infrequently does someone have an actual idea of what the Study of Religion, in the university, entails! You know, I teach classes in Hinduism and Buddhism and if you take both classes, students– who are in the same class – typically ask you: “Why are you teaching this? I thought you were a Hindu.” Or, “Why are you teaching this, I thought you were a Buddhist?” Because I’m teaching both classes. So the idea of studying religion as an academic subject is a mystery to most people. And I say, “Well if they don’t know, what do they know? And where do they get the information?” So I started watching a lot of movies on TV, and I consumed a lot of junk culture. So I saw a few people, here and there, who seemed to be, basically, doing what I do – but not in a way that I recognised! And so I had to cast a wide net and see what impressions were out there.

KT: (Laughs.) I face the same thing. Less from my students, because I teach in a Catholic school so they’re familiar with religion teachers – although not quite the same way I tend to do it. But I face this a lot with my research subjects who are very suspicious of the idea of someone studying religion academically, because the examples that they see, as Brian says, in pop culture, are so very strange. So when Brian asked me to join this project I was really excited, for that reason – and also because my research usually deals with how religious people either present themselves, or are presented. So to think about another piece of that – as you said, Chris: “Well, how is the field presented? How are the people who do it presented?” That was very interesting to me, and thinking about questions of identity.

CC: Wonderful. I should have said in the introduction, of course, that part of the reason that we’re having this conversation is that the two of you have just published an article – I say just – June 2018 – in the Religious Studies Review (5:00) which was called, “From Middlemarch to the Da Vinci Code: Portrayals of Religious Studies in Popular Culture”. So that will give a hint, to the Listeners, of where we might be going with our in-depth examples, here. But before we get to Middlemarch and The Da Vinci Code, how did you go about selecting your cases and just conducting this study in general? As I say, I struggled . . . I mean Robert Langdon, from The Da Vinci Code, kind-of came to mind but, as we’ll discover later on, that’s not really Religious Studies, is it? Sorry! There’s a siren going on outside, as well! That’s typical here.

KT: I’m just so glad that’s you and not me! (Laughs).

CC: Ah. They’re not coming for me, Listeners. Yes. So, Robert Langdon certainly came to mind. But I really struggled to think. So, how did you go about even finding your case studies?

BC: Well, for me, I did have to think about. That’s a methodological question we had to ask at the very beginning. And I compiled a list. I said, “Indiana Jones sort of reminds me of a person who does religion, but he’s clearly identified as an archaeologist. So I wanted to find people that weren’t clearly identified as archaeologists or classicists, or anthropologists. There’s a different article, two articles, by anthropologists in literature and movies that we cite in our article. But they seem to be studying something like what we do. So I eliminated people like parapsychologists and clearly identified historians, so there was a sort-of middle ground. Robert Langdon is a “Religious Symbolist” which is a totally made-up profession, at a real university! Whereas Casaubon from Middlemarch, the other big example that we treat, is . . . . Well what is he identified as, Kristen? Just a scholar?

KT: He’s identified as a scholar, but he’s very clearly engaged in work that would be recognisable for a historian of religions. Pretty much in the mould of somebody from that era. So it was actually, in many ways, a pretty accurate depiction. But as far as garnering the case studies and garnering the examples, I remember Brian – was it years ago maybe? Or do I just have a skewed chronology on this? That you sent round an email to maybe half-a-dozen people, saying “Hey, I’m thinking about this. What examples can you think of? And one thing that was really striking to me was that, as those emails came back to you, most of them were from horror movies, right? The vast majority of these characters were in scary movies, doing scary things. You know, summoning demons, or whatever else. So, as far as characters that we might actually recognise as doing the work that we do, Casaubon is one of very few examples.

BC: Yes. That’s what I did. I crowd-searched the research! It’s easier to get someone else to do the research for you, I find! So I came up with a list and then I said, “. . . like these people. Anybody else you can think of,” again, “that’s not identified clearly as something else?” And so I did get a long list. There were comic books on there. There were podcasts on there. There were movies, mostly horror movies on there. There were a few novels on there. And some of the ones I ended up having to eliminate . . . they were the sort-of archivists. There were a lot of archivists – like the Giles, from Buffy, that you talked about. And that was a limit case for me. I didn’t know whether to include those or not. But I feel like they’re somewhere in the mix. But, for our article, we didn’t discuss them. Archivists have a family resemblance to the archetype of the Religious Studies person. But we ended up leaving them out, because they’re . . . if you asked who they are, somebody can tell you that they’re an archivist, and not a religionist. The case is that nobody is identified as an historian of religion or a religionist. Partly that’s our fault. We have no easily identifiable, transferrable job title from university to university, nor even a place at university that can consistently be found. So it was just that way in the representations, too. We had to kind-of make decisions along the way, and narrow it down.

KT: Yes, with the very memorable exception – and tell me if I’m getting ahead of things here – of Emily Dumont in Black Tapes, right? I think she’s one of just a handful, really, of three or four, who was actually introduced as a professor of Religious Studies. But then it turns out what she does is not really like what professors of Religious Studies do at all! But she’s one of the few who actually get that label attached to her.

CC: Excellent. Well we can get to that . . . The Black Tapes is a podcast that I, unfortunately, had never heard of when I read your article – but you do a good job of discussing it (10:00). So it would be quite good for us on the Religious Studies Project Podcast to discuss that. But I’ll just also mention that I put out on Twitter last week that we were doing this podcast, and we got a couple of responses. I asked, what were your personal favourites and bugbears? So Richard Newton at the University of Alabama said that he likes Professor Jamal in Mooz-lum. He said that there was an emphasis on good questions over simple answers, embrocation of race and religion, and examination of the insider/ outsider problem. And then another character that you discuss is in the Hulu series, The Path. And what came back? We had Tylor Tully saying that he had really enjoyed The Path on Hulu, and their inclusion of a Religious Studies scholar – particularly their treatment of an emerging religious tradition. But then Joel Bordeaux said that the religion professor on The Path is probably the worst he’s ever seen: invited as a guest to a class, openly deriding their tradition, conducting secret sexual relationships with research subjects, deliberately intervening in communities he’s studying, and so on! So you might want to respond to some of that, and then maybe tell us about Emily Dumont.

BC: Well, I think Emily Dumont is interesting. I do want to talk about Jackson Neill from The Path actually. It’s one of the best examples, and it came very late in this project, which was . . . . I was watching the show and I said, “Now I have to go back and rewrite a large part of this!” And I did. But Emily Dumont . . . The Black Tapes is a podcast. It’s a sort of like The X Files. It’s told in the style of a true crime serial-type podcast, where they’re investigating supposedly true occurrences, and the characters are meant to be real people. So it blurs the line between fiction, and reality, and journalism. But they interview people and they interview a religious studies scholar. And she is specifically interested in demonology. She’s described as very sort-of informally dressed. She described her as an over-grown high school freshman with a Ramones T shirt and a funky haircut. And sort of irreverent. And also speaking about Chemtrails, which is strange conspiracy theory about air travel, or something – I don’t really understand it! But it was bizarre X Files-type stuff. And it was put in the mouth of a Religious Studies professor. Elsewhere on the same podcast there’s a different Religious Studies professor, who openly derides her as crank – even though she’s in a university and he’s not – who takes a really hard-nosed, scientific, some would say a kind-of reductivist view of religion. And his job is to disprove . . . . Miracles are a pretty common theme. The job is either to disprove religion or to become a leader of religion. But in the case of Emily Dumont, she’s marginalised as someone who’s sort of a joke. And that’s a little disconcerting. I think that a podcast like that, you’re likely to have people who went to college, an audience who went to college, and somewhere along the way had a class. So I feel like this person seems to me that it was drawn from some experience of some whacky Religious Studies professor. I mean, that was my read on it. What did you think, Kristen?

KT: I think that’s possible. But I also think that podcast is doing something really odd, in that it’s conflating paranormal studies – paranormal activity – with religion in a wholesale, non-nuanced way. Because we do have this Emily Dumont character who’s very childlike, who’s very gullible, who represents one possibility, right: a person who’s involved in Religious Studies and the paranormal because of naiveté, let’s say. But then there’s the other character, Richard Strand, who is very sceptical, very perceptive. He’s not a Religious Studies professor, but he was a Religious Studies major, we are told. So we have these two extremes, both attached to the field of Religious Studies, but then . . . . And I should say, I only managed to listen to the first half-dozen or so episodes before it became too scary for me (laughs).They were interesting, but it was too scary and I couldn’t continue. But throughout those first few episodes we get other characters being brought in, who are also sort-of oddly attached to religion. For example, one character who is described as being – and I’m pretty much quoting here – “what theologians would call a Biblical Demonologist.” (15:00) As far as I know, there is no such thing as Biblical Demonology – though I’m not a theologian, so maybe there is and I just don’t know! Maybe. But that’s what I mean when I say that it’s as though the paranormal and Religious Studies are just completely layered on top of one another in this show – or podcast, rather – in some ways that are kind-of interesting, and some ways that are really bizarre. And there doesn’t really seem to be any explanation – at least in the first half a dozen episodes – of why that’s the case, or how those particular choices are being made. So, yes, maybe there is something very specific going on, in that one of the creators had a professor that that is modelled upon. But maybe there’s something else happening, which is just that it’s a podcast dealing with sort of odd, supernatural, paranormal stuff and there’s nowhere else that it makes sense to house that, other than in Religious Studies.

CC: Yes.

BC: I mean it’s odd, because it would have been ten years ago – a parapsychologist, I mean they used to have those in movies all the time. The people that investigated hauntings and psychic phenomena and stuff. I mean the Ghostbusters are . . .

KT: Ghostbusters! Sure!

BC: They’re in parapsychology lab. They’re doing (audio unclear). So what happened to that, I don’t know. But why it became religion, here . . . . But nothing recognisable as religion is ever studied! Now that said, I was inspired to teach a class on religion and the paranormal and it became the most popular class that I teach, because of seeing these movies. So that’s good, I guess!

CC: Absolutely.

BC: And some people write about it. We mention that in the article too. There a new sort of, newish, wave of books dealing with religious experience and paranormal experience, from different angles. Ann Taves, Geoff (audio unclear) – both from very different points of view. So there is some of that. But I don’t think anybody knew that as they’re making these characters. I think that’s coincidental, or a part of a larger zeitgeist.

CC: Exactly. I’m just keen that we keep pressing on, because I do want to get Jackson Neill, but we’ve got to get to the Da Vinci Code and everything before. So maybe, quickly. . . . In your article, I think you were just saying that Jackson Neill, although he may not be the most morally upright of scholars in that sense, actually, what he’s doing perhaps quite closely resembles what we would consider to be the Study of Religion?

BC: Well, he’s an Americanist, just like Kristen. Which is why I pointed him out to her, very early on. He’s doing a kind of ethnography, which is what she does. But what he does, that she doesn’t do – as far as I know – is give major talk shows advertising his book!

KT: (Laughs) No. Just this. This is my 15 minutes of fame right here!

BC: But he had a sexual relationship with his informant. He inserts himself in the life of this new religious movement, which is uniformly referred to as a “cult” throughout the TV series. All sorts of things that seemed like he had to go through IRB to do, but had no problem doing. He’s eventually sort-of discredited, and they turn against him. But it’s so realistic that it almost feels like that this is something that people would believe references the Study of Religion in the academy! And it does, in the sense that we do that kind of work – we do talk to people about their experiences – but what we don’t do is try and undermine some tradition with an exposé.

KT: Right. And I think another thing that is important about that character is that one of the tropes we identified in a lot of these representations is a thread of hypocrisy. So, yes: maybe he’s a good scholar, or maybe he’s doing actual scholarly work that resembles what an Americanist ethnographer might do, but then he’s got this potentially sort of shady sexual stuff going on. I am hard -pressed to think of a depiction of, say, a math professor – right? – where there is a plot that has to do with sexual behaviour. Whereas it comes up over and over again in these Religious Studies characters, as though people using these characters are doing it in order to identify a hypocrisy that’s inherent to studying religion!

BC: Yes, I think so.

CC: Which would scan with my intuition, anyway. So, just so we can absolutely get to it . . . You discuss how a lot of these characters can sometimes end up on a sort of pathetic-heroic spectrum. You’ve got your nerdy, weedy scholar working away, (20:00) pale-faced and not much interest in real life, and then you’ve got the Indiana Jones’s running around: they’re dashing – wonderful knowledge . . . . And so you set up this comparison really well, in the article, between the Reverend Casaubon from George Elliot’s Middlemarch, and then Robert Langdon from Dan Brown’s books, Angels and Demons, Da Vinci Code, and so on. I’m afraid it’s been over a decade since I read Middlemarch, but it was nice engaging with it again through your article. Can you maybe, just for the next five minutes or so, give a brief introduction to these two characters and maybe sort of set them up against each other, the different models of the Study of Religion?

KT: Yes, I’ll start with Casaubon who appears first in, of course, George Elliot’s Middlemarch in the 19th Century. He is sort-of the quintessential example of a dry, dusty, pedantic scholar, who only cares about his books. As I mentioned earlier, he is doing work that is very recognisable as History of Religions. He’s trying to compile sort of a massive comparative mythology. We learn later on in the book that he doesn’t actually have the language skills to do this, that he will never finish this fruitless project, and most of the characters – ultimately, pretty much all of the characters in the novel – think that he’s ridiculous, and think that he’s so intellectually obsessed that he’s out of touch with real life; it compromises his virility; he doesn’t deserve the love of the beautiful protagonist; and so on, and so forth. So he is pretty much a paradigmatic example of intellectual obsession that, basically, ruins everything else about him. And something interesting that we noticed, as we were thinking about his character, is that even in more recent and contemporary updates, where other characters are treated somewhat differently and more sympathetically, Casaubon never is. So, for example, there’s a very recent YouTube series that is updating Middlemarch. It’s you know, young, attractive students on a college campus. And many of them are socially awkward in some way, but still endearing. Whereas Casaubon – who is now, in this rendering, a graduate student working on some completely obscure dissertation topic that would probably fit in Philosophy of Religion, for example – he’s still a really unpleasant character. There’s still this linkage between intellectual obsession and unpleasantness. No-one likes him. He’s unlikeable, because he is sort of a sham scholar, let’s say. He’s obsessed with this intellectual project, but he doesn’t really have the skills to do it successfully. So “weak”, “pathetic”, “unlikeable”, all of these adjectives continue to attach to him, even in contemporary updates.

CC: Yes. And on a surface level, your gut reaction is that that’s going to be quite different to the character in Dan Brown’s work, who we see portrayed in film by Tom Hanks who’s America’s – if not the world’s – most loved actor, in some ways! That’s quite a different character. But not so different, I believe?

BC: Right. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like Tom Hanks. It’s like the Jimmy Stewart of our generation. He’s much beloved, and he’s this. But one thing that’s interesting about him that’s the same- and I’ll talk about what’s different about him in a minute- but it’s the sexual aspect. I mean I think that Casaubon is really a neutered character, right? He has no sexual drive, or sexual energy associated with him. He’s seen as sort of a dried-up old husk of a person, whereas Langdon has a different kind of asceticism, in that . . . Dan Brown uses the term “good clean fun”. It’s all about good clean fun, which means that . . . . Indiana Jones has a different female love interest in every movie. They have a “will they, won’t they?” . . . and of course they will! But in all of the movies based on The Da Vinci Code books, I mean the books about Robert Langdon, his female lead is not in any kind of a romantic relationship. They even have a handshake! It’s the most chaste hero/heroine relationship one can possibly imagine. In the first book she’s the descendent of Jesus Christ – which is a meaningless thing anyway, thinking about 2000 years of generational history – but it’s someone who you can’t imagine having sex with someone on a movie or on screen, right? It’s a very . . . He’s also a very consciously non-sexual, de-eroticised character (25:00), unlike the one’s we talked about before. But what he does is really instructive. I think that nobody has done more to get the Study of Religion in the public consciousness than Dan Brown: the Catholic reaction to those books; the sort-of revival of interest in conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, and what have you. It never really went away, but it certainly got more . . . And that was what became the shorthand for the Study of Religion – is studying the secret conspiracies behind all the fakeness of religion. And that’s what he does. But everything he says about religion is nonsense. And we also learn that he’s not even the person who teaches Religious Studies. That’s somebody else at Harvard, who we never meet. But he has this particularly narrow focus on religious symbology, without any explanation of what a symbol is, and mistaking symbols, cyphers and codes for each other. It’s a very . . . it’s a very thinly researched book, right? There’s lot of work on the conspiracies but, as far as what he’s doing, what we see him doing in classrooms, what we see him talking about, what passes in his dialogue as profound knowledge – that the Feast of Sol Invictus has something to do with Christmas, and blows everybody’s mind (laughs) – really speaks to the depth of ignorance about the Study of Religion. Which I think is an indictment really, for me, anyway. If this just goes over without a ripple, then: how have we not established – in any meaningful way – what we do in the classroom, and what we do with our books?

CC: Indeed, yes. And someone else pointed out that one of the biggest errors, perhaps, in the portrayal is the completely full lecture hall that . . . (Laughs) he’s teaching to – of attentive students!

BC: And the bottomless budget that he has!

KT: That, too.

CC: So, I mean, we could go into in-depth on these characters, and obviously we direct the Listeners to your article which we’ll link to from the podcast page, to get really into the analysis of them. But towards the end of the article you ask, through this comparison exercise, what kind of picture have you formed of the fictional religious studies scholar? And then, also, about what emerges about religion as an object of study. So perhaps, using the examples that we’ve discussed thus far, could you tell us a little bit about what we can say about the generic fictional Religious Studies scholar, in a nutshell? And maybe, how religion is conceived?

BC: Well the one thing that’s interesting about the Langdon character is that he’s the only one that gives us a real definition of what religion is as an object of study. Now it doesn’t . . . I’ll quote from the book. The book is The Lost Symbol, which is a later book in the series. And he says to his class – this is in the article, too: “‘So, tell me. What are the three prerequisites for an ideology to be considered a religion?’ ‘ABC’, one woman offered: ‘Assure, Believe, Convert.’ ‘Correct.’ Langdon said, ‘Religions assure salvation. Religions believe in a precise theology and religions convert non-believers.’” It’s a self-evident – to him and to everyone else in the class – rote definition of religion. It’s not very useful to me. It has nothing to do with symbols, interestingly, which is the foundation of the Study of Religion as he does it. But it does give you a very pat definition of what religion is. Assure, believe, convert: these are all these verbs that imply control over a crowd, over a group, over minds. It’s a very cynical and, of course, one dimensional – well, it’s three dimensional technically – but thin definition of religion. And it’s the only one we really get. The question of what religion is never comes up for anybody. Which, considering the amount of ink that we’ve spilled over the last 50 years trying to figure out what that is, that does not translate into the representations as we have them.

KT: Yes, it’s pretty interesting that all we have is this very thin, superficial, reductive definition, which might well be a definition that works well for some religious scholars. I find it a bit odd, but that’s just me. Because it seems to me that what Religious Studies does best is sort-of the opposite of thin and superficial. And nowhere in this examination of characters do we see anyone who’s doing the thick work of Religious Studies. (30:00) So, what is religion? Assure, Belief and Control – or something like that?

BC: Convert.

KT: So, then, what is religious studies? As Brian says, it’s this very simplistic endeavour that has to do with recognising a very simplistic dynamic at play. In other words, in these depictions we don’t see Religious Studies scholarship as being about critical empathy; we don’t see it as being about rigorous analysis; we don’t see it as being about robust comparison – which to my mind are the things that it does best, and the things that it can help students to do best. So we get not only a wild misrepresentation of what religion is – that is it’s always about coerced conversion and that sort of thing; it’s always about shadowy mystery and espionage – but we also get a very unfair misrepresentation of what Religious Studies is doing and – by that same token – is not doing.

CC: Well the flip side of what you’re saying there, in the Casaubon character we would have Religious Studies being the sort-of dry, study of texts, and very esoteric search for some sort of higher knowledge that is beyond relevance to the social world. So it’s either something that’s irrelevant bookish and not of interest, or something that’s sort-of swashbuckling, and uncovering of conspiracies, and releasing people from coercive control – neither of which are very accurate depictions of what any of us do!

KT: Or ghost-hunting! Sometimes it’s about ghost-hunting, don’t forget! But, yes included in none of those things is there the important skills that Religious Studies, when done well, actually can and should inculcate.

BC: Well, what you also find is Casaubon is a textual scholar, a clear-cut textual scholar. And I would have expected that to sort-of hold through time. But increasingly they’re not textual scholars, even though we think that’s what we all are, and that’s something to overcome. I mean, that’s the critique: “too text-based”, or whatever. But, mostly, they’re going into cults, or they are talking to believers – and usually believers who are radical in some way. So they seem to be out in the field looking at miraculous events and bizarre beliefs, as they sort-of characterise them, more than they are reading books or comparing. Comparing is the one thing that’s almost never done, except for with Langdon in this very weird kind-of comparison. But outside of him there is almost no comparison. It’s just studying the one thing that’s their dissertation topic; that’s their tenure portfolio; or that’s, usually, their personal dark obsession – which drives them into becoming serial killers, often!

KT: Right.

CC: So we’re over time here, which is fine because we’re going to get to wrapping up and I would say, Listeners, do check out the article where you can read a lot of this stuff that we’re just skimming over, in a lot more detail. But my final two questions I wanted to throw out would be: what can “we” do about this portrayal? So – it’s a similar thing with the media, for example. A lot of my colleagues and I are always moaning about the media never really get things right about religion, “It’s terrible! It’s awful!” But I never really hear solution: “What can we do about the portrayal of religion in the media?” So what, potentially, could we do about the portrayal of Religious Studies in popular culture, or beyond? Any suggestions, based upon your thinking about this?

KT: I’ll try this one. Public scholarship could be an important mitigation here: the extent to which actual Religious Studies scholars are doing the actual work of Religious Studies, in a way that can be seen by the public. That could be one mitigating force against theses sort of wild misrepresentations that we have.

BC: I feel like that it starts with students. I mean, we come into contact with a lot of students over the course of our careers. And it’s not just Religious Studies. I think they often don’t figure out what any of the faculty members do most of the time, because we don’t talk about it. It’s sort-of opaque, for some reason. So, I think talking to students about our work, about our interests, about how we got interested in it – I think it’s useful, I think it’s helpful, it clarifies things (35:00). It makes our position clear. And we can do that on a small level, more. I think we could all, everybody in the academy, could better engage with our students about who they are, and what they do, and how they’re compensated, etc. But I think we could especially do that. Now the interesting thing is, over the time I was writing this article, we had the affair of Reza Aslan, here in the States, who had a rise . . . the first real rise to power, or rise to prominence, as the first real public intellectual in Religious Studies – only to be fired, pretty quickly, for making a comment on Twitter about President Trump, after a few episodes of his show – Believer – which was widely derided by scholars of religion. As was his book about Jesus. What was it called? Zealot. So here we have a failed, missed opportunity to have a public intellectual presenting a model of this kind of work. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the last time we try that. Maybe that’s the place to start. You know, a plot where you save the Pope from a radical Catholic assassin is going to be more interesting than a plot where you translate a text, but it doesn’t have to be about plot, it can be about . . .the old . . . the stuff they used to do on the BBC, where they had long-running, long-form shows to educate the public, in way that is also engaging. And I think that can be done again.

CC: And you know, maybe, if you’re burning the midnight oil, we could all be writing those novels, writing those screenplays that we all wish we were seeing. Is this it, for you, with this project then? Or do you have plans for future research, future publications? What’s next for you?

BC: I think Chris is writing the screenplay, based on the article.

KT: That’s’ right. Look for the screenplay. Just kidding! Not really. No, I am developing a class on religion and pop culture and a lot of this stuff is sort of feeding the mill for that. Brian, what about you?

BC: Well I think that the natural next place to go would be a panel at the AAR – bring in more people to talk about it. And that seems to me like . . . I don’t know if we need another article any time soon. But, bigger conversation – a public conversation about it at our annual meeting here – would be helpful.

CC: Excellent. And hopefully this podcast and your article will kick off a bit more of that conversation, and we can look forward to a future where the discipline, the field, is represented a bit more accurately. But, for now – thank you so much Brian and Kristen. It’s been wonderful having you.

BC: Thank you.

KT: Thanks, Chris.


Citation Info: Collins, Brian, Kristen Tobey and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 8 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/representations-of-religious-studies-in-popular-culture/

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Muslim Superheroes

A. Dave Lewis joins us again for a discussion of representations of Muslims in superhero comics. We talk about some positive representations, like Kamala Khan, Marvel’s new Ms Marvel, and some less-than-positive portrayals, like Frank Millar’s Holy Terror! We talk about American comics as a product of the immigrant experience, and how comics made by Muslims play with the conventions of the genre. And we talk about how to use these texts in the classroom, as a powerful tool for exploring representation, media and religion. And what is the “wormhole sacred”?

You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Wu-Tang comic books, canned tuna, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Muslim Superheroes

Podcast with A. David Lewis (28 May 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Lewis- Muslim Superheroes 1.1

David Robertson (DR): Well, it’s my pleasure to welcome A. Dave Lewis to the podcast once again. Dave is one of the few, if not the only one of our regular guests to be both an interviewer and an interviewee. Well I might be the only other one, strangely enough! But it’s certainly . . . it’s been a little while since he’s been on. So it’s my pleasure to welcome him back. So thanks, once again, for joining us!

David Lewis (DL): Alright, ok. It’s good to be here!

DR: Good. Well this time we are going to be talking about Muslim superheroes, partly jumping off your recent edited volume with Martin Lund, called Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam and Representation. Obviously, there’s quite a lot for us to unpack here. So maybe we could start with you just telling us a little bit about why you decided to focus specifically on Muslim superheroes?

DL: Actually it comes from an earlier collection that I did, called Graven Images, with Christine Hoff Kraemer And when we did that collection, we had a number of contributors give us perspectives from religion all over the world, and historically. But to be frank we, as the editors even, found the Islam section to be light. And given that that was growing as a focus of my own studies, given that that was growing as focus in my own personal life, it’s something that I, in part, wanted to remedy. Now there had been some work out there done, particularly on Islam and comics as a medium in general, but not on this hallmark genre. So I approached Martin and said that I was interested in this – not just the dearth of research on Muslim superheroes, but also the increasing number of Muslim superheroes that we were steadily finding in mainstream US comics. And from there we reached out, and put a call for papers out. And I also tapped a few people that we knew had similar interests. And we tried to synthesise the limited information that was out there, in this volume, as well as inject it with new ways in which we could explore the topic.

DR: Great. And as a topic I think there’s a number of really interesting aspects that make Islam and superhero comic, specifically, a particularly rich field for us to explore. We can talk about those in a little bit more depth, then. For a lot of people – and I’m a comic fan so I ‘m playing devil’s advocate a bit here – the idea of the superhero seems to be particularly tied to an American context. It seems to have a lot to do with the American dream of America’s role in the world. So, looking at the way that particularly the American comics have dealt with Muslims is particularly fraught with interesting data.

DL: Oh, hugely. And not only is it fraught with . . . particularly in a post-September 11 context, or even earlier than that, during the hostage crisis of the ’80s . . . . But, really, so much of this engagement has been passed over and forgotten, not necessarily chronicled. I reached back as far as I could, looking for not the earliest Arab character in superhero comics, nor the earliest Muslim character across all genres, but I was really trying to pinpoint: when did this genre in its infancy begin to engage other religions, other than ostensibly the Christian norm? And I became, actually, rather enamoured with what I found, which was a character in 1944, going back just a few years into the first superhero boom (5:00), called Kismet, Man of Fate . And not only did I start studying this character I found that I took sort-of a shine to him and wanted to start writing further adventures from him, since he had fallen into the public domain.

DR: It would be quite interesting to look and see if there were similar portrayals of Muslim characters in the British wartime comics. There was a lot of those still around when I was a kid, you know, telling these true life World War Two stories. Because, of course, at that time a lot of soldiers would have come into contact with Muslim soldiers, especially those serving in North Africa and places like that.

DL: Absolutely.

DR: Much different contexts than we have now.

DL: Without question. Although I won’t say it’s surprising that it would have entered the British consciousness far earlier than the US popular consciousness, given as you said, you know, colonial engagement and, more widely speaking, the theatre of battle. Whereas, for the US, we have been very slow to become aware of Islamic culture, despite it being not only important in the 20th century – being important historically, classically, without the classic philosophers. But no, it would not surprise me in the least to see more Muslim representation – both good and bad, you know, both fair and then highly stereotypical – in British war genre comics than in US superhero comics, as a latecomer.

DR: Indeed. Of course, superhero comics as a genre – I don’t need to tell you that there’s many other genres of comics of course – but the superhero genre, in particular, seems to be tied to the American immigrant experience, doesn’t it? So, I mean, that’s another resonance.

DL: Very much so. In fact I think it was Danny Fingeroth’s book, Disguised as Clark Kent, where he points out that the American superhero genre really is largely reflective of the immigrant experience. And you can just look at the pantheon of superheroes. You either have aliens of very different varieties, Atlantis like Aquaman, Kryptonians like Superman, Amazonians like Wonder Woman, or you have the dispossessed, sort of orphans in either the literal or the figurative sense- that’s where you get your Batman, your Captain America, your Spider-Man. But the genre – particularly when it was formed in the late 30s – early 40s, here in the US – was absolutely about congealing into a shared American experience, rather than there being one quintessential, pure American experience. And that has gotten, many times, lost in the history of the genre. I think if there’s been any time to best recapture it, it might be now – as superheroes are moving from comics as a fringe medium, largely speaking, to cinematic blockbusters. And people who may never have been caught dead with a comic book are now shelling out however-many-bucks to go see them live on the big screen.

DR: Yes. That’s something which has changed dramatically, even in the time I’ve known you and we’ve been talking about comics. It’s gone from a very fringe interest, as you say, into the biggest genre in cinema right now. And perhaps that’s why we’re seeing a number of very high profile Muslim characters coming into mainstream comics at the moment. Now Ms Marvel is an obvious example. Can we talk about her a little bit, maybe?

DL: Absolutely Kamala Khan Ms Marvel: born and bred Jersey girl, but with a Pakistani background, who is a fan of superheroes – who’s actually a fan fiction writer – finds that she is incredibly imbued with the power of a polymorph, meaning that she can change the size and shape of her body at will (10:00). She has been become, really, the frontline character – I don’t like using the word frontline – maybe the banner character for Muslims, in superhero comics. She certainly caught on with a large section of readers, especially with Marvel attempting this diversity initiative. The problem with her, if there is any problem – it’s a terrific character, and written by a terrific team with G. Willow Wilson – if there’s any problem with the character it’s that most people just know her for being Muslim.

DR: Right, yes.

DL: The character doesn’t come off as often in discussions where religion is not the focus, or where diversity is not the focus. And I only say that’s a problem because that does give her an upper limit, a ceiling of sorts. We can talk about, and generalise, what Captain America does, right, or what Ironman does, or even what Superman does, but we don’t yet have – as popular as Ms Marvel is, or as Simon Baz the new Green Lantern is, or any number of characters – we don’t yet have that Muslim character who is transcending their Muslim-ness, necessarily, into storylines so compelling and so iconic that audiences are keeping up with them. Maybe Ms Marvel is starting to tilt that way. She is a member of The Avengers and The Champions now. But I think the only context a lay person would know about her in, is in this religious and diversity-centred context.

DR: Right. And she reminds me, actually, a lot of Miles Morales. I think there’s a few clear parallels. I mean, Miles Morales is the black Superman

DL: Spider-Man.

DR: Spider-Man, yes, sorry. The black Spider-Man, introduced around the same time in Marvel.

DL: Black and Latino, he’s actually . . .

DR: That’s right. Yes, he is. He is similar to Ms Marvel, has become a hugely popular character, is also a superhero fan, interestingly. I hadn’t thought of that until you mentioned it, just now. But similarly, he has had difficulty crossing . . . has had some success crossing into the mainstream, but is still almost always talked about in terms of his ethnicity, rather than simply his being a compelling character. But that might be starting to change now. I don’t know if you know that when they made “Spider-Man: Homecoming” they were talking about whether they should use Miles Morales, because they were facing the fact that they had to relaunch this character for the third time. And it was decided against it, because: “a black superhero film can’t make any money at the box office, right?”

DL: That’s changed. I think that’s been disproven pretty solidly, recently.

DR: Yes, I think we’ve completely thrown that out the window! But there is now a Miles Morales animated movie coming out.

DL: That’s true and, just going back to “Spiderman: Homecoming” for one minute – not to stray too far from the subject of comics and religion – I do want to point out that they did cast Donald Glover in that movie in a small part, but his part there is actually playing the uncle of Miles Morales. So we haven’t been introduced to his character yet, but they have laid down the groundwork for integrating his character.

DR: Absolutely.

DL: But I think you put your finger on one of the problems there, David, which is that these characters are always becoming known as a subset of another character. I mentioned Simon Baz, he’s now the Muslim Green Lantern; we mentioned Miles Morales, he is the Black or Latino Spider-Man.

DR: We also had the female Thor as well, recently.

DG: Female Thor; there’s the Batman of Paris, a Muslim Batman of Paris, Nightrunner, And even Ms Marvel is inheriting a mantel from the former Ms Marvel, now Captain Marvel – who’s going to get her own movie. So we haven’t quite gotten to the point where we have a Muslim character whose core identity, partly, is Muslim but also is forging a superhero narrative in their own right (15:00). And the reason I keep coming back to superheroes – I feel like this is worth saying: you are absolutely right, there are any number of genres out there when it comes to comics. Almost as limitless as any other medium. However, A: comics are often judged in terms of superheroes, and B: as you mentioned earlier, superheroes are largely an American-made product, or an American-originating product. They’re the closest we have to what Richard Reynolds calls a Modern Mythology. So the reason I keep returning to the superhero is, basically, this has to be the testing space for whatever religious theory or criticism we’re bringing to this medium. Is comics superheroes and superheroes comics? No, absolutely not. And I would never limit either one in that way. But if we can’t talk about the superhero comic in terms of the subject that interests us here, religion and representation, then that challenge is going to keep presenting itself. Until it can be brought into this space it will always be penultimate.

DR: I had a thought, actually, when I was reading the book. You mentioned that . . . most of the examples we’ve given today, in fact, except for the Green Lantern, are Marvel characters. And what you’re saying there, about modern mythology, I think is the reason why. DC characters are harder to represent as having a religion, because DC write more mythologically. DC characters are essentially gods. So it’s much harder to represent religion, ethnicity, gender issues and these kinds of things, because they relate to humans. But the classic argument is that while DC are gods, Marvel are always telling metaphors for being a teenager. So Marvel characters are much better suited to these kinds of discussions about identity and representation, because that is the Marvel style.

DL: And I think that’s true historically, right? DC has been around longer as a unified company. And Batman and Superman reach back further than the Fantastic Four, or Spiderman or the X- Men. But I think there is the opportunity to challenge that just the same. I mean, we could focus on Superman’s alien-ness instead of his godliness. Or we could focus on The Flash – he really is your most mortal and your most human of heroes but he gets elevated to this god-like Hermes status, at least in popular consumption. So I don’t think that either company has to be locked into these positions. And there have been a number of times that Marvel has experimented with sort-of the more godly figure with its characters. But, yes, I think if you had to do a fast summary of each one, you get Marvel with its very human heroes being raised to an elevated status that they may or may not be able to handle, and DC superheroes being sort-of gods – but more gods with feet of clay, or gods with an affection or a tie to humanity. That said, neither approach precludes any spiritual or religious material. I thought it was when . . . . This was a Justice League annual back in the year 2000. It was pre-September 11. But they did try to introduce a Muslim character at that time called The Janissary. And The Janissary, she was a fine character. But the more interesting thing that came out of that particular issue is, does Wonder Woman, an Amazonian, a princess, a goddess-like character – and, at certain times, practically portrayed as a goddess – does she wear a hijab? Is she either subject to the cultural norms of the society she finds herself featured in, or does she transcend that (20:00)? Or does she even find it alien to her? Because she has proof of her own gods and not of an unseen Allah. So these can be engaged in any number of ways, if the companies, frankly, see a profit motive for it.

DR: Yes. I’d like to dig into some other examples. Ms Marvel: there’s been a few papers and stuff and people can go and read more widely, and obviously we can point them to your book where there’s a lot of good examples. But I want to bring up a few sort-of perhaps more problematic examples. One that you don’t talk about directly in the book, but was the first time I became aware of this as an issue in comics, was Holy Terror.

DL: Oh, yes.

DR: Which was originally going to be a Batman book.

DL: It was originally going to be Holy Terror Batman, punning on the whole 1960’s television Robin catchphrase: “Holy terror, Batman!” And it was pitched by Frank Miller of “Dark Knight Returns“ and “Sin City“ and “300“ fame, to DC. And DC thought about it and ultimately rejected it. So he reworked it as his own independent book, I believe with Legendary Comics.

DR: Yes. And I don’t know an awful lot about Frank Miller, but I’m guessing his politics must definitely be towards the more right-wing end of the spectrum?

DL: They have absolutely grown that way over the years. I can’t say if he’s always held a right-wing position. But I do recall that shortly after September 11th there were any number of charity relief books that were being published by various companies. And it struck me that he contributed a very militaristic piece. Like: “Get ready for our thunder! Get ready for our power! You’ve woken a sleeping giant!” And since that time his work has turned quite . . . I would almost say radically to the right. And in Holy Terror he reworks a Batman archetype into a character that I believe he calls The Fixer.

DR: That’s right.

DL: And The Fixer is intent on wiping out terrorism. But the only form of terrorism showcased in the book . . . basically terrorism becomes synonymous with radical Islam, with extremist militaristic radical Islam. And having it enjoin us . . . that lens really portrays an Islamophobia that’s concern isn’t terrorism – or else we could look at spots around the world that are unrelated to Islam, where terrorism is being employed. He really takes a turn there towards a xenophobic fearing of “the other” and one that stands, in his view, in opposition to America and the American norms and democracy. It’s worth noting that one of the works that he did which followed this up, which followed up Holy Terror, was that he returned to Dark Knight Returns for a third time. He did Dark Knight Returns, Dark Knight Strikes Back– which happened right as September 2001 struck, and may have actually changed the way he concluded that story. But then he returned with Dark Knight III: The Master Race, which is, in very brief summary, all about basically Kryptonians – Superman’s people – coming to terrorise and dominate humankind. And only Batman and Superman can save us. And it rings the same bells of, basically, this xenophobia against an outside religious group that seems to be, from his perspective, aggressive, and attempting to conquer. So these are things that he has pursued in a rather, I find, distasteful manner – but definitely in a forthright manner. He’s not hiding or being cute about it (25:00). There are a number of other comic creators who are injecting anti-Islamic themes into their content without saying so explicitly. But when we focussed on Muslim Superheroes as a book we said that that’s less our concern, tracking Islamophobia in comics – which is its own tremendous topic, and there has been some great work done it – but more looking at how they’re trying to integrate the heroism and the principles of, frankly, US heroism or Western heroism to interface with what are perceived Islamic ideals.

DR: I would be quite interested to know a little bit about black Muslim superheroes, because obviously that’s another important aspect of Islam in a America, historically speaking. Presumably here we’re going to be mostly talking about the pre-9/11 situation.

DL: One of our chapters is a terrific piece on basically reading earlier black superheroes and we can point to John Stewart as a Green Lantern or point to The Falcon, Captain America’s partner, as I believe our contributor calls them, “crypto-Muslims” or “proto-Muslims”. Basically, if you’re a New York writer of comics, which is where the two – DC and Marvel, the two major superhero companies – were stationed, what you’re seeing of black strengths and black presence, in the news and in your environment, is either the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam. Black Panthers being not the superhero Black Panther, but the group.

DR: Although there is a direct connection there. Stan Lee took the name of the character directly from the Black Panthers.

DL: Yes, I’d heard different reports on that. I’ve heard that it either entered his consciousness, or he did conspicuously think . . . I don’t know the exact details, there. But yes, you can read a lot of black characters in comics, in the 60s as well as the 70s, as what we call crypto-Muslims. But then you can go forward and find actual black Muslims in a number of comics, particularly around the 1990s. Milestone comics had Wise Son. Marvel comics featured Josiah X who was a Muslim, a black Muslim preacher who also had a family member experimented on in Captain America’s super soldier programme. So they definitely exist. But even here, they did not have yet the nuance or just the enjoyability of characters like Simon Baz; like Kamala Khan, Ms Marvel; like Excalibur; and a number of others. These were very serious, angry, severe characters. And being included is terrific; being represented is important. But often their full humanity wasn’t portrayed, I dare say. And that could be because they were not being written by black creators, or minority creators. They were white – usually male – creators’ imagination of the black man and of the black Islamic man, rather than a more authentic experience. I don’t want to be mischaracterised as saying that only black writers can write black characters, only Muslim writers can write Muslim characters. That’s not what I’m suggesting at all. But I am suggesting that when you have a gulf, and a conspicuous gulf, between such characters and their creators that’s something that has to be examined and looked at cautiously.

DR: Yes. Absolutely. It’s actually quite a good link, then, into my next question which was (30:00):foundationsuperhero comics which come out of the Islamic world, and which perhaps play with and reframe some of the American context, in the creation of their own superheroes and superhero teams. Can you give us a couple of quick examples of those?

DL: Yes, absolutely. And, again, we dedicate at least two, if not three, chapters in the book to this topic. The most notable of them – the Ms Marvel equivalent, the most well-known – would be The 99, which came out of Kuwait. And this was actually spearheaded by a professional psychologist, Naif Al-Mutawa. And the issue they ran into – at least according to our contributor in the book – is that there were any number of superhero genre elements that they could reproduce with Muslim characters, except for two. And that was the hyper-sexualised nature of the superhero – and you could start with the skin-tight costumes if you like, but you can also look at their physique and physicality and go from there. The other thing that they were cautious about – other companies were less cautious, but this was a challenge for The 99 – was their resolving everything, or nearly everything, with violence, which was very much an image that Dr Al-Mutawa wanted to move away from. He wanted these comics to be inspirational of solving conflicts with other powers, with other abilities, with conflict resolution or with building and such. So they struggled with that. Other companies like AK Comics – which were admittedly less successful – out of Egypt, they were more embracing of those two additional elements, but they did not last nearly as long as The 99. So we don’t yet have . . . now there are more publishers, even today. One that comes to mind is Youneek Studios, and that’s spelled Y-O-U-N-E-E-K, which is an African company. And I think they’re doing a terrific job of sort-of trying to thread the needle in the way that the Black Panther movie does: being genuinely African, right, but also still delivering on narrative elements that audiences have come to expect, rather than being some weak copy of an American superhero or diverging into its own sub-genre. This is a challenge because the American superhero has characteristics not only that may not translate into other cultures and religions, but may have ones that the American superhero industry itself doesn’t want to fix: again referring back to the issues of violence and sexuality; also looking at misogyny, patriarchy, heteronormativity. How much it can be changed by a non-white and non-Christian group, before it becomes unrecognisable, is the challenge of the day.

DR: Indeed. We’ve been talking a while now and we could go on quite a while more, I’m sure. But I’ve got a couple of questions to wrap up, then. One is: I particularly liked the little chapter at the end of the book that you and Martin Lund contributed, which talks about the idea of using these in schools. I absolutely love the idea of using an issue of Ms Marvel, for instance, as a text for students to engage with these issues.

DL: It seems like not only the natural outgrowth of these things, but also the raison d’être, you know, the whole: are we just studying these things for our amusement? And just as an exercise? Or is there something to be done here? Can we include a call to action? And, as I said, the most natural call to action is to bring this into the classroom, and let students have a foundation where they can engage with it (35:00). And I think, as we know in the final chapter, this doesn’t have to be head-on. We’re not proposing that we need Muslim superhero classes, and we need Muslim superhero curriculum and degrees given out on Muslim superheroes. We’re actually suggesting that instead this genre, and this religious interaction with the genre, can be a powerful way to explore historical events, to explore cultural differences, to explore media bias and media studies. So we really just want to open this to the educator, who may not be an expert in comics, or may not be an expert in Islam – and certainly not the two combined – but will see the inherent value of working on materials that access student’s attention in a novel way.

DR: Right, and using popular cultural texts – be they comic, or television, or films, or whatever – I think, actually, can be a more powerful way of introducing the students, and teaching the students the critical skills. If we start with academic texts then getting the students to be able to read the biases and the positionality of the papers can be quite tricky, because academic language is very qualified and very specific. But using popular texts to start with, and teaching them to read them as media texts, we can do a lot to train them in that way of critical reading that they can then take on and apply to more obviously academic texts.

DL: And this has long been true. Educators have tried to incorporate music in the classroom, and incorporate film in the classroom. And really, any medium that isn’t a text book that can sort-of take these students unawares into learning, or into critical thought, is always welcome. We highlight the comic book because of our fascination with comics in its dual-channel delivery system: its verbal, visual, creative engagement with the reader that will work for a number of students in particular, who don’t have to be comic book fans themselves but may be looking to light up different hemispheres of their brain at the same time. That, a lecture, or a strictly prose textbook, would not be able to do.

DR: Absolutely. As a final closing kind-of point here: is there any further thought on how the work that you’re doing in the book and elsewhere . . . what can it tell RS? How can these kinds of analyses, then, enhance Religious Studies more broadly?

DL: Well, I think that a particular area . . . two come to mind. The first is that we talk often about lived religion, right? And we often want to explore how religions are either evolving or being expressed in a modern context, and then tracking that against the religion, historically or classically. And I want to point out that comics are a relatively cheap and very evocative space in which to track that sort of lived religious experience. Whereas television is highly scripted and highly censored in many cases. And film, while perhaps less censored, is again driven by a huge profit motive. Comics, while a business and while a business that wants to sustain itself, has a greater freedom with the most reach. So, that would be my first response. That if we’re trying to do a present-day lived anthropological read of religion in popular culture or interpretation, comics is an ideal space. One further argument to have – and this is a little more radical on my part . . .

DR: OK, we like that.

DL: I wrote about this for an up-coming book (40:00). This is going to sound wonky, but I have the perspective that comics, when read intensely, when read seriously, when read genuinely, can lead to their own transcendent experience. Now, this is going to make me sound like someone who’s drunk the Kool-Aid . . .

DR: (Laughs).

DL: Inasmuch as we say frescos, and tapestries, and stained glass windows, and sculpture can all really unlock, as arts, the human mind to some spiritual dimension, I want to suggest that there are comics out there that could do similar. That can actually, by their . . . . And I think the way I phrase it in this up-coming text is that, by basically going down into the mundane, down into the print, and the ink, and the paper of the comic, it can actually trip us and flip us towards the sacred, towards what lies behind it: the “real real” – and here I’m being very Eliade in my language. But I’m exploring that more and more. I’m not necessarily saying you’re going to get that from your average Superman comic off the rack, right? And I’m not saying it’s better to read Ms Marvel than go to a Mosque. I’m not saying anything of that sort. But I am suggesting that we can’t rule out this medium as having its own access to potentially transcendent experience. And in the chapter that’ll be coming out I think later this year, I make the argument for why it’s not just legitimate but actually might be favourable to view them in this way.

DR: There are some inklings of that in Graven Images. We can maybe pick this conversation up in a year’s time, when I interview you the next time. It does sound a bit wonky – but as somebody who reads The Invisibles every year, you know you’re not going to get an argument from me!

DL: That actually is a terrific example of precisely the sort of comic that you can deal with. And, actually, I came up with a fantastic, really out-there, crazy term for it! We’ll talk about it next year.

DR: Yes. We’ll pick it up next time.

DL: I call it the “wormhole sacred”. So, be sure to ask me next year about the wormhole sacred!

DR: Excellent. I will do that. Let’s put it in the diary already! Until then, though, I would urge listeners who’ve enjoyed the conversation to check out Muslim Superheroes. And I’ll just say thanks, A. Dave Lewis, for joining us again!

DL: I love coming back. Thank you so much for having me!

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Lewis, A. David and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Muslim Superheroes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslim-superheroes/

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Drawn to the Gods – Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programs

If you were asked to name the TV programs with the most religious content and references what would you name? 7th Heaven, Supernatural or perhaps Games of Thrones? How many of us would name animated television series such as The Simpsons, Family Guy or South Park? These television series are amongst the most religions on our screens. Indeed, 95% of The Simpsons episodes, 84% of Family Guy episodes, and 78% of South Park episodes contain explicit religious references. These animated comedy shows are critically influential in teaching viewers about religious people and religious institutions. The commentary created via the intersection between humour, satire, and religion in these TV shows, particularly in their own context of America, creates an interesting image of what it supposedly means to be a “good religious American”. In this podcast Associate Professor David Feltmate, author of Drawn to the Gods: Religion and Humor in The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy, chats to Breann Fallon about the manner in which these three television shows create a broad commentary on religion for the general public. Feltmate highlights the central place these animate programs have in the proliferation of ideas about the spiritual and the religious, as heavily consumed mediums of popular culture.

You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, candy, pocket knives, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Drawn to the Gods: Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programmes

Podcast with David Feltmate (11 December 2017).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Feltmate_-_Drawn_to_the_Gods_1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): If you were asked to name the TV programmes that were most religious, had the most religious content and references, which ones would you name? Seventh Heaven, maybe? Or Supernatural? Or perhaps Game of Thrones? Well, I was wondering how many of us would actually name The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or South Park. Because, did you know that 95% of Simpsons episode, 84% of Family Guy episodes and 78% of South Park episodes contain explicit religious references. These animated comedy shows are critically influential in teaching viewers about religious people and about religious institutions. The commentary created by the intersection between humour, satire and religion in these TV shows – and specifically their context of America, creates an interesting image of what is supposedly meant to be a good religious American. To discuss this topic today I have with me Associate Professor David Feltmate, the author of a fantastic new work entitled, Drawn to the Gods: Religion and Humour in the Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy. Dave is Associate Professor of Sociology at Auburn University at Montgomery. He received his PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Waterloo in 2011. His research areas include the Sociology of Religion, religion in popular culture, humour studies, social theory, new religious movements and religions and family. His book, Drawn to the Gods is available from New York University Press and is the topic of our discussion today. Thank you very much for joining us today, Dave.

David Feltmate (DF): Thank you for having me.

BF: So, I’m really interested in how this book came about. Why did you choose to write a book on The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy?

DF: So, this book really started in the winter of 2005. I was fresh out of my masters’ degree at Wilfrid Laurier University. I was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. And I was teaching sessionally, like a lot of people do. And I was teaching a course on religion and popular culture. And I had set the course up. We did a week on Christianity in popular culture. So we’d do a crash course in Christianity and then an example of Christianity in pop culture, or whatever. And what I realised was, these classes had 65 students in them each: I would have three students that really paid attention every day, five students who would tune in for the topic of the day, and most people were just kind-of there to get credit and they weren’t paying attention. And I thought, well, Jeez there’s a lot of really interesting and relevant pop culture stuff. But the way that I started to get them to listen was, I would start quoting Simpsons references at them at the front of the room. And at the time, in Canada, there was a Canadian comedian named Brent Butt. And he said with a good cable package you can get three hours of The Simpsons every day. And he was pretty close to correct at that point in time. And so this stuff was just ubiquitous, everywhere. And that’s what drew students back in. They knew these religious references but they had no understanding of the religious traditions at all. They were just coming in and experiencing it for the first time. Which led me . . . because I knew I was going to go on and do a PhD, which I did at the University of Waterloo. And I said, “Well, they’ve got to have learned something, what did they learn? What were they being taught through these jokes?” So that’s what I went off to study. And so I wrote my dissertation on The Simpsons and that’s sort-of, the very early awkward stages of the book that’s there now. And my supervisor, Doug Cowan, I remembered distinctly, one day he said, “OK. Your dissertation is done, but it’s not a book yet. It needs comparative data.” “Well,” I said, “The obvious comparative data is South Park and Family Guy.” And now they kind of look like legacy programmes, but that’s where it came from. These shows were widely known, they were critically acclaimed and people are learning religious material from them. And I wanted to know what they were learning. And over time it evolved into: how were they learning this through humour? (5:00) Because a lot of the literature that I was reading on The Simpsons or South Park – there’s still not much written on Family Guy – I just found that people did not ask the question: why are these things funny? They simply worked on the assumption that they were. But I know people that don’t find them funny. So I had to ask, what is it about humour that enables people to transmit this information – transmit it in a humorous way – but why are they seeing these things as humorous? Because I know that some people are not going to. They’re either not going to get the joke, or they don’t think the joke is funny in the first place. So that’s where this book comes from: from teaching and thinking about what it means to talk about religion and religious diversity through humour.

BF: So in the book you talk about this idea of sort of using satire and comedy, and how that is bringing religion to a broad audience, and this idea of broad commentary and how this is really teaching the general public about religious people and religious institutions. And I thought we could talk about some specific examples before we sort of talk about the general takeaways from the book. And there are some really interesting examples in the book. I personally like the ones from The Simpsons because – I don’t think I watched every episode of the Simpsons, like you probably did, but I’m pretty close – I do really love the Simpsons. And I’ve watched a lot of Family Guy as well. I think it’s really interesting that you say there’s not a lot written on Family Guy, actually. Because I would have thought there would have been quite a lot on Family Guy, which is an interesting point on the side.

DF: Unless it’s exploded in the last year or so after the book was finished, and it was out there, and I just kind of need a break from reading all of the literature. No there really wasn’t a lot on Family Guy.

BF: Well, there’s a project for any RSP listeners who are looking for a little article to punch out there: Family Guy there for you! But I thought, maybe, we could start with your favourite example from any of the shows, maybe a new religious movement example? I thought maybe you could start with one of those?

DF: Oh man! Do I have a favourite? I don’t know if I have a favourite. I know I’ve watched “Homer the Heretic” the most, but that’s not a new religious movements example. Well, it depends on how you define new religious movements.

BF: That’s a great example anyway.

DF: Yes, well that’s the classic. That’s the sort of Simpsons’ religion urtext from Season Four. And it used to be that I could pretty much close my eyes and see that entire episode playing out before me. So the reason that I really love that one is that it encapsulates so much of what would become the running narratives of religion in the Simpsons. There’s this sort-of back and forth with Christianity. There’s an open display of Hinduism and Judaism, and all of these different kinds of religious traditions that are on display, and a part of this – a part of Springfield but also a part of the American fabric. Which when you consider that that episode was released in what, ’92 . . . ?

BF: It’s early.

DF: I think it’s ’92. Well it’s season four, but I want to say it’s November ‘92. Just a second, I’ve got the book here. It’s going to drive me nuts if I don’t . . . .

BF: The interesting thing about Homer the Heretic – correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s the one where he eats the chilli isn’t it?

DF: No that is . . . the name is in Spanish and I can’t remember, but it’s “The Mysterious Voyage of Homer: El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer”. And that one is Season Eight. Yes, that one’s a great one, too. I love Johnny Cash as the Coyote that offers spiritual wisdom. And Homer says, “Should I get rid of my possessions?” And the Coyote just laughs at him and says, “No. If anything you need more possessions. You don’t even have a computer.” (10:00) And, yeah, “Homer the Heretic” was ’92.

BF: So what happens in “Homer the Heretic”?

DF: So in “Homer the Heretic”, Homer decides, “I don’t want to go the Church,” one day. And he has the best morning of his life, and he attributes it all to not going to church. But Marge has dragged the kids to Church, and so there becomes this marital strife between the two of them over Homer not going to church. He says he forms his own religion, and so he starts doing things like – one of my favourite examples is that he calls into work from the bar and says that he can’t come in, because it’s a religious feast day. And he looks up… They say “What feast day?” and he sees a sign that says “Maximum occupancy” and he says “Maximum Occupancy”. “Click”. Those kinds of jokes really play on this ongoing sentiment in the United States that to be a good American you’ve got to be religious. And you see this come about all the time in political discourse in the USA, when people are talking about candidates. Atheists are among the most distrusted groups, in terms of large polls in the USA. And that’s still today. And this part of the discourse and debate around Donald Trump, is that people can’t figure out why Evangelicals continue to support, or came out to support Donald Trump when he’s so opposed to the kinds of values that they claim to represent, certainly, in all of his actions and everything he espouses to. And The Simpsons was sitting there 25 years ago now, saying, “Hey, this is okay. It’s okay for people to drop out of church.” Then God visits Homer in a dream and says to Homer, “You’ve forsaken my church.” And Homer says, “Well, I try to be a good person and I love my kids. I just want to sleep in on Sunday mornings.” And God listens to Homer for a minute, because Homer says, “Why should I spend every Sunday morning hearing about why I’m going to Hell?” And God goes “Hmm. You’ve got a point there. You know, some Sundays I’d rather just be watching football.” And Homer says, “So, I figure I should just try to live right and worship you in my own way.” And God says, “It’s a deal!” and then ascends into Heaven. And that’s really part of this larger spiritual-seeker narrative – the ability to pick and choose among different religious options – that has become part of the way that Sociologists of Religion, anyway, talk about the United States. And all of these religious options . . . . Like, I live in a city of 200,000 people, roughly. And there are close to a thousand churches in the area. And if you don’t like what’s going on in one of them you can literally. . . . I mean, I went to Church this morning and there’s a church across the street and another church in the parking lot. I was like: “It’s church row over here!” And if I didn’t like what was being said in my church, I could literally walk out the back door and in two minutes be in another service. And that’s just among Christian denominations! At least, now, I live in the American south, so it’s different than other parts of the country. The United States is different in its different regions. But that narrative of spiritual seeking, anyway, by the ‘90s had become part-and-parcel, part of the fabric of the United States of America. And that’s what I like about “Homer the Heretic”. It really introduces this spiritual-seeking – worshipping God in your own way, do what you want to do, that’s fine, just don’t try to impose it on anybody else – that I really found became the core of The Simpsons. So, I don’t know if it’s my favourite, because I love other episodes. I love “The Joy of Sect”, which is the Movementarians, which is just such a great name for a new religious movement. And, as I show in the book there are all these kinds of quick visual references to numerous new religious movements. So it works really well as a display of the cult stereotype. (15:00) And in South Park the Blametologists, as well, are like that. And I really like to study that because again at the University of Waterloo I was working with Douglas Cowan and Lorne Dawson. And people who study new religious movements would be familiar with those names. And I never went in to study new religious movements, I went in to do religion and popular culture, but I said, “Well I’m working with two of the top scholars in the world in new religious movements, I’d be an idiot not to pick this up and learn from them.” And what I found was that these shows were able . . . . Let me go back here a second. If you go into a classroom now and you ask people what a cult is, they’ll usually be able to give you some kind of idea, like it’s a bad religion, it’s a group of people who follow some leader and they don’t think for themselves, they’re often associated with dangerous kind of religions. And then I say, “OK, so you know all of this. How many of you have ever met somebody who’s in a cult?” And nobody raises their hand. Or I shouldn’t say that: I’ve had one person who knew somebody who was in a group that he considered a cult. And so I had to start asking, “Well, where you get this idea from?” And Joseph Laycock has a good article in The Journal of the American Academy of Religion on this as well, called “Where do they get those ideas?” So I don’t want to steal Joe’s thunder. What it was is, over time, these images and ideas about cults were repeated through mass media, through jokes, through television, to the point that you could create completely fictitious groups like the Movementarians, with numerous references to all of these other different groups like Rajneeshpuram is in there, certainly the Unification Church. There’s a mass marriage scene which is just . . . . I like to, in classes, take a picture of a Unification Church mass marriage, and that scene – just a screen shot – from The Simpsons and say, “Look! They’re almost identical!” And what it was, it was able to play on a legacy of particular framing in terms of fear. So that now, generations who have never really encountered some of these movements have a heuristic with which to interpret them. So I thought that was really relevant. That’s definitely one that I like.

BF: This idea of, you know, the TV show being the lens through which a generation can interpret religious people and religious institutions . . . .You said that the Simpsons was sort-of advocating this idea of spiritual-seeking. Do you think that’s the same for South Park and Family Guy or do you think they advocate something different?

DF: No, I think each one advocates its own thing. I think South Park is all about individual creativity.

BF: OK

DF: So, there’s a couple of South Park episodes: “Go God Go” and “Go God Go XII”, I think is the number. And that came out when Richard Dawkins released The God Delusion, and it was a best seller. I think The God Delusion is really the book that made this sort of Four Horseman of the New Atheists movement with Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett who had books out before Dawkins and then Christopher Hitchens who had one out afterwards. But I think The God Delusion is really the book that broke the tidal wave for all four books to become this kind of marker in time. And when it came it in the audio commentary Trey Parker and Matt Stone were talking about how Penn Jillett of Penn and Teller was saying , “You guys have got to come out as atheists,” or whatever. And Trey Parker’s going “But, I’m not an atheist. I don’t necessarily believe in God the way that other theists do . . .  .”  (20:00) But with South Park they don’t like organised religions, but where individual creativity is promoted, enhanced, allowed to flourish through religious expression, they really don’t have a problem with it. What they have a problem with are hypocrites, or people who say things that they just think are stupid. Right? So their feud with Scientology, versus how they treat Latter Day Saints, is a good example of that. The episode “All about the Mormons” from South Park, which has (sings) “Joseph Smith was called a prophet, dum dum dum dum dum.” And dum dum dum eventually turns into “This whole thing is dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb!” But the Mormons are the nicest people ever to come to South Park. And at the end of the episode, the Mormon kid, Gary, just looks at Stan and says, “All I ever wanted to do was be your friend, but you were too high and mighty for that. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy.” And I won’t finish that quote because there might be children listening at home. That, compared to the Scientology episode, “Trapped in the Closet”, which basically came out of . . . . They were asking, “Can we say Tom Cruise is gay?” And they say, “Well, no. That would be libel.” “Well, can we put him in a closet and have him refuse to come out of the closet?” “Yeah, you could do that.” Well, they did that, but they also ended up making fun of Scientology at the same time. And they were just vicious towards Scientology, saying that it’s a big fat global scam. Well that’s because they see the two different religions very differently. They don’t think Scientology produces good people the way that the Latter Day Saints do. And that’s where you can find – in those comparative nuances – is where I think you can find the real standards that South Park puts out there. And Family Guy? Family Guy is atheist. Seth MacFarlane has come out as a very prominent voice in atheist circles and early on in the programme there was . . . . So, the first three seasons of Family Guy there’s more willingness to play with the possibility that religious identities might be good things. But by the time you hit about Season Six or Seven, all the religious traditions are treated as stupid, and in some cases, very dangerous.

BF: That’s really interesting that the three project something completely different, because what people can take from them – you know, the images that they’re getting about religious people in religious institutions, that kind of broad commentary – is so varied. And that idea of, you know, spiritual-seeking is so varied. And one thing I found really interesting in the book were the examples about atheism and spiritual-but-not-religious in the three different TV shows. Because talking about, just then, the different, you know: The Simpsons as being spiritual-seeking and South Park as being this idea of creativity and then Family Guy as being atheist. Then their representation of atheism and as spiritual-but-not -religious in each show is very different. And I think it’s very interesting to see atheism and spiritual-but-not-religious in this context. Because I don’t necessarily know if it’s something that we see on TV a lot.

DF: No. And for me one of the big things was . . . . So, I’m also trained as a Sociologist of Religion and in the United States, whenever a major survey of religious affiliation is released, so let’s say the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life releases a major survey, it gets boiled down to “the number of Christians versus everybody else” in media play. (25:00) And one of the things that I was noticing, really early on, is there’s almost a fight in political and popular culture in the United States over who owns the “unaffiliated”; who the unaffiliated are. Even that term is a problem because it assumes that they’re not just being themselves and their own distinct group, just like Christians and Jews and Muslims. And if you start looking at American religious statistics, there’s a couple of thousand different denominations that get lumped into different families for statistical purposes. But there was this real question, and I saw this coming from New Atheists, people like Domar, where he would claim that people who weren’t affiliated with religion were somehow atheists like him. And I started looking at the numbers and looking at what people in those groups were saying, and I went, “You know, spiritual-but-not-religious is really a catch-all category for all kinds of stuff.” In terms of what people are doing on the ground, it’s a very creative place, where two people would say, “Well, I’m spiritual, but not religious,” and the grounds you would have to compare what they’re doing is the fact that they both say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” And I think The Simpsons in one way, and South Park in another way, kind of capture that. And how they treat atheism in all three programmes is also distinct, right? Like South Park tends to treat atheists like they would other religious extremists. In one episode, “Red Hot Catholic Love”, which is on one hand about the Catholic sexual abuse scandals that were coming out of Boston at the time when that episode was released. When the people in town find out that the kids are being abused in the Catholic Church – not in the local Catholic Church but in the Catholic Church over all – they all decide to quit and become atheists. And one of the sub-plots in that episodes is that Cartman discovers that if you stuff food up your butt, you end up pooping out your mouth. And so, long story short, all the atheists, basically . . . . The surgeon general says, “Oh yes, this is a much healthier way to eat.” So all the atheists start shoving food up their butt and crapping out their mouths. And one of the punchlines in the episode is, Father Maxi, the Catholic priest says, “You just sit around spewing a bunch of crap out of your mouths”, while one of the atheist is busy literally crapping out his mouth. And that really, I think, is one of South Park’s attacks on atheism: they see it as too extreme. Going back to “Go God Go XII”, there’s really this sense that . . . . They’ve got this race of enlightened sea otters in the future and the Wise One comes out and says about Richard Dawkins, and I’m paraphrasing here: “He had some great ideas but that doesn’t mean that he was correct on everything. Maybe, just believing in God makes God exist.” And then all the other otters gang up and kill him. And in the future, you know atheists in those episodes, atheists are at war with each other over what all the atheists should call themselves. So it’s not like atheism solves the problem of religious violence, which is what a lot of atheists were claiming at the time – or at least prominent ones. So, yes. For me, anyway, in terms of writing the book, it was thinking about the ways that we can get people to think about atheists as atheists, and people who say they’re spiritual-but-not-religious as spiritual-but-not-religious. And maybe there’s some overlap in individuals, but maybe these should be two sort-of separate categories in the way that we start thinking about religious groups and publics, certainly within the United States. And you could speak better for the Australian situation than I can.

BF: (30:00) I think we probably should take a moment to talk about . . . . We’ve had all these really great examples about the different sort-of faiths in the TV shows that you bring up in the book. And I think there’s a lot that we could take away from the book as Religious Studies scholars or Sociologists, as well. What do you think the major take-aways from the book are?

DF: I think the first one is: popular culture is something you have to pay attention to. It should be part of the data of a Religious Studies education. In a lot of cases, we teach religion and popular culture as large cash-cow courses in universities, meant to kind-of pull students into the discipline and then get put into quote-unquote “real” coursework at upper levels. And I think that undervalues the work that’s going on, that popular culture producers are doing themselves. So, one of the first takeaways is: this is deep, detailed material. I read through the book and there are days when I go, “Oh man, why didn’t I include that example, or this example?” I threw out way more than I put in, which a lot of people will tell you about their books. So there’s still. . . . I’m done working on these three series. But hopefully, somebody else will pick it up and in four or five years go, “OK! There’s new material here!” Maybe there’s been a new direction taken. I mean, South Park, for the last two years has done really interesting serial episodes throughout their seasons that are completely different from the stuff they were doing when I was writing the book. And who knows? I mean, the next season could turn completely into a massive story arc in which a particular religion or combination of religious traditions become major players. And that could change the argument that I make about South Park. Because these are still ongoing programmes and South Park is able to change directions very quickly – depending on where Trey Parker and Matt Stone want to go – unlike The Simpsons and Family Guy, which are such big productions that trying to turn those ships at this point would be incredibly difficult. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is: jokes aren’t just jokes. . . would be the way that I would put it. Humour is grossly understudied as a means of transmitting religious information. And this is one of the arguments in the book that we haven’t talked about a whole lot. But I talk about religious satire as running on sort-of two different tracks in the book. There’s the sense of, it’s religious satire in that it’s jokes about groups that are considered religions. So there are Mormon jokes in there, there’s scientology jokes. There’s two chapters on all different types of Christians, there’s Jews, there’s Muslims, there’s Buddhist and Hindus, Native American religious traditions. Because that’s where the data was. But at the same time, I argue that the humour itself is doing this work of bringing people into, and here I use a modified version of William James’ definition of religion: socialising you into an unseen order. And that, to me, has become – for me personally – one of the major take-aways from this project; that humour itself really socialises people and audiences very quickly, but with a ton of information flying at you, into a particular worldview. And we don’t pay enough attention to the way that humour is doing that. (35:00) Humour is treated as something frivolous but, at least through working with this data, I found that it was far from just joking. I found it to be an incredibly powerful way of getting across that sense of “it’s funny because it’s true.” And this book is sort of written to say, “No, things are never funny because quote-unquote “they’re true”. It’s funny because people think they’re true. And what are the consequences of socialising people into a big picture of how religious diversity should work, based on the jokes that they tell about religious groups? So, I think those would be the two biggest . . . . There’s also this last one that I always find myself bringing out now because, yeah, I’ve been told I’m a crotchety old liberal arts professor even at the age of 35. But I really do think there’s something valuable to thinking through the stuff that we are consuming. A bad episode of The Simpsons will get millions, literally, more viewers than will ever read my book. Unless, by an act of God, this becomes some sort of international bestseller. And I’m sure University Press would love if that happened, I know I would! Sitting down, thinking critically, assessing why we find certain things funny, asking ourselves, what was actually portrayed in this episode? Why do I get this joke? Because one of the experiences that scholars of religion can bring to programmes like this is, if you have a history of studying anything in religious studies – let’s say you’re a specialist in reform Judaism – you know more about, Reform Judaism than I do, because I’m not a specialist at all. But you can sit down and you can ask: OK, when they portray Jews, how are they doing that? What images are they drawing upon? What additional information can I bring into this conversation to change the way that people would look at this joke, this data? What are the advantages and disadvantages? That old-fashioned critical thinking approach. And the reason that I really like the Simpsons and South Park far more than Family Guy is that I think the Simpsons and South Park have within them a spirit of keeping that critical thinking tradition alive, far more than Family Guy does. And you can do this just by turning on your TV. And I wrote this book, in part, for students in those religion and pop culture classes, those large classes where people will show them an episode of The Simpsons, or South Park, or Family Guy and you can learn to do this from the get go. And that’s a really important vital skill for sitting down and asking who you’re going to be as a person, as a citizen, in this world. Because, at least for me, for example, when I was much younger I would laugh at racist jokes, before I ever met people of different races. I grew up in a predominantly small town, white New Brunswick culture, although there was a large Native population nearby. And it was after meeting people from different backgrounds that I went back, and I thought about jokes that I used to laugh at, and I thought, “You know, they’re really not that funny, now that I know people that fit. So why did I laugh?” And I changed my behaviour accordingly. And thinking about laughter at jokes – why you laugh, what you’re doing when you laugh. Jokes transmit a ton of information, very quickly. (40:00) And the more you can think about them, and the better you can think about them, and the clearer you can think about them, the more you can understand the relationships that are going on in the society around you. And then you can start asking what you want to do with them. And that’s kind-of where I left the book at the end. I left it open-ended, in the sense that I want readers not to stop with the book. I want them to keep thinking after they’re done reading it. So that would be the third take-away.

BF: Well, I definitely found the book left me thinking about pop culture. And everything I watch now, you laugh and you think – you’re right – why did I laugh at that? Why is it funny? And, you know particularly with The Simpsons and South Park and Family Guy, there is so much thought that goes into every single episode. And I really think that, you know, the academy is really kind-of clicked onto the politics side of those shows. They’ve clicked onto the idea that they’re commenting about Trump, or they’re commenting about American politics. But they haven’t really clicked onto the idea that they really comment about religion. And I think you’ve really clicked onto that. And it’s something that we can go beyond those three shows and really look further into pop culture at things that, perhaps we thought – you know, I hope I can say this – things that we thought perhaps weren’t worthy of our time before; these shows were a bit low-brow and low-culture. But they’re actually bringing out these ideas that people are consuming en masse. And they are conveying these ideas about religion, and this broad commentary, that people are consuming en masse. So thank you so much for joining us today. There are so many things in this interview that we can take forward and we can think about and talk about. So thank you so much for joining us again, Dave.

DF: Thank you for having me.

Citation Info: Feltmate, David and Breann Fallon. 2017. “Drawn to the Gods: Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programmes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 11 December 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 8 December 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/drawn-to-the-gods-religion-comedy-and-animated-television-programmes/

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Popular Culture, Dr. Who, and Religion

 

It’s a big universe, and sometimes things get lost in time and space. For instance, this 2013 interview with Dr. James F. McGrath was recorded but then fell into a metaphorical black hole (i.e. the potential podcast series never debuted). Fortunately, his discussion of topics including the soul, the religious ethics of artificial intelligence, and the function of science fiction on informing audiences’ spiritual sensibilities all remain (relatively) timeless. To start, he addresses the unique challenges of working across disciplines in pursuit of analyzing popular culture currently, then shifts to an exploration of religion’s study in the future. Along the way, McGrath and interviewer A. David Lewis namecheck famous characters such as Captain Kirk and Doctor Who in the effort to illustrate complex notions of the soul embedded in secular entertainments. Enjoy a trip to the past — that looks to the future!

You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Chia Pets, hot sauce, and more.

From the Ku Klux Klan to Zombies

Many of us only know about the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan through film and television, and much of what we see blurs fact and fiction. Distinguishing each side of that messy divide is the prolific Kelly J. Baker, exploring how media portrayals of the hate group have influenced audiences and, in turn, fed back on its own members. This previously unaired interview conducted by A. David Lewis from 2013 sketches out the rise of the KKK on the large and small screen, its relevance to discussions of religious terrorism today, and perhaps even a link to Baker’s other work on zombies in popular culture.

Gospel According to the Klan
The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930
Kelly J. Baker

This interview was recorded by A. David Lewis – who has been an interviewee on the RSP twice in the past – for a separate project. As fate would have it, the interview has made its way into our hands and we are delighted to bring it to you now.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Video Games and Religious StudiesReligion and Film, Religion and Literature,Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, ornaments, puncture repair kits, and more.

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.

Playing the Field: the Logistics of Religion and Video Game Studies

The field of religion and video games is still new and forming. In its struggle to find itself, it simultaneously competes with a university’s traditional understanding of both education and culture, often involving Gregory Price Grieve’s comment that video games are perceived as “low brow” culture. The view of video games as, again to quote Grieve, “just above pornography,” is a misconception that the academic study of video games is constantly fighting against.

That being said, hearing about Grieve’s success in bringing the study of video games to his university is promising. Not only was he able to establish courses for the study of religion and video games, but was also able to work with his library and university in order to establish gaming centres for students to play games. Having digital media pushed across disciplines throughout the university, as well as having a Digital Media Centre in their library, helps to establish video games and other forms of digital media as important and worthy of study in the university.

Grieve did have an understanding university, which is something important to keep in mind. While his approach to getting video games in the classroom is a format presented to be copied, not everyone is lucky enough to be present in a university that is so understanding. This is especially the case in universities rooted in academic tradition, built on older standards which seldom factor in elements of popular culture. This is not even considering the cost of this kind of endeavour. Even with a buy-in from the library, Grieve’s project still needed $10,000. And this is only considering the technicalities of this new media, and not the thought process of people who still believe that video games are not an important element of popular culture today, or who don’t seem to really care about the “popular” at all. In that sense, there are bigger problems facing some people at less understanding universities than a lack of technology.

The positive reception Grieve has experienced with his students can hopefully begin to be experienced by researchers and teachers in the study of video games in many universities throughout the world. However, there are many elements that still work against progression in the field. Some of the thoughts and actions impeding the growth of the field are, sadly, still present even among scholars in the field. By studying only video games, we impede ourselves and the progress which can be made; there are many aspects of video games which are affecting other elements of popular culture. An example of this are Let’s Play videos, in which players record themselves playing a video game, with commentary and sometimes even recordings of the player’s face (as the Let’s Player PewDiePie became known for), which are then uploaded on video sharing sites such as YouTube. Unfortunately, the popularity of Let’s Plays have been stereotyped almost as much as video games themselves are, an element that is unfortunately heard even in Grieves interview in which he relegates their popularity and interest almost exclusively to “teenagers”, even though the demographic may not be this concrete, especially for Let’s Players who are older themselves, such as Fun Haus. PewDiePIe has over 41 million subscribers, and it is hard to imagine that all 41 million are only teenagers. Not to mention that the fastest growing demographic for gaming content are women over the age of 25.[1]

What Let’s Plays demonstrate for academics of video games is the creativity enjoyed by Let’s Players. Geoff Ramsey, the founder of the Let’s Play group Achievement Hunter has commented on this creativity: “Any time we can take and use [a game] in a way that it wasn’t necessarily intended by the developers, that’s like the best thing in the world to me.”[2] This out-pouring of creativity allows researchers to have easy access to new narratives being created and the emotions they create and share. These new narratives and emotions are not experienced solely by the Let’s Player, but also by those who watch these videos; these narratives are then shared by the viewer to others, and new narratives are created by the viewer in relation to these new narratives. These videos are then not only relegated to the realm of video games, but also to internet studies and realms of internet discourse, particularly when elements of them become shared as memes.

The field of religion and video games is still emerging, and thus still solidifying its own definition and place. What is most important is for scholars interested in engaging with digital media, like video games, to demonstrate to their students, universities, and themselves that video games are a medium worthy of study.

[1] Gautam Ramdurai, “Think Gaming Content is Niche? Think Again,” Think with Google, December 2014, accessed February 2016, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/think-gaming-content-is-niche-think-again.html.

[2] Rooster Teeth, Let’s Play Live: The Documentary, Video (2015), ), http://roosterteeth.com/episode/r-t-docs-let-s-play-live-let-s-play-live-the-documentary

Video Games and Religious Studies

The project of legitimating new cultural commodities into the canon of interpretative objects can be lengthy process. In this interview with University of North Carolina at Greensboro Associate Professor Greg Grieve, video games are presented as a content moving from the margins to the center of the intersection of religion and popular culture. Grieve explains how he integrates play and critical analysis into his course, and narrates the process by which his university’s library created a space to support his innovative classroom work.

invented religions, allow users to create and experience virtual religious spaces, and much more. Students often come to video games in need to critical tools to move beyond play to critical thinking with/about games, but Grieve’s laboratory methods create miniature experimental situations for students to assess gaming content alongside the gaming experience. Like many other technical tools, games in the classroom require not just some elements of hardware but also new techniques, methods, and theoretical models. This is challenging, yes, but in Greive’s opinion the hurdles are well-worth the results: invested students, powerful classroom experiences, and content that is as diverse and rich as any other popular culture materials.

This interview was recorded at the 2015 AAR Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

**We are aware that the audio quality this week is not up to our usual standards, but we hope that the content of the interview more than makes up for this. Apologies.** 

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on Invented Religions, Religion and Film, Religion and Literature, Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You might also be interested in the article Locating the Locus of Study on “Religion” in Video Games, written by our own Jonathan Tuckett and David Robertson. You can 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, video games, indulgences, and more.

Conference Report (and rant): Fandom and Religion, Leicester, 2015

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by our very own Venetia Robertson, RSP Editor and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

The University of Leicester hosted the Fandom and Religion conference this July 28-30 in affiliation with the Theology, Religion and Popular Culture network. A reasonably small conference with just over 30 presenters and 50 attendees, organisers Clive Marshall and Isobel Woodcliffe of Leicester’s Lifelong Learning Centre ran the event smoothly with the help of attentive session chairs and the professional staff at the clean and comfortable College Court conference centre. The Court was truly the home of the conference—with all of the sessions, meals, drinks, and most of our accommodation being there (and with little to do in the surrounding area)—one could be excused for experiencing a bit of cabin fever by end of the week. Still, when tomorrow morning’s keynote speaker is ordering another pint at midnight, we’re probably all glad that bed is just a few steps away from the bar. I want to talk about the papers I saw, and those I wish I’d caught, because that’s primarily what a conference review should be, but I’m also going to take this opportunity to give the study of fandom and religion in general some evaluation, as this conference both pointed out to me the breadth and the dearth of this relatively new academic field.

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One of the main draws of this conference for me, and why I was willing to endure the very long plane trip to get there, was the keynote line-up. I heard of this event at last year’s Media, Religion, and Culture Conference, and was excited to see that it would be featuring excellent speakers like Kathryn Lofton (who sadly had to pull out), and scholars whose work my own is intimately connected to, like Chris Partridge and Matt Hills. The way these thinkers combine innovative thinking with the analysis of meaning-making and popular culture highlights, and inspiringly so, the importance of this area of investigation. Partridge and Hill’s plenary papers, ‘Fandom, Pop Devotion, and the Transfiguration of Dead Celebrities’ and ‘Revisiting the “Affective Spaces” of Fan Conventions: Sites of Pilgrimage, Sacredness, and Enchantment… or Non-Places?’ respectively, were both illustrative of the fruitful amalgamation of approaches from media, cultural, and religious studies when examining these developments. I brought together Partridge’s concept of occulture with Hill’s hyperdiegesis in my own paper on how medieval female mystics and modern fangirls use relational narratives with their ‘gods’ to reify sacred subjectivities from within the patriarchal cultures of Christendom and geek culture. On the whole, the conference represented multi- and inter-disciplinary methods, with scholars of anthropology, psychology, music, digital cultures, and literature alongside those of religion. There was, however, in the overall makeup and theme of Fandom and Religion, an unmistakeably strong theological bent—but more on that in a moment.

Though it meant having to miss out on what I heard was a great session on fan experiences in Bob Dylan, indie, and Israeli popular music scenes, and a session on comics and hero narratives that I would have no doubt enjoyed, I felt very satisfied with the methodological offerings from Rhiannon Grant and Emanuelle Burton that dealt with the tensions of canon and fanon, interpretation and creativity, group consensus and personal gnosis, that affect religious and fan communities alike. With a mix of midrashic, pagan, and Quaker approaches to truth and authority, this panel had my mind whirring. Papers on the commercial and the communal aspects of the Hillsong and the role of music in the Pentecostal mega church system provided fascinating insights (and stay tuned for more on this from Tom Wagner). Offerings from Bex Lewis on the Keep Calm and meme on trend and Andrew Crome on My Little Pony fandom, Bronies, and Christianity, proffered some intriguing ways in which viral cultures enable believers to remix media for religious purposes and find the sacred within the secular. Film and television were well represented with talks on American Horror Story, the Alien franchise, small screen vampires, children’s programming, and anime, though I unfortunately could not get to those sessions. Sport, fiction, and celebrity were of course popular topics, with a Harry Potter themed session, and talks on football and faith and evangelism amongst skaters and surfers. Two talks I again missed but would have liked to have caught were the inimitably odd Ian Vincent on tulpas and tulpamancy and François Bauduin’s talk on the Raelians, for what I’m sure would have been a robust discussion of how these esoteric movements translate into the online sphere, and how this affects notions of authenticity and creativity.

11222652_10156115964950413_6985333271960933871_oWhile this program certainly presents a swathe of relevant subjects in the field of fandom and religion, there were several key moments that made me realise that some central issues had gone by the wayside. It struck me that this was a very “white” conference: there were, even for a small number of papers, strikingly none that I could see on non-Western peoples or traditions. A tiny fraction looked at non-Western media and non-Abrahamic religious beliefs. Searching the abstract booklet I found Islam mentioned once, Buddhism only in passing, and no references to countries with historical, pertinent, and I would say seminal engagements with religious fandoms (Japan, India, Vanuatu are just a few examples). When pointed out during the ‘feedback session’ that concluded the conference two responses were offered: one, that there was no one writing on these topics, and two, that it’s a shame that it looks like the conference lacked diversity but that the organizing body does have one Jewish member… In her keynote, Tracy Trothen remarked on the subject of religion and sport that when we say ‘religion’ we usually mean ‘Christianity’, which I had initially interpreted as a reflexive moment on the ‘god problem’ the academy continues to have, that is, the perpetuation of “the myth of Christian uniqueness” despite the reality of pluralism and secularization, but unfortunately it merely signaled the habitual preferential treatment of this one theological outlook. The suggestion that “no one is writing on these topics” is patently false, but is indicative of the core issue I had with this event: it wasn’t just saturated with a Christo-theological focus in material and approach because that’s representative of the academy, but rather it seemed it was primarily interested in representing that viewpoint—and this is something I don’t think was made clear from the outset.

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For example, the website for this conference followed on from the flyer that had first alerted me to the “international, inter-disciplinary conference,” and stated that its purpose was to “explore interactions between religion and popular culture” which sounded great. “What is happening to fans as they express their enthusiasms and allegiances? Has fandom replaced or become a form of religion?”—cool, interesting questions, I thought. Compare with this description from a CFP I, after the fact, found elsewhere: “A Major Conference for Faith Community Practitioners and Academics,” “including a session solely for faith community practitioners.” There were actually several ‘practitioner’ sessions, and it seemed clear after a while that ‘faith community’ meant Christian worship. It became explicit from the first day with our welcome that in part this event was for not just religious people but those active in their Churches to learn not so much about, but from fandoms. I am used to attending academic conferences with a notable number of ‘practitioners’ present, they may even present non-academic papers. I am also used to having to define religious studies as a separate disciplinary enterprise to theology. But what I wasn’t expecting in Leicester, and I don’t think I was alone here, was to be at a conference where religion, theology, and Christianity were so automatically synonymous that it didn’t seem to occur to the organisers that major non-Christian themes in religion and fandom had been overlooked in their selection of papers, or even that such themes were major. I wasn’t expecting to feel like such an outsider, as a religious studies academic at what I had thought was an academic religious studies affair.

To be fair, now that I have delved deeper into the faith-based networks that organised this event (Donald Wiebe). However, this issue goes beyond the academy, and this became obvious when a reporter for a religion-themed program on BBC4 interviewed some of the conference’s speakers. What thankfully doesn’t make it into our few minutes of fame in this radio segment is the interviewer’s clear discomfort with the idea of converging ‘obsessive’ fans and their ‘low brow’ media with ‘devoted’ believers and their ‘respectable’ forms of the divine. “Are they [typical othering language] just crazy?” he asks me of fans, and makes me repeat my answer several times in order to get something “more quippy, less academic”, and, I suppose, more damning to confirm his perception that there are right and wrong forms of meaning-making. Journalists from The Daily Mail also tried (but failed) to get a talking head, so I guess things could have been worse.

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

I certainly don’t mean to detract from the importance of making niche areas like fandom and religion studies visible on an international and interdisciplinary scale, or the much-appreciated effort that went in to the organisation and contribution of this conference and its participants: there was indeed a wealth of interesting, useful, and high-quality papers. Nonetheless, as a reflection on the state of popular culture and its integration into multi­-religious studies (not to mention the relevant spheres of civil/quasi/alternative/implicit religion etc.) I feel these criticisms need timely evaluation. And I have some heartening thoughts to that effect: there is a blossoming field of intersectional work on these topics at the moment if one takes the time to look! The promotional material available at Leicester, interestingly, confirmed this, and I include some pictures of it here. I think it’s telling that Joss Whedon studies has had its own journal, Slayage, for over ten years, but to find more journal articles on a vast panoply of religion and fandom junctures you can try the Journal Of Religion And Popular Culture, the classic Journal Of Popular Culture or the newer Transformative Works And Cultures and the Journal of Fandom Studies, whose book reviews keep on top of the most recent additions to this field. This conference also saw the launch of the comprehensive volume, The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture (which ranges in price between $277 AUD on BookDepository to a whopping $405 at Angus and Robertson), edited by John Lyden and Eric Mazur, as yet another example of the popularity of this topic in contemporary scholarship. I’m also pleased to say that my paper will be a chapter in the forthcoming volume for INFORM/Ashgate, Fiction, Invention, and Hyper-reality: From Popular Culture to Religion (edited by Carole Cusack and Pavol Kosnáč) alongside some brilliant minds exploring the relationship of spirituality to conspiracy theories, Tolkein’s legendarium, Discordianism, with a handful of, yes, practitioner’s accounts, this time from Pagans, Jedis and Dudeists—it’s sure to be a vibrant, diverse, and illuminating contribution to the discussion on fandom and religion.

 

 

Pilgrimage as Tension

That we now understand that people undertake pilgrimages for more than pious reasons has been one of the most significant advances in ‘pilgrimage studies’ to date. In Paulina Kolata’s interview with Prof. Ian Reader this is illustrated with a number of examples, though it is important to note that Reader shies away from a definition. For those who insist on the definition of terms this is a problem, of course, but I suspect the omission was deliberate. Among the reasons for this that are discussed is the notion that any term developed in one cultural-linguistic group will immediately face translation problems when being applied to another. Nonetheless, there is a tacit definition in use for the purposes of the interview which appears to be ‘travel connected to institutional religion’. The exception to this is ‘secular pilgrimage’ which Reader attaches to themes of popular culture, informal religious iconography and meanings, and, less obviously, questions of personal and collective meaning, all of which take place outside the jurisdiction of an institutional religious group. Questions of definition aside, there is an important theme Reader returns to a number of times throughout the interview; that pilgrims do a lot of stuff that is not ‘religious’ that scholars in religious studies have thus largely ignored.

In lieu of definitions, Reader asks questions about popularity and attraction, and, when prompted by Kolata, about meaning. By these routes a general picture of pilgrimage emerges. There are, Reader argues, certain conditions that must be met for a pilgrimage site to become successful and popular. Amongst these, infrastructure and marketing are important. Entertainment, Reader argues, has always been a part of religion and always a part of pilgrimage. In Western scholarship, however, there has been some kind of Protestant-informed unease with enjoyment when it comes to religiosity. This has given rise to a certain idea of pilgrims as serious travellers – a notion of pious, mobile flagellation in search of absolution – which contrasts with a domain of tourism in which entertainment is dominant and thus is frivolous and demanding of a scholarly shun (Digance 2006). But this dichotomy, Reader notes, is not present in many other traditions around the world. Furthermore, regardless of scholarly dismissal, pilgrimage sites are often places of entertainment – food, performances, conviviality, sex – regardless of culture or dominant religious group, and this is an important part of what attracts people. The reasons people might go on what they call ‘a pilgrimage’ are complex. Amusement may be as important as communion, escape from everyday life as important as prayer. But, and this is an important point that does not come up in the interview, they may not be the reasons a person may give when asked by fieldworking scholars. This is where a question asked by Kolata about the meaning of pilgrimage practices brings Reader to the heart of the interview’s thesis. Common themes in pilgrimage traditions, Reader infers, are metaphors of the journey of life, and, simultaneously, an escape from the realities of that life.

Reader’s argument is compelling and raises some important and intriguing questions. In my own work on spiritual tourism (Norman 2011) the themes he highlights were no less common,[1] and I too emphasise the importance of looking at the whole picture of a travel site or tradition in order to triangulate data and draw reliable conclusions. The working model Reader suggests is one that understands pilgrimages as travel to religious sites in which the motivations of travellers are a mixture of piety, curiosity, escape, boredom, transformation, and any number of other ‘non-religious’ and ‘religious’ reasons. The point, as noted in the interview, is that traditions of travel, apart from anything else, have probably always been, in part, about getting away from home and seeing something new, satisfying some human urge for mobility, to explore, to see new things, and to learn. In addition, popularity is also a factor as people desire to go where others also go. This is complicated by Reader’s assertion that piety is not a prerequisite for pilgrimage, though this, of course, depends on who one asks. Even a cursory examination of the historical record of pilgrimage traditions in Europe illustrates that pilgrims have always been suspicious of the peregrinatory status of other pilgrims. The overall point, however, is that from the outside, pilgrimage traditions are those traditions of travel in which meaning and/or transformation are portrayed as important, but that in practice hang in tension with other equally important, though less acknowledged motivations and desires.

For my current work, this notion has some important implications. At present I am working on the qualitative analysis of interview material gathered as part of the Shamatha Project, examining the effects of an intensive three-month shamatha meditation training retreat. If people have gone on pilgrimage to sites they consider special (as Taves 2012, would put it), but, as Reader contends, also in order to escape the everyday, to seek entertainment, and to ‘go to popular sites’, then in the phenomenon of people in Western societies going on Buddhist meditation retreats, we ought to be able to find evidence of those other ‘non-religious’ factors. At least somewhere and somehow. This, of course, assumes we are willing to consider ‘retreat tourism’ or ‘contemplative tourism’, as I’m going to neologise it here, in the same light as the range of vastly different traditions of travel that we are otherwise happy to lump under the ‘pilgrimage’ label. And I am, as are others (Eddy 2012), because if we look at some of the sociological studies of retreats and their touristic dimensions we can find some evidence of just such complex approaches (e.g. Voigt et al. 2010). An important implication is that, far from being simply about a journey towards truth, or of transformation or progression towards enlightenment or mindfulness, retreat practices in the West will also be about escape from the everyday, about seeing somewhere new, learning, and, overall, about being something different from normal for the retreatant/traveller/pilgrim.

Of course, the first step in testing the model Reader puts forward (albeit somewhat tacitly) is rigorous, qualitative research that investigates the interplay of expressed motivations, outcomes, and actual practices. I am confident enough in Reader’s model, especially in the light of my own research on spiritual tourism and on World Youth Day (2011), to predict that a complex mix of contesting interests held in tension is what will be found, at least in Western meditation retreat contexts. Certainly if we look at some examples of successful and popular retreats, like Spirit Rock Meditation Centre in California, we find the signs Reader predicts: good infrastructure, coordinated marketing, catering for many tastes and approaches, escape from the everyday, social gatherings apart from the practice, and so on. As opposed to undermining the special status of retreat practices, research showing such observations would, in fact, emphasise the sociological importance of retreat experiences for retreatants. Retreat visits/pilgrimages often are, by design, by intent, and in practice, journeys of significance for a range of personal and social reasons. But we cannot turn our eyes from the supposedly non-sacred, hedonistic, entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, or to put it simply, the enjoyable dimensions of retreats. For many who enter a retreat, just as for those who go on other pilgrimages, the journey is a special tradition of travel, a journey redolent with meaning, precisely because it occurs in response to complex personal and social motivations that are held in tension.

References

Digance, Justine. “Religious and Secular Pilgrimage: Journeys Redolent with Meaning.” In Tourism, Religion and Spiritual Journeys, edited by Dallen J. Timothy and Daniel H. Olsen, 36–48. London: Routledge, 2006.

Eddy, Glenys. “The Vipassana Retreat Experience: A Consideration of the Meditation Retreat as a Religious Paradigm of Travel.” Literature & Aesthetics 22, no. 1 (2012). http://ojs-prod.library.usyd.edu.au/index.php/LA/article/view/7574.

Norman, Alex. Spiritual Tourism: Travel and Religious Practice in Western Society. London: Continuum, 2011.

Norman, Alex, and Mark Johnson. “World Youth Day: The Creation of a Modern Pilgrimage Event for Evangelical Intent.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 26, no. 3 (2011): 371–85.

Taves, Ann. “Special Things as Building Blocks of Religions.” In The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, edited by Robert A. Orsi, 58–83. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Voigt, Cornelia, Gary Howat, and Graham Brown. “Hedonic and Eudaimonic Experiences among Wellness Tourists: An Exploratory Enquiry.” Annals of Leisure Research 13, no. 3 (January 1, 2010): 541–62. doi:10.1080/11745398.2010.9686862.

[1] I’ll put aside my wish to respond to Reader’s dismissal of ‘spirituality’ apart from noting the ironic similarity it bears to the dismissal of dimensions of pilgrimage he had just been discussing.

Religion and Literature

How can studying literature help us to study religion? And what the question even mean? In this interview, Alana Vincent, Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Chester, sets out some of the interesting intersections of these two fields. We can glean ethnographic or historical detail from literary works, and sometimes read particular insider discourses in their pages. We can read literature as a “sacred text” – or indeed, “sacred text” as literature”. Does literature, as a form where imagination is allowed free reign, provide a space for authors and readers to explore ‘matters of ultimate concern’, within or without religious institutions?

DSCF0481This interview was recorded LIVE! at the University of Chester on the 15th of October, 2014. Thanks to Chester and to Dawn Llewellyn for making the event possible. The interview leads directly onto the roundtable “Narrative, Ethnography and Reflexivity” which will be broadcast this Wednesday.

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.

Studying Vernacular Religion in the US

Vernacular religion is a subject which fascinates us here at the RSP, because in keeping with our critical perspective, it challenges that idea that neat categorical boundaries may be drawn, and reminds us that when attempts are made to draw them, particular interests are being served. David Robertson was given the chance to sit down with Leonard Norman Primiano – one of the pre-eminent scholars of that field – at the BASR 2014 conference in Milton Keynes earlier this month, and we are delighted to bring you the fruits of that meeting today.

The Virgin Mary and Child Jesus with Saints, 1882, Oil on Wood, 13 1/4 x 17 3/4 inchesPrimiano begins by describing how he came to study vernacular religion as a young scholar under Don Yoder, who introduced the ethnographic study of “folk religion” to the US academy. We discuss the relationship between the study of religion and the study of folklore, and he then introduces some of his ongoing research. Particular attention is paid to the case of Father Divine and the Peace Mission movement, an indigenous US communitarian religious movement, now in terminal decline. Of particular interest is Primiano’s emphasis that vernacular religion should not be considered beside mainstream religion; rather, vernacular religion is all religion as it is encountered in the field.

Primiano is Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pennsylvania. He has published widely – please click his photo in the right-hand column above for details of his recent publications. He is currently curating Graces Received, an exhibition of painted and metal ex votos from Italy at Cabrini College until October 26th, 2014. It will open at Indiana University’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures in January for the Spring semester.

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Demons, possessions, and exorcisms: Sean McCloud on “Spiritual Warfare”

How should one approach the study of demons and spiritual warfare? In this conversation with University of North Carolina, Charlotte professor Sean McCloud, demons, possessions, and exorcisms that might have once been considered fringe or marginal elements of the American religious scene are now part of a robust “haunted” or supernatural landscape.

Today the spiritual warfare movement that began in mission fields in South America and Africa is now institutionalized in the charismatic New Apostolic Reformation churches as well as popularized in film and cinema. Where should we place haunted objects in the world of religious studies? What do we do with figures like Peter Wagner who led the supernatural movement and then found himself attacked by his allies?

What we find is a transnational interest with demons that has yet to be fully charted or explained. McCloud argues that rising supernatural interest coincides with consumerism and neoliberal capitalism. In the spiritual warfare manuals that serve as his primary data, capitalist and even therapeutic language seems to mark this as a product that borrows from a wide range of 20th century themes. Even perceived enemies of evangelicalism—like the soft metaphysical stylings of The Secret—become fodder for incorporation into the spiritual warfare paradigm. Welcome to the supernatural turn!

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.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

Picture 118While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions.

Stereotypes and Dangerous Rituals: A Reflection on the Academic Study of Serpent-Handling

By Travis Warren Cooper, Indiana University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 5 June 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Paul WIlliamson on Serpent Handling (3 June 2013)

In one melancholic and chilling scene in director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), leading man Brad Pitt’s rendition of the famous American outlaw sits outside his Missouri home. He holds snakes in his hand, both as an allusion to Jesse James’s revivalist family background and intertextual echo of earlier filmic portrayals of the outlaw’s capricious and violent personality.

The Jesse James of the historical record was not an Appalachian serpent-handling Pentecostal, of course. But Hollywood likes to blend its symbols, especially its religious ones, and tends to prefer homogenized provocation over denominational specification. In an earlier Revisionist Western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), Robert Duvall―an actor now known for his critical portrayals of charismatic religions in films such as The Apostle (1997)―stages a prophetic utterance to determine Northfield,

Minnesota as the next site of exploit. This revival-type soliloquy, along with the snake-handling allusion of the 2007 film, construes Jesse James in terms of both violent outlawry and religious extremism. If film is to any degree a barometer of cultural perceptions on a subject, both Pitt and Duvall’s scenes are commentaries on the close relationship between religion and violence. Serpent-handling is one visible face of these tensions.

A lightning-rod of controversy, serpent-handling is a contentious practice on multiple levels. As popular media attest, the ritual is a filmic symbol of North American religion. More specifically, it is an iconic metonym of U. S. Pentecostalism. Protestants live deeply material lives, as scholars have argued (McDannell, 1995), and some of them interact with prayer cloths, guitars, bottled anointing oils, thick hymnbooks, and worn family Bibles in densely intertwined networks of objects and quasi-objects of the Latourian sort (1993). In obedience to what they see as clear biblical mandate, snake-handling Pentecostals take up canebrake rattlers and copperheads—and on rare occasions, cottonmouths or diamondbacks—living objects that have the potential to strike and kill their bearers. Snakes are living agents and dangerous ritual objects.

That religion manifests in violence often finds itself made light of in pop cultural depictions, such as in Duvall’s expert mimicry of a Southern preacher’s drawl as he gives his pseudo-prophecy. Is this an uneasy laughter, a nervous chuckle, of sorts, that holds cultural anxieties at bay, and perhaps allows viewers to laugh off these ambivalences? Cultural depictions of serpent-handlers are often cynically comical in their accounts. Moe Szyslak, a character in The Simpsons, brandishes bandaged hands and refuses to join Homer’s new religion, saying, “I was born a snake handler, and I’ll die a snake handler.” More recently, comedian Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a Democratic Congressman from North Carolina in The Campaign (2012). In this irreverent parody of the American political system, Brady attempts to assuage the public’s concern that he is not really a Christian by joining a serpent-handling congregation. All this occurs after his political opponents shame him for not being able to publicly recite the Lord’s Prayer. “I have the power in me!” he exclaims, dancing in a group of other handlers at the front of a small church that brims with visibly ecstatic worshipers. “I could do this forever. These snakes love me.” Brady’s glee is short lived, though, as one of the snakes predictably strikes, sinking its fangs deep into his forearm. He rips it out, uttering a string of expletives. But even as his sight blurs and he breaks out in feverish sweats, Brady manages to turn the situation for political gain.

In terms of scholarly representation, however, comedies such as The Candidate and long-running favorites like The Simpsons simply get it wrong. While they evidence a cultural uneasiness with the practice, they do not accurately portray the marginalized group in focus. Comical films stereotype and homogenize fringe religious practices; scholarly study elucidates complex social and cultural minutiae. While Hollywood often takes a critical stance in the name of provocation and artistic freedom, scholars of particular social and cultural groups often find themselves working against the grain of collective assumptions. But this is just harmless slapstick comedy, one might claim. It would be all fun and games if it were not for the fact that cultural understandings—public opinion informed by (and informing) common stereotypes—often exhibit themselves at the legislative level.

According to one of the most recent and most thorough studies of Appalachian serpent-handlers, “legislatures and courts have had little real knowledge of serpent-handling churches and therefore have little basis on which to judge whether serpent handling is dangerous to others” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 214). In 1940, Kentucky passed the first law banning “intentional exposure to venomous reptiles” in religious gatherings. Tennessee and Virginia delivered bans of their own in 1947. North Carolina and Alabama followed suit in 1949 and 1950. Notably, North Carolina and Georgia have legislated even further by prohibiting the preaching of beliefs about snake handling, rather than simply banning the practice itself. “Thus in North Carolina and Georgia even preaching from Mark 16:17-18 could be interpreted as a violation of state law,” the authors lament. These sorts of state actions “not only infringe on religious practice but on the right to religious belief as well.” West Virginia, in 1963, passed a bill that made the handling of poisonous serpents a misdemeanor. Both Georgia and Alabama ratcheted up the legal consequences of serpent handling by bringing the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony (Ibid., 208-217).

Two of Hood and Williamson’s arguments are that stereotypes influence legislation and legislation has tended to unconstitutionally limit the practices of snake handlers. Overall, Americans tend to resist approving of religions that might bring physical harm to its devotees. “It is implicit in a commonsense view that religion must be ‘good’ and should not condone rituals that can maim or kill. While this is a reasonable position, it also can be viewed as a prejudice. Why cannot religion legitimately endorse a practice that can maim or kill?” Ultimately, they argue that “despite the fact that serpent handlers are injured and killed, their faith may be both sincere and valid” (Ibid., 209). Stereotypes and prejudices against fringe religious groups like serpent-handlers do not realize the cultural specificity of the rituals, the meaning derived by participants from performance in it. To be certain, the authors do not shy from describing the violent nature of the practice. They go to disquietingly specific lengths, in fact, to describe the physical effects of snake bites and admit that increased handling of snakes actually increases rather than decreases the potentiality of attacks (Ibid., 87, 85).

Besides attempting to accurately document the rituals of their subjects, the authors contextualize and humanize the snake-handlers, putting faces on the people who engage in the rituals and find theological meaning from the practice—regardless if it is dangerous. Since the origins of U.S. Pentecostalism, they point out, there have been under a total of 100 documented fatalities due to serpent-handling rituals. In the interview, Williamson points out the irony that state governments feel the need to prohibit the religious practice while turning a blind eye to excessively dangerous sporting activities. Consider, for instance, that between 1931 and 2008 some 1,013 fatalities occurred due to athletic participation in the sport of (American) football (Mueller and Colgate, 2009), a (quasi-religious) ritual in its own right. Further, the authors examine stereotypes themselves, finding that when exposed to ethnographic data, critical outsiders actually softened their opinions and became more empathetic in their understandings of the handlers (Hood and Williamson 2008, 222). Practitioners do die from snake bites, but these deaths are uncommon exceptions. The snake-handling rituals, in terms of safety, are actually quite contained: “Experienced researchers know that church members and observers are not endangered by others who are handling serpents.” There is also “no documented case of a non-handling member being bitten by a serpent handled by another believer” (Ibid., 214). Those who handle are consenting adults, to apply a term with heavy cultural baggage, and as little as ten to fifteen percent of congregants handle the snakes in services. Children do not participate, and those not handling the serpents sit apart from the ritual as it proceeds. In short, Hood and Williamson find that serpent-handlers have largely been misrepresented in both cultural stereotypes as well as legal precedent. They intend their study to address some of these issues.

My response to Hood and Williamson’s theses is mixed. With Russell McCutcheon’s critic/caretaker binary echoing in my mind (2001), passages arguing that the faith of the handlers “may be both sincere and valid” through an application of Soren Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” (Hood and Williamson 2008, 209) seem to me at first to step well beyond the qualifications of the scholar of religion. What place do scholars have in evaluation of the quality and sincerity of a group’s theological systems of belief and action? Further, are academics scholars or activists? Are we to study particular people groups or argue on behalf of and in support of them? At points the authors come across as explicit advocates or spokespersons for these marginalized Pentecostal churches. We would do wrong, however, to dismiss the work as it is the most sustained and nuanced study on the subject to-date. Have not subaltern studies scholars taught us that all academic writings are political acts, produced within privileged positions of power and prestige? Scholars, especially those studying living peoples, cannot ignore the fact that we have ethical obligations towards our subjects of study. For those of us who work with human subjects, pre-research training and approval through Institutional Review Board (IRB) requirements are constant reminders of these obligations. As primarily an ethnographic work, Hood and Williamson’s study rightly falls under the category of critical ethnography as it assumes “an ethical responsibility to address processes of unfairness or injustice within a particular lived domain,” in anthropologist D. Soyini Madison’s words (2005, 5; emphasis original).

There are no easy solutions for these issues. Hood has gone as far as calling for those who have died from snake-bite related complication to be lauded for their willingness to follow biblical mandate (find the Washington Post article here). In response, other scholars have allowed for an empathetic respect, of sorts, but reject that lauding need occur. Still others argue that endorsement via lauding, respect, and empathy is a less relevant construct that should have little bearing on whether or not a scholar effectively understands a phenomenon. Toward the end of Brad Pitt’s scene, he turns the tables on viewers’ expectations. He discusses with the young Robert Ford how good the snakes taste fried, how he gives snakes the names of his enemies before he eats them. Then in one fell action he flattens the heads of the serpents across a table and decapitates them. If one doubts the allusion to the Pentecostal ritual, a woman vocalizes “Amazing Grace” in the background. The decapitated snakes writhe around the outlaw’s arm. This is only one possible interpretation of a symbolically polysemous scene, of course, but one cannot help but read into it one’s own theorizations. Is this not serpent-handling with a shocking twist, a bloodied reversal of viewer expectation? Pitt adds violence to violence as he underscores the controversial American ritual. Films of this sort obscure the ritual¾making it even more foreign and violent, so to say¾but as scholars of religion we must work to elucidate and understand it.

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.

About the Author

Picture 118Travis is an associate instructor and doctoral student at Indiana University (Bloomington) in religious studies and anthropology (doctoral major and minor emphases, respectively). His primary research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, revivalism, and televangelism, with excursions into theory of religion and the body, materiality, cognition, gender, media, anthropology of film, and visual culture. Travis is an ethnographer by methodological trade. His published works include “Marjoe Gortner, Imposter Revivalist: Toward a Cognitive Theory of Religious Misbehavior” (PentecoStudies 12.1 (2013): 83-105, and “‘Cooking with Gordon’: Food, Health, and the Elasticity of Evangelical Gender Roles (and Belt Sizes) on The 700 Club” (Religion & Gender 3.1 (2013): 107-123. He also writes informally about his academic work on his personal blog, “Mythology & Footnotes.”

References

  • Hood, Ralph W. and W. Paul Williamson. Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
  • Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Madison, D. Soyini. Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005.
  • McCutcheon, Russell T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Religion: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Mueller, Frederick O. and Bob Colgate. “Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, 1931-2012.” Unpublished paper, prepared for the American Football Coaches Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association, and The National Federation of State High School Association, 2013.