What are we looking for when we look at ‘religion and popular culture’?

Last week I taught some classes exploring issues of religion within the study of culture — particularly popular culture.

I have tried to do this in various ways in the past, and the question always comes back to a basic issue of methodology: if we are exploring religion in culture, then how and what do we talk about as religion?

This is a question that goes across much of the contemporary study of religion, and impacts on it in various ways — not only in particular religious and culture contexts, but also very noticeably in the idea/approach of ‘material religion’. It also highlights issues that I left relatively untouched in a paper that I wrote twenty years ago, on the idea of religion as practice, or religioning.

In short, if we want to explore ‘religion’ within particular cultural locations — such as religion in a book (e.g., Harry Potter) or a film/s (e.g., Star Wars) — then can we say that religion is a thing to find or a ‘manifestation’ of something (such as ‘the sacred’)?

My straightforward answer to this is a definite ‘no’: religion is not a thing, it is not an it.

Neither is religion an essence that becomes manifest.

When I talk of religioning, I am suggesting that people are doing actions. But they are not doing these actions with religion, they are deploying and acting on discourses and ideas (and ideologies) that they think of as religion.

Thus, we are skewing our analysis to rush towards a conclusion that religion can be found there in culture. Indeed such a conclusion involves theologising an analysis that I would prefer to keep separate from such theology.

For example, we can analyse C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and point out that Aslan is being presented as an implicit allegory for Christ. This is no accident, of course, and so this is not an issue of ‘finding’ religion in culture. We need to recognise that when the author (Lewis) constructed this text, he was specifically doing things with certain ideas that we call ‘religious’. And additionally, there are also the many ways in which readers of the book associate Aslan with ideas and discourses that they may call ‘religion’ (or ‘spirituality’).

One way of describing this is Ian Cuthbertson’s (at present unpublished) discussion of the process of ‘religionisation’. This avoids us rushing to talk about finding religion in culture, or of sacred embodiment, hierophany, or whatever. Instead, we are exploring the ways in which discourses related to important categories of identity and practice (particularly ‘religion’) are worked out in certain contexts (such as books and films) by certain cultural creators and the audiences who engage with their work.

And so, in Cuthbertson’s words:

‘religionization describes the ongoing discursive processes involved in constructing religion as a separate sphere of human activity, one modeled on an inherited Western distinction between religion and the secular’

Religionisation is quite simply the processes of ideas, values, and imaginations (fantasies?) of the category of ‘religion’ being worked out in certain cultural contexts.

In his discussion of religious groups based on fictional works, Markus Davidsen describes how fantasy can work like a set of ‘metaphorical binoculars’ (p384) through which certain aspects of the world becomes visible (as the really real, possibly). This process can very often be interpreted as being about religion (i,e., it is involves certain forms of religionisation). Or it may make specific reference to concepts, categories, narratives, or organisations that presume aspects of the work to be labelled as ‘religious’ by the author and/or reader

I still have another issue with this, though, since it somewhat begs the question of what sorts of ‘things’ do we decide should come within this category of religion? This becomes especially important when we move away from books or films which are specifically, consciously presented as being Christian. Thus, what are the ways in which we can talk about religionisation in the Star Wars series? Where do we start?

This comes back to my class this week. I tried to stand back from a direct methodologising of the approach I was taking, particularly as I had a considerable amount of material to explore and I had previously discussed ‘theory and method’ with much of this same second year undergraduate group last semester. But the one point I stressed in the first class was the following, which for me is the primarily starting point for any study of religion (and culture):

What can we learn here through exploring categories of race and gender?

I follow this up with a subsidary question, which is related to the primary one. That is,

How has history (particularly colonial history) helped to cause: (i) what we are looking at, (ii) how we talk about what we are looking at?

For me, this is a much more useful starting point to any that relies on a process of looking for something we call religion within popular culture.

If we explore and analyse categories of gender and race, then within this analysis we will very definitely bump into and subsequently need to analyse the many different layers of what the author, the reader, and the scholar/student may talk about as religion.

Such religion in culture will be gendered, it will be racialised, and will be part of an ongoing history that is largely produced by colonial history. Or, to go back to my earlier use of Cuthbertson’s idea, the processes of religionisation by all who are involved will be made more clear by an intersectional analysis of such gendering and racialisation. (And for more detail on the many useful texts and authors who can contribute to such an intersectional approach, you may find my online open access syllabus of interest.)

At this point, I think it is worthwhile to conclude. I would like to come back to this issue at some point and explore particular case studies, particularly of the gendered and racialised ways in which the category of religion can be made to work in various ways in specific forms. As starting points, though, I can point towards two discussions I have previously written on specific dramas. One is of Martin Scorcese’s 2016 film Silence and the other is on the ongoing Australian TV drama about racialisation, othering, and Indigenity called Cleverman.

In both instances, I argue that the search for religion within such cultural representations is not a simple matter of pulling a thing out of the narrative and calling it religion. Both of these dramas are about gender and racialisation, and through those categories it is possible to understand ways in which the writers/producers are exploring a category that they understand as religious. That is how they are both religionised, in their different ways.

Religion Bites is edited by Malory Nye, an academic and writer who teaches at the University of Glasgow. He can be found on Twitter (@malorynye) and on his website, malorynye.com.

He produces two podcasts: Religion Bites and History’s Ink.

Malory Nye is also the author of the books Religion the Basics (2008) and There Shall be an Independent Scotland (2015).

He is the editor of the Routledge journal Culture and Religion.