Religion is everywhere, we just have to know where to look for it

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 10.37.12 AM“…anything can be sacralized through the work of religious interpretation, ritualization, and negotiation.” — David Chidester, Authentic Fakes (120)

At we like to riff on altars to JJ Watt, the intersection of faith and film, and when comedians get all “religiousy.” Yet, the #FaithGoesPop project is deeper than identifying and briefly commenting on surface phenomena. Beyond superficial sightings, #FaithGoesPop is about understanding how religion & culture interact with, challenge, confront, come into conflict with, and change one another.

At another level, #FaithGoesPop is about understanding how religion is at work in the world. Indeed, it is my contention that if we are to understand religion in the world today we must take a look at the interaction, interplay, and intermeshing that goes on between religion and pop culture.

The definition of “religion” is a slippery beast. Trying to grasp the essence of what “religion” is proves difficult and nigh impossible. Just ask the umpteen theoreticians and countless grad students who have toiled over pinning down just what “religion” is all about and how we can define it. Is it about beliefs of embodied ritual? Is it about crossing & dwelling or more material aspects? Is it about an “encounter with the numinous” or some “collective effervescence?”

Whatever your response is to these classic and contemporary prompts that emerge from the greatest minds in religious theory we all feel like we know religion when we see it. We all feel that we can grasp what is religious and secular, public and private, by the way it functions or the tenets it holds to and professes. But do we?

Too often today, our conceptions of what religion is and is not are wrapped up in the official “-isms” of world religion theory or some misguided notion that religion is about official organizations or some form of faith in the supernatural. This has led many to believe, errantly, that religion is on the decline in our world. That our cosmos is becoming demystified and desacralized. But that just isn’t the case.

First, because the world’s “great” religions are not necessarily declining in adherents, just shifting their geography. Second, because we have to free ourselves from institutional conceptions of “religion” in order to understand the way #religion is at work in our world today. It turns out that we have to free up our conception of “religion” in order to understand its prolific and fluid nature. We have to, in the words of Eric Michael Mazur and Kate McCarthy, look for “god in the details.”

Today, religion is on the move via migration and communication. Religion is unbounded from its institutional frameworks and the colonial project of naming and claiming “the great world’s religions.” Religion is being fought over and contended in public spaces and in private domains. It is pouring over traditional boundaries and settling in new places. Religion is popping up in pop culture and settling in strange places. Religion is part of what we call “sacred” as well as what we construct as “secular.” Religion is at once obvious and obscure. Religion is mutant and hybrid, multifarious and huge. Religion is everywhere we look and in places we haven’t even thought to glance at.

Quickly, I hope you are appreciating just how hard it is to understand how religion is at work in our world today. But that’s why #FaithGoesPop exists — to help us see the ways that religion is at work in pop culture and how the interaction between these two seemingly disparate realms (religion and pop culture) is part of the ever-evolving religious landscape of the world we live in. 

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 10.12.50 AMGone are the days of one individual adhering to one faith. While there may be holdouts I argue that most of us in the globalized, modern, and heterogeneous world today are hybrid religious creatures who have put together our own hodge-podge religious and spiritual outlook. Instead of strolling up to the counter of religious options a la the McDonald’s menu and choosing the #1 Catholic Club Sandwich or the #2 Big Islam or the #5 Buddhism Burger we now saunter up to a  Chipotle-style religious smorgasbord that allows us mix-and-match, pick and choose what we like, when we like, how we like it. It can be large or small. Spicy or savory. On whatever tortilla you’d like. Indeed, there is no more menu to choose from. You’re required to “have it your way” and you can trust it. After all, Chipotle’s motto is “food with integrity.” Although you don’t really know the source, you’re told the source is trustworthy and that whatever you choose is honest-to-god good for you.

And so, we ask Pastor Google, Sheikh Ibn Yahoo, or Guru Bing our most pressing religious questions and we assemble a plate full of faith-food that shapes our bodies and minds with its mystical miscellany. We don’t even look to the traditional sources anymore and we can find our religious or “spiritual” inspiration from television shows and YouTube channels, podcasts and pulpits, the Pope and pop culture. Meanwhile, on our plate of religious perspectives the astrology sauce mixes in with the Hindu helpings and the Kabbalah crunchy rolls and we dig in whenever we need a spoonful of spirituality for the day.

What I hope you’re starting to see is that the lines between public and private religion, between what is religious and what is not, between “religion” and “spirituality” or the “sacred” and the “secular” aren’t as clear as we once thought they were.

In fact, I argue that the space between — the borderlands and boundaries we constructed — are blurring and that the friction, tension, and mixing that is occurring there is where religion is at its most vibrant today, for good and for ill.

Whether religion is co-opting pop culture or pop culture is using religion to its ends; whether pop culture is found in religion or religion in pop culture; or whether religion is transforming into pop culture or pop culture is morphing into religion we are witnessing a shift in the nature of religion that, while not unprecedented, is profound and portentous.

A few weeks ago I shared this with students in a summer “World Religions” course at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL. Their instructor Prof. Kerri Blumenthal did a wonderful job of helping these students navigate the world of religions throughout the semester. One of the ways she expanded their views was by inviting in guest speakers with their own perspectives and areas of expertise. When I came into the class I taught them about #FaithGoesPop, covering the content in this blog post. (You can find the Prezi HERE)

The students took to the lecture and grabbed hold of the concept that religion is unbounded and often to be found in the borderlands between the public and private, the explicitly religious and the unapologetically popular. One said that “religion is all around us” and said we need to widen our view of what religion is or where it can be found to not only understand religious culture but to tolerate and respect it. Another student reflected that “religion and pop culture surround us every day” and that the lines are blurred in the 21st-century when technology and social media can so easily mix-in with “something as ancient as religion.” All of this is to say, as one student rightly remarked, that “we have to see religion from different perspectives” in order to “analyze the interplay between religion and pop culture.”

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 10.29.41 AMHence, Hence why I need your help to sight #FaithGoesPop. That’s why I need all my social media sociologists and entertainment-news ethnographers to be on the lookout. Not only is it fun to find #FaithGoesPop, but as we’ve seen, it’s also about understanding religion in our world today.

*So what do you think? Is religion unbounded? Is it at work in our world in ways we may not immediately recognize as “religious?” Do we need to be on the look out for more #FaithGoesPop? Share your comments, thoughts, and questions below…

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