This blog is part of a course at the New College of Florida that explores religion in contemporary popular culture. The posts in this blog have been written by students in the class.
What can the AMC show The Walking Dead and HBO’s True Detective tell us about existential philosophy and the idea that God may be dead? What can the irreverent humor of South Park tell us about the role of religion in society? How does Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie The Master explore the complex nature of the founder of a new religious movement (and what is the difference between a charlatan and a savior?) Are Oprah Winfrey and Tony Robbins the culmination of American Spirituality? How does the recent success of Superhero movies reflect the hopes, fears, and anxieties of a post 9/11 world? What can horror movies and the show The Wire tell us about evil? The main goal of this course is to discuss these and many other important religious and philosophical questions as explored in contemporary popular culture. Popular culture will also be a gateway to our reading of important religious and philosophical works, from the Book of Revelations to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Reading Popular Culture as Scripture
In this class, we will discuss how religion is explored in popular culture, but we will also look at some forms of popular culture as scripture. What do I mean by that? In his 1993 book What is Scripture? Wilfred Cantwell Smith warned us of the dangers of narrowly defining the term “scripture” as simply referring to the holy texts of a particular religious tradition. While, as Smith argues, it is true that scripture has been interpreted in many religious traditions as texts inspired by a divine source that allows member of a particular faith to connect with what Smith defines as a “the transcendent,” he also added a second characteristic of scripture, mainly, the fluid and intimate relationship that a particular community develops with a particular text. The introduction of this second characteristic of sacred texts allows Smith to shift our understanding of scripture from the text, which is no longer simply an object, to the relationship between the object and its interpreters. What matters is not only what the text says, but how its ongoing relationship, through time and space, evolves and changes with a community of believers. In his own words, “Their being scripture, once they had become so, has given them in the life of society and in personal piety a role rich, complex, and powerful.”
The goal of this course is to use that second understanding of the notion of scripture to discuss some examples of popular culture as modern forms of scripture. This course argues that TV shows like Lost and True Detective, movies like P.T. Anderson’s The Master, and novels like Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (and its companion HBO TV version of the same name) function as modern and popular forms of scripture in which the audience consumes them not only as a commercial product but engages them (from informal conversations to online forums) in search of meaning about important existential questions: who are we? Why are we here? Is there meaning to human existence? Is there a God? What is the origin of evil? Following Smith, these objects of popular culture can be interpreted as modern forms of scripture not because of what they are, but because of the meaningful relationship that they have with their audience.