Popular religion and popular culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries can also be understood by the way in which individuals and groups belonging to the mainstream religion engage their faith. Expressions of popular religion can often be at considerable variance from what is officially supposed to be deemed as sacred. In this respect, popular religion absorbs many attributes of human experience that might be looked down on by purveyors of traditional religion. Amongst various aspects of American life, contemporary popular religion can be best identified in regards of Hollywood films, pop music, popular literature, comic books, and the Internet.
The evolution of Hollywood films involving religious themes has been rooted largely in the biblical epic. As a popular genre during the 1950s and 1960s, key examples of these epic religious films include The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), King of Kings(1961), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) among others. These films usually had huge cinematic scale, massive production budgets and box-office celebrities such as Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Max Von Sydow, Charlton Heston, Deborah Kerr, and Yul Brynner.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were numerous horror films with religious themes, most notably Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976). In Rosemary’s Baby, a young, innocent Manhattan housewife is deceived by a coven of witches into giving birth to the eponymous child who is actually the son of Satan. The Exorcist was a horror film that dealt with a young girl’s demonic possession and her wealthy mother’s desperate attempts to rescue her daughter through an exorcism by two Catholic priests. Serving as the pinnacle of the “demon child” movies of the era, The Omen is the story of a wealthy diplomat’s family unknowingly adopting a child who is actually the Antichrist foretold in the Book of Revelation. Representing an interesting blend of story elements from both Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, The Omen spawned several sequels as well as a remake.
There are a great variety of Jesus movies that have made their way to the silver screen. In 1961, MGM’s release of King of Kings (a remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 film of the same title) was the first attempt by a major film studio to produce a religious epic in which the Christ Event was its main focus. That movie was followed years later other cinematic renditions of Jesus such as The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), the musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Passion of the Christ (2004), and most recently The Color of the Cross (2006). By illustration, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) portrays the last days of Jesus Christ as he is tempted by Satan by glimpses of what life might have been like had Jesus not been crucified including marrying and making love with Mary Magdalene. Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1960 novel of the same name, the movie’s main point is that Jesus, while free from human sin, might have still been vulnerable to all manners of temptation that humans face, including doubt, fearful reluctance, lustful yearning, and regret. By confronting and ultimately conquering all of humanity’s weaknesses, Jesus struggled to do God’s will while never surrendering to earthly temptations. At the film’s end, Christ finally rejects all temptations and the film concludes with the crucifixion. As can be imagined, this film generated a considerable deal of controversy due to its subject matter.
The Passion of the Christ (2004) is a film co-written, co-produced and directed by Mel Gibson. According to Gibson, the film’s primary source material is derived from the Christ’s passion narratives found in the four synoptic Gospels despite taking creative liberties of incorporating quotes and images from both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. While deliberately mirroring traditional representations of the Passion in visual art, the film recounts depiction of the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, particularly the arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion of Jesus. In spite of criticism regarding the extreme violence, historical inaccuracy, and perceived anti-Semitic references, the overwhelming success of the studio’s marketing campaign amongst Catholics and evangelical Christians helped the film set numerous box-office records simultaneously. Having earned roughly $400 million, The Passion of the Christ holds the record for the most pre-release ticket sales and the highest-grossing R-rated film in U.S. history as well as the highest-grossing religious film worldwide. Furthermore, because the film’s dialogue is entirely spoken in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew with English subtitles, The Passion of the Christ is also the highest grossing non-English language film to date.
While many religious films since the 1950s were typically based on Christian stories, other films have been based in other religious traditions. For instance, The Message (Mohammed: The Messenger of God) (1976) based upon Islamic history and stirred great controversy upon its release. The film depicts the historic moment when the prophet Mohammed receives the Word from Allah during the 7th century A.D. in the Middle East still dominated by polytheism. After this fateful event, Mohammed begins sending his messengers to proclaim the basic teachings and tenets of Islam throughout the Middle East. The film’s production was complicated by the fact that, according to the teachings of the Qu’ran, neither any likenesses can be shown of the prophet Mohammed and his extended family nor the image and voice of God ever be depicted in any medium. To overcome this challenge, the lead role of Mohammed was as an absent protagonist while the character of Mohammed’s uncle served as a replacement for Mohammed who alternately uttered lines and listened off-screen to a voice the audience never heard to avoid the heresy of depicting images of either Allah or Mohammed.
Filmmakers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen have wrestled with issues of Jewish film representations. Two of the Coen brothers’ films, Barton Fink (1991) and The Big Lebowski (1998), are especially noteworthy for their diverse abundance of overtly albeit offbeat Jewish characters. The Coens brothers have been accused of depicting anti-Jewish ethnic stereotypes in their numerous films such as Bernie the Shmatte, a cravenly duplicitous hustler, in their third feature film, Miller’s Crossing (1990). However, their film A Serious Man (2009) is a remarkably provocative and poignant portrayal of Jewish American experience during the 1960s culled from their childhood memories of growing up in St. Louis Park, a suburban Jewish community south of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Drawing heavily from the cultural tradition of Ashkenazic Judaism, the film centers on the Job-like professional and private plights of Larry Gopnik, a physics professor undergoing a crisis of faith. Struggling to make sense of his ruined life, Gopnik desperately seeking metaphysical advice and spiritual guidance from three rabbis to become a person of substance. Ultimately the film grapples with theological issues pertaining to the human suffering in ways that strive to reconcile the spiritual and the absurd.
Popular Religion and Popular Music
The emergence of popular music is one of America’s greatest cultural achievements and since the mid-20th century has had several inspired practitioners whose lives and recordings in the music industry that helped energize the American society by defining a new outlook where the sacred and the secular coexisted within the mainstream. For example, Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee as one of five children belonging to Rev. C. L. Franklin, a famous Baptist minister, and Barbara Siggers Franklin, a singer and pianist. Franklin’s parents had a troubled relationship and separated for the final time when Aretha was six, leaving her and her siblings to be raised by their paternal grandmother, Rachel Franklin. During her childhood, the home was regularly visited by many of her father’s famous friends including Clara Ward, Sam Cooke, and Mahalia Jackson. In the presence of such gospel music legends, Franklin’s talents both as a self-taught piano prodigy and a gifted singer with an extraordinary vocal range became apparent by the time she entered her teens. As noted in her autobiography, Franklin stated that her early gospel singing was patterned after Albertina Walker. Although early motherhood nearly derailed Franklin’s gospel career, once she decided to return to singing professionally as a pop musician rather than a gospel artist. When she signed a contract with Atlantic Records and began working with legendary R&B producer Jerry Wexler to incorporate a more gospel element into Franklin’s evolving musical sound. By the end of the 1960s, Franklin’s designation as the reining “Queen of Soul” was clearly established. Although most of her albums were best sellers during this era, the release of Amazing Grace (1972) eventually sold over two million copies in the United States and has been hailed as “the best-selling gospel album of all time.” Marking a triumphant return to her gospel roots, the songs on Amazing Grace were recorded live at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, California alongside her father as well as gospel legend and family friend Rev. James Cleveland with backing vocals by the Southern California Community Choir in January 1972.
In the late 1970s, Bob Dylan became a born-again Christian and released two albums of Christian gospel music: Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980). When working on Slow Train Coming with Jerry Wexler, the veteran R&B producer, Dylan had started to evangelize to him during the recording. Wexler replied: “Bob, you’re dealing with a sixty-two-year old Jewish atheist. Let’s just make an album.” The album won Dylan a Grammy Award as “Best Male Vocalist” for the song “Gotta Serve Somebody”. When touring from the fall of 1979 through the spring of 1980, Dylan would not play any of his older, secular works. Realizing that there was considerably vocal backlash to his embrace of Christianity by some of his fans and fellow musicians, Dylan frequently delivered declarations of his faith from the stage.
Another iconic figure in the realm of popular music that underwent deep religious conversion was the country music legend Johnny Cash. Rediscovering his Christian faith in the early 1970s, Cash recalled taking an “altar call” at Rev. Jimmy Rodgers Snow’s Evangel Temple, a small church in Nashville, TN because, unlike many larger churches, he said that the pastor and congregation treated like just a regular parishioner and not a celebrity. His friendship with famed Christian minister Billy Graham led to the production of The Gospel Road, a film about the life of Jesus, that Cash both co-wrote and narrated. The decade saw his religious conviction deepening, and he made many evangelical appearances on Billy Graham Crusades around the world. In 1986, Cash published his only novel, Man in White, a book about Saul’s conversion into the Apostle Paul. In 1990, Cash also recorded Johnny Cash Reads The Complete New Testament.
Matisyahu is an American Hasidic Jewish reggae musician renowned blending traditional Jewish themes within reggae, alternative rock, electronica, and hip hop sounds. Matisyahu was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania as Matthew Paul Miller on June 30, 1979. His family eventually relocated to White Plains, New York where he was raised as a Reconstructionist Jew. While Matisyahu was an ardent music lover, he attended Hebrew school at Bet Am Shalom, a synagogue located in White Plains. At the age of sixteen, Matisyahu participated in a semester-long immersion program at the Alexander Muss High School in Hod Hasharon, Israel that allowed him deeper exploration of his Jewish heritage. This overall experience affected his feelings towards Judaism so greatly that he eventually adopted Orthodox Jewish lifestyle by becoming a Baal Teshuva by 2001. Initially he found his way to the Carlebach Shul on the West Side of Manhattan. Matisyahu then found his way to Chabad of Washington Square. From 2001 until 2007, Matisyahu was affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York. Shortly after his embrace of hasidism, Matisyahu began studying Torah at Hadar Hatorah, a yeshiva for returnees to Judaism As one example of his devotion, he will not perform in concert on Friday nights in faithful observance of the Jewish Sabbath. He later recounted such diverse influences as Phish, Bob Marley and the Wailers, God Street Wine and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach among his musical inspirations.
There is a proliferation of musical genres that represent a variety of religious backgrounds from Stryper (a Christian heavy metal band) to Creed (a Christian alternative / hard rock band) to the Kominas (a Punjabi taqwacore-Islamic hardcore punk rock-group) to A Tribe Called Quest (an African American hip-hop group predominantly composed of Sunni Muslim converts). In the 1980s, Stryper was a Christian heavy metal band from Orange County, California, USA. The name “Stryper” derives from Isaiah 53:5 (KJV):”But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” The scriptural reference is also part of Stryper’s logo on most of their releases. (They also incorporate stripes into most of their outfits and their logo.) Once the band embraced the name of Stryper, drummer Robert Sweet created a acronym which is: Salvation Through Redemption, Yielding Peace, Encouragement, and Righteousness. Not only did Stryper enjoy great mainstream success during the latter half of the 1980s, they are pioneers in the mainstream popularization of Christian metal music and even achieved a Grammy Award nomination. Stryper eventually broke up in 1992, which also marked the waning popularity of heavy metal as a musical genre.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Creed was a popular, multi-platinum selling American alternative / post-grunge rock band from Tallahassee, Florida often identified as a Christian rock band. The band was never signed to a contemporary Christian music label, did not perform in Christian music venues and never got any widespread regular play on Christian radio, Creed’s first three albums focused on themes of Christian faith and spirituality. Themes within their song titles such as “Higher”, “My Sacrifice”, “What’s This Life For”, “My Own Prison”, “With Arms Wide Open”, and “One Last Breath” the band’s lyrics allude to Christian theology although they frequently refuted the Christian label.
Similar to the Christian rock movement, The Kominas (whose name means “bastards” in Punjabi) are a Taqwacore punk band hailing from the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. The Muslim punk trio consisting of Basim Usmani, Shahjehan Khan, and Adam Brierly rock out with songs titles of “Dishoom, Baby” or “Sharia Law in the USA.” One of the Kominas’ best known songs, “Rumi was a Homo”, a protest song against homophobia within the American Muslim community, was featured in Skidmore College’s Music Against Hatred concert. Written mainly by Usmani, the band’s lyrics are clever, sometimes thought-provoking commentaries on racial profiling, foreign policy, and religious faith. The Kominas’ critically acclaimed debut album, Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay, was released in March 2008.As a fusion of punk, metal, and Bhangra folk music The band uses the term ”Bollywood Muslim punk” in order to describe their sound. The music and imagery typically draws from anti-colonial movements, Moghul art, American related to Islam, such as Moorish Science Temple, Five Percenters (an offshoot of the Nation of Islam), and Desi culture, Punjabi folklore, Sufi saints from Punjab, Hinduism, and Bollywood cinema.
Formed in the late 1980s, A Tribe Called Quest was an African American hip hop group consisting of rapper/producer Q-Tip (Kamaal Ibn John Fareed, formerly Jonathan Davis), rapper Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor), and DJ/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad that explored Sunni Islam. They released five albums in ten years, the first three of which were both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. By 1996, lead rapper Q-Tip underwent a deepy religious awakening and, upon spiritual guidance from his friend, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, soon converted to Islam. While on tour, Q-Tip’s friend introduced him to a talented young producer from Detroit named Jay Dee (also known as J Dilla). Immediately taking the newcomer under his wing, Q-tip and the rest of Tribe agreed to form a production unit with Jay Dee. The group named their production company “The Ummah” (meaning “community,” “nation,” or “brotherhood” in Arabic) because Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were devout Muslims. In addition to producing A Tribe Called Quest’s final two studio albums, the Ummah served as a music production collective that provided backing tracks for a wide array of R&B and hip hop artists. Although the group officially disbanded in 1998 and Jay Dee death in 2006of a blood disease, their innovative blend of hip hop and jazz has left an indelible imprint upon hip hop music.
Popular Religion in Popular Literature
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ novel Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days officially launched a best-selling fictional series of 18 Christian-themed thrillers. It was narrative form to a specific apocalyptic reading of the Bible, particularly the Book of Revelation. This novel has received largely favorable reactions from the late Jerry Falwell and other leading figures in the Evangelical Christian community who generally approved of how the authors represented the millennial / apocalyptic themes within Christian theology in a worldly language that was also commercially viable within the entertainment industry. The interpretation of Revelation, as presented in the Left Behind series, also encourages a largely individualistic approach to eschatology and salvation that eschews any responsibility for performing good deeds or evangelizing. Regardless of such criticism, the overall sales for Left Behind series has surpassed 65 million copies and has also inspired several movies, graphic novels, CDs, a video game and a Left Behind series for teenagers.
Similarly, author Dan Brown’s best-selling novels also include historical themes and Christianity as recurring motifs, and as a result, have generated controversy. Brown’s first novel, Angels & Demons (2000) is bestselling mystery-thriller novel focused on fictional Harvard University symbologist Robert Langdon’s quest to uncover the mysteries of the Illuminati and to unravel a plot to destroy Vatican City by detonating antimatter. The book portrays a historical conflict between the Illuminati and the Roman Catholic Church as a contest between science and religion. Brown’s subsequent novel, The Da Vinci Code (2003) also examines ancient history, conspiracy theories of secret societies, religious symbolism, and classic architecture. Combining the detective, thriller, and conspiracy fiction genres, The Da Vinci Code provoked popular interest in speculation concerning the historic roots of Christianity. Despite being flatly denounced by many Christian denominations as a dishonest attack on the Roman Catholic Church rife with historical and scientific inaccuracy, The Da Vinci Code is a worldwide bestseller that had sold roughly 80 million copies that has been translated into 44 languages.
Popular Religion in Comic Books
There are numerous examples of popular religion being utilized in the world of comic books and graphic novels. For instance, the DC Vertigo Comic book series Preacher chronicled the fictional exploits of Jesse Custer, a small town pastor in Annville, Texas who is experiencing an extraordinary crisis of faith. After Genesis, a creature described as the supernatural spawn of the inexplicable coupling between an angel and a demon, accidentally takes possession of him, Custer becomes a hybrid human-divine being that potentially wields enough power to ultimately rival even God. Inhabited by this spiritual force composed of both pure goodness and pure evil, the comic book portrays the title character of the comic book arguably becomes the most powerful being in existence. Tragically, this realization results in a disaster that turns his church to rubble and killed his entire congregation. Spurred by his highly developed sense of morality and a strong sense of purpose, the comic book illustrates Custer’s paranormal adventures as he treks across the United States in a quest to find God for himself both figuratively and literally. Following a trend within American comic books during the 1960s and 1970s very much akin to the “Death of God” theological movement, Preacher alludes to a God that has abandoned creation and thus has left humanity to its own devices for better or worse. During its publication from 1995 to 2000, Preacher was a controversial comic book series renowned by some and reviled by others for both its dark and frequently violent humor as well as its unabashed treatment of religious and supernatural themes.
Since the 1970s, there have been several characters that accentuate various dimensions of spiritual practices prevalent throughout the African diaspora. A particularly notable example of an African American supernatural superhero named Brother Voodoo who appeared in a variety of comic books published by Marvel Comics during the 1970s. Returning to his native Port-au-Prince, Haiti after more than a decade of education and practice as a psychologist in the United States, Jericho Drumm assumes the alter ego of Brother Voodoo possesses numerous superhuman and mystical powers such as easily entering into a trance-like state in which his skin becomes impervious to burning and other forms of pain as well as being able to control flame and lower life forms; these are all power that the comic book creators attribute to the character’s mastery of mystical rituals derived from the loa, the spirit-gods of Haitian vodou. As an attempt to introduce a character with a very unique ethnic, cultural, and religious background, Brother Voodoo was later followed by other figures in the Marvel pantheon of characters such as the female Captain Marvel whose alter ego, Monica Rambeau, hailed from the Creole religiosity of contemporary New Orleans or the character of Storm (aka Ororo Monroe) from the X-Men series whose backstory harkens to being an East African hailed as a demi-goddess because of her mutant ability to control the weather. While these are certainly not the first or only comic book characters of African descent to be introduced, these creations were attempts to merge issues of race and religion in interesting ways.
Moving in a considerable different vein, the central figure in DC Vertigo Comics series Hellblazer is a character named John Constantine who pursues a mysterious life as a streetwise detective who frequently crosses the supernatural boundaries between heaven and hell in order to confronting various dangers of an occult nature in the ordinary world. As a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, hedonistic cynic arguably working for the greater good, Constantine usually triumphs through guile, deceit and misdirection. At the end of his exploits, he typically makes more enemies in the process of resolving a particular conflict than the opponents he originally intends to defeat. Even though depicted as a duplicitous individual, the narrative shows Constantine to be a well-connected person who is supremely adept at making friends and has a wide array of otherworldly contacts and nefarious allies at his disposal. Consequently, the overarching narrative reveals Constantine to be a compassionate and occasionally heroic figure struggling to overcome the influence of heaven and hell upon an otherwise unsuspecting humanity. In other words, the protagonist of Hellblazer serves as a fictional incarnation of the humanist anti-hero as a trickster of sorts. As such, this book is highly indicative of a trend in mainstream comic books that has been quite popular amongst comic book creators and fans alike wherein the mortal characters such as Constantine are imbued with an agnostic spiritual worldview over and above a sense of moral ambiguity as they unapologetically grapple with seemingly insurmountable hazards both mundane and arcane. On the whole, while there is no dearth of evidence of popular religion at work in comic books and graphic novels, there is presently a shortage dearth of academic research and discussion on the matter.
Popular Religion and the Internet
One of the most exceptional transformations in the emergence of popular religion in the latter half of the twentieth century has been the burgeoning presence of religion appearing on the Internet. From the mid-1990s to present, an exponential number of churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples have a firm foothold within cyberspace. Towards this end, there are numerous websites such as Streaming Faith.com and Beliefnet.com connect innumerable Christian communities nationally and internationally via the Internet with the increasing prospect of connecting with other religious groups in a virtual fashion. Since the inception and widespread use of the Internet in the 1990s, online Christian resources have tended to dominate religious themed content to date. This has been of particular importance given the presumption that most Internet users hailed from North America or Western Europe, regions deemed predominantly Christian. This assumed dominance has shifted due to the increasing level of Internet access and literacy by populations in the developing nations of the global South, most notably in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Even though it is highly unlikely that the world’s religions ever will be fully and equally represented in cyberspace, the democratic impulse of the World Wide Web will cause the demographics to begin reflecting the religious diversity among a growing array of internet users worldwide. Moreover, for those members of faith communities that are relatively small and geographically isolated from a traditional house of worship, the World Wide Web provides these practitioners an alternate means of interaction and connection. By virtue of having Internet access, adherents of such faith traditions can receive update information about their religion, obtain latest spiritual resources, and engage in communications with other faithful believers. There are a variety of religious websites such as Torah Net (www.torah.net), Allaahuakbar Net (www.allaahuakbar.net), Gospel Communications Network (www.gospel.com), Gateways to Buddhism (www.dharmanet.org) and The Witches’ Voice (www.witchvox.org) are religious oriented news and networking web resources that serve as lively examples of popular religion.
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