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Contemporary Religion and Popular Culture Symposium

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21st October, 2011
9am - 6pm
Monash University Caulfield Campus

Keynote speakers

Associate Professor Carole Cusack (University of Sydney)
Professor Peter Horsfield (RMIT University)
Associate Professor Adam Possamai (University of Western Sydney)

Other speakers

Dr Elizabeth Burns Coleman (Monash University)
Dr Helen Farley (University of Southern Queensland)
Dr Chris Hartney (University of Sydney)
Dr Danielle Kirby (Monash University)
Dr Paul Teusner (RMIT)


Established religions have unquestionably contributed significant themes and motifs to our popular culture, from the prodigal son to the Easter Bunny. On the other hand, alternative spiritualities, such as Paganism, Jediism, and the Otherkin, often utilise unanticipated source material within their beliefs, drawing on popular culture materials as readily as they engage with the more traditional locales of religious exploration. Simultaneously, there has been an increase in the representation of religious and spiritual themes within narrative across various media, not to mention the many relationships to be found between fictional narrative and more traditional religions. This symposium will explore the relationship between popular culture and religion from an interdisciplinary position, drawing together scholarship from many fields in order to shed light on this growing area of religious engagement.

Recordings of Papers

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Opening Remarks: A 21st Century Witch Craze

Dr Janine Burke

Photo: Dr Janine Burke

Janine Burke is the director of the Social Aesthetics Research Unit (SARU) and Monash Research Fellow in the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies.

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Cognitive Narratology and New Religions

Associate Professor Carole Cusack

Photo: Associate Professor Carole Cusack

J. Gordon Melton has recently argued that in the 1960s when the study of new religions began, scholars were trying to explain why these movements existed, and ‘what was wrong that people were turning to new religions?’ (Melton 2007). He argues that in the twenty-first century the mood has changed, and it is now understood that ‘the emergence of new religions seems to be one sign of a healthy and free society, and we can now see everywhere that the slowing of the process of the formation of new religions occurs only where the suppressive powers of the state are called to bear’ (Melton 2007). This paper argues that this ‘normalisation’ of new religions should be extended to those religions that are explicitly based on fictional texts and include popular cultural phenomena and ludic elements. Employing the theory of cognitive narratology (Zunshine 2006), it will be demonstrated that a vocabulary of neologisms and a strong narrative thread are characteristic of both sf and new religions and spiritualities. Beings such as gods and ancestors, angels and demons (which belong to the domain of religion) are made real to humans through story (written text and oral transmission) and thus Theory of Mind (as employed by cognitive theorists to discuss fictional characters) also works as an interpretative tool for supernatural/supraempirical beings such as those found in religions. In fact, fiction-based religions (particularly based on sf) are actually logical, because Theory of Mind leads readers to invest in the worlds created in the books and to attribute to the characters inner lives and motivations that make them more real and meaningful (and thus likely to occupy the place of gods/angels/etc).

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Avatar: Religious facts and fictions

Elizabeth Burns Coleman

The film Avatar had explicit religious themes in terms of the story of a saviour, destiny, and of mystical communion with an intelligent creator being. It also contained a clear message concerning the value of respect for the environment, and the evils of greed and the exploitation of indigenous peoples. Fans interpreting this story, however, do not always hold on to the distinction between reality and fiction. Many fall into what literary theorists would call a category error. This includes not only asking questions of 'fact' about the narrative, but relating to the mystical elements of the environmentalism as fact. This paper explores the interpretative frameworks fans use to engage with narrative and fiction, and concludes that the suspension of disbelief is not a consistent frame of their aesthetic experience.

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Contextualising Digitally Mediated Alternative Spiritualities: Texts and Approaches

Dr Danielle Kirby

Photo: Dr Danielle Kirby

The late modern digitised world has seen a significant increase in new spiritualities within the context of both traditional and alternative spheres of religious engagement. With the heightened visibility afforded by the Internet, contemporary alternative narrative religions in particular have entered both into popular consciousness and scholarly discussions, as exemplified by the cases of Jediism and various Paganisms. Notwithstanding some notable exceptions, however, beliefs of this nature are often assumed to function in similar fashions, with believers approaching texts as some type of popular revelation. It will rather be argued here that there are quite distinct approaches to texts that can be seen across a number of these groups, and that these differences can significantly clarify the specific beliefs and intentions of such spiritualities. This paper will explore the implications of the differing roles of fictional narrative in the creation and development of alternative spiritualities. In doing so, it is suggested that exploring distinctions between the types of relationships with the text allows for a more nuanced reading of particular beliefs.

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Gramsci, the Standardisation of Popular Religion and the State

Associate Professor Adam Possamai

Photo: Associate Professor Adam Possamai

Gramsci viewed popular religion as having the possibility of being a progressive movement against the bourgeois hegemony produced and reproduced in symbiosis with official religion and the state. In this pre-mass consumption society, there was, in this popular religion, the germs of a revolt that could help the revolutionary push needed and guided by earlier Marxists. The goal of this paper is to argue that with the entry of popular religion in the consumer societies of the western world (one aspect being the merging of religion and popular culture found in, for example, hyper-real religions), popular religion has lost its oppositional characteristic against the state. Following Simmel and Beck, I will argue that popular religion (and especially hyper-real religion) like money, now individualises and standardises. I will claim that when popular religion entered consumer culture, this moment not only liberated this type of religion from state control, but paradoxically through standardisation, made it lost its oppositional strength against the state.

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Deus Omnividens: The Rise of the Digital Age God

Dr Chris Hartney

Photo: Dr Chris Hartney

“Oculo omnividens te vigilet” was a well-known Roman blessing; may the all seeing eye look out for you. The eye as a manifestation of fortune, of “God,” or of some protective force has always been with us and as a symbol is connected to the feeling we have (either comforting or disturbing) of being watched over, this symbolic-emotive discourse remains alive today in such Islamic superstitions as the eye of Fatima, Masonic and Caodaist imagery, South American hand-eye designs, the examples are endless. In this paper, I suggest that from this wealth of symbology, popular culture from Orwell on, has taken the symbol of the eye, and its derivatives such as the CCTV camera and so forth, and the feeling of living under surveillance to the core experience of existence in the West for the 21st century. Here I modestly suggest a new concept of God is emerging, one who is defined by its all-seeing characteristic. Towards this end, I will be discussing the works of Banksy, Moffat and numerous other artists. I conclude that it does not follow that an all-seeing God is necessarily an all-powerful God and will examine some of the consequences of such a conclusion.

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Living in the Cloud: Configuring the religious Cyborg in a mobile world

Dr Paul Teusner

Photo: Dr Paul Teusner

Haraway (1985) suggests a Cyborg is both a fiction and a lived reality. For Haraway, the Cyborg is a metaphor used to help deconstruct narratives that construct and contain gender. In this presentation I wish to consider how the Cyborg may be useful as a metaphor and model for exploring the role of new media technologies in reconstructing religious identities in a contemporary Western context. To do this, I want to locate the concept of the Cyborg at the intersection of three theoretical contexts. The first is the presentation and exploration of values in relation to the Cyborg as depicted in a sample of recent movies and television series, and the religious themes and imagery involved in these depictions and narratives. The second is the evolution of religious values that are embedded in the social construction of Cyberspace. The third is the range of moral and ethical debates around the use of mobile devices in daily life, specifically in relation to “user-generated media content”, “cloud computing” and “augmented reality”. At the nexus of these three contexts I wish to consider how the use of mobile technologies is setting the conditions for new aspirations for humanity and society and our daily travels between the sacred and profane in contemporary Western culture.

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Virtually sacred: An exploration of religious worship, space and ritual in Second Life

Helen Farley and Adrian Stagg

Religious communities of every persuasion have leveraged, to varying degrees the enormous potential of the internet to not only provide religious information to worshippers but also bring them together as a faith community. They have used chat rooms, discussion boards and podcasting to create or augment that sense of community generally only experienced at a service or religious festival. Virtual worlds, however, offer a step beyond what is traditionally seen as ‘supplementary’ religious information by creating online sacred spaces. It is within these spaces (be they churches, mosques or henges) that worshippers – through motional avatars –come together and worship. Adherents and participants claim that their worship experience in this space is genuine, yet this raises numerous issues around legitimacy, authority and authenticity.

The virtual world of Second Life is home to many religious buildings and spaces. Communities sometimes overtly, sometimes less so, come together to discuss religion, study scripture and often to participate in rituals, festivals or religious services. While many are undoubtedly genuine in their involvement (using it to augment or replace their real life religious activities), many more are experimenting with new faiths or roleplaying as an intellectual curiosity. This paper will explore the diversity of religious activity in Second Life, while preempting how religious practice in this space may evolve with the advent of new technologies such as Microsoft Kinect.

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Boundary-riding: The question of 'and' in contemporary religion and popular culture

Professor Peter Horsfield

Photo: Professor Peter Horsfield

The discussion and investigation of religion and popular culture invoke definitional and ideological distinctions that have not always existed historically and are not easily sustained when viewed from the perspective of the audience and audience practice. This address looks at some of these boundary issues and their implications for research and understanding.

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Symposium Conveners

Past and Present Conferences and Seminars

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