Popular Religion and Participatory Culture Conversation: Henry Jenkins, Sarah McFarland Taylor, and Diane Winston (Part Two)



I am glad that Henry recounted in his remarks his early life experiences with Christian fundamentalism and explained the ways that the trauma he carries from his religious upbringing has made him more hesitant to deal in professional life with religion as a category of culture or to engage possible correspondences between dimensions of religion and fandoms. In trying to discuss places where religious studies meets media studies with media studies folks I frequently encounter a similar reaction―a deep reluctance even to approach the topic of religion. It might surprise media scholars to learn that many in the cultural study of religion have had similar experiences of trauma related to their religious upbringing and, in some cases, gravitate to the field of Religious Studies in part to work through their religious traumas from childhood. Deborah Whitehead, who will be participating in this blog later in the series, is presenting a paper at the upcoming 2018 AAR that deals in part with what is increasingly self-identified online as a community of those who suffer from "evangelical PTSD." Whitehead examines the outgrowth of recovery support via social media channels for those who carry scars from their previous religious involvements. One of the challenges in building bridges between religious studies and other fields is our field’s unfortunate name, which makes it sound like our scholarship is "religious."  Diane and I just returned from a conference on media, religion, and culture, and although some headway has been made in introducing media studies scholars to what religion scholars actually do, many media scholars fundamentally misunderstand what the field is about. They think religious studies scholars are theologians and/or that our job is to evangelize and promote religion as a “good” in the world, or to convert our audiences to “believe” and become more religious. It is no wonder that few media scholars want to deal with the subject of religion and many have developed an “allergy” to discussing it. This is why I most often refer to what I do as the "cultural study of religion" in an attempt to make clear that what we do is not a "Divinity School" kind of religious offshoot. We are historians, sociologists, anthropologists, linguists, folklorists, philologists, cultural studies folks, and so forth, but our job is not to cheerlead religion but to explore, analyze, and critique its dynamics, its sphere and modes of influence, and its enmeshments with other aspects of culture.  

One of the textbooks that introduces the study of religion to students is called Critics Not Caretakers and explains to the uninitiated that the scholar of religion operates in a socio-political role as "a cultural critic rather than a caretaker of a religious tradition or a guru dispensing timeless wisdom." We engage in socio-political-cultural critique, much as any cultural studies scholar would, because we are indeed doing cultural studies of a particular aspect of culture called "religion," attending to its various cultural expressions and permutations.  If one thing that comes out of this blog series is more scholars in media studies gaining a better understanding of what we do and do not do, I consider that to be a big win.


Sarah, one of my goals for this series is to complicate the ways my field thinks about religious studies. You will not be surprised that more than one of the cultural studies participants felt compelled to tell me that they did not see themselves as religious, were atheist or agnostic, etc. And I suspect more than one of us will end up writing about our complex histories with religion as part of how we situate ourselves in this conversation.  Cultural Studies draws heavily on forms of cultural experience and identity that touch us in very direct ways -- not just the “Aca-Fan” tradition that I helped to inspire but also going back to Raymond Williams’ drawing on his own rural and working class background to inspire his reformulation of how and why we study culture or work in feminist, critical race studies, queer studies, etc. So that may lead many of us to assume that religious studies work grows out of the beliefs and experiences of researchers. Of course it does, but not necessarily in ways that some outside that field might assume. Witness Diane’s narrative.

I am hoping we can spend some time in this theory thinking about the nature of epistemology and experience across these fields -- how do we know what we know? How do you write about religion without being necessarily religious? How might those tools give us greater insight and access to groups who may be fundamentally different from us in terms of their beliefs and practices, as you do in the really provocative things you say here about Donald Trump’s evangelical base. This is one of the things that contemporary cultural studies might learn from religious studies which is really urgent given the culture that surrounds us at the moment.

Speaking of your discussion of Trump, I was surprised to see the “Get a Life” sketch surface here. I wrote about that sketch extensively in Textual Poachers some twenty plus years ago and it remains a touch point of our field. I wrote from a fan’s perspective, writing a critique of the ways that it perpetuated long-standing stereotypes that have been harmful to fans and discussing the ways that it was unfunny to many Star Trek fans I know because William Shatner was pretending to joke about hurtful things that he has said in earnest in other contexts.

I love thinking about Shatner as standing in for Trump here.  Shatner felt so trapped by his fans, even as he also knew he was totally dependent on them for support at that stage of his career, and if anything, through the years, he has become more ambivalent and more desperate, begging publicly to be included in future ST projects. I personally struggled for years with whether it was Shatner or Kirk I disliked, only to discover it was a bit of both when Chris Pine played the role in the new film series. If we could only find a Chris to recast as Donald Trump for the rest of his term, our time on this Earth for the next few years would be much more bearable. All of this is to say that Shatner, in that sketch, reinforced the fictional fan’s “plausibility structures,” but at the same time, he further undercut them with most of the real world Trekkers with whom I spoke at the time. We are not believers, in other words, but we play them on television.  

Shatner in that moment is a bit desperate to reconnect with his fans, to build back up his authentic link with them, even as what rang true was that the guy really and truly hated being out there on the fan convention circuit. To me, this suggests some elasticity but also some fragility in the structures of belief and structures of feeling you are discussing here. Your analysis of Trump and the televangelists makes sense to me from the outside, but I wonder to what degree the expressions of support of performative, that the gap between reality and the belief structure is expanding over time, and that at a certain point those relationships will be impossible to maintain. Fans eventually distanced themselves from Shatner. Will MAGA supporters also eventually distance themselves from Trump and if so, do we have a clue what kinds of things would be impossible for them to absorb into their “plausibility structures”?

Diane, I have yet to see Juliet, Naked, but your account of it here suggests that I urgently need to do so. Whether I can catch it in time to incorporate my response here is another question, but I will try. So, for now, I will focus on the underlying questions you ask about fandom and religion. “Fictional storytelling can supply narratives that elicit loyalty, inspiration and empowerment—much the same as some sacred texts do….his fandom provided meaning, purpose and identity to an otherwise undistinguished life…. the strength, resilience and passionate embrace that cultural products can stir in (some/many) consumers.” Each of these phrases resonate with me: they certainly describe the relationship I have with fandom. And Yet…

Fandom serves many of (though not all of) the functions religion and faith-based organizations perform for their believers, but is it enough to reduce religion to its functions? Or do we need to ask, say, about the difference between expressions of social and cultural identity or shared meaning or ethical values on the one hand and spiritual beliefs on the other? We are certainly not turning to fandom here for an expression of what happens to us after we die or whether there may be divine forces influencing the events of our lives. I can think of some cases -- for example, the way “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” gets sung at some gay funerals-- where fan symbols get deployed to provide comfort at moments of trauma and loss.

But, ultimately, I turn to fandom to address different kinds of questions in my life than religion has helped me to address at other moments in my life. There is always an element of the ludic about fandom: it is, as Michael Saler suggests, about the “as if,” a self-acknowledged fantasy realm which also seems different from the way I have experienced religion.

And that’s why I would stop short of fully embracing your question, “In an era of religious indifference and disaffiliation might (some) cultural products evoke deeper devotion (from some fans) than traditional religions dqo from (some/many) followers?” or your statement, “Henry’s fans are, pound for pound, more fanatical about their favorite films, TV shows and books than many church-goers are about their denominations.”  You left in enough weasel words here that it is hard to argue with the “somes” and “many” but keep in mind that Star Wars fans are not blowing themselves up to wipe out those infidels who love Star Trek, there is no mass genocide committed in the name of Harry Potter fandom, and none of us really think you are damned to eternal torment if you enjoy reading 50 Shades of Grey. There is something so fundamental about religious identity -- at least for the most hardcore believers -- that fandom is never going to match, nor should it. At the end of the day, we play as fans while religion is for keeps. But asking and working through these questions help us to understand more fully the similarities and differences between the two.



Like Diane, I in no way dismiss the power and persistence of the legions of devout and the more traditionally scripturally and institutionally identified religious.  After many years of arguing for the “secularization thesis,” even the social scientists have given up the ghost and admitted that religion is not going away anytime soon, the world is not becoming more secular, and indeed if we examine religious phenomena globally, we find just the opposite.  Sociologist Peter Berger’s The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics put the nail in the coffin of secularization theory. [See also Rodney Stark’s “Secularization, R.I.P”] Sociologists and political theorists of religion now struggle to keep up with tracking the rapid growth of “desecularization.”  Having said that, cultural often moves simultaneously in contrapuntal directions, as our Pew Research polls in this country keep telling us.

Pixar is right when they proclaim their motto: “Story is King!” And the stories morally engaging and moving those of younger generations are not the stories of entrenched religious tomes but the stories of mediated popular culture, as told through music, television, film, streamed audio/video, digital games, and social media.  Many of the transmediated epics Henry points to in his work are the defining mythological narratives of our time. People do not simply encounter those defining stories—they participate in them and “get inside” them, often building communities of story along the way. Diane’s work with television similarly demonstrates that stories of mediated popular culture are increasingly prime sources for meaning making, life perspective, moral insight, and shared empathy and joy in contemporary lives.

When Henry resists comparisons between fandoms and religion because fandoms have been dismissed or denigrated as “false religions,” such a designation of “falseness” is not in keeping with the theorizing of religious studies or what religious studies scholars do. Theologians and clergy may dismiss and judge fandoms as “false religions,” but contemporary cultural theorists of religion take cognizance of the very real religious dimensions of these fandoms and do not judge them as “less than” or “second fiddle” to “real religions.” In fact, the very notion of “real” religion versus “fake” religion is highly contested.  Can one even make such a designation in the cultural study of religion? Designations of “real” and “fake” are the purview of theologians.

The very definition of “religion” in our field is a constantly moving target. What counts as “religion” is constituted by who does the defining, what power they have, what interests are at stake, and in what context, circumstances, and to what ends that definition is enacted. “Religion” is a modern constructed category and that construction is involved in an ongoing process of negotiation with power dynamics and vested interests. The work of Gary Laderman, who has written on music fandoms and the Grateful Dead, among other aspects of popular culture, David Chidester who has written on the religious dimensions of Tupperware, gang culture, and Coca-cola consumer culture, and Kathryn Lofton who has written about “Oprah religion,” all do not cast “fandoms” and fan devotions as “false religions.” Again, that’s not what we do. In my own work on religion and consumer culture, I compare the 2008 “Black Friday” stampede death of Long Island Wal-Mart employee Jdimytai Damour, who was killed when shoppers broke down the store’s doors at five in the morning and trampled his body in order to make their way to discounted plasma television sets, to the religious stampede two months prior, when 224 pilgrims were trampled to death as 25,000 worshippers rushed the doors of the Chamunda Devi Temple in northern India during the 2008 Kumbh Mela festival. In my account of these two events, neither of these is “false” but each an authentic expression of a kind of extreme religious fervor.

Henry, you make the point that Harry Potter fans do not enact violence―strap explosives to themselves and blow themselves up―for what they believe.  In contrast, you observe that “religion is for keeps” and not playful the way fandom is. Yes, and no. To some, it is and to many others, it is definitely not. Is Unitarianism “for keeps” in the sense you mean?  A playful marketing meme for the Episcopal Church features the hip-looking biologist/oceanographer presiding Episcopal Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori standing next to ad copy that invites: “Don’t believe all that crap? Neither do we.”  Plenty of multireligious people find that one religion is not simply “for keeps” and so they identify with multiple practices, philosophies, narratives, traditions, and sacred symbol systems, often testing out and playing with a variety of customized combinations. Self-identified “Hinjews” or “Jewbus” are examples of this kind of exploration and experimentation.

The study of “lived religion” shows us that even when people remain self-identified with one religious identity, they still create and “mod” their religious worlds, adapting the tools and resources within them to meet new needs, “playing with religion” and trying out new possibilities. This is precisely one of the reasons Henry’s theorizing of “participatory culture” is so fascinating to the cultural study of religion because “prosuming” and remix is alive and well in religious contexts. Many religions in various forms are open to revisable data and creative interpretations, embracing the work of innovative figures. The impressive number of variations [feminist, gay, environmental, social justice, multi-faith, hip-hop, vegetarian, humanist, DYI, and even comic] of the Passover Haggadah are exemplary of this protean quality to religion and willingness to “play” with form and content. Check out also Denver-based House of All Sinners and Saints-founder Lutheran Pastor Nadia Boltz-Weber’s provocative online video shorts, in which she offers a unique spin to questions like “Why You Should Forgive Assholes”, as she also “updates” the Beatitudes to include things like, “Blessed are those without documentation,” “Blessed are the sex workers,” “Blessed are the closeted,” and “Blessed are the kind-hearted NFL players” [the ones taking a knee]. Rachel Wagner and other scholars of religion and digital gaming have studied the ways in which gamers “play with religion” in the course of digital gaming.  See, for instance, Heidi Campbell and Greg Grieve’s anthology, Playing with Religion in Digital Games; Craig Detweiler and Chris Hansen’s Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games With God; and Nikki Bado-Fralick and Rebecca Sachs-Norris, eds., Toying With God: The World of Religious Games and Dolls. There is also a much broader literature on the study of “religion and play,” sacred clowns, holy fools, ritual play, comedy and playfulness, that deals with religion in its many and varied ludic dimensions. [See also Selva Raj and Corinne Dempsey’s anthology on religion and play in South Asian religions.]

On the other hand, what do we make of the violence of stalking fans who shoot celebrities, break into their homes, or attempt to do them other bodily harm? Fans for whom their fandom is not “ludic” but “is for keeps” in ways that are quite scary and destructive? What of Tori Amos’s famous autobiographical song, “Me and a Gun,” about a fan who gave her a lift home after a performance, only to trap her in his car and rape her at gunpoint? John Hinkley, Jr’s obsessive fixation with Jodie Foster that played out with him shooting then-President Ronald Reagan? These fans might be dismissed as “lone wolves,” who suffer from mental illness, but that courtesy is often not reciprocally extended to other violent “lone wolves” who suffer mental illness, who end up being portrayed as representative of entire ethnic and religious groups.  And one might argue that neo-Nazism, the KKK, and other white nationalist and militia groups are “fandoms” of a sort, involved in collective group violence and complete with their own sorts of “cosplay.” Sarah Banet-Weiser’s work points to online misogynist antifandoms that collectively visit violence upon women and terrorize them.

I would offer that, just as with “religion”―a spectrum of social activity that is contextually defined with particular social interests and investments at stake―both ludic and violent dimensions are present. I am appreciative that you bring up these points, though, because they echo many of the assumptions I hear made by media scholars when attempting to discuss religion in scholarly exchanges. Reciprocally, I likely made you and others cringe by bringing up the hackneyed SNL “Trekkies” sketch (Sorry!), even if I did substitute Trump for Shatner.  More reason, though, to have these conversations and to keep having them. Onward!



Thank you Sarah! My fingers began itching when I read Henry’s distinction between religion and fandoms, but the argument I would have made was aptly presented in your last post. Since you elegantly covered the intellectual side of it, I would only add that, as Henry suggested initially, a lot of one’s notions about what religion is and is not stem from our personal stories. My personal experience of religion is “liberal” Judaism salted with forays into Unitarianism and Buddhism. On a gut level, I “know” religion as free, open, inclusive, non-dogmatic, political-progressive, playful, and similarly positive affirmations of human possibility. The supernatural? At 14 when I asked my rabbi about God, he said it was a force like magnetism. (I was too stunned to ask a follow-up question, and my subsequent trajectory can be construed as an attempt to decide whether or not I agree.)

As a journalist and as a scholar, I “know” intellectually that religions can incite believers to commit acts of atrocity--as well as to eschew cheeseburgers, shoes and, sadly, civility--but, that’s not my norm. Perhaps for Henry as well as other scholars who rush to say they are not “religious,” the opposite is true. Besides personal experiences, such as “evangelical PTSD,” the news media is largely responsible for this warped notion of religion. In the 1980s, when evangelicals, televangelists, and the Religious Right burst on the scene, legacy news organizations took note. The groups had taken credit for electing Ronald Reagan, they were new and different, and their leaders gave good sound bite. When they spoke to reporters, they claimed to represent “real” religion-- Bible-believing, God-fearing, clean-living Christianity uncorrupted by humanism, secularism, or an Ivy League education. (The problem actually goes back a lot further, see Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz’s wonderful book about the Prophet Matthias, https://www.amazon.com/Kingdom-Matthias-Salvation-19th-Century-America/dp/0199892490/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1535392332&sr=1-1&keywords=matthias an early 19th century example of how the news media trivializes and sensationalizes religion. Or if you really want to dig down, many of the essays in my collection on American religion and the news media make similar points https://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Religion-American-Handbooks-2012-09-06/dp/B01K0T3P5W/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1535392599&sr=1-1&keywords=OUP+American+news+media+and+religion. )

Repetition leads to normalization, and after a time many Americans likely did believe that true religion was conservative religion. The news media presented few alternatives, and when journalists did cover religious moderates it was usually to report that they were dying out or locked in internecine battles over gay ordination and same-sex marriage. Bottom line: For 30-plus years, we’ve lived in a media environment that portrays real, authentic religion as extremist, close-minded, and sometimes lethal. And, as I write this, I realize that many religion scholars, especially those seeking to engage broader publics, are in an uphill struggle to recover the word “religion.”

But religion is rarely if ever just about religion. It’s also about politics and culture. Sarah and Henry’s discussions of Trump bring this to mind: are his evangelical followers participants in a religion or fandom? Or has fandom elided into religiosity as writer Jeff Sharlet suggested in a 2016  New York Times Magazine piece https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/17/magazine/donald-trump-american-preacher.html. Pope Francis is the flip side of this dynamic; his religiosity seems to have slid into fandom. Unlike Trump, Francis does not engender deep, unquestioning loyalty and devotion. Maybe religion has become so politicized that its worldly stakes--Trump’s MAGA promises--are more inspiring than Francis’ concern with eternity.

Here’s the nub of Henry’s argument: Fandom serves many of (though not all of) the functions religion and faith-based organizations perform for their believers, but is it enough to reduce religion to its functions? Or do we need to ask, say, about the difference between expressions of social and cultural identity or shared meaning or ethical values on the one hand and spiritual beliefs on the other? We are certainly not turning to fandom here for an expression of what happens to us after we die or whether there may be divine forces influencing the events of our lives.

I don’t think I am reducing religion to its functions any more than I am doing that to fandom. Both work functionally and substantively, and the two are intertwined. Systems succeed at a functional level because they offer substance--motivating rationales, specifically meaning, purpose and identity. When systems don’t provide meaningful rationales, their functionality is useless. That’s why so many Americans are turned off by traditional religions, but seek out cultural products that speak to their ethical questions and spiritual concerns. Are the 70 percent of Americans who are not evangelicals worried about what happens when they die and whether divine forces are influencing their lives? Maybe. But I think many are more interested in how to live meaningfully here and now. That’s why mindfulness programs are popular, why some Beyonce’s fans are investigating Oshun, and why Westworld became a social media sensation.  

Why is it that I--and maybe Sarah--are willing to totally deconstruct the notion of religion, but Henry is insisting on some form of essentialism?

Henry: Short answer, Diane, is that we are pushing against some of my own articles of faith here. I am, for the moment, agnostic on the prospect of “totally deconstructing the notion of religion”; I am more open to this possibility than when we began but you have not yet won a convert. You guys have had more time to work through the conceptual shifts you are proposing than I have. It’s core to your field and has been historically peripheral to mine.  For me, the distinction between fandom and religion does necessary work. But I am learning so much by trying to work through these issues together, and it is a good preview of what I hope the series as a whole will accomplish. We have much to learn from each other around shared concepts, such as meaning, affiliation, affect, aspiration, participation, fellowship, etc., which do not necessarily require us to resolve the definition of religion and its relationship to fandom.

Your responses to my suggestion that religion is more apt to lead to violence than fandom seem fair enough. I would distinguish between individual pathologies of specific fan stalkers and whole religious cultures that have turned to violence in the name of their faith. But, you are right to note that fandom does have its zealots too. And if we are talking about playing for keeps, we need to keep in mind the phenomenon that I most often see described as “toxic fandom” -- that is, the gender and culture wars within fandom which in extreme cases are resulting in threats of rape and other forms of harassment. Here, we are looking at collective forms of zealotry within fandom, though we still have much work to do to sort out myths from realities where some of this online behavior is concerned.

I certainly did not mean to imply that I saw religion as an exclusively conservative force, though I agree that is a common stereotype. This is why I referenced my own experiences with progressive forms of the Southern Baptist tradition. My embrace of reader-response theory is probably a direct outgrowth of the concept of the “fellowship of the believer.” I could also have noted how important black ministers from the civil rights movement were in shaping my political commitments growing up in the segregated South. And I have a great respect for the role faith played in my family, which tended to embrace a New Testament theology based on loving embrace rather than an Old Testament one based in fire and brimstone. My mother often sang “Jesus Loves Me” from the church choir. We might challenge some of its formulations of race, but the core idea that “all the little children of the world”  are “precious in His sight” was deeply felt and potentially progressive in the segregated context we were living. There was no hate in her religion, though her Pastor high-jacked her funeral for a “moral majority” style message. My relations to all of this is conflicted: I value the role of faith in our culture, but perhaps, like an immigrant who remains loosely connected to a diaspora, there’s some lag time in my mental image of the mother country from which I sprang. Like other immigrants, there are reasons why I felt I had to leave, but also much love and respect for my cultural roots and some nostalgia for what it was like to grow up in such a community.

I am trying to ask questions that I think other media and cultural studies people might need answered as we prepare the ground for the larger conversation series. I get the value of religious studies having the broadest possible definition of religion to describe the contemporary search for spirituality. But you are still operating in the context of a field of religious studies, which means there still must be some definition (however expansive) of what counts as religion and what doesn’t. I am trying to better understand where you draw those lines. I am prepared to accept that there are blurry boundaries here (your Beyonce example illustrates this) but are you really arguing that all culture is religion and vice-versa?

Sarah: Here is the video that I show my “Theories of Religion” undergraduate class. It is really pretty good!  


Henry: Yes, that is helpful in understanding the range of meanings religion might have in your field, and clarifying why it is so hard to nail down this concept even for the purposes of discussion. I suspect we are not the only cluster of conversants who are going to stumble around this issue.

Diane: Sarah, that is a great video! Thanks. Henry, will be working on conversion scenarios.I am curious to see if other conversations repeat our concerns.

Sarah McFarland Taylor is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Environmental Policy and Culture at Northwestern University. She is the award-winning author of Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology(Harvard, 2008) and currently a candidate for an advanced degree in Media History, Philosophy, and Criticism from the School of Media Studies at The New School for Public Engagement. Her latest book, Ecopiety: Media, Green Virtue, and the Storied Earth, is forthcoming from NYU Press in 2019. 

Diane Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. A national authority on religion and the media, her expertise includes religion, politics and the news media as well as religion and the entertainment media. A journalist and a scholar, Winston’s current research interests are media coverage of Islam, religion and new media, and the place of religion in American identity. She is the author of Red Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army(Harvard, 1999), Faith in the Market: Religion and Urban Commercial Culture (Rutgers, 2003) and Small Screen, Picture: Lived Religion and Television (Baylor, 2009).