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

Henry Jenkins:

A few years back, my USC colleague Diane Winston invited me to participate in a panel at a religious studies conference which was intended to address links between my work on participatory culture and the study of popular religion. My first response was that I had not consciously made any contributions in this space. This is not quite true since I do specifically address the Christian discernment movement in Convergence Culture, but only for a few pages. But I discovered that there were many young scholars working in the study of popular religion who were drawing on conceptual models developed in cultural studies -- and in particular, in fandom studies and transmedia studies -- and expanding them in exciting new directions. Yet, this exchange is largely one-directional: many in fandom studies, say, are apt to find themselves in the same position I was, not realizing what we might learn by engaging more actively with this work. And that’s why I decided to work with Diane Winston and Sarah McFarland Taylor to bring together this extended conversation series for my blog.  


As I do so, I need to perhaps modify some of my past statements about the relationship between fandom and religion.  I can’t tell you how many times through the years reporters and students have asked me about whether fandom doesn’t just function as a religion for a more secular time. I have remained skeptical. For one thing, as I discussed in Textual Poachers, the root word for fan dates back to the ancient world -- “worshippers of the Fain” -- with fanatics understood as engaged in practices of false worship and more broadly, excessive zeal. Both of those associations carry dangers for thinking about fans because of the ways popular stereotypes see fans as “taking things too far” and being unable to separate fantasy from reality.


Yes, we can draw some comparisons to religion in terms of bringing relatively diverse groups of people together around shared ethical values, shared narratives, and shared practices (rituals?) but there are any number of other institutions in a well functioning society which serve these same functions (labor unions or political parties come to mind) without bringing with them associations with faith or worship.  Certainly we see churches embrace fandom as a means of outreach and fellowship, especially targeting younger congregants. And we can look at the success of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which uses interpretive tools from theology to re-examine J.K. Rowling’s fantasy texts as illustrating points of contact between the two.

Some of my resistance has to do with my own experience of religion. I was raised a Southern Baptist, the son and grandson of Baptist deacons, and so my template for thinking about religion was shaped by Christian fundamentalism. In some ways, being a Baptist was an ideal entry point to thinking about fandom, since in theory, the “believer” has a direct relationship with God rather than communicating through a church hierarchy and the “believer” is free to interpret the Bible on their own terms based on that communication, much as fans assert their own rights to play around with popular texts in whatever way they feel inspired. As a youth growing up in Georgia, I was particularly inspired by Clarence Jordan, the white minister who formed a multiracial, progressive community, Koinonia Farms, in rural Georgia in the 1940s, wrote The Cottonpatch Gospels, and helped to establish Habitat for Humanity. As I matured, I found my religious home at Northside Baptist Church, which also counted Jimmy Carter -- then, a post-president -- as a member.


But, along the way, I lived through a purge of progressive Baptists in the 1970s and 1980s as the far right took over the denominational organizations and seminaries and pushed out those who did not follow the “moral majority” party line. In those years, I met plenty of “one true wayers” --  people for whom there was only one possible interpretation and that was the most literal-minded (and humor-less) one possible. People I cared about, people who represented the things I believed in, were denounced and driven from my parents’ church. In the end, I lost faith.

And I will admit that this trauma has colored how I have thought about the religion analogy for fandom: there are certainly “one true way” types in fandom but its norms encourage much more freedom and openness; fans’ relationship to texts are not grounded in faith -- at least not in the literal-minded ways that fundamentalist are; religions are exclusive (with some notable exceptions) but I have always stressed the “nomadic” or “promiscuous” nature of fans who maintain affinities with multiple texts at the same time and many fans are devotely religious and understand that faith as very different from what they feel towards their fan objects.

Yet, what I learned in my discussions with Taylor, Nelson and others, was that the study of popular religion has developed more nuanced tools for talking about issues of belief, affinity, affect, and loyalty as they relate to faith-based communities and their practices. They are less interested in seeing fandom as a religion than they are in seeing how religion might be understood in the contemporary era as more like fandom. This is especially true as it relates to a more secularized world where many create syncretic religions, mixing and matching practices from different spiritual traditions, redefining them as resources through which to make sense of their own spiritual needs and their own identities, where many practice religion without formal links to particular religious institutions, and where religion gets fused with other ways of expressing their identities and social affiliations. It may be that we need a similar set of conceptual models to think about popular religion and fandom/participatory culture at the current moment, even if older models of religion may distort our understanding of fandom. I still have much to learn from this research, but I have found my own thinking starting to evolve in response to my first encounters.

Beyond this, the study of popular religion has been willing to take seriously and to more intimately engage with conservative groups than the Cultural Studies tradition has been able or willing to do.  The complaint is often that we assume that audiences or subcultures are progressive and yet, clearly, many Americans and around the world are conservative in their core beliefs and values. Since the election, my research team has been conducting workshops in red states (such as Idaho, Arkansas, and Kentucky), trying to get a better sense of where America is at today. And as we do this work, I find myself wanting to know more about how religion in these contexts helps to shape the way people think about democratic participation and social change. Our research group has at the same time done work in Mosques with a case study of the political lives of American Muslims a central dimension of our collective book, By Any Media Necessary. Here, again, we need to develop a better understanding of the ways religion both constrains and enables youth to find their voice in the contemporary struggles against Islamophobia.  And beyond all of this, I have been intrigued by what scholars of popular religion have shown us about progressive religious groups, whether the sanctuary movement or the Christian conservation movement, or going back further, the role of the black church in civil rights struggles across the 20th century. For all of those reasons, and many more, those of us in cultural studies need to develop a deeper understanding of contemporary research on faith-based communities and their cultural practices.

In this series, we have tried to pair participants who are working on related topics, looking for common ground, as well as disciplinary differences, and we have created a structure which allows participants to not only showcase their work but also ask each other questions and hammer out differences. I can’t wait to see what emerges here.


Sarah McFarland Taylor:

First, I want to thank you for organizing this “matchmaking” project between Religious Studies and Media Studies and inviting me to participate. Just to provide a bit of background for what brings me to this discussion, I should mention that encountering Henry’s work on media and popular culture precipitated a major shift in me as a religion scholar. When I first read Henry’s book Convergence Culture, I was struck at how much productive correspondence there was between Henry’s discussion of world building, participatory culture, transmedia storytelling, affinity spaces for learning, spreadability, and the various ways we discuss similar dynamics in the cultural study of religion. For instance, we study the mechanisms of worldview formation, cosmologies and cosmogonies, the making, unmaking, and remaking of religious worlds, the telling of religious narratives across art, music, material culture, literature, bodies, costuming and dress, technology, the dynamics of “spreadability” in evangelizing those religious narratives within the “spiritual marketplace,” patterns of culture, and so forth. After reading Henry’s work, I began to think of religions as constituting in many ways “media franchises” that engage in the telling of religious narratives across multiple platforms, not simply repeating the narrative but extending it through the use of varied mediums, strategically adding dimensions to it to make it more “spreadable” and to engender “fan” following and participation in the story. I now assign Henry’s work in my graduate-level contemporary theories of religion seminar, along with the work of core sociologists, anthropologists, and other cultural theorists that are useful tools for us when examining phenomena associated with religion. It was also in reading Henry’s work that it “clicked” for me that if you are not studying media, you are not studying religion. The converse is not true, but religion is always historically entangled with media, co-constituted with media, expressed through media, in many cases drives the development of media innovation and technology, and religion is always a media system. We might also think of some religions as “media ecologies.” A great example of this is the LDS church, which is very much its own media ecology. It was this realization about the integral relationship between religion and media, induced by Henry’s work, that set me on a course to return to graduate school in mid-career for an additional advanced degree in media studies.  It also prompted me to invite Henry to a special session on his work at the American Academy of Religion in San Diego to discuss with a wider audience of religion scholars how his theories of media and participatory culture might inform our thinking about the cultural study of religion. This continues as an open question, so it is a great pleasure to continue the conversation in this setting and format.


On the specific theme of “fandom” taken up by Henry’s current blog series, I want to begin with the figure of William Shatner as a way into talking about Trump fandom. In the Trump era, when pundits shake their heads daily and puzzle about Trump’s continued devoted evangelical Christian following in the wake of so many moral transgressions committed both during his campaign and his presidency, I often think of the classic “Trekkies” [S12, E8, 1986] sketch from Saturday Night Live. As readers may or may not recall, the sketch features the actor William Shatner, who plays the lead role of Captain Kirk in the science fiction television series, Star Trek. Shatner has been contracted to speak at a Star Trek fan convention, and when he is repeatedly barraged with highly specific questions from fans about obsessive trivia from series episodes, he finally loses it and shouts at them to “Get a Life!” Shatner is insulting and singles out one Trekkie, demanding to know if he has ever kissed a girl [he hasn’t]. Even though they have raised him up to the stature he now enjoys and have ensured his livelihood, he demeans and mocks everything the fans hold dear―all the things they have organized their lives around―in what appears to be an unforgivable offense. After a strict talking to from the conference manager about the terms of his contract and compensation, Shatner quickly backpedals and explains to the fans that actually he did not mean anything of what he just said―he was merely recreating the “evil Kirk” from “The Enemy Within” [Season 1, episode 5]. The fans nod enthusiastically as if they knew it all along and it all makes sense. In the study of religion, borrowing from sociologist Peter Berger, we would say that Shatner has effectively reinforced the believers’ “plausibility structures.”  That is, even when confronted with directly contrary data, they are able to maintain their worldview and still make it make sense. Here is one such area of porousness and family resemblances between fandoms and the followings of religious leaders. To be clear, SNL’s sketch is of course poking fun, and I want to take cognizance of Henry’s point that too often fans are portrayed as failing to discern reality from fiction. But the Shatner sketch does provide a useful image from which we might examine contemporary devotional behavior among publics toward idolized figures of political and religious authority no matter what “contrary data” might be presented.

This past year, I attended a fascinating conference on media, politics, and populism at Northwestern University, where I teach. A smart, insightful presentation was delivered on Donald Trump and his populist following, but nowhere was religion mentioned when discussing his seemingly “Teflon” appeal to his devoted base. This conspicuous absence of religion in the discussion of politics and media is not an unusual lacuna. Religion and media scholar Stewart Hoover, who co-founded the International Society for the Study of Media, Religion, and Culture, tells a great story about attending sessions on the extremist group ISIS at both the International Communication Association (ICA) and at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in the same year. When discussing ISIS, the ICA scholars never once mentioned religion. In turn, the AAR scholars discussed ISIS and never once mentioned media. Back at the Northwestern conference, as the only religion scholar in the room, I raised my hand during discussion and pointed out what a potent role Trump’s evangelical aesthetics, whether inadvertent or effected, play in cultivating and solidifying his devoted following. Some months after the Northwestern conference, I gave a presentation at ICA on the visual rhetoric of Trump’s hair and demonstrated, accompanied by numerous visual examples, how Trump’s hair “reads” within evangelical aesthetics as faith healer/mega-preacher/televangelist hair. His extemporaneous speaking style, his emotive gestures and performativity, his unbuttoned overplus of emotion, including anger, all evoke a tremendous familiarity and recognizability to conservative evangelicals. Even the sex scandals, the mistresses, the porn stars, the tax problems, the lawsuits, the fraud charges, the federal investigation of misconduct, are all reminiscent of countless high-profile mega-preacher televangelists who have gone to jail and yet still maintain a loyal following from the faithful. Convicted felon Rev. James “Jim” Bakker (formerly of the Jim and Tammy Bakker TV preaching duo), who is one of the preachers currently involved in promoting the online “POTUS Shield” digital prayer project [http://www.potusshield.org/] to protect Donald Trump against “spiritual warfare” is a prime example.  Bakker faced public scandal for having paid hush money to his secretary Jessica Hahn to keep her quiet about his allegedly raping her and was also convicted on federal fraud charges in relation to donation solicitation for his media ministry and in relation to investments in his “Heritage USA” evangelical theme park. Now out of jail, Bakker is back on television, and his devoted flock continue to adore him, seek out his religious authority, and send him more money. Where is the “plausibility structure” in this story that makes Bakker a hero even after his moral failings, conviction, and jail time? The prosecution of Bakker and his imprisonment merely testify to his followers of the efficacy of his preaching and ministry.  Like Trump, Bakker would not have “attracted” investigation or prosecution/persecution if he were not effective in riling “the Enemy” [Satan] and thus attracting “spiritual warfare” to himself by very virtue of his success in doing God’s work. The more Mueller investigates and tightens the noose around Trump’s neck, the more it provides testimony to the faithful of the President’s efficacy in carrying out God’s plan. Were the President not being used as an effective instrument of God, he would simply remain under the radar and not elicit Satan’s attacks.  Of course not all evangelicals subscribe to belief in spiritual warfare, but as I documented in my ICA presentation, it has become more mainstreamed among evangelicals than one might think. A bumper crop of self-help, prayer books, novels, online videos, radio and television preaching, and the inclusion of spiritual warfare in evangelical popular culture narratives has taken what was previously a fairly marginal belief and given it much more centrality and acceptance.

Here is where I also have a related theory about the nature and persistence of Trump’s fandom among his evangelical base that it would be useful to “bounce off” some media theorists. Since reading about “predictive saccades” in one of my graduate media seminars, I cannot shake the sense that the phenomenon of “saccades” might be playing an important part in how Trump’s religious fans view him. French author Anais Nin is often quoted as saying “We see things not as they are; we see them as we are,” but the actual mechanics of perception are considerably more complicated.  When our eyes look at something, we do so selectively, but also by filling in any gaps in visual input. As E.H. Gombrich explains in Art and Illusion, “Visual perception is not a passive recording of stimulus material but a concern of the mind . . . Perception involves problem solving” (1960:172). Rapid movements of our eyes between different points of fixation, which are called “saccades,” send a jumpy input of images to our brains, often interspersed by seconds of blur from movement or darkness caused by blinks. To correct for these disruptions, our brain synthesizes, fills in, and smooths these images at a rate of one twentieth of a second. This is the same rate we use for “vision persistence,” the process we use to fill in the gaps between the frames of a film so that we see a continuous story without interruption and without actually perceiving the frames. Social and cultural theorists may talk about reality as a “social construction” (P. Berger and Luckman 1966), but Arthur Asa Berger points out that in a very literal physiological sense, “we have to construct the world we see” (A. Berger 2015: 182-183).  

So, when devout conservative evangelicals hear about Trump’s affairs with porn stars and paying these women hush money, yes, this may well be read as simply evidence of “spiritual warfare” against a leader, triggered by his actually making “headway” doing God’s work. But what are his evangelicals fans also “filling in” in order to “solve the problem” that is Trump and make it no problem at all? It occurs to me that those schooled in literalistic readings of religious texts may also be concomitantly highly practiced in inserting what is needed to maintain continuous “vision persistence” when dealing with inconsistencies in text, much in the way gaps are “filled in” to account for the moral failings of charismatic religious leaders. In the SNL “Trekkies” sketch, the fans quickly fill in missing data that would make Shatner’s offensive rant make sense, and they are thus able to create a continuous narrative that satisfies a desire for cohesion. Are we seeing a similar process taking place with the President?

The function of “predictive saccades” in our visual perception actually helps us to anticipate the movements and variations of different objects so that our eyes move in a spatially predictive manner, depending on what we think or expect we’ll see.  Looking at the persistence and loyalty of Trump’s evangelical fanbase, makes me wonder if a similar kind of “predictive saccades” dynamic is at work in which it simply does not matter what Trump does or says.  He visually “reads” as tribal, as familiar, as “one of ours,” and as a salvific tool of God, to his fanbase, and then the gaps or missing frames are merely filled in. Media pundits may be perplexed at why Christians continue passionately to support such a seemingly un-Christian figure, but in fact, he fits quite neatly into the “predictive saccades” and mechanisms of his evangelical fandom’s “vision persistence”―like a lock and key mechanism.  It would be very interesting, though, to get a fandom studies perspective on this theory.


Diane Winston:


After seeing Juliet, Naked, an adaptation of Nick Hornsby’s 2009 novel, I wanted to talk about it with Henry Jenkins, my colleague at USC. Duncan, one of the film’s main characters, is a media studies professor at a small English university. Duncan enjoys lecturing on The Wire and other contemporary films and television series, but his true passion is Tucker Crowe, an American alt-rocker, who mysteriously disappeared after walking out in the middle of a gig 25 years earlier.

Duncan is the quintessential, obsessive fan. On the Tucker Crowe website he created, he live streams the latest “news” of Tucker’s whereabouts, updates on new caches of old material, and speculation about his idol’s love life. Duncan visits the site from his man-cave, a basement shrine bursting with Tucker Crowe posters and memorabilia. In touch with a small community of like-minded fans, Duncan trades daily emails on the missing singer-songwriter, reverentially re-visiting a musical catalogue that hasn’t changed in more than two decades.

A post-modern academic, Duncan would never, ever call himself a religious man. But his fandom—centered on a god-like figure who is everpresent in his absence—has many earmarks of a religion: rituals, reverence, community and authority figures (Duncan himself). The group even believes in a Second Coming, which seems imminent when Duncan receives a bootleg recording of acoustic demos for Juliet, Crowe’s seminal album.

Duncan is more Gen X than millennial, but the shift from mainstream religious affiliation to spiritual seeking in cultural streams has affected more than just today’s much-hyped, coming of age generation. Traditional religions no longer work for many worldwide and while I am not writing off billions of believers, I do wonder how those who left churches, temples, synagogues and mosques find the wonder, hope and joy to get out of bed every morning. (I am not suggesting that traditional religions are the only site of meaning, purpose and identity, but that has been their stock in trade for millennia.) In my own work on television and religion/spiritualty/ethics https://www.amazon.com/Small-Screen-Big-Picture-Television/dp/1602581851/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1535056030&sr=1-1&keywords=diane+winston, I have come to appreciate how fictional storytelling can supply narratives that elicit loyalty, inspiration and empowerment—much the same as some sacred texts do. And watching Duncan, I was struck by how his fandom provided meaning, purpose and identity to an otherwise undistinguished life.

This raises a key question: In an era of religious indifference and disaffiliation might (some) cultural products evoke deeper devotion (from some fans) than traditional religions do from (some/many) followers? I haven't met many church-goers who build shrines in their homes, much less visit them daily to commune with their “god” and fellow believers. Yes, Duncan is a fictional character, but in an era of cosplay, comi-cons, podcasts and fan-fiction, would he be considered  an atypical fan? Haven't Trekkies (Star Trek), Dumbledore’s Army (Harry Potter) and Anonymous (inspired by V for Vendetta) demonstrated the strength, resilience and passionate embrace that cultural products can stir in (some/many) consumers?

That passionate embrace ignites my curiosity. What induces people to orient their lives around a set of beliefs? When I wrote about the Salvation Army https://www.amazon.com/Red-Hot-Righteous-Religion-Salvation-2000-10-02/dp/B01K2QFHZO/ref=sr_1_10?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1535056267&sr=1-10, I wondered at the young women who gave up family, security and respectability to become soldiers for God.  Even if this made sense for some, given women’s limited options and opportunities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, why would a woman today want to wear an Army uniform, live in Army housing and subscribe to the all-encompassing Army rules and regulations? Orthodoxy, that is, a strict adherence to creeds, boggles and, yes, intrigues this mostly secular mind of mine.

Unlike Henry, I have no personal experience of deep religious commitment. Secular Jews, my parents enjoyed a Christmas tree until I asked them to please stop. I went to Brandeis, not much of a stretch after growing up on Manhattan’s West Side, and fell in with zealous Catholics. Their faith fascinated me as did the avid Zionism of classmates who moved to Israel and the “crazy wisdom” of those who dropped out to follow Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. My personal engagement with religion is nine-tenths intellectual curiosity and 10 percent Shabbat dinners, High Holiday services and bouts of meditation. The deep commitments of the Catholics, Jews and Buddhists I knew in college is nothing like the idiosyncratic attachment that holds me (and many others) to nominal attachments with our birth faiths. To my mostly-secular eyes, those deep commitments seem akin to fanaticism, and I would argue that, etymologically-speaking,  true believers are the real fans.

I’ve come full circle here so will put in a bid for what interests me most in the conversation that Henry, Sarah and I have proposed. Scholars of religion are ever more conflicted about exactly what it is we study. Some of us are interested in traditional religions; others curious about new religious movements, and still others wondering about the religiosity of cultural products. “How do you define religion for your students?” I asked a colleague who is a philosopher of religion. Her answer, “Personal conviction.” If you can accept that, then the line between our disciplines grows ever more blurred and thinking together about shared terms and overlapping ideas is useful. I would argue that 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.

Toward the end of Juliet, Naked, Duncan has dinner with Tucker Crowe. Crowe has emerged from his self- imposed isolation and become friends with Annie, Duncan’s ex-girlfriend, who had disliked Crowe’s music almost as much as she resented Duncan’s obsession with the faded rock star. During the meal, Crowe and Duncan argue about the meaning of Crowe’s music. Crowe says that since he wrote the songs, he is the authority on them, but Duncan says once the songs are public, their interpretation belongs to the fans. The music has a life of its own, which exceeds the creator’s grasp. It’s not unlike an updated version of the argument at the heart of “The Grand Inquisitor,” Dostoevsky’s tale of the Church that no longer recognizes the teachings of the real Jesus.

While the credits roll at the movie’s end, Duncan once again is live streaming on the Crowe website. Tucker Crowe has just released a new album, updating the canon after all this time. But Duncan is having none of it. Instead of Crowe’s familiar laments about heartbreak and betrayal, the new songs are happy paeans to childhood, animals and grown-up relationships—including his with Annie. Duncan rails about the new material, but his faith is unshaken. His Tucker Crowe lives. Fandom, like so many other religions, has a life of its own.

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). 


Coming Soon: Diane Winston will be our guest on this week's episode of How Do You Like It So Far? discussing her recent book on religion and reality television.