Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Spiritual Quest and and Popular Culture: Reflexive Spirituality in the Text of Northern Exposure

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Spiritual Quest and and Popular Culture: Reflexive Spirituality in the Text of Northern Exposure

Article excerpt

John Mihelich, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Justice Studies University of Idaho

Jennifer Gatzke, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Justice Studies University of Idaho

Abstract

Through an analysis of the text of Northern Exposure, this paper discusses its spiritual narrative and argues that it resonates with broader emerging patterns of spiritual questing in the United States. Drawing from key characters and spiritual themes from several episodes, we delineate four alternative modes of "reflexive spirituality" and various ways individuals and spiritual communities reconcile spiritual meaning with the challenges of modernity." The analysis both reveals the role of popular culture in portraying and encoding religious meaning and patterns of religiosity and enhances the broader understanding of reflexive spirituality.

[1] In recalling the airing of the television show Northern Exposure (NE), viewers might remember a number of things, but anyone with a recollection of the programme probably remembers some of the religious themes woven throughout the storyline. Those with better recall may remember how the show deconstructed and reconstructed religious ideas from a number of traditions as it manipulated history, tradition, ritual and symbols to fit the context and experience of the fictional lives of characters residing in "Cicely," Alaska. The successful television series aired from 1990 to 1995, but the programme's popularity persists many years after cancellation as dedicated fans continue to enjoy reruns, recorded episodes on VHS or the recently released first four seasons available on DVD. Among the thousands of continuing NE fans, many refer to the program on a daily basis to interpret, endure, and celebrate their everyday experience. The text and its interpreted themes have become an essential part of their personal narratives, and fans actively construct audience practices ranging from annual gatherings to online discussion groups through which they interact with other fans of the show. Some of these fans understand their NE practice to be of a spiritual nature and use spiritual discourse to describe their experience with NE and its role in assisting them to interpret their experience. As such, NE represents one confluence of popular culture, audience practice, and contemporary patterns of religiosity in the quest for meaning.

[2] The quest for religious or spiritual meaning in the United States today involves a good degree of individualized focus on the self and its transformation (for personal religion, see, for example, Bell 1977; Loy 1997; Roof 2001; Swatos and Christiano 1999; Wuthnow 1998. On self, identity and consumption see, for example, Beck 1992; Bocock 1993; Csordas 1997; Giddens 1991; Hall 1992; McRobbie 1994; Sweetman 2003; Wagner 1993.). The quest takes place in a context of postmodernity with its dissociation of symbols from their referents, the decentering of authority, and the globalization of culture, consumerism, and information (Csordas 1997, cited in Roof 2001, 141). In this context, cultural narratives, including historical religious ones, become decentered, open to reframing through manipulation, reflection and recombination. Wade Clark Roof identifies one emerging form of spiritual questing, and its confrontation with the effects of modernity, as "reflexive spirituality" which requires intentional engagement on the part of individuals reflecting on the plurality of possibilities and the "positioned nature of all our perspectives" as they consider how a variety of narratives may contribute to their direct personal religious experience (Roof 2001, 75). Along with individual personal reframing, denominations, churches, congregations, and other religious groups and organizations engage in reframing their mythologies and interpretations to accommodate broader social change and the expectations of questers. As Peter Berger anticipated in his discussion of the emerging "market situation" of religion in the throes of secularization, a "spiritual marketplace" has emerged with providers and consumers negotiating spiritual terrain (Berger 1967; Roof 2001). …

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