Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Interfaith Encounters in Popular Culture

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Interfaith Encounters in Popular Culture

Article excerpt

In the 2007 animated film The Simpsons Movie, the fictional town of Springfield has become so polluted--thanks to Homer Simpson--that the federal Environmental Protection Agency has decided to encase the entire town in a giant dome, which is lowered from the sky by hundreds of helicopters. As the dome descends upon Springfield, its shadow moving across the face of the town, the congregation of the First Church of Springfield rushes out of the sanctuary pointing to the sky in panic. Perhaps this is the end of the world. Next door to the church is Moe's Bar. Its patrons likewise see the dome descending and also run outside screaming in panic. For a moment there is silence as each group looks at the other, and then a mad rush as the patrons of Moe's bar run toward the church and the congregation of Springfield First runs toward the bar.

This humorous scene provides something of a parallel, though certainly exaggerated, to the relationship that characterizes religion and popular culture in the United States. As religious persons and their institutions turn to popular culture, exploiting its images, characters, practices, and stories, and in some instances perpetuating its values or imitating its preoccupation with celebrity, entertainment, and spectacle, popular culture in turn provides an expansive social context in which spiritual and religious experience is explored and in which religious images, characters, and symbols are retrieved and engaged.

In this essay, I look briefly at examples of interfaith encounters as they surface in US popular culture. As "the world's most religiously diverse nation" (Eck 2001), the United States is the site of a rich variety of interfaith encounters. Because of its pervasiveness, popular culture provides a formative "space" that shapes our attitudes and behaviours both with respect to how we understand religions and how we encounter and engage those who embrace religious traditions not our own. This shaping is practically and theologically important, moreover, for persons who are interested in engaging other religious traditions for whatever reasons that might be and regardless of whether those persons consider themselves as belonging to any particular religious tradition. How persons understand, communicate with, relate to, serve alongside, or attempt to convert persons from religious traditions not their own does not take place in a vacuum. We come to interfaith encounters already shaped by popular culture, some of us more deeply than others.

By "interfaith encounters" I mean those moments or forms of engagement in which persons or groups from one religious faith tradition (even if only nominally adhered to) encounter persons or groups from one or more other religious faith traditions. This would also include those traditions considered by some to be cults. "Popular culture," as I am employing the term, refers to practices, stories, images, institutions, and artifacts that have a sizeable and widespread audience, whose popularity is (a) market driven, (b) consumer oriented, (c) celebrity focused, (d) entertainment fixated, and (e) mass mediated. Because of the sheer volume of human experience that passes under the name of popular culture, it is impossible to draw definitive conclusions in a single article about the way popular culture in all its forms serves as a context for interfaith encounters. For those forms include music, cinema, sports, supermarket magazines, fashion, television, pornography, theme parks, popular fiction, comics, body art, celebrities, food, holidays, the Internet, and more. Yet even by examining a small cross-section of pop cultural forms, perhaps it is possible to detect significant patterns. In what follows, I will look at two primary modes in which interfaith encounters surface in popular culture: portrayals of interfaith encounters and occasions for interfaith encounter.

Popular Culture and Portrayals of Interfaith Encounters

As a first way of exploring this topic, one might examine pop cultural portrayals of interfaith encounters, especially in television and cinema. …

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