Religious "Avatars" and Implicit Religion: Recycling Myths and Religious Patterns within Contemporary U.S. Popular Culture

Article excerpt

Abstract: Contemporary cultural and media studies have been increasingly interested in redefining the relations between religion and culture (and particularly popular culture). The present study approaches a series of theories on the manner in which religious aspects emerge and are integrated in contemporary cultural manifestations, focusing on the persistence/resurrection of religious patterns into secularized cultural contents. Thus, the analysis departs from the concept of implicit religion, coined and developed by Bailey and the theories following it, as well as other associated concepts, influential for the evolution of debates in the recent period, such as invisible religion, as approached by Luckmann, civil religion, by Bellah, folk religion, residual religion, by Davies or 'wild' religion, by Borg. In order to discuss the relations between religion and popular culture in contemporary U.S. and particularly the presence of certain religious patterns in popular culture messages, symbolism and rituals, the study uses an interdisciplinary approach, based on approaches currently used in media studies, film studies, cultural studies, visual culture perspectives, religious studies, and sociology. The article discusses, through different theories (and in its second part, a case study on James Cameron's cliché masterpiece Avatar) the manner in which contemporary popular culture (and cinema in particular) recycles, integrates and reinterprets religious patterns, symbols and behaviours.

Key Words: implicit religion, popular culture, mass culture, religious patterns, rituals, U.S. cinema, Avatar, James Cameron

"Is it possible that the power and popularity of the mass media are such that some of the functions traditionally associated with religious agencies, institutions and discourse are capable of being communicated through, and performed by, the medium of film?" (C.R. Deacy)

Introduction. The "Disenchanted Word": Religion and Secularization

While explicit religion survives and replicates itself in multiple variations in contemporary society1 (despite the coherent hypotheses announcing, as early as the 19th century2, the gradual disappearance of religion into new institutional structures), a parallel and for some even more interesting set of phenomena has become increasingly significant, revealing intriguing effects of the contact between religion and the products of mass culture. Due to the development of image reproduction, the second half of 20th century witnessed the evolution of culture towards massification and industrialisation in terms of production and reproduction, as well as distribution. As the influential Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall argued when discussing visual culture:

"The mechanically and electronically reproduced image is the semantic and technical unit of the modern mass media and at the heart of post-war popular culture. However, while it is acknowledged widely within the discipline of media and cultural studies... the visual image or photograph seems only of interest as the origin, as the technological dawn, of a great process of development in which, in an era of mass communication and the commodification of information, messages can be transmitted in principle to a plurality of recipients and audiences [emphasis added]".3

This consumerism expanded at the cultural level (visual arts, music, media etc.) has not lead to the extinction of the presence of religious aspects within culture, on the contrary, religious patterns, symbols, characters or behaviours have persisted in the new cultural paradigm, although they were recycled, reinterpreted or even hidden under the mask of secular and even industrialised art, such as, for instance, Hollywood cinema. Popular culture became a favourite space of dialogue and melting pot of the cultural and religious diversity characteristing the contemporary world and in the same time fulfilling, without religious institutions constraints, the "modern man's need for the sacred in spite of tendencies to restrain its force in the cultural practices of modernity"4. …

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