The Religious Theft of Sacred Culture?

By  Kenny Smith

In her Religion Nerd piece, Rise of the Jedi Religion, Heather Abraham introduced us to a new religious movement grounded in the mythic figure of the Jedi Knight, a central component of George Lucas’ famously popular Stars Wars saga. Jediism, she tells us, “is the fourth largest religion in the UK,” and is likewise “thriving in many other English speaking countries,” numbering in the tens of thousands in New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and the United States.

Dudeism Symbol

This is clearly a remarkable state of affairs, that a series of commercial films should serve as the foundation for a religious tradition that resonates with impressive numbers across a diverse landscape!  For observers of contemporary religion and culture, the return of the Jedi (this time in explicitly religious guise) leaves us with an intriguing puzzle.  Has the transition from a series of Hollywood blockbusters to a popular religious pathway rendered the figure of the Jedi (and perhaps other elements of the Star Wars universe) sacred?  That is, is the emergence of Jediism a matter of something secular being made into something sacred?  Or, was the image of the Jedi Knight able to serve as the basis for a religious movement precisely because it already functioned as sacred within the broader culture? This essay explores these questions by looking at a range of religious communities, both old and new, that seem to have borrowed from popular culture in important ways.

Take, for instance, the new religious movement known as Dudeism, or more formally, The Church of the Latter-Day Dude.  Based upon the teachings and example of the character Jeffrey Lebowski (played by Jeff Bridges) in the Coen Brothers’ 1998 classic film, The Big Lebowski, Dudeism teaches a largely passive, hedonistic approach to life emphasizing personal authenticity and the cultivation of pleasures that can be enjoyed without engaging in exhaustive levels of work, competition, and anxieties about the future.  As one Dudeist website explains:

Life is short and complicated and nobody knows what to do about it. So don’t do anything about it. Just take it easy, man. Stop worrying so much whether you’ll make it into the finals. Kick back with some friends and some oat soda and whether you roll strikes or gutters, do your best to be true to yourself and others–that is to say, abide.” (http://www.dudeism.com/whatisdudeism.html)

While Dudeists seem quite clear that their tradition is grounded in a fictional narrative, that fact has done little to undermine its attractiveness as a path of spiritual liberation from what is perceived as an overly complex and deeply troubled society.  As of 2009, this tradition claimed some 60,000 Dudeist ministers worldwide, an online newspaper, a range of texts and articles linking Dudeism to the great sages of world history (such as Lao-tzu, Heraclitus, Buddha, Jesus, and Jerry Garcia), and a soon-to-open Dudeist University.  Perhaps paradoxically, Dudeists seem to have worked rather diligently to present their tradition as an authentic spiritual path maximally relevant to our times.  While it is difficult to predict what the future will hold for this tradition, the philosophy, ethos, and good news of The Big Lebowski seem to offer a coherent, and fulfilling, religious worldview to significant numbers.

In the case of both Jediism and Dudeism, entirely new religious traditions have been created wholesale from the cloth of popular culture.  In other cases, key elements are borrowed from popular culture and grafted onto pre-existing religious traditions, resulting in equally innovative and to some degree “new” versions of these traditions, which their critics typically regard as humorous or horrifying.

One superb example are the Klingons for Christ.  Founded by Michael James Oetting from a desire to “share the Gospel with non-believers” and “to clear up any misconceptions about Christians or Christianity,” the Klingons for Christ hope to evangelize those “who take the time to dress, look, act, and even speak the language of the mythical aliens,” that is, those attending Star Trek conventions as Klingons.  This however is not a superficial sales-pitch in which evangelical Christianity is merely dressed up to appeal to Star Trek fans.  Oetting perceives real and important theological affinities connecting evangelical Christianity and the teachings of “Kahless,” an originary Klingon hero who, after slaying the first Klingon deities, established Klingon society according to a set of ruthless (though honorable, it is said) warrior codes, and departed the Klingon world to return (in messianic form) at some future point. “After a thorough examination of the Bible,” Oetting writes, any Klingon would see that “the message of [Jesus] is the same as that of [Kahless], it is all about honor, duty, and obedience.”

A growing community seems to find a Klingon/Christian synthesis compelling, as a range of websites that further develop Oetting’s theological insights attests.  The Klingons for Christ Jesus, for example, teaches that,

Klingons accept the teachings of Christ as part of a warrior tradition. Christ brings not peace, but a sword… [He] did not run from pain; he welcomed it…. He defeated his enemies…. Christianity is a warrior’s religion. It offers the Klingon enemies worth fighting: Sin, Death, Satan and his legions.  (http://clancmsf.tripod.com/KlingonsForChrist.html)

Such websites also offer a range of passages that are considered central to the biblical message, typically emphasizing war, violence, and the military domination of one’s perceived foes.  Some of these passages have even been transliterated into the Klingon language, though a complete effort to render the entire Bible in Klingon is yet to be achieved.

Interestingly, some mainstream Christian commentators have begun to make cognitive room for this highly imaginative version of their tradition.  In Good News for the Klingon Race,” Glen F. Proechel notes that, while some may feel that such movements represent “a monumental waste of time,” for those who watch Star Trek “it will be reassuring to have God’s Word in a medium that speaks to them.” {Bible Collectors’ World, Oct./Dec. 1994, http://www.biblecollectors.org/articles/klingon_bible.htm}

Pagano

We need not look to religious movements inspired by science fiction to find evidence of borrowing from popular culture.  On June 27, 2009 Ken Pagano, pastor of New Bethel Church in Louisville, Kentucky, held an Open Carry Celebration “in which visitors and parishioners were invited to bring their firearms to church.” Pagano rejects what he considers “a maudlin, sentimental view of Jesus Christ… a limp-wristed preacher” who refuses to stand up for the right of individuals to protect themselves by use of lethal force if necessary.  Instead, Pagano teaches that Jesus is best understood as “a navy seal, a force recon marine, or a green beret.” Consequently, the right to bear (and use) firearms becomes, in Pagano’s view, a fundamental Christian value. (Joseph Laycock, Understanding the Open Carry Celebration, Sightings, July 9, 2009).

While it is perhaps easier to see what Oetting has borrowed from popular culture and sewn into his evangelical Christianity, I would argue that Pagano has also appropriated an enormously popular symbol from the broader culture.  In fact, Pagano has brought into his Christianity something that, for significant portions of Americans, was already and independently deeply sacred: guns.  As Emory scholar Gary Laderman points out, for many Americans (both now and in past generations) guns have been sacred “because they are intimately linked with the redemptive power to confront fundamental dangers that are perceived to be constantly present in American life, like individual crimes, which may require self-defense, or government tyranny, that may require revolutionary actions from armed citizens” (Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead, and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States, p. 133).  As with the Klingon movement, it is worth noting the ways in which Pagano’s theology and ethics develop in new ways when notions from the broader culture–be they Klingons or handguns–are incorporated.

Similar dynamics are evident in the teachings of Marc Driscoll, founder of Mars Hill church, a Seattle-based mega-church with nearly 7,600 members, that is currently “planting” hundreds of new churches nationwide.

Driscoll’s teachings include a return to a Predestinationist theology (i.e., the view, popular among early Protestants in the 16th-19th centuries, that God has determined from the very beginnings of time who will enter heaven and who will be damned forever to hell), but also elements expressly drawn from popular culture, such as the wildly popular film, Fight Club.  To be clear, unlike the characters in Fight Club, church members do not engage strangers in fist fights, nor do they live communally in abandoned houses, planting explosives in public buildings. What is taken from Fight Club, however, is an aggressive, “hyper-masculinized” sense of Christian identity.  From Driscoll’s perspective, the mainstream church “has transformed Jesus into ‘a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,’ a ‘neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.’” What is needed to correct this “feminization” of Christianity, he teaches, is precisely the kind of confrontational ethos exemplified in Fight Club.

Driscoll

A Fight Club-Christianity is, apparently, lived at Mars Hill in a variety of ways. Driscoll is known for his especially frank, adult-only sermons on topics such as “Biblical Oral Sex” and “Pleasing Your Spouse,” his tolerance for typically unorthodox behaviors such as swearing, smoking tobacco, and body piercings, as well as his highly authoritarian style of leadership.  In her article, Who Would Jesus Smack Down?, for instance, journalist Molly Worthen relates the following narrative:

In  2007, two elders protested a plan to reorganize the church that, according to critics, consolidated power in the hands of Driscoll and his closest aides. Driscoll told the congregation that he asked advice on how to handle stubborn subordinates from a ‘mixed martial artist and Ultimate Fighter, good guy’ who attends Mars Hill. ‘His answer was brilliant,’ Driscoll reported. ‘He said, ‘I break their nose.’

Again, this is not to suggest that pastor Driscoll physically batters church members who question his way of thinking.  Nor is it the case that Driscoll’s Christianity can be reduced in some simplistic way to nothing more than the influence of the Fight Club film, which is clearly only one of many different influences upon Driscoll’s religious teachings.  At the same time, that the Mars Hill community understands itself as a Christian reflection of the Fight Club universe suggests that, in incorporating this element of popular culture, this community’s sense of what it means to live a proper Christian life has shifted in significant ways, ways that incorporate the brusque, hyper-masculinized sense of identity, ethos, and behavior, so prevalent in the Fight Club film. Borrowing form popular culture always has consequences. 

Concluding Thoughts

Each of these examples can be seen as pointing back to the question with which we began.  Are these instances in which something secular has simply been made into something sacred, whether that be Jedi Knights, the Dude, Klingons, guns, or ethos of Fight Club?  Or is something more going on here?  Could it be the case that each of these cultural icons was already functioning as sacred within the broader culture and that this is precisely why they were either made into formal religions or appropriated by pre-existing religious communities?

I believe that the evidence points in the direction of the latter. While The Big Lebowski was relatively unsuccessful in terms of box-office returns and monetary gains, it quickly developed “cult” status within a dedicated subculture (see, for instance, The Big Lebowski Fest website).  Klingons, as part of Gene Roddenberry’s imaginary Star Trek universe, represent a paradigm example of a subculture demarked by distinctive styles of dress and behavior, and also its own language (see the Klingon Language Institute).  The sacred nature of guns in the American imagination, of course, needs little additional argument.  And even a casual on-line search for “Fight Clubs near you” will, in fact, turn up numerous sites for fight-clubbing.

If these cultural elements were already functioning as sacred prior to their being “made into” something explicitly religious, it becomes rather clear why they were appropriated in the first place.  It may well be that religious institutions need to take new elements from popular culture in order to remain relevant to changing historical conditions. Hence, new religions rather naturally emerge out of important cultural ideas and practices.  This is certainly what happened with reports of “flying saucers” that first emerged en mass in the late 1940’s; by the early 1950’s, explicitly religious movements offering spiritual teachings from space visitors were on the scene.  More subtly, pre-existing religious traditions take in and re-contextualize key elements from popular culture, and then quickly forget that this transition has occurred; Klingons, guns, and a Fight Club ethos become obviously Christian.

This, by the way, explains why we are not seeing “MacGyver for Christ,” or “Carry Your Broom to Church” celebrations.  I suspect it is precisely because these things do not already and independently function as sacred within the broader culture (though the broom might for some playful Wiccan communities!) that they are not attractive symbols to creative religious thinkers.  They do not seem like cultural resources that could, or should, be incorporated.

In any case, if my analysis is correct, we should expect to see continued and creative appropriations of sacred cultural resources across a wide range of religious traditions and communities. “Vampires for Christ,” anyone?

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  1. KDB says:

    Fascinating article! I, too, am interested in cross-sections between popular culture and religion. I am especially compelled by your statement: “It may well be that religious institutions need to take new elements from popular culture in order to remain relevant to changing historical conditions.”

    These “new” creative movements may be evidence of the strikingly unorthodox way many Americans are describing themselves as “spiritual” … and not “religious”. For many years, these words were synonyms and now they are somehow being used by some populations in American culture as if there are distinct lines between them. I think religious studies scholars need to spend more energy on the areas you have presented here.

    Americans are very pragmatic… if traditional “religion” doesn’t meet their needs they will find something that will.

  2. Kenny Smith says:

    Thanks for this very kind and thoughtful comment, and for suggesting that my observations here may be linked to the new meanings that “spiritual v. religious” have taken on in recent decades. I found your comment quite helpful. It’s also a pleasure to know that someone else liked the piece!

  3. Hannah Spadafora says:

    It is definitely interesting to see how our culture attempts to keep the notion of there being “sacred” elements, even if their not what we traditionally think of as such/the process of bringing ‘profane’ culture back to the origins art came from-the sacred. Awesome article!

  4. “For observers of contemporary religion and culture, the return of the Jedi (this time in explicitly religious guise) leaves us with an intriguing puzzle.” I am stunned by the truth in those words.

  5. maximo ramos says:

    George Lucas plagiarized Frank Herbert’s “Dune” to create ‘Star Wars.’ And “Dune” is fundamentally based on the philosophy and pan-Abrahamic Gnostic theology of Henry Corbin, a personal student of Martin Heidgegger and one of his early translators. Thus ‘Star Wars’ has its theology directly dumbed down from Herbert’s discussions of Corbin with Alan Watts, conversations often fueled by LSD consumption the “spice.” Lucas’ original script for ‘Star Wars’ was so close to ‘Dune’ he had to alter it to avoid a lawsuit. Princess Leia originally was carrying a cask of ‘aura spice’, not information on the Death Star.

  6. The Dude and Jedi Knights are each drawn from various older traditions. They resonate with people because they are archetypes, as are the other examples in the article. Symbolic figures of this type are constantly recycled down through the ages into forms recognizable to the culture of the times. While the article poses some good questions the author could benefit from acquainting, or reacquainting if that’s the case, himself with Joseph Campbell’s “Power of Myth” and/or “Hero With A Thousand Faces.”