Pop Culture – a New Source of Spirituality?
By Pavol Kosnáč
As Terry Pratchett once said, religion requires believers – if there is no religion, the god is not believed in, and ceases to be ‘god’ to anybody (Pratchett, 1992). If we reverse this idea, if someone believes master Yoda or The Doctor (Who) to be their god, then they become gods and new religions are born. Such is the approach of those who find spiritual and religious inspiration in modern popular culture (i.e. members of pop culture based religions (PBRs). A PBR can be based on a book, movie, TV series, anime or manga, on comics, video-games, or pop culture personalities (real or fictitious) – anything originating in modern pop culture. The most famous example is Jediism, a religion based on the movie hexalogy Star Wars.
This essay introduces the concept of pop culture based religions and tries to answer questions about the legitimacy of these religious groups. How can PBRs be distinguished from mock-religions or fandoms? What motivates their creators to found religions based on man-made stories or characters when there are so many other religions they can choose from that claim to be authentically transcendent, ancient and original? The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, or Dudeism, will be used as a case study to illustrate how a PBR may originate and function. There is some reason to believe that Dudeism may even have a bright future.
Though scholarly investigation of PBRs formally commenced in the early 2000s it remains a small, though rapidly expanding, subfield. Many terms are used to describe and discuss PBRs. Of these, the three most prominent are: (1) invented religions, (2) fiction-based religions and (3) hyper-real religions. These designators are derived from the scholarship of Carole M. Cusack (Cusack 2010), Markus Davidsen (Davidsen 2012, Davidsen 2013), and Adam Possamai (Possamai 2005, Possamai 2012) respectively. There are advantages and disadvantages associated with each description because each exposes specific characteristics of PBRs putting emphasis on different intricacies of this phenomenon. The term “PBRs” is used by Inform, a group based at the London School of Economics which conducts research into new religious movements (NRMs). Although this term is adopted here, because it is self-explanatory and intuitive, it is not necessarily preferable to its alternatives in every respect.
The most typical approach to studying PBRs is functionalist , since it focuses more on lived religious practice than theological and philosophical implications of doctrines, which are often highly abstract and not applied to daily life by most adherents. That is why it is much more useful in study of community than, for example, the phenomenological approach, which is looking more after substances. Simply put, it is easier and safer to look after religious behaviour than trying to identify the “sacrum”. (Swatos, 1998)
PBRs – Future Religious Alternatives?
There is little reason to believe that traditional religious groups will perish; the sharper decline in traditional institutionalized groups is visible mainly in certain parts of Europe. (Norris, Ingelhart 2011) Large institutionalized religious groups will no doubt survive in the near future. These have existed for centuries, even millennia, and they are not unaccustomed to the changes and challenges wrought by the passage of time (e.g. alterations in popular spiritual moods and lifestyle choices and/ or the development of new philosophies and the ethical questions and dilemmas arising from new discoveries). Furthermore, the historical, doctrinal and philosophical roots of the major world religions lie too deep for them to simply disappear. Nonetheless, the institutions governing the world religions always were influenced, to certain extent, by contemporary ways of thinking and new philosophical paradigms, and today it is no different. The Catholic Church is even launching a “new evangelization“ campaign (Porta Fidei 2013) and considers Europe, its traditional stronghold, an area that needs to be re-evangelized. The changes of the last century introduced challenges for large traditional groups and demanded adaptation on an altogether different scale than that previously required. There are many reasons for this, amongst which is the increased speed of communication made possible by globalized information technology systems. However, this chapter is not concerned with the partial loss of ground previously held by large traditional groups, but rather with those who filled large part of the religious/spiritual vacuum, i.e. NRMs.
The term NRM is contested, because of its obvious weaknesses. Indeed, as Gordon Melton says, it effectively encompasses everything other than churches, sects and ethnic religions.(Melton 2004) Determining what counts as “new“ is also problematic. Should we classify as new those religious movements which have emerged recently, or those with a revolutionized structure or ideology, or those gaining footholds in new geographical locations?
The term “NRM” may be problematic, yet there are occasions when it fits perfectly. PBRs are new in the sense of time, content and location. The majority originated towards the end of the 20th century or the start of the 21st century. Arguably, PBRs could be considered the NRMs par excellence.
Scientology or ISKCON appear traditional and conservative when compared with the radically de-institutionalised, eclectic, fun, experimental, parody and sarcasm-loving PBRs. If NRMs are the new deviant fringes of religions, then PBRs are the new of the new, the deviants of the deviants, the fringes of the fringe.
The discussion on NRMs is carried on elsewhere (Introvigne 2001, Barker 1989, Backford 1986, Chryssidides 1999, Kirby 2013, Melton 2007), and shows no signs of eclipse, so we will not elaborate on it here. Let us instead focus on traits which clearly distinguish PBRs from other religious groups. The most significant of these generate questions of legitimacy and authenticity, from which all the other important distinctions derive.
PBRs – Can They Actually Work?
Many PBRs develop from fandoms. Often, defenders of PBRs argue as follows: How is a fandom that different from church? Its members meet, there is some kind of canon, a sum of ideals, and people have their favourite characters (or entities). In this sense Christianity is a fandom of Jesus, Islam a fandom of Muhammad or Buddhism a fandom of Buddha.
To some representatives of traditional religious groups such claims may seem derogatory, irrespective of the intentions of PBR adherents. Belief in the legitimacy of such comparisons, however, reflects a sincerely held perspective. (Gladstone 2011)
For some time PBRs were rarely taken seriously. Most people, including some academics, refused to consider them as “real” religions. Instead they labelled them “parody” or “mock” religions, suggesting that their purpose was to ridicule and mock certain other, mainstream, religious ideas or groups. Whilst there is certainly an element of parody in the PBRs, this does not mean their members take their beliefs, membership or spiritual life any less seriously than members of traditional religious institutions or other NRMs.
It is hard to distinguish between a devout fan and someone who has taken his hobby to a level of spiritual devotion. The behaviour of a hard-core fan may appear “cultic”, but does not necessarily have any spiritual elements. Contrastingly, the PBR believer may, either personally, as a part of a loosely organized “spiritual network”, have begun to adopt a more serious and spiritually oriented attitude towards his object/ idea of devotion. The fan is distinguished from the devotee through analysing the impact that the message of the pop cultural phenomena has on his everyday life and worldview. If, for example, the phenomenon of his choice is a TV show, a devotee takes the message of the show and builds his or her ethical system on it. Devotees may use the show in order to formulate doctrines suitable for approaching real-life issues. Fans may be very excited by the show, purchase many items of paraphernalia connected with the show and may even permit the show to influence their behaviour or fashion preferences. Importantly however, they do not construct their worldviews or ethical systems around the show. It remains a hobby, possibly an expensive one, but never becomes a worldview with a deep significance. Identifying the point at which one crosses the line is difficult, perhaps impossible, but this is typical in the Humanities. It is also subjective, so it may happen, that one fan can be considered by devotee by the other, or may self-identify differently from how others describe him or her. The same approach is used to distinguish a religion and a mock-religion – or the moment when a mock-religion becomes a real one (ironically). In this sense, one person’s mock-religion may be taken seriously by another.
Usually a small number of fans are devotees, but it depends on specific fandoms. For example, Furries (fans of anthropomorphic characters – a very large and creative fandom) (Steager 2001) have a relatively large number of fans who have become devotees, thus in some aspects resembling a modern version of totemism or even urban-shamanism and other similar subcultures. (JM 2012)
In the functionalist sense, PBR believers (with respect to the ethical systems they produce, their spiritual life and mystical experiences they claim to have) are not significantly different from other religious groups, old or new. The only difference is that PBR believers are not concerned that their source of religious inspiration is completely man-made.
Most researchers of PBRs, among whom the most eminent is Adam Possamai (Possamai 2005), trace this phenomenon to the “zeitgeist”, i.e. the spirit of the contemporary times, which shapes our perception of everything. This includes our perception of ourselves, the world around us, our values, normality, what is “acceptable” and, most important for understanding the existence and development of PBRs’ sources of authority. Some dominant philosophies, in theory as in practice, which shape the world of today and our thinking about it, at least in the West, are Capitalism, Individualism and Post-Modernism.
PBRs are, in a certain sense, perfect outcomes of the practical application of these philosophical influences on spirituality and religious belief. They are customized, since the authority to choose the form of the religion is ultimately in the hands of the “consumer” of this spiritual product. Today’s consumers will use their favourite narratives – not the ones that are perceived as the best, most sophisticated, most responsible and most virtuous, either by society or anybody else. Choice is theirs, and it is based on what they “like”. This explains why many choose narratives from popular books or movies. The story speaks to them – they can understand the language, they have an emotional connection to the characters in the story, the story is special to them.
Do you like Star Wars, medieval chivalry codes, Francis of Assisi and the Oxbridge-style tutorial system? Since there is no higher authority than your own preference, you can blend them into your new philosophy of life. That is what J.H.Phelan did, when he created the Temple of the Jedi Order. (Temple of the Jedi Order webpage) The same goes for people who prefer The Lord of the Rings, vampire genre, Diego Maradona or would like to a have a spiritual companion from their favourite anime/manga. You can create your own system based on your preferences. If others like it they will start to join you. Thus the process of explaining what the right thing to do is, according to your system of ideas, begins. Both yourself and your new followers/partners will even try to spread the good news – and, hence, a PBR is born.
Does a PBR care about legitimacy and authenticity, “the mandate from Heaven”, which is the corner-stone of all authority in other religions? Yes and no. The approach is different, and one follower of Jediism has captured the essence of it:
Who are you to tell me what to do, what to believe, how to dress or who to sleep with, in what position and when? How to live my life? Why should I listen to pope, a rabbi, a minister or whoever runs Islam? Yes, Christianity, Jews, Islam, they are all big and old religions with a lot of very wise guys working for them throughout the ages, especially their founders, I admire and respect that, but why should I obey them? They were bunch of guys who wanted the same things we want as well – understand the world and how to live our lives well. So they sat down and wrote a book about it, or went to a road-trip and talked about it with others they met, addressing the issues that were important in their times. Some of those issues are similar today, some are completely different. Well, I can do, today, the same thing they did then. I don’t know why should I mirror them and do what they thought was a good idea to do in middle ages or Bronze Age. I can do it myself.
On this approach the highest authority is the authority of self. And if one is one’s own highest authority, one chooses whatever one likes.
This fits perfectly with what Beth Singler tells us about Jediism: “Emergent spiritual forms are just the repetition of previous ways of making sense of the world.” They are responses to hopes and expectations, social pressures and changes. (Singler 2014)
Candace Chellow-Hodge each year gives her students an interesting exercise – she instructs her students to invent a new religion, right there, in the classroom. They are allocated only one lesson for this task. Students sometimes ask if this is blasphemous. She answers that all religions were invented at some point. An impartial judge, attempting to evaluate her response, might conclude that this is exactly the approach taken by members of PBRs. If all religions were invented at some point, and were often at odds with prevailing philosophies and lifestyles of their own times, why not invent one that fits one’s needs and the philosophical styles of today? This thought resonates with many in the modern West and beyond – we can mention Japan with its Otaku-kin (mostly Japanese fans of anime, some of which agree that an anime character, anime concept or a whole show has a spiritual significance for them). (Ten, no date)
Case Study: Dudeism
As long as you don’t break any laws, you’re free to worship as you choose, and we choose to worship the Dude, and the teachings of The Big Lebowski. I studied yoga in India, I studied Buddhism in Thailand, I studied Javanese mysticism in Java, and they all fascinated me, but none of them really encapsulated a worldview that I thought actually meshed with the modern times. After watching The Big Lebowski for a few times, I suddenly realized – this is it! This is the message for our time and place. The religion is called Dudeism and the Dude represents a character who really knows how to just take it easy in the face of all sorts of struggles and strife and negative things that come his way. I’ve become a sort of evangelist of this film. It’s my job maybe at the moment to introduce people to this film and to make sure they understand really how profound it is. If we all were a little more like the Dude, if we all brought more Dude into our lives, the world would be a better place.
— Oliver Benjamin, the Dudely-lama, founder of Dudeism (CreativeReview TV, 2009)
Dudeism is, at present, possibly the largest PBR in the world. It is one of the most well-organized PBRs, even if it is not widely known. It is inspired and partially based on the movie The Big Lebowski. When the Coen brothers produced this film in 1991 everyone was expecting great things from them, especially since their previous film was the very well acclaimed drama Fargo. Instead they delivered a movie with a very discontinuous plot and no apparent conclusion. Viewers were mostly dissatisfied and critics were unforgiving. It was considered a failure. Oliver Benjamin, later the founder of Dudeism, had a very similar reaction when he first saw the movie. But one day in 2005, at the Pai tourist resort town in the north of, Thailand, he got drunk at a café and watched the film, and it happened that in this changed state of consciousness he saw the movie in a whole new light. According to his own words, that was the moment of his epiphany, when he understood the genius message of the movie. That is how the Church of the Latter-Day Dude originated, and how Oliver Benjamin became its honorary head – the “Dudely Lama.”
When he was asked “Why The Big Lebowski?,” he answered: ‘’It’s a psychedelic encapsulation of everything that humanity has gone through, is going through and maybe will go through in the future.’’ It is supposed to be the perfect answer to all problems experienced by stressed inhabitants of the modern world. It may sound like a joke, but Dudeists emphasise that they take Dudeism very seriously. Dudeism is not a mock religion, even if it has the potential to be quite a parody and contains many parody features.
According to its founder, although Dudeism is a very young organization, its philosophy is ancient: ”The earliest form of Dudeism was the original form of Chinese Taoism, before it went all weird with magic tricks and body fluids.” The founder also claims to be influenced by the original Epicureanism, stating that simple pleasures are the best ones. He describes Dudeism as the modern Taoism, which has been “translated” into a language that modern man can understand and which has been “updated” so it can be related to today. (Dudeism webpage, “What is Dudeism”)
The main idea of Dudeism is that: ”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 (i.e. beer) and whether you roll strikes or gutters, do your best to be true to yourself and others – that is to say, abide.” It is stressed that life should not be spent trying to gain status or material goods, but should be enjoyed. One should avoid suffering by over-thinking, but should think and live intuitively. (Dudeism webpage, “What is Dudeism”)
Dudeists consider it nonsensical to chase “success”, since “success”, as a concept, is subject to change. Many devote their lives to this constantly changing concept: although past generations may condone them and the next generations may laugh at them. Dudeists prefer successfully chasing life than devoting life to chasing success. Man should not ascribe too much importance to things. He should live intuitively and happily – surround himself with friends and find comfort in the simple things. Man does not have power over the dictates of society but has power over his own stance. That is what forms him. One should be like a sack of water. Take it easy and relax in a Zen-like fashion. That is to to say, abide. Dudeism is viewed by its practitioners as spirituality for normal people in a world which has gone crazy.
Benjamin states: “The Dude may seem an unlikely figurehead, but in this day and age where our greatest concerns aren’t Armageddon or the afterlife, but generalized anxiety and existential engagement, the Dude helps us enlighten up to a greater quality of life. We don’t need heroic figures to lead us to a promised land. We need Dudeists to help us abide where we are. The whole point of Dudeism is to be alive while you are alive, here and now, be as alive as possible.”(Falsani 2011) “
This explains why Dudeism has deliberately not developed any eschatological expectancy. This is very much in the spirit of Epicureanism which states that we should not worry about gods, good and evil or death, because gods are unknowable, good and evil disputable and when death comes, we shall not be here anymore.
The ideal is to be like The Dude. Other Dudeist characters set as examples worth following are: Lao Tzu, Heraclitus, Epicurus, Snoopy the Dog, Kurt Vonnegut, even Buddha or pre-ecclesiastic Jesus. (Dudeism webpage, “Great Dudes of History”) The Dude routinely wears his bathrobe, bermudas and flip-flops in public, drinks home-made White Russians, smokes pot and does not have a stable job. Anything else is just too much effort. The Dudeist adopts a relaxed approach to life’s ups and downs. The highlight of his day is bowling with friends.
According to a poll (with almost 1000 answers) at the Dudeist official Facebook group ”The Dude” was mostly described as ”lazy, abiding, chilled, easy-going, relaxed, zen”, and sometimes as ”a normal person in an abnormal environment.” These characteristics can be considered the ”Dudeist virtues.” Oliver Benjamin argues that the Dudeist laziness is not selfish, but is intellectual, determined and disciplined laziness. Nor is it anarchistic. Dudeists simply do not overestimate the need for institutions. They want to fight the dictate of modern society (and stop chasing status and money).(Dudeism FB 2013) Their approach to time resembles more the the cyclical approach of East Asian societies with the Arab or Latin focus on relationship than mono-chronical, linear and profit-oriented American way of understanding time. In American eyes, time is money. In Dudeist eyes, when God made time, he made plenty of it.(Lewis 2006)
Probably the best example of “updating” old wisdom for our times is the holy book of Dudeism, the The Dude De Ching. It is claimed to be Tao De Ching translated into “Dudeish”. It utilizes lines from The Big Lebowski to transform “an ancient and challenging bunch of philosophical poems into the parlance of our times”. Here is a short extract.
The original version:
The Tao that can be known is not Tao.
The substance of the World is only a name for Tao.
Tao is all that exists and may exist;
The World is only a map of what exists and may exist.
The Dudeist translation:
Dudeness that can be known is not Dude.
The substance of the World is only a name for what Abides.
The tumbling of tumbleweeds is all that exists and may exist;
The rug is only a fabrication which ties the room together. (The Dude de Ching; https://dudeism.com/thedudedeching/)
It may not seem a very useful translation or interpretation, but Dudeists claim to understand it because they are familiar with the cryptic references to the original movie and to the Dudeist lingo that has subsequently developed. A second important publication is the Duderonomy, the Dudeist’s law book, which contains passages like:
- Money is the root of all evil. It’s also the root of all good stories, so hooray for money.
- Respect everyone’s point of view. It’s just, like, their opinion, man.
- Make sure to always use the proper form of the pronoun. No one uses the editorial or royal “we” in everyday exchange unless they’re trying to hide something.
- Always protect your sacramental beverage, even in times of severe duress. (Duderonomy: http://dudeism.com/duderonomy/)
It is not only the elaborated belief system supported by canonical books that makes Dudeism a legitimate religion from the functionalist perspective but, also, other typically religious traits. One of the most visible is the formula of ordination, after repetition of which one becomes a Dudeist priest. As can be expected, joining is easy – with a vow being the only requirement:
As an ordained Dudeist priest, I, NAME, vow:
To just take it easy, man, to spread the Dude word when its not too exhausting.
To always make time to have some burgers, some beers, a few laughs,
to always check in to see what condition my condition is in, (reference to health)
to not treat objects like women, man, to, er… lost my train of thought there,
to keep my mind limber,
to enjoy natural zesty enterprises while fixing the cable, (reference to sexual intercourse)
to never repeat things only because a book instructs me to do so,
and always when the world goes crazy to abide, so help me Dude.”(Fazi 2011).
Via a form on the website, one can receive a certificate of ordination as a Dudeist priest. (www.dudeism.com/ordination)
Though Dudeism has no holy days, 6th March is The Day of the Dude, which should be a free day on which all Dudeists should relax even more than usual. Bowling is considered the ideal leisure pursuit, and organizing Dudeist conventions in bowling alleys once or twice a month is encouraged for its therapeutic and community-building benefits. As Oliver Benjamin states, these have similar sociological and psychological benefits as church communities. (ABC 2012) Favorite bowling centers may even become like Dudeist pilgrimage sites. The Annual Lebowski festival, which is located each year in a different major US city, welcomes people from around the world – including Europe, Asia and Australia. It usually lasts for two days. The program consists of screening The Big Lebowski movie, bowling and trivia contests. A ”dude-like” atmosphere is cultivated by people talking, having fun, drinking and smoking pot. (Lebowski Fest 2011) There is also a British version of this annual festival called ”Dudestock”. (Chalupa 2011)
Dudeism endorses meditation and yoga practice with some particular characteristics. Whale songs are considered an ideal musical background for a meditation. Meditation in the bathtub is especially recommended. The aim is to empty one’s mind. As Oliver Benjamin puts it, it is like turning on a radio, but instead of trying to find a channel, one is trying to find the static. Yoga is considered very beneficial for one’s health, but the only position considered strictly Dudeist is the horizontal position (lying down on the ground). It should be as relaxed as possible. Ideally one’s work and one’s hobby is undertaken simultaneously.
Dudeist liturgy often uses songs from Jeff Bridges’ albums. These are sometimes also used during missionary practice which is mostly online, though not exclusively. The circle surrounding the Dudely Lama and “Little Lebowski” shop in New York personally attempt ”Dudely evangelization”. They have promotional materials, visit comic cons (conventions of fans of comic books), wonder around New York in bathrobes with signs stating appropriate Dudeist slogans like “Take it Easy”. (Fazi 2011)
According to Oliver Benjamin, who is responsible for ordaining most Dudeist priests, and is the administrator of the official Dudeist webpage, probably 75% of Dudeists are men. There are, however, no official statistics. There are currently over 450,000 Dudeist Priests world-wide. The rough guess of the Dudely Lama on the distribution of Dudeists around the world is 60% in USA, 30% in UK, Australia and other English speaking countries, and 10% elsewhere. In several US states Dudeism is recognized as a religious organization, which allows for Dudeist wedding and burial ceremonies, which some Dudeist priests perform. For these reasons the Church of the Latter-Day Dude issues letters of good standing that any ordained Dudeist priest can receive, if interested. It is virtually impossible to verify how many Dudeists are actually practicing Dudeists, since practicing Dudeism well means not practicing anything too much. Complications with enumeration arise also because Dudeism is purposefully syncretic. It is supposedly compatible with any other religion.If Dudeism helps others to take a more relaxed approach towards their own religion, then it has served its purpose. Similarly, a devout believer of any other religion can be considered a Dudeist as well.
Dudeists have no communal pool of money. Oliver Benjamin, when asked if he financially benefits from having the church, replied: “I earn a modest income from the sales of some products on the site. We have plans to expand, and when we do, those increased profits will be used primarily to help spread the word of Dudeism via events and advertising, and maybe to provide jobs to Dudes who hate the ones they currently have.” (Ehrlich 2013)
There is no real hierarchy or authority: anyone can be ordained as a Dudeist priest. The Dudely Lama (Oliver Benjamin) and his deputy, His Arch-Dudeship (Dwayne Eutsey) have a “first amongst the equals” status, but otherwise they do not claim any special privileges, powers or status. The only exception is the influence over the ”Abide University Press”. It is not a publishing house, but a stamp of approval for books which Dudely Lama and his collaborators on the official webpage feel will help promote the philosophy of Dudeism (similar to the Catholic ”Imprimatur”). An approval is usually granted by the consensus of larger circles of active Dudeists at the Dudeist webpages.
The Dudely Lama is thinking about “spinning Dudeism off a bit” to appeal to people who do not like all the Lebowski references. He is thinking of starting a “sect” called “Abideism”. But this is only speculative and nothing has been decided yet.
It is always hard to give any prognosis too far into the future. However, it can be stated with fair enough certainty that the face of religion is changing. Provided that capitalist, individualist and post-modern values remain embedded in society, we can expect to experience times in which PBRs will flourish, multiply and fill the Earth. In this sense, PBRs are most well suited for the mental environment alive in the West today. They will continue to influence the religious sphere. It is possible that the traditional approach to legitimacy, authenticity and authority will change even more, if the concept of PBRs will attract people who have been raised on television and pop culture who are looking for meaningful ways to connect with the kinds of messages religions provide. Except they by large reject traditional institutionalized religion. People with these views will find an equivalent in an aspect of pop culture.
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