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Lecture 7

RE220 Lecture 7: RE220 LESSONS 7-12

99 Pages
37 Views
Spring 2017

Department
Religion & Culture
Course Code
RE220
Professor
Chris Klassen
Lecture
7

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Popular Culture as both Mirror of and Influence on Society
Why study religion and popular culture? I mean, if we were really serious about the study of
religion, why not study religious texts, sacred hymns or images of saints? Can anything be
gleaned from considering the religious import of popular culture? The authors of our main text
think so. Take a moment to look through the introduction and see how Forbes answers these
questions.
What does the text mean when it says that popular culture both reflects us and shapes us?
Doesn’t all culture do this because it is a product of ourselves? What makes pop culture
different? Perhaps it has to do with mass appeal. While all cultural products are manifestations
of their creators, the ones that become popular tell us something about the audience.
“The popularity of a given cultural element (object, person or event) is directly proportional to
the degree to which that element is reflective of audience beliefs and values” (Jack Nachbar
and Kevin Lause, Popular Culture: An Introductory Text). The proceeding quote helps unpack the
questions posed above but it also provides a clue to the reason why studying popular culture
can be valuable for telling us about religion. The key words here are “beliefs” and
“values.” Religious people, systems and institutions hold or espouse specific beliefs and values.
When religious beliefs and values are made manifest in culture and become popular, it must
mean that the audience to some degree holds them to be either true or acceptable. Popularity
is an indication of what the public values. Popular culture, then, “reflects values we already
hold” (Forbes and Mahan, 5). But more than this, it also reinforces those values because they
become normative, meaning that we begin to see them as the normal value system of our
society.
Our text gives us the example of how television programs and commercials in the 1950s
reinforced a “whitewashed” image of America by seldom showing African Americans. This
effectively encouraged the dominant white society to ignore the plight of African Americans at
a time when they were fighting for equal and civil rights, made them forget that America was
racially diverse and sent a message to African American viewers that they were marginal
members of society.
Questions to think about:
What beliefs and values are taken for granted today on television or in the wider
popular culture?
Has the above situation changed significantly?
We’ll be looking closer in future lessons at how mainstream values determine much of the
value systems of popular culture that we consume and how our ideas of race, gender, sexuality
and even spirituality are directly shaped by what we see, read and listen to in pop culture.
Chickens and Eggs
The claim that popular culture both reflects and shapes us becomes more nuanced once we
factor in common arguments such as violence in society. Some argue that the proliferation of
violence in video games and television leads to more violence in society whereas others suggest
that it is a reflection of the violence already inherent in society. This is a chicken and egg
quandary that will likely have no solid answer but serves to illustrate how popular culture is
both a mirror of society and creator of society’s values.
A similar example can be drawn from Jamaican dancehall where violent homophobic lyrics are
wildly popular among dancehall fans and therefore propagated by artists like Elephant Man,
Capleton, Beenie Man, Sizzla, Mavado and Vybz Kartel. Critics argue that the performances and
lyrics of these artists have led to violent altercations and even the murders of Jamaican gay
activists while supporters suggest that dancehall merely reflects Jamaica’s engrained and very
real homophobia. (If you are interested in learning more about this see www.jflag.org/). We will
revisit this issue in Lesson 6.
The Role of the Audience
When we consider the meaning of pop culture phenomena, there is more than one angle to
view it from. Is it better to know the motivations behind the creation of a popular culture text
or to study why it became popular? Our text this lesson emphasizes studying the audience
reception to understand what it is about an artefact that caused it to resonate with people and
become popular. It encourages you to ask questions such as:
What attracted the audience?
What does its popularity say about the audience?
How does it influence the audience?
As we work through the Forbes and Mahan text, this will be the dominant focus. However, at
times in this course we will consider the views and motivations of the people who created a
pop culture text—such as George Lucas’s Star Wars, Deepa Mehta’s Water, or Steven
Pressfield’s The Legend of Bagger Vance. In order to do this we will ask questions such as:
What motivated the author?
What statement were they trying to make?
Why and how did they incorporate religion into the “text”?
What does this tell us about their own beliefs and values?
Of course, we will also put these two research agendas together so that we can come up with a
more complete picture of the role of religion and popular culture in society.
Ancients and Moderns
Let’s forget about the modern world for a moment and turn back to look at how religion and
popular culture have related throughout history. Today popular culture is ubiquitous thanks to
the advent of the printing press, broadcast technology and the digital era in general. We
interact with popular culture daily through radio, WiFi, television and personal digital media
devices like MP3 players, iPads, Blackberries and cellular phones. Images and art are
everywhere we look from billboards to clothes to computer screens to the products on our
cupboard shelves.
It wasn’t always this way; for most of human existence, popular culture was not a part of
everyday life. For instance, Europeans, until the renaissance, had none of this. The spaces they
lived and worked in were virtually image-free. That is, unless they were part of the aristocracy
who, in their palaces and assembly halls, hung tapestries, paintings and sculptures. This was the
era before public art, museums and galleries. Even public murals were not common.
It was not until the 15th century, with the invention of woodblock prints and the ability to
reproduce images that art became “portable” and this led to its proliferation in public spaces.
But the propagation of public images did not fully occur until the eighteenth century thanks in
part to the revolutions across Europe which resulted in the public ownership of royal art
collections and the introduction of offset lithography printing which increased the precision of
printing at the same time as lowering the cost.
Previous to these technological advancements and social shifts the only place the public came
into contact with visual art was in places of worship:
The church or temple was not only the most notable piece of architecture around; it also
concentrated in a single place all the sculpture, painting, mosaic work, tapestry and metallurgy
available to the public eye. Churches and temples were in effect the first museums. Consider,
for example, the Gothic cathedral, with its array of side chapels, each containing some
combination of statues, paintings, carvings, reredoses, tombs, baptismal fonts and sacristies.
(From Luc Sante, “Triumph of Images,” New York Times Magazine (September 19, 1999), 66)
Similarly, before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 the only “recorded” music
available was in the form of mechanical musical instruments such as the player piano, music
box, barrel organ or musical clock.
To hear music in a public space was to hear it performed live and in Europe and North America
most Christian church services would have served as one of the dominant locations of musical
contact for the masses.
While the European case was pretty much the norm around the world concerning popular
culture, there were notable differences. For instance, enslaved Africans who were brought to
the Americas during the colonial period carried musical traditions with them that began in
Africa; for West Africans music was ever-present and accompanied daily life. While enslaved
Africans in the New World were initially denied entry into Euro-American houses of worship,
their songs hinted at the deep connection between expressive culture and spirituality that is
found in African diasporic music such as spirituals, gospel, reggae, and R & B.

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Popular Culture as both Mirror of and Influence onSociety Why study religion and popular culture? I mean, if we were really serious about the study of religion, why not study religious texts, sacred hymns or images of saints? Can anything be gleaned from considering the religious import of popular culture? The authors of our main text think so. Take a moment to look through the introduction and see how Forbes answers these questions. What does the text mean when it says that popular culture both reflects us and shapes us? Doesnt all culture do this because it is a product of ourselves? What makes pop culture different? Perhaps it has to do with mass appeal. While all cultural products are manifestations of their creators, the ones that become popular tell us something about the audience. The popularity of a given cultural element (object, person or event) is directly proportional to the degree to which that element is reflective of audience beliefs and values (Jack Nachbar and Kevin Lause, Popular Culture: An Introductory Text). The proceeding quote helps unpack the questions posed above but it also provides a clue to the reason why studying popular culture can be valuable for telling us about religion. The key words here are beliefs and values. Religious people, systems and institutions hold or espouse specific beliefs and values. When religious beliefs and values are made manifest in culture and become popular, it must mean that the audience to some degree holds them to be either true or acceptable. Popularity is an indication of what the public values. Popular culture, then, reflects values we already hold (Forbes and Mahan, 5). But more than this, it also reinforces those values because they become normative, meaning that we begin to see them as the normal value system of our society. Our text gives us the example of how television programs and commercials in the 1950s reinforced a whitewashed image of America by seldom showing African Americans. This effectively encouraged the dominant white society to ignore the plight of African Americans at a time when they were fighting for equal and civil rights, made them forget that America was racially diverse and sent a message to African American viewers that they were marginal members of society. Questions to think about: What beliefs and values are taken for granted today on television or in the wider popular culture? Has the above situation changed significantly? Well be looking closer in future lessons at how mainstream values determine much of the value systems of popular culture that we consume and how our ideas of race, gender, sexuality and even spirituality are directly shaped by what we see, read and listen to in pop culture. Chickens and Eggs
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