Peter W. Williams
The development of religious architecture in what is now the United States is tied closely to continuing immigration and the development both of de facto and de jure religious pluralism. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, seminomadic Native Americans built temporary structures, while those farther south erected more permanent temples, most notably those of the Aztecs in Mexico. Spanish settlers in what is now the U.S. Sunbelt built mission chapels, with those in California incorporating a mixture of styles and building techniques derived from Spanish, Moorish, and indigenous traditions. Puritans in New England and Quakers in Pennsylvania erected meeting houses, architecturally simple structures based on secular models and eschewing the notion of “sacred space.” Anglicans from Boston to Charleston imported English neo-classical models devised by Sir Christopher Wren and Sir James Gibbs in the mother country, devised to accommodate Anglican sacramental worship. Later classical styles, especially the Roman and Greek revivals, reflected the republican ethos of the New Republic and were adopted by a whole range of religious traditions including Catholics and Jews. Urbanization and enhanced immigration following the Civil War saw adaptations by Protestants, including auditoriums, institutional churches, and the Akron Plan; by Jews, who invented a new, eclectic style for synagogues and temples; by Anglicans, who revived English Gothic traditions for churches and cathedrals; and by Roman Catholics, who turned to Continental Gothic for their inspiration. Mormon temples, beginning in Salt Lake City, took on new forms after that faith spread across the nation. During the post-WWII era, the colonial revival style became popular, especially in the South, reflecting patriotic and regional values. Following the immigration reform of 1965, waves of newcomers from Asia and the Middle East brought their traditional mosques and temples, often considerably modified for worship in the diaspora. Religious architecture, like the nation at large, has reflected an ongoing process of change, adapting old forms and inventing new ones to accommodate changing demographics, settlement patterns, and the necessities of living in a pluralistic society where religion is protected but not supported by the government.
Robin Osborne and Caroline Vout
One of the challenges shared across cultures and faiths is the intangible, ineffable nature of the divine. One problematic, yet theologically productive, solution to this problem is to embody the divine in sculpture and painting; another is to seek divine aid and attest to divine presence by making votive offerings. In the absence of a sacred text, it was sculptural and graphic representation of the divine that made sanctuaries and temples in Greece and Rome theologically active places. But the need to experience god was not confined to these centers. Greek and Roman gods were everywhere—on coins, gems, drinking vessels, domestic wall paintings. Even when they were not there, their power could be felt in the representation of those who had felt their power. They were as pervasive as they were all seeing.
This article examines how this material culture worked to bring gods and mortals into contact. It does so by tackling three major issues: first, it discusses how a wide range of artifacts, monumental and modest, shaped sanctuary space and guided and recorded the worshipper’s interaction with the divine; second, it looks at images of gods themselves and how these affected epiphany, while maintaining a critical gap and insisting on their strangeness; and third, it uses art to rethink the relationship of religion and myth. Although there are some continuities between cultures, the rise of Hellenistic and Roman ruler cults created a new subcategory of gods, creating additional representational challenges. Out of this came Christ, who was god incarnate. We briefly explore how early Christian artists used the problems of anthropomorphism to their spiritual advantage.
John D. Barbour
Autobiography and biography (which together will be called “life writing”) raise theological questions in ways different from systematic or constructive theology. These forms of life writing tell a story that may or may not be correlated with traditional doctrines. They integrate the first order discourse of symbol and narrative with secondary hermeneutical reflections that interpret and analyze the meaning and truth of religious language. The probing and disturbing questioning in a profound autobiography such as Augustine’s contrasts with the assurances and settled answers expected of theology by religious institutions and communities. Particular religious questions shape specific genres of life writing such as Puritan discourses, nature writing, or African American autobiographies. The theology in autobiography may be either explicit or implicit and involves both questioning and affirmation, as may be seen in works as different as Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son. Conversion has been a central theme and shaping influence on Christian texts, even when authors challenge this focus and create alternative forms. A central theological question posed by autobiography concerns the authority of individual experience when it contrasts or conflicts with traditional norms asserted by orthodox believers and ecclesiastical hierarchy. In spiritual autobiographies by contemporary writers, we see serious attention given to communal norms for life stories and a search for a distinctive personal apprehension of what is sacred. Autobiographical writing has been stronger in the history of some religious traditions than in others. Yet in the modern world, almost every culture has produced life writing that questions or challenges established patterns of thought and practice. In contrast with autobiography, sacred biography has been an important part of every religious tradition, usually describing an exemplar to be revered and imitated. Its strong didactic interests often curb theological questioning of established norms. While modern scholarly biographies often mute theological questions, some writers raise normative issues and argue for why the subject’s life should be valued. As well as the theology explored within life writing, many works reveal a theology of life writing, that is, beliefs about how this kind of writing may bring the author or readers better understanding of God or deeper faith.
Scott A. Mitchell
Many approaches to the study of Buddhism and media overlap with traditional Buddhist studies methods such as textual analysis, art theory, ethnography, and ritual studies, as well as studies of material culture. Media studies may concern itself with contemporary media messages and forms, but it need not be limited to the realms of mass media and popular culture. In foregrounding media and material cultural, scholars can trace the development and flow of Buddhism as a global religion and cultural phenomenon. Such studies also invariably draw attention to the lived aspects of the religion: How do Buddhists enact or perform Buddhism? How do Buddhists communicate ideas about Buddhism both to other Buddhists as well as to outsiders? And how do these communicative acts change one’s understanding of Buddhism? Such questions go beyond the merely textual, historical, or philosophical and call us to answer deeper questions about the nature of Buddhism in the contemporary, global age.
Sharon A. Suh
Film serves as one of the most recent contributions to the variety of Buddhist visual forms that can offer a perspectival shift in interpretation for its viewers akin to other meditative devices such as mandalas. As a relatively recent subject of study, Buddhist films present innovative opportunities to visualize the Buddha, Buddhism, and the self in nuanced ways. Buddhist film can be understood as a spiritual technology that reshapes vision, and the act of viewing becomes a ritual process and contemplative practice. Ranging from films with an explicitly Buddhist theme and content to more abstract films without obvious Buddhist references, Buddhist films have become the subject of scholarly studies of Buddhism as well as occasions to reimagine Buddhism on and off screen. Buddhist films found in Asia and the West have proliferated globally through the rise of international Buddhist film festivals over the past fifteen years that have increased both the interest in Buddhism and the field of Buddhism and film itself. Most studies of Buddhism in film indicate that what constitutes a Buddhist film continually evolves and, as such, can be seen as a contemporary instantiation of the skillful means of the Buddha.
Erberto Lo Bue
Tibetan Buddhists view images primarily as religious supports and secondarily as works of art. Buddhist images are aimed at improving one’s karma by earning merit in view of future existences, at removing obstacles, and at creating wellbeing. Their commissioning may be occasioned by various circumstances, including illness and death, besides the need for a specific religious practice. Since they are primarily expressions of faith, their age has a limited importance and their originality hardly any: a religious image is valued less for its rarity and aesthetic value than for its apotropaic virtues and for its particular connection with a holy place or master. Hence the application of Western post-Medieval aesthetic criteria to the appreciation of Tibetan art ought to be complemented by an appreciation of the specific religious meaning of an image, the interpretation of its particular symbolism, and the aim of its client within the specific cultural and historical context in which it was produced.
This article is preceded by a historical introduction sketching the development of Buddhist art and architecture in Tibet from the 7th to the present century, mentioning the role played by foreign artists, mostly Newars from the Nepal Valley, and dwelling on particularly significant monuments, such as the monastery of Sàmye (8th century) and the Great Stupa of Gyantsé (15th century), representing the two highest moments in the history of Tibetan religious art and architecture, the Pòtala being basically a fortified palace.
The first section, on Tibetan Buddhist art, deals with iconography and iconometry as well as materials and techniques, contrasting the prevalent approach to the subject by collectors, and even art historians, with that of Buddhist masters and devotees, pointing out the importance of the consecration of images, without which the latter remain worthless from a religious point of view.
The second section, on Tibetan Buddhist architecture, deals with the construction of religious buildings, their materials, their religious functions and their symbolism. Although stupas are referred to throughout the article, they are dealt especially in this section.
Sanskrit terms, whether in phonetic transcription or in transliteration, prevail in the first section because the relevant terminology is largely the Tibetan translation of Indian Buddhist terms, Tibetan terms in phonetic transcription and transliteration prevail in the second section, except in the part dealing with the stupa.
Randall J. Stephens
Throughout American history, religion and entertainment have influenced each other and have intersected in fascinating ways. Native American rituals and games entertained and inspired. Early white settlers like the Puritans, though defining their faith over and against profane pastimes, engaged in sport, play, and elaborate storytelling. Still, stark contrasts appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries when it came to how Catholics and Protestants in the New World thought of the theater, music, and performance. The evangelical surge in the 18th century brought with it a lively and riveting preaching style—represented by celebrity ministers like George Whitfield and Gilbert Tennent—that faced the ire of their more traditional foes for using “vulgar” methods to reach the masses. In the 19th century, African Americans, in slavery and freedom, expressed their faith in ways that combined religious systems, dancing, and music traditions from Africa and the Americas. Evangelical churches and prominent figures used entertainment to proselytize, illustrate the drama of salvation and damnation, and to enliven services. Temperance, anti-slavery, and other reformist groups employed music, novels, and theater to spread their earnest message. Pentecostals and other evangelicals took up new forms in the 20th century. They eagerly made use of radio, film, and later, television. The well-known evangelist Billy Graham was a skillful pioneer of new media. In the 20th century, Hollywood films drew on Jewish and Catholic themes, as Jewish and Catholic writers, directors, and actors put their stamp on the silver screen. Late 20th and early 21st century combinations of religion and entertainment included Muslim rap music, Christian rock, Jewish folk music, and much more. A great deal of this innovation coincided with the rise of the performance-driven megachurch and the proliferation of religious organizations that catered to athletes and drew on sports imagery and symbols for the cause. In the long sweep of American history, the devout have found new, elaborate ways to draw on popular culture and to entertain as well as enlighten the faithful.
Michelle C. Wang
The oasis city of Dunhuang lies at the eastern end of the southern Silk Routes, in Gansu Province in northwestern China. In the 2nd century BCE, Dunhuang was established by the Chinese Han dynasty as a center for military operations and trade. Over time, Dunhuang became an important hub for multicultural trade as well as for the transmission of commodities, ideas, and religions. The status of Dunhuang as an important regional center for Buddhism is demonstrated by a wealth of paintings and manuscripts that provide crucial insights into the unfolding of religious praxis and developments in visual culture over many centuries.
A few centuries after the establishment of Dunhuang as a military garrison, the construction of cave shrines in the area began. Four major groups of cave shrines were constructed in the Dunhuang region: the Mogao, Yulin, and Western Thousand Buddhas caves, and the Five Temples site. The most well-studied of these are the Mogao 莫高, or “peerless,” cave shrines, which are located 25 kilometers southeast of Dunhuang at the eastern edge of Mount Mingsha 鳴沙山 (Mountain of the Singing Sands). From the 4th to the 14th centuries, 492 man-made caves were carved from the sandstone cliffs, stretching 1,680 meters from south to north. They were painted with over 45,000 square meters of mural paintings and installed with more than 2,000 painted clay sculptures. To the north, 248 additional caves were carved. Mostly unadorned, the northern caves served as habitation chambers for monks.
In addition to the mural paintings and inscriptions in the Mogao caves, more than 50,000 manuscripts and portable paintings were discovered in 1900 by the caretaker and Daoist priest Wang Yuanlu 王圓籙 from one cave, numbered Mogao cave 17, popularly though perhaps problematically known as the “library cave.” These objects were dispersed in the early 20th century to library and museum collections, the most prominent of which are the Stein collection in the British Museum, British Library, the National Museum of India, and the Pelliot collection in the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet and Bibliothèque Nationale de France. For this reason, the study of Dunhuang art and material culture encompasses both objects held in museum and library collections worldwide as well as mural paintings and sculptures located in situ in the cave shrines. Bringing these two bodies of material into conversation with one another enables a nuanced understanding of Dunhuang as a religious and artistic center, focusing in particular on the Mogao caves.
Eric Michael Mazur
Religion intersects with film not only in film content, but also in the production and experience of film. From the earliest period, religious attitudes have shaped how religious individuals and communities have approached filmmaking as way to present temptation or salvation to the masses. Individual religious communities have produced their own films or have sought to monitor those that have been mass produced. To avoid conflict, filmmakers voluntarily agreed to self-monitoring, which had the effect of strongly shaping how religious figures and issues were presented. The demise of this system of self-regulation reintroduced conflict over film content as it expanded the ways in which religious figures and issues were presented, but it also shifted attention away from the religious identity of the filmmakers. Built on a foundation of “reading” symbolism in “art” films, and drawing from various forms of myth—the savior, the end of the world, and others—audiences became more comfortable finding in films religious symbolism that was not specifically associated with a specific religious community. Shifts in American religious demographics due to immigration, combined with the advent of the videocassette and the expansion of global capitalism, broadened (and improved) the representation of non-Christian religious themes and issues, and has resulted in the narrative use of non-Christian myths. Experimentation with sound and image has broadened the religious aspect of the film experience and made it possible for the viewing of film to replicate for some a religious experience. Others have broadened the film-viewing experience into a religious system. While traditional film continues to present traditional religions in traditional ways, technology has radically individualized audio-visual production, delivery, and experience, making film, like religion, and increasingly individualized phenomenon.
William D. Romanowski
Since the dawn of the cinema at the turn of the 20th century, the church and its vicissitudes have been an essential part of the Hollywood story. There is a basic affinity between film and religion; both propagate values and offer visions of life that can—and often do—rival one another. For that reason, religious leaders have always been wary of Hollywood’s effect on the moral and religious character of the nation and its influence around the world. The film industry evolved in tandem with the church and other social institutions as it became integrated into society as a legitimate art. Negotiations with Hollywood were complex as church leaders sought to resolve enduring tensions between profits and the public welfare, freedom and control, art and entertainment, morality and marketing.
Approaches to the cinema embody deeply held religious principles held in some tension. The one stresses freedom of expression and individual conscience; the other a concern with protecting the church and the moral and religious character of American society. Various perspectives that are rooted in different theological-cultural traditions exist along a spectrum. At one end is an emphasis on the individual as the genesis of social change; at the other is a concern with transforming institutions that influence and govern people’s lives. These two tendencies, which are not mutually exclusive, find expression both within religious groups and between them.
In the history of Hollywood-church relations, Protestants favored industry reforms to protect individual liberty and the common good based on a shared recognition of the need for self-restraint and public responsibility. While Protestants stressed the individual conscience in movie matters, Catholics emphasized ecclesiastical authority. Proscribed film viewing and production oversight were deemed necessary to develop the individual conscience and protect parishioners from false ideas and immorality. Evangelicals, in turn, utilized film to evangelize and expected to restrain film production with highly publicized protests and a demonstrable consumer demand for family-friendly movies. Though motivated by different goals and perspectives, these strategies are all in some measure attempts to fuse moral and religious principles with democratic values and market realities: persistent dynamics traceable from the origins of the cinema to contemporary debates.
The history of figurative painting in Islamic lands, although limited to certain regions and periods, includes a meaningful variety of saintly iconographies, mostly as book illustrations. Produced from the turn of the 14th to the early 17th century in Iranian capital cities or in the Ottoman Empire, paintings of prophets illuminate manuscripts of universal histories, encyclopedias, didactic poetry, and anthologies of prophetic biographies (Stories of the Prophets). They depict personages, not necessarily prophets, from the Old and the New Testaments, two Arab prophets mentioned in the Qurʼan, and finally Muhammad (and ʿAli, although he was not a prophet). The acts of these figures served as moral and spiritual models for the individual believers and, no less so, for the desired behavior of Muslim rulers. In Iran, the message of the illustrated texts and their paintings shifts from historical to moral, and often to mystical. In the Ottoman Empire, in addition, the prophets were conceived as forefathers of the Ottoman dynasty. In Moghul India, only Solomon and Jesus were depicted, not very often, while Joseph’s story was quite popular in late Kashmir. The impact of Western iconography and style, which characterize the recurrence of Jesus’ image, is seen also in later Iran, where portrayals of Solomon, Joseph, and Jesus were painted mainly on decorative objects, such as pen boxes and book bindings.
Until the late 20th century, it was widely assumed that visual art could be of only negligible significance to a Jewish tradition that had been principally mediated through written texts. However, by the closing decades of the 20th century, Jewish cultural historians had demonstrated that, while Jewish worship and study is indubitably logocentric, the Second Commandment’s prohibition of the making and worshipping of graven images has not entailed a blanket ban on visual art. Jews have not been uniformly indifferent or hostile to visual art, a category that includes the architectural design and decoration of synagogues; funerary monuments; illuminated manuscripts; embroidery; liturgical seats, pulpits, and the other fittings and ornaments of religious Jewish life at home and at worship; as well as, since the 19th century, drawing, painting and sculpture. Most interpreters now read the biblical texts as prohibiting only the making and worshipping of images of the divine. The Bible forbids idolatry, but is aware that not all images are idolatrous. By around the 3rd century of the Common Era, rabbinical rulings recognized that the danger of Jews becoming idolaters, as they might have done under formerly pagan dispensations, had passed. In short, although in a number of Jewish historical periods and geographical regions there have been good reasons to be reluctant to accommodate visual art within the tradition, there is also ample evidence of visual art in settings that span the entire geography and history of Judaism. Jewish avoidance or neglect of visual art has usually been more historically contingent than theologically necessary. The religious culture of Jews resident in Islamic lands, for example, tended to conform to their hosts’ prevailing, though not historically or geographically comprehensive, tendency to aniconism.
On grounds such as these, it has been argued that the notion of Judaism as an aniconic tradition is a modern one. Kant’s appreciation of the Second Commandment as one of Judaism’s few redeeming features, proscribing any crude urge to see that which exceeds the bounds of sensibility, encouraged western European Jews to advert to Judaism’s lack of art a sign of its pre-eminence as the first enlightened religion. The 19th and early 20th-century claim that Jewish tradition is aural and literary, but not visual, seems to have owed more to the modern German scientific study of Judaism’s use of the Second Commandment to highlight affinities between Jewish and Christian monotheism and to Jews’ desire to integrate into Protestant culture, than to restrictions within their own legal and cultural inheritance.
Perceived violations of the Second Commandment no longer provoke much of a reaction in any but the most conservative Jewish communities. And even among the Haredim, artists have begun to paint semi-abstract pictures that are not considered a deviation from halakhic norms. Yet, while many Jews still regard abstraction as a more permissible form of Jewish visual art than others, it is evident that the art tradition that developed after Jewish civil emancipation in Western Europe has actually been predominantly figurative. A number of scholars have therefore proposed that the Second Commandment has not so much prevented figurative visual art as promoted a distinctive set of styles and techniques, especially those that allow Jewish artists to make images that fulfill their quintessentially Jewish obligation to criticize idolatrous images. Jewish art, it has been argued, exists because of the Second Commandment, not in spite of it.
This essay does not cover Jewish approaches and contributions to film and architecture. It examines both the history and theorization of Jewish visual art and Jewish religious approaches to visual art. The essay uses the findings of this two-pronged enquiry to suggest that Jewish visual art, which is more than art by artists who happen to be Jews, is properly counter-idolatrous art, art that is far from hindered by the Second Commandment but is actively produced by it. Jewish art does more than build cultural, political, and national Jewish identities; it does more than the commemorative work of visually constructing Jewish memory. Visual art made by Jews becomes Jewish when it serves a constructive theological, prophetic purpose and when it uses idoloclastic techniques to produce images that both cancel and restore the glory of the human. This claim counters the prevailing view that there can be no unified or normative theory of Jewish art.
Bissera V. Pentcheva
Hagia Sophia, the former Orthodox Christian cathedral of Constantinople, is the single most important monument that survives from Byzantium. Its daring architecture of cascading dome and semi-domes reflects a unique vision of beauty and power introduced by the emperor Justinian (527–565). Equally impressive is the interior decoration of gold mosaics and marble. Yet, it is the liturgy with its large congregation, officiating clergy, and numerous choirs that brought about the effect of being transported to a place in between heaven and earth. Within its walls, a rich multisensory experience was created through the integration of architecture, music, acoustics, and liturgy. The material fabric of the building and its acoustics together with the liturgy performed by Hagia Sophia’s officiating clergy and the chants sung by the choirs formed the character of the cathedral rite. The architectural form and ritual performed in this space harmonized with the Byzantine philosophical and mystagogical explanations and enabled the religious experience of nearness to the divine.
Elke Anna Werner
In the mind of Martin Luther, images were first and foremost adiaphora and, as such, neither good nor bad. However, Luther spoke out firmly against the worship of images, as did other reformers. Based on his own anthropology, he countered the misuse of images by suggesting correct ways of using them, on the basis that man could only discover true faith through the mediation of images. For many years, researchers emphasized Luther’s negative attitude to images as a medium and highlighted the shift from a pre-Reformation culture of piety to the reformatory emphasis on the Scriptures. However, more recent examinations of liturgical practices and the link between art and politics, involving innovative methods, as well as some degree of imagination, have not only traced the development of a specific visual culture in Lutheranism but also highlighted their identity-creating function in denominational conflicts.
What follows is an overview of the major image and media categories as portraits, allegories, altarpieces and epitaphs which influenced the visual culture of the Reformation. Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1472–1553) and his youngest son Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–1586) were at the very center of this activity, together with their productive Wittenberg workshop. From the very beginning of the Reformation right through to the 1580s, both liaised with Luther, Melanchthon, and other Wittenberg reformers, respectively accompanying and decisively shaping the development of Protestantism with their pictures. What is more and of equal importance, the influence of their work is reflected in the popularity of their style in Protestant territories throughout the Empire during the 16th century.
From the beginning of the Reformation, Martin Luther had a significant impact on church and society through his contributions to sacred music. His intention to spread the gospel among the people through song achieved its manifold purpose. This remains true not only for his own time but for the following centuries up to the present day, all over the world. Other poets, contemporaries and descendants alike, were inspired by Luther’s songs and composed their own hymns. Among these the most significant ones in German literature, poetically and theologically, are Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676) and Jochen Klepper (1903–1942).
Luther’s lifelong love of music was accompanied by an in-depth musical education. He knew secular and sacred songs from an early age, played the lute well, and sang in the convent when he was a monk, as a husband and father with his family, and as a professor with his students. Music was an indispensable part of his life. He first began writing sacred songs in 1523, sometimes composing the melody as well. He also crafted a four-part motet.
Luther was able to assess the composers of his time well. He considered Josquin des Prez (d. 1521) the greatest master, and among his living contemporaries he appreciated in particular Ludwig Senfl (c. 1490–1543). He was also acquainted with other composers and their works.
The incorporation and promotion of music in the schoolroom resulted in a close relationship between church and school, as well as between classrooms and religious services. Pupils took part through chanting at services, and the evangelical hymns in the chantry were spread through the choir’s chanting books. Numerous musical prints originated in Georg Rhau’s printing shop in Wittenberg that carried the Protestant repertoire into the world.
From central Germany, starting in Saxony and Thuringia, the Protestant musical culture covered all of evangelical Germany and later shaped Protestant musical culture. In addition to choir-related music, it cultivated the musical rendering of biblical texts.
Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach are the finest representatives of this specific Protestant musical culture. In addition, the culture of the organ, first cultivated in northern Germany, became widespread. One of several masters of the organ was Dieterich Buxtehude (c. 1637–1707), who established evening concerts in Lübeck, which in turn served as precursors to the bourgeois musical culture.
Luther’s approach to music is formed through the conviction that music is a particularly beautiful and unique offering of the divine creation. Music moves human hearts and allows them to anticipate the heavens. To bring people joy and to praise the Lord is music’s true task and, indeed, its service.
Since the mid-19th century increasing numbers of North Americans have had access to new technologies of display that feature religious artifacts. Missionaries and museum curators played an especially important role as cultural brokers in this regard. They often worked together to set up ethnographic collections, although their respective goals differed in terms of spiritual uplift and public education. In the same period, the mediation of religious objects took place in other arenas too, such as recreations of sacred sites and spirit photography. In the 20th century, religious objects were mediated through cinema and television. In each case, the materialization and mediation of religion raises a number of significant questions, including those related to the aestheticization of sacred objects in public museums and the display of things and rituals associated with religious “others.” Since the 1980s, North Americans have engaged in debates about whether to repatriate indigenous objects and human bones to their communities of origin. There have also been significant protests related to the provocative use of Christian imagery in contemporary art. Increasingly, scholars have also begun to recognize and study how museum spaces are more malleable than previously assumed, especially as new publics access them and may even (re)use the sacred objects they house.
Jason C. Bivins
Music in American public life is best understood not simply as the formal arrangement of religious texts in sound but as a fluid arena of exchange between performers, participants, and audiences. In these exchanges we note the transformation of religious traditions themselves, as they navigate contact with their others and the challenges of public life or secularism; we also see the emergence of American religious musics as alternate publics themselves, in which new understandings of authority, tradition, and identity are negotiated. What is more, in recent decades American genre music—from jazz to hip-hop—has become a steady arena in which new forms of religiosity are proposed and debated.
In the history and prehistory of human societies, poets, prophets, and seers (the word vates can cover all three) have often been virtually indistinguishable from one another. From time immemorial, their respective activities overlap and interpenetrate to such an extent that prophets (or mantics or seers) and poets have been closely associated and tend to completely coalesce in many of their functions and modalities. The Sanskrit word kavi (like its Latin cognate vates) embraces both. A certain strand of ideology running through the Bible (at least as interpreted by classical rabbinic texts) aims to drive a wedge between God-inspired prophecy and humanly created poems. Nevertheless, the Hebrew word nabi for “prophet” means “bubbling forth, as from a fountain,” so the vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible, too, is naturally apt to suggest the creative fecundity of verbal imagination. In fact, Amos, Isaiah, Elisha, and Ezekiel frequently produce parables, proverbs, and even love songs.
In primordial cultures, with only minimal social stratification and differentiation of roles, long before any specific mantles as either prophet or poet can be identified and donned, a figure like that of the shaman or even the wizard (Merlin, for example) is often emblematic of a certain undecidability between religious revelation or spiritual experience and creative imagination and invention. Of course, in modern cultures, with their highly differentiated social roles, theological revelation and poetry are typically seen as distinct and often even as opposed to each other in crucial respects. Yet the two still need to be understood together as reciprocal and symbiotic in their origins, aims, and purposes. Throughout subsequent history, the deepest intents of literary and religious practices remain inseparable from each other in their myriad manifestations within our cultural traditions and institutions; they thus stand to be illuminated by such a juxtaposition. Poetry and prophecy together comprise the common matrix of some of the oldest and most fundamental modes of expression of humanity across cultures.
Lynn Schofield Clark and Seth M. Walker
“Popular culture” is a term that usually refers to those commercially produced items specifically associated with leisure, media, and lifestyle choices. To study religion in popular culture, then, is to explore religion’s appearance in the commercially produced artifacts and texts of a culture.
The study of popular culture has been a catalyst of sorts in the context of studying religion. Some have speculated that with the increasing presence of religion in commercially produced products and specifically in the entertainment media, religion may be reduced to entertainment. Others, however, have argued that religion has always been expressed and experienced through contemporary forms of culture, and thus its manifestation in popular culture can be interpreted as a sign of the vitality rather than the demise or superficiality of contemporary religions.
Popular culture is worthy of study given its role in cultural reproduction. The study of popular culture and religion encourages scholars to consider the extent to which popular cultural representations limit broader critical considerations of religion by depicting and reinforcing taken-for-granted assumptions of what religion is, who practices it and where, and how it endures as a powerful societal institution. Alternately, popular culture has been explored as a site for public imaginings of how religious practices and identities might be different and more inclusive than they have been in the past, pointing toward the artistic and playful ways in which popular religious expression can comment upon dominant religion, dominant culture, and the power relations between them.
With the rise of an ubiquitous media culture in which people are increasingly creators and distributors as well as consumers and modifiers of popular culture, the term has come to encompass a wide variety of products and artifacts, including those both commercially produced and generated outside of traditional commercial and religious contexts. Studies might include explorations of religion in such popular television programs as Orange Is the New Black or in novels such as The Secret Life of Bees, but might also include considerations of how religion and popular culture intersect in practices of Buddhism in the virtual gaming site Second Life, in the critical expressions of Chicana art, in the commercial experiments of Islamic punk rock groups, and in hashtag justice movements.
The study of religion and popular culture can be divided into two major strands, both of which are rooted in what is known as the “culture and civilization tradition.” The first strand focuses on popular culture, myth, and cultural cohesion or continuity, while the second explores popular culture in relation to religion, power, and cultural tensions.
Public art in the United States has a long and complicated history through which nationalism and public monuments have often been intertwined. The most prominent public art forms have been statues and murals. Murals, as the more accessible medium, have served both hegemonic and subversive goals. Religious symbols and figures appear alongside fallen war heroes and slain street gang members alike. In considering public, artistic manifestations of religion in America, the terms, “public” and “art” must be carefully defined. As Sally M. Promey has noted, “To discuss publics is thus to deal with entities both kinetic and partial . . . The public display of religion is thus fundamentally interactive, the full range of interpretive responses inherently unpredictable” (David Morgan and Sally M. Promey, eds. The Visual Culture of American Religions [Berkeley: University of California, 2001], p. 32). For the sake of establishing some parameters, this examination considers public to be grounded in issues of accessibility. Public art is that which multiple audiences can see and experience in a public space; it also implies a very specific notion of community or belonging. This definition of public through accessibility implies democratization. “Public art” has shifting meanings and associations that contrast with those for “private art.”
Who engages with the artwork trumps why they engage it. The art is public because these terms can mean many different things to different people. Even the concepts of public versus publics and private versus public engage debates regarding the artist’s intentionality and the audiences’ agency to interpret what they will. In his introduction to Dialogues in Public Art (1992), Tom Finklepearl writes, the word “public” is associated with the lower classes (public school, public transportation, public housing, public park, public assistance, public defender) as opposed to the word “private.” Which is associated with privilege (private school, private car, private home, private country club, private fortune, private attorney). (Tom Finkelpearl, Dialogues in Public Art [Cambridge: MIT, 2000], x).
Adding religion to these equations complicates these dynamics based on the religious, cultural, personal, or political needs of the audience, and the secularization of public space, among other things, has transformed religion’s role in modern society. Religion’s presence in the public sphere may serve different purposes and may be more or less effective, but it still exists, albeit in less traditional forms. Public theology activates these images by giving traditional and historical religious symbols meaning relevant to their specific contemporary viewers. Public religious art, like public theology, engages broader social, political, and cultural concerns that are not always connected to one particular religion. Often these concerns are specific to the location of the public art object and its audience.