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American Muslim Comedy  

Samah Selina Choudhury

That Muslims are both consumers and practitioners of comedy may run counter to the otherwise ubiquitous notion that Islam, seemingly above all other religious traditions, is devoid of humor. Yet comedy, especially its staged performance version known as stand-up, is an occupation readily taken up by a number of Muslim comedians during the 21st century in North America. Muslim comedians are also South Asian comedians, Arab comedians, Iranian comedians, or Black comedians, among others, and the naming of their comedy explicitly as “Muslim” can be traced to how openly they speak of their common experiences of being subject to anti-Muslim hostility as a racialized act of violence. This racialization of Islam relies on “looking” Muslim: phenotypic features like dark hair, skin, and beards that simultaneously sweep up others that may share these attributes and make them targets of institutional and interpersonal violences. This common refrain can be seen especially in the material of comedians from the Allah Made Me Funny and Axis of Evil tours during the early 2000s, while later comedians like Hasan Minhaj, Aziz Ansari, and Kumail Nanjiani describe similar experiences in added terms of a racialized solidarity with other minoritized communities of color in the United States. These later comedians of the 2010s and their brand of politically oriented comedy have been upheld by dominant arts industries as examples of American multiculturalism and diversity, coinciding with the large-scale and cross-sectional social justice efforts to support undocumented immigrants, Black Lives Matter, and the #MeToo movement. Far from being a mark of their non-belonging in North American society, this racialized association with Islam is platformed as emblematic of North American societies: their exceptional openness and unparalleled freedoms. At the same time, however, women and Black Muslim comedians are rarely bestowed a similar entrée of visibility as “Muslim” comedians due to the hegemonic racialized image of Muslims as terrifying “terrorists”—a distorted privilege accessible usually only to male comedians of South Asian or Middle Eastern heritage.

Article

Architecture, the Built Environment, and Religion in America  

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.

Article

Culture, Entertainment, and Religion in America  

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.

Article

Film and Religion in America  

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.

Article

Film Regulation and the Church in America  

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.

Article

Museums, Expositions, and Religion in North America since the 19th Century  

Hillary Kaell

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.

Article

Music and Religion in American Public Life  

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.

Article

Popular Culture and Religion in America  

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.

Article

Public Art and Religion in America  

Kymberly Pinder

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.

Article

Race, the Arts, and Religion in America  

Craig R. Prentiss

With the slow realization that race was not a category in nature, but rather the fruit of social imagination emerging from colonialism, scholars in the late 20th century shifted their focus to the cultural elements feeding that imagination, including religion and the arts. Although most studies in the field address fairly conventional constructions of religion and the arts (two categories that, like race, have also been destabilized), some studies reveal the potential for these three categories to be co-constituting. Studies addressing religiously themed music, including spirituals, gospel, hip-hop, and a significant portion of country music, have shed light on the ways in which these genres encode and inform racial paradigms. Portraits in theater, dance, and film of ideas and practices associated with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and other social groupings have proven active sites for the production of influential, and often competing, conceptions of race. Stereotypes linking religious and racial classifications are perpetuated as well as challenged in these artistic media. Given that the racial imagination in the United States is articulated using the language of color, painting and sculpture have been instrumental in conveying vivid connections between race and religion. For instance, many paintings celebrating Christianity’s triumph over America’s indigenous people concurrently depicted white dominance over them as well. A theological system rooting skin color in divine decree, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did in its Book of Mormon, helped assure a fair-skinned and fair-haired Jesus would populate its art. The politics of Jesus’ color continued to be played out in painting and sculpture in the United States to the present day, and exemplifies the interaction of racial, religious, and artistic categories.