If academic conferences and scholarly panels give a glimpse of books to come, then the program for the 2013 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion signals the continuing rise of popular culture as a topic in religious studies. The AAR conference, in conjunction with the Society of Biblical Literature’s (SBL) own yearly event, will take over the Baltimore Convention Center just before Thanksgiving, November 23-26. Many of the religion scholars and practitioners of nearly every religion in attendance this year will be speaking the same language--the vernacular of popular culture.
The AAR won’t ever be confused with the Popular Culture Association—the next conference of that nationwide, scholarly association focused on American culture is not until April 2014—but television, film, music, and comic books are not far from the minds of AAR members these days. The Theopoetics group, devoted to the critical study of faith intertwining with people’s experience of art, aims to examine Scandal, ABC’s popular political thriller; the Contemporary Pagan Studies group, known for its focus on the natural world, enters dark movie theaters to look at the film version of the YA novel Beautiful Creatures (Little, Brown, 2009). Perusing the AAR program book, attendees will note a number of “pop”-centered panels and discussions dotting the long weekend, some in overlapping time slots. See “Critical Approaches to Hip-Hop and Religion” or go to “Religion and Science Fiction”? If conference-goers choose “Hip-Hop,” they can catch discussions of Battlestar Galactica or Lost on the SBL roster too.
Publishers who will be promoting and selling their books in the AAR/SBL Exhibit Hall have taken note. The staid and formal Bible commentaries and other scholarly books are still there, but now they’re just one shelf away from Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs (Baylor, Aug.) by Brett Robinson or Popcultured: Thinking Christianly about Style, Media and Entertainment by Steve Turner (InterVarsity Press, June). Presses like Bloomsbury look at religious themes graphic novels--Graven Images (2010); Do the Gods Wear Capes? (2011)—alongside titles like Pop Cult: Religion and Popular Music (2010) and The Sacred and Cinema (2012). In just the past twelve months, Routledge has been stocking its list with works such as Understanding Religion and Popular Culture (2012), Digital Religion (2012), and Bible and Cinema (Oct.).
The AAR’s attention to popular culture crosses all sorts of borders, from the international to the cyber-spatial. The Religion in South Asia section and the Religion, Film, and Visual Culture group are combining forces for a four-part panel on Bollywood and religion. Religion, Film, and Visual Culture is also teaming with the AAR’s “official” Religion and Popular Culture group for an analysis of the Coen Brothers’ works “as moral critiques of American spiritual and ethical values,” according to the panel description. The Religion, Media, and Culture group will dedicate a full session to “Reflections on Playing with Religion in Digital Gaming,” a flexible, fertile sub-field that has already spawned books such as eGods: Faith versus Fantasy in Computer Gaming by Williams Sims Bainbridge (Oxford University Press, Mar.), Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games by Kevin Schut (Brazos Press, Jan.), and the upcoming Playing with Religion in Digital Games from Heidi A. Campbell and Gregory P. Grieve (Indiana University Press, 2014).
Few say it better, or have watched the rise of the popular in scholarly religion more closely than Megan Goodwin, Elon University visiting assistant professor of religious studies. “Popular culture plays a significant role in shaping public awareness of and opinions about minority religions,” she says. Goodwin will moderate for the first time a combined Mormon Studies Group and Religion and Popular Culture Group panel. “Scholarly consideration of popular culture is a crucial component of contemporary religious studies,” she says. “I'm gratified to see popular culture and religion evolving as an interdisciplinary conversation.”