It is no surprise to readers of this blog that I have a great personal interest in the enjoyment and exploration of the fantastic in literature, film, and television, and that I believe these forms of contemporary mythos also provide us with important tools and forms for spiritual expression and exploration as well. In my continuing research in this area one of the resources I have found helpful is the research of Dr. Adam Passamai. Adam is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Western Sydney. Among his other activities he is also one of the editors of the Australian Religion Studies Review, and he has researched and writen extensively on new religions, as well as the nexus of the fantastic in popular culture and its connection with spirituality to form what he has labeled “hyper-real spiritualities.”
Adam has taken some time from his busy academic schedule to participate in an interview on this fascinating topic.
TheoFantastique: Dr. Possamai, I have appreciated and benefited from your work in religious studies and popular culture, particularly that which looks at hyper-real religions and spiritualities. Thanks for making time to answer a few questions on this topic. Can you tell us how you developed an interest in and academic focus on religion and popular culture?
Adam Possamai: Many thanks for your interest in my work and for your very kind words. To answer your question, in my private life, I have always been a fan of popular culture and spent many years of my youth on novels, graphic novels, movies, and computer and role playing games. I also became involved in writing short stories of science fiction and fantasy and have recently published in French, Perles Noires. In my professional life, I studied sociology in Belgium and Australia and after I completed a Ph.D. on New Age Spiritualities and got a tenure position at the University of Western Sydney, I was looking for a way to remain active in research under the pressure of a heavy teaching and administrative load. Thinking of some religious groups I came across that were mixing religion and popular culture, I then remembered the old writer’s trick; that of writing on what you know. The next step was very easy and became natural for me. I was going to mix the activities from my private life with my professional one and mix my passion for the sociology of religion with that of popular culture.
TheoFantastique: How has the shift in the West from identification with organized religion to individualized spirituality melded with popular culture as a medium for expressing spiritual activity in the late modern or postmodern world?
Adam Possamai: There is no doubt that the western world has changed since the 1960s. Some theorists call this change late modern, others postmodern, and it is beyond the scope of this interview to explain this difference. However what these social and cultural changes have brought are, among many other things, a stronger focus of individuals on themselves rather than on a community; and a breaking apart of boundaries between fields of knowledge such as between academic and everyday knowledge, and high and popular culture. Because of this greater focus on the self, because of the implosion of boundaries between spheres of knowledge, and because of the development of consumer culture in western societies with its strong culture of choice, individuals are now free to choose from almost whatever they want to construct their personal spiritualities. If, let’s say, before the 1950s, people were in majority getting the religion of their parents (a sort of inherited [restaurant] menu when it comes to religious practice), now people tend to have various experiences and choose the religion/spirituality they want (in a sort of choosing a [restaurant] à-la-carte style) across various spheres of knowledge. With the New Age spiritualities of the 1980s and 1990s, it was common to pick-and-choose from various religions and philosophies to construct a spirituality that gives sense to an individual. With religions such as Jediism and Matrixism, the realm of choice has been extended from religion and philosophies to reach popular culture.
TheoFantastique: In one chapter in your fascinating book, Religion and Popular Culture: A Hyper-Real Testament, you discuss the creation of subjective myths in consumer culture that are expressed in pop culture. Can you address how science fiction, horror and fantasy provide resources for the creation of these myths and provide some examples of how these myths surface in certain religious or spiritual groups?
Adam Possamai: Popular culture, in this context, is used as a source of inspiration as I already touched on in the previous question. Checking various Internet sites on Jediism, it is easy to find that people who are interested in this spirituality take elements from various religions (such as Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Shinto and also Catholicism) and from the Star Wars movies, and then blend them together. As in a typical popular religion, there is no established theology and Jeddists use religion and popular culture for the personal construction of their spirituality (which is what is referred to by subjective myths). For example, when the movie, The Attack of the Clones, came out, Jeddists realised that Jedi Knights were portrayed very closely to a type of Franciscan monks (i.e., withdraw from wealth and sexual activities). This impacted on the construction of the subjective myths of certain Jeddists who pulled out from this spirituality as, I guess, they could not relate to sexual abstinence. Needless to say, being a Jeddist is not necessarily a permanent source of identity. People might be one for weeks, months, or years and then move to another spirituality, or even become atheist. Indeed, in postmodern times, the relation between people and religion/spirituality is very fluid. There are other examples of these religious groups, such as Matrixism which is inspired by the Matrix trilogy, the Baha’i faith and psychedelic studies. They too have a growing faith on the Internet. They were also earlier cases of groups mixing religion with popular culture, especially in the 1960s, such as the Church of All Worlds which was inspired by the science fiction book, Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein, and the Church of Satan which used some of H.P. Lovecraft fiction at a metaphorical level for some of its rituals.
TheoFantastique: Can you define what you mean by “hyper-real” religions or spiritualities that arise out of the creation and consumption of these myths?
Adam Possamai: Hyper-real religions is the name I have given to these religions/spiritualities that mix religion and popular culture in a metaphorical way. As there was no word to describe this new phenomenon when I did this research, I was looking for inspiration in finding a describer which would be ‘catchy’ and which would make sense sociologically. I then recalled the work of Jean Baudrillard who researched consumer culture and postmodernity claiming that, in our society, we are bombarded by so many signs and symbols that are being exchanged between each others to such an extent that it becomes impossible to find the reality behind this economy of signs. He also make reference to “hyper-reality” which describes the fact that the reality we are faced with through these signs, symbols, and what he calls simulacra, becomes more real for the consumer that ‘real’ reality. In this sense, ‘hyper-reality’ is an implosion of reality through this economy of signs that hides the reality outside of this consumer lead society. With hyper-real religion, elements from religions and popular culture are so much exchanged between each other that it becomes hard to find the ‘reality’ of the religions behind hyper-real religions. Furthermore, as there is a sequence in The Matrix where a copy of Baudrillard’s Simulacra & Simulation is found on a bookshelf, it became even more relevant to use his work to describe this spiritual phenomenon.
TheoFantastique: In what ways might the increasing connection between forms of speculative fiction in popular culture and spirituality be part of a re-enchantment process in the West arising in reaction to secularism?
Adam Possamai: With the growth of popular culture in its globalised and commodified form, some works of popular culture with a religious sub-text have been appropriated by some religious groups and individuals for their spiritual work. Because of this proliferation of religious sub-texts in some works of popular culture, and because of many other reasons beyond the scope of this interview, people are more fascinated by the magical than they were in the heyday of industrialism. If modernity brought the disenchantment of the world, as Max Weber puts it, postmodernity is re-enchanting the world not only through this proliferation of subjective myths (as I argue in my book) but also through the expansion of consumerism as the work of Ritzer points out. However, as I discovered in my research, although these factors re-enchant the world, some people involved in this McDonalised Occult culture might become blasé of this proliferation of myths and religious commodities, and might themselves become disenchanted with the consumerist aspect of their own spirituality. Although our western society is being re-enchanted, there is also the paradoxical effect that this re-enchantment pushes some people towards a disenchanted state of mind.
TheoFantastique: You have also talked about the increasing interest in Western esotericism and its connection to hyper-reality which creates what you have called a “McDonaldised Occult culture.” What do you mean by this and what does it look like?
Adam Possamai: Esotericism, in a nutshell, makes reference to religions which are secret and/or which are trying to reveal the secret of things. With the advent of consumerism and the Internet, all these secrets have now been revealed to the public at large. For example, the rituals from the 19th century occultist group, the Golden Dawn, can now be downloaded from the Internet. The term “McDonaldised Occult culture” has been borrowed from the work of Koening and makes reference to this previously secret knowledge that is now part of consumerism and of the virtual world, where esoteric philosophies such as Kabbalah are mixed with conspiracy theories, alien intelligence and works of popular culture such as Jedi religion and The X-Files. In this McDonaldised Occult culture, serious/high/philosophical’ esoteric knowledge is blended with more popular and commodified version.
TheoFantastique: In your book you also include an interesting discussion of “absolutist religious actors” who “would (hypo) consume from within their religion only and would consume the type of popular culture that fits with their creed and/or that is recognized by a respected authority.” But you also note that this same actors “aim at preventing the consumption of certain works of popular culture” as part of a “‘battle’ to define the parameters of acceptable cosmology and soteriology found in popular culture.” Do you think that this dynamic, coupled with the decline of the credibility of the Christian mythos in the West, and the lack of Protestant emphasis on a theology of imagination, results in a kind of battle for the mythic imagination that surfaces, for example, in Dungeons and Dragons, Harry Potter, and Pokemon controversies?
Adam Possamai: I have to admit that when I wrote my book, I was planning to mainly write on the innovative use of popular culture for spiritual works. I also wanted to make a small reference to certain religious groups, such as fundamentalist ones, which opposed such a use of popular culture with religion. I had the luck of having an excellent research assistant, Ashley Davis, whom I sent on the Internet to find some information on this topic. He brought me an impressive pile of significant documents and when I analysed them, I realised that there was more to what I first imagined, and that I needed to scratch the surface. This chapter was supposed to be a small one to end my book, and it became the biggest one. Through this analysis, I then found 4 types of reactions from more conservative religious groups towards the use of popular culture for religious purpose. The first one is ‘resistance to popular culture’ where fundamentalist groups openly oppose youngsters to read and watch Harry Potter and the Pokemon, or play D&D in case they, when they are older, might be tempted by Satanism and Dark Paganism. The second type is ‘re-evaluation of popular culture’ in which these groups discuss what is good in global popular culture for their religion and what does not work. They simply make comments without attempting to police these forms of popular culture. With the ‘re-appropriation of popular culture’ type, some more conservative groups finance their own works of popular culture for evangelical purposes. They have, for example, created Christian D&D, computer games, and superheroes comics with a strong Christian message. The last type is ‘meta-resistance to popular culture’. Some groups within these groups see themselves as Christian but like to enjoy global popular culture without being tempted to leave their committed Christian beliefs. They are organised in such a way that they want fundamentalist groups to know that they play, for example, non Christian D&D or like Goth Culture (such a ChristianGoth.Com) and that there is nothing wrong for them to do such things as they are deeply committed to Christianity and are not tempted by Satanism. And in case the reader of this interview would like to learn more about this research, my book, Religion and Popular Culture: A Hyper-Real Testament, is of course available on the Internet.
TheoFantastique: It sounds as if the nexus between new religions, pop culture and speculative fiction provides a continuing source for both exploration and scholarly engagement. Dr. Possamai, thank you again for sharing some of your thoughts on this fascinating topic.