Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Latter-Day Battlestars

Science fiction, when I was a child, constituted my fantasy life. I read such science fiction books as were available to a kid in a small town with no actual bookstore, and I watched what I could on a television with three or four channels. Star Trek and Twilight Zone were staples. As I got to high school there were more offerings, and one that I remember particularly liking was Battlestar Galactica. I was disappointed when the show ran only a few months. Something about looking for a home, being a scrappy, rag-tag fleet fighting against the odds appealed to me. Although I grew away from sci-fi as I went to college and studied more “serious” subjects, I never completely abandoned it. So the other day when I had reason to use the word “cylon” in something I was writing, I decided to do a little reading about the original series. I never did watch the reboot, as I was far too busy for television by then.


I was surprised to learn that the original 1978 series was an exploration of Mormon theology. The show’s creator, Glen A. Larson, was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and, not surprisingly, used his fiction to promote his religious ideals. After all, Orson Scott Card, of Ender’s Game fame, is also a Mormon and elements of its theology come through in his work. As a child I didn’t watch television for religion, but rather as form of escape. I wouldn’t have guessed, however, that I was escaping to Mormon theology. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a bit more shy about telling outsiders its theology than many Christian bodies are. Mainstream Christianity, after all, is one of the main ingredients in our cultural soup. Any Methodist will be happy to tell you Wesley’s theology, if they happen to know it.

I haven’t watched television for over two decades. Very select shows we’ll watch on DVD, being the old-fashioned sort, but I missed the reincarnation of Battlestar Galactica in 2004. I’ve always had a soft spot for the originals when it comes to sci fi. The original Star Trek, the original Star Wars, and even that sleepy and terribly dated Space 1999. I suppose as a working-class child looking for an escape these shows had a kind of religious message. Although my religion taught a conventional Heaven and Hell, I wondered what was out there beyond even that, since the tri-partite universe was basically earth-bound. And science fiction offered to lead me to other worlds where things might be better. On the Enterprise we might whizz past the Galactica and wave, even if it was piloted by Mormons in space. And L. Ron Hubbard was known to me only as a writer of science fiction rather than the creator of a new religion.

Nature of Religion

HerHiddenChAutumn is a moody time of year. Dolorous gray skies hang low one day, and the next a sky of such incredible blue stretches unbroken out into space itself. Nights are definitely longer now; I climb onto the bus in the dark in the morning and get off in the dark in the evening. And thinking about nature’s cycles leads me to thinking about nature religions. Wicca has often been presented as a nature religion, but it is somewhat more complex than that. Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America, by Chas S. Clifton provides a rare academic look at various pagan religions from the inside. Analysts of New Religious Movements have long classified religious witchcraft as a modern religion. Although Gerald Gardener made claims of being initiated into an ancient British coven when he began what was to become Wicca, it is recognized that this claim was unsubstantiated and that Gardener, in true prophetic form, was inventing a new religion.

I’ve read quite a bit about witches over the years, but I’ve always found contemporary paganism somewhat confusing. As Clifton points out, there are many branches of this relatively small religion, and there is no single leader or head of the movement. In fact, various groups, just like Christian groups, seem to splinter fairly easily. Many revival religions exist, also claiming the name pagan. You can join those who worship Egyptian gods or Norse deities. Or those who find nature itself divine. Pantheism, panetheism, or just plain paganism. Religions come in endless varieties. In a world committed to allowing individuals to follow their own religious conscience, there are bound to be varieties of religious experiences.

Clifton offers a brief history of these fairly recent groups. Paganism began to reassert itself only last century. There had been a social stigma with lying outside the territory claimed by church, synagogue or mosque. Many Americans only learned that religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism existed at the very end of the nineteenth century. What most people don’t realize even today is that a large, and increasingly expanding, variety of religious options exist for the seeker. Not all Wiccans see themselves as believers in a nature religion. Not all pagans call themselves Wiccans. Although Clifton makes no claims to an exhaustive tome, which would have to be far larger, he is a helpful guide through many of the groups that have existed over the past decades and some of which continue to this day. By learning about them we learn some basic truths about the very human urge to connect with something larger than ourselves.

Living Undead

Now that autumn is in the air, my thoughts turn to zombies. I’ve read a few monster books lately, and as I pondered the attraction of zombies to the post-modern psyche, I began to wonder if they weren’t becoming, in their own secular way, a religion. Think about it. Zombies, first and foremost, are about resurrection. In a world ruled by rationality and science, we know that resurrection is impossible. What isn’t possible in science may indeed emerge in the world of monsters. The zombie, often not speaking, proclaims a distorted kind of gospel that the end is not really the end. Resurrection is not all that it seems. Zombies are spattered with gore, reminding us that the visceral existence we know as quotidian experience is temporary. Resurrection comes at the loss of a soul. The zombie is the monster of science: the animating principle is no longer spiritual. It’s just physical.


Not only do zombies proclaim resurrection, they are the ultimate proselytizers. Their zealous hunger leads them to bite and their biting infects and creates new zombies. Their brainless goal—as they are unthinking consumers—is to convert the entire human world to their point of view. Once the zombies take over completely, there will be nowhere left to go. The way of the undead flesh may be a dead end, but rationality doesn’t always play a role in zealotry. The zombie is all about making more zombies. They are unbelievable, and unbelieving, but they have the making of a mega-religion nonetheless.

As a student of religion, I wonder how belief systems get started. We hold irrational beliefs on any number of things, including our religions. The difference that zombies make is, in real life, nil. And yet we can’t help tuning into the Walking Dead, or watching World War Z. The zombie is the most recognized symbol of the proletariate among the workers of the world—the brainless, soulless drone in the machine. Mega-churches draw in thousands every week for a religion that doesn’t require much intellectual engagement. Keep doing what you’re doing. Think of others once in a while. God really does want you to be rich. And the minions go out and make disciples of all nations. It is a world full of zombies. We see them in our dreams and in our mirrors. And although we think they’re only entertainment, they are oh so much more.

Ghost Rider

GhostsOf all frightening creatures, ghosts are by far the most ubiquitous. Believed in by every civilization ever recorded and throughout the world, not even science has been able to displace them. Lisa Morton’s Ghosts: A Haunted History offers a brief tour through the realm of the dead. With a sense of how ancient the phenomenon is, she also notes time and again how religions have an uneasy but steady relationship with disembodied spirits. After all, religions give us souls that science strives to take away. What makes Morton’s study so interesting is its restlessness. Not focusing on one culture or time period, the reader learns about Asian ghosts as well as the familiar translucent variety favored in the western world. Ghosts are everywhere.

Now that October has invited thoughts of long nights and falling leaves, I often ponder a world without ghosts. If rationalism of the materialistic variety had its way, this would be simply a natural season like any other. No need to be frightened as the sun takes on that quality that suggests some things should not be seen, and the air feels as if anything might happen. Spooky houses are merely wanting maintenance and every creak and rustle can be explained. There are no ghosts in the night and Halloween is only for children. It seems to me, rather, to be the season of belief. It’s more tangible now, the world where unanswered questions dwell. Ghosts, whether in our mind or in this physical world, are part of the ambiance without which autumn isn’t worth having.

Are ghosts real? I can’t say that I have any evidence one way or the other. We all die, and we all wish we didn’t have to. In this world some are lucky enough to make their wishes come true. Might it be that some have found a way to stay when the physical party is over? Religions are uncomfortable with ghosts since they refuse to be contained in any Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. They simply are. People of every education level and social standing see them and some believe while others explain them away. Without going over to the other side we likely will never be able to prove whether they are really real or not. As Morton amply demonstrates in her thoughtful little book, they will never go away as long as consciousness and death coexist.

Secular Family Values

Fear of social disruption runs deep. Things may not be perfect, but people would rather keep things the way they’re used to them being rather than to face radical change. This is natural enough. During the dark days of the Cold War, when nuclear annihilation constantly hung over our heads, atheism was a mark of the Soviet threat. “Godless communism.” Intellectually, however, a kind of atheism was already part of American society as well, although few people talked of it. With our national history of encouraging Bible reading and prayer in public schools, our self-presentation was of the faithful. Those who hold to “old time religion.” In fact, many had moved on, but those of us growing up in small towns or rural settings had no way of knowing that. Life before the internet was primitive in that way.

A recent Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times asks “How secular family values stack up.” In this age of Nones many are worried that the social fabric has already begun to unweave and that our ethical clothes have become threadbare and see-through. The statistics, however, don’t really bear that up. Written by Phil Zuckerman, it is no surprise that the piece takes a positive view of a faith-free value system. The fact is, the social disruption that has been widely hyped, especially by Neo-Con pundits, has simply not occurred because of secularism. As Zuckerman points out, the largely secular European society has handled ethical situations admirably well. Even in the United States, non-believers in jail populations are an astonishingly small demographic, and divorce rates run lower than those who report being more religious. Those who don’t believe tend to be more empathetic and to have closer family ties than many religious families do.

Tolerance of those with different outlooks is important. In a nation that was at one time considered a melting pot, such difference of opinion is only to be expected. In practical terms, people in the United States knew nothing of Buddhism or Hinduism until late in the nineteenth century. Other religions were simply outside of the experience of most. And those who lived in different religious traditions were also moral. Biologists who study the development of moral sentiments find that apes, certainly not religious by any standard, are often inclined toward positive social values (although clearly not always so—there are dangers in extremism). It is time that we overcame our distrust of those who, for whatever reason, cannot believe. Being human is sufficiently religious to make us concerned about our fellow person. It is only the drive and insatiable hunger, ironically, of godly capitalism that leads to unfeeling disregard of human need.


Apostolic Succession

I try, normally, to limit blog posts to one per movie (per viewing), but I’m still thinking about The Apostle, so I thought I’d share a bit more. I can’t get that scene of “tag team” preaching out of my head. The extras on the DVD reveal that the preachers, other than Robert Duvall, were actual ministers. When Duvall comes on the stage, acting, these other men “catch on fire,” preaching to the small congregation gathered under the tent. They’re not acting. This juxtaposition of someone acting as a preacher sharing an actual revival with those who are actually preaching makes me wonder if there was any dissonance felt. Did anyone feel any compunction about really preaching after getting riled up by someone who was only pretending? Where is the line between fiction and fact here? Film and reality blend.


The same kind of question occurred to me after watching The Witness. I’m not a Hollywood expert, but the rumors that circulated then (and I was in college at the time) were that some of the actors were actually Amish. They too, lived their actual faith while in the presence of actors, cameras, and a director. These films that use non-actors certainly score points for verisimilitude. Rev. Charles Johnson, for example, is really “in the spirit.” The scene of him, “coming down from the spirit,” Duvall reveals in the Making of segment, is real. This man, at least, had a spiritual experience in a fictional piece. The same, Duvall suggests, may apply to Sam in the final altar call. This was, he avers, real emotion, not acting. Does being saved in fiction count in real life?

Movies sometimes leave me wondering what is real. I suppose that’s part of the draw. Religious experience, like sex, is generally faked on film. Things that are sacred are felt to be off limits to the eyes of strangers with only voyeuristic interests. I’ve lived long enough to see photographs go from proof positive to Photoshop fantasy. We can’t believe what we see any more. How are we to comprehend films that portray religious experience? Did Robert Duvall actually save any sinners from Hell? Does it make a difference if an ersatz minister is the one who leads you there? What of a real minister who fails to convert the viewing audience? Films are not simple escapism, I know. And as I continue to wonder about saints and apostles, I’m going to have to try to understand what can be caught on celluloid and what can’t.

Forbidden Love

LadyChatterleyBanned Book Week is upon us. In that time of year when we begin to think of spooky, scary things, the prohibition of literature naturally comes to mind. Every year I try to read a banned or challenged book for the occasion. This year I went to perhaps the jugular vein of banned books, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence. Now, I’m not a romance reader, but I was curious about this sexually explicit novel that had been banned to the point of being outlawed and was now considered a classic. Lawrence’s last novel, it tells the tale of a woman escaping a loveless marriage with the help of lover below her social class. The steamy bits are tame by today’s standards, but Lawrence does use several words that are still rarely heard in the media due to their offensiveness. From my perspective the story was a bit too drawn out, and the fawning wasfs a bit over the top. What struck me even more, however, was the fact that this novel was largely about social justice. Not that Lawrence was an activist, but his concern for the poor and discarded of the industrial revolution is quite clear throughout the novel. The privileged having affairs within their class is acceptable. The scandal is that a titled lady falls for a common gamekeeper.

I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, a franchise that has made even romance writers jealous. From the criticisms I hear, however, the concern is less the sex than it is the lack of literary value. I’m sure Fifty Shades of Grey is a banned book in some location. Still, the deeper concern for humanity that runs through Lady Chatterley’s Lover is part of its appeal. Several times I put the book down thinking, “this isn’t just surface stuff.” It is, baldly put, the search for redemption. Sir Clifford is an invalid who wants to control others. In an era when men laid claim to control of women’s sexuality this was no small demand. He also sees his coal miners as pieces in a larger game that is, it turns out, only to his own benefit.

Although the book ends with the lovers parted, and hoping for reunion, Lawrence’s final words turn toward economic oppression. Mellors (the gamekeeper) writes, “If you could only tell them that living and spending isn’t the same thing!… If only they were educated to live instead of earn and spend…” He defines Mammon as “wanting money and hating life.” No doubt, the book was a vehicle for Lawrence’s desire to see writing about sex to be part of literature and not pornography. Still, there is something deeper here. The story is more than carnality, although carnality is what brought it to fame. It is a banned book that proclaims liberty that, despite the license of contemporary society, is not really as free as it might seem. As banned book week unfolds, it is a moral obligation, I believe, to read those books that have threatened settled mindsets and raised the ire of censors. In so doing, we learn what it is to be human.