Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Rethinking the Sacred and Profane

Yet another article from religion dispatches was of interest, this one touching on the concepts of and boundaries between the sacred and profane. In "Sacred & Profane: From Bono to to the Jedi Police - Who Needs God?", Gary Laderman looks at a recent opinion piece written by Bono, and recent affiliations with the spirituality of Jediism, as he rethinks not only the concepts of sacred and profane, but also the new ways in which the spiritual quest is being understood in the church and outside of it.

Laderman's article begins with consideration of Bono's recent opinion piece wherein he praises the charitable works of those who are not Christians, a work which Bono describes as "soul music." The article continues with a description of how this is defined by Bono as a "way to capture, metaphorically, a sacred stance and engagement in the world emanating not from the usual, institutional sites, but from prison cells and investment firms."

The second part of the article addresses a phenomenon of great interest to me, that of hyper-real spiritualities, those new expressions of the spiritual quest that draw from the well of popular culture, particularly from the fantastic in literature, film, and television in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Laderman describes a BBC news story that describes the hyper-real spirituality of Jediism shaped by the Star Wars films:

"In the largest police force in Scotland, eight police officers recently listed their religion as 'Jedi' on the voluntary diversity forms they were required to fill out. In the words of one reviewer: 'Far from living a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, some members of the noble Jedi order have now chosen Glasgow and its surrounding streets as their home.'

"The BBC reports the rather astronomical-sounding numbers from a recent census of England and Wales indicating that 390,000 identify themselves with the Jedi religion, and nearly 14,000 who claim allegiance to the Jedi Force in Wales. But even more tellingly, we learn that the Office of National Statistics there does not recognize the religion separately, so followers were bunched under the 'atheist' category (which is, after all, fitting since there is no deity in the Star Wars cosmology)."

Two aspects of the story on Jediism are of special interest to me as a theologian and missiologist specializing in popular culture and practical theology. First, popular culture must be recognzed as a significant source and reservoir for the formation of the spiritual quest of increasing numbers of people. Second, our religious survey work and the interpretation thereof needs to be done carefully so that the broad categories of surveys as well as respondent self-definitions are properly understood. A recent ARIS survey indicated an increase in the number of those who claim atheism or affiliation with no religion, but this may not necessarily mean an increase in the number of atheists or agnostics. As the rise of those expressing an interest in Jediism who were put under the category of atheism indicates, surveys may be more accurately interpreted as indicating the decline of traditional and institutional religions which still form the backdrop and assumptions of many surveys, and a shift to non-traditional expressions of spirituality such as Jediism where no appropriate categories currently exist in surveys for proper classification.

In the conclusion of his article Laderman states:

"I can hear my New Testament and Systematic Theologian colleagues reading this with skepticism if not disgust—and indeed I’ve encountered these kinds of reactions in public forums. 'Surely anyone identifying their religion as Jedi is just being silly,' they say. Or 'How do you know this is genuine religion and not just some passing fancy?' I imagine after the death of Christ members of the early Christian community may have faced the same kind of incredulity and disdain.

"My response: Welcome to the twenty-first century, when sacred matters are not limited to the monotheists, or confined by conventional religious traditions. Bono and Warren Buffet, Master Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi are legitimate guiding religious lights whose words and actions stir the imagination and rally the faithful in ways those of us who study religion are only beginning to understand."

To these concluding thoughts of Laderman I add my hearty agreement. One person's "fringe religion" is another person's sacred pathway, and these new forms of spirituality must be taken just as seriously by theologians as more mainstream, traditional, and familiar forms of religion and spirituality. Welcome to the twenty-first century Western world and its new forms of the sacred.

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