FaithGoesPop, part 2: Defining religion is tougher than you may guess

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series FaithGoesPop

Click this graphic to see the entire Prezi multi-media presentation I used with a class.

NOTE from Dr. Wayne Baker—Welcome Ken Chitwood, a scholar and journalist with a specialty in reporting on religious diversity. He’s the creative force behind the FaithGoesPop project, exploring the impact of faith on our culture and vice versa. Here is Ken’s second column this week

At, we like to riff on the many ways religion intersects with popular culture—from Hollywood films and standup comedy to pro football. Yet, the #FaithGoesPop project is deeper than identifying and briefly commenting on surface phenomena. Beyond superficial sightings, #FaithGoesPop is about understanding how religion & culture interact with, challenge, confront and change one another.

The definition of “religion” is a slippery beast. Trying to grasp the essence of what “religion” is proves difficult and nigh impossible. Just ask the umpteen theoreticians and countless grad students who have toiled over pinning down just what “religion” is all about and how we can define it.

Is it about beliefs of embodied ritual? Is it about crossing & dwelling or more material aspects? Is it about an “encounter with the numinous” or some “collective effervescence?”

Whatever your response is to these classic and contemporary prompts that emerge from the greatest minds in religious theory we all feel like we know religion when we see it. We all feel that we can grasp what is religious and secular, public and private, by the way it functions or the tenets it holds to and professes. But do we?

It turns out that we have to free up our conception of “religion” in order to understand its prolific and fluid nature. We have to, in the words of Eric Michael Mazur and Kate McCarthy, look for “god in the details.”

A few weeks ago I shared this with students in a summer “World Religions” course at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL. Their instructor Prof. Kerri Blumenthal did a wonderful job of helping these students navigate the world of religions throughout the semester. One of the ways she expanded their views was by inviting in guest speakers with their own perspectives and areas of expertise. When I came into the class I taught them about #FaithGoesPop, covering the content in this blog post. (You’ll find a public version of the Prezi I used, right here.)

The students took to the lecture and grabbed hold of the concept that religion is unbounded and often to be found in the borderlands between the public and private, the explicitly religious and the unapologetically popular. One said that “religion is all around us” and said we need to widen our view of what religion is or where it can be found to not only understand religious culture but to tolerate and respect it. Another student reflected that “religion and pop culture surround us every day” and that the lines are blurred in the 21st-century when technology and social media can so easily mix-in with “something as ancient as religion.” All of this is to say, as one student rightly remarked, that “we have to see religion from different perspectives” in order to “analyze the interplay between religion and pop culture.”

Hence why I need your help to sight #FaithGoesPop. That’s why I need all my social media sociologists and entertainment-news ethnographers to be on the lookout and send me their sightings of faith going public in pop culture. Not only is it fun to find #FaithGoesPop, but as we’ve seen, it’s also about understanding religion in our world today.

Learn more about how to share your “faith pop” here.

Start a discussion with friends …

The OurValues project is designed to spark spirited, civil discussions—which foster healthier communities. You’re free to print out, repost or share these columns on social media. Many readers like to bring these materials to their weekly classes or small groups. So, please, get people talking!

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Series Navigation<< FaithGoesPop, part 1: What’s this all about?FaithGoesPop, part 3: Religion Sightings in Philadelphia >>