Monday, November 2, 2009

The Influence of Religion on the Creation of Media

An individual’s religion can influence every aspect of their lives. This essay aims to examine the influence that an individual's religious beliefs has on the media they create, and to determine what effect, if any, knowledge of this influence affects public reaction to the media. Examples from three case studies will be used throughout the essay as a means of illustration and of drawing comparisons. These case studies are Nick Cave's music, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and Joss Whedon's television series Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (Buffy), as well as the film of the same name that preceded it.
Religion has been demonstrated to have a strong effect on behaviours, outcomes and attitudes as wide ranging as seatbelt use and optimism, and as important as mortality and family relations (Regnerus & Smith, 2005, p.24: Sethi & Seligman, 1993, pp.258). Scheepers and Van Der Slik (1998, p.688) found that religious beliefs had a significant effect on moral attitudes, and for women it was the most important factor influencing moral attitudes. Spilka (2003) even outlines findings that demonstrate the effect religion is claimed to have on human biology. This essay will demonstrate that religion also has a significant influence on creation of media, specifically in popular culture.
This influence does not necessarily have to be overt or obvious. Anton Karl Kozlovic points out that “secular films can engage in religious storytelling about biblical characters, ideas and themes without appearing ‘religious’” (cited in Stucky, 2006). An individual’s religion can be made apparent in their works in several ways. Sometimes this is through direct references to religious figures, ideals and stories. Nick Cave, for example, directly refers to God in the lyrics of ‘There is a Kingdom’ from the album The Boatman’s Call (1997):
There is a kingdom
There is a King
And He lives without
And He lives within
And He is everything (Cave, cited in Eaglestone, 2009, p.147)
In other media, the influence of religion makes itself apparent through direct and indirect references to religious figures, ideals, and writings or stories. There were several characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings who could be described as “Christ figures” The most obvious example is Gandalf, who takes on the role of a prophet, and is later resurrected from the dead (Stucky, 2006). The influence of religion isn’t always so overt. Erickson (2004, p.1) points out that Buffy features religious imagery and occasional religious discussion among its characters, but Joss Whedon’s religious beliefs are much more difficult to determine from his work than Cave’s and Tolkien’s are in their own.
Tolkien, Cave and Whedon have all been very open about their individual religious beliefs. Whedon describes himself as a “very hard-line, angry atheist” who is “fascinated by the concept of devotion” (Lavery, 2002, p.1), while Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs are clear in many letters to friends and family which have been made public (Purtill, 2003, p.172), including an assertion that his Christianity was more significant to his writing than his education or profession (Joseph Pearce, cited in Purtill, 2003). Although he has not returned to the church since becoming disillusioned at a young age (Dougary, 1999), Cave states quite clearly that there are “only two things I care about: love and God” and credits God with saving him from heroin addiction (Kessler, 2005, p.79). But he doesn’t just talk about it. Cave’s devotion is clear in many aspects of his life. He has delivered a religious programme on British radio, written an original introduction to The Gospel of St Mark for a special edition of the bible, and his novel The Ass Saw the Angel contains frequent Old Testament imagery (Dougary, 1999). But how do these varied beliefs make themselves evident in their respective media?
Although Cave does not consider himself to be a theologian, he does address religious and sacred issues frequently in his music (McCredden, 2009, p.167). Eaglestone (2009, p.140) considers Cave to be unique in his use of “a religious sensibility and a religious rhetoric” in his work. According to Eaglestone (2009, p.140), many religious songwriters tend to include religious songs in their repertoire, but Cave includes religion in all of his work, refusing “to separate out religion from the other themes and concerns with which he deals”.
Many of Cave’s lyrics pay particular attention to the interaction and relationship between people and the divine. Kessler (2005, p.80) describes how the famous first line of ‘Into My Arms’ from The Boatman’s Call (1997), “I don’t believe in an interventionist God” affirms Cave’s belief in a God who doesn’t change “the march of events” to affect people’s lives, but Cave still believes that there is an opportunity for meaningful interaction between humanity and God.
The original film Buffy the Vampire Slayer was written by self-proclaimed atheist Joss Whedon, who was also executive producer and co-writer of the TV series that followed (Lavery, 2002, p.4). The show regularly deals with religious themes and issues, such as the afterlife, redemption, guilt and sin. The religious images presented are primarily taken from Christianity, for example holy water and crucifixes, but the show’s dialogue is also often critical of religion (Kellner, n.d., p.5). The most common discourse on religion comes from the series’ eponymous character, Buffy, who avoids directly addressing the issue of religion or the existence of God by deflecting any question with the use of irony and humour. When corned by an evangelizing college students enquires as to whether Buffy has “accept[ed] Jesus Christ as her personal saviour”, Buffy quips that she “always meant” to, but she “got really busy”. Also, when asked by a vampire if there is any “word” on whether God exists, Buffy replies “nothing solid” (Erickson, 2004, p.1).
This juxtaposition of religious imagery with the open and obvious mocking of religion is probably best summed up by a quote from Whedon himself:
I’m a very hard-line, angry atheist… Yet I am fascinated by the concept of devotion. (Whedon, cited in Lavery, 2002, p.1)
Whedon’s fascination with devotion may explain his frequent inclusion of Christian imagery, ideals and ethical attitudes in the Buffy movie and television series. However, as an “angry atheist” he probably wouldn’t feel entirely comfortable with devoting so much airtime to religious views, without at least taking the opportunity to include some references to his own views as well.
Tolkien’s work includes several important indicators of religious influence, the most significant of which may be the creation of literary myth which conveys moral and religious lessons which Tolkien considers to be a significant part of his Catholicism. He achieves this in many ways, including the appearance of several “Christ figures” (Stucky, 2006).
Stucky (2006) describes a Christ figure as “a character who symbolizes Christ in a significant way”. The most obvious Christ figure in The Lord of the Rings is Gandalf, but Frodo and Aragorn could also be included in this category. Gandalf is the first to proclaim, or prophesy, the power and danger of the ring. He also “exorcises” the evil Saruman, leads the Fellowship of the Ring and, most importantly, dies and is resurrected. Stucky (2006) lists the following similarities between Gandalf and Jesus, in order to demonstrate that Gandalf’s resemblance to Christ is significant enough to call him a Christ figure:
• Comes from an extraordinary origin
• Possesses a “secret identity” and dual nature
• Displays a distinctive appearance
• Exhibits extraordinary powers
• generates awe and wonder
• Gathers and leads disciples
• Saves others
• Suffers a sacrificial death
• Descends into “hell”
• Rises from the dead
The religious influences described in this essay may not be immediately apparent to all audiences, especially those who do not have a religious background themselves. So, does knowledge of this influence affect the way the public views and reacts to this media? And if so, is this affect positive or negative? It is possible that non-religious audiences will feel betrayed at having religion forced on them without their knowledge, and that religious audiences will feel that using religion to create fantasy is blasphemous. Alternatively, the experience of these religious influences may help to change non-religious audiences’ opinions of religion, and religious audiences may be excited at the possibility of using this media as a means of evangelism. Scheepers, Grotenhuis and Van Der Slik (2002) found that exposure to certain circumstances may affect ways of behaviour and vales or moral attitudes.
Purtill, (2003, p.189) believes that there will be both negative and positive reactions to Tolkien’s work from within the religious community, but that the majority of actions will be positive. He believes that some members of the religious, and in particular the Christian, community will choose to reject his books due their suspicion of how the Christian message will be changed and reinterpreted into fantasy. However, according to Purtill (2003, p.189) the majority of Christians will see Tolkien as “an evangelist: someone who has expressed God’s truth in a new form”.
Before the audience even has a chance to react to media, they must first make the choice to view, read, or listen to it. The knowledge of religious influences in a piece of media could also have an effect on an individual’s choice in this matter. Tamney and Johnson (1984) found a relationship between religious affiliation and the importance of religion in everyday life and the amount of religious television an individual watches. So it is possible that a piece of media which has religious influences is more likely to be viewed by religious audiences. Alternatively, it is possible that an atheist may be more likely to watch Buffy in an attempt to identify with the themes recurrent in the series.
An individual creating a piece of media may allow their own religion to affect their work. This may be overt, for example direct statements about the existence of God incorporated into Nick Cave’s song lyrics, or it could be more subtle, such as parallels drawn between Jesus Christ and the character of Gandalf in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Ring.

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