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Religious devotion meets popular culture

  • 28 August 2008

Popular culture does some aspects of Catholicism reasonably well. Other aspects it does badly, none worse than Catholic devotional practice.

Soapies treat religious devotion as a humorous cultural appendage or depict it with dreadful solemnity. People praying express extraordinary anguish, extraordinary concentration or extraordinary connection with the image of Jesus or Mary before which they pray. What people experience as a normal and everyday part of their imaginative life is played as melodrama.

The awkwardness in handling devotions may be symptomatic of a broader cultural suspicion of a rich imaginative life. The attitude to people whose inner life and whose kitchen wall are decorated with images of saints is similar to the take on people who speak to themselves or are hooked on soapies.

If we allow the characters of Neighbours or The Bill to colonise our minds, if we are interested in their relationships and treasure memorabilia associated with them, even more if we engage them in inner dialogue, we may be seen as harmless, but will surely be regarded as somewhat lacking. A bit aesthetically and culturally dim. We will be assigned to a primitive stage of cultural development.

People whose religious imagination expresses itself in exuberant devotional practices are seen in the same way.

These attitudes are partly rooted in religious history. All the Abrahamic religions have had problems with religious images. In the Christian churches the suspicion that images will lead people to worship the world rather than its maker have led periodically to the destruction of images.

The controversy over religious images in the Reformation influenced a more general suspicion of devotional display even among those who had moved far from religious faith.

Religious traditions have also been ambivalent about the imagination. Some Buddhist and Christian theorists have seen the imagination as an obstacle to deep contemplation. Because God and ultimate reality lie beyond imagining, contemplation also needs to find a still place beyond imagination. Devotions that are fed by the imagination are an early stage in prayer that we are invited to transcend. The imagination belongs to popular religion; a deeper and more austere form of faith may lead us into the mystery of God.

These beliefs feed an unspoken prejudice that devotions nourished by a lively imagination suit simple and uneducated people, whereas the better educated will arrive at a better thought-out, rational faith that will be more soberly expressed.

In the Catholic and Orthodox churches this