Religious devotion meets popular culture


The angels sing like Missy Higgins. Photo by Tim Kroenert, Live Earth, Sydney, 2007 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 presumption has been resisted. It sits uneasily with the central Christian belief that the Son of God has taken visible and tangible form in Jesus Christ.

If God's plan involves becoming accessible to the visual imagination, it is hard to find grounds for depreciating its role in faith. Although they recognise that there are many forms of prayer, Catholics have generally resisted the conclusion that prayer without images is systematically superior to prayer that involves the imagination.

Within the Catholic view of faith, too, the imagination plays a central role. It is the chapel where faith is married to contemporary events, images, music, words and gestures. Football and petty ailments can be brought into the conversation with God.

The stories of the Gospels and their characters are heard, not as stories of long ago, but as stories for today. Mary can wear make-up, the disciples can wear Socceroo colours, the angels can sing like Missy Higgins, and the condemned Jesus can wear Muslim dress.

Devotion makes faith contemporary. Ironically, one reason why devotion sometimes gets bad press is that there is necessarily a time gap between the devotional images found in churches and the way in which people express their faith through images.

Mary, for example, is usually represented in devotional art through a dress and a demeanour that reflect the place of women in past cultures. This iconography is then taken to be normative. There may be fierce resistance to images that depict Mary in the dress and body language characteristic of modern society.

Devotion is inherently anarchic. Within Catholicism it is important because it resists the freezing of faith in a narrow rational ice tray.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, neighbours, the bill, missy higgins, religious imagination, devotional practice



submit a comment

Existing comments

I enjoy your writing Andrew. The traditions of the church - constraining yet liberating in our contemporary world.

Peter Quin | 28 August 2008  

I enjoyed this thought provoking commentary. A shame that something such as this can't be offered to appropriate sections of the daily press for the rare occasions when they undertake some appraisal of popular on- screen series. Perhaps, though not on a tit-for-tat basis, the terminology of this article might need to be simplified (dumbed down?)for hopefully a wider readership to reflect on.

Pat | 28 August 2008  

God forbid that the angels sing like Missy Higgins.

trevor | 30 August 2008  

Similar Articles

'Agnostic' priest's social inclusion scepticism

  • Frank Brennan
  • 27 August 2008

The Government's Social Inclusion Board has commenced work. Provided 'social inclusion' doesn't become a buzzword to cloud discussion about service delivery, it could be a useful means for enhancing human flourishing.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up