DIY Spirituality and Pop Culture

Today spirituality – in the broadest sense of the word – has become do-it-yourself (DIY).

Put simply, many people are highly suspicious of institutional and organised religions. So any religious group that instructs adherents using a top-down (i.e. hierarchical) approach will not appeal to a DIY aspirant. There are passive inquirers, because “question everything” is the maxim. So there is great resistance when an evangelical asserts, “here is the truth, believe it, follow it, and obey.”

The older baby boomers are somewhat street-wise in this regard. In the 1960s and 1970s it was the excitement of “tune in, drop out”, sampling exotic guru-religions of India and South Asia; or Aquarian Age esoteric magic, altered states of consciousness, astrology and so on. Now as the retiring years are a few heart-beats away, the older boomers no longer take spirituality at face value. No longer do they gravitate to gurus and prophets with personality cults. Now they are more likely to approach spirituality with the attitude, “let’s check it out, try this, try that, and sift out what I do not accept and work with the stuff that feels right and looks right and what works”.

Beyond the boomers, the Net generations are growing up in a flood of choices, lifestyles and information. Authority figures in religion are less likely to have “street-cred” because religious ideas can be sussed out with the click of a mouse. The outlook is likely to be shaped by whatever trends and fads are ripping through pop culture.

So the attitudes take these kinds of trajectories: why take the ancient holy books at face value? There’s bound to be some suspicion that maybe institutional groups with ancient books have got vested interests in protecting their patches; so maybe there is some truth to Brown’s Da Vinci Code; maybe Redfield’s Celestine Prophecy is a better guide for the self. But even if I feel the old holy books have truths, I can read them for myself, interpret for myself — I don’t need the truth to be mediated through a rabbi, a priest, a monk, or a guru. So the individual becomes the main or sole source of authority deciding what is believable and what is trash.

As sociologists observe, this is consumer religion. Products and ideas are consumed for the sensations, experiences and personal enhancement they yield on the consumer. So one might visit a retreat centre for a weekend of meditation; go on a “vision quest” in bushland and commune with nature and/or spirit beings; buy crystals and tarot cards for guidance and healing; have a natal horoscope drawn up to explain one’s personality; confer with a clairvoyant or numerologist; experiment with a complementary remedy; train in a workshop to learn the basics of reiki; join a network of on-line Wiccans or participate in an occasional gathering; visit a psychic festival; find spiritual nourishment in a rave dance; and so on.

Consumption may involve exploiting ideas (or what is romantically projected on to them) from indigenous cultures about ancient harmonies with the earth. History is a resource to be exploited for our time. But it is also the case that pop culture not merely reflects these tendencies, it also becomes the vehicle through which many express and develop new sacred stories – hybrids of ideas, practices and traditions. A mix-and-match smorgasbord of spiritual experiences. So we see the “Star Wars” movies becoming a resource for an Internet-based religion known as Jediism. There is an on-line (inevitably!) Matrix religion based on ideas derived from the Matrix trilogy of films. Others trawl through the tales of the undead and see themselves in a Vampiric faith. The Church of All Words, an earth-based nature faith, derives in part from Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land. And the list goes on.

The rise of this trend for DIY spirituality was presaged by the sociologist of religion Robert Bellah back in 1976. Now pop culture – in comic books, DVDs, web-sites, novels, fantasy-role playing games, music – is both the resource for spiritual material and is the vehicle for expressing spirituality. Artefacts (both old and new) are consumed as new spiritual myths (i.e. stories) are embraced as a way of finding an identity, meaning and purpose.

In this respect Christians need to consider why the sociological trends point to the shift away from institutions. Local churches need to be savvy about their own city. Note that the idea of locating your identity in the street or suburb you are domiciled worked well before the 1960s. Today one networks with friends and pursues personal interests beyond the local suburb. And in an oblique way, many congregations have by default attracted in participants who travel many miles criss-crossing the town (even by-passing many existing congregations) to join in the place that looks and feels and seems to offer the best deal. Consumerism exists inside the church too.

‘So some critical reflections are warranted. New gimmicks and new “software” that guarantees to grow your congregation into a mega church are simply products of consumerist thinking. An entrepreneurial approach to church, especially church leadership, generally betrays Christ’s emphasis on servanthood. I once heard a speaker annunciate 11 principles of leadership all borrowed from the corporate sector and which were laminated over various bible verses; oddly enough he never once mentioned servanthood!

And a mega-congregation is not, theologically and sociologically, to be construed as success. What is happening is this — mega churches are vacuum cleaners that scoop up people from smaller gatherings and drops them all under one roof. And evangelicals are susceptible to being duped by their own PR campaigns. It is easy to create a veneer of success in a campus ministry when the method operates on “like attracts like”. It is a cinch to scoop up socially and politically conservative middle-class university students, and process them through a predictable, formulaic, McDonaldised programme of bible verses to memorise (or enshrining one tract, that purports to contain the gospel shorn of allegedly “bad” Arminian theology, as the recipe for gospel ministry).

It is easy to carry on the intensive factory farming model in what purports to be discipleship on campus with obligatory meetings, and prepackaged frozen food (i.e bible studies). One can pack them in an auditorium, recruit them to attend networks of other meetings, camps, house-parties and the like, deposit them all in a small cluster of congregations and say “see we are a success, use this approach and you’ll increase your church by 10% more members”. It is also easy to transfer loyalty to your group from another group and then point to the statistics as signifying great results. But honestly this is whistling in the dark!

Since only 8% of the population in Australia and 8% in Britain attend church on a weekly basis, a mega church simply represents a reshuffling of the cards. It is growth by transference, not growth by genuine contextual missions in the community. And lest Americans feel too peachy-keen, it is best noting that the average congregation-size for the USA is only 80 persons (Willow Creek, Saddleback, and Crystal Cathedral models are not normative). The termites, sociologically, have eroded away the traditional western ethos on which local congregations have functioned.

So the answer is not to be found in the latest metamorphosed version of Alpha or seeker-sensitive models. The answer is not a reassertion of a medieval or Renaissance model. The answer is not the sawdust trail style of revivalism. The answer is not mass e-mails of slogans that “Jesus saves”. Nor is it conjuring up SMS-texts to dispatch to the mobile phones you have in your address records; or devising more jazzy looking tracts (all of which are destined for the dust-bin unread).

The danger is that well intentioned Christians create silly church sign boards that only communicate to the in-group. The manner in which some evangelistic activities (the Sunday night live special speaker service) are undertaken is they are virtually doomed to fail at the outset because no prior critical assessment of the local social context has occurred nor any reflections on whether the outreach methods relied on for so long are appropriate for our time.

The salvation slogans are just “noise” or “static” on the airwaves to the outsider. Simply accosting people and saying “Jesus loves you, Jesus died for you, Jesus saves”, assumes that the listener already knows what you mean. Instead the message is not received favourably or comprehended. It is like a spam e-mail, something to be immediately erased from the in-box.

So slogans and formulaic franchised programmes are simply efforts to look for quick fixes and pragmatic results. They avoid the hard work required that entails deep critical reflection on:

  • Biblical principles and theology of missions.
  • The critical discernment of culture.
  • That the drift toward DIY and other options represents the “unpaid bills of the church” (i.e. we are part of the problem rather than being the solution).

It is no solution to avoid facing the dire realities around us. Raw integrity demands that Christians move from the waves of fads, and become grounded in the kingdom teachings of Jesus and the whole counsel of God. Is the Jesus you have as the object of your faith, truly Jesus of Nazareth? Or is it a romanticised and decontextualised Jesus who suits your lifestyle? Maybe there is a profound need for us to “discard” the images of Jesus we take at face value. Maybe we need to allow Jesus to speak for himself and be rediscovered, as the one who blows away all our pretensions, and brings into our lives a hermeneutic of suspicion that challenges the comfy values and attitudes we cherish; who challenges us to discard our idols; who calls us to dismantle our power games of control; and who invites us to be utterly transparent in the presence of the triune Creator.

Philip Johnson is the author of several books including “Jesus and the gods of the New Age” (with Ross Clifford) and a contributor to “Encountering New Religious Movements”