On Being with Krista Tippett

Phyllis Tickle and Lynn Schofield Clark

A Return to the Mystery: Religion, Fantasy, and Entertainment

Last Updated

February 3, 2005

Original Air Date

July 29, 2004

During the past decade, there has been an explosion of films and television programs containing religious and spiritual themes. Mel Gibson’s The “Passion of the Christ” was only the tip of the iceberg. As new generations of Americans work out their spiritual and religious questions, they are increasingly turning to fantasy. We’ll explore the deeper appeal of films like “Harry Potter” and “The Matrix,” and we’ll ask how fantasy in media reflects a changing spiritual imagination, especially in younger Americans.


Image of Lynn Schofield Clark

Lynn Schofield Clark is Assistant Research Professor at the University of Colorado's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Her books include From Angels to Aliens - Teenagers, the Media and the Supernatural.

Image of Phyllis Tickle

Phyllis Tickle is founding editor of the religion department of Publishers Weekly and an authority on religion in America. She's the author of many books, including The Great Emergence.


February 3, 2005

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. Today, “A Return to the Mystery:  Religion, Fantasy and Entertainment.”

[Music: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Soundtrack”]

MS. TIPPETT: Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” was only the tip of the iceberg.  There are religious images and ideas at the heart of many popular television programs and movies, from “The Lord of the Rings” to “Harry Potter.” And as new generations of Americans work out their spiritual and religious questions, they are increasingly turning to fantasy.

[Excerpt from “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”]

PROFESSOR SNAPE: I can teach you how to bewitch the mind and ensnare the senses.  I can tell you how to bottle fame, brew glory, and even put a stopper in death.  Mr.  Potter, our new celebrity.

MS. TIPPETT: Later, we’ll hear more from Hogwarts, Harry Potter’s school of wizardry and witchcraft. We’ll also hear from Lynn Schofield Clark, who studied the ways that media images of angels and aliens are reflecting and shaping the spiritual lives of American teen-agers. First, Phyllis Tickle, a grand dame of the interpretation of religion in popular culture.  A longtime religion editor at Publisher’s Weekly, she’s published 12 books of her own on prayer and spiritual journey.  In 1996 Phyllis Tickle wrote an acclaimed analysis, God-Talk in America. Today we’ll invite her observations about God-talk in America now.  “In the American search for meaning,’ she says, `nonfiction has steadily been giving way to fiction and fantasy, and books have ceded ground to television and movies.” Phyllis Tickle dates this trend from the 1995 premiere on American television of “Touched by an Angel.” Della Reese starred as the wise leader of a troop of angels who intervene in human affairs.  Here’s a scene from that program in which a new angel wraps up her first assignment.

[Excerpt from “Touched by an Angel”]

DENNIS: I’ve wasted so much time.

GLORIA: Oh, but God can redeem time,

DENNIS: God created time just as he created you. He loves you, and he’s given you all the time that you need right now to do the right thing.

MS. TIPPETT: Here’s Phyllis Tickle.

PHYLLIS TICKLE: What happened was at that point religion, God-talk, pivoted to entertainment.  Now, that’s not to say that it hadn’t, you know, been there a little bit before.  It’s like saying the reformation began in 1517 on Halloween day.  You know, it did and it didn’t.  And in 1995 when Della Reese and Martha Williamson went on TV prime time with “Touched by an Angel,” something happened.  And the something that happened was that God-talk moved out of didactic and primarily out of book form and began to shift over to entertainment.  You can do so much more theology so much more safely in story.  When you’re dealing with religion through story, it’s much more difficult to grab the places as a listener that you disagree with the speaker, and the speaker also has — they are the teller of the tale — has the advantage of being able to drop back into poetry and into metaphor and all of those defenses that allow us sometimes to think more clearly, sometimes to think more — I suppose diffusely is the word, or less accurately.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, I want to ask you how — and you are a person who has spent her life steeped in books and in literature and in written word — this cross-over of medium — the medium in which these ideas are being communicated, how does that change the ideas themselves or the effect they have on people?

MS. TICKLE: When you’re reading a book you’re reading consciously aware of wanting information.  When you’re sitting there watching Della Reese do her thing, you’re relaxed, none of your defenses is up, or very few of your defenses are up, certainly.  Everything invites a kind of melding, if you will, of the attention and of the subconscious with what’s going on in front of it.  Otherwise they would not be an entertainment experience.  That’s what it means, it takes us out of ourselves.  But it leaves its fingerprint or its footprint or its angel print, as the case may be, so that when it comes in as entertainment the effect is exponentially larger than it is when it comes in as deliberately pursued information.

MS. TIPPETT: And so it’s more people, and it maybe takes hold of them without them necessarily seeking it, or even knowing what’s happened to them.

MS. TICKLE: That’s right.  Where are you going to begin to argue with angels, you know?  Because you’ve domesticated them into your family room week after week after week.  And we did that for nine years.  I seem to be hung on “Touched by an Angel,” but it’s just the one that usually commentators like me will say, `Here’s where you can see it.’

MS. TIPPETT: Did you like that “Touched by an Angel” personally?

MS. TICKLE: I did not.  I found it boring.  But I also admired greatly what was happening.  I admired the fact that Della Reese is an ordained minister. More power to her.  She’s preaching in her style and as God gives her to see it.  And she has chosen this really vast pulpit.

MS. TIPPETT: This year we had this religious movie phenomenon of Mel Gibson’s “Passion.” I’m curious; I think I’ve heard you say that whereas the public or observers or great newspapers like The New York Times sometimes have woken up to the phenomenon of religious books, you know, years after it happened, and they continue to be shocked every time they notice it, I wonder if “The Passion” was really the beginning of something, or did it represent a trend that you’ve been watching?  I mean, has religion been seeping into movies in a new way?

MS. TICKLE: Absolutely.  I say — and then I think, `Ooh, is this hyperbole?’ But then I go right back and say it again to another audience — that probably the best theological investigation, the best theological track tape, let’s put it that way, the last half of the last century was “The Matrix.” We need to also be aware, as with “Touched with an Angel,” that there were precursors — “Dogma” and “American Beauty” and “Magnolia” and “The Truman Story.” There’s been a gradual buildup.  It wasn’t as if “Matrix” came up out of nowhere.  There is a history over the last 10 years anyway of significant attempt to deal with God issues in cinema.  Some of them obviously are not as flagrantly so as “Matrix.” For actual delving into theology creatively, the Wachowski brothers definitely, I think, since Niebuhr anyway, I think you’ve got to say that “The Matrix” was pure God-talk.

MS. TIPPETT: Cultural observer Phyllis Tickle.  She’s not the first person to call “The Matrix” a theological movie.  “The Matrix” has spawned seminars, academic conferences, and an entire Internet culture.  The three “Matrix” movies are full of Buddhist and Gnostic images as well as a generous measure of language and plotline suggestive of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. For example, the last city in which the fate of humankind will be determined is called Zion.  The savior who becomes both human and divine in “Matrix” terms is called Neo, or the new man.  The woman he loves is Trinity.  Here’s the scene from the original “Matrix” movie in which Neo first meets Morpheus, part prophet, part mystical leader who evokes Biblical figures from Moses to John the Baptist.

[Excerpt from “The Matrix”]

MORPHEUS: Do you believe in fate, Neo?

NEO: No.

MORPHEUS: Why not?

NEO: Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.

MORPHEUS: Let me tell you why you’re here.  You’re here because you know something.  What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it.  You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world.  You don’t know what it is, but it’s there like a splinter in your mind driving you mad.  It is this feeling that has brought you to me.  Do you know what I am talking about?

NEO: The matrix?

MORPHEUS: Do you want to know what it is?  The matrix is everywhere.  It is all around us, even now in this very room.  You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television.  You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes.  It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.  Unfortunately, no one can be told what the matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

MS. TIPPETT: Again, religion observer Phyllis Tickle:

MS. TICKLE: Critic after critic has said there is nothing in “The Matrix” that’s for free.  Everything there cross-references to something else.

MS. TIPPETT: And I guess I just want to probe at that some more.  I mean, what is it that makes this theological that you can, you know, mention Niebuhr in the same sentence that you call it a film about God.

MS. TICKLE: Probably where angels would fear to tread.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, exactly, as opposed to fantasy.  What is it that’s theological in there?

MS. TICKLE: It is not a fantasy, because it rests on a philosophic principle.  And then the philosophic, or socio-religious, or whatever principle is that we have no understanding of human consciousness.  And the great question that is going to inflict or inform, as the case may be, religion over the next 25 to 50 years is going to be the question of consciousness.  And that’s really basically what “Matrix” is dealing with.  If you want to stop a gathering of the faithful dead, give everybody an index card and say, `Don’t sign this, but you have five minutes to write the end of this sentence:  A soul is…’ And there’s absolute quiet and a whole lot of blank index cards.  That is the great question facing the 21st century:  What is reality?  Now, it’s not a new question, and men have answered it many times over the centuries and lived with their answers for three or 400 years, and then the answer kind of disappears and we redefine the answer.  Certainly Descartes.  Descartes said, `I think, and therefore I am.’ That’s no longer good enough in a computer age. So what “Matrix” is really…

MS. TIPPETT: OK, because computers can think, too.

MS. TICKLE: Because computers can think, or they do something very close to it.  And what happens if they go one step farther into quantum and do, indeed, become thinking entities?  So this is not fantasy in the usual definition of that genre as a division of art.  What this really is, is an exploration of possibility.

MS. TIPPETT: OK.  So, you’ve convinced me that “The Matrix” — and I have been a skeptic, I will confess — that “The Matrix” communicates some very lofty, mystical, religious ideas.  I have wondered, though, why so many people, as you say, have pointed at “The Matrix” and called it religious and there’s not the same kind of attention to something like “Shrek,” right?  The “Shrek” movies.

MS. TICKLE: Isn’t that interesting?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, which are very much about lived virtue, right?

MS. TICKLE: Yes.  Now, the other one that comes immediately to mind as you speak — you know, Walden Media was founded, oh, what two years ago?  Three years ago now, I suppose.  Bill Bennett — William Bennett, “Book of Virtues,” Bennett is chairman of their board of advisers.  It was founded to do — well, they were careful in their wording — essentially what you and I would call faith-based movies.  And “Holes” was their first production.  Now, there’s God-talk big-time.


MS. TICKLE: And it didn’t get the play that I thought I…

MS. TIPPETT: Kids get that, I think.

MS. TICKLE: Well, kids do get that.  And “Holes” is so Old Testament it’s incredible.  You know, you’ve got this spot in Texas somewhere, out West anyway, where there has been great evil done, and God has cursed that until the evil can be undone.  And these poor children are put out there in a work camp as punishment for having done various and sundry petty crimes.  And in their kind of goodness, in almost their innocence — though they are little criminals — in their innocence they begin to believe, and they do, indeed, solve the crime that had happened.  “Holes” comes from the fact that they’re in the business of just simply digging mindless holes all over this perfectly dry area and there’s no point.  They’re just doing it because that’s their punishment.  And when they come to salvation, when they solve it, when the old lady blesses the children, then God moves and there is rain upon the face of the earth for the first time in 130 years.  And children do get that.

[Clip from “Holes” of children cheering when it rains]

MS. TICKLE: Walden Media’s official statement, as I read it, was that they wanted to write for children and for their parents with the understanding stated in there that this would be a teaching opportunity for parents.  That is, they’re not trying to entertain the parents so much as they’re trying to offer them something that will entertain the children and then give them basis for discussion about God and about values after the movies are over.  Well, that’s a remarkable thing.  And I thought “Holes” was a superb piece of work, just as I thought “Seven” was a superb piece of work, or “Bruce Almighty.” I mean, now there’s one that’s pure God-talk.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, and it doesn’t claim to be anything else.

MS. TICKLE: It doesn’t claim to be anything else.  Morgan Freeman, who…

MS. TIPPETT: And he’s God in that movie.

MS. TICKLE: Well, God in that movie.  But he also is taking — and he was also, of course, the policeman in “Seven” with Brad Pitt.  He’s taking his rather sizable, I’d say, income or savings, and has founded a movie company called “Revelations” and is in the business of doing exactly what we’re talking about, producing films — “Levity,” I think, is the first one.  I’ve not seen it yet — producing films that will do this very thing, though they are not for children.  They are for adults with the understanding and the hope, anyway, that there will be conversation afterwards, that it will not only be an interior experience in which you ask yourself questions looking for answers, or at least for what you think the answer is, but also will be having conversation in a social setting with other people.  And, you know, Jerry Jenkins of “Left Behind” fame has funded his son, Dallas Jenkins…

MS. TIPPETT: I was just reading about that.


MS. TIPPETT: He’s making movies, isn’t he?

MS. TICKLE: Yes.  And Dallas himself says, `You know, looking at “Left Behind” on the screen is just not going to hack it.  It’s too obvious.  And it’s going to have to be more subtle and greater intellectual bread than — it’s got to be more than that obvious.’

MS. TIPPETT: I’m tempted to ask a question like, you know, doesn’t your theology allow for a God who also just likes a good, entertaining movie?

MS. TICKLE: You bet he does.  I’m Episcopalian.  You know that.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, it’s occurring to me that we can get too serious as even religious people who want to see morality and good messages in movies.

MS. TICKLE: Well, and let’s face it, there’s the other, too, that I have said many times when we get in these kind of heady conversations, if it is art, if it is honest to god, card-carrying, well done, well-crafted, well-honed art, it comes up so sweetly against the side of religion that they are essentially kissing each other.  You cannot separate art, even the Faustists, for heaven’s sake, from religion if it’s true art.  We can’t escape the fact that somehow the religion is concerned with the subjective world, as is art.  And they share a territory that somehow circumvents or circumscribes the mind, and they have a conversation together.  So it’s very hard to imagine that religion isn’t a part of all really sound aesthetic experience.  But — and I’m all for entertainment — I do think it would be impossible to see, for instance, “The Lord of the Rings” without having some sense that there is, `Hmm, something going on here.’

[Excerpt from “The Lord of the Rings:  The Fellowship of the Ring”]

FRODO: I wish the ring had never come to me.  I wish none of this had happened.

GANDALF:  So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.  There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides those of evil.  Bilbo was meant to find the ring, in which case you also were meant to have it, and that is an encouraging thought.

MS. TIPPETT: A scene from the first movie in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. My guest, Phyllis Tickle, has been an observer of religious themes in books and culture for many years as a religion editor of Publisher’s Weekly.  She writes widely about what she calls “God-Talk in America.” This hour we’re exploring the expanding landscape of films with religious themes and images. The “Harry Potter” story both in book and movie form is explosively popular. But when “Harry Potter” first came out as a film, some conservative religious groups worried that its celebration of dark arts might be harmful to children. An interesting debate took place within Evangelical Christian media.  The ensuing years have produced a genre of Christian literature to describe and defend the theological messages in Hogwarts appealing world of magic.  Here’s a scene from “Harry Potter” in which he’s addressed by Hogwarts’ venerable headmaster, Albus Dumbledore.

[Excerpt from “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”]

PROFESSOR ALBUS DUMBLEDORE:  I see that you, like so many before you, have discovered the delights of the Mirror of Erised.  I trust by now you realize what it does.  Let me give you a clue. The happiest man on earth would look into the mirror and see only himself exactly as he is.

HARRY POTTER:  So then it shows us what we want, whatever we want?

PROFESSOR DUMBLEDORE: Yes and no.  It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest and most desperate desires of our hearts.  This mirror gives us neither knowledge or truth.  Men have wasted away in front of it.

MS. TIPPETT: Let’s say, all right, there’s something in the “Harry Potter” movies that just delights me…that I think of the big movies of my childhood.  I mean, the “Mary Poppins,” “The Sound of Music.” I don’t know what — you know, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” — these great big movies that somehow now this new generation is getting great big wonderful Hollywood movies.

MS. TICKLE: And isn’t it marvelous?

MS. TIPPETT: And it’s marvelous.  But then, you know, I’m curious about your thoughts on how just stories work on us, which is also in sacred traditions. And let’s say what is it in stories about witches and wizards that also taps into some symbols that are meaningful for us as human beings and don’t need to be manipulated?

MS. TICKLE: Because we all live with them.  And, you know, Freud or Jung, they both had field days with this.  But there is the dark side and that dark side does have agencies.  And children are much more open to admitting that, indeed, magic happens.  They see things out of the corner of their eyes.  They recognize a thin spot when they’re in it.  As we become adult, somehow our minds teach us to scorn those realities, and so we run around scared all the time.  We run around scared of our own sins, of what we can do.  We deny a devil while at the same time paying him the greatest homage of constantly trying to fend him off.  There’s another thing that comes into play here, I think, and that’s the Medievalism thing.  You mentioned “Mary Poppins,” and I enjoyed “Mary Poppins” with my children more than my children enjoyed “Mary Poppins.” But it was a different era in which she came out.  “Harry Potter” comes out in a time when we are now aware once more that there is a huge dark side.  We are engaged in a real culture battle as well as an economic one. Everything is impinging upon us.  Computers themselves teach us that there’s a world out there that we don’t immediately see that’s called nonlocative geography.  That is, there’s a place that doesn’t have the usual dimensions where we can shop and we can meet our friends.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s virtual reality, right?

MS. TICKLE: Well, if it — yes.  We would call it virtuality if it were not a form of reality.  “Mary Poppins” and “Harry Potter” are the same story.  They deal with the same human need in children and the same kind of wisdom. They’re told to two different eras in Western experience.  “Mary Poppins” came in the days of Pax Americana, if you will, in a time when we were deep into rationalism, deep into enlightenment, deep into scientism.  “Harry Potter” comes at a time when we are definitely post-modern, we are post-enlightenment, we are post-rational.  And so we’re going back to scratch around where last we left those wonderful vehicles.  We’re talking about what we had all along, which was a subjective life that’s as full of darkness as it is full of light.

MS. TIPPETT: God-Talk in America author Phyllis Tickle.  This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, more of Phyllis Tickle on how new generations of Americans distinctly experience religious questions and their expression in popular culture.  We’ll also hear from Lynn Schofield Clark on how this is showing up on television. On our Web site at speakingoffaith.org, you’ll find in-depth background, reading recommendations, and information about purchasing a copy of this program.  You can also sign up for our weekly e-mail newsletter, which includes program transcripts and my reflections on each week’s program. That’s speakingoffaith.org.  I’m Krista Tippett.  Stay with us.


Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas.  I’m Krista Tippett.  Each week we take on a different theme, asking how religious ideas find expression in American life. Today, A Return to the Mystery:  Religion, Fantasy and Entertainment. My guest, Phyllis Tickle, is a veteran observer of religion in books and popular culture.  For many years she was a religion editor at large for Publisher’s Weekly. We’re talking about the explosion of religious themes in American movies that was growing long before Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.” Phyllis Tickle says that subtle and inviting spiritual messages underpin the magic of popular films from “The Matrix” to “Lord of the Rings.” “Harry Potter,” she says, is the “Mary Poppins” for a new generation.

[Excerpt from “Mary Poppins”]

MARY POPPINS:  I have no intention of making a spectacle of myself, thank you.

BERT:  All right, I’ll do it myself.


BERT: Bit of magic.

MICHAEL:  A bit of magic?

BERT:  It’s easy.  Let’s see.  You think, you wink, you do a double blink, you close your eyes and jump!

MS. TIPPETT: Mary Poppins and Bert, the chimney sweep, take the children through a chalk drawing on a city sidewalk.  Today’s cinematic heroes move through the mainframe.  Both challenge the bounds of space and time.  Phyllis Tickle says that today’s children and teen-agers pose religious questions differently in part because they’re growing up with computers.  Virtual reality lends a new credence to magic and mystery.  She also says that their questions and fears are very different from generations that came before.  On the one hand, in a world of great insecurity, younger Americans are returning to grand Medieval themes of good and evil.  At the same time they are comfortable with post-modern mysticism, irrationality, and a questioning approach to the nature of consciousness itself.

MS. TICKLE: One of the great differences, of course, is that they think relationally.  And, in fact, there are always generation gaps, and it’s, again, a little simplistic to talk about generational gaps.  But there was not a gap between the boomers and their kids, the X-ers, there was an abyss.  There is a crevasse between the people who were born before ’80 and those who have been born since, and especially ’85, where the computer itself has allowed relational thinking to happen.  That is, they connect instead of thinking linearly.  And people who were born prior to 1980 still think linearly.  You can’t avoid it.  You go Roman numeral I, and Roman numeral IA, Roman numeral 1A, Arabic I, and you go down that way.  Whereas people, young people who have grown up on a computer and never known any other way think as the computer does, which is in hyperlinks.  I have a Native American friend who says, you know, what they think in is in terms of spider webs, and if you pluck the spider web here it resonates everywhere and all things are connected.  So that…

MS. TIPPETT: Which is also what physics is telling us these days.

MS. TICKLE: Of course it is.  It’s exactly what physics is telling us, you know?  It’s good quantum physics.  When the butterfly bats its wings in Brazil, all of the world feels its current.  But that kind of associational thinking, if you will. It also doesn’t ask a point, if you will.  It doesn’t have to arrive at a conclusion because after you finish Roman I and Roman II you don’t have to get to, `Therefore, I have proved this thing.’ It is sufficient that it resonated with other pieces of truth.  So there’s not the drive to resolution.  And there is a huge drive to bring in or to be sure that the whole corpus of associations is touched.  That is, every hyperlink — it’s as if Google has infected all of our heads, that every idea is no good unless it sort of resonates will all of the related ideas around it, and they need to all flash on that screen.  And “Matrix” is a beautiful example of that kind of relational thinking in which every hyperlink that could be made is made and set to flashing, more or less symbolically, on the screen.

MS. TIPPETT: Cultural critic Phyllis Tickle.  Here’s a scene from the second “Matrix” movie, “Matrix Reloaded,” where the story’s savior, Neo, is advised by the Oracle, an omniscient cookie-baking, chain-smoking prophet.

[Excerpt from “The Matrix Reloaded”]

ORACLE: We’re all here to do what we’re all here to do.  Look, see those birds?  At some point a program was written to govern them.  A program was written to watch over the trees and the wind, sunrise and sunset.  There are programs running all over the place.  The ones doing their job, doing what they were meant to do, are invisible.  You’d never even know they were here. But the other ones, well, you hear about them all the time.

NEO: I’ve never heard of them.

ORACLE:  Of course you have.  Every time you’ve heard someone say they saw a ghost or an angel.  Every story you’ve ever heard about vampires, werewolves or aliens is the system assimilating some program that’s doing something they’re not supposed to be doing.  Usually a program chooses exile when it faces deletion, and when it does, a program can either choose to hide here or return to the source.

MS. TICKLE: There is such in young people now — and since I’m 70 I call young anything under 50, but theoretically anything under 45 anyway — there is the push back to the ancient.

MS. TIPPETT: Right.  Where does that come from?

MS. TICKLE: Yes.  Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: What’s that?

MS. TICKLE: It’s a rebellion against so much intellectuality, so much head, so much rationalism, and so much consumerism, so much corruption of the body’s ability to feel and perceive and experience through overmentation and over-consumer goods and over-packaging, so that there is no reality in our reality.  It’s disgusting.  And there is the drift back to the time when the ancients knew and understood, when there could be conjuring, when they could have concourse with the spirits, when there was time to invite whatever it is that’s beyond my consciousness to come in, or to slip out of my consciousness and commune with it.  That pullback — I have a friend who says we’re rapidly hasting toward the third century, and she’s absolutely right.  You see the rise in liturgical worship, in smells and bells.  I’m fascinated by the return to fasting.  Who’d have thunk it?  I bet you I have 12 or 15 books coming out on fasting.  I’m not talking about dieting.

MS. TIPPETT: That you see coming through Publisher’s Weekly, or that you…

MS. TICKLE: Yes.  It’s all part and parcel of something new.  And whatever the new is, it sure is post-reformation.  The questions the reformation asked and the enlightenment tried to answer, and rationalism tried to answer, they’ve all been answered.  They don’t matter anymore.  But wherever it is that we are, we’re entering a new era of human history, certainly of Western history.  It’s a return to the mystery.

MS. TIPPETT: Phyllis Tickle is a lecturer and author on religion and spirituality in America.  Her books include “The Shaping of a Life:  A Religious Landscape.” I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith.  Today, “A Return to the Mystery:  Religion, Fantasy and Entertainment.”

[Music: “One of Us?” by Joan Osbourne]

This is the theme music from “Joan of Arcadia,” the newest and maybe the hottest in a long line of recent programs on American television aimed at young people and filled with religious images.  One of Joan’s television predecessors, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” was a teen-age girl locked in a battle of good vs. evil while comfortably embedded in middle-class America. That may sound more like a horror story than a religious one, but as the series ended in 2003 after seven years, theologians wrote a spade of books on Buffy’s religious meaning.  Half seriously, some proposed a new moral motto for America’s youth:  the question, `What would Buffy do?’ My next guest, Lynn Schofield Clark, is a professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.  A former television producer and marketer, she’s conducted extensive research on teen-agers and new media.  She’s interviewed teens from conservative and liberal, religious and nonreligious backgrounds, and written a book called From Angels to Aliens:  Teen-agers, the Media and the Supernatural. She says that spiritual themes have a strong appeal as teen-agers struggle to form their identities. And before she studies the effect of media on teen-agers’ spiritual lives, she lays out the core question she hears them asking.

LYNN SCHOFIELD CLARK: `What is my life going to be about?  You know, who am I going to be, and what kind of decisions will I make that will move me toward being part of something bigger than myself?  Who can I trust, and who will be my allies in my life as I go along?  And how will I relate to the adults in my life, and how can I find adults in my life who can actually provide the support that I feel I need in order to become who I want to be?’

MS. TIPPETT: Lynn Schofield Clark is well aware that adults, especially parents, worry about entertainment providing their children with answers to those kinds of critical questions.  Echoing Phyllis Tickle, she says young people may be getting their deepest religious inspiration in places their parents aren’t always looking, the realm of fantasy.

DR. SCHOFIELD CLARK: What I’m interested in in particular is looking at fantasy that also appeals to teens because I think that the fantasies reveal what’s still lacking from that primary message of the media.  And when I look at things like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Joan of Arcadia” or Neo from “The Matrix” or Frodo from “Lord of the Rings,” at the center of each story is a young person who has a sense of purpose or a sense of chosenness.  And they also have a set of trusted allies, or friends, in the battle of good vs. evil. And you’ll also see that there’s some intervention from caring adults.  So it’s not that adults are completely absent from the picture, but they have a very particular kind of a role, an authority and a respect that have to be earned from the eyes of the young person.  And so when I look at those stories, I think that I have a lot more hope, I guess, for young people because, you know, I think that they really do want to do something with their lives that’s meaningful.  It’s just a matter of trying to figure out how to sort out their own options to get there.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I’m wondering how different kinds of programming are appealing to different kinds of teen-agers, or is there that kind of divide?

DR. SCHOFIELD CLARK: Definitely I found that people who like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” generally didn’t like “Touched by an Angel” or “Joan of Arcadia.” You know, so there’s a real split there.  Either you’re interested in the supernatural and kind of like the idea and you’re kind of intrigued with it, or you see it as kind of with a broad brush and think, `Well, that’s all evil.’ And so some people would talk about things like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as Satanic, some of the more conservative teens.  Some were even concerned that “The Simpsons” might be Satanic because it was — I actually heard one teen say that — because they were uncomfortable with the irreverence in the program whereas other teens like the irreverence and felt that that was something that enabled them to deal with their own faith commitments in a way that took seriously their faith without taking the institutions very seriously.

MS. TIPPETT: I wonder if it’s possible at all to generalize about what kinds of themes of morality young people are getting out of these.  And maybe you have to separate them into different categories.  I don’t know.  I mean, maybe the angels and the aliens really can’t be considered together, but are coming at young people and what are they taking in?  What have you learned about that in your studies?

DR. SCHOFIELD CLARK: Well, I think one of the things that stands out to me right away is that evil is something that’s writ large, and that’s something that’s kind of interesting.  Because I think when we talk about morality and television or film, a lot of times religious leaders and other teachers and people who work with young people tend to focus on personal morality, you know, personal decisions about whether or not, you know, drinking and premarital sex, and those kinds of things, which are also, of course, important and part of young people’s everyday lives and they need guidance in those things.  But I think when we look at the stories of fantasy that we’ve been talking about, it’s really clear that evil comes across as a problem and something that’s quite large, something that is not easily overcome in one’s everyday life or in one person’s life.  But you do need the support — a friendship circle who can help you with your own struggles of good vs. evil, and you need the interventions of caring adults who will help you to provide some guidance and mentorship along the way.

MS. TIPPETT: It seems to me that there may be a new movement at the moment of entertainment and cultural products that are aimed at young people and that have a more explicitly religious message.  So I’m thinking of this television series “Joan of Arcadia,” for example.

DR. SCHOFIELD CLARK: I think of “Joan of Arcadia” as kind of “Touched by an Angel” meets “My So-Called Life.” The story of it is that Joan is an average teen-ager to whom God appears in various guises.  So sometimes God will look like a teen-age boy, sometimes it’s the lunch lady, sometimes it’s an older art teacher — you know, various races, various kind of looks and ages.  And through these various people that appear to Joan, God then speaks to Joan and tells her what to do.

MS. TIPPETT: Here’s a scene from “Joan of Arcadia” in which God has appeared as a fellow student in a cosmetics class dressed in high Goth clothing.

[Excerpt from “Joan of Arcadia”]

GOD:  Look into the mirror, Joan, and what do you see?

JOAN: Some ridiculous, vain girl who can’t stop thinking about shading and concealing.  This is just not who I am.

GOD:  Exactly.

JOAN:  So I’m just supposed to reject all this stuff, that’s the point?

DR. SCHOFIELD CLARK: The interesting thing is that in this storyline God is never really very predictable, and it’s never clear exactly what it is that’s going to be the outcome of what he’s asking her to do.  And we don’t always see, even at the end of the particular episode, why it is that she had to take that particular path, do something.  But we know that there’s kind of a larger purpose involved.  She has an older brother who was injured in an accident, and so he’s paralyzed from the waist down.  And she often will ask God — these God characters — why it is that he just can’t heal her brother.  And God has responded to her that God doesn’t answer the “why” questions. You know, it’s important to remember that this program is part of kind of the first series of television programs that came out after 9/11.  And so in some ways I think that the fact that it is a hopeful program and one in which it acknowledges the fact that we can’t always know God’s plan in the world is part of that response to 9/11.  And then the sense in which we want — I think that audiences want to see teen-agers who even though they don’t know the answers they feel comforted that God is there in their lives.

MS. TIPPETT: Does this reflect a more explicitly religious interest?  Or does it represent popular culture imagining that, trying to appeal to something like that?

DR. SCHOFIELD CLARK: I think clearly “Joan of Arcadia” hits the right tone, but there have been a lot of shows that haven’t, you know?  I mean, you think about “Nothing’s Sacred” a couple of years ago, which was the ABC program.

MS. TIPPETT: I don’t remember that one.

DR. SCHOFIELD CLARK: You don’t even remember it?


DR. SCHOFIELD CLARK: Yeah, and there was a program that I can’t remember the name of now, where Dan Aykroyd was like an Episcopal priest, I think.  So there have been a lot of programs over the past couple of years even that just haven’t found an audience.  But I do think that in some ways “Touched by an Angel” opened up the sense that, `Oh, people can take religion seriously and are interested in religion.’ And at the same time, coincidentally, “Buffy” and “The X-Files,” I think, were opening up the possibility that the supernatural can be taken less seriously and also mixed with some more traditional questioning in religion.  And so I think that’s it’s been a really viable way that has entered lots of different genres in popular culture, from music to films and television programs to video games.

MS. TIPPETT: And if I think of those three you just mentioned, “The X-Files,” “Joan of Arcadia” and “Buffy,” even when there are explicitly religious kinds of messages, spiritual kinds of messages, there’s absolutely nothing sectarian about them, right?  Is that why they can have a wide appeal, why they’re hitting the right tone?

DR. SCHOFIELD CLARK: Yeah.  I think that’s an important part of hitting the right tone, and that’s something that is always interesting to look at, is how religion is encoded in such a way that it can seem general enough for everybody, and yet, you know, and not specific enough that it’s going to offend anybody.  Because that means they’ll tune out.

MS. TIPPETT: But they do get at big, burning questions at their best, all of those.

DR. SCHOFIELD CLARK: Right.  Yeah, and I think that’s what media can do.  I mean, they can really raise the interesting questions and leave people in a place where they feel like they can make the decisions and figure out how they want to respond.

MS. TIPPETT: Teens and media researcher Lynn Schofield Clark.  This is Speaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett from American Public Media. Today, we’re exploring how religious themes surface in movies and television and what they say about the spiritual sensibility of younger generations.

[Music: “Prayer of St. Francis” by Sarah McLachlan]

MS. TIPPETT: In a pivotal scene of the series finale of the television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” this music, a rendition of the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, sung by popular artist Sarah McLachlan, played in the background.  This was a surprising choice even for “Buffy” aficionados.  But Lynn Schofield Clark says it is an expression of the ancient religious messages of current media fantasies.  As she put it, “Evil writ large runs throughout the most popular series on television and in film, as it does in the world teenagers experience.  But there’s always another side to that story, that of good writ large.”

DR. SCHOFIELD CLARK: You know, certainly Joss Whedon, who wrote “Buffy,” you know, certainly wouldn’t be interested in anything like trying to proselytize, but I think that there is sort of an unconscious association between good and the way that it’s been coded in ancient religious traditions.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s very interesting, isn’t it?

DR. SCHOFIELD CLARK: It was.  I was really shocked when that song played.


DR. SCHOFIELD CLARK: And it fit very well, I mean, because it’s a story about the apocalypse, and, you know, it always has been.  So it sort of made sense that the last episode of that series would be apocalyptic and also would kind of be reassuring at the same time that good will triumph.

MS. TIPPETT: So, if I ask you the large question then, how is this mix of fantasy and spirituality and popular shaping our children spiritually, what are your thoughts on that?

DR. SCHOFIELD CLARK: Well, I think that the main thing that occurs to me when we talk about kind of the summative stories is to think about how they see religion in relation to possibility.  You know, on the one hand that there are possibilities about what can exist, and they are aware that there are questions that cannot be answered either by religion or by science, and that they’re intrigued by those questions.  And the media play with those questions, I think, too, by presenting possibilities.  You know, what if there are angels?  What if there is an ability to talk with people beyond this life? And this is taking place in the context in which religious stories, for a lot of people, are becoming less definitive or less authoritative.

MS. TIPPETT: You mean religious stories passed down by traditions?

DR. SCHOFIELD CLARK: Right.  Yeah, the religious stories passed down by traditions, for some young people anyway.  So I think what I would say is that it’s not that the fantasy stories have become more important, it’s that the religious stories have become less so.  And I think that that’s probably an interesting opening, I guess, for traditional religion as well because in some ways those stories have maybe not been of great interest to traditional religious organizations that have wanted to place a great emphasis on personal morality.


DR. SCHOFIELD CLARK: But I think it’s something that could be kind of, you know, an interesting thing to look at.

MS. TIPPETT: Lynn Schofield Clark is associate professor at the University of Colorado.  Her books include From Angels to Aliens:  Teen-agers, the Media and the Supernatural. Earlier in this hour you heard cultural observer Phyllis Tickle, author of “God-Talk in America.” It’s easy for religious and nonreligious people alike to scoff at spirituality as popular entertainment.  “The Matrix” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” might well seem distortions of religious ideas rather than carriers of meaning for a new generation.  Phyllis Tickle offers a fascinating observation that by way of virtual reality young people are rediscovering the notion of mystery. Perhaps most challenging in this program is Lynn Schofield Clark’s suggestion that today’s fantasy stories are more important because religious stories have not been passed on.  But both she and Phyllis Tickle find a generous measure of good in them that can be an opening for parents and religious institutions alike.  In that spirit, we’ll close by listening on advice the elf, Galadriel, gives to young Frodo in “Lord of the Rings.”

[Excerpt from “Lord of the Rings:  The Fellowship of the Ring”]

GALADRIEL: This task was appointed to you, and if you do not find a way no one will.

FRODO: Then I know what I must do, it’s just I’m afraid to do it.

GALADRIEL: Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.

MS. TIPPETT: We’d love to hear your thoughts on this program.  Please send us an e-mail through our Web site at speakingoffaith.org.  While you’re there, you’ll find in-depth background, as well as book recommendations and relevant links.  You can also sign up for our e-mail newsletter and get my weekly reflections, program transcripts and a preview of next week’s show.  That’s speakingoffaith.org.


I’m Krista Tippett.  Next week, the irony of American history, a special program on the public theology of Reinhold Niebuhr.

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