The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Where is the line between realistic and performative religious imagery?

Maya Oclassen

From Lil Nas X’s blasphemous “Montero” music video to the film “Saltburn,” religious imagery continues to insert itself into pop culture. The avenues for artists to express their support or criticism of religious ideas are expanding with diverse forms of media and entertainment. For years, artists and creators have used holy depictions to create popular and polarizing content, resulting in cultural discourse.

“I think religious imagery, in some ways, can be a creative and juxtaposing way to comment on Western religion’s fragility and validity,” junior Radhika Patel said. 

An artist can effortlessly convey their beliefs through explicit biblical references or subliminal themes of faith, resonating with a broad audience. Some forms of media prefer to share beliefs from a positive outlook, hoping to change a viewer’s perspective through educational and informational content. Bollywood’s “PK,” for example, shares religious commentary explicitly, with its plot honed in on the many ways in which people view life and higher beings.

Another impactful portrayal occurred in India’s My Name is Khan,” a film that highlighted the rise in Islamophobia following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Others display negative tropes that go against religious values or mock them, such as the classic “Footloose” and 2013 chart-topper “Take Me to Church” by Hozier. What is accessible online through pop culture trends or media can greatly influence how audiences perceive themselves, each other and communities around the world. 

“The industry needs to be more sensitive to different cultures and religions before incorporating imagery into their productions,” said Kelly Chu, public relations advertising professor at DePaul. “When there is a negative connotation, it can make viewers feel disconnected, offended, and unsupported.” 

Steven Reiss, a psychologist at Ohio State University, theorized religion in relation to the psyche. He explores religious imagery ideas embraced by many, even among non-religious individuals, while other communities reject or criticize it passionately. 

“In Japan, for example, people wear crosses even though they aren’t Christian,” said Yuki Miyamoto, a religious studies professor at DePaul. “It is merely a fashion statement. Yet, people wouldn’t wear a Buddhist rosary (juzu) unless they are a devout Buddhist. I wonder if something ‘foreign’ about religious traditions/concepts diminished the rigidity of treatment.” Miyamoto’s thoughts share a fraction of the controversial impacts of Westernization through pop culture and media globally as well as internally in the United States. Miyamoto said this cultural movement not only continues to impact the way people dress, speak or act, but their views on religion as well. 

For a culture that is heavily intertwined with its faith through life and art, Indian media knows religious imagery inside and out. Bollywood movies, commercials, and music in Bharat are heavily influenced by either Hindu or Islamic ideology. When a Bollywood film lists itself as a comedy or contemporary piece, every movie continues to display concepts regarding beliefs and values. In a modern, western-influenced and unconventional movie such as “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara,” there is still religious imagery sprinkled throughout. In the film, there is an Indian wedding scene that without dialogue displays the religious traditions of many who practice the Hindu faith. The moral of the film involves a focus on one’s dharma and the law of detachment, concepts which can be interpreted in the Bhagavad Gita. 

“Life of Pi” depicted positive religious imagery revolving around the idea that all religions could be accepted harmoniously by people without judgment. 

“The main character creates his own relationship with God which I think can be a positive reassurance that different religions can coexist and still fulfill the same relationship with God or the universe,” Patel said. 

Religious imagery is seen in Japanese media as well through manga such as “Saint Young Men,” or animation films such as “Spirited Away” by the Studio Ghibli production company. There are recurring and all-encompassing depictions of Shintoism in a wide range of Japanese films and literature. 

“When this form of imagery is depicted in a positive way, target audiences will develop positive attitudes and perceptions toward the advertisement, media, product,” Chu said. “With a movie like ‘Spirited Away,’ the film shares several Shinto aspects, such as Haku and No Face, for example.”

Fashion statements and trends directly result from content consumed from platforms like TikTok to a film that was released in theaters. With apparel and jewelry, such as Christian crosses, Nazar (evil eye) or Mala Buddhist beads, it is hard to tell for many whether an individual is choosing to wear any of the following as an aesthetic accessory, or for a more significant religious meaning. 

A longer-standing fashion controversy that has circulated on the web for decades now involves the hijab, a religious scarf symbolic of Islamic beliefs. The portrayal of non-Muslim models donning tightly-fitted scarves, mimicking hijabs, is ever-present across high-end websites, Western films, on runways and in public.

Religious imagery influences our daily lives tremendously. Through the mediums of online consumption, religious ideas will constantly be challenged to various degrees as individuals continue to balance the ideas of tradition and modernity in our world.  

Religious imagery in pop culture presents a conglomeration of sacred and commercial influences, significantly affecting our day-to-day lives. As individuals engage with these themes online, they will continuously grapple with finding the balance between tradition and modernity. 

“Using pop culture as a tool for sharing religious imagery, in a sense, is accommodating for everyone because in many instances the images and symbols are psychological opposites,” Reiss said.

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