Chapter 9 of Rupert Till’s book Pop Cult discusses the postmodern expression of religious ideas and practices through the medium of popular cults, particularly among western youth. Till argues that traditional religion, especially Christianity, has lost much of its relevance to the modern experience and thus popular culture is better placed to perform many functions that were once the role of main stream religious doctrine and community. Pop cults are seen from this perspective as providing an absent ‘reconnection with the body, communal experiences of transcendence and re-enchantment of life (Till 2010, 175).
Within the chapter Till refers to Fowler’s stages of religious development and this is one idea I will expand upon. Till and Fowler outline an initial childlike stage of religious engagement that is typically naive to the larger ideology and values of a religion or in this case a pop cult. After this stage, and usually when the religious or cult follower is older, a more rational and reflective approach is adopted. Till comments that ‘A reflective approach to religion is given primacy by many religious traditions in the west, an intellectual distance being at the heart of western concepts of modernity and rational understanding (Till 2010, 175).’
I would argue that this is a vital process when considering adopting any new practice or ideology, especially one that seeks to fulfill the role of religion. Sadly, perhaps largely due to the youth of those joining popular cults, intellectual distance often seems lacking.
In the following quote, Till claims another key attribute for popular cults:
‘They do not quieten the populace, they do not act to simply subdue, to dull the pain of everyday life…’ (Till 2010, 176)
According to Wilber, most religion can be classed as ‘translative’ in function: ‘it acts as a way of creating meaning for the separate self: it offers myths and stories and tales and narratives and rituals and revivals that, taken together, help the separate self make sense of, and endure, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (Wilber 2013).’ When viewed from this perspective I suggest that popular cults do dull the pain of everyday life for the separate self, just as much as main stream religion has always done.
By contrast, Wilber names a number of religious or spiritual practices which offer ‘not a conventional bolstering of consciousness but a radical transmutation and transformation at the deepest seat of consciousness itself (Wilber 2013).’ These kinds of practices do not offer comfort for the separate self, they work on revealing the inherent falseness of the perceived separateness. The result of this kind of transformation is a fully integrated transcendence which is not temporary (Wilber 2013).
Creation of meaning, reconnecting with the body and moments of transcendence are vital components to a rich, purposeful, perhaps even generally happy life. Popular cults, as Till has described them, certainly do offer these components for those who do not relate to the methods and ideologies of traditional religion. However unless popular cults include reliable techniques for genuine transformation in their practices, they might achieve relevance for postmodern youth, but they will not deliver true transcendence beyond the separate self.
Island Vibe Festival 2010 – fusing ritual, music & ecstatic dance.
Till, R. 2010. Do You Believe in Rock and Roll? Musical Cults of the Sacred Popular, 2010. In Pop cult, 167-192. I.B. Continuum International Publishing
A Spirituality that Transforms. 2013. EnlightenNext magazine