University of Vermont

The College of Arts and Sciences

Humanities Center

Praying to Netflix Gods

TV satisfies ‘spiritual cravings,’ says UVM expert

Game of Thrones
“Using pop culture to explore religion raises many important and provocative questions,” says UVM religion scholar Erica Andrus. “Are non-believers using pop culture in religious ways? For these people, instead of religious mythology, do we have serial TV dramas like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad?” (Image courtesy of HBO)

Why do we binge-watch shows on Netflix? Erica Andrus, a UVM religion scholar, says TV shows provide more than just entertainment – they help satisfy a primal urge for spiritual meaning.

In her popular class, Andrus and her students explore religion through the lens of pop culture, from The Walking Dead to The Big Lebowski.

For many people, the act of TV viewing has become a ritual of spiritual significance, due to our desire for meaningful stories and the power of digital technology, she says.

UVM Today spoke to Andrus about religion, TV, and her recent essay on “digital death,” which explores how society reacts to death online. These new expressions of grief offer important insights into the spiritual state of contemporary society, she says.

What drew you to the study of religion and pop culture? 

Andrus: Pop culture is how many people learn about religion. So we must critically assess how the media portrays religion and spirituality. Pointing out stereotypes and other problematic depictions is important, because it puts pressure on Hollywood to tackle religion with greater sensitivity.

Also, the majority of the planet’s population is religious. In the West, faith is a major force in politics and daily life, and polls suggest that the number of believers is growing. So religious fluency is part of being a global citizen. As populations become more diverse, understanding and navigating religious differences will be key to avoiding conflict.

Where do religion and pop culture overlap?

People want stories that give us meaning, and they want a sense of community. Religion and popular art both have the power to provide these things. 

Rituals are another key area. In religious studies, we explore how enacting rituals with your body can shape your relationship with the world and what’s important. I would argue that, for many people, the experience of watching television shares this ritual quality.

Many ways fans interact with TV worlds overlap with spiritual behavior. The level of engagement – writing fan fiction, creating meme images and videos, and engaging with other fans about characters’ lives – strikes me as a new form of religious behavior.

Using pop culture to explore religion raises many important and provocative questions. What is religion and how does it function? Are non-believers using pop culture in religious ways? For these people, instead of religious mythology, do we have serial TV dramas like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad? Is Star Wars the ‘Odyssey’ of my generation?

What role does technology play? 

Digital technology has unleashed TV’s potential as an immersive experience. We can go to Netflix, iTunes or Amazon and watch an entire series in a week. In addition to viewing the actual shows, fans can then deepen their involvement even further, connecting with other fans on social media.

Like many scholars, I am very interested in how the rise of digital technology is affecting us. One effect, I believe, is that this greater exposure to the popular culture on our TVs, computers and mobile devices amplifies its emotional impact on viewers. This enhances its ability to create a sense of meaning in our lives. 

How does TV develop emotional bonds with audiences? 

We get to know TV characters better than many people in our real lives. We witness their most private moments, their struggles and their triumphs. This intimacy creates an emotional bond: the feeling that TV characters are your friends, the loss you can feel when a series ends, and the anticipation for more episodes. Scholars describe this as a "para-social relationship."

Two other qualities that pull characters in are moral ambiguity, where characters act unpredictably, and narrative complexity. They both make TV more engaging, because audiences must make greater investments in empathy and comprehension.

The shows that often generate more extreme fan behaviors – dressing up like characters and original fan fiction – are fantasy and science fiction genres. The more “distant” the invented world is from our own, the more it seems to inspire people to engage in role play.

Explain your essay in the book Digital Death?

Digital Death explores the new ways that society is using technology to process death of friends, family, celebrities and even fictional characters. It analyzes how online expressions of grief – across social media, online memorials and video games – parallel and differ from traditional practices of mourning.

The distinction between reality and virtual gets less clear as technology evolves. By studying these new online behaviors, our goal is to gain a better understanding of how technology is transforming our society. It’s also about taking the online world seriously, which hasn’t always been done.

My focus was RememberLaura, an online memorial for a fictional character from the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot. These new rituals of grieving allow people in a secular world to experience a kind of faith. They also provide a safe community to practice for future loss and consider the sanctity of life, and expand our cultural repertoire of expressions for loss. 

What do you mean?

When we engage with stories, we want to experience the full range of human emotions. When we watch The Walking Dead, we enjoy being scared to death. You wouldn’t want it in real life. But sitting in the safety of your sofa, we seek it out.

Why do we play with emotions that are otherwise considered negative? These stories provide an important function, beyond simple entertainment. They provide an opportunity to prepare for future emotional scenarios, and my instinct is there something more, as well, closer to religion: a desire for the transcendent. 

Describe your classes.

I take these incredibly complex religions, and over a matter of weeks, try to share them in a way that students understand. I definitely reject the idea you can learn everything about a whole religion in a single semester.

We use examples from pop culture and explore how pop culture addresses spiritual topics. We also look at how religious beliefs influence personal attitudes towards news media: how much you trust it, the kinds of rules you set up for their children, what you say about it.

What’s wrong with media portrayals of religion?

Beyond dealing in stereotypes, pop culture tends to characterize some religions as primarily good and others as bad. Buddhism, for example, is portrayed in more generous terms than, say, Islam.

TV characters with strong religious or agnostic beliefs are almost always abnormal or marginalized. Atheists such as those portrayed in Bones or House are unable to relate to people, unconnected and unfulfilled. In countless shows – from Homeland to True Detective – religion gets used as a shorthand for madness or violence. Don’t get me started on police shows: the religious people are always crazy!

The message seems to be: we want people to be religious but not too much. If you believe, you shouldn’t be too loud about it, or too committed, or too overt about it. 

What are you working on now?

I am writing about The Big Lebowski and fan culture and for a book about religion in the Coen brothers’ films. For those who know that movie, I’ll be writing about “the religion of Dudeism,” which is more light-hearted than my last project.