chapter  9
30 Pages

Making belief: transmedia and the hunger for the real

I begin this final chapter with an odd claim: Religion is like a Katamari. For those of you not in the know, a Katamari is an object players create in the series of Katamari video games designed for Playstation 2. In the game you play as a prince, the son of the “King of the Cosmos,” who wants you to rebuild some damaged stars and planets. You accomplish this feat by rolling objects together onto what Ivan Sulic of IGN calls “a little-sticky-ball-thing.” Sulic imagines the designer explaining the game to a room full of developers: “I’m talking about collecting cats and thumbtacks, and some people, and then an octopus and maybe Godzilla or something … Each time you grab something with the Katamari, its size increases. This way the more junk you get by pushing it around, the bigger it gets. Eventually it’ll get so big that you can pick up buildings and islands and clouds and thunderstorms and everything” (Sulic 2004). This, I suggest, is also how religions work. Scholars have spent a lot of time

trying to define religion, from functionalist definitions like Emile Durkheim’s (society is sacred), to definitions like Clifford Geertz’s which hinges on the construction of a sense of “order,” to more essentialist definitions like Eliade’s (the sacred opposed to the profane; see Chapter 4). Some scholars believe we are better off looking at ritual than at religion, since rituals are observable and religion is ephemeral. Others like Wilfred Cantwell Smith see the term “religion” as having no utility whatsoever in today’s world (The Meaning and End of Religion, 1991). Is religion something you do? Or something you believe? Or something you have? Or something you find? Is it a ritual? Liturgy? Creed? Sacred space? The transcendent or the “Other”? Is it sacred texts, stories or myths? An identity shaper? A generator of desire? Is it a mode of gift-giving and -receiving? Community-building? Reality-transforming? Worldview-shaping? Power-building? Or morals-shaping? The problem with the definitional crisis in religion is that the easiest answer to all of these questions is yes. And maybe it doesn’t matter if every manifestation of religion has all of these components in it at any given time. And maybe it doesn’t matter that we all experience the combinations in different ways depending on our personal backgrounds and levels of engagement. If religion is like a Katamari ball, then

each manifestation of it is a combination, a “sticky-ball” of a variety of these facets – and the more things have been rolled up together, the more people will likely see the same phenomenon as a “religion” even if they experience it in different ways. I return to Sulic, who explains that “[t]he bigger the Katamari gets, the less

possible it will be to roll back to unexplored areas to accumulate smaller items, but the more likely it will be to roll on to new areas where heftier items can be grabbed.” Religions, too, accrue more cosmic proportions as they roll up massive rituals, groups of devotees, developing mythologies, commitments, and transcendent claims. Eventually, enough people recognize enough religious “work” going on that we have what most would consider a religion. Obviously, this has happened with the world’s major religions, and increasingly, such claims have also been made for large franchises like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Twilight and The Matrix. These, too, have accumulated rituals, myths, codes of morals, clothing, texts, holidays, mass celebrations at ComicCons and other ritual gatherings, and devoted followers who look to the worlds they present as motivation for how to live a good life. This metaphor is particularly helpful in making sense of how new “religions”

can result from the accumulation of similar phenomena in practices explicitly labeled “religious” as well as those considered merely “virtual.” Traditional religions have become remarkably good at rolling together a host of different components or “streams” that all flow together to a central core: for Christians and Jews, this core or story hub is the “world” of the Bible; for Muslims, the world of the Quran. Western religions are generally more committed to a single story world for their hubs of meaning, but Eastern religions, too, can be identified by their accumulation of related stories, rituals, practices, and meaning-making activities streaming from a “core” that is produced through the accumulation of these very practices. For many consumers of various elements of virtual reality, too, there are a number of new hubs or story worlds from which to choose, and more being generated all the time. The “world” evoked by revealed traditions is reinforced through “streams”

of content and activity, such as rituals, stories (and their interpretations), sacred leaders, regular meetings, music, and sometimes even costumes. When looking at things this way, it is not terribly surprising that rituals and games so closely resemble one another, or that both virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and religious literature such as apocalyptic texts evoke another world and invite our imaginative immersion in it. These are all ways of drawing us into a core story world, of nurturing our devotion to it, and in so doing, implicitly arguing for the kind of “uniquely realistic” sense of order and structure that Geertz sees as so central to religions. Geertz defines religion as a

system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and longlasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an

aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic (Geertz 1985, 4).