Send the Old Gods Back to School!

October 04, 2022

Popular culture makes its way into religious education in Norway.

Illustrated by missiefish.

Illustrated by missiefish.

Athena is a robot from outer space, Lucifer takes a vacation and runs a nightclub in Los Angeles, and Thor is eating his way through a depression after Asgard was destroyed. Gods, heroes and beasts rooted in religions and mythology are continuously brought into popular culture and they are used in new, novel ways. One of the most prominent examples of this can be found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Marvel is introducing an ever-increasing gallery of gods and heroes to the cinema and TV screen. Norse (The Thor series, Avengers), Egyptian, (MoonKnight), Islamic (Ms. Marvel), Greek and Mesopotamian (The Eternals) mythology feature heavily in their recent productions. And they are not alone. Many of the major producers and streaming companies use themes, characters and symbols from religious traditions in their recent productions. Now, this rich, and frankly quite chaotic field, is about to make its way into the classrooms of Norway: The new curriculum for religious education from 2020 states that pupils shall explore and analyze how religions and worldviews are expressed through media and popular culture.

A cultural turn for religious education in Norway

In Norway, religious education is mandatory. The subject is non-confessional and aims at giving pupils knowledge about religions and non-religious worldviews. The curriculum places a strong focus on the plurality of contemporary society. It emphasizes the importance of having knowledge about different religions and worldviews in order to “live in and with diversity in society and work life”. Although originally rooted in pedagogy from the earlier confessional Christian education, the subject has steadily turned towards religious studies for its approach to religion. The new curriculum can, at least in part, be said to further incorporate perspectives from the scientific study of religion. Since the turn of the century, religious studies have gone through what is often called a cultural turn. Instead of treating religion as an independent social sector, religion is studied as part of the broader culture. This means, among other things, that the study of religion also comes to include elements traditionally seen to lay outside ‘proper’ religion, such as political debates, healing and magic, religion in popular culture, etc. So when the Norwegian RE curriculum now includes representations of religion from media and popular culture, it is in line with recent developments in the scientific study of religion. However, does this mean that media representations of religion are suitable for teaching young people about religious diversity?

Changes in religious socialization and the importance of media

One reason for including media representations can be found in the changing conditions for teaching about religion. The religious landscape of Norway is changing rapidly. From being a relatively homogenous (Lutheran Protestant) Christian country where an overwhelming number of people belonged to the state church, Norway has over the last decades seen both a large pluralization of religions and worldviews, as well as an ever-increasing secularization. The majority of the population now identify as non-religious and this tendency is strongest among the younger Norwegians. A prominent tendency is that young people to a much lesser degree than earlier encounter religion at home, among friends or in religious institutions. This has an impact on RE, as teachers can no longer take for granted that pupils have personal experiences with religion. My own research shows that many RE teachers find it hard to convince pupils that knowledge about religion is relevant at all.

As homes and institutions seem to become less important arenas for most young people when it comes to religion, the media emerge as important, common sites for encountering questions about religion. Several Scandinavian studies show that people encounter religion more through various media than they do in other arenas. Thus, the shift towards media and popular culture in RE might be seen as a way to include representations, imagery and stories that are closer to the pupils’ everyday experiences, and thus serve as an entry point to other approaches to religion in the classroom. The representations of religion in popular culture might not in any way be accurate from the point of view of specific religious traditions, but they can be a powerful pedagogical resource which both opens the way for more traditional knowledge about religion on one hand, and for studying common conceptions about religion in the wider society on the other.

Mediatization of religious education?

My own research interest is focused on how these media representations might come to influence RE on a more fundamental level. I study the use of media in the classroom from a mediatization perspective. According to mediatization theory, religion in contemporary society increasingly take on media form as the media become the primary sources of information about religion, and as other institutions come to rely on media in their everyday practice. My earlier research point to a strong influence of media on RE, both from news media, popular culture and from media produced educational material. An increased focus on media representations in RE thus become an interesting case for further mediatization studies. On the one hand, the focus might increase the pupils’ media literacy to the point that they become equipped to better understand the dynamics involved in the representation of religion. On the other hand, it might well come to amplify the influence media already have on RE. At the current time, only the gods know which it will be.