Episode 72: Religion, Sports and Popular Culture Are The Same / Seeking Sanctuary During the Apocalypse with Varun Soni

If you like religion, sports or popular culture, this episode is for you, dear listener… and if you think you’re not interested in them, it is even more definitely for you! We are joined by Varun Soni, USC’s Dean of Religious Life and the first Hindu to serve as the chief spiritual officer of an American university. We traverse pandemic-driven transitions in higher education, acknowledging potentially lasting harms to students and others. We back out to the way the pandemic challenges our human need to look ahead, noting that we have not yet dealt with the present and wondering what our new stories of the future will be. That takes us to popular culture, which confronts polarization and isolation, giving us unique frameworks to talk in a way we can’t elsewhere. The conversation launches into an exploration of sports as religion and the activist role of sports – especially the WNBA and NBA – in this period of change. From the connection between fandom and religion, we end with powerful insights on Bob Marley as musician… and prophet. 

Varun’s Essay: How Universities Can Think About Community-Building Through the Coronavirus Pandemic
Loneliness Report and related resources
USC Mindfulness classes

COVID as an event is responsible for the 4th largest number of casualties in American history

Varun hosts the Religion of Sports Podcast
Catherine Albanese offers a definition of religion in America, Religions, and Religion

Derrick Bell: Interest-Convergence is a principle of critical race theory

Recent social activism in the NBA:
How the NBA Is Quietly Becoming the Most Progressive Pro-Sports League in America
NBA “Players’ Strike” as a new form of athlete activism
NBA players “sit out” the playoffs

Longer history of activism in the WNBA:
WNBA players urge ‘Vote Warnock’ against Senator Kelly Loeffler
How The WNBA Paved The Way For The NBA Strike : Code Switch
The WNBA made the NBA strike possible.
Perspective | Taking a stand isn’t new for the WNBA. It’s a way of life.
The One Name the W.N.B.A. Won’t Say

Selected activists in Sports:
Bill Russell
Muhammad Ali
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
LeBron James
Megan Rapinoe

Colin Kaepernick

Religious services rescheduling around AYSO soccer

Famous image of MLK kneeling in prayer
Tomahawk chop

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice

Ep 18: Diane Winston on religion and the entertainment media
Origin of the word “fandom”
Varun’s Essay: How the LA Clippers Made Me a Better Hindu

Human stories about sports:
ESPN: 30 for 30
HBO: Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel

Varun’s Essay: What We Can Learn From Bob Marley’s Spiritual Legacy
Varun’s book: Natural Mystics
Bob Marley: How He Changed the World
Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan
Basics of Rastafari

Share your thoughts via Twitter with Henry, Colin and the How Do You Like It So Far? account! You can also email us at [email protected]!

“In Time” by Dylan Emmett and “Spaceship” by Lesion X.
In Time (Instrumental) by Dylan Emmet  https://soundcloud.com/dylanemmet
Spaceship by Lesion X https://soundcloud.com/lesionxbeats
Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0
Free Download / Stream: https://bit.ly/in-time-instrumental
Free Download / Stream: https://bit.ly/lesion-x-spaceship
Music promoted by Audio Library https://youtu.be/AzYoVrMLa1Q

“Is This Love?” by Bob Marley and the Wailers https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHekNnySAfM


Varun Soni:  Where in the one place in the public sphere with we see people of different backgrounds, different racial and religious perspective and identities, different socioeconomic statues, different geographic perspectives, different political beliefs, all working together for a common goal? The one place we see that is on our professional sports teams. We don’t see that in other spaces anymore in the way that we used to. All working together in a multiracial, multiethnic coalition over a shared goal. In a way that is inspiring that we need.

Henry Jenkins:  So, this How Do You Like It So Far, a podcast about popular culture in our changing world. I’m Henry Jenkins.

Colin Maclay:  And I’m Colin Maclay. Today, we are thrilled to have our friend and colleague, Varun Soni, who’s the USC Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life among many other important and interesting roles he plays on campus and off.

Henry Jenkins:  We wanted to start by talking a little bit about that on-campus role before we broaden out to talk about some of your interests in sports and music and other things. So, you recently published an essay about how universities might meet the needs of students during the pandemic. And you ask how do students stay spiritually connected while they’re physically isolated? How do they practice social distancing without emotional distancing? If anything, those issues have intensified as we’ve started back in the fall. How are you thinking today about those questions? What are universities doing right and what are they failing to do that might address those questions for their students?

Varun Soni:  Thank you. Thank you for having me today. It’s really a great joy to be with you and to participate in this wonderful podcast and to talk about things that really matter. So, thank you for that. I think all universities are struggling with similar issues. First and foremost, the universities have thought how do we move teaching and research online? Research is not something you can really do online, so even though universities are closed… many of them are closed… there’s still some research activities going on. The teaching is a difficult thing to move online, but I think professors are navigating it. They’ve been teaching their whole careers and, now, they’re teaching in a different format, but they’re still teaching.

Varun Soni:  For me, the big challenge is all the other stuff that happens on a college campus, especially for undergraduate students. Because, as you know, one of the joys of being on a residential campus like USC is getting to know people… is getting to grow alongside people. This is the one time students can be with others who are their age, from 120 different countries, all 50 states, who have a diversity of identities, perspectives, world views, and experiences. We know that learning about other people is a good way to learn about the world, but knowing other people is really what transforms students. It transforms hearts and minds. I can teach about Islam in a class, but knowing a Muslim student is what’s going to change the way students think about Islam. Not just what they’re learning in the class.

Varun Soni:  There’s no easy way to replicate that online. That kind of empathy and trust that comes out of interpersonal human relationships is limited online. I don’t have any doubt that we’re going to be able to continue to teach online and I don’t have any doubt that post-pandemic, universities will continue to offer hybrid opportunities. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to fully in-person at the undergraduate level because the disruption has forced the technology and the pedagogy to move forward. But I do think, after this, we’re going to re-embrace what it means to be together.

Varun Soni:  We’re not wired to be apart. This is not part of our DNA. This is hard because it’s not natural. As human beings, we are tribal people. We are social creatures. We need clan. We need community. We need tribe. Our students were already really lonely before the pandemic. This is the loneliest generation that we’ve seen probably in American history. A new study showed that 18 to 22 year olds are the loneliest people in America. Those are college students. And so this pandemic has only made it worse. 80% of our students say that the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental, emotional, and spiritual health and their career aspirations, which is also causing them existential angst.

Varun Soni:  So, what can we do? The reality is all we can do be online. And so we’re doing things at USC and around the country. For example, we’re offering mindfulness classes. We used to have 300 people signed up every session for mindfulness classes. This year, we had 1200 people signed up for our first session, including 500 on the waiting list. That demand for those kinds of activities has exploded. We’re getting more people into worship services, into Bible study classes, into hang out groups, than we’ve ever had before. We’re having all these conversations on wellbeing and thriving and flourishing during the pandemic that are really well attended. But it’s still a limited way to engage. I’m doing all these events on burnout and I’m talking about Zoom burnout and I’m doing them on Zoom. I’m on Zoom, talking about what the problem is with Zoom. It’s like, why… It would’ve been better if we just didn’t do a webinar and people turned off their computers. So, even the solutions to get around the online angst and the limited ability of Zoom to connect us as humans are happening online and in Zoom. And so we are limited.

Varun Soni:  The reality is that, at some point, we will be past the pandemic and past the physical harm that that could cause students. But we’re not going to be past the emotional, mental, and spiritual health crisis that will only be exacerbated by that. That’s going to endure beyond the pandemic and that’s really what universities need to also be thinking about. That we’ll get past the pandemic… The universities are spending 70 billion dollars this year, across the country, to keep kids physically safe from COVID, but what are we going to spend next year and the year after to keep kids spiritually, emotionally, and mentally uplifted, engaged, and resilient?

Colin Maclay:  I mean, I feel like we’re… It is the natural state of things, unfortunately, that we were reactive to the crisis that we’re in and we respond to the pressures that we’re experiencing now, but exactly as you’re saying, what we really need to be doing is anticipating what’s going to happen next because those pressures are just magnified in the current moment, but they’re not going to be going away. We need to chip away at that loneliness that predated the current crisis and recognize that we weren’t… things weren’t working that well beforehand. So, it’s not go back to where we were, it’s envision a new future and think about how we get to that more sustainable, more real future, so we can realize the promise of university, of communities, of our societies. With the current crises, all that… We were talking about all the different elements of the apocalypse, which seem to be upon us. It just seems really hard to get to where we really need to go, which is that more visionary future.

Varun Soni:  As human beings, we need forward orientation. We need something to look forward to. That’s a protective factor for us. But we don’t have that much, really, collectively, that we’re thinking about in terms of looking forward. We haven’t even really reflected on what’s happening. Yesterday was a tragic day. We passed the 200,000 American death mark for COVID. We haven’t a single moment of national reflection or mourning or ritual to even think or process what we’ve been through. This is the third largest number of casualties in American history after the Civil War and the 1918 pandemic.

Colin Maclay:  Varun corrected himself later, noting that COVID is actually the fourth most deaths in history with the addition of World War II.

Varun Soni:  And yet there’s been no moment of reflection. And so we haven’t reflected on what’s happening and we’re not really sure where we’re going in the future. I think that has caused a lot of uneasiness, really, across the country and across our campus. And so that’s the big challenge. How do we think about what the world will look like in the future when we haven’t really processed what the world looks like now? I think you’re right that there’s no going back to a pre-pandemic world and we shouldn’t want to go back to a pre-pandemic world. Over the last six months, we have seen issues of policing and inequality with healthcare and employment discrimination and environmental degradation and how we treat animals that have really been put into the spotlight. We shouldn’t ever go back to the way things were. And so the question is, how do we tell a new story about the future? How do we reimagine the world anew?

Varun Soni:  In Hindu theology, there is a really important deity, Shiva. He is often considered Shiva Natraj, he is thought of as the lord of destruction. He dances the cosmic dance that keeps the universe going and, when he stops dancing, the universe ends. But what Shiva really represents is creation that can only come out of destruction. The new can only come out of the death of the old. So, that’s the kind of moment I think we’re in right now. This really difficult, transformative moment of change, where we’re witnessing the death of an old consciousness and way of being, hopefully giving birth to a new consciousness and a way of being that our students feel empowered to be a part of. How we move forward, I think, is by telling individual and collective stories about what it means to be human and what our values are. That’s where I hope our students find some kind of empowerment. In telling those stories, in charting that new future, and in entering a new world where, in many ways, there will be a level playing field for students who are thinking about what will the world look like in five years.

Henry Jenkins:  Well, I think one of the things the three of us have in common is that we see pop culture as one of the venues where telling new stories, embracing values, take place. So, what role do you think pop culture can or should play in responding to the situation you’ve been describing here?

Varun Soni:  Yeah, I mean, it’s been critical during COVID. All of us… Popular culture, however you define it… film, fashion, music, art, poetry, sports… They offer us a new language that is a global language to connect across our traditional divides. At a time when we don’t have global languages that cut across traditional divides. In every other sphere… Religion is polarized. Politics are polarized. Class is polarized. Going into the most contentious election of our lifetime, it’s only going to get worse. But we can still talk about sports and film and music in a way that connects people across disparate identities.

Varun Soni:  And so, in many ways, it is… I think popular culture doesn’t get enough credit for being an avenue of reconciliation and understanding and engagement. I view popular culture in the same way that I view the aspirations of religion. To connect us fundamentally with what it means to be human. So, I put popular culture sort of at the highest level in terms of our salvation. We can only tell new stories through these new mediums and technologies and platforms. There’s never been a better time to tell a new story and there’s never been more platforms to tell those stories on.

Varun Soni:  With the Emmys, there was this comment made that television has never been more important because all of us are watching a lot of content in a way that connects us. That we’re sharing that content with each other and a lot of that content that we’re consuming are about issues of the day. They’re about Black and Brown stories. They’re about racial justice. They’re about the impact of social media. They’re about how we treat animals. They’re about climate change. They’re about the political season upon us. And so popular culture gives a framework to talk about these issues in a way that becomes very difficult in other public spheres and spaces. Especially because we’re not together. This is a way for us to feel like we’re together.

Varun Soni:  I don’t think there’s any more important example than the NBA. The pandemic felt very real for people when the NBA stopped playing. The NBA stopped and that was like the sign that, oh, we’re in some different space now. And when the NBA started up again, in some ways, it gave people a glimpse of a future where they could return back to the activities they loved. And so, in many ways, the start and resumption of the NBA season is a barometer for a lot of people in terms of the reality of what we’re living in. Two things happened at the same time. Sports stopped and worship services stopped. And that made it really… That made it very real for people because sports and worship services were sanctuaries for people during times of turmoil. When they stopped, there wasn’t even that sanctuary for people to enter into.

Henry Jenkins:  Well, let’s talk a little about the connection between those planes. So, you’re a part of this Religion of Sports project. On its webpage, I see the statement, “Sports aren’t like religion. Sports are religion.” What does that project posit as the connection between those two things? And how are we defining religion to bring those worlds together?

Varun Soni:  Religion is a unique thing. There are not a lot of fields where scholars disagree on how to define the field itself, but religion is one of those things where if you ask religion scholars or religious studies scholars what is religion, you’ll get 20 different answers from 20 different people. So, there’s not even a consensus on how to define religion from the point of view of scholars themselves. I was taught by Cathy Albanese, a great scholar of American religion, and her definition is the one that I teach my students. The four C’s of religion. How do we define religion?

Varun Soni:  Well, there’s a code that you live by, like the rules of the game, the ethical framework. The Ten Commandments, et cetera. There’s the creed. That’s the world view. What’s our place in the world? How do we make sense of the world? What do we believe? There is cultus, which are the rituals, the pilgrimages, sacraments, songs. And then there’s community, which is the most important thing. How do we come together? God is not part of that definition. You don’t need to be theistic to be religious. Just ask 650 million Buddhists, who are not theistic, but are religious.

Varun Soni:  And so if we define religious through those four C’s, then sports checks all those boxes. For us, in Religion of Sports, we see sports as a new organized religion at a time when religion is not prevalent in the lives of young people. In 1950, two percent of Americans were not affiliated with religion. Two percent. This year, coming into USC, 45% of our first-year students are not affiliated with religion. That is a dramatic change that will… We’ll never go back to a predominantly religious society as we go through the Gen X experience. Or, sorry, Gen Z experience. It’ll never go back that way. This is the most important story in religion right now. The massive disaffiliation. But when students walk away from religion, they don’t walk away from meaning or purpose or significance or identity or community or authenticity or joy or gratitude or any of the other things that religion aspires to create in the world. They’re just walking away from the formal affiliation with institutions that they feel have betrayed those values in the way they’ve acted and moved. And so sports has become that place.

Varun Soni:  When I became the Dean of Religious Life at USC, people were like, “Oh, you’re the Dean of Religious Life, you should know that the real religion here is football.” And I’m like, “Ha, ha. That’s cute.” Until I went to a football game and I’m like, oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s where I saw pilgrimage. That’s where I saw intergenerational transmission of wisdom. That’s where I saw mythology, agony, ecstasy. That’s where I saw the rituals of the day. That’s where I saw a Trojan religion. And that’s the way we think about the religion of sports. Religion does provide for its practitioners and followers the things that religion has historically provided. Meaning, purpose, ritual, community, transcendence, awe, agony, ecstasy, intergenerational community. All the things that we need to be human. Religion tells us what it means to be human, not what it means to be God. This is an expression of what it means to be human in the same way that sports are. What we need right now in our life is a reconnection to what it means to be human. I think sports provides that, especially for young people, in a way that religion is not providing that for many young people right now.

Colin Maclay:  Whew. That’s intense and super compelling. Also, there’s some kind of odd juxtaposition with that stirring set of statements and then all the business aspects of sports. Whether it’s the… As you described, the NBA bubble, which is maybe what our future is, but it cost them, whatever, 150 million dollars, to create the NBA bubble. Or the risks that we may be placing college athletes at if they resume their seasons. So, there’s this sort of funny juxtaposition of something that is a religion in ways that we, as we’ve been saying, absolutely need and are craving. Especially right now. The normalcy and sanctuary and community. And the way that it interacts with big business. It feels to me that one of the interesting things, as you were going back to the NBA season, that is so remarkable is the explicit incorporation… intentional incorporation of social activism and social justice. Especially around Black Lives Matter and current movements against systemic racism. To see that shift in the business that incorporates it… not just giving athletes voice because they’re visible and we care about them, but also this acknowledgment that there’s either a responsibility or an opportunity or they need to do it.

Varun Soni:  Yeah, I think that point is astute. That there is this big business component to sports, but there’s also a big business or commerce or money component to religion. And so, in some ways, that makes it more like religion. It’s not just religion in its light. It’s also religion in its shadow. What we see in religion, we also see in sports. From assault to abuse to marginalization to sexism to… what have you. Exploitation. So, it’s not to say that either sports or religion are these lights on the hill. They are messy in the way that humans are messy, but they are expressions of that messiness because they are expressions of what it means to be human.

Varun Soni:  But I think what you’re saying is also true with what we’re seeing especially with the NBA. That once there are financial interests at stake, once there is what Derrick Bell called interest convergence… like a bunch of different things coming together… then you can actually get real social change. The NBA players who participated in the strike and who, in some ways, threatened to continue that strike put real money at risk for the NBA in a way that caused them to move on other issues, including issues of policing and police reform, in ways that we’ve never really seen athletes be able policy.

Varun Soni:  Athletes have always been on the front lines of social justice. Our greatest athletes, I think, are great because of that. People like Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali and others. But, now, they’re actually shaping policy. It’s the basketball players who are on the phone with the governors and on the phone with the police commissioners. I think LeBron James is the most powerful athlete who’s ever lived in American history. The owners are asking LeBron, are we going to play or not going to play? The owners are asking LeBron, what are we going to do? LeBron is the one who’s organizing the voting drives that have turned NBA arenas into voting centers. If you think about the fact that the last election was swayed by 70,000 votes in five different counties, that’s like one… The Staple Center could potentially register and support 70,000 votes in and of itself.

Varun Soni:  So, these things could actually have dramatic changes and I think the NBA is the league that does that more than the others leagues because the NBA right now is a player-driven league and not an owner-driven league in the way that the NFL is. The players can get past some of the challenges and can put some of that money at risk and hold the owners accountable to align their rhetoric with their values and their actions in a way that I think the NFL is still… A lot of the rhetoric is still coming from the owners as opposed to the players.

Colin Maclay:  Yeah, and it’s weird to say that the players are more like us, as other residents of the United States, than the owners are, who are billionaires or whatever, but they have a closer view. They have experienced racial profiling or police brutality or poverty. It’s also, to me at least, really interesting… This, again, buoys my enthusiasm for the NBA because it is player-driven in that way and engaging, but really, this builds on a good four years of activism in the WNBA. Again, women have led the way with their sustained activism. Not as much attention because the WNBA just isn’t as visible as the NBA, but they have absolutely been out there. Including in political fights with the owner of the Atlanta Dream, who has come out against Black Lives Matter, and fighting back against her or working with Planned Parenthood in the past. So, remarkably active as a league for four or so years. Maybe longer.

Varun Soni:  I wish the WNBA also got the profile that the profile that the NBA got. To me, the WNBA is actually the really inspiring story in sports, too. It also shows, still, biases in how we report these kinds of stories. That the WNBA hasn’t gotten the same kind of profile. There are one-off stories about individual NBA players, but I haven’t seen the big stories about the league as a whole. I think we saw some of this with the women’s national soccer team. Especially with Megan Rapinoe. We saw how, when the spotlight is on these teams, these teams are using the spotlight to focus on societal issues. Normally, when the spotlight is on a celebrity, that spotlight is used to further celebrities’ own social or cultural capital. Now, the spotlight is being used to highlight issues that aren’t self-promoting, but that go to what justice looks like in America right now.

Varun Soni:  And so I do think that when we talk about these great historic sports figure who are on the front lines of social justice, we often talk about men. Like Muhammad Ali. Like Bill Russel. Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Et cetera. I think, now, we’re going to hopefully have a new landscape where we talk about women, who are also on the front lines. They have historically been, but they just haven’t gotten the attention.

Colin Maclay:  And so do you think that… So, just thinking about the implications of this sports activism. You talked about how it could sway voting. Of course, a huge deal in this particular moment. But thinking about that example, does that change my daughter, who is a huge Megan Rapinoe fan? Is that going to change the next generation in terms of what they expect from athletes, but also those who become professional athletes and the way that they engage with the world? Because I think, for a long time, there’s been a reticence, as you said, among famous folk to engage… most of them… to engage on social issues for fear of alienating their audience or their fans. Now, it feels like either they’re realizing that the world is on fire and they need to help or they’re realizing that expectations across social settings and sectors are that leaders actually lead. Whether they’re business leaders or athletes or others. That they take a stand on things that matter most.

Varun Soni:  Here’s the challenge. It’s not up to athletes to solve the problems of the world. And it’s certainly not up to Black athletes, who have been the victim of systemic racism, to then be the remedy for systemic racism. At the same time, it’s undeniable what kind of power athletes have in our society to move the conversation. I mean, just look at what Kaepernick has done and how much that conversation has moved in the last four years. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in that kind of role. Especially a politician who is within the system. The thing about an athlete or an artist or a poet or an actor is that they’re outside the system. They can offer a critique of the system and have that perspective. They’re not within it in and of itself in the way that politicians are.

Varun Soni:  And so my hope is that your daughter and my daughter do expect athletes to be authentic in their values. That might look different for different athletes. It doesn’t mean that every athlete has to be on the front lines of every social justice movement, but that athletes are authentic in the issues that mean a lot to them, whatever those issues are, and that they care. And that it’s not just about them. That they use their spotlight to lift everyone up. Maybe that’s unfair for athletes, but that’s a beautiful expectation for young children to expect from people who they see as leaders.

Colin Maclay:  I could hear how… Sorry. I like all that a lot. That’s super helpful. But I’m also just thinking about the teams that you play on as a young person. I would argue that, in this period, for many of us, of remote learning… air quotes around the learning part… is that one of the biggest losses is around physical fitness and team sports. We can no longer play those things. I think so much powerful social and emotional connection and learning about leadership and what happens with your teammate… whether it’s pat them on the back or kick them on the behind… is that we work together. And so you want to see that same sort of… not the national scale political leadership, but the local way in which everyone on a team is part leader and part follower in which we work together. So, I could also imagine what that looks like to take a stand on what’s right just in our own communities.

Varun Soni:  I think that’s right. Where is the one place in the public sphere where we see people of different backgrounds, different racial and religious perspectives and identities, different socioeconomic statuses, different geographic perspectives, different political beliefs, all working together for a common goal? The one place we see that is on our professional sports teams. We don’t see that in other spaces anymore in the way that we used to. All working together in a multiracial, multiethnic coalition over a shared goal. In a way that is inspiring that we need. So, I think we lose that symbolic perspective of how we work together when we don’t see sports teams or when we don’t play on sports teams because that’s an experience of connecting across difference. But the other part of this is this spiritual or emotional lessons of sports that could also be lost.

Varun Soni:  One of the things that drove us with Religion of Sports is when we learned that church was rescheduling Sunday services around AYSO soccer because parents were taking their kids to soccer to learn the lessons that they used to take their kids to church to learn. Parents were like, we want to take our kids to soccer because that’s where they learn it’s not about winning or losing, but how you play. That’s where they learn how to get along with each other. That’s where they learn how to be competitive, but collaborative. That’s how they learn how to work together as a team. Those are the ethics that we go to church for, but we’re getting them on the soccer field plus physical fitness. So, it used to be that AYSO soccer would organize around worship services and, now, worship services are organizing around soccer. You can see that, for our children, there are spiritual, emotional, ethical lessons that are now coming through sports that used to come through religion.

Henry Jenkins:  Going back to your definition of religion, you talked a bit about creed and belief structure and community, but the cult part I wanted to pull out a little more. I’m thinking about this gesture of taking the knee, which has proven to be so divisive in recent years and has yet been symbolic of the political voice you’ve been talking about. When I first encountered Trump’s attack on taking a knee, I was in the middle of watching Game of Thrones, where taking the knee is seen as a gesture of respect to a liege. That it’s a ritual of… a deeply respectful ritual. And it would be if I kneeled in front of a church. So, I’m wondering in what way taking a knee became divisive and read as an act of disrespect for the nation as opposed to a call to the nation’s highest value?

Varun Soni:  I think that’s right. I think, historically, taking a knee has been a sign of respect or deference. There’s a beautiful image of Martin Luther King, Jr. taking a knee as he prays. Let’s not forget that it was Colin Kaepernick who popularized this as an act of protest. Colin Kaepernick is a quarterback and quarterbacks do take a knee in the course of a game. That’s what quarterbacks do. And so it was very organic in terms of his own role of, all right, we’re going to stop the play and take the time out. That’s what he was saying when he was taking a knee. Let’s just take a moment and reflect upon what he wanted to bring to light, which was police brutality.

Varun Soni:  And so the way Kaepernick saw his protest was that it wasn’t anything about the anthem. It was about protesting police brutality, but because it happened within the context of the anthem, I think other people… and this was part of the culture wars… conflated it with disrespect to the flag. That was never his intention. He said that over and over again. And so I think that this just became politicized in a way that things are in our society, especially as we were going into an election season, and now we’re going into another election season. There are election issues that pop up in an election year and then go away and then pop up again because they’re part of the culture wars that are driving people to the polls.

Varun Soni:  What I think is remarkable about this, though, is that if you took a knee a few years ago, you were essentially blacklisted. We know that Colin was. I mean, there was a lawsuit that shows that. But, now, if you don’t take a knee, you’re kind of called out. The discourse has changed so much in just four years. I think that’s the really remarkable thing. How something that was thought of as controversial so long ago… Now, if you don’t do it, that’s actually what’s… It used to be that the athletes who were taking a knee were being called out and, now, the athletes who are not taking a knee are being called out. It shows us how quickly things can change. It also shows how prescient Colin was in terms of what he was doing and the way he was doing it.

Varun Soni:  And so I think it’s the politics of it. It’s not the intention. There was never an intention to disrespect. Even players who have police officers in their family or are part of veteran families or coaches who have family members in law enforcement are taking knees. Not because they’re disrespecting their family members or their sacrifices, but because they’re protesting what are obvious ongoing, enduring, systemic injustices around policing and criminal justice.

Henry Jenkins:  Well, to pull the ritual in a different direction, I’m interested in the Tomahawk chop and similar gestures. We’ve seen teams, after decades of dispute about team mascots, moving to change their names. But as we begin to bring fans back into the stadium, will these rituals, which have… started out top down maybe, but are now dispersed across the population, are we likely to see struggles over rituals? Even thinking of them as rituals implies something that’s deeply embedded, that’s socially and culturally significant, that’s something people do over and over as an expression of their community and belief. Does thinking of this as a religious space shed any light on the struggles we’re going to be having over those gestures?

Varun Soni:  I think they do. I think that’s really astute. I think that rituals are important because they make sense of the world. They give us a way to order what seems like disorder or chaos. They give us a way to ground ourselves amidst the fact that we are part of this larger universe, which is hard to comprehend. And so we all have rituals, whether we think of them as rituals or not. We all have things that we do daily, in some ways, that give us a sense of order in our life or ground us in a particular moment. And so that is very much a part of being human, very much a part of being religious, et cetera.

Varun Soni:  I think the challenge here is that we think of ritual as a connection to the past and if we aren’t doing these rituals, then we’re dishonoring the past. I think what religion and sports have to do is to reimagine rituals for the future. It’s not the case that you can’t reimagine a ritual. A ritual is important, but rituals were once new and, now, they’re old. They can be new again. I think that’s the thing that religion has struggled with is to come to the contemporary moment. So much of what young people think about religion is about the past. So much of what young people think about religion is what happened 2000 years ago in a place they’ll never visit. So much of what young people think about religion is that transcendence, beauty, awe, revelation happened in the past. There has to be a greater emphasis on, actually, religion is telling us about what’s happening in the moment. You have blessing and awe and transcendence in your life right now and you can reinterpret religious texts in a way that makes sense for you.

Varun Soni:  In fact, every act of reading, every text is an act of interpretation. There’s no way to literally interpret any religious texts because religious texts are antithetical in and of themselves. What is the Bible? Is it an eye for an eye or is it turn the other cheek? Well, it’s both and the reason why it’s endured is because it’s malleable. Because it’s open to interpretation in the way the U.S. Constitution has endured because it’s open to interpretation. We have to think of rituals in the same way. That the way we interpret our religious texts tell us more about ourselves in some ways than they tell us about the text. If we interpret a text as a peaceful text, we’re probably peaceful people. If we interpret the text as a violent text, we’re probably violent people. The text is a mirror for who we are. We read ourselves into the text.

Varun Soni:  We should see the same thing in ritual. We could redefine rituals as a mirror for who we are. If these rituals, which exploit indigenous traditions in a way that’s very demeaning and harmful to those cultures and people, don’t resonate with us, then we should be able to reinterpret those rituals. We can take the spirit of what it means to have a ritual… to bring us together with community, to put us in a chain of generations, to make order of the disorder, to be inspiring in moments of defeat… fine. The spirit of the ritual can endure, but the rituals themselves can be reinterpreted as a mirror for who we are now.

Varun Soni:  And, quite frankly, who we are now is very different than who we were just one year ago. I’ve never seen consciousness change so quickly across the world in our lifetime. We’ve never had a shared moment of suffering in the way we’re having now in our lifetimes. Even the other moments of suffering… war, 9/11, economic collapse… affected people different in different regions differently. But this is a shared, global sense of suffering that should empower us to reinterpret our rituals, our texts, in a way that align with who we are now. The new people that we are now. The new consciousness that we have now.

Colin Maclay:  That feels promising. The opportunity for these teams and communities is, again, to think ahead. Less of who we have been and more who we want to be. I’m always surprised, though, at how much… I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised. At how much resistance there is to change and how much locking in to the past and to our history there is. That does, to me, feel… I often will describe it as religious in nature. Like, we didn’t reach these conclusions to be a fan of this or a member of that party because of logical deliberations. It’s because our parents or our whatever or we grew up this way and then we hold onto that. So, it feels like what we need are… both athletes and other leaders within these sports communities to be out there pushing, let’s think about a more empowering vision. More empowering rituals. Ways that we lay out the leadership that we’re expressing on social media as, like, here’s the vision of where we’re going as a society.

Varun Soni:  And I think young people have a particularly important role in this. Because all change, significant change, happens across generations. Change is slow. It’s hard. Of course, Martin Luther King popularized the phrase, the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. It doesn’t turn immediately towards justice. There is a multi-generational approach towards justice. That might’ve been accelerated, but young people have traditionally been at the forefront of this kind of change. And so my hope is that young people who have changed the world dramatically just in their summer of protests… I’ve never seen police reform or policing questions being asked over 20 years in the way I saw them being asked over 20 days this summer. That’s because of young people who were out there. Their actions have resulted in real change.

Varun Soni:  My hope is that they take hope from and inspiration from that summer to realize that they can make change in all sorts of spheres and the time is now. And that might be… Older people might resist that, but change happens across generations. That’s why it’s so wonderful to work in a college. That’s why I think we all do it. Because we want to be part of that change and we are part of that change through our work with students.

Colin Maclay:  Absolutely. Gen Z, as we like to say, is the most diverse generation, the most connected generation, the largest generation… It is teed up in so many ways and has already been… even pre-pandemic was leading both in the ballot box and in the streets for… This is I know what has driven and inspired so much of Henry’s work and my own. Definitely not to, again, make them responsible for all the problems that we have created and/or not solved, but they do give me tremendous hope.

Henry Jenkins:  I suspect I’m not alone in the audience that I’ve struggled the last few years with this question of the connection of popular culture and religion. You and Diane Winston and others here at USC have broadened my perspective about in what way we can think of popular culture as religion. But as someone from fandom studies, I still struggle with the fact that fandom, whether we’re talking sports fandom or science fiction fandom… The root word through that was grounded in claims about false worship or false belief. That has been a stigma that’s attached to the category fan over an extended period of time. So, if we are going to blur that boundary… which you’re doing a very convincing job of showing us why we should. I’m mostly won over on this. But the question if we blur that boundary, how do we deal with that historic stigma? I mean, we can go back to sports fans. That category emerged in sports because these were people who were watching sports and not playing it. And that that was seen as the wrong way to do sports in the late 19th, early 20th century. False beliefs still surround fandom. How do we make it a valid belief? Is it about just orient towards the future, as you’ve suggested, or is there something else that we should be doing or thinking about if we’re going to move in that direction?

Varun Soni:  Yeah. That’s good. I think there’s probably some sense of that now in terms of at least sports fandom. I’m a Clippers fan and so all my Lakers fans tell me that I have false belief or that I’m misguided or I’m a heretic or heterodox or what have you. Similar categories or accusations against religious people, where there is this idea where you’re either on the right side or the wrong side. Especially when you have exclusionary truth claims that some traditions have, where it’s like, either you’re… It’s my way or the highway. And so if you’re not real, then you’re fake.

Varun Soni:  But I think that the idea of moving to real belief or of honoring the fact that fans of any popular culture phenomenon find real meaning, purpose, and significance in their fandom in the way that devotees of any religious tradition find meaning, purpose, and significance in their devotion is a story that will be told by fans themselves. That’s what we’re trying to do with Religion of Sports. Oftentimes, these categories are categories that are put upon us, but what are the categories that emerge from… that are self-generated. How do we identify? What’s our story? How do we tell our narrative? And so my hope is that, if we’re going to get to a point where fandom is seen in the way that religious devotion or affiliation is seen and that we can honor the spiritual significance of fandom as a protective factor for us as humans, then we do so by letting fans tell their stories.

Varun Soni:  With the explosion of blogs, sports blogs, with all these new platforms, even with these new fantasy leagues, I think people are invested in sports that they weren’t even 15 or 20 years ago. They’re invested in sports communities in a way that they weren’t and they’re telling stories about sports that they have not told before. If you look at all these popular sports shows, from what we’re doing at Religion of Sports to 30 for 30 to especially Real Sports on HBO, they’re really stories more about what it means to be human than they are about sports. Sports is the lens, but these are stories about redemption. These are stories about triumph. These are stories about reconciliation. These are stories that inspire people who aren’t sports fans. They are fundamentally human stories and those are very different than the sports columns of the past, which might’ve just been focused on the scores or the plays. This is what’s going on internally, not just externally. So, it’s the fans’ opportunity now to tell those stories about their own belief, their own faith, and how they think that’s real for them.

Henry Jenkins:  We’ve spent most of this time on sports. It’s worth noting to people that you’re also very invested in popular music as a vehicle for thinking about this and your dissertation book was about Bob Marley and the religious context that surrounds his music. We could do a whole other episode just on that. I wondered if you could just give us a taste of your thoughts about Bob Marley as we wrap up now.

Colin Maclay:  For folks at home, you didn’t just see this huge smile come onto his face.

Varun Soni:  Oh, yeah. We could certainly do an episode. I’m wearing a Bob Marley shirt, too. There’s this big Bob Marley picture in this room, which is one of only ten pictures like it in the world. So, that’s one of my precious assets. That’s what I’ll grab if the house catches fire. My kid and then my dog and all the sentient beings and, then, that picture. I think that, for me, my interest in Bob was, like you say, from a religious perspective. Of course, everyone knows Bob Marley is this great musical figure and many people appreciate Bob Marley as this great political figure, but very little had been written on the fact that he is also a religious figure of significance and within the Rastafari movement, he is considered a prophet.

Varun Soni:  So, what does it mean to consider a popular musician as a prophet? There was a great Sufi teacher, Hazrat Inayat Khan, who said something like, “Music, even more than religion, extols the highest virtues of what it means of mankind.” And that’s why the greatest prophets, historically, have been the greatest musicians. That really turned me on to this idea that, actually, there is this intersection between prophetic work and popular culture work. And that Bob was so successful because he was able to channel ideas about meaning, purpose, and justice that were laden with religious significance into his music and introduce people, almost through misdirection, to ideas about Rastafari or Haile Selassie or pan-Africanism or a movement back to Africa. Garveyism. All these ideas that people would never have tuned into, perhaps, in and of themselves, they’re getting through the music, which they love in a way that might not otherwise expect, but may be enlightened by. And so Bob Marley, for Rastafari, is… Haile Selassie is God, but Bob Marley as a prophet of Jah of Rastafari was even more popular than Haile Selassie. He’s the reason why we know so much about Selassie.

Varun Soni:  And so, for me, Bob Marley represents a synthesis of prophetic work, technology, and popular culture. What I realized as I writing about Bob Marley is that religion has always… and prophetic work has always been a function of popular culture and technology. This is nothing new. This is just a modern iteration of the old. What I mean by that is that the Sistine Chapel is popular culture. Passion plays are popular culture. Sufi music is popular culture. The ways in which religion has been disseminated historically has been through popular culture. And through technology. The reason why the Vedas from India, the ancient traditions of India, never left India is because it was an oral tradition. The reason why Islam was able to spread around the world in 100 years in a way that Christianity wasn’t was because of the advent of the printing press, where you could print texts and send them around the world. The reason why Bob Marley was able to spread a brand new religious consciousness, a global denomination, into a… or, sorry, an island denomination into a global religion in less than 10 years was because of technology. Because of popular culture and technology. Because he could put his message into music, into CDs, into records, that were then pushed all over the world. And, now, today, you can click a button a send a message around the world.

Varun Soni:  As technology has increased, we begin to see the relationship between prophetic work and popular culture. It’s always been that way, but Bob Marley was a genius at utilizing the latest technological avenues and recording opportunities he had to disseminate what was a prophetic message. He didn’t see himself as a musician. He didn’t see himself as an entertainer. He saw himself as messenger, spreading the message of Jah, and this is the way he spread the message of Jah. And so I view Bob Marley as a figure who shows us that this is actually… He’s part of a lineage of people who have always done that. This is what prophets have always done. They’ve always used technology and popular culture to push a message out. And what we know about conversion is people come to faith usually through popular culture and not through the sword. Conversion to Islam in India went more through Sufi poets and ideas of music and architecture than they did through the idea of a forced conversion. And so these are the songs, stories, aspirations that go to our heart and Bob was a master at that.

Varun Soni:  I also think Bob is important because he was the first third world superstar. He means something for the formerly slaved and indentured people of the world, the formerly colonized people of the world, in a way that these other global stars… Elvis Presley, The Beatles… don’t. Bob Marley, to me, is the most popular visage in the world. Wherever I go in the world, I see Bob Marley. I was traveling with yak herders in Tibet in the late ’90s at 17,000 feet. I didn’t speak much Tibetan. They didn’t speak much English. And we were just singing Bob Marley songs at the roof of the world together. I couldn’t believe that. So, Bob Marley is probably the most popular face in the world, wherever you go around the world today. And it’s because of his significance to Black and Brown people, too. That he carries that mantle. Because the Wailers… the idea of wailers. That you cry, you’re wailing, because you’re suffering. The idea that he’s channeling the suffering of the third world, of the poor, oppressed, formerly colonized, formerly indentured, formerly enslaved people, I think, is something we should be aware of today, we should embrace today, because he offered us a different way to think about global popular culture. It’s not just the domain of white European popular culture that’s adopted around the world. It’s that global popular culture is for all people, but produced by all people, too.

Colin Maclay:  Wow. We definitely need to do a show on Bob Marley. That’s my first reaction. And second is that is a really powerful and hopeful way to wrap this conversation, which has just been an absolute treat. I just want to thank you so much for joining us today.

Henry Jenkins:  Yes, thank you very much.

Varun Soni:  Thank you so much. Thank you for this. So grateful to be with you. And for me, too, this was an affirming, joyful conversation at a time I needed it most. So, thank you.

Henry Jenkins:  I think it was great to have Varun on as a guest. He’s always a fascinating thinker and a huge influence on the USC campus. And someone that I turn to for inspiration on a regular basis. Even as he’s taking me into a space of sports, which is just very much not my comfort zone. I mean, this ongoing question of religion and culture, I think, is an interesting one. I don’t know how interesting to you, but it’s something I keep grappling with. Is sports religion? Is sports like religion? Is sports a space that’s substituting for religion? That’s, to me, an interesting question still.

Colin Maclay:  Yeah. I mean, well, in Varun’s telling, it certainly feels like some of the needs that we had met through religion historically are coming through in a variety of forms of popular culture. He makes a really strong case for sports as being… sports as religion. Some people might not like that… that’s too close… but I think per the definition he uses, which I looked up from Cathy Albanese, which has religion consisting of the four C’s. Creed as the explanations about the meaning or meanings of life. Codes or rules that govern our everyday behavior. Cultus or rituals to act out those insights and understandings that are expressed in creeds and codes. And community. So, to me, that’s a pretty compelling case for… Like, okay, this is in the ballpark. And then he points out that religion isn’t about learning about God. It’s about learning about ourselves. In sports, I think we… and popular culture… we absolutely learn about ourselves. This is, for me, an ongoing conversation about what we pick up from movies and films and comics and what they tell us about our social and political context. That does feel very much in that realm.

Henry Jenkins:  I guess being raised in Georgia as a Southern Baptist, religion was very much about God and very much about a fixed set of beliefs that you either took on faith or you didn’t. And there was this language of false idols that led one spooked by any passion you had that didn’t fit within the church. That was sort of what I had to break with in order to become a fan and to become as passionate and as curious as I am about such a broad range of popular culture. So, for me, I’m fascinated by his arguments, but I struggle with them at the same time because they hit such a hot button, such a historic trauma for me, about where the border is between religion and other interests and what it is to cross over from being religious into something else. And you throw into that sports, which, for me growing up was… Those were the guys who beat me up in the locker room. Not something that I ever felt an emotional connection. If there was any point in my life that I could’ve been interested in sports, the message I got over and over was it wasn’t for me. So, if sports becomes the new religion, then I’m finding myself locked out of the new religion, too, and it’s something that I grapple with when I listen to him in a way.

Henry Jenkins:  There’s got to be more than that. I have some hope when he talks about Bob Marley as a space into religion. But I have behind that the concerns about science fiction being often attacked as false worship, as delusional, as not understanding the borders between fantasy and reality. There’s a lot that I’m still sorting through. Intellectually, I think he’s totally convinced me. Emotionally, I’ve got so much baggage around these questions, as I suspect a lot of listeners may as well, that I grapple with where does that leave us.

Colin Maclay:  As you’re talking, I hear that and it seems like, one, it depends on what kind of religion and what were the stories that you were told in that space and what was the experience like for you, and what was your experience with sport. So, you’ve made that clear. That there’s a lot of… It’s not like a binary, where it’s what used to be religion and, now, there’s a new religion and it’s called sports. I mean, I think it’s sports as a religion. As he points out, just like within traditional religion, there’s no shortage of problems in sport. In big sport. Hearing the ways that they can be exclusionary or abusive or all the different things that we’re aware of. So, yeah. I don’t think… I feel far from an expert in this, but I don’t feel like it’s an endorsement of. It’s more of a recognition.

Colin Maclay:  And maybe it tracks back to Diane Winston talking about reality television as a new religion. Just saying, this is what it is doing. Not good or bad. Just the observation that these are the needs that people are having met in those spaces. And to say that’s a phenomenon. And then we can discuss what do we do with that phenomenon? How do we think about it? How do we respond to it? How do we build on whatever affordances it grants and try to ameliorate or moor the problems that it causes?

Henry Jenkins:  I think that’s what leaves me optimistic coming out of it. The discussion of ritual in this exchange leaves us thinking ritual not as something we do to reflect the past, but as something we do to aspire for the future. How do we change our rituals to reflect who we are now and who we want to be in the future? I think if sports can really do that, if it can make this transition from the mascots and the Tomahawk chops and so forth to new rituals, it will be a model for thinking about where the culture needs to go. Because we desperately need new rituals that unify us as a society. Just as I think we need new monuments that reflect who we are now and where we want to go rather than monuments that reflect narrow chapters of our history that were designed to exclude and terrify. And so that idea really interests me. Pop culture is a space of innovation in a way that religion… Formalized religion often has been incredibly resistant to change and fearful of change. And why some of the most religious segments of our population have been some of the most arch-conservative in recent years is change is frightening. So, how do we model how ritual adopts to change, I think is very interesting.

Henry Jenkins:  We did one of our civic imagination workshops in Fayetteville, Arkansas at a Lutheran church and one of the questions we asked the people there was the future of faith, the future of religion. The consensus was that, in the future, there would not need to be churches and religion because God was working in the… God’s plan and God’s relationship to man would be manifest in the way human beings related to each other. And so in a world where religion had been fulfilled, there would be no need for the rituals and institutions of formalized religion, which was just a mind-boggling idea. That this church was talking about an idealized future where the church itself withered away and ceased to exist. But that was, to me, one of the few times I’ve encountered an institution of higher religion that imagined an alternative future to the rituals that they’ve governed their lives with for so long.

Colin Maclay:  Whew. I feel like in every space of the world right now, from no longer being able to shake hands or hug someone to our intimate relationships being carried out via Zoom to all the way up the stack through the monuments and other social forms, that we are ripe for reinvention of these rituals as we have this collective realization of how many things were broken. So, that, I think, is promising and I think, as you say, the speed with which popular culture moves and the way that it touches so many people and is, in some instances at least, designed to be more inclusive, creates some neat opportunities. I hope that we can be… I don’t know if you can be intentional in ritual design, but to the extent that we can, to really be thinking about what are stable and sustainable human and prosocial values that are inclusive and empowering… that are where we want to go, not where we are now. Because that would be something we don’t want to reflect. But what does that look like?

Colin Maclay:  And then I think the other thing that gives me… that I want to chew more in was… He was talking about how important it is for texts to be open to reinterpretation. Whether it’s the Bible or the Constitution or anything else. That we keep seeing new ways to understand these things. I feel like we do that regularly as we talk about movies or comics or books or other kinds of stories that have happened in the past and we see them in new lights as the context around us shifts. And so that… The ability to reinterpret and to make these rituals and other changes current to the now and connect them to our now, not just ancient, to me, feels like an opportunity and a challenge in places like sports, where so much of it is based on a canon. There is a thing… There are negative valences to religion, for me, of sports as, like, well, we have the national anthem before the game because that’s how it always has been. It’ll be interesting to see whether traditional sports can change and also what it looks like to have new sports – e-sports or other kinds of emergent things that aren’t burdened by those stable interpretations and set rituals, but that may be more inviting to new ways of doing things that are in keeping with the moment and where we want to travel as a society.

Henry Jenkins:  Well, this week you brought me a little deeper into your world by helping me to understand sports a little better. I really appreciate that introduction.

Colin Maclay:  It was great to be with you on the journey as ever.

Henry Jenkins:  Our special to the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, who generously support this podcast.

Colin Maclay:  Well, we are normally hosted by the University of Southern California here in Los Angeles, although we’re at home right now. USC and our homes in Los Angeles sit on the traditional lands of the Tongva people.

Henry Jenkins:  We are ably assisted by our wonderful producers, Sophie Madej and Josh Chang.

Colin Maclay:  You can find us online at howdoyoulikeitsofar.org or on Instagram and Twitter at… whatever the acronym is… underscore pod. HDYLISF_pod.

Henry Jenkins:  That’s easy for you to say.

Bob Marley:  (singing)

1 thought on “Episode 72: Religion, Sports and Popular Culture Are The Same / Seeking Sanctuary During the Apocalypse with Varun Soni”

  1. Great episode, guys! I just posted your podcast to my senior Capstone “Theories of Religion” class at Northwestern. We spend an entire week on cultural religion, of which sports fandom plays a big part. I am also glad to know of Varun Soni. I, too, was a doctoral student of Catherine Albanese. She would give him a gold star for his excellent explanation of the 4Cs! : ) Glad to be adding this as a regular feature now to my religion and popular culture, or theories of religion syllabi. “How Do You Like It So Far” truly is the gift that keeps on giving. Onward and upward, and keep ’em coming.

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