When we think of the intersection of popular culture and faith, some of the most pronounced examples that may come to mind are celebrities speaking out on their personal religion. Whether it’s Britney’s Southern Baptist roots, the Jonas brother’s Evangelicalism, Mel Gibson’s Catholicism, or Tom Cruise’s Scientology, our celebrities’ faiths are often just as much of their image as the way they speak, their wardrobe, or their politics. In many ways, celebrities are our most visual examples of lived faith in society, which means that it is good for us to consider what they are saying, how they are living, and how we should engage with their faith. Should we revere Gibson for making The Passion? Should we praise the Jonas Brothers for wearing promise rings? Should we pan Cruise’s movies for his (embarrassingly) vocal support of Scientology? And how should we react when Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute from The Office) starts a website devoted to de-lamifying our discussions about God?
SoulPancake.com is a site designed so that people can, “debate, wrestle with, explore creativity AND spirituality.” The general aesthetic of the site is a rather irreverent, with strange yet colorful backgrounds clashing with texts that encourage you to “talk about something real.” Its the kind of style that says, “look at me, I’m creative,” without offering you anything of substance to consider, kind of like most Threadless t-shirts.
Aside from the standard “features” or articles found on most blogs, SoulPancake.com offers various collaborative and community-centered features. One section of the site is devoted to “Life’s Big Questions,” where readers are asked to respond to questions like, “If you were going to leave a message for God, what would you say?” The “Question Collective” section of the site invites readers to post a picture and a “burning question” to express themselves and encourage discussion. In these discussions about faith, the site encourages us to “speak up” since “there are no wrong answers.” Right now, these collaborative and community-centered features seem to be a bit basic, but the site has just launched, so I expect we’ll see some improvements as the site grows.
Wilson has his own “mini-talkshow” on the site called, “Metaphysical Milkshake” where he plans on interviewing “cool” people (read: celebrities?) about faith and art. So far, the only interview posted is a clip of Wilson talking to Rivers Cuomo (from Weeezer) about how his burp smelled like soymilk espresso. Rivers seems uncomfortable, and so did I watching it. And this gets to the problem of SoulPancake. Wilson seems to want to “de-lamify”talking about God, but in the process he trivializes the subject, leaving us with silly antics, pseudo-intelligent questions, and an image of creativity without any substance to support it.
After exploring SoulPancake and taking note of the way it encourages dialogue about important issues in a manner that seems to trivialize those same issues, I began to wonder what Wilson’s motive was in creating the site. Few “seekers” or “skeptics” want to encourage others to ask questions about faith; it is typically only people with a strong sense of their beliefs who feel comfortable asking other people to wrestle with faith. It turns out that Wilson is a very vocal member of the Baha’i Faith. A fairly modern religion, originating in Iran in the mid-1800’s, the Baha’i Faith involves a belief in the fundamental unity of humanity. They believe in unity across races, genders, religions, and social classes. They believe that all religions worship the same God and that God has used various “Messengers” or “Manifestations” (Adam, Noah, Muhammad, Buddha, Jesus, etc) to speak to different cultures with their specific needs at different times. The center of Baha’i Faith is the unification of the humanity, spiritually and politically. For Wilson, the best part of this religion is how it is democratic, how “it has no clergy, no people telling us how to interpret the word of God.”
This democratic vision of God and religions helps explain the aesthetic and design choices at SoulPancake. If we believe that all religions worship the same God, and that our ultimate purpose in life is the unification of the human race, then encouraging people, especially young people, to engage in discussions about spirituality in a way that embraces differences over answers (“there are no wrong answers,” after all) will potentially lead them to recognize that we are all worshiping the same God.
What is startling to me, is how attractive this idea will likely be to many people, Christians and non-Christians. It fits well with our generally post-modern sensibilities by treating the sacred and profound as trivial and by suggesting that ultimately we are all on the same road to salvation. Often, in our Christian ministries we seek to get people talking about “Life’s Big Questions” anyway we can, but like SoulPancake, this usually leads to a trivializing of the issues themselves. This site also gives us the impression that we are engaged in deep, meaningful dialogue about important issues, when practically we are safe behind the image of our digital selves, an issue I have previously addressed in the context of Christians evangelizing online. While I’m confident that some genuine conversations about faith will happen on SoulPancake, it is my suspicion that in general the site will suffer the same problem as any other online forum which attempts to engender debate about those beliefs that are at the center of our identies: it will produce debate, but not sincere dialogue.
So where does this leave us as Christians? Should we avoid SoulPancake.com? Expose it as a secret conspiracy to convert people to the Baha’i Faith? Jump into the debate on the site and stand up for Christ and the Truth?
For myself, I will probably follow the conversations that happen on the site to better understand how our society (or at least its online manifestation) understands religions issues, much in the same way I read comments on Digg.com for links that promotie atheism or dismiss Christianity. But as for joining the discussion, I will keep silent, since I rarely find fundamental questions about God and faith productive in online forums, and particularly since part of the purpose of SoulPancake seems to be to normalize our faiths in order to reveal our basic spiritual “unity.” As convient as the Internet makes theological debates, and as tempting as it may be to join a spiritual conversation sponsored by a celebrity, I doubt SoulPancake is the best place for us to seek meaningful conversations about God.