Divine Programming and the last two seasons of a critically acclaimed TV show that takes religion seriously

In September, I wrote about reading the academic study Divine Programming and watching seasons one and two of the TV show Rectify. I have now watched the final two seasons of the show, seasons three and four, and was interested to see the role religion played. Here are some thoughts.

  1. Religion is certainly not as important to the plot as it was in the first season. The number of times it is mentioned decreases. There is no presence of organized or institutional religion; it is all personal or individual.
  2. The primary religious character has a return to their faith in the final season. This does not mean everything turns out correctly for them or religion helps solve big issues. It appears that their privatized faith emerges again after going through some personal trials.
  3. The final episodes interact with the themes of hope and disappointment. Arguably, these themes run throughout the entire series; when Daniel is released from prison at the beginning, this does not necessarily lead to long-term consequences for the characters as they engage with what happened in the past and their current circumstances. These are themes that certainly fit with a religious theme. Why do bad things happen? Why are we disappointed? What gives us hope? In the end, the themes of hope and disappointment are left more to the individual characters and immediate family to address, not to religion.

Considering the full show, religion did matter in the narrative arc of the show but it was not a primary force, one that even a majority of the characters engaged with, and did not provide hope or disappointment in the end. Other forces and actors were more influential and the show, like many American narratives, puts a lot of hope in individuals and close relationships among family.

The consequences of losing the physical dimensions of religious and spiritual rituals

A psychologist encouraging people to adopt religious rituals – though not necessarily the religion associated with them – highlights the physical dimension of these rituals:

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One thing that does worry me is a move toward doing these things online. We had to do it remotely because of covid-19. But these rituals are designed to happen and work best in the presence of other individuals. When we’re together, our heart rate synchronizes our breath. These mechanisms are leveraging our minds and bodies. Why do people kneel in church? There’s research showing that if you show people information on a screen above them, they place more emphasis and believe more on the higher screen because they’re looking up at it. Physiologically, we interpret something higher verticality as more authoritative. If you’re sitting on your computer or watching on your phone, I worry that we’re going to lose a lot of the power and majesty of certain rituals because we’re doing them remotely. That’s not how they were designed to work.

It is hard to overstate the communal factor of physical rituals. As sociologist Randall Collins describes in Interaction Ritual Chains, the bodily presence of others enhances the individual and collective experience.

This train of thought is also part of the reason sociologist Robert Brenneman and I wrote Building Faith. A recent trend is that people interested in religion or spirituality do it on their own and in secular settings. But, this is not what numerous religious traditions have highlighted for thousands of years. They have buildings that are intended to enhance the experience of the transcendent as well as enhance fellowship among believers. They may structure this space in different ways – whether to emphasize the preached Word, music, prayer, viewing other attendees, etc. – but they generally agree that buildings shape religious faith. Move those beliefs and practices to other spaces or to no spaces and it is something different.

Could people eventually have a faith or set of spiritual beliefs and practices and no common rituals whatsoever? Remove the physical structures and a group of people around them doing something similar and it is easier to imagine.

Divine Programming and watching two seasons of a critically acclaimed TV show that treats religion seriously

This summer I read the book Divine Programming: Negotiating Christianity in American Dramatic Television Production 1996-2016. Charlotte Howell argues that television often utilizes two techniques when portraying Christian faith: keeping it at a critical distance or depicting it a cultural feature of Southern life. However, not all television shows do this. One critically-acclaimed show Howell highlighted, Rectify, sounded interesting.

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I have now watched the first two seasons of the show. And it is indeed interesting to see how religion in incorporated as part of the plot. The main character in the drama, a man who has been released from death row even as law enforcement and legal actors are interested in putting him back in prison, finds religion in the middle of the opening season. He has a conversion and a baptism. He is attracted to this faith through the example of his sister-in-law who attends church regularly, encourages her husband to be more faithful, attends a small group, and has a gentle spirit.

Yet, at least through two seasons, the reassurances faith provides have difficulty matching up the problems the characters face. The released prisoner finds that his conversion is perhaps less important to his thriving than interacting with his sister-in-law. The sister-in-law confronts new problems and her faith no longer provides all the answers. The other main characters do not seem to interact with faith much at all and their own self-interest and hurt drives their decisions. Outside of several individual characters engaging religion (a common approach in American religiosity) , it is not present for the other characters or the community.

The faith of this show is not simple or does not always provide an answer or does not even matter to many of them. The characters have religious highs and lows and wrestle with how faith matters in real situations. The faith on the show is not front and center in the way it is in Seventh Heaven (also a case study in Howell’s book) nor is it derided or just a cultural artifact.

At the same time, it is clear that faith or religion is not driving the plot: human desires are. I will keep watching and see whether this is ultimately commentary about the ability or inability for religious faith to intercede in human affairs.

Facebook as the home for religious congregations?

Facebook is interested in partnering more with religious congregations and becoming the online home for their activity:

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Facebook, which recently passed $1 trillion in market capitalization, may seem like an unusual partner for a church whose primary goal is to share the message of Jesus. But the company has been cultivating partnerships with a wide range of faith communities over the past few years, from individual congregations to large denominations, like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ.

Now, after the coronavirus pandemic pushed religious groups to explore new ways to operate, Facebook sees even greater strategic opportunity to draw highly engaged users onto its platform. The company aims to become the virtual home for religious community, and wants churches, mosques, synagogues and others to embed their religious life into its platform, from hosting worship services and socializing more casually to soliciting money. It is developing new products, including audio and prayer sharing, aimed at faith groups…

Many of Facebook’s partnerships involve asking religious organizations to test or brainstorm new products, and those groups seem undeterred by Facebook’s larger controversies. This year Facebook tested a prayer feature, where members of some Facebook groups can post prayer requests and others can respond. The creator of YouVersion, the popular Bible app, worked with the company to test it…

They decided to try two Facebook tools: subscriptions where users pay, for example, $9.99 per month and receive exclusive content, like messages from the bishop; and another tool for worshipers watching services online to send donations in real time. Leaders decided against a third feature: advertisements during video streams…

“Consumer isn’t the right word,” he said, correcting himself. “Reach the parishioner better.”

Doing church and religion online is well established and not going away. Yet, as the article notes, this raises a whole host of issues. Here are a few of my thoughts in response:

  1. I first noticed the importance of Facebook for multiple congregations when working with data based on congregational websites. Many congregations have websites, of varying degrees of sophistication and presentation, but not all. Some of those same congregations with websites also have Facebook pages and some without websites have Facebook pages. Do congregations really need both? Do they serve different audiences? The advantage of being on a social media platform is that people are already there (as opposed to searching for or typing in a website) and it offers the opportunity for interaction (usually not possible on a website).
  2. This makes sense from Facebook’s end as religious congregations tend to be durable social groups. If there are particular services Facebook can offer (such as helping congregations gather funds), they can gain a sizable market share of religious interaction and gathering.
  3. The religious people interviewed for the story suggested social media was really good for evangelism or reaching out to people. Yet, it is then easy to slip into a particular approach to people – see the conflation of “consumer” and “parishioner” above – and possibly difficult to transition from online interaction to embodied interaction. Worshiping online fits with many American religious features such as individualism and voluntary association but long-standing concerns about helping people move from an individualistic or response-to-evangelism faith to something deeper will continue in this model.
  4. I have lots of possible thoughts on how online religious gatherings function compared to meeting in a physical building shaped by the congregation. While my co-author and I did not address this directly in our book Building Faith, we argue buildings are very important for worship and fellowship.

A “weeping” statue at the library and religious phenomena

Our local library has a sculpture outside its entrance of two children sitting on a bench reading. This is what the statue looked like on a recent morning:

This likely occurred because of the chilly morning giving away to normal spring temperatures.

However, I had just finished reading anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann’s latest book How God Becomes Real. She argues that religious people learn how to interpret phenomena many humans might experience, such as getting goosebumps or experiencing sleep paralysis, as religious experiences. Across people groups in the world and even within the same religious traditions, people interpret their bodily and mental experiences in different ways regarding religion. Yet, without these religious building blocks, what Luhrmann refers to as “kindling,” it is hard to maintain religious faith.

This relates to this particular statue because of the phenomena of weeping statues or art work or everyday objects that religious people sometimes interpret as divine activity. I have even seen this up close. When I was in college, my hometown had a tree in the downtown that started “weeping.” In a community with a sizable Catholic population, some viewed this is a religious sign. I heard about it and with a friend we went out at midnight or so – we were in college and had little else to do on a summer night in the suburbs – to see what was going on. The tree had some candles and religious items around it. Something was indeed coming out of the tree.

Could we conclusively say this was a religious sign? We could talk about the biology of what was going on. We could talk to different religious residents to hear their take. We could individually put this through our grid of beliefs and experiences and see what we made of it. I remember seeing it and thinking it was interesting. That was all. My religious tradition does not have much room for or focus much on such manifestations of the Divine. And so life went on.

Luhrmann’s work helps explain why some might see that tree – or statue – as something religious. On a lighter note, perhaps the weeping statue of a child reading is a signal of the lifelong joy of reading all can experience through the library. Or, perhaps it signals more.

Researchers adjust as Americans say they are more religious when asked via phone versus responding online

Research findings suggest Americans answer questions about religiosity differently depending on the mode of the survey:

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Researchers found the cause of the “noise” when they compared the cellphone results with the results of their online survey: social desirability bias. According to studies of polling methods, people answer questions differently when they’re speaking to another human. It turns out that sometimes people overstate their Bible reading if they suspect the people on the other end of the call will think more highly of them if they engaged the Scriptures more. Sometimes, they overstate it a lot…

Smith said that when Pew first launched the trend panel in 2014, there was no major difference between answers about religion online and over the telephone. But over time, he saw a growing split. Even when questions were worded exactly the same online and on the phone, Americans answered differently on the phone. When speaking to a human being, for example, they were much more likely to say they were religious. Online, more people were more comfortable saying they didn’t go to any kind of religious service or listing their religious affiliation as “none.”…

After re-weighting the online data set with better information about the American population from its National Public Opinion Reference Survey, Pew has decided to stop phone polling and rely completely on the online panels…

Pew’s analysis finds that, today, about 10 percent of Americans will say they go to church regularly if asked by a human but will say that they don’t if asked online. Social scientists and pollsters cannot say for sure whether that social desirability bias has increased, decreased, or stayed the same since Gallup first started asking religious questions 86 years ago.

This shift regarding studying religion highlights broader considerations about methodology that are always helpful to keep in mind:

  1. Both methods and people/social conditions change. More and more surveying (and other data collection) is done via the Internet and other technologies. This might change who responds, how people respond, and more. At the same time, actual religiosity changes and social scientists try to keep up. This is a dynamic process that should be expected to change over time to help researchers get better and better data.
  2. Social desirability bias is not the same as people lying to researchers or being dishonest with researchers. That implies an intentional false answer. This is more about context: the mode of the survey – phone or online – influences who the respondent is responding to. And with a human interaction, we might respond differently. In an interaction, we with impression management in mind where we want to be viewed in particular ways by the person with whom we are interacting.
  3. Studying any aspect of religiosity benefits from multiple methods and multiple approaches to the same phenomena under study. A single measure of church attendance can tell us something but getting multiple data points with multiple methods can help provide a more complete picture. Surveys have particular strengths but they are not great in other areas. Results from surveys should be put alongside other data drawn from interviews, ethnographies, focus groups, historical analysis, and more to see what consensus can be reached. All of this might be out of the reach of individual researchers or single research projects but the field as a whole can help find the broader patterns.

The retraction of a study provides a reminder of the importance of levels of measurement

Early in Statistics courses, students learn about different ways that variables can be measured. This is often broken down into three categories: nominal variables (unordered, unranked), ordinal variables (ranked but with varied category widths), and interval-ratio (ranked and with consistent spaces between categories). Decisions about how to measure variables can have significant influence on what can be done with the data later. For example, here is a study that received a lot of attention when published but the researchers miscoded a nominal variable:

In 2015, a paper by Jean Decety and co-authors reported that children who were brought up religiously were less generous. The paper received a great deal of attention, and was covered by over 80 media outlets including The Economist, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and Scientific American. As it turned out, however, the paper by Decety was wrong. Another scholar, Azim Shariff, a leading expert on religion and pro-social behavior, was surprised by the results, as his own research and meta-analysis (combining evidence across studies from many authors) indicated that religious participation, in most settings, increased generosity. Shariff requested the data to try to understand more clearly what might explain the discrepancy.

To Decety’s credit, he released the data. And upon re-analysis, Shariff discovered that the results were due to a coding error. The data had been collected across numerous countries, e.g. United States, Canada, Turkey, etc. and the country information had been coded as “1, 2, 3…” Although Decety’s paper had reported that they had controlled for country, they had accidentally not controlled for each country, but just treated it as a single continuous variable so that, for example “Canada” (coded as 2) was twice the “United States” (coded as 1). Regardless of what one might think about the relative merits and rankings of countries, this is obviously not the right way to analyze data. When it was correctly analyzed, using separate indicators for each country, Decety’s “findings” disappeared. Shariff’s re-analysis and correction was published in the same journal, Current Biology, in 2016. The media, however, did not follow along. While it covered extensively the initial incorrect results, only four media outlets picked up the correction.

In fact, Decety’s paper has continued to be cited in media articles on religion. Just last month two such articles appeared (one on Buzzworthy and one on TruthTheory) citing Decety’s paper that religious children were less generous. The paper’s influence seems to continue even after it has been shown to be wrong.

Last month, however, the journal, Current Biology, at last formally retracted the paper. If one looks for the paper on the journal’s website, it gives notice of the retraction by the authors. Correction mechanisms in science can sometimes work slowly, but they did, in the end, seem to be effective here. More work still needs to be done as to how this might translate into corrections in media reporting as well: The two articles above were both published after the formal retraction of the paper.

To reiterate, the researcher treated country – a nominal variable in this case since the countries were not ranked or ordered in any particular way – incorrectly which then threw off the overall results. When then using country correctly – from the description above, it sounds like using country as a dummy variable coded 1 and 0 – the findings that received all the attention disappeared.

The other issue at play here is whether corrections to academic studies or retractions are treated as such. It is hard to notify readers that a previously published study had flaws and the results have changed.

All that to say, paying attention to level of measurement earlier in the process helps avoid problems down the road.

A preview of my upcoming talk on social media, emerging adults, and religiosity

Ahead of my participation in the “Emerging Adults: Formation for Mission” conference taking place soon on the Wheaton College campus is an interview regarding my talk:

I would describe the use of social media by emerging adults as a mix of excitement and resignation. A vast majority of emerging adults participate. They describe learning about relationships they already have, connecting with friends and family, seeing pictures, sharing jokes.

They find out about events and news through social media. They search for romantic partners through social media.

On the other side, they can articulate some of the downsides of this use including a lack of focus, not spending time with people (just their feeds), and the conflict that can arise in social media. Not participating means missing key connections and knowledge that others can access. Current emerging adults have known and participated in social media all of their lives and will continue to use social media as they age beyond this life stage.

The emerging adults of today are immersed in social media, technology, and other forms of media and they bring this with them as they consider faith and church.

While there is a lot of work looking at social media or social network site (SNS) use, relatively little of it in sociology and other disciplines addresses how this activity is influenced by or influences religion. This talk will help bring together several years of research projects with my sociology colleagues Peter Mundey and Jon Hill.

A need to better understand why more education doesn’t lead to less religiosity among American Christians

A new Pew report looks at the relationship between education and religiosity:

On one hand, among U.S. adults overall, higher levels of education are linked with lower levels of religious commitment by some measures, such as belief in God, how often people pray and how important they say religion is to them. On the other
hand, Americans with college degrees report attending religious services as often as Americans with less education.
Moreover, the majority of American adults (71%) identify as Christians. And among Christians, those with higher levels of education appear to be just as religious as those with less schooling, on average. In fact, highly educated Christians are more likely than less-educated Christians to say they are weekly churchgoers.
There is a two part process with this data. First, it has to be collected, analyzed, and reported. On the face, it seems to contradict some long-held ideas within sociology and other fields that increasing levels of education would reduce religiosity. Second, however, is perhaps the tougher task of interpretation. Why is this the case among Christians and not other groups? What about the differences between Christian traditions? How exactly is religion linked to education – does the education reinforce religiosity or are they separate spheres for Christians (among other possibilities)? Data is indeed helpful but proper explanation can often take much longer.

Evangelicals recommend four beliefs that should identify them on surveys

The National Association of Evangelicals and LifeWay Research suggest evangelicals should be identified by agreeing with four beliefs:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

More on the reasons for these four:

The statements closely mirror historian David Bebbington’s classic four-point definition of evangelicalism: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. But this list emphasizes belief rather than behavior, said Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research.

“Affiliation and behavior can be measured in addition to evangelical beliefs, but this is a tool for researchers measuring the beliefs that evangelicals—as determined by the NAE—believe best define the movement,” he said.

A few quick thoughts on this:

  1. On one hand, it can be helpful for religious groups to identify what they see as unique to them. Outsiders may not pick up on these things. On the other hand, outsiders might see beliefs or other characteristics that mark evangelicals.
  2. Measuring religiosity involves a lot more than just beliefs. From later in the article:

    “Identity, belief, and behavior are three different things when it comes to being an evangelical,” McConnell said. “Some people are living out the evangelical school of thought but may not embrace the label. And the opposite is also true.”

    So this is just one piece of the puzzle. And I think sociologists (and other social scientists) have contributed quite a bit here in looking at how these particular theological views relate to other social behavior from race relations to voting to charitable activity and more.

  3. The suggestion here is that research shows the “correct” number of evangelicals identify with these four statements – identifying evangelicals in other ways seems to get to similar percentages as working with these four beliefs. Yet, I wonder how many evangelicals would name these four statements if asked what they believe. How exactly are these statements taught and passed on within evangelicalism?