Book Launch: Theology, Religion, and Dystopia

By: Scott Donahue-Martens, PhD Candidate in Homiletics

During my M.Div. studies I took a class that explored intersections between the gospel and fantasy literature. This course kindled a type of theological thinking within me that I never would have imagined. The professor, Dr. Osmer inspired me to incorporate fantasy literature insights and interactions in my preaching, chaplain work, and teaching. I found that the popular culture insights connected with parishioners, patients, and students so I’ve continued to reflect on the gospel in light of some elements from popular culture. Popular culture offers opportunities for connection because authors frequently imbue their works with meaningful moral dilemmas and rich religious insights, speaking to widely shared human experiences. I’ve found that popular culture opens an imaginative space that can be fertile for the work of practical theology. Because works of popular culture frequently present a problem or situation for religious and theological thinking, readers are invited to interpret ultimate reality, God, or gospel in dialogical manners.

Popular culture media have become a meeting place for conversation and meaning making as friends gather around screens and books. Theological and religious thinking are common in popular culture and often represent popular understandings of religion and theology. While it might be tempting to scoff at some of the religious and theological portrayals, I think it is important to engage them with seriousness as they perform a formative function for people in the United States and around the world. Whether it is the largely post-Christian imagination employed in the show The Good Place or Octavia Butler’s gripping narrative the The Parable of the Sower, works of popular culture often stimulate theological and religious thinking for those who critically engage them. The past decade has seen an increased number of dystopian narratives in popular culture. The Hunger Games and the adaption of The Handmaid’s Tale are two examples of dystopian works which have captured the imagination of audiences while disclosing systematic concerns in the actual world.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wondered what a collection of chapters at the intersections of theology, religion, popular culture, and dystopia might look like. Dr. Simonson and I asked ourselves why dystopia was on the rise in popular culture and whether theology and religious studies could offer insight into what this suggests about society. Convinced that dystopia had some connection to ancient apocalyptic literature, we launched into conversation with modern and ancient texts as a way of exploring the pre-pandemic and pandemic world.

After engaging initial conversations, and gathering other interested scholars to contribute chapters, Dr. Simonson and I are pleased to share that our co-edited volume Theology, Religion, and Dystopia has been published by Fortress Academic and is available for purchase. The book covers a variety of dystopian situations; Interstellar, The Hunger Games, The Walking Dead, The Giver, and Asimov’s Foundation are some of the dystopian works that received chapter length attention. Those interested in eco-theology, queer theology, capitalism, and violence in popular culture will find resonating chapters and analyses of relevant dystopian visions as well. The book is almost evenly divided among authors who primarily take theological approaches and those who engage dystopia through the discipline of Religious Studies. STH Hebrew Bible students from the past few years will recognize topics like demythologization, apocalyptic, and prophetic eschatology, and many contributors have some connection to STH. In the first chapter, which provides a framework for dystopia, we argue that dystopia can be understood as demythologized apocalyptic, drawing from both religious and theological studies. The volume seeks to understand popular culture’s turn to dystopia and the implications for well-being in the 21st century.

For more information and a table of contents, follow the publisher’s link:

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