Spotlight on Research: Dr. Brett Potter on what Star Trek, sports, and movies can teach us about religion.

Dr. Brett Potter (PhD, University of St. Michael’s College) is a partial-load professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Sheridan, teaching world religions and the philosophy of religion. Over the past six years teaching in the diverse context of Sheridan College, where students represent an incredibly wide range of religious and cultural traditions, he has worked to help students understand the complexity of global religions in critical and creative conversation with issues in contemporary culture. Three of Brett’s research projects from this past year give a window onto his ongoing research, which is particularly focused on the intersection of religion and popular culture. What can film, music, television, and even sports teach us about the varieties of religious experience? Conversely, how can the vocabulary of religion and spirituality inform new interdisciplinary explorations in popular culture and creativity?

This interdisciplinary approach can lead to all sorts of new areas of study – even into outer space! In one recent publication, a book chapter for the upcoming Theology and Star Trek (Rowman & Littlefield), Brett looks at one of the most memorable villains of the popular sci-fi series: the Borg. As cybernetic hybrids, whose bodies are a mixture of human flesh and machine technology, the inhuman Borg are a cautionary tale about the contemporary discourse around transhumanism and human enhancement. In his chapter, Brett connects the “alien  flesh” of the Borg to larger questions about the ontology of human and nonhuman bodies, the politics of colonization, and religious narratives of resurrection and transformation.

Image: Creative Commons

Discussions around the body and religion also feature heavily in Brett’s recent article “Tracing the Landscape: Re-Enchantment, Play, and Spirituality in Parkour,” published as part of a special issue on religion and sports in Religions journal. Here the emphasis is on bodies in motion, looking at the new, urban sport known as le parkour (and its close cousin “free-running”) through the lens of religious ideas of pilgrimage, ritual, and sacred space. Parkour differs significantly from more traditional sports like basketball or hockey in breaking out of the “sacred” space of the arena or stadium; instead, it takes place in the urban environment, out on the streets of cities from Paris to Palestine. The dynamic, embodied movement involved in this physically demanding sport, which transforms the walls, railings, and barriers of the city into waypoints in a malleable obstacle course, is explored as a kind of creative, haptic meaning-making or poiesis. Parkour and free-running are examined not just as innovative sports, but in reference to Buddhist vipassana meditation; medieval Christian pilgrimages; and as an expression of sacred “play.”

Finally, Brett – who before completing his doctorate in religion studied film and video production at York University – is also writing a book on Jewish, Christian, and Hindu religious themes in the films of Darren Aronofsky, the director behind films like Black Swan, Noah, mother!, and The Fountain. Aronosfky’s first film pi explores Jewish mysticism through the language of mathematics, while films like mother! and Noah re-cast stories from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sources (both canonical and apocryphal) as modern parables of ecological collapse. Examining themes such as mysticism, reincarnation, duality, planetary ecology, and the complex hermeneutics of telling ancient stories in the contemporary world, the book will look at Aronofsky’s often bleak and disturbing filmography in critical interreligious perspective.

The academic study of religion is not just about ancient texts, but about understanding and recontextualizing currents in modern society. Brett hopes that through his ongoing research and teaching, he can help Sheridan students make connections between their experience of popular culture – even their favourite science fiction films! – and their understanding of spiritual beliefs and practices around the world.