(RNS) -- Is religion the new comeback kid?
Since the 1960s my work has involved understanding faith and culture and interpreting each for the other.
If there is one consistent theme over those years, it has been that most Americans are very comfortable describing themselves as "spiritual," but definitely do not want to be described as "religious."
I've always been -- and remain -- fascinated with America's spiritual quest, which today is often unlinked from organized religion.
There's a vibrant ongoing conversation about "ideas that matter" and belief within pop culture, movies, books, theater and music.
Much of the energy surrounds "spirituality," however you define the term, rather than "religion." So I surprised even myself the other day when I had to stop and ask whether it's actually religion, and not spirituality, that's on the upswing.
It took the tenacious insistence of a young religion writer, Piet Levy, to press this point home to me.
Levy and I talked for his article (for Religion News Service) about the Sundance Film Festival, which opened this way: "Celebrity sightings and up-and-coming indie flicks are a given at the annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, but this year something else is drawing attraction on the red carpet: faith on film."
In our conversation, Levy was trying to make the case that there are more religious films at Sundance than in years past. At first, I didn't buy the assumption.
For the past five years I've been part of Windrider, a forum that takes place on the Sundance sidelines with the aim of facilitating discussion among young student filmmakers and graduate students in theology or philosophy about the making and meaning of films.
Each year we pick 10 to 20 films that deal with spiritual themes, and in all those years there has never been a shortage of Sundance films to discuss. I told Levy that while Sundance may include more overtly "religious" films, it's always dealt with "spiritual" themes.
But to press his point, Levy quoted John Nein, a senior Sundance programmer: "There are definitely more films (exploring spirituality) that ended up in the program this year than in years past."
The article continued with Nein "noting an uptick in the number of submissions that touch on religious themes. Out of 120 Sundance features scheduled to show at the Jan. 20-30 festival, 12 are overt stories about religion, or chronicle protagonists largely defined by faith."
I still think the distinction between "religion" and "spirituality" is a useful and important one. I also agree with longtime religion scribe Phyllis Tickle, who noted in her book, God Talk in America, that "more theology is conveyed in, and probably retained from one hour of popular television, than from all the sermons that are also delivered on any given weekend in America's synagogues, churches and mosques."
To be sure, there is evidence that "religion" is making a comeback in American life. Levy cited William L. Blizek, founding editor of the Journal of Religion and Film and professor at the University of Nebraska, who says religion may have a higher profile at Sundance this year because "religion has become a much more visible part of our culture."
I agree that religion is visible today, but I also think there's something more going on. Today's younger generation is taking a second look at formal religion. Within Christianity, the vibrant "emergent" and "missional" church movements are both attempts at showing the connection between ancient faith and contemporary life, and then redefining how the church connects to that conversation.
Seattle's Mars Hill Church is one of the fastest-growing churches around, and appeals largely to 20- and 30-year-olds. Across town, the weekly compline service at St. Mark's Episcopal Church -- which has been going strong for half a century -- is packed with the same demographic.
So maybe "religion" is making a comeback after all.
I often ask students, "Are you on a spiritual journey or a religious journey?" Which is followed by, "Is a spiritual journey within a religious tradition the optimal experience?"
"Religion" done right offers three things the go-it-alone "spiritual" journey does not: roots in history, time-tested ethical teachings and the company of community with whom to share your journey.
Religion the comeback kid? Maybe. I'll be at Sundance to find out.
Dick Staub is author of the just-released About You: Fully Human and Fully Alive and the host of The Kindlings Muse (www.thekindlings.com). His blog can be read at www.dickstaub.com).
c. 2011 Religion News Service. Used with permission.
Publication date: January 24, 2011