In this episode of Nearly Numinous, join Steph, Jacqueline, and Rachel as they have a roundtable discussion with Dr. M Shobhana Xavier all about Zac Efron’s new travelogue – Down to Earth. We chat about the idea of sacred spaces, religious healing, and ecospirituality – all sprinkled with a little bit of swooning over Zac Efron and carbs. We also ask the question of how Netflix and other pop culture media has a lasting impact on religious experience.
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Welcome to this week’s episode of Nearly Numinous. Today, we have our hosts, Jacqueline (myself), as well as Steph and Rachel. We also have a guest Dr. Shobhana Xavier, an assistant professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University. She works on contemporary global Islam and Sufism, with particular regional interests in the United States and Canada as well as Sri Lanka. Within this work, she looks at sacred spaces such as Sufi shrines, rituals, practices, and memory in addition to gender dynamics. She also has an interest in religion and popular culture; for the last few years, she has taught a course on this subject, and it is this area of research that we will be focusing on.
So in the last few months, a lot of us have probably spent a lot more time streaming sites like Netflix, and between “Unorthodox”, “Warrior Nun,” The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” we’re seeing a lot of religion and spirituality being alive and well in Netflix’ new TV shows. So today, we wanted to talk about a show that doesn’t have a lot of overt religious themes. But we think there’s a lot of things worth discussing. So we’re very excited to be diving into Zac Efron’s recent documentary down to earth, which was released in Netflix in July 2020. Shobhana, would you like to just explain a little bit about who you are and what your research is? And maybe also why we thought you’d be a great person to be on the show with us.
Dr. Shobhana Xavier 1:44
Yeah, sure. Thank you so much for having me on. This is so exciting. And I think this is so great that you’re doing this. I’m an assistant professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University. I came here, I think I’m starting my third year in September, so I guess I’m fairly new but not as new-ish. And I did my Ph.D. at Wilfrid Laurier University, and I’ve taught in the US for a little bit and I was happy to come back to Canada when I had the opportunity because I grew up in Scarborough. I’m originally from Sri Lanka, but then came to Canada when I was about six years old. So I have this bit of a transnational experience. And, and I became, I’ve always been interested in religion, I think like, you know, your hosts. I did religious studies in my undergrad and religious studies in my Master’s in religious studies in my Ph.D., and I also taught so I went to teachers college, and I have a teaching background. So I find that as an assistant professor, all of these kinds of academic training, but also my own personal experiences come together. And so that’s what I love about working at themes and being in School of Religion.
I love religion and pop culture. So it’s something that I work on and write on. But when I write on it and do research on it, I do it specifically in the context of Islam on pop culture, and particularly Rumi. So I don’t know if your listeners know or the hosts know that Rumi is a 13th century Muslim Sufi poet. And since, and he was very important in you know, who’s a classical thinker, but since kind of the colonial times of Rumi’s poetry, but also others like Hafez who’s another Persian poet, his poems have been translated. And recently in like the 20th and 21st century, you’re seeing a lot of Rumi poems on like Facebook on Twitter, like when he has a Twitter account, but somebody is running and kind of curious know who’s running the Twitter account, but has like, like thousands and sometimes even millions of followers. And now there’s an interesting phenomenon Rumi being like misquoted. So like the way that somebody creates a meme and gives Buddha a quote, or Rumi a quote, people, it’s not really a real quote, and famous people are, you know, quoting Rumi or having Rumi tattooed on their body, like Brad Pitt has a Rumi quote on his body that’s tattooed. We don’t even know if it’s like an authentic Rumi quote. So like, I’m really interested in that like, I’m really interested in thinking about how Rumi is translated and how Rumi is like, this huge pop cultural icon, but he becomes pop cultural icon at the cost of like his Muslim ness, right? He becomes a universal grew, he becomes a universal New Age kind of figure. But in the process of that happening, he often like his Muslim identity and his idea what Islam is, as a universal identity is like, purged or erased. And I find that very interesting and a time when global Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hostility is so rampant. So just it’s like the political and social height of anti-Muslim violence. You also have someone like Rumi, who occupies you know, Amazon and New York Times bestseller, like how does that happen? Right. And so it’s a Rumi that is not Muslim, but a Rumi that’s universal and for the New Age market, right. And so I find there’s a disconnect there.
So I guess before we dive in, we should maybe give a bit of an overview of what the show “Down to Earth” is for those that are tuning in, and maybe haven’t watched it yet. So to give a very brief overview, it’s a documentary frequently referred to as almost a travel log by Zac Efron and his co-star Darrin Olien. So obviously, we all know who Zac Efron is, at least I hope we do. Teen heartthrob, still a heartthrob even though I’m not a teen anymore. And we’ve got Darrin Olien, who is a businessman, self-proclaimed wellness expert, and author, he wrote a book that is very heavily promoted throughout the show. And that seems to have a lot of controversy surrounding it. So his main thing is that he’s super, he’s super into superfoods. And he also promotes these kind of alternative wellness. And he works a lot with promoting vegan diets, all that kind of stuff that you see coming out of Hollywood wellness experts. So something that I saw when I was doing a bit of research outside of this show was that he’s often referred to as kind of the bro version of Gwyneth Paltrow, which I think comes through a lot throughout the show, especially when he says, “bro” every two sentences. So in this show, they travel from different countries, they gather insights into what they believe will cause this kind of sustainable revolution that the world needs. Throughout this, they interact with a lot of local cultures and customs. They have a lot of strange foods. And it’s a little bit of a fun insight into what happens in some of these other communities.
Yeah, so obviously, throughout the show, there are quite a few instances where Zac and Darrin interact directly with religious or spiritual themes. But there are also quite a few examples that we’ve all noticed that may not seem so obvious. So, for example, and this is in my area of research, I noticed that a lot of their discussions on nature had this reverential aspect to them, sort of framing nature as sacred, even when it’s not tied to local religious traditions at all, like when they’re talking about the power of growing local food, or waterfalls, or just the beauty of nature, and was wondering what other perhaps non-obvious things you guys might have noticed in the show.
So I think one of the big ones for me, that I noticed was just the idea of pilgrimage, and how heavily we place, kind of there’s a lot of pilgrimage and journey within the show itself, and a lot of growth and learning that seems to happen regardless of opinions on that growth and learning. So I’m really excited to dive a little bit into that one.
Yeah, so the last episode, we talked about how the numinous kind of deals with this mysterious, yet familiar kind of entity. And so it just reminds me of like, the opening of the show, Zac Efron uses this, like David Attenborough voice to kind of open up the show, I wish I could, like, do that as an example, but I can’t really do accents. And so just like making, they’re going to Iceland, so they were making Iceland sound like super mysterious and, and so that just reminded me of, when we talked about last time about that experience of say, going to the mountaintop and, and feeling this fear, but also this amazement, so the mystery that they kind of set up but also how they make everyday things like water or food kind of take on this the spiritual aspect in that it’s both familiar, yet mysterious.
Dr. Xavier 8:42
Yeah. Um, I think some of the examples that you all mentioned, I think those are things that I’ve thought about. I really thought like the idea of like, food was interesting, right? Like I think food is a spiritual experience. It’s a ritual experience because I think everywhere they went from like, being in Iceland and boiling the eggs in the volcano, like that the soil to even like being in the Amazon or ingesting I was scared though, I Alaska is not necessarily a food, but you know, there’s something to do with kind of food practices, especially I think, as Stephanie introduced Darrin’s kind of, I guess crusades for diets or whatever these like super, super healthy diets and he’s presenting them so I think that was interesting. But yeah, I think there was I just found the whole thing to be like and I guess this is what Religious Studies scholars do and students of religious studies do just do you see something and you could only see through the lens of religion, right and so I think for me the whole thing from beginning to end just felt like oh, wow, this is definitely has to do with religion. And I was like, trying to figure out ways to incorporate it into my religion and pop culture class and beat on nature beat on food, even beat on commodification, right? Like I don’t know if y’all notice like, but Zac would have his visa card that he would like try to promote and like see like, how much of it is like how much are all of you these things commodified and what is the role of like commodity and consumption and religious practices and things like that, right? So yeah, I think these are all like amazing themes. And we’re barely scratching the surface of what was kind of presented to us in this docu-series.
So yeah, in “Down to Earth,” we see a lot of different elements of the sacredness of nature. So like scientific, spiritual, experiential, aesthetic themes. And usually we see a combination of all of them. And in our discussion, we’ll be focusing on the ways in which religiosity and or spirituality intersect with, like Jacqueline was saying, awe and appreciation of nature in “Down to Earth.” So like I said, my work is in eco-spirituality. But I actually find that another term fits better for this sort of eco-spirituality I see in this show, which is reverential naturalism, which is the sense that being out in nature is not just a place where one does spirituality or religion, but it is a medium through which it is done. And I think that really captures the aspects of awe and appreciation that are so often important in eco-spiritual practices and eco-spiritual practices and beliefs. And that Zac and Darrin throughout the show, really tend to engage with. They often express that appreciation of nature and appreciation of sort of the sacredness of nature. Another thing I noticed, that has to do with the ecological aspects of the show, are lots of mentions of apocalyptic themes. So when they discuss climate change, or food shortage or poor distribution of food, unclean water, lack of biodiversity, it all takes on this apocalyptic lens that I think is usually used, it’s usually meant to inspire action in viewers. Yeah. So apocalyptic themes are, of course, like part and parcel of climate change discussions. And when they are used, they’re usually meant to place emphasis on action, which the show does quite a bit of the time. But even when they are using this refreshing emphasis on action, that a lot of shows talking about nature don’t and climate change don’t have, they’re also showing this naive ignorance of the barriers to action. It’s a very optimistic show, without discussing all the ways in which the solutions they presented might not work out or might not be put into action. And, honestly, it’s all been covered before in different and more thorough ways in other shows. And I found that the only thing it really adds to the existing body of environmentalist media out there is one: Zac Efron, which it was lacking.
I know; they only showed him with a shirt off like once.
And two: a more mainstream platform for broadcasting these ideas, which of course, is very helpful and useful. But as a result, it’s also pretty watered down. It’s a shallow look at worldwide problems, which happened to have incredibly complex and deep-seated issues.
Like the solutions that they found, they didn’t really present why those might not work. They didn’t try to problem-solve.
I had noticed that they never really discussed like, the structural, institutional barriers to promoting sustainability as well. Like they talked a lot about the, they showed a lot of examples of some of the ways in which people in their communities are putting sustainability into action, but they never really discussed why other communities might not be doing that, whether it’s money reasons or a monopoly on energy sources in an area; there are always downsides, or there are always barriers to things that they never really discussed. And I think that was, that was a mistake.
Their way around that was almost like a tokenization of especially Puerto Rico. They kind of presented it as almost this solution of, well, if this poor country can figure it out, why can’t everyone else?
Yeah, just do it.
And that was their approach to it.
Dr. Xavier 15:31
I think I definitely agree. And I almost was wondering how like, it was like, presented in a binary way, like very much the way early Religious Studies scholars studied or like anthropologist studied of like, positioning the east and the west, like that, quote, unquote, primitive cultures versus the modern Western cultures, right. And the way that certain topics like like you’re saying, when they went to, like, the way London was presented, versus the way that, like Puerto Rico was presented, right, even though they’re borrowing and like are engaging in different sites. I do, I do feel that there were unsettling moments, especially when you have like two men like white men who are going into these spaces and occupying a very gendered and raised position and that are encountering these ritual practices. And, and are having these moments that seems like at times, I felt more with Darrin and not with Zac as much. And I don’t know, if it’s because I’m trying, I’m trying to be protective of Zac. But like, Darrin came off more or more of like, someone who like was walking into spaces of like a White Saviour and had like more of like, an audacious presence in some of these moments, especially with like the ayahuasca ritual, and all of these things. And, and so I think it really does go back to this point that was being made that, yeah, like, there’s some kind of like, you know, typical, like, lack of historical presentation of some of the contexts they were going into, and also like, not really fully nuancing why certain systems are in place, and why certain things are working, the way that they’re working, which is like culture, like, you know, which is colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, all of these things, right. And I thought, I thought that was really that like, that was like, you had to really pay attention to pick it up, because you’re kind of taken away by the scenery, and you’re kind of taken away by the cinematography, and you’re really taken away by the music and the easygoing feel of like, Zac and Darrin’s relationship, where if you knew, and you got to pay attention to be like, oh, maybe this has more to do with like, like, you know, quote, unquote, Global World Order, or like, you know, people talk about First World and Second World, like in the least problematic categories, or maybe this has more to do with, like, post-colonial realities, or this has more to do with capitalism than it’s just like, Oh, we could all just become vegan, and therefore, maybe solve this one problem. Or we could all just, you know, try to figure out how to filter water. Or we can maybe, like, have ideas of belief, and make it very personal and individualistic, right? Like, I do agree to some capacity that these are like, like, it’s great that it’s on mainstream media. But yeah, I don’t think anything was resolved at the end, right. Like, there was never resolutions at any of the end episodes. Beyond the only issue was that maybe Darrin’s house burned down? And what does that mean for somebody who lives in the Western world that their house burns down, whereas communities that they had gone and gone into, like, you know, Puerto Rico, and you know, the hurricane, and it was like, oh, here, we’ve come in, and we’re going to help you rebuild. Right? Which was really interesting, right? Like, it was, again, this position, like very, like an anthropological, let’s go into this other society, and let’s use my status to help. But I’m going to go back to my community, right. And there’s still a disconnect. I know, you all felt that, but that I had
Oh, for sure.
Dr. Xavier 18:47
Like that feeling throughout, yeah.
I think one of my biggest issues with the show, and I’ve voiced this to Jacqueline and Rachel already was that almost everything that they looked at, save for maybe one or two things did not, you didn’t need to go to that specific location to find it. So you look at a lot of the sustainable initiatives that were happening, they’re happening in the US, but that’s not a show that sells, you know, and that can kind of get into the commodification thing. We can start to transition to that because I think, you know, maybe the water in Lourdes was, you know, very specific to place, but there’s other places throughout the US, you know, that they could have done.
Dr. Xavier 19:32
Right, right, right. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if you’re going to talk about water and water issues, why don’t you go to Flint, Michigan, do you know I mean, like why do you need to go London and talk about how, or you know, European countries who are offering free water on the streets. You can do the other reality that like indigenous communities that are don’t have access to water in the North American context, or that Flint, Michigan is under has, you know, had these water situation for all these years and the government hasn’t done anything. Like why, like, but that like, that’s the like the religious studies that’s like the anthropological, like, we need to go to the exotic other, right? Like, it’s harder to be self-reflexive and look internally within our own context as it’s not exotic enough, like it’s too much in our backyard. But like as the expert, you need to go to another context and colonize or, or not colonize, but you know, they mean you need to like, you can be the native studying your own context, you need to go to something far away, and then embed yourself there and then like to extract knowledge, because you’ve been become the expert who speaks for that context. And there were moments that felt like that, and throughout this show, I think, for me, at least for me, yeah.
When especially like, Darrin, I noticed he would, he would often interrupt the experts, which was kind of interesting
Well because he’s an expert
Expert in quotation marks.
Dr. Xavier 20:48
Yeah. So like, you’re going there, and then like, you’re not even gonna listen to them. That’s really weird.
Dr. Xavier 20:54
Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Especially when he starts like, you know, like, I think there was one moment and I want to say they were in Puerto Rico. And then they were taking sap from a tree and the individual, like the local expert, the indigenous person is like explaining, but it’s presented as, like Darrin is telling the rest of the crew like, these are the, like you consume this and it helps you with your back pain, or does this or that the other? And like, Darrin, you just showed up off the boat? Like, what? Who are you, right?
Yeah, well, I even think too he, in an interview, he even admitted that he didn’t wait for the experts to tell him these things. He went and learned it for himself. Which I mean, we’re, we’ve all spent a lot of time in university already here that, uh, I think we can say that that’s not how it works, you know.
Dr. Xavier 21:42
And that’s like, that itself is a colonial complex, whether we name it or not, right, like the extraction of knowledge, the positioning of oneself as the expert. I mean, these are the things that we critique now in people like in religious studies and these other fields, right, where we want to think in decolonial ways and think about epistemologies that are coming from people who actually are experts in them, as opposed to being the supposed intermediary and translator just because your body looks a particular way, or you have a particular social status or national identity. And I think like Darrin embodied everything, all of that for me, and it was so annoying. But yeah, I’m being hard. But yeah.
So what I found really interesting was that they like, they went to Costa Rica and went to this eco-village, and the entire time they were in Costa Rica, they, they just interacted with ex-pats. And there was this one scene where they were like, on this boat going somewhere else. And there were some like, I think indigenous people like driving the boat, but they don’t actually ever talk to them. And they kind of like zoom in on them.
They show, they show a lot of the locals in a lot of shots and I even wondered if they were getting media releases for it, because it was usually just on a boat going by and stuff. Anyway, that was my question with that.
Dr. Xavier 22:56
Yeah, like when that when they got to the eco-village, and everybody came out, and I was like, Oh, this is a cult. Like, it felt like oh, these are, and then you know like they, So the fundamentals of everybody, like you know, eats from whatever is around them and cooks and like lives in sustainable ways and are being productive. I think the essence of that idea is so important. But I mean, it was like so co-opted by the fact that like nobody’s asked, wondering why are these experts here and occupying land that’s not theirs. And you know, having this supposed spiritual experience and like living in you know, spiritually sustained ways because the way that they were saying they’re like, supposed grace before they ate they were holding hands they were in a circle and you know, all of this becomes this really spiritual awe-inspiring moment, but the whole time you’re like, wait, nobody none of you actually like are from here originally like you but you’ve had the power and capital to to move like you say, get on a plane, get on a boat, and then move and like potentially displace people and have now taken up this space, but it’s not yours. Like, what does it look like to do this in your own land where you’re from? Like, why are you not willing to save America or wherever you’re from, but you’re, you’re okay to go and display somebody else and then take that space and live in like, you know, the language of being spiritually grounded and one with the land and all of that, that episode and that scene, it’s still in my head when they all come out that I was like, Oh, okay.
And when Zac Efron’s like, “Dude shut up there’s chicks coming.”
Dr. Xavier 24:23
Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. Which really, as you say, like really presents kind of the masculine gendered way that both Zac and and you guys that you folks were saying the beginning that like Darrin’s always like bro bro and they’re having like really weird conversations when it’s one to one and sometimes it feels like they’re having a father, father-son relationship, that they’re working through something. Other times it feels like they’re just a bunch of like, quote unquote dudes like unleashed and are having like weird moments, right? And so I just, yeah, like I think like the fact that there was just such a masculine perspective and it was gendered in such like a heteronormative way was also like fascinating. And you’re right, like when they’re like, Oh, look, there’s chicks on the shore and they’re waving at us. It was just like, uh, like, this, this is not cool, right?
And then at one point, I think just after he was like, “Oh, there, there’s some dudes with long hair.” Okay, cool. Yeah.
yeah. Well, and even like when they’re trying to have heart to heart conversations, especially in the last scene of the last episode, when they’re sitting in the car, trying to have this heartfelt discussion, there’s an F-bomb, every other word. It’s like, Oh, don’t forget, we’re bros. Like we’re gonna be touchy-feely, but at our core, we’re cool dudes.
We’re just bros being dudes traveling the world.
Dr. Xavier 25:41
They should just use that as a tagline for the show. Essentially, what it was, which is interesting, because I think Rachel to your point, I wonder how much of it is like they were playing up, they’re hyper-masculine, like they were being hyper-masculine, to kind of change this narrative that like, eco fem, like, you know, like, because we usually associate spirituality and ecological moments, at least in a religious sense to like ecofeminism and tied it to like a, like a fem, like, quote, unquote, like socially constructed feminine tendency. So I wonder how much of that they felt that like, these are discussions and these are like movements that are usually gendered in very feminine ways in this binary sense. And they felt that as like, men, they needed to come with like masculinity, but hyper-masculinity to kind of like, insert themselves, right, to almost make it like, Oh, this could be like, bro dude thing too, like, we could be dudes about it and talk about ecology, talk about like nature and not make it seem like gendered in such like, a passive way. Right? Like, what do you think about that, Rachel, ’cause I’m curious since you researched this.
That’s a very good point. I think that um, that masculinizing, masculinization? Is that a word?
Dr. Xavier 26:55
Yeah, you can totally claim it.
I’m claiming I’m claiming a new word. Masculinization of the ecological messages. I think that’s just one of the ways that they made those messages more commercially, commercially palatable. That’s how you pronounce that, right? I’m doing well.
Dr. Xavier 27:12
Yeah. Yeah, you’re doing so good. Yeah, totally.
Yeah, I think that’s one of the ways they managed to make or they tried to make those messages more commercially palatable. And I guess more relatable for millennials and people who would not usually be interested in the sort of environmentalist ecological messages like other dudebros who are might be like Zac Efron’s age.
I think it’s interesting too, though, that on the note of when they start kind of interacting with more spiritual things and more things that we typically associate with the kind of the feminine identity, they shy away from it a lot, like when they go and do the ayahuasca bath, they don’t really go into detail about you know, spiritual experience, or things like that, you know, even in the Lourdes episode, Zac maybe says one sentence on, “Wow, this feels like a very spiritual place.” But then that’s kind of it, you know, they really don’t want to get too touchy-feely, I guess.
Dr. Xavier 28:22
That’s such an interesting point. Like, I think it I hadn’t really thought about it until I was in conversation with you. But yeah, I think there’s like, the gendered lens and the way that like, religion, spirituality, like ecology, any of these kind of conversations around sustainability, like, I think their response to it and how they perform around it, and they’re like, like, existence in those moments are really, like interesting, because in Iceland, it doesn’t come off like that, because they feel like they’re in you know, they’re in the, in the rugged Iceland and they’re having these like, you know, I don’t know, just felt like they were being like, normal men. Like, not in a, like, you know, but in other moments that they were just like, being hyper about it, and like, you know, needing to turn the dial up because they were feeling and I think, you know, Stephanie, you’re right, like, I think the the ayahuasca one too. I mean, that was the episode that I found was most like, like, culturally appropriative, right. This happens with any kind of ayahuasca ritual, like a lot of conversations, but like, yeah, even in that instance, whereas Darrin, like Darrin was willing to, like, be a little bit more fluid whereas Zac wasn’t. So yeah, this is so interesting. I have to think about it more and process it more. Or re-watch the episode.
Yeah, that reminds me of, like in the Iceland, how you mentioned that they don’t seem to shy away from like, kind of spirituality as much. I noticed they really focused in on like, the Star Wars imagery of like, “the force is with us,” and like, they really looked at like energy and stuff. And I thought that was Yeah, that was quite interesting. Um, I think they only focused on energy and the force in that episode, but to me it kind of it did take up this kind of spiritual aspect to it. Um, yeah, just because they were talking about like, the energy below the ground of Iceland with like volcanoes and stuff, but then they’re also talking about green energy. And so it um, I guess because it fits into this, this view of like the dudebro watching Star Wars, maybe it kind of like fits into that narrative a little bit better. Yeah, I was also I was thinking about just how they talked about energy and how that related to like, eco-spirituality and like green energy, I was wondering if anybody, like thought about that as well.
It’d be interesting to know, like, more specifically what you mean, in because I do understand that there’s a lot to do with energy in the idea of like, religious experience, you know, and especially with kind of like, the SBNR community, what that idea of energy means even you know, the idea of like grounding, they do that when they arrive in France. But that’s, that’s been something that’s been on like the kind of Gwyneth Paltrow SBNR, you know, kind of wavelength for years. And, you know, you see it more, I’m kind of interested, actually, that they did that in France and not in Iceland, because you’d think like the idea of gathering energy from the earth, they’d really want to do that kind of thing in Iceland. But like, what, what kind of things were you seeing with that?
Dr. Xavier 31:19
Yeah, I mean, I wonder, I wonder how much of this is like a New Age, like our contemporary moment. And I know New Age is like the thing that we like, it’s very complicated. And so there’s the “Spiritual But Not Religious” folks. And then there’s like, new religious movements and like New Age, and so it’s like a concoction of all these different movements. I wonder how like, energy is like an easier word to use, right? Then like it like it’s more palatable, great word, to our, like, contemporary sense of like science and like modernity, where, like, you like, I guess some people would use energy in the New Age sense. But that’s also informed by like a contemporary scientific, like discourse, right? And so, like, what would be the adjacent word of energy in religious studies?
Dr. Xavier 32:06
Exactly. Spirit. Yeah. Or like God, right? Like, because you don’t like there’s never mentioned of a, like a god throughout. There’s like the idea of like, an energy or force, as you’re saying, and even with the Lourdes episode, it’s like, more focused on the Virgin Mary and like, the, the actual experience of you know, I think Bernadette, right, who had the, like, miraculous vision and the water, but it’s like, even like, Zac is like struggling to save this idea of like, you know, are you are you praying to a god, like, or something that’s out there? So I don’t think throughout any of them, there’s a sense that they’re like, you know, they’re talking about a god. So they’re still like, avoiding, you know, the language of like, what we would see as religious studies folks, like, like God, and church and all of these things, even though it’s kind of there, but I think you’re right, I think they were like, more comfortable using ideas like energy and using the language that really aligns a little bit more with like, um, you know, ecological movements, but I didn’t like I don’t know, maybe it’s because of Zac’s generation. Like, who knows, right. Like, I don’t know, if it’s a generational thing. I mean, Darrin definitely doesn’t seem to dislike it doesn’t seem into like religion beyond like, I’m like, using it as like, just
A wellness technique.
Dr. Xavier 33:23
Yeah, exactly. Like because the one thing I remember of them is when they were both on that roof and like, were, I forgot where they were staying. But he just like made Zac do some breathing like meditation in the morning. But yeah, he only approaches it I think as Steph was saying like, as a well, wellness approach, right, which we all know like. And again, with like Gweneth Paltrow and all these other movements that we’re noticing, like, how much of that is fulfilling this market, where people are moving away from religious institutions. But like, as SBNR literature says, they’re really still wanting something that feeds them, that individually provides like, it’s this individualistic that gives them a sense of choice, that it’s not, like allows them to be like fluid. I think, like, Darrin epitomizes that, right? I don’t know if like where Zac is located in all of this stuff, right. But I think like Darrin is an example of what like the wellness industry is and how you kind of pick and choose these different things. And then you kind of concoct the thing that suits you. Right? But I don’t know if that makes sense. I’m not sure that answers your question. But yeah.
Oh, for sure. I think that idea of picking and choosing what works for you is a very big thing in this show. But yeah, and the whole industry in itself, and I think it’s quite interesting as well, that there’s almost this sense of authority that Darrin has and what he’s picked and choose, what he’s chosen, is kind of the be all and end all and that kind of sense of authority. And I think, you know, we could probably dive deeper into that and talk about, you know, that kind of Western wellness perspective where, why would you believe in a God when you figured it all out yourself? You know, it’s almost that kind of egotistic nature of things that you see a lot in this kind of American wellness industry, especially when it comes to that male perspective. Because I think when you look at someone like one of Paltrow, there’s still a little bit of element of she kind of talks about a higher power, like whatever that may be. But with Darrin and Zac, they really shy away from that higher power language. You’re right.
Dr. Xavier 35:23
And I wonder how much that is gendered. But I think both Gweneth Paltrow and with these folks, and this is where you see commodification come in very explicitly, like, it’s just not about the Visa card and the like, you know, the little
RVCA t-shirts and snapbacks?
Dr. Xavier 35:36
Exactly. It’s I don’t think it’s that right, is that that’s just like the product placement at a very basic level. If we’re talking about commodification, I mean, like, you know, as you said, in the beginning, when you introduce Darrin, like the entire show’s premise, like he, you know, his client, his book is constantly being promoted, his way of life is constantly being promoted. And it does seem that the entire docu-series is promoting Darrin’s way of life that somehow that he’s discovered, right? Like, he’s the one who has friends in Puerto Rico. And he’s the one that he knows this thing and he wants to introduce that to and, and so like, Darrin seems to kind of occupy the space of authority at throughout the show as being an expert, you know, and then, and so it comes back to this idea of, of what makes him an expert. And what are the things that he’s selected? Right? Just I mean, just because you wrote a book, right? And so he’s selling himself like, I wonder how much of his business went up after this docu-series came up, if he got new clients
I’m sure a ton.
Dr. Xavier 36:31
All right. So this is maybe a good area that we can start transitioning to the idea of the episode on Lourdes. Because I think that this idea of kind of disrespecting, maybe that’s a strong word, but not fully respecting authority comes through a lot in that episode just on how they frame it. And I think we all seem to be very uncomfortable with how they portray the doctor at the beginning. And I feel like it almost sets it up. Like, this is the one instance that they’re dealing with a western style, like westernized religion in probably the whole series, if I’m not mistaken. And they really set it up as kind of a mistrust. And not a huge amount of respect, just by the introduction of the video, to me personally, that seemed like a very intentional thing that they chose to left in the, that they chose to leave in the documentary. Because I think that the episode would have been the exact same without it. I don’t think that scene was necessary. But it was it seemed very intentional, that they kind of wanted to set up this view of the Catholic Church, and the systems and this miracle system where they weren’t really, they didn’t feel welcomed into it .
I hated that scene so much. Just because I just like, I feel like awkward tension so strongly, and so I was just sitting there, just like, oh, my goodness, like, Why? Because they, for the listeners who maybe haven’t seen that scene, they interrupt the doctor. So the doctor is like, extending hospitality how, like, “How are you enjoying the town?” And then the, like the set people were like, “Wait, like, we need to make sure that like Zac’s mic is working, stop talking.” And so they like just totally cut him off. And so the doctors like, upset about that, because they just interrupted him while he was extending hospitality and they just make him look like this awful person. And I hated it so much.
Dr. Xavier 38:52
I think it’s also interesting that that was like, you know, it took somebody who also was located in a particular way with like, class and privilege to call them out on their **. I mean, like, were other instances, it was like, you know, there that kind of power dynamic wasn’t like, it wasn’t on equal footing. You know what I mean? Like these two people who come because the doctor was like, “I have a million other things to do, like, I don’t need you,” you know what I mean? Whereas in, in so there was like an equal power dynamic, whereas I don’t think any of the other situations that existed, right. And I think that really just speaks to what like the position that Zac and Darrin occupy and what they represent as people who come in with camera crews and all of this and like, you know, potential for PR and maybe even money or whatnot. So like, because we don’t really know what’s happening in the background of these shows and what the implications are, you know, of the shows are right, so, yeah, that was really bizarre.
I did, I did kind of enjoy him calling them out though.
Dr. Xavier 39:56
Yeah, me too. Totally. Leave right. Yeah, it’s also interesting that a bunch of men are like fighting over this thing where like it the entire ritual, the sacred space, the miracles, everything is centered on, like a narrative of a woman, right? That is like, right. And so I think that here’s another instance where like, performance of gender and like gender identity is like playing out in these particular ways, right, who are the gatekeepers? And you know, yeah, so I don’t know, that’s also curious to think about as well, like they’re all fighting over Lourdes.
Oh yeah, for sure. It’s interesting; the Catholic Church having gender dynamic issues? That’s a new topic. Alright, so maybe to kind of keep going on the Lourdes episode because I think there’s a lot here just outside of that instance with a doctor that we can really dive into. Just because you know we’ve already talked about the idea of Zac feeling this kind of profound sacredness and holiness in this space. And, you know, I think, Jacqueline you maybe had something to say on how this episode fits in with kind of the larger narrative of health and healing in the show.
Yeah, so, um, the episode does talk about miracles and healing just because Lourdes is a, is a place where, like, a lot of people I think, I think the show says, 4 to 6 million people come to visit every year, not all of them maybe for healing. But for like pilgrimage, and like healing miracles have been said to been happen, have been said to have happened at Lourdes. And so, yeah, so the doctor, the doctor was talking about various ways that the Catholic Church kind of like tracks miracles at Lourdes, because I guess a lot of people come and maybe they experience some sort of healing but in order for the Catholic Church to consider it like an official miracle, it has to go through a bunch of different steps so it needs like a diagnosis, it needs to have not been like just a cold, it needs to be just unexpectedly gone, gone immediately. And so I was just thinking about, like the show focuses on health and wellness and kind of healing as well. Healing through food. There’s the episode in Italy I believe where they’re talking about
Zac obsesses over carbs. Yeah, I get it. I also love carbs.
Yeah they eat a lot of pasta. So, like there’s the population, they go to this town where there’s a lot of, what’s that fancy word like where a lot of people live to be over a hundred?
So kind of just like this idea of like, by looking at this diet, we like and if we would kind of replicate this diet we too could also maybe live as long as them and kind of experience this like healing that they’re also having, but in Lourdes it’s like it’s about miraculous healing.
Well they almost try it like we were talking about before, they almost try to bring it away from that religious element, like they do in much of their show you know they still have that idea of the numinous in their experience. You know, Zac talks about having this like religious experience but they really don’t talk about the idea like they’re like, “Well, it might be a miracle.”
Right. Like they talk about placebo also which I thought was really interesting because placebo, like the way that Zac talks about placebo is kind of like diminishing, Oh, then it like actually wasn’t a miracle. But if you think about it placebo is like an amazing thing like to, to think about the fact that our body can like heal itself just because we believe that, like our body can heal itself is like pretty miraculous and so, Zac also says, like, oh, like it. Like is it like is it like real healing or not, like, oh, it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t matter like where this where this spiritual force comes from, like if it comes from within or without or whatever, like it doesn’t matter. But I thought that was really, like it diminished the experience of the people at Lourdes because these people clearly were coming to Lourdes to experience God, because this is a Christian space. And by saying oh it doesn’t matter, like to these people it matters and looking at placebo, like if they didn’t believe in this, like, even like like for a placebo to work you need to actually believe that the placebo can happen, you don’t actually, you don’t think it’s a placebo that’s the whole thing about placebo. And so just by saying oh it doesn’t matter it just kind of like really diminished the spiritual experience of the people that were actually like that were pilgrimaging to that space that I thought was really interesting.
I think that was another way that they tried to make the show or the subjects of the show more palatable to a wider audience just bringing down the, the themes of spirituality and religiosity and saying, Oh, you know, even if it’s not a miracle, like who cares, it’s, yeah.
Yeah, I think, um, I’d be interested to know if anybody has thoughts on kind of the general impact of when something happens so when you have a religious experience and themes in this kind of documentary that’s kind of almost brought down and diminished. Because I’m sure that that has lasting impacts on, you know, the idea of pilgrimage, how religious communities view this and I think this extends far beyond this one experience you know I’m sure that even, you know, Shobhana you were discussing a lot about Rumi and how, how we co-opt these religious traditions and bring them down to a secular lens and how that kind of functions within society like I know it’s a very big question but even if there’s something you have to add to that.
Dr. Xavier 45:47
Yeah, like, the Lourdes episode was interesting and also interesting from the doctor who kept saying, the guy was like a, like that you know I’m a practicing physician I had this experience now I come here and I work to like support the fact that these miracles are true but I mean he like you know on the table he’s pulling out MRIs and x rays and all of this stuff and so here in this moment, what I thought was so fascinating is this idea that they’re, you’re using the idea of like a scientific secular methodology to prove like this, non-secular like phenomenon that’s miraculous, which like is interesting right. Which goes to this point of like, there’s always opposition of science and religion as these things that exist in polar opposite spaces are like, you can’t be, you can’t inhabit both, but the fact that a doctor is presenting himself and saying, “Look, I’m a doctor I have these degrees, and we’re using like actual proper scientific methodology quote unquote to prove that you know this man was cured of his cancer that this woman who had a differing ability one day was able to walk again,” right. And so like that like that was really fascinating, but I mean when a lot of people look at sacred spaces, one of the things that happens is that everybody kind of projects on to the sacred spaces their own experiences, right, and so like sacred spaces, ultimately end up being sites of far more contestation and far more like like former heterogeneous and ever homogenous right and so like the thing that might be bringing people to the space is that like a particular mythology or like Lourdes like so the sacred figure that like the ways in which people arrive at that space is different. So like when you have like Zac Efron being like “Oh this is like collectively very interesting to have everybody walking here and holding a candle and praying I’ve never experienced something like that” to somebody who’s coming with deep belief that they like this is their last resort and like there’s no other medical cure for them and so they hope that God or, like, the Virgin Mary will cure them. Other people who might just be tourists to be like, “Oh I’m here to see what this phenomenon is,” right. But all of those experiences, like scholars and sacred spaces will say like, that forms, because there’s nothing intuitively sacred about a space. Like you know like a space is constructed based on all of these, like, you know, heterogeneous perspectives that come and then sustain it, right, these narratives that sustain it. So I think that like definitely’s one thing.
Dr. Xavier 48:14
And I think this is the same thing with Rumi, right; so not in a spatial sense, like you know, I often get asked like why is Rumi proliferating the way that he is is people, and I think you could say this about religions generally, people are tapping into it in their own capacity, right, this is like where the individualism comes in. Like whether you like Rumi on social media like on Instagram or whether you have him tattooed on your body, or whether you’re a Muslim or whether you’re Persian. Like everybody’s able to add a narrative to this thing. And then, we as religious, or at least I do, I don’t know if every religious studies scholar does is, like I just take for granted if they tell me that this is your interpretation of Rumi then I’m like okay well that’s your interpretation of Rumi right and that interpretation exists, along this one and this one and that one. And I think that’s like what sustains it right. So I don’t like I don’t think that Rumi now is like the historical Rumi at all and I don’t think the woman on Twitter is like, but it doesn’t matter for me right like I’m not like looking for the real Rumi, like I’m looking for the Rumi that it’s become. In a similar way like I’m looking for Lourdes, it’s like I’m not looking for the historical authentic Lourdes because I don’t think that’s an interesting question or that’s not, it’s not as fun as trying to figure out who Lourdes has become. Like the science around Lourdes and like the, like the mechanisms around Lourdes, like the hierarchy and the church’s institutionalization. Like that tells a far more fascinating narrative and the pilgrims are projecting onto her I think this far more fascinating than ever. Like I don’t really, I don’t really care about Lourdes as like whatever figure that she was or I don’t, of course I care about Rumi but I don’t really care about Rumi, like, you know what I mean like the 13th century Rumi like I’m really fascinated by the 21st century Rumi because I think that there’s just, like what is happening? Like I want to know like how it happened right and I think, as someone who does pop culture like, I’m like invested in like the evolving nature and the new narratives and like the layering that happens and I think that was kind of what was fascinating about Lourdes is like the new narratives and who knows like so let’s envision like a time from now there, there is the Lourdes, right, and we as a planet are still existing and the apocalypse hasn’t happened. Like what would that look like, right? Are we going to be talking about like a cyber Cyborg Lourdes or like you know like what would be featured in stassi, like iterations of these phenomena that we’re talking about because the, the transformation of these practices is what sustains them and so as long as people find meaning to add to these narratives that have existed for hundreds of years and that’s going to sustain and the meaning is never going to be the same. And I think this is precisely what like scholars of religion are interested in. Like what is the meaning that people are constructing, because then that then gives us a way to look back and see what are people interested in, right, like we are fundamentally interested in people. Why are people doing the thing that they’re doing right. Why do you need science to prove a miracle, right? Like what, so what’s that about? Why does Rumi need to be on social media, like, why does he need an Instagram? What’s that about right?
Dr. Xavier 51:14
So I think, I think, you know, in some ways, we’re all asking the same question, we always have been, like, but our like case studies are just transforming and like, you know, and I think that’s exciting like you know, we’re just talking about nature as religious space, right, and I think that’s like one of the questions that it’s asking, especially when, as the world is burning down, like literally like the West Coast is burning down, right, and like what does that mean and what is being in this apocalyptic moment mean, right and I think I think it’s just scary, but I think it’s also important for us to pay attention right in the religious studies some of the questions it asks gives us some tools to process that. So yeah.
Yeah, I think it’s really interesting bringing that idea of sacred space back to the documentary, especially at the end where Darrin’s house burns down, and he makes the comment that I think a lot of people like to say, when this kind of tragedy happens that it’s like well you know it’s just stuff, it’s just my house, you know like, I’m still alive, my pets are still alive, etc. And yes that’s hugely, hugely important and a probably a very good perspective to have when you’ve lost everything. But I think there’s still an element of that where you even see at the end of the show Darrin goes back and he is torn apart, you know, because it goes to show that space can be that important, you know your home can be that important to you and, yes, you still have your life, you still have the opportunity to build that new space, but I think that idea of space is still very crucial.
Dr. Xavier 52:50
It’s interesting, like more sympathy was given to him than like you know what was happening, and I think in some ways it was like, what happened in Puerto Rico with the hurricane and everything. But it’s, you know, like destruction of somebody who’s American, somebody who’s white, somebody who’s a male, like that was given more space and time versus you know destruction in a faraway place with people that don’t look like us, right. And I wonder how much of that was like meant to be like let’s bring this back home, that it’s really hard for us to connect with climate change when like places that are not our own home are the ones that are destroyed. Like Puerto Rico seems far away even though it is part of America, right, but like I wonder how much of that was to bring it being like, oh, climate change is happening in our own backyards and that’s the only way that the audience is going to respond to this, right, because if it’s happening far away and if it’s not happening to people that look like us then it’s not as real but if it’s happening in Malibu out of all places, you know what I mean, like you said, having people on a cause.
Yeah, well I even think, Zac Efron himself even makes that comment where, you know, he makes the statement that, “Oh well, I can’t believe this is happening,” and even to think that Puerto Rico is an American territory, you know, and it’s almost like even in his own mind, the only way that he can justify being so upset about this is by claiming it as American space.
Dr. Xavier 54:11
Right, right. Yeah, exactly. I think space here is like, it’s like the sacred space but also the space and like territory and geography and geopolitical space. Like it’s like it’s like there’s tiers of like spatial dynamics right and they’re traveling to spaces they’re encountering spaces, there’s sacred spaces but then there’s like, there’s also territoriality right and there’s this creation, creating boundaries like who are, who are people within your boundaries and who are people that are not at borders right and the consequences of that and maybe even the limitations of that when you’re having conversations about ecology and sustainability, right. I think that’s so fascinating. Yeah.
I just want to say before we move on, I don’t know about the sales or anything but I looked up the Google Trends for “Super Life,” Darrin’s book, and the Google searches for it positively boomed in the week after the show was released so I’m not super surprised about that. But even now, a couple months later, the Google Trends are showing like heightened searches, heightened searches more so than people were searching before the show came out. So, I guess, all the product placement and advertising for a Darrin worked.
I wonder if RVCA also got a boom in sales.
Let me look that up.
It did take me a while so I think it wasn’t until the third or fourth episode and I was like, “he only owns RVCA clothing!”
I actually didn’t notice at all.
It sure did.
Dr. Xavier 56:12
Oh, it did?
Yeah, um, more so than “Super Life,” but yeah, they got a spike at the same time.
That’s fair. I did Google what that place was after watching it and noticing this came up a lot and now I’m tempted to go buy clothes so I get it. Product placement works on me.
Dr. Xavier 56:31
But I mean that was like, it’s interesting though right like the entire show is about sustainability, about living in like friendly you know eco-friendly ways and not like getting stuff, and then the show happens and everybody’s going and buying this book and buying a bunch of stuff. Even you, Steph, maybe.
Dr. Xavier 56:49
Not yet. But yeah right like this, like this. Yeah, this is like what consumption and commodification is right like yeah. This all makes me very suspicious.
Oh yeah, well and even that goes back to my original issue with the whole thing that like, why did you need to travel across the world to see a fruit that has a high concentration of vitamin C. There’s so much food that grows in the US and in Canada for us, that has a high concentration of vitamins, nutrients that does the same thing. And it just, again, it didn’t make sense to me that it’s like if you’re promoting sustainability, you should be promoting things that are accessible in your own backyard.
Dr. Xavier 57:44
I think I like, you know, in some ways, but it was, it was interesting to watch. Like I was texting with a friend who is a prof in Kinesiology and who does environmental, like focuses on the environment and so we were just having like really interesting conversations, it was kind of curious to see what are the things that she was picking up what are the things that I was picking up. So I think then at the end of the show, especially as we’re all like shut in and COVID is happening. I think for all of its limitations and for all of the things that it does not do so well. I do also think it’s interesting to have someone, we know how this works right, like, someone like Zac Efron shed light on anything and so the fact that I think Rachel’s opening point that the fact that it’s mainstreaming the conversation, a conversation that we know that in many of these spheres are so far ahead, right. Like we know that it’s, you know, has progressed into other spheres where this seems a little bit introductory and a little bit maybe appropriative or consumptive or like you know colonial and, in some ways, it is interesting that this is like the attempt to get it at the forefront and get people to talk about it and especially for people who I think someone like Zac Efron has like a platform right. And I think that’s important right, I mean I don’t want to diminish that either, right. He may not be my like my, you know, I may not be his audience, but his audience may be people who are in their teens or in their 20s right. And I think that in some ways it’s still work that matters.
Dr. Xavier 59:17
One of the things I loved about it is that, like we were all stuck at home and we were being exposed to places that we couldn’t physically have access to, which also also says a lot about us as individuals in our capacity to travel like. What is travel going to look like post-COVID especially if we’re going to all be hungry and desperate for travel like how much is that going to further, how much of that is going to further be a catastrophe for ecosystems and for the environment, right. Because now we’re like not traveling and now all of a sudden everybody has the urge to travel and has the capacity to, like guaranteed that’s going to create some kind of environmental damage that’s also going to be difficult to recover from right and so, yeah.
Dr. Xavier 60:05
Thank you for having me. This is fantastic and you’re all doing fantastic work. I’m so happy to have been part of the conversation and to learn from you all.