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Banksy: Religion and Pop Culture

He is calling out religion's failure to integrate into a technologically driven society.

Banksy fascinates me! This mysterious UK graffiti artist and activist whose identity has never been revealed, even after more than 30 years of involvement in the global graffiti scene! I would love to put a face on this name! Out of nowhere, one of his artworks appears in the most unexpected places conveying a message. It might be a way for him to grab attention, for sure; nevertheless, he seems to be under a mission, the mission of bringing a change to society!

Philanthropist, anti-war and revolutionary, he takes his art as a means of communication to loudly proclaim his dissatisfaction with certain aspects of society, certain political situations or even certain decisions taken by world leaders. Born in 1973, since 1993, his works shine on several continents.

Nominated for Best Documentary for “Exit Through the Gift Shop” at the 2011 Academy Awards and internationally notorious for his street art, Banksy's work epitomizes the crumbling relationship between Christianity and contemporary Western society. His work critiques the place of Christianity and religion in modern society and thus falls squarely into Gordon Lynch's first category of "Studying Religion in Relation to Everyday Life.",

Gordon Lynch (Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Birkbeck University, London) has mapped out the changes now rapidly occurring regarding contemporary spirituality. He has set out his analysis of the emerging encounter with what he calls ‘The New Spirituality’ in his book, subtitled, ‘An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the 21st Century’, which describes his research.

Gordon Lynch also comments that, “people are engaging more and more deeply with the meaning and significance of spirituality in contemporary life and culture.” In that context, we can say, for example, that films like Avatar express a hunger for lost innocence and engagement with the natural world of which we are fully part and share responsibility.

Here Jesus himself admits he does not have the answers - "Try Google," he says, and in this, we see religion defer to science. We see a critique of faith in today's society. Who looks to the Bible, the Church, your local pastor in response to a question, conflict, or issue? Very few - instead, we flip open the Mac and Google or Wikipedia the answers to moral issues and questions of faith alike. Google represents the all-knowing and all-powerful influence in our society, the father figure and friend alike.

Here Banksy mocks the fall of Christian influence to our science-based society. I choose to believe his mockery is satirical, meant not to ridicule the Christian faith but to prompt us to question and examine the overarching influences around us.

With relation to Lynch, it is clear that forms of popular culture like street art often represent religion in a negative light.

Here popular culture represents religion as outdated and having lost touch with the times.

Sure, it's a negative message - but critiques like Banksy's are beneficial to religion in that they keep it relevant. Banksy is utilizing traditional images of Jesus on the cross, a white dove, Mother Mary and baby Jesus - that serves to remind people of the transition our culture has gone through with respect to Christianity. It serves as a medium of reflection, and in offending devout Catholics, it brings the issue of religion in modern society back to the forefront of public debate.

Controversial work like Banksy's is often underrated in how it helps exactly what it is critiquing: in calling out religion's failure to integrate into a technologically driven society, perhaps Banksy is calling for its defence. Perhaps it is an attempt to motivate the Catholic Church to respond and retaliate. Perhaps it is an attempt to motivate society to analyze their views on religion and particularly their hypocrisy when it comes to action vs. words and empty faith.

As Lynch notes, "Analyzing how religion is represented in contemporary media is not therefore simply a case of describing these representations. Rather it involves asking what these representations may tell us about wider biases, values, and concerns in contemporary society..."

Indeed, the Banksy images serve as a basis for evaluating religion's place in today's society.

Banksy suggests we value technology more than faith and that perhaps many are concerned about society's move away from faith, morality, and Christianity to a culture that instead focuses on Google, Jersey Shore, and cell phones.

This image depicts Jesus's crucifixion - yet in Banksy's portrayal, we see Jesus in a Bristol City football jersey, with the stencilled word "RELIGION" below him.

This relates very much to Tracy Trothen's article on sports having replaced Christianity as a modern form of 'religion' in contemporary society.

Soccer is a worldwide phenomenon that brings people together based on city, nation, and team. We see during the World Cup Little Italy in Toronto come together for Azzurri, and Little Portugal at St. Clair go insane when Portugal wins a game. German fans all over Toronto united to celebrate how far the German team went in last summer's World Cup, as did fans of Oranje. Africans screamed Bafana Bafana for their boys on the pitch, and tears of joy were shed throughout Madrid when Spain emerged victoriously. Banksy's interpretation of Jesus in a Bristol City jersey comments on modern society's obsession with sport and its similarities of rituals and togetherness that mirror what Christianity used to be to society.

This image is a clear response to the faltering influence of Christianity in a technologically dominated society.

Arguably the most controversial street artist in the world, Banksy’s works have become a subculture in their own right. Banksy’s political statements and disruptive vision have impacted cities across the globe at vital moments in modern history, provoking alternative viewpoints and encouraging revolution in the art world.

By the early 2000s, he decided to travel to Palestine, and the West Bank, where he stencilled nine now-iconic images onto the newly-erected West Bank Wall, including ‘Love is in the Air.’ These images were an instant hit and exploded online.

Banksy drops off Superhero Nurse Artwork at a hospital in the UK with a thank you note.

In response to the global Coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Banksy hung a brand-new black and white artwork depicting a young boy playing with a ‘superhero’ NHS (National Health Service) nurse doll in the foyer of Southampton General Hospital. He released a statement thanking the NHS for their work and hoping that the painting brightened up the hospital. The piece was later titled ‘Game Changer.’ On the first anniversary of the UK entering into lockdown, ‘Game Changer’ sold at auction for £16.8 million, with all proceeds donated to the NHS. This price far exceeded all expectations and firmly secured this piece as the most expensive Banksy ever sold.

Photography courtesy of Soha Mostaghim Modir. Banksy Toronto and Amsterdam Moco Museum

Banksy’s artistic endeavours continue to take him around the world. Artworks have cropped up in Australia, France, Italy, the United States, Canada, Jamaica, and Israel and are instantly protected and revered.

References: Mysticism and Contemporary Spirituality: joint CRC/LSN Conference held in Sheffield 6th November 2010 Conference report and comment by John Hetherington.

Smithsonian Magazine

Banksy, Urban Art in a Material World


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