Religious people often turn to the written and solemnly spoken word to commune with what they consider to be most important in life. But another side of religion consistently appears: striking artistic objects and grand performances that engage all of the senses. Because quiet reading and solemn speech cannot always convey the deepest truths, religious traditions have evoked some of the most astounding products of the human imagination to present them more vividly. In music, sculpture, painting, costumes, and now in contemporary media, like television, film, and the Internet, religion has often produced quite a spectacle.
Everyone knows about examples of the remarkable art inspired by religion. Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel is one of the most famous examples; we might also think about Handel's Messiah, or the expansiveness of the great European cathedrals. Beyond the West, the forms change, but the scale and spectacle is often on the same level. Tibetan tapestries depict mandalas, which are incredibly complex ritual diagrams depicting holy people and all the regions of the cosmos. Members of the Jain religious tradition have erected one of the most impressive statues in the world: a fifty-seven foot tall depiction of one of its great saints, Bahubali, near Mysore, India. And in Java, Indonesia, eighth century Buddhists constructed the temple Borobudur, which contains 55,000 square meters of stone and 10 stories that depict the life of the Buddha and levels of his teaching. These are but scattered examples: one could spend a lifetime investigating and appreciating the awe-inspiring religious monuments of times past.
Art and structures on a grand scale have become famous, but for religious people, the most intimate objects are often most important. Ritual objects, household altars, iconic replicas, and small works of art often serve to recreate a more personal form of the religious spectacle in the home or the neighborhood place of worship. Many scholars find these objects the most interesting, for they are the prayer beads that are touched everyday, the image that is constantly venerated, or the clothes and ornamentation that mark identity and faith. They are treasures that carry a wealth of religious meaning and emotion for the individual worshiper.
In our day and age, new forms of technology mediate the religious spectacle, both grand and intimate. Religious themes permeate popular forms of entertainment, including music, film, and television. In addition, religious people have turned to new forms of media to get their message out and even to worship. Christian preachers have always made their presence known on American television, for example, and some of these charismatic figures have even suggested that touching the screen could make a connection to the Holy Spirit. In another striking development, Hindu websites present the image of a divine figure and suggest that worshipers take the darshan of the god, a form of reverence where the devotee sees the god—and the god looks back.
In these and so many other examples, the spectacle of religion continues to present itself, and students of religion are following along, charting the all of the astonishing new developments.