Spiritual and Religious? (Final thoughts on My Favorite Murder)

What do people mean when they say “I’m spiritual but not religious”? In my experience, it seems to mean that one does not identify themselves as part of any religious institution, does not attend ritual services regularly, or does not assent to a particular set of beliefs that can be easily codified. In short, when it comes to spiritual matters, they have their own set of beliefs and questions that do not relate to any religious community.

I think, however, that while most people in our post-modern society are reluctant to codify beliefs, they are drawn to communities. Our current forms of technology have allowed people to create community around all kinds of shared interests, if not doctrines, more rapidly and across boundaries that would have been difficult to cross in the past.

MFM’s story is about two people who began a journey together to fill a deep need to contemplate things that were difficult, mysterious, frightening and yet compelling. The impulse to share this beyond their circle of two led them to create something that gathered others in beyond their expectations. In contrast to entertainment that fills a shallow need for laughter, voyeurism, or the facile fear/resolution dynamic of many TV shows, the open ended nature of the podcast and dynamic of a continued journey of friends is more like religion than entertainment because of its communal dynamic. Community is the first indicator that what is happening with MFM does not simply follow the individualistic form of spirituality often signified by “spiritual but not religious.”

The journey that is undertaken is one that is reflective, involving and requiring a level of personal vulnerability that is therapeutic. Part of the reason for this dynamic is the fact that the topic (murder and other things that are strange or frightening) forces the inclusion of witnessing evil. The choice of the hosts not to stop at mere reporting or crowd-solving (as most true crime entertainment does) but instead to allow themselves to just talk about it moves MFM into a different space. The further choice to get personal, rather than merely opine about society, includes an element that is therapeutic.

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A local group of “murderinos” raise money for End the Backlog, Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and Planned Parenthood by having a “paint night.”

The therapy, however, is not simply individual. The combination of personal and societal repentance called for by the dynamics of this podcast brings it out of the realm of self-help into the company of religion. If a religion really matters it will call for, and result in, both individual and societal change. This change is not its primary purpose for being, but true religion can be identified by its transformative effect. “Spirituality,” when not religious, tends to remain more individualistic. Transformation of the community is another hallmark of religion.

Religion also involves discipline, primarily the discipline of continuing to repeat the ritual. There is discipline and repetition with MFM. In the last post, the discipline of being thankful was highlighted. In art repetition creates rhythm. The repetition of key gestures, actions, words, and forms in ritual or performing arts, gives structure and familiarity. Repetition in religious life results in an ingraining of postures and attitudes, either for good or for ill. Repetition allows for either going deeper on the spiritual journey or going stale.

In my own life, I felt religion go stale when the words and the rituals became disconnected from reality as lived. There was a choice, at that point, either to go into the unknown path of integrity or to live with a disconnect between stated values and lived action, between the world of the ritual and the world lived outside the religious community. At that point, I changed religious communities while many of my peers simply opted out. I found religious communities that, for me, held more integrity and allowed for continued growth.

Whether MFM functions as a true religion for the hosts or the listeners might be measured by the extent to which the disciplined repetition provides the structure to go beyond one’s comfort zone in some way, to grow in a way that continues to bless the practitioner and those around them. But there must be a quick caveat along with the idea of blessing. If MFM is true religion it may not always feel like a blessing.

Pushing through those barren feeling times is also part of religion. It is in those times that the communal aspect reveals its importance. As the faithful of a religion journey through difficulties the community bears them up. All of these things work together: the community, the reflection, and the repetition. They result in both spiritual growth and societal change. Lives become transformed.

The MFM podcast may simply be entertainment for some. It may be a community. It may be exploited for financial gain or power. It may be transformative. All of these things can be said about religious institutions as well. What Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff are doing may not be religion per se, but on some levels it functions in the positive ways that religion can function. My prayer for the hosts of My Favorite Murder is that they and their work – labeled as you please – will continue to be blessed and be a blessing.

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