THE ALTARS WHERE WE WORSHIP: The Religious Significance of Popular Culture. By Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, and Mark G. Toulouse. Foreword by Martin E. Marty. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xviii + 230 pages.
We have heard a great deal about secularizing trends in our culture. It is true that religious communities have observed a decline in membership and participation in the last half-century. It’s well documented by scholars, and experienced with a bit of chagrin by religious leaders. While it is true that organized/institutionalized religion is struggling, is the religious impulse really in decline? Or, is it shifting elsewhere, finding its sustenance in popular culture? When we look at sports and entertainment, business and politics, we do see signs of religious activity. Go to any stadium or ballpark in America, and you will find great numbers of devoted worshippers. We make pilgrimages to stadiums and Halls of Fame. I myself finally made it to Cooperstown (not to be enshrined, but to visit), and I can attest to have a sacred moment as I stood before monuments to my heroes. It is this religious element present in popular culture that is explored with care and insight in The Altars Where We Worship.
The opening lines of the introduction to this book read like this: “Religion is important to Americans. But the religion we practice is often not the religion we confess” (p. 1). There is great truth in these sentences, which get fleshed out in the book under review. The authors of the book once were colleagues at Texas Christian University/Brite Divinity School. The book was conceived when the authors were in Texas, and more than eight years later it has appeared in print. Perhaps at the right moment in time.
Two of the authors, Juan and Stacey Floyd-Thomas are married to each other. Juan is Associate Professor of African American Religious History at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. Stacey is Associate Professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt. Mark Toulouse is Principle and Professor of History of Christianity at Emmanuel College, Toronto. I’ve not met the Floyd-Thomases, but am friends with Mark (he wrote forewords to two of my books). I will assure you that our friendship doesn’t influence my review. For ease in speaking I’ll use first names in the review. What I can say about the book at the front end of the review, is that this is a very insightful book. It’s readable, thought-provoking, scholarly but accessible.
At the heart of the book is the premise that Americans first believe in a “serviceable God” who “meets our needs, who provides altars where we can get good service.” With this as a need, it’s no wonder that faith communities struggle to connect (unless we’ve found a way to entertain as well as lead into worship). Besides a serviceable God, Americans prefer a “friendly God” (pp. 1-2). Again, the challenge to traditional religion that sometimes finds it difficult to provide such a God. We can offer a loving God, but a loving God isn’t always friendly or serviceable for that matter.
With this as the guiding principle for the book, the three authors explore these two aspects of American religiosity in the context of six forms of popular culture: Body and Sex, Big Business, Entertainment, Politics, Sports, Science and Technology. What these chapters reveal is that we are, by nature, perhaps, polytheistic. We ultimately have more than one God. If we’re honest, even we “religious” people have more than one God. So, what is religion? The authors suggest that in our modern context religion is about meaning-making. We find our religious sustenance in those places where we can “enjoy a greater sense of our own fulfillment” (p. 5). It’s important to note that even though the authors critique our penchant for individualism, this isn’t a diatribe against popular culture. What authors seem to want is to help us make sense of our engagement with popular culture and understand why we find religious satisfaction in popular culture. In this regard, I found much that spoke to me in the chapter on Sports. I’m a fan, especially of the baseball Giants (remember Cooperstown). Each chapter has a pattern. After introducing the subject, the authors explore the topic under the categories of mythology, ethics (remember that Stacey is an ethicist), ritual, materiality, doctrine, institutions, and experience, though not always in the same order.
In the conclusion to the book, titled “Worship without Sacrifice,” the authors remind us that these expressions or religion require of the adherents other than deriving pleasure from the experience. Yet, it is often through these forms of popular culture that the authors believe that Americans “express their religiosity” (p. 184). If this is true, then they have put their finger on a largely irresolvable problem for religiously motivated communities.
So, for instance, with regards to “body and sex,” the question is what is beauty? What is normate when it comes to beauty? They offer up Marilyn Monroe as a good example of America’s vision normate beauty, and the vanity that is the pursuit of this idea, which Monroe herself fell victim. While we abide the myth that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” they note that researchers have concluded that there are some qualities that are affirmed across cultures, suggesting that there are evolutionary bases to how view people, with focus on reproductive potential. That’s the mythological aspect, but there’s also a doctrinal element, which centers on pleasure. While there appear to be evolutionary bases to beauty, cultural ideas often change rather quickly. In the midst of all of this there issues of immigrant realities, slavery, and more. All of these factors must be considered as we think about the way in which religiosity is expressed in popular culture. Mixed into all of this, with regard to traditional religious communities, is a sense of body/spiritual dualism. Thus, “since many traditional expressions of religion seek to save souls, often ignoring or losing bodies in the process, congregants as consumers are today intending to look elsewhere to address their human cravings or to come to grips with understanding the meaning associated with embodied sexuality” (p. 40).
The chapter on Big Business explores our consumerist realities, such that money becomes our ultimate concern, leading to Gospels of Wealth and myths of the self-made person. Living as we do after the Great Recession, this is a chapter to be explored with care. The entertainment world is truly an altar at which we worship. Thus, Disney emerges as a “corporate empire devoted mostly to the ingrained desire within all people to find some place in the world that would simultaneously enable them to escape the mundane and experience the miraculous” (p. 69). Finding an escape from the mundane, and seeking to experience the miraculous, truly has a religious element, and we will submit ourselves to its vision of reality. I won’t say much about the chapter on politics, except to say that it is rather timely in the aftermath of the Trump victory. Understanding the role of religion in American political life is essential, even if that religion has little substance it is still has importance to many. Though they don’t mention my book on the Lord’s Prayer, I was gratified to see mention made of ultimate allegiances. There is that chapter on Sports, exploring the religious side and the way in which sports becomes religion, a means of transcendence (perhaps). Finally, there’s a chapter on science and technology. As a non-Apple person, I appreciated the exploration of the life of Steve Jobs and the “Cult of the Mac.” They note that the Apple system is a closed source system (unlike Microsoft). Software and hardware are to be seamlessly united, with a “dogmatic devotion to perfection.” As a theologian, I loved the way they describe the Apple vision of orthodoxy:
The orthodoxy of Apple must fight all heretical and heterodox competitors; the company has been very successful in using the “ecclesiastical courts” in defending the faith. If anyone doubts that, just ask Samsung” (p. 170).
I don’t know what computer systems the authors use (they may use Apple products), but this description is itself a theological masterpiece.
We can fret about our shrinking influence in the world. We can lambast popular culture. We can imitate it—and Christians have been proficient imitators, just look at contemporary Christian music. But perhaps it’s best to understand the world in which we live. Popular culture is not necessarily evil, though it can become evil. It’s obviously not completely good, though it can be good. The question for those of us in the religious world concerns the nature of the God we seek to embrace. Are we to be limited to the purveying of a serviceable God? That doesn’t seem to be the God revealed in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament? Loving yes, simply nice, not so much. These questions make this book a necessary read. I suppose if I tried, I could find points of disagreement and critique, but that is perhaps for another time and place. For the moment let me just say that this is a book for my colleagues in ministry to read, and read closely. I’ve only touched on a few points of interest. There is so much more to engage. Therefore, while it may have taken longer than expected to produce, perhaps the timing of its publication in the age of Trump is perfect!