Colleen McDannell. Material Christianity. Religion and Popular Culture in America. Yale University Press. New Haven & London, 1995.
The book Material Christianity by Colleen McDannell had been staring at me from my bookcase for a few years now. I got it years ago while writing my thesis, but it never really made it into my bibliography, and ever since I always wanted to read it but never really got round to it. In the wake of this blog, I thought I’d finally pick it up.
They say never judge a book by its cover and to this sound advice I’d like to add: never judge a book by its opening chapter. When I read the line “Can the American city be read like a text?” (p. 3) I immediately thought “oh God, not this shit again!” Having suffered my share of academic trauma I feared that this book about a subject that I hold dear might spiral down into an incomprehensible and far-fetched analytical argument slapping you silly with terms like deconstructionalism and post-structuralist feminism. Academics can be very bad joke tellers like that. Luckily however, it turned out to be false alarm.
Even though it is an academic book, thus making the tone of the book be a bit dry, it is a very enjoyable read. In fact, the level of objective approach to the subject can be refreshing since it also aims to offer an explanation of why things grew the way they did. Not only might it shed some light on Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, but even on why your jaw might drop to the floor when you see it. It adds some depth and meaning to the appreciation of religious imagery.
In spite of all the dry explanation though, McDannell sometimes tends to get political in a way I can appreciate, when writing things like “Buying Bibles, visiting cemeteries, using miraculous water, wearing religious clothing, and owning religious bookstores have been ignored because scholars deem these practices less spiritual or authentic. [...] Christians who use objects or images in their devotional lives or who feel that certain places are imbued with special powers, are seen as needing spiritual helps or crutches. [...] It is this perception, that only weak Christians express their faith by interacting with material culture, that this book hopes to counter.” (p. 8) I agree with this where I feel that religious imagery can be a powerful conveyor of meaning and is not necessarily just funny. Although I do think that it is mainly that.
This is also why I probably value this book most, because next to it being a good explanatory text, it is a source of inspiration for religious kitsch like almost no other. From the aforementioned work of Sallman to the Wisdom Tree Christian video games and from the John Wesley statues to the Gospel Trumpet merchandise. It is nothing short of a banquet!
Also slightly adding to the enjoyment of this book, however unintentionally, is that it was written in 1995. In terms of popular culture, that means it was written centuries ago. For example, the advertising style of old Bookstore Journal issues now not only looks stunning in its own right but also looks “so very 90s!” Items that are presented throughout the book are now enjoyable in ways that McDannell could not yet have imagined at the time of writing. McDannell however seems smart enough to realise the place of modern production methods in time and is careful not to present them as ultimate ones but just as the latest ones. This makes the book able to stand the test of time better.
Finally then, it is regrettable that the book is written just before the internet revolution because surely now the whole landscape of material christianity has changed because of it, also shaping a new world of virtual christianity that is just as fascinating, something to which this blog obviously also hopes to be a testament.