Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan. Relgion and Popular Culture in America. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2005.
This book popped up in a course on popular culture and religion. I thought I’d read it again now, in its entirety, since for the course only a few chapters were treated if I remember correctly. I liked it back then and still do, be it not without the necessary criticism.
The book proved to me to be a very helpful tool in distinguishing between the different types of relationships between religion and popular culture. In the introductory chapter, Bruce David Forbes describe four such relationships and especially the second one, popular culture in religion, that Forbes describes as “the appropriation of aspects of popular culture by religious groups and institutions” I find interesting. The book in fact is divided into four parts, each part consisting of various essays by different writers dealing with subjects that fit into the respective categories. The essays that fall into this category indeed I did appreciate the most. William D. Romanowski in his essay Evangelicals and Popular Music: The Contemporary Christian Music Industry argues that “the Christian music industry promoted an evangelical popular culture based on the rules of commercialism and not those of churches, elevating consumer values and taste at the expense of doctrine and tradition.” (p. 107). His perspective on religion as being personalized and commodified under the influence of, in the first place, the baby-boom generation is sympathetic to the way Stewart M. Hoover describes the development of religion in the United States when he looks into the functioning of the megachurch at Willow Creek. Hoover in his article proposes that “it is at [the] very direct and concrete level of practice, of actually touching and feeling objects, that a kind of piety can increasingly be invoked by, and satisfied by, commodity culture.” (p. 145). Hoover’s also talks about the idea of “seekers”, those whose “religious practice [is] oriented toward the self and conceiving of religion as a conscious search for a variety of inputs, which can then be coalesced into an identity for which the individual considers him- or herself responsible” (p. 144). This is in turn very sympathetic to the idea of the “questing” that Greg Peterson presents in his article The Internet and Christian and Muslim Communities, that he describes as “religious seeking motivated by dissatisfaction with existing answers.” (p. 127). All of these ideas are potentially very useful and also are in keeping with ideas that Moore and McDannell developed, to which indeed the authors heavily refer.
So what about the other three relationships? The first relationship is described as religion in popular culture that deals with such things as Madonna Videos and The Da Vinci Code. Products that make use of religious imagery rather than being explicitly religious expressions. The third relationship, popular culture as religion, explores the idea of popular cultural products functioning as religion like Star Trek, sports or even Coca Cola. It’s also about the question what religion really is or can be. If a definition of religion is broad enough to include Star Trek, does that mean that the definition is too broad or does it mean that we should acknowledge it? The fourth relationship then finally, religion and popular culture in dialogue, sort of concerns itself with “interactions between religious and popular culture [that] do not fit well in the three categories considered thus far.” (p. 15).
The results are mixed I’d say. Some articles seem well researched and have a good point, like the one by Romanowski. Others just seem far-fetched and seem to lose themselves in method and theory rather than properly researching a popcultural phenomenon, almost seemingly abusing it just to get a point across, quite like Bado-Fralick & Norris sometimes seemed to do. Still, I like the broadness of the range of topics that are being treated and the various methods that respective authors care to select to treat these topics with. The results may be mixed, but this mix seems healthy. It seems to present the reader with a good overview of what is going on in the field and it is a good introduction to some of the key authors that operate in it. It seems that Forbes and Mahan themselves were careful to set up an honest balance of representative work even when they mightn’t agree with all of the ideas that those works present. This makes it a fair work and leaves it up to the reader to make up his mind about it all. The variety of approaches indeed makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
It is in the very last part of the book that something surprised me. In the conclusion, Jeffrey H. Mahan notes that the audience for the studies is varied. He describes four diverse audiences. Audience one seeks description and analysis, audience two seeks methodological reflection, audience three seeks to clarify the religious life, and audience four seeks social or cultural reform (p. 291-293). Of the third kind, he writes: “The implied audience for these essays are thinking practitioners of religion who desire to more clearly understand the interactions between faith and culture, in order to enable lives of religious integrity.” (p. 292). This is debatable, because works like these can also serve an anthropological function. They can take you by the hand when you’re trying to make sense of a system of values that is alien to you.