Friday, June 1, 2012

Religion in American Popular Culture (Part 1): Introduction

One of the most interesting ironies of our time is the fact that, despite the proliferation of commercialized religion in retail store chains labeled as explicitly Christian and in megachurches, very few of the pious consumers of religiously-based popular culture have considered the “what-if” question of how Jesus himself (assuming he existed as a real historical figure) would respond upon walking into one of these Christian retail outlets. This question was recently explored by way of a humorous experiment filmed in a short online video by Phil Mason, a popular video blogger personality and an outspoken atheist who goes by the handle “Thunderf00t” on YouTube.com. In the video, entitled “Jesus Christ and the House of Merchandise,” Mason enters a Family Christian Bookstore outlet dressed as Jesus Christ. After briefly perusing the merchandise on sale, he walks up to the woman at the counter. After some humorous small talk, Mason softly exclaims, “I can’t but help feel that I remember something about ‘make not my house an house of merchandise.’ Do you not recall something like that?” After a brief, awkward pause, he continues, “I think a guy who you might have heard might have said it once or twice [1]."

The seeming contradiction in terms noted by satirists like Thunderf00t and many others, a contradiction evoked by witnessing a religion like Christianity immerse itself in the consumer’s world of mass media and “profane” popular culture, is not so much an inconsistency on religion’s part as it is an adaptation to a rapidly-changing world. One might argue it is even an adaptation sanctioned by sacred writ itself. After all, what better way to “Go . . . and teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19a) than to avail oneself of the latest in cutting-edge communication technologies? What better way to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16) than to be culturally aware and savvy and to adopt and appropriate the trends that succeed in popular culture, especially when “To the pure all things are pure” (Titus 1:15)? Speaking of doves, “A sizable portion of the Protestant evangelical community,” writes R. Laurence Moore, “has made its peace with commercial culture . . . If that requires arranging church services to accommodate televised sports on Sunday, building Christian massage parlors and nightclubs atop space needles, or equipping churches with skating rinks and bowling alleys, then so be it [2].”

This merging of religion with a popular culture and mass media mentality is not a recent social phenomenon. It has a rich and multi-layered history behind it. The historical legacy of American revivalism, for example, has testified to the fact that “American Protestantism has always had a dynamic edge that vigorously adapted the gospel message to the common folk of the day [3].” Revivalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was instrumental in shoving American religion into the cultural marketplace; in the eighteenth century, evangelist George Whitefield’s oratorical talents and persuasive, charismatic rhetoric were largely responsible for triggering the Great Awakening. In fact, Whitefield’s critics in his day attacked him with the same points they leveled against actors, and much of what they said and wrote of Whitefield could seamlessly be transposed in our day and age to refer to televangelists. “Whitefield was turning preaching into a performance, a performance as carefully timed and calculated as one by his famous contemporary David Garrick . . . His religious presentations transformed church services into entertainment, and the money paid for the spectacle went to enrich Whitefield [4].” Whitefield was instrumental in creating a new paradigm of exploration for the art of proselytization, leading Walt Whitman in the 1830s to call the churches “the most important of our amusements . . . especially the Methodist ones, with their frequent ‘revivals’ [5].” The new sermon styles that emerged among preachers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were laboratory experiments in reapplications of religious imagery within secular mediums. As David S. Reynolds writes,
In the early decades of the nineteenth century, American sermon style, which in Puritan times had been characterized by restraint and theological rigor, came to be dominated by entertaining pulpit illustrations, stories, and even humor. The new sermon style was particularly lively among the fiery urban evangelists of Whitman’s New York. During the 1830s and 40s, the evangelical denominations had to compete against each other, against the rising popular press, and against popular entertainments like stage melodramas and Barnum’s Museum for the attention of a working-class population increasingly made up of rowdies and roughs [6].
The religious vision and perceptions of preceding generations of Americans, perhaps more so than either politics or economics and going all the way back to the early centuries of the Common Era, are almost as embedded and ingrained in the psyche of the general public as is the mass media industry that churns out novels, music, movies and all the attendant merchandise that accompanies the most successful of these mediums’ products. The consequence for mainstream religion and (on an individual level) for those who practice its rituals and claim its beliefs is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the presentation and expression of religious faith in a world significantly shaped by modern mass media has the potential to enjoy a level of effectiveness and versatility unavailable to previous generations. On the other hand, the same widespread use of communication technologies will inevitably change and alter the message being voiced by modern generations of churchgoers. If we are to take seriously (and it is the argument of this author that we must) the famous aphorism of media theorist Marshall McLuhan that “The medium is the message,” then we can expect the different and ever-changing ways in which mainstream religion communicates its message to obtain towards a change in the worldview being expressed from generation to generation.

The purpose of this six-part study will be to examine the ways in which traditional religious movements (particularly Christianity) have availed themselves of secular communication mediums. In particular, I focus on the role played by three different types of popular media (film, music, and fiction novels) in changing and/or altering the essential nature of the religious message being communicated. The ways in which religion adapts to changing cultural trends in order to remain afloat (read relevant) and attempt to continue providing coherent answers to modern challenges to traditional faith is the unifying theme of this research. Religious fiction novels are treated as non-canonical etiological supplements to traditional faith texts, contemporary religious music is explored as a tool to reinforce faith by way of emotional responses elicited, and religious films are analyzed as actualizing tools that aid the faithful in visualizing the ancient accounts that form the basis of their worldview. The importance of this research can be seen by noting the prevalent influence religious ideas and concepts have had on all aspects of social, political and economic life in this country. Religious themes have become so embedded in the popular culture, whose mediums reflect them constantly, to the extent that religions’ most iconic symbols, imagery, and mythos are at times resilient to easy dissection and critique. There is much relevance to be found in attempting, as this research project does, to determine whether religion informs and influences popular culture communication, or whether popular culture informs and influences religion in modern times.

NOTES

1. Thunderf00t, “Jesus Christ and the House of Merchandise,” YouTube 28 October 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2UaIRZghoYs (accessed 1 June 2012).

2. R. Laurence Moore, Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 255.

3. Quentin J. Schultze, Televangelism and American Culture: The Business of Popular Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 98.

4. Moore, Selling God, p. 42.

5. Emory Holloway, ed., The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1972), 255.

6. David S. Reynolds, “Whitman’s America: A Revaluation of the Cultural Backgrounds of ‘Leaves of Grass,’” Mickle Street Review 9.2 (1988): 7.

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