The grip that the modern mass media maintains on all aspects of social life is strong, and it has evolved over the centuries to become an entity through which our understanding of the world and of our interactions with it is filtered. But the mass media is also a mirror, reflecting the values that society at large places on the issues that affect us most, from politics to economics to religion. This is why religion, which has shaped and transformed the lives of individuals and societies, figures so prominently in popular culture and mass media. But the merging of religion with mainstream popular culture is in many ways a bewildering and, for that reason, fascinating paradox, a paradox that is immediately inherent in the very concept of a higher being communicating with lowly humanity, the transference of infinite wisdom to finite and deficient understanding prone to error and distortion. The biggest challenge faced by evangelical religion in the world of popular culture is to simultaneously offer products that transcend materialistic market philosophies and also reach the masses and meet them where they are by imitating secular forms and styles. Evangelical religion, especially in America, has faced this challenge head-on; popular culture is Christianity’s largest and most treaded missionary field.
But religion has only seen partial success in the mission field of popular culture. As Moore writes, “[W]ellness does not carry with it transformative power. The paradigm-busters are nowhere in view. Those people who wait in these times for the numerically impressive organizations of American religion to coalesce into a powerful redemptive force are bound to find the present circumstances profoundly unsatisfying .” Although religion has certainly not diminished in the face of growing secularization (and in some respects has been enriched by it), the increasingly blurred between the sacred and the profane has rendered the ideals taught by religion a performance to be participated in by the masses through consumer culture, and not through rigorous ecclesiastical codes of conduct and ritual. According to Stewart Hoover, “[D]espite its intentions and pretensions, the electronic church holds out promise mainly for those who are most easily convinced, not for a broader society in need of some sort of hope .” If the “hope” that Hoover mentions here is a reference to something beyond the material, American Christianity certainly cannot offer that. “[M]aterial consumption,” writes James Twitchell, is “an expression of belief. Before we are spiritualists, we are materialists . . . No major religion compares with Christianity for its inventory of totemic stuff .”
Religion is every bit as much a performance as is gender or race. Indeed, it must be in order to maintain any semblance of relevancy. This makes evangelical religion a cultural commodity among many others, as there is little relevancy or appeal in cloistered, cult-like messages that promote a stifling sectarian outlook on life. This sectarian outlook is present in the Christian products that have been trapped within the confines of a particular subculture separated from the broader culture. Instead of merging with secular culture seamlessly, religion has been too transparent that what it is often engaging in is imitation, and the secular, diverse world of consumers can see this all too clearly. “That it [the modern church] fails to reach many aside from those who already are adherents suggests that its cultural appeal is very limited, indeed .”
To the extent that secularization of the sacred has actually enriched American religion, it has done so by universalizing its message, not by making a narrow, fundamentalist worldview appealing to the masses. This universalization has effectively diluted the “narrow path to salvation” philosophy that Christianity advocated for centuries. Further research can and should be conducted on how popular culture was one force among many that dragged a religion rooted in ancient tradition and medieval philosophy into the modern age that obliged it to conform to a more healthy humanism and progressive morality, since most research in this area focuses on the role and influence of science and civil philosophy in this regard.
1. R. Laurence Moore, Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 275-276.
2. Stewart M. Hoover, Mass Media Religion: The Social Sources of the Electronic Church (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1988), p. 245.
3. James B. Twitchell, Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From In Your Heart to In Your Face (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), pp. 61-62.
4. Hoover, Mass Media Religion, p. 245.