Observers of religious life in the United States have long noted the decline of religious commitment. Church attendance and professions of faith, while still substantial, have declined precipitously for a couple of generations. But as Juan Floyd-Thomas, Stacey Floyd-Thomas, and Mark Toulouse write in The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Significance of Popular Culture, what we observe is not so much a decline in religion but a redirection of our religious affections. They write, "decreasing numbers at the altars of organized religious has not meant the cessation of worship."
Following Paul Tillich, they show that religion, as understood as "the 'ultimate concern' of a person," is expressed through culture, through those things that give people fulfillment. Reflecting on body and sex, big business, entertainment, politics, sports, and science and technology, the authors demonstrate that, for some people, these expressions of culture have become a replacement for religion.
It is important to note that, although they are writing as Christians, they are not writing about Christianity and popular culture, or religion in popular culture. Rather, they describe popular culture as religion. Each chapter describes the rituals, icons, apostles, morality and ethics of popular culture. For example, sports fans have their "cathedrals" where they "worship" on game day. The players and fans have rituals they go through. The rule book provides the guidelines, administered by the priests in black and white stripes. As a college football fan, this hits home with me. During football season, I must be honest, I look forward to attending games more than I look forward to Sunday worship. The enthusiasm with which I sing and worship on Sunday morning pales compared to the exuberance with which I cheer for my team on Saturday afternoon.
In a similar way, we find escape through music and film, satisfaction through work and business (and with the "conspicuous consumption" that comes along with it), and communal faith through civil religion. Each of the chapters is thought-provoking and forced me to examine the extent to which I place my "ultimate concern" in these areas. The authors' treatment is descriptive, not prescriptive; their aim is to "suggest a new direction in the study of American religion that would make room for a broader understanding of how religion and religious experiences hidden within American popular culture actually shape the lives of nearly all Americans."
In spite of their nonjudgmental academic detachment, readers who identify as Christians and who take seriously a life a discipleship will grapple with the realities that the authors identify. They draw from a variety of academic disciplines as well as from current events as they link fulfillment to culture. If we are honest with ourselves, our professions that we sing on Sunday, that we "surrender all" to Jesus or that "All I need is you, Lord," fall a little flat as we worship through the week at a variety of other altars. For Christians, may our prayer be that our ultimate satisfaction would come from the only one who can ultimately satisfy.
Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!
2016 Reading Challenge: A book used as a seminary textbook