The Altars Where We Worship

The Religious Significance of Popular Culture

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Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, Mark G. Toulouse
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , November
     2016.
     225 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664235154.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The witty cover illustration for The Altars Where We Worship combines in a single figure two iconic images in order to comment on American cultural religion. The Statue of Liberty morphs with Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway vent with her skirt blowing up around her. This ecstatic looking “Lady Liberty” holds her torch high with one hand, her skirt down with the other, and we can imagine her saying, like Marilyn in The Seven Year Itch, “Isn’t it delicious?” This book examines the way powerful forces like sex and the body, politics, big business, and entertainment become locations of religious meaning in an American culture where, by every measure, organized religion is fading.

The authors align with those who argue that the seeming secularization of Western cultures does not, in fact, signify the death of religion. Rather, as organized religion fades, other cultural processes take on functions of religion. The book’s contribution is to tease out key locations or “altars” of this cultural religion. To the list begun above this book adds sports and science and technology as locations of cultural “worship.” In each they find a mythic narrative, a system of doctrines, ethical codes, an organization or institution, rituals, an experiential dimension, and material expressions. This structure allows for a lively and readable reflection on the cultural worship that happens at each of these popular altars and on the search for ultimate meaning behind these myths, rituals, and practices.

Their discussion of politics and the myth of American exceptionalism is particularly rich. The authors describe how the ideals of equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence take on a religious power that can be claimed by America’s religious, racial, and sexual minorities in ways the authors of the Declaration could not imagine. At the same time, they also identify places where, due to racism, sexism, and homophobia, America fails to live up to these ideals. The volume is clearly rooted in a theological perspective; Christian theology and practice raise questions about the adequacies of each of these forms of American religiosity, leading the authors to ask, in a closing quote from Gandhi, whether this is “worship without sacrifice.” Yet, particularly in the way these locations make room for less dualistic thinking about the body, sex, and pleasure, and in their sense of the liberative potential of America’s political ideals, the authors treat them as sources of genuine—if sometimes corruptible—religious power.

One might ask the authors of The Altars Where We Worship to be more explicit about what understandings of religion make the body and sex, big business, entertainment, politics, sports, and science and technology locations of religious meaning and practice. I hasten to acknowledge that I make a similar move in my own work on media and popular culture. But our secular critics rightly ask what this move accomplishes. What do we gain by describing these seemingly secular locations of meaning-making work as “religious” altars? More could be said here about the assumed nature of religion and its work within culture.

The Floyd-Thomases and Mark Toulouse suggest in the introduction that as traditional religion fades these alternatives take its place. But they themselves argue that the ideals of the Declaration of Independence were, from the beginning, doing religious work. Is it a new phenomenon for things like politics, sports, science, and business to do religious work today? Is there something about the decline of organized religion that makes these alternative locations of the religious more obvious? Finally, are these things separate and contrasting religions? Or, are they manifestations of some larger American religion yet to be more fully teased out? The Altars Where we Worship doesn’t fully answer these questions. But it pushes us to think about them, and “isn’t it delicious” to do so?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeffrey H. Mahan is the Ralph E. and Norma E. Peck Chair in Religion and Public Communication at the Illiff School of Theology, Denver, Colorado.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Juan M. Floyd-Thomas is Associate Professor of African American Religious History at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. He is the author of Liberating Black Church History: Making It Plain, among other works.

Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas is Associate Professor of Ethics and Society at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University and the author or editor of several books, including Mining the Motherlode and Deeper Shades of Purple. She is the Executive Director of the Society of Christian Ethics.

Mark G. Toulouse is Principal and Professor of the History of Christianity at Emmanuel College, University of Toronto, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Previously, he spent twenty-three years on the faculty of Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas.

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