Consuming Religion

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Kathryn Lofton
Class 200: New Studies in Religion
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , September
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book is also being reviewed in JAAR by Vincent Miller.

Lofton’s Consuming Religion takes us through the Kardashians, cubicle design, and Goldman Sachs, among other phenomena, to reveal the relationship of religion and popular culture. At its best, this book feels like an exciting revelation about who and what we should be addressing in religious studies. That feeling of fresh air, however, is grounded in an older argument. Lofton argues that Durkheim was correct: religion is sociality. Or maybe not quite: “religion is a word that has captured our sociality” (xi). So it’s not that religion is sociality as much as it is a word that has stolen, taken over, or imprisoned sociality. In which case you are religious, we are religious, and they are religious, because everyone has to live in the modern world, which is bound together by organizing logics, institutions, and feelings that are labeled religious. On top of all this, Lofton argues that religion is not just our condition, it’s our only way towards a better future. If you must be religious, make a better religion. 

The book is split into five sections: “Practicing Commodity,” “Revising Ritual,” “Imagining Celebrity,” “Valuing Family,” and “Rethinking Corporate Freedom.” The first section of the book, “Practicing Commodity,” argues that despite religion’s overlap with all forms of sociality, consumption is the crucial practice of religion. The first chapter, “Binge Religion,” argues that binging a television show and participating in ISIS have much in common as forms of consumption: they both engage in maximalism, taking their practices to extremes, and they also are forms of reaching out (on the internet, over-identifying with the characters of the show, filling up time) that deal with a sense of alienation. If you describe your late night television consumption as a binge, you share a concern with the ISIS devotee about the decline of sociality in the modern age. Considering the core argument of the book—that we are religious because we are social—it is intriguing that this chapter describes the experience of a lonely viewer. There are, for instance, robust chat rooms and comments sections on the internet where fans discuss shows and brands, but these kinds of communities are not Lofton’s object of study. So where is the sociality that is making us religious? It is the idea of sociality, the sense that if we could just stop our addictions we could be social. But Durkheim is not a great theorist of hoped-for sociality, Durkheim is the theorist of effervescence born out of bodies in proximate relationship to one another. In this book you will find very few gatherings of people.

In one of the chapters more focused on a community study, “The Spirit of the Cubicle,” Lofton shows that the Herman Miller corporation provided a full organizational process for people’s lives, including its employees and its customers. The process was developed in southwestern Michigan, where the company was located, but it touched all office workers in the 1960s when its office furniture became popular. “Purifying America,” on the other hand, focuses on the creation of new rituals by a coalition of corporations in the 1920s, bound together in the “denominational” archives of the Cleanliness Institute (92). This industry association published pamphlets and funded a public education campaign that clarified the moral stakes of cleanliness. In both cases, Lofton shows how prescriptive American consumerism can be, how the appearance of market choice comes with a bundle of mandates and models of and models for living. In the chapter “Ritualism Revived,” Lofton shows that Anglicans in the late nineteenth century have been a prime source of “ritual” talk in American culture, and that ritual in American culture is something you think about in the terms of consumerism, as something that you might select based on its utility to your spiritual lifestyle. The chapters on office furniture and soap show that conversely, consumerism feels like a command to ritualize, to organize your daily life in the right work space and with the right bodily practices.

Denominations and traditional sects make brief appearances, as in Lofton’s reference to Anglican consumerism. But Lofton argues that theological traditions are not what make consumerism ritualistic. Rather, as Lofton clarifies in the case of office furniture, “What I seek to emphasize is the community context in which Herman Miller developed an egalitarian managerial ethos and commitment to the particularities of ergonomic comfort in every facet of human performance” (42). A company does not need to have a resident minister, references to a particular creed, or a strong basis in a local religious community. The point is how totalizing the consumer practices of modern society feel to both employees and consumers.

Lofton devotes several chapters to celebrity culture, including the chapter “Sacrificing Britney,” which argues that the consumption of celebrity is a ritual itself, but we do not consume all celebrities equally. Britney is the sacrificial offering and we encourage her repeated failure in order to reset the social order. Her chaos enables our stability. This chapter, and others in the book that are premised on the activity of consuming through spectatorship, raise another theoretical quandary. The “we” who sacrifice Britney watch this spectacle through a mediated lens. Lofton argues that the paparazzi create the physical frame for the sacrifice that delineates both the sacrificial space and ritual’s distinction between audience and participants (117). But in the theories of ritual and sacrifice that Lofton draws on, spectators are not segregated by proximity to the ritual act or enabled by technologies of reproduction. Durkheim does not, in other words, theorize mediation. Lofton’s work on religion and popular culture has yet to engage the question of whether it matters if we consume our religion through a screen, with embodied passion, or in the casual buzz of technologically-enabled distraction.

In the most exciting chapter of the book, “Kardashian Nation,” Lofton performs the normative critique promised in the introduction. The Kardashian family is, she argues, the real location of “family values” in the United States today. In their television show and associated products, the Kardashians use their commitment to family as a shield, deflecting critiques through the assertion that their kinship is an authorizing force that makes all concerns of inauthenticity unimportant. They might be beyond shame, but they do what no family should be able to do under the bright glare of reality television production lights: they stay together. Lofton notes how a language of kinship has been used in anthropology to distinguish the primitive from the modern, but shows that through Durkheim’s understanding of kinship we can see that modern society worships itself (or the “woman’s body working on her body”) through its obsession with the Kardashians (188). Lofton contrasts this vision of family, based in blood and self-reproduction, with the image of protesters at University of Missouri, where a professor entered the world of internet notoriety by trying to keep journalists away from the space of protest. This is an alternative vision of kinship in the age of mass media, in which bonds are made and not given and the media’s attention is resisted. If for Lofton the cult of the family is the defining religious experience of our moment, in this example we are given a different vision of collective coherence.

The last section of the book argues that corporations define our sense of the sacred because they “inscribe practices and promote worldviews beyond the applied scope of their product” (7). If this sounds like Geertz, this is because Lofton argues that Geertz might have been describing corporate culture more thoroughly than he was describing religion. But if corporate culture is our religion, well, then, Geertz got it right after all (234).

In the most methodologically distinctive chapter of the book, “Do Not Tamper with the Clues: Notes on Goldman Sachs,” Lofton enters the world of ethnography through interviews with Goldman Sachs employees. Lofton comes to the project through a former student who now works at the firm and has a sense that Lofton will find the kind of religion she is looking for in banking. This chapter raises an important question in relationship to the rest of the book: if Goldman Sachs is a religion because it is a complete system of organization with a totalizing account of the world, what is this religion’s relationship to the rest of American society? Unlike the ambiguous “we” that participates in the ritual structure of celebrity culture and the cult of the reproductive family, in Goldman Sachs the “we” of this collectivity ends at the boundaries of their Manhattan offices (with some outposts at Ivy League colleges). Clearly some religious formations in the secular age are not accessible without a calling card. Formal readings of brand identities, television shows, and tabloids allow Lofton to sidestep reception analysis because these objects are so pervasive in their popularity that their consumption by particular fans, anti-fans, cultures, subcultures, or classes, can all be anticipated by the driving force of capitalism’s evangelistic promiscuity. But in Goldman Sachs (as well as in the chapter on the company Herman Miller) we get a different, and more complete, sense of religion as a total system of commodities, sellers, buyers, and labor. The tantalizing effect will make you long for a similarly complete reading of Britney Spears and Kim Kardashian.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dana Wiggins Logan is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

Date of Review: 
December 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kathryn Lofton is Professor of Religious Studies, American Studies, and History at Yale University.

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