Religion and Popular Culture in America, 3rd Ed.

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David Forbes, Jeffrey H. Mahan
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , March
     2017.
     464 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520291461.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The study of religion and popular culture has exploded in recent years, as books and articles on the subject have proliferated at a growing pace. At the same time, there are still a limited number of books which can serve as broad introductions to the field rather than specialized monographs on just one aspect of it. Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan sought to address this need with their 1st edition of Religion and Popular Culture in America in 2000, revised in 2005. But while each of those editions had only fourteen essays—and the 2nd edition only featured three new ones—this 3rd edition contains twenty essays—all but five of them new. As such, it is a much improved version which better illustrates the range of current scholarship in this area.

The structuring principle remains the same as with the earlier editions, as the editors class the essays into four categories: religion in popular culture; popular culture in religion; popular culture as religion; and religion and popular culture in dialogue. I found these categories problematic in the earlier editions, and my reservations about this typology continue. Recent scholarship increasingly suggests that it is difficult to draw firm lines between religion and popular culture, as the distinction is an arbitrary one that reflects more about authorial attitudes towards the categories than the phenomena studied. The editors nod to this concern, but this does not dislodge the structure from their organization of the essays. The authors of the essays, however, frequently suggest an erosion of the categories by their own approaches, and it is easy to imagine moving some of the essays to other categories. Whether we speak of religion “in” popular culture, or popular culture “in” religion, has much to do not only with how we define the two terms—but also with which we regard as the dominant influence in the relationship. Are we seeing how religion has been affected by popular culture, or the reverse? Ultimately we cannot make such distinctions easily, as there is so much overlap between the categories that we can no longer state that pure “religion” exists outside of popular culture. The essays are most interesting when they address these overlaps, and this happens more in the latter parts of the book when discussing popular culture as religion, and the two in dialogue. These essays also suggest the complexity of the relationship as they indicate that there is no single way in which it occurs in any given case. For example, as Shreena Niketa Gandhi shows, Christians adapt yoga in defiance of its Hindu roots even while Hindus seek to bring it back to these same roots. As she writes, “these controversies show the border between the religious and the secular to be fuzzy, and often arbitrary, and it is thus important to openly discuss their messiness” (348). The complexity of popular culture is also well illustrated by Stephanie Brehm and Myev Rees when they suggest that Disney products do not have a single globalizing message but rather express the ambivalences of American culture regarding technology and feminism—or as they put it—Disney “is a site of negotiation that reveals and reifies religious and cultural tensions, ambiguities, and anxieties” (366).

An interesting question raised throughout the essays—and often found in scholarship in this area—is the extent to which popular culture either represents a threat to traditional religion, or a real alternative. The authors do not hold a single view on whether popular culture can be called a religion or whether it is just “religion-like,” but they clearly see that popular cultural phenomena can have an influence akin to religion. This influence is sometimes viewed as destructive in its promotion of unhealthy values. Michelle M. Lelwica, for example, writes about the “religion of thinness” that has shamed women into bodily deprivation, and Sarah McFarland Taylor describes how the “religion” of obsessive shopping promises salvation through consumption. On the other hand, while Joseph Price raises some concerns about the religious devotion to sports, he also suggests it provides ways to explore selfhood and communal bonding as well as the experiences of contingency, victory, and “abundant life” (306). It is a strength of the essays that they give full range to the diversity of ways that popular culture can be viewed in relation to religion: as expressing, enhancing, interrogating, or critiquing it.

I would have preferred that the editors use different categories, but as the authors often effectively deconstruct those categories, I find this volume more sophisticated and useful in its analyses than the earlier editions. I can easily see using this for an introductory class in religion and popular culture, as it gradually introduces students to the “messiness” of the dialogue through the order of the essays, and could be used in connection with other readings to transcend the simplistic assumptions with which students begin such classes. A concluding essay by the editors might have more effectively helped to frame the discussion on the problematic definitions of the terms and their relations, but it can be hoped that the skillful instructor could tease out questions on this from classroom discussion. Each chapter also ends with suggested discussion questions, which can be helpful in this regard. One other point worth mentioning is that the volume confines itself to American popular culture, which can be a limitation. Overall, however, the book offers solid scholarship that is well worth reading both for adepts in the field as well as the newly initiated.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John C. Lyden is liberal arts core director and professor of liberal arts at Grand View University.

Date of Review: 
July 7, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bruce David Forbes is professor of religious studies at Morningside College. He is the author of Christmas: A Candid History and America's Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories.
 
Jeffrey H. Mahan holds the Ralph E. and Norma E. Peck Chair in religion and public communication at the Iliff School of Theology. His books include Religion, Media, and Culture: An Introduction, Shared Wisdom, and American Television Genres.

Comments

Jeffrey H. Mahan

I am grateful for John Lyden's fair and engaged review. I would respond that our category of "popular culture as religion" itself points the reader toward the question he raises about whether "religion" and "popular culture" are seperate categories. We would argue that this is an important way of thinking about the topic, but not the only approach to which students or scholars new to the discussion should be introduced. 

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