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Religion and Popular Culture in America

Religion and Popular Culture in America: Revised Edition

Bruce David Forbes
Jeffrey H. Mahan
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Pages: 339
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  • Book Info
    Religion and Popular Culture in America
    Book Description:

    The connection between American popular culture and religion is the subject of this multifaceted and innovative collection. In fourteen lively essays whose topics range from the divine feminine inThe Da Vinci Codeto Madonna's "Like a Prayer," and from the world of sports to the ways in which cyberculture has influenced traditional religions, this book offers fascinating insights into what popular culture reveals about the nature of American religion today. Revised throughout, this new edition features three new essays-including a fascinating look at the role of women in apocalyptic fiction such as theLeft Behindseries-and editor Bruce David Forbes has written a new introduction. In addition to the new textual material, each chapter concludes with a set of suggested discussion questions.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93257-9
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface to the Revised Edition
    (pp. ix-x)
    Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan
  4. Preface to the First Edition
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Jeffrey H. Mahan and Bruce David Forbes
  5. INTRODUCTION: Finding Religion in Unexpected Places
    (pp. 1-20)
    Bruce David Forbes

    Religion appears not only in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples; it also appears in popular culture.ₑ Best-selling popular music has included Joan Osborne’s “[What if God Was] One of Us,” U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and Madonna’s “Like A Prayer.” The video of “Like a Prayer” features burning crosses, a gospel choir, and a black Christ figure, all mixed together with sensuality. TheDa Vinci Codeand theLeft Behindfiction series have broken sales records in bookstores. The animated television programThe Simpsonsfrequently features the family’s interchange with their very religious neighbor Ned Flanders,...


    • [Part One Introduction]
      (pp. 21-24)

      When the topic of “religion and popular culture” is introduced, people typically think first of the mention of God in the lyrics of a popular song, the portrayal of Jewish rabbis in network television series, or some similar example of the way popular culture expresses religious values or portrays religious figures. Such examples represent the first of four relationships between religion and popular culture considered in this volume: ReligioninPopular Culture. This section features essays which discuss the explicit or implicit religious content of popular culture, and offer suggestions about what we might learn from these representations of religion....

      (pp. 25-43)
      Jane Naomi Iwamura

      Driving down a busy street in Oakland, California, I was met by the larger-than-life presence of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. He appeared to me in a vision of unparalleled clarity and grace. His direct gaze was gentle, yet intent, and his spiritual repose arresting. For that one moment, the hectic pace of my life was interrupted, and I was transported to another time, another world, another possibility.

      Many others who passed that same spot shared a similar vision. To each of us, the Dalai Lama’s silent message reverberated:Think Different.

      The unexpected appearance of such a prominent spiritual figure, in...

    • 2 CONSECRATING CONSUMER CULTURE: Christmas Television Specials
      (pp. 44-55)
      Robert J. Thompson

      Until about ten years ago, God more or less stayed out of prime-time television. Religion could be found around the fringes of the broadcast schedule, on Sundays and early mornings, where televangelists, masses for shut-ins, and other low-budget devotional programs were mainstays of the syndicated lineup.¹ Television’s big time, though, was prime time, and there you w0uld find the most recognizable shows with the largest audiences and the biggest stars, but not much talk about God.

      This was no cause for surprise. In an industry based on popularity and advertising revenue, network executives before the cable era were in the...

      (pp. 56-74)
      Jennie S. Knight

      The Da Vinci Codeby Dan Brown andThe Secret Life of Beesby Sue Monk Kidd have both been on theNew York Timesbest-seller list for more than one and a half years for several reasons. Both books are exceptionally well-written. They both tell engaging, even riveting, stories. They both engage controversial issues such as sexism and racism. However, there are many well-written, engaging stories that address these issues that do not gain the widespread popularity, often passionate allegiance and word-of-mouth advertising that these novels have. It is my contention that they are both so widely popular because...

    • 4 LIKE A SERMON: Popular Religion in Madonna Videos
      (pp. 75-98)
      Mark D. Hulsether

      This essay argues that some of the most important and interesting texts in recent U.S. culture which have overlapping concerns with liberation theologies are by Madonna. There … I said it. Anyone who wants to turn the page in disgust can do so now. I only ask that before you begin a jeremiad about the nihilism and vacuity of scholars these days, you let me clarify what I am—and am not—attempting to establish.

      As I explain below, I am not making global claims about all liberation theologies or speculating about Madonna’s conscious intentions; I am simply exploring how...


    • [Part Two Introduction]
      (pp. 99-102)

      The preceding section of this volume explored the first of our four relationships between religion and popular culture, the way religion influences and is expressed in popular culture. But in the relationship between religion and popular culture, influence does not run only in one direction: it is also possible to think aboutPopular CultureinReligion. Here, the focus is on how traditional religions utilize elements of popular culture, and on how such borrowings have affected the form and content of religion. The three essays in this section give special attention to evangelical Christianity, which has been especially interested in...

    • 5 EVANGELICALS AND POPULAR MUSIC: The Contemporary Christian Music Industry
      (pp. 103-122)
      William D. Romanowski

      The contemporary Christian music industry was established by American evangelicals in the early 1970s as a religious alternative to the mainstream, “secular” entertainment business. It began as a fledgling venture, with members of the youthful Jesus Movement using existing rock and folk music to communicate the gospel message to alienated youth of the Vietnam era. Shaped by evangelistic designs, these evangelical hippies created “Jesus Music,” the precursor to contemporary Christian music, by co-opting existing musical styles and adding “Christian” lyrics in the current vernacular. As a contemporary form of “gospel” music, contemporary Christian music was perceived by the secular media...

      (pp. 123-138)
      Greg Peterson

      In May 2004, the first virtual church service was held on the internet. At the website, you could create a cartoon character (known as an “avatar,” a word, ironically, of Hindu origin) to attend worship in a virtual church that appeared, again cartoon-like, on your computer screen. You, or rather your avatar, could wander about the church or sit down and participate in the service, which included hymns, prayers, and a sermon. More than one thousand people attended the service, and although they were all in one house of worship, they were physically located thousands of miles apart from...

    • 7 THE CROSS AT WILLOW CREEK: Seeker Religion and the Contemporary Marketplace
      (pp. 139-154)
      Stewart M. Hoover

      My only visit to a true megachurch took place a few years ago when I sat in with a delegation of mainline church communication officers at Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago. Willow Creek is in many ways the prototype of the megachurch, also known as the seeker’s church or “next” church. One incident during my time there stands out. As this group sat in the church’s huge auditorium, the tour guide asked them to name anything they thought was missing from the space. “There’s no cross,” said several, almost in unison. “That’s right,” replied the guide, who went on...


    • [Part Three Introduction]
      (pp. 155-158)

      Some commentators suggest that it is possible to think of particular forms of Popular Cultureas Religion. This approach constitutes our third relationship between religion and popular culture. For these cultural critics, the emphasis is not on traditional forms of religion, but on the way that significant cultural activity takes on the social form and purpose of religion. They ask us to consider whether this cultural activity should be regarded as religious, or at least as analogous to religion.

      Most often, these scholars draw on understandings of ritual, myth, and symbol derived from anthropology and religious studies, to suggest that...

    • 8 IT’S ABOUT FAITH IN OUR FUTURE: Star Trek Fandom as Cultural Religion
      (pp. 159-173)
      Michael Jindra

      FromThe Wizard of Ozto theDavy Crockettseries of the 1950s, to movies such as E. T. andStar Wars, Americans in the twentieth century have been entertained and inspired by vivid and captivating narratives utilizing the new visual media. Through television and film, popular culture has become an influential, even dominating, force in many areas of our society. As the essays in this volume make clear, popular culture often draws upon religious themes, but in this essay I will argue that the entertainment industry also creates meanings that begin to function in religious ways for consumers of...

    • 9 LOSING THEIR WAY TO SALVATION: Women, Weight Loss, and the Salvation Myth of Culture Lite
      (pp. 174-194)
      Michelle M. Lelwica

      On any given day, the majority of girls and women in the U.S. worry about their weight and its appearance on their bodies. Nearly two-thirds of adult women surveyed report that one of their greatest fears is becoming fat. Roughly the same percentage of high school girls monitor what and how much they eat, and in some urban areas up to 80 percent of fourth-grade girls have dieted. While the average woman in the U.S. is 5ʹ4ʺ and weighs 144 pounds, the average female model is 5ʹ10ʺ and weighs III pounds. Not surprisingly, diet books outsell any other books on...

    • 10 AN AMERICAN APOTHEOSIS: Sports as Popular Religion
      (pp. 195-212)
      Joseph L. Price

      Each year, on a Sunday toward the end of January, more than half the American population, and perhaps as much as one-tenth of the entire world’s, rivets its attention on a single, remote event. By then, the Super Bowl has dominated public attention for weeks, and viewers tune in to face their televisions like an electronicqiblah. In 1985, the Super Bowl commanded such power that the public celebration of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration was shifted from the constitutionally required day of January 20, a Sunday, to the following day, a frigid Monday in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, on Sunday the 20th...

      (pp. 213-232)
      David Chidester

      What do we mean by “religion” in the study of religion in American popular culture? Consider this: “What has a lifetime of baseball taught you?” Buck O’Neil is asked in an interview for Ken Burns’s television series on the history of the American national pastime. “It is a religion,” O’Neil responds. “For me,” he adds. “You understand?”

      Not exactly, of course, because we have no idea what Buck O’Neil, the great first baseman of the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1930S, who served baseball for over six decades as player, coach, manager, and scout, means by the term “religion.” What...


    • [Part Four Introduction]
      (pp. 233-236)

      When a Roman Catholic activist, a Muslim imam, or a takota holy man criticizes certain features of popular culture, or when Sinead O’Connor tears up a picture of the pope on national television, their activity does not quite fit into the previous relationships between religion and popular culture: Religion in Popular Culture, Popular Culture in Religion, and Popular Culture as Religion. Critiques of popular culture by representatives of religious communities, and challenges to religious understandings by figures from popular culture, open the door to conversation between the two; thus our fourth type of interaction is Religion and Popular Culture in...

      (pp. 237-251)
      Robert Jewett

      Paul’s warning against vengeance runs counter to the widely shared sentiment several years ago regarding the capture of a mass murderer in the city where I live. After a killing spree through the Midwest, Alton Coleman was captured without resistance by police in Evanston, Illinois.¹ heard one professional woman state the view that many others held: “I wish he had been killed in a shootout with the police!"” The yearning for vengeance-quick and final-assumes a most peculiar form in American society, where popular myths frequently picture the police or private detectives acting as avenging judges and executioners.

      A popular preference...

    • 13 RAP MUSIC AND ITS MESSAGE: On Interpreting the Contact between Religion and Popular Culture
      (pp. 252-269)
      Anthony Pinn

      George Clinton and Parliament would be in town doing some of their classic cuts-“Flashlight,” etc. My friends were going and part of me wanted to attend, but, as a good “church boy,” I was torn. Should a Chri!ltian attend such a “worldly” event, listening to songs that did not address themes of spiritual uplift? Granted, I did on occasion listen to these songs, but I always believed this was somehow wrong. Could there be a relationship between these two worlds? Initially I thought not. My friends went to the concert and I stayed home. It would be years before I...

      (pp. 270-287)
      Amy Johnson Frykholm

      The phenomenon of theLeft Behindseries of books—60 million copies sold over ten years, recurrent number-one position on theNew York Timesbest-seller list, millions of dollars in spin-off sales—took almost everyone by surprise, including the authors, the publisher, the mainstream media, and academics of all kinds. As a Christian evangelical series of fiction telling a rather obscure story based on an interpretation of the Bible few people outside evangelical circles have ever heard of, the series did not seem poised to have a significant impact on American culture. And yet, over the nine years of the...

  10. CONCLUSION: Establishing a Dialogue about Religion and Popular Culture
    (pp. 288-296)
    Jeffrey H. Mahan

    In looking back onReligion and Popular Culture in America, it is clear that two sets of questions interest the contributors to this project. First, we are drawn to questions about how religion interacts with popular culture. We ask whether American popular culture has a religious face, and if so what it looks like, or wonder how religion has developed and adapted in the midst of a consumer culture. Second, we are interested in the form the conversation about these questions has taken. Who is thinking and writing about the relationship between religion and popular culture? What concerns, theories, and...

    (pp. 297-304)
  12. Contributors
    (pp. 305-308)
  13. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 309-314)
  14. Index
    (pp. 315-326)