Today we're pleased to post a review of a book that already had gotten much attention on our blog: David Chidester's Authentic Fakes. The reviewer is Kyra Glass von der Osten, a student in Amy DeRogatis's Religion and American Culture graduate seminar at Michigan State University. Her review below furthers our ongoing discussion of how to treat products of popular culture within the symbol systems of religious studies. Enjoy ---
Review of Authentic Fakes
by Kyra Glass von der Osten
Throughout David Chidester’s book Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture, religion and popular culture are referred to frequently as essential aspects of American culture as well as two of its most influential exports to the rest of the world. They become in his text the center of the “sacred” America both at home and abroad. His use of this term underlines Chidester’s basic proposition that there is a strong relationship between religion and popular culture.
What this relationship is seems to shift throughout the book. The simplest relationship concerns how religion is portrayed in popular culture and how popular culture affects, antagonizes, or is used by religious groups and institutions. Chidester also posits the more extreme position that kinds of popular culture from Disney to Tupperware can be seen as a kind of religion. Much of the book explores phenomena in between these extremes. Chidester looks at how popular culture can do religious work and exist in a religious framework, without quite defining the popular culture itself as a religion.
Some chapters in his book venture away from the topic of religion and popular culture, centering on issues of globalization, consumerism, politics, and the perception of America abroad. In these chapters religion plays only a cursory role, as an aspect underpinning a specific ideology or in playful terminology like the “sacrosanct” French Fry. It seems best to take Chidester at his word and assume that the book’s purpose is “investigating religion in American popular culture” (5) and considering “how popular culture works in characteristically religious ways” (2).
Chidester’s sources and topics are varied, ranging (for example) from academic intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois and Walter Benjamin, to pop-cultural figures like Ken Burns, and representatives of corporations, journalists, films, and the creators of internet religions. Despite this diversity, there are no visual references like comics, artwork, or advertising anywhere in the text. The book is successful in raising several fascinating questions about the way we define religion, religious work, and its place in culture. Although some chapters in the book clearly address these issues, others do not as centrally. Because of this, the book is not completely clear on what exactly Chidester sees as the ultimate connection between popular culture and religion.
The problem of definition and language emerges as an important theme throughout the book. Chidester begins by presenting a wide variety of definitions of religion. These definitions are extremely varied and occasionally contradict each other. This allows Chidester to question the very meaning of the term religion. The wide range of definitions allow Chidester to claim that while Coca-Cola may not be a religion, it could certainly appear like one. He also puts forth his own definition of religion as essentially “ways of being a human person in a human place” (vii). His framing of the term may help to tie the disparate chapters together because everything he discusses from globalization to sacrifice to the Human Genome project are ways that we negotiate what it means to be human and as humans how we relate to the world.
Another way these chapters can be tied together is through the question of language. He refers frequently to religious language used to discuss popular culture topics. He quotes a Coca-Cole executive claiming “Coca-Cola is the holy grail” (135) McDonalds workers describing the restaurant as a place of “celestial joy” (139) and discusses Disneyland as a place of “pilgrimage.” Here religious language frames corporate entities as having a religious quality. But why this language is used is not addressed.
Authentic Fakes is more interesting for the questions it fails to answers than those it addresses. Why do people use religious language to discuss consumer products and corporate entities? Is it because they find religious elements in these entities, or is it because many Americans place religion in a central position in their life and therefore use religious terms to discuss the things that are important to them? While it is easy to locate examples of religious speech in seemingly non-religious popular culture situations, it is difficult to ascertain the intention of the speaker. The intentions and beliefs of the participants in the popular culture worlds discussed are largely neglected in this book.
This is one of the central problems in the chapter on internet religions, otherwise one of the most compelling chapters in the book. Chidester discusses the major aspects of virtual religions but seems to consider most of them either a parody of or a commentary on traditional religions. He considers them “fake” religions doing “authentic” religious work. He does not discuss how those involved with internet religions see themselves. For example, he discusses the Discordians efforts to be classified on Yahoo as a real religion, not a parody religion, but he does no virtual ethnography to determine whether or not this was part of their intellectual and cultural commentary or if they perceived themselves as a religion. While there is clearly something authentic about virtual religions and Tupperware and while these things may be couched in religious terms, it is unclear that they are truly doing religious rather than intellectual or corporate work. An argument for the religious work they perform could be better made with closer attention to how consumers of Coke, hosts of Tupperware Parties, and creators of on-line religions experienced these investments. While he does give a few first-hand accounts of adherents to the “church of baseball” and the rite of the Tupperware party, they are not necessarily presented as the norm of these experiences or even as clearly religious as they appear to be.
The book also fails to address how popular culture itself negotiates these questions. The reptilian conspiracy of David Icke discussed in the book is dealt with in an episode of the television series CSI: Las Vegas. Tupperware Parties were re-cast in Eerie Indiana as a cult of women who placed themselves and their children in giant Tupperware containers so they would never age. In both cases these groups are painted as cults, not religions, a distinction that plays an important part in Chidester’s work. His argument would have benefited significantly from a greater consideration of how popular culture has negotiated its own religious elements.
Dealing with fascinating topics from Shamans to the Americans gang in South Africa, to the plastic fetish of Tupperware, Authentic Fakes brings up important questions of how religion is defined and how religious work is performed in the culture. More work needs to be done then this book accomplishes in order to really address these questions.