Powerfully convicting for those of us (all of us?) who find ourselves falling into some form of idolatry at one point or another, The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Experience of Popular Culture by Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Stacey M Floyd-Thomas, and Mark G. Toulouse exposes six aspects of American culture as altars and religions. The book’s chapters follow these aspects: (1) Body and Sex, (2) Big Business, (3) Entertainment, (4) Politics, (5) Sports, and (6) Science and Technology. Using Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion as outline in The Religious Experience of Mankind, the authors demonstrate each of the aforementioned by including supporting data for the following: mythology, doctrine, ethics, ritual, experience, institutions, and materiality.
The authors write, “Rather than trying to debunk these altars in any fashion, we believe it is important to recognize that these altars naturally connect with our human desire to locate the religious impulse in something we perceive to be greater than ourselves” (p.7). Just as the apostle Paul did not deny the perceived existence of many gods (1 Cor 8:5), the authors do not want us to deny that these exist and turn a blind eye to those that pull at us (or have completely taken hold, as the case may be). The authors continue:
We want to make clear that our approach is not interested in trying to define which religious experiences are true and which are not. In the chapters that follow, we examine six aspects of American culture that function essentially as “altars” where Americans gather to worship and produce meaning for their lives. At these altars, Americans reconcile themselves to a “serviceable God” who promises to meet their every desire. By examining the major players, fads, trends, movements, and events associated with each of these altars, each chapter will examine the religious inner workings of the popular cultural phenomenon associated with them. (p.13)
While their overall approach does not attempt to delineate those experiences as true or not true, the authors certainly make their opinions known when subjects concern their respective theologies. However, regardless of how these are read, it is important to take the book for what it is and as it is intended: describing six aspects of American culture in religious terms. Readers may find themselves convicted by an entire chapter(s), or perhaps just a few tidbits here and there. While it may be easy for some of us to recognize some things as merely practical participation in a thing without a necessary connection to a religious experience, these again should be understood as parts of a whole that support the way each of these greater culture aspects can—indeed do—very much function as altars and religions.
There’s a lot of good food for thought here, and I’m sure others will continue to find the same things in other aspects of their respective cultures.