Religion and popular Culture : Rescripting the Sacred

Some further reflections on popular culture. Those of my readers who are working on the same project, if you use this blog, then cite it.

This continues the six prior posts (1) Cruise Ship Synagogues, (2) Suburban Religion, (3) Christian Rock and Kiruv (4) Popular Culture and Judaism (5) Disney-ization of Faith (6) The Divine Commodity

Today we will look at the book Religion and Popular Culture : Rescripting the Sacred by Richard W Santana and Gregory Erickson 2008. The major claim of the book is that we understand religion through its contemporary pop culture and laity driven versions. A Feldheim book or a blog or an experience from Israel determines what a text means.

The United States is the world’s primary creator and exporter of popular mass culture and arguably one of the most religious countries in modern history. As a result, the coexistence of American religion with popular culture has created a fertile yet caustic environment for new religious belief structures, new texts, and new worldviews that are uniquely American. This work considers ways in which American television, advertising, music, and video games have played a significant role in creating, representing, and influencing contradictory religious identities. The authors examine three distinct segments of popular culture that “rescript the sacred.”

What they mean is that people understand their religion though the popular culture interpretation. TV, movies, novels and blogs now serve as the official narrated version for the religion means. They serves as a new scripture.

This creates a huge gap between the official interpretation and the popular interpretation. Popular religion gives its order and meaning and shows the tension between the religion of the ordinary person and the theologians priests and other religious professionals. There are learned presentations of the doctrines and practices, yet for many believers the most important parts of religion are those offering emotional security and personal relationship. American religion is bi-directional between popular and established religion. Lay people interpret the faith in its unique ways and influence the clergy.

M Lawrence Moore has suggested that our post-secular era is an era of the commoditization of religion. (see Oliver Roy in prior post)

According to the authors, America as a religious or Biblical culture that does not actually read the bible- they understand it through the Da Vinci code, Purpose Driven Life, Left Behind, Joel Osteen, TV, and famous preachers. Even when people go to ear famous preachers they actually spend most of their time with the side shows like the children’s show where Biblical figure as superheros defeat evil villains of secular culture with priestly magical garments. The Bible becomes objects and forces of power mightier than a sword. There is action and heroic virtue but not textual significance. They don’t get their power from reading the Bible but from its power. If you have faith or commitment then you vanquish your spiritual enemies.

The authors stress that popular religion is the religion of the laypeople By definition, they treat popular religion as having an extra institutional status, non-elite practitioners, immediacy and informality. It draws on behaviors both participant and observer recognize as religious even if not condoned by the religious elite. (p. 18) Focus on what people do and not what they think- blurring of sacred and profane- it surrounds us in everyday life.

The lines in America between religion and popular culture blur in ways “that leave scholars dizzy.” Paradoxes resolve themselves in ways that are not ordinarily obvious. (Think of the person who works in a corporate cubicle and defines work as cognitive, so religion is his emotional redemption. So hearing a rock star in shul is emotional and therefore Rav Nachman and Roger Daltry both say the same religious message to oppose his workplace rationalism.)

You cannot say they don’t understand the text correctly, famous case of experts saying that Waco Branch Davidians did not understand the Book of Revelations. You cannot tell pop culture Orthodox that they misunderstand the halakhic world. They have already reached a point where there were rabbis and authority figures who supported their opinion.

They think Biblical history is the most important event in world history but they interpret it through pop culture. Modern version of story is more real than the original.

Popular culture rescues religion from the bonds of the institutions that one grew up with. The bonds of the pulpit rabbi and HS rebbe and places it in the free floating experience of the year in Israel as one’s emotional retreat.

Any thoughts on applying this to Orthodoxy?

9 responses to “Religion and popular Culture : Rescripting the Sacred

  1. Come to think of it, how different is that from the religion of the simple Jew of 18th century Eastern Europe? They also knew relatively little text, and lived their religious experience arguably through the power, as opposed to the text of the Bible.

    Separately, and related to the entire thread of Evangelically inspired Orthodox Judaism, I am just reading Rabbi Yehuda Fine’s book Finding Hope in Lost Kids, which is heavy on emotion, on social welfare, and while it uses a Jewish text as a signpost for the entire book, is arguably a bit lighter on sources.

    But yet, I wonder, could that book not have been written without influence by cultural osmosis from evangelicals? Isn’t the different style every bit as much a result of the medium (cheaply and plentifully available books starting in the 19th century, but accelerating in the 2nd half of the 20th), which allows authors to also write about more “trivial” emotional aspects of their arguments? Upon reflection, I find much of what the book argues for to fit perfectly in a Jewishly informed Jewish world view.


  2. I dont think that this is a new phenomena. As I stated in one of these popular culture posts. We need a study of the religion of the laity in Judaism. We dont have to go to the 18th century Eastern Europe, even in Western Europe and during every age and place. The differences are the specific forms of that period. The popular religion of the 1910’s described by the Mishneh Berurah (and verified in numerous memoirs)or is not that of the 1950’s men’s club or the 1980’s. Since, I have been blogging in this decade, I am taking note of the current versions.
    I do not think everything is Evangelical. Art Scroll or Feldheim is not but they do show an Americanization and a suburbanization. Some of them do show 12-step, American pop psych and new age. On this blog, I have been looking at the Evangelical ones. I do not think Fine is evangelical.
    The construction of self and the emotions is also tied to specific periods. Many of the frum books are views from the 1970’s and 1980’s, even if written in this decade. The language shows the age as well as the theories of emotions.

  3. I think that this conflates to an extent popular culture representations of religion and popular religion itself. For Christianity there are copious popular culture representations of religion. For modern orthodoxy -not so much. If anything it is the American Hareidi/Lith. Yehivish world that has felt threatened enough by American popular culture to produce a corpus of genre appropriate substitutes from children’s programs to novels to self-help books and of course the core of the Orthodox Jewish music business. Modern Orthodoxy by comparison is rather impoverished by comparison. How many modern orthodox novels or TV programs are there? (How many people have read Gideon Rothstein’s post messianic murder mystery? Has it been optioned yet?)

    So while there is obviously popular religion within Modern Orthodoxy it is not as much refracted through a plethora of popular cultural products. It is a bit harder to detect what Modern Orthodox popular religion is drawing on in constructing a popular religious self conception. Is it the NCSY/Israel rear emotional expressions of religious solidarity? Is it the Maccabeats – self- conscious appropriations of popular culture that are essentially devoid of religious content? Is it a shul rabbi who adopts corporate new age team building strategy to engage his congregation?

    Also , the East Coast MO official narrative is primarily still one of texts, a culture of learning, and elitist aspirations. What does the disjunction between the narrative and the actual culture tell us? What are the consequences of having a narrative that does not match experience? Does it set educational institutions up for massive failure? Does it result in defections to other streams of orthodoxy who present more convergent narratives and experiences? I don’t know the answers, nor am I sure how the thesis of Rescripting the Sacred is relevant to them.

  4. AS-
    Thank you. This is the stuff that I am fishing for in order to describe the phenomena. I think that you are correct that popular religion is not the same as popular culture. I will have to be careful to separate them.
    Yes, there is seemingly less popular culture products, but I am not sure. Much of the English Judaica from Israel, the web shiurim that are on history or society, the tischs, the neo-hasidism does create a rescripted narrative. Centrist Orthodox Jews use more secular culture in the mix but appropriated in new ways.
    The bigger background issue that I have not formally blogged yet is that the East Coast establishment is not as text centered as it used to be. I receive emails and phone calls from people who don’t post comments. I am waiting for an email from an educator who is to provide me with more data.
    It seems that the majority of those in the gap year are now attending non-text centered programs. When they return they like having their zizit out, singing, and shul culture, they like the entire frumkeit thing but they are not that into Torah or scrupulous in certain mizvot. They like having davening on their ipod and all the frum apps. They like having shabbatons and there is the new trend of Friday night tischs as the focal point of Modern Orthodx frumkeit. I will write this up as a post. The interesting is that it is almost Torah-less. They have chosen their own synagogues and new communities. How they relate to the learned textual part of the community will be seen. The popular culture is not just a community building technique rather it seems to be the next stage of the community for many. (Professionalism, medical ethics, dry wine and halakhah were not outreach tools but created the ethos of the enclaves.) There are new enclaves being created. The thesis of Rescripting the Sacred was to be applied to the above culture.
    Your novel example was from someone in the text culture.
    What does the disjunction between the narrative and the actual culture tell us? What are the consequences of having a narrative that does not match experience?
    I have been asking that for a decade. What do you think?

  5. The bigger background issue that I have not formally blogged yet is that the East Coast establishment is not as text centered as it used to be. I receive emails and phone calls from people who don’t post comments. I am waiting for an email from an educator who is to provide me with more data.
    It seems that the majority of those in the gap year are now attending non-text centered programs. When they return they like having their zizit out, singing, and shul culture, they like the entire frumkeit thing but they are not that into Torah or scrupulous in certain mizvot.

    Could it be that as the Israel programs have expanded, we are reaching an ever larger proportion, which includes a serious number of people who are not as text oriented. Combine that with the fact that religion is lived somewhat differently in our individualistic but spiritual age, and you get more interest in programs, but mostly in experiential programs.

    Also, intellectual consumption patterns are changing, and I am planning to blog about this. In the ’80s and ’90s, listening to recorded shiurim required a certain nerdiness. One had to be committed to keep on visiting tape libraries and lugging the hardware and the tapes around. Nowadays, with smartphones and podcasts, much high level yeshiva material is available with the click of an electronic rodent. It won’t be much help for mastering Bava Kama with Rishonim and Acharonim, because one would still have to sit down and do the work, but it does shift some of the responsibility for textual content away from the yeshivot. What the mp3 records can’t provide is experience, so perhaps this is a factor, too. The people may be almost as textual as ever, but their needs regarding the institutions have changed.

  6. I’m still thinking about the Erica Brown article on synagogue scholars-in-residence. The tension of the article is the clear edutainment (Disney-ification?) factor in these programs even as she tries to find ways for them to find a more “textual” grounding.

    To Rabbi Folger, I don’t think that the consumption patterns are changing all that much, even if the digital content is on many more iphones or news readers.

    Listening to a parsha shiur in the car on the way to work is roughly the same as listening to talk radio in terms of policy issues. Both are completely “non-textual”.

  7. Because you asked….since moving west of the mid Atlantic Appalachians for the first time in my life and as a result becoming a bit of an unwitting anthropologist, I offer the following: I quickly noticed that the East Coast elitist narrative (which I have realized surrounds explicit intellectual and tacit economic aspirations) does not resonate in the Midwest on almost any level (just to take one trivial example – East Coast transplants find it crazy that the centrist school curriculum is at least one year behind the east coast schools they went to in Limmudei Kodesh curriculum, the natives don’t notice the difference). And aside from some ardent but not very ideological Zionism there is nothing to take its place.

    Centrist communities are very much in decline by most metrics from the rust belt to Chicago and many are and have been trying to import East Coast products to compensate but with limited long-term success thus far. The only Centrist narrative I can detect is still very much the immigrant success story: they came from Europe, they became American, and they remained Orthodox. But that is a given for those who are two generations removed – it is not the story of their lives. There is no master narrative of Centrist Orthodoxy to provide the building blocks for Centrist/MO identity formation.

    As a result a lot more people gravitate to the Lith. Yeshivish circles (if they grew up frum) or the BT Aish or Lubavitch circles if they did not – not for ideology, but for a more robust narrative that actually talks about God, and popular religion that more easily provides a large variety of spiritual engagements for different tastes. Challah baking, inspiring talks simulcast around the world, tehilim groups, school plays, quasi hassidic tisches, chavrusas with full time learners, weekly halakha sheets that give easy entree into the world of chumrot, stories about sephardic miracle workers, shiurim about how mitzvot are magical, Torah as a series of simple moral lessons.

    So my guess is that Centrist shuls turn to popular culture in an attempt to add more to the religious smorgasbord hoping that given that all the other stuff is pretty much spoken for, this will appeal to the people who want shul to be a continued affirmation of their American identities, the only centrist narrative that is yet discernible. I think that you will find that most of their appropriations of popular culture play on distinctly American themes or react to the ways in which the American identity has become problematic.

    The most interesting to me has been the idea of shul as a refuge for men, maleness and the besieged American male ego (this is especially true for members of the decimated Midwestern middle class – East Coasters tend to forget that there were actual Centrist true middle class communities where most of the members lived comfortably on single income blue collar jobs or small businesses, and there were only a handful of professionals). The result is a flourishing of men-only programs, some official some not. Men seem to gravitate toward shiurim for men, some offering cigars or single malts (and of course kiddush clubs), father-son learning, men only leisure activities organized by the shul, and a variety of men’s sports leagues organized by shulgoers. Shul is marketed as a place where you can comfortably seek out a fraternal and masculine identification which you can no longer get at the workplace and which in mass popular culture is almost always presented as sophomoric testosterone-fueled self-parody.

    For someone who grew up with an elitist narrative (perhaps a particularity extreme form, where nearly everyone in your shul had semicha and an advanced degree) , and will admit that it is still very constitutive of my religious affiliation, this is pretty bleak. Centrism here provides no compelling story and is now struggling to fill in the gaps left over by streams of Orthodoxy that have done a better job of presenting an appealing popular religion. And if not for its unreflective quasi religious Zionism, it would be even weaker.

    In sum my verdict is that Centrist Orthodoxy writ large does not provide a framework for a flourishing of popular religion, and perhaps has not since the early 60s. The result is that there are few building blocks for many second, third and fourth generation Centrist Americans Jews to form the stable religious identities necessary to maintain their communities.

  8. AS,
    It took me a day to get through your comment.
    I think you are onto something but I am finding it needs some fleshing out at crucial points. I may turn part of it into a post especially if added to.
    What framework would Centrism need? What narrative would they need?
    Many of the young graduates think they learn better than ever and that is their ostensible focus. What would you point out that would change their perception? Do you think the economic aspirations are different in your neck of the midwest-rust belt? How do you think they will react to The WINGS program of the OU?
    I have a lot of questions because I am trying to get this comment to yield further fruit.

  9. The elitist narrative will still work for some of the people – certainly for many of the kids attracted to some of the old overseas hesder yeshiva programs and some others who have spent a year or two in Israel and now feel that they have got it. They probably do learn better than they ever did in high school. And they will likely be attracted to the shiurim that play on their strengths and ignore their weaknesses – that at least is what I witnessed over the course of 8 or so years in and around YU.

    Is there a point in bursting the bubble? Do you put them in a room with an English speaking bochur from Chevron so that they can see what someone their age could achieve in learning if they did almost nothing else? Is it worth pointing out that the spiritual satisfaction they ostensibly get (or are told that they get) from learning a number of hours a day will likely not carry over once they start working the hours necessary to pay for day school tuition?

    Centrism needs a narrative that is triumphant yet grounded. For an older generation it really was enough that you became American, helped build a synagogue and day school, and most of your kids remained religious. But centrism today requires a narrative that holds its own against hareidi themes like rebuilding what was lost in Europe, the self-evident authenticity of its fundamentalism, or of everyone, even the little people having a role to play in a larger elitist story. But aside from those three necessary components I cannot flesh out the story. (maybe we need centrist focus group researchers asking questions like: what are you proud about in your Judaism; how do you see yourself as distinct from other Orthodox groups; what would you tell your kid if they asked you… etc?)

    As far as economic aspirations: you have to remember that this region has had a massive exodus of young college graduates for richer pastures. For those that stay thee are clearly different economic aspirations. You don’t need to go to a top law school or get a job in finance. The cost of living is much lower resulting in lower tuition. A successful professional can pretty easily be a sole provider. And there are more blue collar workers and tradesmen who are Orthodox than I have seen in any other region (compare to New York where the Orthodox who were not college educated went into small businesses and real estate). There is also a suspicion of East coast elitism – not the Tea Party kind, but more of a “stop telling us how we are screwing up all the time” fatigue. In the Centrist community there is a also a wariness of rabbis and educators who come from the East and are perceived as seeing it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

    So how will they react to WINGS? On the one hand they are probably desperate to revitalize shuls that may be slowly shrinking. On the other hand they don’t have the cash to blow on certain kinds of programs and they probably feel that people like Steve Weil, despite his Midwest cred, is now thoroughly out of touch with what goes on in flyover territory.

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