In a 2011 book called Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, Kathryn Lofton read Oprah Winfrey’s television shows as proposals for a spiritual revolution fusing consumer behaviour with celebrity ambition and religious idioms. Consuming Religion seems like a natural next step for her as a scholar and critical observer of American religion and celebrity culture, but this time around the net is cast wider and the catch includes names such as Britney Spears, the Kardashians, Mel Gibson and Madonna. Sometimes Lofton becomes a little hectic – as when presenting a brief history of religion and celebrity over a mere eight pages, but in sum Consuming Religion is an elegant, critical, wide-ranging and thought-provoking account of religion and spirituality in America today.
Lofton’s most interesting discussions are contextualised by her knowledge of modern American cultural and religious history and situated in the debates taking place in the discipline known as religious studies and history of religions in different parts of the world. For instance, a chapter called “Ritualism revived” shows how old and bitter debates about ritual and ritualism in Anglo-American Protestantism have come to be articulated through the marketplace today. The point of departure is a ritual invented by family-focused Evangelicals in which fathers affirm their role as protectors of their adolescent daughters’ virginal selves by collectively spinning in circles in a ballroom after a three-course dinner and a public signing of purity pledges.
This kind of subject matter is unusual for scholars of religion, and many of the cases presented are rather disagreeable from the point of view of the typical liberal academic. It would have been easy to crack a joke about fathers and daughters in the Purity Ball. Just imagine how an ironic British observer of America such as Martin Amis would have handled this. Lofton’s voice does carry critique, but it remains sympathetic to the people she writes about, whether they are ultra-conservative Evangelical child-spankers or high-flying Goldman Sachs managers.
Universities need less lecturing and more conversation, Lofton says in a final chapter. I couldn’t agree more. If I imagine a conversation with her about her book, I would have liked to ask two questions.
First, what would happen to our understanding of the religion-consumption nexus if we lifted our eyes to a global context? Consuming Religion is, Lofton explains, about how “we organize consumer life”, but the referent of this “we” remains unarticulated. It is clearly an American “we” and does not include India, Africa or China, or other places in the world where the blending of consumption and religion is no less striking than in the US.
Second, why doesn’t Lofton spend more time teasing out the implications of her cases for theories about religion in the modern world? Her critique of secularisation theory remains implicit except for some brief remarks, but this might have been a bolder and more useful book if it engaged explicitly with arguments about religion and modernity outside the boundaries of the author’s discipline, particularly in sociology.
Torkel Brekke is research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. His latest book is Faithonomics: Religion and the Free Market (2016).
By Kathryn Lofton
University of Chicago Press, 352pp, £67.50 and £22.00
ISBN 9780226481937 and 82095
Published 31 October 2017