WATERtalk Wednesday, February 5
with Dr. Kathryn Lofton
CONSUMING RELIGION. Chicago, Il: The University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Like all of WATER’s efforts, our purpose is not simply theoretical. Rather, we are focused on changing the cultural and intellectual assumptions that ground discrimination, exclusion, and destruction. In these difficult times, with impeachment functionally behind us, the Corona virus threatening large swaths of the world’s population, and serious environmental, economic and political threats roiling around us, we need both wisdom and community to survive. Kathryn will provide wisdom; we are the community.
Let me introduce our speaker, Kathryn Lofton, a newcomer to WATER in this context and very welcome. She describes herself as an “historian of religion who has written extensively about capitalism, celebrity, sexuality, and the concept of the secular. In her work, she has examined how the history of religion is constituted by the history of popular culture and the emergence of corporations.” She has studied Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011) looking at “Oprah Winfrey’s multimedia productions to evaluate the material strategies of contemporary spirituality.”
The book we will consider today is her Consuming Religion (2017) in which she provides a “profile of religion and its relationship to consumption through a series of case studies including the family Kardashian and the Goldman Sachs Group.” She has written about religion in documentary film as well as the and the ‘gospel minstrelsy’ of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.”
At Yale University she has hosted several conferences, including one on the Roman Catholic sex abuse crisis which would be interesting to hear about in this settting. Dr. Lofton has received several teaching awards at Yale– the 2010 Poorvu Family Award for Interdisciplinary Teaching and the 2013 Sarai Ribicoff Award for the Encouragement of Teaching at Yale College, in addition to the 2013 Graduate Mentor Award in the Humanities, and the 2018 Inspiring Yale Award for the Humanities. She has served as the Acting Dean of the Humanities Division, Deputy Dean for Diversity and Faculty Development, as well as Chair of the Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program and the Department of Religious Studies.
Welcome, Professor Lofton, we look forward to your wisdom in the next 20-25 minutes.
I want to situate this conversation in my struggle as a feminist academic and how this book was an articulation of that struggle. A struggle, in the positive glorious sense, and the sense of obstacles – trying not to let the existing forms of power determine the questions I ask. This book, depending on how you read it, is a singular argument with a couple of illustrations, or collection of essays. I have heard people refer to essays as “occasional writing” which I think is an insult. What else is there besides the context to which we respond, and to be present to the moment in which we find ourselves?
When I came to Yale in 2009, I was struggling with the decision and Yale was a challenging institution to join. Positively in teaching, I found students who, like me, were struggling with how they found themselves at this place. Early on, I would teach classes on religion and pop culture, and I would invite students to think of things that are removed from religion, and how the study of religion could help us interpret them. My argument is not that someone who is a fan of the Kansas City Chiefs is the same as a devout Catholic. I look at how religion has produced a series of tools that can help us understand how we act in groups and how we distinguish between right and wrong. These tools are helpful to think of situations far from what we think of religion. I am interested in thinking of how communities will rise up and act together.
The majority of students I work with will become investment bankers and consultants. They are often children of wealthy people who want to maintain their wealth, or people from impoverished circumstances who see this as a way into wealth. One of these students went on to be employed at Goldman Sachs, and he described to me that it is “really religious.” To think about the corporate space that might have a sectarian identity was relatively new to me and over the last 8 years, I’ve thought about what it means to think of Amazon.com or Target as places that contain social communities and strategically control people in those spaces to bring about the greatest good (not just the greatest profit).
Noting that Yale and Goldman Sachs were alike, I began thinking of corporate power and how it structured itself in the for-profit sector as a possible opportunity for comparison.
My own scholarship is driven by questions of comparison being at the heart of the study of religion. One of the first works in religion I read was “The Devil and Mr. Jones” by Jonathan Z. Smith which interpreted the suicide in Jonestown through the history of cargo cults, and considered why suicide would be imperative in producing a racially harmonious world. Through the act of comparison, Smith gets us to think of mass suicide by situating it in a history of religion.
When I mentioned my conversation with this student about Goldman Sachs to my colleagues, they began recommending other people to speak to. It felt like a delightful horror movie, horror in the sense of realizing how complicit the world of investment banking and the world of private higher education is, and delightful in that people embraced the idea.
I began to meet with people who worked at Goldman, and I began to understand the challenges of corporate education in the 21st century, what are the opportunities of that space, and whether there are spaces to think of decolonization. I had an ambivalent relationship to the conversations I was having. On one hand, they were wide ranging, lively and delightful, where people were excited to theorize their work as a place of religion. At the same time, they pulled back at things that were too concluding on my side. I realized this is a modality of capitalism – to be game for everything but concluding that unless you’re inside the game, you don’t understand. There’s a strong distinction of who’s inside and outside, and there is an inner circle that you never know, but you’re drawn to it. This sense of secrecy is integral to religion, and to Goldman’s identity. The tragedy of the financial crisis is explained as a private concern, where people didn’t have access to the right information. The challenge is how you access information and those of us who work at universities, know that information is not free.
Part of what I became interested in was taking seriously was this comparison between the banking industry and the American university – thinking about their complicity and the ways they recreate and reproduce forms elitism.
The book covers several topics including
– Questions of binge viewing and how that can be considered in relation to extreme religion.
– The Herman Miller Company which is most famous for first marketing the office cubicle. The chapter examines how the company has a strong tie to the Dutch Reformed tradition, and has company practices with a Christian legacy. I look at the history of the corporation that begins as a Christian operation and becomes a large corporation where elite people want to purchase their products, but between is the cubicle, the image of mass production. In this chapter I think of the failed dream – the cubicle was designed to have a liberating effect, but does the opposite.
– I think of the 19th century ritualism crisis in the Anglican church and how that effected aesthetic design in the United States.
– I consider the career of Britney Spears and how her story maps onto theories of sacrifice, such as the work of Nancy Jay who asks why sacrifice requires a gendered (female) subject.
– I think of the category of infotainment and how affects how we receive news
– I write of parenting in America and how it is a practice and idiom that people put a lot of energy into, and how the amount of time parenting requires has changed
– I look at the Kardashian family, how they are a corporation themselves and are configured through the idiom of family.
– I look at how corporations like Hobby Lobby are receiving religious freedom, by giving up capitalist profit
– I look at corporate culture more generally and how it is a site religionists should look at
I was interested in why it seems we need progressive change to be represented in a conserving idiom. For Oprah, this was in her ally-ship with Michelle Obama, who found herself silenced during the electoral process and was turned into a mannequin because the American public likes its radical difference determined by physicality not speech.
I also thought of the relationship between religion and consumer culture and how those two things can be a part of social change. There are answers to these through the conjoined history of families and corporations: how contemporary corporations promote themselves as family-like, with a rhetoric of mutuality and care. I argue it is to obscure how they offer fewer benefits, and expand the ranks of contingent labor. This is how the local family owned restaurant is replaced by the restaurant chain and owned by a large corporations which demands spiritual vulnerability from employees who are expected to be part of the positive culture.
To end where I began, this was connected to my experience of finding my way in the American University and figuring out what the influence of politics and power would be.
Read a passage from Consuming Religion, pg. 282.
Question and Answer
Q: I was fascinated by your analysis of popular culture, about which I am not an expert by any stretch. I wouldn’t know Kim Kardashian if she walked into the WATER office. But I think you are right about the ways in which sociality shapes consciousness, and how religion is a prime, if not the prime shaper of sociality. That said, what does it mean that religions are changing, for example mainstream predominantly white Protestant churches? And what does it mean that for many people religion qua religion is less important, spirituality having taken the front seat?
A: What we think of as religion or religious behavior is very recent. I’m in alliance with Emile Durkheim who states our very identity is bound up in how we relate to people, and that relationship across human history is usefully defined in the language of religion because human beings define what is sacred and profane, and who is in or out. We are living in a time when what we consider as meaningful religious behavior is changing rapidly, but I’m not convinced it’s transforming more rapidly during other points in history. The relationship between church and spiritual traditions has a long, cyclical history.
Q: Does religion vs. spirituality become a term of art? Does the shift to spirituality change how you study religion?
If I go to Target and ask why people like shopping at Target relative to other companies, the answers would sound religious. I am interested in the volume, in what people feel passionate about and where passion sits. Politics is often one site for extreme passion. The question is if that passion is always religions, and people have written about the people who follow Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and use the history of religion to think about the loyalty and passion for those campaigns.
My colleague Anthony Petro has wrote on AIDS, sexuality and American religion, takes up the AIDS crisis as an important moment of change in how the political culture of religion functions. Religious identity didn’t matter as much as how you talked religiously. The question of what is someone’s sociological identity as a religious person, is something surveys don’t give answers to. Thinking about religion and its history might explain and give a different attitude towards what happened recently in the set of fandoms, or a cult of believers.
Q: I also wonder how feminism, anti-racism, postcolonial theory and action, and other forms of intersectional analysis of religions impact your analysis. For example, the Purity Balls which are so popular in certain circles seem to contradict every postmodern social frame, yet they shape a Trumpian culture. What to do? How can your analysis be used by activists to move from exclusive, oppressive, marginalizing treatment of many people to a more robust, healthy, eco-friendly culture?
A: There’s an ABC report on Purity balls that I showed to an undergraduate class and asked for their reactions. The first reactions were of feminist disgust. The thing I tried to ask was why it does not seem disgusting to those participating, and why might it seems like it’s addressing a feminist problem. In the video, people talk about sexual violence and harm, seeing sexual activity as a site of increased violence. It is true that first time sexual experiences have a higher chance of being in the context of violence. What one person sees as the problem, is the solution for another person, to the problem that is held in common.
A lot of the times, when we manage our lives as activists, we realize we must be insistent and clear and pointed. The challenge of being a humanist in the world of activism is that we challenge people to see how the thing you’re arguing against is working on the same side to solve the problem. One of the challenges I face in talking to students who are interested in how they can apply this work politically is how you can simultaneously be a person of compassion and of conviction. I think that this history of religion shows figures, from Soren Kierkegaard to Audre Lorde, who have sought to find compassion and conviction.
Q: Could you say more about the banker vs. consultant question? There’s an interesting analysis of bankers being from relatively rich or poor backgrounds, and steady in their thinking, where consultants are more dynamic in thinking and come from more middle-class backgrounds. Do you see parallels in other fields? Are there ways to generalize from this insight? How does this affect how we relate to students?
A: Figuring out what level of risk someone can handle is an essential pedagogical question. We want to run classroom that are conscious of different forms of learning and different capacities to understand. I like the language of risk because it puts us at the heart of the capitalist enterprise. The question of financial risk is a question all students face – asking if the financial risk in taking a course is moving you closer to or farther from professional goals.
Consultants seem casual about capitalist futures, and therefore able to play in humanities and social sciences. With investment bankers, they have no time for play. We have to acknowledge that humanities and other academic studies emerged as a counterculture to emergent industrial capitalism. Students are pressing us to ask what the purpose of knowledge is. I’m interested in looking at our relationship to risk, and how to have those conversations with students in their career goals.
Q: Can you speak about the ritual crisis? What is causing it, and what is happening to ritual? Is it replaced only by consumer rights?
A: You can now go online and buy your ritual – such as the purity ball. There was a reigniting of ritual in the 19th century, where sexual dissent led to innovation and creativity. A lot of studies on contemporary religious studies are resistant to ritual, but I see books coming out on the desire for ritual in everyday life. Just when we think ritual is going away, we see more people calling for more ritual.
Q: A while ago, Beyoncé’s mass came out. What is going on?
A: Beyoncé is a pretty incomparable whole, and a wide demographic respects her. It’s remarkable that a strong black, womanist tradition has been wanting to articulate how Beyoncé’s writing is coming out of the womanist tradition. There is a group that started thinking how we can connect the public interest in Beyoncé with the important project of womanism, and put in churches where there are gospel choirs singing her music, a womanist minister speaking off a particular line of her material.
Q: And the Superbowl show last week?
A: We’re seeing an emergent synergy between feminist theology and the strength of certain women in pop culture, who have openly allied themselves with feminist or queer perspectives, and are calling on racial and ethnic traditions of theological knowledge. Will readers of theology include interviews with these women? In interviews, these women invoke a hope for a renovation of standard pop and how it’s sold by the patriarchy and a deeper commitment to how God speaks through their music, a God that is importantly raced and gendered.
Mary E. Hunt: Thank you Dr. Kathryn Lofton, for helping us see ways that popular culture and religion are related and how they’re very different, while the informing of the one by the other remains a part of our social structure. Best wishes on your future work.