12 September 2011

What I'm Reading--Material Christianity

My most recent read deals with material culture and Christianity in America.  This book by Colleen McDannell,, titled Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America, was an interesting read.  McDannell, as the title would indicate, looked at the ways in which American Christians use material objects in living out their faith and in their private devotions.

This book did not really go into one important aspect of material culture--church architecture--to any great degree, although it was briefly mentioned in a chapter on the religious elite's (Protestant and Catholic) to "kitsch".  It instead focused upon the aspects of individual and corporate religious life that tend to identify people as part of the "in" crowd.  After reading it, I couldn't help but think about ways that this material culture impacts my life.

The book is a series of case studies.  Among the topics that McDannell covers are the use of images, the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, Lourdes (France) holy water, kitsch (or, for lack of a better definition, "bad art"), Victorian family Bibles, modern Christian books, keychains, bumper stickers, etc., and even special Mormon garments (although this last category was somewhat interesting in that these undergarments are not seen, whereas all of the others are easily noticed).

Most Protestants accuse Catholics of being more centered upon images.  However, as this book explained quite extensively, this is not necessarily the case.  Pictures taken by New Deal-era photographers of rural Protestants showed pictures of Jesus or other overtly religious images, even in the poorest of homes.  These images or other religious paraphernalia tended to identify the owners as observant Christians to those who might visit their personal space.  Even the Bible could be classified in this way.  The huge Bibles of the Victorian Era were more for show, even having their own special stands at times.  That this was the case is evidenced by the fact that many people had their own personal, and much smaller, Bibles. 

One of the more interesting chapters, in my opinion, dealt with the new cemeteries.  Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia was somewhat unusual for the day: a private cemetery (although it did exclude members of the lower sort and blacks).  Before the nineteenth century, it was quite common for ordinary folks to be buried in unmarked mass graves.  Only ministers or the "important" folks got their own marked graves.  This particular cemetery was a way for people to visually connect with the dearly departed in a sort of garden park that had religious images that were generally tied to the idea that all of the interred dead would go to heaven. 

The final chapter dealt with current (as of 1995, when the book was actually published) Christian pop culture.  This pop culture tended to have its origins in the Jesus people of the 1960s, although mass marketing of Christian merchandise is actually much older (see the Bibles mentioned above that had door-to-door salesmen peddling them).  The various spiritual or biblical sayings that are framed and placed in homes, as well as the t-shirts and caps that people wear with similar wording still serve to show both those who are "in" and those who are "out" that the owner of said merchandise professes Christianity.  This was the chapter that got me to thinking more than any other.  Does true Christian belief need these signifiers?  They are definitely part of religious discourse, but do they contribute to shallowness of belief?  I'm not sure I have the answer.

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