By Barbara Falconer Newhall
Author Gary Laderman sees Holy everywhere in America. That is, he sees Americans practicing “religion” all over the place – in sports stadiums, at Star Trek conventions, on “Oprah,” on pornographic websites.
For Laderman, a professor of American Religious History and Cultures at Emory University, religion is not so much a path to Spirit as it is an expression of the human need for ritual, myth, ineffable experiences, moral values and community.
In the introduction to his new book, Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead, and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States, Laderman makes clear that he is writing about forms of religion that are less about theology than anthropology.
He proceeds with examples.
- Film: Disney movies like “Bambi” and “Sleeping Beauty” are religious expressions “intimately tied to a desire to triumph over death.” They resonate with the most profound of human yearnings – for justice, redemption and death overcome.
- Sports: The Super Bowl is a national ritual with “flags flying, fans behaving, time passing, authorities presiding, athletes competing – the game is predicated on familiar sights . . . a predictable order of things.”
- Celebrity worship: Laderman cites Oprah as an object of worship, “an intimate authority of sacred, spiritual matters.” The same goes for Michael Jackson. In a recent column on beliefnet.com, Laderman writes that Michael Jackson’s fans adored him for his contributions to their lives. “For many people these artistic, aesthetic, moral contributions were sacred in every sense of that word.”
Film, music, sports, celebrity, science, medicine, violence, sexuality, death, all are “holy possibilities,” according to Laderman’s – anthropological – lights. His book is full of fascinating stuff. And Laderman’s point is well taken: Americans no longer feel they have to limit their deepest passions and yearnings to traditional, monotheistic religion.
My problem with Laderman’s thinking here is that he presents Holy as a projection of the human longing for transcendence and nothing more. As if real transcendence – real union with a Sacred that is beyond human understanding and beyond scholarly study – were not a reasonable possibility.
Still, this is a fascinating study of deep human needs — and the creative lengths human beings will go to meet them.
Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead, and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States, by Gary Laderman, The New Press, 2009, hardcover, $25.95.
For another take on contemporary religion, check out my post on “When Christianity Is Bunk.”