Popular Cultural “Worlds” as Alternative Religions

Originally published in Christian Scholar’s Review 37, no. 3 (Spring 2008): 323-45

Abstract: To what extent can popular culture be understood as a collection of religions? Using a biblically informed appropriation of Paul Ricoeur’s theory of narrative as a threefold mimesis as his conceptual grid, Theodore Turnau explores how popular cultural texts can function as alternative religions. He focuses on two case studies: a group of romance novel readers, and a dance club in 1980s London. He concludes by suggesting a few ways we can engage popular culture more deeply as Christian academics, parents, neighbors, or practitioners in the arts and entertainment industry. Mr. Turnau is a Lecturer in Humanities and Social Sciences at Anglo-American College, in Prague, Czech Republic.

You sit in the Neptune Theatre waiting for the thin, overhead lights to dim with a sense of respect, perhaps even reverence, for American movie houses are, as everyone knows, the new cathedrals, their stories better remembered than legends, totems, or mythologies, their directors more popular than novelists, more influential than saints—enough people have seen the James Bond adventures to fill the entire country of Argentina. Perhaps you have written this movie. Perhaps not. Regardless, you come to it as everyone does, as a seeker groping in the darkness for light, hoping something magical will be beamed from above, and no matter how bad this matinee is, or silly, something deep and maybe even too dangerous to talk loudly about will indeed happen to you and the others before this drama reels to its last transparent frame. 
Charles Johnson, “Moving Pictures”1

This rock ‘n’ roll music, it came to Memphis out of whorehouses, juke joints, churches and cotton fields. And it flat-out changed the world. I believed in it before—and I damn sure believe in it NOW!
Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, the man who “discovered” Elvis Presley.2

I have a picture at home from the cover of a free weekly circular listing the cultural events in the city in which I used to live. It is a portrait of Elvis, smiling that boyish smile of his, with a halo and a crown of thorns. The title of the article is: “Why Can’t We Get Over Elvis? Is It Time to Find Someone New to Worship?”3  Setting aside the blasphemous connotations, the picture does make a certain amount of sense, as does the metaphor of the movie theater as cathedral, or rock ‘n’ roll as a source of faith. There is something undeniably religious about much of popular culture.

Yet many religious studies scholars are unnerved and eschew such evidence as not “genuine” religion. For example, evangelical professor of comparative religions, Winfried Corduan, briefly considers devotion to Elvis as religion, only to dismiss it. One of the core elements of religion, according to him, is the way it directs us beyond the mundane towards “transcendence.”

Transcendence can come to us in many different ways, through supernatural agencies or through metaphysical principles (for example, the greatest good or the first cause), an ideal, a place or an awareness, to mention just some of the possibilities.  Thus devotion to Elvis Presley—even the resurrected Elvis of the supermarket tabloids—lacks transcendence, and so it is probably not a genuine religion.4

I find the reasoning curious: transcendence comes to us in many ways, but whatever it is, Elvis does not have it (a fact that the true Elvis devotee would strongly dispute). The idea that popular culture can contain moments of transcendence seems to be dismissed out of hand. But transcendence seems to me to be exactly what Sam Phillips and writer Charles Johnson are asserting.5  The roving cultural historian for Rolling Stone Magazine, Greil Marcus, has written a whole book documenting the bizarre ways the transcendence of Elvis has emerged in American culture since his passing on August 16th, 1977. Many of these, I believe, are religiously significant. The religious aspect of popular culture is hard to overlook.

Notes for this page...
1 In Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, ed. Robert Shapard and James Thomas (Layton, UT: Peregrin Smith, 1986), 190.
2 Ed Baumgardner, “New Orleans Blues,” Winston-Salem Journal, 15 August, 1999, A-5. The emphasis is in the original.
3Harry Blair, “Elvis,” illustration, Triad Style, vol. 13, no. 10 (6 March, 1996), 1. Winfried 4Corduan, Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 21.
5See the epigraph above.
6Greil Marcus, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of Cultural Obsession (New York: Doubleday, 1991).