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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"The Altars Where We Worship" (Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, Mark G. Toulouse)

TITLE: The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Significance of Popular Culture
AUTHOR: Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, Mark G. Toulouse
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016, (225 pages).

It has been said of the Israelites who had left Egypt: "You can take Israel out of Egypt, but you cannot take Egypt out of Israel." This parallels the way Christians interact with the world. We can take Christians out of the world, but we cannot take the world out of a Christian. John Calvin once called the human heart as an "idol factory." The war against idolatry and the worship of idols continue to be fought through the centuries. In ancient times, we have the idols of Arianism, Dualism, Stoicism, Gnosticism, Dualism, and other deceptive philosophies. In modern times, we encounter more of the same in the form of individualism, consumerism, materialism, narcissism, and in the words of the authors of this book: "Altar-ization." While six different kinds of altars are mentioned, they all symbolized the reality of the world today: We are building altars faster and greater than ever before. This is troubling. More troubling is that we worship after what we built. Even the "religious vs secular" divide has an altarization bent. The key thesis in this book is that religions are not declining, but flourishing, albeit in different contexts. Authors Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, and Mark G. Toulouse propose six manifestations of such religious practices, sparking each issue with with a provocative question.

  1. Body and Sex: "Is the American obsession with body and sex an example of seeking pleasure without conscience?"
  2. Big Business: "Is the desire for profitability and prosperity that serves a shrinking elite of America’s population, where 1 percent enjoys about 50 percent of all wealth, setting us on the road to a commerce utterly devoid of morality?"
  3. Entertainment: "In a context where comedy that parodies the news becomes more informative than the news itself, and the entertainment industry exemplifies and inculcates the directives and values that define our daily living, are we purveying knowledge without character?"
  4. Politics: "With America’s deeply divided politics defined more by platitudes, platforms, and pejoratives than its care for the common good of its people, is there much doubt that contemporary politics are severely lacking in principle?"
  5. Sports: "While disciplined athletic efforts hone skills and develop talents, is the wealth associated with the few who play as profession in America comparable to the work product associated with them?"
  6. Science and Technology: "Are the benefits of unfettered progress and the need for speed worth the costs as scientific advancements and technological innovations displace or destroy the humans they are supposed to serve?"

How we answer these questions will reveal the extent of idolatry in our lives. On Body and Sex, we examine the way people tend to become self-absorbed and seek vanity after oneself. We contrast vanitas (vanity) with veritas (truth) and note how far man had gone from God. On Sex, the authors use the example of Marilyn Monroe to showcase how easy it is for sex appeal to enter the corridors of fame. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so says the culture. Surely, idolatry too can be seen in the same light. They trace the cultural elevation of beauty through history and the way people objectivize beauty according to their own desires. The fingerprints of dualism are everywhere in the manifestations of human cravings for beauty.

Big Business is next and here we look at the rise of Andrew Carnegie that spawns a whole enterprise of economic interest and profits. Called the patron saint of "Gilded Age Capitalism," Carnegie was an example of rags-to-riches story to be emulated by many. During the Great Depression, President Hoover attempted to turn around the economy through governmental impetus and private enterprises. The key philosophy was self-reliance. The movie "Wall Street" elevates the priority of profits over principles to show us how willing many businesspeople are to make money at all costs. Citizens exhibit faith by patronizing big businesses. Soon, money is the defining currency of human identity.

Entertainment is not only big business, it also occupies the minds of many in the Western hemisphere. Using Walt Disney as a launchpad into this 'altar,' the authors look at the history of the rise of the Disney empire and links it to how it whets the insatiable appetites for entertainment and the quest for a better life. Superhero movies give people a sense of hope that the good is stronger than the evil. What humans cannot achieve quickly in the real world is easily accomplished in the reel world. Many of the Marvel superheroes had a broken background. Other mediums include the TV, the Internet, streaming choices, and modern technological offerings. These are powerful ways to showcase to us how to be a man, a woman, or some way to become significant. Music, award shows, gaming, and online forays are examined with the authors noticing how much of these are in line with an increasingly simulation and visualization culture.

Then comes politics, something that has captivated the attention of many especially in the recent US elections. The authors begin with a look at the word polis, which is essentially the role of people in governing the affairs of the city or state. This understanding since the early days of Plato and Socrates soon takes on a more specific direction. More troubling is the movement away from the public good toward the private wellness. Politics have become a tool to serve the self. The "pursuit of happiness" has become a chronic normal. There is also ample coverage on the debate about the separation of Church and State; reflections on the constitution; the use of God's Name in campaigning; how patriotism wins votes; and the way the two dominant political parties in America are more self-interested about preserving their parties instead of standing for the people.

On Sports, there is a lot of money invested in the major games throughout the year. Athletes and supporters regularly use religious terms in describing their passion and zeal for the need to win. If the front page of a newspaper regularly features the failures of man, the sports page displays the accomplishments of successful athletes. Games often have moments of religious or human piety. Seen from a religious standpoint, sports certainly manifest many marks of the religiosity of people.

On Science and Technology, the authors note how these are connected to progress and advancement. They overcome human limitations. They stretch the imaginations of our minds and turn them into reality. We look at the significant technological figures throughout history, like the Wright brothers; Einstein; the Apple phenomenon sparked by Steve Jobs; Stephen Hawking; the Internet; social media; and how this tool has exposed our desire to be little gods.

We are what we watch and worship. Each chapter follows a similar framework.The authors examine the mythology, doctrine, ethics, ritual, experience, institutions, the materiality, of how culture portrays the six categories of altarization. The authors make several conclusions. We are living in a culture inundated with a secularization worldview. This puts man in the driving seat with the achievements of man as the destination. Traditional religious institutions are on the decline as many flee toward secular and atheistic lifestyles. Yet, all people are religious in some way, even though they may not profess any particular religion. These are evident in the way they immerse themselves in any or all of the six primary categories of life above.

The beloved Apostle John concluded his first letter as follows: "Dear children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21). This message was relevant then and is equally relevant now. With the rise of new media and technological advancements, it is probably a greater challenge today. All of the six domains described by the authors are linked to one another. Just because the authors have described them in separate chapters does not mean that they are isolated from the rest. Sports and politics often mix. The same goes for entertainment, body, and sex. Science and Technology are so pervasive that they invade all domains, and in many areas of our society. It is not man fleeing from one religion into a non-religion that is happening. It is man moving from one kind of religion into another. This is because of the tendency of the human heart to worship. This is the crux of what religions entail. People run after what they worship. We have sports idols, entertainment idols, business idols, political idols, science idols, sex idols, and so on. In a scholarly way, the authors have helped us understand that idols are everywhere because our hearts are restless, seeking for God in all places except God Himself. As long as this pursuit of self-will and happiness continues, man will never find true rest. This book would hopefully help identify some of our tendencies toward idolatry in our modern cultural icons, and to inspire us to go back to God without the distractions of the world.

Juan M. Floyd-Thomas is Associate Professor of African American Religious History at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas is Associate Professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. Mark G. Toulouse is Principal and Professor of the History of Christianity at Emmanuel College of Victoria University in the University of Toronto.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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