Pop Sacred

“There’s a new ‘sacred’ in town,” write Juan and Stacey Floyd-Thomas in The Altars Where We Worship.

It’s not the old sacred of church, word, sacrament. They write, “Statistics reveal a startling gap between confession and practice in American religion. Slightly more than 70 percent of Americans in 2014 considered themselves Christian (a drop of nearly 8 percent since 2007). Comparatively few actually show up at religious services in any given week. When Gallup asks the question annually, the survey reports about 35 percent of Americans claimed to attend every week or almost every week, compared with 41 percent in 2007.” Fewer than 20% of Protestants show up on church on any given Sunday.

This decline in traditional religious practice is linked to an increase in religious autonomy: “People are taking control of religion in their own lives, making it a homebased commodity where sacred altars can be privatized.”

But this doesn’t mean Americans lack rituals, signs, and sites for the sacred. The new sacred in town is pop culture: “Americans have constructed ‘altars’ from the stuff of popular culture—namely, body and sex, entertainment, sports, politics, big business, and science and technology—to supplement or supplant the role once occupied by traditional faith.”

Religion is no longer normative, and has little cognitive content. It’s rather about “meaning making,” about transcendent experiences that join us to others who are having the same experiences. In short, “Americans often derive more meaning from altars found in the supposedly secular arena than in traditionally sacred locations. But this schism between secular and sacred actually marks a key fallacy in contemporary parlance. We have created a dichotomy between the sacred and the secular to our own detriment.”

The schism prevents us from seeing the religious role that pop culture has in today’s America. Unless we break through the sacred/secular dichotomy, we’ll miss how “these altars combine aspects of religiosity that people experience as transformative, prescriptive, and inspiring.”

And we’ll miss how important these pop culture altars are even to traditional believers. American Christians “attest to being religious and/or spiritual in conventional ways while, at the same time, in actual practice, they find meaning in altars found in popular culture. These folk are able to find gratification and sustenance at these altars, and are able to offer adoration and reverence before them, all without experiencing even the slightest twinge of cognitive dissonance or pang of disloyalty where traditional religious associations are concerned.”

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