Consuming Religion: by Kathryn Lofton

Consuming Religion: by Kathryn Lofton

Consuming Religion argues that the religious exchanges transferred and transformed through markets by consumers deserves scrutiny.

Consuming Religion: by Kathryn Lofton

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The marketplace for religion has been scoured by scholars, and the essay collection Consuming Religion argues that the religious exchanges transferred and transformed through markets by consumers deserve the same scrutiny. Yale historian of religion Kathryn Lofton follows up her Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011) with case studies in discrete chapters, most of which are based on her already published articles. The resulting range of topics may appeal to many academics in popular culture. The separation of her research into examinations of niches within neo-liberal and late capitalist practices diffuses as well as sharpens her analytical and erudite examination of corporate cubicles, the Kardashians, soap advertising, parenting, ritualism debates in the 19th century and Britney Spears, to name but a few of her diverse and detailed examples packaged as Consuming Religion.

Her introduction does not guide the reader directly into what unifies these subjects. Rather, Lofton addresses her reader: “I claim that no matter who you think you are relative to some abstract notion of religion, you are, as a social actor, as a political actor, and as an economic actor, being determined by it.” She channels the insights of Émile Durkheim a century ago, who propounded: “The idea of society is the soul of religion.” Lofton applies lamentation, chronicle and panegyric. These ancient rhetorical options encourage us to “think about social modes of encounter, interaction, and development,” as religion “organizes distinctions between control and freedom.”

These statements merit inclusion, for without this orientation Lofton’s conception of religion in contemporary activity cannot be comprehended. She opines that religion exists within demarcations of dreamers and makers, by constructions of binding and connecting with others or ways of distinguishing ourselves from others. Lofton elevates the marketplace as the “primary archive of religion” through consumer activity. Social and ritual pursuits within the workplace, as purchases and as mediated by celebrities, combine as the major fields of pursuit which, if often too implicitly, rationalize the essays compiled.

The density of these entries will surprise no one accustomed to critical theory. Lofton begins with the promising example of binge-watching a series on Netflix, but how this opens into an “altered mental state” akin to meditation or contemplation is insufficiently accounted for. True, Herman Miller’s pioneering Action Office predecessor to today’s despised cubicle roots itself, albeit tangentially, in the Dutch Reformed Church’s culture in its native Michigan. But how Miller “became an evangel for modernism” by a product aimed at liberating rigid working space which was “its most significant missionary tool” demands elucidation. This entry is credited in “an earlier version” for a 2014 anthology, but this 2017 presumably revised research omits any reference to Nikil Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (2014), which complements and parallels Lofton’s presentation of inevitably similar material.

Michel Foucault’s studies of the history of sexuality inspire Lofton’s predilection for instances of top-down control in a section on how ritual was “tamed” in American and British Protestantism during contention between those accused of “Romish proclivities” versus “liturgical vivacity.” The tone of these chapters varies considerably, although the academic register sustains itself throughout.

Another historical foray uncovers how soap sold, in the familiar cleanliness-next-to-godliness pitch, when the “roots of consumer rites” emerged from the Temperance movement, Christian social reform, depictions of the unclothed or nude body and of gender, self-discipline as salvation, the gospel of purity and fear of the unwashed and the Catholic. Much of this material gets compressed, and it’s a shame that the more recent marketing of Dr. Bronner’s soap of the rhapsodical label and New Age spirit gets only a mention. Again, the lack of a resource must be mentioned, for whatever the merits or not of Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger (1966), investigating pollution and taboo deserved attention in this context. Students remain curious about its assertions and that author’s retractions.

Yet, Lofton concludes her entry nimbly. “Like grass stains on a Tide commercial, culture makes scandals only it can resolve.” We’re all so immersed within the routine of soap and water daily that it, like other forms of ritualistic discipline, appears nothing other than natural to our time, place and self.

She leaves prescription aside in her presentations of these cases, but her descriptions, thick as they may grow, conceal myriad possibilities for reflection. Attention must be paid. Britney Spears’ 2007 headline-making antics feel already very dated. But seeing her media coverage through the filters of Georges Bataille, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Sigmund Freud and René Girard deepens relevance.

Surveying celebrity further, Lofton scans how “spiritualization” as infotainment spans the coverage from Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” (1984) to Oprah to Mel Gibson to George Clooney. Once more, a panorama swirls past, but the close-ups of star sightings and their magnitude rush rapidly by.

This brisk pace means that a broad look at the evolution of American parenting into “an elaborate discursive regime” following Foucault’s model whirls over rather than drills into the data amassed. The early Republic gives way to constructing “individuals as the developmental apex of civilization.” Later, this engenders a postwar phalanx of dutiful capitalist cadres. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care (1946) continued as runner-up only to the Bible in sales for 25 years. Today’s phases of coddling and pressuring idolized, media-savvy children leave one pondering risky effects. Lofton elides this topic, but she avers how parents, lacking clout in our precarious system, strive to gain domestic goals they establish as parents with fierce determination.

For one household, “cosmetic labor” demands that the production of the Kardashian “family corporation” labors at Stakhanovite levels of maximum output. Reality TV pales next to Stalinist dictates, but Lofton’s is convincing in her assertion that this “K-Klan” best represents our nation’s “rationalization as a mercantile cult.” It’s easily the liveliest chapter so far, and out of the first nine, the only one which was not previously an article. James Frazer, Durkheim and Lévi-Strauss presage totemism and tribalism, as Lofton applies anthropological predecessors, if in passing, to a perfect subject for her gaze. She astutely notes a telling detail. “And the family says Bible for almost every unbelievable statement they utter,” (a reader imagines a well-timed pause here) “which is a lot of statements.”

The final trio of entries examines managed power over us. Joining a corporation means converting to a sect. Synonymous today, Lofton asserts the firm is our faith. Submitting our fealty to its communal force becomes the norm. “This is our neoliberal freedom: the freedom to decide what matrix will determine your cognizance.” Lofton selects three recent examples of resistance, from Kim Davis, Bowe Bergdahl and Edward Snowden, and she addresses the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. She includes a valuable observation: No company, she finds, depicts itself as “oversize, unknowable, or unethical.” Attempting to pose alongside us, it assures that the corporation’s persona persists as small, local and “caring about you.” Lofton wonders, given her three whistleblowers, if only those employed outside the government can defend themselves on the grounds of conscience. This reflection invites response, but once more, Lofton hastens past what she raises, after a quick suggestion of possible situations. It’s as if homework is posted, the bell rung, a word count reached; the professor makes her prompt exit.

Critiquing corporations from another direction, Lofton compiles how such entities as Goldman Sachs used the language of humanism to account for their malfeasance during the most recent recession. Ethical solutions are promised; corporate culture vows to make amends. In the wake of the counterculture, managers tried to present their organizations as caring and “cool.” Lofton connects Clifford Geertz’s 1965 take on religion as a cultural system by aligning it with a concurrent drive at MIT to christen corporatism. With today’s technological demands, any supposed work-life balance tips. Whatever claims of support a corporation assures, their devotion to the ultimate doctrine of bottom-line efficiency betrays their true loyalty. Lofton’s final essay is based on examination of over 40 “unstructured interviews” with Goldman Sachs applicants to see if and how they resist “the smooth surfaces handed to us by each of them.” She tells how her banking students at Yale ask for neither extended deadlines nor emotional solace. They want facts first. They then produce what they must.

Lofton, from her privileged perch in her Ivy League ivory tower, acknowledges the access that Yale affords her into Goldman Sachs via alumni and networks. Her report is the most personal and most accessible of the dozen entries in Consuming Religion. She marvels at the calculation of employees who sacrifice their individuality “for the sake of the brand,” and she seeks immersion into a stable environment with “ritual frames for internal dissent.” More than even profit, Lofton examines the necessity of continuity within this firm. Beyond the market, the corporation must survive. Goldman Sachs persists, in her estimation after examination, because it has built a religion.

In her wrap-up, Lofton confides that she seeks conversation more than scholarship and seminars more than lectures. These chapters represent occasional pieces generated by encounters with people who stopped her in her tracks to “linger on a problem I hadn’t yet realized was one.” This goes partway to amend the introductory lack of an overarching rationale for the assorting and arranging of these forays into “certain topical and thematic enclaves.” And it means that diligent readers who persist to the last pages of Consuming Religion may gain hints of why Lofton engages with “the disquieting, challenging work of critical encounter” as she seeks her own versions of “revelation.”

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