INSIDE Chico State
0 September 13, 2001
Volume 32 Number 2
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Spiritual Pop:Theologian explores ways religion appears in popular culture

President Esteban and Felicia Contreras congratulate Dolly Moore-Solomon.
Kate McCarthy, Religious Studies

(Photo by Jeff Teeter)

Is a Bruce Springsteen concert a spiritual experience? Does The Simpsons symbolize our search for religious meaning, and Madonna represent the cutting edge of feminist theology?

It’s questions like these that have sent CSU, Chico theologian Kate McCarthy into the realms of sociology and anthropology, where she’s co-edited a book of essays titled God in the Details (2001, Routledge), and is currently writing a new article on sexuality, spirituality, and gender construction in women’s rock music.

McCarthy, associate professor of Religious Studies and chair of the Women’s Studies Advisory Committee, has long been interested in the way religion shows up in popular culture. Editing God in the Details with friend Eric Mazur, Assistant Professor of Religion at Bucknell University, offered her a venue where she could, as she puts it, “tease out some of these ideas.” “It started for me with a life-long passion for popular music,” she explains. “Whenever I’ve gone to rock concerts or just in driving around with friends in a car with the music up loud, there’s some kind of experience there you use a certain language to describe.” Language, she notes, that echoes religious expression.

“People talk about feeling connected to something larger than themselves, or about having feelings of ecstasy,” she says about music fans. “So I’ve always wondered how what’s going on parallels religious experience, and how we relate the two vocabularies.”

The book melds these questions with Mazur’s interest in how traditional religious symbols are showing up in new and ironic ways in popular culture, by examining everything from football, rap music, and Dr. Laura, to television and virtual reality.

“Look at the way different religions get represented on The Simpsons,” McCarthy explains, citing the Hindu convenience store owner, the evangelical minister, the fundamentalist neighbor, and Homer’s visions of God, as images that can be “seen as windows into American spirituality.” A spirituality that is far from dead, given what McCarthy sees as the massive growth of fundamentalist religious activity today, along with this new phenomenon created outside an institutional presence.

“We don’t have a public space for conversation about religion today,” she says. “We won’t do it in schools, and we can’t have it in government, but people are interested.” Which is why she believes the issues show up in forums as diverse as sitcoms and popular music, where you find a “free-for-all of religious ideas and symbols and practices found in what we think of as just entertainment.”

It’s this look at the broad picture that makes God in the Details so enticing, and also informs her latest work on women’s rock music. Here, McCarthy is looking at the ways in which popular women’s music reflects what’s going on in both feminist theory and feminist theology, especially concerning the body.

“In Christianity in particular,” she notes, “women’s bodies have been defined as essentially sinful and a source of sin going all the way back to Eve.” At the same time, the Mary paradox of the a-sexual mother presents an impossible model for real women. But many of today’s feminist theologians seek to reclaim the positive spiritual and religious value of women’s bodies. As McCarthy says, “We don’t have to be ashamed of sexuality, and it can, in fact, be a sacred experience.” A message she finds in the styles of Madonna, Courtney Love, Alanis Morissette, and Ani Difranco.

Often these singers, she notes, make their bodies part of their presentation, whether it’s Madonna mocking the symbols of femininity in her earlier incarnations, or Difranco blurring gender identification in her self-presentation. And religious language and symbols are often involved in these performances.

In both style and lyrics then, such performers are explicitly making the claim that, as McCarthy puts it, “women’s embodied experience—especially sexual experience—is holy. Something spiritually transformative and powerful, something to be reckoned with.”

McCarthy finds women performers today often working alongside, or even ahead of, academic feminist movements, giving popular expression to “what many of us thought was only going on in the academy.”.

“I’m really interested in how individual women theologians, and communities of women Christians and Jews, are rethinking tradition,” she says. These are movements which include Biblical studies that uncover the prominent roles of women edited out of the Gospels—or that re-imagine God in gender-neutral or feminine terms—while reinventing ritual to make women more fully present.

She’s also interested in the co-mingling of religions in general, and the fact that many diverse religions today work side by side and even join forces in a heretofore unheard of fashion, such as the work of Habitat for Humanity.

“Even if people are anchored in a religious community,” she explains, “and remain institutionally affiliated, they’re going to be drawing inspiration from other sources because of the world we live in.”

Americans are often characterized by a dual drive and struggle between individualism and community, adds McCarthy.

“And I think we’re going to negotiate our association with these elements in places other than organized religious institutions,” she says. “That negotiation is ongoing, and in some cases we work it out through the TV we watch and the rock concerts we go to and the comic strips we read.”

Zu Vincent

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