|September 13, 2001
Volume 32 Number 2
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
Spiritual Pop:Theologian explores ways religion appears in popular culture
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?
Its questions like these that have sent CSU, Chico theologian Kate McCarthy into the realms of sociology and anthropology, where shes 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 womens rock music.
McCarthy, associate professor of Religious Studies and chair of the Womens
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 Ive gone to rock concerts
or just in driving around with friends in a car with the music up loud,
theres 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 Ive always wondered how whats going on parallels religious experience, and how we relate the two vocabularies.
The book melds these questions with Mazurs 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 Homers 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 dont have a public space for conversation about religion today, she says. We wont do it in schools, and we cant 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.
Its this look at the broad picture that makes God in the Details so enticing, and also informs her latest work on womens rock music. Here, McCarthy is looking at the ways in which popular womens music reflects whats going on in both feminist theory and feminist theology, especially concerning the body.
In Christianity in particular, she notes, womens 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 todays feminist theologians seek to reclaim the positive spiritual and religious value of womens bodies. As McCarthy says, We dont 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 its 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, womens embodied experienceespecially sexual experienceis 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..
Im 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 Gospelsor that re-imagine God in gender-neutral or feminine termswhile reinventing ritual to make women more fully present.
Shes 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, theyre 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 were 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.
Chico | Admissions
| Bookstore | Catalog
| Schedule | Library
California State University, Chico
400 West First Street
Chico, CA 95929-0040