Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Why Not?: David Chidester on the Role of Religion in American Popular Culture

By: Elise Burgett

While the idea of considering baseball, Coca-Cola, and rock music as religions is unsettling to some people, there is no denying that many Americans do worship these elements of popular culture, at least at some level. In his article “The Church of Baseball, the Fetish of Coca-Cola, and the Potlatch of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Theoretical Models for the Study of Religion in American Popular Culture,” David Chidester explores the complexity of defining religion and the role it plays in American popular culture. He does this using three theoretical models: the institution of the “Church of Baseball,” the system of symbols involved in the fetish of Coca-Cola, and the ritualized gift-giving of the Native American potlatch present in the rock ‘n’ roll song “Louie, Louie.” Throughout the article Chidester explains the ways in which each model acts as a religion in everyday American life, followed by evidence to refute potential arguments from “non-believers.”

Focusing on Chidester’s “Church of Baseball” concept, he offers four ways in which baseball behaves like the institutionalized church: it ensures continuity through tradition, it creates a sense of uniformity and belonging, it involves a sacred space, and it engages with sacred time through ritual and revelation. He makes his argument even more convincing by discussing theories on religion as a relationship with supernatural or superhuman beings (we revere athletes in this manner) and as centred around a sacred focus (one’s favourite sports team, for example). Chidester further emphasizes the validity of the similarities between baseball and the institution of the church towards the end of the article as he explains that, just as Europeans extended familiar religious metaphors to the indigenous, apparently religion-less populations they encountered in order to better understand their practices, we can extend our own religious metaphors to areas of popular culture. This effectively re-contextualizes baseball, Coca-Cola, and rock ‘n’ roll as religions in themselves. Though many readers may be left skeptical regarding this re-contextualization, Chidester uses his three theoretical models successfully to make us think about his central question: why should these elements of American popular culture not be considered forms of religion?

Works Referenced

Chidester, David. “The Church of Baseball, the Fetish of Coca-Cola, & the Potlatch of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Theoretical Models for the Study of Religion in American Popular Culture.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion LXIV/4 (1996): 743-765. Web. 6 Oct. 2010.

No comments: