A couple of weeks ago I went to hear Gordon Lynch at FEED. He was talking about the role of popular culture as a religion
He began by briefly commenting on the recent change in religious landscape in Britain before moving on to discuss the way in which popular culture could be considered comparable to religion. He explained two ways in which it is possible to view religions, as substantive or as functionalist.
Religions can be seen as substantive where they (nearly) all contain certain basic elements, eg. sacred texts or an oral tradition, a sense of ritual, a sacred space - church, temple etc. (there were more but I can’t remember what was said). It is possible to view popular culture as being made up of these elements – for example football, where the pitch is the sacred space, turning up the same time every week constitutes a sense of ritual. However Gordon said that in trying to draw these comparisons, inaccuracies can enter in, the analogies can easily be stretched too far.
Religions can also be seen as functionalist – religions all share certain functions. For example they provide a set of communal, shared values and they help people make sense of life. Has popular culture replaced more traditional religions in serving these functions, eg. Clubbing as some kind of mystical experience?
Gordon then moved on to discussing the link between popular culture and capitalism. He stated that there is more to this link than just people’s love of shopping. Consider the role of advertising in the media, and in football. Culture has become an industry. It is something that people are buying into, but this choice to buy in, is within the constraints of the capitalist system. However this capitalist system relies on injustice, not only in production, but also in the consumption – are we ALL free to participate?
He referenced George Ritzer’s McDonaldization theory, discussing how the “enchantment” of the system makes us feel easier about buying into the system. Have we reached the state where “being human” now equates with being cogs in the capitalist system?
So what should we be doing? There are no set answers, no 10 step programmes, no ready-to-use courses. Rather we need to engage in critical thinking. How does this link with the role of the church? Gordon concluded his talk by referring to The Corporation. The capitalist system will fund people to critique it, as long as there is money to be made. Can we use this fact? Can we work within this system?
I bought a copy of Gordon's new book, Understanding Theology and Popular Culture. I've yet to really start reading it, but I may well comment in the next few weeks, once I've had a chance to get stuck in.