August 2009

Guy Cunningham


Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, The Living Dead and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States by Gary Laderman

Ambition is a good thing in a writer. But it's not without risks. Gary Laderman, a professor of American Religious History and Culture at Emory University, is certainly ambitious. His short (180 pages) non-fiction work Sacred Matters seeks to encompass all the ways Americans pursue what he calls the "sacred" -- including those outside conventional organized religion. In effect, he wants to map out the entire spiritual world of contemporary America. This allows him to cover a lot of ground -- Elvis, John Wayne, Albert Einstein, and Joseph Campbell all put in appearances -- but it also means his book is more of a survey than an argument. As a result, his greatest point -- that Americans live rich religious lives even outside traditional churches -- often gets lost amid too many details.

At the outset, Laderman announces, "there is more to religious life in America than belief in God, many more holy possibilities than what is offered in the so-called 'Great Religions of the Book.'" It is a view anticipated by Einstein, who Laderman quotes as saying "I am a deeply religious nonbeliever… This is a somewhat new kind of religion." While not a brand-new view of the "sacred," it is certainly one that still cuts against the society's natural conception of the term "religion." When the book engages this more conventional view directly, the results are quite enlightening. For example, when Laderman observes in his chapter on violence that "all wars are holy with or without God, inherently religious because the violence of war places everything that matters into bold relief," he hits upon an often unstated but undeniable truth. He is equally fascinating when discussing the conflicts over sexual mores between Catholic missionaries and the Pueblo Indians in the sixteenth century.

But his desire to be all-encompassing often leads Laderman to make too many hurried assertions. This is especially true of the book's many forays into pop culture. One may personally agree with Laderman's taste when he asserts, "the sacred does not adhere in and exude forth from the likes of Steppenwolf or REO Speedwagon" as opposed to artists such as Elvis, Uncle Tupelo, and Nirvana, but it would still be nice to know exactly why he thinks "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is more "sacred" than "Magic Carpet Ride." Instead he makes a few general points about the sacredness of music itself and then we're off to follow the Grateful Dead. This isn't a minor point -- after all, the central idea of the book is that people draw the line on what constitutes "religion" far too quickly. So when the author draws the line himself, it seems important to explain why. This problem recurs far too often in a book laden with tangents and digressions.

Right in the acknowledgements, Laderman admits the book was born out of his frustration with the way religion was covered in the 2004 election. He was "infuriated" the press "glossed over a deeper, more nuanced and fascinating religious complexity by framing the discussion about religion in simplistic, dualistic, naïve terms like conservative versus liberal or believer versus nonbeliever." As a result, Sacred Matters is by its nature an argument for a wider view of what constitutes "religion." But there isn't a lot of actual arguing, in the sense of trying to counter an opposing point of view. Instead, we're always hurtling on to the next little facet of non-organized religious life. This gives the book a nice, quick pace, but it also means a lot of points go unexplained. To put it another way -- the book is so busy giving us an overview of American non-organized religion, it doesn't take the time to explain just where that "religion" begins and ends. After all, if everything (except for poor REO Speedwagon) is religion, then the term is too broad to mean anything.

When the book works -- particularly when it considers violence and sexuality -- it really does suggest a rich, varied spiritual culture outside of organized churches. In many ways though, Laderman is too civil for his own good. If he had been willing to show some of the "fury" he describes at the narrow way the media often covers religion, the book might have been more focused. As it is now, Sacred Matters makes a number of good points but doesn't do enough to tie them all together. Perhaps he just covers too much ground for such a short work. Laderman's impulse to fit in as much as he can is admirable in theory, but in practice it comes at the expense of his book's overall coherence.


Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, The Living Dead and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States by Gary Laderman
New Press
ISBN: 1595584374
224 Pages

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