What Would Oprah Do?

In the film, Monsters vs. Aliens, a delightful riff on alien encounter of movies of the 1950s, aliens appear, they aren’t nice, and the clueless U.S. government headed by an equally clueless President (Stephen Colbert) attempts to find a ready solution to the alien menace. As the staffer, generals, and advisors make rapid fire suggestions, one staffer proclaims: “It is at times like these that I wonder: What would Oprah do?” In the face of disaster, Oprah becomes the go-to guru of not only self-empowerment but also national salvation. What would Oprah do, indeed?

In her new book, Kathryn Lofton engages not only what Oprah does but what she is. The Immanent Frame posted an interview with  Lofton about Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011). While I will blog about the book later (I need to crack the packaging), the interview gets to what is at stake in the study of Oprah, her show, her brand, her influence for American religious history.

Here’s my favorite snippet of the interview:

NS: What is it about how American religious history is studied now that has left Oprah not well-enough understood?

KL: I would say that the “how” of what we study is less problematic than the way we cordon our topics, which is very much an inheritance of our role as seminary church historians. I want to see more books written about objects that seem unlikely for religious studies,such as those seemingly in the purview of pop culture, but also those from economic and political arenas. Moreover, I think our disposition toward our subjects is often too tender for our own good. If, on the one side, we’ve been formed by our seminarian genealogies, on the other, we inherit an abused mentality, one that flinches constantly at the possibility that elsewhere in the humanist ranks we’re being mocked for proximity to the religious subject. And so we appear, I think, often too defensive of our topics, believing they need caretaking before exposure to the imagined Marxist menace. So, if there is a critical edge to the book, it is to goad us to be less worried about explaining our subjects to their cultured despisers, and instead to pursue the mediations of their belief systems, the multiple functions of their ritual reiterations, and the social systems to which they reply and in which they participate. (Emphasis mine)

This question of what *counts* as evidence for American religious history as what, perhaps, does not is a crucial one that I have struggled continually with in my work. What *counts* as American religious history? The interview with Lofton compounded questions that have plagued me for weeks about how to understand the role of popular culture, consumption, and “secular” millennialism in the context and essential to how we talk about Americans, religion and practice. What evidence if cordoned? What evidence do we despise? What evidence receives a free pass? What would Oprah do?

Oprah, by Lofton’s standards, problematizes the work of American religious historians by injecting pop culture as a necessity to the larger vision of Americans and their religiosities. My particular interests are those “objects that seem unlikely for religious studies, such as those seemingly in the purview of pop culture, but also those from economic and political arenas.” My first post on this new blog was on zombies and consumption, and obviously, zombies might not fit nicely or neatly into the canon (academic not weaponry). Lofton’s interview suggests that there is also something clearly at stake in how we define something as religion and someones as the religious. (Moreover, there is something crucially important about the academic subjects we treat “tenderly” and those who do not merit such generosity.)

Gary Laderman’s Sacred Matters takes us a similar call of addressing what Americans are devoted to, and according to this excellent book, Americans find sex, celebrity, science, music, and guns sacred. In December of 2010, Laderman reflected on what we believed: war, money, sexual boundaries and the natural world to name only a few. Laderman, like Lofton, pushes the boundaries of what is religion and makes us consider what tropes, narratives and themes we deploy to construct stories of the religious lives of Americans. The question becomes not so much what would Oprah or zombies do, but what does their study show? How might we use popular culture to craft stories and as historical evidence?

All of this preliminary posturing is a way for me to say that Lofton’s book is now at the top of my reading list, and I can’t wait to see what Oprah can do for American religious history.

Zombies, Millennialism and Consumption

While perusing facebook yesterday, I happened upon a friend’s event, entitled “Zombie Apocalypse.” The end via shambling, brain-eating zombies is scheduled for December, 22, 2012, so please mark your calendars. It seems that the zombie apocalypse follows very closely behind the Mayan calendar’s end on December 21 of the same year (unless you believe new estimates.) What was striking to me was not that such an event existed, since facebook is a world of random events, fandom, and strange pages, but rather the number of people attending said event. According to the event page this morning, 521, 035 people are attending, 80, 798 are maybe attending, and 289, 558 have politely declined their invitation to a gun-toting, gore-filled end. While some might still be shilling for the Mayan apocalypsis, zombies appear to be the vogue way for the world to end.

Zombies have become a sci-fi/horror/fantasy genre staple. From the popularity of AMC’s The Walking Dead to Romero’s zombies and their legacies in film to Max Brooks’s franchise of World War Z and the survival guide to various anthologies (The Living Dead I and II, Zombies, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and my personal favorite Zombies vs. Unicorns), the zombie apocalypse is a cottage industry. While I could reflect on what the zombie apocalypse teaches us about (in)human nature, gore, or the necessity of high power weaponry, I think the more pressing and interesting point for scholars of American religion and popular culture is the pervasiveness of this genre and the continued presence of catastrophic millennialism in American popular culture.

Michael Barkun discusses the “pervasive millennialism” of American culture in which end times theologies and scenarios are popular and consumable. Pervasive millennialism works because of the commodification of these ideas. Do you need to be briefed in the Mayan calendar? Buy this book or dvd. Need to survive zombies on the front step? Please purchase one of the many survival guides, necessary hardware, and stock up with food. Need to ride out the looming end (of any variety)? Please buy your rations for a year at Costco. Want to know how the world looks post-Rapture? Purchase the Left Behind series. Perhaps, one wants to survive post-apocalypse? Download various films via Netflix, read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or maybe not, or pick up any number of young adult fiction titles from Carrie Ryan (zombies) to Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games trilogy), pick up survivalist gear and stock up food. We can consume the end and all its possible varieties. What is clear from the proliferation of end times products is the hope and fervor that the right products can save us. Read, watch, stock and prepare.

In her excellent book, Tourists of History (2007), Marita Sturken argues that cultures of fear and paranoia bolster “consumer practices of security and comfort” (5). This “comfort culture” allows Americans to purchase goods that supposedly might protect us, and this “culture of comfort functions as a form of depolitization and as a means to confront loss, grief and fear through processes that disavow politics”(6). We consume supplies to comfort ourselves in the face of global war, domestic politics and personal strife. Moreover, Sturken claims that often Americans seek to be “tourists of history” who remain distant to the sites they visit, where they are often defined as innocent outsiders, mere observers whose actions are believed to have no effect on what they see” (10). As I read Sturken’s book, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe apocalyptic consumption functions as a “culture of comfort.” Purchasing survival guides or survivalist training, reading books, watching films that direct us how to kill zombies, purchasing a year’s worth of food can all provide comfort. Americans are often “tourists” of the apocalypse.

Apocalyptic thinking is rife with paranoia, conspiracy and fear, and the genre of apocalyptic tales is as well. Consuming (products of) the end provides comfort that the end is not quite here but could be. Products can “save” us. The comment sections of the “Zombie Apocalypse” event page makes this obvious: what weapons, cars, tools, etc. might you need. Folks discussing the merits of a Louisville slugger over various guns or axes or other household objects. Part of my interest is the question of what does this mean about not only apocalyptic thinking but also about more secular visions of millennialism? What is at stake if we are “tourists” of the end? Why does consumerism go hand-in-hand with visions of catastrophe and the undead?

It is at this point that I wish Katie Lofton’s book on Oprah was on the shelves. Now granted, I imagine Oprah doesn’t have much to save about zombies but I bet Lofton has much to say about how products can save and how consumerism can become religious practice and devotion. Moreover, if half a million people are excited about the prospect of taking down zombies, then what is at stake in the consumption of this particular end? Why is the zombie apocalypse comforting? And why am I more and more convinced that apocalypticism functions as a comfortable rhetorical and imaginary space? If the apocalypse provides comfort, products can save us, then how might we understand the role of popular culture in the study of American religion?

[Cross posted at Religion in American History]