MATERIAL CHRISTIANITY: Religion and Popular Culture in America by Colleen McDannell

MATERIAL CHRISTIANITY: Religion and Popular Culture in America

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A groundbreaking, impressively researched, and kitsch-filled exploration of how Americans' sacred ""stuff"" both shapes and reflects their religious beliefs. McDannell (coauthor of Heaven: A History, 1988) here offers a fresh scholarly approach to Christianity in America: Instead of focusing on the hackneyed written expressions of elite clergy, she turns her attention to the sacred objects of rank-and-file believers. What do prints, Bibles, domestic shrines, and Jesus T-shirts tell us about religious faith? McDannell criticizes American religionists for ignoring these ""unwritten texts"" and following an iconoclastic Puritan suspicion of holy objects. In correcting this oversight, she demonstrates that not only Catholics but also Protestants and Mormons have a deep affinity for tactile sacred things. The book is strongest when it delves into the home, the realm most often ignored by scholars, and explores what Lourdes holy water, Victorian Bible stands, and needlepoint samplers reveal about their owners' spirituality. Far from being meaningless decor, the author argues, they signify a deep commitment to religion. The chapter on Mormon temple garments offers an especially subtle discussion of the fusion of the ""profane"" body with the ""sacred"" rituals of the temple. Ultimately, McDannell argues that these traditional categories are of little use in understanding American religiosity, as people intentionally seek to bring the sacred into their ""profane"" homes and lives. The author is least cogent when she stretches beyond the scope of the home, ritual objects, and clothing, and individual chapters vary in quality, some essays failing to convey the personalization of the sacred that makes the topic so compelling. One hopes that other historians will follow McDannell's bold lead and attend to this neglected aspect of religious expression.

Pub Date: Feb. 14th, 1996
ISBN: 0300074999
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.