Symposium Introduction

It’s easy to feel like a fraud in academia. At least it’s easy for me. Some of my nineteen-year-old students read faster than I do. My favorite authors cite theorists that I have read, reread, and still have no idea what they’re talking about. When I was in law school, I got a “C” in my favorite class. I’m ashamed by the number of books I’ve read with the sole purpose of wanting to be seen as a “serious” scholar in my field. As if some philosopher is going to stop and quiz me at a political theory workshop in twenty years to make sure I really belong there. So much wasted time preparing for a hypothetical conversation with a hypothetical European philosopher at a hypothetical academic conference in the year 2039. Why this need to always feel like the smartest person in the room? Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it?

Kathryn Lofton’s path-breaking book Consuming Religion helps me see my academic imposter syndrome in a clearer light. And the help comes from an unlikely source: religion. It was David Foster Wallace who famously told a bunch of Kenyon College graduates in 2005 that “in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism.” His claim was that we all worship something, even intelligence. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart,” he says, “you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.” What makes this a form of worship, at least according to Wallace, is not merely devoting your life to feeling intelligent or even being intelligent, but to be seen as intelligent. In a response to a symposium contributor below, Lofton makes a similar point. “We react because of who we are,” she observes, “and what we want to be seen as doing.”

Unlike Wallace, Lofton is not primarily interested in pointing out the things we treat as religions, or even gods. Her goal is to show how the study of religion is essential to helping us understand the many ways we organize our lives. While her case studies involve the Kardashians, Goldman Sachs, cubicles, and desk chairs, Consuming Religion equips us to examine much more. For example, what drives our obsession “to be seen” in a particular way, as a particular person? Not just as a “serious” scholar but as a “fan” of some celebrity? Why do friends encourage me to go to a Radiohead concert so that, in their words, “I can say I went to a Radiohead concert”? How much of today’s bucket list craze is driven less by our sense of adventure and more by our fixation to “say” we traveled somewhere, to be “seen” as someone who visited that landmark? By helping us examine why we attach ourselves to—and are utterly absorbed by—popular culture, Lofton highlights the important connections between our drives for consumption, entertainment, devotion, and the need to “be seen” by others.

Our symposium features essays from scholars in the fields of American studies, history, religion, and law. In the symposium’s first essay, Carrie Tirado Bramen analyzes the ways her experience at a Justin Bieber concert mirrors what likely took place at various nineteenth-century religious revival meetings. Who actually produces the spectacle, Bramen asks. Bieber or his fans? And who consumes it? Does it make sense to speak of Bieber as a consumer of his own spectacle, or merely just the producer? Tim Gloege, in our second essay, highlights the connections not just between celebrity and worship, but celebrity and sacrifice. In addition, he examines what Consuming Religion might mean for thinking about hierarchy, control, and domination in various contexts—including our institutions of higher learning.

Essays by Rhon Manigault-Bryant and Winnifred Sullivan round out our symposium. Manigault-Bryant considers Lofton’s book in light of the “long, horrid history of black women’s bodies being forcibly and perilously consumed.” By raising questions that implicate us all in the violence of consumption, she forces us to not just recognize our participation in it, but to own that violence as well. “What exactly is getting consumed when we see black women’s bodies on the screen?” Manigault-Bryant asks. “What precisely has our sacred desire to consume done when we consider blackness?” In our final essay, Winnifred Sullivan reads Consuming Religion alongside the 2018 Supreme Court decision, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case involving a baker who refused, on religious grounds, to design a cake for a gay couple’s wedding celebration. Drawing on a rich array of voices like radical feminists, critics of the Wedding Industrial Complex, and even the late great Anthony Bourdain, Sullivan praises Lofton for inviting us to ask the questions that really matter. “Can we find an uncommodified religion,” Sullivan asks, “imagining new ways to share and care?” I sure hope so.

When I assigned Consuming Religion in my senior seminar about faith, vocation, and calling, students were enthralled. Whenever I could tell my lectures were getting boring, when my students started texting, resting their heads down on the table, reaching for a bag of Doritos or a stick of gum, I had one go-to weapon. “You might remember what Kathryn Lofton had to say about this,” I would remark. Before I knew it, heads were up, eyes were open, phones were tossed. Doritos stayed in place. “What she says makes a lot of sense,” a student would consistently point out. “Damn,” said another, “Damn, damn, damn.”

I said the exact same thing when I first read Consuming Religion. It’s the kind of book teachers text their colleagues about as they finish each chapter, sending screenshots of highlighted excerpts throughout the day. It’s the kind of book students talk about after class, in the cafeteria, in their dorms, sometimes until 2:00 in the morning. Some of my favorite comments from students included: “I need to give this book to my little brother”; “Where do I learn to write like her?”; “God, I can’t stand Goldman Sachs” (though, to be fair, the student drew this conclusion not from Lofton’s ethnographic research of the bank, but from a human rights class she took a year earlier); and, last, the predictable, “I wonder what she thinks about Fortnite!” Yes, what does Lofton think about Fortnite? We may never know. But the fact that students now saw Fortnite as something that could not only be played or consumed but thought about—and thought about with tools from the field of religious studies—meant that Lofton had done her job. “Tell us more,” students would always say when she came up in conversation. So, in a very minor token of appreciation for them—and as an apology for failing to do justice to her brilliant insights during the seminar—I helped curate this symposium so Lofton could do just that: tell us more.

Carrie Tirado Bramen


The Varieties of Religious Experience from Justin Bieber to Beyoncé

Whether it is Oprah or the Kardashians, the signature move of Kathryn Lofton’s work is to unsettle the boundaries between religion and secularism, between the sacred and the profane. Her mise-en-scène is popular culture in all of its range and complexity; and her theoretical guide is Durkheim, who understood religion as a fundamental part of our socialization, best summarized in his dictum: “The idea of society is the soul of religion.” For Durkheim, religion creates identities, solidarities, and meaning for human societies. It is the glue that holds communities together; it is the means by which individuals define their purpose. What interested Durkheim about religion is the same thing that Lofton finds so generative in Consuming Religion, namely the centrality of sociality in discussions about religious practice. To quote Lofton on Durkheim: “Socialization is our humanization, and religion is the primary social form by which our socialization takes place” (18).

In the twenty-first century, our socialization primarily takes the form of consumerism mediated in large part through technology, but this seemingly secular practice does not mean that religion has now been placed on the back burner. Our consumerist habits—defined by the rituals of shopping and celebrity worship—have incorporated the fundamental elements of Protestantism into everyday compulsions and obsessions.

Although Lofton’s breezy and conversational style immediately draws the reader into her narrative, she doesn’t allow us to become too comfortable. By the end of her introduction, she breaks down the fourth wall and addresses her readers directly through the second-person “you.” Reminiscent of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s writerly tactic of addressing her readers directly (echoing in part the Calvinist minister in the pulpit), Lofton writes: “Whatever your spirit, whatever your ritual, you are in it. You are being consumed by the social inevitability of consumer decision.” Lofton calls out any scholarly reader who maintains a condescending attitude toward the subject matter. We are all implicated in the rituals and beliefs of a consumerist culture: “you are in it.” There is no escape. But unlike the Calvinist minister with thoughts of declension uppermost in his mind, Lofton offers the reader a way out: consumer culture can be the opiate of the people, a symptom of our “alienated self-consciousness.” Or, it can be a way to articulate alternative forms of consciousness, which can in turn free us from “the very obsessions it compels” (13).

I take this refrain—“you are in it”—as an invitation to reflect on how I have been implicated in the very consumerist marketplace that we may at times look at with disdain and embarrassment. I recalled how in July 2016, I took my then eleven-year-old daughter to see Justin Bieber in his Purpose World Tour at the indoor arena in downtown Buffalo. The concert experience, combined with what Bieber did after he cancelled his world tour, touches on several key points in Lofton’s Consuming Religion, which are worth discussing at length. How is fandom an expression of religiosity (in this case, of the aptly named “Beliebers”)? And what precisely are the power dynamics of consumerism in the collective mania of a teen pop concert?

Our seats were fairly close, and Bieber’s grandparents who had traveled from Ontario, Canada, were rumored to be nearby. We sat at one side of the stage, so we could see Bieber go from backstage to onstage in a matter of minutes. Two things stand out the most from that evening. First, the contrast between Bieber, hanging out backstage with his dancers casually doing warm-up exercises, and then after the lights dimmed and the smoke machines started working, he transformed into a pop icon before thousands of shrieking girls (and a few moms).

Second, as soon as he appeared at the side of the stage, even before he was visible to the entire arena, the screaming started and it grew more audible and increased with intensity with every step he took. The atmosphere became frenzied by the time he was elevated inside a glass box, as if he were the desired object displayed inside a department store window.

It was the twenty-first-century equivalent of a nineteenth-century revival meeting with everyone standing, while the majority were screaming, jumping, waving their arms, singing, clapping, and for some, even weeping tears of joy. The fact that this took place in Western New York, the burnt-over district of the Second Great Awakening, made the religious undertones even more salient. But the one ubiquitous gesture, which illustrates Lofton’s point about the fusion of celebrity and technology into what she calls “mechanized intimacy,” was taking photos constantly with smartphones. All one could see at points were the flashes going off. When Bieber stopped to converse with audience members between songs, the kids would immediately start taking photos and posting them on Snapchat and Instagram. This obviously annoyed him and was reminiscent of a remark he made during an interview, that he “feels like a zoo animal.”

In contrast to the 19,000 screaming fans, Bieber appeared to be going through the motions, oscillating between boredom and annoyance. He seemed to be counting down each song before he could return to his trailer and head to the next gig. He was on automatic pilot and occasionally he slipped into flagrant lip-synching, which I couldn’t help but like, as a contemptuous gesture on his part in refusing to please his audience. To watch him perform was a reminder that you were watching someone having to work. Unlike the tireless work ethic of the Kardashians, Bieber hasn’t internalized the American obsession with work or what James Surowiecki in the New Yorker has called the “cult of overwork.” Though he was obscenely well-remunerated for the performances, he personified alienated labor. A year later, after sixteen months of touring to over forty countries, he cancelled the remaining fourteen scheduled dates. I was surprised that he stuck it out that long.

After reading Lofton’s book, I reflected on Justin Bieber’s performance and wondered who was “being consumed,” to quote Lofton’s phrase. Was it the screaming fans who were consumed by the sheer euphoria of being in the same physical space as a celebrity pop singer? Or was it Bieber, who has been a vocal critic of his own commodification? To answer this question is to reflect on the power dynamics in the arena. Who ultimately has the power: Is it the charismatic performer who is worshipped as a godlike figure, or the fans who are literally objectifying him through their smartphones?

The final chapter of this anecdote is that Bieber quit his Purpose tour because he found a religious purpose and “rededicated his life to Christ.” He joined the conservative megachurch called Hillsong Church, with branches in NYC and LA, where thousands of young people convene for Sunday services (several services offered all day) that combine rock music with prayer and charismatically delivered sermons. The Australian founder of the church, Brian Houston, published the book You Need More Money, and he and other preachers worldwide share their “Prosperity Teachings” based on the fact that God wants his people wealthy. Described by its detractors as an insidious cult called “hellsong” and by its supporters as a trendy “hipster church,” Hillsong unites spectacle and religiosity, with parishioners breaking into dance with the lights dimmed and the strobe lights flickering. Bieber speaks openly about his enjoyment of the service, posting a clip on Instagram with the caption: “Nothing more fun/cool than praising God.”

The Hillsong Church fuses together religion and pop music into a spectacle that resembles Bieber’s own. But the difference is significant. Bieber prefers to be the consumer of spectacle rather than its producer, to be among the worshippers rather than the worshipped. He wants to partake in the rituals of religion, but he doesn’t want to be the totem.

One of my questions at the end of Lofton’s evocative and engaging book is: why is worshipping so pleasurable, whether it is Bieber at his Pentecostal megachurch or his fans cheering at his concert? And are all forms of fan worship equivalent? I am thinking of the recent exchanges on Twitter about Beyoncé’s performance at Coachella, which her fans renamed #Beychella. From words of praise from fellow celebrities such as Roxane Gay to Janelle Monáe to tens of thousands of messages on Twitter, which included videos of young African American girls dancing to Beyoncé in their living rooms, #Beychella went viral. How would the rich vocabulary of Consuming Religion from “vitalizing power” to ritualization inform a reading of a black feminist icon such as Beyoncé in contrast to the Kardashians and Britney Spears?

To account for multiple forms of celebrity worship it would be helpful to revisit Talal Asad’s critique of Clifford Geertz’s essay “Religion as a Cultural System.” In Consuming Religion, Lofton defends Geertz in many ways that are commendable, but as a literary scholar, I want to underscore a key point in Asad’s critique that echoes Edward Said’s central point about the significance of context. Cultural signs must always be understood within particular cultural, historical, and political contexts. Asad’s main critique of Geertz is his ahistorical understanding of culture, that religious symbols exist sui generis without specific contexts. Geertz’s aim, according to Asad, is “to identify religious symbols according to universal criteria” (249). But such an aim ignores the fact that cultural symbols have multiple and conflictual meanings. To illustrate how the symbolic is a contested terrain, Asad foregrounds the “theme of power and religion” and explores the extent to which “power constructs religious ideology” and creates the “preconditions for distinctive kinds of religious personality.”

By foregrounding the theme of power, we can revisit the varieties of religious experience through the lens of intersectional celebrity and a global fan base. Through his emphasis on sociality, Durkheim has given Lofton the tools to do this, and her wonderfully readable and innovative book has given her readers the opportunity to imagine new inventions of self-consciousness that are now coming into being.

  • Kathryn Lofton

    Kathryn Lofton


    A Response to Carrie Bramen

    There were so many moments when I knew the dissertation was a disaster. I knew it in the quiet, lonely moments: staring out the window of my Davis Library carrel in Chapel Hill, NC; staring into a half-eaten plate of sesame chicken at Jade Palace in Carrboro, NC; staring at my feet as I walked slowly home from a working group meeting. “This is so stupid,” I would think. “This is such a mess.”

    Like a lot of despairing graduate students, the nail on the dissertation-disaster coffin was when I read a book covering some of its territory. In 2003, I started Carrie Tirado Bramen’s brilliant, idiosyncratic, singular book, The Uses of Variety: Modern Americanism and the Quest for National Distinctiveness (2000) and I had to put it down because it was so exactly what I wanted to write that to continue reading it would place me in the Jennifer Jason Leigh role: I would just be lurking in someone else’s authorial life, wishing it were my own.

    Only later, when I was standing up with a little less anxious wobble in a subsequent job as a visiting assistant professor would I make it all the way through Uses of Variety and admire it without berating embarrassment. Even then, I saw in that book the fruition of an intellectual accomplishment I could not achieve, namely to show (in the same way Tracy Fessenden would in her 2006 book Culture and Redemption) how the history of ideas has serious cultural salience for the imperial present-day structuring of religion. I began my dissertation wanting to bring life to concepts as Bramen and Fessenden did because the historians and critics I admired had done so, demonstrating the contingency of practice and concept in ways many other intellectuals had somehow subdivided in the bureaucratization of knowledge. If Fessenden demonstrates definitively how “tolerance” was a self-conscious production of high-minded individuals who were anything but, Bramen exposed how the celebration of diversity in America was always more an elite phantasmagoria of plenty than any kind of meaningful reckoning with human variety. “The rhetoric of diversity provides a conceptual crutch, a deus ex machina that saves us from having to grapple with complicated and partisan stances,” Bramen writes in Uses of Variety.

    In her first book, then, Bramen shows how the appropriation of social diversity is emblematic to modern ideas of “American” identity. In her response to Consuming Religion she does what she has done in both of her books (please: stop now, and request from your local library American Niceness, which will prohibit you from ever again saying “that’s nice” without knowing the settler colonial truth of Urban Dictionary definitions): she shows through a powerful particular the dynamic of the whole. A mediocre performance by young Justin Bieber is precisely the right subject to continue to assess, as Bramen writes, who has the power in the exchanges of consumer culture. Unlike my own work (that tends to focus on how individual and commodity surfaces maintain their smoothness), Bramen sees how the surfaces we set (celebrations of diversity and nice smiles from subjugated subjects) quickly show their cracks. Bieber isn’t super psyched to be Bieber! when Bramen sees him. But even—perhaps especially—in that “flagrant” disregard for the performance of presence, Bramen “couldn’t help but like” his resistance. She infers that one of the reasons she, we, they might still enjoy Bieber (even in his diffidence) is because we’re just so tired of labor, we take pleasure in someone’s alienation. Watching flinching entertainers soothes our internal blenching at our everyday flat-note hustle.

    Bramen rightly returns us to Asad’s famous critique of Geertz, underlining that Asad argued we should look for the situated realities of power rather than stick with Geertz’s flat grammar of signs. I couldn’t agree more. Consuming Religion didn’t make apparent enough that I treat Geertz as primary resource rather than secondary colleague. I point to Geertz not out of admiration, but in order to expose how much his (poor) definition of religion echoes definitions of corporate culture circulated by management gurus and business school professors. I meant to render Geertz (and scholarship on religion more generally) as complicit with, and therefore necessary for, the understanding of corporations in contemporary America. Unlike Bramen, however, I am less thoroughgoing in my admiration of Asad, since I do not find in his work a rich model for contextualizing power and religion. For that I turn to his late, great colleague Saba Mahmood, who established for so many what it would mean to theorize religion and grapple with its “multiple and conflictual meanings” in particular cultural scenes.

    Here though I reveal how I got so wound up in graduate school: I couldn’t stop bandying between my own fandom and anti-fandom, loving Bramen unequivocally and denouncing Geertz; adoring Mahmood and belly-aching about Asad. This oppositional posture contributed significantly to my failed dissertation, and my general ennui as a human person trying to fit in a world with certain forms of equipoise. “Queer lives remain shaped by that which they fail to reproduce,” Sara Ahmed writes. “To turn this around, queer lives shape what gets reproduced: in the very failure to reproduce the norms through how they inhabit them, queer lives produce different effects.”

    There is something important about self-hatred among graduate students. Important because of the recognized statistical seriousness of the problem; important because anytime people berate themselves in common ways we ought to step back and ask from whence this patterned psychological reflex comes. I don’t mean providing only more wellness resources (though always, yes, we should). I mean thinking about, as Ahmed has done so powerfully, the intimately human wages of institutionalized knowledge production. There are as many forms of thinking about this as there are students thinking in these systems. For me it meant realizing the power of failure as an alternative relationship to the knowledge institutions that credentialed me. This has included, most poignantly and painfully, shifting my terms of adulation and dismissal of teachers, human and on the page. It meant, to borrow from Bramen, that I had to stop treating Bieber as Bieber!, and interpret the boredom on his face. To see the human inside the icon.

    When I think about Bramen’s Bieber preferring the role of Hillsong spectator over serving as stadium-tour star, I am moved anew by a person—Bieber—that previous to this reading I could not stand. For me this is the highest accomplishment of criticism: to put before the reader something that disgusts them, and ask whether we can understand our revulsion through some true thing in their reality. I remain a Bramenite, not a Belieber. But it is unsurprising to me that it took seeing the latter better to renew my commitment to the former. We can’t understand any idolatry without a little comparative religions.

Tim Gloege


April 29, 2019, 1:00 am

Rhon Manigault-Bryant


May 6, 2019, 1:00 am

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan


May 13, 2019, 1:00 am