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.