Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America

Article excerpt

Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. By Colleen McDannell. (New Haven, Connecticut:Yale University Press. 1996. Pp. xii, 312. $35.00.)

For too long, Colleen McDannell argues,American historians have thought of religion as the "sacred," the transcendent, the spiritual, set against the "profane," the everyday, the material, the commercial.This strict dichotomy, she contends, had blinded them to the way American Christians have continually"scrambled" such categories, the sacred and the profane, the material and spiritual, by employing goods and artifacts, many of them purchased, in the practice of their faith. Even on the few occasions when historians have paid attention to religion's material dimension, this rigid dichotomy, reinforced by intellectual disdain for mass-produced objects, had led to odd distortions in the historical literature. McDannell points out, for example, that we "know far more about the material environment of the Shakers-a community that tried to simplify their physical universe-than we do about that of Roman Catholics whose sacramental theology fully exploited the material world"

Colleen McDannell's book is an attempt to address this long-neglected material dimension in American Christian history, to open up study of it by offering some theoretical arguments about how objects have functioned in American religion and to illustrate those arguments through six case studies. These case studies range widely over time and Christian denominations: the emergence of the family Bible as the centerpiece of the Victorian parlor; the place of Christian imagery in the rural cemetery movement of the early nineteenth century; the devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes in late nineteenth-century American Catholicism; Catholic and Protestant debates over Christian art in the 1950's and 1960's; the meanings of sacred garments to contemporary Mormons; and the rise of Christian bookstores in modern America.

These case studies are more than mere demonstrations of the importance of objects in American religious life; they are each sophisticated analyses of how and why objects play such central roles in the religious life of American Christians. The research is thorough and imaginative, drawing on a wide variety of sources: the objects themselves, probate records, advertisements, oral history interviews, as well as conventional sources of magazines, newspapers, and manuscripts. McDannell, for example, uses Farm Security Administration photographs of rural workers' homes to show us not only what religious objects and artifacts average people owned, but also how they used them, where they placed them in their homes, and how they surrounded them with other objects and images: how, for example, images of saints were set next to photographs of family members, mixing heavenly patrons and earthly family together in a single communal network. …