Reject the Idols
Lately the tenor of politics has been so disconcerting that even those far afield from scriptural thinking ask whether apocalypse is upon us. Weekly mass shootings and videotaped executions, reckless candidates on the national stage, suspicious backroom machinations, financial tumult, climate trouble, technological takeover – is this our reality? Or is this a reality competition that we find ourselves in?
I am a scholar of religion who studies popular culture, which means I am a student of smoke and mirrors. Did that magician actually cut the woman in half? Will that AsSeenOnTV.com™ product really solve my cleaning problem? Is Taylor Swift as nice as she seems?
Dialectic of Entertainment
Studying popular culture means that you are always thinking about fraudulence. Not because you seek to unveil the lie. No, the intellectual work is to explore misdirection as the commodity we cannot stop consuming. It has always been unclear whether we admire the maker of smoke or the destroyer of mirrors. Reality television is a genre that exhibits this ambivalence, since few viewers watch it without doubting everything it contains. They watch, again and again, because skepticism is the commodity this reality produces.
When Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), they were hardly neutral about popular culture and its consequences. “Entertainment is the prolongation of work under late capitalism,” they wrote. “It is sought by those who want to escape the mechanized labor process so that they can cope with it again.”1
We imagine that blockbuster films or pop songs offer relief from our working lives, but Adorno and Horkheimer argued that popular culture is the handmaiden of labor. “This is the incurable sickness of all entertainment,” they explained, pointing to our need to keep consuming (binge viewing, video gaming, and online shopping) in order to cope with working. We don’t work to earn leisure; our leisure is the drug that keeps us working. “The culture industry presents that same everyday world as paradise,” they wrote. “Entertainment fosters the resignation which seeks to forget itself in entertainment.”2
Critics of religion speak similarly, arguing that religion distracts us from confronting reality, and religious leadership suppresses resistance in part through the declaration of our salvation. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions,” Karl Marx (1818-1883) famously wrote.3 The critique of religion resonates with Adorno and Horkheimer’s assault on consumer culture: A demoralized public uses spectacle to believe life could be other than demoralizing. And yet these very spectacles seem to do nothing but deliver us back to our dispiriting labor.
Roman Prime Time
Marx, Adorno, and Horkheimer were not the first intellectuals to question whether our entertainments served as our imprisonments. The 1st-century poet Juvenal described the system of state bribery imposed by Emperor Augustus as “bread and circuses.” Augustus provided free grain and free entertainment to plebeians to quell rebellion. If nobody starved, nobody would riot; if there was a chariot race to attend, nobody could complain.
Sociologists of early Christianity have spilt no small amount of ink evaluating the church’s critique of this feature of Roman society. Within this scholarship, disputes abide about the ethnic and class demographics of early churches and the determining theological and ritual impulses of the first believers. Yet it is unquestionably true that the first centuries of Christianity were defined by inquiries about what was true and what was false, who was manipulated and who could be truly free. Almost always religions begin with instructions about how to deconstruct the deceptions of a given world.
Truth or Consequences
Teaching religion in the 21st century means facing students who cannot decide if they think religion and popular culture are good or bad. They know only this: Religion seems optional, but popular culture is inescapable. We choose religion, but we drown in a world the culture industry makes. In the classroom I hope to suggest the divide between religion and culture is less stark than they presuppose. The work of comprehending culture and the work of understanding religion have the same aim: to think about truth and falsity, to squint and see the origin of the smoke and the arrangement of the mirrors, to fight for a skepticism that isn’t an ironic punch line but a ceaseless process of inquiry and engaged listening.
Adorno and Horkheimer ask us to doubt the fabricators of culture, all those reality TV producers, pop programmers, and infomercial evangelists who tell us their quick pleasures are forms of enlightenment. “Society is made up of the desperate and thus falls prey to rackets,” they observed. They might have been talking about 21st-century politics, too.
As we watch the latest presidential election season unfold, think about how the staging of the election itself, and its coverage, might be understood as part of the culture industry, and therefore something we must work to resist. To what extent are the candidates like Augustus’ gladiators? How much of our participation in this election is more akin to consumer activity than political engagement?
We take these prepped candidates as inevitable; we take, too, the political conversations they establish as reasonable and true. Yet there is plenty of evidence that these figures are not the real and the truthful that we should be searching for. The Book of Habakkuk asks us to think about what we do when we attend to idols:
What use is an idol
once its maker has shaped it—
a cast image, a teacher of lies?
For its maker trusts in what has
though the product is only an
idol that cannot speak! (2:18)
The prophet looks askance at those who would say to such an idol, “Wake up!” How foolish must we be to imagine that the idol that has “no breath in it at all” could possibly reply (2:19).
Habakkuk suggests we have become like the woodcarver Geppetto, hoping to breathe into our idols the possibility of real life. But this is the stuff of Disney, the matchless manufacturer of culture. As citizens our task is to resist idols and forge in our communities the honest life we seek from our politics. There is no higher calling for any of us than to resist the stories our idols sell. This is the work of our time: to insist on reality in the era of its most brilliant fraudulence.
Kathryn Lofton is Professor of Religious Studies, American Studies, History and Divinity at Yale and also Chair of Yale’s Department of Religious Studies and Deputy Dean of Diversity of Faculty Development in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She has written extensively about capitalism, celebrity, sexuality, and the concept of the secular.
- Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (Stanford, 2002), p. 52.
- Adorno and Horkheimer, p. 55.
- Karl Marx, “From the Paris Notebooks,” Marx: Early Political Writings, edited by Joseph O’Malley (Cambridge, 1944), p. 90.