On Sacred Matters: An Interview with Gary Laderman

Gary Laderman is Professor of American Religious History and Cultures, chair of the Department of Religion, and editor of the online magazine Religion Dispatches, at Emory University in Atlanta. He is perhaps best known for his first two books, The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883 (Yale University Press, 1996), and Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2003), which analyze the ways in which cultural and religious expectations and practices surrounding death have developed over the course of American history. He also has co-edited two encyclopedias, Religion and American Cultures: An Encyclopedia of Traditions, Diversity, and Popular Expressions (3 vols., ABC-Clio, 2003), and Science, Religion, Societies: Histories, Cultures, Controversies (2 vols., 2006; ME Sharpe), and recently published an article that traces the relationship between medicine, religion, and healing: “The Cult of Doctors: Harvey William Cushing and the Religious Culture of Modern Medicine,” in the Journal of Religion and Health.

In June 2009, Gary published his newest book, Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead, and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States (The New Press, 2009). At a minimum, Scared Matters makes the following argument: under certain conditions, a wide range of social practices can and do function religiously, at least for some persons and communities. He deploys the comparative construct “the sacred” to distinguish those sites of cultural production marked by a cluster of features typically associated with religiosity: the presence of myth, collective ritual, moral expectations, and experiences capable of providing a sense of personal identity, existential meaning, order, purpose, fulfillment, and community. For Gary, then, the sacred “is a robust, dynamic, shaping-shifting force that now more than ever is free-floating and disconnected from conventional anchors, such as specific [religious] texts… or particular institutions like the church… and ostensibly secular aspects of social life, like sports, music, science, violence, or sexuality, can have meaningful religious dimensions in practice and experience that have nothing to do with God or religious traditions” (xvi).

In our interview, we discussed his motivations for writing Sacred Matters, how this new book relates to his earlier work, teaching, and key intellectual influences, and what he hopes Sacred Matter might accomplish.

Kenny Smith: What were your primary motivations in writing Sacred Matters?

Gary Laderman: My thinking and writing were driven by two primary concerns. The first of these was the larger political context. Following the 2004 presidential election, there was a tremendous amount of discussion both in the national news media and across American culture generally, about the profound impact that evangelicals had on the election. While evangelicals certainly play an important role in the larger sweep of American religious history, discussion at the time seemed to overstate their role, providing a rather one-dimensional portrait of American culture. I thought that there was far more to American religious life than simply what conservative Christians thought and did. So I sought to challenge and undercut this overly simplistic narrative, providing a more nuanced way of thinking about religion in contemporary America. I wanted to explore the question: could there exist a flourishing religious culture outside of what traditionally counted as religion?

It’s worth noting that Religion Dispatches, a daily e-journal began in 2008, was also conceived during this same time and with some of the same goals in mind—analyzing the relationship between religion, politics, and the broader American culture. So far it seems fairly successful. Our readership has gradually increased, and a wide range of scholars contribute on a regular basis.

My second motivation was rooted in academic life. I wanted to move away from conventional narratives of church history and to explore alternate visions of lived religion in contemporary America. It is often thought that religion manifests in either traditional religious institutions or as highly individualistic, New Age-like movements. I sought to expand the discussion from an anthropological perspective. In this sense, I saw Sacred Matters as in the same tradition as the work of scholars such as Bob Orsi and David Hall. It is not that I was rejecting or offering a corrective to traditional approaches to American religious history. These approaches are important, and they serve as a backdrop for Sacred Matters. I was instead trying to contribute something different, as there is more terrain to be studied than the older, church-history model is capable of analyzing. In this sense, I saw myself as expanding upon what earlier generations of scholars had accomplished, not replacing it.

I also wanted to address recent sociological studies (e.g., the American Religious Identification Survey of 2008) indicating significant growth in the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation, or “nones,” currently estimated as approximately 16 percent of the adult U.S. population. Could “nones” be religious in substantive and meaningful ways that had nothing to do with churches or with God? Sacred Matters suggests that this is certainly the case, that under certain conditions a wide range of cultural practices, such as professional and collegiate sports, science and science fiction, music and film, health and healing, to cite but a handful of examples, function as religions. More, such cultural practices are not superficially religious in the least, but rich religious resources through which individuals and communities discern and sustain a sense of identity, meaning, purpose, order, and fulfillment. Sacred Matters suggests not only should we take them seriously, but that we must think about religion in America in very broad terms indeed.

KS: How would you locate Sacred Matters relative to scholarship you have found most helpful and influential in your own thinking?

GL: In many ways, Sacred Matters owes much to Catherine Albanese’s Nature Religion in America (1990). Albanese’s book serves as a lens for looking at American cultural history. She shows us how nature has been understood as sacred in different ways for different communities within American history, from colonial encounters with Native American cultures to the later twentieth century. Her approach to religion has proved a seminal influence upon my own thinking. Just as Albanese looks at the different ways in which nature takes on religious significance, I explore the ways in which numerous aspects of our contemporary social reality function religiously. I could have written this book about any one mode of cultural production, such as medicine, sexuality, or violence. Instead, Sacred Matters is a set of nine different essays, exploring the quite different ways in which the sacred is located within each, at least for some persons and communities. Like Albanese’s nature, the sacred is an empty category, the content of which is supplied by particular persons and communities.

KS: How does Sacred Matters relate to your earlier work?

GL: I found it to be a natural outgrowth of my research and writing. For instance, in my two books on death (Sacred Remains [1996], Rest in Peace [2003), I found that death was a topic that could lead to all kinds of religious ideas and practices that were not connected to traditional religious authorities and institutions. More, death is a universal human phenomenon that is always understood as sacred. Sacred Matters deals with similarly widespread social practices that lie outside traditional religious institutions and teachings, and that can function as rich sources of religious fulfillment. The same points could be made with respect to the encyclopedias I have edited [Religion and American Cultures (2003), Science, Religion, Societies (2003)].

Sacred Matters is also an outgrowth of how I teach my courses. I structure subject matter thematically as a way of subverting the ways in which students, undergraduate especially, have been trained to think about religion. Typically, students come into the classroom with a kind of church-history model approach to world religions. They tend to think of the religious landscape as a set of discrete, bounded, separate religious institutions. A topical approach, one that discusses death and dying, or mind, medicine and healing, gets them to think about religion in a very different way. This allows us to talk about, and see, religious categories in different ways. We can, for example, discuss the notion of “sacred space” and how this might be found outside of traditional religious frames, such as funeral homes. This also makes possible discussions of civil religion, and of the role of religion in popular culture. Sacred Matters, then, is simply a detailed extension of my pedagogical approach. 

KS: How has Sacred Matters been received thus far? Are there any that you consider particularly fair and insightful?

GL: The book has seen both lukewarm and enthusiastic responses, though only a few written reviews. Some have argued that the book was too popular audience, others that it is too academic. One I especially liked was Guy Cunningham’s August 2009 review on Bookslut.com. He raised some excellent questions. He notes, for example, that I seem content with a loosely defined sense of “the sacred,” and that I discuss a very wide range of cultural activity, only briefly pausing to link this activity to the broad category of the sacred. He would like to see me make more explicit the conceptual threads that tie this all together, and to reiterate how precisely the sacred shows up in so many different places, all of which lie outside traditional religion. This I think is a very fair criticism.

KS: What do you hope to accomplish with Sacred Matters?

GL: I do not have any hopes or expectations that Sacred Matters will accomplish anything on a particularly large scale. This book was a joy to write in ways quite different from my earlier work. I hope that I myself, and perhaps some others, will enjoy reading it. I hope that it stirs some interest in the broader culture. It is not a scholarly text, and so I do not expect that it will influence the academy. I am not thinking about trying to change the field of American religions, or religious studies, for that matter. I am not even thinking about it being read by my colleagues.

Sacred Matters is much more about what I do in the classroom, making new ways of thinking about religion accessible to a broader audience. I would like to see a more nuanced discussion within the broader public, one that allowed people who do not study religion as part of their vocation to think beyond some of the traditional categories we typically use when thinking about religion and its relationship to the broader culture. Perhaps Sacred Matters can contribute to this in some small way.

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