By Philip L. Tite
I must admit that beyond the beautiful mountains, lush green forests, and interwoven water ways, one of the things I love most about the Pacific Northwest is the plethora of amazing beers. Being raised on the east coast, I was never a beer drinker before I discovered British ales and pubs – and when I moved from the UK to the west coast, I was delighted that there were some amazing breweries producing delicious stouts, porters, and ales.
As a scholar of religion, however, I am fascinated by the presence and dissemination of religious motifs in supposedly non-religious contexts, yet socially engaged contexts nonetheless. I continually run across video clips (such as on YouTube) that evoke religious concepts (typically in humorous parodies, such as Eddie Izzard’s treatment of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Javier Prato’s Jesus musical short (to the music I Will Survive), or a “shared” Facebook image either challenging or affirming insider truth claims (it seemed like an avalanche of these during the last Presidential election in the United States). In many cases, directly engaging a religious tradition seems to be secondary (if important at all), with the emphasis falling on simply evoking laughter or reflection.
At least two breweries in Seattle tap into ancient mythologies to brand their products. The Elysian Brewery tends to label their products with Greco-Roman mythic motifs, though occasionally they have tapped into Norse myth. And in one case, they have used the Devil (a Christian mythical entity) for their red ale. Another brewery that I only recently discovered, the Odin Brewery, uses Norse deities to label their brands: Odin (amber ale), Thor (Belgian-style dark ale), and Freya (golden ale). By tapping into such mythologies, the question arises as to how is “religion” (or perhaps more clearly in these cases, “myth”) being constructed and utilized, for whom, and to what ends?
In thinking of these empty bottles of beer on the wall, I was reminded of the metaphor of the “marketplace” that arises as a social model for, especially, North American religions. And the idea that “religion” (as a discursive product that is received and contested as an object of study) is a “commodity” that is created, exchanged, and imbued with value all came to mind. Yet unlike a graphic novel expounding on some sacred text (such as the narrative presentation by Virgin Comics of Hindu gods a few years ago), or a bumper sticker that makes a declaration of faith or aligns the driver with a particular cosmogony, the presence of Norse, Greco-Roman, or even Christian myths on the labels of locally produced beer does not seem to imbue the producers – nor the consumers of those products – with a confessional stance. Rather, the discursive value seems to be in the light, hoppy context of social engagement, where laughter intersects commodified practices and encoded normative structures.
The consumer culture of “religion” – or “religion” as one of many goods produced and exchanged within consumer culture – offers moments of interactive alignment for the consumer. Perhaps the goods used serve as means to express, modify, or disrupt those social narratives by which identities are aligned with others. The beer bottles selected for this blog evoke archetypal or stereotyped ideals that perhaps contribute to the broader interactive engagement. The products serve as venues for defining or re-defining the consumer through a conflation of consumer with product. Specifically, these beers each seem to encourage an intersection of the “heroic” with the product (and thus the consumer).
Note the Odin Brewing Company’s statement: “Great beer designed with great food in mind.” The Elysian red ale intersects the Devil with the “Men’s Room”. In both cases festive consumption – a participatory interaction between social actors – underlies the manly or heroic values that seem to function as a subtext. The Odin Brewing Company’s website highlights such values as an exploratory spirit, traditional styles, and “the beer experience” as “integral to the dining experience” – all of which their line of beer is designed to pay homage. If we were to expand our analysis, we would undoubtedly compare these beer labels with the growing fascination with Norse mythology in North American popular cultures – from comic books, to films, to knitted hand puppets, to playful t-shirts – where mythological figures such as Thor, Loki, and Odin have become commonplace even if transgressed or transformed to fit our cultural expectations in diverse yet still commodified ways.
For the Men’s Room ale, the heroic aspects attached to the Norse images may not be at play. For me, this label raises interesting questions about the role of the Devil (and demonic figures generally) within modern popular cultures. What is it that makes the Devil cool and perhaps even a festive figure? Could it be the idea that all the fun people, and thus the best parties, are hosted in hell? Does such humor carry a tacit rejection of established religious traditions?
But surely this talk of a “beer experience” is a light and playful advertising gimmick. Myth is literally consumed with a wink not a protest or a mission or a calling. It’s just another round of pints for one’s mates. It’s not really religion, now is it?
Or maybe it is something more than just pints that we are consuming. Perhaps the dismissal of beer bottles that have mythic images as unworthy of study tells us more about our perception of religion – as something disconnected from commodified or economic exchanges; i.e., “religion” as sui generis, a protected object of private belief – than it does about actual practices and structures of consuming seemingly trivial mythical motifs within broader systems of exchange, exchanges that shape those interactive narratives within which identities are generated, played out, and rendered normative.
If my hunch is correct that the presence and dissemination of religious motifs in supposedly non-religious contexts (such as with these beer bottles) demonstrates one kind of commodity utilization of “religion” in popular culture(s), then perhaps the importance of such anthropological evidence is due our scholarly gaze, even if to only illustrate presuppositions underlying such terms as religion and myth.
Regardless of the theoretical implications my examples may evoke, I think I’ll continue my field work – Another round, please!
Author Bio: Philip Tite is co-editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from McGill University (2005) and is currently an affiliate lecturer at the University of Washington in Seattle WA, USA. His most recent book is The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolarly and Rhetorical Analysis (TENTS, 7; Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012).
OK – this is one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time. Not only will it serve admirably as an example in my Religion and Pop Culture class this summer, I now have an Eddie Izzard video I hadn’t seen before. Ain’t life grand? Thanks, Phil!