From Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self to Kristen DuMez’s Jesus and John Wayne, from Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood to Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s Taking America Back for God and Sarah Posner’s Unholy, a spate of illuminating (if controversial and contested) cultural histories have been published in the past few years that analyze how we arrived where we are today in America (and American evangelicalism) in terms of race, sex, politics, and religion.
As insightful as all these books are, none has connected more the dots for me than Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. While other books cover a longer history than just the last couple of decades, which Burton examines in her book, these last couple of decades have been, for many of us, in many ways pretty inexplicable.
Strange Rites makes sense of them.
In the book, Burton explores what she terms “remix culture,” a new version of syncretism made possible and fueled by digital media. Syncretism, of course, is as old as humankind. But what’s new is the uncontainable power of digital media to create mix-and-match “bespoke” (or customized) views and values (religions, in other words) and to allow those who hold them to move in and out of various communities that share those views and values. For example, because of the Internet, a person who loves The Lord of the Rings, seeks to explore polyamory, is enrolled in seminary, and eats gluten-free can easily find communities for each of these interests—and, most likely, even a group that share all of these interests.
But this phenomenon of communities around shared interests is a double-edged sword because, as Burton explains,
…the Internet provides highly specialized alternative communities, allowing people to find friends or partners who aren’t merely like-minded, but almost identically minded. It disincentivizes compromise and conformity, even as it promises the bespoke ideal: people who think and feel and act just like you. (60-61)
Such hyper individualism, further cemented in pools of people just like you, leads inevitably to the polarization that has characterized the past few years.
Yet, this development need not have taken us by surprise. Half a century ago, Burton reminds us, the communications theorist Marshall McLuhan predicted such a “retribalization,” warning all the way back in 1969, “The compressional, implosive nature of the new electric technology is retrogressing Western man back from the open plateaus of literate values and into the heart of tribal darkness” (61). As just one example, Burton points to a 2017 study showing that as many as 87.8 percent of YouTubers and 93.6 percent of Facebook users were “polarized”—”concentrating at least 95 percent of their online reading on controversial issues around one politicized narrative” (61-62).
Surprisingly—but insightfully and convincingly—Burton identifies the birth of this remix culture with—of all things—Harry Potter fandom. The “roots of contemporary millennial culture—its tendency toward Internet communities, its obsession with individuation, its propensity toward rewriting scripts and recreating worldviews,” she explains, “all came out of 2000s fan culture” (65). This “remixed” religion, as she terms it, that we see all around us on social media, in the election booth, and in the Capitol riot, are the “inheritors of the legacy of … Internet fan culture” (65).
Published last year, Strange Rites goes a long way toward explaining the Gallup poll released last month showing that church membership in the U.S. has fallen below half of the population for the first time—47% of Americans now belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. This news is sobering, if not surprising. Gallup attributes the decline to the increased percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation (from 8% in 1998-200 to 21% in the last three years), as well as to the aging of those generations (millennials and Gen Z) who are less likely than older generations to belong to church.
Yet, this decline in membership in religious institutions by no means indicates that Americans are less religious, at least in the terms Burton posits in Strange Rites. Drawing on the work of Emile Durkheim, Peter Berger, and Clifford Geertz, Burton (who holds a doctorate in theology from Oxford University) posits “religion” as more than merely “an organized faith in a higher power,” but rather a common set of practices or beliefs that provides “meaning, purpose, community, and ritual,” even (or perhaps especially) within groups of people united by beliefs and practices not recognized formally or traditionally as religions. In this formulation, “religion” (along with its rituals, rites, and beliefs) is alive and well in various kinds of communities and practices, from Harry Potter fandom to wellness culture, to New Age adherents, and various forms of sexual utopias—just a few of the “religious” cultures Burton examines in the book.
One might argue that this is a re-definition of the meaning of “religion.” But what Burton powerfully shows is that in this era which Charles Taylor and others have fittingly described as “a secular age,” many of those who identify as “Nones,” or “spiritual but not religious,” or “religious hybrids” are, in fact, behaving and believing in very religious ways. Beginning the book with an examination of the “intuitional religion” that is woven throughout much of America’s earlier history, Burton shows that such “remixed” religion is hardly new but is as American as apple pie.
We need to understand, as Burton’s analysis reveals and the Gallup poll confirms, that regardless of how they self-identify religiously, more and more Americans are, in fact, “remixed.” Finding our way out of such syncretism will be years long work, work that needs to be done in families, churches, and religious institutions and schools.
In responding to the Gallup poll, Mark Tooley of The Institute on Religion and Democracy offers a broad vision for the way forward: “Hyper individualism fueled by internet fantasies, “reality” tv, and faux online communities can only be displaced by revived congregations that are politically, racially and economically diverse. And while nondenominational churches are often strong engines for Gospel service, America needs revived denominations with sound ecclesiology and wider perspectives on social renewal.”1
While Tooley’s words address the church specifically, the ingredients of his solution can—and should—characterize Christian institutions of higher education as well. There is perhaps no place more able than our classrooms to put healthy flesh on the dry bones of hyper individualism.