AUTHENTIC FAKES: RELIGION AND AMERICAN POPULAR CULTURE. By David Chidester. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 294 pages. Paperback. $19.95. ISBN: 0520232807.

David Chidester, Professor of Comparative Religion at the University of Cape Town, has written a number of books that deal with religious studies.  He has lectured widely on the topic in the US and elsewhere and is intent on proving that American popular culture counts as religion.  He  defines religion as “ways of being human person in a human place” and “the activity of being human in relation to superhuman transcendence and sacred inclusion” that contains “an inherent ambiguity.”  Religion is therefore “a point of entry into the meaning, power, and values at work in the production and consumption of authentic fakes in American culture” (viii).  His definitions may seem imprecise, but his metaphors and symbols are not, e.g., Coca-Cola, Disney, McDonald’s, baseball and Rock and Roll, and others are ubiquitous emblems of the American culture and its global expansion.

The book focuses on what is authentic.  For example, Americans may consider their bodies as vehicles of religion in popular culture but they also want to leave or change the body in some way, with drugs, piercing, tattooing, extreme makeovers, and transsexual dressing and surgery.  In Chidester’s view “something is doing religious work if it is engaged in negotiating what it is to be human” (18).  He wants us to pay particular attention to how individuals engage in binding, burning, moving and handling the world around them.

There are 11 chapters in the book: the first is “Planet Hollywood,” which sets the stage and provides many of the analogies for the study, while the final chapter “Planet America,” recounts the influence of American culture on the rest of the world.  In between are chapters about various kinds of American religion: popular, plastic, embodied, sacrificial, monetary, global, transatlantic, shamanic, and virtual.  There is also an index and a comprehensive set of endnotes for each chapter.

Popular religion in America has been shaped to a large extent by Hollywood where consumerism dominates and utilizes religious ritual and life.  “The Church of Baseball” depicts an institution governed by rules, yet with a sacred memory of the past that educates the present.  In baseball, therefore, “home” represents a ritualized sacred space, with ritual and a community of believers.  On the other hand, Coca-Cola is described as a “fetish” that has “inspirited a missionary fervor” (41), a virtual “Cocacolonization” of the world.

Plastic religion represents its cheap and ephemeral aspects: records, tapes and CDs, the computer and, especially Tupperware, the consummate plastic community.  It has its own domestic sacred space represented by the Tupperware Party, comprising a social network and copied by Mary Kay Cosmetics, Shaklee and others.  Again Cidester sees these products as having ritual and display indicated in symbols, myths and rituals of religion.  By means of these products there is cultural, inspirational and religious mobilization (59).

Embodied religion takes place through the sensitivity of the body, its kinesthetic movement and by means of perceptual information.  Caress, shock, binding, burning, moving and handling are instruments of the spiritual and enable humans to deal with stress.

Sacrificial religion relates to instances like the Jonestown mass murder-suicide and Ronald Reagan’s sacrificial patriotism and expenditure.  These ideologies are merged to portray sacrifice as an act that combines the elements of a worldview into a “meaningful and powerful whole” (103).

Monetary religion reflects on the value of the dollar in various societies around the world, but especially in Africa.  It is also tied to the war on terrorism because Bush reflected that “Money is the lifeblood of terrorist operations” (130)

Global religion is a dominant theme in the book, illustrated by multicultural companies that use images and icons in foreign countries to market their products.  Cultures have distinctive ways of processing their information through cultural worldviews to enhance the likelihood that their products will be bought.  McDonaldization (from George Ritzer), for example, is “the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more of sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world” (138).  Disneyization captures “the importance of managing, engineering, and molding the human imagination” (142).  These companies and others are instances of a global religion, reflected in their symbolic and material negotiations over humans.

Transatlantic religion, the interplay of Christianity and cults between America and Africa, notes requirements for membership in societies, ritual acts of sacrifice, millenarian movements, pilgrimages and other cultural exchanges.

Shamanic religion is represented in modern New Age spirituality, the Yaqui shaman don Juan Matus, the Zulu Credo Mutwa, alien visitors and many others, often with African connections and depicted shamelessly on countless web sites.

Virtual religion may often seem to be obvious fake.  However, “fraudulence or authenticity is very difficult to determine” (191) and each may produce real effects upon people.  For as William James noted, religion is a way of thinking and always signifies a serious state of the mind (212).

Chidester’s final chapter includes a note on the “global ambivalence toward America, combining fascination with a popular culture and repulsion from its global politics” (214).  Americans have, on the one hand, visions of a manifest destiny, but on the other hand, are a pluralistic society that allows all kinds of ways of imagining what America is really like.  Regardless, religion “permeates American popular culture” (230) and its influences are “diffused in uncontrollable, unpredictable ways through the media of popular culture” (231).

The main strength of Fake Religion is the author’s broad overview of what is perceived as religion in America, with many illustrations and examples.  As he notes, in America religion shows up everywhere.  The book’s weakness lies in the author’s unwillingness or inability to contrast a fake religion with a real one, if he would grant that there is such a thing.  Is religion is a continuum of beliefs, all of them, in one sense or another, fake in our popular culture?

The book lacks rigor in classifying religions, where cults fit in, and why outlandish examples of weird practitioners are given so much space.  It is an entertaining book but it is also disturbing: Does Chidester accurately report what religion in American popular culture is really like?  If so, it may not bode well for the future of authentic Christianity in America.