Rolsky on Lofton, 'Consuming Religion'

Kathryn Lofton
L. Benjamin Rolsky

Kathryn Lofton. Consuming Religion. Class 200: New Studies in Religion Series. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 352 pp. $29.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-226-48209-5; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-48193-7; $29.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-226-48212-5.

Reviewed by L. Benjamin Rolsky (Monmouth University)
Published on H-AmRel (November, 2017)
Commissioned by Bobby L. Smiley

Printable Version:

Theory and Practice in a Time of Precarity: Consuming Religion as the Study of Religion

I first met Kathryn Lofton in her Religion and Popular Culture class at Yale University in 2009. I had just arrived at Yale Divinity School the year before, and I was eager to take a course that suited my burgeoning research interests. First day of class, the room was packed. Standing room only for those who were late—a phenomenon many would quickly grow accustomed to. Lofton had also just arrived at Yale from Indiana University after a stint as a Research Scholar at Princeton’s Center for the Study of Religion, having previously been a Young Scholar in American Religion at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. Upon entering the room, she quickly took stock of the overflow and began introducing the class and its contents. Our first task was to analyze two different popular songs in real time—“Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin and a Killers song I can’t quite remember. The readings were difficult, and Lofton was a demanding reader of prose and argumentation, but in the end the class was nothing short of transformative. Case in point: her “object nomination” assignment gave us the opportunity to engage an object of popular culture (first-generation Beats headphones in my case) and the various ways consumers documented their purchases as part of the broader study of religion and the popular. This class not only introduced me to a diverse collection of readings in the study of religion and popular culture but, more importantly, demonstrated the significance of method and self-reflection in the academic study of religion broadly considered.

A semester later, I had the pleasure of taking Lofton again, this time in a co-taught seminar on American religious historiography with renowned American religious historian Harry Stout. The syllabus paired “classic” readings (Perry Miller, Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll, Harry Stout, and others) with more contemporary analyses and methodologies (such as John Lardas Modern’s “Evangelical Secularism and the Measure of Leviathan”[1]). We were also able to read early drafts of Lofton’s then forthcoming text on Oprah Winfrey (Oprah: Gospel of an Icon [2011]), which was based largely on the postscript of her dissertation, “Religion and Modernity, 2001 to the Present.”[2] At the time, much of this writing made very little sense to me. It didn’t seem to fit within any “discipline” or “training” that I was familiar with. It was only later, during a comprehensive exam on critical theory, that I finally realized what exactly Lofton was up to in her spellbinding excavations of our collective present. A few lines in particular continue to resonate with me.

“I have become increasingly concerned,” Lofton remarks in Oprah, “that in our scholarly ambition to translate our subjects—to, as the phrasing often goes, take our subjects seriously—we have become sycophants to our subjects, reframing every act as an inevitably creative act.” Taking her methodological cue from philosopher Theodor Adorno, Lofton goes on to argue that our work is “a process of removing the mummy’s wraps, seeking instances of discursive production, the production of power, and the propagation of knowledge.”[3] What we talk about (document/measure/identify/describe) is oftentimes less important conceptually than how we investigate our subjects and for what scholastic purposes. For the sake of this review, I will describe Consuming Religion as the product less of a historian or scholar of religion (even though Lofton is both) and more of a cultural critic meditating on our continuing engagement with what can be understood, and described, as the modern.

In his back-cover blurb for the book, scholar of religion Robert Orsi declares that Consuming Religion reestablishes what he calls the “social critical voice of religious studies.” Building on this insight, Orsi goes on to say that Lofton’s mode of analysis is reminiscent of that of philosopher Walter Benjamin in her ability to write in a manner that is “learned, incisive, often revelatory; it is also deeply humane and compassionate.” Despite the clarity of Orsi’s words, we are nevertheless left wondering what exactly a “social critical voice” is, and more importantly, what it does within the broader study of religion as a humanistic enterprise. In my estimation, this type of critical voice, perhaps heard mostly clearly first in Lofton’s Oprah, has recently reemerged in the study of US American religions despite criticisms against its analytical efficacy. What Lofton explores is less analytically important than how she carries out her scholastic project in an age of increasing academic precarity.

Typical criticisms of this type of work have stemmed largely from those who identify as American historians, in particular those who feel (I’m guessing) either less comfortable or less conversant with the theoretical approaches applied to various studies of American religion and the popular. They also stem from those who defend the idea that “doing history” itself requires little to no “theory” or self-reflection in order to execute it properly. As Lofton herself has argued, this type of distinction makes little to no analytical sense. As a result, understanding Orsi’s description of Lofton’s work as representing a “social critical voice” is paramount to locating the significance of this text and the potential impact it will have on the field, or not. In fact, the degree to which the text is read outside of the discipline of religious studies will tell us much about how willing American religious historians are to engage such seemingly theoretical work. In this way, the text helps reveal the forms of intellectual disjuncture that currently exist between academic disciplines when it comes to the contemporary study of US American religions.

Understanding the analytical task of Consuming Religion has as much to do with its individual claims and contents as it does with its chosen method of execution. Lofton’s dissertation has as much to teach us about the current text under discussion as the text itself. This is largely by design, since Lofton’s method is the underlying thread that links her varied works and subjects together, from analyses of the ritual sacrifice of celebrity Britney Speaks to the creation of “the Fundamentalist” to carefully crafted ethnographic excavations of Goldman Sachs and its employees. “Although previous historians have considered particular strands of the explication, taking up specific denominational dilemmas or new religious movements,” Lofton explains, “this dissertation provides the first study to present this discourse [of the modern] as a pattern across traditions” (emphasis added). “I follow how religious people define their age, how they describe the present crisis, and, most importantly, how they encapsulate all of this talk into their conceptions of ‘the modern.’”[4] The only thing lacking from this otherwise elegant sentence is “the modern’s” proverbial other, religion. In my estimation, Consuming Religion certainly investigates the circuitous manifestations of neoliberal religion as Orsi suggests, but this is only one of its varied targets of academic analysis. Broadly speaking, the book also documents how individuals continue to negotiate themselves as both modern and religious subjects as understood through the most visible cultural resources of our less-than-settled times.

Lofton largely achieves this feat through both historical and social-critical methods. “Michel Foucault argued that the ‘first task’ of historians was to ‘fix the vocabulary.’ I borrow from Foucault ... and agree ... that the primary task of history is the analysis of discourses encompassing terms and ideas” (emphasis added). Rather than pursue continuity as one’s primary subject of investigation, Lofton argues, “historians should emphasize the locality of the term, the pointed placement of the subject, and the arrangement of the syntax” (p. 36). This type of social-critical approach combines fastidious attention to the historical record with a deep appreciation for the analytical insights of the archive, but it does not stop there. It also pursues questions of discursive constraint, epistemic uniformity, and rhetorical pattern across temporal and geographical scale. In this sense, Lofton’s work resembles David Harrington Watt’s most recent monograph, Antifundamentalism in Modern America (2017), insofar as she pursues how historically produced scholastic categories reflect the intellectual tendencies of their makers.

For Watt, antifundamentalism can be best understood as a “set of shifting heterogeneous conversations” that both reflects its human creators and exceeds their linguistic capacities.[5] Our collective pursuits of religion and the modern can be understood in two forms: according to particular times and places, and as patterns of rhetorical engagement, articulation, and description authored by the likes of Britney, Kim Kardashian, and even Oprah. “To imagine that I managed Billy Sunday is to ignore how Billy Sunday managed me,” Lofton contends in her dissertation. “Historians aren’t stoic managers of cold data; they are co-conspirators with their subjects, borrowing inflection and emboldening inference.”[6] As Orsi observes, Lofton’s subject material may indeed be “neoliberal religion,” but it is even more substantive than that; continuing the work first drafted in her dissertation, Lofton’s subject material is arguably the same as it has ever been—that is “reactions to and constructions of the modern” as an expression of the study of religion itself.[7] 

Organized around five thematic foci including “Practicing Commodity,” “Imagining Celebrity,” and “Rethinking Corporate Freedom,” Consuming Religion illustrates how Lofton pursues her multifaceted subjects through the idiom of the cultural critic, yet she does so with the intellectual agenda of both the historian and scholar of religion. Her argumentative strategy resembles that of Benjamin or Adorno, but her scholastic toolbox includes close readings of primary texts, abstracted observations about category formation, and deep ethnographic insight. Such analytical eclecticism is further evidence of Lofton’s larger critical method, which as philosopher James Bohman illustrates concerning the practice of critical theory itself (through an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), combines “rather than separate[s] the poles of philosophy and the social sciences: explanation and understanding, structure and agency, regularity and normativity.”[8] The social critic approaches her subject in this manner because of the larger purpose of her scholastic enterprise, which Lofton arguably shares through her own composition, less a monograph, and more a collection of meditations on various cultural objects that weave convincing narratives of spiritual efficacy in a neoliberal key. In this sense, Lofton’s task is a practical or critical one. Here her “social critical” voice investigates the transformation of consumers into the consumed through their respective choices in the market. In short, Lofton’s work seeks to answer the question, “What do I become through consumption?” (p. viv). The short answer? A subject who is both religious and modern through her own set of purchases.

The tone of Lofton’s introductory chapter (titled “Being Consumed”) beautifully illustrates many of the text’s larger analytical aspirations. In fact, one could argue that this particular chapter establishes the methodological parameters for Lofton’s overall analysis. Lofton is purposeful in identifying the three most common historiographic modes of scholarly analysis when it comes to religion and popular culture (namely, lamentation, chronicle, and panegyric), yet her own rendering of “religion” reflects more recent calls by such scholars of American religion as Finbarr Curtis and Tracy Fessenden to foreground the category’s tendency to entrap and thus flatten the diversity it attempts to describe. While Lofton acknowledges the conceptual malleability of religion in the public square on behalf of either the marginalized or the all powerful, she ultimately decides to emphasize its binding or ensnaring capacities relative to its participants. “Whenever we see dreams of and for the world articulated, whenever we see those dreams organized into legible rituals, schematics, and habits,” Lofton argues, “we glimpse the domain that the word religion contributes to describe” (p. 3).

Compared to more fine-grained, lived religion approaches that tend to lean on the improvisational capacities of its subjects to demonstrate the vitality of American religion, Lofton’s approach prefers to oscillate between “control and freedom” in hopes of capturing religion for her own scholarly purposes: “to crack open the value of religion as a word that captures certain outlines for human framing” (p. 2). Not only does this allow Lofton to expand the subject matter typically associated with studies of American religion to include popular culture and mass society, but it also opens up space to examine religion’s complicity in larger projects of interpellation. “Religion is a word that helps identify the necessary simultaneity of feasible and implausible claims of consumerism, since the history of religion has long recorded the ways religions work, not despite their conjunctions of opposites but because of them,” Lofton contends. “This, too, is the brilliance of consumer culture, in which so much imprisonment is labeled your deliverance” (p. 5). In light of this analytical emphasis, it is not surprising that Lofton considers religion to be both liberating and constraining, but more importantly, her larger purpose is yet again a critical one, namely, to “work for the revolution of real consciousness to begin” (p. 12).

Not only are Lofton’s definitions of religion alone worth the price of admission to this text, but they should also remind us of previous studies that chose to foreground religion’s less-than-liberative characteristics within the field of American religion. In 1969, American Quarterly published historian Donald G. Mathews’s “The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process, 1780-1830: An Hypothesis.”[9] Like Lofton, Mathews thought it was more productive analytically to engage and interpret nineteenth-century evangelicalism according to its organizing capacities compared to its assumed democratic fervor. For scholar of religion Charles Long, the notion of religion also functions in both methodological directions simultaneously. “On the one hand, religion may be seen as an opening to and discovery of a new order of reality, and, on the other hand, it may be seen as a serious exercise in the control of human experience.”[10] Over the course of its eleven chapters (with nine out of the eleven being previously published in different iterations), Consuming Religion convincingly demonstrates the benefits of holding such analytical opposites in tension with one another as the reader traverses the various landscapes of American popular culture from Netflix to the Kardashians to the all-but-invisible corporate structures of the multinational finance company Goldman Sachs.

In other words, Consuming Religion is not purely historical, theoretical, or cultural in its analytical execution. Its strength as an edited collection manifests most strongly through its method of analysis across scale and academic subject matter. For example, she “seek[s] to use history to think about how we come to the specific patterns of sociality we possess and to what extent this sociality is usefully understood alongside religion” (p. 6). In this case, the author investigates a subject that can certainly be tracked over time, yet it can also be approached from within a particular moment in time based on its sociological context and socioeconomic conditioning (hence the subtitle of the first chapter, “Social Life in Extremity”). Through the critical study of American popular culture, Lofton blends qualitative methods from both the humanities and social sciences in order to properly adjudicate religion’s function within an ascendant neoliberal culture through the various wares of American mass media.

As a result, Lofton’s subject matter ranges from binge watching television to going to work in a cubicle to reflecting on the transaction that takes place between celebrity and idol worshipper once the celebrity begins to fall from grace. This archival eclecticism reminds us of one of Lofton’s most compelling points: namely, that consumption itself, regardless of its content, defines our contemporary mode of the religious as moderns. Due to such methodological assumptions, the specific content of Lofton’s analyses, which vary tremendously in Consuming Religion, is ultimately less valuable than how the analyses actually unfold upon the page. While Lofton certainly introduces new content to the field by talking about the corrosive social effects of reality television and the ubiquity of family as a self-describing category in American public life, she more importantly models a critical approach to the study of religion itself that is less interested in the particularities of the historical record (despite Lofton’s deft use of close reading and description), and more concerned with how academics identify their respective subject matter and for what scholastic purposes. In other words, “Why this archive? What does it illuminate for me?”

In the chapter titled “Do Not Tamper with the Clues: Notes on Goldman Sachs,” Lofton makes use of ethnographic insights to convey the ways in which Goldman Sachs reproduces itself according to a particular rendering, and thus understanding of “culture.” The word “notes” in the title also alerts us to Lofton’s use of ethnography within the larger chapter as a way of accessing her particular subject matter, which in this case is extremely protected from public view—not unlike those who reside in the academy. Within this last and perhaps most original section of Consuming Religion on American religion and corporate life, Lofton relies on both synchronic and diachronic modes of analysis to achieve her interpretive goals. You can often tell when this takes place in the text because the author will begin narrating her process in hopes (I’d guess) of making our collective work as scholars more transparent to our various academic constituencies and popular audiences (you can, after all, purchase your own copy at Target). In most cases, Lofton relies on the discipline of history (not unlike anthropology before) for its ability to narrate her analyses according to a longer historical record and a particular description of an archive.

Lofton is keenly interested in various theoretical notions of “death,” for example, yet she is also quite compelled by particular instances “of death,” or dying, in a given religio-cultural context. “In the space remaining,” Lofton remarks, “I will consider the history by which business and religion intertwine, as well as the form of individuality that corporate life produces” (p. 204). This analytical blending, or dialectical sensibility, allows Lofton not only to investigate her subjects historically according to a particular time but also to step outside that time to consider other renderings of various categories under investigation, including “religion,” “culture,” and “the body.” Drawing again on the work of Foucault, Lofton argues persuasively that the study of religion should unfold according to “the relationship between the body and its terming.” For her, “it was in this classificatory space that Foucault believed the history of sexuality was found: the space where the body’s concept, movement, and transformation were formatted to service ritual prescription, social schematics, and institutional power” (p. 66). Regardless of the given chapter under review, Lofton’s method stays relatively the same throughout Consuming Religion: to investigate critically how individuals both produce ideas about religion and are therefore organized around such ideas as a product of religion’s descriptive power.

Despite this methodological consistency across the collection as a whole, there are times when the measured, analytical voice gives way to a less stable mode of scholarly articulation, the normative. We explicitly encounter this register in both the body of the text and the all-important endnotes because it is intimately connected to Lofton’s “social critical voice” as first alluded to by Orsi. Although we do not encounter the following quote until the last chapter of the collection, it nevertheless captures the analytical thrust of Consuming Religion as a work of critical theory and analysis. “The question at the end of this chapter is not whether Goldman Sachs is good or bad, or if modern universities are working or not,” Lofton contends. “The question is whether we have done as much as we can to resist the smoother surfaces handed to us by each of them. Humanistic thinking has been a place for such resistance, a place where surfaces are exposed as such. It should still be” (p. 244). Interpreted in this analytical light, Lofton’s intellectual contribution to the field of religious studies in general, and American religious history in particular, is to remind us of our ability to be critical as scholars of the humanities in a world otherwise defined by the fraudulent. For example, Apple has produced over 1 billion iPhones since by 2007. The current population of the earth is 7.6 billion people. There is arguably no smoother of a surface, in both content and form, than the iPhone and its nearly ubiquitous existence on planet earth. While Lofton may not literally be referring to such a surface in her analyses, it is most certainly one of the most nefarious and corrosive sources of humanity’s anti-enlightenment disposition in the most modern of ages. As a result, I take the gravity of her claims extremely seriously, and very much applaud the strength and tenor of her arguments, but I nevertheless wonder.

“My hope,” Lofton admits in an endnote, “is that anyone who latches on to this claim for religion realizes quickly that the normative is buried in every descriptive venture; defining the distinction between the two has been a tediously unrevelatory argumentative venture.” This set of observations has very little to disagree with, obviously so in fact, yet the subsequent sentences cut right to heart of the matter. “You may not like my normative turn. But in order to argue against it, your recourse will not be to description. And so,” she contends, “we enter the inevitable and important naming of stakes. Let us do so” (296n3). I take Lofton’s call to be a very intentional one, an outgrowth of her larger critical agenda when it comes to the study of the smooth surfaces of the world around us. Luckily, the subject matter of the critical theorist can quite literally be the world itself, from the slanted table that sits in your faculty lounge, to the smudged glass that encases various items from the “world’s religions,” to the glossy cover image of the latest tabloid magazine sitting innocently next to the checkout line at the grocery store. This tradition of analysis is quite common to those familiar with the writings of Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Theodor Adorno whose collective writings serve as the example par excellence of how best to deploy critical theory in the name of demystifying that which has receded from view, or otherwise been assumed as part of one’s daily environment. While her first book leaned on many of these approaches in field-defining fashion, Consuming Religion can be best understood as the culmination of Lofton’s work on the subject of religion in modernity as voiced through a social-critical idiom of analysis.

“It will be quickly clear,” Lofton admits in the introduction, “that I seek something more activist than discursive critique. I want scholars, thinkers, students, and citizens to imagine what work they might make religion do for them to organize the world other than how it has been organized” (p. 4). Lofton’s emphasis on organization blends seamlessly with her own understanding of religion itself, which as she persuasively argues is always remaking its subjects, oftentimes before those same subjects are able to deploy it on their own behalves. This dynamic is ultimately a two-way street: certain ideas about religion exist in the world, and in time individuals organize themselves around those very same ideas. This approach also perfectly encapsulates Lofton’s application of both humanistic and social science methods in her treatment of religion and the modern; in short, she investigates how ideas become manifest through their respective social structures, corporate or otherwise. It also identifies the predominant mode of religious or spiritual behavior within the confines of modernity—which is, for her, consumption.

We may all be consuming this text for the foreseeable future in order to understand better its claims, but we are also, at the same time, being consumed by it and its various methodological seductions. Lofton’s willingness to speak to her readers as they consume her writing speaks powerfully to her larger agenda: to equip individuals with the skills necessary to resist the various iridescent surfaces around them, often of their own choosing. On this point, how are we to decide what structures to make for ourselves in such a divided and divisive time? While religion can often come to the defense of its practitioners over and against the regulatory state, it can also be deployed to reinforce hierarchy and unjust socioeconomic conditions through that very same state apparatus. When social media threatens to envelope humanity whole, as snark and condescension continue to saturate our public life and ability to deliberate with one another, what exactly are our stakes as humanists in such a world? Are we to closely examine this dynamic in hopes of alerting its users before it’s too late? Are we willing to subject our own collective guild to such critical questioning when it comes to its hegemonic structures and complicity in reproducing a system that exploits the least of these in the name of financial security and solvency?

In light of these questions and the prose style of the collection overall, I would direct a series of questions in particular to Lofton if I could: For you, what would you say are your stakes for Consuming Religion as positioned within the heart of the Ivy League? While you’ve addressed this question elsewhere on another occasion as “an agent of diversity,”[11] does this book address any dimension of diversity and its representation in the academy? Such as gender, race, or class? In many ways, this text does indeed address such things because it does not reduce them down to a particular manifestation of “race” and/or “gender.” Based on the chapter titles alone, however, there is very little to do with race explicitly in the text. To me, while these critiques are certainly valid, they are certainly not the most important questions to consider in light of such a powerful analytical text. While Antonio Gramsci serves as a valuable resource when thinking about social structures and hegemony in this regard, there is no analytical reason to prefer him over someone like Adorno simply because Gramsci “stopped his education early to engage more deeply with the political problems of his day.”[12] After all, if Gramsci had decided not to take part in such work, would he have become a “traditional, or institutionalized,” intellectual instead?

If anything, Lofton’s conference observations, along with the current text under review, embody the aptly described humanistic project at work: to empower individuals to take control of their own managerial agency in an effort to structure their respective lives according to their own predilections. However, if we are to follow the “technicians from the working class” as part of an organic embodied practice, then wouldn’t that mean taking seriously the accusations and analyses of “the working class” as articulated and described in The New York TimesThe Atlantic, or Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Lands: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016) as more than simply racist diatribes (which they certainly are at times, if not most times)? Answering the question of “what’s next?” (or alternatively, as some have recently asked in a Social Science Research Council online roundtable, “Is this all there is?”[13]) is most certainly a daunting one as Lofton rightly admits in her argument. Does Consuming Religion offer us a way forward in this regard? To me, the answer is a resounding yes, but for a very particular purpose: to decide how to write now as part of determining what to do next. If this text is any indication of an answer to these questions, and if Orsi’s observation is more accurate than not, then the following words authored by philosopher Max Horkheimer should be able to point us in a productive direction. “The real social function of philosophy lies in its criticism of what is prevalent. That does not mean superficial fault-finding with individual ideas or conditions.... The chief aim of such criticism is to prevent mankind from losing itself in those ideas and activities which the existing organization of society instills into its members.”[14]

Long live consumption.


[1]. John Lardas Modern, “Evangelical Secularism and the Measure of Leviathan,” Church History 77, no. 4 (December 2008): 801-876.

[2]. Kathryn Lofton, “Religion and Modernity, 2001 to the Present,” in “Making the Modern in Religious America, 1870-1935” (PhD diss., University of North Carolina, 2005), 230-243.

[3]. Kathryn Lofton, Oprah: Gospel of an Icon (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 16, 14.

[4]. Lofton, “Making the Modern in Religious America,” 13.

[5]. David Watt, Antifundamentalism in Modern America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017), xiii.

[6]. Lofton, “Making the Modern in Religious America,” 238.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. James Bohman, “Critical Theory,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Fall 2016 ed., essay published March 8, 2005,

[9]. Donald G. Mathews, “The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process, 1780-1830: An Hypothesis,” American Quarterly 21, no. 1 (Spring 1969): 23-43.

[10]. Charles Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (Aurora, CO: Davies Group, 1999), 194.

[11]. Kathryn Lofton, “What We Do, How We Do It: Categories and Interpretation” (panel title, 5th Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture, Indianapolis, Indiana, June 4, 2017). 

[12]. Ibid.

[13]. “Is This All There Is?” online roundtable, Social Science Research Council

[14]. Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory: Selected Essays (New York: Continuum, 1972), 264.

Citation: L. Benjamin Rolsky. Review of Lofton, Kathryn, Consuming Religion. H-AmRel, H-Net Reviews. November, 2017.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.