Andrew M. Greeley's 'God in Popular Culture'
a book review by Mike Nichols
It might be tempting to dismiss Andrew Greeley's recent book, 'God in Popular Culture', as trivial. It would be a bad mistake. Yet I can see at least three reasons for making it. First, by now Greeley is known to most people as that Catholic priest who writes those shockingly sexy best-sellers like 'The Cardinal Sins'. Second, although this particular book is non- fiction, it is written in a breezy style and aimed at a general audience. And third, it is an attempt to wrest some theology out of the glitz of pop culture -- from rock lyrics to horror fiction.
On reflection, none of these criticisms seem good enough. Long before Greeley became known as a writer of fiction, he was better known as an inventive sociologist, who is particularly adept at wielding statistical surveys. And as for targeting a popular market for a book on theology, I have always contended that God-talk should not be confined to theologians. Normal people seem to enjoy doing it, and often surprise themselves at just how well they do it. And finally, examining pop culture for its theological content may seem glib, but I would suggest that Greeley has struck a new vein. And it is a rich one, despite its unfamiliarity. In short, this is a surprisingly good book.
But then, I've learned to expect surprises from Greeley. I first encountered his non-fiction in 'TV Guide'. His article was, believe it or not, a DEFENSE of televangelism. I figured that only St. Jude himself patron of hopeless causes) could pull that one off. Yet, by the time I had read it, I felt I understood the reasons for televangelism, and I was almost willing to concede the NEED for it. All this from a man who is anything BUT a televangelist. (His liberal stance on birth control and other matters has often put him at loggerheads with the Vatican.)
The opening chapters of 'God in Popular Culture' discuss the importance of creative imagination to religious experience. Greeley demonstrates its role in both 'primitive' nature religions and the 'great' world religions. The connections seem so obvious that I couldn't help wondering why I hadn't seen this discussed before! (Maybe people would become too confused about the part played by creative imagination vs. divine revelation?) From there, he moves into a discussion of religious symbolism, especially the Pagan nature symbols that were taken over by Catholicism.
And he concludes these opening chapters with the the most important observation that Catholic children are steeped in 'analogical' thinking, whereas Protestant children are raised with 'dialectical' thinking. The difference is that the analogical process allows Catholics to see the natural world, even at its most sensual, as sacred, as a metaphor of God. That is why the Catholic church revels in altar candles, incense, religious painting and statuary. That is why the Catholic church does not hesitate to adapt Pagan symbolism and holidays. The Protestant dialectical mind-set, however, sees God as totally apart from ('above') the natural world. This has yielded the tenacious Puritan strain that runs through so much of non-Catholic Christianity. Yes, you can find exceptions to the rule, but I think the broad generalization would be hard to refute.
And to drive the point home, Greeley then shows how artists and entertainers from a Catholic background tend to demonstrate this analogical spirit, which is sensual and earthy, more than their Protestant counterparts. Whether discussing the blue-collar, New Jersey background of Bruce Springsteen, or the family-oriented Mexican heritage of Linda Ronstadt, or the sensual Italian background of Madonna, Greeley finds the theology in their work. Sometimes that theology is explicit (as in Woody Allen's films) and sometimes not (as in Anne McCaffrey's writings). But he does not impose his own ideas on their work. In fact, he often interviews the artists themselves, asking specifically about their religious views. (Stephen King is particularly intriguing.)
Not that all the chapters are equally strong. (Greeley seems to be such a staunch fan of mystery writer Ellis Peters that he spends more time on plot summaries than on the analysis.)
Yet other chapters deserve special commendation. The essay on Madonna alone is worth the price of the book! In it, he brilliantly analyzes sexuality (and indeed, all sensuality) as a vehicle for the sacred. He defends Madonna from both the criticism of stuffy prelates who object to the lyrics of 'Like A Virgin' (and the crucifix she habitually wears between her breasts!) as well as from the criticism of radical feminists, who object to her overt sexuality. And in doing so, he shows exactly why radical feminism has failed, i.e. due to its rejection of the sacramental aspect of sexuality. In Greeley's view, Madonna is, as she herself contends, more a true feminist than many of her critics. The essay is a tour de force in re-thinking feminism.
I was also quite taken with the chapter dealing with fantasy writers like Katherine Kurtz, David Eddings, Stephen Donaldson, Orson Scott Card, and others. In fact, Greeley himself is a fantasy author ('The Magic Cup') and shows exceptionally keen insight when analyzing worlds of wonder. He contends that his Irish background gives him a slight edge in this realm, and his awareness of his own Celtic roots extends to his habit of referring to God as 'She'. He also takes a look at science fiction writers such as Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Larry Niven; Western writers like Louis L'Amour; and spy novel writers like John LeCarre.
As a pantheist, I am used to finding God in some unusual places. But Greeley has found Her in places I had not thought to look. And if you're at that point in your spiritual journey where you'd like to know where else God hangs out, besides church, then this book is just the ticket.
Document Copyright © 1988, 2003 by Mike Nichols.