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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World” by Tara Isabella Burton

Published Thursday, November 5, 2020 By Joseph Minich

Almost 40% of young Millennials are religiously unaffiliated (2). But, argues Tara Isabella Burton, this does not mean that they are not religious. The latter is not a particularly remarkable claim, of course. Many books have been written about post-Christian Western spirituality, and even about the “religion” of the godless. It would be a shame if Strange Rites were lost in that pile. What sets Burton’s tome apart is the remarkable competence of the author in multiple disciplines, the breadth of the author’s curiosity, and the manner in which Burton illuminates an enormous variety of phenomena in a synoptic way (the mark of a good hypothesis). In short, Strange Rites is the tale “of how more and more Americans…envision themselves as creators of their own bespoke religions, mixing and matching spiritual and aesthetic and experiential and philosophical traditions” (10).

This “religion of emotive intuitive” is tailor-made for “a new generation of Americans raised to think of themselves both as capitalist consumers and as content creators” (2). As such, “they want to choose—and more often than not, purchase—the spiritual path that feels more authentic, more meaningful to them” (10). Crucially, it is impossible to imagine these “Remixed religions” without grasping the communications revolution that is the Internet (11). These claims are fleshed out in the book’s nine chapters.

In the first three chapters, Burton helps the reader taxonomize contemporary religion while getting a handle on the historical context(s) that have given rise to it. Under the label of “Remixed” are placed the ever-increasing “spiritual but not religious,” “faithful Nones,” and “religious hybrids.” The second category refers to those who may have some quasi-religious practices and sentiments, but who do not conceive of themselves in religious terms. “Hybrids” are those who might have a foot in some traditional religious context, but whose actual practices and beliefs are idiosyncratic and personalized to their sentiments (a practice that is ordinary, rather than scandalous, against the backdrop of an internet culture where the self is increasingly a matter of crafting a distinctive brand).

Of course, to talk about the “religion” of this (probably) half of America (25), one must define what they mean by the term. Drawing upon Durkheim and others, Burton argues that whatever we call “religion” fulfills the four elements of 1. giving meaning to what is confusing, 2. a purpose in accordance with that meaning, 3. a community of persons with whom to co-labor in that purpose, and 4. a set of rituals by means of which one solidifies their personal and communal identity (29). But crucial to the author’s point concerning this new moment is that “while not every new religion described in this book fulfills all four criteria, they no longer have to: today’s mix-and-match culture means that the Remixed can get their sense of community from one place…and their sense of meaning from another” (32). Nevertheless, each is a manifestation of what Burton calls “intuitional religion.”

But, of course, “intuitional religion” is not new as such. Burton’s survey of the history of American religion is illuminating on this front, but three factors (she argues) set the modern variant of American religion apart and render it more liable to stick around than its predecessors: “the absence of wider demographic pressure, the power of consumer capitalism, and the rise of the Internet.” (53) By the first, Burton names the fact that alternative religious identities are more easily available and sustainable than they were in the past—a fact that has not been lost on (and in some ways has been cultivated by) the market. “Consumer capitalism, and the corporate takeover of the spiritual marketplace, has effected a kind of institutionalization of practices that, in previous decades, were primarily associated with the grassroots fringe” (58). But just as the market is not simply added onto but rather reshapes community “pressure,” so the internet is not simply added onto but reshapes the market. Specifically, internet culture has “encouraged us, as consumers with a cornucopia of options, to seek out, even demand, a creative role in designing our own experiences, including spiritual ones” (60).

Chapters four through seven, then, look at four “sites” at which we see elements of modern religion: The strange world(s) of Harry Potter fan-fiction, contemporary “wellness” culture, modern interest in magic and the occult, and recent trends in human sexual habits and values. Taking these in turn, it was in the world of fan-fiction, shows Burton, that modern cultural tribes were formed. Part of this is that the “Internet has given rise to a different kind of media culture: one that privileges the reader and the watcher with the ability to reimagine a story” (81). The desire for narrative control, however, quickly bequeathed internet tribalism where all consider it “the right of a fan to have their property of veneration look like them and reflect their values” (87). For Burton, such stories function as an alternative mythos—tailored to the individual, nevertheless linking them to a tribe, and all the while demanding nothing inconvenient.

In this, it is similar to the “wellness culture” that Burton goes on to describe, a $4.2 trillion dollar market of products that share some notion that “when we tap into and improve our person energy, we’ll have a more fulfilling life; not just because we’ll feel better, but because (by some metaphysical law) better things will happen to us” (95, 99). Not unlike several strands of American religion in the last two centuries, the modern variant nevertheless “combines moral relativism with a comforting veneer of metaphysical universalism: an inherently meaningful world where you can still, ethically, do whatever you want” (106).

In contrast to the focus on “self-care” among the wellness market, “witch culture turns its attention outward, toward the System it aims to bring down” (120-1). Burton shows that contemporary interest in witchcraft is largely mixed with emancipation from patriarchy, providing a transgressive alternative to (now, not just “personal” but) civilizational “toxins.” Contemporary “sexual utopianism,” finally, imagines the “fulfillment of the body and the soul as one and the same” (163). Traditional sexual mores are seen as limiting the freedom for self-fulfillment that is at the center of Remixed values.

Three movements, Burton argues in the last two chapters (and in the conclusion) have given institutional shape to modern Remixed religion. Two of these are more alike than the other. The social justice movement on the one hand, and the utopian (often transhumanist) face of Silicon Valley are both “fundamentally eschatological yet thoroughly materialist” (168). Both accept the sexual revolution and are suspicious of tradition, but one seeks redemption through the transformation of culture while the other seeks it through transcending the limitations of our embodied hardware. A third group, encompassing whatever we might call the “alt-right,” or “red-pill” movement, are “both the sworn enemies of most of the Remixed and completely Remixed themselves” (212). Uniting this loose association is a conservative or atavistic suspicion that contemporary progressivism is at odds with human nature and that human nature will triumph in the end. And yet what fuels and frustrates many of these groups are the cultural effects of the very internet culture that has also made such a movement (qua movement) possible. Burton ends,

“All three of these new faiths claim a powerful, transformative vision of the world, rooted not in transcendent meaning but in human thought, feeling, and will. The techno-utopians dream of a world in which we are all rendered optimally efficient machines, the social justice utopia of a liberated world, the atavists’ vision of a purifying cataclysm that will bring us beyond the tyranny of civilization altogether—all these are potential ends to the art of postliberal history. Only time will tell which one will win.” (246)

The virtue of Burton’s book is that it well captures the irreducible backdrop against which modern persons form religious identities. And for this reason, the author’s analysis has potential purchase in much that isn’t in this volume (where the examples skew bourgeois). One can surmise that if Burton had published this book just a year from now, there would possibly be a chapter on QAnon as an interesting “Remixed” religious phenomenon among the working class. More poignantly, to what extent are modern conservative movements products of contemporary culture? The internet has also seen a rebirth of all classical orthodoxies, giving many ideological minorities increasing sites of community that, while perhaps about traditional values, are nevertheless appropriated and defined over against a very modern backdrop. How different would the modern confessional Reformed world be without the internet? How often is theology tribal? And how often is the pursuit of theological knowledge instrumentalized for self-branding (and often self-flattering) reasons? It is crucial that we ask this, lest our own offering be as much a part of the zeitgeist as any other (even if in a conservative wrapping). Granted, we never know all things or get outside of our circumstance. But by God’s grace, we may still find Wisdom.

Joseph Minich (Ph.D, The University of Texas at Dallas), is a Teaching Fellow at The Davenant Institute. He is the author of Enduring Divine Absence.

  • Joseph Minich

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