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Sensational Devotion

Evangelical Performance in Twenty-First-Century America

Jill C. Stevenson

Publication Year: 2013

In Sensational Devotion, Jill Stevenson examines a range of evangelical performances, including contemporary Passion plays, biblical theme parks, Holy Land re-creations, creationist museums, and megachurches, to understand how they serve their evangelical audiences while shaping larger cultural and national dialogues. Such performative media support specific theologies and core beliefs by creating sensual, live experiences for believers, but the accessible, familiar forms they take and the pop culture motifs they employ also attract nonbelievers willing to “try out” these genres, even if only for curiosity’s sake. This familiarity not only helps these performances achieve their goals, but it also enables them to contribute to public dialogue about the role of religious faith in America. Stevenson shows how these genres are significant and influential cultural products that utilize sophisticated tactics in order to reach large audiences comprised of firm believers, extreme skeptics, and those in between. Using historical research coupled with personal visits to these various venues, the author not only critically examines these spaces and events within their specific religious, cultural, and national contexts, but also places them within a longer devotional tradition in order to suggest how they cultivate religious belief by generating vivid, sensual, affectively oriented, and individualized experiences.

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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p. C-C

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: Evangelical Performative Culture

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pp. 1-23

Mel Gibson’s 2004 blockbuster film The Passion of The Christ not only created a media storm, but the popularity of this film among Christians, and particularly evangelical Christians, took many people by surprise. In the months before and immediately following its premiere, articles about the film dominated the mainstream press.1 This discourse engaged many important...

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1/ Embodied Belief, Affective Piety, and Evangelical Dramaturgy

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pp. 24-49

The performative genres I study in this book both reflect and engender religious belief. I argue that they accomplish this, in great measure, through what I call evangelical dramaturgy, a system of performative tactics designed to manipulate the physical, rhythmic encounter between user and medium. As Simon Shepherd contends, because performances are...

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2/ Energetic Enactments of Jesus

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pp. 50-69

As with all dramaturgical systems, evangelical dramaturgy’s tactics promote certain ways of seeing or experiencing the world. In the previous chapter, I argued that evangelical dramaturgy shapes the rhythmic points of contact between medium and user in order to create resonant and commodifiable experiences. Those experiences orient the believer-user’s religious self-discovery through certain conceptualizations of representation and religious ...

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3/ “Behold the Lamb” : Passion Playing, Intermediality, and the Gibson Affect

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pp. 70-97

Claire Sponsler’s work on Passion playing reveals the vexed history of this performance tradition in the United States. Publicly marketed, commercial Passion plays staged in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often faced resistance. For example, Sponsler describes how an 1879 performance of Salmi Morse’s...

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4/ The “Great Passion Play” and Evangelical Blends

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pp. 98-127

The “Great Passion Play” is staged annually from May through October, five nights a week, in the Ozark Mountains of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. As the program explains, the production is modeled “in form and function” after the famous Passion play in Oberammergau, Germany, “to involve the local community to glorify God.”1 The two-hour play is performed on an open-air three-story-tall permanent set that is the size of two football fields.2 This set...

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5/ The Creation Museum as Engaged Orthodoxy

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pp. 128-161

Articles in popular media outlets have not only raised awareness about the $27 million Creation Museum, but such press coverage has also imbued the venue with important symbolic value. In a sense, the museum functions as a kind of shorthand—a codeword for conservative Christianity or an emblem of political divisions within U.S. culture and politics generally.1 Like the ...

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6/ Megachurches: Cultivating Affective Atmosphere

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pp. 162-227

In this final chapter I analyze the evangelical megachurch as a unique, highly visible, and incredibly persuasive performative genre. More specifically, I will demonstrate how each megachurch uses the strategies of evangelical dramaturgy to craft a synaesthetic space and worship experience that will reflect its specific “brand.” In his study of the evolutionary origins of religious...

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pp. 228-238

Throughout this project I attempted to understand U.S. evangelicalism by physically engaging its dramaturgy. I tried to open myself up to unfamiliar—sometimes uncomfortable—affective scripts in order to experience the felt solutions they are designed to offer and, thus, in Timothy Beal’s words, to find my way “into the other’s story.”1 None of the individual performative ...


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pp. 239-290


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pp. 291-306


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pp. 307-318

E-ISBN-13: 9780472029099
E-ISBN-10: 0472029096
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472118731
Print-ISBN-10: 0472118730

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 18 illustrations
Publication Year: 2013