- The Making of Saints: Contesting Sacred Ground
Somewhere in the US, fans are tending to living room shrines built in honor of Elvis Presley. Self-described "Deaners" are planning trips to the Indiana hometown of idol James Dean. In Cuba, devotees of Che Guevara travel along a well-worn pilgrimage path, the "Way of Che." Call it cultism, idol worship, or even a form of religious observance—men and women throughout the world are engaged in modern updates of the age-old process of making saints.
A new anthology of essays, The Making of Saints: Contesting Sacred Ground, analyzes and theorizes the social functions and cultural politics of making, publicizing, and worshiping both historical and modern-day "saints." Though the essays cover a diverse, even eclectic range of idols—from Mexican folk saints to Thai kings to American pop singers—and acts of "worship" range from attending rock concerts to collecting memorabilia, they suggest one consistent, enduring dynamic that cuts across time and region. Political and cultural institutions may try and foist idols on the public, but such efforts inevitably fail if the "saint" does not resonate with popular values and collective social experience. Idols fulfill spiritual, emotional, or social functions for their worshipers, modeling culturally desirable traits, suggesting or inspiring connection to a higher power, and symbolically mediating tensions in times of social change.
Saint making is a fundamentally popular process, the authors suggest; it can also be viewed as religious. Despite both popular and scholarly resistance to labeling modern fandom as a religious practice, as popular culture scholar Erika Doss suggests in her essay "Popular Culture Canonization: Elvis as Saint and Savior," even Elvis fans, in their appropriation and use of the singer's image to address spiritual issues and create spiritual community, are [End Page 354] participating in "one strong historical form of American religiosity" (155). In fact, as anthropologist June Macklin writes in her piece on "Saints and Near Saints in Transition," the proliferation of celebrity cultures in modern times may be a response to popular skepticism of organized religion. In an atomized, therapeutically-oriented modern culture, particularly in the United States, celebrity "saints" fulfill practical, secular purposes—serving as role models, offering life advice—while their larger than life images and heroic life stories, often filled with themes of suffering, sacrifice, and triumph over adversity, provide, in a sense, connections to universal truths and transcendent realities.
The contributors, primarily from the field of anthropology, address a wide array of themes and questions, some more thoroughly than others. Why are some individuals selected for "sainthood"? How are they legitimized and popularized? What do devotees seek from their worship? In one of the most interesting pieces in the collection, "Desperately Seeking Something: Che Guevara as Secular Saint," anthropologist Phyllis Passariello analyzes the function of a single, widely reproduced image of Che Guevara—the famous "Korda" photograph of the leader with his "gaze fixed on some distant horizon and hair flowing out from beneath his army beret"—in the making of Che as a "culture hero" and "secular saint" (82). Passariello argues that the ubiquitous image has been used "not only to display devotion but also to legitimize and actually generate and intensify devotion" (87). The photograph, which transformed Che Guevara from "iconoclast to icon" and seems to powerfully mesmerize devotees, has become "real with a life of its own" (89). The image is perhaps more venerated than the man himself.
But why Che Guevara as a popular saint? Or for that matter, why Elvis? Doss suggests thst Elvis's hero status stems from his multifaceted image, which fans have imbued with many meanings, but does not elaborate on what those meanings might be. Hopgood takes up this question of popular appeal and audience identification in his essay comparing the respective "sainthoods" of the early twentieth century Mexican curer and folk saint Jose Fidencio and American actor James Dean. Despite the very different cultural contexts in which they lived, both men served similar functions in their societies, bridging...