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BOOK REVIEWS149 Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. By CoUeen McDanneU. (New Haven, Connecticut:Yale University Press. 1996. Pp. xii, 312. $35.00.) For too long, CoUeen McDanneU argues,American historians have thought of religion as the "sacred," the transcendent, the spiritual, set against the "profane," the everyday, the material, the commercial.This strict dichotomy, she contends, had blinded them to the wayAmerican Christians have continuaUy"scrambled" such categories, the sacred and the profane, the material and spiritual, by employing goods and artifacts, many of them purchased, in the practice of their faith. Even on the few occasions when historians have paid attention to reUgion 's material dimension, this rigid dichotomy, reinforced by inteUectuaI disdain for mass-produced objects, had led to odd distortions in the historical Uterature. McDanneU points out, for example, that we "know far more about the material environment of the Shakers—a community that tried to simplify their physical universe—than we do about that of Roman CathoUcs whose sacramental theology fuUy exploited the material world." CoUeen McDanneU's book is an attempt to address this long-neglected material dimension in American Christian history, to open up study of it by offering some theoretical arguments about how objects have functioned inAmerican religion and to iUustrate those arguments through six case studies. These case studies range widely over time and Christian denominations: the emergence of the family Bible as the centerpiece oftheVictorian parlor; the place of Christian imagery in the rural cemetery movement of the early nineteenth century; the devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes in late nineteenth-century American CathoUcism ; Catholic and Protestant debates over Christian art in the 1950's and 1960's; the meanings of sacred garments to contemporary Mormons; and the rise of Christian bookstores in modern America. These case studies are more than mere demonstrations of the importance of objects in American religious ltfe; they are each sophisticated analyses of how and why objects play such central roles in the religious life ofAmerican Christians .The research is thorough and imaginative, drawing on a wide variety of sources: the objects themselves, probate records, advertisements, oral history interviews, as weU as conventional sources ofmagazines, newspapers, and manuscripts . McDanneU, for example, uses Farm Security Administration photographs of rural workers' homes to show us not only what reUgious objects and artifacts average people owned, but also how they used them, where they placed them in their homes, and how they surrounded them with other objects and images: how, for example, images of saints were set next to photographs of family members, mixing heavenly patrons and earthly family together in a single communal network. Each section is also skillfuUy and powerfully argued and laden with provocative points and rich insights. In the section on Lourdes water, for example, McDanneU smartly synthesizes diverse historical and theological literature on subjects such as ancient traditions of water as a source of spiritual renewal and 150BOOK REVIEWS protection, the translation of reUcs, homeopathic medicine in the nineteenth century, and Catholic devotionaUsm to explain the spread of this devotion and its meaning for participants. In the course of her discussion, she also makes a number of teUing points of far-reaching importance for the history of Catholics in America. She notes, for example, that men as well as women participated enthusiasticaUy in the Lourdes devotion, raising questions about common characterizations of CathoUc devotionalism as female-dominated. Her discussion of debates over Christian art in the 1950's and 1960's is likely to be more controversial. She argues that these debates were fought out"within a binary aesthetic system shaped by cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity." Critics of the older, representational art of devotional CathoUcism, McDannell points out,frequently attacked it as sentimental, superficial, and thus "feminine," whUe they praised new, more abstract or hieratic art for its cleanliness and forceful simpUcity, or "masculine" power. McDanneU does not assume that this debate is only about gender (or about class which also seems to figure prominently in this controversy), but through her close examination of the language of the debate, she inteUigently uncovers the complexity of what previously may have seemed only a straightforward conflict between Uturgical "tradition" and "reform...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-0708
Print ISSN
0008-8080
Pages
pp. 149-150
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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