Orthodoxy and Popular Culture

The Orthodox Forum in 2011 was on Orthodoxy and popular culture is about to be published. My article contains much of the material discussed in my blog posts from Fall 2010 and early 2011, such as cruise ship religion and the disneyfication of American religion. The embedding of Orthodoxy in popular culture has changed traditional religion more than all the ideological topics that people debate about. Because of the topic, I intentionally had a good time with the project. This final version is 51 pages! You can print it out as a fitting reading as everyone begins their long weekend of popular culture – BBQ, picnics, swimming, fireworks, and amusement parks. Below are parts of the opening paragraphs and outline.

The Emerging Popular Culture and the Centrist Community-Alan Brill

I have been asked to comment on the role of popular culture in contemporary modern Orthodoxy in light of the current research by social scientists and cultural critics. This paper should serve as an introduction to the current literature on the topic along with a few descriptive observations. That being said, the views in this work should not to be taken as sociological generalizations. A quantified survey would be needed to start the process of analysis.Studies of the approach to popular culture in our current individual communities as well as historical communities in Italy, Eastern Europe, and Germany are a desideratum for showing not just the official ideologies but also actual lived practice.

This paper will ultimately suggest that the changes in society have definitely changed the conceptual framework. Popular culture is considered intrinsic to a particular community, regardless of size, and thus should not be viewed as an external or deviant activity. This notion relates to both high and low culture in complex ways.
1. By stating brief, starting definitions of high, middlebrow, and low culture, there will be a clear distinction between terms.
2. T he contributions of Michel de Certeau, John Fiske, and Gordon Lynch are crucial in the creation of the concept of popular culture. This section explains that Torah is not something separate from popular culture but rather that Torah becomes popular culture, and vice versa.
3. T he contributions of Nancy Ammerman and Skye Jethani show the combination of suburbia, life, and popular culture, thus creating Torah suburbia. If the Centrist community has defined itself as requiring earning in the top 6 percent of U.S. income, then to fulfill one’s “station and its duties” as part of upper-middle-class suburbia, one becomes part of popular culture and consumerism.
4. T he contribution of Pierre Bourdieu to current concepts of social distinction and what it means for the Centrist Torah community. Bourdieu’s followers, namely Annette Lareau and Ann Swidler, offer insight into the upper-middle-class concepts of parenting, schooling, and everyday life.
5. T he biggest change has been in the rise and advancement of technology. We look at generation theory to explain to the older audience the role of the new media for both Generation Y and Generation
6. T here has been a change to culture in our era of postsecularization, globalization, and spirituality. We now say that religion is immanent within society. Charles Taylor and Robert Wuthnow define the theory of secularism as having a religion immanent in one’s own life as a personal “meaning and moral order.” Among the changes are pop culture forms of religion, which serve a dramaturgical function and contribute to the widespread defining and experiencing of religion vis-à-vis music and art.
7. This turn toward meaning and moral order has led to the success of evangelicals and Orthodoxy. This leads to a discussion of Christian rock and Oprah as showing the religious uses of music, TV, and prosperity gospel. Religion itself is part of popular culture and serves the needs of spirituality and certainty.
8. We turn to H. Richard Niebuhr and Christian Smith to answer: How do we conceptualize religion and culture? Has the turn to religion changed our American culture?
9. Concluding observations. What is the relationship between Centrism and popular culture?
10. A personal coda on high culture.

3 responses to “Orthodoxy and Popular Culture

  1. I finally finished reading the article this week.

    I am curious why other ‘Orthodox’ Jewish cultures were not mentioned if only in a comparative framework. In particular I am curious how the American urban Centrist Orthodox communities relationship with popular culture compares to:
    1) American Yeshivish communities
    2) American, Hasidic, Yiddish speaking communities
    3) Israeli Dati L’Umi Communities

    • I was not asked in the original questions. There are starting questions for the speakers and they are usually provincial and with begged premises. It would be fun to do.
      I am doing another one for next year and when I asked about including your categories one and three, they answered that they are flying in experts for #3 so dont cover Israel and #1 is not my mandate from the organizers. So it goes…

  2. I read this over shabbos and it hit home with me. My wife, however, was offended by your use of the term “centrist” – she thinks Passaic is “center”, not Teaneck (and certainly not Riverdale)!
    Another comment I would make is that in some cases what you are describing is the success of the Yetzer Hara, it isn’t something we officially consider acceptable

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