A Reflection on Religion in American Culture

A religious phenomenon in American culture that I have observed many times — whether on paid programming on television, on television shows or news stories, or by word of mouth — is the mass assembly of Christians in front of motivational preachers with the intention of “saving” and “healing” believers through the power of Christ or the Lord. These processions can be seen on daytime television, paid for by independent churches to spread their message; they can be seen depicted in news stories or on television shows like The Simpsons or The X-Files. In these events, preachers or ministers are illustrated as conduits of God’s energy, capable of healing and protecting those that they touch.

These events can certainly be painted as religious according to several definitions. With Mircea Eliade’s model of religion, these mass assemblies can be viewed as an encounter with sacred. The preachers, priests, ministers, etc. distinguish themselves from the profane and show themselves as moral and pious. Their actions provide the “believers” with an experience of the sacred; those who experience being “saved” or “healed” lose control and are often gripped by emotion; the occurrence may often be described in no way besides feeling the “presence of the Lord” or the “hand of Christ.” These religious groups use these rituals to recreate the sacred for believers and to make encounters with the sacred a part of their lives.

The assembly of men for these religious experiences could also be dubbed religion as a cultural system. The preachers at these assemblies use a system of symbols — the presence of the Lord as an evident and tangible force, the preacher as a moral and spiritual leader capable of channeling God’s hand — among the other symbols of Christianity as a system, to establish “powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence.” The event provides an experience for believers so powerful that it instills a long-lasting mood and sense of religion within them and appears realistic enough to ensure comfort and belief by the masses.

The new definitions of religions regarding this phenomenon more or less reaffirmed my feelings. My view of religion — through rituals, myths, pilgrimages, places of worship, codes of morality, etc. — has never been limited to a dictionary definition or anything similarly rigid. I have always felt that most aspects of religion cannot be broken down into those terms. Virtually all aspects of religion in our world culture, as I see it, can be seen in the light of these new definitions. The “encounter with the sacred” is perceivably more evident in the case of the Christian healing and prayer ceremony, for instance, than in the prayer services of my childhood, which consisted of little more than reading from scripture and singing.

However, I have always viewed both instances as, at the very least, an attempt to have an “encounter with the sacred,” whether blatantly or subtly. Regarding religion as a cultural system, I am able to view religious aspects of life in a slightly new and different way. It helps to make sense of facets of religion (such as these Christian assemblies) regarding the motivation behind the beliefs and the sense of power and enduring mood, accompanied by facts and rationale that enable so-called believers to be a part of a greater order of things. These new definitions have given me a broader outlook regarding the faces of, and impetus behind, religion.

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