Transcript of a ‘sermon’ given at Hertford College Chapel, Oxford, at the Choral Evensong service on 21st October, at the invitation of the College Chaplain, Gareth Hughes.
‘This evening I want to share a few thoughts with you about the boundaries between religious culture and secular culture, and whether the way these boundaries are conceived of is in need of reassessment, using some examples from some particular cases that I’ve just begun exploring.
The porousness between religious and secular culture was highlighted to me while doing my PhD at the University of Liverpool. I was writing my thesis on the cult of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux – the nineteenth-century Carmelite nun, known in the English-speaking world as ‘the Little Flower’, who was canonised in record time and has become one of the most popular saints of the modern Catholic Church. I was looking specifically at the representation of Thérèse, and the role that images of her had played in her cult (and when I say ‘cult’ here, it is meant in the wholly non-pejorative sense of a popular devotion). I also looked at the way that devotion to Thérèse had been actively promoted through devotional products and publications by her three biological sisters, all also nuns of the same community as Thérèse. This was a cultural history of the creation and commercial marketing of a new devotion, through which the everyday reality of the cult’s consumption by the faithful could be glimpsed.
I’d truly picked my moment to embark on this project, as in the third year of my PhD Saint Thérèse’s relics visited Britain for the first time, part of an almost constant world tour – what has been termed as a ‘kind of pilgrimage in reverse’ – that has been going on since 1995. She fetched up at Liverpool’s Catholic Cathedral in late September 2009, and heading down there from my office at the University on the afternoon of the arrival of the relics, I found a large crowd had already gathered. As the specially adapted vehicle that carries the relics – known as the ‘Thérèsemobile’ – arrived at the cathedral, people rushed forward to touch the casket (or rather the plexiglass dome that protects it) and two things were immediately evident. One, that Saint Thérèse enjoys a huge level of popular approval, and two, that this by no means meant that the relics visit was an occasion for sober and solemn reverence. As the relics were carried in winding procession up towards the main doors of the cathedral, the large crowd of people gathered on the raised terrace outside ran as one from one side of the terrace to the other to keep them in sight. Inside, the cathedral was packed to the rafters, and in his Evening Prayer homily, the Auxiliary Bishop, Vincent Malone, commented on the fact that the ‘physical remains of the actual body God gave [Thérèse], in which she served him…. [are] something that makes us feel very close to the person we honour’. Indeed, there was a palpable feeling of impatience to get ‘very close’ to Thérèse as people waited for the homily to finish so they could process before the relics. When it did finish, an alarmed usher made an appeal to calm, asking the assembled crowd to show patience ‘in the spirit of Saint Thérèse’, but there was still, to put it mildly, quite some competition to secure a place near the front of the queue to approach the relics. Having seen the level of excitement elicited by a French nun, some 110 years dead, I went away with much to consider about the relationship of the faithful to this religious personality and the way that this relationship had been played out that day.
While relics have an obvious importance in an incarnational faith, the rush to reach Thérèse during the relics visit to Liverpool had something else about it – the saint’s star quality was exerting a force here too. Saint Thérèse’s theology of the ‘little way’ – small, everyday acts of self-sacrifice as a path to spiritual perfection and closeness to god – saw her made a Doctor of the Church in 1997, and her theology has been of central importance to many people’s spiritual lives. But in this instance, when she was physically close, the dynamic became less cerebral and very much more impulsive. I was struck by the fact that the atmosphere on this occasion was quite unlike the solemn processions of the relics that I had witnessed in Lisieux itself on the occasion of Saint Thérèse’s feast day, and in fact it put me more in mind of when I had the dubious pleasure of seeing teen-idols New Kids on the Block at Wembley in 1991 (I was nine, so can be excused). The uncomfortably heightened atmosphere on that occasion was unforgettable, and I felt it again in the cathedral that day. In short, what went on in Liverpool on that occasion bore all the marks of what pioneer of the study of fan cultures, Fred Vermorel, has termed ‘fandemonium’. I began to think about the arbitrary boundaries between sacred and secular devotion, the role of presence, pilgrimage and physical touch in that devotion and the nature of ‘fan cults’, as I’ll term them, whether operating in the context of religion or popular music.
It is, of course, far from an original observation to point out the common features of secular and religious devotion. Durkheim’s dichotomy between the sacred and the profane has long provided grist to the mill of this discussion. Richard Dyer’s work on the stars of the golden age of cinema highlighted the quasi-religious idolisation of film stars. The work of historians of popular religion like Robert Orsi has highlighted the very emotional and impulsive relationship devotees can have with saints. Fred Vermorel saw the connection between religious devotion and secular ‘fandom’ as so obvious that in one of his books he juxtaposed a picture of a statue of Elvis, a photograph of pilgrims at Lourdes and a newspaper cutting about a priest calling for the canonisation of Grace Kelly shortly after her death, with no comment on their significance – readers could easily draw their own conclusions. Meanwhile, as far as Thérèse herself is concerned, her status as a true star of the modern Catholic Church has been extensively commented on, what with her Rolling Stones-like constant touring, face as iconic as Greta Garbo’s and massive ‘fanbase’. The makers of a documentary to mark the centenary of Thérèse’s death called it Thérèse superstar, and even went so far as to refer to her die-hard devotees as ‘groupies’.
Clearly there’s a number of caveats here. Fan cults don’t have the doctrinal elements of organised religion, they don’t have their ancient rituals and, perhaps crucially, moral and ethical direction would not be expected to come from participation in a fan cult (although I would argue that many such cults deal with these issues on some level). But in terms of the engagement of the devotee – the cultural and social activities through which they express their devotion on a day-to-day level, as well as the potential role of this devotion in an individual’s self-image – sacred and secular cults can be likened to each other. While much of this is the realm of the sociologist or media theorist, having traced the history of the crafting of a popular image for a modern icon and the selling of that image to the faithful, I feel there is something to be gained for the cultural historian, and indeed perhaps for anyone interested in popular religion, by breaking down the boundaries between the religious and the secular.
My next formative experience of the fan cult came by accident and by way of my south Essex roots. This new discovery was made in Basildon – the Essex post-war New Town, known for its modernist architecture, its status as a barometer of general election results and its possibly unfair association with the ‘Essex girl’ stereotype. Last July the town was the venue for a two day live music event focussed on Basildon’s most famous export – eighties synth-pop band, and later kings of alternative stadium rock, 100 million album-selling Depeche Mode. I was amazed to find that fans from as far away as Poland, Sweden, Switzerland and Spain had eagerly journeyed to Basildon to take part in this low-key event – the venues were a pub function room and a snooker hall – attracted by the fact that it was taking place on the band’s home turf and was organised by a former girlfriend of one of the band members. I discovered exactly why Depeche Mode fans often refer to themselves as the ‘Black Swarm’, as a bunch of very out of place leather-clad Europeans trooped through Basildon town centre. This was nothing short of an organised pilgrimage.
Having stumbled across this fan cult in all its glory, imagine my delight to find that artist Jeremy Deller and film-maker Nicholas Abrahams had already made a documentary called Our Hobby is Depeche Mode, which examined a community of fans that stretches from Iran to Russia. The film revealed the essential characteristics of this fan cult in full. Depeche Mode fans variously refer to themselves as ‘devotees’, derived from the band’s own religious lyrical allusions to ‘faith and devotion’ and being ‘one of the devout’, or call themselves ‘Depechists’ – ‘like Communist or Fascist’, explains a fan in the film. They create fan art based around the band, write fan fiction, make tribute videos and even mimic the band’s haircuts, tattoos and style of dress. Elsewhere in the documentary the band are talked about in quasi-religious terms, as when a Russian fan admonishes the film-makers about the lack of appreciation of the band in Britain, saying ‘Nobody ever loves or understands a prophet. They are always thrown out of their countries. And that’s why you English are in no position to understand the greatness of Depeche Mode’. Later we see music by the band featured in a ‘Goth Eucharist’ celebrated in a church in Cambridge, as well as footage of fans marching through the streets of Moscow, as they do on 9th May every year, not in celebration of Russia’s Victory Day, marked on that date, but of Depeche Mode lead singer Dave Gahan’s birthday. All in all, it was quite clear that Depeche Mode fans form more than just a body of enthusiasts – among these super-fans, this is a true cult. It is a way of life and the very basis of their identity.
When a second Depeche Mode event was held in Basildon again this summer, this time the programme had the addition of a tour around the locations in the town associated with the band – a pilgrimage proper. The motley crew of European Depechists returned to Essex, and as we walked around the estates of Basildon and were shown the small post-war houses where the four original members of the band had grown up, fans posed for photos in front of these places of pilgrimage and displayed a desire to touch the physical remains of the band’s past, touching door-frames and garden gates like precious relics. The appetite to be physically near anything associated with band echoed similar gestures I had seen among pilgrims to Lisieux, visiting Saint Thérèse’s childhood home – in the words of Depeche Mode’s 1989 hit ‘Personal Jesus’, the urge to ‘reach out and touch faith’ was all-consuming in both cases. While the obsessive fan cult, the rock pilgrimage, and the treating of objects associated with the secular star as relics are nothing new – we need only think of The Beatles, Elvis and any number of more transient objects of enthusiasm, like The Osmonds or the Bay City Rollers – the fan cult has entered a new age with the internet creating online communities of fans, and the Basildon event was testament to this, only coming about due to connections old associates of the band had made with fans around the world on Facebook. As the online Depeche Mode community impatiently awaits a press conference this Tuesday at which the band are expected to announce the release of their thirteenth album and an accompanying world tour, the first in three years, the Depeche Mode fan cult remains vibrant and thriving and continues to offer food for thought on the issue of devotion, pilgrimage and fandom, both sacred and secular.
It is Fred Vermorel’s contention that fans ‘reinvent [their] fascinations every single day. The magic of stars is in the work of fans’. Deller’s documentary was in the same spirit – the band the film was ostensibly about did not feature at all, and rather it focussed on the constant autonomous reinvention and living out of the cult by the fans. We find the same process at the grassroots of devotion to Saint Thérèse – the huge collection of home-made ex voto offerings held by the Carmelite convent where she lived provides convincing evidence of this alone – and popular religion often means taking ownership of devotion and refashioning it to one’s own tastes and needs. Pilgrimage should be recognised as an activity where the lines between the sacred and the secular often blur, and fandom should be acknowledged as a phenomenon that occurs in the contexts of both organised religion and music-based subcultures, with devotion in both settings sharing common cultural characteristics. When we are talking about people’s driving passions and the cultural forms that give them their sense of self, we cannot dismiss secular cults as frivolous, nor ignore that the everyday, lived reality of religion so often comes down to the activities of fandom. In the end, we run a serious risk of missing the point about popular religion when we falsely separate it from other, secular forms of ‘devotion’.’