The Growing Religiosity of Pop-Culture

This essay was first published in Religion Dispatches.

“Why do you think girls like Twilight?” I asked my boyfriend’s 11-year-old daughter.

“That’s easy,” she answered. “Boys without shirts.”

When it comes to the casual fan, I gotta say, I think she’s right. The Twilight series is a kind of fashion show in which men model cloaks of masculinity. Their fictional enhancements represent masculine archetypes: Edward the vampire is cold, brooding, and obsessive; Jacob the wolf-man is warm, earthy, and oh yeah, takes his shirt off a lot.

At a time when masculine and feminine ideals are rapidly being redefined, the invitation for girls and women to observe men, admire them, and be choosy among the various types is enough to fill a movie theater—or thousands.

erzenbook_302But among the horde of everyday Twilighters like my boyfriend’s daughter are thousands of “Twi-hards,” die-hard fans whose dedication to Twilight verges on the religious. These megafans are the subject of Tanya Erzen’s recently published ethnography, Fanpire.

Erzen describes a world in which “Fanpires” make pilgrimages to the real-life town in which the book is set, write blogs and fan fiction (the most famous of which became Fifty Shades of Grey), and buy buy buy branded Twilight merchandise between the release of the books and movies to keep the magic of the series alive. They “Twi-bond,” supporting one another in times of need (TwilightMoms, an online group of moms who read Twilight, ritually send one another cards and gifts when others in their lives forget to), and they study “Cullenism,” the value system of the Cullens, Edward’s vampire family.

Though the Twi-hard fan movement might not seem worthy of a book-length study, it is part of a widespread American trend away from organized religion and toward the sacralization of pop culture that is worth paying attention to.

As religion-watchers know, the percentage of Americans “unaffiliated” with institutional religion has been rising about one percentage point a year for the past five years. Today, one out of five adults, and more than one in three 18- to 22-year-olds, are religiously unaffiliated.

But “unaffiliated” doesn’t mean unbelieving. Many of these same adults are spiritual. Most believe in God. One-fifth say they pray every day. And a version of religious fervor can be found among both secular and religious fans of just about everything.

Religion scholar David Chidester has famously argued that baseball, Coca-Cola, rock ‘n’ roll, Tupperware—and even the Human Genome Project—serve, for their biggest fans, as “religious fakes,” meaning they play the role of religion, though they aren’t the real thing.

What is interesting about Twilight as a religious fake is that it is distinctly women-centric—a series written by a woman for women. As such, the stories of Fanpires can shed light on what women are lacking in their religious experience—and what leads them to sacralize Twilight, even as many of them remain in traditional religious communities.

Erzen’s 2009 online survey, completed by almost 600 fans, shows that 98 percent of the US Twilight fanbase is made up of women; eighty percent identify as nondenominational Christians or Catholic, while the remainder identify as spiritual. Meanwhile, Erzen one estimate says that over 90 percent of Mormon women have read the series.

So, why Twilight?

To find out, read the rest of this piece in its orginal home, as my first piece on Religion Dispatches!

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