The Second Coming. Religion as Entertainment
Jean Franco, Columbia University

“’So we’re not dealing with religion then,’ I said, but with a very advanced technology.”
“Words,” Mini said.
(Philip Dick: Valis)


Religiosity is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “the quality of being religious, especially of being excessively, ostentatiously or mawkishly religious,” a definition that suggests a critical dismissal of the way that popular religion is often practiced, in contrast to the decorum of the established church. I shall argue that religiosity is the surface manifestation of changes in the practice of religion in the era of mass entertainment, changes that also mark the grassroots repudiation of the secular.

The figures are staggering. There are an estimated 410 million Pentecostals in the world.  In Latin America Pentecostals account for sixty per cent of Protestant denominations; there are 20,000 Pentacostal churches in Brazil alone and Protestantism in general has made huge inroads in Chile, Brazil and Central America.1 In the United States, it is estimated that ninety per cent of the population believe in God, 70 million of them are evangelical Christian fundamentalists some of whom are expecting the battle of Armageddon in the near future. In Brazil, Afro -Brazilian religious beliefs and practices attract the middle classes. Santería once discouraged in Cuba is now a tourist attraction and it also flourishes in the Bronx. Even though the Catholic Church has been beset by scandal, it has, under the present Pope, never been more publicly present. Masses are televised every Sunday all over the world. The Pope’s hundred sorties from the Vatican have taken him to most parts of the globe. He has elevated 470 people to sainthood, most recently the perhaps mythical Juan Diego of Mexico and Pedro de San José Betancour, the seventeenth century Spanish missionary to Guatemala. In Spain a million people recently jammed central Madrid when he made saints of five Spaniards including one of 7000 Catholics who were killed by the Republicans during the Spanish civil war. New churches and mosques, new styles of worship, and the spread of fundamentalisms in all the major religions - Christian, Moslem, Jewish and Hindu - demonstrate not only the proliferation of religions but an immense fluidity of belief and an ever-growing diversity of practices especially in multinational communities.  In the U.S., store front churches with inventive names - The Reliable Church, Temple of God, Iglesia Abrigo del Altísimo, Iglesia Cristiana Misionera - spring up overnight especially in ethnic neighborhoods. At the opposite extreme, in the suburbs, mega churches also known as seven-day-a-week churches, pastoral churches, new paradigm churches, seeker-sensitive churches, shopping-mall churches, with congregations of thousands have been built on the model of supermarkets or sports amphitheaters, and use video screens, recorded music and dance. A church on the Upper West Side even offers a cocktail hour. Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Mormons and Adventists take their missionary activities to the Third World (Segupta and Rohter 2003). Nor is proselytizing confined to Christians.  Indigenous Peruvians have reportedly been converted to Judaism and sent to beef up West Bank settlements.  Islam too has recruited new kinds of believers who are encouraged to make the absolute sacrifice and Shiites are maneuvering to make Iraq into a Moslem society. Although some critics contest the term, “Hindu fundamentalism” because Hinduism never claims to be exclusive, in its name the present government of India is redefining the nation in religious terms, without making any distinction between myth and history (Pannikar). In the name of religion all kinds of weirdness becomes possible. In Uganda a fundamentalist Christian sect calling itself The Lord’s Resistance Army is seeking to seize power and make the Ten Commandments the basis of government. In the Appalachians, the congregation of the Church of Jesus with Signs test their faith by handling rattlesnakes.2 Outside the major religions A spirituality” is encouraged by  Buddhism, Zen, Yoga centers and spin offs like New Light Spirituality; the “Awakening to your Sacred Self” is marketed through radio, television and the internet and surfaces in telenovelas, in television series and in film and more and more invades political discourse. 3

 Indeed political terminology has been displaced by the emphasis on moral values. Thus the remedy for AIDS is couched in terms of abstinence rather than drug company costs.   Political leaders - Tony Blair, George W. Bush -appeal to a religion based ethics, promote the power of prayer and parade their devotion to God, mostly by mentioning him frequently by name.  The recent denunciation of slavery by President Bush during a whirlwind visit to the historic site of a slave-holding barracks in Senegal came shortly after PBS showed a documentary on Afro-American faith which included a visit to the same site. Thus a belated lament over slavery could be articulated with Afro-American faith on an effective rhetorical level in order to attract minority votes. A Manichaean concept of good and evil mobilizes U.S. foreign policy so that President George W. Bush constantly speaks of in terms of a “mission”. In post-revolutionary Mexico, founded on secular principles and the disestablishment of the church, President Fox ostentatiously kissed the Archbishop’s ring, a symbolic gesture hardly imaginable fifty or even twenty years ago. Of course some countries - notably Scandinavia - have been immune to this wave of devotion; but what is of particular concern is the emergence of religion in the Third World as both an alternative to secular utopias and as a revised version of the Protestant ethic.

Religious organizations there are politically active: tele-evangelists and the Catholic church encourage citizenship and participation in public life. The web page of Brazilian Pentecostals has photographs of believers who are prominent in the political arena. In Mexico, both Catholic clergy and evangelicals advise the faithful, not to vote for parties that promote abortion, and homosexual marriage. And the libertarian tendencies of capitalism, especially evident in the exploitation of sexuality in advertisements is modified or held in check by strong religious constituencies. In Chile, for example, a neoliberal state under the leadership of socialists, there is strong resistance to divorce laws and  abortion is prohibited, producing, to borrow a phrase used by Jean and John Comaroff, in a different context, a “taunting mix of emancipation and limitation” (Comaroff 2000:299).

As recently as the early sixties, the theologian Paul Tillich was speaking of “the almost forbidden word ‘spirit’ and declaring the spiritual dimension of life as ‘lost beyond hope” (Cited in Roof 1999:89). But nowadays, spirit is everywhere and for those of us who were brought up in circles where religious belief was embarrassing, or at best, a hold-over from some more naive era, the return of religion raises uncomfortable issues. Modernization and progress, from the Enlightenment to the late twentieth century, were posited on secularism. In the U.S., church and state were declared separate from the moment of Independence, a separation that is now being challenged on several fronts - for instance the Bush administration would like (though it has not yet succeeded) to have faith-based organizations take over part of the welfare system. In Latin America, secularism was an instrument for reining in the economic and ideological power of the church. Whereas in protestant nations, national churches were allied to state policies, in many Catholic countries, wars of religion pitted modernization against traditional beliefs that were said to impede progress.  In Mexico, the Reform movement and post- revolutionary governments stripped the monasteries of their land, expelled monks and nuns and after the l9l7 Revolution curtailed the power of the priesthood. The Cristero war of the l920s pitted schoolteachers (as secular missionaries) and agrarian reformers against defenders of Cristo Rey. The government’s program of secularization and modernization led to a war of attrition in Jalisco and later to the assassination of General Obregón. In Guatemala, President Justino Rufino Barrios nationalized church lands. During the Spanish Civil War supporters of the Republicans burned churches and murdered priests - an index of how deeply Catholicism was identified as an obstacle to the republican state.

While, as Renato Ortiz argues, religious universes never disappeared but rather were displaced as hegemonic discourses (Ortiz 2003: 428), there is no doubt that we confront a major religious revival that takes many forms and that can be attributed to many factors, among them  ‘fear’ in an increasingly apocalyptic world, and the inability of the secular to deal with radical evil (Vattimo l998: 80). Already in the sixties, a number of Latin American novels -among them, Cambio de piel of Carlos Fuentes, and Morirás Lejos by José Emilio Pacheco, depicted the Holocaust as a kind of limit or block , the evidence of deep-rooted evil that stood in the way of a humanistic optimism in the future of society. The problem of the representability of horror raised by the Holocaust would emerge with a vengeance during the military regimes in the Southern Cone and the civil war in Central America when resistance was often expressed in mourning rituals and when, particularly in Chile and Central America, the church became a the major force of opposition. In post-dictatorship Southern Cone, while there has been some political and legal redress, the “cuerpos ausentes” of the disappeared still call out for the proper rites of burial, a demand that is older than Antigone. Secularism has had to draw on religious ritual in order to represent horror.

Sick with cancer, “dying before her time,” the British philosopher , Gillian Rose in her essay, Mourning Becomes the Law. Philosophy and Representation (Rose 1996:2) argued that the severance of metaphysics from ethics that characterized modern philosophy did damage to both ethics and metaphysics and that “truth” or “reason” in their perennial or in their modern meanings are charged with legitimizing forms of domination which have destroyed or suppressed their ‘others’ in the name of the universal interests.” Reason, can thus no longer, be held morally superior to obscurantism.  In a post-script written in l994 after the Capri meeting of European philosophers to discuss “the return of religion,”  Gadamer stated the obvious, saying that  the “ubiquitous knowledge of one’s own death and at the same time the impossibility of knowledge of the actual experience of death is the common characteristic of humankind. It is also what makes religion possible” (Gadamer 1996). At that meeting, both Derrida and Gianni Vattimo argued that religion, outlawed by philosophy since the Enlightenment, could no longer be set aside, especially because of the challenge of fundamentalism. But Vattimo argued that whereas the return to religion of the popular classes responded to apocalyptic fears, the breakdown of the philosophical prohibition of religion, for this is what it comes down to, coincides with the dissolution of the great systems that accompanied the development of science, technology and modern social organization, but thereby with the break down of all fundamentalisms - that is, of what it seems popular consciousness is looking for in the return to religion” (Vattimo 1996:81).This conclusion makes a dubious distinction between the philosophic crisis and the blind faith of the popular classes, ignoring the fact that fear lurks in philosophy and the breakdown of fundamentalisms - particularly the failure of the secular - stimulates religion’s hold over the popular classes.

It’s perhaps useful to recall how recently it was taken for granted, in intellectual circles at least, that modernization went hand in hand with progressive secularization. When their book, Empire was published in the year 2000, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri could still describe religion as a counter-revolution, what they term the Asecond mode of modernity”, “constructed to wage war against the new forces of capitalism and establish an overarching power to dominate them.” (2000:74). Yet this simple argument ignores the fact that religion as William James wrote in VarietiesofReligiousExperience, “cannot stand for one single principle or essence, but is rather a collective name,” (James: 26) the more so at the present time when religion responds to numerous aspirations and needs and is increasingly filling the void in the secular state. The religious utopia is winning adherents while secular utopias have all but vanished as socialist states became dystopian. The promise of Christian fundamentalism - that the faithful will escape the catastrophic end of the world by being carried off to another planet has the advantage of never being put to an earthly test. On the other hand, the empowerment of poor women has arguably been more effectively undertaken by religious organizations, especially the Pentecostals than by feminist movements. Sociologists studying Pentecostalism in Latin America have noted the power of faith-healing and the therapeutic benefits of prayer and ritual acts among people struggling with poverty and sickness. A number of sociological case studies have shown that the theology of “rebirth” leads to a sense of power and hope for the possibility of changing everyday living standards and the more strict or “orthodox the theology the more impact it has” (Sherman, cited by Hallum 2003: 177-8).

And not only in Latin America.  In Lebanon, the Islamic and militant fundamentalist organization, Hezbollah has established a welfare network in the areas it controls. In Taiwan, the Buddhist Compassionate Relief Merit Association, of which eighty per cent are women, like the evangelical movements and their “born-again” Christians, emphasizes the remaking of self in the new community of the faithful (Weller: 2000: 490-93). These are scattered examples of a world-wide phenomenon that reflects religion’s amoeba like tendency to flow into modernity’s void. Writing of Taiwan, Robert P.Weller argues that it is not enough to point out that “modernization theorists misunderstood the relationship between secularization and capitalism. Taiwan is hardly unique in casting doubt on that theory, or in experiencing the kinds of moral doubt that religion can address (Weller 2000: 404).  And what was unique to several Latin American countries was that these doubts were, in part, addressed by liberation theology. The repudiation of liberation theology with its emphasis on a communitarian approach and the commitment to the poor by the church hierarchy has coincided with the rapid spread of Pentecostalism and Neo-Pentecostalism. To be sure, as Denis Hayeck’s testimonies of grassroots educators and workers in her book.

”Surviving Globalization” demonstrate, there are still many men and women who owe their education and their dedication to grass root causes to the liberation church (Heyck 2002). In Chiapas, the alliance of the liberation church with the Zapatistas has been crucial, yet even here Pentacostals with a far more individualistic message have made huge inroads. What favors the spread of these religions is that they are not necessarily in conflict with neoliberal policies nor with the state. Whereas some sectors of Catholicism have a strong suspicion of material wealth that goes back to the mediaeval critique of usury, protestant religions have no such taboo.

Religions have not only benefited from global capitalism but, in some cases, are even able to press for modifications to redress its indifference to human need. Such is the case with Papal appeals on behalf of the poor and Bush’s compassionate conservatism. A recent film, BruceAlmighty illustrates the point. Jim Carrey plays a television journalist who is frustrated because they won’t make him an anchor man. God played by the black actor Morgan Freeman, allows him to take his place but Bruce only performs miracles for himself and so gets into trouble. He has to learn how to combine ambition with caring - exactly the lesson of compassionate conservatism. That God is black is a surprise to nobody given that blacks and native Americans are often depicted as the source of the spirituality that has been lost to white Americans.

Given the world-wide growth and reach of such religious movements one cannot but question the applicability to contemporary capitalism of what Max Weber termed “disenchantment” (the replacement of a belief in magic forces by calculation), although Weber himself had no illusions about the limitations of the secular. Science which in early modern Europe had been a pathway to discover God’s design became in post-Enlightenment world, the motive force of progress but it also rendered death meaningless; “for civilized man death has no meaning,” Weber wrote, “and because death is meaningless; civilized life as such is meaningless; by its very ‘progressiveness’ it gives death the imprint of meaninglessness” (Weber 1968: 299). “Science gives no answer to our question, the only question important to us: What shall we do and how shall we live?” “Many old gods,” he concludes, “ascend from their graves; they are disenchanted and hence take the form of impersonal forces” - a conclusion that today is only half true.4 Old gods do ascend from their graves but their second coming is now envisioned in the guise of the death’s head or as in “Terminator 3.The Rise of the Machines” as a machine-driven apocalypse.

For disenchantment has a grim sequel, as technoscience challenges every defining characteristic of the human genetic alteration or gene splicing promises made to order children, so that creation passes to the laboratory.  Nanotechnology promises replications at the atomic level but whose effect is unknown. Cybernetics - the melding of machines and humans, and cryogenics that promises a kind of immortality both extend the individual beyond the expected span of human life. Mass culture has been quick to exploit these possibilities. In the Brazilian soap opera, El Klon, the clone and the so-called real person are indistinguishable. In the Matrix movies the ‘real’ has become problematic; people are part of an illusion, engaged in a struggle against corporate evil and guided by a black woman prophet. Even in art which once offered secular transcendence, excrement and dead bodies have becomes the artists’ materials, videos show the insides of the human body resulting, as Zizek puts it, in “the threat that the sublime Grail will reveal itself to be nothing but a piece of shit” (Zizek 2000: 26). In the U.S. the most watched television programs is CSI, a series which follows a group of forensic scientists in their post-mortem research. The cadaver is the focus and the camera penetrates, opens bodies for inspection, dives into the entrails, and passes through the gullet into the stomach. There are simulations of the explosive effect of a bullet on inner organs. The body is invaded not only by instruments but also by insects and worms but unlike the old mementimori it is not for the sake of saving the soul.  The dead are decidedly not sacred, the body has become evidence, the now soul-less object out of which a team of forensic scientists produces the truth. The death itself, reenacted with explosive imagery and ‘unnatural’ colors is the pre-text for a story of dedication and team-work under the leadership of Grissom.  Work is the only form of transcendence. 

It is on this dead landscape that religion, religiosity and new forms of spirituality have come to rest, taking advantage of the pluralism of the market and all the resources of advanced capitalism’s communications industry - radio, film and internet - to disseminate religious video, film, literature, and music. Capitalism that in Marx’s devastating description“ has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism in the icy water of egoistical calculation,” (Marx and Engels 1985: 82). has now  through telemediatization not only furthered its own expansion but provided the theater for the heavenly ecstasies and sentimentalism that it was supposed to kill.

At the Capri meeting of the philosophers I have already mentioned, Derrida suggested that the power of religion had increased exponentially with technoscience and globalization. Arguing that the Enlightenment’s separation of reason (and the byproducts of reason in the development of the sciences) from faith is confounded by the return to religion, he also noted that religion now embraces what had once seemed alien to it - the techno-scientific revolution. He coined the term “globalatinization” (for what he describes as “this strange alliance of Christianity, as the experience of the death of God and tele-technoscientific capitalism.) Despite the curious Eurocentrism of this term as well as his understanding of religion, (he emphasizes that religio derives from Roman belief and reverence for the gods) not to mention the fact that he ignores the variety of religions which now embrace tele-technoscientific capitalism, he is the only philosopher to explore the fact that technoscience was furthered and empowered by separating itself from the very religion that is now revitalized by the revolution in communications. As Derrida remarked, “Without digital culture, jet and tv, there could be no religious manifestation today, for example, no voyage, no discourse of the Pope.” What once might have been thought paradoxical: that an act of faith on which religion is based underscores the essentially economic and capitalistic rationality of the tele-technoscienfic is no longer a paradox and he concludes: “there is no incompatibility, in the said ‘return of the religious’, between the ‘fundamentalisms’, the “integrisms” of their politics and, on the other hand rationality which is to say, the tele-techno-capitalistico-scientific fiduciarity , in all of its mediatic and globalizing dimensions. Religion today allies itself with tele-technoscience, to which it reacts with all its forces. It produces, weds, exploits the capital and knowledge of telemediatization - neither the trips and global spectacularizing of the Pope, nor the interstate dimensions of the Rushdie affair etc.would be possible, at this rhythm. It conducts a war against that which protects it” (Derrida 1996: 42). As Derrida argues, religion now depends heavily on telecommunications. The audience for the Christmas mass from Saint Peter’s embraces the world. The Vatican Television Center broadcasts l30 live programs daily, there is a Global Catholic Network and extensive video documentations of the Pope. Among Protestants, tele-evangelism favors charismatic preachers well versed in television skills.  The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association states that they believe “in using every modern means of communication available to us to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world” (Brooks 2000:121-135.) There is a Trinity Broadcasting network, a Faith and Values Network, Christian Broadcasting Network owned by Pat Robertson which reach out beyond their national base in the United States. Most religions now have elaborate web pages.

In Mexico, during the JornadaMundialdelasComunicacionesSociales recently celebrated in the Basilica of Guadalupe, the Vatican Nuncio called on the media to realize their role in society and opt  “for the road of truth and defense of life” (por el camino de la verdad y la defensa de la vida.) And the Conference of Mexican Bishops, in their message to the media, urged them to use journalism in defense of justice, peace, liberty and life.

Can it be said that, as religions more and more encroach into areas of entertainment they are themselves modified? That, at least, is the argument of Carlos Monsiváis in Los rituales del caos,a significant reassessment of mass spectacle in what he terms  a post-apocalyptic world (Monsivais 1995).5 The titles of each chronicle, “The Hour of…” cites and parodies the media distribution of time as an entertainment slot and takes on different forms of spectatorship - in rock concerts, pop concerts, and so on. “La hora de la tradición Oh consuelo del mortal,” surveys the spectacle in the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe during the festivals of the 11th and l2th of December and is compulsory reading for anyone interested in “spectacles of religiosity.” The target is not religion as such but what happens with the advent of television to traditional religion, and a cult, in particular the Guadalupana, that has always been closely allied to Mexican nationalism. Monsivais asks, How much does old-fashioned reverence apply to the crowd whose excitement also comes from their televisable condition? It is not the same just to pray and to pray in front of a camera, filial love is not the same in badly-lit parishes as where remote control is paid for by Domecq.”

What is supposedly the most traditional of cults, he argues, is, in fact, a series of constantly reinvented rituals For example the congregation now reads the words of Las Mañanitas, the traditional serenade because they don’t remember them, the link between orally transmitted culture and tradition having been broken. The singer Maria Victoria assumes what she believes to be a religious pose “with a glassy look borrowed from Easter Week films.” Tourism and religion are here allied.  Instead of the observation of piety, there is “la piedad que se siente observada” (the piety that feel itself observed). 

Like Walter Benjamin, Monsivais understands that the public view television in a distracted manner. Benjamin was writing of the cinema where at least the audience sat in one place but as Monsiváis puts it, people move about and zap while watching television. It even transforms belief, given that viewer’s consciousness is split between intimate prayer and the mass transmission of intimate prayer, between holy representations and the monitor.”… “Television, the focal point of all contemporary belief and unexplainable idolatry is itself neither a believer nor an unbeliever but a rush of images, that become indistinct, a routine that suddenly take on the appearance of the Burning Bush.”

“Will audiences end up watching TV as they would mass?” he asks, “Or will audiences attend mass as if they were watching TV? With TV the audience belong to spectacle in a way that churches could never achieve.” Rather than religion from below - the eclesiogénesis of liberation theology - the crowd as essentially distracted. “It vents itself eurhythmically, crushes, shops, eats, fasts, gives itself over to identical beliefs, faints, recovers, recalls black doves and waking up in someone’s arms, certifies that there is no sensation more heretical than pure doctrine, joins a new line every five minutes, emits phrases that impede conversation, entangles itself among the shawls, shakes the bells on its feet, speaks with teponaxtles and drums, becomes both pilgrim and tourist, moves equally to pre-Hispanic rhythms and to the marches of John Philip Sousa, heats tortillas, drinks itself sober, deposits flowers on the altar, crosses itself, becomes irritated at not feeling suddenly struck by blessed mortification.  In a word, faith is democratized.”

Authoritarianism and dogma do not work in mass society, Monsiváis wants to argue, and television turns spectators into actors. And yet does not the very fluidity also stimulate the need for rules and authority to which fundamentalisms respond while simultaneously using every technique available in advanced capitalism? The Taliban’s strictures on entertainment did not prevent Osama Bin Laden from using television. Fundamentalist Evangelicals produce films for video as well as science fiction which claim to be the word of God.  Cloud Ten pictures, for instance, does feature films with titles such as Judgment, Armageddon and Apocalypse and some of these fictional films specifically address the media’s role in religion. The protagonists of Apocalypse are two anchor- people, Helen and Bronson, who are in love with one another. Helen’s grandmother, a true believer, disappears in the rapture that precedes Armageddon, leaving behind only her neatly folded clothes. She is one of thousands who are saved from Armageddon by the “rapture” that is by being miraculously conveyed to another planet. Her disappearance and the note she leaves profoundly affect her granddaughter giving her the power to see the truth behind appearances. The film foregrounds the importance of media technology - television, the internet and electronic billboards - for good and evil, although the true gospel is still conveyed by the Bible.  Meanwhile Helen’s fiancé is out in the middle East covering the battle of Armageddon for CNN . Despite immense fire power and threatened biological warfare, the armies are miraculously unharmed thanks apparently to last minute intervention by a false Messiah, named Franco Macalusso, the Anti-Christ, who also happens to be head of the European Union and whose henchmen take over the television station.  The Anti-Christ knows how to use the camera to lie but ‘truth’ prevails thanks also to technology - an employee has recorded some careless words of the Anti-Christ’s servant and slips the video tape onto the video screens of the world, thus forcing the populations to realize the truth. Absurd as this sounds, the novels by Tim La Haye and Jerry B. Jenkins on which the film is based are not only immensely popular but in the guise of religion deliver conservative propaganda.

While fundamentalisms respond to the desire for absolutes, other forms of religiosity abound. A whole range of magazines carry articles on spirituality. “Christian record companies produce music in virtually every category known to the popular music heavy metal, light pop, jazz, folk, grunge, reggae, country, funk gospel and hip hop (Roof 1999).  Network television series and mainstream movies that once shunned references to religion now depict angels who come to fight human wrongs. God talks to a teenage girl in the series, “Joan of Arcadia.” Showtime has just announced a new series DeadLikeMe (described as Dead and Loving it) about Life after Life. About seventy per cent of the Simpson episodes are said to include some kind of religious reference. And the X Files, the television series that explicitly sets a scientific approach in conflict with receptiveness to the unknown leans towards the latter, suggesting, as one critic puts it,  “That the unchallenged reign of the scientific metanarrative is over” (McGrath: 160).

A cursory glance at any book store confirms this. Books on near-death experiences, angels and the invasion of aliens, books on ancient wisdom - Buddhism, Native American spiritual experiences, feminist spirituality, and assorted New Age teachings, in one way or another, promise greater fullness of life, and there is now a category of “religious fiction” that includes “religious mysteries, Jewish historical novels, Evangelical Christian westerns, inspirational romances” (Roof 99).

Is it that savage capitalism is so unbearable that “new forms of enchantment” have become necessary? In an essay in Public Culture, Jean and John Comaroff cite, as a feature of millennial capitalism, the emergence of “occult economies” in many parts of the world - South African zombies and spells and Asian fee for service religions that bring promises of wealth and success. The neo-Pentacostal, Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus in Brazil founded by a lottery worker in l977 and which has off shoots in many parts of the world, including the U.S. and Britain deploys television, radio and the internet to recruit members. Visitors to the web page are invited to Ajoin our family” ;its declared aims are to preach the word of God to the four corners of the world, to procure the cure of the sick, the liberation from evil spirits, prosperity, the restoration of families and the sanctification of the lives of all those who truly seek God. The first book the church published was significantly an attack on Afro-Brazilian religions.  According to the Comaroffs, AThe Universal Church reforms the Protestant ethic with enterprise and urbanity, fulsomely embracing the material world. It owns a major television network in Brazil, has an elaborate web site and promises swift payback to those who embrace Christ, denounce Satan and “make their faith practical” by “sacrificing” all they can to the movement.”  This chiliastic urge “emphasizes a privatized millenium, a personalized rather than a communal sense of rebirth. In this, the messianic meets the magical” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2000:314). In this light, perhaps we should re-examine the Harry Potter books as participating in the occult economy.

But while some religions do further individualism and even a protestant ethic that has now migrated to the Third World, this does not account for the manifold needs that religion is supposed to meet - the need for a transcendental purpose, for healing, for community however virtual, for a peep into the unknown, for an ethics. We must then ask why the secular failed in these areas? Or is there something positive in what Monsiváis calls “chaos,” that will free religion from dogma?. Is religion weakened as it crosses the border into entertainment? Or is the sheer proliferation of varieties of religious experience a sign of colossal global despair?

And where is secular thought in all of this? Certainly the recent interest in rethinking the universal is symptomatic of an unsatisfactory state of affairs in which Christianity is called upon to supply what had been lacking in secular thought (Zizek 2003). But as Renato Ortiz has pointed out, the reality is that we live in a world of competing universals. What he does not clarify is that those competing universals are not equivalent and the consequences of their “materialization” in the future may be devastating (Ortiz 2003: 445).

1. For Latin America, see Anne Motley Hallum (2003: 168-l86).  For the United States, see Wade Clark Roof (l999).

2.Information for the Uganda group comes from B.B.C. World News.  The snake cult is documented by Dennis Covington (l995).

3. On  Bush, see Didion (2004).

4. Weber is quoting Tolstoy.

5. The English translation of “Tradition Hour” is from Kraniauskas (l997:121-135).