The National Catholic Review

Jim Cullen has rowed shorter pieces across the pages of Rolling Stone and Newsday as well as skippered three books through the riptides of cultural studies: The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past; Born in the U.S.A.: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition; The Art of Democracy: A Concise History of Popular Culture in the United States. He teaches in the expository writing program at Harvard University.

Restless in the Promised Land, a doughty little ship, takes readers on a cruise along the shores of a land that Andrew Greeley, with a nod to David Tracy, has designated the Catholic imagination. Cullen’s views on that territory will appeal to anyone who recognizes that double consciousness in Americawhether black, Jewish or Catholic, whether based in gender, sexual orientation or economic classis a chronic suffering that can issue into wisdom otherwise unavailable.

Consequently, it will interest readers of One Nation Under God: Religion and American Culture, edited by Marjorie Garber and Rebecca Walkowitz (1999) and God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture, edited by Eric Mazur and Kate McCarthy (2001). I especially recommend it to those who want to link Catholic studies with studies of popular culture, perhaps in combination with Tom Beaudoin’s Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (1998) and Andrew Greeley’s The Catholic Imagination (2000).

Religion, this literature makes clear, has unexpectedly durable manners of presence in everyday American life as well as in popular music, film and television. Some relation to transcendence lies too deeply within human beings not somehow to enter or shape their ordinary cultural formats. This recognition can be considered postmodern. It does not proceed from either a wholesale Enlightenment critique of religion or from the secularization hypothesis that modernizing squeezes religion out of existence, or at least out of public life. Social-scientific perspectives, nonetheless, are prominent, provide something other than witness and often carry provocative critical perspectives.

That sort of focus differs, of course, from a concern that became typical in liberation theologies insofar as theologians took pains to respect rather than ignore or criticize popular religious practices in Latin America. Restless in the Promised Land does not focus, that is, on grass-roots American Catholic expressions of piety in hymns, devotions or associations. Rather it explores how Catholicism imparts an inner form to a variety of Catholic engagements with the American dream, from that of novelists F. Scott Fitzgerald and Margaret Mitchell to those of filmmaker Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Madonna in video performance.

Restless in the Promised Land boldly enters into discussion of friction between the American dream and Catholic consciousness expressed in literature, film, MTV, but above all, according to the title of the Introduction, in the souls of Catholic folk. Still, a Catholic double consciousnessCullen’s book does not account for thisdepends on a prior annealing of memories that resulted in Catholics joining an American chorus extolling the land of the pilgrims’ pride without a bit of attention to just how unwelcome Catholics were in Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony. Cullen’s second chapter, The Anti-Catholic Origins of the American Dream, makes sure that does not continue without further consideration.

Where James and Patricia Scott Deetz point to the rough side of the national Thanksgiving tableau in The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love and Death in Plymouth Colony (2000), particularly regarding Native Americans, Cullen does so for Catholics. And yet, double consciousness of the American dream does not meanI think John Courtney Murray was correct on thisdouble consciousness of American democracy. Cullen achieves that single effect of discourse that one of Chaucer’s pilgrims thought to be the first goal of any preacher: keeping people awake. But there’s awake and there’s on edge.

Historians and theologians may well become uncomfortable as Part One breezes through historical material on the origins and complexities of the American dream. Colonial documentary sources are occasionally invoked and often examined in a new light, so this is not an innocent transmission of textbook verities about America’s past. Contrast between Catholic and Puritan ways are to the fore, as is appropriate.

Yet I missed a note of passing admiration for the sincerity evident in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation in regard to the colonists hazarding their lives and fortunes on a Christian way of life directly governed by faith and God in everyday practice. Which is not altogether unlike what monasteries have sought, as Max Weber would later observe. Absence of reference to alternative perspectives (on Puritan theology and on religious toleration in early Maryland, for example) may bring some readers to the edge of their chairs. But pages 38-39 will cause them to jump. A conflation occurs there. Two individuals, Charles Carroll, a Maryland Catholic signatory to the Declaration of Independence, and his cousin John Carroll, first American bishop, are treated as if one person.

Part 2, Embodying the Dream: American Catholic Archetypes, contains fascinating case studies in a series of chapters: Fatal Attraction: The Case of Jay Gatsby, Incomplete Denial: The Case of Margaret Mitchell, Like a Heretic: The Case of Madonna and A Wonderful Death: The Case of (Martin Scorcese’s) Jesus Christ. Toward the end of a longish discussion in Chapter 5, Cullen articulates a perspective on Catholic self-understanding. I hope, he states, this discussion makes clear that the Catholic elements that inform Like A Prayer’ specifically and Madonna’s work generally are a complex amalgam of conscious choice and unconscious impulse that are anything but accidental or incidental. He goes on to remark that the sense of freedom Madonna and other Americans enjoy is a direct result of the cultural logic of Protestantism. The priority of individual choice, however, is challenged by Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Cullen observes that these films depict people who choose to give up their freedom in the name of some larger purpose...as a credible alternative to the American Dream as it is commonly represented. Whether or not that choice is a giving up or an opening up of freedom is another question.

The conclusion, The Souls of Kings, demonstrates that taking over W. E. B. duBois’s concept of double consciousness represents no plundering of black history. The Introduction paid tribute to black experience by recognizing double consciousness as a universal structure in conditions of oppression or marginalization. Without something besides respectful appropriation, such could seem a false universalism that did not acknowledge the singularity of black suffering in America. The conclusion helps prevent this by returning attention to black wisdom. Cullen ranks Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial as the most significant renewal of Thomas Jefferson’s and Abraham Lincoln’s dream for Americans. This implicitly accords a certain pre-eminence to the history, experience, suffering and wisdom of black Americans in negotiating the American dream. That wisdom has drawn on faith.

On another note, I would be remiss to overlook the book’s technical problems, which cause a one-beat hesitation. The announcement, Chapter Four, is marooned on the bottom of the last page of the third chapter. The convention of italicizing or underlining titles of books and films is not immemorial, but when used in the Introduction, photo captions, endnotes and sources, but not throughout the rest of the text, it looks problematic, as does occasional omission of prepositions and articles. Probably this results from not scrutinizing the galleys more closely.

Or perhaps the fluidity in e-mail conversation has begun to affect print conventions. Maybe popular culture has started to return printed texts to the less standardized English that Dr. Samuel Johnson faced in the 18th century. If so, that would not necessarily be a gain for freedom of expression. Conventional signs express common meaning. Creative transgression depends on an already definite solidity in familiar ways. Their partial, unremarked absence hangs a question over Cullen’s text. Does it, like E. E. Cummings’s poems, strategically violate an expected format or just reflect bad editing?

A reprise of Restless in the Promised Land states, I’ve tried to show how the Protestant imagination of the Puritans, which began from Calvinist premises, paradoxically gave way to a preparationist ethos that placed special importance on individual improvement, an emphasis that has become the hallmark of an American Dream embraced by Catholics, Jews, agnostics, and atheists no less than Protestants. The story of Restless in the Promised Land has been boldly, clearly narrated. The book merits attention.

Thomas Hughson, S.J., is an associate professor of theology at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wis.