Music, School of


Date of this Version



The American Organist (May 1998) 32


Copyright © 1998, American Guild of Organists. Used by permission


The existence of an intense and vital artistic activity is the most unmistakable indicator of the new religion, but it is not the only one. Three of the most commonly identified manifestations of religion are cult (public worship), myth (salvation history, doctrine), and ethics (right behavior, morals). Secular culture exhibits each of these aspects of religion.

Cult is in some measure synonymous with public worship. (The modern English- language use of the term "cult" is a distortion that wholly obscures its original meaning.) The difference between the two is one of degree rather than kind. Cult in its fullest sense is no indifferent, take-it-or-leave-it matter (as public worship today has largely become); rather, it is belonging versus rejection, increase versus decline, life versus death. Cult is corporate public worship invested with ultimate significance. It is a matter of passion, of intense conviction; believers stake their very being, their continued existence, on it. From the standpoint of religion, the purpose of cult is, of course, the praise and adoration that believers sense they owe god(s). From the human standpoint, however, people have been impelled to take part in cult because through it they experience "salvation": they are provided with wholeness, security, identity. From the human standpoint, modern entertainment and sports events have come to assume a role much akin to a cult: in their powerful attraction, in their ability to elevate mood and produce a sense of well-being, in the sense of belonging and identity they promote ("I'm a fan of_____ !"). The phrase "sports idol" is no empty one. Rock music concerts have in fact proved capable of inducing ecstatic states among those present, one of the most infallible signs of the presence of religion. However, the primary medium of the secular cult-television-suggests one essential difference between traditional religious cults and the cult of secular religion: traditional cultic events are normally communal and interactive, while the secular cult is essentially individual and passively receptive. The "blessings" of the secular cult are transmitted from cult figures to a single individual, who communes with them in solitary isolation. Even when more than one person is "communing," each is a monad, communicating individually with the source of power and well-being.

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