The Norton Slideshow Maker with Visual Sociology Exercises

Contemporary Shrines

John Grady, Wheaton College (MA)


Although I went away to college, I had many relatives living nearby, and I often spent weekends at my aunt and uncle’s home. My paternal grandparents lived with them. They were Irish immigrants who had been born in the 1870s and were very old at the time. They were also very “old-country” as well. They spoke in distinct Irish brogues and were very devout. Every night we would pray the rosary, and when they went to bed, they entered a room that seemed to me to be from a time long past. The furniture was very old; there were large wooden framed and tinted photographs of family members on the wall, and in the corner a side table that had been transformed into a spectacular shrine. It was a virtual cathedral of holy cards commemorating relatives who had passed away, small to medium-sized statues of numerous saints, various representations of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and most prized of all, a delicate statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which for those not familiar with Roman Catholic iconography is a representation of Jesus with a more or less lifelike image of a bleeding heart, most often emblazoned on his chest over his robes. Every evening this shrine would be the focus of their evening prayers, the shadows of the statues brought to life on the walls by the light flickering from countless votive candles and some larger ones in candlesticks. To me the whole scene was strange and wondrous, and yet it made me feel connected to my grandparents and beyond them to the world of their parents and grandparents about whom they often spoke.

One evening a miracle happened. As my grandparents were settling down in bed, my aunt was tidying up the shrine and moved one of the candlesticks. There, burnt out of the linen below the base of candlestick, was an outline of the Sacred Heart! Everybody was very excited and even I had to admit that it bore an uncanny resemblance to the heart on the statue that stood nearby. As the story was later embellished by family members, it had my uncle outside already planning the construction of a concession stand for those who would visit the miraculous shrine.

Sociologists would say that part of the world in which I grew up in was “enchanted.” An enchanted world is a social universe governed by rules that are prescientific and where it is believed that spiritual forces of one kind or another can easily overturn everyday rationality. Earlier generations of sociologists believed that modernity would disenchant the world, not only eroding a belief in miracles but also the strength of primary ties such as family and friendship. This view, however, seems to be overstated. The modern world is increasingly dependent on science and on the instrumental rationality of the accountant in managing our organizations and institutions, but these values continue to coexist with spiritual beliefs and a commitment to maintaining contact with friends and family.

Figure 1 shows how a representative sample of younger American responded when they were asked if they believed in miracles (MIRACLES) 1 . Between 1991 and 2008, around three quarters of this population reported that they believed in miracles. During this period, however, the proportion stating that they “definitely” believed in miracles grew from just under (46 percent) to well over (55 percent) half of those who were asked. Similarly, a comparison of three generations of younger Americans—baby boomers born between 1943 and 1960; Gen Xers born between 1961 and 1981; and Millennials born between 1982 and 2002—suggests that about seven out of 10 spend a social evening with relatives (SOCREL) more often than once a month. There is, therefore, little evidence of a declining trend over the last half-century or so. To the contrary, the number of young people who report spending time almost daily with their relatives has more than doubled from 14 percent to 29 percent.

Emile Durkheim and many contemporary sociologists aren’t surprised by how modernity is able to both coexist with people who espouse traditional—and often esoteric—spiritual beliefs and who also continue to maintain close family ties. A culture that celebrates independence for children—as American have for generations now—makes it easier for those children to see relatives as friends rather than as people who are out to limit your lives. By the same token various types of spiritual beliefs can be embraced as an expression of identity. These considerations suggest that even if religious shrines disappear from homes, other types of memorials, which also celebrate identity and connection, might easily replace them—often lodged in the most unexpected places.

1*The General Social Survey is online here. Every one of its questions, or variables, is assigned a MNEMONIC code, which is usually easy to remember and often describes the question well. It only takes a class period to learn how to do simple correlations with what is generally acknowledged to be the most rigorously conducted and exhaustive social survey in the world of a country’ beliefs and attitudes.

View the slideshow

After you view the slideshow, answer the following question:

1. Briefly describe what the displays featured in the slideshow have in common. For example, are there common themes? Common purposes?

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Create your own slideshow:

After you view the slideshow and reflect on it, create your own, related slideshow. Choose one of the options below to focus your approach. Your instructor may ask you to e-mail a link to your slideshow, or you can print it out and hand it in.

Option 1: Prepare a short documentary study in slideshow format on various kinds of domestic and vernacular shrines. Compare several different households and inventory anything in that house that appears to memorialize people’s lives, values, and relationships. Inventory everything in the display and discover as much as you can about the history of the objects and what the residents say about them. If possible, interview those to whom the shrine belongs to find out about its history and personal meanings. Be sure to be candid about the purpose of your project. As you select your images and write your captions consider: Is anybody responsible for constructing them, or can anybody in the household pitch in? Are there any rules that guide people in making and exhibiting these displays? Do they change over time? How do displays like the ones exhibited and discussed in the slideshow vary in your sample?

Option 2: Alternatively, you could take the same kind of approach to a particular type of display. For example, examine how different people decorate their refrigerators. In this approach be sure to look for what the displays have in common as well as how they vary.

Option 3: Finally, you could look at displays outside the household. An example might be the shrines that are often constructed when a young person dies in an untimely fashion. These are usually constructed at accident or homicide sites. As you select your images and write your captions consider: How are these displays constructed? Who makes them? What kinds of messages and objects are left there? Are they an occasion for gatherings and rituals? Does anybody tend them? Are they ever dismantled or do they just fall apart?