Roman R. Williams

Originally published on August 23, 2016 in Sociology of Religion.

Alexander Riley’s Angel Patriots is an engaging account of the cultural processes through which the meanings, narratives, and memory of United Flight 93 are constructed and reconstructed. He writes about something more than a cultural sociology of an ill-fated airplane that crashed on September 11, 2001 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania as passengers attempted to regain control of their flight from terrorist hijackers. Instead, as Geertz may have characterized the book, Riley is “saying something of something,” namely what Flight 93 and the many narratives that comprise it indicate about the myth of America. In Riley’s words, Flight 93 is “good to think with” because it yields “insights into the much larger object, American culture” (34).

Riley’s research strategy is ethnographic, styled after Geertzian thick description and faction, and incorporates photographs he made of his research sites and the cultural artifacts found in these locations “to aid the reader in the journey through the narrative work going on there” (32). In the midst of this descriptive work, he draws effectively from Bellah’s notion of civil religion to offer an explanatory framework and theoretical backdrop for the cultural worlds and work Riley observes around the memorialization of Flight 93. He shows how a particular set of narratives about what it means to be American are produced in and through memorial sites in Shanksville, Pennsylvania (the temporary memorial, the Memorial Chapel, and the permanent memorial), biographies and films about the people and crash of Flight 93, and the ways these stories are consumed—and subsequently reproduced—in the everyday lives of those who come in contact with these memorials and the meanings they contain. The book raises important questions about the cultural glue that holds society together, and how a productive dialogue (one that encourages American society toward its own highest aspirations) may be pursued and maintained in a pluralistic society.

Angel Patriots demonstrates the enduring importance of the concept and practice of civil religion. Not only does Riley establish the fact that American civil religion is alive and well, he shows how a particular “set of mythical narratives and symbols about American identity continues to drive much cultural work and meaning-making, and especially that which is evoked by events of mass catastrophe and death such as those of September 11, 2001” (281). In an age of secularization, Riley argues, civil religion functions in ways similar to how religion worked in the past: contemporary myths and the symbols, rituals, totems, artifacts, redemptive heroes, and sacred places they incorporate “provide a consoling set of narratives of eternal life in the body of the collectivity (the nation and its ascending heroes) to wield against the eternal fear of death and chaos” (284). He concludes that while these narratives may seem aimed at helping us to remember—recall, for example the ubiquitous September 11 slogan “Never Forget!”—“[t]he memorial of the catastrophe is intended to help us forget the event itself and to remember instead the myth to which it has been attached” (57).

Ever since I read Alexander Riley’s 2008 article, “On the role of images of narratives about the crash of United Airlines Flight 93” (Visual Studies 23:4–19), I eagerly awaited his book-length treatment. As a visual sociologist, I was interested in the ways he would use visual data. In chapters two and three, images of his research sites and the artifacts found there provide an essential layer of evidence that helps the reader to understand the narratives found at the temporary memorial site and memorial chapel. In chapter seven, screen shots of Flight 93 movies are integral to his analysis. Throughout the book, images are essential to his descriptive work and argument; they provide an additional layer of information for readers as they explore unfamiliar settings, help to explain social processes, and sharpen Riley’s analysis and anchor his thesis in ways that words alone could not. As such, the book contributes to the visual sociology of religion.

Angel Patriots “is good to think with” about many things, including civil religion, meaning and memory, ritual, secularization and sacralization, cultural narratives, the relationship between theory and method, nuances of description and explanation, the different kinds of materials and techniques that may be productive in ethnographic work, and cultural and visual sociologies of religion. Also, the book will prove “good to teach with” in advanced undergraduate and graduate level courses in the sociology of religion, cultural sociology, and visual sociology.

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