Monica Ganas draws together her experience of California,a twenty-five year career in the entertainment industry, and her academic career as a Cultural Theorist to write a thought-provoking and passionate book. Providing a comprehensive study of the cultural backdrop of California, she convincingly intertwines historical, cultural, and religious themes resulting in an exciting and dynamic read. Through clever use of textual analysis and biography, Ganas argues that the impact of Californian culture affects the United States as a whole and permeates popular culture across the globe. She posits that society needs to awaken from this intoxicated slumber and shake off the effects of 'California-as-a-contrived-religion' (p. 5) to reengage with genuinehuman spiritual experience.
Beginning by exploring the 'spirit' of the State, Ganasdefines the Californian misconception of grace that is crucial to her argument and underlies each chapter of the book. She suggests that the focus of the 'Cal-types' (i.e., those influenced by 'California-ism'[p. 2]) on the gifts they receive from God results in a desire to earn more and improve on those things already received, and thereby undermine their relationship with God as the source of these blessings. Drawing analogies with biblical accounts of the Golden Calf, Ganas discerns that Cal-types have built a 'Golden State' and are concerned with expansion, asserting order, and world-control. Ganas shows how this depending on material goods and commercial gain particularly affects Cal-types' relationships with each other in their communities, their views of marriage and death, their perception of celebrity and television, and their relationships with food and cars.
The concluding chapter of Under the Influence, 'Choosing Life', argues for the promotion of traditional culture in order to awaken humanity from these unhealthy cultural and spiritual relationships advocated by California-ism. Working from Kenneth Myer's model that helps to discern indigenous and mass culture, Ganas asserts the value of traditional culture over popular culture. Referring to her personal experience with the Azusa Renaissance Project to argue that traditional cultural 'reflects the past, enriches the present, and imagines the future' (p. 162), Ganas presents a solution to the intoxication of California.
While Ganas's personal accounts of life in California add an element of authenticity and make for a compelling read, she runs the risk of alienating those with different experiences. To combat this potential problem, Under the Influence is littered with well-renowned American cultural references, includinga broad spectrum of the arts that are effectively used as illustrations in individual chapters. This dynamic use of cultural references appeals to the reader's knowledge of popular culture and enables arguments grounded in personal experience to become more accessible for a wider audience. These appeals to popular culture are particularly crucial to her argument as they show that she is not dismissing the role played by popular culture in society despite arguing for the growth of traditional cultural art-forms in America. In doing so Ganas provides a balanced argument that does not brand all popular culture as insignificant but takes its diverse nature into account.
Ganas successfully achieves her aim of writing an interdisciplinary book that draws cultural, historical, and religious studies together. However, on occasion the theological discussions are secondary to cultural investigations, much to their detriment. Throughout the book Ganas raises interesting theological points that beg to be unpacked further and given more attention. Spirituality is frequently explored with regards to her chosen topics, but from a theological perspective these could have been taken further. Chapter 7, 'Sunshiny Mournings', for example, explores Californian attitudes towards death and mourning, contrasting ritual 'celebrations of life' with more traditional forms of mourning, and therein questioning how the shame of grief affects people spiritually. Despite engaging with Bruggeman and G. K. Chesterton, this fascinating account of the importance of remembrance and the need for hope merely brushes the surface theologically. One example she touches upon in this chapter that she could have taken further is Christ's instructing the disciplines to partake in the Lord's Supper in remembrance of him. This theological issue receives little attention. A thorough exploration of 1 Cor 11:17-33, rather than a passing comment in one paragraph, would have reinforced the spiritual importance of remembrance further, developing further developing this concept for her argument.
Ganas effectively argues for the cultural impact of California in the United States, but as a British reader I was not entirely convinced of the extent of the global impact she suggests. Under the Influence certainly raises awareness of the growing Californian influence across the globe, but more interestingly it subconsciously asserts that we should hold onto our particular cultural traditions and preserveworldwide diversity. Excitingly this book offers a model that could be applied to Britain and beyond in order to investigate the impact of cultural particularities more specifically.
While Under the Influence could have benefited from a greater focus on the theological aspects of spirituality, it is a subtle and suggestive contribution to the field of cultural studies and spirituality that merits further exploration of this theme in Europe.