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The Privilege of Being Banal

Art, Secularism, and Catholicism in Paris

France, officially, is a secular nation. Yet Catholicism is undeniably a monumental presence, defining the temporal and spatial rhythms of Paris. At the same time, it often fades into the background as nothing more than “heritage.” In a creative inversion, Elayne Oliphant asks in The Privilege of Being Banal what, exactly, is hiding in plain sight? Could the banality of Catholicism actually be a kind of hidden power?

Exploring the violent histories and alternate trajectories effaced through this banal backgrounding of a crucial aspect of French history and culture, this richly textured ethnography lays bare the profound nostalgia that undergirds Catholicism’s circulation in nonreligious sites such as museums, corporate spaces, and political debates. Oliphant’s aim is to unravel the contradictions of religion and secularism and, in the process, show how aesthetics and politics come together in contemporary France to foster the kind of banality that Hannah Arendt warned against: the incapacity to take on another person’s experience of the world. A creative meditation on the power of the taken-for-granted, The Privilege of Being Banal is a landmark study of religion, aesthetics, and public space.

280 pages | 8 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2021

Class 200: New Studies in Religion

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Religion: Christianity, Religion and Society


“In The Privilege of Being Banal, Oliphant has found a rich site to explore pressing questions of the privilege of Christianity in a secular age. Writing in the wake of the burning of Notre Dame, her vivid prose transports the reader into the nave, sacristy, crypt, and vaults of a monastery turned Catholic art space. Oliphant shows that the privileges of banality enjoyed by Catholicism require work, money, and the curation of history. This book is a must-read for anyone seeking to better understand the affordances of Christianity in debates about the politics of art and heritage in multireligious, self-declared secular societies.”

Pamela E. Klassen, author of 'The Story of Radio Mind'

“Subtle. Sophisticated. Engaging. In this book on French Catholicism, Oliphant offers a penetrating look at the intersections of art, religion, and secular modernity. In the best tradition of anthropology, she provides a kind of figure-ground reversal, revealing Paris—and the powers that be—in a new light.”

Matthew Engelke, author of How to Think Like an Anthropologist

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Privilege of Banality

Part I: Curating Catholic Privilege

Chapter 1: Evangelization and Normalization
Chapter 2: Crystallization and Renaissance

Part II: Mediating Catholic Privilege

Chapter 3: Walls That Bleed
Chapter 4: Learning How to Look

Part III: Reproducing Catholic Privilege

Chapter 5: The Immediate, the Material, and the Fetish
Chapter 6: The Banality of Privilege


Society for the Anthropology of Religion: Clifford Geertz Prize

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