Melton's latest efforts have been to make greater order out of what can seem like the chaos of pluralism. "Ten years ago scholars were immersed in the idea of radical pluralism," he says. "As it turns out, the scene isn't as diversified as it looks, worldwide," he says. He divides the country's 2,000 denominations into 25 religious "families" made up of smaller groups. These families have "surnames" such as Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Pentecostal and "non-Christian," the term scholars traditionally use for the major Asian religions.
Air travel and the Internet are helping create a one-world culture. They're also creating a world where the same religions are being practiced everywhere. "You might see that the dominant religion changes from place to place, but they're all there, in every major city," he says.
While world religions such as Buddhism and Islam got a strong start in California, a number of the fringe movements to make front-page news in recent years did too. "For all the violence and craziness that's come from here, the rest of the world sees California as the home to almost anything," he says.
Melton still keeps track of the fringe movements.
When Count Dracula slips back into conversation, as he has tended to do all afternoon, Melton owns up to a collection of more than 3,000 books and comic books. And then there are the trading cards, posters, games.
"I got into it as escapism, but there is more to it," he says. "The myth of the vampire deals with questions about our idea of heroes. Dracula has power, sexuality, immortality. But we ask ourselves, 'How would we deal with that if we had it? What would we do with our time? What if we didn't eat or sleep?' "
Dracula starts to sound like a philosophy.