Key Terms in Material Religion – Review

Key Terms in Material Religion. Edited by S. Brent Plate. Chennai: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. 304 pages. $45.27CDN (Paperback).

In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult – if not altogether impossible – to discuss most topics in the study of religion without also calling attention to their “material” dimension. Even the most ardent textual critic is inevitably drawn into discussions of the medium, the pages of the manuscript, the loose leaflets adorned with ancient writing, and even the method of their preservation. Religion is, after all, hardly something “out there” to be philosophized or kept at arm’s length, but something to be felt with our hands, seen with our eyes, and moved by our bodies. Ninian Smart would doubtlessly be glad to see how far we have travelled.

The 2015 Bloomsbury publication Key Terms in Material Religion, edited by S. Brent Plate, is a fitting testament to the increasing interest and value which the material approach affords the study of religion. Working off an earlier publication, this volume offers an expanded list of 37 “Key Words” which Plate has assembled, each supported by a short essay composed by some of the leading scholars in today’s field. The editor’s mission in amassing this volume is that it would be modular and flexible enough to be used in the classroom for students of varying levels. Nevertheless, the multitude of confident voices assembled for this undertaking means that even hardened scholars will likely find something of note between these pages.

Concerning these pages, I feel it obligatory to add a few remarks about this volume’s print and binding as some careful thought has gone into the process. Crisp black letters written in a comfortable Helvetica font (which, hardly by chance, is a font that enters into one of the later chapter’s discussions) adorn glossy pages. High-resolution coloured images front every chapter and set the tone for the essay that follows. Overall, one can say that the printing and binding make this volume a remarkably sensual and pleasantly tactile reading experience (this review copy even smelled of factory fresh pages). Such meticulous work from a project editor cannot be entirely coincidental.

Content-wise, apart from one notable typographical error involving the repetition of a phrase (see second paragraph in “Gender”, page 104), the volume is well-edited. Though the editor himself observes in his introduction that some topics were left out (as will always be the case with edited volumes), this collection nevertheless feels complete in the way that few edited volumes manage to achieve. While there are areas which feel underdeveloped or missing (perhaps a more in-depth chapter on costume or clothing to supplement the current one on “Dress”), the end result is hardly a feeling of loss or missed opportunities. Rather, the chapter selection we do have is rich, varied yet encompassing, and insightful from start to finish.

Of the 37 terms, essential sensory topics such as “Taste”, “Touch”, “Smell” and “Sound” (with sight being addressed under the label of “Vision”) are all covered, along with other prominent keywords such as “Food”, “Body”, and “Space”. There are also a number of perhaps unexpected entries, revolving around less-often-used terms of focus, such as “City” and “Movement”, and even some terms which are telling of the modern world in which we live, including “Digital”, “Technology” and “Brain-Mind”.

While none of the terms selected for this volume come across as inessential, not all chapters are presented to us evenly. Bruno Latour’s sarcasm and cynicism are always much appreciated by this reviewer, yet the laissez-faire approach to his critiques and storytelling (of which we find ample in his chapter “Fetish-factish”) might be confusing – or at worst, off-putting – to the casual reader or undergraduate student. Certain chapters such as Rich Freeman’s “Taste”, while making an engaging read for a graduate student, may also obfuscate the intended audience. Nevertheless, there are more stand-out chapters than not in this volume. Notably, the chapter on “Aesthetics” by Inken Pohl and the chapter on “Gender” by Deborah Whitehead struck this reviewer as surprisingly insightful and innovative in their approach at tackling these topics.

The strength of such individual chapters would have been overshadowed had the collection not come together as a whole or if each section felt detached from the other. Fortunately, it is in the reading of such a large volume where one becomes intimately aware of just how much overlap there is in the terminology of our field. Robert Orsi’s chapter on “Belief” overlaps with discussions of medium, materials, icons and even gender; the context of Whitehead’s chapter on “Gender”, focusing on certain details from the Victorian and Edwardian spiritualist movements, could not have been possible without the inclusion of a discussion of medium and presence; and so on with the majority of our chapters.

Perhaps that is where the greatest strength of this volume lies: in its inter-subjectivity and cross-disciplinary overview of materiality. Only when all these terms are brought together and ostensibly separated into their own categorized chapters do we really see how tenuous and porous the lines between these elements, terms and ideas really are. Ultimately, in case there was any lingering doubt at the onset of this review, this volume affirms that material religion isn’t a separate sub-study of religious studies any more than religion is entirely separate from anthropology, history, gender studies or the other social sciences. It is indeed refreshing to encounter a volume which bears these considerations in stride.

Alexander Nachaj

Concordia University


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