A Few Reasons to Read "Religion"


C. Travis Webb

Last Updated Date

Thursday, July 7, 2016 - 04:13
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Hello, and welcome to Reading Religion, the new book review site of the American Academy of Religion. Pull up a chair, and make yourself at home. Spend some time clicking around—browse the categories—try a keyword or two. There are a lot of books here. If you’re reading this at launch, then the number of books is approaching 700, and if you’re reading this in 2017, or some more distant digital future, then the number is undoubtedly in the thousands.

The JAAR office receives, on average, four reviewable books per day, and by “reviewable” I mean “scholarly”—in intent if not always in execution. (We receive plenty of non-scholarly books too, including, so far, two coloring books.) Indeed, we’ve received so many scholarly books in the last six months that the cautionary tale called, “Travails of 21st Century Tenure,” practically writes itself. And though the problems of institutional bibliomania are real, please do not mistake my glib tone for a critical assessment. The number of meticulously researched, carefully written, and thoughtfully produced books on religion is humbling. Put simply, there are a lot of really smart people thinking about this highly consequential analytical bracket called “religion.”  

But there’s another reason to embrace this surfeit of learnedness, quite aside from the sometimes fortunate falls of scholarly over-production, and it has precisely nothing to do with our professional academic considerations. Religious matters matter. It's true that "religion" may not always aspire to Tillich’s superlative concerns, and that it only recently achieved analytic legitimacy in the 19th century when British colonial bureaucracies wed Teutonic Romanticism, and it is certainly true that its pop-cultural simplifications too often serve as scarecrows for otherwise reasonable scientists, but it also undeniably matters to a whole lot of humans. However we parse, tussle, deconstruct, edify, reify, or collate the concept (or phenomenon) of “religion,” it shows no signs of enervating anytime soon.

This should probably not come as a surprise to those of us who critically study it—whatever “it” is. As James Turner points out in Philology, his most recent examination of the “origins of the modern humanities,” it was Max Müller’s 1856 Essay on Comparative Mythology that marked the emergence of humanistic specializations in the modern academy. Before 1860 there wasn’t something called the study of “literature,” per se, “linguistics,” or “art history,” let alone “religious studies.” There was just “philology,” the study of language, in all of its dizzying forms of signification (artifacts, architecture, texts, their origins and their phylogeny illuminated by their comparative morphologies). In other words, “religion” has been both the problem and the promise of scholarly specialization from the beginning. This website embraces that helter-skelter heritage even as it aspires to be a tool for disciplining it.

Given our predominantly scholarly audience, it is very likely that each of you knows more about some particular feature of the human world, and that world’s ethereal speculations, than any other person alive. We are scholars, adepts, paṇḍitas, and in our twittering social provinces we are increasingly rare birds. It’s something to take pride in. However, the results of humanistic specialization in general, and contemporary “religious studies” in particular, is that those of us who know the most about religion have the least to say about it to those who know far too little. Reading Religion isn’t going to solve that problem, but it is a self-conscious attempt to generate some crosstalk, to nettle our sectarian complacencies.

The reviews you will find here are meant to be read by any curious person with an interest in religion. Undoubtedly, we will tend to gravitate towards our most familiar nomenclatures, but the hope is that by pitching a very large tent, by including every facet of the discipline, then a more libertine, post-disciplinary sensibility might be found. Perhaps a classical sinologist might notice something in a review of a book about Kierkegaard that provokes her, and though she never had time to study Kierkegaard’s ironic fluidities in graduate school—because she was too busy mastering half-a-dozen languages—the review convinces her that his work might prove relevant to hers, so she ventures out of her specialty. Or perhaps someone writing a critical appraisal of the Protestant bias for scriptures in religious studies comes upon a detailed historiography of Chinese travel narratives, and learns that Shih Fa-hian, the 5th century Chinese monk, set off on an epic fourteen-year quest into South Asia in search of Buddhist scriptures long before Oxbridge dons inflected colonial apologetics.

I am not unsympathetic to the criticisms that suggest the religious studies tent is too large, too loud, ill-suited to the scientific contemplation of the otherworldly forms that haunt the material world. But this website will do what it can to nurture a response to that criticism. There are too many sensitive, shrewd, and earnest scholars laboring over monographs in universities, libraries, and seminaries all across the world to give up on the pleasures of reading each other’s work. I may feel more comfortable with Foucault than Al-Shāfi’ī, but I am willing to be tutored. I hope you discover that the same is true for you.

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