EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a review of two books on cultural approaches to the study of religion by editors Sarah J. Bloesch and Meredith Minister: the current title and The Bloomsbury Reader in Cultural Approaches to the Study of Religion (Bloomsbury, 2018).
In these two volumes, editors Sarah Bloesch and Meredith Minister convene a group of scholars who help recommend religious studies to undergraduates by virtue of both its capaciousness and its particular purchase for exploring questions of power and social difference. The Bloomsbury Reader in Cultural Approaches to the Study of Religion provides selections from ten eminent authors and features genres ranging from academic monographs, to lectures, to a novel. The sweep of topics introduced illustrates the field’s omnivorousness as well as its interdisciplinarity. For example, at different points, readers are invited to reflect with: anthropologist Mary Douglas on the phenomenology of honey; historian of religion Charles Long on the blues and the “lithic imagination;” with medievalist Carolyn Walker-Bynum on the AIDS quilt as a “transitional object;” and with biblical scholar Phyllis Trible on divine midwifery. Few things, readers are made to understand, fall beyond this field’s purview. Ours is a house with many rooms.
Though that may be the case, Bloesch and Minister stress the ways in which strands of religious studies have been knit together in recent years, through a shared set of concerns, with what the editors refer to as “histories of gender and racial superiority” (Cultural Approaches, 7). In choosing a group of authors who have “changed the course of religious studies during the past fifty years” (Bloomsbury Reader, 3), Bloesch and Minister underscore how the field, alongside adjacent conversations, has worked to demonstrate the consilience between inquiry concerning religion and the broader interrogations that animate much of cultural theory/studies. Selections from Long, Catherine Bell, and Saba Mahmood illustrate the tight imbrication of constructions of “race” and “religion” across colonial and postcolonial contexts. Work from Douglas, Walker-Bynum, and Judith Butler invite reflection upon gendered norms as—or, at least, akin to—religious practices. By way of these examples, students encounter how particular traditions have sustained structures of power, as well ashow the study of religion offers distinct resources for their analysis.
While the above-mentioned texts draw attention to—in these cases, Christian—complicity with forms of normativity and domination, Bloesch and Minister are also keen to include examples in the Reader of authors thinking with religious traditions and tropes to elaborate spiritual-theological positions consistent with particular visions of liberation. For example, via Alice Walker’s defining articulation of womanism and Gloria Anzaldúa’s textual performance of spiritual mestizaje, Bloesch and Minister curate a version of the study of religion that combines what are often segregated as the constructive/theological and critical/interpretive.
Consistent with these curatorial choices is what amounts to both volumes’s most consistent refrain, namely, that “there is no neutral study of religion” (Cultural Approaches, 9). This assertion is not meant to collapse disciplinary priorities into one another, but rather to encourage students to reflect upon the kinds of assumptions that undergird their’s and others’s understandings of what religion is, where it might be found, and to whom it belongs. Rooted in both a feminist insistence upon the situatedness of knowledge and the study of religion’s critique of its organizing category, Bloesch and Minister underscore reflexivity as the field’s central imperative, a practice richly illustrated in the selections from Mahmood, Walker-Bynum, and Wendy Doniger.
Cultural Approaches to Studying Religion—featuring essays from contemporary scholars on the work of those appearing in the Reader—helps to reinforce this point about the contingency of knowledge and inquiry into religion. Serving as brief intellectual-biographical histories, these essays illumine the preoccupations and priorities that have motivated influential scholars’s work. While the text is not a required counterpart for the Reader, the editors note that its contributions profitably locate the span of its contents within personal and historiographical worlds, opening an aperture for students to further reflect on their own locations and the disciplinary contexts in which these texts are situated. It is also worth noting that these essays deserve careers of their own as documents of intellectual history and could be usefully assigned together or apart in graduate as well as undergraduate seminars. SherAli Tareen’s “Disrupting Secular Power and the Study of Religion: Saba Mahmood,” Joseph Winter’s “Mestiza Language of Religion: Gloria Anzaldúa,” and Kathryn Lofton’s “The Bounds of Hierarchy: Mary Douglas” deserve special mention in this respect.
Notwithstanding the editors’s emphasis upon reflexivity and the “non-neutrality” of studies of religion, in the end readers may be surprised by the relative dearth of Bloesch and Minister’s explicit reflections upon their choices in putting these works together and the rubrics that guided them. As mentioned above, they gesture to selection criteria in terms of temporal scope and the influence of a lightly sketched “cultural theory,” but this does not quite tell the whole story. At their most direct, Bloesch and Minister declare their (and the volumes’s) departure from those they dub “our so-called academic forefathers” in terms of a preference for “theorists who attempt to study religion with an awareness of how power operates to center some people and marginalize others” (Cultural Approaches, 9). This, too, however, appears to understate or undersell some of the force of their project, which is not a disinterested report on the religious studies of recent vintage, but a programfor the field. To risk putting too fine a point on it, theirs is a design for a religious studies that is inextricable from postcolonial, anti-racist, intersectional, and feminist critique. This is what separates these volumes from the “so-called ... forefathers.”
One might reasonably respond that some of the power of this project is realized through the subtlety of Bloesch and Minister’s interventions—what they don’t come out and say. Or, one might protest that the other volumes in our field, those populated by predominantly white men and their concerns, don’t bother to justify their exclusionary choices and that, therefore, it is unfair—and the reinscription of privilege—to place such onus on these editors. My greed for further elaboration from Bloesch and Minister, however, derives from a pedagogical motive, namely, the conviction that a more robust articulation of the arguments that structure these volumes would better equip students to join in the thick of the project that Bloesch and Minister lay out for us. Putting their motivating arguments in plainer view would help foreground—in the classroom and beyond—a host of germane questions: To what extent is the elaboration of an intersectional or postcolonial field of study predicated upon the generation of new canons? Could the “so-called ... forefathers” be enlisted in such projects, or are they antithetical to them? What is the relationship between what we read and the kind of intellectual communities we want to make? What priorities govern what varieties of “confessional” or “constructive” work is enlisted in introducing the field, and to whom is “religious” or “spiritual” labor delegated?
These questions and more are the inheritance of those who take up the mantel Bloesch and Minister have borne and offered with such verve and commitment. Distilled, they might take the form of a single query, one at the heart of these volumes: what might religious studies be?
Andrew Walker-Cornetta is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Princeton University and the co-organizer of Princeton's Disability Studies Working Group.Andrew Walker-CornettaDate Of Review:March 12, 2019
Sarah J. Bloesch is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University. Her teaching and research interests focus on Christianity, race and sexuality in the United States.
Meredith Minister is Assistant Professor or Religion at Shenandoah University. She teaches courses in religious studies and gender studies. She is the author of Trinitarian Theology and Power Relations: God Embodied (2014).