The Bloomsbury Handbook to Studying Christians

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Editor(s): 
Stephen E. Gregg, George D. Chryssides
  • London: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     2019.
     416 pages.
     $175.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781350043381.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In the decades since the turn to lived religion as a primary focus of study for many scholars in religious studies, attention to the interplay between formal religious teachings and structures and their creative, ongoing adaptation by religious practitioners has been well represented within both articles and monographs. Within this broader landscape, The Bloomsbury Handbook to Studying Christians, edited by George D. Chryssides and Stephen E. Gregg, is unique in two respects. First, it draws on an impressively international cadre of authors, with UK universities being particularly well represented. Second, even while its price point will likely prohibit its full adoption as a textbook for most undergraduate courses, the range of topics covered within thirty-two concise articles (e.g., fundamentalism, Christianity in Africa, tourism, interreligious encounter, science and technology, pilgrimage) means that the collection might well lend itself to being excerpted for teaching and research purposes. Thus, it could function as a helpful research guide both for capturing the state of the question on a given topic and suggesting future directions for inquiry.

The editors, in their introduction, announce their intentions for the spirit of lived (or, in their terms, “vernacular”) religion to permeate each of the contributions: “What concerns those who embark on the study of religion is what believers do, and how they implement their beliefs and traditions, which is often very different from the expressions found in its history or in its official statements” (7). “Vernacular” operates as an updating of the problematic notion of “folk” religion and is operationalized a number of ways throughout the volume: as a contrast to “institutional” narratives, as a way to acknowledge high percentages of adherents to multiple or hybrid religious traditions, and as a marker for ongoing creative tension between authorized spokespeople for a given tradition (e.g., clergy or theologians) and laity. This allows the authors by and large to replace common and often inadvertently normative dichotomies (e.g., orthodox vs. heterodox, mainstream vs. marginal, etc.) with more empirically focused portraits of how religious believers construct the style and meaning of their own adherence.

As might be expected, the relative brevity of the articles means, among other things, that the execution of this focus on the vernacular varies greatly across the contributions (and with equally varied effectiveness). In four brief pages, for instance, Melissa Wilcox’s discussion of LGBTQ Christians manages to capture impressively the ongoing tensions of fidelity and necessary creativity felt by adherents to Christianity who are part of the LGBTQ community either by orientation or allyship. However, at other times the sheer conciseness of the articles eliminates the very space for nuance that a focus on creative lived religious (over against the sort of reigning narratives often enforced by power structures within Christian institutions) would require.

To take one example, the discussion of liturgical calendars operates with a relatively face-value explanation of the structure and rationale of calendrical divisions between the Christian East and West. However, a less cursory engagement with the lived experience of Eastern Christians especially (who throughout the world diverge, often with significant hostility, between the Julian and Gregorian calendar) could yield interesting data on how Eastern Christian laity both in majority Orthodox countries and in diaspora situations navigate these tensions via both official liturgical observances and more informal modes of religious practice (e.g., online groups). Similarly, the discussion on various Christian denominations helpfully includes a discussion of liturgical art but operates within relatively staid construals of what is considered “appropriate” in Roman Catholic versus Protestant settings without asking the further questions,  “appropriate to whom?” and “according to whom?” or discussing the various ways that previously firmer boundaries around Christian aesthetic styles have become much more fluid in a postmodern, internet-driven age.

The point in making these observations is not to bemoan what is not included in a volume that must inevitably make hard choices about what to highlight. Rather, it is to appreciate that the two tasks that the Bloomsbury Handbook sets for itself (to be a reference source with concise topical snapshots and to be consistently informed by a vernacular rather than top-down approach to Christian practices) exist in real tension. Indeed, it may be that one of the most helpful contributions of the volume is to embody that tension across wide swaths of scholarly inquiry, and to provide a scholarly on-ramp for students and researchers who wish to go deeper in a given area. That in itself makes this volume a helpful option for those who teach in more empirically oriented settings.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Saler is research professor of religion and culture at Christian Theological Seminary and a fellow in the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University/Purdue University Indianapolis.

Date of Review: 
April 28, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

George D. Chryssides is a Research Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at York St John University, UK.

Stephen E. Gregg is Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at University of Wolverhampton, UK and Hon. Secretary of the British Association for the Study of Religions.

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