Christianity and the Limits of Materiality

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Minna Opas, Anna Haapalainen
Bloomsbury Studies in Material Religion
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , June
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The study of religion classically has tried to quantify and explain religious experience. In the past few years, scholars have focused on the materials used in religion to provide another inroad for exploring religions in a meaningful way. Thinking about religion through things allows for a rich interaction of disciplines beyond textual study or ethnography. Thinkers like Robert Orsi, Colleen McDannell, Caroline Walker Bynum, Sally Promey, and Manuel Vasquez have provided interesting insights into Christian practice and belief through the lens of materiality.

Christianity and the Limits of Materiality, edited by Minna Opas and Anna Haalpalainen, considers what role material things can play in a religion that relegates materiality to the realm created by a God who is spirit. The editors have grouped the various chapters of this volume under three organizing themes: doubting, sufficing, and unbinding.

“Doubting” signifies the ambivalence of matter and explores whether it is possible for Christians to trust material things in spiritual experience. The chapters in this section study the fraught role of various media in African Pentecostalism, how the body can be the site of religious experience for the Yine of Amazonia, and the importance of hierarchical consecration of material things in Ethiopian Orthodoxy. 

The “Sufficing” section asks, “what kind of matter constitutes faith?” The four chapters here explore the efficacy of various media in conveying the message of Christianity. Does the Bible have spiritual power in electronic format? Does immersion in the Ark Experience theme park in Kentucky provide an authentic experience of biblical truth through entertainment? Can we unite the time and space between the contemporary world and biblical events when negotiated through the human performance of a passion play? Can ritual and procession imbue the sanctity and meaning of an ancient and sacred crucifix into a replica?

Under the section heading “Unbinding,” the last three chapters study the inevitable value of matter when employed by human beings to engage with their faith. How did ascetic practice allow the body to be a site of spiritual contact in the Radical Pietist movement? How does drug relapse problematize the role of the body and bodily transformation through moral conversion in a Baptist rehab center? How do Holy Week processions in Granada allow for spiritual immanence though material performance? 

Diana Espirito Santo’s afterword provides an apt reflection on the foregoing chapters. Drawing upon the work of various scholars in the volume, she concludes that Christian religious materiality is not just mediatory, but rather is active in human spiritual experience. She capably unites the diverse topics in this volume with her brief words. 

As a Christian practitioner and scholar, I am well aware of the pitfalls present when talking about things in Christianity. While labeling something as agentic or a fetish might be appropriate in the scholarly realm, such concepts may not be approachable for believers wary of idolatry. The authors in this text do well to respect this tension and have contributed a work that furthers the discussion of Christian materiality in a responsible and useful way.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Justin Rose is Professor of Patristics at Sts Cyril and Methodius Seminary.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Minna Opas is collegium researcher at the University of Turku, Finland.

Anna Haapalainen teaches the study of religion at the University of Turku, Finland.


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