Enjoying Religion

Pleasure and Fun in Established and New Religious Movements

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Frans Jespers, Karin van Nieuwkerk, Paul van der Velde
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , September
     212 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Enjoying Religion: Pleasure and Fun in Established and New Religious Movements provides a fascinating compilation of scholarly work that explores the intersections between fun, enjoyment, pleasure, play, and religion. Enjoying Religion is the first academic text to explicitly interrogate these intersections. As such, the book provides a broad introduction to a number of important themes as well as a variety of theoretical lenses with which to investigate the ways both established religions and new religious movements engage with and categorize enjoyment. 

The book is divided into two sections. The first section contains chapters that investigate how enjoyment is framed and experienced in established religions including Islam, Hinduism, and Protestant Christianity. The second section explores new religious movements, spirituality, and “secular practices with religious elements” (ix) including the Church of the SubGenius and Burning Man. Readers expecting a thorough exploration of enjoyment in “major” world religions will likely be disappointed by the limited scope of the book. However, as co-editor Fran Jespers notes in his introduction, Enjoying Religion aims to provide “first explorations and possible explanations” (ix) rather than a thorough exploration of religion and enjoyment; a task at which both the book and its contributors succeed. 

Chapters in the first section question the perceived disconnect between established religions and fun. Co-editor Karin van Nieuwkerk explores the growth of a post-Islamist understanding of religion in the Egyptian Piety Movement, noting that fashionable veiling and pleasant religious taste cultures complicate the notion that religion should be serious (19). Catrien Notermans examines the perceived divide between pilgrimage and tourism in India, focusing on the enjoyable sensations pilgrims experience bathing in the Ganges while also seeking “serious” results including the expiation of sin (32) and the growth of the family (34). James S. Bielo considers the Ark Encounter and ways in which this religiously-themed amusement park balances the “serious” goal of spontaneous or eventual conversion (48) with a desire to promote meaningful leisure (58). Finally, co-editor Paul van der Velde provides a helpful overview of Tantra in India and in the West while considering the tension between sincere religious goals and bodily sensuality. 

Chapters in the second section explore a variety of contemporary holidays, events, festivals, and publications and connect the enjoyment these cultural products provide to religion. In some instances, these connections to religion are necessary for analysis and well-defended. However, occasionally these connections seem less helpful and convincing. Of course, nearly anything from the participation of non-believers in Christmas celebrations (98), to the ecstatic experience of Burning Man participants (116), to the writing of book reviews can be framed as religion for the purposes of analysis. But the question remains, is it always helpful to speak of religion in these cases? 

Several of the chapters in the volume engage with the concept of religious emotional regimes. As Ingvild Saelid Gilhus and Lisbeth Mikaelson note in their chapter on Christmas in Norway, religious emotional regimes are distinguished from nonreligious ones as they are socially constructed as “religious” either by insiders or outsiders (99). Gilhus and Mikaelson define religion as an attempt to create “an enchantment of the world” (99), and from this perspective Christmas celebrations, no matter how commercialized or secular they have become, are clearly religious. Likewise, François Gauthier defines religion as a triaxial system of gift (116), and from this perspective Burning Man is clearly religious. Less clear, however, is what is gained by these outsider scholarly constructions of religion.

The question of categorization and of the disconnect between insider and outsider perspectives are more fruitfully explored, first in Jesper’s chapter on the Zen.nl website and popular Happinez magazine, and then also in Carole M. Cusack’s chapter on the Church of the SubGenius. Jespers distinguishes between religion and religious elements (127) and describes secular activities that only have the appearance of religion or spirituality, which he terms “functional equivalents of religion” (142). Given that Jespers is interested in determining whether or not it is helpful to speak of religion, he also carefully explores how the cultural products he investigates frame themselves in terms of religion (140). Cusack carefully attends to categorization and provides an account of the ways the Church of the SubGenius has been labeled religion or parody by both members and outsiders (152). She also astutely defends her own references to religion by noting that, while it is irrelevant to ask whether or not the church is a “real” religion (160), the deviance the church and its members foster only makes sense in terms of the expectations attached to religion (157). 

Perhaps the most theoretically satisfying portion of the book is Jesper’s introduction in which he distills several themes from the contributors’s chapters. For instance, Jespers describes eight cultural tendencies that foster a move toward “agreeable religion” including commercialization, reflectivity, re-enchantment, and aestheticization (xx-xxi). Jespers also assiduously distills shared elements discussed in the various chapters that render religion or religious elements attractive including perceived exotic origins, mystery, the use of special powers or magic, and play or re-enactment.

As the first volume of its kind, Enjoying Religion is required reading for scholars interested in the perceived conflict between religion and fun. Scholars interested in the particular established religions, new religious movements, and cultural products discussed with also benefit from the new perspectives contributors provide.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is Instructor in the Humanities Department at Dawson College in Montréal, Quebec.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Frans Jespers is Associate Professor of Comparative Religion at Radboud University, Nijmegen.

Karin van Nieuwkerk is Professor of Islam Studies at Radboud University, Nijmegen.

Paul van der Velde is Professor of Asian Religions at Radboud University, Nijmegen.



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