History and Presence

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Robert A. Orsi
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Belknap Press
    , March
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Robert Orsi has become justly famous for his dense, nuanced accounts of lived religion—of that web of relationships forged on earth and beyond earth between people, their gods (broadly construed), and other people. “The study of religion is or ought to be,” Orsi writes in his latest work, History and Presence, “the study of what human beings do to, for, and against the gods really present...and what the gods really present do with, to, for, and against humans” (4). Why the qualifier “really present”? Why does it matter that scholars study not just human interaction with the gods but with the gods really present?

Orsi sees the denial of real presence—the rebirth of the gods as “symbols, signs, metaphors, functions, and abstractions” (4)—as fundamental to most modern theories of religion and, indeed, to modernity itself. The eucharistic shadings of his diagnosis are deliberate, for he locates the genesis of this denial in the sacramental debates of the Protestant Reformation. Huldrych Zwingli and company rejected the doctrine of God’s real presence in the consecrated host, and as the fathers of Trent knew, “if not contested by doctrine, discipline, and force of arms,” Zwingli’s theology “would culminate at last and inevitably in God’s absence from the world” (23). And so it has—almost. Though they remain present in the lives of those they affect, the gods have become invisible and illegible to modern critical theory. To write with the gods really present, then, is to name and resist this regime of absence.

The stories that make up the seven chapters of this book are classic Orsi: careful, layered, humane, and subtle. Holy cards are eaten by dying Catholics, given as gifts and rewards, and used as a language for human desires, fears, and hopes. A woman abused by her stepfather finds in the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus consolation but also anxiety, disruption, and confusion. A replica of the Lourdes shrine in the Bronx is acknowledged by its devotees as simultaneously a copy and the real thing. Faces of the dead and living appear to visitors on a painting of the crucified Christ. Mary contradicts American wartime propaganda in a vision to a rosary-praying Detroit housewife. If reformed theology has led to the gods’ ostensible absence in modern religion, History and Presence is a sort of counter-reformation literature that revels in the excesses of divine materiality: the contradictions, the redundancies, the scrambling of borders between the sacred and profane, the dead and the living, the past and the present, the original and the imitator. Especially rich are the chapters on “Printed Presence” and “The Dead in the Company of the Living.” Like Orsi’s “Snakes Alive” (2005), these chapters would make excellent readings in graduate and advanced undergraduate seminars.

Through such stories, Orsi shows us what it looks like “not to make the move to absence, at least not immediately, to withhold from absence the intellectual, ethical, and spiritual prestige modernity gives it, and to approach history and culture with the gods fully present” (8). In a sense, he has been showing us what this looks like for years, beginning with The Madonna of 115th Street in 1985 (Yale University Press), again with Thank You, St. Jude in 1996 (Yale University Press), and most recently with his 2005 Between Heaven and Earth (Princeton University Press). What is new in History and Presence is the explicit framing of his approach within the history of Protestant-Catholic debates on real presence.

Orsi’s insistence on real presence will doubtless unnerve some readers, particularly those with roots in biblical studies, where apologetics and covert theological claims are perceived as persistent threats to the integrity of the field. Isn’t the bracketing of questions of real presence the very thing that distinguishes religious studies from the normative field of theology? If, as Jonathan Z. Smith has taught us, the task of religious studies is the reclassification of “religious” phenomena into categories susceptible to analysis and comparison, doesn’t Orsi’s call to countenance the real presence of the gods preclude the very acts of translation that constitute religious studies as a discipline?

To read Orsi in this way would be to miss the contribution of his book. The assumption of real presence has heuristic value: it forces the scholar to be patient, to be empathetic, to give up models that do not adequately narrate what is observed, and to give the gods exactly as much attention (and the same kind of attention) as one would give to persons. History and Presence offers not so much a methodology as a genealogical contextualization of the methodology Orsi has been employing throughout his three decades of scholarship. He has not been anxious to reduce marian apparitions to mass psychosis, to subordinate the cult of Saint Jude to the one high God of Christian monotheism, or to explain away the garish imagery of Catholic children’s literature as naïve, dangerous distortions of written texts. Instead, “real presence” is Orsi’s retrospective articulation of that stance which has allowed him to pay attention to the intricate webs of relationships that we now—thanks in no small part to his work—call religion.

But more than this, perhaps, is that the assumption of real presence breaks down that presumed methodological (but really metaphysical) dividing wall between the scholar and their object of study. To write as if the gods are really present is to give up the pretension of scholarly objectivity, to fight against the temptation to imagine oneself as writing from nowhere, or from the safe distance of modernity. Orsi’s trademark interweaving of autobiography with ethnography is the giving up of this pretension in practice. History and Presence is a thought-provoking, expertly arranged tour of precisely those abundant, excessive phenomena which scholars have historically found so difficult to think.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sonja Anderson is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

Date of Review: 
October 28, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert A. Orsi is Professor of Religious Studies and History and Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University.


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