Invention of Tradition and Syncretism in Contemporary Religions

Sacred Creativity

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Stefania Palmisano, Nicola Pannolino
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , October
     234 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Despite the assertions by Carole Cusack in the foreword of this new volume (and by the editors in the first chapter) that there has been little research into religious innovation, invention, and creativity until recently, anthropologists and other scholars have been documenting and analyzing religious change for a century. Anthony Wallace proposed a model for revitalization movements over sixty years ago in his classic 1956 essay. While much of this attention has focused on indigenous religions and new/alternative religions, keen observers of the Judeo-Christian tradition like Walter Brueggemann in his 2003 An Introduction to the Old Testament (Westminster John Knox) have also emphasized the “open-ended” and continuously evolving nature of scripture as the result of what he calls “imaginative remembering.”

Of course the crucial moment in the recent turn toward the study of changing tradition was Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s 1983 The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press), to which the contributors to the present volume owe an obvious and acknowledged debt. As the editors further explain in the opening chapter, the ten selections within the volume are divided evenly between two sections elaborating two specific processes of cultural creativity: invention and syncretism.

The case study essays, of which there are actually only eight (since the editors’ introduction is numbered as chapter one and their brief conclusion is numbered as chapter ten), offer a wide cross-cultural view of religious creativity and change while adding a number of different perspectives and concepts to the process. In a case that I particularly enjoyed, Marianna Zanetta shows how modernization has impacted the Japanese tradition of itako or blind female healers/diviners. Lia Zola also explores the issue of gender in her piece on Eastern Siberian shamanism, recognizing it as both invention and revivalism. For Daniela Bevilacqua, the idea is “evolution of tradition” rather than sheer invention in the matter of hagiographies in the Ramanandi order, in which writers perpetually rework and “discover” accounts of the lives of important figures. Roberta Pibiri stresses the editors’ own concept of “inventive traditions” in her chapter on Goddess Spirituality in Italy, which reminds us that creativity in religion does not only occur at the beginning of a tradition but throughout its history.

Among the four studies under the heading of syncretism, the most fascinating for me is Maria Caterina Mortillaro’s description of the translation of Christian beliefs and concepts into Hindu Bharatanatyam dance gesture. In explicitly raising the notion of “inculturation” which has been actively promoted by the Catholic Church, Mortillaro also finds predictable resistance to such adaptation among Christians and Hindus alike. Eugenia Roussou compares religious syncretism and creativity in Greece and Portugal, where Christianity and New Age religions co-exist in novel and productive relationships, while Alberto Groisman discusses an interesting instance of syncretism of religion and technology in the Brazilian tradition of Daime, itself a relatively new but also relatively established religion. Finally and appropriately, Monica Cornejo shares a case of failed ritual creativity in popular Spanish Catholicism, underscoring the fact that many innovations and blends of religion do not survive.

In the editors’ short conclusion, they point out the conservative nature or ideology of tradition, as they also rightly state that religion is not “autonomous” but is part of and penetrated by its surrounding culture (that is, we could say, all religion is inculturated, just as culture tends to be inreligionated). It is perhaps this first fact that caused scholars to ignore or downplay the creativity of tradition, including and especially religious tradition, since it is central to the ideology of most religions that they are eternal and immutable (think of the Christian notion of heresy or the Islamic notion of bid’a). However, it is impossible for social scientists to accept this ideology in the face of constant change and inventiveness. This leads directly to the second fact, that religion is and must be understood as no more than one aspect or domain of culture and that all culture is dynamic, adaptive, and evolving. Accordingly, for several decades anthropologists, folklorists, and religious studies scholars have treated tradition as a verb, as “traditioning” and “traditionalization,” whether those traditions are folk tales, art forms, or religions. In other words, the phenomenon of invention, or the inventiveness of religion is not as new or surprising as the chapters here imply, leading them sometimes to expend unnecessary energy to justify the claim of invention of religious tradition. Nevertheless, the empirical evidence they bring is a welcome addition to the already robust literature on contemporary religious and cultural creativity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jack David Eller is Associate Professor of Anthropology (retired) at the Community College of Denver.

Date of Review: 
February 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stefania Palmisano is Associate Professor in the Sociology of Religion at the University of Turin, Italy, where she teaches the Sociology of Religious Organization and the Sociology of Religion. She is Visiting Research Fellow, Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion in Lancaster University (UK). She is a member of the editorial board of Etnografia e Ricerca Qualitativa (il Mulino) and Fieldwork in Religion (EQUINOX). In addition, Stefania Palmisano is co-ordinator of the research centre CRAFT (Contemporary Religion and Faiths in Transition) based in the Department of Culture, Politics and Society of Turin University.

Nicola Pannofino is Assistant Professor in Sociology of Language and Communication at the University of Turin. He is member of the scientific committee of Hierós, editorial series of the Italian academic publisher Meti, and member of the organizing committee of the research centre CRAFT (Contemporary Religion and Faiths in Transition) based in the Department of Culture, Politics and Society of Turin University. His research interests include sociology of alternative spirituality, secular religions, theories of the sacred, rhetoric and cognition.



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