Irreverence and the Sacred

Critical Studies in the History of Religions

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Hugh B. Urban, Greg Johnson
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Irreverence and the Sacred: Critical Studies in the History of Religions, editors Hugh B. Urban and Greg Johnson gather a diverse assembly of scholars whose writings, while varied in their subjects of study and approaches, all respond in some manner to the work of religion scholar Bruce Lincoln. In their introduction, the editors write that “the boldly provocative and irreverent approach that Lincoln recommends has also generated a number of intense questions and criticisms of its own” (17). They state their purpose in compiling this collection is to provide responses to these questions and to “highlight them in an equally provocative way in order to stimulate further engagement with this sort of critical, self-reflexive, and destabilizing approach to the study of religion” (17). Along with this stated purpose, it is the constant awareness of the placement and role of the scholar which most unifies this volume’s fourteen separate chapters.

The book is divided by theme into four sections. The authors of the first section, “Myth and Narrative,” either work within a framework establishing myths and narratives as vehicles for disseminating specific ideologies, in a manner reminiscent of how Lincoln himself often discusses myth, or they examine the category of “myth” itself. Nicholas Meylan begins the section with his explanation of Scandinavian battle narratives. He compares different accounts of a well-known naval battle between Danish and Norwegian fleets in the 10th century. Next, Ivan Strenski considers the use of myth in the building of identity in the commonly recounted Russian narrative that places Moscow as a third Rome and Russia as the heir to Byzantium.

In her discussion of the subversion of dharma in the Kamasutra and the Arthashastra, Wendy Doniger relates her observations to Lincoln’s work on how power and dissent are evident in narratives. Doniger provides a fascinating example of this subversion in her description of the detailed instructions in the Kamasutra on how to seduce a married woman and suggests methods by which the content was able to remain in the text, even though adultery harshly violated dharmic principles. In Kevin Wagner’s “Authority Apart from Truth,” the reader is offered several nods to Lincoln as Wagner explores the category of myth as it applies to the medium of comic books and questions what types of ideologies, if any at all, might be privileged when the makers of the most popular comics are major media conglomerates.

In an interesting consideration of classification, Wagner recommends an amendment to Lincoln’s taxonomy of narratives by adding a category of “paradigmatic fictions” for stories that hold authority for a group of people but do not purport to be true (91). The final chapter of this section, Stefan Arvidsson’s “Myths and Utopias, Critics and Caretakers,” confronts Lincoln’s most hardline stance in calling for a critical outlook with a call for room in scholarship for compassion and hope.

Irreverence and the Sacred is a book notable for self-reflexive scholarship, and nowhere is this more evident than part 2 of the volume, titled “Ritual and Practice.” Greg Johnson’s work, “Ritual, Advocacy, and Authority,” considers questions of tradition and practice, while he recounts his involvement as an observer and expert witness during legal proceedings in Hawaii. In this intensely revealing essay, Johnson explains how his research “walks a razor’s edge between scholarship and advocacy” (132). He offers unusual insight into the types of real ethical dilemmas and consequences that scholars in the religious studies field can face. Hugh Urban’s “Death, Nationalism, and Sacrifice” describes ongoing tensions in India surrounding animal sacrifice and the discourse surrounding sacrifice, both in specific regions and in political discussions at a national level. Jean Kellens, in “Becoming Zarathustra,” examines how Western scholars working with Zoroastrian texts, with their own biases and outlook, created a distinct narrative in the process.

The authors of the third section of the volume, “Gender and Sexuality,” acknowledge Lincoln’s work on gender but also his general ideas on critique. These discussions begin with Kelly E. Hayes’ analysis of the role of gender, and further divisions amongst members, in Brazil’s Valley of the Dawn communities. “Straightening out the Gods’ Gender” by Kathleen Self offers observations on modern Neo-pagan communities’ characterization of the gender of Norse gods. Also discussing Norse motifs, albeit in a very different form, Stefanie von Schnurbein writes about the Swedish novel Hertha in “Norn, Vampire, Female Christ.”

Part 4, “Power, and the Politics of Scholarship,” specifically focuses on academic work in religious studies. Russell T. McCutcheon’s chapter, “Historicizing the Elephant in the Room,” defamiliarizes the well-known story of four blind men wrongly identifying an elephant in order to make a point about our ongoing construction of narratives. Claude Calame’s “What is Religion?” compares approaches to religion from both the cognitive science field and cultural anthropology while referring back to both Lincoln and J.Z. Smith, two of the most prominent religion theorists, in weighing the approaches. Finally, “Rereading Charlie Hebdo” by S. Romi Mukherjee examines the ideological leanings of scholarship on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, including those of Bruce Lincoln.

Irreverence and the Sacred offers fresh perspectives on one of the most influential theorists in religious studies. The book also contains deeply self-conscious explorations of how scholars of religion approach their work; the authors describe the processes they use in specific projects and the dilemmas they have faced while conducting their research. On occasion authors in this volume even express regret that perhaps they could have approached particular projects differently. This process of self-description and reflection on the part of the authors unifies this book far more than any field of study or response to specific writings of Lincoln. It is the insight into this grappling on how to best conduct scholarly work and the application of religious studies theory to such a wide variety of subjects that make this such an immensely valuable resource.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Melody Everest is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta.

Date of Review: 
April 20, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hugh B. Urban is Professor of Religious Studies and South Asian Studies in the Department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University. He is the author of nine books, including The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion (2011) and Zorba the Buddha: Sex, Spirituality and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement (2016).

Greg Johnson is Professor and Director, Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion, and Public Life at the University of California, Santa Barbara


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