Key Terms in Material Religion

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S. Brent Plate
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , December
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


From the outset, Key Terms in Material Religion is explicit about its origins, purpose, and intended audience. A book-length expansion of the 2011 special issue of the journal Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief, the book Key Terms in Material Religion seeks to “create a working lexicon of terms that enables readers to discuss the field of material religion” for “an undergraduate audience” (xvi). With thirty-seven alphabetized entries on a variety of topics, each snapshot of a particular concept is intended to open up discussion of the terms via case studies, rather than to offer concrete definitions or the final word on any particular topic. The open-ended feel of the book and its brevity are simultaneously its greatest strength and biggest weakness.

The introduction, by editor S. Brent Plate, offers a concise primer to the field of material religion, locating it as complementary to lived religion approaches, spatial theories, cognitive science, and other methods and theories that indicate “a strong move toward the material” in the study of religion (4). While one of the goals of this book is to be as succinct as possible, by not offering a working definition of religion or unpacking concepts like sacred and profane prior to offering his own definition of material religion, the introduction somewhat limits its audience to those who are already familiar with how these terms are used within the discipline. This issue aside, Plate’s Geertz-inspired definition of material religion is: “(1) an investigation of the interactions between human bodies and physical objects both natural and human-made; (2) with much of the interaction taking place through sense perception; (3) in special and specified spaces and times; (4) in order to orient, and sometimes disorient, communities and individuals; (5) toward the formal strictures and structures of religious traditions” (4). This definition is thoroughly unpacked and provides a framework on which the following chapters expand (4).

Two major features of Key Terms stand out in relation to its utility for the classroom: its succinctness and alphabetical organization. Each chapter, including the photographic introduction and bibliography, is no longer than eight pages, which allows the pieces to serve as introductions to a concept, supplement longer readings, or be clustered together in a myriad number of combinations. As the book’s editor, Plate “toyed with putting the terms into various clusters,” and the decision not to do so reflects the book’s goal to serve as a tool to encourage varied discussions (xvii). While individual chapters certainly relate to others within the book, each chapter’s focus is sufficiently defined to allow it to stand on its own. The flexibility offered by this book suggests its utility across thematically varied courses within religious studies as well as other disciplines.

Given the broad scope of the book and its intended audience, my major critique is in the lack of suggested reading sections at the end of each chapter. While all the entries contain individual bibliographies at their conclusion, these only reflect the sources consulted in the existent chapter and case study.  Including additional sources, I believe, would reflect the editor’s goal to “show the embedded nature of these key words in religious life” by exploring the applicability of these terms beyond the single case study (xvii). While certain entries, like “Smell,” may not have many additional readings, other entries, such as “Dress,” “Space,” and “Food,” are part of more established subfields. Although I’m unsure if the lack of suggested reading sections was the decision of the editor or the publisher, including such sections would expand the utility of the book as a resource for undergraduates interested in exploring a theme beyond particular case studies.

Packing thirty-seven chapters and an introduction into 304 pages is an ambitious project which strives to collect several decades of discussion about material religion in an accessible introductory undergraduate text. Key Terms in Material Religion is suitable for generating conversation on specific topics, traditions, and locations, while introducing and offering a broad look at the terms that fall under the heading of material religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah "Moxy" Moczygemba is a Religion in the Americas doctoral student at the University of Florida.

Date of Review: 
September 7, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

S. Brent Plate is Visiting Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College, New York, USA. 


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