The Oxford Handbook of the Study of Religion

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Michael Stausberg, Steven Engler
Oxford Handbooks
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     672 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What is “the study of religion”? Apparently, it’s a big book published by Oxford University Press in 2016 and edited by Michael Stausberg and Steven Engler. The Oxford Handbook of the Study of Religion is an impressively thorough treatment, and it’s difficult to imagine a single volume that could accomplish a more complete survey of the field of religious studies. Unfortunately, the editors’ achievement reveals more about the field’s mounting challenges than its continuing vitality.

The fault is not theirs. The editors have quite admirably left no discourse unturned in their attempt to provide the reader with a survey of the academic study of religion in the 21st century. From an engaging-in-the-weeds exploration of “definitions” in its opening chapter, to the thoughtful parsing of cognitive science from evolutionary theory in separate treatments, the handbook offers a variety of critical, thematic, and historical lenses. The editors also resist the common trend amongst scholars to intersect critical discourses on “Feminism and Gender Theory,” “Marxism,” and “(Post)structuralism,” and instead give each their proper treatment in separate chapters. There is a section on “modes” of expression (e.g., “Communication,” by Volkhard Krech; “Performance,” by Axel Michaels and William S. Sax; “Space,” by David Chidester), a section on “Environments” (e.g., “Economy,” by Anne Koch; “Medicine,” by Pamela E. Klassen; “Tourism,” by Alex Norman), a section on comparative “topics” (e.g., “Belief,” by Jason C. Bivins; “Gods,” by Gustavo Benavides; “Priests, Prophets, Sorcerers,” by Manfred Hutter), and a section on historical “processes” (e.g., “Globalization,” by Manuel A. Vásquez and David Garbin; “Individualization and Privatization,” by Jörg Rüpke; “Syncretism and Hybridization,” by Paul Christopher Johnson). In fact, there are forty-nine separate, well-considered treatments of particular aspects of the field within the first six sections of the book.

And then there is the final section of the handbook—“Part VII: The Discipline”—that most clearly, to me anyway, signifies both the problem and the promise of the “study of religion.” Michael Stausberg in the chapter “History,” and Thomas A. Tweed in the chapter “Relevance” offer, respectively, a sober assessment of the history of the field and the languid pace at which it has joined other humanistic intellectual trends, and a spirited defense of the relevance of both the study of religion, and the study of the humanities more generally.

Stausberg’s assessment of the discipline is concise and pointed: “Theories of religion are relatively rarely advanced by scholars of religion, and, while the discipline has reveled in meta-theoretical and meta-methodological reflections, research methods have still not reached the level of sophistication found in several other disciplines” (794). It’s a fair assessment. The study of religion, more than any other humanistic discipline, is shaped by power’s historical architecture. Like M.C. Escher’s sympathetically delineated hands, we draw upon the lines of force that define our discourse without sufficient perspective. Even when these intersecting networks of power are named, say in a work like Tomoko Masuzawa’s meticulous The Invention of World Religions (University of Chicago Press, 2005), they often fail to draw the deeper historical connections that could expand our epistemologies, and fail to see what discourses are endlessly recycled (cross-culturally) in our efforts to generate and maintain a properly adjudicated cosmos.

In this way, a work like Geoffrey Harpham’s The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism (University of Chicago Press, 1986), offers an alternative approach. He points out that the critical tools that humanists ham-fistedly take up to dissect cultural production are really the ascetic’s tools. And for every poststructuralist and critical theorist who laments the “seductive” nature of “reading,” the “hidden” dangers of “power,” there was a cenobite who abstained from bodily pleasure, who denied him or herself the comforts of wealth.

I would suggest that Tweed intuits this essential connection between the humanities and the study of religion without articulating it in this way. The reason that a handbook on the study of religion must include everything from evolutionary theory to economics is because “religion” is the very stuff out of which the whole human world, as such, is conjured. The study of religion has not yet come to terms with its universal relevance, and it is suffering for it. It is the other humanistic disciplines that are peripheral, niche organisms amongst the vast association of strangers we call religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

C. Travis Webb is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
November 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Stausberg is professor of religion at the University of Bergen. He was formerly a fellow at the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultual and Social Studies and is a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. His previous publications include Contemporary Theories of Religion: A Critical Companion (Routledge, 2009), Religion and Tourism: Crossroads, Destinations and Encounters (Routledge, 2010), and Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism (Equinox, 2008). He is co-editor of The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism (with Yuhan Sohrab-Dinshaw Vevaina; Wiley Blackwell, 2015) and The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion (with Steven Engler; Routledge, 2013).

Steven Engler is professor of religious studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary. He is professor colaborador in the Programa de Estudos Pos-Graduados em Ciencias da Religiao at the Pontificia Universidade Catolica de Sao Paulo and Affiliate Professor with the Department of Religion, Concordia University, Montreal. He is the co-editor of Historicizing Tradition in the Study of Religion (with Gregory Price Grieve; De Gruyter, 2005).


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