Material Dynamics

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David Chidester
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , April
     253 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


My sense is that David Chidester would have—if the typesetters had let him—placed the first part of the title of Religion: Material Dynamics in quotation marks. Although the book is in many ways a textbook, Chidester has conceived something far more imaginative than a standard introduction to the world’s religions. Instead, Chidester has chosen to critically analyze the emergence of “religion” as a category, not just once, but in multiple contexts and registers. Specifically, Chidester sets out to develop this critical approach to religion together with the themes and concerns of material culture. So the question becomes not just what religion is and how it is defined, but how the intellectual coordinates out of which “religion” emerges are organized by “material dynamics.” This emphasis on materiality also differentiates Chidester’s volume from comparable works such as Mark C. Taylor’s Critical Terms for Religious Studies (University of Chicago Press, 1998). This gives Chidester’s text a narrower—but deeper—focus, with a stronger emphasis on religious studies’s taproots in anthropology, sociology, and postcolonial theory. In the process, Chidester digests the span of his earlier books on classification under colonization, religion under empire, and religion and popular culture into a single volume. 

Like Taylor’s anthology, the genre of Religion: Material Dynamics is a handbook of keywords. After an orienting introduction that illustrates the importance of perceiving “religion” as a category composed in a range of concrete particulars, Chidester turns to a series of 6-to-16 page essays, structured around terms that have served as historic sites of conceptual organization in religious studies like animism and the sacred. Each chapter provides a brief history of the emergence of the term against a particular backdrop of dynamic struggle, the sources used to devise the term, and current uses and revisions of the term. Each includes an engaging example or cluster of examples—relics, hair, the 1956 anti-communist film Destination Earth, Siberian shamans under the Russian and Chinese empires, the 2012 London Olympics, jokes mocking missionaries, and Tupperware. Chidester’s interest in the South African intellectual ecology means that many of his examples are concerned with race and colonization—or “negotiations over the classification of persons in a contested field of material relations” (207).

Although Chidester frequently steps back in time—retrieving touchstone thinkers to explore the origins of key concepts like animism, space, material culture, and economics vis-à-vis the study of religion—his method is not primarily genealogical. He is focused on the creation of a network of current concepts reflecting on the study of “religion” out of material dynamics. This differentiates his approach from Manuel Vásquez’s More than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2010), another volume pitched as an upper-level textbook. However, Vásquez’s book has a somewhat disingenuous framing. While it presents itself as a textbook, it is actually an argument for a particular methodological tack (and against a host of others). Chidester’s book presents as a volume whose primary field of application will be classrooms, perhaps given that it’s structured as a handbook of terms rather than (as with Vásquez) an intellectual lineage. 

While the argument could be made that this book would function best as a graduate-level or upper-level undergraduate textbook, I would make a case for considering it as part of the equipment of an introductory class. For instance, the chapter on “Space” surveys classical perspectives (Gerardus van der Leeuw and Mircea Eliade) and their echoes in contemporary conversations before transitioning to an overview of the Xhosa religion of South Africa and how its cosmology has evolved through colonial and postcolonial interactions; a history of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya and its historic operation as a multireligious site; and a restudy of these examples using critical concepts highlighted at the beginning of the chapter. Skipping the opening chapter and assigning a selection of these one-off chapters as interludes between other units would help to hold the category of “religion” in productive tension, and position students to think critically about their own commonsense categories. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Donovan O. Schaefer is Associate Professor of Material Religion and Visual Culture at the University of Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
February 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Chidester is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. His recent books include Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture, Wild Religion: Tracking the Sacred in South Africa, and Empire of Religion: Imperialism and Comparative Religion.


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