Sensing Sacred Texts

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James W. Watts
Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts
  • Sheffield, UK: 
    Equinox Publishing Limited
    , October
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sensing Sacred Texts, edited by James W. Watts, offers a feast for the eyes and the imagination by introducing its readers to a range of ways that sacred texts engage the senses of those who read, hear, venerate, taste, touch, smell, and look at them. The third volume in a series from Equinox Publishing on “Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts,” the book’s ten essays examine examples of the sensory dimension of scriptures in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Confucianism, and undertake a broader consideration of the sacred status attributed to texts – and to books in particular – in religious and secular cultures alike. Not only do the essays highlight the crucial role played by the material qualities of sacred texts for processes such as identity formation, the establishment of cultural boundaries, and the recruitment of affect, the volume’s thirty-eight full-color images will make you want to reach out and touch, taste, or smell the sacred texts in question for yourself.

Although sight, hearing, and smell receive attention, the essays focus especially on touch and taste. These two themes, touching and tasting, create cohesion among the chapters so that the book works together as a whole to present a multidimensional picture of the way the senses shape the physical production, meaning, reception, and social functions of scripture. One could trace many provocative pathways through the book by following the themes of touch and taste.

In regards to touch, for example, S. Brent Plate’s discussion in chapter 1 of what he calls “book arts,” or artworks that use books as their medium to interrogate the nature of books and of reading, highlights the way ritualized modes of touch set books apart as special. Art that destroys books to make something new, like the whittling of a landscape from Encyclopedia Britannica’s pages in an example of book art by Guy Laramée’s “Adieu,” operates religiously by deconsecrating books as a category. Marianne Schleicher in chapter 3 details the reverse process by describing the intensely tactile stages of making and inaugurating a Torah scroll, where prescribed and repetitive modes of handling the text turn it into a “manipulable symbol” (42). In Dorina Miller Parmenter’s chapter on the Christian Bible as an affective object and David Ganz’s chapter on the tactile dimensions of sacred books in the medieval West, the kinds of sacrifice and sacralization evoked by Plate and Schleicher help make sacred books into protective and healing agents.

Whereas the haptic dimensions of book use reveal sacred texts as artifacts and icons, practices in which users taste or ingest scripture transform sacred texts into a means for incorporating the divine. Tasting and eating scripture can be metaphorical. Yohan Yoo shows how neo-Confucian authors compared careful reading of sacred texts to chewing and tasting (169). Many traditions literalize the metaphor of consumption. Katharina Wilkens describes the popular practice in the Muslim world of writing verses of the Qur’an on paper which is then dipped in water and drunk or of writing the verses on plates or boards from which the ink is washed off and imbibed for its healing properties (115). By drinking the Qur’an, “the words spoken by God himself … may unfold in the body when the words are ingested” (131). In Tibetan Buddhism, too, as Cathy Cantwell explains, practitioners inscribe mantras from texts known as “Lettering to Eat” on slips of paper and insert them into balls of dough to eat them or “blow” mantras into water for drinking (148). Ingestion can convey curses as well as blessings. Christian Frevel discusses an Israelite ritual from the book of Numbers in which a priest writes a curse on a scroll and then wipes it into holy water for a woman suspected of adultery to drink (Frevel 72-3). Although these ways of using sacred texts stimulate the sense of taste, Cantwell convincingly argues that the objective “is not the sensory experience in itself, but rather the physical experience of a transmission and incorporation of the sacred qualities from the books into the person” (155). Digestion, then, is the point.

In addition to the detailed accounts of sensory interactions with scripture found in each chapter, a number of essays stand out for the way they advance the growing body of scholarship on the non-semantic uses of sacred texts. S. Brent Plate opens the volume with a redefinition of sacred scripture in which he foregrounds the role of the senses. Whether “written, etched, printed, spoken or chanted,” for Plate an important feature of a sacred text is that it “appeals to the senses of human bodies” (24). Dorina Miller Parmenter argues that rituals that treat sacred texts as objects – like a Sunday School activity in which two-year-olds are taught to lovingly pat their Bibles – produce affect, or emotions and sensations that convey “the power of what it feels like to be a body within a group” (34).

In a related vein, Marianne Schleicher builds on anthropologist Brian Malley’s concept of  “transitivity” to explain how the use of sacred texts as artifactsrather than as vehicles of semantic content serves to “attract the projections of its users” and associate these projections in a non-conscious way with the environment and with other cultural representations such as, in the case of Torah scrolls, the figure of David or the idea of Jerusalem (42). Watts’ contribution in the closing chapter goes the farthest in advancing the theoretical framework for studying the performative and iconic uses of material texts. He elaborates on the iconic function of sacred texts by noting the way that holding or touching a book “indexes the reader in relationship to the book” (174). A portrait of a priest holding a Bible, for example, would index him “as faithful to the beliefs and practices that are commonly associated with that scripture” (175). James W Watts’ chapter neatly draws together the volume’s dominant themes of touching and tasting by linking both to the indexical nature of scripture’s iconic dimension. Touch relates to our tendency to conceive of books as active. They “touch” and “move” us. Portraits of people holding scriptures can be understood as indexing, at least in part, the book’s agency over the person holding the sacred text. Likewise, the metaphor of eating or drinking scripture points to the idea that sacred texts possess the agency to nourish and sustain. Index and agency go hand in hand.

No single edited collection can cover everything. Two questions haunt the edges of Sensing Sacred Texts. First, how do the rise of digital books and media in the production and use of sacred texts potentially challenge the emphasis placed in this volume on the text as a material object that can be manipulated in ways that produce indexical relationships, create a sense of intimacy, or generate transitivity? Second, how do oral texts such as those found in traditional religions fit into a rubric that understands sacred texts as both performative and iconic? The chapters by Plate, David Ganz, Katharina Wilkens, and Cantwell allude to these questions and the origins of Sensing Sacred Texts give reason to believe that future edited collections in the book series may address them.

Sensing Sacred Texts arises from a symposium on the theme “Seeing, Touching, Holding and Tasting Sacred Texts” held at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg on Dynamics in the History of Religions at the Center for Religious Studies at Ruhr University in Bochum on April 7-8, 2016. Many of the authors belong to the Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts (SCRIPT). In 2020, SCRIPT is organizing a conference on digital sacred texts. Hopefully, that conference will give rise to an edited volume that will explore the way digitization reorients the performative and iconic uses of scripture.

The close connection between SCRIPT and the volumes in the “Iconic and Performative Texts” series therefore creates a lively ongoing discussion that stretches across the edited collections in the series. This does have one potential disadvantage for readers of Sensing Sacred Texts in that most of the authors do not pause to explain in detail what they mean by “iconic” or “performative.” For clear definitions, one must return to the first book in the series, Iconic Books and Texts, where Watts lays the groundwork for the intellectual project of the series as a whole.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joy Palacios is an  Assistant Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Classics and Religion at the University of Calgary.

Date of Review: 
September 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James W. Watts is Professor of Religion at Syracuse University.



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