Straying from the Straight Path

How Senses of Failure Invigorate Lived Religion

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Daan Beekers, David Kloos
  • New York, NY: 
    Berghahn Books
    , October
     146 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


With clarity and concision, Straying from the Straight Path: How Senses of Failure Invigorate Lived Religion aims to reconcile competing sides of a lively debate within the study of lived religion. The debate, particularly contentious among anthropologists studying Islam or people who relate indeterminately to Islam—how one defines one’s focus makes all the difference—centers on approaches to the study of religious ethics. Should analytical primacy be given to the formation of pious subjects within the authorized framework of a religious tradition—that is, to the cultivation of religious virtues and the pursuit of moral perfection? Or should the contingencies of the quotidian, instead, be privileged, and thereby experiences of moral fragmentation, incoherence, and uncertainty? The first option, associated especially with Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, emphasizes the all-encompassing nature of religious modes of self-fashioning, while the second, associated with Samuli Schielke among others, calls attention to the inevitability of ambivalence in a multiplex world where religious concerns exist alongside a plethora of competing priorities.

In their editorial introduction David Kloos and Daan Beekers offer a thorough review of the terms of this debate, and helpfully bring it out of the anthropology of Islam by noting parallel discussions within the anthropology of Christianity. The aim of their introduction is to praise the move from piety to ambiguity, but also to caution against abandoning attention to religious self-formation. A tendency has emerged to pit approaches privileging the pursuit of religious perfection against those foregrounding the demands of everyday life, but, argue the editors, this a false dualism that risks placing experiences of failure beyond the domain of religion “proper” (2). The originality of this volume is its take on experiences of shortcomings and setbacks as conducive, rather than detrimental, to the ethical formation of religious subjects. Far from negating the relevance of religious pursuits, self-perceived feelings of weakness may, in fact, reinvigorate religious ideals and aspirations. 

Making the case for such reconciliation are six well-argued chapters by anthropologists who research either Muslims or Christians—and, in one case, both. The first, co-authored by Joel Robbins and Leanne Williams Green, draws on research among Pentecostals in Papua New Guinea and sub-Saharan Africa to show how feelings of inadequacy are built into the Christian tradition through its doctrine of original sin, thus turning experiences of moral failure into the very foundation of divine-human relationships. The second chapter, by Martijn de Koning, discusses Dutch Salafi Muslims who similarly consider themselves to bear a “weak faith,” and whose sense of failure stimulates improvement in personal piety. Linda van de Kamp’s chapter on Mozambican Pentecostals shows that when the economic success promised to those of strong faith does not transpire, this failure to realize Pentecostal ideals is accounted for on nonetheless Pentecostal terms. With evocative ethnographic detail, Beekers argues in his chapter that the very same culture of late capitalism that makes it difficult to “fit God” into the accelerated workday stimulates young Dutch Muslims and Christians to endow worship practice with renewed significance, to approach it as a reprieve from the rigors of work and school. Kloos’ chapter on rural Indonesia is also rich in its description of how religious commitments fluctuate, from person-to-person, and from life-stage-to-life-stage, and of how negligence of religious duties can be deemed acceptable when the intention to improve oneself is there. In the final chapter, Thijl Sunier shows that European Muslims’ negligence—to, for example, abide by the call to prayer—leads to reflection on, the reproduction of, and sometimes, the reconfiguration of the normative frames that determine standards of proper piety. Mattijs van de Port’s epilogue neatly summarizes the preceding contributions and spins them in fresh theoretical directions, arguing that the failure of totalizing projects characterizes not only lived religion, but also the human condition itself. 

This volume makes its most significant contribution in its challenge to the dominant paradigm of piety and perfection in anthropological (and other) studies of religious ethics. Against the tendency to have the most devout of a given religion stand in for that religion at large, this volume amply demonstrates that very often behaviors misalign with aspirations, that doubt and deviation are far more common than conventional studies of religion would suggest. Yet, by framing ambiguity exclusively as “failure” and “straying from the straight path,” this volume nevertheless falls prey to the persistent pull within religious studies toward consistency, wholeness, and order. In his chapter, Kloos expresses concern over “the way in which terms such as tension, contradiction, or moral ambivalence … have come to function, increasingly, as a kind of final statement when it comes to analyzing the nature of contemporary religion” (102). No less problematic, though, is the impulse to iron out tensions and give coherence the last word. It is true enough that many religious practitioners assess the eclecticism of everyday life as failure to abide by a master script, and may even catalyze such perceived failure toward the revitalization of their faith. Yet many others would not. Focusing only on those who designate their everyday practices as religious failures, this volume privileges individuals with an ultimately ideological orientation to religion. (This orientation, incidentally, is also that of religious authorities, the implications of which Sunier critically explores in his chapter.) 

For people pragmatically rather than ideologically oriented, engagements with ethical frameworks beyond that of religion would not be construed as “straying from the straight path” given that, for them, sticking to a straight path—much less the straight path—is not of primary concern. Such people empirically exist, and it seems unnecessary to cast scholars who attend to such people as trafficking in false dualisms. Nevertheless, I applaud and commend this volume for taking one step, incremental though it may be, away from the emphasis on piety and perfection in studies of lived religion. Straying from the Straight Path opens needed analytical space for contingency and shows that the making of religious subjects is always a negotiated process. It will be appreciated by anyone drawn to the rich, evocative stories of women and men who abide by ethical norms sometimes, fail to do so at other times, but at all times embody the complexity, and thereby the humanity, of religion as lived.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Devaka Premawardhana is Assistant Professor of Religion at Emory University.

Date of Review: 
July 17, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daan Beekers is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies of Utrecht University. He is trained as an anthropologist at the universities of Amsterdam and Oxford and obtained his PhD in anthropology from VU University Amsterdam.

David Kloos is a researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in Leiden, The Netherlands. He is the author of Becoming Better Muslims: Religious Authority and Ethical Improvement in Aceh, Indonesia (Princeton University Press, forthcoming).


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