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Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality

Edited by Dick Houtman and Birgit Meyer

Fordham University Press, August 2012 (496 pp.)

About the book

This volume addresses the relation between religion and things. That relation has long been conceived in antagonistic terms, privileging spirit above matter, belief above ritual and objects, meaning above form, and “inward” contemplation above “outward” action. After all, wasn’t the opposition between spirituality and materiality the defining characteristic of religion, understood as geared to a transcendental beyond that was immaterial by definition? Grounded in the rise of religion as a modern category, with Protestantism as its main exponent, this conceptualization devalues religious things as lacking serious empirical, let alone theoretical, interest. The resurgence of public religion in our time has exposed the limitations of this attitude.

Taking materiality seriously, this volume uses as a starting point the insight that religion necessarily requires some kind of incarnation, through which the beyond to which it refers becomes accessible. Conjoining rather than separating spirit and matter, incarnation (whether understood as “the world becoming flesh” or in a broader sense) places at center stage the question of how the realm of the transcendental, spiritual, or invisible is rendered tangible in the world.

How do things matter in religious discourse and practice? How are we to account for the value or devaluation, the appraisal or contestation, of things within particular religious perspectives? How are we to rematerialize our scholarly approaches to religion? These are the key questions addressed by this multidisciplinary volume.
Focusing on different kinds of things that matter for religion, including sacred artifacts, images, bodily fluids, sites, and electronic media, it offers a wide-ranging set of multidisciplinary studies that combine detailed analysis and critical reflection.

About the editors

Dick Houtman is Professor of Cultural Sociology at the Centre for Rotterdam Cultural Sociology (CROCUS) at Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands. His principal research interests are the spiritualization of religion and the culturalization of politics in the contemporary Western world. His most recent books are Paradoxes of Individualization: Social Control and Social Conflict in Contemporary Modernity (with Stef Aupers and Willem de Koster); Religions of Modernity: Relocating the Sacred to the Self and the Digital (edited with Stef Aupers) and Farewell to the Leftist Working Class (with Peter Achterberg and Anton Derks). He is a member of the editorial boards of Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Politics and Religion, Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion, and Sociologie.

Birgit Meyer is professor of Religious Studies at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. She has conducted research on missions and local appropriations of Christianity, Pentecostalism, popular culture, and video-films in Ghana. Her publications include Translating the Devil: Religion and Modernity Among the Ewe in Ghana; Globalization and Identity: Dialectics of Flow and Closure (edited with Peter Geschiere); Magic and Modernity: Interfaces of Revelation and Concealment (edited with Peter Pels); Religion, Media, and the Public Sphere (edited with Annelies Moors); and Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion, and the Senses. She is vice-chair of the International African Institute (London), a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences, and one of the editors of Material Religion.