Material Religion and Popular Culture (Routledge Studies in Religion)
King, E. Frances
In recent years, the social sciences have seen an upsurge of interest in material culture. Neither the sociology of religion nor the academic discipline of religious studies has been exempt from this development. The journal Material Religion, dedicated to the study of objects, art and belief, reflects this as does the book reviewed here.
The author's focus is on 'the popular use of religious goods in everyday life' (p.2), and the primary research context is Northern Ireland. This explains why the intertwining of religious with cultural, ethnic, political and national concerns is a recurrent theme of the book. Had a different geopolitical context been chosen, quite different concerns may have emerged. As Catholics tend to have a greater affinity to religious imagery and iconography than Protestants, we encounter predominantly Catholic objects and embodied traditions, mostly family traditions, among different generations after the 1960s reforms of the Second Vatican Council. However Protestant voices also emerge.
The theoretical foundation encompasses rituals, embodiment, habitus, and religion as a chain of memory. It is, however, the way in which these insights are brought to life that stands out. King defines her work as an ethnographic study, and the narrative she has spun around her respondents' accounts of their relationships with images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, rosaries, memorial cards, the 'material charisma' of shrines, the experiences of pilgrims, politico-cultural murals and modern practices of 'sacralising' the home is admirable in its scope. Structured in six chapters, we also learn about comparisons with non-Christian traditions, how artefacts may serve as ethnic markers and how their meanings undergo change. Seventeen photographs of the objects in question illustrate the volume.
It might prove instructive for future readers to take a look at the book's appendices. Here, King sketches out the background and trajectory of her research and clarifies how she herself is also a participant in what she has observed and re/constructed. This is a welcome exercise in self-reflexivity.
Several points in this book deserve critical debate. When it comes to defining the functions of religious objects the author relies on theology, i.e. thirteenth-century Aquinas. Although King acknowledges later on in the text that high theology and popular religion are by no means identical and that the latter cannot be determined by the former, I feel there is a slight danger of her doing just that. Yet, for most of the book the interviewees are presented as autonomous enough in constructing the meanings of their objects. Also, the aversion of a sizeable proportion of scholars pursuing the academic study of religion against anything remotely theological is itself problematic: It tends to neglect the fact that theologies – high as well as low ones – have had an impact on popular religion and vice versa. Rather than taking the functions of religious objects as defined by Aquinas at face value, we might want to interpret his account as a discursive construct and then compare and contrast this with the discourses produced in and by material, popular religion – without thereby playing out discourse against materiality.
Not only are King's interviewees autonomous, it seems their objects are too. The issue of the agency of things is only touched upon, yet in an affirmative manner. I think this raises interesting methodological questions. For example, if we take the rosary as an agent seriously, we would also have to develop new ways of approaching this new agent. The interview method used in this book helps us approach the owner of the rosary and his/her side of the relationship with the religious artefact, and visual methods – including and beyond photographic documentation – may very well enrich our findings. King's book opens a window to a cultural and political world possibly strange to many potential readers. Those who become readers are rewarded with a sympathetic, context-sensitive study of material religion and the incentive to ask relevant questions about how to research the stuff of religion.
University of Aberdeen