Book Profile: Exploring the Anthropology of Religion

Morton Klass and Maxine K. Weisgrau, eds. Across the Boundaries of Belief: Contemporary Issues in the Anthropology of Religion. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999. First edition. ISBN 0-8133-2695-8.

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Carol S. Anderson
Kalamazoo College

    Across the Boundaries of Belief: Contemporary Issues in the Anthropology of Religion is a fine collection of essays on contemporary questions in the anthropology of religion. While the editors focus almost exclusively on anthropology as the disciplinary field for this volume, this book would work equally well in any course that explores methodological questions of comparative religion, the history of religions, or religious syncretism. These collected essays are "designed to help students become acquainted with contemporary scholars of religion at work" (vii). Across the Boundaries of Belief easily accomplishes the stated purpose of the editors. The volume also serves as a very useful overview of contemporary scholarship on the questions of studying 'other people's religions.' The essays chosen for reprinting in this volume range in publication date from 1980 to the mid-1990s, and represent a wide geographical range as well as a diverse array of methodologies, usually rooted in original field research or reflections on classic questions in the anthropology of religion and comparative religion. This is a collection that would work quite well for advanced undergraduates and first- or second-year graduate students in the classroom, as well as being a provocative set of articles for faculty members reading outside of her or his discipline and interested lay readers.

  1. The general introduction at the beginning makes it clear that the editors want to provoke questions among their readers instead of providing answers. In the first paragraph, they point out that questions asked by scholars of the relationship between culture and religion are anything but narrowly circumscribed: "It would be reasonable, then, to assume that the anthropological study of religion—which, after all, is only one small subdivision of culture—should be limited and manageable. Well, it isn't" (1). Similarly, the authors do a nice job of indicating that questions about religion have been foundational in anthropology: "Every theoretical stance ever fashionable in anthropology's intellectual history has been brought to bear on the subject of religion. . ." (1). Klass and Weisgrau then go on to outline several useful—and uncomfortable—questions that anthropologists should engage: "Is religion an intrinsically similar and universal human enterprise, whether it takes place in a cathedral in Europe or a sacred site in Tierra del Fuego?" (2) They lay out the tensions between the religion of the anthropologist or student of religion and the religion of the people one is studying. They also ask, "whose religion are we entitled to study?" (2). These questions are at the heart of any study of the history of religions or the anthropology of religions today. Rooted in the classical studies of Edward B. Tylor and James G. Frazer, with a refreshing dash of Evans-Pritchard's reflections on these early theorists, the editors turn to other questions. "What do we mean by religion . . . ? Does 'religion' necessarily imply a belief in spirits or divinities . . . ? If not . . . , how does one distinguish 'religion' from 'science' and even 'philosophy'? (5) After an overview of the sections that follow in the volume, the editors conclude their introduction with the observation that they "raise many questions and answer few" (6).

  2. The remaining volume is divided into five sections, each of which has its own two to three page introduction that is written in much the same tone as the general introduction to the volume itself. The sections have four articles each, and the balance between each section would make the book readily accessible to those students who read for quantity of pages. The five sections are: Colonialism and Postcolonial Legacies, Gender and Sexuality, The Healing Touch and Altered States, Religion and the State, and Changes and Continuities. While the editors are straightforward about the fact that the essays chosen for these sections reflect their own interests in the field, I found that their interests nicely reflected the new questions that students of anthropology and the history of religions need to ask today. Following the five sections is a list of additional readings, which include classics in each section as well as other interesting contemporary articles, and a thorough, eleven-page index—which is sometimes an unusual feature in edited collections such as this one. Taken as a whole, the volume is neatly arranged, comprehensive, and accessible to students and general readers alike.

  3. The first section on colonialism and postcolonial legacies is a good introduction to precisely what its title claims. The editors have included Claude E. Snipe's short but pithy overview of presuppositions that have characterized anthropology's denigration of missionaries ("Anthropologists Versus Missionaries: The Influence of Presuppositions"). Judith Shapiro's "From Tup? to the Land Without Evil," and Sergei Kan's "Shamanism and Christianity: Modern-Day Tlingit Elders Look at the Past" provide a provocative introduction to two different cases of Christianization; the first article looks at how the Tupa-Guarani cosmos was adapted to Christianity, and the second examines contemporary histories of shamanism that redress the old assumption that Tlingit shamanism was inferior to Christianity. The final essay in this collection, by Morton H. Fried ("Reflections on Christianity in China") gives the reader still another vantage point from which to consider the relationship between religion and culture, this time in East Asia. The same diversity and range of approaches embodied in each of these articles in found in the remaining sections. Part 2, "Gender and Sexuality" starts off with Marla Powers' classic article on how we need to avoid "western" constructions of menstruation and childbirth in our efforts to understand those of the Oglala. Also found in this section is Susan Sered's article that is subtitled "The Spiritual Guardianship of Elderly Jewish Women," " Valentian Napolitano's "Becoming a Mujercita," and "Erotic Anthropology: 'Ritualized Homosexuality' in Melanesia and Beyond" by Deborah Elliston. Without listing all of the remaining articles found in the volume, let me simply suggest that the same range of approaches, geographies, and questions characterize the remaining three sections. As examples, the editors have included Lesley Sharp's work in Madagascar, Kenyon's article on "Zar as Modernization in Contemporary Sudan," Robert Weller's article on the religion and the state in Taiwan, and Savishinsky's discussion of the spread of the Rastafarian movement.

  4. I enjoyed reading through this volume and, I am very glad to know that this volume is available for my own use as a teacher of undergraduates. As a historian of religions, I teach a course on the methodologies of studying rituals, and this volume would be an excellent supplement to some of the more contemporary readings I generally use. The greatest strength of this volume lies precisely in the essays and articles that Klass and Weisgrau have assembled. They do not force the pieces together, nor do they attempt to create a cohesive synthesis where none exists in the field. They allow the tensions and questions to remain unresolved and unanswered, and this is a decision that ultimately will provoke discussion and questions among the readers. I have already noted that the text is user-friendly, which is an important factor when ordering course texts. The weakness that I found in the book lies in direct conflict with the volume's strengths: as a teacher of undergraduates, I tend to look for more structure in the introduction and commentaries than the editors have provided. Even when they explicitly refused to answer their questions, I continued to look for just those answers. I wonder if the editors could have offered a few more answers, and thus some historical grounding for the questions without sacrificing the tone of open-endedness that they sought to establish in this volume. For that reason, this volume does not stand alone as a comprehensive introduction to contemporary issues in the field; it does not claim to be such an introduction. When considered as the volume that its editors intended it to be—as a companion volume to classical anthropology of religion texts for use in graduate classrooms—it stands out among similar volumes that have recently appeared on my bookshelves.

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