SORAAAD BookNotes with the Bulletin: Bruce Lincoln, Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars

By Ipsita Chatterjea

A collection of previously published works and new papers, Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions (University of Chicago Press, 2012) is Bruce Lincoln’s response to the incomplete transition away from essentialism and colonialist categories embedded in the History of Religions. Lincoln demonstrates a command of the analytical tropes within the History of Religions that he finds wanting, then disassembles and retools them in a manner that can actually be tested and refined for discussion.

Opening with his 1996 “Theses on Method,” Lincoln (who holds a post as Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago) reminds us of his disavowal of the History of Religions’ tendency to carry latent confessionalism, oversimplify other religious cultures, and purvey what nine years later he terms “religious appreciation” (3 and 134). The middle eleven essays contain three general trajectories of note to analysts. One, Lincoln dissects analytical tropes that have limited the study of religion, but couples these assessments to correctives or illustrates why we need to move on: pantheons (17); myth, history, and a warping fixation on origins (53); characterizing epochs and how such demarcations impact our ability to conceptualize religion (80-81); indigenous religions and our risk of overlooking the agency of those so designated (95); and in a similar vein, syncretism (107). Two, in Gods and Demons, Lincoln nuances his career-long work on the intersections of religion: authority and gender (63), rationalized violence (83), military and cultural conquest (39-40), and social order and myth (101-104, 118). Third, on the topic of method, Lincoln assesses the limits and utility of and then recasts two foundational techniques: philology (112, III.) and comparison (121). In “Anomaly, Science, and Religion,” he shifts the discussion to data acquisition and analysis, as these tasks enable us to discern anomalies, apprehend change, and overcome our assumptions about causation and classification.

Lincoln concludes with his previously unpublished 2007 statement at Columbia University, “The (un)Discipline of Religious Studies”—a grim assessment of the professional landscape. He notes that while grappling with the subject of religion was formative to the development of Social Sciences, after the 1963 Abington V. Schempp decision (and the influx of state money to public universities), NABI (the National Association for Biblical Instructors) and now the AAR (133) have served to institutionalize broadly the service of spiritual needs and “cultivated an ethos of inoffensiveness and a general intellectual timidity (134)”

This is one of a handful of books on method and technique for studying religion that can be used as part of interdisciplinary exchange (research collaborations or working groups) between those who are either geographic area specialists or sociologists, anthropologists or historians of religion, and scholars established in other disciplines. Beyond researchers in the field, this is an excellent book to use with undergraduates, e.g., “How to Read a Religious Text” is one many potential points of entry to the History of Religions and the contemporary history of its practice.

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