Bruce Lincoln’s “How to Read a Religious Text”: An Experiment of Application


Editor’s Note: In the April issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, Ipsita Chatterjea published her reflections as part of a round table discussion of Bruce Lincoln’s Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2012). As Kelly Baker notes in her post from last week introducing the recent issue, four scholars, including Chatterjea, Marsha Aileen Hewitt, Gabriel Levy, and K. Merinda Simmons “engage Lincoln’s work as a venue to think about critical approaches to religious studies.” 

by Ipsita Chatterjea

In Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions, Lincoln’s “How to Read a Religious Text” is anchored in decades of work with mythological or canonical texts, while the six points deployed have their origins in his prior work, Theorizing Myth (Lincoln 2012, 5-15; Lincoln 1999, 150-155).  The sections from the Chandogya Upaniʂds that Lincoln uses to illustrate his points thus fall in line with a number of his selected examples over the course of his career, and add to this the analysis of relatively discrete events.

The essay will apply Lincoln’s six lines of inquiry to Sara J. Duncan’s Progressive Missions in the South and Addresses: With Illustrations and Sketches of Missionary Workers and Ministers and Bishop’s Wives (1906) to walk through the utility, limits and necessary adaptations that surface when Lincoln’s categories are applied to other types of religious texts beyond myth and canon. The steps induce a disjuncture for the reader from the deceptively simple, elusive task of “just understanding what occurs within a text,” religious or not, and shifts the focus to how and why it was produced, contextual markers and the observable social tensions. The questions are useful in sorting through the complexities of Progressive Missions. As General Superintendent of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s (AME) Women’s Home and Foreign Missionary Society (WHFMS), Duncan’s compendium is designed to (among other things) galvanize Southern black Methodist women to action within the AME; fend off Northern AME hegemony; refute white racism, note Southern black civic and business accomplishments; include narratives of middle class and poor women as religious exemplars and assert the capacity of women to serve God as equals–if not more–to men. In the texts Duncan authors and through her editorial choices within the volume, she simultaneously acknowledges and sets aside social expectations.

Ipsita Chatterjea is completing a Ph.D on African Methodist Episcopal women at Vanderbilt University’s Graduate Department of Religion in the History and Critical Theories of Religion area. Ipsita’s research interests focus on the relationships between religion, violence and social regulation, African-American religious history as intellectual history, sociology of religion and critical theories and methods and the study of religion. She is co-founder and co-chair of the AAR’s Study of Religion as an Analytical Discipline Workshop (SORAAAD) and Sociology of Religion Group. She is a member of the Critical Theories and Discourses on Religion Group steering committee, serving since 2005.

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