Surprising Possibilities in the Study of Religion and Materiality


  • Kristina Helgesson Kjellin


In my reading of Religion. Material Dynamics, one sentence in particular strikes me: “[T]he academic study of religion is a joke” (71). Chidester does not write that in order to denounce all academic research pertaining to religion. Rather, with these words he wants to point to the alternatives and possibilities that joking and laughing enable: “Often, the joke confronts us with an incongruous juxtaposition between a normative and an alternative pattern of conduct.” Seeing the academic study of religion as a joke opens for “exploring alternative possibilities for being human in the world. Instead of imposing a necessary form, the study of religion produces an exhilarating sense of freedom in the play of possibilities” (71). I understand Chidester’s message in this book to be exactly that: the term “religion” is so varied and multi-faceted than what the dominating Western understandings over the years have claimed. Moreover, many of the dominating understandings of “religion” are artificial constructions, inventions. Thus, one important aim of the book is to illuminate the connections between power and disciplinary knowledge and to do away with these false understandings that have become truths, and also to lay open the colonial and imperial conditions that have formed these understandings. Chidester is not the first to do that, but he does so by emphasizing “religious materiality and the material study of religion” (xi) with political economy as the lens, thus stating that “religion” can never be understood outside of “the material dynamics of conditions and consequences” (210). That is also the overall argument of the book: the necessity of deconstructing, reconstructing, and contextualizing “religion” in order to make the term relevant at all.