I received my copy of Bruce Lincoln‘s latest book, titled Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions, and finished it last night (See here for a short review of a previous book of his). It is an excellent book, full of the sort of provocative, clearly-argued, and most-often compelling arguments about the field of religious studies, its methods, and, to a slightly lesser extent, application. These subjects have been at the heart of Lincoln’s academic project for quite awhile, and it is not an accident that this volume, which is a collection of essays and articles, many of which have been published in journals previously, begins with a piece of writing that is one of Lincoln’s most famous and provocative: his “Theses on Method.” These theses have provoked much response and discussion by those who challenge Lincoln as overly reductive, or hostile, to religion, though I have never seen his approach in that way. You can read Timothy Fitzgerald’s criticism of this piece, and Lincoln’s response, here and here.
I studied under and worked with Lincoln for a few years as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago Divinity school. Having taken several classes with him, met with him as an advisee, and attended many public talks, I never found him hostile to religion as such. He might have been occasionally reductive, but only in the sense that he was willing to examine phenomena very closely, which I take as a characteristic of scholarship, and indeed, language.
Two pieces (Chapters Two and Twelve) offer straightforward advice on how to accomplish particular tasks within Religious Studies (“How to Read a Religious Text” and “Theses on Comparison”). Others deal with cosmogonic (universe-creation) myths, modern and ancient science and how they dealt with phenomena that don’t confirm their cosmologies, differently-characterized types of mythic discourse, World Religions as a discourse of its own, as well as the traditional themes of sanctified violence. His final essay, “On the (Un)discipline of Religious Studies,” begins with an anecdote – and an essay unpacking that anecdote’s relevance – of an argument between Mircea Eliade and Jonathan Z. Smith on whether chaos or order should be prioritized in time (i.e., ‘which comes first, order or chaos?’). Each essay is worth careful study.
I will be using parts of this book for my first version of my “Introduction to Theory and Method” course, which I’ll be teaching this fall. At a minimum, I intend to have us
- Work through “Theses on Method” and its responses
- Read “How to read a religious text,” and apply those rules to both (a) a religious text, and (b) the essay itself
- The (Un)discipline of Religious Studies, with a discussion on the importance of institutions that study Religion, such as the American Academy of Religion (AAR), which Lincoln discusses in this chapter.
I recommend this book to all those who study Religion, especially those for whom the primary goal of Religious Studies is something other than the celebration of religion as sacred and beyond interrogation. As Lincoln phrases it, “As it happens, with the possible exception of Economics, ours [Religious Studies] is the only academic field that is effectively organized to protect its (putative) object of study against critical examination.” (in his response to Fitzgerald, p. 167).