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date: 20 September 2017

Religion and Embodiment in the Study of Material Culture

Summary and Keywords

In recent years, the study of religion has undergone a useful materialization in the work of many scholars, who are not inclined to define it in terms of ideas, creeds, or doctrines alone, but want to understand what role sensation, emotion, objects, spaces, clothing, and food have played in religious practice. If the intellect and the will dominated the study of religion dedicated to theology and ethics, the materialization of religious studies has taken up the role of the body, expanding our understanding of it and dismantling our preconceptions, which were often notions inherited from religious traditions. As a result, the body has become a broad register or framework for gauging the social, aesthetic, and practical character of religion in everyday life. The interest in material culture as a primary feature of religion has unfolded in tandem with the new significance of the body and the broad materialization of religious studies.

Keywords: material culture, culture materiality, thing, embodiment, body, phenomenology

Defining Culture

To define “material culture,” we must first answer an even larger question: What is culture? In modern Western society, one almost instinctively thinks of “nature” when trying to define culture. The two are commonly paired as complementary. If by nature we mean whatever humans have not created, including their own biology, we have in mind whatever was produced by natural processes such as randomness, evolution, and action obeying the laws that govern the behavior of matter and energy. Culture, by implication, is a human product. And even if much of what goes under the name of “nature” turns out to be human invention, such as gardens, parks, the iconography of beautiful sunsets and landscapes, nearly all breeds of dogs, cats, and cattle, it is in fact becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish nature and culture. Monsters and freaks of nature used to delineate the boundary between human and nonhuman. Their abnormality policed it with horror, shame, repulsion, and criminal violation of the laws of gods or nature. But in an age when cloning, plant hybrids, transgender sexuality, plastic surgery, prosthetic devices, and organ generation are becoming ordinary, the line between what nature makes and what humankind manufactures is increasingly unclear.

Nature may be best defined as whatever a group traditionally regards as normative for everyone. One of the most common tasks of religions is to ground or naturalize the normative. This definition is useful to the social constructivism that many favor since it deconstructs the idea of a permanent nature and reveals any attempt to posit one as ideologically engaged in promoting as normative something that is not natural at all, but cultured, that is, created by human artifice. What is normal or natural is often a claim that privileges some interests and marginalizes others. Culture is something that humans create in order to create themselves and the world around them. Culture is in the business of making values appear natural, in effect, of disguising itself as nature.

Yet this singular coding of culture as inherently conservative misses its capacity to question the formations of power that are engaged in any definition of what is natural and normative. Pierre Bourdieu characterized the habitus as “history turned in to nature.”1 It is bolstered by doxa, that is, the shared opinion that is so second nature that it goes without being said. Or if it is said, it appears as what “they say,” ascribed to no one, but everyone. Heterodoxy, by contrast, is alternative opinion that challenges the dominant culture, departs from doxa, and constitutes discourse or the shape of critical consciousness.2 So we must at least distinguish differing aims within the concept of culture—one to preserve, the other to disrupt, but both of which make use of material culture. Avant-garde art for many is a tool for disrupting conventional opinion and sparking critique. In either case, however, culture is created by people in order to shape them. Bourdieu’s Marxist distinction will seem unnecessarily limiting to some since it consigns everything but critique to the domain of unconsciousness. It reduces everything to unexamined doxa or critical discourse. But culture is more than mindless opinion, and discourse is sometimes able to manage little more than that. Culture is not only what people say and don’t say, but also what they build, the things they use to do their work; the feelings they have; the aesthetic production and valuation of those feelings; the techniques of listening, tasting, and smelling; the rites they observe; the practices they perform; the ideas, dreams, and memories they experience; the spaces they inhabit; the images they behold; the bodies they mold by discipline and practice; the clothing they wear; the systems of values they enforce and defend.

But if this is so, culture is everything human, and therefore it is in need of further articulation in order to be of use in clarifying both material culture as a version of it and religion as an instance of culture. Generally speaking, culture is human action on and reaction to the environments or worlds in which people exist. That means not only the world of oceans, forests, mountains, and the heavens, but also the world of cities, governments, literatures, and family life. Culture, in other words, is both what humans make and how what they make, in turn, makes them. The worlds in which they live are both fashioned by them and fashion them in return.

The world that human activity creates and sustains by ongoing practice is, in fact, culture itself. We live in the world of ideas, feelings, beliefs, practices, rites, sensations, things, and spaces that sustain us. That is not like living within an impermeable membrane that forever separates us from the “real” world beyond it. The ideas and words and things that we rely on to produce a stable, sustainable experience do not last. They evolve, are abandoned, or suffer attack and defeat at the superior force of other ideas, words, and things. Or they fail to match the challenge of the natural world, the next generation, or the shifting allegiances of communities of users who find something better or more desirable to work for them. So culture consists of the constant work of generating itself.

Defining Material Culture

In light of what I have said about culture, material culture may be understood as the physical production of value, which ranges from the foundations for buildings to the painting of pictures, from techniques of using a shovel to dig footings to the instruction of artisans in mixing pigments and stretching canvas, from training the eye to read constellations or the flight of birds to ritual practices before a cult statue. Material culture consists of the objects, images, forms of aesthetic discernment, built environments, and techniques of the body that operate on the world and ourselves as part of it in creating the order and salience that people take as the way life ought to behave. In other words, material culture is physical action upon the world and on human bodies in the medium of things, bodies, and spaces. But since things are put to use—put into action by practice and ritual—we realize that material culture operates in tandem with performance. Because ritual unfolds with utterance and often with scriptural recitation or prescription, material culture collaborates with language. And the forms of imagination and aesthetic judgments that prefer one taste, style, or mode of production to another make it evident that material culture is engaged in a society’s intellectual culture. This is not to argue that a culture is an overarching unity but that it draws on a range of human activities to do its work.

The forgoing discussion makes it clear that the fulcrum of culture is embodiment. When we speak of material culture, we are invariably pointing to the centrality of the human body in the physical production of value. To study materiality, by contrast, would need to make little reference to the human body. The hardness of stone, the dynamics of erosion, the life cycle of stars, the ecology of a forest, the heat of a desert, the structure of ocean currents, the life of bacteria—these do not require the framework of human embodiment to be measured and studied. Furthermore, one can imagine the radical otherness of very common human things without regarding them as expressions of human interest, artifacts of human activity, or objects that do cultural work. Bill Brown has called this the category of the thing. “We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the window gets filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily.”3 When an object stops performing the task that we assign it, aspects of its materiality show forth. Not only do we wonder what the thing is, searching for indices of its function and identity, its value, we may actually see it for the first time, or see it in a way we never have before. We learn in the process that the value of an object derives from its relation to those who use it and rely on it, to those for whom the object is part of a system of production, circulation, and use. As Brown puts it: “The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation.”4 Thingness is therefore an epistemological category in which we place objects that elude relations to us. “What is that thing?” is another way of saying: “I don’t know what it can do for me or anyone else.” We can mistake it for something else or give it a purpose not intended for it. But if that fails, without another taxonomic category in which to place it, we dub the object a thing, consigning it to a blurry, nondescript status where it is allowed to remain in abeyance, a state of waiting or expecting the arrival of purpose. It goes into the “junk drawer” in the pantry of our minds. We know to look there when we need something to replace a broken object or to act in the place of something lost. Far from a nonhuman oblivion, then, thingness is part of a larger economy of functionality.

The edge of thingness occurs not in junk drawers, which really are not full of junk since everything there is kept because of its potential reuse. They are objects-in-waiting. Real junk—garbage—is another matter. Junk piles are where things are left to deteriorate into constituent elements, to lose their objecthood altogether, to return to dust, carbon, gas, or organic material. They become nothing in the sense of forfeiting their capacity as objects. Yet value is determined within the framework of utility for a user. To the monkey in figure 1, something remains of value in this garbage hole in Kenya, where I took the photograph. The monkey scavenges the heap in search of something to eat. Human waste is a food source for nonhuman animals. The human’s garbage heap is the monkey’s junk drawer, at least as long as the heat and sun have not reduced the organic materials to inedible substances that must be left to rot, that is, left to worms, insects, and bacteria to consume.

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Figure 1. Monkey scavenging in trash pit at Nakuru National Park, Kenya, 2007. Photograph by author.

Embodiment as the Production of Value

The account of thingness and material culture that I have sketched out is clearly a presumptuous, anthropocentric view of the universe. Purpose means usefulness for human beings. Monkeys will find quite another range of use after humans are done with their things. In the study of material culture, value means value in human usage. The register of usefulness pertains to the ecological zone of whatever surmounts the food chain. Human culture is a world dominated by and designed to accommodate humans. Monkeys have their world, and microbes have theirs. All of these overlap, of course, but each is characterized by a preponderance of values or priorities that favor the dominant agent of any given register. In their world, human beings determine where a thing belongs by asking any one of a number of related questions: What does this thing do? What is it good for? Can it be eaten? What can it be exchanged for? Whose thing is it? Who made it? Will it hurt me? A thing is whatever we call an object about which we ask such questions. Brown’s point is that the question of value is determined not so much by the thing itself as by the discernment of its relation to me or another subject. Its objecthood, or usefulness to a subject, only appears as its thingness begins to fade.

The anthropocentricity of this definition of thingness need not ignore the nonhuman nature of virtually the entire universe. But our attention here to humankind seems justified by the fact that if humans do not take care of themselves, the universe can easily do without them. Humans are finite creatures driven to regulate the availability of resources that enable their survival. They must be constantly engaged in securing food, warmth, protection, and social cooperation in order to maintain themselves. They can live more or less harmoniously within the ecologies that encompass their brief existence. But it is impossible for them not to accommodate the interests that result in some degree of anthropocentrism. So it should not be surprising that the study of culture is the study of human systems of producing value. And the investigation of material culture is the study of human embodiment. As we will see, however, this does not mean the study of a simple epistemological architecture of subject-and-object. I have already indicated that the ideological clarity of the binary complementarities of human and nonhuman, culture and nature have become deeply suspect in the modern era. The significance of network studies in the last few decades has been to show that human and nonhuman agents collaborate to share causal powers in the assemblages that undergird all kinds of social phenomena.5

Because embodiment is the key to the study of material culture, I find it very helpful to rely on a phenomenological approach since that may be defined as the investigation of the body-mind’s interface with the world. By phenomenology, it is important to say, I do not intend the tradition of the phenomenology of religion made famous in the works of van der Leeuw, Rudolf Otto, and Mircea Eliade, which focuses on the description of religious experience understood as evidence of humankind as homo religiosus.6 In that tradition, mystery, the sublime, awe, wonder—all are regarded as universal forms of dependence on the absolute, and they are, therefore, the fundamental data of religion as such.

What I have in mind instead is the legacy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, which stresses embodiment as its focus, taking it as the key to describing the constructive features of religious material culture as a basis for the study of religion.7 Merleau-Ponty argued that perception contributed fundamentally to our experience of a world with value. Sense experience, he wrote, invests a quality “with vital value, grasping it first in its meaning for us, for that heavy mass which is our body, whence it comes about that it always involves a reference to the body . . . Sense experience is that vital communication with the world which makes it present as a familiar setting of our life. It is to it that the perceived object and the perceiving subject owe their thickness. It is the intentional tissue which the effort to know will try to take apart.”8 Merleau-Ponty did not propose a dualist split of consciousness and world because the mind-body and the world are joined in the thick tissue of perception. Consciousness is not an abstract space of representation, set off ontologically from the world as a thinking substance; rather, it consists of relationships between the body and the world produced by sensation and movement. “Consciousness is being-towards-the-thing through the intermediary of the body. A movement is learned when the body has understood it, that is, when it has incorporated it into its ‘world,’ and to move one’s body is to aim at things through it; it is to allow oneself to respond to their call, which is made upon it independently of any representation.”9 The body interfaces with things to create a world it inhabits. Far from cut off from the world, the body-mind lives within its ecology; indeed, perception produces a world to inhabit in the medium of the body. “To get used to a hat, a car or a stick is to be transplanted into them, or conversely, to incorporate them into the bulk of our own body. Habit expresses our power of dilating our being-in-the-world, or changing our existence by appropriating fresh instruments.”10 The body is forever intermingling human and nonhuman.

For Merleau-Ponty, embodiment is the production of routines that give the body a place to inhabit. Habit generates participation within an order or ecology. The body gets used to the shape, rhythm, feel, and response of the things it relies on. These are technologies that interface with the body and the long networks of things that come to and lead from the body as an interactive node. The linkage becomes second nature, taken for granted, the unconscious unity with the world that defines the ordinary or everyday world for us. But this nature can be alienated when its rhythm is disrupted, when the object suddenly becomes a thing. When the cane breaks, the car won’t start, or what I thought was a stick turns out to be a snake, the world or ecology or network of interacting parts the object brought to us is suddenly inaccessible. The body-mind is our powerful medium of interface. Material cultures are the ways worlds and body-minds dance with one another.

I would like to suggest that material culture is action on, in, and through the body that creates value. The body is a medium for the production of value. Material culture is the shaping of and by means of the body. It shapes the self, the physical deportment and appearance of the body, its inner feeling, and it shapes the world around it, including other bodies. It is important to say that by body I do not mean only the mechanical structures of bones and muscles or the operation of organs and nerves, but also the cognitive functionality produced by intellection, the discernments of feeling and intuition, and by the proactive apprehension that sensation undertakes when it gathers, filters, structures, and assembles the stimuli encountered by flesh and sense organs. Bodies are the human interface with their environments. The term interface is meant to stress the exchange that occurs between the cultured and minded body with its biological affordances and the environment in which the body operates.

The Analysis of Religious Material Culture

At least six rudimentary forms of embodiment that have great relevance for the study of religion come readily to mind. Even though there are surely many more, the following list gets us a long way in forming a program for the study of material culture:

  1. 1. shaping the body

  2. 2. collectivizing the body

  3. 3. augmenting the body

  4. 4. transforming the body

  5. 5. housing the body

  6. 6. projecting the body.

All of these bear on the technologies of embodiment. Material culture takes shape in and about the bodies of practitioners as the technologies and devices that enable those bodies to become the means for religious work on themselves, one another, and the worlds in which they exist. Bodies perform, interact with one another, engage the world around them, learn, change, and gather together. They are the basic medium of material culture and the standard by which we understand all things and spaces that act on social worlds and the bodies that comprise them. As Marcel Mauss pointed out, “The body is man’s first and most natural instrument. Or more accurately, not to speak of instruments, man’s first and most natural technical object, and at the same time technical means, is his body.”11 Religion, the implication seems clear, therefore, always was and is mediated.

Shaping the Body

Christianity is often described as a religion of the book. Sometimes theologians and clergy, among others, characterize the religion in terms of the profession of particular creeds, doctrines abstracted from the Bible and defended by councils, kings, and armies. Protestant children in some sects are “catechized,” compelled to commit to memory and to recite upon command the confessional documents of a particular tradition. It is certainly true that this strongly linguistic, cognitive dimension of practice is important for priests, pastors, and some Protestant groups, but it would be mistaken to insist that Christianity, even modern Protestantism, is a religion explained only by its dogmatic beliefs.

The fond embrace of mother and child in figure 2 demonstrates the importance of Christian nurture in 19th-century America, an affective and very intimate turn from the intellectual rigor and scholastic performance of traditional Calvinism. But more than a historical moment, the image reminds us of the life of the body in religious practice. The child’s body is pulled inward and formed around the Bible from which the mother reads. She embraces her daughter while doing so and enjoys the child’s rapt attention. The heads touch tenderly as the mother gazes at the printed page before her and the daughter gazes quietly into her mother’s face. Seeing, reading, hearing, and touching intermingle as a chain of sensation that bonds parent and child. The image illustrated Reverend Samuel Phillips’s The Christian Home (1859), a thick tome dedicated to advice for the formation of children and the creation of a domestic sphere devoted to Christian piety. In a chapter titled “The Family Bible,” Phillips hailed “the old family bible” as the inheritance of a Christian home. It was an object infused with nostalgic power, an artifact that reached across time to the presence of one’s departed mother. “Clasp it, child, to thy heart; it was the gift of a mother’s love! It bears the impress of her hand; it is the memento of her devotedness to thee; and when just before her spirit took its flight to a better land, she gave it as a guide for her child to the same happy home . . . And the spirit of that sainted mother shall still whisper to me through these sacred pages. In the light of this lamp I follow her to a better home. With this blessed chart I shall meet her in heaven.”12 The Bible is a material bind or tie to the absent mother, both in memory of her life and in the anticipated reunion in heaven. In this religion of the book, the book is a powerful relic of mother and the means for reuniting with her. It is both the source of redemption to be read and an object that is the occasion of familial intimacy, the artifact that shapes the very body of the child. Indeed, we might say that the book creates the shape of piety for it would appear impossible to extricate the love of mother from the child’s solemnity toward the holy volume. The “sacred” in this instance is a web of relationships among the book, mother, home, and child. The web is materialized in the book that is remembered in the very form the body takes around it and in the sound that the mother’s voice utters in its words. Reading scripture meant hearing mother, and touching the Bible meant being touched by her.

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Figure 2. J. Porter, engraved by T. Pollock, “Teaching the Scriptures,” from Rev Phillips, The Christian Home, 1861, follows p. 104. Photograph by author.

Collectivizing the Body

The modern ethos of independence and the self-fashioning concept of the individual inclines us to regard clothing principally as an expression of what sets the owner apart from others, serving to manifest his or her personality. Personhood is what is unique and irreducible about someone, and therefore more important since it represents a fundamental value in the modern age, enshrined in such defining documents as the United States Constitution as the individual’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In fact, of course, human beings have always spent as much if not more time trying to belong to groups or associations of people rather than distinguishing themselves from association per se. Moderns use clothing, adornment, and the marks of achievement and distinction to claim membership in a defining cadre. The more distinctive the mark, the more elite or privileged the membership. Take, for example, the gathering of fifteen-year-old girls in Mexico City (fig. 3), who are celebrating quince años, a very common Latin American coming-of-age rite for young women from the middle and upper classes. Sixty-six girls have arrived at a museum in Mexico City to pose for photographs. Each is bedecked in a colorful and expensive ball gown for the occasion. They pose as a court of princesses, coming from families of some station, and they affirm their membership of this caste by participating in the ritual. Family members and friends will shortly fill a room around a catwalk on which the girls will present themselves for display.

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Figure 3. A group of 66 quinceañeras at the Museum Franz Mayer to take pictures, Mexico City, 2012. Photograph by Eneas De Troya. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

As figure 3 suggests, forms of association are broadcast very commonly by style, that is, by the aesthetic terms of dress, mannerism, hair style, diction, and the many instances of what Marcel Mauss famously described as the “techniques of the body,” the shared characteristics of performance.13 Swimming, throwing a ball, running, walking, sitting at table—these and countless other activities, Mauss noted, are habits that “do not just vary with individuals and their imitations, they vary especially between societies, educations, proprieties and fashions, prestiges. In them we should see the techniques and work of collective and individual practical reason rather than, in the ordinary way, merely the soul and its repetitive faculties.”14 Following Aristotle and anticipating Bourdieu, Mauss referred to the “social nature of the habitus” as the shared body of techniques that organize groups, characterizing their most common, everyday behaviors. The many modes of somatic performance that groups share fashion a kind of social body, a look or way of acting that is recognizable, but according to Mauss also a form of “collective and individual practical reason.” He uses the Kantian notion of “practical reason” to imbue techniques of the body with the function of nonintellectual ways of knowing, by which he meant how the performance of actions makes the world intelligible, ordered, cognizable, recognizable. We recognize our people, home, and oneself in terms of the habitus that generated ourselves. And these activities, like the mother and daughter reading the Bible together (see fig. 2), are charged with emotion that gives their performance the feeling of belonging, or at least longing in the absence of the source of the habitus—parents, homeland, one’s childhood. Joining or revering the social body, especially of the nation in the modern age when nationhood is the fundamental coin of international polity, generates a deep sense of belonging. The sacred becomes evident when the social body in question is soldiers, veterans, police, or fire fighters—those representatives of the state who are recognized for their sacrifice, upheld as a communal ideal, and venerated for their dedication to the honor of the totem, which is the national flag.

A striking instance of the social body is the marching body of men celebrating the annual gathering of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a fraternal organization composed of Union army veterans of the Civil War that formed just after the war ended and organized nationally with local posts around the country (fig. 4). Closely associated with the Republican Party, the GAR advocated voting rights for African Americans, veterans’ affairs, and flag desecration laws, and it played an important role in presidential politics in the last decades of the 19th century. Because membership was limited to veterans, it began to wane in the 1890s, though the national encampments each year received media attention with their picturesque public marches of aging veterans. The photograph shown here (see fig. 4) documents a parade march of the Rawlins Post at Minneapolis, the members escorting the commander in chief of the GAR, General Ell Torrance, in a parade at the 1902 national encampment in Washington, D.C. The company is dressed in light overcoats, fedoras, and tan trousers. The dress is a civilian uniform that presents a unified corps, or body, serving to remember the Civil War and the troop’s role in it as defenders of national unity. It is the social body of the Republican and Northern cause that continued to be active in national politics. The military practice of marching and flag display was also part of a larger national ritualization of the flag and its veneration, and in the militarization of American life in the form of countless fraternal organizations, from associations of veterans to hereditary organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (founded in 1881 as the successor to the GAR) to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

The social body is also somberly assembled in war cemeteries such as Arlington National Cemetery just across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital. Figure 5 shows two African American women decorating a soldier’s grave on Memorial Day in 1943. Memorial Day is part of the national liturgy of remembrance dedicated to those lost in battle. Emerging near the end of the Civil War, the rite eventually added veterans who died in subsequent wars. Arlington became the model for national cemeteries for veterans, featuring long rows of simple white gravestones of inscribed marble. The dead are arranged as if in formation, marching or standing at attention on a field of display. Their uniform gravestones assemble a vast social body of the commemorated dead whose minimal decorum is strictly controlled. Friends and relatives work to remember their dead with decorations at graveside, but even these efforts are carefully regulated by Arlington Cemetery in order to maintain an appearance that is solemn and uniform (plantings, statues, flags, glass objects, and commemorative articles are prohibited).15 As the photograph shows, each year on Memorial Day small flags are planted at each gravestone, serving to accent their uniformity. The social body endures after the individual body has vanished.

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Figure 4. Rawlins Post of Minneapolis, Minnesota, escorting General Ell Torrance, commander-in-chief, Grand Army of the Republic, 36th National Encampment of the GAR, Washington, D.C., October 5–11, 1902. Photograph by Hanson E. Weaver. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-W36-10.

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Figure 5. Decorating a soldier’s grave in one of the Negro sections on Memorial Day, May 1943. Arlington Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. Photograph by Esther Bubley. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USW3-02814-E.

Augmenting the Body

Figures 3, 4, and 5 all demonstrate the power of dress to limn the collective or social body at the expense of the individual. The uniform is designed to highlight what members of the group share, to produce a group image. The marching veterans and the observant women wear particular kinds of clothing on these ritual occasions in order to conform to the ritual, that is, to help make the experience an occasion, an observation or commemoration whose impression is not about anyone in particular but about the concerted step of the company. The occasion they jointly craft is about their whole and what it invokes as a collective ideal. But clothing can also accent the individual, as it does in figure 4 in the form of General Torrance mounted on horseback in military uniform. In both instances, however, whether limning the group or accenting the individual, clothing adapts the body to the occasion, creating a public event, which is circumscribed by certain behavior and appearance. The body of the participant is often used to consecrate a time or to commemorate an event or rite of passage by being modified. This may be as simple and temporary as wearing formal clothing, uniforms, or ceremonial dress such as robes; or it may involve something more permanent like scarification, tattooing, or skin piercing. The latter are common in traditional African and Oceanic societies, particularly to help create significant rites of passage, such as boys and girls entering puberty or adulthood. It is common in the United States for young girls to celebrate debutant balls, girls to participate in quinceañera (la fiesta de quince años) (fig. 6), Jewish boys and girls to observe bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, Catholics to observe First Holy Communion, and many Protestants to undergo confirmation ceremonies. On each of these coming-of-age occasions, the decisive turn is marked by ritual behavior, meals, and special dress.

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Figure 6. Girl at her quinceañera in the church of San Francisco de Asís in Valle de Bravo, Mexico, 2010. Photograph by Alejandro Linares Garcia. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

By augmenting the body, I have in mind those practices that underscore the individual by changing or enhancing one body rather than others. As figure 6 suggests, when singled out from the company of her peers (see fig. 3) augmenting the body particularizes the individual, even while it also links her to an entire class—in this instance, the fifteen-year-old Mexican girl who is dressed like a fairy tale princess and is presented to society by her mother and an honor guard of social peers and relatives, young men who share her blood or station and represent the standard for the suitor who will now come calling. Although her dress clearly associates her with every other middle- or upper-class debutant who has experienced the rite, the young woman in this case becomes a spectacle herself, the enhanced body of a princess rather than the anonymous iteration of a social body. She is meant to be gazed upon as a new version of herself. Her life will now change as she publicly enters the age of life for courting, passing from the status of girl to young adult. Her dress and the ritual occasion are meant to celebrate her new standing, to endow her with a new social identity. The rite follows the Catholic Mass, and so it is pictured before the sanctuary of a Catholic Church, which foreordains the sacrality of marriage, to which the celebration of quince años is meant to lead.

Transforming the Body

Religious mythology, ritual, and imagery frequently present the theme of transformation. Humans, gods, demons, and spirits change form. Animal and human forms emerge from one another or adhere in the same figure. Humans become objects, as in the wonderful stories versified by Ovid. Spirits become animals, gods become human beings, spirits and demons possess animals and human beings. Shamans receive the power of indwelling spirits. In every case, the body of the host serves as a medium that is in some way transformed, changed into something else. This is most readily visible in the use of masks and costumes in healing ceremonies, initiation rites, and the performance of mythic narrative in dance. Changes from one state to another, like the metamorphosis of water into ice, kindling into fire, fire into warmth, work into product, life into death, child into adult, word into action—such changes, wrought by various technologies, generate value by producing a desired quality or state. Change means the revelation of a capacity that was not there before or a shift from one order of being to another. Transformation may involve a fundamental change from one thing into another, or it can also mean the dramatic shift from matter to spirit or visibility to invisibility. The hamsa (fig. 7), an amulet used for protection against the Evil Eye, is an example of such change. The form is a stylized hand complimented by an inscription or incantation enabling it to remove the owner from the visual current of maleficence generated by an enemy or rival. The hand intervenes to conceal the one whom it protects. Removed from visibility, the owner of the hamsa is spared the misfortune of exposure to evil’s glare.

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Figure 7. Hamsa, enameled metal, purchased in Jerusalem, 2005. Photograph by author.

One of the most affecting and somatic ways to personify transformation is the use of masks. These are powerful spiritual technologies because they modify or cover the face without changing the body. Costumes, face and body paint, and headdresses often accompany the mask. Although some may entirely cover the body, even changing its structure and appearance, often masks operate by joining a new face or head to a human body. The resulting hybrid means a coopting of the body by the person or spirit of the mask. Shamans, for example, summon spirits or ancestors into themselves and become them by donning the mask and undergoing trance or possession. The mask hides the former identity and replaces it with a new one that is now incarnate in the appropriated body. As one dancer of the Potlatch put it, when dressed in the mask “I am the mask. I am the bird. I am the animal. I am the fish. I am the spirit . . . I transcend into the being of the mask.”16 The personification invoked the presence of the spirit being for a purpose. Another study noted: “Spirit beings in the form of animals, monsters, and a wide range of human characters are personified in masked dances by people who have inherited their names and the right to impersonate them.”17 For this reason animal and human often intermingle in carved or painted figures produced by Native peoples on the northwestern coast of North America. Steven Brown has pointed out that the mask reproduced here (fig. 8) was used in performances among the Nishga or the Git’ksan peoples.

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Figure 8. Large face Naxnox mask, Git’ksan, Kitwancool, c. 1900, red cedar and paint. Reproduced by permission from the John H. Hauberg Collection of Northwest Coast Native Art, Seattle Art Museum, 91.1.49.

These performances described the power beyond humanity that “manifests the world as we know it.”18 This suggests that the mask combined the facial features of the human being with characteristics of the bird in order to perform the transcendent realm narrated in myth. The ancient beings depicted in masks are associated with its owner’s family and their stories, linked to territorial sites as the locations where the beings originally appeared when they transformed from an animal or monster form into a human one.19 Thus, by enacting the original events wearing the masks and costumes in ritual dance, the performers reestablish their hereditary identity and presence on the land as the basis for their relation to their neighbors. Myth and society unfold together in the material culture of performance. By enacting transformation in the dancer’s body, sometimes with the help of masks themselves that transform from one creature into another, the metamorphosis unfolds within the living body. As a result, the rite brings the viewer and the mythic event and being into immediate relation, which is essential for the success of the Potlatch: “The owner [of the mask] must maintain the privilege [of owning the mask and performing its story] through public display and payment to designated witnesses of the performance.”20 The Potlatch, which is organized around the performance among Northwest Coast peoples, is a complex gift economy that organizes the society. The transformed body of the dancer is the medium for invoking the presence and witness of the spirit beings, and his accomplishment at performance helps secure his place among his peers.

Housing the Body

Augmenting the body with costume or transforming it with masks provides a new skin that either builds on or adds to the body or changes it into something else. But there is yet another way to affect the human body and that is by placing it within an encompassing space. Ritual unfolds within place, even if a minimalistic space shaped more by attention than by physical structure. But often rites are performed within built environments, spaces constructed for the purpose of staging events and concentrating attention on the occasion of performance, oratory, or collective practice. They are placed within a larger body, the space of a building, shrine, enclosure, grid, circle, tomb, grotto, cave, or grave. For many Protestants in 19th-century America, the Gothic style became the preferred style in erecting a church, replacing the New England steeple with soaring stone bell towers and looming pointed arches that defined towering interiors with ornament and architectural features that were not a perfect match to Protestant liturgy but that served nonetheless to register an ecclesiastical presence in the growing urban spaces of the nation. The interior view of Grace Episcopal Church of Manhattan, designed by James Renwick Jr. and built between 1843 and 1846, conveys the grandeur of the interior that impressed many (but not all) Protestants (fig. 9). The scale is unmistakable in the engraving, serving to dwarf the visitors and to create a space that would be unrivaled by any other in the growing commercial and industrial society outside of its walls. The use of medieval tracery, stained glass, webbed vaulting, pointed arches, clustered pillars, and extensive ornamentation produces an overwhelming space that marked a clear departure from the unembellished, white surfaces of the classical New England meetinghouse.

The Reformed tradition of Protestantism had long denied a place for imagery and ornamentation and had expressed anxiety about architectural elements or spaces dedicated to ritual as potentially idolatrous. Thus, the Puritan tradition built meetinghouses that served as sites for worship on Sundays and for civil duties the rest of the week. But by the 19th century in the United States, the distinction between church and state and the rise of business as a dominant national ethos led Calvinists to yearn for a church architecture that would be distinct from the secular, profane world of civil life and commerce, but to do so without capitulating to either the neoclassical aesthetic, on the one hand, or the neo-Gothic, on the other. In an essay titled “Church Architecture,” published in 1840 in the Presbyterian journal, Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review produced at Princeton Theological Seminary, Presbyterian clergyman William Armstrong Dod leveled staunch criticism at the tendencies.21 He contended that religious architecture needed to be set apart from civil for its different purpose: “Civil architecture needs the life of man to give it countenance; religious architecture, if it be truly such, bears its own life, and gives countenance to men—only another form of saying that religious art is intrinsically real; secular art is more or less conventional.”22 Dod insisted that the Greek style was fine for the Bourse in Paris or the customhouse in Liverpool and the Gothic style suited the Catholic tradition, but both styles failed to serve the Protestant faith.23 Philosophers and orators found the colonnade of the Greek forum a likely place to amble and engage in the public art of declamation and argument. But Protestant churches required a steeple, not a stoa. “Whatever may be the architecture of a church, or whether it have any architecture or not, we hold that it is not a church until it have a spire.”24 The spire was the unmistakable public signage of a church. No other building boasted one. Dod may have found this signification of purpose necessary in a nation that had privatized religious affiliation by placing it in the marketplace of individual choice. Unassisted by government sponsorship, the need for distinctiveness among religious organizations was exacerbated. Religion had to advertise itself and make the case for its urgency. It needed to compete successfully in the urban and rural landscape to secure its place in American life.

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Figure 9. Interior view of Grace Church, 1843–1846. Episcopalian. 4th Avenue and East 10 and 12 Streets, New York City. Designed by James Renwick Jr. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

The competition also meant to ensure success over arch rival Roman Catholicism, long the binary opposite of Protestantism, which kept its “reformation” ideal alive in a rhetoric denouncing Romanism for its idolatry, ritualism, and superstitious beliefs invested most characteristically in the Mass. Dod focused his remarks on the interior of church design since it was there that the minds of worshipers were most characteristically shaped by the technology of architecture exerting its effect on the mood and emotions of churchgoers. The cathedral interior, beautiful though it was, according to Dod, failed to serve as a proper Protestant space because of its effects on viewers. This space was designed for the Catholic Mass. The logic of its organization not only suited that end, but also shaped human response toward sympathy with it. As a result, Dod concluded, “in order to our cordially using it, and such is the only real use of art, the cathedral must become protestantized, or our faith must become Gothicized.”25 But Dod confessed unease with the very prospect of appropriating the Gothic style. Evoking Calvin’s famous denunciation of the human as “a perpetual forge of idols,” he noted that “when we consider the native tendencies of our minds to form and idol, and the insidious sway which every religious symbolism has acquired over the hearts of its subjects, we cannot but tremble at the idea of the Protestant world generally making experiment of genuine cathedral art.” The problem with beauty is its beguiling effect. For “a Gothic nave is a fearful place, and cathedral art has a power that would, in its own time and way, sooner or later, compel cathedral worshippers to a cathedral service. The only adequate cathedral service is the mass.”26 One senses the awe among the tiny visitors to Grace Church in figure 9. The men must remove their top hats as they crane their necks to behold the lofty vaults overhead. Spectacle was the aesthetic result when ritual function was unable to produce reverence and awe because Protestants could not accept the mode of presence that accompanied the Eucharist. Dod feared the coercive pressure of Gothic design since its power as an aesthetic technology worked upon viewers toward a ritual end.

But William Dod could not provide an acceptable Protestant architectural style since, he proclaimed, none had been developed by the tradition. Protestantism, he charged, lacked “any adequate theory of a church building.”27 To begin to remedy this want, Dod urged architects and congregations to consider three attributes as scripturally mandated for the Christian congregation: worship, teaching, and government.28 Church design should accommodate these in the interior organization of the church building in order to affect congregants in an appropriately Protestant manner. In terms of government, the presiding authorities of the congregation should be visibly seated before the congregation: “Episcopacy ever sees itself in its bishop, the Papacy in its pope, and the Presbyterian Church ought to give its people and its children the like advantage.”29 So Dod called for a “Presbyterium” as a distinct feature of the Protestant structure in order to spatialize the governance or authority of the congregation. To serve the aim of instruction, church interiors “should be constructed in reference to facility of sound, and the convenient position of the congregation.”30 Instruction by audible and visual access to the sermon was a primary value. Interiors should be freed of excessive ornament, galleries, pillars, and any element that blocked sound and clear vision. The result “should produce an impression, not gloomy and hierarchical, but a true Sunday impression, the elements of which are sacred rest, freedom, and joy; the correlatives in style would be quiet, extent and simplicity, in a word the power and tranquility of aerial expanse as opposed to a brooding symbolism of forms.”31 Finally, the space should excite the feeling of worship, which turns on “the impression of solemnity, and at the same time of sacredness.”32 This could be achieved by the effect of spaciousness. “When we enter a church, let us find in every direction, above, before and around us, a free and untrammelled scope for the eye and the mind, with nothing irksome, and nothing to overawe, but something broad, lofty, capacious and still; something which, in virtue of its mere size, shall impart the sense of greatness, and of its good proportions, shall convey the feeling of composure and rest.”33 The interior must evoke reverence since the point is to feel, “as we enter the building, that we come there to worship God.”34 The bank or post office must convey its purpose in its design; the church was no different. Not confusing them was the American conception of religious freedom. The distinction was to be observed and implemented aesthetically. Church buildings were affective technologies for doing religion. Space exerted emotional effects that worked in tandem with intellectual and moral capacities to make Protestant worship possible.35

Projecting the Body

We have seen how people live in their bodies, changing their form, adding to their surfaces, and modifying their operation. But they also extend or project their bodies, transforming them from actual structures into virtual agents. People live in time, toward the future, waiting for something to come to pass, to be fulfilled, to grow to its appointed time. People exist as a project, along a trajectory that they slowly realize each day or in achieving incremental progress or a set of goals. Christians have often referred to life as a pilgrimage, a single, slow progress toward an end, the hereafter awaiting them on the other side of death. Muslims practice jihad as a spiritual struggle against one’s ego. Buddhists accrue merit in order to garner higher rebirth. Nirvana means the final extinction of the cycle of rebirth. In every case and many more, life is lived toward discrete ends, over time. The self or soul is slowly realized, perfected, or, as the case may be, dismantled. The body of belief and practice exists over time as well as in space. Its being is often structured toward an end, and, therefore, it must be understood in terms of where it is headed. It does not exist in a single moment but is projected over a temporal course, waiting, anticipating, working toward fulfillment or realization.

How is this operationalized in terms of embodiment? Often it means the use of retrospection to capture its journey, its movement over time. This takes the form of storytelling, autobiography, journaling, collecting, and display. Photo albums, scrapbooks, collections of mementos, pilgrimage and its subsequent narrative may serve as ways of assembling the self as a temporal project. The self-on-the-move is mapped by the accretion of objects from different moments.

Other kinds of practices that project the self into the future toward a goal include the Lenten tradition of giving something up. Those who undertake pilgrimage often do so upon the basis of a pledge or vow, the promise to offer the effort of the quest and devotion to Our Lady or a saint as penance for a transgression or in gratitude for a favor received. The body undergoes trial, suffering, the discipline of waiting, denying itself, controlling its pleasure, abiding pain. For all of these, material instruments are commonly necessary. One needs the road or path on which to undertake pilgrimage, the shrine at which to profess one’s vow or post one’s ex-voto, the cult image before which to make a pledge or fulfill it, the place to practice meditation.

Still other forms of projection unfold in space as the primary medium. These may be dedicated to forgetting the passage of time, or getting outside of ordinary or profane temporality in order to focus attention on a commanding present. This involves the virtual presence achieved by extending oneself vicariously into a theater of performance, that is, into a special moment. Watching is a common form of projecting the body. Mandalas are elaborate visual devices used for envisioning the process of union with deities in some Buddhist practice. Labyrinths are the setting for meditative walks, slow paced movement aimed at a destination. Gardens and walks on the beach offer much the same. These activities slow down time, absorb the mind in thought or sensation, place it in a remote spot from which distractions withdraw.

Contemplating miniatures and sacred theater such as the Via Dolorosa engages some viewers in absorbing spectatorship. The experience can be especially moving among those who watch reenactments of the Passion of Jesus during Holy Week, when he is abused by Roman soldiers on the way to Calvary and crucifixion.36 Some viewers are deeply moved by what they see, weeping as Jesus is beaten. One of the most familiar miniatures in Christian popular practice is the crèche or nativity scene (fig. 10), a seasonal display at Christmas time that is especially popular among Catholics and Lutherans, that is, traditions associated with Latin and German ethnicities. The response to the crèche is, of course, quite different from the experience of Jesus’ death march. The nativity of Jesus is typically rendered with sweetness, in which the small scale is especially helpful for rendering precious figures that invite tender feelings tinged with memories of the crèches that viewers first encountered in their homes as young children. The figures are, after all, the size of toys and are closely associated with Christmas, when children receive gifts that are often toys. Gazing on and fondling the small figures may trigger childhood memories of delight, warmth, and fascination that allow adults to return to emotional states that are not ordinarily accessible.

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Figure 10. Nativity scene. Porcelain figurines produced by Created Art Flowers, Inc., c. 1970. Collection of Rosalee Johnson. Photograph by author.

But whether the images in virtual reality are miniature or not, the relationship one establishes with the sacred other is enacted as a form of projecting, extending, or imagining one’s interaction in action toward the image. The virtuality in question is not limited to the digital medium of modern electronic forms such as the Internet. By virtuality I have in mind the relation with a sacred other experienced as a projection from the actual space of the viewer’s body into the fictive space of the image, enactment, or representation. This is not a modern experience, but ancient, and it is something to be found at work across cultures. The Thai woman at prayer before a large bronze image of Buddha (fig. 11) regards the image as the place to address Lord Buddha in prayer. She will, like many visitors before her, apply small squares of gold leaf to the surface of the image in an act of devotion that demonstrates her veneration of the Buddha, that produces merit which diminishes bad karma and yields higher rebirth, and that may accompany the request of a favor. The practice is, therefore, part of an ongoing relation to Buddha, a life-long series of pleas, negotiation, pledging, and expressions of gratitude.

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Figure 11. Woman praying before Buddha image. Wat Phra That Phanom, Nakhon Phanom province, Northeast Thailand, 2002. Photograph by Siriwan Santisakultarm.

These instances of material culture and the articulations of embodiment they exemplify demonstrate the variety of ways in which religions work upon the body, making it the medium for the sacred to happen viscerally and materially. Rather than regarding the body as a mindless device transporting the brain, we do better to understand it as a vital part of a dense web that includes other bodies, abstract thought, ritual practice, and aesthetic technologies ranging from architecture, images, and objects to devices that evoke and shape sensation such as clothing, musical instruments, food, and masks. The body is made in material practice and it serves, in turn, as the means by which experience is organized and made into the register of value and meaning. Simply put, material culture is action upon and with the body to produce salience. Religious material culture is that subset which constructs the sacred, which is achieved in a variety of ways. Generally speaking, we may understand the sacred as the compelling conditions for the existence of oneself and one’s fellows. This sense is produced in a number of ways: by setting something apart, such as the interior of Grace Church (fig. 9); by passing into a new identity or status achieved by rites of passage, such as quince años (fig. 6); by joining or honoring a social body deemed to guard communal honor, as in the case of the Civil War veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic or the war dead (figs. 4 and 5); by commemorating the departed, such as mother (fig. 2) or those lost to the contingencies of life (fig. 5); by benefiting from the agency of things that perform work on one’s behalf (fig. 7); and by cultivating relations with beings beyond the mortal sphere, such as saints, ancestors, demons, spirits, angels, or gods (figs. 8 and 11). Religious material culture is, therefore, a fundamental part of what people do in deeply embodied ways to keep their worlds in working order.


The study of religious material culture arose in the course of the 19th century among archaeologists and ethnographers whose focus on so-called primitive as well as ancient societies allowed only limited access to written texts or inscriptions in some cases, and in many instances no texts at all. This meant that they had to rely on objects and built structures that had survived in order to study the cultures. One of the early advocates of “material culture” and among the first to use the term itself was Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers. He avidly collected a range of artifacts, which became the basis of the singularly important holdings of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, which he founded in 1884 at Oxford University.

Another important collection of artifacts was put together by Rudolf Otto, who founded the Museum of Religions at Marburg in 1927.37 An experienced traveler like Pitt-Rivers, Otto assembled a large collection of artifacts that was to serve as inspiration for the comparative study of religions, also known as the history of religions. Deeply shaped by the phenomenology of religion approach, Otto and the legacy of the collection stressed objects as key aspects of the religious sentiments or experience that formed the essence of the holy, as Otto defined it in his major book, The Idea of the Holy (1917). Feeling became a principal focus in the study of religion and this welcomed the investigation of objects, images, and symbols as generators of sentiment or feeling in religious practice. Influenced by Otto among others, Mircea Eliade included the arts in his studies of the history of religions, an influence that continued in the journal, History of Religions, and in the Encyclopedia of Religion (1987), which Eliade edited.38

The discipline of art history has long practiced the careful examination of objects and images, many of which are religious artifacts. The scrutiny of material evidence goes to the heart of the art historian’s work, though this has largely (though by no means entirely) concerned the history of fine art. Art historians studying African cultures, Native American, medieval European, ancient Mesopotamian, and Mediterranean cultures, in particular, have tended to focus on religious material artifacts.39 At the same time, the history of modern archaeology contributed very importantly to the understanding of the material aspects of religious life by excavating sculpture, objects, and works of art that became primary evidence for the study of religions.40

The field of material culture studies shaped the work of a number of scholars of religion during the 1990s, and their efforts are reflected in Material Religion, a journal founded in 2005.41 In the domain of anthropology, ethnography, and ethnology, many studies have contributed to the understanding of religious objects, sensation, and practice.42

Further Reading

A classic statement of the dialectical scheme of social constructivism is Peter L. Berger's The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. For further discussion of materiality and agency, see Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things; Ian Hodder, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things; and W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. For discussion of materiality in regard to current theoretical work and the study of religion, see Sonia Hazard, "The Material Turn in the Study of Religion"; and Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception. For a phenomenological approach to the study of religion indebted to Merleau-Ponty, see Thomas J. Csordas, The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing. I have discussed the relevance of Merleau-Ponty’s work for visual culture in religious studies elsewhere; see Morgan, “The Look of the Sacred.” Discussion of Merleau-Ponty’s relevance for the study of embodiment is extensive, but it has been importantly developed by Csordas in “Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology”; “Somatic Modes of Attention”; and Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self. The literature on embodiment is vast; useful representations of its many facets include: Frances E. Mascia-Lees, ed., A Companion to the Anthropology of the Body and Embodiment; Carrie Noland, Agency and Embodiment: Performing Gestures/Producing Culture; Andrew J. Strathern, Body Thoughts; and Chris Shilling, The Body and Social Theory. With regard to embodiment and the study of religion, see Birgit Meyer, ed., Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion, and the Senses; Manuel A. Vásquez, More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion; and Sally M. Promey, ed., Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice.

Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).Find this resource:

Berger, Peter L., The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1969), 3–28.Find this resource:

Csordas, Thomas J., “Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology,” Ethos 18 (1990): 5–47.Find this resource:

Thomas J. Csordas, “Somatic Modes of Attention,” Cultural Anthropology 8.2 (1993): 135–156.Find this resource:

Csordas, Thomas J., ed., Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994).Find this resource:

Csordas, Thomas J., The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).Find this resource:

Hazard, Sonia, “The Material Turn in the Study of Religion,” Religion and Society: Advances in Research 4 (2013): 58–78.Find this resource:

Hodder, Ian, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).Find this resource:

Mascia-Lees, Frances E., ed., A Companion to the Anthropology of the Body and Embodiment (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).Find this resource:

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 2002).Find this resource:

Meyer, Birgit, ed. Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion, and the Senses (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).Find this resource:

Mitchell, W. J. T., What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), esp. 28–56.Find this resource:

Morgan, David, “The Look of the Sacred,” in The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, edited by Robert A. Orsi, 296–318 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).Find this resource:

Noland, Carrie, Agency and Embodiment: Performing Gestures/Producing Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).Find this resource:

Sally M. Promey, ed., Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).Find this resource:

Shilling, Chris, The Body and Social Theory (London: SAGE, 1993).Find this resource:

Strathern, Andrew J., Body Thoughts (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).Find this resource:

Vásquez, Manuel A., More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).Find this resource:


(1.) Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge Press, 1977), 78.

(2.) Ibid., 164–171.

(3.) Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28.1 (Autumn 2001): 4.

(5.) Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law, eds., Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992).

(6.) An excellent overview of the tradition is Douglas Allen, “Phenomenology of Religion,” in The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion, edited by John R. Hinnells, 182–207 (London: Routledge, 2005).

(7.) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 2002).

(8.) Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 61.

(9.) Ibid., 159–161.

(10.) Ibid., 166.

(11.) Marcel Mauss, “Techniques of the Body,” Economy and Society 2 (1973): 75.

(12.) Samuel Phillips, The Christian Home, as It Is in the Sphere of Nature and the Church (Social Circle, GA: E. Nebhut, 1861), 84.

(13.) See also Michel Maffesoli, The Contemplation of the World: Figures of Community Style, translated by Susan Emanuel (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).

(14.) Mauss, “Techniques of the Body,” 73.

(15.) See the official website of Arlington National Cemetery, which stipulates what is acceptable in decoration and what is not—

(16.) Robert Joseph, “Behind the Mask,” in Down from the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast, edited by Peter Macnair, Robert Joseph, and Bruce Grenville, 24 (Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre, 1998).

(17.) Steven C. Brown, “Gitk’san, Coast Tsimshian, Haisla, Heiltsuk, and Nuxalk Objects,” in The Spirit Within: Northwest Coast Native Art from the John H. Hauberg Collection, edited by Helen Abbott, Steven Brown, Lorna Price, and Paul Thurman, 164 (New York: Rizzoli, 1995).

(19.) Peter Macnair, “Power of the Shining Heavens,” in Down from the Shimmering Sky, 36.

(21.) [William Armstrong Dod,] “Church Architecture,” The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 27. 4 (October 1855): 625–649. The essay was published anonymously, but the attribution is listed in the catalogue of the library of the Princeton Theological Seminary.

(22.) Ibid., 629.

(23.) Ibid., 634.

(25.) Ibid., 640.

(27.) Ibid., 637.

(28.) Ibid., 641.

(29.) Ibid., 642.

(30.) Ibid., 643.

(31.) Ibid., 645.

(32.) Ibid., 646.

(34.) Ibid., 645.

(35.) In 1858, three years after he published his essay, Dod left the Presbyterian affiliation to become a clergyman in the Protestant Episcopal Church, serving as rector of Trinity Church in Princeton until 1866. Founded in 1833, the congregation was housed in a wooden church built in the Greek style. A stone Gothic church designed by Richard Upjohn replaced it in 1870, two years before Dod died. In a long essay of 1856, Dod ranked the classical as superior to the Gothic, “Lectures on Architecture and Painting,” The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 28. 3 (July 1856): 461–493. The final line of this essay may suggest why Dod left the Calvinist tradition for the Episcopal: he calls for “good art” as a national urgency and laments bad art as that “which ignobly degrades that which is among the highest and most spiritual of man’s natural faculties, his imagination” (493).

(36.) For images of a famous annual reenactment in San Antonio, Texas, see

(37.) Peter J. Braeunlein, “The Marburg Museum of Religions,” Material Religion 1. 2 (July 2005): 285–287. Interest in the museum and religion has continued in the work of Crispin Paine, Religious Objects in Museums: Private Lives and Public Duties (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), Sandra H. Dudley, ed., Museum Objects: Experiencing the Properties of Things (London: Routledge, 2012), Annette Wilke and Esther-Maria Guggenmos, Im Netz des Indra: Das Museum of World Religions, sein buddhistisches Dialogkonzept und die neue Disziplin Religionsaesthetik (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2008).

(38.) See, for instance, various theme issues such as “Image and Ritual in Buddhism,” History of Religions 34. 3 (February 1995), “Buddhist Art and Narrative,” History of Religions 40. 1 (August 2000) publication; for a series of several essays on the iconography of many different religious traditions in the first (1987) and second (2005) editions of the Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 7 (Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2005), 4,295–4,352. The second edition also includes fourteen visual essays, one per volume, on major themes in the history of the visual cultures of religions; Mircea Eliade, Symbolism, the Sacred, and the Arts, edited by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (New York: Crossroad, 1986).

(39.) See James Henry Breasted, Oriental Forerunners of Byzantine Painting; First-Century Wall Paintings from the Fortress of Dura on the Middle Euphrates (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1924); Aby Warburg, Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995); David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); Richard H. Davis, Lives of Indian Images (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997); David Morgan and Sally M. Promey, eds., The Visual Culture of American Religions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Cynthia Hahn, Strange Beauty: Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400–circa 1204 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012); Jane Garnett and Gervase Rosser, Spectacular Miracles: Transforming Images in Italy from the Renaissance to the Present (London: Reaktion, 2013).

(40.) James Henry Breasted, A History of Ancient Egyptians (New York: Scribner, 1908); Stanley Arthur Cook, The Religion of Ancient Palestine in the Light of Archaeology (London: Oxford University Press, 1930); Eric M. Meyers, Excavations at the Ancient Synagogue of Gush Halav (Winona Lake, IL: American Schools of Oriental Research by Eisenbrauns, 1990); Timothy Insoll, Archaeology, Ritual, Religion (London: Routledge, 2004); Irene J. Winter, On Art in the Ancient Near East, 2 vols. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010); Steven Fine, Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Timothy Insoll, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

(41.) Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995); Annabel Jane Wharton, Selling Jerusalem: Relics, Replicas, Theme Parks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); Louis P. Nelson, ed., American Sanctuary: Understanding Sacred Spaces (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006); David Morgan, ed., Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief (London: Routledge, 2010); Birgit Meyer, David Morgan, Crispin Paine, and S. Brent Plate, “The Origin and Mission of Material Religion,” Religion 30 (2010): 1–5; Benjamin J. Fleming and Richard D. Mann, eds., Material Culture and Asian Religions: Text, Image, Object (London: Routledge, 2014).

(42.) See Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998); Karl-Heinz Kohl, Die Macht der Dinge: Geschichte und Theorie sakraler Objekte (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2003); Allen F. Roberts and Mary Nooter Roberts, A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 2003); Christopher Pinney, “Photos of the Gods”: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India (London: Reaktion, 2004); Birgit Meyer, Religious Sensations: Why Media, Aesthetics and Power Matter in the Study of Contemporary Religion (Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit, 2006); Inge Daniels, The Japanese House: Material Culture in the Modern Home (Oxford: Berg, 2010).