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Malory Nye’s Religion: The Basics

July 16, 2010

I teach my Intro to Religion course like the first two chapters of Berger’s The Sacred Canopy: religious traditions serve to reinforce (by naturalizing or mystifying) social order. However, my students just can’t read that book—the vocabulary is over their heads. I tried to find alternatives, but none of the introductory books were critical like Berger’s, and none of the critical monographs were accessible. So I decided to write my own; I wrote out a handful of lectures that I share with my students electronically, in lieu of a satisfactory textbook.

However, I might not have had to do so if I had found Nye’s Religion: The Basics. This is the only intro text that is critical in the way I’m critical: the author seems to be a cultural theorist, so he uses people like Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. And there is even a chapter on “Power,” in which he covers Marx, Gramsci, Althusser, and Foucault. How awesome is that?

He is also satisfactorily anti-essentialist; he insists that “religious culture” is always changing as contexts and circumstances change (he uses the terms “hybridity” and “syncretism” to describe the ongoing process). “[A]ll religious cultures are syncretic, and there is no such thing as a ‘non-syncretic’ religious tradition.” (Oddly, however, rather than suggest—as I would—that this completely undermines any and all authenticity claims, he does the reverse: he suggests that this makes everything authentic.)

I’m not done with the book yet, but I may very well be assigning chapters from this one in the future.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Beelzebub permalink
    July 16, 2010 4:56 pm

    What exactly is meant by “authentic”?

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 17, 2010 8:29 am

    Hmmm. I see “authentic” used like the word “real,” as in “We’re the true, authentic Christians.” Nye suggests that all religion is syncretic, so there is no “pure” non-syncretic form of a religion, but then quotes someone who says that anyone can (rightly) claim authenticity if their form is unique. I’m not sure what value there is in maintaining any use of the word “authenticity,” even if it is changed to mean some sort of non-syncretic authenticity.

  3. Addison Algernon permalink
    July 20, 2010 12:39 am

    I thought this book was pretty solid as well, especially for a class that would be an intro to the *study* of religion, a course that’s theory and methods oriented, like a gateway course for a religion major. I tried using it in my world religions course, but thought it was overkill on theory in that particular context.

    Now I just use the introduction to give basic orientation at the beginning of the course. I have my students read it alongside the intro to “The Sacred Quest,” and then get them to discuss and debate the merits of a cultural studies approach (Nye) or a more history of religions / phenomenological approach (Sacred Quest). Some students really get into this, and I think it’s a productive way to give them at least a taste of these methodological issues.

    My criticisms of the book: I wish it did more *showing* rather than just *telling*. I think it would be much more engaging for undergrads to learn what it’s trying to say through examples and case studies that allow them to see the principles at work. Also, it has a bit of a chip on its shoulder, so belabors its argument to score points in a methodological debate within religious studies. That’s fine if you have a dog in that race, but most students do not, so don’t get what’s at stake in the argument, and lose interest.

    On the authenticity issue, Nye is coming out of cultural studies, and so is invested in legitimizing the study of “low,” popular cultural forms, as opposed to “high” culture which is generally understood to be pure, authentic, etc. So it’s easier for him to argue that all forms of culture are authentic for those who engage in them, and so deserve to be studied, rather than try to argue that notions of authenticity shouldn’t exist. Just speculation on that…

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 20, 2010 10:02 am

    Comparing it to Sacred Quest is a really good idea. I might steal that. I might, in fact, consider making my students read the intro to Sacred Quest at the END of the semester, to see what they would have “missed” if we had taken that approach.

    You’re probably right about him on the authenticity thing—it probably is an attempt to legitimate “low” culture; good eye!

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