Imagining Religion From Babylon to Jonestown

ISBN-10: 0226763609

ISBN-13: 9780226763606

Edition: N/A

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Description: With this influential book of essays, Jonathan Z. Smith has pointed the academic study of religion in a new theoretical direction, one neither theological nor willfully ideological. Making use of examples as apparently diverse and exotic as the Maori cults in nineteenth-century New Zealand and the events of Jonestown, Smith shows that religion must be construed as conventional, anthropological, historical, and as an exercise of imagination. In his analyses, religion emerges as the product of historically and geographically situated human ingenuity, cognition, and curiosity—simply put, as the result of human labor, one of the decisive but wholly ordinary ways human beings create the worlds in which they live and make sense of them. "These seven essays . . . display the critical intelligence, creativity, and sheer common sense that make Smith one of the most methodologically sophisticated and suggestive historians of religion writing today. . . . Smith scrutinizes the fundamental problems of taxonomy and comparison in religious studies, suggestively redescribes such basic categories as canon and ritual, and shows how frequently studied myths may more likely reflect situational incongruities than vaunted mimetic congruities. His final essay, on Jonestown, demonstrates the interpretive power of the historian of religion to render intelligible that in our own day which seems most bizarre."—Richard S. Sarason,Religious Studies Review

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Book details

List price: $32.00
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 5/15/1988
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 184
Size: 6.25" wide x 9.25" long x 0.50" tall
Weight: 0.550
Language: English

Jonathan Z. Smith is perhaps the leading theorist working in the study of religions today; he is also a scholar who specializes in Hellenistic and late Antique religions. Trained at Yale University, where he wrote a thesis examining the methods employed in James G. Frazer's mammoth classic, The Golden Bough, Smith has been particularly interested in using the ideas and methods of sociology and anthropology to study religions. Through unrelenting criticism and detailed historical investigations, he has called into question many of the conclusions that an older generation of scholars had reached. His acumen has been directed particularly at the work of Mircea Eliade, who was for years Smith's colleague at the University of Chicago. His recent book, Drudgery Divine, aims to expose the sectarian purposes that led Protestant historians to isolate "primitive Christianity" from its contexts in ancient religions, an expose that Smith's own background in Judaism makes him ideally suited to carry out. As a theorist, Smith emphasizes the active role of intellection in all scholarly enterprises. He insists that the aim of religious studies is distinct from that of religions ("map is not territory"), that "religion" is a category "imagined" by Western scholars to accomplish certain academic purposes, and that theoretical questions and purposes should explicitly guide all investigations. For example, Smith states that when scholars compare religions, their immediate concern should not be with finding similarities that pervade a large body of data (cp. Eliade), nor should it be to determine who borrowed what from whom (historical diffusion). Instead, the purpose of comparison is to identify individual differences that assume significance because they elucidate specific theoretical issues. Smith's distinction between locative religions---religions that pertain to specific places---and utopian ones---religions that have broken their bonds with place---is especially helpful in considering the history of religions in the Hellenistic and late Antique periods. Smith's work is itself too recent to have been the subject of a scholarly monograph, but readers will find Smith's influence extending widely through the study of ancient religions. Those who want critical assessments may wish to consult book review indexes.

Acknowledgments Introduction 1. Fences and Neighbors: Some Contours of Early Judaism 2. In Comparison a Magic Dwells 3. Sacred Persistence: Toward a Redescription of Canon 4. The Bare Facts of Ritual 5. The Unknown God: Myth in History 6. A Pearl of Great Price and a Cargo of Yams 7. The Devil in Mr. Jones Appendixes Notes Index
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