Scholars invested in the interdiscipline of religious and performance studies have begun to realize the important influences of belief and praxis on both the world stage and the theatrical stage, and the much-anticipated publication of Religion, Theatre, and Performance: Acts of Faithis at the vanguard of a rapidly growing body of work. While we tend to locate 9/11 as the occasion on which the scholarly community recognized the lacuna in our understanding of religion and performance, in truth, as editor Lance Gharavi notes in his own essay “About[/]Doing: Religion and Theatre in the Academy,” it was already long past time for serious renovation in the dominant modes of inquiry into religion and culture. The essays in this volume demonstrate the range of possible approaches to a broad, amorphous topic and offer a promising signal that notions of religion and spirituality may yet become an “expected part of [the] theoretical toolbox” used in the field (5).
As a collection, the text functions as a kind of sampler featuring different subjects and modes of inquiry, and is broken into three parts: “Religious Actors,” “Dramas and Theatres,” and “Secularism and Its Discontents.” A through-line connecting these parts is not always visible, which may not have been possible (or even desirable) for a project of this breadth. In this sense, the volume has a “something for everyone” feel that is both a strength and a limitation. Topics range from the very broad (Ronald Grimes’s effort to demarcate the territory in “Religion, Ritual, and Performance”) to minutely specific (Isis Costa McElroy’s “A Transdiasporic Paradigm: The AfoxéFilhos de Gandhy”)—there is value in demonstrating the varying degrees of granularity in such a collection; that said, while many pieces work well in concert, others feel incongruous.
Certain contributions take up the writer’s own practical experiences with religious or spiritual activities and read them through a performative lens. Donnalee Dox’s “Spiritual Logic and Ritual Bodies” and Tamara Underiner’s “Plain Speech Acts: Reading Quakerism with Theatre and Performance Studies” fall into this category. In the former, Dox recounts her fieldwork in shamanistic drumming to analyze how bodies in ritual action create internal experiences that become interpretive lenses. Underiner describes her participation in Friends meetings and discovery of the “quiet power” of performative acts within Quaker practices of self-discipline and social justice. Both provide noteworthy exemplars of how to address a spiritual community, which one encounters either as a member or privileged guest, with sensitivity and rigor.
Other essays, especially Marvin Carlson’s “Religious Drama of Egypt’s Ali Ahmed Bahathir” and Gad Kaynar’s “The Decline of Israeli Society as a Black Mass in the Theatre of Shmuel Hasfari,” aim to illuminate the work of dramatists little known outside of their own countries, and to correct oversimplified notions of Muslim and Israeli cultures as hostile to drama or theatrically unsophisticated. We will know the authors have achieved their ends when the essays themselves seem dated.
The last section of the book tackles the perceived divide between religious and secular ways of looking at the world. Its three essays—Ann Pellegrini’s “Feeling Secular,” Gharavi’s own “About[/]Doing,” and John Fletcher’s “Performing Coexistence with Good Faith Intolerance”—do not engage one another in conversation, but seek independently to find ways of bridging the perceived gap between religious and secular ways of seeing and doing. Pellegrini argues for the need to understand secularism as a “structure of feeling that constructs and privileges particular forms of subjectivity, social [End Page 301]belonging, and social knowledge” (202). Gharavi addresses attitudes that have been naturalized in the discourse of the academy, which, combined with material power struggles in contemporary university settings, complicate knowledge production based on praxis (not only spiritual varieties). Fletcher proposes the need for a model of “convicted civility” to drive scholarly and other public conversation between religious and secular positions.
Most contributors offer a generous reading of their subjects—an attitude absent from much extant...