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Reviewed by:
  • Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brent Nongbri
  • David T. M. Frankfurter
Brent Nongbri
Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013
Pp. 275. $40.00.

Brent Nongbri would like scholars to be much more self-conscious about the term “religion”: that it is properly a second-order “redescriptive” category and in no way should be imagined as a translation of some indigenous concept, since no culture outside of Protestant Christianity has ever had such a concept as our “religion.” The book consists of a series of short chapters examining moments and cases in the misapprehension of indigenous terms linked to our word “religion,” from early Christian heresiography to nineteenth-century orientalist scholarship. “Religion,” he argues, is so tainted with Protestant baggage that it should really be [End Page 632] replaced with more pertinent and culturally particular amalgamations of cultural dynamics, like “ancestral tradition” or “scribal praxis” (159).

At one level this is a familiar, even obvious argument: that “religion”—like “faith” or “salvation” or “superstition”—carries particular theological assumptions that have the capacity to distort the materials, texts, or ideas under discussion. Graduate students in Religious Studies (if not those in History, Classics, or Patristics) tend to be sensitized to the Protestant undercurrents in our critical terminology and even in our areas of study. Nongbri takes the point much further in this book, arguing that scholars must not use any critical term that the culture does not itself share in some way conceptually (e.g., 23), an argument that seriously misunderstands the nature of the second-order category as heuristic, “the creation of the scholar’s study” as J. Z. Smith famously declared of “religion” (Imagining Religion [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982], xi). And yet, his argument does extend to “religion” the kind of censure some of us have sought to level at “paganism” (which intrinsically distorts its subject), “magic” (which reifies a Protestant alterity of ritual practice), or “sacrifice” (which imagines common offering practices as bloody animal-slaughter). The interpretation of religion or religious phenomena inevitably requires such regular adjustments of terminology to avoid theological bias or cultural distortion, to facilitate critical inquiry and comparison, and to motivate productive conversation. That is to say, on Nongbri’s side, we are responsible for self-conscious scrutiny and for debate about the utility, excesses, and proper senses of the terminology we use.

However, there is something naive in Nongbri’s argument about the disposability of “religion.” For one thing, as he briefly notes in his Conclusion (157), the same denunciations of post-Enlightenment, even colonialist categories could be marshalled against “culture” and “ethnicity,” as well—I would add—as “art,” “literature,” “sexuality,” “gender,” and even “representation.” None of these categories bears much, if any, relationship to any people’s indigenous classifications, but they all help us to frame in comparative terms important historical or anthropological discussions. The problem that I have with categories like “magic” and “pagan” is not whether ancient cultures had first-order equivalences but whether the terms productively select out phenomena for comparison and interpretation. Do they bear actual definitions, or do they function as casual shorthands, and when does the casual shorthand turn into thoroughgoing historiographical distortion? These are quite specific criteria; the expectation that a term might accurately or even distantly reflect indigenous concepts strikes me as a misunderstanding of what critical categories are supposed to do.

“Religion” can certainly sustain a strong definition; but here, most lamentably, Nongbri loads the dice in his depiction of modern scholarly uses and definitions of the word. The “classic” authors he discusses consist of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Clifford Geertz, William James, and Rudolf Otto, with a brief nod to Paul Tillich (155) and an extensive quotation from Karen Armstrong; while two stronger, more contemporary theorists, Bruce Lincoln and Benson Saler, are cited for brief dismissal. Nowhere is Émile Durkheim even mentioned, nor Bronislaw Malinowski, nor Max Weber, all by far the most important influences on the [End Page 633] contemporary study of ancient religion, with the most distinctively second-order conceptualizations of “religion” in the history of modern scholarship. How Nongbri could ignore these latter figures...


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