Turn and Turn Again: The Study of Religious Practices

Several recent academic works suggest that there is currently a “turn” to practices in religious and theological scholarship.  “Turns” are usually (re)turns, correcting for the excesses of earlier turns.  (Re) focusing on religious practice is really more common sense than a new approach.  Religion involves practices, beliefs, ideas, objects everything connected with human living has been turned to the service of religion.  And all of it can and should be food for reflection, academic or otherwise.

Nevertheless, exploring religious practices, especially those of the so-called “religions of the book,” can highlight ongoing covert assumptions and resistances attached to one’s particular location.   In a class I taught, one doctoral student chose to explore the way the practice of reading scripture could be found in a reasonably ordinary U.S. Protestant worship service.  This student had served as a pastor for many years and more or less thought he knew the answer already: in the sermon and in the prefatory reading of texts, and maybe in a weekly bible study.  And this leadership perspective had been reinforced by the biblical and homiletical scholarship he had encountered.

I suggested he look harder.  

 And when he did, he found scripture being read in all sorts of places:  in personal bibles brought to services, in hymns, in church bulletins and inserts, in prayer, in decoration and artwork.  The study of religious practice requires this kind of view from “below”—in this case, quite literally sitting below the pulpit!  My student no longer looked only as a leader, a person of authority who was trained as pastor and scholar to see through the frame of a particular form of Protestant Christianity.  And when he looked in this new way, he no longer saw scripture practiced only in the ideas transmitted through the sermon, but also saw scriptural practice occurring through the touching of bibles and singing of hymns. If he had been in the right kind of church, he might have seen scripture practiced as an incantation, where the words of scripture, spoken or inscribed, serve as protection against illness and death.  Or he might have seen words read through the medium of a worn bible, clad in a bright cover, dripping with paper inserts and notes.

Following practices can lead to understanding that when people “do religion” they may not be doing what their leaders and doctrines said to do or they may be doing a traditional practice for very non-traditional reasons.  The rich embodied materiality of religious life opens up, filled with sounds and smells, feelings and belief. This life is always beyond what can be encompassed by the frameworks offered by intellectuals in both the scholarly and religious establishments.  Indeed the effort to understand religious practices can be deeply unsettling, since it requires letting all sorts of experiences disrupt the tidiness of our conceptual frameworks and, thus, our own social locations.  Perhaps studying practices is, as Pierre Bourdieu suggested of his research interviews, “a sort of spiritual exercise that, through forgetfulness of self, aims at a true conversation of the way we look at other people in the ordinary circumstances of life