The Body in Religion. Cross-Cultural Perspectives
About the Reviewer(s): Ori Tavor is Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Philadelphia
Recent decades have witnessed a surge in academic publications focused on the body. This “somatic turn,” as it has come to be known, is the product of multiple philosophical, sociopolitical, and cultural trends, from the emergence of new forms of intellectual discourse, such as social constructionism, phenomenology, and feminist theory, to the increasing dominance of consumer culture and the ever-growing influence of technology on every aspect of human life. The Body in Religion: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, by Yudit Kornberg Greenberg, offers a comparative and interdisciplinary introduction to theories and practices of the body in religion. Drawing on a plethora of textual, material, and visual sources from multiple religious traditions and examining them against the backdrop of contemporary sociological, anthropological, and feminist theories, this book aims to “highlight religion’s role in constructing and shaping our body” while investigating the ways “that our embodiments themselves contribute to our religious beliefs” (xxv).
The Body in Religion contains a short introduction, four parts comprised of three chapters each, and a list of referenced and suggested readings. The introduction presents the main themes discussed in the book, such as mind-body dualism, gender and sexuality, and the relationship between the individual and society. It also offers a note on its cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary methodology, as well as a brief overview of the religious traditions surveyed in the book. Part 1, “Representing the Divine and the Human Bodies,” begins with a discussion concerning the role of the body in Greek, Hindu, and Zoroastrian creation myths. It then turns its attention to the representation of divine and human bodies in sacred narratives and visual art, concluding with an analysis of the motif of erotic love and the use of sexual metaphors in representing the human experience of the divine. Part 2, “Celebrating and Sustaining the Body,” provides an overview of the role of the body in religious ritual, the laws and practices aimed at regulating the preparation and consumption of food, and the bio-spiritual techniques and regimens designed to sustain the body and cultivate its wellbeing. Part 3, “Disciplining the Body,” addresses such topics as purity and pollution, gender and sexuality, and marriage and reproduction. Finally, part 4, “Modifying, Liberating, and Honoring the Body,” begins with an exploration of body modification as practiced cross-culturally from ancient times until the present. This section covers topics such as marking the body conducted during rites of passage and the impact of recent innovations in biotechnologies on transhumanist pursuits. This section then discusses the rules, vows, and exercises followed by ascetics and renunciants in their quest for spiritual and physical liberation. It concludes with the ultimate fate of the body—its burial, posthumous veneration, and existence in the afterlife.
The Body in Religion is an excellent textbook for many reasons. Each chapter follows a similar framework, beginning with a general discussion of the topic at hand, followed by a contextualized and historicized analysis of its manifestation in multiple religious traditions, then concluding with a few contemporary examples that demonstrate the enduring significance of the issues in the modern world, a set of discussion questions, and a glossary. Chapter 4, for instance, which focuses on the role of the body in religious ritual, starts with a general discussion of the various bodily components involved in ritual, such as posture, gesture, and movement. It then proceeds with a brief introduction of key methodologies and theories, such as Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus (56). This is followed by a set of key examples from different religious traditions, such as the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, the Jewish Sabbath prayers, and the Hindu pujaand devotional bhakti practices. Greenberg finishes the chapter with a survey of contemporary trends and practices, such as the emergence of women’s rituals in Neo-Paganism and the impact of the rise of internet culture, social media, and smartphone apps on religious ritual (77). The latter is particularly important, as it allows the instructor to connect the topic of the chapter to the lives, interests, and concerns of students. Greenberg’s analysis of mindfulness practices (119-22), transgender issues (151-56), and same-sex marriage (176-79) are especially likely to promote lively class discussions.
Yet another of the book’s strengths lies in its use of images. While the majority of The Body in Religionis devoted to textual analysis, this is supplemented by visual depictions of human bodies engaged in religious activity. Chapter 2, which studies the representation of the divine in art, is a good example of this practice in action, as it analyzes images of the bodies of gods, saints, and religious practitioners in Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, thus offering a much richer and more concrete understanding of the portrayal of bodies in religion. This is further reinforced by the book’s ancillary website. It includes supplementary online resources, such as suggestions for further reading, additional discussion questions, relevant websites, newspaper articles and videos, and optional classroom activities. It also includes a detailed and well-designed sample syllabus for an undergraduate course on the body in religion.
A minor issue is the book’s treatment of Chinese religions. Whereas its analyses of case studies from Abrahamic traditions, Hinduism, and Buddhism are properly contextualized and draw on excellent secondary sources, its depiction of Daoism and Confucianism is less successful. Problems range from superficial errors, such as mistranslating the text known as the Daodejingas “The Book of the Way” (xliii), to more substantial inaccuracies such as the mistaken identification of Zhang Daoling, the founder of Celestial Masters Daoism who lived in the 2nd century CE, with the mythical figure of Laozi, the purported author of the Daodejing, a text that was probably written in the 4th century BCE (104), as well as the erroneous claim that Daoism is a “nature-based Chinese religion without the belief in a deity” (143). The source of these errors stems from Greenberg’s decision to draw on the American poet and Zen practitioner Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Daodejing, which is riddled with errors due to Mitchell’s open admission that he does not speak or read Chinese. This unfortunate situation could have been resolved by a better use of secondary sources, but Mitchell’s translation is the sole reference for Chinese religions. This predicament will hopefully be remedied if the publishers decide to issue a second edition in the future. These criticisms aside, The Body in Religion is a well-written, highly readable, and beautifully designed textbook that offers a valuable contribution to the field of religious studies.
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