Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion: How Things Matter”

Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion: How Things Matter” in Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality, ed. Meyer and Houtman(2012).

In their concise introduction to Things, Meyer and Houtman offer a very useful overview of the state of the field in material religion. If you are curious about what people mean by the supposed “material turn” in religious studies or if you just are looking to introduce the topic to an undergrad class, this essay lights the path well.

The essay begins with a justification for the project of studying religion by studying things. Like most of those committed to materializing the study of religion, Meyer and Houtman insist that the terms “religion” and “things” need not be conceived in antagonistic terms. Though some scholars want to eschew the term “religion” altogether, Meyer and Houtman think it can still serve useful functions if properly qualified. The historically contingent term “religion” is part of our public and scholarly discourse, like it or not, and it may yet have something to teach us. For the study of religious material culture, this especially means not privileging immaterial “beliefs” in our scholarly work. By turning our attention to things, we might learn new things about how “religion” operates in public discourse, in the academy, and in people’s lives. Like “religion,” things seem to be all around us, like it or not. But far from just inserting “things” into established scholarly paradigms (e.g. throwing a few pictures into a church history book), Meyer and Houtman insist on interrogating, situating, and historicizing “things”: “rematerialization [of the study of religion] is not simply a question of bringing ‘things’ back in, but requires a critical, reflexive endeavor that rescripts the meaning of materiality itself on the basis of detailed historical and ethnographic research” (8). In other words, we ought not take for granted what “things” are, what they can/can’t do, what people can/can’t do with them, for them, to them, etc. The study of religion proves an especially rich ground for investigating things because it contains so many examples of “bad objecthood”: totem, idol, and fetish to name just a few. Such “bad objects” reveal people’s assumptions about materiality and immateriality, about the “proper” spheres and relationships between “the spiritual” and “the material.”

Review by A.T. Coates