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The Bloomsbury Handbook to Studying Christians, edited by George Chryssides and Stephen Gregg

29 May 2020

Bernice Martin looks at a fieldwork approach to religious studies

LIKE most handbooks, this is rather a mixed bag from an international team of religious-studies scholars. Some chapters are packed with recent research insights, such as that by Andrew Village on the Bible, but others recapitulate well-understood material. The handbook is designed primarily for the use of students, and at a price of £130 it will largely be bought by libraries rather than students or researchers.

Contributors seem to assume readers with no knowledge of Christianity. Many chapters, therefore, begin with thumbnail sketches of its main characteristics or history. As all the chapters are brief, this curtails what can be covered and makes for a good deal of repetition, highlighting both the merits and deficiencies of a book of this kind.

The perspective set out by the editors is the key to both merits and problems. The Living Religion approach describes the practices of ordinary people rather than focusing on official beliefs, history, sacred texts, and theological traditions of a religion. In the case of Christianity, the approach does not focus on what a Church, for instance, formally requires of its adherents, but what they in fact do, and, if they happen to explain it, what they think they are doing and why. As much of what people do rests on implicit understandings, the second aspect is not often articulated.

The Living Religion approach superficially resembles ethnographic research among groups whose way of life is initially unknown to the researcher, just as early anthropologists studied distant tribes. The researcher must become immersed in the language and life of the tribe even to discover what its religion, or family, or politics consists of. Research on Christians in societies common to the researcher and the subjects of research is different. Researcher and subject share background cultural “knowledge” about Christianity, even if it is hazy or inaccurate. Any description of the practices of ordinary “Christians” will use language inflected by constructions of what Christianity is. Without reference to the formal Christian background, how could you show what is revelatory in your findings about ordinary practices?

All this and more is discussed with exemplary clarity and insight by Simon Coleman in his chapter “Fieldwork in Studying Christians” which is the key chapter of the book. The structure of the book is, first, a section on research methods and problems. Apart from Simon Coleman’s essay, the chapters discuss vernacular Christianity; changes in the population distribution of Christianity from the global West to the global South; denominations; the Bible; the visual arts; inter-religious encounter. In effect, much of this is a background account of Christianity.

The second section consists of short chapters mostly written by researchers presenting their own recent findings on a serendipitous range of subjects: the Christian calendar; gender and family; education, ethics, healing, work, politics, violence, social action, death, spirituality, fundamentalism; and Africa. The third section is organised by topical themes: music; pilgrimage; laity; LGBT Christians; food; literature; film and media; digital Christianity; science and technology; materiality, sacred space and objects; tourism.

Not all the second and third sections clearly demonstrate the Living Religion perspective, and the final section, unsigned but presumably written by the editors, is an A to Z of subjects otherwise omitted, most of them issues and concepts in the history of Christianity, from Angels and Creationism to Saints, the Virgin Mary, and Women. Appendices include a chronology of dates in Christian history and recent demographic data, as well as sources and bibliography.

Little of the extensive sociological and anthropological literature is used, particularly in discussions of Pentecostalism, but there is a decent representation of recent research following the Living Religions template, and the Handbook will undoubtedly be a useful resource for teaching religious studies.

Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at Royal Holloway, the University of London.


The Bloomsbury Handbook to Studying Christians
George D. Chryssides and Stephen E. Gregg, editors
Bloomsbury Academic £130
Church Times Bookshop £117

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