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Interpreting The Sacred
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What Prof. Paden does is, to my mind, much more impressive. He seeks not to describe past theories, but to illustrate the variety of perspectives that informed these theories in the first place -- perspectives that are still very much with us. Most importantly, he emphasizes that perspectives are not mutually exclusive. In a world that seems to assume that religion contradicts science, and that Christians are fundamentally different from Muslims, this is an important point. I can sympathize with those who feel they would get more out of this book if they already knew a bit of theory and a little 'comparative religion.' But even on the first day of class students are already 'interpreting the sacred' -- this is an excellent compliment to more traditional survey courses, encouraging critical thought from day one.
But the audience for this book shouldn't be limited to students. Anyone -- including both the devout and the atheistic -- interested in what religion means to individuals (and its role in societies) will find this a stimulating, rewarding, and fundamentally optimistic book.
You are probably looking for an introduction to the academic study of religion, and you are looking in the wrong place.
First of all the writing is atrocious: it's so bad, I think the author worked hard to make it this bad. He makes extremely controversial statements flippantly, as though his authority would overwhelm the reader, rendering explanation superfluous; but in other places he argues tirelessly and pedantically for points no one would disagree with, just as though he were at work on a project of staggering profundity.
The book begins with a controversial philosophy of science, stated as if it were a straightforward fact; then a controversial philosophy of language, with the same nonchalance. As if all students will immediately agree that scientific interpretations of the world are a priori on equal footing with every other interpretation! As if philosophers or linguists, not to mention the rest of us, all agree that, "Language names what the world is, and the world complies" (7). You might expect some explanation at least, if not an argument for these somewhat startling, counter-intuitive claims. But you won't find any.
In the second chapter, he introduces rationalism. Hume gets a paragraph; in another (7 sentences) he covers Darwin, Tylor and Frazer. Feuerbach gets a paragraph, Marx three, and Freud gets two whole pages. That wouldn't be so bad if he introduced their thoughts. The sentence on Tylor says nothing about survivals; in the two pages on Freud, nothing about "Moses and Monotheism."
He goes on to "cover" basic approaches to the study of religion. Chapter 3 is sociology. The sociology chapter deals with Durkheim, managing not to mention "the sacred" or "the profane." I actually will not complain about the way he dealt with Weber's thought, though.
Chapter 4 covers Jungian psychology, evidently as if that were the whole of the psychology of religion after Freud. Don't imagine that other folks following Jung are introduced or even mentioned.
Chapter 5 deals with comparative religion, which means (to Paden) Eliade--although he covers this subject without mentioning the central elements of Eliade's thought: sacred space and sacred time.
Chapter 6 is about "Religious interpretations of Religion." This basically means a few glances at some Christian thought, a glance or two at some Jewish thought, and a couple at some Buddhist thought.
The last two chapters introduce (without naming it) elementary post-modern thought on plurality. Of course it goes without saying that the rest of the book was merely a long and, unfortunately for Paden, necessary preface to these two chapters, in which he reveals that what you see when you look at religion depends on the lense you use.
So use multiple lenses, he urges, and accept the diversity of interpretations.
Read that last sentence several times, and then you can skip this book without missing anything.
So if you are looking for an introduction to the study of religion, this book is, in one word, useless. Nothing is covered adequately, not even the most basic issues in the study of religion. Magic and shamanism are mentioned once. Functionalism? Structuralism? Taboo? Initiation? Witchcraft? Nope, not even a mention in passing.
Instead, I recommend Daniel Pals' "Seven Theories of Religion," by far the best book I've read on basic academic study of religion. Then you'll be ready for books by Wiebe, McCutcheon, Asad, Masuzawa and similar heavy-hitters in contemporary religious studies, not to mention classics by Durkheim, Eliade, Evans-Pritchard, Mary Douglas and so on.