Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.38 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.38

Bruce Lincoln, Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions.   Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2012.  Pp. xii, 228.  ISBN 9780226481876.  $27.50 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ellen Muehlberger, University of Michigan (


Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars is a collection of set pieces that sound the depth of religious literatures from different cultural contexts; it treats everything from recent struggles of indigenous religion against colonial religion in Guatemala to medieval Persian and Norwegian myths to the portrayal of chaos in Hesiod’s Theogony. These exercises are presented as examples of how best to study religion, namely by dismantling and examining the ideology captured in religious texts. By gathering these “critical explorations in the history of religions,” diverse as they are, into one neat volume, Lincoln offers an argument about scholarly pursuits in the study of religion.

The formulation “history of religions” in the subtitle is an important key to understanding the argument of the book. That argument is foreshadowed in the first chapter, Lincoln’s “Theses on Method,” which a note reveals have long been a part of Lincoln’s pedagogical mission and scholarly self-fashioning, and which first appeared in print in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion in 1996. The point of departure for this book, they are precisely what they say they are: propositions on how to conduct scholarship. But they are also more, delivering judgment not just about the methods scholars of religion should use but also about the identity of those who do not employ the suggested methods and even about the value of work produced by scholars not guided by Lincoln’s theses. Thesis 12 reminds those who criticize Lincoln’s proposed method of “critical inquiry” as reductionistic that such inquiry is the very “starting point for those who construct themselves as historians.” Less subtle is Thesis 13, which warns that when one does not evaluate the truth claims of a particular tradition as Lincoln prescribes, “one has ceased to function as a historian or scholar.” Concomitantly, such a person may be a “friend,” “advocate,” “amanuensis,” or “cheerleader” of the religion she studies, but her work should not, Lincoln pronounces, “be confused with scholarship.” Thus the Theses offer a proclamation on how those who wish to be taken as “scholars” and “historians” should work, combined with a not-quite-hidden disparagement of those who do not comply. When first published, these theses were (not surprisingly) received with controversy. A response by Tim Fitzgerald (MTSR 18 [2006]:392-423) included such words as “uncritical” and “essentializing”; Lincoln’s rejoinder, published a few issues later in MTSR included words like “plodding” and “moron.” By putting these same Theses on Method first in this new book, Lincoln signals that he is back in the ring for another round.

If the identity of his opponent is unclear, one need look no further than the last chapter of Gods and Demons, the title of which reveals his target. That chapter, “The (Un)Discipline of Religious Studies” is, in reality, a biography of the American Academy of Religion; the big reveal is that the AAR began its life as the small, hubristically-named group NABI (the National Association of Biblical Instructors, its acronym spelling the word “prophet”). This is not a surprise to those in religious studies, but it is meant to suggest that contemporary practitioners aligned with the AAR have been indissolubly linked to its genealogy. According to Lincoln, these people are unable to conduct real critical inquiry because their institutionalized desire to protect the religious traditions they study leads them to champion a “validating, feel-good perspective” about religious traditions. Against this disposition so-conceived, Lincoln throws the last line of the book as a walkaway punch: “Really, it is time to do better” (136). Thus the argumentative position of Gods and Demons, which might be lost on the average academic reader, is clear: framed by withering statements about the direction of the field loosely gathered under “religious studies” and the work done by those who attempt to study religious traditions, Lincoln’s book poses not just an alternate methodology for the study of religion, but a strongly-worded case to prefer one particular methodology as the only proper way to study religion, namely his.

Lincoln demonstrates his particular method in the intervening chapters. The majority of the essays in the book ask a very large question or questions, then narrow the focus considerably to one illustrative example; those examples come from a wildly diverse collection of different contexts. For instance, Chapter 3, “Nature and Genesis of Pantheons,” poses questions about the production and maintenance of constellations of gods, whether implicitly or explicitly theorized by the culture they inhabit. Then the chapter narrows, first to the topic of Old Norse religion, and further to one particular saga writer’s treatment of one “moderately obscure deity” in the Old Norse pantheon, Ullr, and the reception of Ullr in later artistic representations (a series of gorgeous plates accompanies the essay). In this process, readers can almost hear the click and whirr of the zoom lens: we are taken from a bird’s eye view down to a singular instance meant to illustrate an answer to the question first posed from the bird’s eye view. Most often, there is a momentary return at the end of each essay to the wide view invoked at its beginning. This basic pattern—grand question, narrowed focus on one localized example, returning gesture toward the grandeur of the opening question —governs many of the pieces that make up Gods and Demons. Using perspective in this way isolates the texts Lincoln treats from the cultural contexts in which they were produced. As a result, rather than being scholarly arguments about the specific subfields represented in the essays (Persian demonology in Chapter 4, ancient Greek theories of royal discourse in Chapter 7), the pieces are in fact performances. They point as much to the knowledge and taste of the expert who selected them as they do to any intrinsic ability of these texts to, on their own, shed light on the very broad questions Lincoln hopes for them to answer.

This method allows for certain rhetorical products, but disallows others; specifically, it inhibits detailed conversation about the abstract concepts Lincoln treats. As an example, consider Chapter 9, “Sanctified Violence,” which opens with an engaging theoretical account of what violence is, explaining what can and cannot be achieved by violence. When the chapter posits categories or examples of violence, though, the level of abstraction at which the analysis proceeds actually bars historical representation. Among the other types of violence Lincoln presents is “mortification of the flesh,” which Lincoln equates with asceticism, conceived as a triumph of mind over body. This notion of asceticism does not coincide with any historical understanding of ascetic practice undertaken in the religious traditions Lincoln cites in passing as examples. Scholars of asceticism studying traditions like Christianity, Mandaeism, Islam, Judaism, and Stoicism, among others, have moved beyond the model of ascetic practice as a renunciatory victory over the flawed human body. Indeed, they have done so in ways both inventive and diverse, but that complexity cannot be represented in the method Lincoln has chosen. Similarly, Lincoln posits “martyrdom” as a special fifth type of violence, in which the victim inverts the force used against him to violate his oppressor. Lincoln knows where the primary nodes of scholarly discussion of martyrdom have been (he makes reference to Elizabeth Castelli, Daniel Boyarin, Glen Bowersock, and G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, again, in passing), but he has not absorbed the insights about martyrdom as a cultural trope that these scholars have generated. As evidence, consider this: Lincoln says the victims of martyrdom themselves accomplished the inversion of violence his category comprises. “All signs being reversible,” he argues, “Christian martyrs managed to turn the drama in the arena upside down,” using “jujitsu tactics” to turn intended violence back against its perpetrator (92, 91). But most historians of Christianity now assign the work of redefining the deaths of Christians as instances of “martyrdom” not to those who were executed, but to the later historiographers, hagiographers, and ritual specialists who made martyrological discourse a central part of Christian identity in the centuries after the legitimization of Christianity.

Disconnected as it is from specific subfields of ongoing scholarship, Lincoln’s work at times leads to unsustainable conclusions. In Chapter 8, for example, “Ancient and Post-Ancient Religions,” Lincoln thumbs the mark where he sees humanity turning from one mode of piety (that centered on cult, statue, and priest) to a second mode (that centered on texts, readers, and scholars). To get a sense of the very broad nature of this argument, consider how Lincoln summarizes the shift from ancient to post-ancient: “To put it in slightly different terms, as Jeremiah yielded to the rabbis, John the Baptist to the church fathers, Muhammad to the qadis and ulama, one can see not only Weber’s routinization of charisma but the historical shift from a prophetic ethos associated with orality to the scholarly ethos of the textual.” (77). Scholars may howl, pointing to Lincoln’s own criticism of such trans- temporal and trans-cultural arguments, voiced in his “Theses on Comparison” (Chapter 12 of the present volume); there he chides those who have “consistently misrecognized products of their own imagination and desire (‘the human mind,’ ‘tripartite ideology,’ ‘homo religiosus’) for objects having historic, prehistoric, and/or transhistoric actuality” (122). Lincoln, though, is willing to admit just how much needs to be discounted in order for him to posit a difference between “ancient” and “post-ancient” religion. In a rare hedge, Lincoln apologizes for his grandeur even as he displays it: “Although these sweeping generalizations call for extended treatment that would attend to the nuances and particularities of a thousand specific cases, my interests at present point in the opposite direction, toward a summation whose smug oversimplifications serve chiefly to prompt objections, further inquiry, and debate. And so, here it is: the transition yields Christianity. Or, to put things a bit more cautiously, the ancient ends and the post-ancient begins with Christianity(ies), Judaism(s), and Islam(s), with the Westernmost form of Christianity as the extreme case.”(82). This may be a provocative statement, but it is also a predictable one: religious modes of piety and religious ideologies have been found to be leading toward the telos of Christianity as long as there has been a “religion” to study. In truth, Lincoln is not so much provoking as revoking, rescinding the insights of poststructuralism and historical complexity to reestablish the right of the scholar to see a progressive evolution of piety. The rhetorical effect of such an argument is to cut off conversation; it is difficult to enter into the debate Lincoln hopes to establish without calling on one of these “thousand specific cases,” which Lincoln has already swept away as insignificant.

Thus as a reader, I have been left with two impressions of Gods and Demons: first, the individual observations Lincoln offers in the pieces collected here are at times brilliant, even breathtaking, using the privileges of the bird’s eye view to inspire new ways of looking at religious texts; second, the level of abstraction these observations depend upon place Lincoln’s work outside most contemporary conversations about the specific cultural contexts from which he draws his examples. If this book represents the authority garnered by the long occupation of a scholar trained in a certain style of textual exegesis, it does not represent a contribution to the field of “religious studies,” a fact I think Lincoln would heartily approve. But neither does it engage the methodologies of history, which seek to understand texts as expressions of diverse and densely ramified cultural contexts. Instead, here religious texts are treated as archives of ideology, continents of the mind to be explored for patterns by the canny and philologically astute student of the smaller field of “history of religions.”

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