chapter  7
30 Pages

TEXTS

The nineteenth-century German writer Max Mu¨ller (1972 [1870]) argued that scholars of religion should make sacred texts their primary focus of study. After all, for him such documents contain the authentic ‘doctrine of the [religion’s] founders and their immediate disciples’. He went on to add that these ancient sources stand in contrast to the actual practices of the present, which are merely ‘the corruptions of later ages’ (Mu¨ller 1972 [1870]: 20). Following this line of thinking, the people that we encounter today – people practising, talking about, and living their religions and cultures – are getting in the way of our understanding of their religion. For much of the twentieth century scholars of religion have seemed

to follow this advice, largely focusing on the study of texts: of books written and read within religious contexts. Generations of scholars have assumed that the primary (and only) way of learning about a religious tradition is to look in detail at the texts that are used: whether that be the Bible for Christians, the Qur’an for Muslims, the Vedas for Hindus, the Adi Granth for Sikhs, and so on. In focusing on such texts there has been the expectation that the scholar will find the ‘essential’ basics of the particular religion, which through careful study can be made accessible. Such a view of texts as the basis of the study of religion is very

similar to the idea of the study of culture as ‘high’ (or elitist) culture,

which I discussed in Chapter 2. Religious texts, as particular cultural products, are distinguished both by those who use them (religious practitioners within specific religious traditions), and many of the scholars who study religions. Both tend to collude in the view that such texts reflect the apogee of the religion, and that any study that goes beyond the text risks straying into murky waters (as Mu¨ller suggests). Indeed, there is a similarity here with the discipline of English literary studies, which has tended to concentrate on (high cultural) classics of dead white western writers, at the expense of popular fiction, such as romances, non-western English, or post-colonial literature. In a similar way, religious studies has tended to be focused primarily on written texts of the ‘great’ or ‘world’ religions, in classical written form. In fact, the study of religion, culture, and texts is not only the

study of such ‘great’ texts. There are in most cases a large number of quite different texts that can be studied which form the basis of particular religious cultures. That is, the idea of texts can be widened to a number of other textual (or text-based, or text-like) formats. In this chapter, I will be looking at the idea of religion in (and as) culture, with reference to the idea of ‘culture’ as a specific area of cultural products – in Raymond Williams’ terms, of culture in the ideal and documentary sense. Although not all of such culture is textual (there is also music, art, and so on), the strong emphasis by scholars of religion on culture-as-texts has largely defined this field of study. When looking at texts there are a number of aspects of tex-

tuality that can be examined. Thus Jonathan Culler (1997) suggests the distinction between poetics, hermeneutics, and responses. That is, any text can be analysed in terms of its poetics – its form, style, and rhetoric, looking in particular at the way it is presented, how it presents ‘itself’ as a form of communication (and perhaps as a work of art). The hermeneutics of a text works on a different level, since it is concerned not so much with how the text works, but instead with what the text is saying. Hermeneutics is about recovering and understanding the meanings of texts – sometimes this may be quite easy and literal, but it may also be a subtle process, uncovering meanings that perhaps even the author did not intend or was not aware of. However, texts are not simply about poetry and meaning, they are also about being read – a point that is easy

to miss within the study of any text, including religious texts. A large part of the analysis of texts is not only what can be understood from the text itself, but also from how it is interacted with within a social and cultural context.