The Spirit of Things: Materiality and Religious Diversity in Southeast Asia

By Jory, Patrick | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, October 2014 | Go to article overview

The Spirit of Things: Materiality and Religious Diversity in Southeast Asia


Jory, Patrick, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


The spirit of things: Materiality and religious diversity in Southeast Asia

Edited by JULIUS BAUTISTA

Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 2012. Pp. 230.

Illustrations, Bibliography.

doi: 10.1017/S0022463414000381

Once upon a time the modern academic study of Asian religions meant primarily the collection and close textual examination of the major scriptures in order to uncover the underlying tenets of the religion. Religion was held to be principally about the next world, rather than the material world. This view gained influence during the colonial period when scholars of religion under the influence of Weber saw Asian religions, unlike their Protestant counterparts in Christian Europe, as incompatible with modernity as exemplified by the 'secular' colonial powers. Following decolonisation and independence, attention shifted to religious practice--in particular, how religion was an obstacle to economic modernisation and rational governance. The expectation was that religion would steadily become confined to the private realm, if it did not die out altogether. More recently, however, scholars are discovering the importance of religion to economic prosperity. Why has this happened? Put simply, the capitalist transformation of Asia over the last three to four decades, and the improved material well-being of many Asian citizens, has led to the stubborn persistence, if not flourishing, of religion in this region. As a result the material aspects of modern religious life in Asia are increasingly drawing the attention of scholars. It is this phenomenon that is the subject of this timely publication, The spirit of things: Materiality and religious diversity in Southeast Asia.

The spirit of things is an ambitious attempt to study the religiosity of a range of material objects associated with the various religious traditions throughout contemporary Southeast Asia. The volume tries to do justice to the region's geographic and religious diversity by being representative. Twelve chapters cover topics as diverse as religious shrines and other sacred objects in contemporary Vietnam (Kendall, Vu and Nguyen); Islam, middle-class consumerism, Malay nationalism and the auto industry in Malaysia (Fischer); 'visual theology', or the expression of religious doctrine through material objects, among Vietnamese Caodaists (Hoskins); Buddhist visual culture and ethnicity in Myanmar's Shan state (Karlsson); holy water at a Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in northern peninsular Malaysia (Yeoh); the making of Buddha images in Myanmar's Arakan state (de Mersan); the presence or absence of material objects of worship among different groups of Bidayuh Christians in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo (Chua); Buddhist amulets worn by Thai soldiers during the Vietnam War (Ruth); house altars among the ethnic Bentian people of Indonesian Borneo (Sillander); scrolls depicting scenes from the famous Buddhist narrative the Vessantara Jataka in northeastern Thailand and Laos (Cate and Lefferts); religious sculpture in Catholic Philippines (de la Paz); and image worship in Chinese popular religion in Singapore (Chan). …

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