Graham Cunningham. Religion and Magic: Approaches and Theories. Washington Square: New York University Press, 1999. xv + 126 pp. $19.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8147-1588-8; $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-1587-1.
Reviewed by Christopher I. Lehrich (Committee on the History of Culture, University of Chicago)
Published on H-Ideas (September, 1999)
Not Quite the Usual Suspects
Religion and Magic aims to provide "a brief survey of some of the most important developments in the study of the sacred" (p. vii) over the past hundred years, focusing on anthropology, the history of religions, and allied disciplines, "thus generally excluding theology and the philosophy of religion"(p. xiv). This very slim volume is clearly written for a beginning undergraduate audience, and eschews technical vocabulary in favor of a clear, concise presentation. At $16.50 in paperback, it is somewhat costly but within the unfortunately high price range of textbooks; the $45 hardback price is hard to justify, especially given that twenty percent of the text is given over to a bibliography and notes, to which I shall return.
Each of the ten chapters focuses on a school or rough grouping of approaches, with two or three thinkers summarized in each and organized approximately chronologically. Thus, phenomenology (chapter four) precedes structural-functionalism (chapter five), and so forth. While this inevitably causes slight disjunctures, such as the discussion of Ninian Smart immediately before that of Emile Durkheim, the structure of the book is quite clear and coherent. The ten approaches and their respective thinkers are mainly a roundup of the usual suspects: Weber, Tylor, Frazer, Malinowki, Eliade, etc., but there are some welcome additions. Hegel, Marx, and Marett get their own sections, as do (at the other end of the time-scale) Tambiah, Skorupski, Godelier, Sperber, and the aforementioned Smart. The last two chapters, "cognitive approaches" and "feminist approaches" are valuable and timely additions to the traditional roster. An afterword deals with secularization, or more accurately with the non-disappearance of religion.
The addition of less standard thinkers has led to some odd gaps, and even given the exigencies of extreme brevity, the choices are not always ideal. Hegel and Marx do not fall within the stated hundred-year period, and their contributions to the modern study of religions hardly outweigh those of F. Max Muller, who is omitted without explanation. Again, the inclusion of feminist approaches to religion is of critical importance, but Julia Kristeva's speculations on ancient matriarchies and Mary Daly's "gyn/ecological" theology do not fit at all well with the proposed exclusion of "theology and the philosophy of religion"; surely figures like Karen McCarthy Brown or Wendy Doniger would have been better choices in this chapter.
Although the prose is clear enough, the book fails as an introduction because of an unfortunate tendency to abstraction. The quotes and summary statements read as a kind of laundry-list of opinions about religion--Evans-Pritchard thought this, Douglas thought that, Levi-Strauss something else again--as though the study of religion were a sort of philosophy practiced in a box. To be sure, there is some mention of "field" anthropologists, particularly in reference to Malinowki. What is lacking is a clear picture of the data being discussed and how these thinkers conduct their analyses.
One example must suffice: Mary Douglas (who mysteriously receives more space than any other thinker in the book) is presented discussing "anomalous animals, that is animals that transgress or cannot be placed within such systems of classification"(p. 62), i.e., dietary restrictions such as Kosher laws. This statement is followed by one-sentence quoted from Purity and Danger which says essentially the same thing. What never appears, however, is an example, such as the argument that lobsters and shrimp are not kosher because they live in the sea but walk like land animals, or Douglas's own wonderful hypothesis that penguins would be tref. The abstract nature of the commentary makes it extremely difficult to follow the contours of these approaches to religion and magic.
The problem here is not merely cosmetic. An introductory textbook must invite the student to get involved, to think about the issues, to think along with the thinkers, and to get an understanding of why the questions of the discipline are important. Without any details about the data, how can the student make sense of arguments about whether magic is part of or different from religion, or whether religion is individual or social? More importantly, this book does not help the student to understand why these questions have been important for a hundred years, nor why they have no final answers.
Cunningham does not provide any explicit glosses on his texts. On the one hand, this means that the student is not prejudiced for or against any particular approach or theory. At the same time, the lack of even a general statement of fundamental questions makes it unclear what those questions are.
The endnotes and bibliography, which might at least suggest where the student might find some clarifications or further information, do nothing of the kind. On the contrary, fully fourteen pages of this little book are taken up with simple citations, some six hundred of them, in author-date format, referring to the bibliography which lists only works cited. Since the discussions are drawn from one or two works by the thinker in question, the endnotes are simply lists: "Durkheim 1976: [page]" occurs twenty-four times on page 53, with no additional comment. If excited by the discussion of Durkheim, a student would have to start all over again and read The Elementary Forms without guidance. To be sure, no instructor would assign this or any introduction without supplementing it with comments and discussion. At the same time, not everyone who teaches an "introduction to religion" course has recently read deeply in the large theoretical literatures discussed here, and it is no great failing not to have the details of those discussions at one's fingertips. An introductory text should assist the instructor to guide the students' first forays into this mass of materials, and Religion and Magic gives no such guidance.
At this point the occasional distortions of thinkers may seem irrelevant, but they should be mentioned. The most glaring, for this reader at least, were in the sections on Evans-Pritchard (pp. 49-52) and Eliade (pp. 37-38). For me, Evans-Pritchard's great contribution to the study of magic was his attempt to eliminate what he called the "if I were a horse" approach, the naive attempt identified particularly with Frazer) to imagine oneself in the native's shoes. To get around this problem, Evans-Pritchard described witchcraft in terms of social function: for him, it makes little difference how someone goes about casting a spell, since there is usually no evidence that anyone has done so; what is available to the scholar is an accusation, and this constitutes the object of study. From this insight stems much of the more recent scholarship on witchcraft. Unfortunately, Cunningham ignores the entire issue.
The chapter on Eliade struck me as an extraordinary distortion of the ideas of "arguably the twentieth century's foremost historian of religions"(p. ix). In the slightly less than two pages accorded to him, we begin with "The influence of Jung ..."(p. 37) and end with "For Eliade, again like Jung ..."(p. 38), connected by almost rhythmic mentions of Jung and a few of Otto. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Eliade was a derivative Jungian undeserving of his reputation. Need I also mention that the only (entirely oblique) mention of Mythologiques appears not in the section on Levi-Strauss but in that on Leach?
In an undergraduate textbook of this length, the occasional distortion is inevitable. A far more important problem is the book's inability to assist and invite beginning students to participate in scholarship and grapple with the fundamental issues of the subject. An undergraduate survey of the scholars and ideas taken up by Religion and Magic is much needed, and Cunningham brings to his task a relatively open mind and some clear prose, as well as a noble commitment to simultaneous brevity and breadth. It is with some reluctance, and considerable disappointment, that I find it necessary to judge the attempt a failure.
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Christopher I. Lehrich. Review of Cunningham, Graham, Religion and Magic: Approaches and Theories.
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