Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 96 (October 1999): 70-74.
Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion. By Paul J. Griffiths. Oxford University Press. 210 pp. $35.
Reviewed by R. R. Reno
Paul J. Griffiths has written a strange book about reading, a book oddly against itself. Religious Reading is a book written in the prevailing scholarly style, but is polemically opposed to prevailing habits of reading. It is an academic book against academia, a book encouraging us to read in a certain way—religiously—but a book that does not invite a religious reading of itself. It is a book written to inform us about a significant religious practice, to educate us about the kind of reading constitutive of a religious life, but also to convert us, to induce repentance and amendment of life.
The academic side of Religious Reading is straightforward and convincing. Against those who see religion as based in emotion or some other non–cognitivist faculty, Griffiths defines religion as a "comprehensive, unsurpassable, and central account" (emphasis added). A religious account does not simply emerge out of the primal sludge of consciousness, nor does such an account come automatically as an undifferentiated part of cultural socialization. For Griffiths, a religious account requires intentional activity. Just as we need to learn mathematics and to cultivate habits of abstraction and observation in order to understand the account of matter and energy given by physics, so we must acquire certain skills and intellectual habits in order to give a religious account. "Unless we are placed in a social and institutional context in which certain pedagogical practices are in place," Griffiths observes, "we shall not, because we cannot, become religious: we shall not learn to offer a religious account."
Given the contingency of religious accounts and their dependence upon very particular cultural practices, a scholar of religion must attend to the pedagogy, as well as the content, of religious accounts. We should know how a religious account is preserved and transmitted, as well as what that account teaches. The practices that nurture and sustain religious accounts are many. Ritual trains us in certain ways; ascetic discipline shapes and molds; prayer sharpens and intensifies. However, in keeping with his emphasis on the cognitive dimension of religious accounts, Griffiths emphasizes what he calls "religious reading," the role played by literary works as read and heard, memorized and recited, in developing an ability to give a religious account.
Griffiths’ analysis of religious reading is subtle and wide–ranging, but characteristic emphases emerge. First, the literary works that embody and promote religious accounts are received by the religious reader as "a stable and vastly rich resource." They merit continued reading and rereading. Indeed, for Griffiths, the key element of religious reading is memorization. Analyzing the orthography of ancient texts, methods of citation, and the technology of writing, Griffiths makes a strong case for the central role of memory and recitation in first millennium Buddhist, and to a lesser extent, ancient Christian, religious reading.
For Griffiths, this emphasis on memory is not just a consequence of the constraints of limited literacy and the expense of producing written texts in premodern societies. The intentional act of committing literary works to memory, either in complete form for communal recitation, or in bits and pieces for immediate reference, signals the seriousness of religious reading. Memory and recitation are the engines of religious habituation; they constitute a profound act of submission to received teaching and they help internalize and intensify the religious account. Such practice brings the word near, and as St. Paul says, puts it in our hearts and on our lips.
No doubt scholars will dispute Griffiths’ strong emphasis on reading, and the consequent priority he gives to the cognitive dimension of religion. Structuralists such as Levi–Strauss treat religions as systems that order the universe at a more primitive level. Studies of the sort advanced by René Girard assume an underlying mythopoetic dynamic that gives social potency to ritual. Scholarly descendants of Rudolph Otto investigate the experiential basis for religious symbols.
But Griffiths did not write Religious Reading in order to demonstrate a thesis for the benefit of scholars of religion. Quite the contrary, Religious Reading is written against scholars of religion, against the gaze of objectivity. For Griffiths does not wish to write about religious reading; he wants to write in favor of a "tensile attentiveness that wishes to linger, to prolong, to savor." In short, Griffiths seeks to defend religious reading—not as a thesis about how religion functions, but as a living practice.
Here, the polemical side of Religious Reading emerges. The contemporary academy, the author claims, is awash with a pedagogical practice invested in "consumerist reading." Griffiths writes in the spirit of resistance against "the processes of production and consumption that now dominate almost every department of life in late capitalist cultures like ours." Just what Griffiths means by "consumerist reading," and how it relates to "late" or "global" capitalism, is obscure, but he is very clear that whatever consumerist reading might be, it is a very bad thing.
Consumerist reading evokes disposable diapers, brand names, chain stores. It is an approach to reading that treats literary works as means to some other end, as purveyors of information that can be discarded once the exams are taken, the problems solved. Consumerist reading seeks entertainment and titillation, and should a literary work fail to command immediate attention, the consumerist reader moves on and picks up another book, switches to another channel. According to Griffiths, this habit of reading is a "widespread tendency, especially evident among professional readers in Western institutions of higher education." Scholars treat books as resources for citations, as occasions to display theoretical virtuosity, as raw material for the production of their own books. Scholars are little more than pawns of "something else," and that something is, you guessed it, "global capitalism."
Because the passion of Religious Reading rests in the antithesis Griffiths draws between consumerist reading and religious reading, he needs to do more than denounce. He cannot simply characterize consumerist reading with innuendo ("the juggernaut of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken"). He needs to employ something like the care he displays in analyzing religious reading when he describes the pedagogy and habits of reading that dominate academic study.
In the first place, for all the violence of Griffiths’ opposition to consumerist reading, his own use of Buddhist and Christian texts seems rather like that of any other scholar of comparative religion. He does not read the Sutrasamucaya (Anthology of Sacred Works) religiously. He deploys the text in a scholarly fashion, establishing authorship, analyzing the orthography, counting the length and frequency of quotations, speculating about the Sitz im Leben of its composition and recitation. The same holds true for his treatment of Christian anthologies and commentaries. He uses Augustine’s Speculum de scriptura sacra in order to buttress and advance his theory of religious reading; he does not read Augustine religiously, at least not here.
These scholarly uses of religious texts are illuminating, and help Griffiths’ reader see more clearly what religious reading entails. But they are scholarly uses of religious texts nonetheless. And if Griffiths insists upon painting academic approaches with the broad brush of "consumerist reading," then one cannot help but wonder. Griffiths expresses horror at the "damage done by university scholars to religious readers," a damage "not only great and inexcusable, but also dishonest—this last because it pretends benevolence and respect while bringing only manipulation and destruction." In a fevered pitch he proclaims that "Indologists and anthropologists have done more to destroy traditional Sanskrit learning than ever Christian missionaries could." Well, perhaps, but in what sense does Religious Reading proceed differently? Tu quoque is an informal fallacy and does nothing to settle the truth of a matter, but it does have the advantage of encouraging a degree of consistency in what one affirms and denounces.
The second reason Griffiths needs to move beyond labels and throwaway lines in condemning consumerist reading is that his intuitions about the modern academy are surely right. Very little piety remains in the university, not only in the limited sense of religious faith, but in the broad sense of cultivated submission to traditions of inquiry, devotion to literary works, and sheer love of truth for its own sake. Griffiths tosses off glib diagnoses: global capitalism is the root of all evil, mention supplants use, the objectifying gaze corrupts the embrace of commitment. These characterizations might garner applause from a sympathetic audience, but they do little to uncover and demystify current habits of mind that dominate the academy. Griffiths needs to apply his cool intellect as much to the world of consumerist reading that he dislikes as to the ancient world of religious reading that he commends. Only then can he make progress toward achieving his goal of recovering religious reading within the ambit of the academy.
That recovery requires some hard thinking. Philip Rieff, one of the greatest sociological minds of this century, has thought of little else over the last three decades, tortured by the difficulty of recovering a "pedagogy of interdiction," an atmosphere of learning in which submission and obedience have a role. Our academic culture of critique seems to make such a recovery impossible, he now seems to believe. Leo Strauss is another student of modernity who saw into the void, and he devoted a great deal of energy and attention to the development of a counter–pedagogy, a counter–practice of reading. His student Allan Bloom found himself sufficiently removed from the prevailing sensibilities of today’s academic culture to write a devastating critique. Less oracular and hermetic, Robert Bellah and Robert Coles resist the dehumanizing gaze of social science, arguing that people and their stories matter. Jon Levenson seeks strategies of resistance against what is surely the Urfeind of religious reading—the historical–critical approach to the Bible. Each of these scholars wishes to escape from the destructive banality of what passes for intellectual sophistication, but none is satisfied with the mere rhetoric of "consumerist reading" and the easy explanation of "global capitalism."
Griffiths reports in his conclusion, "This book has been (always implicitly and sometimes explicitly) a jeremiad against the pedagogical practices and reading practices of the academy, and more especially against the attitudes and techniques of professional scholars of religion." In intent, perhaps, but not in consequence. Griffiths has performed as a scholar of religion; he has shown very well how premodern Buddhists and Christians understood the role of reading in the acquisition, preservation, and extension of religious accounts. But as a Jeremiah, he has neither uncovered our self–deception, laying bare our waywardness, nor has he made clear the path toward faithfulness. I hope that in his next book, he does. For we need the guidance.
R. R. Reno teaches at Creighton University and is currently a Resident Member of the Princeton–based Center of Theological Inquiry.