09 Apr

John S. Strong, “Relics” in The Encyclopedia of Religion (1986)

John S. Strong defines relics as “the venerated remains of venerable persons” (275). Relics may be bones, ashes, and bodies of saints, martyrs, founders of religious traditions and holy people. Relics may also be objects that these people once owned or with which they had physical contact. Both types of relics work via “contagious magic” in that a part represents the whole. For example, bones, hair or a tooth make the entire person present. Strong suggests that Protestants condemned and destroyed relics during the Reformation. No other attention is given to Protestant relics.

03 Apr

André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (1960)

“The Ontology of the Photographic Image” examines how the plastic arts preserve humans and reality through representation. Photography presents itself as objective and real. This objectivity and realism, however, are only constructions of the mechanical processes of photography.


In ancient Egypt the plastic arts, like statuary, were substitutes for dead bodies. “It is this religious use, then, that lays bare the primordial function of statuary, namely, the preservation of life by a representation of life” (5). The evolution of art and civilization “has relieved the plastic arts of their magical role” (6). According to Bazin, today no one recognizes the ontological link between the body and a representation: “No one believes any longer in the ontological identity of model and image, but all are agreed that the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death” (6). The arts no longer care about survival after death. Instead, the focus on “the creation of an ideal world in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal identify.” The plastic arts today create a virtual world that has nothing to do with life and afterlife. This explains why photography and cinema caused “the great spiritual and technological crisis that overtook modern painting” in the 1850s. Photography and cinema are plastic realisms. They freed the plastic arts from their obsession with likeness. Painting could not escape the subjectivity of the artists because true likeness could not be achieved through the human hand. Photography did not perfect the physical process (color, etc.), but it did solve our psychological desire for realism; it satisfied “our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part” (7). Photography is seen as objective because “between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent” (7). The artist and his genius are not present in photography like in painting.

This objective production affected our psychology of the image. We accept the object before us in photography as credible, really existing, and actually re-presented. Reality is transferred from the thing to the reproduction. “The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it” (8). This objectivity and reality are a product of impassive mechanical reproduction. “Photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it from its proper corruption” (8). Film takes photography to another level. Film, or the cinema “is objectivity in time.” For the first time with film “the image of things is the likewise the image of their duration, change mummified as it were” (8).Thus, the “photograph as such and the object in itself share a common being, after the fashion of a finger print” (8). Surrealists embraced photography because it “produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely, a hallucination that is also a fact” (9). Photography tricks us because its mechanical nature seems objective and reproduces the model. Photography creates a realism that is not of this world. Photography is “clearly the most important even in the history of the plastic arts” (9).


This is what Walter Benjamin argued about photography and film. They construct objectivity and realism through mechanical reproduction. Photography and film are hallucinations and un-real worlds. They don’t show truth because they are constructed through mechanical reproduction. Benjamin refers to Dadaism as an attack on reason, logic, materialism, and nationalism through the arts. It was meant to awaken people from a false reality and a false consciousness. Similarly, Bazin refers to surrealism photography as a means of awakening people from the false reality and false consciousness of photography.

Benjamin, however, went further in his argument that photography and film are harmful. They lose their aura (originality, subjectivity, production history) and trick the masses into believing that a constructed reality is reality. For Bazin, the tricks of photography and film have no moral affects. The opposite is true for Benjamin.

Given the ability of all plastic arts to present and re-represent, I’m not convinced that Egyptian statuary and photography are all that different. They both create realities in their re-presentations. Photography does provide more realism. But in the 1850s, photographs of dead bodies were used like Egyptian statues as substitutes for dead bodies. For many people, the plastic arts do retain their magical role. In fact, this is what Bazin seems to argue when he suggests that they are hallucinations. Photography and film can make us believe things that may or may not be not real. They are still magical because they still create worlds. Maybe photography renewed this sense of magic experienced in ancient Egypt.

18 Mar

David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment (1989)

Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment investigates “popular religion” in seventeenth-century New England. Popular religion recognizes how religion “was embedded in the fabric of everyday life” of lay men and women.[1] Hall argues that popular religion in New England encompassed the clergy as well as laypeople, strict “Puritans” and “horse-shed Christians,” and theology as well as literacy, magic, the meetinghouse, and rituals. Religion in seventeenth-century New England “was a loosely bounded set of symbols and motifs that gave significance to rites of passage and life crises, that infused everyday events with the presence of the supernatural.”[2] The people of New England experienced religion as “a set of practices and situations that offered choice, that remained open-ended.” [3] The diary of Samuel Sewall, a prominent merchant and magistrate from Boston, illustrates the open-ended interpretation of religion experienced by seventeenth-century New Englanders.


Literacy and the interchangeability of print and oral media “were deeply consequential for popular religion.”[4] The people of seventeenth-century New England were highly literate people who revered the Bible as a commodity, a book, a talisman, and the Word of God. They read religious books, pamphlets, testimonials, and printed sermons. Protestant truths were directly accessible from these printed forms which embodied the Word. Yet, spoken sermons “were as sacred as the printed page” and hearing was like reading.[5] People listened to and annotated sermons which they read afterwards, and read printed sermons purchased from printers. The Word infused spoken and written words so that it conveyed truth in an interchangeable form to listeners and readers. This ideology of truth informed other printed materials that New Englanders read, which included almanacs, dirty books, fiction, tales of wonder, and witchcraft. People put the storylines of theology and popular print to work in popular religion. The “ways they viewed the world were sustained by print culture, and in turning to the books that circulated widely we encounter structure of belief, or as I prefer to say, the stories that lay people knew and used to understand the world.” [6] The market place and print media provided people with alternatives to strict New England Puritanism.

These alternatives emerged in the form of “wonders,” or ghosts, the Devil, trumpets, and the presence of the supernatural. A wonder “was any event people perceived as disrupting the normal order of things—a deformity of nature such as a ‘monster birth,’ a storm or devastating fire. Always, wonders evidenced the will of God.”[7] New Englanders, laypeople and clergy, wrote of these wonders in terms of the meteorology of Greeks and Romans, astrology, apocalyptic prophecy, magic, and natural history. They used wonders to explain the world around them, current events, and to oppose religious and political adversaries. While clergy imposed their own interpretations on some wonders, the sheer abundance of wonders ensured that the “process of interpretation remained open-ended” for laypeople.[8]

The meetinghouse functioned as a site for open-ended religious interpretation. In theory, the meeting house marked sacred space and set the godly community apart. It was a place for conversion testimonies, baptisms, communion, the elect’s governance, and sermons. But, laypeople struggled to meet the ideals of these activities in the meeting house. Many New Englanders never “found the confidence to testify about the work of grace.”[9] As a decrease in testimonials led to crises in membership, clergy called for the Halfway Covenant (1662). Adult non-members were allowed to baptize children to increase the church community. Many parents baptized their children to save them from damnation in case of infant death, not necessarily to tie themselves or their children to the community. Some people, uncertain of their election, refused communion for fear of the clergy’s promises that uncertain members would be punished if they partook in communion.

New Englanders also experienced open-ended religious interpretation in the rituals that occurred outside of church. Rituals of repentance and renewal took place in courts with criminal trials and witch-hunts, at home with deaths, prayers, fasting, and thanksgiving days, and in public places at executions and meetinghouses. A ritual “was a formalized procedure, a patterned means of connecting the natural and the social worlds to supernatural power.”[10] Ritual was a means of seeking order in the natural world by organizing life events and crises.


Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment is one of the most significant books in American religious history. Hall applied the notion of “popular religion” (or lived religion) from studies of religion and society in early modern Europe to American religious history. Prior to Hall’s work, Perry Miller’s The New England Mind stood as the most influential work on Puritans in America. Miller presented an intellectual history of Puritanism that focused on the theology and philosophy of the clergy. He argued that Puritanism fostered an intellectual legacy still present in 1939. Hall’s work departs from intellectual histories of Puritans. It looks, instead, to the lay practices at the meetinghouse and in everyday life. Hall refused to represent “the clergy as so dominating the churches that their way of thinking always prevailed.”[11] He also refused to write a history of Puritans. The term “Puritan” assumes “that the people of New England exemplified a total or perfect faith. I want to affirm the legitimacy of horse-shed Christians as well as the legitimacy of stricter patterns of behavior.”[12] Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment presents the ways laypeople agreed and disagreed with clergy. Popular religion “happened in conjunction with much sharing, and with a subtle process of selection between choices that the clergy helped initiate.”[13] Hall’s work moves the study of American religion away from intellectual histories to studies of lived religion. It also takes seriously the place of the occult and magic in religion. It also tried to move the study of Puritanism to the study of Christianity in New England. While the latter was an admirable task, “Puritans” and “Puritanism” remain dominant categories in studies that trace American evangelicalism to New England Puritanism.

This book also revolutionizes how scholars should think about the relationship between the marketplace and media. Hall saw both of these as foundational to New England religion. Printed materials sustained popular religion by circulating material that people used to make sense of their world. Moreover, Hall argued that these printed materials worked differently in New England epistemology. Printed materials and the spoken Word were interchangeable to such a degree that the spoken Word recorded in print form relayed the same concept of truth as the spoken Word. Although Hall did not go so far as to argue it, his notion of interchangeability has significant implications for understanding how New Englanders interpreted conversion testimonies, deathbed scenes, and witchcraft trail proceedings that were transformed into print. For example, oral conversion testimonies revealed the working of God on a human soul. When pastors translated and published these testimonies, the printed form was supposed to relay the same truth that the oral testimony had. Readers were to hear and see the testimony and the testifier through the printed word. The same is true of deathbed narratives. Dying New Englanders provided conversion testimonies at their deathbeds. Many of these testimonies were published for individual consumption. Readers were supposed to see the deathbed, hear the deathbed testimony, and see the manifestation of Christ that the dying saw. The printed word allowed readers to experience and see truth as if they had witnessed the testimony firsthand. Few scholars have taken Hall’s suggestion to its logical end (that printed testimonies and images revealed Truth; they were eyewitness accounts), except Sarah Rivett’s The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England. Moreover, few scholars have recognized the degree to which Hall suggested that media, the marketplace, and culture influenced religion.

While Hall provides many insights for the study of American religion, he may have over-emphasized the open-endedness of New England religion and the power of laypeople to select their own interpretations. New Englanders’ certainly had some agency, but they were also constrained by social, religious, and cultural norms. For examples, people certainly had the power to choose what they read. But, not all people had the ability to access certain books. Some books were too expensive, some not available, and some were deemed too foul. The market place dictated what people could read and when. In this sense, the marketplace exudes a much more powerful force on religion and laypeople than Hall suggests. The constraints of laypersons also comes across in the strict gender roles that New Englanders adhered to. Women and children may have had less of an opportunity for the interpretation of religion than Hall suggests. For example, the clergy coaxed particular knowledge and experience from women who gave conversion testimonies. Many women’s narratives ended in a sense of doubt and uncertainty that many male testimonies did not. The coaxing allowed clergy to frame women’s narratives in a style that they, not the women, deemed appropriate. Nevertheless, Hall’s book remains instrumental for its emphasis on popular religion, and the relationships between religion, magic, media, and the marketplace.

[1] David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990), 3.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 42.

[6] Ibid., 70.

[7] Ibid., 71–72.

[8] Ibid., 115.

[9] Ibid., 130.

[10] Ibid., 168.

[11] Ibid., 11.

[12] Ibid., 17.

[13] Ibid., 11.