What Are You Reading and Why?

Religion and Culture

Richard Hecht and Vincent Biondo (eds), Fortress, 2012

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This well-balanced volume looks at the key facets of significant interaction between religion and culture.  Religion’ may refer to the religious traditions (Buddhism , Judaism).  Or it may refer to symbols and meanings, values.  ‘Culture’ is the interaction of the political dimensions, a vital public arena where social debates are encouraged and may contribute to preserving democracy and preventing mass destruction (p xviii).  Religious pluralism may be the key, the public spaces for face to face communications.  Religion and Culture is a compilation of essays (from a Lutheran perspective) dealing with three spaces where religion and culture are performed:  peace building, as it creates communities; the dome and domestic space; contemporary art.

Six essays outline religion and culture in the space of politics (key areas sketched here are science, women and peace building).  ‘Sometimes it is religion that creates or reinforces women’s suffering, and sometimes it is religion that provides the antidote and the opportunity for freedom’ (p 110).  Another six essays examine religion and culture in the space of ethics. Fascinating conceptualization here:  the religious ethics of capitalism, education, children, death.  The final seven essays describe a third space that Hecht calls aesthetic, where there is greater creative freedom:  visual art, music, film. 

A fascinating contribution deals with Walt Disney’s ‘preoccupation with death’ (p 394); his films rely on a cultural system of religious meaning to make sense of death (p 394).  Each part of Religion and Culture demonstrates the interweaving of religion and culture; religion cannot be separated or compartmentalized so that it operates only within the walls of religious institutions or during religious events.  Human life is immersed in religion and culture. 

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.