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Religion and Sight

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Sight is both celebrated and denigrated in religion. In some contexts it is extolled as a source of knowledge and revelation. In others it is demonized as the road to illusion and idolatry. There is no single way that sight functions in religion, nor indeed a single way to study it. This edited volume brings together scholars from a wide range of disciplines—religious studies, anthropology, art history, film, and philosophy— to shed light on how the sense of sight shapes, and is shaped by, religion. Case studies range across both place and time, from narratives about Medusa in ancient Greek religion to spiritual explanations of sleepwalking in the Enlightenment to rituals of spirit possession in contemporary Brazil.

In order to shed light on interconnected issues, the essays are grouped into three sections, moving thematically from darkness into light: 1) Obscurity 2) Altered States 3) Illumination. The contributors seek to avoid some of the historical pitfalls of Western discourses that hierarchize the senses, and in particular privilege and separate sight from the other senses, imagining it as an unimpeachable source of empirical knowledge. They present the ways in which sight transgresses such constructions, whether by being creatively misleading or taking on tactile qualities. Viewed in the context of lived religious experience, sight surfaces in multiple, unbounded ways. In a theoretically rich and self-reflective introduction, the volume editors set the stage by asking questions at the core of our discipline: What do we see, and—just as importantly—how do we see, when we study religion?

Published: Jul 1, 2020


Section Chapter Authors
List of Figures Louise Child, Aaron Rosen
Series Foreword Graham Harvey
Setting Our Sights on Religion Louise Child, Aaron Rosen
Section One: Obscurity
1. Darkness Visible: The Art of Sam Winston Aaron Rosen
2. Visibly Invisible: Muslim Women in Twenty-first Century Political Cartoons Tahnia Ahmed
3. Obscuring Two-Spirit Deaths in the Films Conversion and Fire Song Gabriel Estrada
Section Two: Altered States
4. Sensing Reelism: Portals to Multiple Realities and Relationships in World, Indigenous, and Documentary Cinema Louise Child
5. The Female Gaze: Sight and the Medusa Myth Gina Bevan
6. ‘A Power Invisible’: How Somnambulists’ Blindness Reflected Debate on the Existence of Soul Martina Bartlett
7. The Experience of Seeing: Spirit Possession as Performance Bettina Schmidt
Section Three: Illumination
8. Piet Mondrian’s Abstraction as a Way of Seeing the Sacred Lieke Wijnia
9. Sacred Landscapes, New Conversations: Paul Nash’s Visionary Paintings of the Wittenham Clumps Molly Kady
10. A Hand Outstretched in Darkness: Evangelical Encounters with Art Philip Francis
11. Seeing the Gods: Divine Embodiment through Visualisation in Tantric Buddhist Practice Dawn Collins
End Matter
Index Louise Child


Collectively [these chapters] show that, while seeing can be dangerous or undesirable, sight plays a big part in enhancing the lived reality of religion and has diverse possibilities for the study of religion.
Journal of Contemporary Religion