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Book: Thinking with J. Z. Smith

Chapter: 2. Imagining a Proper Academic Study of Religion Inspired by J. Z. Smith

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.39924


Sam D. Gill encourages us to pay more attention to the playful or ludic dimension of Smith’s writings. As he points out, the titles of Smith’s essays are often riddles and jokes that confound as well as delight. They often engage games and play, homophones, and double-entendres, even nursery rhymes. While clever and provocative, Gill argues, Smith’s titles are lumps of compressed theory radiating insights that he had developed throughout his studies persistently preoccupied by incongruity, difference, and gaps. Take, for example, Smith’s short essay “The ‘End’ of Comparison”. Its title is a riddle signaled by putting the word “end” in quotation marks. “Some have focused on this particular presentation of comparison,” Gill observes, “because it appears to outline a straight-forward linear comparison technique: description, comparison, redescription, rectification. My sense is that it is a serious error to consider this the culminating conclusion to Smith’s consideration of comparison”. If not the conclusion, however, then what is it? How should we read that little essay and other jests and riddles one encounters in Smith’s writings? Gill’s answer is: not as definitive statements or solutions—after all, these are not things we normally expect from riddles—but rather as clues initiating and emphasizing the ongoing play of difference.

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