Princeton Readings in Religion and Violence edited by Mark Juergensmeyer and Margo Kitts

Nicholas P. Dials


Juergensmeyer, Mark, and Margo Kitts, eds. Princeton Readings in Religion and Violence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011. ix + 235 pp.


Religion and violence as an interconnecting theme is not a new topic for scholars of religion, nor for those in literary studies. Indeed, one could approach these themes from many paths, or a myriad of underlying agendas. Taking their inspiration from notions of sacrifice in relation to religion and violence, or religious violence, Juergensmeyer and Kitts compile a breadth of textual material in order to support the edition’s central analytical objective. Ranging from ancient sacred texts to the final memos of the 9/11 terrorists, from canonical sociological theory to more recent analyses of the corporeal phenomenon of pain, the text offers a particular lens by which to understand violence as it corresponds to religion, religious practice, or dogma. The collection presented by our editors offers a response, a particular scholarly voicing, to the “turn” to the religious found in global culture, in addition to the ever-increasing presence of an interest in religion in theory and academic scholarship. Because these are familiar themes, this collection poses a significant, timely question: “How do we think about these issues in a contemporary context?” It is tempting, when looking only at the textual fragments comprising Parts One and Two, to quickly assume that the editors wish to convey a totalizing portrait of religion and violence as a phenomena structurally present across all belief systems. While this review addresses that problem specifically, it also seeks to highlight the editorial interventions that ask the reader to take a second look. The editors intentionally allow for ambiguity and respect for religious difference. This is not found in the examples of sacred texts or theoretical ones; it is in the editors' own interventions that we find a possibility of thinking less social scientifically and more literarily about the issues of religion and sacrifice at stake in this sequence of texts.


In Part One, “Religious Justifications for Violence,” as the texts unfold collectively one encounters a universalization of certain characters in the religious imaginary, and given the theme, the content of the excerpts centres on violent motifs. The sequence uncovers the pervasive nature of violence in the form of sacrifice as it appears within religious traditions from across the globe. This section of the volume includes portions from the Quran, the Hebrew Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and Aquinas, in addition to several rather idiosyncratic examples of writing containing violent content produced during the twentieth-century. Introducing Part One, the editors explain the strategy in choosing to tie together these religious writings. In relation to the overarching project guiding the gathering of these specific texts, they write:

there is a disagreement in every religious community about whether there can be religious merit in violent acts. Religious thinkers argue over whether violence can sometimes be sanctifying, or whether it is at most a necessary evil [...] There are also writings within most religious traditions that view some acts of violence as sacred duties (7).

The confusion arising from opposing traditions, as well as within a particular religion concerning violence fundamentally associated with belief and practice, serves as an entry-point for ascertaining the variety of experiences and ways of understanding religiously sanctioned violence. The differing texts provide a means by which one can interpret the significance of this diversity as it represents a universally manifested, social form of the human imagination. As one might conclude, it is difficult not to assume that a monologic narrative is being formed through the universalizing correspondence created in the sequencing of these texts.


In Part Two, “Understanding the Religious Role in Violence,” one finds traditional, structural analyses of the types of sacred texts included in the previous section. Leading the way are the forefathers of sociology, economics and psychology, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, among others. The editors describe the theoretical samples as “efforts to make sense of the relationship between religion and violence”; they write, “In many cases what they are trying to understand is not just how religion can tolerate the idea of violence but also how it can, in some cases, encompass it in a spiritual way” (93). Unlike the examples included in the first portion of the volume, Part Two emphasizes the multiplicity of theoretical approaches that grapple with violence and religion. The editors continue, “Beneath this enigmatic connection between violence and the sacred, [the theorists] find insights into something quite essential, the strange attraction between the destructive and creative sides of the human condition” (99). The inclusion of Elaine Scarry and other contemporary theorists of society and religion aids in developing the objective of the volume. The editors correctly assert the essential interplay between the “destructive and creative sides” (99) that accompany one another in the religious imagination; however, as perceived in the analysis of Part One, does the reader find a similar editorial construction that prevents the latent plurality of meaning to emerge from these texts?


It is necessary to understand, as one approaches this volume, that the editors stitch together rather divergent texts as a rhetorical act. These samplings are only tangentially related because of the “religious” content associated with their canonization or focus of inquiry. Thus, as I read the book, I am struck by two particular rhetorical elements: editorial composition and framing. These components give us a hermeneutical lens by which to understand the cultural, political, and of course, scholarly reasoning for the creation of the volume by Juergensmeyer and Kitts. Although this edition incorporates pertinent texts from religious traditions and the scholarly corpus concerning those practices, as a young scholar struggling with the borders of the literary and religious, a glaring gap appears before me. Despite the timeliness of the narrative weaved by our editors, I am uneasy with an exclusively social scientific approach to this topic. I beg for our editors to look for mystery, uncertainty, and the textual gaps. Where is the trace of the trace of ambiguity essential to the understanding of religious faith?


To be generous to the editors, by the conclusion of the volume, these moments appear briefly; giving the reader/scholar an analytical path that is punctuated by the ambiguity of the human religious imaginary, which I might say is something rather “literary.” Closing their final discursive intervention, Juergensmeyer and Kitts are concerned with what earlier in their introduction appeared as the diversity both across and within religious traditions; however, it is manifested, here, in an alternate manner that opens their structural analysis to the complex ambiguity of religious devotion and practice:

Those who have been involved in these cultural expressions of violence and participated in acts of ritual and martial empowerment – even vicariously – have experienced the exuberance and hope that religion brings to life. Such performances of power can be restorative, even though the experiences may be fleeting. Sadly, these sacred moments are sometimes purchased at an awful cost (222).

Resisting a totalizing narrative concerning sacrifice, violence, and the religious, the editors attempt to comprehend the dark side of human action manifested in religious violence. The conundrum remains unsolved; however, with the composition of this volume, framed well by Juergensmeyer and Kitts, an awareness of the complexity of the religious consciousness is offered to the reader, asking him/her to faithfully consider the path that leads to such action (or the act of writing violence). It is in this manner that our editors ask us to journey with the practitioners of religion as well as those theorizing their beliefs. To repeat the Kierkegaardian meditation: “In these and many similar ways that man of whom we speak pondered over this event. Every time he returned home from a pilgrimage to Mount Moriah he collapsed from fatigue, clasped his hands, and said: ‘Surely no one was as great as Abraham. Who is able to understand him?’” (Fear and Trembling 11).


If there were to be a second volume of this collection on religion and violence, I would hope to encounter theoretically focused material that uncovers textual moments in theory and social scientific writing on religion, in addition to sacred or other explicitly religious texts, that not only create or observe the violence of religion, but that, in revealing the nascent ambiguity of the authorial voice, instill an ability to undo this violence in the act of reading.


Works Cited


Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.




Nicholas P. Dials is a graduate student in Religious Studies at Harvard Divinity School, focusing on the interplay between literary theory and philosophy of religion. He holds the M.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of Georgia. He is currently working on several projects that integrate the literary and theological as paradigms for philosophical thinking.



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