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Text and Context in the Study of Religion

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Russell McCutcheon's Manufacturing Religion and David Chidester's Savage Systems give us two potentially complementary ways of imagining pivotal issues pertaining to the study of religion and its history. McCutcheon's predominant concern is to show that many of the classical theorists who have helped shape a field of religion have failed to locate themselves and their work adequately within their own subjective contexts, thus unconsciously advancing arguments that treat religion as, in McCutcheon's words, a "sui generis" phenomenon. By contrast, Chidester's study is more concerned with establishing the wider historical context of the field of religion, rather than with isolating particular texts and their authors and pointing out tacit assumptions inhering in the way they develop the concept "religion". While differing greatly in emphasis, both of these approaches are necessary in establishing the study of religion as a credible academic discipline. This article uses these two studies to place textual (McCutcheon) and contextual (Chidester) approaches to the study of religion and its history in relationship to one another. It argues that the contextual approach has been a minority tradition and that more attention now needs to be paid to history itself rather than to the analysis of prominent texts in reconstructing the history and parameters of the discipline.

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