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Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars, by Bruce Lincoln

Critical Explorations in the History of Religions

Reviewed by Ellen Muehlberger

Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars is a collection of set pieces that sound the depth of religious literatures from different cultural contexts; it treats everything from recent struggles of indigenous religion against colonial religion in Guatemala to medieval Persian and Norwegian myths to the portrayal of chaos in Hesiod’s Theogony. These exercises are presented as examples of how best to study religion, namely by dismantling and examining the ideology captured in religious texts. By gathering these “critical explorations in the history of religions,” diverse as they are, into one neat volume, Lincoln offers an argument about scholarly pursuits in the study of religion.

The formulation “history of religions” in the subtitle is an important key to understanding the argument of the book. That argument is foreshadowed in the first chapter, Lincoln’s “Theses on Method,” which a note reveals have long been a part of Lincoln’s pedagogical mission and scholarly self-fashioning, and which first appeared in print in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion in 1996. The point of departure for this book, they are precisely what they say they are: propositions on how to conduct scholarship. But they are also more, delivering judgment not just about the methods scholars of religion should use but also about the identity of those who do not employ the suggested methods and even about the value of work produced by scholars not guided by Lincoln’s theses. Thesis 12 reminds those who criticize Lincoln’s proposed method of “critical inquiry” as reductionistic that such inquiry is the very “starting point for those who construct themselves as historians.”

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