Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Importance Of Material Culture In The Study Of Religion.

Bishop Fulham
Bishop Fulham (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The material culture aspect is vital to the study of religion.  The numerous parts of material culture within religion provide sacred sites of worship, teaching aids, visual reminders to the faithful and outward expressions of religiosity.

The outward expressions of religiosity are visible in the 5 Ks of Sikhs, the wearing of uncut hair with the kara, kanga and turban identifies members of the Panth to each other and to outsiders. In Islam many  men wear a Taqiyah, in the UK this is especially prevalent at Friday prayers, it being a commendable act for a Muslim to cover his head during prayer. Many religious orders have their own uniform, Christian Orthodox nuns wear a simple dress with a shawl covering the head, and the costume worn by priests in the western Christian church can be flamboyant and regal in appearance. All these worn parts of material culture identify the wearer to others, but they also serve as a constant reminder of who the wearer is and can serve to bind the community together. There are members of many faiths, within Sikhism for example, who reject the wearing of such a religious uniform as being vital to being a good adherent of that faith.

Perhaps the most notable expression of material culture are the buildings that religions construct for worship to take place in.  Almost every town and village in England has a church with a spire pointing to heaven, the spire often being the tallest building in the community. Many religions build large structures, but they are sometimes constructed to serve a duel purpose, the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca serves to act as a reminder of the importance and generosity (although much money was raised by compulsory public subscription) of its benefactor as well as its importance as a site of Islamic worship.

Art has been used in western Christianity, and other religions, as a teaching aid. At a time when many of the congregation were illiterate, priests could instruct by talking about the art, especially works like the 12 stations of the cross, within Christian churches. Art as an expression of faith has taken a different route across much of Islam where the concept of shirk, or idolatry, has meant that representational art is uncommon, although not unknown.  Art expressed as calligraphy - inscriptions from the Quran, and abstract art forms have become the norm across much of Islam. The shirk prohibition is not followed by all Muslims, some Egyptian Muslims record their hajj experiences as representational murals.

Many parts of material culture cross into the experiential part of religion, for many people the wearing of a turban, or of a crucifix, or the comforting feeling of a set of rosary beads is intrinsic to who the person is and how they see themselves. The building they meet to worship in, and its associated art, is both sacred space, educational site and community meeting place. Material culture impacts heavily on the other dimensions proposed by Smart, our understanding of the narrative and mythic, or practical and ritual, would be lessened if we removed the material culture aspect.

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