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Let’s Be Noah: Toys as Material Religion

Stefanie Knauss considers the importance of toys in shaping childrens’ embodied conceptions of cultural practices, particularly the significance of religious toys in conveying some of the important characters, ideas, and values of a tradition. She argues that the materiality of toys fosters particular enactments of religious stories but that such exercises are underdetermined; the toys must be a focus of pedagogy for them to take on the particular meanings of a tradition, otherwise, they may simply exist as secular playthings. In short, religious toys present opportunities for teaching about a particular tradition, but are not clearly indicative of such approaches in and of themselves. Knauss sees religious toys as a promising unit of analysis for investigating meaning-making and the interplay of self-determination and group influence in early identity formation.

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“Agents of a Fuller Revelation” Photographs and Religion in Nineteenth-Century America

Rachel McBride Lindsey discusses the significance of photography in the study of religion and, particularly, how photographs were “made sense of” as an emerging technology in the nineteenth century. In reviewing the meaning of photos in American religion, she suggests that these images are not mere “things” but enable an entirely new way of engaging religious practices and doctrines.

On Freedom, Pencils and Material Religion

Jean-Pierre Warnier, reporting from Paris, offers some reflections on Charlie Hebdo and the burgeoning Je Suis Charlie movement. David Morgan builds on Warnier’s comments by considering the humble pencil as means and motive of the events in Paris. What both bring to the forefront is the role that materiality, and, particularly, material religion, play in this confrontation with and affirmation of the democratic process.
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The Stereoscope and the Stereograph

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. – the noted poet, essayist, and physician – offers a set of reflections on the emerging technology of photography in this 1859 essay. Apparent here is the intricate reliance on complex technology for rendering the 3-dimensional world into a 2-dimensional fixed representation of that world. With the novel ability to produce such accurate images easily, Holmes sees a transition occur: even though the photograph is a quintessential example of a material object, Holmes sees form “divorced from matter” in the photographic image. Undoubtedly, the complex relationships between people and photographic imagery has helped to shape subsequent attitudes about object, materiality, and information “divorced from matter.”

This essay relays an intelligent observer’s impressions at the advent of the technological age. Holmes’s notions and language are enough like ours to be sensible, but just different enough so that his topic – the capturing of light – is refracted in uniquely creative way. It is worth considering how the digitization of images – in their production, manipulation, and transmission – departs from this earlier era in which a different set of materials and procedures was necessary to accomplish these processes. Now, more than ever, visual imagery may be divorced from its material underpinnings, and exist as a flow of information connecting, for instance, a live camera feed, linked to a satellite, communicating with a station, broadcasting the imagery on a news channel, to the flickering screen of a television, and ultimately, to the eyes of the viewer – all in real time.

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The Economies of Temple Chanting and Conversion in China

Eric Reinders discusses the material culture of chant, the complexities of conversion, and the economics of religious “trades” in this intriguing piece. Drawing on excerpts from Christian missionary publications and other writings, Reinders highlights the subtle cultural dynamics at play when two religious traditions encounter one another, especially under conditions when one aims to supplant the other.

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