Book Review – Food, Sex and Strangers (Graham Harvey)

Food, Sex and Strangers. Graham Harvey, 2013. Equinox, London. Reviewed for the RSP by Liam Sutherland. Published 5th May 2014. An audio version of this book review appeared alongside two other reviews in our May 2014 Book Reviews Podcast – see the podcast page for author information.

Jacket image for Food, Sex and StrangersIn Food, Sex and Strangers Graham Harvey attempts to approach the study of religion from ‘elsewhere’, that is from angles appropriate to specific traditions rather than simply Western Protestantism. This, Harvey asserts will allow scholars to study religions as they are actually lived as part and parcel of everyday life, not as some boxed off activity or something defined by private, inner states. This certainly provokes the reader into thinking about issues of definition, categorisation and contingency both with regard to the ‘character’ or ‘make up’ of specific traditions and the rigid and alien moulds academics have all too often forced them into. In many respects this would make an accessible text for an introduction to theory and method course at undergraduate level, it includes chapters which relate these driving theoretical questions to Maori, Yoruba, Ojibwa, Christian, Jewish and Neo-Pagan case studies which are sure to engage students.

Probably the central problem with the book is that Harvey writes about ‘religion’ as though it were a universal phenomenon or at least category which can be approached from ‘elsewhere’ as though it does not have specific historical and cultural baggage. Criticism of the universality of ‘religion’, such as those of Tim Fitzgerald are simply glossed over as a reaction to prior Western, Protestant and especially belief-centric bias. In other words the category may not be found elsewhere and even if it proves useful as a comparative tool, it will reflect its origins unless self-consciously modified. Harvey is ironically dismissive of the comparative use of the concept of ‘belief’ for exactly those reasons and confining analysis of its meaning and application to figures like William James and Rudolf Otto.

Many chapters of the book are used as platform for a Deep Green normative agenda which does not even flow from the main theoretical aims and arguments of the book. The various ‘religions’ of the world are asserted to be autonomous but are ranged against a shadowy caricature of modernism which separates human beings from the environment and a ‘multi-species community of persons’. Regardless of what one thinks the merit of this position is, it is completely unclear what this has to do with re-defining ‘religion’.

He would almost certainly concede that it has little to do with traditional Protestant Christianity but would it have much to with Orthodox Judaism, just because it involves restrictions on the eating of certain animals? It could also be pointed out that ‘modernist’ ethical systems such as the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, coupled with ‘disenchanted’ science were largely responsible for introducing the concept of animal rights at least in the West.

Harvey laments that scholars of religion are afraid to participate in or engage with religions as culinary science would approach their object of study. This he argues is because religion is regarded as somehow dangerous, even infectious and because scholars consider themselves able to be somehow position-less and all knowing, in other words objective and neutral. Firstly, if religious studies teaching and research must be compared to cookery, then it is like cooking with a mixed group of omnivores, vegans, atkins, gluten free and other dieters.

Secondly, religious studies has a system of taboos about how one approaches the material for these very reasons and in order to make a distinct contribution from those of theologies. It does not involve being position-less, the position is a specifically and necessarily limited one: the social and natural framework of contemporary science. It involves setting aside questions of the rights and wrongs and truths and falsehoods of religions because they cloud the highly specific aims of the field, they infringe its taboos. Due to his material and behaviour focused approach to religion, Harvey understandably draws attention to the significance of taboos and how they are in place to allow necessary activities to be carried out with impunity, protecting all parties concerned. I would simply add that religious studies has its own system of taboos which are also in place for a reason.

Liam Sutherland
University of Edinburgh

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