In a co-edited volume, Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: Contested Desires, Birgit Meyer and Terje Stordalen bring together innovative perspectives on the prevalence of images in religious traditions often described as harboring aniconistic tendencies. Should we really see these traditions as “anti-image”? This episode charts some of the major moves taking place in the volume, especially the presumption of the normative stance of aniconism. What if we turn instead to the aesthetic regimes of the religious traditions in question by considering their shared habitus or the methods of “seeing”used by their members? Such moves reveal the political nature of debates over images, and the power of iconoclasm. Referring to specific case studies from the volume, the conversation offers ideas about re-imagining and challenging the assumption that practitioners of religious traditions such as Islam, Judaism, or Christianity hold a contemptuous view of images. Perhaps an increased focus on aesthetic regimes rather than images can provide a superior way to analyze and select data for this area of religious studies.
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Challenging the Normative Stance of Aniconism in Christianity, Judaism and Islam
Podcast with Birgit Meyer and Terje Stordalen
Interviewed by Candace Mixon
Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.
Audio and transcript available at:
Terje Stordalen (TS): Hello.
Birgit Meyer (BM): Hello, Candace!
CM: Yes, and welcome. I’m so excited to be talking with these fine scholars on the topic of aniconism and we’ll learn all about what that is, and the kind-of theories behind it, and how it matters for the study of religion. I will just note that my interest in this as an interviewer is also invested in my own academic interest. I’m an Islamic studies scholar who works on contemporary visual and material culture related to Shia Islam, and especially regarding Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammed, and how she is conceptualised, visually and materially, in Iran. So I’ve travelled there, and seen images there of the family of the prophet kind-of all together in the fabric of contemporary Iranian society. And then some of those images are lessening a bit now, and that’s due to all kinds of different pressures and reasons. But certainly the visual culture is there, the images are there. The spirit of all of that is there. So I’m so excited to talk with you all about your research in this field.
TS: Well I’m excited too, Candace!
CM: Wonderful. So part of the rationale for getting you all together is that you did co-edit a book together called Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So I was wondering if each of you could just mention a bit about your own research, and maybe what connected you with wanting to publish and collect the articles in Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
TS: Ok. Do you want to go first, Birgit?
BM: Ok, I can do that. Ok, I am Birgit Meyer. I have been trained as an anthropologist and scholar in Religious Studies. And I have been conducting research on Christianity in Africa for a long time. And in this research I also focused on mission societies, mission societies from Germany, active on the West African coast who, of course, in trying to convert local populations, in a way produce ideas about idolatry, fetish worship and all this. So indigenous worship was recast as being idolatrous and strongly materially focussed, whereas missionary Protestantism was profiled as religiosity that was devoted to the interior, devoted to book reading and all that. And I had long wondered how to come to terms with this clash about indigenous objects and the denigration of indigenous religious traditions as idolatry. I noticed with my move into Religious Studies that there is some kind-of dearth with regard to taking seriously the material dimension of religion which, with Talal Asad, I would attribute to a post-Enlightenment Protestant bias. And I have been struggling, not only empirically but also conceptually, to create more room for material objects and other material media in the study of religion. And it was in this context that I met Terje at a conference, in fact on Media and Mediation, at Oslo University. And there we noticed that although he comes from a different background – he will soon talk about that – we had a number of shared concerns. And so this ultimately led us to delve in this project together. Maybe, Terje, you can first say more about your background?
TS: Yes. Well, I’m Terje Stordalen and I’ll start by saying I’m very happy to be part of this podcast. I was trained as a classical scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Old Testament literature and Ancient Near Eastern Religion. So there is a lot of language issues and literature issues of course. But, for a decade or so, I have been headed out of the – you could say – disciplinary silo that they live in down there in Hebrew Bible Studies, and looking more at the wider landscape around. And I headed a few international cross-disciplinary enterprises, one of them was Religion in Pluralist Societies, which was the host for the conference that Birgit mentioned before (5:00). And really it’s been an eye-opener for me to come to Religious Studies, to come to anthropology in particular, and see it’s possible to reflect outside of the scholarly tradition and see new aspects. And I think that’s what we’re doing in this volume. We have a lot of disciplinary traditions meet and converse. And what emerges is somewhat surprising for all of us, I think. A somewhat surprising view of the topic that we had at hand. Of course, down in the disciplinary silo, aniconism is a given. That is just something that everybody thinks is a fact in the old ancient Hebrew Bible religion. But it turns out it’s much more complicated than that.
CM: Well we can think about how pervasive it is. I don’t know what kinds of courses you all teach, but I’m in a Religious Studies program or Religious Studies department. And I often teach “Introduction to Islam”. Or something very introductory and wide-ranging related to Islamic studies. And almost always, the first thing that my students say, if I start talking about Muhammed, or images, or something like that, they say, “Well that’s not allowed, right?” And I don’t know if that’s been your experience also in the classroom, and not just your research there?
TS: Well, very much in the classroom. And not just the classroom. Outside the classroom this perception is very pervasive, as well. Everybody talking about ancient Judaism or Islam thinks that this is the case. Evidently it’s not. It’s not that simple.
BM: Yes, and like, speaking from Calvinist Holland, where I’m teaching, we have also one of the very strong much-reproduced evidences of the iconoclasm of Calvinism that was unleashed in the late sixteenth century – and totally smashed alter images. So often this is taken as proof that truly, from a Calvinist perspective, there’s no right for Christian to use images. But, of course, all these standpoints are far too simplistic and, of course, one concern of our volume is to show very simply and empirically this is not the case. And though we do notice, of course, some reservations with regard to images and visual representation in three Abrahamic traditions, at the same time we encounter a lot of image-making practices, and images that may give rise to all kinds of debates. But nonetheless, there is a whole stock of visual materials that is there, concerning Islam. In our volume we also feature an article by Christiane Gruber, who also has been writing extensively about the situation of images of Mohammed in the Islamic world. You may be familiar with her work?
CM: Oh yes. Definitely. I definitely sort-of work with, and have been in conversation with her about some of these images. So, yes, it was great to see that representation in the volume. But yes, just going back to these issues . . . so we’ve started to dance around the idea of some Protestant biases and some sort-of shaking up of the image question across these three traditions. But I wondered if one or both of you could talk to us a little bit more about what you’ve seen, or how you’ve pitched in the volume, which is as a normative belief. Because that’s something that we always, in Religious Studies, we want to interrogate, what are these normative or – quote unquote – “orthodox” beliefs that seem to take precedence? And maybe just conceptualise that idea for me, that aniconism has become a normative practice in both the academy and in the very specific subfield. Anything more you could say on that?
TS: Well, you know, aniconism is a very ambiguous concept to start with. So in my disciplinary fields it’s used to denote two very different kinds of practices. One is what is called the de facto aniconism, which should name the non-use of figural or symbolic objects – simply the non-use, or the absence of them (10:00). The other is the militant aniconism, which is associated with iconoclasm and the destroying of cultic objects – almost all kinds of cultic objects, but certainly objects that are thought to represent a deity. And already this is a distinction that is lost on many people. They always think of aniconism as the latter, which, in the historical record, evidently is not the case. But then you have some normative concepts on top of that. And usually in Christian and, I think, Islamic tradition, very often this goes to the idea that figurative media are inferior to words. So there is more value in representing the other side – or the “unseen” as we call it in the volume – by words. And that seems to be a perception that caught on with scholars as well. I mean it resonates with modernist philosophy which, for instance, Yvonne Sherwood documents very well in our book. But it doesn’t really make sense when you go back and look at the material. I think my greatest surprise was when, having done the research, I realised that aniconism is just another aesthetic regime. You’re still using material media and certain constellations to convey specific things. And it’s not all that different from a more iconic-oriented cult.
BM: And that’s, of course, interesting. So even if you notice certain aniconic strands in Christian or Judaic and Islamic traditions, this would not apply to uplift this aniconism into a more general scholarly stance. And what motivated us very much to do this book is on the one hand, to document attitudes towards images, different visual regimes at different times and places in these religious traditions. But we also wanted to, in a way, challenge the study of religion to move beyond a kind-of presumed normative idea that is tied to these religious traditions, that somehow images would matter less. And you can find even a kind-of normative resuscitation of the second commandment in critical works that Bruno Latour and WT Mitchell – scholars whose work I value very strongly but I also find somewhat limited, perhaps due to some distance from theology or knowledge about the Old Testament. So in my own article, in the first part, I also addressed Latour’s famous introduction to the Iconclash volume, in which he writes about the second commandment and its interpretation. And the second commandment, in his view, stating that humans are not allowed to make any representations. And obviously, this is not at all how this commandment would have been understood across time by most of the people who were trying to obey it. So the irony is that, even in secular theory formation that deals in interesting ways with images, we find remnants of normative ideas about the interdiction to use images. And we decided, in this volume, to work through these things, and work towards an approach to visual regimes in which images function by, for example, getting some more information from art history. Which is I think a very fertile cross-disciplinary encounter that stimulated a lot of the scholars in this book.
CM: Yes. So these are wonderful points. And something that Terje mentioned was that these inclinations to either distrust the image, or put it on a lower pedestal, are also represented of course in the academy as well – so, how we produce knowledge. And, as Birgit also mentioned, in sort-of secular theory, all of these systems reproduce the idea of logos as being the primary method through which we prove that we have knowledge. So dissertations are written in text, and visual means, or video, or other sorts of things might be an accessory, or an appendix, or some sort-of additional thing (15:00). But even within the academy the way that we have our knowledge structured is also centred on the written language as the primary and authoritative means. And that’s something that I often work through with my students considering, when we talk about early Islamic history, and we think about, of course, oral traditions and spoken word. And I know that you have some chapters related to sound in Islam, for example. But thinking about the sort-of prevalence that our students and our publics see in the trust that they give the written word over any other means of representation I think is really striking and kind-of just shows how pervasive this normative idea of aniconism, in various ways, has become.
TS: I think you’re right. I think you’re right. And I think, actually, it relates to our understanding of concepts. Because we tend to identify words as concepts. We don’t see the fact that words are media too. So there is an underlying sense, in our culture, that if you can just grasp the concept you have grasped reality. Whereas material media have more distance, and they’re more fixed, so they’re not so flexible and so forth. So there is a very fundamental philosophical perception underlying all of this. And that needs to be challenged properly, I think.
BM: Yes. And for me, in a way, to point out that the way in which we have configured research in religion, in privileging textual and word-centric approaches. And figuring out how these approaches are tied, in fact, to perhaps quite hidden normative claims that are grounded in the religious traditions we are then studying. And pointing that out. It is important to see that we need to move beyond this lingering aniconism and develop alternative concepts, but also methods. I’m very much interested in developing a new ways of studying religion. I have been working for quite some time in mediation approach. And I would say that, in a way, religions develop different kinds of media and text as well as images, as well as buildings, as well as even food. And, as scholars, we need to be able to analyse these kinds of media – also, of course, by engaging with scholars who have a lot of knowledge about them. And in this volume, our attempt was very much to unpack, in a way, visual media and processes of figuration and imagination, in conversation with scholars in art history. And, in particular, with a particular German strand in art history which is called bildwissenschaft. It’s developed by such scholars as Hans Belting, Christiane Kruse – who also has an article in our volume – Gottfreid Boehm and others.
TS: And you might add to all that also an interest which is brought on by you, Birgit, a focus on the sensation, the use of the human sensorium, here. And in order to get a grasp of what religion does to people, or what people do with religion, you need to see all the senses playing together and all the different media form a sort-of totality. And that’s what we should see, as scholars of religion, when we approach these phenomena. Not just the concepts that the religious elites or scholarly elites would condense from all that.
BM: Exactly. And I think that is how we try to broaden, here, thoughts, figurations and sensations of the unseen. And it is these two strands. So the figuration of the unseen, the mediation of the unseen – which is, of course, projected through these figurations and becomes tangible through them. And the ways in which this process of making tangible an unseen also calls on particular kinds of sensations. And we argue that different religious traditions may well be compared and distinguished by looking at the ways in which they offer figurations of an unseen, and represent mediated different sensorial profiles that are engaged in doing so. And I think this is a kind-of programme that adjoins the different chapters in this volume (20:00).
CM: Yes, that’s really wonderful. I was thinking both about the sort-of insistence on media as mediation. And I know that’s a very obvious sort-of connection for the word to make. But I think saying it like that, so saying “media as mediation”, I think really helps us draw that point home: that it is some sort-of communication. And whether that image is between trying to figure out how to represent god, a god, some sort-of deity, or some other expression of a religious practice, feeling etc., that that media is the communicative work there. So I just really like that sort-of repeating that, and thinking through that word. So with that I wondered, I mean, Terje – I know, in your chapter, you mention the challenges of a logo-centric ideology and the distrust of a medium to be able to represent, or perhaps mediate a deity. So I wondered if, in your specific example, if you could tell us a little bit more about the idea of distrusting a media to be able to work enough to represent a deity or some other religious idea.
TS: OK. I can do that. I will need to get a little specific, then, and chart some of the presumptions that I work on.
CM: Yes. It would just be nice to have a little bit more of, maybe, a detailed case study that we can think through, as we get these more generic and broader sweeps that we’ve made, or that you all made in the volume. So that’d be wonderful.
TS: OK. Well it’s an accepted view among scholars that there are different strata, different strands of Biblical Hebrew literature. And they’re not all equally strange to figurative representations of the deity. So I decided that I’ll take the most restrictive strand: the Deuteronomistic strand, as we call it. And they’re the ones that give these bans on images that have become so normative in scholarship. They have edited a long line of literature, which we call the Deuteronomistic history. And in this work you have early sources. So you can, in that work, see how they interacted with less iconoclastically-minded ideologies. I thought that might be a good case study. So I took a narrative on the building of the Temple of Solomon. I’m not saying that temple ever existed, but it’s very easy to imagine that temple from the account given in the Biblical record. In fact it has been imagined time and over, and still is around the world. So you would expect, if these people really were as aniconic as we think they should be, they would make sure to present for us an image of a temple where imagery and symbolisations played no role at all. Almost like a Calvinistic chapel or something like that. But the fact is, their accounts in 1Kings Chapter 6-8 is full of figurations. There are palms, there a lions, there are carobs, there are pomegranates – and, moreover, there is a very clear architectural symbolism. So you have one stage, then they go onto the second stage, and then they go onto the third stage. So I mean it’s full of non-verbal media. The presence of the deity in this imagined temple is not verbal at all. Because when you get to the inner sanctuary it is a complete silence. Right? There is no image. There is no word. So I came to see this as a sort-of expression of a conviction that you simply cannot grasp this deity, and words do not grasp this deity either. And I thought this was, to me, a very instructional view into something that I thought I already knew all about.
BM: But the interesting thing, Terje, is that you do not take this as proof of aniconism, but that you develop this case to show the importance of all kinds of figural representations in evoking a sense of an unseen that is withdrawn. And I found that very interesting. That is, of course, a theme that we find in other articles in the book as well (25:00). For example in the Heike Behrend’s piece on the aesthetics of withdrawal, which I find very interesting. So she makes a point that she works on the Swahili coast, where of course there are certain restrictions among Muslims, with regard to the use of images. But, at the same time, images that themselves are being used in order to conceal certain things. So the image itself maybe employed as a medium for concealment. And I think these are the more fine-tuned aspects in the way of working with images that we try to focus on in our book. We really want to get away from all too simplistic question of “yes” or “no” images are allowed, so as to look at the working with images. And I very much learned a lot from Terje’s piece in particular. Because, Terje, you show the importance of the iconic in reproducing a sense of something that is withdrawn from view, right?
TS: Yes, I think through my piece, but even more through Heike Behrend’s piece, we arrive at the view of aniconism as a regime, as an aesthetic regime. And it makes use of all the media and all the opportunities that you have in other regimes. But it just has a particular profile. So that means that we should go back and look at all these different solutions, and different traditions, and see them more or less on a par, and describe how they actually employ the media and the sensations in different ways.
CM: Yes. Thanks you so much for that detailed look at your case study there, and sort-of rethinking something that sounds familiar. And that’s always the task. How can I interrogate again something that I’m taking for granted? And again that’s the whole point of rethinking the normativity of aniconism. So thank you for sharing that. And another point that I made, as I was reviewing some of these things and thinking through this, is you were mentioning the shared habitus: of means of seeing, or sound, or sort-of the shared communities that make certain regimes of sensation possible in religious traditions. So I wonder if you can mention anything, or offer any examples of a shared habitus of seeing, sensation, in any of the religious traditions you’re working with – especially related to media or images.
BM: Well, I think what was very interesting to look, even across the Christian tradition on which I’m working quite a lot. We have a very interesting piece by Sonja Luehrmann, a splendid anthropologist who unfortunately passed away last August, just after our book had come out. She was an expert on orthodox Christianity and has offered a fantastic piece about the importance of the icon in these orthodox traditions. And what I found fascinating here is that the icon is important, in a way, so as to prevent the human mind, the individual mind, in going astray, and depicting God in all kinds of ways. It is especially the two-dimensional icon that is, in a way, to control, to check the human imagination and frame it in a particular way. So the icon, in this sense, is definitely part of an aesthetic regime that teaches people to imagine the unseen in a particular synchronised manner, which evolves around the figure of the icon. And I thought that this is a really very interesting example here.
TS: We didn’t write this, but I’ve been thinking of it afterwards. Maybe Birgit would want to comment on this. But my impression is that these regimes are all designed in order to intensify certain chosen experiences, and even bodily experiences. So you have, for instance, the one that Øyvind Norderval describes in ancient Rome using the Baroque technique of contemplation and you know, looking at the very Baroque themes that are there. It’s all about approaching a centre, and then releasing the tension at the centre (30:00). And that seems to me to be the point. Whether you use images, or you use them in a restricted sense, or you don’t use them at all, it’s all about heightening the experience when you get to what is perceived to be the central point.
BM: Yes. And I think that is something that I tried even to thematise in my preceding work, when I developed the notion of the sensational forms: the sensational forms that are developed within religious traditions to do exactly the job as you have just described it, Terje. And I would say that in the visual regimes they operate in the context of particular sensational forms that develop, make tangible the transcendent in certain ways, and organise the access to it in particular ways. And I think that one can very well make comparison between religious traditions by focussing in on the different sensational forms and the sensorial regimes within which they function. So, for me, our volume was also one way of playing out in a way or focusing on a particular sensational form that evolves around visuality.
CM: Awesome. So with that I was just thinking about learning to see, or learning to experience religion in certain ways through your own . . . through the different traditions. So, I work on contemporary Shia Islam and I know that there’s some pieces in this volume that relate somewhat to that work. But basically thinking about the idea that certain Shia Muslims would have the ability to see particular images and respond, and know that that’s who they are, or who they’re representing, based on just on the common knowledge, and the reinforcing of particular regimes, and aesthetic regimes that make those intelligible; that make an image of Husayn, holding the slain commander general Qasem Soleimani in his arms, as an understandable image that can convey something specific to that audience, where it might not make as much sense to someone who’s outside of that audience. And I think that that shared language of images and of media, especially within religious traditions, is so amazing to think through.
BM: Yes, and indeed we have a piece by Pedram Khosronejad who deals with that. And Gruber’s piece also deals with this kind-of tradition, in part. Perhaps it’s also important to emphasise that in moving, in a way, beyond the idea of a bilderverbot – an interdiction of images – we really focus on the use of images in very different contexts. So it is not necessarily the case – as is, of course, behind the fear of the image being mistaken for the divine – that all uses of images are intended as representations, as figural representations of God. Usually, if one looks more closely, one sees that there are constant deliberations about the potential of images to allude to the unseen. Actually the whole charge even of idolatry, of the mistaking of an image for the deity, is usually a figment of accusation and by no means shared by those making use of these kinds of images. So once one looks more closely, one comes . . . one is able to access much more sophisticated uses of images and image theologies that move far out of this simplistic charge of idolatry, as we find it from conversations and pleasures in the Christian tradition, also within the Islamic tradition, and vis-a-vis for example indigenous traditions in an African context. We barely came across, or I think we never came across anything like idolatry per se, even if there was a profuse use of images made.
TS: I think your point, Candace, is very interesting from another perspective as well. So these regimes tend to develop certain semiotics, so sign systems that will convey certain views and certain values to the spectators. And you need to learn the semiotic in order to understand what is going on (35:00). Now this is, of course, the same also in the European painting and in European Christianity at large. And that brings us to a point which is also important in this book: religious imagery and heritage, cultural heritage. Because it becomes part of a shared cultural property. And people may use it and re-use it in different ways. And there is one piece in our book studying the opera, Salome, and just documenting how many of these original semiotic signs are still there, but in very subversive ways. So that also helps us understand what’s going on with religion and the religious heritage, today. And, Birgit, this is something that you’re very into, for the time being, so maybe you want to comment?
BM: Well, I’m interested in the way that the decline, perhaps, of Christianity as a living tradition across European in all this . . . we should not overlook the fact that Christian images . . . . All kinds of tropes, of course, survive in secular forms. And we believe that with this volume, it builds, in a way, on practices of figuration and sensation within living religious traditions. We are also able to identify the afterlives of these images in secular contexts. So we have indeed Ulrike Brunotte’s piece on Salome, we have Christiane Kruse who works around Michel Houellebecq’s, Soumission, we have Else Marie Bukdahl who also works on modern abstract art, and all that. So that is, in fact, the last part of this volume, where these afterlives of Christian visual regimes are being addressed.
CM: Great. So thank you so much for that too, and again the details . . . thinking through the cultural heritage and yes, these images being part-and-parcel of how, also, outsiders see and visualise these religious traditions. I mean there’s a reason, when people go to Florence or different museums in Italy, they absorb and take in all the beautiful Christian art forms without necessarily understanding the contexts that sort-of brought those particular art forms to light, that would have made a lot of sense for the communities in which they were born into. So on the one hand, we can appreciate the art and the beauty of them, but for people within that community they take on a different meaning.
BM: Exactly and Christiane Kruse, for example, in an earlier work (German title) unfortunately only in German, she offered a really interesting analysis, in a way, of the ways in which theology and art move together – but also, to some degree of course, expand and extend into each other. So she discusses, indeed, all kinds of restrictions with regard to the depiction of the divine with deliberations by artists, who say “Well, the condition for the evocation of the unseen, of the divine, is it’s mediation via the image.” So you see already, in the medieval times, in the Baroque . . . all kinds of attempts at mobilising images in order to make an invisible visible, in the framework of the image, and at the same time seeking to circumvent charges of idolatry which would claim that this would amount to representing the divine as such. So there is a lot of deliberation about the work of mediation that images as media can do, in alluding to a kind-of unseen without ever fully rendering it present as such. And I hope that, perhaps, reading our volume may also alert people that when they watch these masterpieces of art they embed it in broader debates within the Christian realm in this case.
CM: Yes. Exactly. Great. So we’ve gone a little bit more specific. And then I wonder if we can sort-of get closer to wrapping up by thinking, again, more broadly. So, back to the points that I brought up at the beginning of the interview (40:00). Back to this issue – and I think Terje mentioned it a few times – but aniconism is just absence, and anti-iconism, or iconoclasm as “No” – and destruction of images. So I wonder if we can sort-of just think through again that tension or that conflation. And then final approaches to what we can learn from that, for going forward in the field of Religious Studies: how you hope that people will take this scholarship and either apply it, or rethink their own research materials. So perhaps just suggestions or, again, detail about this aniconism conflation with anti-iconism . . . wherever you’d like to go from there.
TS: If I may have some first thoughts. From my perspective, there isn’t all that much difference between the one and the other. The difference is more in politics than in the use of images. But, obviously, setting out to destroy someone else’s material basis for religion is a very powerful political move. And setting out to destroy someone for destroying one’s own material basis is another political move. And it has created opportunities for religious agents around the world to use the image or non-image question for their political religious purposes. But I think, when you look at the practices, it’s very difficult to see substantial differences between these. Now that’s the religious experts. They would like us to see those distinctions and I think demounting the distinctions is maybe one of the services that we can provide with this volume.
BM: Yes, I think I would endorse this. And say that as scholars we have to be very much aware of the epistemic regimes that have been guiding our research. And we have to be aware to what extent they have been guided, in fact, by normative assumptions rooted in religious traditions themselves. And we suggest, in fact, with this volume, to move beyond the issue of the image question per se, to move beyond the issue of aniconism or anti-iconism versus iconodule attitudes, towards a broader approach that would look at practices of decoration, at visual regimes in which images may take very, very different roles. And of course bilderverbot – the interdiction of images – may be one, but there may be many, many other options. And we should, as scholars, be prepared to see all these options as, yes – on the conceptual level – definitely equal. I think that this is very important also in relation to debates about images and religion in our contemporary society. There is some kind-of irony that, nowadays, often Muslims are told that Christians have no problems with depicting images, with depictions of the divine, anything goes. But it’s only Muslims are not able to see this. Now this is definitely false, of course. And I hope that through our comparative approach, or by taking, in a way, the Abrahamic traditions – and I know that the term also comes with its own problems – but by taking these three traditions together, we can get beyond these very simplistic ideas as we encounter them now, through which post-Christian secular people distinguish themselves from Muslims who are told to also now be able to become iconoclasts. All these are very cheap and simplistic rhetoric, I think, that ask for being further unpacked. And in fact the Figurations and Sensations volume has a sister volume, which is a volume called Taking Offence which I co-edited with two colleagues, Anna-Marie Korte and Christiane Kruse, in which we look at images . . . wars and contestations around offensive images in the contemporary world. So it may be nice to see the volumes together. So in addressing, in a way, image questions conceptually we just have to broaden our scope, I would say.
CM: Wonderful. Yes, Terje thank you so much for bringing in the politics of the utilisation of when we get to have that power over the images (45:00). Obviously the Buddhas of Bamyan are often the most iconic example of that, of the destruction of those Buddhas by the Taliban and thinking about, then, the power of trying to provoke, also. So that sort-of Taking Offence volume you mentioned is really interesting there: of having images of Mohammed contests out there, to try to provoke some sort-of response that would then . . . I don’t know, prove something . . . prove all kinds of offensiveness being taken. So the political-ness of when to apply aniconism, anti-iconism or iconoclasm are also prescient, especially right now. And thinking about how relevant images are for communicating larger political goal, not just religious ones. So thank you so much for that. Any final words you’ve got for us? I mean this has been really awesome, and I’ve loved talking to you. And it just makes me more excited to dive in deeper to this book and also the Taking Offence book. But anything other, that you’d like to mention before we wrap up?
BM: Maybe just a small footnote about what I try to emphasise in my chapter and also my work is of course the tremendous iconoclastic attacks with regard to indigenous traditions that have been launched by both Protestant and Catholic mission societies, leading also to the collection of lots of items from Africa, and other parts of the world, that are now located in mission and ethnographic museums. And of course the point that this iconoclastic attack is in fact still going on and launched by many Pentecostal churches. I’m addressing this to some extent, also, in my chapter in the book. And I think this should also be remembered when talking about IS, or the Banyan examples. Otherwise I’m just very happy about this conversation. I’m also very happy about this collaboration with Terje, and the other scholars, and I hope very much that, yes, this work will trigger debates, will trigger more works. So in many ways I’m must say I’m not yet done with this anti-image question! I really hope that, with this, we will be able to offer some incentives to broaden the study of religion conceptually, and methodologically, to indeed research on processes of figuration and the imagination, beyond rather simplistic views. And, of course, there is some good work out there: Sally Promey, David Morgan, we mentioned people in the field of material religion for example, but I do think that this is really a strand that’s ready to have some more attention, in our very heavily media-saturated and image-full world. So we live just in the world with so many images and we don’t know their provenance. We are not so much aware about of the provenance of our stances with regard to images, our preparedness to believe in them or not, and all that. And I think Religious Studies has much to say and unpack here.
CM: Wonderful. Anything other you’d like to note Terje, before we . . . ?
TS: No, I think you’ve covered most of it now.
CM: Yes. That was a great summation. Well, thank you all again. And the book that they’ve been kind-of mentioning, and we’ve been dancing through, is called Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam and is thankfully open access, which is amazing! So people can access it, regardless of institutional affiliation, and library access. So it’s very accessible. And we do thank you for making that book so accessible. So, on behalf of the Religious Studies Project, thank you all.
TS: Thank you for having us.
BM: Thank you.
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