Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

JZ Smith calls for Study of Iconic Scriptures

J. Z. Smith’s SBL presidential address, “Religion and the Bible,” appears in this month’s Journal of Biblical Literature. When I heard it last November, I was delighted that Smith issue a clarion call for the study of scriptures as material objects very much along the lines that we have been developing in the Iconic Books Project. In the second-to-the-last paragraph, after summarizing the work of W. C. Smith on the performance of scriptures, he argues:

that alongside a focus on ritual, on performance, equal to that given to myth, to sacred text, there be an equivalent concern for sacred texts as embodied material objects commensurate with interests in those texts as documents of faith and history. After all, canonization, in the case of the Bible, is inseparable from modes of production, being as much an affair of technology as theology.

A footnote amplifies his proposal:

Without supplying either specific examples or supporting bibliography, the enterprise of studying sacred (canonical) texts as embodied material objects may be conceived in terms of five foci: (1) The study of the effects of modes of production should include not only technological processes but also economic factors (e.g., patronage) and entrepreneurial decisions that affect format, design, and the inclusion of supplementary matter. (2) One must consider the status of the material text as an icon, an element in what has come to be termed, by some scholars, “visible religion.” Here the text is not limited in its sacrality to its origin or referent, but is, itself, a ‘holy thing.’ (3) Closely related is the employment of the text as a ritual object. This is a different usage from (4) the lectionary use of a sacred text in a ritual context, or (5) the use of the text as a ritual handbook.

J. Z. Smith theorized rituals in the 1980s in ways that profoundly shaped my ideas of the ritualization of scripture. His endorsement of this line of research here is welcome support to our efforts.

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