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New Scholarship on Religion and Literature, 2000-2012 (November 2013): Religion and Empire

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein

Religion and Empire

As one might expect, questions of imperialism and postcolonialism have resonated with scholars interested in the intersections of religion and overseas expansion.  One of the most intensely self-reflexive studies in this area is Fiona Darroch’s Memory and Myth: Postcolonial Religion in Contemporary Fiction and Poetry, which historicizes both psychoanalysis and the term “religion” (a concept neglected, she argues, in much postcolonial theory) to show how they can be redeployed to understand the entwined faith traditions informing Guyanese culture, some Christian, many not.  Emphasizing the role of landscape representation in Guyanese literature, deeply invested with both historical and spiritual significance, Darroch argues that religious writing enables the transformative re-memory, or “anamnesis,” of events (for example, the Jonestown massacre or the experiences of Indian workers) that scar contemporary culture.

In The Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire, J. Jeffrey Franklin demonstrates that popular and scholarly discourses about Buddhism could be appropriated to critique or rival orthodox Christianity, to develop alternative religious forms, and to explore the nature of rebirth and the afterlife.  Eitan Bar-Yosef’s The Holy Land in English Culture, 1799-1917: Palestine and the Question of Orientalism explores a striking paradox in English representations of Palestine (and especially Jerusalem): the most resonant “Holy Land” in the English imagination was not the actual geographical location, but a figurative sacred space identified with England itself.  Challenging Edward Said, Bar-Yosef demonstrates that many of Said’s high-culture examples of Orientalism would have been inaccessible or incomprehensible to much of the English reading public; similarly, challenging recent accounts of Christian Zionism, he argues that the movement was considered eccentric even among evangelicals and missionaries to the Jews.