“Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions” by Catherine Bell

Catherine Bell  (1953-2008). Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. New York: Oxford University Press: 2009.

Catherine Bells was, until her passing in May of 2008, Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University. Previous to her work Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, her seminal work Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (1992) became key to understanding the dichotomy between action and ritual. Her later publication, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimension, expanded the study to a more comprehensive history of the phenomenon of ritual theory and the vast number of perspectives and approaches to ritual. Now re-published in 2009 with a forward by Reza Aslan, a new generation may take hold of her detailed introduction to the history of ritual theory.

Her work is divided into three parts: theories, rites, and contexts. Part one explores three major schools of thought, clearly demonstrating how the schools dynamically interact with each other. Sense is made of how various theoretical approaches developed. Beyond providing neat arrangement of complex history, Bell opens up the opportunity for student readers to move forward with theories of which they take interest. She does this by demonstrating, at the end of each school of thought, how the range of theories within the schools each interpret, or would interpret, certain ritual. In effect, one is left with an organized account of the major theories within each school of thought.

Part two provides an introduction to the range of ritual rites. Bell is careful to note the dynamic relationship between the various categories so that students do not fall into a rigid system of ritual theory that ultimately overlays ritual interpretation with concepts foreign to the original audience and actor(s). The basic genres provide a healthy framework for understanding the different types of ritual, while characteristics of ritual-like activities demonstrate how ritual is actually expressed within societal contexts. Her depth of knowledge detail regarding the spectrum of ritual and clear presentation indicate her as an authoritative voice for any questions or issues surrounding what denotes “ritual activity”.

Part three approaches ritual within the fabric of life, the reasons for much or little ritual, change, and reification. Most interestingly, she notes that “if, in some fundamental way, we continue to see “modernity” as antithetical to religion and ritual, it may be due in part to how we have been defining religion” (202), a fascinating observation that reflects the mind of scholars and draws out a major difficulty of ritual studies. How does one approach ritual with the right mindset, objective and not presupposing, open minded and not limited in ritual interpretation? Though she doesn’t attempt to answer questions like this, it is a thoughtful element that flows and ebbs through her work. Even though she discusses various elements and logical categories of ritual density, change, and reification, ritual theory is clearly a difficult topic to discuss and not nearly as absolute as some scholars illustrate it to be.

In conclusion, Catherine Bell’s history of ritual perspectives and dimensions provides a study that draws out elements from scholars who developed the foundations of ritual theory. Although there has been development in the field of ritual studies, Bell’s work is rooted in the past. Hence, it will always be a resource for understanding how ritual studies emerged. Furthermore, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions consistently provides analysis of each early perspectives. Rather than merely present the information, Bell clearly demonstrates if certain theories possessed flaws without necessarily arguing for a certain approach. Finally, although her work is not oriented towards biblical scholars, as this blog is, she does provide possible foundations for interpretation of ritual in the Hebrew Bible. At the end of the day her heart for Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions shines through in her concluding statement, demonstrating that she sees ritual not as a bland academic endeavor but as a humanistic endeavor. In her own words, “the form and scope of interpretation differ, and that should not be lightly dismissed, but it cannot be amiss to see in all of these instances practices that illuminate our shared humanity” (267).

I would like to express my gratitude to Oxford University Press for providing me with a review copy and the opportunity to review the publication



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