A review of The Meaning of Religion: Book Groups and the Social Inflection of Reading, by Emily Katherine Ronald.
Emily Ronald’s dissertation explores how religious identities affect reading and how the latter in turn shapes the former. Taking issue with existing theories and models that treat reading as an individual, solitary activity, the author attempts to place reading within the intricate web of social contexts that inflect it. To this end, the author has carried out extensive fieldwork on various reading groups in the Boston area, regularly attending the meetings as observer-participant and conducting individual interviews with select members. Having analyzed responses of the religious and non-religious groups, the author comes to the conclusion that religion does not necessarily function as a foundational worldview in the everyday context, but rather “as a thin container that offers [one] the opportunity to develop a deeper, more durable identity” (p. ix).
In the first chapter, “Reading as a Generative Practice,” the author outlines her research aims and purposes. She begins by urging us to think beyond the common scholarly assumptions about reading and religion. In the author’s view, Reader-Response theories and New Criticism have overemphasized the relation between the individual and the text, giving rise to the model of the solitary reader that obscures the para-textual contexts. The external world also impinges on the experience of reading, and thus we need to be more attentive to the dimension of reading as a “social practice” (p. 33). As for religion, the author eschews readymade definitions and interpretive frameworks in favor of her own. For her study, the author found it more productive to regard religious identity “as a transient, partial identity that is activated within specific settings and linked to specific narratives” (p. 44), functioning as a site of struggle where meaning and worldviews are constantly contested and revised.
In Chapter 2, “Meeting Readers,” the author introduces the groups, her position as participant-observer, the research methods, as well as the challenges and difficulties that she encountered along the way. Among this is the dilemma she faced in joining the reading groups as a researcher. The author admits that while it provided privileged access to raw data, her “identity as a scholar proved more troublesome than religious identity” (p. 91). This insight made her conscious of her influence on the members and discussions, reminding her that “[n]either interview data nor fieldwork observations are completely ‘neutral or objective’” (p. 99). Self-consciousness was also the key factor that demarcated the religious groups as such. Compared to the non-religious groups, the author found that religious groups formed a more coherent collective owing to a shared sense of identity among the members.
Chapter 3, “Reading for Community and Fellowship,” delineates the aims and strategies that reading groups employ in building rapport and reaffirming their collective identity. Although these strategies (“relational,” “hospitable,” and “serious” readings) are virtually the same for both religious and non-religious groups, the author points out that those adopted by the religious groups were inflected religiously toward developing a congregational bond between the members. In this connection, the religious setting is a crucial component as it serves to create a “discursive field” (p. 183) conducive to such inflection. As the author explains, while “the inflected aims are not ‘religious’ in the sense of mystery or ethics,” they are nevertheless so “in the sense that institutional membership, identity, and ritual are included in the world these reading groups create” (p. 183). To elaborate on key concepts, the author references theorists such as Benedict Anderson, Denis Donoghue, Umberto Eco, Stanley Fish, and Paul J. Griffiths.
Chapter 4, “Reading for Status: Articulate Believers,” examines the motives of reading group members in depth. The author recalls how many members expressed a strong urge to improve upon their knowledge and character through reading, some going so far as calling it “a duty or a responsibility” (p. 192). Yet the author argues that what the readers are pursuing through reading is not so much the accumulation of knowledge as power, insofar as knowledge is regarded as “cultural capital” akin to what the French philosopher/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu terms “symbolic capital” (p. 194). Those who have amassed a certain level of cultural capital gain status in society, and it is toward this end that the readers are striving. According to the author, this applies as well to religious readers, who endeavor to attain the status of “articulate believer” (p. 212) that is highly esteemed in the American religious landscape.
Chapter 5, “Reading for Transformation,” probes what is at stake for reading group members who, the pursuit of cultural capital aside, endeavor to effect a lasting and meaningful change in themselves. Here again, while the strategies employed by the religious and non-religious groups were similar, the aims were decidedly different. While the non-religious groups read in order to increase empathy, spiritual understanding, or cultural knowledge, the objectives of the religious groups were less “social” in the sense expounded by Paul Ricoeur in his Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and the Imagination (Trans. David Pellauer, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995). The author argues that the aims of transformation for the religious groups were more self-directed, tending towards “creating and recreating religious norms and boundaries” (p. 280) that would set them apart as a community. In other words, the religious groups were more concerned with the development of a collective identity that was transposable outside the immediate context and was more durable for that reason.
The Conclusion brings together the various strands of observations and analyses from previous chapters and reconsiders the implications of religious inflection that ultimately marks off the religious reading groups as such. According to the author, the religious inflection that the setting of religious reading groups provides invests the members with a commonality of outlook that encourages them to dispute both publicly and privately what it means to belong to a religious group outside religious settings. Although religious reading groups may only have a transient or “thin” religious character, it nevertheless “carries potential to deepen itself and establish changes in worldviews and identity” (p. 304). The author concludes by touching on the generalizability of the study for future research, namely whether other contexts such as race, gender, or sexuality may effect a similar inflection.
Drawing on diverse theoretical sources, The Meaning of Religion: Book Groups and the Social Inflection of Reading is not only a significant contribution to the field of Sociology of Religion, but also offers many thought-provoking insights and arguments for researchers working in the broader areas of audience studies, media studies, and cultural theory. Moreover, being a case study of a specific social group in the United States, the present study also sheds interesting light on modern American culture and society.
School of English, Drama and Film
University College Dublin
Interviews and fieldwork conducted on seven reading groups in the greater Boston area (questions and sample correspondence are provided in the Appendix).
Boston University. 2013. 354pp. Primary Advisor: Nancy T. Ammerman.
Image: Scriptures and Book Club Selections. Photograph by Emily Ronald.