The Spirit of Things: Materiality and Religious Diversity in Southeast Asia (2012)

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The Spirit of Things: Materiality and Religious Diversity in Southeast Asia. Ed. Julius Bautista, Ithaca, NY: Southeast Asian Program, Cornell University, 2012.

What role do objects play in crafting the religions of Southeast Asia and shaping the experiences of believers? The Spirit of Things explores religious materiality in a region marked by shifting boundaries, multiple beliefs, and trends toward religious exclusivism. While most studies of religion in Southeast Asia focus on doctrines or governmental policy, contributors to this volume recognize that religious “things”—statues, talismans, garments, even sacred automobiles—are crucial to worship, and that they have a broad impact on social cohesion. By engaging with religion in its tangible forms, faith communities reiterate their essential narratives, allegiances, and boundaries, and negotiate their co-existence with competing belief systems. These ethnographic and historical studies of Southeast Asia furnish us with intriguing perspectives on wider debates concerning the challenges of secularization, pluralism, and interfaith interactions around the world.

In this volume, contributors offer rich ethnographic analyses of religious practices in the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Burma that examine the roles materiality plays in the religious lives of Southeast Asians. The discussions are framed according to the theme of “motion,” of which there are three aspects. The first concerns the locomotion of objects themselves, as in the process of ritual or procession. In addition, some contributors refer to objects that circulate through commerce and exchange, legally or illegally. Several authors also discuss the motion of worshippers that is encouraged, or inhibited, by static, immovable things. These essays demonstrate that religious materials are embedded in a host of practices that enable the faithful to negotiate the often tumultuous experience of living amid other believers. What we see is that the call for plurality, often initiated by government, increases the importance of religious objects, as they are the means by which the distinctiveness of a particular faith is “fenced” in a field of competing religious discourses. This project is called “the spirit of things” to evoke both the “aura” of religious objects and the power of material things to manifest “that which is fundamental” about faith and belief.


By focusing on the material dimensions of religious life, this stimulating volume sheds new light on some important sources of both creativity and conflict in Southeast Asia. Through a fascinating range of cases, the authors demonstrate the power of things to provoke, facilitate, and constrain people’s religious projects. This book is the fruitful outcome of strong local knowledge brought to bear on questions of wide interest across this complex region.—Prof. Webb Keane, University of Michigan, author of Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society and Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter

What the Reviewers Are Saying

“This might be the greatest strength of this collection: the chapters enhance each other and make sense when read together. This volume is more than the sum of its parts. … [T]here were no disappointing chapters in this collection… [a] very valuable contribution to the field.”—Justin McDaniel, Pacific Affairs


Julius Bautista is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He received his PhD in anthropology and cultural history at the Australian National University, and has subsequently published on religious practice in Southeast Asia, with a focus on Christian iconography, religious piety, and the relationship between religion and the state. He is author of Figuring Catholicism: An Ethnohistory of the Santo Niño de Cebu and co-editor (with Francis Lim) of Christianity and the State in Asia: Complicity and Conflict. Dr. Bautista is also an associate of the NUS Asia Research Institute (ARI) “Religion and Globalisation in Asian Contexts” Cluster.


Julius Bautista, National University of Singapore; Sandra Cate, San Jose State University, California; Margaret Chan, Singapore Management University; Liana Chua, Brunel University, London; Cecilia S. de la Paz, University of the Philippines (Diliman); Alexandra de Mersan, Centre Asie du Sud-Est (Paris) and Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales; Johan Fischer, Roskilde University, Denmark; Janet Hoskins, University of Southern California; Klemens Karlsson, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm; Laurel Kendall, American Museum of Natural History and Columbia University, New York City; H. Leedom Lefferts, Drew University and Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore; Nguyễn Thị Thu Hương, Academic Council of the National Museum of History, Hanoi, and Vietnam Museum of Ethnology; Anthony Reid, Australian National University, University of California–Los Angeles, and National University of Singapore; Richard A. Ruth, United States Naval Academy; Kenneth Sillander, University of Helsinki; Vũ Thị Thanh Tâm, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology; and Yeoh Seng Guan, Monash University, Malaysia

Keywords: Religion, Culture, Southeast Asia, religious materiality, beliefs, exclusivism, statues, talismans, garments, worship, faith communities, belief systems, secularization, pluralism, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, materiality, ritual, procession, plurality, religious objects



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