by S. Brent Plate (Beacon Press, 2014)
Anyone who has ever attended a Passover Seder knows full well that religious ritual has as much to do with the senses—with eating and singing, movement, and touch—as it does with grand ideas about the heavens or liturgical formulations of God. In many Jewish households around the world, celebrants douse greens in salt water, re-enact the Exodus by walking round the dinner table, and open their front doors to welcome Elijah. The Seder also occasions the use of one’s fingers, to make a point of, well, pointing to elements of the Seder plate—the matzoh or the bitter herbs. At once a vehicle of commemoration and commotion, of age-old practices and contemporary improvisations, the Seder is a beehive of activity.
I don’t know that S. Brent Plate has ever participated in a Seder, but he certainly writes as if he had. “To learn about religion we have to come to our senses,” he tells us in his erudite and lyrical account of the role of objects in religious expression, A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects. “We are sentient beings, and religion is sensuous.” Taking the measure of stone, incense, drums, crosses and bread, his book is an extended exercise in the materiality of faith. You might even call it a manifesto. Blurring the lines between inquiry and advocacy, it doesn’t just ask us to consider the multiple ways in which religion is a tactile phenomenon. It also calls on us to affirm and perhaps even to celebrate the sensory elements of faith. “The religious point is to pay attention, to feel, now,” he writes.
The book’s engaging title (the ½ of an object, by the way, refers to the soul) suggests that a playful and perhaps even an irreverent intelligence is at work. But make no mistake: Unlike its predecessors, which attempt ever so blithely to condense and distill the complexity of the world, and in snappy, breezy prose, to boot—Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses comes readily to mind here—Plate’s contribution to the genre is no walk in the park. Nor is it the sort of gimmicky compendium of self-help and spiritual awareness whose pages can be easily skimmed. The book demands that we read carefully and attentively.
This is partially a matter of its ambitious reach, of the extraordinarily wide-ranging examples that accrue, one by one by one, until they form an assemblage as imposing as the Western Wall or as beguiling as a Japanese tea garden, both of which loom large in Plate’s understanding of stone as a source of spiritual power. “Stones help hold certain spaces as sacred, literally and figuratively weighing them down,” he writes, referring to the foundation stones of the Holy Land as well as those that line the path to the teahouse.
Elsewhere, we learn that drums are a “vital source of sonic sacrality” for some, the voice of the devil for others; that bread not only “connects with creation itself,” but that “Christianity would not exist without [it],” and that the “sacred geometry” of two crossed lines can be found among the symbols of ancient China, within Navajo weavings as well as high up in the cathedral nave. Plate’s interpretations, his reading of material culture, are often downright revelatory. I, for one, was surprised to discover that The Old Testament was unusually sensitive to the power of smell. “Not all people through history,” he observes in connection with the ancient Israelites, “have delighted in smoke and scents the way the God of the Torah did.” Although I pride myself on my familiarity with the Torah, I had never thought about its multiple references to frankincense and myrrh in quite this way.
In its insistence on seeing religion as a material phenomenon, the book goes global, making room within its pages for Eastern as well as Western traditions. In less supple hands, this perspective could fall flat, subjecting its author to charges of superficiality. What saves the text from that unfortunate fate is Plate’s control of his material, the firm and steady way in which he builds his case, guiding the reader through quicksilver transitions from one part of the world to another.
Geography is not the only axis on which this book rests. It also owes its structure, and much of its sensibility, to a wide array of voices. In the course of the 200-plus page text, we keep company with Plato and Maimonides, T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman, Sherry Turkle of MIT and Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. The chapter on stone, for instance, brings to bear the authority of Isamu Noguchi, Andy Goldsworthy, and even that of Plate’s youngest daughter, whose rock collection inspires her father to muse on our relationship to the natural order. “The stone’s journey,” he writes, “meets the human journey, provoking memories, contemplation, a respect for the immense energies at work in the universe.”
Plate’s intellectual and scholarly ability to quote and to roam is at once the book’s greatest strength and its most glaring shortcoming. Keeping track of who said what, when and within what context—was it a philosopher, a poet, or a neuroscientist who saluted the senses?—is no easy matter. The author has a penchant for placing more of a premium on the voices of others than on his own—the book is awash in quotes, a study in academic ventriloquism. What’s more, it tends to alight on one topic only to move on quickly to another. We’re not meant to linger so much as wonder: Cataloguing the capacity of human beings to harness sound and taste and sight in service to the divine is the point, I suppose. Still, it would have been nice to stay a while, the better to absorb the full brunt of Plate’s acutely rendered observations before they flatten in the mind and become as one. Illustrations would have been nice, too. In a study that applauds the visual, their conspicuous absence is to be regretted.
Does A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects add up to more than the sum of its five and one half parts? On balance, it does. Best savored as a collection of essays in which readers might dip in and out, this book doesn’t just alert us to the expressive power of religion. It rings true. I’m thinking about bringing my copy to this year’s Seder.