Review: Religion; from Place to Placenessless by Yi-Fu Tuan and Martha Strawn(2010) Assessment 9 out of 10

A beautiful hard-back of 154 pages produced in an edition of 1,500 copies, with “financial assistance from the Friends of the Center of American Places.”

The first half is a series of essays on religion and geography by the Oxford educated, Chinese-American Yi-Fu Tuan, a Master (literally) of human geography and landscapes, the second some text and more photographs by Martha Strawn, a Professor of Art from the University of North Carolina.

Grave Portugal

The photographs in the second half are attractive and dreamy, of Stupas and prayer flags in Ladakh, Peloponnesian roadside shrines, threshold floor diagrams and Hindu temples from Tamil Nadu, Australian Aborigine rock art and Florida swamps. However with Intercontinental flights and iPhones, many of us can take such photos.

Stupa, Ladakh,

Instead, I would recommend the book for Dr Tuan’s essays.

Some examples of what the essays are about

*For hunter-gatherers, living at ease in nature, the entire forest is infused with benign spirit, so there are no special places. Those with the tools and skills to transform nature feel, not more, but less secure there than the less well-equipped hunter-gatherers.

*Traditional Chinese society is hierarchical, all worship ancestors. The attention of the élite is directed to sacred spaces, the ordinary folk to sacred places. The sacred (haunted) places of the common people are location specific, the sacred spaces of the élite, based on an invariable heavenly template, which, in principle, could be established anywhere.

* The earliest sanctuaries are marked simply with a stone circle, areas of concentrated divine power, requiring purification to enter. Without physical boundaries, locations were marked by procession, in English parishes beating the bounds, continuing the form of the Roman Terminalia festival, honouring the god of landmarks. Walls provided protection against enemies and demons. During a siege, or epidemic, the people paraded effigies of the gods, processed around City walls, strengthening their potency.

* The City has lost its power to symbolize order and justice and now stands for chaos and oppression, sprawl without an edge, polluted and dangerous. The City has become a profane wilderness, wilderness has acquired the aura and esteem of sacred space. Order remains a mark of sacred space, but the locations in which it is found have reversed.

* Community and place are inextricably linked, the relationship between individuals and places less clear. Traditional religion was wholly communal and place bound. Buddhism and Christianity embrace the idea not of community, but of self.

* Christianity with its message of universal love and perfectionism was planted in a Roman Empire of many religions, each with its own locus. It made inroads amongst the lower and middling classes. However, the best families resisted its lack of respect for ancestors and the sacred family hearth. They looked down on Christians, as rootless drifters, unburdened with family. Christians didn’t care. They were placeless on earth , their home in heaven.

The essays are short, the product of a long lifetime’s study, worth reading and re-reading. Highly recommended.

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