2020 AAR Book Awards

The American Academy of Religion is pleased to announce the 2020 recipients of the Awards for Excellence in the Study of Religion, the Best First Book in the History of Religions, and the inaugural presentation of the Religion and the Arts Book Award.

This annual competition recognizes new scholarly publications that make significant contributions to the study of religion. The awards honor books of distinctive originality, intelligence, and creativity, and these titles affect decisively how religion is examined, understood, and interpreted. Congratulations to the winners!

Religion and the Arts Book Award

Sugata Ray

University of California, Berkeley

Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550–1850 (University of Washington Press)

From the jury:
Ranging across sculpture, architecture, and two-dimensional works, Sugata Ray's fascinating study makes the case that environmental interests are interconnected with political, aesthetic, and religious interests. Ray engages readers in current thinking on material culture, new aesthetic thought, cultural geography, and ecological studies. Beautifully produced, this book offers an original investigation and a novel methodology, scrutinizing mosque, temple, shrine, and urban architecture as monuments in the history of devotion in South Asia that register the impact of climate change, ecology, and biodiversity. Though ostensibly about a bygone period, Ray's study has much to tell us about the here and now.

Book cover of Climate Change and the Art of Devotion

Best First Book in the History of Religions

Justine Buck Quijada

Wesleyan University

Buddhists, Shamans, and Soviets: Rituals of History in Post-Soviet Buryatia (Oxford University Press)

From the jury:
In lucidly and lyrically wrought prose, Buddhists, Shamans, and Soviets investigates the interfaces among Buddhism, shamanism, and Soviet and post-Soviet materialism in Buryatia, a republic located in south-central Siberia along the Russian-Mongolian border. Creatively using Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of chronotope, Justine Buck Quijada shows how, through ritual practices, communities continually and differently create pasts that produce human subjectivities in the present. Soviet time is linear and progressive, performed in graphs of grain production and photographs of war heroes. Buddhist time is recursive and cyclical, performed in memorializing practices that disclose the hidden Buddhist histories of a landscape that only appears to be secular. In shamanic time the past remains constantly co-present as ancestors in the spirit-world continually interact with the bodies of living descendants. Standing at the intersection of post-Soviet studies, indigenous studies, and the anthropology of religion, this is a beautifully realized contribution to the anthropology of history.

Book cover of Buddhists, Shamans, and Soviets

Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Analytical-Descriptive Studies

Jolyon Baraka Thomas (co-winner)

University of Pennsylvania 

Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan (University of Chicago Press)

From the jury:
In Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan, Jolyon Baraka Thomas presents the reader with a robust example of how religious freedom is not a self-evident thing, but a category always under negotiation, and always with winners and losers. Thomas shows how the pre-war Japanese were demonized by American forces as lacking a variety of fundamental rights, most notably, a “freedom of religion,” this despite the fact that the Japanese actually embraced such a constitutional concept. Thomas argues that American ideals of “religious freedom” were part of a much larger project of Occupation that, in the case of Japan and the category “religion,” constrained as much as they freed.

Book cover of Faking Liberties

Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Analytical-Descriptive Studies

Daniel Dubuisson (co-winner)

Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, emeritus

The Invention of Religions (Equinox Publishing)

From the jury:
Daniel Dubuisson’s The Invention of Religions is an exhaustive look at the evolution over time of the non-confessional study of religion, known both as the History of Religions and Religious Studies. Dubuisson charts the major issues and assumptions (ethno- and Christo-centrism, phenomenological paradigms, etc.) that have animated these fields. But more than anything else, what he offers is a snapshot in time of how these disciplines and their purported subject— “religion”—shift in line with a number of other social forces. 

Book cover of The Invention of Religions

Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Constructive-Reflective Studies

Kathryn Tanner

Yale Divinity School

Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism (Yale University Press)

From the jury:
There is a new spirit abroad in the land, and it is the spirit of finance capitalism; so argues Katherine Tanner. Tanner demonstrates that finance capitalism is qualitatively distinct from capitalism as analyzed by Max Weber. Tanner offers an incisive, original, and succinct analysis of finance capitalism and the subjectivity and worldview (in terms of time, work, purpose, and selfhood) that it nurtures. She also shows with admirable clarity how it contrasts with and contradicts both specifically Protestant and larger Christian theological traditions. Particularly striking is Tanner’s persuasive claim that, “there is surprisingly little reason to think Christianity has a direct interest in developing a work ethic at all, whatever the form that ethic takes,” a claim that subverts the relentless competitive demands that finance capitalism places on workers.

Tanner has demonstrated her characteristic and brilliant capacity to think constructively and clearly as a theologian, and to engage herself in considerable depth with disciplinary tools beyond theology and religious studies. Kathryn Tanner’s book offers a powerful Christian vision of selfhood and divine transformation as an alternative to the dominant myth of the twenty-first century. Tanner argues that Christianity, precisely in its present marginality, remains a cultural power that can, from the outside, contest the ubiquitous and totalizing system of finance-dominated capitalism.

Book cover of Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism

Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Historical Studies

Isabel Laack

Heidelberg University, Germany

Aztec Religion and Art of Writing: Investigating Embodied Meaning, Indigenous Semiotics, and the Nahua Sense of Reality (Brill)

From the jury:
Isabel Laack’s Aztec Religion and Art of Writing makes an important departure from the way aesthetics, semiotics, and studies of religion have been applied to our understanding of Aztec civilization and culture. Furthermore, by relocating the epicenter of scholarly “gaze,” to religion and regions beyond Christianity and Anglo-American or European contexts, Laack offers an innovative postcolonial aesthetic approach to religion. Laack’s bold methodological departure from her own graduate training provides encouragement for scholars of all stages to chart similar pathways for themselves.

Book Cover of Aztec Religion and the Art of Writing

Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Textual Studies

Matthew W. King

University of California, Riverside

Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire (Columbia University Press)

From the jury:
Matthew W. King’s first book tells the story of Zava Damdin (1867–1937), a Mongolian monk who sought to defend Buddhist monasticism in revolutionary times. King’s compelling prose style opens before the reader an unexplored landscape of countermodern Buddhisms far beyond traditional imperial formations. Through a careful and close examination of Zava Damdin’s writings, he brings to light Buddhist monastic thought and practice along the inner Asian frontier, thereby showing us the importance of margins and marginality to the study of religion. Finally, King’s work on the textual traditions associated with these margins draws our attention to the subfield of Mongolian studies, which has been traditionally underrepresented in the academic study of religion. Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood reorients the study of texts for Buddhist studies, and religious studies more generally.

Book cover of Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood