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History and Presence


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About the Author

Robert A. Orsi is Professor of Religious Studies and History and Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University.


This book is classic Orsi: careful, layered, humane, and subtle... If reformed theology has led to the gods' ostensible absence in modern religion, History and Presence is a sort of counter-reformation literature that revels in the excesses of divine materiality: the contradictions, the redundancies, the scrambling of borders between the sacred and profane, the dead and the living, the past and the present, the original and the imitator... History and Presence is a thought-provoking, expertly arranged tour of precisely those abundant, excessive phenomena which scholars have historically found so difficult to think. -- Sonja Anderson * Reading Religion *
Perhaps the heart of [Orsi's] genius for writing about religion lies in his deft balance of the individual person and the encompassing dynamics of national and international history... Many, I suspect, will applaud Orsi's effort at pushing back on the epistemological presumptions of modernity, in part at least because doing so opens the way for a fuller recognition of materiality, of the troubling bodies and substances, images, and efficacious things that act on devotees with a force to be reckoned. -- David Morgan * Material Religion *
With reference to Marian apparitions, the cult of the saints, and other divine-human encounters, Orsi constructs a theory of presence for the study of contemporary religion and history. Many interviews with individuals devoted to particular saints and relics are included in this fascinating study of how people process what they believe. * Catholic Herald *
Orsi's evoking of the full reality of the holy in the world is extremely moving, shot through with wonder and horror. Speaking of the sanctuary at Chimayo-which the present reviewer has also visited-Orsi rejects trauma theory. The well of earth is not a 'metaphor for suffering,' a 'hole in the mind' where suffering spills out; instead, 'the seeming emptiness is in fact full'; the hole is paradoxical; Christ is present in the dirt... There is much that is specifically Catholic about the horrors and glories that Orsi sets out in such carefully researched detail. His argument in a short epilogue that we should see all religious history through a matrix of presence is, nonetheless, convincing. -- Caroline Walker Bynum * Common Knowledge *
[A] compelling ethnography...Orsi shows that the history of presence includes belief and doubt, anger and awe...Ultimately, this book is meant as a manifesto for historians of religion more broadly...Orsi's history of a stereotype serves an important purpose, as it rehabilitates the miracle of divine presence in our own histories of religion. -- Madeline McMahon * Marginalia *
A fiercely inquisitive book on the heart of Roman Catholicism... The bulk of History and Presence concentrates on...the perception phenomenon at the back of worldwide cults of saints' relics, holy shrines, saints' cults, apparitions of Mary, and the like. Through very nimble and wide-ranging research, Orsi lays bare the complex intermingling of faith and psychology that has been a key element of Catholicism for five hundred years. One of the persistent strengths of the book is its keen awareness of the day-to-day meaning of its mysteries for the ordinary people involved. -- Steve Donoghue * Open Letters Monthly *
[A] brilliant, theologically sophisticated exploration of the Catholic experience of God's presence through the material world... On every level-from its sympathetic, honest, and sometimes moving ethnography to its astute analytical observations-this book is a scholarly masterpiece. * Choice *
Orsi recaptures God's breaking into the world through stories that range from tales of saints, such as Bernadette, to common people who directly experienced divine intervention... The book does an excellent job of explaining both the difficulties and values inherent in recognizing God in the world. * Publishers Weekly *
This is a meticulously researched, humane, and deeply challenging book. It concerns the people and the groups for whom heaven and earth, life and death are not separated by absolute boundaries. 'Gods' (to use Orsi's term) cross these boundaries. Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, and the beloved dead remain real presences to many, in a modern world that finds no place for them. The story is set against the background of postwar American Catholicism. It has searing moments of desperate hope and unexpected comfort. It also has moments of sheer horror-as when Orsi explores what sexual harassment by priests means to those who saw in priests human gateways to heaven. The men and women studied in this book do not belong to 'a world we have lost.' They belong to a world we have lost sight of. -- Peter Brown, Princeton University

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