Comparing the Lives of Key Religious Texts in the 20th and 21st Centuries

AHA Session 252
Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Spire Parlor (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Stephanie L. Derrick, independent historian
The Koran in English: Why Context Matters
Bruce Lawrence, Duke University; Anna Lawrence, Fairfield University
Reading the "Analects" in China Now
Ann-ping Chin, Yale University
Stephanie L. Derrick, independent historian

Session Abstract

What does a comparison of the recent histories of the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible and the Analects of Confucius reveal about the ways in which religion and religious texts have fared, and are faring, in modern times? The last century has been one of seismic global changes, and religious authority, like much else, has been forced to evolve accordingly. Indeed, religious practice is declining in some geographies and growing in others. The foundational texts of the world’s major religions are, like all culture, subject to the desires and priorities of new generations. It would be a mistake, however, to assume a diminishment in the potency or relevancy of these ancient texts. On the contrary, would it not be equally plausible that the Analects, the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Bhagavad Gita would become increasingly important to people experiencing more political and social turmoil than ever before? To what degree do these texts retain their ability to inspire and ground their readers? And to what degree is their translation, transmission, and interpretation impacted by political variables or new technologies? It is only through comparing the lives of religious texts across different historical, national and social contexts that we can begin to answer such broader questions about the on-going relevance of sacred scriptures to modern times. And yet such comparisons have not often been done. The present panel, therefore, brings together four scholars who have contributed to Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series. Together we will consider the most recent chapter in the lives of four sacred texts in particular contexts: the Bible in modern America, the Qur’an in modern South Asia and elsewhere, the Bhagavad Gita in modern India and the Analects in modern China. By doing so we hope to come a step closer to understanding the complex, ever-evolving relationship between religious authority and the lived reality of modern people. This is a panel of interest to general audiences and especially historians of religion, book history, political history, reception history, intellectual history, the history of technology and modern, comparative history.
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