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Dr. Brent Plate, Hamilton College - An object lesson in religious history

People have an affinity for things.

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Brent Plate, visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College, examines how objects can have a rich personal significance.

Dr. Brent Plate focuses his research on the question “what does it mean to be human ?” He has written extensively on religion and is an editorial board member of the Journal of the AAR, Crosscurrents, Postscripts, and the Journal of Religion and Film. He earned a PhD from Emory University in 1999.

About Dr. Plate

Dr. Plate's Website

A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects

More on Sacred Objects

Dr. Brent Plate - An object lesson in religious history

Humans are needy. We need things: souvenirs, keepsakes, knickknacks, junk and treasure. Ordinary objects can become extraordinary, sensually linking us with people and places beyond our own skin. A close look at religious histories reveals a deep-seated, perennial desire for things.

Stones, as cairns, grave markers, and monuments, stand at places of power across the world: the "black stone" at the kaba in Mecca, the Stone of Anointing in Jerusalem, or the set stones at Ryoanji garden in Kyoto, are each touched with fingers, and reverently gazed upon. A "cross" is a key visual sign for Christians, but two crossed lines can also be seen in Native American symbolism of the four directions, or as the Chinese character for the number "ten," a mark connoting perfection. Crossed lines are etched on walls, woven in fabric, or worn on one's body. And drums are played by gods and demigods in creation myths among the Siberian Koryak, the Dogon of Mali, and the Mataco of Argentina, just as supernatural forces are evoked by the bata drum in Santeria, the kabaro in Ethiopian Christianity, and the rune drum of the Arctic-dwelling Sami.

To chart religious traditions through such objects is to follow a new path of history, with recent studies examining tea, cod, tulips, guns, germs, and steel, and how each of these has "changed the world." Similar projects can be seen in the British Museum's "A History of the World in 100 Objects," or Smithsonian magazine's "101 Objects that Made America."

Objects large and small, valuable and worthless, create memories and meanings for those who pray and worship, love and share, make sacred journeys and devotional music.

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