One book I was asked to review sounded somewhat promising of an author going around the world visiting relics in various places. Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead, by Peter Manseau starts off rather promising as he visits Saint Francis Xavier’s to in Goa, India and even connects the issue of relics with seeing the ultrasound of his daughter. A book that explored the use of relics by various religions and even just a sociological look at relics would be at least somewhat interesting.
Unfortunately that is not the book the author wrote. There is much about relics that can lead to comical material. In Church history there have been many quite dubious relics and abuses as relic sellers would con laity and clergy. Even St. Augustine lamented about this going on in the early Church. This book seemed mainly to me to be about making fun of relics and people’s belief in them. So what you get is a chapter on Jesus’ foreskin and the various ones that had been venerated along with the history of this. Other chapters deal with other religions so we also get information about Mohammed’s whisker and Buddha’s teeth. The various pieces of the dead seemed to have been picked for chapters based on how ridiculous they were.
He did get around to the most famous relic of all – The Shroud of Turin. Since this didn’t fit his template of being ridiculous he took a different angle. One of the discoveries in most recent years is that on the shroud are contained pollens native to the area where Jesus was buried. So he advanced the idea that those pollens came to shroud from visitors to the shroud. Of course this was done without addressing any of the other facts about the shroud – as if just this one possibility was enough to dismiss it. Though since this is a comedic take on relics it is no surprise that he did not want to address the thousands of relics that do not have dubious pasts or even the miraculous stories surrounding them in modern times.
What I did find interesting was that various religious also venerated relics and what religions of parts of a religion didn’t. It might have been interesting if he had addressed the religious instinct in regards to relics even if from a secular view.
The beginning chapter on the toe of St. Francis Xavier casts this saint as a racist and proto-colonists who left India largely because of his racist views. Though the author uses much hyperbole and so sometimes it is difficult to discern when he is serious and is joking around. At one point he calls taking a relics stealing from the dead, but in relation to the rest of what he says it is again hard to tell if this is what he believes.
Each chapter of the book entails his travel to see a specific relic and the people he meets there. As a writer he is certainly capable and takes good advantage of the comedic elements and the book mainly stresses the comedic elements. When talking about the Holy Prepuce (foreskin) of Jesus he references a scriptor in the Vatican Library Leo Allatius who speculated that the Holy Foreskin may have ascended into Heaven at the same time as Jesus himself and might have become the rings of Saturn. As far as I can tell this bit is true, but he says other things in the book that make me rather dubious of his research such as saying that in modern times “mention of the foreskin became of punishable offense in ecclesiastical circles”. At another point in referencing canonization says it is something only a Pope can initiate, when of course the reality is that the local bishop is the one to initiate this. He studies religion at Georgetown so this probably explains this.
So when it comes to this book I say pass.
Thanks for taking the time to post about my book — sorry you didn’t think more favorably of it.
Pleased as I am to see it mentioned it all, I’m afraid you mischaracterize it here. I don’t find the practice of relic veneration ridiculous. I spent two years of my life meeting people who take part in this practice and I found them all — from Muslims in Kashmir to Buddhists in Sri Lanka to Catholics in Goa — sincere and interesting. I say as much in my book. Yes, some relics may lend themselves to comedy, but that is not my interest. The book is about the surprising relevance of relics, not about their absurdity.
As for Francis Xavier: You neglect to mention that in my assessment of him I am mainly passing along the opinion of many in India, Catholics and Jesuits among them, who have ambivalent feelings about his lingering influence. And the suggestion that he was a racist of sorts comes from his own writings. He wrote often about disliking India and its inhabitants. He wouldn’t let them join the order because he found them lacking necessary intelligence. That’s an unpleasant detail about an interesting man, but like many unpleasant details, it is unfortunately true.
Thanks again for posting.
Comments are closed.