Indigenous festivals and the re-making of the world

By Graham Harvey

Among the many impacts of the Covid19 pandemic is the moving of festivals to online venues.  Starting on 13 May 2021, this year’s ORIGINS Festival of First Nations will begin with a series of digital events. Previously, the biennial festival has brought Indigenous artists and thinkers from around the world to perform and present in London. Before the pandemic, an exciting programme of events over a period of about two months provided audiences with opportunities to enjoy and engage with music, theatre, dance, talks, films and other media in venues as diverse as the British Museum, Rich Mix and public parks. The festival not only begins with a ceremony informed and largely led by Indigenous participants but also includes many performances inspired and informed by Indigenous ceremonial repertoires and or sacred knowledges. In addition to be hugely enjoyable and profoundly educational, ORIGINS has been an exciting site for my research about religion. The 2021 ORIGINS Festival promises to be similarly inspiring and provocative.

You can find plenty of information about this year’s year-long ORIGINS Festival of First Nations – and about previous festivals – in the organising company’s website and in social media. The opening event on May 13th includes an online performance of the short play, Katharsis, by Yvette Nolan (Algonquin, Canada) – billed as “a digital love letter to a theatre left empty by the pandemic”. The festival continues with a series of talks by Indigenous writers (poets, environmentalists, and a horror novelist) addressing the three main themes of this year’s festival: Covid, Climate Change and Colonialism. As the festival continues throughout 2021 and into 2022, live, face-to-face performance-based interventions in public spaces are planned. Some will move beyond London, including a journey of a Totonac artist’s totem carving to the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow this autumn.

In addition to contributing to dialogue with some of the Indigenous presenters and performers, my involvement with the festival involves research focused on dynamic interplays between ritual and performance, and celebration and decolonisation. The first of these seeming contrasts is a classic issue in the study of religions and related disciplines. Some scholars have insisted that theatrical performances are different from religious rituals in several ways. Rituals, it has been claimed, do not have audiences, only participants. They carry and convey serious meanings rather than offering entertainment. They do not encourage improvisation but should follow established traditions. Each of these (and other) comparisons have been challenged and the inadequacies of their underlying assumptions often rejected. More recent studies of both theatre and ritual have reflected deeply on their commonalities. This is improved understanding of and debate about the ways in which people improvise when they get involved in religious rituals, making them part of contemporary lives in one way or another. We might also play with phrases like “suspension of disbelief” and “make-believe”, sometimes used in relation to theatrical performance to think about what happens when people do ceremonies.

Grupo Sotz’il in OXLAJUJ B’AQTUN – ORIGINS 2015 photo by John Cobb

All of this is useful to students of religion in reconsidering some key terms and debates in our discipline. But what happens at the ORIGINS Festival suggests that another phrase might be more useful: “world making”. Performers, artists, film-makers and speakers raise important issues and proffer powerful suggestions about ways of tackling the contemporary challenges. In various ways, audiences are invited to set aside colonial and romantic perspectives and to reflect on how things might be different. They are challenged, explicitly or implicitly, to consider the legacy of European historical, cultural and religious processes, and especially to re-imagine communities that embrace rather than exclude Indigenous peoples and the larger-than-human world. There are, then, religious and political world-making projects braided in with the enjoyment of rich cultural events. If the world is, as many Indigenous people insist, made up of multi-species communities, then the solutions to pandemics, climate crises and colonialism have to involve the needs of all living beings. My research at ORIGINS and other Indigenous festivals leads me to think that we could expand our notions of religion and democracy to embrace many more participants than just us humans.

Census Stories | Bringing Life to the Big Numbers

By Suzanne Newcombe 

Sunday 21 March 2021 was Census Day – your household will have received a unique access code for you to fill out your census details. While this is the first time the census has been done fully online, the first census of England, Wales and Scotland was in 1801 and it has been conducted decennially (every ten years) since then. The repeating of the same questions every ten years – determining who lives in the country, how many people and some basic facts about them – has become essential for forward planning of social services, determining allocation of resources, and, over time, for researching family history and understanding change over time. While these big numbers are essential for understanding major changes and transformations of society, they do not capture the rich contradictions and experiences of a lived life – what those categories of identity, place, belief and belonging mean for the people who ticked the boxes.  

The Religious Studies Department at the Open University has embarked on a UKRI funded project to elicit stories from diverse residents of Milton Keynes on themes of identity, place and belonging in response to the census questions. Through the facilitation of the professional storyteller Dominic Kelly, local residents will respond to this data and co-create a series of stories. We will use the stories elicited from local residents to create classroom resources and an Open Learn online course which will help teach about the significance of census data for measuring changes in society – and what the ‘big data’ actually looks liked from the perspective of the people who ‘are’ the statistics. You can see the official announcement at 

Place of birth, age and current employment have long been essential questions on the census, recording the movement of people across Britain and increasingly the world. However, questions around ‘ethnicity’ were not included in the census until 1991 – prior to this point a place of birth in the Commonwealth was used as a proxy for ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ populations. The changes to how these questions have been phrased and their increasing relevance for policy decisions can help us trace the development of a category of identity as well as the movements of political concerns.

“1901 Census UK showing Farquharson and Benningfield Families in Hoddesdon, Herts.x” by Miranda Hine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Questions about religious identification have only been on the census since 2001 – and perhaps the most dramatic change in this period is the rapid increase of people willing to identify as having ‘no religion’ (shifting from 15% in 2001 to 27.9% in 2011 for England and Wales). But the ability to write-in religious affiliation on the census has been successfully used my many smaller minority groups to lobby for better acknowledgement in local and national provisions – including pagans, SikhsValmikis and Humanists, amongst others.  

Better understanding the complex kaleidoscope of affiliations, beliefs and practices people draw upon to face complex global challenges (like the current pandemic) is part of the core mission of our department to promote the understanding of contemporary religion in historical perspective. We’ll update you about the outputs and project in our social media feeds as the project progresses this Spring.  

Metaphor and Religion

by Paul-François Tremlett

In the late 19th century, as the sheer diversity of religions dawned on nascent traditions of enquiry in the social sciences and the humanities, a number of scholars sought to define Religion by establishing the key common traits and features they assumed would be shared by all of the different religions. This project generated new research which, while certainly adding to the sum total of human knowledge about religions, nevertheless did not deliver on the promise of a definition of Religion, or at least not a universal one that could boast any consensus outside usage by particular interest groups.

In the early twenty-first century, the standard approach to Religion (still with a capital R) is somewhat different. Instead of trying to delineate a distinct class of religious facts we approach Religion through metaphor. Think of “liquid religion” or “vernacular religion”. These metaphors, both popular in today’s academic circles, tell us not what Religion is, but rather invite us to attend to certain qualities of Religion that chime with our wider contemporary experience. “Liquid”, as Zygmunt Bauman said, means “change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty”, and the new mobilities and flows enabled by globalization and digital media have seen both new forms of Religion (from place-based congregations to digitally-enabled global communities such as El Shaddai) and new kinds of Religion influenced by popular culture and new technologies, such as Terasem. “Vernacular religion”, with its connotations of local variation and performance as well as perhaps dissenting departure from official norms, invites us to imagine Religion not as something abstract or grandiose but rather as something put to work in ordinary life. It is a metaphor with enormous resonance in cultures that celebrate the individual as a source of its own authority and in societies keen to celebrate local authenticities and eccentricities against imaginaries of bloated institutions and zombie bureaucracies. Thinking about Religion through these and other metaphors is, in my view, productive and a welcome alternative to the collection of facts and the formulation of typologies that defined Religious Studies in decades past and, in this short post I want to road-test an alternative metaphor for Religion: “sticky”.

There are at least three iterations of “sticky religion”. The first comes from the functionalist school in twentieth century Sociology which regarded the performance of religious rituals as sticky occasions because of their capacity to cement or glue different societal elements together. Emile Durkheim’s classic The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (first translated into English in 1915) is regarded by many as a foundational expression of this point of view.

The second comes from feminist and post-colonial theory but shares certain affinities with the first. Sara Ahmed’s interest in emotion and affect and her exploration of the ways in which emotions move and come to bind bodies, objects and places together, extends Durkheim’s insight as to the mucilaginous qualities of certain social practices. For example, according to Ahmed, words become sticky through the various resonances and associations that they gather through time and through use. If we apply her insights to Religion, it is clear that it is a word that has accumulated many layers of meaning and significance, both emotional and intellectual, largely without anyone being particularly aware of the when, why or how, and those meanings cannot easily be unstuck or separated.

The third comes from contemporary cognitive anthropologists such as Pascal Boyer and Dan Sperber, who regard religious beliefs as side-effects of ordinary thinking. In their view, human brains are pre-wired to anticipate reality. That is, humans arrive into the world with a pre-programmed set of expectations about how the world works: a solid object can’t pass through another solid object (everyday physics), animals without wings can’t fly (everyday biology) and I will never know what’s going on inside my reader’s mind (everyday psychology). Religious beliefs break all of these hard-wired assumptions about reality: ghosts walk through walls, mythical horses fly, and gods are privy to every human thought. But if religious beliefs contravene our expectations of reality – expectations which in other circumstances our lives depend on – why do people believe them? Why do these beliefs persist when they deliver false expectations? According to our cognitive anthropologists, people believe them because they are sticky, first activating and then bonding with, other cognitive capacities associated with social life.

“Sticky religion” offers a way of thinking that draws attention to certain qualities or aspects of Religion. It neither offers to explain nor understand Religion. Instead it positions it in a fragile and shifting web of connections.



Ahmed, S. 2014, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2nd Ed), Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.

Bauman, Z. 2000, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity.

Boyer, P. 2000, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, New York: Basic Books.

Durkheim, E. 1915, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, (trans). J. W. Swain, London: Allen and Unwin.

Sperber, D. 1996, Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach, Oxford: Blackwell.

Divination as Storytelling: Dealing (with) Death and Extinction

By Dr Maria Nita

Stories and storytelling in time of pandemics

Set at the time of the Black Death, in 14th century Florence, Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous early medieval collection of novellas, the Decameron, tells the story of ten young men and women who take refuge in the country, as they try to escape the plague. They spend their time of isolation telling 100 stories, as if stories themselves could keep them safe, a bit like Scheherazade’s folk tales can extend her life in the One Thousand and One Nights. Like some special fabric of human culture, stories come in all possible contours, colours and patterns, and some are now worn out, torn, fraying or discarded.

Oracles and the divinatory arts can be understood as stories and storytelling practices that have an ambivalent status in our post-secular society. On one hand Tarot cards, Runes and Astrology are everywhere, just like our daily horoscope. On the other hand, these are often connected to fringe religious practices and thus fair game in the public sphere. For example, one recent tabloid article titled ‘Did psychics predict the [Covid-19] pandemic?’ (Delaney 2021) observed that ‘in these uncertain times, Tarot and Astrology readings are experiencing a renaissance’, yet when this columnist reached out for answers from online psychics and Tarot readers ‘they didn’t have a clue, just like the rest of us’.

Modern attitudes towards divination can be discussed from different perspectives, such as post-Enlightenment rationality, increased secularisation or even continuing public distrust towards some of the countercultural New Religious Movements responsible for the revival of Tarot cards and Rune stones, like the New Age Movement and Contemporary Paganism. Yet I would like to consider here divination as a form of storytelling, as well as oracles as stories, and explore what might they have to offer us at a time of increased uncertainty, when the environmental challenges of our world have been heightened and highlighted by the pandemic.

The past of divination and oracles

Divination was in many ancient cultures an important religious practice, used to ask about all matters – from the proper time and mode of religious conduct, to the coming harvest. Most scholarly definitions make reference to divine agency, as divination is ‘an attempt to elicit from some higher power or supernatural being the answers to questions beyond the range of ordinary human understanding’ (Loewe and Blacker 1981, 2). The Latin root divus means God like. However, oracles and divination had their early critics. As early as the 1st century BCE, the Roman stateman and orator Cicero was asking in his philosophical treatise, The Nature of the Gods and on Divination: ‘…how much weight we are to attribute to auspices, and to divine ceremonies, and to religion?’ as to not make ourselves guilty of ‘old women’s superstition’ (Cicero 1997 [circa 45 BCE], 145). In many cultural contexts during antiquity, religion and divination were intertwined, and supportive of each other, often in the face of philosophic and scientific adversity.

Oracles experienced a decline at the beginning of the first millennium, synchronous in very different cultures and noted by Plutarch, the Greek philosopher, in the 1st century AD. This decline of the oracles is akin to what, many centuries later, the German philosopher Max Weber (1864-1920) called ‘entzauberung’, ‘disenchantment’, when referring to a loss of enchantment with nature – yet in this case marked by a growing distrust in the divinity of oracles. In this disenchanted form, divination become less of a tool for predicting the future and more of a way of resolving controversies, according to some scholars (Thomas 1971). Hence, when there was a choice of two or more courses of action, the diviner was called upon to elucidate the better choice – perfectly arbitrarily. In his Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas contends that  in 17th century England, divination had become nothing more than a game of chance, used to shift ‘responsibility away from the actor, to provide him with a justification for taking a leap in the dark…’ (Thomas 1971, 288). This inexorable decline led according to Thomas to their complete demise, whereby ‘modern man’ does not confer any special meaning or value to divination other than the faith one places ‘in the playful flip of a coin’ (Thomas 1971, 298).

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What does the ruins of Boleskine House have to do with QAnon?

Through 2020, as QAnon promised to destabilise the US democratic process, and anti-vaxxers threatened to perpetuate a global pandemic, theories about an older conspiracy were quietly playing out by the banks of Loch Ness in the Highlands of Scotland. Boleskine House, the former home of Aleister Crowley and later, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, has been approved for restoration which will see it being opened to the public for tours, with ten eco-cabins built on the grounds for guests. Or rather, its shell has. Boleskine House was badly damaged by an accidental fire in December 2015, losing most of the interior. When I visited the site in 2016, it was fenced off and full of rubble. It was put up for sale in April 2019, and was bought by Keith and Kyra Readdy, who founded the Boleskine House Foundation to raise the money needed to restore the site. But a second fire broke out on July 31st, 2019, destroyed the remainder of the interior, and claimed the roof. The fire brigade investigated the second fire as arson.

As someone who grew up in Inverness during the time that Page owned the property, the story has a particular fascination for me. But as a scholar of contemporary religion in historical perspective, the most interesting aspect is how it shows that ideas about “Satanists” still have currency in the modern age. Boleskine House is famous as the former home of Aleister 

Crowley, who owned it between 1899 and 1913. Crowley had impressive careers as a mountaineer and poet, but it is for his writing on the occult that he is most famous today – he was a prodigious innovator and systematiser of different magical systems and incorporating Egyptian deities and yoga techniques into his practices. He received a series of channelled communications in 1904, and years later these would form the basis of his esoteric religion, Thelema. In the popular imagination, however, Crowley is remembered for the “Wickedest Man in the World” epithet that he gained as a result of a court case, in which he was branded a “Black Magician” and a sexual reprobate. This had more to do with the homophobia of the Edwardian period than reality, however, exacerbated by his adoption as a figurehead of the sex and drugs culture of the 1960s, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Crowley was certainly an egotist, and could be cruel, but a more sober assessment of his life would have to also count him as one of the most important figures in the history of twentieth century new religions, directly influencing the development of Wicca, Scientology and Discordianism, as well as founding Thelema and leading the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO).

At the beginning of December 2020, Councillors on the South Area Planning Committee approved the proposals, despite resorts of “a number of objections” from locals. In addition, Councillor Margaret Davidson is quoted as saying: “Over the years it has been a place people have visited and become obsessed with the area… That has caused its own difficulties for people in Foyers and Inverfarigaig, the nearest villages, and I would wish that to stop for them.” But the chairman of the committee concluded that “matters associated with previous ownership of the property… are not material in planning matters.” I was pleased that the local Council approved the application, because although Inverness is a pretty liberal and secular place, there are certainly still pockets of Lutheran conservatism in the Highlands. The more traditional Conservative press picked up on the story, even as global pandemics, Brexit and a climate crisis all reached a head, showing there is still a deep-seated fear of the occult.

Take this article which appeared in December in the Herald. It is relatively sober, at first glance – even if it does claim that Crowley “became known as ‘the real-life Wicker Man’”, which makes little sense on any level. But a closer reading shows that it is embedded in a worldview in which Christian forces of light are battling an occult, even Satanic, darkness. It states that Crowley “conducted various black magic rituals at the house including a six-month long experiment to raise his Guardian Angel. It is said the experiment was not properly completed, with the spirits raised never fully banished leading to a number of unexplained events at Boleskine.” Such a story only makes sense if you are in a universe in which there is in fact magic, and also spirits which can be raised by (ab)using it.

More sensational was the story originally in the Inverness Courier, and later picked up by the Daily Mail (as well as others) under the headline “Plans to build holiday lodges close to fire-ravaged Loch Ness house of Aleister Crowley spark fears area will become a shrine for SATANISTS visiting home of ‘world’s wickedest man’ who inspired some of Rock n’ Roll’s darkest music.” It cites “objectors”, but only two are ever named in multiple news stories. One, Naomi King, stated that “the place will become a major Satanic temple and a hub for Satanist abusers from across the world to visit”. This is nonsense, as Crowley was never a Satanist, nor are any of the organisations identified in the reports, such as the OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis), which is not a “secret society” either. Interestingly, the article also mentions (conspiratorially) that King “claims her comments on the council’s planning portal had been ‘sanitised’ – with all references to Satanism removed”. 

This might be due to the fact that Satanic Ritual Abuse, which she refers to directly and indirectly, does not and has never existed – at least, outside the imagination of conspiracy theorists and fundamentalist Christians. It might also be due to the fact that the other complainer is the Fresh Start Foundation, who have a connection to Robert Green, an independent investigator who has been jailed twice over the Hollie Greig case, UK Column, a news website known for circulating right-wing conspiracy theories, and the grand dame of UK conspiracism, David Icke.

The Boleskine House Foundation stated that the site was not intended to become a place of “pilgrimage and ritual”, and that  the connection to Crowley did not “directly influence its future use”. But this seems disingenuous; Keith Readdy, trustee of the Foundation, describes himself as an academic “researcher in comparative religion”, but his one publication, One Truth and One Vision: Aleister Crowley’s Spiritual Legacy, states that it is aimed primarily at Thelemites, and much of it is concerned with establishing the legitimacy of different OTO lineages. And there has certainly been a warm relationship between the Foundation and the OTO, though, after accusations of child abuse and an arson attack, you can understand why this isn’t being highlighted by the Readdys.

Even weirder, there have been other Crowley-related hit pieces this year – this one from the Daily Mail describes the Tree of Life (a standard element of Jewish mysticism for centuries) on the floor of an abandoned cottage Crowley once stayed in as “apparatus believed to have been used to try and contact demons”. This report concerns a man trying to sell a wax-splattered box supposedly found in the basement of Boleskine, despite the fact that it is of the kind which costs a few pounds from any head shop in the country and looks almost new. 

So what’s the beef? Why take up valuable newspaper real estate at a time when there are other, more important things to write about. Funnily enough, this brings us back to QAnon. Both of these are inheritors of the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic of the 1980s and 1990s, predicated on the existence of an imaginary secret religion who deliberately invert Christian morality, and use sexual abuse and cannibalism in rituals. It is often conflated with real groups like Wiccans and the OTO, even though neither is Satanic, involved in ritual abuse, large enough to organise such things anyway and aren’t even particularly secretive. The same goes for the Church of Satan, as founded by Anton LaVey in 1966, which is probably best regarded as a particularly theatrical version of Humanism.

Creator: Ted Eytan. Via Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Nevertheless, large numbers of people believe that such an imagined Satanic Other exists. For most, this is probably just an internalisation of Christian narratives about good and evil, and of the existence of demons and devils. These implicit beliefs are stoked up by more active players, however, mostly (though not exclusively) Christian fundamentalists with an axe to grind, and who, because of the traditional association of Christianity with moral good, are able to speak into the ear of the press, police and politicians. 

But there is certainly an aspect that is to do with defending the body politic against invasion – which is why such ideas tend to flare up at times of societal unrest, and why we see the same motifs popping up in antisemitic tracts from the Middle Ages to the Third Reich. So while the battle between good and evil plays out on the steps of the US Congress, it is also playing out in local newspapers and planning applications.


Behind the (Nativity) Scenes

By Marion Bowman

Kimber’s Farm, Charlton Musgrove, Somerset, 2020

It’s the time of year when Nativity scenes appear in a variety of public spaces, homes and churches. Commemorating the Christian narrative of the birth of Jesus, they can vary from the miniature to life-size. The scene is so culturally familiar in Britain, as elsewhere, that it can be both highly stylised and/or be ambiguously or amusingly portrayed (such as Moomins in this shop window display, below) and still be recognisable.

Moomin Nativity Scene, shop window, Cirencester, 2018

Nativity scenes are examples of religion in the public domain that have become so commonplace as to be almost unremarkable; they are indicative of the sometimes creative, sometimes uneasy negotiation of a Christian tradition that in some respects has become secularised, as well as being  observed by people of a variety of religious and cultural heritages. As with many calendar customs, it is not until you look at different national, regional, family and even individual variations and understandings of notionally the same thing that the complexity of such events becomes clearer.

Miniature Peruvian nativity scene

I find contemporary Nativity scenes fascinating on a number of levels, because there is just so much going on in them—and behind them! For me, Nativity scenes combine three of my major academic interests: material religion; vernacular religion, defined by Primiano as ‘religion as it is lived: as humans encounter, understand, interpret and practice it’ (Primiano 1995: 44); and the Bible of the Folk, characterised by Utley as ‘the tales which derive from the Bible and its silences’ (Utley 1945: 1).

St Francis of Assisi is generally credited with the first ‘living’ Nativity Scene, on Christmas Eve 1223 in the Italian city of Greccio, to help people recapture and meditate upon the wonder of the original nativity. The scene was staged in a cave outside and, then as now, was a device to ‘position’ the nativity in a familiar context, making it locally as well as (in Christian terms) universally relevant.  Thereafter the Franciscans spread the tradition of creating nativity scenes with live actors and animals. With the development of static nativity scenes came further opportunities for the addition of all sorts of local and contemporary material culture and traditions, and the vernacular expansion of the details of the nativity story.

Nativity scenes have become the visual shorthand for an amalgam of the Christmas story from the Gospels in the Christian New Testament. If you envisage a typical Nativity scene in the UK, what do you see? The usual scene consists of a hut-like building, the stable, with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in a manger, and probably also shepherds, three Kings, assorted animals in the background, and perhaps angels and a star above the stable. They reflect a timeline in which, according to Christian tradition, Joseph and Mary, having to travel away from home and encountering difficulties in finding accommodation at their destination, end up in a stable, where the baby Jesus is born. Angels alert shepherds in nearby fields to a miraculous occurrence, so they come along to the stable to see what’s happening. Eventually some days later three Magi (wise men or, as they later became thought of more popularly, kings) appear bearing gifts, led to the location with the aid of a guiding star. So the typical UK nativity compresses events which occur over a period of time into one simultaneous image (as with the Kimber Farm example above).

Tyrolean Nativity Scene, Museum of Tyrolean Regional Heritage, Innsbruck, 2019

Detail, Tyrolean Nativity Scene, Museum of Tyrolean Regional Heritage, Innsbruck, 2019

In other parts of the world, nativity scenes might be far more elaborate. I remember being amazed by the detail and complexity of Spanish nativity scenes when first encountering a specialist market in Barcelona, selling all sorts of nativity scene requisites beyond simple statues of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Spanish nativity scenes tend to incorporate a far broader range of side-scenarios in a Bethlehem that looks distinctly local. There are miniature mills with water courses and moving wheels, groups of people gathered round a flickering fire—and somewhere in the scene the Caganer, a bare-bottomed, defecating figure (usually discreetly positioned away from the holy family).

A distinctive Tyrolean style of nativity scenes has developed with scenic backdrops unlike the Holy Land, again self-consciously relating the local to the universal in a manner highly typical of vernacular religiosity. As examples of what is regarded as traditional local craft, scenes in this genre are displayed in the Museum of Tyrolean Regional Heritage in Innsbruck.

In the Krippenausstellun at the Hotel Mondschein in Sexten, a small town in the Dolomites that suffered badly in the first world war ( ), there are various examples of Tirolean scenes. However, one of the most moving examples in this collection is the ‘Christmas 1918’ nativity scene, showing the holy family group alongside the destroyed Hotel Mondschein in the then devastated Sexten.  This underlines one of the important pedagogical points being made in Christian terms of the ‘localised’ nativity scene—it places the Christian story wherever its audience is, and though notionally capturing a moment in history, it is also presented as timeless.



Weihnachten 1918, Krippenausstellun at the Hotel Mondschein, Sexten, 2019

Time for Nativity Scenes


Liturgically, Advent is the period ahead of the birth of Jesus, which in the Western Christian calendar can start between 27 November and 3 December; Advent is a time of solemn reflection, and in some traditions is still marked as a period of fasting, similar to Lent before Easter. The celebration of Christmas technically starts with the birth of Jesus and lasts until Epiphany (6 January) when traditionally the three Magi visit Jesus: these are the 12 days of Christmas. Liturgically, however, the Christmas season lasts until 1 February.

An interesting aspect of nativity scenes that I have become increasingly aware of in recent years relates to the logic and logistics of timing. As mentioned, if you think back to the ‘typical’ UK nativity scene and who and what it depicts—Mary, Joseph, Jesus, shepherds, three wise men—it tends to simultaneously compress a narrative that stretches out over a period of time. In the public domain this may not pose a problem, but as we discovered during the fieldwork of the AHRC funded Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals: Part and Present (, it can be a point of tension in some cathedral and church contexts (see Coleman, Bowman and Sepp, 2019).

For the project we worked with four partner Cathedrals: Canterbury and Durham Cathedrals, York Minster (Anglican) and Westminster Cathedral (Roman Catholic). At Christmas far more people come to cathedrals and churches generally than at other times of the year, and clearly it expresses for many a sense of belonging. While Cathedrals are happy to receive such visitors, there can be some mismatches in terms of liturgical praxis and more ‘secular’ expectations. Our fieldwork with cathedral clergy, volunteers and other staff around the Christmas period revealed a sense of ambiguity, even ambivalence, over public perceptions of Christmas and how they relate to the wider framework of Advent.

At Canterbury Cathedral we were told ‘The season of Advent is a real hotchpotch because we could do a jolly Carol Service in the afternoon and then at Evensong we’re back into Advent mode, and then there’s another Carol Service for another group’. Similarly, as one informant at York Minster put it, ‘Christmas for the minster begins… with Advent, and is not a full-blown celebration at that time, but a preparation; then when the rest of the world goes back to work, the Minster is in liturgical mode. [We] must recognize that for others, Christmas is over. For the Minster it goes on till Candlemas [2 February]. We are asked why we don’t put lights up earlier and why the nativity is still there “after”.‘

Popular expectations and experiences of Christmas tend to foreground the run up to Christmas as a period of partying and pleasant expectations, as opposed to seeing it as a reflective or indeed penitential period. Although the twelve days of Christmas are referred to in song and on Christmas cards, for many people the Christmas season largely ends with Boxing Day (26 December), actually before the Christmas story has liturgically ended. This can cause some issues in relation to nativity scenes, which our partner Cathedrals handled in different ways. A verger at York Minster explained: ‘The week preceding Christmas we will have put the crib up in the North Transept, but the crib will be empty. And people… come in, see the crib, are puzzled as to why there’s nothing in it, and then we have to explain that actually we’re not at that point yet in the year where we actually have the figures in the crib… the Christ Child doesn’t go into the crib until Christmas Eve.’ Similarly, at Westminster Cathedral, although the nativity scene is likely to be placed on show around mid-December, the baby Jesus figure will not be placed into the crib until 24 December. (We were told that, following an attempted theft, the Jesus figure is now screwed into his crib!)

Meanwhile at Canterbury Cathedral, it has been common to put the baby Jesus figure into the crib as soon as the Nativity scene is set up—a pragmatic response, as explained by one of  the canons of the cathedral: ‘In reality we have Jesus in the crib because so many visitors see their visit as an early celebration of Christmas and the baby in the manger illustrates the truth that Jesus was born and died and rose again and is always with us.’

The nativity scene used in Durham Cathedral is indicative of the localising/ vernacular tradition of such scenes already mentioned, containing interesting allusions to the historically locally significant mining industry (see Carved by Michael Doyle, a retired pitman, the donkey is a pit pony, the crib is a “choppie box” (in which the ponies were given their feed underground), the innkeeper is dressed as a miner and there’s a whippet in the scene. In the Durham nativity scene, the baby Jesus figure is customarily placed in the crib early on, but is covered by hay until Christmas Eve, when he is removed and then placed back during the Midnight Mass. Volunteers are informed that he must be hidden until the appropriate point of the service. However, in December 2016 our researcher Tiina Sepp spotted the baby Jesus uncovered well before Christmas Eve and mentioned this fact to a steward, leading to a swift restoration of the layer of hay above the statue. The steward’s interpretation was that some parents had wanted to show their children the Baby Jesus and therefore removed the hay from him, again highlighting the differing expectations of visitors and cathedral staff.

Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral, 2018

Elsewhere, however, the timeline of the twelve days of Christmas is more closely observed. This was strikingly demonstrated by a visit to Cologne in January 2018, timed to coincide with Epiphany on January 6th, when according to tradition the Magi finally arrived to see Jesus. Cologne Cathedral houses the magnificent Shrine of the Three Kings, said to contain the treasured relics of the Magi. A fine example of Bible of the Folk, from minimal gospel references to ‘Magi’ (Matthew, verses 2: 1-9), usually translated as wise men, the three foreign visitors to the stable gained ‘back stories’, and became popularly designated Kings with the names Melchior (from Persia), Caspar/Gaspar (from India or Tarsus) and Balthazar (designated King of Arabia, sometimes more specifically Ethiopia, and since the 13th century depicted as black).

The Three Kings, St Andreas Church, Cologne, January 6 2018

Through a grille in the beautifully crafted 13th century shrine, three crowned skulls can be seen, above each their name picked out in precious stones. While normally access to the shrine is limited, on 6 January people are allowed to go through the gates and get close to it, which still proves an enormous attraction. Thus, in Cologne there is a very definite sense of the temporal progress of the nativity story, the three kings’ role in it and by extension nativity scenes.

Queuing to get close to the Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral, 6 January 2018

Visiting nativity scenes in various Cologne churches after Christmas but ahead of January 6, we became aware that the Kings were absent.  After a while we realised that in some churches there was simply no sign of them, while in others the Kings were to be spotted perched up on the gallery, or out in the church entrance, or gradually moving up within the church as Epiphany approached. It was only on January 6 that the scene was complete, in line with the liturgical calendar. Among other things, this prompts repeated visits to churches to see the nativity scenes as they develop over time!

Nativity Scene, Minoritenkirche, Cologne, 3 January 2018




Three Kings in nave, heading towards nativity scene, Minoritenkirche, Cologne, 3 January 2018



There is a lot going on behind nativity scenes—from Bible of the Folk embellishments on the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, to craft traditions and local pride, from a sense of belonging to evangelising and sometimes uneasy negotiations of secularised assumptions and religion in the public domain. So, as you encounter nativity scenes in this strange year, think about the implications of what you are actually seeing, who is there,  what the setting is, what part of the story is being represented—and notice how long they last!

And of course, if you see any interesting examples, please do send them to us at and we’ll share them on our Instagram account.

Three Kings arrived at nativity scene, Minoritenkirche, Cologne, 6 January 2018



Colman, Simon, Marion Bowman and Tiina Sepp. 2019. ‘A Cathedral Is Not Just for Christmas: Civic Christianity in the Multicultural City’ In Pamela E. Klassen and Monique Scheer, eds. The Public Work of Christmas: Difference and Belonging in Multicultural Societies. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, pp. 240–261.

Primiano, Leonard. 1995. ‘Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife’ Western Folklore 54, 37-56

Utley, Francis Lee. 1945. ‘The Bible of the Folk,’ California Folklore Quarterly 4(1), 1-17

Pilgrimage and tourism at India’s ‘Land’s End’

By Gwilym Beckerlegge

I first visited the small town of Kanniyakumari in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu in 2006. The town is named after Kanya Kumari, the ‘virgin goddess’ who is a representation of the Great Goddess, to whom the town’s most well-known temple is dedicated. Evidence of Kanniyakumari as a centre of Hindu pilgrimage, especially for devotees of the Devi (Goddess), stretches back well over a millennium.

The meeting of three seas off its shore is believed to add further to Kanniyakumari’s sanctity. Fringed by steep conical hills and bounded on the southernmost tip of India’s mainland by the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea, it is a place of great natural beauty.

Approaching Kanniyakumari






Its striking seascape is renowned for its spectacular sunrises. One can readily understand why Kanniyakumari is sometimes referred to in guidebooks as India’s ‘Land’s End’.

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Decolonising Religious Studies

By Paul-François Tremlett – part of our series on Black History Month.

As part of the Open University’s events marking Black History Month I gave a short lecture examining textual and visual representations of Melanesian Cargo Cults, to highlight how the production of knowledge about Cargo Cults by anthropologists and others was sealed off from overlapping contexts of colonialism, capitalism and racism. The lecture focused on Francis Edgar Williams’ ethnographic account of the so-called Valaila Madness (1923) and David Attenborough’s representation of the followers of John Frum in the film, The People of Paradise: A Journey through the South Seas (1960). I suggested that these representations of Cargo cults were structured by a Western conception of rationality that, while abstractly premised upon the psychic unity of humankind in practice furthered the active denigration of black voices and experiences.

Such critiques in anthropology are not new: for example in 1973 Talal Asad in Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter – and 13 years later Renato Rosaldo in Writing Culture – insisted that attention be directed to the techniques through which anthropological and scientific knowledge has been separated and insulated from the colonial contexts in which it was produced. Importantly, they also advocated experimentation with new kinds of ethnographic writing that could accommodate “multicentric, dialogical perspective[s]” (Borofsky 2020, p. 2).

In tandem with the welcome advance of global south and decolonial epistemologies in anthropology, the field of Religious Studies has seen a shift in recent years away from essentialist and a-historical accounts of this or that World Religion (with a capital R) represented more or less as discrete and unitary systems of ideas and beliefs, to a focus on lived religions. The field has a complex, inter- and trans-disciplinary ancestry including anthropology, history, philology, philosophy, sociology and theology, yet epistemological debates about methods and theories have remained largely trapped within a series of over-lapping binary oppositions including reason : experience, insider : outsider, qualitative : quantitative and reductionist : phenomenological, that have helped sustain a range of problematic, Western assumptions such as the privileging of mind and Man over matter. The lived religions focus is decidedly about what people do rather than what they believe and it has brought to the fore voices, groups and communities that were silenced by the World Religion approach, but nevertheless it does little to challenge the hegemony of the meaning-endowing and rational-choice-making individual as the unit of analysis in the study of religions,

and is largely silent about post-humanist epistemologies and the contribution they can make to decolonising the field. Malory Nye has constructively exposed some of the blind spots in the teaching of Religious Studies, for example its habit of “celebrating diversity” while “not talking about race” (2020). Furthermore, informed by the work of Bruno Latour, Graham Harvey has stressed the importance of thinking religions in terms of “embodiment, materiality, and relationality” in order to “radically contest the privatization and interiorization of religion” (Harvey 2020: 144) that emerged under the hegemony of white, Protestant modernity. In a similar spirit and riffing from writings by Jane Bennett, Manuel DeLanda and Gilles Deleuze, I have suggested that the focus in Religious Studies should be the transformations of historically and culturally situated and stratified assemblages of religions, secularisms, technologies, states, spaces and economies (Tremlett 2020).

There is no quick fix to decolonising Religious Studies, no single, simple step to a decolonised curricula or pedagogy or research methods. But we do have skills of listening and learning through which the field can better reflect on itself as a mode of production for generating knowledge about religions and the wider world. Those skills need to be brought to bear both to experiment theoretically and methodologically in our research, in the design of curricula and in the development of teaching and assessment strategies.


Asad, Talal. 1973, ‘Introduction’ in Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter, (ed), Talal Asad, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Barofsky, Rob. 2020, ‘Rethinking Ethnography: A Study in Public Anthropology’ in Anthropology Today 36 (5): 1-2.

Harvey, Graham. 2020, ‘Trans-Indigenous Festivals: Democracy and Emplacement’ in Ritual and Democracy: Protests, Publics and Performances, (eds), Sarah M. Pike, Jone Salomonsen and Paul-François Tremlett, Sheffield: Equinox.

Nye, Malory. 2020, ‘A Discussion of the ‘Religion and Worldviews in Religious Education’ Report: Critical Race Theory’ 142c0007ce37

Rosaldo, Renato. 1986, ‘From the Door of his Tent: The Fieldwork and the Inquisitor’ in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. (eds). James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tremlett, Paul-François. 2020, Towards a New Theory of Religion and Social Change: Sovereignties and Disruptions, Bloomsbury: London.

Williams, Francis, Edgar. 1977. ‘The Vailala Madness’ and Other Essays. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii.

Black Majority Churches and the transformation of British Christianity

By John Maiden – our second post marking Black History Month (see first post here).

What has been the impact of the ‘Black Majority Churches’ (BMCs) on post-1945 British Christianity? Why is it imperative we address a lacuna in the literature on British religious history? I had the privilege today of trying to address these questions in an (online…of course!) lecture for Black History Month in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University. It was an opportunity to talk about research which I’ve recently published on in two places: Evangelicalism and Dissent in Modern England and Wales (edited by David Bebbington and David Ceri Jones) and in an article for Twentieth Century British History journal.

Evangelicalism and Dissent in Modern England and Wales  book coverIt is particularly problematic, I argued, that the ‘early’ Black Majority Churches, those which appeared in the United Kingdom in the decades immediately after Windrush (though thanks to David Killingray and others, we now know something of antecedent congregations in the first half of the century), are largely, if with some notable exceptions, absent in the otherwise booming historiography of secularisation or ‘religious change’ in the 1960s and 1970s. The observations of some contemporary Christian leaders and commentators during the early 1970s were that (as the sociologist Congregationalist pastor Dr Clifford Hill put it in 1971) an ‘urban evangelical explosion’ was underway. These have in some respects been proved right. Without proper discussion of this ‘new nonconformity’ we are left with an incomplete picture of a reconfiguration of the British religious landscape.

Videos from BASR 2020

The videos of the two panels from this year’s BASR conference are now available. The conference page is archived here. Here’s the info for each individual video:

Title: BASR 2020 | Teaching and Learning Panel

Description: The opening panel from BASR 2020 focused on Teaching and Learning. First is a presentation from 2020 Teaching Award recipient Melanie Prideaux, together with her student Natasha Jones (both University of Leeds). This is followed by an open discussion on the COVID-19 pivot to online delivery, with contributions from Dawn Llewellyn (2019 Teaching Award recipient, University of Chester), Stefanie Sinclair (BASR T&L rep, Open University), Paul-Francois Tremlett (Open University), BASR President Bettina Schmidt, Melanie Prideaux and Natasha Jones.


Title: BASR 2020 | Worldviews in RS and RE Panel

Description: This panel, curated by Wendy Dossett (University of Chester), discusses the Commission for Religious Education’s proposal for a shift towards studying “Religion and Worldviews” in Secondary Religious Education. Contributions from Wendy Dossett, Rudi Eliott Lockhart (former CEO of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales), Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity University), Paul-Francois Tremlett (Open University) and Malory Nye (Independent Academic affiliated to University of Glasgow).