Framework, hypotheses and research questions

©Laura Feldt

Totally devoted to you…

How do emotions and narratives work together in total devotion? Developing a new approach focused on emotions and narrativity, we offer a new perspective and a historistion to the field of radical religion. Today, this field tends to focus on radical beliefs and the violence directed at others,
whether the social environment or competing religious groups, thus making marginalisation a key factor, just as there is a predominant focus on Islam today in the media, in politics, and in the research field. Instead, we hypothesize that concentrating on emotions and narrative can help explain the “pull” and the intensity of involvement in radical religion in more depth. Our project analyses the emergence and forms of radical and intense religious devotion - total devotion - in ancient Jewish and Christian religious traditions, within the comparative context of ancient religions. These traditions, as the basis of later formations, are eminently suited for an exploration of the role of narrativity and emotion in radical religious formations. These foundational narrative traditions can help us historicize total devotion plots before the advent of Islam and trace key trajectories of development. Understanding emotional involvement in total devotion, and developing strategies of analysis and historicization, is a burning issue for the study of religions as well as for contemporary societies.

Hypotheses and research questions

The project’s core idea is to shift the focus away from questions of belief and from group-society relations in studies of total devotion. Our goal is to theorise and analyse the role of emotional and narrative practices that contribute to the formation of total devotion religion. Suggesting that belief is not the decisive factor in total devotion and that emotional involvement needs much more study, we trace the emergence and development of total devotion narratives in ancient forms of Judaism and Christianity, in order to open up the field and to show how radical religion/total devotion comes in a variety of forms beyond the ideas of modern “fundamentalism” and “extremism” that emphasise reactions against globalisation, secularisation and modernity (Fox 2013; Sedgwick 2010; Al-Rasheed and Shterin 2009; Partridge 2001). We hypothesize that this can help explain the pull of radical religion / total devotion in more depth and offer comparative contextualisation to a field focused on contemporary religious formations, ignoring the longer history of religions in which various degrees of intensity in religion are evident and for which it is unwise to assume constant levels of religiosity and intensity of devotion across epochs and contexts (cf. Rüpke 2016a+b, McGuire 2008; Lincoln 2003). The project analyses religious narratives that idealize total devotion and narrativise an all-encompassing emotional commitment, located in the inner person, starting from the textualization of the Hebrew Bible in the Persian and Hellenistic eras, through Second Temple Judaism, to emerging forms of Christianity before the end of Late Antiquity (ca. 520 BCE-450 CE).


Our common research questions are:

  1. How do emotions and narrativity play together in ancient religious texts about total devotion?
  2. How do total devotion ideals and practices emerge and which formats develop in Judaisms and Christianities in antiquity?
  3. How can emotions and narrativity perspectives and analyses of emic perfection ideals and practices contribute to the broader study of radical religion?