Adroit, worldly review of the proliferation of consecrated stuff for the faithful.
Manseau (Writing/Georgetown Univ.; Songs For the Butcher’s Daughter, 2008, etc.) proves a doubting tour guide as he transports readers around the globe to check out places accessible and remote where fabric, wood, sinew and other materials are venerated. The sacred relics to which the pious offer prayers may be full-sized (like the remains of St. Francis Xavier, encased in glass in the Basilica of Bom Jesus, Goa, India) or as small as a tooth of the Buddha or a hair of the Prophet (each likewise securely and ornately packaged). The Church of Rome, we learn, places relics into categories. First-class relics, naturally, include saintly body parts and anything that had actual contact with the Savior. Shia Muslims are more inclined to savor relics than their Sunni brethren, who eschew any hint of idolatry, and that difference causes no end of trouble. Jews, meanwhile, are not that much into holy corporeal souvenirs. Of course, the remains to be seen by the devout of the world are likely to be dubious, as the incredulous author demonstrates while traveling to shrines in Jerusalem, Paris, Kashmir, California, Syria and Sri Lanka to investigate miscellany like the putative head of John the Baptist. Manseau considers the remains of some religious Romanovs, a phony bone of Joan of Arc and the vanished Holy Prepuce. He’s doubtful even while following the directions of local escorts. He consults paleoforensic experts skilled in analytic methods like the carbon dating of supposedly holy detritus. His cynicism is barely contained, though he understands that relics might just be the conduits to mysteries with the power to tell stories beyond explanation.
An amusing romp for nonbelievers, but the devout will be offended by Manseau’s sardonic tone.