Beatty begins with the slametan, ceremonial feasts in which almost everyone takes part, with guests invited on the basis of neighbourhood or kinship rather than religion. Participants, however, place radically different interpretations on the events of the slametan, making it multivocal.
"The very adaptability of the slametan has made conversion from Islam to Hinduism and sometimes back again less troublesome than one might imagine. As a ritual frame adaptable to diverse faiths and ideologies, it remains at the heart of Javanese religion. As an example of religious syncretism, it shows how — and with what inventive grace — people can come to terms with their differences."
On the fringes of respectability — and controlled by a disadvantaged group — is the sanctuary of guardian spirit Buyut Cili who, though "vital to the community's welfare, remains a shadowy figure outside the flow of village life". This contrasts with the more open spirit cult of neighbouring Cungking, with its ceremonies and complex ritual.
"Both shrines are tolerated by the authorities because they are represented as being outside religion as it is officially defined. They do not pose a threat to the official faiths. But their survival has been at the cost of expressive significance. As fewer and fewer people delve into Javanese tradition, the symbolic forms of the Cungking cult risk becoming empty of content."
A key chapter surveys the diversity of mainstream Islam. Moulded by practical and local concerns, many different approaches to Islam coexist, with a balance between santri and non-santri and between ritual and dogma. "Resisting the urge to simplify and systematize", Beatty presents Islam as he finds it, "in and among the rival langgars, frustrated evangelists, young zealots, crusty conservatives, hajis, and sceptics."
Javanist mysticism, kejawen, places a strong emphasis on symbolism and on philosophical concepts of God, man, life, sex, and microcosm and macrocosm. But though it "tends towards the esoteric... it is neither obscurantist nor remote from ordinary human concerns."
"The contrast with Islam is important, but it is largely formal, a matter of differing styles. Javanists pursue their interest in the nature of meaning, ethics, and the constitution of the person, for the most part independently of Islam."Beatty looks in detail at a Javanist sect, Sangkan Paran, finding "a striking contrast between the rigorous debate over doctrine and the magical allure of the founder's legend". And he describes its place in village society: non-exclusive, loosely structure, and seen as compatible with other forms of religion.
A fascinating final chapter looks at another village where a number of Javanese converted to Hinduism in response to Islamization pressure during the early New Order. Osing converts mostly reverted to Islam once the danger was past, but some migrant Javanese have created a persisting Hindu community, under the influence of Islam and Balinese Hinduism, as well as of an imagined Majapahit, but again driven by local concerns.
Even those without a specific interest in Java may find in Varieties of Javanese Religion a novel perspective on religious pluralism and the coexistence of diverse forms of religion.