Martijn Oosterbaan on his new book, Transmitting the Spirit

Cover image for Transmitting the Spirit: Religious Conversion, Media, and Urban Violence in Brazil By Martijn Oosterbaan

https://www.psupress.org/books/titles/978-0-271-07843-4.html

Interview by Jessica Rivers

Jessica Rivers: In your book, you argue convincingly that it is important to understand the Pentecostalism of Rio’s favelas as governmentality.  Based on your research, do you believe the sound practices of the evangelicals in Visionario and Roda do Vento effectively extended the reach of Pentecostal governmentality to non-evangelicals?

Martijn Oosterbaan: In the book I analyze what it means for people who live in dense favela spaces to be enveloped in the sounds emanating from churches, and the sound of carioca funk and samba music. Broadly speaking, I analyze conversion through the lens of governmentality, and not only because Pentecostalism is concerned with bodily discipline and with the government of self. Conversion in this context cannot be wholly understood without including the politics of favela life. Conversions are not definite moments of transition in a favela.  Instead, they are processes in which people come to understand themselves and their environment differently.  If we see sound practices as part and parcel of these process, we might also see that even for those who do not describe themselves as converted evangélicos these sound practices – in combination with assertive evangelization techniques – are re-ordering their perceptions of space and power in the favela. By and large, many people who are not considered evangélicos regard Pentecostal churches and church leaders as legitimate authorities within the favela – not in the least because many of these leaders (loudly) promise the possibility of salvation, prosperity, and protection to people who live in precarious situations. Approaching this question from a different angle, I argue that the sanctuary spaces of churches are extended by means of amplified church sounds and by means of gospel music. We should not see Pentecostalism as the only bundle of techniques and representations that informs governmentality but it has become a very important element of it in the context of Rio’s favelas.

Jessica Rivers: Are there instances in which the Pentecostalism you witnessed could be interpreted as operating (aspirationally) as sovereignty (p. 42)? I’m thinking, for instance, of their creation of absolute spaces and their reclamation of public spaces with the trificante exorcisms?

Martijn Oosterbaan: When we regard sovereignty as tentative form of authority grounded in physical violence, as some do, such an argument might be harder to make. There are, however, Pentecostal practices such as the performative evangelical crusades (cruzadas) that I describe in the book that are presented as rupturing moments in public favela life. These performances could be conceived as acts that aspire towards sovereignty. During these crusades, which are highly mediatized and ritualized events that involve musical performances, pastors, preachers and singers narrate the possibility of personal and collective liberation by way of the works of the Holy Spirit and the exorcism of demons. In the context of favela life such events are presented as breaching the politics of daily life, in which people are bound by the machinations of the devil, often without their own knowing. Testimonies of former drug gang members during these crusades reveal that they no longer abide by the rules of the comandos whose leaders are the informal sovereigns of the favelas but by God’s laws that grant protection in this life and salvation thereafter. These events generate exceptional moments of rupture that sustain the notion that a different life is possible. Nevertheless, Pentecostal groups do not take the informal sovereigns head on and generally do not interfere directly with their businesses.

Jessica Rivers: Your research intervenes in the conversation on the relationship between religion and violence. You argue scholars should not assume Pentecostal practices are merely soothing since, in constantly presenting Pentecostal churches as a powerful counterforce, they necessarily (re)produce their own forms of anxiety about the city as an evil place (83). Do you think this means the Pentecostalism of the favelas has a sort of hopelessness built into its strategic long-term planning? Would you go as far as to say that the manifestation of Pentecostalism described in your book, in fact, depends on seemingly continuous, otherwise uncontrollable violence?

Martijn Oosterbaan: This is a very pertinent question in this post-Olympic moment in Rio’s history. Surely I don’t mean to argue that Pentecostalism is only popular because Rio de Janeiro is witnessing uncontrollable violence, nor do I argue that the anxiety that certain Pentecostal practices and ideologies reproduce is of the same kind as the anxiety that traumatic physical violence might cause. In the context of Rio’s favelas, there are other socio-material circumstances that are enmeshed with the persuasive emotional practices of Pentecostalism (dreams of material wealth for example). Nevertheless, I do indeed argue for an understanding of its popularity in context and violence, unfortunately, is a pervasive aspect of favela life. Moreover, the testimonies that I documented and church services I attended featured many accounts of people’s experiences of urban violence. Having said that, in the book I aim to counter arguments of people who describe Pentecostalism in a reductionist fashion as making up for uncontrollable violence – a discourse that several Pentecostal churches also employ themselves. Pentecostal groups generally do not oppose the criminalized comandos directly or interfere directly with their businesses but these groups do present themselves as the only way out for those people that feel that they are in the grip of the comandos and that presentation remains a very powerful selling-point, I argue.

Jessica Rivers: It is intriguing that your informants felt conflicted about watching telenovelas and reality soaps because of their salacious content and decidedly unconflicted about watching the spectacularized violence of news programs.  Do you believe it was merely a question of genre that made them feel they could read and judge the material of (semi) fictional programming and not the selective narrative packaging that went into the nightly news?

Martijn Oosterbaan: Not merely, but genre is very influential. In the book I try to show how different modes of Pentecostal self-discipline overlap or clash with media genres. As I argue, the notion of factuality is very important in the unconflicted reception of spectacular news programs. The presentation of ‘news’ as unmediated representation of ‘how it is’ in the world distinguishes the genre from others. Producers appear to go at length to sustain the myth that ‘what you see is how it is’. Moreover, there is something quite definitive about physical violence – especially with regard to cases where people are mortally injured – and sharp distinctions between heroes, villains and victims are sustained easier in cases of spectacular urban violence than in the case of juicy soap operas (telenovelas). As I relate in the book, my Pentecostal interlocutors frequently characterized perpetrators as possessed individuals and pictured violent urban encounters as manifestations of the cosmic battle between God and the devil. The genre of the telenovela, on the other hand, hinges on moral ambivalence. Protagonists are hardly ever entirely upright and the attraction to watch telenovelas is related to the possibility to ‘watch and judge’ the behavior of the lead characters. Such a spectator-position overlaps well with certain Pentecostal discourses in church services and informal talk. Gossip (fofoca) about the behavior of neighbors or even fellow church members often revolved around the question if this or that person was ‘of God’ or not. Nevertheless, some evangelical spectators despised the moral ambivalence and argued that this was exactly how people were lead away from the straight path.

Jessica Rivers: Your informants disliked and distrusted Rede Globo; were they more likely to notice the aesthetics and read its programs against the grain (like in the U.S., conservatives do with MSNBC and liberals do with FOX news)?

Martijn Oosterbaan: Certainly, but not with all the programs. Rede Globo is the biggest media-imperium of Brazil. By way of its news-programs and several of its fiction programs it has criticized and ridiculed Pentecostal churches – predominantly the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (the Igreja Universal). In the nineties, it set out to unmask the leaders of the Universal Church as greedy businessmen that employed the prosperity gospel for personal benefits. The Universal Church and several other Pentecostal churches have reacted fiercely against these accusations. They stressed that TV Globo was broadcasting lies because Globo’s leaders perceived the rise of the broadcaster Rede Record – owned by the leader of the Universal Church, Edir Macedo – as a threat to their media-hegemony. As I show in the book – many of the adherents of Pentecostal churches living in the favelas of my research attached these clashes to prevalent interpretations of Globo’s telenovelas as degenerate. In addition to the genre specific critique I just described, evangelical spectators told me that Globo’s spread of immoral content by way of its novelas was related to their support for Afro-Brazilian and Roman Catholic traditions and their dislike of evangelical values. Some even told me that Globo had made a pact with the devil to air demonic programs. Such suspicions definitively influenced people’s perceptions of Globo programs.

Jessica Rivers: You group the lived religious practices of the people who attended the Igreja Universal and Assembleia de Deus together. Did your informants ever take issue with this grouping? I was surprised to see that you did not describe the Igreja Universal as Neo-Pentecostal.  And could you elaborate on how you made that decision and what difference, if any, it makes (and to whom) to designate a church: Pentecostal, Neo-Pentecostal, Charismatic, or otherwise.

Martijn Oosterbaan: Thank you for raising these questions. I struggled with the question if I should separate or group together the people who attended the two churches but eventually decided not to distinguish the people in relation to the questions I was attempting to answer. I think we are severely mislead when we start from the assumption that because there are different churches with contrasting doctrines, people who attend different churches have fundamentally different experiences of their mediated surroundings. That can be the case for sure but it is something that can only be confirmed by research. Not long after I started, I decided not to write a ‘church ethnography’ but to explore favela spaces as shared life-worlds in which boundaries are produced in flexible fashion. In the book, I discuss the lives of people of one household and several of their family members who also lived in the favela. Many of these people frequented different Pentecostal denominations, yet quite a number of them had attended both services of the Igreja Universal and of the Assembleia de Deus, eventually picking one that suited them better (at that moment). More importantly at the time of research – people from different Pentecostal and Protestant churches generally identified with each other as evangélicos in opposition to Catholics, Umbandistas and Spiritistas. These people often share mediated spaces where Pentecostalism is broadcast. This not only meant that they heard each other’s preferred sermons or gospel music, they also regularly connected to the messages of fellow Pentecostal churches beyond church boundaries. They were shaped by their shared understanding of the dangers posed by the media that surrounded them on a daily basis (carioca funk, samba, telenovelas), so many people of both churches voiced the same suspicions and experiences regarding demonic powers. Certainly, boundaries were drawn when people disagreed with each other’s doctrinal positions at times. Nevertheless, I really wanted to foreground the shared, mediated Pentecostal life-world created in the favela space instead of the differences between people who attended churches of different denominations at the time of my research.

Jessica Rivers: You apply Gershon’s concept of media ideologies to your Pentecostal informants’ television viewing practice but not to their listening practices.  Was it a difference in the modes of consumption available to them that guided this aspect of your analysis? Did your informants find it harder to experience music critically than they did television? Could they only allow themselves to be critical of worldly media? If so, why do you think that was?

Martijn Oosterbaan: You rightly point to something that I did not spell out explicitly in the book and which is related to the fact that people generally presented music’s mediation as less intricate than the mediation of audio-visual content via television. Music itself was certainly regarded critically and Pentecostal listeners often discussed who and what could transmit spiritual force and which marvels and dangers were involved. Music as mediating technology was thus very important and people’s evaluations of music feature prominently in the book. As I explain in detail, people’s evaluations were closely related to perceived differences between music genres and the associations between genres, life-styles and communities in the favelas. In my opinion, Ilana Gershon’s concept of media ideology can be applied very well to music and the critical appraisals of evangelical listeners, and though I did not explicitly refer to her concept with regard to listening practices, I do refer to the work of Webb Keane, whose concept of semiotic ideology is very close to Gershon’s work. So why did I refer explicitly to the notion of media ideology when discussing television? In contrast to television-broadcasters, evangelical radio-broadcasters played only recognized evangelical (gospel) music, made by people who identified themselves as evangélicos. Other ‘worldly’ radio stations played no evangelical music at all – at least not music of self-identified evangélicos. Tuning in to an evangelical radio station gave the evangelical listeners a sense of ease since they did not have to worry about the possibility of hearing sinful music. Television broadcasters that broadcast evangelical programs, on the other hand, also aired worldly content. Even TV Record, the channel owned by Edir Macedo, leader of the Igreja Universal, aired programs that could be considered worldly (yet not necessarily immoral). As a consequence, television (the device) demanded much critical attention according to the people I spoke to. Evangelical programs could be followed by worldly or even demonic programs. People generally remained vigilant to see what would be aired next. The notion of media ideology helped me to describe the problems of evangelical television viewers a bit better than the concept of semiotic ideology. Television presented my evangelical interlocutors with bundles of related ideologies that included semiotic ideologies but also appraisals of the medium as it works in the context of Rio de Janeiro. And television confronted them with several questions: Which programs are available on each television channel at what moments during the day and how is each program related to Brazil’s intricate religious field? When believing that television can transmit demonic powers, which programs should be considered harmless and which not? And when they are potentially harmful, can one still watch them in an effort to test oneself as firm Christian or should one turn off the television? As I describe in the book, one Pentecostal viewer recounted how he had tried to watch an erotic television program – believing he would be able to withstand its demonic seduction – to find himself powerless in the face of its lure and then quickly turned it off.

 

 

 

 

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