Matt Tomlinson on his book, God is Samoan

God Is Samoan: Dialogues between Culture and Theology in the Pacific

Interview by Jon Bialecki

Jon Bialecki: I want to start this interview by saying that God Is Samoan is a great book, but it is also a surprising one. True, there are a lot of continuities with your previous work: Oceania as a region, Christianity as an ethnographic object, tensions between dialogue and monologue. And in your earlier material, you’ve also discussed contemporary and historical missionary material, for instance, in your last book, Ritual Textuality. But the turn to studying autochthonous theology, theologians, and the production and pedagogy of theological knowledge caught my attention. This was not just because this was a different kind of project from you, but also because I have a hard time thinking of any similar study. Could you say something about how you came to this project, and also a little about what fieldwork was like, since I imagine the actual field methodologies must have been quite different from your previous work as well?

Matt Tomlinson: Thanks, Jon. The project began with two failures which shaped the way everything unfolded.

The first was back in 2008-2009, when I had gone to Suva, Fiji’s capital city, to do a study of Christian institutions. Fiji had suffered its most recent coup (its fourth) late in 2006, and I had naively not realized how difficult this would make the research. For example, talking with people in the Methodist Church potentially endangered them, as the government was suspicious of politics within the church and watched its leaders closely, and a foreign researcher chatting with church leaders could get them in trouble. In addition, the Fiji Council of Churches had mysteriously shut down.

As it happened, I was living on the campus of the Pacific Theological College (PTC). PTC trains people from all over Oceania in academic theology, many of them already ordained ministers in mainline Protestant congregations. So, because research was problematic elsewhere, I spent more time actually studying PTC than I had expected to–and became fascinated. The teachers and students work in a field known as “contextual theology,” which places culture and personal experience at the heart of theological thinking.

I wanted to learn more about how contextual theologians draw on anthropological concepts of culture. I was able to get research funding to spend time at the University of Auckland’s School of Theology and church seminaries in Samoa and American Samoa. Early in the project, though, it became clear how much reading I needed to do, as I didn’t have enough grounding in theology of any sort. This was the second failure: I sat there in Auckland and thought, “How can I write about practitioners of another academic discipline when I don’t know quite what that discipline is?”

So, the project became heavily text-based: an anthropological reading of contextual theology. I did participate in daily life at the different sites, but as you can tell, the book is more of an anthropological engagement with contextual-theological thought and texts than a deep ethnography.

Jon Bialecki: Presenting your project as “an anthropological engagement with contextual-theological thought and texts” brings me to the next question I wanted to ask. As you point out in your book, some anthropologists have lately become quite interested in theology. For example, Joel Robbins recently wrote a book that outlines how theology might help anthropologists of Christianity theorize the social and cultural life of the people they study, and Khaled Furani has a new book that critiques anthropology from a theological perspective. Then there is Derrick Lemon’s omnibus-grade edited volume on what he calls “theologically engaged anthropology,” which features both anthropologists and theologians. All these books came out in the last two or so years, so one could almost say “anthropology-and-theology” is having a bit of a moment. I want to ask where you would situate your book in this literature, but I also want to sort of fold-in the larger question two subsidiary queries. First, text-heavy as it is, this is an ethnographic project; what difference does that make? And second, this is the only book to be specifically engaged with Oceania as a region and contextual-theology as a subject. How does that distinguish your work from the broader field?

Matt Tomlinson: Robbins’ work is a major influence on my own, and I’ve participated in and learned from Lemons’ project, although I’m not in the volume you mention. I haven’t read Khaled Furani’s book yet.

For God Is Samoan, a key source of inspiration was Robbins’ 2006 article on the “awkward relationship” between anthropology and theology. In it, he suggests that anthropologists might engage with theology in several ways. The first two are modest: one can study how theology helped shape anthropology’s development as a discipline, or one can treat theology as ethnographic data. The third is more ambitious: to allow theology to genuinely destabilize anthropology, to open us up to fresh theoretical transformation.

My book will probably be read as taking the second option: drawing on theology for anthropological analysis. After all, I take up theological discussions in order to make sense of Oceanic cultural dynamics, including people’s critical reevaluations of local Christian histories and their understandings of intrinsic connections between land, sea, and spiritual presence. But I’d like to think that my conversations with theologians pushed me toward the third option to an extent, too, because engaging with theologians made me rethink my core topic. In brief, I started out interested in culture and ended up interested in dialogue.

Not only do contextual theologians talk a lot about culture, they routinely call for more dialogue on any subject. Many people do this, including anthropologists. During fieldwork, I came to see how theologians draw on concepts of culture in order to motivate specific kinds of dialogue. Yet sometimes dialogue, as an ideal, seems almost utopian–the perfect method and best result in any situation. Calls for more dialogue can be almost monologic in their insistence, which has led me to try to think in new ways about the relationship between dialogism and monologism. For me, there is a deep tension between Bakhtin’s characterization of language as inherently dialogic, and the monologic ideologies authoritarian speakers tend to employ. When Donald Trump speaks, for example, he does not imagine that he lives in a world of other’s words.

One of the most interesting things about central Oceania–and something that can only be apprehended ethnographically–is how dialogic and monologic ideals coexist and indeed work together. For dialogue, there is the valorization of talanoa, open-ended and interactive conversation. For monologue, there is the speech of high chiefs and church ministers, which is meant to express unanswerable truth in a single voice.

Jon Bialecki: Mentioning Joel Robbins brings up another issue. Robbins is also well known for his calls for anthropologists to be suspicious of claims of hidden continuity in moments of purported change, and to be more open to the possibility of sharp cultural and social disruption and discontinuity. And for Robbins, the paradigmatic case of that is collective conversions to Christianity in Papua New Guinea, which often involves some rather serious transvaluations in a society. This claim regarding rupture, which echoes a similar observation that Birgit Meyer has made regarding Pentecostalism in Africa, has not gone unchallenged. Liana Chua, for instance, has suggested that there might be places where there are different intensities to change, often divided up along denominational lines. And Mark Mosko has suggested that the underlying structure of personhood and exchange goes unchanged by conversion, at least in Melanesia, though he has at times suggested this is a part of a broader pattern in the Christian structure of selfhood. Even more recently, Devaka Premawardhana has been arguing for a more fluid ethnographic sensibility, where converts in places such as Mozambique do not go through such sharp discontinuities in their commitments and practices.

Of course, flattening Christian senses of temporality into “rupture: yes or no” is perhaps a little too simple; Robbins obviously meant to make something more of an intervention in a discussion about cultural change rather than to create some hard-and-fast-rule. And you yourself have played with creating more finely patterned senses of temporality; I’m thinking here of a discussion you had elsewhere of Kierkegaardian repetition in Fijian ideas of time, especially when it comes to the interactions between Christianity and curses. So, you’re willing to play with sensibilities about continuity and change.

All this is by way of saying that what you present in God Is Samoan is something that seems to defy any easy pigeonholing into some of the preexisting camps on this issue. The theologians you engage with want to express Christianity through explicitly Oceanian metaphors and similes, and sometimes even argue for strong continuity with pre-Christian tradition. But at the same time, they seem to sense that the arrival of Christianity marked a significant break of some kind, and they also appear to be offering their theological concepts in the interest of creating further change through dialogue. Could you say something about how you see God Is Samoan fitting into – or perhaps, not fitting into – these anthropological disputes over rupture and continuity? And are there lessons here for thinking about temporality and change that could be picked up by people working outside of religion in Oceania?

Matt Tomlinson: Right, the continuity-and-change debate has motivated a lot of work in the anthropology of Christianity–but as you say, Robbins was not proposing any hard-and-fast rule, but rather (I think) calling for a new kind of culture theory which, among other things, does not overlook Christianity’s profound cultural force.

As you note, contextual theologians make claims about both continuity and rupture. Because they tend to draw on older anthropological models of culture–structural-functionalist and cognitivist ones, in which culture is a unified system of rules and relations you inherit–their goal in putting culture at the center of their theology is often to argue for deep continuity between local traditions and Christian truths. Interestingly enough, in making this move, it’s missionary Christianity that is framed as rupture, but often in a negative way. For example, missionary Bible translations are criticized for not using locally appropriate linguistic/cultural referents, and imposing less appropriate foreign ones.

My favorite example of a continuity-and-change argument in contextual theology is found in the work of Ama’amalele Tofaeono. For him, the Samoan creator Tagaloa was, in fact, the spirit of Christ, because obviously the spirit of Christ is not limited to the physical existence of Jesus. Because traditional Samoan lifeways recognized the divinity of Tagaloa, they were thoroughly Christian. What broke this system? European missionaries coming in with the model of God as essentially a white man, separate from the natural order. In taking up mission Christianity, for Tofaeono, Samoa got less Christian.

Yet the field of contextual theology itself is seen, by some of its authors, as disruptive in the positive sense of giving voice to those who would never be heard in old-fashioned systematic theology. The career (so far) of one Tongan theologian, Nasili Vaka’uta, shows a kind of push-and-pull between understandings of continuity and change in this regard. When he began his theological studies, he was interested in Bakhtin, but his supervisor encouraged him to explore his Tongan heritage as a theological resource instead. Yet this was not an easy thing to do for several reasons, as Vaka’uta points out. For one, he is not from the noble class, and only nobles are supposed to represent Tongan culture and society. In other words, it made him vulnerable to criticism from a Tongan audience. For another, writing a dissertation based on European theological sources is a safe bet for getting your degree, whereas putting forth a distinctively Tongan argument is a riskier bet. So he was also vulnerable to a non-Tongan audience. Ultimately, he has succeeded brilliantly. But asking whether his work foregrounds continuity or rupture, in either his subjects or his methods, becomes a misleading question. He does both.

Stepping back a bit, I do think it’s important to distinguish between change as an objective fact and change as ideology. This might be obvious, but it needs saying. The authors in the anthropology of Christianity get this point really well, but outside of the subdiscipline, I am often frustrated by arguments that take loss or brokenness as an obvious or natural condition of our present moment. The loss of linguistic diversity in the world, and the extinction of species, are really happening and we can count the specific losses. But so much human energy gets poured into ideologically framing things as continuation or novelty, or for that matter gain or loss, that we need to draw back and ask what gets counted as evidence for any of these processes, and why.

Jon Bialecki: Culture plays a vital role in your book – but not as an analytic; rather, local concepts of culture are the primary key that contextual theology operates. But as you just stated, this is a version of culture that is very antiquated to contemporary anthropological eyes. The power of this version of ‘culture’ is apparent throughout God Is Samoan; I think that there were only one or two theological voices that questioned it in the entire volume. The fascination that this version of culture has is not limited to either theology or Oceania, however. This image of culture seems to be all over the place – including in certain right-wing movements in Europe, though I wouldn’t want to put your theologians in the same basket as those European nativist movements! Given the breadth of this vision of culture, I was hoping that you could say something about what it is that makes it so compelling, at least in Oceania. As an anthropologist who has worked with culture as an analytic in other places, I was also hoping that you could say something about how one can work with the idea of culture without accidentally reinforcing these much more procrustean public understandings of the idea.

Matt Tomlinson: Culture theory is in an odd place in 2020, isn’t it? Some of us still think the term “culture” is worth foregrounding theoretically. For example, I often assign Ira Bashkow’s 2004 article “A Neo-Boasian Conception of Cultural Boundaries” to students because it shows the vitality and flexibility of understandings of culture before structural functionalism. Many authors are happy to use the adjective “cultural” but suspicious of the noun “culture.” And some scholars, like the host of this forum, Ilana Gershon, do what I consider culture theory but are skeptical of the term itself. Personally, I don’t mind “culture” as a noun denoting process, and am fine with any anthropological use of it that makes visible the interactive social work that goes into claiming relations of similarity and difference.

But, yeah: this is not how most contextual theologians write about culture. The culture concept many contextual theologians draw on is useful, for them, for the same reason many anthropologists distrust it: its stability. It’s a referent for which there seems to be a built-in agreement about its significance. In other words, although Samoan intellectuals may disagree about what is fa’aSamoa (the “Samoan way,” a gloss for Samoan culture), I can’t imagine anyone saying that there is no such thing as fa’aSamoa–that would seem absurd. Referring to it gives people apparent common ground, and enables speakers to make connections with other referents: God, biblical texts, church policies, and so forth. (There are connections here with the way you write about virtual Christianity with reference to Deleuze, I think.)

As I mentioned before, discussing the work of Nasili Vaka’uta–and he is one of the voices who does critique the culture concept–a model of culture gives him a position from which to make a distinctive contribution to knowledge. For him, knowing Tongan culture enables him to speak to other biblical scholars and theologians in new ways. But speaking isn’t enough, because you need to know who’s listening. And he puts the question pointedly: Can a Tongan reading of the Bible “make a difference in biblical scholarship” generally?

Jon Bialecki: Now, normally, the format here is to close the interview with a sort of ‘coming attractions’ reel, where the interviewee talks about future projects, and I don’t want to take that away from you. But I also want to stick with the theme of dialogue. So, I’ll ask the classical question this way: in what ways has the dialogue you’ve had with these Oceanian Conxtextual theologians changed the way you think, and how will this conversation shape your future projects?

Matt Tomlinson: The work for God Is Samoan, as well as more recent work I’ve been doing with Spiritualists in Australia, has led me to focus on the relationships between dialogism and monologism as ideologies and dialogue and monologue as formats. What drives me is the question of how we really engage with others’ words, especially when words are credited to extrahuman speakers or authors.

As I’ve seen and heard contextual theologians construct different kinds of dialogue, and as I’ve seen and heard Spiritualist mediums work to bring dialogues with spirits into conjunction with dialogues with human audiences, I continually want to know what the limits to these dialogues are. I don’t think it makes sense to study dialogues or dialogism without studying monologues and monologism.

To finish on a note of thanks: I appreciate the chance for this exchange. Real dialogues can happen. But they’re hard work!

Tom Boylston on his book, The Stranger at the Feast

The Stranger at the Feast by Tom Boylston

Interview by Jon Bialecki

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520296497/the-stranger-at-the-feast

Jon Bialecki: The Stranger at the Feast stands out for numerous reasons. First, it reads like one of those classical ethnographies that have no seams, being all of one piece. But at the same time, it’s also far from monological; without engaging in any representational trickery, you allow your research assistants and friends in the field to have their own voice, and the book even gives them space to engage in their own counter-ethnography of the West.

 But perhaps because of my background as an academic, or perhaps because this open-access monograph came out as a part of the University of California Press’s Anthropology of Christianity series, what stood out was how this book read like a fun-house inverted reflection of the anthropology of Christianity literature. Now, there has been a raft of books arguing for Eastern Orthodoxy as an autonomous and valuable ethnographic object in its own right. But rather than just militate for the importance of including Eastern Orthodoxy, Stranger takes analytic tropes from the more Protestant- and Pentecostal-oriented anthropology of Christianity, such as mediation and presence, and makes them strange.

 So, starting there, I was hoping we could begin the conversation by contrasting the path Stranger lays out by breaking with the kind of bog-standard discussions of mediation we’ve seen in so many other ethnographies of Christian groups. How does mediation work in Stranger, and in what ways does the discussion of mediation both follow and depart from how this problem has been treated by in other ethnographies of Christian groups?

Tom Boylston: One of the basic arguments of the book is that Orthodox practice in Zege has transformed in all sorts of ways but the key constant has been that there must be mediation – both in the sense of intermediaries who intercede between humanity and God, and in the sense of material media of sacred presence. And that insistence on mediation is formulated in opposition to Protestantism and to secular government practices – Zege hasn’t seen a lot of Protestant conversion yet but it’s been happening in other parts of what’s thought of as canonical Orthodox territory. So, I think lay and clerical Orthodox Christians are engaged in their own sophisticated critique of Protestantism and secularism, both of which are understood as projects of immediacy. For example, both Protestants and the state have been critical of the Orthodox practice that you don’t work the fields on Saints’ days. This undermines the saintly mediation of the relationship between people and land; in advocating a direct, unmediated relationship between people and land, it tries to break down a complex relational religious ecology. So Orthodox Christians often describe Protestantism and secularism as equally anti-religious forces.

This starts to give you a hint of what it means to insist on mediation as a basic religious principle. You must have intercession, so salvation is always relational. There’s a huge emphasis on performing religious acts on other’s behalf, which can mean praying to a saint for someone (so mediating to a mediator), or carrying jerrycans full of holy water for your sick neighbour. And mediation means that religious practice is ecological – it is built into your relationship with the land, and the calendar, and your own body – because you have saints’ days, and fasting days, and working days, and corresponding spaces mapped out between church, forest, and fields. Maybe this helps to understand why the book feels quite continuous – it’s describing a system that extends far beyond explicitly religious events into every part of life.

How this relates to the anthropology of Christianity (which is my own background) – I honestly think Orthodox Christians and anthropologists of Christianity alike are perceiving contemporary world orders as projects of immediacy – and lots of anthropologists and media scholars have pointed out the irony that the desire for immediate experience is produced by increasingly complex technological mediation. And anthropologists like Birgit Meyer, Matthew Engelke, Webb Keane, Patrick Eisenlohr, and others, have picked apart this quest for immediacy and shown the complex and conflicted relationships with the material world that come out of the intertwined projects of missionary religion, globalization, and colonialism.

This work has been foundational for me, but I would suggest that the Orthodox critique of immediacy is different in important ways from the scholarly critique. For most anthropologists of religion and media, certainly working on Protestant traditions, the starting point is: obviously God and spirits are not actually present to the senses – given this, how do people go about creating or learning to perceive divine presence? This logic participates (albeit critically) in the project of immediacy. Because it starts from an empty-box cosmology, where material stuff is just there and the question is how we animate it and make it seem alive. The desire for unmediated contact with reality is born out of a severance between consciousness and the world (and William Mazzarella has shown how this is just as true of a certain type of academic affect theory as for Protestantism). I don’t think that’s where Orthodox Christians in Zege are starting from.

So what if, rather than asking how we animate the world with the tools of semiotics, we were to ask how we deal with a world that is obviously already filled with divine presence? Here mediation becomes not a way of realizing an absent God, but of keeping divinity at bay to some extent – to keep humanity at a respectful distance from God, although God is omnipresent.

Ultimately, I think mediation does both things simultaneously – it realizes connection with the other but also keeps them at bay. And this is why mediation is so closely connected with prohibition and discipline in Zege. You have to work through these spatio-temporal structures of distance and proximity, which tie the people, land, and church together, but in a hierarchical way that’s full of distinctions and intermediaries.

And the final point is that this is a historical thing. It’s not a perennial ritual structure but one that’s been defined in response to other things, that’s been subject to attempts at capture and seizure, that people have had to work out what matters and have emphasized different aspects of the mediation structure at different times (whether it’s fasting, sacrifice, priests, institutional authority, control of land) but the core point has been that there must be mediation, and that to oppose mediation, as Protestants are thought to do, is to attack religion in general.

Jon Bialecki: It’s interesting that you close by stressing the historically situated and dialectical nature of the Zege interest in religious mediation. In some moments in the 20th century and earlier, hierarchy and mediation were deeply integrated with issues of land-tenure, caste, mortuary feasting, and pre-secularist governmentality. At times, Strangers reads as a very British anthropological book that has an eye trained on how social organization gives birth to a cultural imaginary. But reading Strangers in such a way would do violence to both the ethnography and the argument of the book, as you show that in the absence of these social-organizational forms, the mediation-focused, hyper-hierarchical religious imagination does not fade away or slide into egalitarian forms. Instead, unmoored from these earlier modes of governance and ritual practices, this particular Zege religious imagination actually goes into overdrive. Could you say a little about how this hierarchical, mediatic imagination can exist apart from its original social conditions, and something about the new forms that it takes – and, hence, also about the new work that it does?

 

Tom Boylston: Well, I don’t think religious practice in Zege has been unmoored from anything, because fasting as a practice has been such a strong mooring. And the deep resilience of fasting is one of the most important points of the book. Fasting is a Protean practice – it can be a form of submission to authority or, as Caroline Walker Bynum showed, a way of circumventing it. You can perform it whether you are devout or completely unobservant in every other part of your life. You don’t have to make any particular proclamation in order to fast, but you can use it for very personal acts of atonement and faith. It’s dictated by this fairly rigid calendar (which has also been resilient), and yet fasting is still full of possibility and creativity. There’s also very widespread loyalty to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in its broadest sense, and regardless of the individuals who happen to occupy any particular position.

But yes, over the 20th century there has been massive upheaval, especially in the socialist and post-socialist reforms. During the DERG period there was very significant land reform and the church lost most of its landholdings, but the practice of Christianity remained intact or even grew at the grassroots level. Then in the current period there has been a continuing process of political secularization and public religious revival at the same time. But I think one of the things that changed in Zege was that the elite class that had developed around the monasteries – not the clergy themselves, but landholder-church officials – was disempowered, and so was a lot of the semi-formal ritual activity that sustained them. This includes funeral feasts, which were massive occasions for distributing food and reinforcing hierarchy, but have now been recast as wasteful and immoral. I think that an emphasis on religious mediation – and on religious hierarchy – is a way of maintaining a sphere of life that is not determined by secular governmentality. But to be recognized as legitimate it has to proceed through authorized structures – the Church and its doctrinal practices. Fasting and liturgical practice aren’t anti-government in particular, but they do mark out a certain limit to secular authority.

Jon Bialecki: I think that this brings us to the issues that sit at the (literal) center of the book: slavery, caste, and a class of deadly (sometimes) nonhuman entities called buda. What stood out to me in the book was the complex and ambivalent nature that these three deeply imbricated phenomena had to hierarchy and mediation. They could be seen as expressions of hierarchy’s logic, as means of support for the now vitiated prior social institutions that supported and benefited from hierarchy, and corrosive agents that dissolved hierarchy and hierarchy pre-twentieth-century social infrastructure. Especially slavery and buda seemed to at once be particularly well suited to think through hierarchy in both positive and negative modes. Could you say something about the shared histories of these categories, and their relation to the hierarchical and mediatic Zege imagination and sociality?

Tom Boylston: I don’t think I would describe the relationship between slavers and slaves as hierarchical, because hierarchy implies commensurability, and slavery completely denies it. I think the same is true of many of the stigmatized artisan groups living in Zege and elsewhere, and the stigma still exists even though slavery ended in the 1930s. This is probably true of most hierarchies – there is ranked inclusion, but then there is always a point of exclusion, of those against whom the hierarchy defines itself. These exclusions are totally contradictory to Christian universalism, but they continue to coexist at different levels.

The best way to understand it might be through feeding, which is both inclusive and hierarchical. It creates a bond between us, but through the figure of parent and child, host and guest, or Christ as bread of heaven and humanity. It is hierarchy as care as well as power. And there is attenuated food sharing across religious boundaries – Christians and Muslims will share food but not meat or alcohol. But stigmatized identities are those you refuse all commensality with. I try to show in the book how this refusal is accompanied by a projection of violent greed toward the stigmatized person: that they have no land, they desire what you have and will try to take it from you instead of following the proper channels of feeding and receiving.

By tracing different levels of mediation – through food, marriage, and the Eucharist, for example, we can see how hierarchy is not monolithic, but plays out in multiple, overlapping ways through material and relational practices.

Jon Bialecki: The observation you just made, viewing hierarchy more as a process or imminent mode of ordering, rather than as a structure, seems to really come to the fore in the final section of the book. The introduction of electricity to Zege, which occurred only a few years before you began your fieldwork there, opened up what, to your interlocutors, was new media technologies, including the internet and social media. And concomitant with that was a very particular imaginative orientation to the broader world. This process was also accelerated by the expansion of tourism as a local industry, and also by widely circulated news of anti-Christian violence in Libya and South Africa. But even these new possibilities and orientations didn’t mark a break with hierarchy and a conscious elaboration of mediation, causing something more along the lines of mutations and expansions rather than any weakening of the hierarchical imperative. How do new media, and a changing orientation to the extra-Ethiopian world, change senses of belonging, attachment, and position, while still being animated by a particularly Ethiopian-Orthodox logic?

Tom Boylston: Facebook, for example, was very important for maintaining contact with loved ones who had traveled to the Dubai or Saudi to work. A lot of these connections were maintained through religious idioms – posting images of saints or churches or prayers, as kind of figures of connection – as beings and practices that protect and bind us regardless of physical space.

One point that has been hammered home by the literature on religion and media is that religious communication, like any other communication, is dependent on material media and infrastructures. And a question that occurred to me was whether, from this perspective, communication with God or saints was any different to mediated communication among humans. If you approach it from the perspective of presence, this question is hard to answer, because prayer, like using Facebook or Skype, is a way of making absent others present. And I wonder if the Protestant-influenced, presence-focused literature on mediation thinks of religious communication maybe too much like a telephone to God.

But if we think about examples like the one above and ask what it means to post a picture of a saint on Facebook, and whether this resembles the veneration of an icon, we see that the saint is not acting as a human other, as a co-partner in conversation, but precisely as an intermediary whose love and protection we both seek out. So rather than think of saints and their images as producing presence, I prefer to think of them as augmenting the communicative network. Just as observing a saintly day of rest loops the saint into stewardship of the land, so posting a saint’s image loops the saint into our social relationship as kin who are separated from one another but are expressing concern and co-belonging over large distances. And so when we share other images, for example of our countrymen being murdered far from home, these are also framed within the aegis of saints and prayers.

This certainly might raise interesting theological questions – about whether digital images should be venerated, or about whether they can be sanctified. But in practical terms I don’t think those questions are very prominent. It’s always struck me that, for regular Orthodox Christians, one of the most obvious uses for a cellphone – or a bus, or any technology that extends space and time – is to carry images of saints. Saints have a spatial and temporal expansiveness that superficially resembles that of media technology, but is quite different.

Jon Bialecki: The interests in emergent technologies and concomitant conceptual invention just discussed also seem to be informing what I understand to be your next project. Could you say a little about what you are working on now, and also about how this new project might be connected to the theoretical concerns that informed Strangers at the Feast?

Tom Boylston: First I want to thank you for the time and thought you have put into this. It means a lot.

I don’t completely know what the next project is going to look like, but for various life reasons I’m going to be looking at video games. Which seems like a departure from Orthodox Christianity, but it picks up on two themes that have been very important to me. One is what it’s like to inhabit a world immersed in lively images, and the other is the kinds of body disciplines that go along with such a world and link bodies and images together. So I’m interested in emerging discourses of game addiction, and trying to understand what it means to abstain in an always-on society. I’m also interested in how game makers and players describe and work through different kinds of trauma through the distinctive kind of image-practice that video games offer.

If it’s all right with you, I’d like to just finish with a reflection on fasting that might be inchoate in the book but has shaped my thinking – about anthropology and about life – ever since. In the North Atlantic capitalist world, a lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea of fasting. There are endless studies about how fasting must be harmful for pregnant women (Orthodox Christian women are quite capable of figuring out how much food they need, and if they have too little it’s generally not because they’re choosing to fast). A lot of people are tempted to read fasting through what they know about Ethiopia, which is its history of famines, and I think this is deeply the wrong way to go about it. In the UK, where I live, people understand dieting and going to the gym but tend to be freaked out by the idea of regular, communal (and often quite mild) self-denial. In the UK, even our ascetic practices are forms of consumption, and the idea of deliberate non-consumption is seen as something verging on illness. And I would put this down to political-economic reasons, on the slow closing down of shared spaces that aren’t dependent on purchasing something. I don’t want to romanticize it but I do want to emphasize that culture is not just a set of interpretable symbols that can be made meaningful. It is a set of effective techniques for achieving something in the world, and often this achievement – this real, technical knowledge – is operative at the level of collective subjectivity. I suggest that fasting is a technique of collective attention that resists commodification or any other kind of reduction in really important ways. And, as Ephraim Isaac has pointed out, it is a mistake to think of fasting as world-hating or world denying. This would be to fall into the fallacy of immediacy – you refuse food, therefore you must hate your body. But think of this in terms of attention, and you can see that fasting only makes you more aware of your body and its needs and desires. Fasting can be a way of drawing attention to spiritual others, but only through the body itself.

Jessica Hardin discusses her book, Faith and the Pursuit of Health

Faith and the Pursuit of Health

https://www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/faith-and-the-pursuit-of-health/9780813592923

Courtney Handman: Can you give a brief overview of the main theoretical and ethnographic issues that you discuss in Faith and the Pursuit of Health?

Jessica Hardin: Through fieldwork I came to see the relevant questions to ask about cardiometabolic disorders in Samoa were not about diabetes or hypertension directly but instead about people’s religious lives. The book then developed around these kinds of questions: How do people make sense of sickness through their religious lives? What makes health itself a Christian pursuit? How do critical Christian practices come to bear on questions about who gets sick and why? Overall the book is an effort to understand the everyday ways I saw Pentecostals interpreting and intervening on widespread experiences of a cluster of cardiometabolic disorders from diabetes to kidney disease. Ultimately, they interpreted the rapid emergence of these disorders as evidence of the human causes of sickness, calling forward a need for salvation for individuals and the nation.

This piqued my interest because medical anthropological approaches to chronic illness have one consistent through line: structural causes, what Pentecostals saw as human created structures, are erased by enduring discourses and practices in biomedicine that reinforce notions of individual responsibility and autonomy. In Samoa, as people managed these disorders, though, they were highly aware of the environmental and structural impetus of widespread chronic disease. So what made that possible?

The book draws from medical anthropological approaches to embodiment and chronic illness with approaches in the anthropology of Christianity to conversion and critical practice to answer these questions. This analytic intersection provided me new ways to understand how Pentecostals constructed chronic illness as a Christian problem, in turn craving social pathways to change the everyday environments that they saw as causing their chronic illness. By moving these problems out of the clinic and into the church, sickness became a problem of faith, not individual will. In turn the everyday management of these disorders became linked to religious solutions, becoming actionable in ways otherwise not possible in day-to-day life.

The intersection in analytic premises in medical anthropology—that people are experts in the social causes of sickness—and the anthropology of Christianity—that Christianity is a critical practice with linguistic tools for examining human interference with God’s providence—made it possible to see how the moral pursuit of health is integral to the moral work of crafting Christian subjecthood. This argument builds on your work in Critical Christianity by examining how these critique practices are embodied. The ethnographic stories focus on how people identify that which stands in the way of a direct relationship with God by paying attention to the minutiae of bodily change.

This approach centers on how the changing qualities of the body, registered in stress and hunger or spikes in glucose or blood pressure were instructive; they revealed social causes. They were talked about and reflected upon in daily efforts to feed, heal and care for others. I call this embodied critique. Pentecostals developed a particular vocabulary for the changing body, teaching people to see the metabolic fluctuations in their bodies as evidence of fluctuations in their faith—showing the salvational logic of metabolism.

Samoa was an excellent place to explore this kind of theoretical approach because of the historical meanings associated with dynamic materialities. In Samoa, materials like food and fat move through the body and land, and in doing so, materialize in bodies the very hierarchies that direct those materials. Samoa is a place where large bodies have conventionally indicated that depth of one’s social world, indexing fecundity and the power to direct resources through the land into bodies. The large body was also a still body, one that was dignified by its inaction as this indicated the simultaneous labor of others. It was this ontological frame that led me to study Pentecostals because of the ways they articulated materialities as instructive and critical resources for understanding their changing world.

From the perspective that materials are evidentiary I began to see how the onset of widespread cardiometabolic disorders brought into question the everyday analytics that people employed as they interpreted people’s actions, and their bodies, in their day to day lives. When food and fat have historically “told” people about the depth of their relations and the landscape of rights and responsibilities, when fat became more evenly distributed and the dense foods of privilege (like sugary, fatty, salty objects) more easily available, how did people understand the meanings of bodies? Or the daily negotiating of endemic hierarchies? Or even spiritual authority?

Courtney Handman: You talk about the temporality of conversion in ways that are rather different than a lot of other anthropologists of Christianity, where conversion as an event is either not much addressed or is reported by one’s Christian interlocutor as something that happens in an instant. A lot of that analysis is rooted in your focus on Samoans’ experiences of health or illness. How does your focus on health affect the way you approach Christian temporality?

Jessica Hardin: I found myself seeing the temporalities that anthropologists of Christianity describe —the instantaneousness of conversion—and the temporalities that medical anthropologists describe—of the active creation of “befores” and “afters” related to the integration of a disease identity into one’s life. But, these temporalities came together in ways that were productive of novel social action not evident in either vein of scholarship. I started thinking about temporality in three ways as a result.

First, the intersection of conversion narratives and illness narratives—what I call embedded narratives—were stories told again and again. Their performative capacities—to create a saved identity, to create a sick role—merged in ways that affirmed the choices people made each day, offering them new ways of acting in the world. So while they were crafting a subject position—the individual speaking subject that we know from scholarship on Christians—and the person living a life changed by sickness—they were also domain shifting. In other words, by articulating an illness event as the precipitating event for conversion, pathways towards healing became evident. These pathways were otherwise difficult to parse in day-to-day life in Samoa—given those structural and environment factors that making avoiding or “controlling” diabetes, for example, feel nearly impossible. When these narrative conventions merged, the “befores” and “after” became less significant than the on-goingness of faith practices, and ultimately healing.

Healing was the second place where I saw that the temporality of instantaneousness, that we associate with Pentecostal healing. Instead I followed the accompanying temporalities that were more mundane that made the temporality of miraculous, perfect healing possible through everyday work of managing the body. This was particularly evident when studying cardiometabolic disorders like diabetes because they could not be vanquished in an instant—they ontologically challenged the notion that healing is complete and perfect. These sicknesses persisted over a lifetime. So then, how could people be healed if their diabetes persisted? When I started asking people about this paradox, they positioned healing as the unremarkable everyday work of avoiding particular foods, using money in new ways, or removing sources of stress and anger that sparked spikes in glucose or blood pressure.

Ultimately, these kinds of temporalities showed me that the instantaneous performative temporality of conversion and healing was accompanied by more invisible temporalities that were crafted by (mostly) women as they helped people come to embody a saved or healed subject position. Friends and healers taught new converted people how to speak, interpret their bodies and develop stances towards family that were seen as the source of suffering. They taught an embodied analytics—new ways of interpreting dynamic change in the body as a reflection of their faith.

The temporality of instantaneous conversion then was accompanied by the everyday work of helping people live within those worlds that were supposed to be radically different, and yet people didn’t know exactly how they should be different. The work of healing diabetes was then as much about imagining a path towards regular pharmaceutical use as texting with a group of women when stressful family situations arose or praying for one’s alcoholic father. These moments seem disconnected from diabetes, given that global discourse around diabetes focuses so heavily on diet and exercise. Yet the struggles that people associated with diabetes, the situations that needed healing were about feeling stressed and angry, dealing with the constant search for cash in an environment where opportunities to earn enough were few.

Instantaneous conversion authorized people to seek different kinds of relations, to speak differently and to use their money differently. Living with diabetes similarly required people to live in their worlds and bodies differently, eating differently, directly resources to medical care, developing physical activity routines. The work of healing was in crafting those different worlds.

Courtney Handman: What are your currently working on? How does your current work connect to Faith and the Pursuit of Health

 Recently, I’ve developed a couple of organic leads from this work. When doing this work I occasionally came across people who had undergone amputation related to diabetes and constantly met people with skin infections on their feet and lower legs related to neuropathy from diabetes. At the time I didn’t feel like I could work with people undergoing these dramatic changes because these were extraordinarily difficult transformations for people and their families to undergo. Now, I see that their experiences are often invisible in the larger literature on diabetes and certainly in diabetes interventions in Samoa. This got me thinking about the ways that health promotion, with its relentless prevention discourses, might be a driver of complications. When I did some pilot work on the topic I found that most people didn’t associate the conditions that precipitate amputation—that is skin infections or numbness—with diabetes. So, this new project takes on the question of the limitations, and potential deleterious impacts of prevention frameworks, using temporality to probe this question.

The other project I’ve just begun is working in the London Missionary Society archives, as these were the most influential missionaries in Samoa, to consider how missionaries were essential actors in creating the food systems of Samoa, crafting markets as integral to the functioning of missions. This historical angle is new to me, but I hope provides insights into some of the paradoxes involved in creating a decent meal—using Hanna Garth’s words—in Samoa today. What I’m also finding is a cultural text of conversion related to sickness, death and illness—as (at least in the late 1840s) missionaries saw these existential moments are some of the most productive for creating “sincere” conversion.

What a pleasure it is to dialogue about my book, especially with you, because your theorizing on “critical Christianity,” which helped me make sense of what I saw happening in day-to-day life in Samoa.

Angie Heo on her new book, The Political Lives of Saints

 

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520297982/the-political-lives-of-saints

Interview by Alice Yeh

 Alice Yeh: Talk of persecution and extinction often accompanies media coverage of Christians in the Middle East.  What intervention does your book contribute to this conversation and what assumptions are you arguing against?

Angie Heo: Without doubt, Christians in the Middle East confront horrific incidents of violence – bombings, torchings, abductions, murders – that hit the headlines on a numbingly regular basis.  These tragedies understandably lead to anxieties and fears that Christians and Christianity are on the decline in the Arab Muslim world.  The irony is that social imaginaries of persecution and extinction are also the very stuff of Christianity in current contexts.  Persecution politics rely on aesthetic tropes of martyrdom and suffering.  Rhetorics of extinction compel the collective memory of founding origins.  During my fieldwork among Egypt’s Copts, I became convinced that marginalization and violence did not so much extinguish minority traditions as they activated and reactivated them toward various political ends.

My book shows how Coptic Orthodoxy serves as a central medium for governing Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt.  I found that saints – the Virgin, martyrs, miracle-workers, mystics – invite a form-sensitive analysis of communication between Christians and Muslims.  Saints and their imagined representations touch on classic anthropological themes such as personhood and materiality, and they also build on recent debates around religion and/as media. Perhaps most of all, I saw that tracing the semiotic intricacies of divine communication afforded more empirical purchase on the linkages between religious and political mediations.  I believe this is especially important when working on saints and shrines – a topic that often appeals to romanticized pasts and other-worlds that circumvent structures of modernity.  I hope my book does justice to the ways that cultural expressions of holiness flourish and transform in relation to complex politics of authoritarianism, inequality, revolution, and bloodshed.

 Alice Yeh: I want to ask a question about the structure of the book, and its organization into three parts (relics, apparitions, icons). One effect is that, as a narrative, the book describes the increasingly sophisticated semiotic technologies by which saints are made accessible to others. Why did you organize the book this way? Do these techniques build one upon the other or do they develop in tension?

 Angie Heo: Thanks for this most thoughtful observation. I am happy to hear it because crafting my book’s organization was a source of weird obsession and pleasure; your recognition that there is a narrative structure in it is so gratifying.  When I was planning my book’s flow, I decided to focus on the religious terms of belonging to the Christian community and to the Christian-Muslim nation.  My ethnography begins with holy origins (in other words, “life-in-death”): the Coptic Church’s origins in martyrdom, through St. Mark of Alexandria and during New Year’s Eve of the 2011 uprisings.  I chose to open with the relics and how they mediate loci of divine passion, sacrifice and resurrection, ultimately, the ritual exchange of violence for justice.  My ethnography closes with holy departure (that is, “life-after-death”): the canonization of saints, through holy fools and mystics, and the creation of eternal memory.  Here, the icon is my medium of choice, and I trace how icons mediate holy personhood and the temporal dynamics of disappearance.

On the point of the book’s cumulative arc, yes, I do understand that the semiotic technologies that I describe build on each other — relics, apparitions, icons.  I am not sure that I would say that they are increasingly sophisticated, but I definitely see them as interconnected modes of reproduction and circulation.  Essentially, I wanted to move away from the idea that relics, apparitions and icons are particular types of “things” or image-objects, toward considering them more as distinctive styles of material imagination that are subject to historical transformation. These three genres of imagination involve different sensory ratios (combining the visual, tactile, auditory) with different effects on making the space and time of saints.  For all their differences, relics, apparitions and icons are also inter-related media of representing and disseminating presence that work in intimate tandem and blend into one another.  I think where you can best see this blending effect is in the transitions between my book’s three parts: between chapters 2 and 3, it is Saint Mark’s relics that operate with the Virgin’s apparitions in a political economy of territorial returns; between chapters 4 and 5, it is a dream-apparition of a Virgin that translates into a miracle icon’s power to reconfigure the public.

Your proposal that relics, apparitions, and icons develop in tension to one another is quite stimulating.  While I have devoted my energy to thinking about the continuities between these semiotic technologies, I have done much less work on considering the tensions between them. If I could write a second version of this book, with all the same fieldwork materials but another entire analysis, I would take this question up.  It would be a really interesting exercise to see how the relic-form poses a challenge to the icon-form, for example.  The arbitrary quality of what analytic direction an author chooses to pursue and not pursue is what makes scholarship feel so infinite and full of possibilities!

Alice Yeh: Can you elaborate on the paradox of “mystical publicity”? Are there non-Christian or non-religious contexts in which it manifests?

It just so happens that I am teaching a bunch of texts this quarter that trace the mystical and ascetic strands of moral personhood in other traditions.  There are Sufi mystics hiding away in Hyderabad and Delhi, “Gandhian publicity” with its ascetic management of bodily energy, and of course, the Jewish Kabbalah which appeals to an occult cosmology of knowledge and power. Reading Eastern Orthodox theological writings on the holy icon, I was completely floored by how much ink, century after century, has been spilled on the divine status of images and the fatal risks of idolatry.  When I did my fieldwork, I was also taken by the way that monks and nuns looked away from cameras when we were taking group photos, which got me reading up on holy fools and the desert anchorites – on social imaginaries of withdrawal, self-effacement, and death.  If you check out my footnotes, you may notice that I also try to link up the Orthodox tradition to ancient Greek ethics of cynicism via Sloterdijk.  My last body chapter’s epigraph is also a quote from Goffman’s “On Facework”, a classic piece whose first footnote is a fascinating orientalist reference to Chinese concepts of face and saving face.  Not incidentally, it is also an essay that motivated MacIntyre’s charge that foundational nihilism lay behind Goffman’s sociological method.

In the broadest sense, I suppose I am making a claim here about the nature of the religious / non-religious distinction within the work of concepts.  One could argue that mystical thought and practice has been a crucial resource for deconstruction and poststructuralism; I am thinking of Derrida’s disavowal of metaphysics and de Certeau’s ontological commitment to traces here.  Continental philosophy and American sociology also inherited, at least in part, a canon of core terms that have defined the status of the human, and the divine/ human limit, in religious traditions.  Secular humanism may be presumed in mass industries of celebrity and in the consumption of imagined persons.  However, the moral perils of mass popularity, such as “losing one’s self” or “turning corrupt”, also deeply resonate with the millennia-old mystical impulse to retreat and just disappear from the crowds.

Alice Yeh: One especially interesting observation is that institutionalized Christian-Muslim sectarianism is more the consequence of a shared rather than oppositional religious imaginary.  For example, you write about how Muslim eyewitnesses are crucial to authenticating a Marian apparition. How are these eyewitnesses located in the construct of “the simple people”? How do “the simple people”shape cross-confessional practices of witnessing?

Angie Heo: One of my book’s main arguments is that sectarian division is intrinsic to imaginings of Christian-Muslim nationhood.  My claim here is really directed to long-championed formulas of “nation above religion” that are based on an ideological opposition between national unity and sectarian difference.  To break past the opposition, I begin with questions of communication, or “commonness”, to expose the formal continuities between national and sectarian imaginaries. This is where I see semiotic approaches and resources in linguistic anthropology to be very helpful. In each of my chapters, I explore the question of communicative form, or what is presumed to be shared and not shared between Christians and Muslims.  When I analyzed relics and apparitions, I focused on the communicative terms of a sacred territory, whether it is imagined as a divinely blessed Holy Egypt (national) or as a church in competition with a mosque (sectarian).  When I analyzed apparitions and icons, I examined the communicative terms of a moral public, and the ways in which a collective subject comprised of both Christians and Muslims (national) create structures of communal identity and secrecy (sectarian).

Anybody who has spent significant time with Copts will have likely heard the adjective “simple” (basīṭ, basīṭa) or the phrase “the simple people” (al-busaṭāʾ).  In Egypt, “simple” can be a subtle geographic reference to Upper Egypt, and in the Arab world at large, “simple” can also connote  the urban working classes (here, I must credit Abdellah Hammoudi for pointing this out to me).  During my fieldwork in both rural villages and industrial neighborhoods, I discovered that the term “the simple people” also expressed some kind of moral credibility among Copts: “Those villagers are too simple, they wouldn’t even know how to torch a church!” (chapter 6); “The Muslims who reported seeing the Virgin are simple people, unlike those who denied her who are motivated by their self-interest.” (chapter 3).

Judgments like these are curiously ambivalent.  They revealed how the quality of simpleness signified both the power to transcend sectarian identity and the guilelessness to ward off allegations of violence.  I became utterly fascinated by invocations of “the simple people”, especially since saints are also frequently praised for being simple.  If simplicity is a virtue, then I had to study the image of “the simple people” – the trustworthy public and its credible opinion – as a key protagonist in the story of making saints.

 Alice Yeh: What specific challenges or conveniences did the turn to identifying relics, apparitions, and icons as genres of mediation pose for your fieldwork?  What advice would you offer to students with related interests?

Angie Heo: I have a zillion answers running through my head, and I think it’s because I am imagining many different audiences reading this.  To students interested in materiality studies, I am committing to one brief piece of advice, for what it’s worth.  Resist taking the object for granted.  This seems like an elementary point, but I am always surprised by how often some “thing” is presumed to be a relic merely because it is a body-part of a holy figure or because it is a fragment of a lost past.  I approach relics, apparitions, and icons as genres of mediation, and not as already-given types of objects, because I see my most interesting work emerging from a curiosity in how persons and things are recognized as such in the first instance.  Like it did with numerous thinkers from Marx to Munn, this somewhat dissatisfied curiosity drove my constant doubt in my inclinations to naturalize images into “things.” And I am grateful for what the curiosity and doubt together allowed me to question and see anew.

Elise Berman on her new book, Talking Like Children

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/talking-like-children-9780190876982

Interview by Shannon Ward

Shannon Ward: Most chapters of your book illustrated the enactment of “aged agency” through narratives that follow key events in the lives of your interlocutors, written in an accessible style and in English translation. What challenges did you face in translating your fieldnotes and transcriptions into this format?

Elise Berman: This is a great question. It was both hard and easy. I wanted to write a book that people would want to read, that would make the people I had met come alive, even while being theoretically rich. And so I did some research. As I was writing Talking Like Children, I happened upon a book called Storycraft by Jack Hart that discusses how to write narrative non-fiction. It occurred to me, then, that anthropological data is full of stories, and that ethnographies can be, and the best are, narrative non-fiction. Similarly, while teaching at UNCC the books that work best in my classes are the ones that have a strong narrative arch, characters that the students can latch on to and follow.

But the structure of narrative non-fiction that Hart describes is quite different than the way I was writing in graduate school (and I ended up wishing that I had taken a narrative non-fiction class). So, I completely rewrote my dissertation, not only to change the theory but also to change my style. One of the main points that struck me from Hart’s book was that when telling a narrative, you don’t want to give away the end in the beginning. So, for instance, in Chapter 1 when I talk about the birth of Pinla’s child, I do not initially tell the reader who got the child in the end. That is the climax, and the desire to know the result of these negotiations is what pulls readers through the text. But in the type of expository writing that I have learned, you are supposed to put the thesis in the beginning! So what I tried to do was put the theoretical thesis of each chapter in the beginning, but create narrative tension by starting with a hook and letting the story develop through the chapter without giving the ending away. I also tried to follow the other elements of Hart’s structure—beginning with action, intertwining narrative with expository information, and ending with a climax. This organization of each chapter took quite a bit of rethinking, reworking, and learning about narrative non-fiction.

But the other part of your question, about translating the fieldnotes and transcripts themselves into the dialogue, that was easy. A quote from a transcript can be written as dialogue, especially since I would have to translate it from Marshallese anyway for a transcript. What I did, instead of including symbols to indicate things like pauses or pitch, was provide that information as a narrative description. I actually found it much easier to explain this way than through symbols in a transcript. Moreover, writing this way pushed me to look closer at my videos. For narrative reasons, I wanted to be able to talk about where Rōka was looking or what Jackie did with her hand. To do that, I had to dig deeper into the recordings, and I frequently discovered relevant elements of the videos that I had left out in my previous version of the transcript.

Shannon Ward: Throughout the book, you compared age to gender, in order to theorize age as constructed and shifting. You also assert that “age is power.” Could you say more about how age intersects with gender to produce power in this ethnographic context? Relatedly, how are gender differences acquired alongside age differences, especially in childhood but also across the lifecycle?

Elise Berman: Gender differences are definitely acquired alongside age differences. The best example of this is in Chapter 6, where I talk about how Jackie has lost her former ability to run errands to men, since as she gets older she becomes subject to the “shyness” that often leads young women and men to talk in gender segregated groups. In contrast, however, Sisina, the child, is relatively bold. Her boldness is a part of learning to be not only a child who is different from an adult, but also a girl who is different from women. There are also various other aspects of gender that change across the life course that I do not discuss in the book. For example, in old age women seem to get bold once again and start playing a larger clowning role in festivals, whereas the younger women tend to be a little shyer.

This is one of the advantages, in fact, of focusing on age as a social construction. When one does, it highlights how all other categories—race, gender, class—dynamically change across the life course. So, focusing on age, in a way that I suggest has been largely (although not entirely) neglected in the social sciences, helps arguments that gender or race are not static or set in stone. It also changes the questions one might ask about the socialization of gender or race. Rather than being socialized into gender roles, people are socialized into age specific gendered modes of interaction and feeling that are constantly changing as people move across the life course.

Shannon Ward: Your book includes several stories of children who circulate between adopted families and birth families, amidst extensive controversy and discussions of adults’ morality. In these stories, you show how people, including children, use their age to affect the outcome of these exchanges. How do these Marshallese practices of adoption provide new perspectives on agency in the exchange of persons?

Elise Berman: This is another great question, and it really relates to the different forms of aged agency that exist in the RMI as a whole. Ultimately it is very hard to say no to an elder who requests something, including a child. But children and young adults have several different forms of agency, and specifically the agency of movement. Many children in the RMI have some amount of choice about where, and with whom, they live. In theory they are allowed to decide and can live with almost any relative. In practice, of course, it is much more complicated—they may not have transportation to a different relative (if that relative is on a different island), the different relative may not actually want them to stay, the parent they are leaving may be particularly powerful. Nonetheless, children’s freedom of movement changes the pattern of adoption as a whole, since adoptive children can and do move back and forth between multiple houses, including between what we would call their birth and adoptive parents. So, one part of childcare in the RMI is keeping your children happy, because if they aren’t they could (in theory) live elsewhere. People talked to me explicitly about this idea, that keeping your children with you requires keeping them happy—and that while this is particularly true of adoptive children it applies to others as well. Children’s movement is possible partly because of their age. They are not yet tied to a particular household that they care for.

Just as children can move between households, young adults can as well. One way to get away from a request for a child that you don’t want to fulfill is to move away until the child is older (one mother told me she did this: she didn’t want to give her kid away to an elder relative so when she was pregnant she moved to a different atoll). In turn, young adults also have a variety of choices available to them that are not as readily available to people in the US. Adoption is not a last resort in the RMI: it is a reasonable and expected option for single women as well as partnered ones. So I know of several women who told me that they adopted a child before they were partnered and before they had children of their own because they wanted a child. Now, this might happen in the US as well, but it is still something of an anomaly for a single woman to adopt a child. In turn, particularly given the common pattern of grandparents adopting the firstborn grandchildren, youth who have children before they are ready have a number of options open to them, options that might be offered rather than having to be sought out. Moreover, people change partners quite frequently early in relationships (when people are koba, together, but haven’t taken the step of becoming married), and this isn’t really seen as something that will negatively affect the children. Thus, women can adopt when single, and if they have a child without a partner it is not a big deal.

At the same time, however, these large families and these forms of sharing children have their own tensions, which I tried to illuminate in Chapter 1. In addition, and this is something that I didn’t write about in the book, when combined with high poverty rates this system is ripe for exploitation. There is a huge crisis of American adoptions of Marshallese children, where the ability of powerful people (including foreigners) to ask for things and get them, as well as these malleable households that shift and adapt, has led to an exorbitant number of American adoptions of Marshallese children.

­

Shannon Ward: Chapter 5, in particular, addresses issues of morality and age. Marshallese ideologies assert that children refrain from lying despite risks to their own or others’ reputations, unlike adults who lie to avoid shame and protect their reputations. In other words, this ideology holds that children are able to tell the truth, especially about others’ negative actions, due to their position as nonmoral persons. Throughout the book, you also mention the importance of Christianity. Other ethnographic literature about the Pacific region has shown how Christianity is shaping notions of truth, responsibility, and evidence related to morality. Could you say more about how these ideologies of children’s truthfulness and nonmorality relate to Christianity in this ethnographic context?

Elise Berman: It is not that the children refrain from lying despite risks to their own reputation, but rather that there are no risks to children’s reputations (or so adults think; children have a different view). Since, according to adults, children are too young to have reputations, any words that they tell are not real lies. Thus the ideology is not so much that children do not tell untruths (everyone agrees that they do), but rather they do not and have no motive to tell real lies that negatively affect adults. If they do, those words are not their own and they are not responsible for them.

This view of children’s words as not their own and, therefore, not lies even when they are false does seem to be quite different from the ideology of language explicitly expressed in church settings, in which a much greater concern is placed on words themselves as opposed to the effect of words. In line with the literature you reference, Christianity does seem to promote a different view of words and responsibility. But this ideology, as elsewhere in the Pacific, also seems to vary with denomination. My host family was Būrotijen, which is the United Church of Christ, the original denomination of the missionaries who came in the 1800s. So, I spent most of my time at the Būrotijen church. But there are many other newer denominations. When I visited two evangelical churches—Assembly of God and Looking for Jesus—the sermon’s rhetoric was much more focused on how God tells the truth and one must always tell the truth. Since almost everyone I interacted with outside of church was Būrotijen, I can’t say for sure how this perhaps greater emphasis on words’ referential accuracy within these other churches affects behavior outside of the church.

 

Britt Halvorson on her new book, Conversionary Sites

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/C/bo28267368.html

Interview by Josh Reno

Josh Reno: What were your primary goals in writing this book?

Britt: Halvorson: One of my goals in writing this book was to shine light on the transforming relationships between independent national churches in Sub-Saharan Africa and American Christian churches formerly involved in colonial mission work. Humanitarian aid relationships have become one way that Christians increasingly attempt to “do good in the world” and address forms of inequality among Christians. Some characterize humanitarian aid programs as more ethical practices than previous colonial missionary work because they do not appear to interfere with the authority and sovereignty of African churches. I critically explore such programs and their claims by asking how variously positioned Christians understand their moral and political dimensions. I also look into how humanitarian sensibilities are transforming people’s practices and perceptions of global Christianity.

Another goal in writing the book was to highlight the interpretive process and diverse valuations that occur through the material work of doing Christian aid. I have encountered studies of aid that smoothed out these activities or left the impression that aid workers operated similarly to fulfill organizational missions. Through my own aid labor and relationships with Christian aid workers in Minneapolis and Antananarivo, I experienced things differently: both Malagasy and American aid workers continually debated, imagined, and reflected on what doing aid meant and how they were implicated in that process. Medical technologies like x-ray machines were not static or single things per se but accorded varying meanings and values; aid workers pursued their relationships with God and each other through their aid labor; and a variety of absent presences pervaded aid activities, from the specter of colonial missionaries to a desired holism of body-soul not found in biomedical treatment.

This insight led me to the deeper realization that Christian aid-giving is a process of religious interpretation. So I wanted to fill my account of aid with all the lived struggles and beautifully fraught moments of aid spaces. I wanted to show people “making do” among varying value systems in a kind of dynamic, improvisational ethical practice. What I mean by that is that doing aid—whether sorting donations of surgical scissors or writing reports on the uses of medical relief—shapes varying positions, critiques, interpretations, and ethical problems of global religious community. Medical supplies like syringes and bandages can operate as forms of religious mediation, much like the films, cassette sermons, monetary donations, clothing, and much more described in other anthropological studies of religion. The material and bureaucratic practices of medical aid may seem dry and dull on the surface. But, as I hope to have shown, they are the very stuff of vital questions about what it means to be an ethical Christian in the contemporary world.

Josh Reno: In your analysis, conversionary sites play a key role as a way of conceptualizing how global medical aid changes as it crosses geographical distance, converting from one culturally meaningful form to another relative to religious sites and the practices and orientations of the actors involved. Can you describe what other work this idea performs in your analysis and what made it preferable to other possible approaches?

Britt Halvorson: I’ve used the term conversionary sites to draw out how Christian aid workers actively navigate the varying value regimes present in the Minnesota-Madagascar aid alliance. These include 1) ethical ideals of solidarity and mutuality among “global Christians,” 2) professional standards of accountability in bureaucratic humanitarianism, and 3) the resource inequalities of global medical commerce. Malagasy and American Christian aid workers constantly negotiate the asymmetries and gaps among these varying value regimes. This work is a key feature of the kind of Christian aid I studied and, I think, part of what makes it a meaningful practice for individual Christians; small uncertainties of value signal the creative leaps of faith that are central to Christian commitment. I consider conversionary sites to not only be the geographically-dispersed Christian aid spaces where I did research (aid warehouses, worship services, offices, house churches) but also the distinct material activities undertaken within those spaces. Aid laborers are not only seeking to, for example, morally redeem medical discards by praying over them or by associating “junk aid” with human sinfulness. Through the material transactions of aid, Americans and Malagasy involved in the aid program are also participating in an attempt to convert the moral foundation, ways of knowing, and practices of their prior relationship with each other under colonial missions.

Conversionary sites therefore enables me to draw out these shifting values of past and present and look into “conversions” as moral relations that take shape in, and receive reinforcement from, the material activities of aid. While American Lutherans (ELCA) were formerly involved in direct, face-to-face evangelism in southern Madagascar for over a century (1888-2004), individuals previously engaged in overseas mission work are now converting their own moral practice and moral subjectivity to be in keeping with an aid-giving sensibility that ostensibly upholds Malagasy authority and sovereignty. Likewise, Malagasy Lutherans’ relationship with American Lutheran churches has shifted over the last forty years to focus partly on financial grants and in-kind aid resources that sustain church-run institutions. For both projects, “the colonial” is a negative moral force against which contemporary Christian humanitarian efforts are being defined. I find this fascinating and relevant at a time when academics, too, are taking part in decolonizing efforts. I’ve observed that, when imperialism can be embodied in the figure of the colonial missionary and “the colonial” is easily named, less scrutiny is given to the more thoroughgoing cultural practices that less obviously maintain forms of racial and political inequality.

Josh Reno: Your ethnography examines the relationship of past colonization of Madagascar and present-day medical aid relationships, specifically the complicated and contested involvement of Lutheran missionaries in both. In what ways do varying temporalities become important to your analysis? Does this idea have relevance for other studies of humanitarianism, including those not focused explicitly on religious organizations?


Britt Halverson: This question fits beautifully with what I was describing above. I argue in the book that Christian aid work is a practice in time and of time. What I mean by that is that people doing aid—whether Christian or of another religious affiliation, or ostensibly secular—are often comparing their work to other possible approaches, including past interventions and relationships. These other possibilities come to inform and define present approaches to aid-giving in complex ways. In this respect, the relationship of past and present is always “present” in aid efforts! But the pasts evoked are creative, selectively made constructions that speak to the concerns of the present. I came to think of the relationship of past and present as an historical resource that Christian aid workers variously used to define a morally upright approach to contemporary Christian humanitarianism. Some Malagasy Lutheran informants spoke of the relationship of past colonial American Lutheran missionary involvement in Madagascar as continuous with the aid program, rather than representing a sharp break with the past (as did some Americans). Additionally, other Malagasy informants referred to the colonial as an affective experience of déjà vu that called forth a subtle critique of specific qualities of the aid program.

Recognizing the varying temporalities of aid work raises several interesting issues. One is the extent to which aid itself becomes a practice of historical reinscription, of reworking the past by defining present aid efforts as distinct from the practices of the past. This has the danger of downplaying the political and economic inequalities produced by Christian aid programs, as well as the thoroughgoing and very direct ways they build on specific Christian ties produced under colonial rule. A second question is how to connect these subtle ways that aid is a practice of time to the prevailing temporalities of aid described in the broader literature. Rather than intervening in a short-term crisis, the Christian aid program I study has been oriented around the much more enduring problem of economic inequality, which has no easily discernible end point. For my research participants, this long-term involvement raised questions about whether Christian aid programs addressing economic inequality should have an end or whether they constitute important, ongoing forms of world-making. But more secular humanitarian studies have certainly benefited from attention to the varying histories informing contemporary aid work. Attending to these questions on a finer scale—as I have tried to do—would mean looking into how relations of past and present constitute part of the ethical practice of humanitarian work.

Josh Reno: Biospiritual imaginary is a key term for portions of the book that deal with part-whole metonymy and synecdoche as evidenced and enacted through bodies. What kind of work does your term biospiritual imaginary do for thinking about aid as a semiotic and linguistic practice?

Britt Halverson: I’ve used the term “biospiritual imaginaries” to illuminate how aid work connects bodies, words and material things in particular ways that can be ideologically motivated. As is true for many, I was positively influenced in my graduate training at the University of Michigan by Judy Irvine and Susan Gal’s work on language ideologies and Webb Keane’s notion of semiotic ideologies. In addition to the rich literature on mediation in the anthropology of religion, I’ve also long been interested in multidisciplinary work on materiality and religious practice emerging from religious studies and art history.

These distinct influences led me to consider Christian aid as a semiotic practice with, in this particular case, notably partial, fragmentary and incomplete notions of authoritative practice. For instance, the Minneapolis aid organizations exist at the ostensible margins of authoritative Lutheranism. They are not affiliated directly with one doctrinal view of Lutheran practice, they feature Lutheran volunteers of many different denominations, and the ordinary practices of aid labor (e.g., sorting, handling, and packing medical relief) repeatedly emphasize the significance of material aid objects to Christian practice. Organizational leadership sought to discursively frame these material and embodied experiences in particular ways that supported authoritative views of Lutheran aid practice. Yet aid work often prompted serious play among laypeople concerning the relations of the medical supplies they handled to their own bodies and to unseen but imagined wholes, such as the global Christian body or the medical patient body.

Like other scholars in the anthropology of Christianity writing on ideologies, I aim to show how the interpretive work I’ve described as central to Christian aid work is always already “political” or ideological through the forms of agency, qualities and boundaries people variously draw between their words, material things, and bodies. I’ve wanted to demonstrate how aid practices are semiotic in this way, and to develop a fine-grained approach to the interesting, polyvalent ways aid work positions words, bodies and material things as communicative forms. Applying forms of linguistic and semiotic analysis to aid work can lead to new insights. The faith-based aid organizations where I did research are marginalized in their religious communities’ hierarchies of doctrinal and theological authority but are certainly not marginal to the religious experiences of laypeople. As such, aid agencies present an interesting space for tracking the creativity and multiplicity of Christian semiotic approaches and, even more, the necessarily partial and incomplete quality of a dominant Protestant Christian semiotic ideology.

 

 

 

 

Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein takes the page 99 blog test

My dissertation looked at how media impacts community. Specifically, how does the global circulation of regular publications help create a sense of community among 8 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in more than 200 countries, and how do we know that these publications are key?

Before writing this blog, I spent a lot of time thinking about the affordances of new technologies: was I supposed to look at the page numbered 99, or the 99th page of the PDF file?

As an anthropologist, I’m not normally in the business of talking about intentions – but Ford Madox Ford died well before the age of the PDF, so I started with the page numbered 99.

Unfortunately, if I am honest, that page (page 116 of the PDF) is one of the most boring pages in the entire document. It’s the very end of chapter three, which introduces two different types of field sites: the town where I conducted primary research and the global institution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This particular page lists out physical research sites:

Additionally, I visited both Jehovah’s Witness worldwide headquarters in Brooklyn, New York and the Mexico Branch Office near Mexico City. Worldwide headquarters, collectively known as Bethel, include collections of buildings in three New York cities: Brooklyn, Paterson, and Wallkill, where a total of nearly four thousand Witnesses live and work.

So I turned to the 99th page, or page 82. That’s about halfway through this same chapter. It’s also the page where I first introduce the role of Jehovah’s Witnesses in my primary research site:

Jehovah’s Witnesses from elsewhere in Mexico first arrived in Zapotitlán in the mid-1940s and had converted approximately half the population by 1959 (Turner 1972: 90). Community members seem to get along well despite these divisions, but there are some aspects of life in which they are strongly felt. For example, most Mexican communities hold large festivals on the holiday associated with the town’s patron saint. In Zapotitlán, however, since Catholics are not a majority and adherents of other religions do not want to contribute or participate, these events are no longer held.

The page then moves into an anecdote about religious responses to the celebration of an important political anniversary in the town. It sets the scene, to be sure – but it doesn’t fully succeed at capturing the tensions between the centralized global institution and the practices of one small community. For that, you might still need to read the whole thing.

Barchas-Lichtenstein, Jena. 2013. “When the dead are resurrected, how are we going to speak to them?”: Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Use of Indigenous Languages in the Globalizing Textual Community. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of California, Los Angeles.

Naomi Haynes on her new book, Moving by the Spirit

https://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520294257

Interview by Jon Bialecki

Jon Bialecki: The center of your ethnography is about the Prosperity Gospel’s economy of faith and social ambition in the Copperbelt. The prosperity gospel and the Copperbelt have certain reputations, both in anthropology and the wider popular culture; and I think that one of the surprising things about your book is how you challenge the commonly held stereotypes about both of these social forms. What was it about the state of the literatures that made you feel that interventions were necessary?

Naomi Haynes: When I set out to do my fieldwork on the Copperbelt, anthropology had a pretty clear view of both this region and of the prosperity gospel churches that had become very popular there.  In terms of the latter, both the prosperity gospel and Pentecostalism more generally had largely been interpreted in terms of what Joel Robbins calls “compensatory promises”: people converted to Pentecostalism because it promised things that they were (increasingly) unable to access elsewhere as the welfare state retreated and the global economy changed.  In this narrative, the Copperbelt seemed like an especially compelling case in point.  The influence of James Ferguson’s Expectations of Modernity meant this region had been fixed in the minds of many anthropologists as the paradigmatic site of neoliberal abjection, a once-thriving extraction economy that had been swiftly cut off from the promises of globalization – in other words, just the kind of place where people might be hoping for an economic miracle in the form of divine prosperity. While it was not difficult to see why people would find the promises of Pentecostalism so compelling, I didn’t feel that the hope of riches or health by itself explained this religion’s staying power; it’s one thing to sign up to a program that promises wealth, but it’s another to continue to give it time, energy, and money without getting much in return.  I was therefore sure there was more to the prosperity gospel story than just the hope of getting rich, and my fieldwork revealed this to be the case.  It turned out that Pentecostalism wasn’t so much about getting access to wealth that was otherwise unavailable, but rather about creating other modes of realizing value through personal spiritual advancement.  So, Pentecostalism wasn’t a second-best option, but a point at which people were working to produce a good life for themselves.  Similarly, life on the Copperbelt wasn’t all abjection and despair, but action, innovation, and creativity.

Jon Bialecki: Your book in large part focuses on ‘moving’ as a Zambian concept; ‘moving’ in fact is so important that it gives your book its title. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about what ‘moving’ is, and also about how it relates to the way that the Prosperity Gospel works in the Copperbelt?

Naomi Haynes: Moving (ukusela in Bemba) is a term that people on the Copperbelt use all the time to describe the way that their lives and those of others are changing positively. They say things have moved when a child completes school, when someone gets married, or when a family moves into a bigger house or purchases a used Toyota. But moving isn’t just an idiomatic way of talking about progress. On the Copperbelt, moving is a value, by which I mean it is an animating idea that structures social life. Most social relationships on the Copperbelt, including those that form in Pentecostal churches, are organized to make moving happen. Looking at moving therefore helps us understand how social life on the Copperbelt works, and perhaps especially the social life of Pentecostal churches, which have become key sites for a new religious form of moving “by the Spirit.” Pentecostal believers move by the Spirit both by realizing traditional forms of moving (houses and husbands), as well as uniquely Pentecostal forms of moving such as spiritual development or advancement in the church hierarchy.

Jon Bialecki: One of the things that struck me in reading your book is the relation between this long-running Copperbelt value of moving, and the relatively recently introduced form of prosperity-gospel Christianity. As you know, there’s been a lot of back and forth in the anthropology of Christianity about ‘rupture’ and ‘continuity,’ with scholars like Joel Robbins and Birgit Meyer emphasizing how the adoption of Pentecostal Christianity often results in a historical sense of conversion as a radical transformation, while other scholars (such as Matthew Engelke,  Liana Chua, and Mark Mosko) seeing much more social continuity, both marked and unmarked, in recently Christianized societies. I was wondering if we could read the importance of ‘moving’ here as telling us something about this debate? I suspect that this is a case that can’t be boiled down to a simple ‘nothing changes’/‘everything changes’ dichotomy.

Naomi Haynes: I get asked about rupture all the time – it’s easily the concept that people working outside of the anthropology of Christianity associate most with the anthropology of Christianity.  And there’s no question that rupture has done important analytical work, not only for the subfield, but also for the discipline as a whole.  The model of conversion as rupture has given us a new way to talk about cultural change more generally, and the most sophisticated work on rupture has always kept this larger question in view.  However, as time has gone on I think that the emphasis on rupture has sometimes given way to something more mathematical than analytical; the question has moved from how change happens to a simple accounting of what has and has not changed – whether there are more elements in the “change” or “continuity” column, in other words.  Against this latter interpretation, what I hope my work on moving demonstrates is that Christian adherence affords all kinds of creative cultural responses that structure and are structured by external forces like economics or politics.  Rather than describe Christianity in terms of rupture or continuity, then, I have found it more productive to think of Christianity as a means of “making life possible,” to borrow a turn of phrase from Achille Mbembe.  In the Copperbelt case, this means finding new ways of realizing an existing value, but in other contexts making life possible will necessarily take other forms.  The question isn’t so much whether or to what extent this represents a rupture as much as what Christian adherence does in the places where it is taken up.

Jon Bialecki: Let me follow up on your of idea of shifting from some kind of binary up-or-down judgement of ‘order/rupture,’ to instead thinking about what novel local potentialities Pentecostalism as an imported form opens up. I want to do this by asking some questions about media and performance (this is, after all, CaMP). One of the things that really caught my attention when reading your book was the aesthetics of Copperbelt Pentecostalism, and how it seemed to be at once very ordered and extremely chaotic. On one hand, especially during celebrations involving gift exchange, there seemed to be a strong emphasis on decorum and consistency, down to asking women to wearing matching dresses (a request that was even directed to the anthropologist!). On the other hand, there also seemed to be an importance in indecipherability and chaos; in this case I’m referencing the uncanny sonic anarchy that occurs during what you called ‘collective-personal prayer.’ In what ways is this in continuity with the aesthetics or communicative ideology of the Copperbelt, and in what ways is this a new situation in which Pentecostalism has allowed for some mutation, reimagination, or replacement of Copperbelt sensibilities?

Naomi Haynes: I’ve always been struck by the uniformity of the Copperbelt aesthetic as well, which I think connects to the aspirational quality of display in urban Zambia.  Every Copperbelt sitting room that I’ve ever entered, whether in a mud brick house in a shanty compound or the spacious home of a banker, is decorated according to a common template.  There’s a suite of matching sofas (however broken down), a television (which may not work), and a cabinet or set of shelves for curios.  The differences among homes are therefore differences of degree rather than kind, and this makes domestic display a key site at which moving is realized.  By comparing like with like, everyone knows where they stand relative to everyone else, and everyone can measure how well they are moving. Pentecostalism produces similar types of metrics, and indeed, one way that moving by the Spirit can be measured is in the same sorts of consumer displays that structure moving more generally.  But other religious metrics of moving are similarly organized by rank-able displays.  Those who are moving by the Spirit excel in prayer, prophecy, preaching, and singing, all gifts that presuppose an audience.  This is true even when the specificity of one’s gift is drowned out by the cacophony of collective-personal prayer that you mention. Skill in this type of prayer depends much more on facility with the form rather than on its content, and insofar as this is the case, it is a performance for others at least as much as it is a semi-private dialogue with God.  Charismatic displays like this are perhaps an especially good example of how Pentecostal characteristics like spontaneity and surprise, which have been so important in your own work, get mobilized in service of larger social projects in the Copperbelt context.  In other words, the loud, effervescent and even ecstatic prayer that always characterizes Pentecostal worship actually facilitates something that’s extremely uniform, and therefore easily measured.

Jon Bialecki: Finally, one last performance and media question! As we have discussed all through this interview, at the local level the prosperity gospel is a chance for people to solve old problems in new ways, which explains at once how in your field site it was very much Zambian, while still recognizably an iteration of global forms. We’ve also stressed how this allows for various forms of local production of social ties. But at the same time, the sort of Pan-African or internationalized large scale Prosperity Gospel events are also present in the Copperbelt – or at least present in the mediated form of video. And it seems at times that some of your informants have strong opinions about the latter instances of the prosperity gospel. I was wondering if you could give us a sense of how your informants evaluated and consumed (or perhaps didn’t consume!) these other video instantiations of the prosperity gospel, and how important the differences in mediation and performance were in their assessment.

Naomi Haynes: The Pentecostal media landscape, especially television, has grown increasingly complex in the fifteen years that I have worked in Zambia.  At last count, there were a dozen free-to-air Pentecostal television stations available on the Copperbelt.  In addition to sermons and gospel music, these channels also broadcast miracles – lots of exorcisms, as well as healings and other wondrous signs, including a famous example of a pastor who appeared to walk on air.  Of course, not all these displays are accepted as genuine, and there is a great deal of debate as to which global pastors are true servants of God and which are actually in league with Satan.  But what I think is especially interesting about Pentecostal media consumption on the Copperbelt is the way that those pastors and prophets who are regarded as authentic get worked into familiar local practices.  One thing we haven’t touched on so much in our discussion is the extent to which moving is about patronage.  Mega-pastors in places like Nigeria or South Africa, who people on the Copperbelt encounter only through television, are often appealed to as potential super-patrons.  For example, several years ago there was a rumor that Prophet T.B. Joshua of Nigeria would be appearing at a stadium in Lusaka.  Many hundreds of people turned up on the day to find the reports were untrue, and they were understandably angry.  The national news that evening featured a woman who was interviewed on the scene calling on the president to bring T.B. Joshua to Zambia; people needed him to come and bring healing and “deliverance” (the Pentecostal term for exorcism).  What struck me in this interview, apart from the request for state intervention in the matter (another interesting aspect!) was how this woman envisioned T.B. Joshua’s presence in Zambia, were he to come.  She was asking him to do the same things that all pastors do, and in this way, she was inviting him to be part of a very local provision of religious services, a provision that facilitates moving by the Spirit for my informants.  So, while believers on the Copperbelt are connected to transnational religious networks, and recognize that they are part of a global religious movement, their engagement with that is always slotted into very local concerns.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Courtney Handman on her book, Critical Christianity

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520283763/critical-christianity

Interview by Dan Jorgensen

Dan Jorgensen: Critical Christianity is a book filled with ideas – it feels as though there is an argument on nearly every page. If you had to summarize the overall argument for, say, an audience of grad students, what would you say?

Courtney Handman: Overall the book looks at two main issues: how a global phenomenon like Christianity changes the kinds of social groups that people form, and how translation works within that process, using the case of Guhu-Samane experiences of Christianization to demonstrate this. So I argue that Protestant Christianities (especially in the kinds of convert cultures that are common in Papua New Guinea and across the global south) are often practiced as projects of critique, and often critiques of what get called “traditional cultures.” These kinds of critical discourses do not just produce the ideological individualism that is usually associated with Protestantism, but they also produce a very intense focus on the social groups in which Christians live, in particular an intense focus on denominations and denominational schism. Guhu-Samane Christians are extremely engaged in the arguments that have produced a number of local denominational schisms, as much as (or even more than) they are engaged in thinking about the ways that their lives have changed since they stopped being “traditional.”

Translation is an essential part of my argument not only because missionary translations are crucial sites for reifying “traditional culture,” but also because I argue for the importance of looking at translation as a form of circulation and not just as a form of comparison. An incredible amount of work looks at translations by comparing texts, languages, or cultures (and I do some of this as well). Yet what was especially important in Guhu-Samane contexts was not just this comparison, but also the fact that New Testament had circulated through a really specific network of people, institutions, and divine entities. Translation was important, then, because they produced these events of circulation and these events of circulation are often the crucial sites for Guhu-Samane Christians to form new denominations.

Dan Jorgensen: Your book looks closely at the history of the Lutheran Mission and the Summer Institute of Linguistics and their projects – to a much greater degree, in fact, than is usual in Papua New Guinea (PNG) work. Was this part of your strategy from the inception, or did your approach emerge over the course of your work in PNG?

Courtney Handman: Unsurprisingly, the answer is both yes and no. I went to graduate school wanting to work on Christianity in PNG, which was a relatively novel topic at the time. I also knew that I wanted to look at missionaries as actors who shape the way Christianity circulates locally, but didn’t have much of a sense of which missionaries. On my first trip to PNG I spent time at a Christian Bible College and it just so happened that members of SIL (what used to be called the Summer Institute of Linguistics) were teaching a class on Bible translation to the PNG students. I spent much of the time that I was sitting in on that class thinking about what a dissertation project on Bible translation might look like (and also spent much of that summer feeling very claustrophobic on the fenced-in Bible College campus). Perhaps because of this roundabout start, I was interested in translation from the get go as a process that manages to get texts in circulation. I was not especially interested in looking at the impossibilities of translation – that is something that a number of other anthropologists have already done very well – but instead at the changes that translations help produce regardless of their seeming impossibility. By the time my second short trip to PNG rolled around I was pretty well set on looking at some aspect of SIL’s work in PNG, with the hopes of working in a PNG community that was either in the process of getting a translation or had had one already produced. The Guhu-Samane community was unique for both having had an American Bible translator produce the New Testament and for having local people currently in charge of an Old Testament translation project. (The focus on the Lutherans was much more accidental, and only came about because I worked in a community that had been missionized by them, although they have become the central focus of my current research and I’m enjoying learning more about them.)

Dan Jorgensen: An even more striking feature of your work is the use you make of theological debates in Protestant Christianity. It seems clear that these are not merely sources of information or “data,” and instead play an important role in shaping some of the terms of your argument. Can you say something about how you embarked on this route, and whether it offered you any surprises along the way?

Courtney Handman: One of the most surprising and frustrating things about working on denominationalism is how little has been written about it, and how unremarkable much of what has been written is. Usually, if people talk about denominationalism they do so as proxies for other kinds of social groups. Denominations get reduced to being other names for villages or political factions, and denominational competition is usually just seen as politics by another name. In Guhu-Samane communities, there is some of that: denominations are sometimes regionally specific, and competitions among denominations can look like contests among important men. But there seemed to be more animating the denominational conflicts, and I spent a while casting around for authors who didn’t completely reduce denominations (or other religious groups) to political, economic, or geographical explanations. Richard Niebuhr wrote an important text about denominationalism that gets discussed in a wide range of disciplines. Although he is an American theologian, you can trace a scholarly genealogy from Max Weber to Ernst Troelsch to Niebuhr, so he is still within a recognizable social science orbit.

But to speak more broadly to your question, there are a number of anthropologists working on religion who are engaging to one extent or another with texts written about or within religious traditions. This has a lot to do with the realization that secularism didn’t quite take hold as Weber and others had predicted, yet much of the theoretical apparatus of the social sciences assumes that religion is explainable in – and reducible to – sociological or political or economic terms. So while people across the global south have been taking up global religions, the explanations for this often don’t have much to do with the religions as such. Theological texts can be useful texts to think with and think against, even if one doesn’t use concepts in the texts in ways their authors intended, because they do assume that what people are interested in or thinking about has something to do with ideas and practices in Christianity or Islam, for example.

Dan Jorgensen: An important point that could easily get lost in substantive discussions is your perspective on events, and “event-based sociality.” Where do you think we can (or should) go with this? Can you say a little more about the prospects (and difficulties) this orientation offers for anthropologists in general?

Courtney Handman: One of the most compelling models of social groups for anthropological thinking has been nationalism, where the nationalist group is formed as an imagined unity that reaches back into the past. But social groups aren’t all organized like that, and a focus on events is just one way to make that difference clear. I see the focus on events as coming out of Melanesianist anthropology, where people like Marilyn Strathern or Roy Wagner realized a long time ago that the social groups that make up everyday life in places like Papua New Guinea are themselves outcomes of specific events of opposition or engagement. And just like other anthropologists have taken Melanesianist models of “dividual” personhood and applied them well outside Melanesia, I take this point about event-based sociality to address Protestant denominationalism and questions of linguistic circulation. If groups are organized around events, then what makes them important is their capacity to create hierarchies and differences rather than their capacity to be enduring, stable, identity-producing categories. Denominational oppositions within Protestantism seem to work the same way. Schisms can be analyzed as events of critique, where what is important for Protestants is that the denominational split is the evidence of transformation (or reformation, to use a Protestant term). What my Guhu-Samane interlocutors kept emphasizing in the histories of their experiences of Christianization is that it is the events of critique that are especially important to these histories, even if these critical events produce short-lived denominations.

I make the same point in terms of translation by emphasizing translation as linked events of circulation rather than (or in addition to) analyzing translation as the comparison between two stable languages and cultures. This is largely an extension of the kind of analyses that linguistic anthropologists do under the headings of “entextualization” and “recontextualization,” where the focus is on how people understand the process of de-linking a segment of talk or text from its context and bringing it into a new one. In that sense, the focus on events is well underway within linguistic anthropology!