Courtney Handman on her book, 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!



Birgit Meyer on her new book, Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity

Interview by Yeon-Ju Bae

Given that Ghanaian video movies provide audiovisual experiences of what the Ghanaian audience might have imagined, for example, occult forces, Satan, God, modern life styles, and so on, I was curious in the first part of the book why the visual modality seems to be more emphasized in terms of “imagination, image, and imagery”, whereas audio is more briefly mentioned. In reading chapter 3, I realized that attention to the aural modality alerts us to backchannel cues that the audience produces in watching and participating in video movies. I think this interactive and co-creative process across video technology and human viewers, and across visual and aural modalities, composes one of the important features in the Ghanaian video experience. In this sense, I wonder how you would situate the audience’s aural participation among the processes of “imagination” and “sensation”.

Thank you. You raise a very interesting point. Some readers of my book have pointed out – rightfully so – that I pay too little attention to the sound dimension of these movies. The issue, of course, is not to just say more about sound, but to reflect on the sound-image relation. In the passage in Chapter 3 to which you refer I argue that the low quality of the sound compels audiences to co-produce their own sound track. This, as you observed very well, is a central dimension of the genesis of the typical video experience. So here poor sound facilitates high level interaction of audiences with the moving images. A technical deficiency allows for higher participation! But certainly more can (and should) be said about the sound-image relation in the video experience. Sound is imperfect, but not absent. In watching movies, people look and listen (and speak, sing, shout) all at the same time. There is no neat separation between visual, aural and other modalities. They intersect in various ways. In writing the book, I used the terms audience and spectators with a critical awareness that the emphasis on the aural in the former and on the visual in the latter ideally should imply each other. The lack of a single term to describe the entanglement of the aural and the visual (let alone other sense perceptions) in film reception testifies to the difficulty of developing a thoroughly multi-sensorial approach to cinema. Maybe the term “spectaudience” might be a solution? I think that in order to critique and transcend the visual bias that is still dominant in the study of cinema and film, it may be worthwhile to think further about the work of Michel Chion, who has proposed a distinction between “visualized sound” (that is, sound the source of which is visible to viewers) and “acousmatic sound” (that is, sound the source of which remains hidden). The latter accounts for the evocation of a sense of suspense. It would be interesting to think through his distinction with regard to Ghanaian movies, where sound tends to be deficient and people make up for this lack. This would require audiovisual recordings of film shows. Alas I do not have such materials, I only have audio recordings.

The same problem of an over-determination of the visual arises with regard to approaches to the imagination, imaginaries and images. In my book, which is about the interface of film and Christianity, I explore the question how movies feed into and are fed by what people imagine, how their imagination is synchronized and how this yields shared sensations and common sense. In the Introduction I wrote: “… the ‘stuff’ to which imaginaries refer is not limited to pictures and other visual items. It is the imagination, as a visualizing faculty that – not unlike a film – represents all this ‘stuff’ as mental images.” I agree with your observation that “the visual modality seems to be more emphasized” than the aural. I do think that film and the imagination are visual by definition. However, the point is that visual does not stand by itself, but is coupled with sound, smell, taste and touch. Exactly for this reason I sought to embed the imagination into a broader frame of sensation. Fleshing out an approach to the imagination, imaginaries and images that is not limited to visual registers but opens up for speaking or singing images, smelling images, sounding images, and so on, is a major conceptual issue that deserves much more attention. I think that Hans Belting’s anthropology of images, which has inspired my sensorial and material stance to the imagination as outlined in the Introduction, may be a useful starting point to conceptualize the imagination from a new thoroughly material and sensorial angle. This is one of the theoretical projects I would like to pursue in the future. Especially for the study of religion this is an important topic. From the ways in which audiences in Southern Ghana responded to the images and often deficient sounds they witnessed on screen I learned that going to the movies was an experience in which imagination and sensation converged. So much so that the films are understood to reveal something real which is normally hidden to ordinary perception.


It was intriguing for me to encounter the folk notion of public that seems to be closely related to their notion of ethics. It seems like Ghanaian people don’t regard rumors and hearsay as “public” even though these discourses are circulating. However, if those rumors and hearsay are framed in terms of the Christian ethics in which retribution adequately takes place, then the stories involving occult, violence, and sex become “publicized” via video movie forms. Within video movies as well, if there is a scene in which actors show their intimate/private body parts, their behavior is often associated with immorality in terms of the plot flow and protagonist characteristics. I’m wondering if the Ghanaian notion of public as morality is drawn from Christianity or is rooted in Ghanaian traditions. Put in other way, how do different religions or different ethnic groups in Ghana exhibit different understandings of the relationship between public and ethics?

What I wanted to make clear is that video movies flourished under conditions of democratization and the deregulation of mass media as radio, television and film that had previously been under full state control. The change occurred around 1994. The point here is that, prior to that change, stories and rumors circulated, but were not allowed a space in the mass media around which the modern public sphere evolved. Scholars studied such narratives and performances as popular culture. After 1994, videos became one of the new outlets through which popular imaginaries that had circulated before under more clandestine conditions would become visible and audible on screen. Hitherto subdued narratives circulating via rumors could go public in the context of a new politics and aesthetic of representation of culture. What I found very interesting – and here we come to the gist of your question – is the strong emphasis on ethics. So, while as far as content and message were concerned, video movies digressed from state-cinema, they were still embedded in a longstanding ethical attitude towards film according to which moral lessons were to be learned. This attitude is certainly not limited to Christianity, but emphasized in indigenous traditions, especially in traditional storytelling, as for example Ananse stories. And even though video movies revel in picturing all sorts of transgressions, the “good” people are morally sound (and hence do not undress, consult a “fetish” priest, and so on). In this book I showed how approaches to video-movies on the part of both the producers and the “spectaudiences” are embedded in everyday or “ordinary ethics” (Michael Lambek). Since I could notice that the movies appealed to people with different ethnic backgrounds, I am sure that the expectation of the morality of entertainment is widely shared. Over the next years I will conduct a collaborative project with colleagues in Ghana in the course of which we will investigate modalities of co-existence across religious and ethnic differences in the suburb of Madina (Accra). The issue of public ethics and the morality of circulating cultural forms will certainly be a major issue.


When I read your interview with a woman who paid attention to video movie scenes in which characters of the upper class are matching the color of curtains and bed sheets depending on situation, I wondered if she were a man, would the interviewee have paid so much attention to such details. This interview excerpt brings up issues of how social differences map onto experiences of watching movies. Are there any patterns in terms of audiences’ reactions or focuses depending on gender, age, class, language, region, religion, ethnicity, and so forth? I think the class (as well as language and age) differences were described in the book. What about region—are the movies circulated in rural villages as well; if so, do the ways of watching videos in villages show any difference from those of urbanites? And are there any reactional patterns in reference to multireligious and multiethnic situations in Ghana?

The movies I studied were consciously tailored to appeal to women first, who would then make the male members of the household watch as well. This is what my filmmaker friends told me over and over again. A film that would fail to do so was doomed to flop, and this would end the business of filmmaking. The women who admired the match between curtains and bed sheets was a seamstress called Floxy who had a big atelier. She unfortunately died in childbirth not long after our interview. As she told me, she got phone-calls from her female customers when a film (often Nigerian) was on in order to copy a particular appealing dress. So she, and her customers had a keen eye and great appreciation for the new styles displayed in movies. By contrast, I myself did initially not look at movies in this manner, but was eager to discern meanings. This is what I realized in the interview with Floxy. She alerted me to a modality of looking which I had so far overlooked. Scouting for styles is one of the ways through which movie watching is embedded in everyday life. It is indeed the case that what people find remarkable in a movie very much depends on their interests and dispositions. My research mainly took place in Ghana’s capital Accra, and to some extent among Ghanaians in the Netherlands. These are multi-ethnic settings which are predominantly Christian. Unfortunately I did not accompany screenings of videos in the rural areas. Nor did I study the Kumasi film industry which uses Twi as main language (rather than English). It would have been interesting to follow the circulation and screening of Accra- and Kumasi made films in villages and across the borders of neighboring countries in detail. Alas I did not do so. And now, with the spread of television and the mobile phone and its increasing use for film viewing the days of screening movies in villages to paying audiences are a matter of the past. All the same, I do not think that the identity markers you mention are reflected in particular watching patterns. The movies are made to travel across Ghana, Africa and among people of African descent in the world. Together with Nigerian movies, they are consumed all over the continent. I would rather say that these movies actively disseminate particular images, styles and attitudes about African tradition and the modern world. They articulate visions, desires, dreams, anxieties, life styles and identities. They make people share imaginaries and sensations. They are part of performing African modernity.


You said that the “sensational forms” of Ghanaian video movies give rise to “religious real”, and I was wondering for whom it is real. It seems like the representation of reality must be considered within the context of authority at various levels. For instance, video movie directors are facing criticism from censorship officers that they are not representing what is reality; traditional chiefs think that the directors cannot accurately visualize the spiritual forces, or juju, because these are not visualizable in the first place; those viewers who know English might find protagonists’ speech artificial; directors are concerned that it might seem unrealistic to the upper class if movies depict hyper-urban lives that aren’t present in Ghana—which the lower class wants to see in the movies; and during filming, actors are acting to visualize what is invisible and inaudible in a way that they themselves don’t believe it to be real. Given that you vividly show how various representations of reality are contested, I’m curious about your thoughts in using the terms “real” and “revelation”.

Yes, this is an important issue. What is taken as real is not given, but subject to authorization processes. Competing politics and aesthetics of world-making co-exist. This is so in all cultures and societies. In Ghana the video-film industry was situated in a context of heavy contestations, as it digressed from established forms of representing culture and tradition under the aegis of state cinema. Video-movies rather surfed along with the popularity of Pentecostalism, which purports a specific take on reality as being enveloped in a spiritual war whose main operators are located in the invisible world of demons. In Southern Ghana, there was and is a broad consensus, running across differentiations in terms of ethnicity, age and education, that the spiritual is real. The video movies that form the major focus of my book echoed and affirmed this consensus. This does not mean that movies were taken to be credible under all conditions and by everyone. Even sympathetic viewers would find certain depictions more convincing than others, and dismissed others as artificial. Still one main attraction point lay in the fact that video movies transfigured stories about occult forces that were circulating in society into movies. They set out to reveal the invisible realm which the naked eye cannot penetrate. In chapter 5 I argue (inspired by the work of Achille Mbembe) that one could see video filmmakers as high priests of the imagination, who create doubles of the “real thing” that is hidden from view but whose features enter into the double. Images are not mere representations, but make what they represent somehow present. At the same time, any attempt to depict the invisible generates contestations, as is the case with the chief who also was a photographer and who insisted that the real thing could not be visualized. So, interestingly, the picturing of the invisible is a paradoxical endeavor, in that the images that reveal the “religious real” (the term was coined by Adrian Hermann) on screen may well conceal it at the same time. At the same time, and you refer to this, actors can only play the role of a witch or the devil, if they do not believe that in so doing they have to become a real witch or devil. And yet, there is a sense of danger of being affected by mimesis, reason why actors recur to prayer so as to protect themselves from being intruded by the role. There were also anxieties that, in filming certain scenes which involve occult forces, these forces could be called upon to inhabit the fake shrines and possess people staging a dance or doing incantations for the sake of shooting a movie. What I wanted to show is that video-movies are embedded in processes of world-making in which what is real is constituted through revelations that rely on authorized Christian visual regimes, but are always haunted by a sense of the ultimate impossibility of revelation. We encounter here a fundamental feature of the image: it acts as a medium of something which is not present as such. The image itself – as a medium – is real, but the question is whether that what it represents is taken as real too, or simply as fake. So I use the term “real” not in an objective or positivistic sense, but as an outcome of politics and aesthetics of figuration that are tied to broader, competing imaginaries. Revelation is a way of vesting the act of representation with a sense of truth, and a confirmation of a “Christian real”. I think that this fact that what is considered real depends on processes of producing something as real and authorizing it is a basic feature of societies, as for instance the current insecurity about the possibility of news being “fake” also shows.


The Ghanaian video movie producers started to emerge thanks to the development of video technology, yet have recently been out of business due to changes in available alternatives for audiences which include films on the internet. In a sense that Ghanaian video movies are deeply concerned not only with religious “sensational forms” and moral lessons, but also with the social life of video technologies, I wonder how the video movie directors have experimented with technological resources and limitations. And I wonder what new experiments the directors are attempting to conduct in order to compete with other alternatives in this current changed situation. Moreover, will these new creative ways of “mediation” bring about any emergent themes or values?

My research ended in 2010 and I circumscribe it as a historical ethnography. Since 2010 I have only followed the industry from some distance. In chapter 1, I trace the implications of the shift from analog to digital video, and show that this technological transition offered new opportunities for newcomers. Most of the filmmakers I followed since the early 1990s are not doing well. In 2010 some sought to remain in the business by opting for another kind of transgressive revelation: mild porn. This generated a moral outcry among the audiences (although these films, just as porn, sold to some extent). It is a difficult situation for them to survive, certainly as there are no film funds and no easily accessible loans. One reason for the problems filmmakers face is that there are non-stop older films shown on various TV channels. Also an Youtube a huge amount of Nigerian and Ghanaian movies is available for free. Nowadays it is difficult to launch a new film and make sufficient money via VCD and DVD sales to earn back the investment. Piracy is lurking. Still new producers are around. My friends in Ghana told me that watching movies on television is still a very much a social affair. People watch together in the family. In long distance busses movies are shown, too. And also in pubs. I also noted that increasingly movies are available digitally and watched on mobile phones. Lindiwe Dovey has documented this shift in African screen media very well. I have not conducted research on this new phase myself. It would be great to take this up. Maybe you want to go into this?