Jon Bialecki on his book, A Diagram for Fire

A Diagram for Fire by Jon Bialecki

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520294219/a-diagram-for-fire

Interview by Anna Eisenstein

Anna Eisenstein:   Your book identifies the miracle as the defining feature of American Charismatic Evangelicalism as manifested in Vineyard churches, and you unpack the miracle in terms a Gilles Deleuze’s “diagram”. Can you tell us what drew you to the diagram as a compelling framework for interpreting your ethnographic material, and what you hope it will bring to the study of Christianity and religion more broadly?

Jon Bialecki: My eventual turn to the diagram was fed out of a sort of “Two Crows denies it” frustration I experienced in the field. When I first began ethnographic work with the Vineyard, every time I would try to make a generalization about the practices and subjectivities that characterize this Southern California originated but now global Church movement, I would be corrected by someone who would point to an exception. If I said there was a tendency to progressive politics, some other reactionary Vineyard congregation would be named, or some other member of the Church or the prayer group I was spending time with would be brought up. If I characterized worship as ecstatic, someone would claim that it was meditative, or point out worship heavy Churches that weren’t heavily Charismatic. And so on, through every attempt to crystalize what I was seeing. But this was also an anthropological problem – or at least a problem of comparative ethnographies. At the same time, whenever I mentioned one of these hypothesized Vineyard distinctives to anthropologists who studied different Charismatic and Pentecostal groups, I would be told that there was some practice in their field-site that was similar to, or sometimes identical to, what I was finding in the Vineyard. In short, each Vineyard was unique, and yet all of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity was the same, which are not quite impossible positions to hold simultaneously, but certainly aren’t comfortable ones.

In my early published work, I tried to handle this by finding some opposition in whatever aspect of Charismatic religiosity I was writing about, and claiming that we could describe various Vineyard Churches, as well as the practices and experiences of different Vineyard believers, as some admixture between these two contrasting forces: I would write about centrifugal versus centripetal language, or sacrifice versus stewardship as different types of economic action and exchange. But this model, while a good enough working heuristic, seemed procrustean. What was worse, there could be no form of novelty, at least according to the accounts I was producing. Everything was just a little more leaning to one end or the other of a stable opposition; and even if the distance between these poles could jump discontinuously in real time, as I claimed, it was still a bit of a claustrophobic model.

But by chance I was reading about embryogenesis and about how some biologists conceive the of the relations between individuals, species, and family in certain taxonomic models. And what struck me was that, say, you could say there were identical yet abstract relations between various anatomical features in both how embryogenesis unfolds, and in how individuals and species relate to their taxonomic families, yet at the same time every particular expression could be qualitatively different in that these abstract relations could be realized to different extents, and through different material. This is how you can have all sorts of unique cats, for instance, and yet recognize all these particular individual animals as an expression of Felidae. And yet, there is also no cat or species of cat that is ‘prototypical’ of Felidae; there is no telos or ideal form, just all sorts of different expressions. The only way that a certain animal or species could serve as an exemplar is merely in the statistical sense, and not as some image of perfection. This material also led me into topology, which could e defined as the branch of mathematics which (in part) concerns itself with spatial relations, while purposefully ignoring the effect of size, or of continuous change of shape. What is nice is that you can have two homeomorphic shapes that still present themselves as radically different; the classical example for this is the way that the coffee cup and the donut (or torus) are both deformations of one another. This turn to topology was a surprise to me, because I was never really drawn to mathematics, especially with it came to anthropology. In the eighties and nineties, I was taught that the use of mathematics was just scientism, and that was bad. But topology was a kind of mathematics that escaped any quantification, so it didn’t seem vulnerable to the usual sorts of critiques of anthropological use of statistical and numerical reasoning.

Gilles Deleuze used the idea of the diagram to discuss phenomenon very similar to embryogenesis, taxonomic similarity within taxonomic models, and topology; the chief difference was that Deleuze was concerned with this sort of simultaneous fixture of relations and plasticity as it was found in social life. Perhaps the clearest example of it is Deleuze’s reading of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, where the same set of relations that constituted the prison could be found in different spaces and instances (classrooms, factories, military units, hospitals). This diagrammatic kind of reasoning suggested quite an analytic benefit if I could identify some set of relations that could still be realized in numerous, and perhaps endless, different way. That would allow me to think through the events that characterize not just the Vineyard as a movement, but also particular Vineyard churches, and even individual Vineyard believers as at once having a commonality in shared potential, and yet still be easily distinguishable in their concrete particularities. All I would have to do is identify the qualitative differences, such as speed, strength, scale, and emotional tenor, and also find the differences that resulted from the different kinds of material that was being organized in each diagrammatic expression – different vocabularies, different forms of embodiment, different modes of subjectivity, different encompassing political milieus.

Another benefit was that comparisons between cases becomes possible – we can now talk about different Charismatic and Pentecostal Christianities without homogenizing them, or falling into a kind of nominalism where the only thing that all our cases ultimately share is that for contingent historical disciplinary or intellectual reasons we decided to put them in the same basket. We can ask in what situations do certain aspects of Pentecostalism appear, disappear, or change, which means that we can jump over the abyss of seeing any form of Pentecostalism as either ‘local’ or ‘global’ – each expression is both, in as much as it is a partial realization of a swath of potential in a ‘local’ site, through the organization of local linguistic material, social material, emotional palates, on so on. And where we couldn’t identify a shared set of relations, then we could compare different diagrams, and ask if we can see one diagram as a mutation or modification of the other; what happened when diagrams changed because some abstract organizing element (such as the presence of an immanent expression of divine will, to take the Charismatic/Pentecostal case) fell away or transformed?

I hope this wasn’t too much, but it was a long and bumpy road from the sort of linguistic and psychological anthropology I was trained in to the place where I am today. The same can be said not just about the change in analytic tools, but also in what questions could and should be asked.

Anna Eisenstein:    One of the things I found surprising about your book was the relationship between miracles and the will within The Vineyard. I was wondering if you could say a bit about how the Vineyard conceptualizes the will, and how it relates to the way that miracles work in the Vineyard?

Jon Bialecki: In the Vineyard, there are three different kinds of will; human will, divine will, and demonic will. God’s will is implicit in that he is understood as having particular desideratum: he ‘wants’ things for his believers, he asks them to make sacrifices, he has plans for their lives. For Vineyard believers, God’s will is not always clearly legible, it is important to note. Vineyard believers are often unsure of what it is that God wants them to do in any particular situation, or to do in their lives in general; when it comes to careers, marital partners, or even day-to-day ethical conundrums, people find themselves uncertain. Sometimes prayer and biblical study can elucidate these issues. But just as often, after a great deal of contemplation, prayer, and study, people still find themselves unsure of what the proper way forward is. This problem of divine desire also comes hand-in-hand with a language of divine power; in prayer, preaching, and song, God’s strength is a recurrent feature. This is not just strength in the sense of power, but also in the sense of strength of emotion – God feels more, cares more, loves more than any other entity. But since He is somewhat capricious (or as they say in the Vineyard, “messy”), he does so in different ways, with different tonalities. Putting this altogether, what we have is not just the divine as some sort of architect, but as someone who passionately wills for certain ends. The strength of God’s will stands in sharp contrast to Human will, which is weak. It’s weak in the sense of not being particularly powerful when facing opposition, but its also weak in that human will lacks a certain unity. Drawing on an overtly Evangelical anthropology, the Vineyard imagines people as having multiple, conflicting desires. What is worse is that these various desires often run against individual’s own sense of what is right in this world, and of what they should be longing for.

Miracles are a way of uniting the human will, or at least of rejecting unacceptable aspects of the human will for a season or so. Miracles are signs that reveal and rearrange. The miraculous sign not only informs an individual what it is that God wills (that there be healed, that the believer do x instead of y, or whatever else) but the miraculous sign gives the individual an opportunity to effectuate that divine will by aligning their own will with God’s desires through submitting to or accepting the miracle. A person accepts healing, receives prophetic knowledge, takes up speaking in tongues, but only if they open themselves up it when the miracle occurs. It is no mistake that these miraculous abilities and events are referred to by Pentecostal and Charismatic believers as the charismatic “gifts.”

We should note that the relation of wills in the miracle scales in interesting, and complicated ways. It’s also important to keep in mind that the willful/unwilling forces that stand at variance with the divine will are understood in different ways at different times. These two aspects of the will can work together to sometimes surprising ends. When it comes to scale, the conflicting wills can sometimes be within a larger unit, such as a church, a denomination, or even a nation. This means that we can be speaking of numerous individuals with a group who have mixed wills, and thus are recursively or in a fractal-like manner mirroring the larger constituent organization. But there is also no reason why the difference in will within an organization has to be distributed this way; there can also be a subset of individuals within the group who are in harmony with the divine will, and a different subset that are running counter to it. This means that when praying about the will of collective units, it is possible for this to be articulated in particularly Manichaeans ways.  Rather than God giving us collectively as sign that we all must rework are disordered wills together, we can be given a sign that within a grouping of some sort the disorder in wills take the form of our will mirroring God’s, while our internal opponent’s wills do not.

This tendency is exacerbated by the different kind of ontological frameworks that are sometimes used to frame the will. The Vineyard, as a deeply American movement, psychologizes most things pretty quickly; this gives sermons and publications an almost ‘therapeutic’ air at times. This means that difficulties of the will can be discussed in the language found in popular psychology and counseling. But as part of a Pentecostal/Charismatic mode of religiosity, believers in the Vineyard also have access to a more throughly supernatural ontology where objects like disease or characterological tendencies can be spoken of as if they were demonic; and at times the will can literally be identified as demonic, say, when someone prays to cast out “the spirit of depression” in an attempt to eradicate the dark and self-defeating willful elements in some person. For the most part, Vineyard believers are pretty adept about shuttling between psychological and demonological frameworks, and the presence of these two frameworks, and the choice of which of them to make use of at a particular time, doesn’t have any great effects. But the capacity to segregate the unwilling or willful into a specific subset of people, and then laminate their behavior with the demonic, is an obvious and continuous danger – and as the record or religious and political demonization in American religion shows, it is a danger that other cognate forms of Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity have fallen into more than once over the past three decades.

Anna Eisenstein:    In the book’s conclusion, you reformulate E.B. Tylor’s longstanding definition of religion (“the belief in Spiritual Beings”) to propose instead that religion is the more than human — and further, you suggest that religion is fundamentally about the human capacity to change. Could you say something about the way that you conceive of change in relation to more-than-human encounters?

Jon Bialecki: Reformulations of Tylor, of course, is nothing new, and my reformulation in many ways mirrors some of these other approaches. My particular approach is undoubtably influence by Mel Spiro’s classic article “Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation.” In that essay, Spiro uses the term “superhuman beings” in the place of “spiritual beings,” because an ontology where the idea of the spiritual makes sense can’t just be assumed. Since Spiro, developments in the anthropology of religion have helped bring out hidden aspects of this definition. The first development was (ironically enough) critiques of various extant academic definitions of religion. Talal Asad is the one who made the case in our discipline when he produced a reading of Clifford Geertz’s essay on religion to convincingly argue that standard anthropological definitions of religion are colored by modernist Protestant sensibilities. This Protestant lean suffered from political as well as analytic defects: the definitions produced weren’t adequate for earlier historical religious configurations, such as medieval Catholicism, and they also suggested that contemporary religious forms that leaned in the disciplinary and thus were not ‘privatized’ (such as many forms of Islam) were somehow defective or diseased.

Many have read Asad as a nominalist (something that he specifically denies) and have taken from his argument that we can’t speak about religion as anything other than a local, western category. You see that at conferences sometimes, when people just use Asad to dismiss in the Q&A. I think that the better lesson to take from Asad is something different. We should read Asad as saying that any particular description of religion draw from historically delineated concrete expressions of religion, and not expansive underlying potentialities, is an error. In short, if we posit religious not as something that has definite elements, but as a question that can be taken up in different ways, with different degrees of importance, in other words as a field of potential, then we can acknowledge that while the definition of religion per se  is limited, the potentialities associated with religiosity is not.

Along similar lines, I would argue that Asad also teaches us that religion in general has no particular ‘use’ inherent in its (lack of) form; neither ethical subjectification, nor the creation of political orders, nor the cultivation of cognitive practices and structures, nor ‘instrumental’ uses for healing or good harvests or whatever, are the ‘purpose’ of religion. Religion can be used for anything. Further, in many specific cases, it will be the ends that religion it is used for, rather than the particular specific expressions of religiosity at hand, which will be of interest to the people who employ religion. For instance, you don’t propitiate the Gods or spirits for a harvest because you’re interested in the supernatural, but because you won’t the crops to thrive.  And this also means that we can have religion as an inchoate or unnamed presence; when the use is so important that it obscures the specific contours of wider potentiality of religion that is being invoked, then religion as a phenomenon (or magic, which is honestly indistinguishable from religion) may not have its own specific lexical item.

The other innovation in the anthropology of religion is work done on the materiality of religion. This work has often focused on the relation between signification and a necessary material substrate, with attention paid to how various forms of religious semiotics either act to deny or double down on this materiality. But what has not been caught by most readings of this literature is that there seems to be no particularly mode of materiality that is specific to religion. Religion can operate with the minimal materiality necessary for human life (bodies, thought, and speech), or it can demand tremendous material outlay in the way of diverse offices, regular rituals, structures and the like. A single prayer or a chain of Cathedrals; it just depends on what is chosen. (All this is why Spiro’s definition has to be reformulated – if we are dealing with potential and variation, we have to have something more expansive than ‘superhuman beings,’ and we need something that can also include not just practice, but the materiality – with materiality meant in the sense of different specific materials that can have different effects, rather than having materiality as some fungible physical supplement to signification).

So this is where I finally get to answering your question. This leaves religion as basically having no form, being beholden to no particular mode of materiality, and having no one proper location in any particular instance of sociality. As such, depending on how its expressed, it can serve to decelerate social and individual change by tying change to various temporally and economically costly practices, or it can serve as a catalyst for change by inserting a randomizing or disruptive element into any social practice, for any conceivable end. I imagine most forms of religiosity do both at the same time, shifting the social terrain in different ways; this was certainly true of the Vineyard, which at once opened up believers to surprise, but at the same time constrained surprise through a series of ethical and epistemological practice that limited what could be thought of as actually being ‘divine.’

Anna Eisenstein:  Throughout the book, you provide examples of how your research participants hoped and prayed that you might come to share their faith. How have your informants responded to your work, and perhaps specifically, your explanation of the miracle, the Holy Spirit, and demons as fundamentally social phenomena?

Jon Bialecki: You’re right; I think that many Vineyard believers hoped that I would be moved enough to join them in their religious commitments; by the same light, there was also a fear among some that this was an endeavor designed to make either what it was that the people I worked with believed look bad – or alternately to disparage the believers themselves. However, there was never really any strongly felt awkward social pressure from my informants for me to join. I suspect that one reason is that, like Vineyard believers in general, many of the people I was spending time with were pretty highly educated. A lot of them were familiar with the dissertation as a genre, and knew how graduate research worked. Once, they even used this knowledge as a weapon against me. During a discussion in a Bible Study group I was focusing on, I asked whether they had any preference for what their individual pseudonyms would be in my dissertation, and each person wanted to pick the actual names of other people in the group, knowing exactly how it would vitiate the work that pseudonyms are suppose to do! On top of this wider but somewhat defuse familiarity with some of the mechanics of academia, I also benefited from a group of Vineyard intellectuals. Here, I’m speaking of the Society for Vineyard Scholars, which is an annually meeting organization for theological scholars, some of whom are professional theologians or pastors, and others whose interest in theology is an avocation. The SVS has been a good sounding board for some of my questions about Vineyard theology, and it’s helped me meet some great conversation partners. But its also allowed me to articulate some of my thoughts through mobilizing and analyzing some of the theological concerns that are important for the Vineyard

But I think the relatively warm reception – or at least the lack of an angry or dismissive response – is also due to something else. I think that on the whole those informants who have troubled themselves to read the book have been happy with the depiction. To them, it doesn’t come across as a dismissal of the miraculous as a social phenomenon, but a meditation on the social dynamics and learned epistemological constraints that shapes both the miraculous as they experience, and the Vineyard movement as a whole. In other worlds, my book is about how the Vineyard varies, and all the different ways that God acts in the world through the Vineyard. And I think that while that isn’t the only reading of my book, it is a fair one. This isn’t particular to me alone – there are a lot of Pentecostal and Charismatic people who love Tanya Luhrmann’s book When God Talks Back, seeing in not as a psychological reductionist account, but rather a discussion of how God uses our psychology and capacity to train ourselves.

I really want to thank you for these questions, Anna. Given the narrow and limited audience for academic books, it’s always a kindness when someone just acknowledges that a book exists; but to be given questions this sharp and to the book’s point is a joy!