Interview, Matthew Engelke and ‘God’s Agents’

In October 2013 the University of California Press published God’s Agents: Biblical Publicity in Contemporary England, an ethnography by Matthew Engelke. AnthroCyBib caught up with Dr. Engelke on October 27, 2013 to talk about his new book. The following is the transcript of this author interview. We would like to thank the Center for Digital Scholarship at Miami University for assistance in recording and video editing.

Publisher’s Description: The British and Foreign Bible Society is one of the most illustrious Christian charities in the United Kingdom. Founded by evangelicals in the early nineteenth century and inspired by developments in printing technology, its goal has always been to make Bibles universally available. Over the past several decades, though, Bible Society has faced a radically different world, especially in its work in England. Where the Society once had a grateful and engaged reading public, it now faces apathy—even antipathy—for its cause. These days, it seems, no one in England wants a Bible, and no one wants other people telling them they should: religion is supposed to be a private matter. Undeterred, these Christians attempt to spark a renewed interest in the Word of God. They’ve turned away from publishing and toward publicity to “make the Bible heard.”

God’s Agents is a study of how religion goes public in today’s world. Based on over three years of anthropological research, Matthew Engelke traces how a small group of socially committed Christians tackle the challenge of publicity within what they understand to be a largely secular culture. In the process of telling their story, he offers an insightful new way to think about the relationships between secular and religious formations: our current understanding of religion needs to be complemented by greater attention to the process of generating publicity. Engelke argues that we are witnessing the dynamics of religious publicity, which allows us to see the ways in which conceptual divides such as public/private, religious/secular, and faith/knowledge are challenged and redefined by social actors on the ground.

Interview Participants: Matthew Engelke, James Bielo, Jon Bialecki, Naomi Haynes, Tom Boylston

BIELO: Welcome to this Author Interview hosted by AnthroCyBib: the anthropology of Christianity bibliographic blog. We are thrilled to be talking with Dr. Matthew Engelke. Matthew, welcome.

ENGELKE: Thanks.

BIELO: Matthew Engelke teaches in the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. Earlier this month, Matthew’s second ethnography, God’s Agents: Biblical Publicity in Contemporary England, was published by the University of California Press in the Anthropology of Christianity book series. His first book, A Problem of Presence, was awarded both the Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing and the Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion. I’m James Bielo, and I co-curate AnthroCyBib with my colleagues Jon Bialecki, Naomi Haynes, and Tom Boylston, who are also taking part.

BIELO: Matthew, can you tell us a bit about how the God’s Agents project got started?

ENGELKE: So, the project really got started because I was interested in following on from the Apostolics in Zimbabwe, who reject the authority of the Bible. And at that point in my thinking I was still very much interested in the Bible qua text. And, I thought that, having looked a bit at the ways in which the British and Foreign Bible Society operated in Africa that it would be very interesting to go from a group that completely rejected the Bible to a group that whole-heartedly embraced it. So, that was really the initial thinking. And, in fact, part of the initial thinking was also that I would go back to Africa and look at the work that the Bible Society does in South Africa and in Zimbabwe, as well as many other countries, and see the ways in which issues of production and distribution were playing out in the contemporary scene, because I had a good sense of how it worked in the colonial era, but thought that this would be a very interesting ethnographic project.

I had the best intentions of going back to southern Africa and, in fact, did go to South Africa for a short trip to do some archival work and meet with the people there. But, the more time I spent getting to know the people here in England, the more I realized that some of the most exciting and interesting work was going on domestically, so what they were doing in England and Wales. And, that just led to a complete shift of focus, because in England and Wales the issues were not distribution and dissemination and printing, the issue was very simple: complete lack of interest in the Bible on the part of the public, or at least so they thought. So, it became a project very quickly about the perceived impacts of secularization and the problems of engaging mass publics.

BIELO: You started to get at something, which I definitely wanted to ask you about, which is, methodologically, how you did this project. Thinking about it as a study in cultural production, what was doing that kind of ethnography like?

ENGELKE: It was tricky; I have to say. It was a lot different from going to Zimbabwe and studying a classic African charismatic church, which was all about ritual. It was all about sitting under the sun in a field observing what anthropologists of religion are supposed to observe, spirit possession and charismatic prophets holding forth on various issues. The Bible Society project was not like that at all. It was office-based. It was commuter ethnography, in a sense, because the people I was working with in Swindon, to begin with, which is a town about an hour’s train ride from London, they worked at Bible Society Monday to Friday and had, in an interesting way, very separate church lives, if you will, on the weekends. The Bible Society is not a charity attached to any one denomination or church. There were Pentecostals and Catholics and Anglicans and Baptists and Methodists and so all of that stuff that you normally associate with studying Christianity around a congregation or church or denomination was really difficult to pin down. I was really doing an ethnography of an organization that happened to be a Christian organization. So, it started very much by going to the offices in Swindon, interviewing the staff, attending staff meetings, hanging out in the staff lounge, and then eventually spread out from there where I would meet staff outside of the context of work, especially here in London because a lot of them did work in London. I would end up going to Tate Britain with someone or out to a play or meet up for coffee or go to have dinner at their house. But, it often felt very fragmented and frustrating for that reason. I didn’t feel like it was real anthropology for a long time.

BIALECKI:  How was this different from what might be, oh let’s just say, native or domestic ethnography if you were doing this in the States? I guess what I’m asking here is what does your relationship as someone who is not from Britain but living in Britain bring to this ethnographic investigation?

ENGELKE: You’re right; it certainly wasn’t native anthropology or anything close to that. I mean, I find the English as exotic in many ways as Zimbabweans. It is a very different place from the United States and, of course, living in London is kind of meaningless in the sense of getting a handle on things because it’s such a cosmopolitan city. The Bible Society work took me into new English and London worlds. And little changes can make a difference to how you experience or get to know the city and its rhythms. Even taking a different tube line.

So there was quite a bit of culture shock not only in London, but say, just as much if not more, going to Swindon, which is a very different place again. So, although it took me a long time to realize, I hope this book is not only an ethnography of Christians in England, but also of the English, or at least some English, because there are many aspects of what the people in the Bible Society do, which is not necessarily linked to being an “evangelical Christian.” They do English things, or even British things (which is not the same), and this is something I talk about in some of the chapters of the book. For example, certainly the politicians and those engaged in the political arena had a very strong sense, or self-presentation, as being British in particular, because it’s slightly tricky to position yourself as English in the United Kingdom, especially in a national-political context. So, they had very strong lines of what it meant to be British, but those were very class-based too; and, of course, they were tied to the religious sensibilities of the people I was working with. But, I do hope that in the end the book tells you something not only about these Christians, but about what it’s like to be British or to live in Britain.

BIALECKI: Just following up on that, you mentioned that you were working with members of Parliament who were sitting at the time. Could you say something about the methodological challenge of working with Parliamentarians?

ENGELKE: Well, I was very lucky in the sense that I went to Ethiopia with two of the Parliamentarians on a trip that the Bible Society put together. So, I got to spend close to a week with them, basically 13 hours a day, very far away from their political habitat. And, that was an incredibly valuable entrée into their world. Keep in mind, though, that I didn’t hang out with the MPs at the end of the day after they went to Prime Minister’s questions. It was not nearly as in depth with them as it was with members of the Bible Advocacy team of the Society, who are the people I was mostly working with. But, the Parliamentarians were really open. I was very struck by this, by the two MPs in particular that I went to Ethiopia with: one was Conservative, one was Labour. And they were good friends. They are good friends. And, coming from radically different political positions on almost every issue, nevertheless they have managed through this shared commitment to faith, to have forged a real friendship and that’s something which, having time with them so far away from Parliament you could really see. The ways that they were interacting could not have been playing for the benefit of the anthropologist. And, of course, the wonderful thing about being an anthropologist is that you bother people so consistently and persistently that they can’t always present to you their official line. And that could be an issue with MPs. It’s very tricky, I think, to interview an MP because they’re so used to being interviewed, and they’re so used to having very clear ways of addressing questions that you don’t necessarily get much more than you might get from their public statements. So, that was certainly one of the difficulties.

But going to Parliament was one of the most exciting experiences of the entire project. I had never been before. I’m a very typical anthropologist, cynical of most things and standoffish from the world in which I live. So, I had never bothered to go there as a tourist, because why would I do something so crass as go on a tour of Parliament? But, when I actually went on a tour of Parliament I was absolutely captivated and kind of swept away by the rhythms of people and conversations and it was absolutely fantastic.

BIELO: I was going to follow up. Matthew, you were saying that it took you a little bit to get comfortable in the project–that might be a way to say it?

ENGELKE: Yeah.

BIELO: Was there a turning point for that where it clicked and you did get comfortable with it?

ENGELKE: That’s a good question. I can clearly remember the moments in Zimbabwe that were real turning points in fieldwork.  I don’t think I had that in the Bible Society project because it wasn’t marked or punctuated in the same way that a project like the one I did in Zimbabwe would be. Getting back to what Jon was asking about, I’m not British, I’m not English, but I do live here, and I live here not because of the project; I live here already. I came to the UK because of my appointment at LSE.  I had my own world to inhabit, and of course, I didn’t have that in Zimbabwe, I was there to do field research.  So there’s a certain kind of intensity to that kind of work in Zimbabwe, which I didn’t have here.  I went home every night to my real home, not to some temporary fieldwork home, to my wife and kids – it was very different. (Even if I sometimes got home very late!) So, I think maybe because of that difference to the rhythm of the work there wasn’t the kind of dramatic moment or event that really gave me a sense of feeling comfortable.  I think if it came at all it probably came after the project was done, because then you stop bothering these people every day, and it was several months before I actually went back and saw them again, after it officially ended (as much as something like this can ever officially end), and it was only then that it “clicked,” in a sense.  And I think that’s a very common experience in fieldwork.  When you go away for a week or two in your fieldwork and you come back, certainly in a place like Zimbabwe, people are surprised that you’ve come back, they say, ‘Oh, you really are here.’ And I think on a different scale with a different temporality that happened in the Bible Society project; it’s just it was only after I had bid them farewell.

HAYNES: You’ve talked a little bit about thinking comparatively or thinking about the difference and similarities between this project and your previous work in Zimbabwe and I want to ask about that specifically in terms of Christianity.  So, I’m interested in the differences of studying Christianity in two radically different projects.  You have places that in certain respects have a very thoroughgoing Christian background, both in Zimbabwe and in the UK, but in terms of contemporary British life and contemporary life in Zimbabwe, Christianity occupies a very different position.  So, to the extent that this is an ethnography of Christianity, and a comparative ethnography of Christianity, what does that look like?

ENGELKE: I think this feeds back into the points I was making about the different kinds of work.  Because when I was working with the Apostolics in Zimbabwe, so much of what I looked at was ritual life: the content of sermons, the singing, the sacred spaces, things like that.  It was very explicitly “religious.” It was what we’re supposed to take “religion” to be. They were doing Christianity in a very overt, easily identifiable way.  But a lot of what the Bible Society staff did was no different from what any group of people in an organization might do on a daily basis.  They didn’t necessarily talk about their faith; they didn’t always debate with one another about Arminian traditions or whatever.  They were sending emails and working through meeting agendas.  So, one big difference was the extent to which Christianity was explicit, if you will, and it was much more explicit in Zimbabwe.

Now I think that’s also tied not only to the fact that this new work is institutional ethnography, but also to the ways in which the conditions of possibility for being a person of faith in the UK, certainly in England, play out.  These were evangelical Christians, but they didn’t sit around talking about Jesus, even to me.  That wasn’t really their mode, and I think that they had internalized some of the liberal democratic lifeways of broader society.  So that was a big difference.  Now, there were nevertheless ways in which I think you could mark them as being Christian.  And there were things like Bible readings or prayers at the start of meetings or at the end of meetings, and that’s very different from an anthropology staff meeting–or what happens at Tesco before the store opens.  So, it was a very difficult thing to get a handle on the Christianity.

I think another reason why it was difficult, or different, is because I was dealing with people who came from a huge variety of backgrounds and positions.  Some of the people I worked with were literalist creationists, and some were not –some were really not, some were even embarrassed by the idea of literalism or a creationism which didn’t make room for Darwin and evolution.  So you were dealing with a huge range of perspectives (more, I think, than you’d get in any given denominationally-based study), and I think that’s another reason why they didn’t really talk about the explicit elements of who they were as Christians with each other, because that might lead to difficulties.  This is something that I point out in the book.  There was an irony in the extent to which, while on the one hand this is an organization that is all about getting religion into the public, it was also very much shaped by the principals of secularism, which is to say, within the context of public space, or a non-private space such as your work environment, you keep these things private

BOYLSTON: I suppose this would be a good time to ask what the book’s about.  What is the broad-ranging account of what you were doing here?

ENGELKE: It’s a book about how a group of Christians in England are trying to create more room for faith in the public square–in the public sphere–and in the fabric of daily life more generally.  These are Christians who want to infuse the contemporary scene with a greater awareness and recognition of the Bible and Jesus.  It’s a book about how a certain group of social actors try to realize that goal against what they see as a very challenging set of conditions set by the state, set by journalists and pundits, and set by an imagined secular public—all of whom, as far as they’re concerned, want to foreclose the possibility of this kind of publicity.

BIELO: I’ll follow up on that. What contribution, Matthew, do you see the book making?  For example, in doing ethnography of Christians in a boardroom and capturing things that aren’t marked as “religious,” do you see that as maybe opening up the category of religion a little bit?  Also, this idea of sitting at a table where there are a variety of kinds of Christians and how you wrote through that, wrote to that, navigated that? I would see those as contributions, but what do you see as the book’s contributions?

ENGELKE: I think for me one of the primary contributions is to the ethnography of the secular, actually.  Because so much of what the Bible Society staff were thinking about was faith in relation to the secular, to secularization as they understood it, to the idea of a secular state as they understood it, to the idea of a secular society as they understood it. For me it’s putting some color into the picture that we have of the work on secularization and secularity within anthropology and the human sciences.  I want this to be a living, breathing account of how the different ways in which the secular shapes modern life get played out on a day-to-day basis.  There’s a lot of wonderful work on the secular within anthropology, but much of the most influential work is not necessarily ethnographically based.  So, I had a very simple, humble goal – to provide an ethnography of this kind.  Now, you asked about Christianity, not the secular, but for me, certainly within the context of England, you can’t approach any project on the anthropology of Christianity without thinking about it in relation to the secular. So, there is that. And that does indeed open up the category of “religion.” Of course, what I studied in Zimbabwe looked more “religious,” as I suggested earlier, but that very kind of perception is problematic: it’s one I struggled with, one I inherited, just like many other anthropologists, from my own life and even academic training.

In terms of how it fits within the broader literature and the definition of what gets done, it was interesting to me to do a study not of a church, but of a charity that was consciously and constitutionally set up to be non-denominational and making sure that it drew from a number of different traditions.  And that, for me, is something I hope people will find useful when they think through the project in relation to the broader literature on the anthropology of Christianity.

BOYLSTON: A key term here is “public”: the idea of public religion that’s been widely discussed, and secularity as the condition where religion purportedly withdraws from public space. Can you talk a little about your contribution to the thinking on publics and religion?

ENGELKE: If there’s one I hope it would be that we need to stop talking so much about “public religion” and start talking more about religious publicity. One of the difficulties with talking about public religion is the sense in which that term assumes the existence of such a religion. For me, publicity adds a kind of dynamism, and it adds the element of the creation of that public. If we think about, say, Casanova’s now classic book, Public Religions in the Modern World; it’s a fantastic book, there’s no question about it. But, it presents public religions rather than religious publicity. It doesn’t tell you how Christians (in his case primarily Catholics) actually went about creating this public religion. What anthropology can bring to these debates is that sense of the process of creation, of emergence.

I hope also it will draw attention to the fact that there’s often a choice made among religious actors in the public sphere. And that choice boils down to a very simple one: do you accept the dominant, normative language? Do you accept the idea that we live within a world in which terms like “the social” and “the secular” have primacy? Or, do you want to try and reformulate the very language with which public discourse takes place? If you look at this in relation to theological debates and critiques of social and cultural theory, it’s best exemplified, in my view, in the work of John Milbank who, from his perspective as a theologian, is arguing that Christians should not accept the language that they have inherited from the Enlightenment and from the social sciences because it is a fundamentally compromised language. In relation to ideas of the public William Cavanaugh looks at this in even more depth, and he writes in his work that Christians who try to play this game of speaking like secular moderns are going to lose. They’re accepting the terms of the other, so therefore they will inevitably compromise what it is they want to do.

So you have that kind of perspective, but that is not the perspective the Bible Society has adopted. They have adopted the perspective of someone who is much more attentive to the language of the other. For them it’s not really John Milbank; it’s more figures in the emerging church and related areas who are influential or inspirational. Because they are much more willing to engage with the vocabulary that’s currently in play. So I hope that the book will steer people towards recognizing that there is often this fork in the road where religious actors see it as a choice of which path to take.

BIELO: This gets us into something else we wanted to talk about, which is the audience you might envision for this book outside of anthropology. You mentioned sociologists and theologians, and maybe the extent to which the book might achieve a certain level of public scholarship. Do you have hopes in that direction?

ENGELKE: Well, yes, I would like this book to be read by people who are not anthropologists or even necessarily social scientists. I certainly hope social scientists read it, but I tried to write it with a wider audience in mind. I wouldn’t say it’s a trade book, and I didn’t frame it (or even address) what a more general audience might want to know, such as: what’s my own position on Bible Society? Or what recommendations do I have for them? For better or for worse, that’s not what anthropology is about.

I do hope that people interested in religion in the public sphere, the dynamics of secularization, the ways in which small groups of committed actors try to effect radical social transformation, I hope people interested in all of these different things will find something in the book. Absolutely. And for that reason, again I mentioned earlier, it’s really just an ethnography. It’s not a theoretical treatise or a heavily-gunned polemic.

BIELO: I was going to ask a follow up, in terms of how you saw yourself achieving that. Were there moments in the book or examples or characters that you wrote about? Discourse Dave lives in my mind, Matthew—the staff member who worked in Parliament. Are there characters or examples or moments in the book that allow you to achieve reaching a diverse set of audiences?

ENGELKE: Discourse Dave is a very vivid guy and I tried to convey some of that. I did want to present these people as people, and in the case of Dave that involved certain ways of describing who he was, or with Paul Woolley. A few weeks ago I was having lunch with a sociologist here in London who knows Paul, another figure in the book, a real person, and she was commenting on what a horrible diet he has, and that’s something I remark upon. It was just a small detail that he ate bacon sandwiches and had Cokes every day for lunch, but I included it in the book (which he read in draft!). It’s just a way of showing that these are people, and not sets of ideas or theological propositions. So, trying to put some flesh on the bone was very important for me, and also trying to write in a way that was hopefully humorous at different levels. People who know the United Kingdom well, who know England well, who know certain personalities on the BBC will be able to read what I write and maybe—I hope—chuckle a bit about how I describe them or situate them with what the Bible Society is doing. This was one of the things about doing the research: because this was a project about publicity and media, even though I went home at the end of the day, I would often then switch on the news. I would watch Newsnight or listen to the Today Programme before I went out in the morning, and there would often be some story that was relevant to what the people I was studying were thinking about. In that sense the channels of the mass media, broadcast news, were speaking to the project, and I tried to bring some of that out as well, so that people who are aware of what goes on and what the chattering classes are talking about in the U.K. can see this particular group of people reflected in that.

BIELO: Two other things we’d like to squeeze out of you if that’s okay. First, what are you working on now? What’s next?

ENGELKE: What’s next is the flip-side, really.  Having studied evangelical Christians who spend a lot of time in their public pronouncements talking about the importance of secular humanism within contemporary British society, I thought that I would go and study the secular humanists. The project on the Bible Society began in 2006, which was the year that The God Delusion was published, and throughout the three years of work I did on the Society, Dawkins and the New Atheism were constant points of reference. You can see that in some of the chapters of the book, especially the last chapter which is really all about the challenges posed by New Atheism. So I thought, having heard about how problematic and annoying and sometimes how important these secular humanists were, that I would go and talk to the secular humanists, which I did. I’ve already done the research for a book on that, actually. I did a year-long project on the British Humanist Association, which is one of the most prominent humanist and secularist organizations in the U.K. I began this new work with some sense that I would write the other side of the publicity story; how secular humanists envisage publics and what they see as the persistent influence of faith. They don’t see faith as completely gone, certainly not from the formal structure of, say, the education system, or the political system. I thought I would write about that and I might a bit, but to be honest I’m not really interested in adjudicating on whether the evangelical Christians or the secular humanists are rightfully beleaguered.

But the wonderful thing about fieldwork is that you get taken in new directions in the course of the fieldwork. That happened in the work on humanists. My next book is not going to be about public humanism, public atheism; it’s going to be about how humanists and atheists approach death and its commemoration, because one of the things that the British Humanist Association does is provide funerals for people who self-identify as “not religious.” I’m very excited about this partly because it’s getting me back to some of the classic areas of the anthropology of religion: ritual and death, both of which have been huge topics in the discipline and which I’m really looking forward to tackling in relation to how a group of secular moderns who disavow so much of what ritual theory purports to be about.

BIELO: We have one more thing we want to ask you about, sort of a haymaker of a question, so forgive us for that, but the book is coming out in the California Series [on the Anthropology of Christianity], and we’re curating this blog, which is a resource hub for the anthropology of Christianity and people working in and interested in this field. So what do you see as the status of the Anthropology of Christianity, and its immediate future? What kind of work would you like to see?

ENGELKE: I think the status is happy and healthy, really. Just thinking of your own respective projects is energizing: Jon Bialecki’s, some of the most engaging work on prayer I’ve read; Naomi Haynes’ reconfiguring of what anthropology of the Copperbelt in Zambia might look like; James Bielo’s recent work on the emerging church (which has been influential on my own); Tom Boylston’s analyses of Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia in terms of a materialist semiotics.

I’m really excited by all the work that’s coming out, and for me what’s really stimulating is that, increasingly, its work by a wider and wider range of people: new PhDs, coming up in a variety of traditions. The anthropology of Christianity has grown by leaps and bounds, such that it’s not really defined by some small group of five or ten people. It’s gotten much bigger than that. All of the work that’s being done on Orthodox traditions is one area that’s really exciting to me, because it’s bringing up new questions about materiality, and can feed into some of the foundational issues in theology, in the social-scientific understanding of religious mediation. For me, as well, the work of people like, say, Liana Chua, has been very engaging. She clearly came to the Anthropology of Christianity not out of any personal proclivity, but because it was relevant to what she found in her fieldwork, and she then engaged with the literature on continuity and rupture in a very interesting way. To be able to read a book that is engaging with some of the foundational pieces of the self-conscious Anthropology of Christianity, but again not be from the same stable of those of us who have been trying to articulate an Anthropology of Christianity, is, gratifying.

I also think the anthropology of Christianity is to the point–needs to be to the point–where we actually can serve it best, whatever “it” is, by not talking about it as such. And certainly only as such. Indeed some of the most important work on Christianity in recent years actually hasn’t come from scholars who work primarily on Christianity; think of Jane Guyer’s article in American Ethnologist on temporalities of the future. And for me, the work of someone like Charles Hirschkind, on Islam, is very important. Birgit Meyer’s work is also foundational, and yet she does Christianity in a register that’s not entirely in synch with “the anthropology of Christianity.”

So I think the anthropology of Christianity being more (and always other) than the anthropology of Christianity is very important; you can have too much self-consciousness. In a way this is already happening. Joel Robbins’ work has been influential well beyond studies of Christianity. And a book like Webb Keane’s Christian Moderns cuts across numerous traditions and terrains. It’s salutary. I don’t think I use the phrase “the anthropology of Christianity” once in God’s Agents. And even if I do – I’ll have to go back and check! – I don’t ever stop to talk about the anthropology of Christianity as a project in the book because I don’t think that needs to happen anymore. Anyway the book is not only about Christianity, as we have had a chance to discuss a bit: it’s about mediation and publicity, it’s about Britain, it’s about the secular in relation not only to Christianity but “religion” as a more general category I think the moment of articulation is complete, and it’s now time to do what British politicians always say, which is just “get on with the job.”

BIELO: Excellent. Matthew, thank you so much for your time. I encourage anyone who reads this transcript to buy two copies of God’s Agents, teach it, assign it in your courses. Thank you again!

ENGELKE: You’re very welcome!

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