Occasional Paper: Bialecki, “The Judgment of God and the Non-elephantine Zoo”

The Judgment of God and the Non-elephantine Zoo: Christian Dividualism, Individualism, and Ethical Freedom After the Mosko-Robbins Debate

Jon Bialecki (University of Edinburgh)

Abstract: The recent debate between Joel Robbins and Mark Mosko regarding whether Melanesian and extra-Melanesian forms of Christianity should be considered “individual” or “dividual” gives us the opportunity to revisit the question of dividualisms, and to question the over one decade old “current anthropological wisdom” that “all persons are both dividuals and individuals.” (Englund and Leach 2000: 229; see also Lipuma 1998). Reading deployments of Mosko’s argument outside of Melanesia, in conjunction with careful attention to the works of Robbins and Webb Keane, as well as with fieldwork with American Charismatic Christians, this essay argues for a more complex analytic in which individualism as well as disparate dividualism form an economy, working at different scales and temporal frameworks, and at times toward unanticipated ends.

In Southern California, in the converted warehouses and school auditoriums that serve as churches, it is not uncommon to hear from God. God speaks to middle-class believers, in part through coincidences that suggests his providence, in part through miraculous powers of healing, in part through the deliverance from demons, but in also through more a more subtle media, the very consciousness of these believers. A thought that you recognize as being atypical for you, the intuitive grasping of something that you would have no empirical way to know, the sudden onset of an unearthly sense of peace, all are not part of the vagaries of the mind, but rather God speaking out to those who care to hear him. It is not just through consciousness that God communicates, but through the sensorium as well: a rushed feeling of heat, a vision that flashes right before your eyes, could be the work of the Holy Spirit. (See also Luhrmann 2012).

If this sounds intimate, it is. The music these believers use to worship in churches and in living rooms are love songs, drawn from the idiom of pop-music, sung directly to God. Love songs as a genre make sense not just because they are about intimacy, but because they are about a kind of nakedness as well, a desire to strip away class, consumption, and a host of social markers in the pursuit of a relationship with Jesus. They are a means, in other words, of being authentic. For the same reason, when these people speak in churches or in coffee shops about their faith, they aspire not towards any religiously marked speech, such as the dramatics of an earlier generation of Pentecostal revivalists, but rather to the kind of quotidian language that they use in other facets of their life.

This brief sketch was drawn from over eight years of ethnographic engagement with the Vineyard, an influential Southern California originated, but now worldwide, quasi-denomination. But it could also describe a host of Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Neo-Charismatic churches worldwide. Despite this broad distribution, this form of religiosity is, curiously, relatively fixed. Due in part to consciously crafted international networks, and in part to a minimalist, easily interlocking set of anti-ritual rituals, this form of religiosity seems particularly resistant to mutagenic forces, and forms what Simon Coleman has called “part cultures,” holistic and iterable cultural forms that can stand in marked tension with whatever cultural milieu they are transmitted into, and dependent upon. (Coleman 2000, 2010; O’Neill 2010; Robbins 2009)

This global footprint has lead to increased anthropological attention to Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity, particularly in the last fifteen years. In this literature, issues regarding the structure of the person has been a recurrent thematic. And the name given to this structure has been, for the most part, “individualism.” Two formulations along these lines have been particularly widely received. Joel Robbins (2002, 2004) has argued that, at least in Papua New Guinea, the adoption of Christianity inaugurates Individualism as what Louis Dumont would call a ‘paramount value.’ In a framing not-irreconcilable with Robbins (2001), Webb Keane (2007) has identified what he calls a “Protestant Semiotic Ideology,” a persistent tendency in Christian communities to valorize forms of communication that present themselves as being ‘sincere’ and ‘spontaneous’; Keane also reports a certain tendency to either downplay, or problematize, the material and the conventional aspects of semiosis. This valorizing of communication that supposedly mirrors internal subjective states, and a concomitant suspicion of the material, collective and conventional, works in effect as another prizing of the individual, albeit couched in slightly different theoretical terms.

These two takes have been the leading views – until, that is, Mark Mosko’s article “Partible Penitents.” (2010a). In this Curl Prize-winning piece, Mosko borrows an analytic from ‘The New Melanesian Ethnography’ and asked whether a framing of subjects as ‘dividuals’ instead of individuals, an approach which has been productive in opening up indigenous Melanesian modes of personhood, sociability, ritual, and exchange, might also shed light on Christian Melanesian populations. Reinterpreting numerous ethnographies of Christian Melanesian groups, including Joel Robins’ Becoming Sinners (2004), and also using his own work with the North Mekeo of Papua New Guinea, Mosko argues forcefully that the concept of a Christian individualism in Melanesia is a misreading; rather, Mosko claims that an anthropologically common understanding of Melanesians as ‘dividuals,’ that is, as microcosms of others congealed into a singular composite persons created through acts of exchange, also holds true for the Christian as well. Not only is Melanesian Christianity best understood as a form of dividualism, Mosko posits, but also it is Christianity’s easy articulation in a dividual template that explains the rapid adoption of the faith in Melanesia.

Those familiar with the anthropological use of the term dividual should notice a shift here. This is not another iteration of the most influential form of Dividualism, the variant crafted by Marilyn Strathern (1990). [1]For Strathern, Dividualism was a social theory by proxy, an attempt to imagine the abstract mechanisms that a hypothetical New Guinea social scientist would use to describe the relations that we collectively call ‘society.’ It was, in short, a speculative sociology, an attempt to grasp how anthropology would look from a Papuan point of view. In the hands of Mosko, this has become not a hypothetical third order description of sociality; rather, it been transfigured into an effectively unmediated grasping of the nature of a certain kind of Melanesian social ontology (and as we will see, extra-Melanesian as well). We should also notice that the primary opposition of Strathernian dividualism has been put aside. For Strathern the vital work which animated a Papuan world-view was the constant construction of Male and Female as social stances, or different positions in exchange, that were often orthogonal to ‘biological’ sex. Here with Mosko, we are talking instead chiefly about human interactions with supernatural entities, where the work of articulating who exactly an exchange partner is becomes more difficult, at least in a methodological atheism.

Both his refiguring of dividualism, and the counter narratives regarding Christianity that he creates using it, have given rise to some disagreement. In particular, as one might imagine, the anthropologists of Christianity that Mosko reads against the grain vigorously contest both his theoretical approach and his reframing of the ethnographic evidence; this clash was one noted by some in the anthropological community, often presented in tweets and websites as a “Mosko-Robbins” debate. This might tempt one to view this as merely an empirical and regional discussion; but that would be to miss an important aspect of Mosko’s argument. Highlighting the numerous exchanges between believers and their God that occurs in Christianity writ large, Mosko suggests that this amounts to a form of inter-being, and therefore western Christian “individuals” are best understood as “dividuals” as well. Much like the theoretical conception of a Christian-derived individualism was originally taken from social science analyses of the West to read new Melanesian converts, Mosko wishes to take his Melanesian-derived dividual framing and expand it to have us reconsider one of the social science touchstones about the subjectifying work that Christianity does. Mosko says that this should not be too shocking, to the degree that several anthropologists appear to not be working in a paradigm of ‘individual’ subjects, both with non-Western (Cannell 1999, Rutherford 2002, and Rafael 1988) and Western (Csordas 1997, Coleman 2007, and Luhrmann 2012) Christianities.

It is important to stress here that the stakes, large as they are already, exceed even the horizon of an anthropology of Christianity, touching on the nature of the contemporary itself. As I’m sure that the reader has already noted, one obvious analogue to this anthropologically informed individual/dividual opposition can be found in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007).[2] In the opening moments of that work, Taylor posits a historical divide between pre-secular and ‘secular’ selves; the former are marked by an almost prelapsarian “immediate certainty” of the supernatural, leaving them “open and porous and vulnerable to a world of spirits and powers” (Taylor 2007: 38); the latter secular state is described as consisting of “buffered selves,” where a combination of disenchantment and confidence in the self’s capacities to engage in “moral ordering” has effectively banished the supernatural others who were once, at least as he tells it, our regular interlocutors. (Taylor 2007:27).

What is interesting about Taylor’s position is that in laying out his argument, his exemplar of an ‘open’ self is taken from a passage in the ethnographic work of the anthropologist Birgit Meyer (Taylor 2007:11). Drawing from her ethnography of religion in Ghana, Taylor re-presents an incident in the life of one of Meyer’s informants, a woman named Celestine. In this section of Meyer’s work, during a walk home with her mother, Celestine was “accompanied by a stranger dressed in a white northern gown.” (Meyers 1999:181) This man, invisible to Celestine’s mother, but palpably present to Celestine herself, was later identified as the Akan spirit Solwui; As Celestine presents it, Sowlui shortly afterwards forced Celestine into his services as a Priestess. In Taylor’s hands, this moment comes across as some kind of experiential supernaturalism that precedes belief, suggesting both the quotidian nature of the supernatural for non-secular others, and the ease with which these experiences impinged upon their subjective worlds.

But as Meyer herself has argued, this experience is not something that has occurred in a vacuum. Rather, it takes place in the wake of Ghana’s saturation by what Meyer (2004) calls the “Pentecostal Public Sphere.” Due to this Pentecostal Public sphere, what is called “traditional religion,” – such as that centered around Celestine’s master, the Akan spirit Solwui – has not only been successfully framed as an “other” by Pentecostal discourse, but it has also had to a large degree to adopted the logic and social forms of Pentecostalism as well; this is a turn that amounts to a ‘becoming Pentecostal’ of indigenous religiosities, if one will. Evidence to this end can be found in the fact that Celestine eventually converted to Christianity, after a not dissimilar house visit by a different spectral yet sensible figure who turned out, this time, to be Jesus.

If this does nothing else, it suggests that that the Robbins-Mosko debate at least traces typologies that run at crosscurrents to the secular and non-secular, to the modern and a-modern. If one is willing to take the leap, this could even be read as suggesting that Christianity, most intensely in its Pentecostal form, may be affecting forms of subjectivity that exceed merely those who adhere to the religion, facilitating in part the promulgation of new orders of personhood. There is one thing that is certain: that given Pentecostalism’s relatively recent minting, that there is something off about any historical trajectory unproblematically and unilaterally entwining Christianity and modernity, a narrative that would ineluctably climax in ‘the individual’ as telos. If, contra to the main body of the anthropology of Christianity, Christian conversion does not bring about individualism, then one of the greatest anthropological “meta-narratives of modernity” of recent coinage (Englund and Leech 2000) has been found wanting.

Divididualism’s Mutagenic Global Pereginations

There are several different ways to judge the value of a concept; but one of the better means, when dealing with a programmatic idea with pretentions to speak about a global religion, is to see what the reception of the idea has been outside of the particular places where it was first forged to order. The question is not so much merely the empirical one of whether or not this particular concept is apposite or not, but also the question of what mutations the concept has to undergo for it do be deployed in numerous contexts. With that in mind, what I would like to do now is to quickly sketch the reception of Mosko’s ideas by anthropologists of Christianity working outside of Melanesia, and then finally pivot back to our initial paradigmatic case of the Vineyard to see what we should make of these competing claims. As we shall see, it is not so much a matter of determining whether it is Mosko’s or Robbins’ claim which is right, as it is seeing what is correct in both claims, though this recognition of both positions will leave us with an entity far stranger-looking than either the individualist or dividualist framing alone.

Since being published, Mosko’s essay has been taken up three times in serious, concerted ways outside of Melanesia, twice by Africanists, and once by an Amzonianist: Girish Daswani (2011) and Richard Werbner (2011a, 2011b) viewed this argument from the respective vantage points of Ghana and Botswana, while Aparecida Vilaça (2011) has used it for the Wari. The similarities – and differences – between these receptions are instructive. While space doesn’t allow for the full reading that these works deserve, let me present three sketches. Daswani, working with Ghanian Pentecostal women making decisions in the midst of health crises, notes that for his informants there are two options: an expression of solidarity with ancestral spirits through attempting to reconcile non-Christian forms of treatment with their Pentecostal Beliefs, a position that he labels as ‘dividual,’ or alternately submitting to Pentecostal deliverance therapy, where alterity is literally cast out of the body, a position that he reads as ‘individual.’ Werbner has a similar take, but sees it not as a bifurcated choice, but as a counterpunctual rhythm. His “Holy Hustlers” are street prophets who alternate between on one hand a mimetic embodiment of the sickness of others as a charismatic cure, and on the other a kind of self-interested individualism as they shake down others for pay and renowned.

Against these two examples, Aparecida Vilaça sees dividualism and individualism not as contrasting ethical poles or ritual stances, but as different modes of being, dangerous precipitants of each other. The Wari are classic Amazonian perspectivalists, who have a dividual relationship not only with the parents, who nourish them, thereby making them ‘human’ over time, but who also have a relationship with the animals around them. This relationship with animals is a different dividual bond that gives rise to the danger that the human could be overtaken by the animality and slip into the animal slot, finding herself now in the position of prey. The adoption of Christianity by the Wari, with the sense of the institution of a single perspective that could lock everyone into place, was a way for them to not only escape the dangers of becoming prey, but also as a way to become the ultimate bounded individuals, insulated from any kind of sociability whatsoever after the ascent to Heaven, where they imagined themselves all living alone in separate housing, never seeing one another. This insulation is one that is not compete, at least not in this world, because God does not come alone: for the Wari, the Devil has taken the place of the animal as a being that both enters and distends the Wari will, and in the end who preys on the Wari as well.

A first glance might suggest that all this has garnered us is some claim along the lines that “all persons are both dividuals and individuals,” a statement that was identified as the “current anthropological wisdom” some thirteen years ago in debates outside of the anthropology of religion about the relative merits of these rubrics in Melanesia. (Englund and Leech 2000: 229; LiPuma 1998.) A closer inspection, though, shows that rather than a hazy indeterminacy, we have here actually three different conceptions of the individualism/dividualism divide, of the temporality proper to it, and of the modes of being in which is its appropriate positioned: a) as a middle-term ethical orientation, b) as a sort of tact as one shifts from dividualistic charismatic states to individualist ones on a moment by moment basis, and c) as possible dangers to or forms of final states, eschatological framings where the ontological and cosmological dimensions are laminated onto the ethical ones. Given these differences, it may be tempting to take the nominalist road, and say that these are simply different phenomena that happen to bear the name “Christianity,” and there should be no attempt to harmonize them. But this would be to ignore the ethnographic fact that we began with: the easy transportability and apparent resistance to change that lead Simon Coleman to use the term ‘part culture’ in the first place.

Thinking comprehensively, though, would require us to be able to account theoretically in the first instance for the coincidence of both individualism and dividualism. Turning our gaze back to Mosko and his interlocutors, there are observations that make this thinkable. For both Keane and Robbins, the kind of individualisms that they identified were ethical projects, and furthermore ethical projects that never reached either completion or exhaustion. For Robbins, the kind of ethical individualism that his informants longed for was impossible, at least under the circumstances; drawn back into interbeing by the necessities of their agricultural and political system, they were morally tormented by their inability to conform to the individualist standard that they aspired to. Likewise, in Keane’s system, despite the drive to valorise language that could be thought of as ‘sincere’ and ‘immaterial,’ the collective, conventional, and material aspects still always insisted. There are also aspects of Mosko’s model that are helpful when viewed from the perch of ‘multiple personhood.’ A careful reading of Mosko’s paper shows that it is ritual that he is chiefly concerned with – and in fact, he grants in his response that in non-ritual contexts, persons who he would characterize as ‘dividual’ “interact in ways compatible with the tenets of possessive individualism.” (Mosko 2010b: 257).[3] Looked at this way, what is striking is that the individualism of Robbins and Keane are predicated on what we might call a dividual remainder, and Mosko’s formulation did nothing to foreclose either a sociability or an ethic of individualism.[4]

One last theoretical issue before we can actualize this model. We’ve denatured the opposition between the dividual and the individual, making it no longer a digital opposition, but one measured in degrees, or even co-existence; however, it is important to relativize these various categories as well. According to legend the Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam observed once that speaking about “non-linear equations” is structurally the equivalent of speaking about “non-Elephantine zoology.” To the degree that we take dividualism as simply the inverse of a historically particular form we call individualism, then we run the same risks when we use it as a single analytic category. (see also Sahlins 2011:13). Put differently, we should be wary about throwing all ‘dividualisms’ into the same bucket. There is ethnographic reason to believe that all partible and permeable relations are themselves not the same; an example of this is the observation made by Cecilia Busby (1997) that despite many formal resemblances between South Indian and Melanesian exchangeable and gendered bodily substances, in the relative sedimented fixity of South Indian gendered bodies, they are in practice little like the performatively re-ascribable gendered bodies of Melanesian dividualism.

This is important because “Christian dividualism,” if it exists, may be structured somewhat differently than other dividualisms, which may themselves differ greatly from one another. Again, this is an empirical question: any blanket formulations about what situated ‘non-Christian dividualisms’ might be like in any particular case, in the absence of ethnographic evidence, is impossible. As at least an initial hypothesis, though, we might suspect that Christian dividualisms might often be structured along the lines of what Gilles Deleuze has called the “judgement of God,” a state marked by the suppression of “lateral” debtor/creditor relations, as they’re occluded by ties of infinite obligation to a single God, resulting in sclerotization of categories of identity. (Deleuze 1983, 1997; Bialecki 2010:710).

The reason this is important is because of issues of figure and ground. If there is no such thing as ‘pure’ Christian dividualism or ‘pure’ Christian individualism, as suggested by Daswani, Werbner, and Vilaça, then we could have an instance where we have Christian practices that are substantively dividualistic in their logic, yet, allow for a restricted set of interpenetrations in comparison to whatever non-Christian dividualisms that the part-culture is set against. Because of this gap between constrained Christian dividualisms and other potentially more open ones, some Christian dividualisms could be subjectively understood and phenomenologically experienced as something that we could recognize as, in effect, forms of individualism. Likewise, very similar Christian practices, held not against a dividualist background but rather against the grounds of an intensely worked out individualist ethos stereotypically ascribed to the West, may appear to be incredibly dividualizing, and even anti-modern. (Bialecki et. al., 2008: 1150-1152).

Viewed synoptically, what does this look like? Naturally, there is the play of degrees and forms of dividualisms and individualisms, but as we saw in our discussion of Werbner, Daswani, and Vilaça, these can occur at different temporal scales: there is a level of granular analysis, the almost ethnomethodological scale, often coded as ‘ritual,’ where we can see a person shuttling between dividual exchange with demons and the Holy Spirit, only to retreat to a individualist stance, in which personal borders are less porous, and moral responsibility falls on the person alone. Then there is the middle term of navigating social relationships that we saw with Daswani’s Ghanaian women, where one crafts a global relationship of greater or lesser dividualism. Last there is the even larger eschatological horizon which we found in Vilaça in which a dividualism or an individualism could be seen as occurring in the hereafter. Finally, we should understood that for each moment, there may be an opposition between the process that is being undertaken, and the telos that the process is undertaken to further, that is, between the structure of the ritual and practice and the ethical value that occasions it – as in cases of demonic deliverance, where one presents oneself as dividuated, shot through by the demonic, but only in order to create a harmonious and autonomous self. (See Bialecki 2011). Likewise, there are instance of ‘spiritual formation,’ where one does extensive self-work that presumes a certain autonomy and control of one’s person, but which is undertaken in furtherance of a more intimate relationship with God, a state that could be coded as dividual. Therefore we should be careful to be clear about whether we are addressing a) what we might call the ‘tangent’ of the activity – where the activity appears to be heading at the moment, b) the intended telos of the activity – be it either ritual or middle term creation of the self, and c) the product, the often unintendened and unwelcome form of what this assemblage actually ends up giving rise to, since that is not always the same things as the telos.

“Freedom in Christ”: The Vineyard

We are now in a state where we can engage in the last piece of heavy lifting needed in order to adjudicate in this debate; that is, to transpose this rubric, seeing how it allows us to intuit an order in another space entirely, one substantively quite different from Western or Southern Africa, Amazonian Brazil, or, most importantly, from Christian Papua New Guinea. I propose Southern California. Recall my middle class Vineyard informants from the introduction, on one hand shot through by promptings from the Holy Spirit, while on the other struggling to create a sort of authentic, sincere personhood where social accidents are stripped away. How does this tension play out with them, and against what field does it operate?

First, there is the question of the regimes of personhood that the part culture is set against. Southern California may be too variegated a terrain for any kind of global discussion of what personhood there “is.” Obviously there are a plethora of institutions concerned with it – such as the familial, the educational, the state and various scaled forms of capitalism; these institutions obviously work at cross purposes with each other, demanding, and at times cultivating as well, different modes of relating not just with the world, but also requiring different reflexive self-relationships. Further complicating this, we should note that all these institutions may not have the same salience to our subjects. However, even if it is too difficult to speak in blanket statements about the larger system our part-culture is set against, we can capture how it is that the system is perceived by Vineyard believers. When they speak about the world, they do so as an anomic place, where fictitious hierarchies and fragile, fractured, and relational selves are at once crafted and undone by an unceasing, and effectively unregulated, desire. A grudging admiration of the power of consumer society is common, even as its values are questioned. They at once desire and despise items such new cars and status granting smart phones, worried that this might just be a way to fill an emptiness in their lives that should be properly salved by their relationship with Jesus, even as they consume these items. While not everyone would use this language, a therapeutic-originated notion of addiction seems to best describe their understanding of the kind of personhood that the ‘secular’ world engenders. This world is more than merely continued attempt to stabilize oneself in the regard of self and others by the always failing gesture of incorporating status objects, though. Temporality is of equal importance. In a familiar modernist refrain, there is the complaint that effectively in its speed the tangent of desire’s motion is approaching the asymptotic. This ever-accelerating pace is counterbalanced by the fact that the sterility of this constant motion at the same time creates a sense of stuckness, of the impossibility of any true movement or progress.

This sense of the world’s structure is one independent of one’s spiritual state, which is to say that conversion does not work a subjective cure of one’s sense of society’s workings in a single coup. The critique of the contemporary world stands as strong as ever. However, participation in charismatic forms of religiosity does allow for a series of operations that can remodulate the self, dilating and contracting it in numerous registers. I want to sketch out in particular operations that occur at the level of presentation and structuring of self through the speech, though we could have a similar discussion centred around acts of material exchange.

As mentioned in this talk’s introduction, there is a presumption that when discussing either religion or their daily lives, ethical speech is sincere speech, a sensibility that is part of their Evangelical inheritance from the Vineyard’s mixed Pentecostal/Evangelical origins. In practice, most notably this means a rejection of the kind of overtly marked, emotionally elaborated language associated with the classical Pentecostal preacher – as one of my informants asked archly, does Benny Hinn (a famous Pentecostal Televangelist) use that same voice to order hamburgers? This does not mean that there is no space for either affect or affection in Vineyard speech, but it is supposed to be conveyed in cadence and degree appropriate to a sort of intimate space of sharing between friends, rather than theatrical presentation. In short, the kind of presentation that is coded as being ‘natural’ rather than ‘conventional.’

This is in short the kind of ethics of semiosis that is compatible with the Christian modern individualism that has been identified by Webb Keane. But we should notice that this is not the only language use that exists. As we have already mentioned, demonization is another mode of speech that is given a negative ethical charge, where degrees of interference from a supernatural other undoes the univocality and responsibility necessary for an unproblematic individualism and ethical speech. But as a reality, with the rare exception of recourse to the concept of demonization as an occasional explanation for the actions of others, demons mostly exist to be excised – in short, for an individualism of a sort to be (re)instituted. There are several reasons, however, why the deliverance, the improvised ritual in which the demonic is literally summoned up to be expelled, can’t be seen as merely a unproblematic championing of individualism. While drawn from cultural material familiar to the social life outside of the part-culture, this particular form of demonization is not a recognized phenomenon outside of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity. In short, being demonized, or to be more accurate, agreeing with an improvisatory diagnosis of demonization and both submitting to the improvised rite and agreeing to act in accordance with it, is collectively a religious practice, too. One must at some level (though perhaps not a conscious one) ‘agree’ to engage in the convulsions, trembling and swearing that commonly marks a deliverance. While there are of course instances where one prays in such a way as to cast out demons without the beneficiary of the prayer either participating or even being aware (Bialecki 2011b), for the most part an activity like deliverance is only possible when the person being delivered comports herself in a manner made most intelligible by Charismatic concepts stressing a permeable structure of self. In short, demonization is as much a luxuriating in porous dividualism as it is a reaffirmation of agency and a singular voice.

This makes sense because there are other ethically positively charged Charismatic modes that are also predicated on an alterity that crosses the boundary between self and world, where the language used is also credited to someone else. Prophecy, for instance, commonly consists of verbal presentations of internal subjective experiences (visions, sometimes thoughts, and occasionally just an affective state such as tears, panic, or peace), sometimes glossed with a possible interpretation also presented by recipient of the prophetic communication. Such words can be intended for ones self or for others. Given in public when meant for a collective, or in small group or personal exchanges when meant for singular individuals, these communications are only considered to be of value to the extent that the person presenting the communication is not considered to be the author of the communication, but merely the ‘animator’ of it, to use Goffman’s (1981) term, the proxy through which a message is delivered. This is a temporary abeyance of the speaker’s agency, though there exists the residual agency of whether or not one should communicate what one suspects is a prophetic message; oftentimes messages are held back because of concerns about the appropriateness of presenting the communication in the venue, worries about how it might queer the personal relationship between the person receiving the prophetic message and the subject of prophecy, or by doubts about the validity of this particular prophetic message. But what is equally of interest, given our concern for permeability and partibility, is the fact that subjective ideational material usually understood as internal to the stream of consciousness has been marked as having a proximate and direct origin outside of the person. Struck by the unexpectedness, atypicality, force or salience of this aspect of the sensorium, what is normally thought of as self is understood as a gift from another, and when it is not directly concerning the self, is a gift that is suppose to be communicated to others.

A similar logic can be intuited in glossolalia. While not having value as a guarantor of salvation, as it is in classical Pentecostalism, speaking in tongues is a common practice in the many Vineyard churches. Speaking in tongues is a semiotically complex phenomenon, a moment where one speaks a language that has no semantic value, and is only referential to the degree that it can be understood as indexing the Holy Spirit. (See also Tomlinson 2013). But more apposite of our discussion is the fact that often, the speaker-in-tongues experiences this speech act in the same manner, as something alien. This is because tongues are understood usually as a “love language” that comes from God, and which is spoken to God.[6] Divine language then comes from heaven, threading itself through the speaking subject, only to return again to God, a closed loop which is predicated on the porous nature of the glossolalist, and the partible nature of God’s speech.

Deliverance, prophecy, and glossolalia can be thought of, then, as moments of dividualism at the ritual scale, replete with what, from the vantage point of a thoroughgoing individualism, would be understood at breaches of the barrier between person and world. Or rather, to be more exact, movements into dividualism, since it would be a stretch to characterize the quotidian, secular world as they experience it as also ‘dividual’ in the same way, even though it offers a certain kind of hollowness and weakness to the subject, always washed over with desire. In short, the dividualism is always a punctual one. The question is what is it that these dips in and out of permeable, porous states are in furtherance of?

I would argue that these states are in furtherance of a kind of freedom, one necessary for the middle term ethical project that they are engaged in. Consider this: all these states are about interruptions to prior states of affairs. Sometimes these changes are ‘negative’ in the sense that some aspect of either the person, or the world that she is embedded in, is to be culled, as is paradigmatically the case in demonization where some set of concerns or behaviours is treated as exterior and cast out, but also in some instances of prophecy as well, instances where one learns through prophetic transmission, intended either for oneself or for others, that some prior state – some grief, some hope, some memory – is to be let go. Prophecy is also a “positive” interruption, in which some new revelation intervenes, overwriting a prior state of affairs: one learns that one has a new calling, perhaps to a relationship, a region, a profession, or even to ministry. Even tongues, in as much as they take the form of ecstatic breaks in a discursive unfolding, are momentary ruptures of, and at a times complete occlusions of the very signifying chain that they are embedded in; it is no accident that in my experience glossolalia functions to create collective and literally unearthly dins, at moments in Vineyard events where the sermon reaches its conclusion and prayer in earnest is to begin, that is, at the point where any discursive speech addressed to the collective as a whole disintegrates and everyone begins to engage in charismata, often grouped in chaotic series of dyads or triplets, with bodies, on bended knee or slain in the spirit, littering the floor. Even if glossolalia functions not as the end of a series of statements, but as much as a mode of punctuation within it (a very rare use of tongues in the Vineyard, given how reminiscent this mode of expression is of the kind of showy Pentecostalism that they eschew) the return to more quotidian forms of speech is a return with a rhythmic and semiotic difference, as the uniform unfolding has been at least temporarily thrown off.

Now, anthropologists of Christianity have noted that in places such as West Africa and Oceania, Pentecostalism serves as a form of making what one anthropologist characterized as “a complete break with the past;” as they read it, this form of religiosity releasing believers from non-Christian religion, allowing them to reject sometimes onerous kinship obligations and identities that, from the vantage point of the believer, are read not as social structures supplemented by differently constituted ontological entities, but rather as forms of ‘paganism,’ ancestor worship and deviltry. Indeed, this work to disembed the subject from a warren of social ties is one of the reasons why anthropologists turned to ‘individualism’ as a trope for Christian personhood in the first place.

This cannot be the case in Southern California. While there are sometimes residual concerns about supernatural spill-over from kin who might have an interest in the occult or new-age type spiritualities, the general sense is that it is better to gently correct family who truck in this stuff than to avoid them. So, not a break with kin. In fact, if this form of Charismatic religiosity has any effect on kinship, it is an encouragement of efforts to repair frayed relationships, usually under the guise of ‘healing’ or ‘forgiving.’ But this work of forgiving does allow us to grasp a different way that this Charismatic form of Christianity serves as a “complete break with the past,” with the past understood not as a rejected historically prior forms of sociability, but rather as an individual biographical past. The biographical past is not erased, but rather these series of small breaks in language, self-presentation, and personhood throw off the trajectory that the past has imparted; these breaks, erase previous teleologies, rendering the past “inoperative,” in Giorgio Agamben’s terminology, leaving the past as a mere liberating inertness. I would argue that this making inoperative of the past works to establish the kind of basic freedom that much of the recent anthropology of ethics believes is a condition for self-work to occur (Laidlaw 2002; Faubion 2011); it does this by disrupting the previously extant unfolding of self as controlled by habit and memory, injecting into the self an action or thought that not only is read as alien, but to some degree must be thought of analytically as the result of a stochastic process. It may be objected that all these charisms are the result of an extensive retraining of the senses, as psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann has argued; however, while this capacity to read otherwise inconspicuous fluctuations as divine is the result of a finely honed capacity, what this finally honed capacity will settle on as being salient is something that cannot be known in advance of the specific situation in which prophecy or deliverance is exercised. And as we have seen, these charisms are not just interruptions, but often times new imperatives, either for particular changes involving relationships, or for global reconfiguring of goals; this capacity for radical redirection suggests something more than merely the practiced exercise of an acquired talent, something more along the lines of a series of exercises that allows one to ‘throw the dice’ at certain moments, embracing contingently produced products as cosmologically ordained.

If charisms then serve to make space of imperatives that cut off the past and serve as new middle term goals, what is the larger ethical work that is being done? While there is not time to flesh this out, I would argue that among other goals involving submission and boundary maintenance, the work here is to create an individual who is orientated towards fellow believers in general, and fellow congregation members in particular – that the use of terms like ‘tribe’ to describe the collectivity of members in the Vineyard for instance, suggests this. This is also suggested by inclusive terms such as ‘the Church,’ and also by the use of crypto-national phrases such as “let us be a people,” a turn of words usually used by pastors and other leaders, often during collective prayer, to propose speculative future goals regarding collective social behaviour. This is a person devoted to a collectivity, but not necessarily a porous person – or at least not a person as radically porous as we seen in the charismatic gifts. I may feel the pain or joy of a fellow believer in moments of crisis or triumph, but I will never subjectively experience his thought or vision in my head, the way I would in prophesy.

This is the telos but not necessarily the product. While many engage in the ethical work of assisting in the production of a community which is reckoned as a good in and of itself, another portion never reach this mark. Rather than the gifts becoming a mode of creating the freedom needed for an ethical project, there are those for whom the gifts become a good in and of themselves; people who turn their attention increasingly, and sometimes exclusively, to ecstatic Pentecostal-style practices merely for the sake of experiencing more Pentecostal-style practices, often moving from community to community as they search for spaces where there these gifts are foregrounded with the threshold amount of intensity desired, a level of intensity that is often difficult to maintain, leading months or years later to yet another move. For these people, the ethical work of becoming an individual who works in concert with others may be acknowledged, but is never really commenced, and they stay locked into increasingly exploring the permeability of the Charismatic self.


As I hope the above sketch has indicated, this system of individualizing and dividualizing, not as blanket descriptions, but as tacks that are practiced at different scales, actually has some utility as an analytic, one that can be deployed to open up Christianities from quite different locals. But it should also be clear, I hope, that even as useful as the dividual/individual heuristic is, it is only a temporary measure, a crutch that should be eventually thrown aside.

Part of this is because this analytic does not give us a way to separate assemblages of enunciation from that of material assemblages; persons code actions and material as either emanating from them or emanating from others, but that matter does not necessarily have to match the actual circuits that are traced, even acknowledging the likelihood that the accounts given of what occurs may have performative effects on what is actually going on – or, to be even more precise, must also be acknowledged as a part of what is going on. Rather than discussing whether one is either fully dividual or fully individual, impossible states even if pictured as nonce positions, we should be asking in what ways subjects give differing degrees of salience to the always present aspects of things that are either proximately “internal” or “external,” shifting the thin line between self and other sometimes forward, and sometimes back.

This level of specification, however, raises a different problem. When such overriding, and possibly procrustean, concerns such as ‘the individual’ or ‘the dividual’ are set aside as some kind of identifiable pattern that may be carried out across various forms of Christianity, the possibility arises that we have lost any argument for privileging Christianity as a comparative horizon – that there most likely are other practices, some of them religious, that consists of shuttling between more or less permeable rhetorics of self. While I don’t have time to flesh out my response to that, I would say that to the degree that this involves identifiably Christian ideational material, practices, and social forms, then there are similar genetic processes being carried out, even if what is produced by them looks so strikingly different; or that, in other words, the iteration of Charismatic and Pentecostal part cultures end up doing roughly similar work, even if it never is the same work. In short, this is Christian particularism, as opposed to Christian exceptionalism; and that modulating selfhood and environs in what is in effect a series of deterretorializations and reterretorializations, undoubtedly occurs in many more practices than Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity, but because it uses different means in these other spaces, it is most likely actualized in different ways.

This is as long way from our initial starting point, a conflict between exclusively dividual and individual framings of Christian Self. We may ask what was the point of taking up the debate in the first place, or whether we should acknowledge anyone as having ‘won.’ The issue is not who is “wrong” or “right” – though, for those who insist on some kind or reckoning, it seems that Robbins, in posting an abstract manner a constant though only partial process of individualization, was closer to the reading presented here than Mosko, who only had an always-already complete, thoroughgoing dividualism that was applicable in any circumstance other than the most rarefied secular milieus. Rather, what is important here is that we had an event – a clashing of two disparate frames of reference that, in their sometimes-stubborn juxtaposition, opened up new modes through which to capture the worlds that these pictures of thought were originally impressed by, and which they may be considered expressions of as well. In a discipline that has lost its discipline, which is content to have different schools drift off into darkness rather than have them engage each other in an agon, these moments are increasingly rare, and we should be excused for trying to wrest all that can be out of this single and singular individual/dividual encounter.

Note on Contributor: Jon Bialecki (Born 1969, PhD 2009) is a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. His academic interests include the anthropology of religion, anthropology of the subject, ontology and temporality, and religious language ideology. He received his BA, MA, and PhD from the University of California, San Diego, and his JD from the University of San Diego.

In addition to his lectureship position, he was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Reed College in Portland, Oregon (2006-2009), and a lecturer in Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego (2009-2013). He writes on North American neocharismatic Christianity, on global Christianities, and on the anthropology of Christianity, and he is currently completing a manuscript on the implicit logic of self in the charismatic practices of Southern Californian members of the Vineyard church-planting movement and the effects that these constructions of personhood have had on these believers’ political and economic practices. His work has been published in several edited volumes and in academic journals such as the South Atlantic Quarterly, American Ethnologist, Anthropological Theory and the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute; he was also recently a co-editor of a special issue of Anthropological Quarterly that focused on Christian Language Ideology.


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Bialecki, Jon. 2011b. “Quiet Deliverances” in Ritual Practice in Charismatic Christianity (edited by Martin Linderhart). Oxford: Berghan Press, pp. 249-276.

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[1] Dividualism has a history prior to its arrival in Melanesia, of course – most notably in work done on the anthropology of South Asia (Marriot 1976).

[2] See Smith 2012 for a parallel discussion of the relationship between individualism, dividualism, and Taylor’s buffered and porous selves.

[3] In a longer form of this argument, we would have to consider how the ritual/non-ritual opposition that Mosko endorses here is complicated both by theories of ritual that emphasize the links, rather than the oppositions, between ritual and non-ritual moments (Mahmood 2001), or by the tendency of Pentecostal and Neocharismatic Christianity to, due to ‘spontaneous’ and anti-institutional values, to deny that it contains any ‘ritual’ forms.

[4] There is also a second approach to this problem, one grounded in Roy Wagner’s (1981) model of different modes of personhood, where different kinds of personhood are created by taking for granted either invention or convention; I would like to thank Jordan Haug for this observation. A full discussion of this would, however, take far too much space, leading us away from our target domain as we ‘metaphorize’ theory.

It is also apposite to observe that there is something not quite unlike an individualism latent in the dividualism of Marilyn Strathern herself; as she observes, the social and distributed nature of the self can collapse at moments, when one ‘represents’ one polarity or the other in an exchange; in moments of ritualized gift presentation, both partners comes to fully inhabit one of the opposing positions for a moment, despite her being a fractal impression of the various and different social exchanges that consolidated in her. That is, despite being composed of both female and male elements, for that particular interaction is it ‘as if’ one partner was entirely male, and the other partner entirely female. While this state of temporary collapse may not be the same as an individualism, we can note that when held operated in a religious field with transcendent tendencies, if it makes the other wholly divine other, it leave the subject as wholly human, a bare state that may ‘pass’ for an individualism in some moments.

[5] It is these differentials in level and mode that allow for instances of ‘irony,’ where there is a certain double voicing making instance of possession – and I would argue, promptings from what is understood as the ‘Holy Spirit’ (Lambek 2003a, 2003). While again, limitations on space prevent fully developing this thought, or explaining what the stakes are in putting it forward, it seems that this chart of potentialities and countervailing forces functions as in effect a kind of virtual map of how forms of Pentecostal and Neocharismatic Christianity can be actualized in different ways in different moments, what Deleuze (1988) has called a diagram (See also Bialecki 2012)

[6] That is, when it isn’t understood as an instance of xenoglossy, which is a rather rare but not completely absent alternative framing.

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