Christianity, Wealth, and Spiritual Power: Book Review

Lauterbach, Karen.  2017.  Christianity, Wealth, and Spiritual Power in Ghana.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

By: Girish Daswani (University of Toronto)

In an important thesis published in 1998, Birgit Meyer showed how making a ‘complete break with the past’ had become a central concern for Ghanaian Pentecostals. Five years later, Joel Robbins’ (2003) piece on the problem of “continuity thinking” (an anthropological bias toward emphasizing cultural continuity) called for “an anthropology of discontinuity”, that further engaged with a self-conscious anthropology of Christianity (see Bialecki et al 2008:138). Since then, the literature on discontinuity and rupture, which takes seriously Christian ideology and Christian attempts to bring about change, has shaped many debates (Meyer 2004; Engelke 2004; Robbins 2007). It has also impacted on how, when I came back from my doctoral fieldwork in 2004, I related to my ethnographic material. While I purposefully moved at the time beyond the public rhetoric of rupture to, instead, reflect on how different groups of Ghanaian Pentecostal believers selectively drew from and struggled with the discourse of discontinuity (Daswani 2007; see also Engelke 2010), the underlying question of what Ghanaian culture brought to Pentecostalism eventually fell – at least for a while – out of focus (Daswani 2015).

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Pastures of Plenty: Book Review

Heuser, Andreas, ed. 2015. Pastures of Plenty: Tracing Religio-Scapes of Prosperity Gospel in Africa and Beyond. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

By: Hans Olsson (Lund University)

This multidisciplinary volume adds to a growing body of scholarly work focusing on the highly debated topic of Pentecostal-Charismatic prosperity teachings (a.k.a., the faith gospel or health and wealth gospel). The book has a broad scope (21 contributions plus an Introduction) which enables the exemplification and comparison of the many different contemporary strands of prosperity teachings. Divided into six subsections, Pastures of Plenty deals with prosperity teachings in relation to (i) political and social contexts (Tetzlaff, Köhrsen, Maltese); (ii) its theological foundations and place in current ecumenical debates (Gifford, Kahl, von Sinner, Biehl); (iii) its significance and influence in current public debates across religious denominations and traditions (Heuser, Zakaria, Langenwiesche, Nrenzah, Opare Kwakye, Hasu); (iv) its relation to the Protestant work ethic and entrepreneurship (Sundnes Drønen, Daniels, Zapf); (v) exchange and gift economies (Droz & Gez, Lindhardt); and (vi) migratory contexts (Fröchtling, Rey, Frei). While the majority of the contributions are case studies drawn from African contexts such as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso, there are also some cases from other parts of the world such as the Philippines (Maltese), Brazil (von Sinner), Switzerland (Frei), and the US (Daniels). The anthology’s thorough collection of research offers deep insights into contextual differences but also provides a multifaceted and multidisciplinary analysis of the phenomenon of the prosperity gospel at large. Continue reading

Negotiating Marian Apparitions: Book Review

Halemba, Agnieszka. 2015. Negotiating Marian Apparitions: The Politics of Religion in Transcarpathian Ukraine. Budapest: Central European University Press.

By: Sonja Luehrmann (Simon Fraser University)

Catholic believers have been seeing the Virgin Mary appear for centuries, especially at times of crisis and social and ecclesiastical upheaval. In her book, Agnieszka Halemba argues that what is remarkable about these visions is not that they occur, but how some of them are embraced by a Church organization while others are not. Her ethnographic study deals with apparitions of Mary to two girls in Dzhublyk in Transcarpathian Ukraine that began in 2002. As with many apparitions, the official investigation about these has not yet been concluded, but local Greek Catholic communities have embraced the site and made it into a pilgrimage destination. Rather than focusing on the visionaries or pilgrims, Halemba looks at the organizational agents and processes in relation to which the apparitions gain lasting meaning and renown. In so doing, she creates a fascinating institutional ethnography of the Greek Catholic Church and its place in wider Christendom. Continue reading

Choosing the Jesus Way: Book Review with Author Response

Tarango, Angela.  2015.  Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

By: Aminta Arrington (John Brown University)

In the 1880s, two missions administrators, one on each side of the Atlantic Ocean, simultaneously, yet independently, developed the indigenous principle (also called the three-self principle): that the goal of missions should be to create self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating churches, thus allowing the phasing out of the mission (Neill, 1990). The indigenous principle was designed to cure some common missionary maladies of the time: overzealous control, dependency, lack of local leadership, and overreliance on western funds.

Angela Tarango has chosen this missiological concept—the indigenous principle—and used it as the narrative thread for Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle, examining how the indigenous principle was put into practice in Assembly of God (AG) missions among American Indians. She follows the indigenous principle through the archives, teasing out its (uneven, and at times halfhearted) implementation and the resulting effects. Ultimately, she argues that despite its official status, AG mission leaders dragged their feet in applying the indigenous principle. In contrast, American Indian leaders within the AG claimed the indigenous principle and used it to develop their own identity, push for greater power, and negotiate their own autonomy. Thus in practice, the indigenous principle meant not that rights to local leadership, rights to national recognition, or rights to Native Bible colleges, were given to new Native American believers, but that the new believers took hold of these rights and claimed them as their own. The indigenous principle became less a strategy of bestowing rights on the part of the missionaries, and more a theology of resistance on the part of the Native American Christians.

The indigenous principle has long held sway as a theoretical handle in the history of missions. John Nevius, a missionary to China, expounded upon these ideas, and the Nevius plan was used in the evangelization of the Korean peninsula in the late 19th and early 20th century. Later, Roland Allen (1927), in The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, (a follow up to his earlier work Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?) showed that failure to adhere to the indigenous principle in China missions had produced a handicapped church incapable of influencing its own society.

But the crucial missiologist for Tarango was Melvin Hodges, AG missionary to Nicaragua. Hodges read both of Allen’s books and adapted them for Pentecostalism. As expected of a Pentecostal missionary, Hodges emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit in the implementation of the indigenous principle. Not only did Hodges attempted to practice the indigenous principle in Nicaragua, he wrote several influential books about the indigenous principle (including The Indigenous Church (1953) and The Indigenous Church and the Missionary (1978)). Important for Tarango’s narrative is that Hodges taught the indigenous principle in the missionary training center in Springfield, Missouri in the 1950s, where one of his students was Charlie Lee, American Indian convert and evangelist.

It is in her narrative of Charlie Lee that Tarango’s book achieves its greatest brilliance. After graduating from the Central Bible Institute in Springfield, Lee returned to the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, where he worked as an evangelist for the next several decades. With Hodges’ ideas in mind, during these years Lee encouraged tithing by the mission church, trained Indians as Sunday School teachers and church administrators, and as pastors and evangelists, until every available leadership position was filled with an Indian. In 1973, the members of the Mesa View Assembly of God formed a board of directors, and drafted a constitution and bylaws. Charlie Lee resigned his missionary appointment with the AG, and accepted the new title of church pastor, with his salary paid not by AG Home Missions, but by his church. Within a few years, Mesa View Assembly of God was supporting Pentecostal evangelism in other Indian areas. Tarango emphasizes that Lee embraced the indigenous principle not primarily because it was the best missionary method; he embraced the indigenous principle because it was best for Indians.

In the same chapter, Tarango presents another fascinating personal narrative, this one, about white missionary Alta Washburn’s successful effort to start an All Tribes Bible School. Alta Washburn, though the recipient of scant education herself, intuitively grasped the principle that if the Indians were to lead their own churches, evangelize their own people, and realize the indigenous principle, they were going to need education. Tarango effectively uses Washburn’s story to demonstrate the AG’s reluctance in fully realizing the indigenous principle. When Washburn brought her vision to her missionary district’s leaders, they narrowed the scope from training Indian church leaders to training Indians merely as helpers to the white missionaries, such as Sunday school teachers and deacons.

This narrative underlines that indigenous principles cannot be fully emplaced without indigenous schools. As Tarango states, “without educated indigenous leadership, there would be no indigenous church” (p. 137). The Bible school Alta Washburn started in 1957 has been renamed the American Indian College, now located in Phoenix, Arizona. Its homepage states its purpose as “Equipping students for Christian Service within a Native American collegiate community.”

This book is not an ethnographic study, but rather a historical study based on archival research. Teasing out theory and theology from archival sources is a difficult task, made more complex by Tarango’s stance toward her primary sources. According to Tarango, the primary sources upon which she relied, mostly issues of the Pentecostal Evangel periodical as well as archival materials, are “scanty and biased” (p. 9), requiring her to read “between the lines” (p. 16) to tease out the truth. Though one recognizes the difficulty of writing a Native American story that relies primarily on white sources, as well as Tarango’s own priority of privileging the voices of the American Indian Pentecostals themselves, such acknowledged distrust of her own sources leads to an uneasy dance between writer and reader. This unmooring from primary sources means Tarango leaves herself great latitude in interpretation: she is free to read for material that supports her thesis, and toss out what she feels is biased reporting.

This methodological uneasiness might not be so noticeable, except that at times, Tarango’s account begins to feel one-dimensional with the Native Christians always heroically upholding the indigenous principle in the face of white opposition, the white women unfailing in their support of Native agency, and the white men continuously prey to paternalism and ethnocentrism. Tarango seems at times to have little faith in her readers, repeatedly telling them that this practice reflected ethnocentrism, and that one, paternalism. These two abstract terms—paternalism and ethnocentrism—are so overused, particularly in chapter three, that Tarango’s argument is weakened by their ubiquity. Even when whites took actions that seemed to support indigenous principles, such as suggest Indian evangelists wear their native garb, organize all-Indian camp meetings, or propose a national position to be filled by an Indian, Tarango discounts their efforts as tainted with ethnocentrism and halfway at best. In this account, Native Americans are always the saints; white men are invariably the sinners. One begins to ask if it really is all that simple, if there is not nuance and complexity and messiness. This tension raises again the question of how to privilege subaltern, minority, or diverse voices, without readers feeling as though new bias has been introduced.

Regardless of this ribbon of tension which runs through the book, Tarango still demonstrates that in regards to indigenous principle, theory and practice were two very different things. Moreover, in her focus on the indigenous principle, she present the Native American converts as active mediators of their own conversion.

Response from Angela Tarango (Trinity University)

Only as I made my way though researching my book on Native American Pentecostals, Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indians and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle (UNC Press 2014), did I fully realize the enormity of the lack of sources. As Pentecostalism is a more oral and spontaneous form of Christianity the “paper trail” that historians usually rely on is thin. Early Pentecostals didn’t tend to write down and save their sermons; those were extemporaneous. They did not agonize over whether they were saved or not like 18th century Puritans did in their diaries; instead they knew exactly when they were born-again and baptized in the Holy Ghost. Finally, the most common Pentecostal document, the conversion narrative, is “relentlessly stylized” (Wacker, 58) as the great historian of Pentecostalism Grant Wacker reminds his readers. In other words the texts that they left behind are filtered and understood through the Pentecostal framework, and must be acknowledged as such.

Since Native Pentecostals and white Pentecostals who served as missionaries to Native peoples did not leave behind extensive written records, I reconstructed their history by first using the Pentecostal Evangel (PE) to figure out important dates and names, as well as locations of mission stations. Yet it is crucially important to note that the PE is inherently biased. This is true of any denominational newspaper—the bias is to present their particular religion in a positive light. You don’t find “de-conversion” narratives in the PE even though inevitably, some people lost faith or left the religion. The pages of the PE are also deeply racist, especially in the first half of the twentieth century. Native people are often portrayed as “savage,” and problematic depictions of other racial minorities abound, especially of African-Americans.

Arrington states in her review that the source issues create vexing questions but that “such acknowledged distrust of her own sources leads to an uneasy dance between reader and writer. This unmooring from primary sources means Tarango leaves herself great latitude in interpretation: she is free to read for material that supports her thesis, and toss out what she feels is biased reporting (Arrington.)” Acknowledging that there is a source problem does not give a historian license to simply “toss out” what one feels is biased—instead a historian’s job is to read the biased material carefully and acknowledge the bias, which I did. To this point, Wacker is careful to point out that those who created early Pentecostal literature, especially periodicals and conversion narratives, did not “fabricate” or “deliberately distort” their writing, but “that autobiography involves an artful arrangement of the narrative to make things right. The present task is to accept that reality and try to correct for it (Wacker 59.)” As a scholar who was trained by Wacker himself, I understood my goal to be the same as his.

The fact is that the Assemblies of God (AG) was deeply racist in the early period of missions to Native peoples. White missionaries and white institutions were a product of their times, and any good historian has to acknowledge that. My acknowledging of this, or showing white missionaries to be problematic in the field does not mean that “Native Americans are always the saints; white men are invariably the sinners (Arrington).” In fact if anything, the thinness and bias of the sources means I was unable to find much where Native Pentecostals may have shown themselves to be “sinners”—which in and of itself is problematic and again points to the difficulty of trying to find the voices of Native Pentecostals through sources that are controlled by whites. Clearly white Pentecostals wanted “success” stories to be disseminated about their converts. This, of course, precluded any stories of Native backsliding or even of Native infighting within the AG.

As a scholar of Native American religious history I am well aware that the missionary histories of the past are weighted towards the hagiographic, and excluded the voices of Native converts. White Pentecostals also acknowledge this truth—many who I met during my research privately expressed dismay at how Native American Pentecostals have been treated by the AG. Allan Anderson was one Pentecostal scholar who was blunt with me about it. During a session at the Society of Pentecostal Studies his voice boomed out: “I read the book on my overnight flight. I liked it. But I think you were far too gentle with the Assemblies regarding how they treated Native peoples.” His comment has weighed on me since he said it. Should I have been more forceful in explaining the deep racist structures within Pentecostalism? I wanted the focus to be on the Native Pentecostals themselves—not the incessant racism that they faced, which would have made the book more about the structures of the AG than about indigenous forms of Pentecostalism. In the end the history of indigenous Christianities remains incomplete and scholars are often forced to work with what little they can find. Understanding those sources to be problematic isn’t a bias and it does not mean that we have “little faith in [our] readers.” It is simply being a good historian.

References Cited (Both Authors):

Allen, Roland. 1912. Missionary methods: St. Paul’s or ours? London, United Kingdom: R. Scott.

Allen, Roland. 1997 [1927]. The spontaneous expansion of the church. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.

Neill, Stephen. 1990. A history of Christian missions. New York, NY: Penguin.

Tarango, Angela. 2015. Choosing the Jesus way: American Indian Pentecostals and the fight for the indigenous principle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Hodges, Melvin. 1953. The Indigenous Church. Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House.

Hodges, Melvin. 1978. The Indigenous Church and the Missionary. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

Wacker, Grant.  2001.  Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Praying and Preying: Book Review

Vilaça, Aparecida. 2016.  Praying and Preying: Christianity in Indigenous Amazonia, translated by David Rodgers. Oakland: University of California Press.

Reviewed by G.E.R. Lloyd (Needham Research Institute, Cambridge UK)

This is a truly remarkable book.  In most anthropological monographs the reader is given a detailed analysis of one particular collectivity, the circumstances of their lives, their kinship relations, social structures, myths, rituals, ways of making sense of the world and of their place in it.  That is certainly what Vilaça here does for the society she has been studying for more than 30 years, the Wari’ who live in what is today the Rondônia province of Brazil.  But a principal theme of this book is the interactions between the Wari’ and the missionaries (Protestants and some Catholics) who have lived among them and attempted, with varying success, to convert them to Christianity.  The Evangelical New Tribes Mission in particular, whose activities date back to the 1940s, may be said to be the subject of a second interlocking ethnographic analysis.  This adds a new dimension to the study of mutual intelligibility with which Vilaça is centrally concerned.  First there is the missionaries’ understanding of the Wari’ (they are not particularly concerned to learn from them or even about them but they certainly wish to get their own message across).  Second there is the Wari’s understanding of the missionaries and of what the missionaries are trying to teach them.  Third there is Vilaça’s own understanding of those divergent understandings and her further entering into dialogue with her fellow anthropologists.  I shall come back to that.

The problem of translation thus takes centre stage, and that takes multiple forms.  This is not just a matter of finding particular terms in one language that will be adequate to convey what is meant by some word in another. This to be sure was a major preoccupation for the missionaries, for what they were hoping to achieve was a rendition of the Word of God, as contained in the Bible, itself interpreted literally.  But for the Wari’ translation was quite different.  Their starting point is that Wari’ is the language spoken by everyone, every living being (and not just humans).  But the same term, used by different agents, may and often does have quite different referents.  The plot thickens when the agents are non-human persons.  When the jaguar drinks the blood of its victims, what the Wari’ see as blood is, for the jaguar, beer.  Of course translating from jaguar perceptions to those of the Wari’ takes special skills, the province of expertise of shamans in particular (though with Christianisation their power has been on the decline).  But the Wari’ in general are used to calling upon what may be thought of as internal dictionaries facilitating translation between jaguars (for example) and the Wari’, and of course also between the missionaries and themselves.  The consequence for reference is radical.  We are used to recognising that for someone to be a ‘father’ implies a relationship with another person, a son or daughter, who makes the father what he is.  But that principle is applied quite generally.  So that ‘blood’ is (only) blood to some agent for whom it is blood.  Indeed, a ‘person’ is only a person in virtue of being seen as a person.

That of course was the central message of the perspectivism proposed by Viveiros de Castro, which the Wari’ instantiate particularly clearly.  But where does that leave Vilaça herself?  On the one hand, she evidently distances herself from the assumptions of the missionaries, that the Word of God sets out a definitive statement of how things are.  On the other, she resists the relativising conclusion that the different understandings of translation, and of terms across languages, effectively rule out any possibility of mutual intelligibility.  That is not a conclusion the Wari’ themselves draw.  On the contrary their perspectivism suggests a particular focus on the efforts needed, and the difficulties likely to be encountered, in the task of translation.

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Sensational Movies: Book Review

Meyer, Birgit. 2015. Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

By John Durham Peters and Gavin Feller (University of Iowa)

One of the most exciting things about the anthropology of Christianity is the way it uses the minutiae of practices in out of the way cultures to cast light on ancient and deep philosophical and religious questions. To think about will and personhood, one can turn equally to St. Augustine and to Joel Robbins’ Urapmin. To think about translation and denominational schism, one can turn equally to Martin Luther and to Courtney Handman’s Guhu-Samane Christians. (Like the Urapmin, they live in New Guinea.) The anthropology of Christianity likes to coax theologizing from its armchair and show it at work in the wild, in the field, in vernacular forms.

Birgit Meyer’s Sensational Movies is a worthy contribution in this project. Amassing and integrating over two decades of her research, the book shows, as we will see, how richly the film culture of south Ghana treats the theological problem of necessary but productive evil and the theoretical problem of the ontology of the photographic or cinematic image. The producers, actors, and audiences she has worked with over the years may not be trained religious thinkers or media theorists, but their constant meditations about the occult, about the nature of acting, the power of the image, and the willing suspension of disbelief show them to have rich ideas about how media can form entities in this world and the world beyond. The resulting book is a major contribution to the interdisciplinary sweet spot where religion, media, and cultural anthropology converge. Continue reading

Bielo, “Materializing the Bible”

Bielo James. 2016. Materializing the Bible: Ethnographic Methods for the Consumption Process. Practical Matters 9. 

Abstract: Throughout the world there are over 200 sites that materialize the Bible, that is, sites that transform the written words of biblical scripture into physical, experiential attractions. These sites are definitively hybrid, integrating religion and entertainment, piety and play, fun and faith, commerce and devotion, pleasure and education. Religious studies scholars and anthropologists have published insightful works about selected sites, but no genre-wide analytical appraisal exists. In this article, I focus on how religiously committed visitors approach and experience these sites. Framed in a comparative register with research in religious tourism and pilgrimage studies, I propose analytical and methodological frameworks for the ethnographic study of Bible-based attractions.

Hittin’ the Prayer Bones: Book Review

Blanton, Anderson. 2015. Hittin the Prayer Bones: Materiality of Spirit in the Pentecostal South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

By: James S. Bielo (Miami University)

Come and listen in to the radio stationWhere the mighty hosts of heaven singTurn your radio on, turn your radio onTurn your radio on, turn your radio on…

So sings John Hartford on his 1971 cover of the 1938 southern Gospel standard. It was this song, “Turn Your Radio On,” that I recalled in a progressively louder hum to myself throughout Anderson Blanton’s Hittin‘ the Prayer Bones. The reason is that Blanton’s ethnography of charismatic Christianity in Appalachia has a distinctly musical quality. Each chapter unveils further nodes in a network of oral traditions and communicative genres: songs from deep in the coal mines and songs for laying rail track; Gospel tunes; the verbal artistry of prayer, testimony, and preaching; hand claps and technological emanations; and rhythmic faith-filled laughter. Pages and sections introduce singular moments of rich cultural revelation, akin to John Jackson’s “slices” (2013: 16-17) more than any conventional mode of ethnographic writing. I do not hesitate to write that this is really not a book one simply reads; it is a book to experience… Continue reading

Nigerian Pentecostalism: Book Review

Wariboko, Nimi.  2014.  Nigerian Pentecostalism. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

By: Jörg Haustein (SOAS, University of London)

Wariboko’s book is an important contribution to the by now substantial array of studies on Nigerian Pentecostalism, and yet it is one of a kind. Instead of providing another historical, political, or socio-economic analysis of the “Pentecostal explosion” in Africa’s most populous country, Wariboko seeks to unlock its secrets from within, by producing a philosophical analysis of Nigerian Pentecostal spirituality and theology. His closest conversation partner is Ruth Marshall, whose influence is acknowledged at the outset and implicitly or explicitly engaged throughout the book.

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Saving Sex: Book Review

DeRogatis, Amy. 2014. Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 

By: Sophie Bjork-James (Vanderbilt University)

In 2012, Pastor Ed Young and his wife moved a bed onto the roof of their Texas megachurch to lead a “bed-in” lauding the importance of marital sexual intimacy. Young was celebrating the recent publication of his book, Sexperiment: 7 Days to Lasting Intimacy with Your Spouse, and the couple spent twenty-four hours in bed on the church roof conducting interviews with media outlets on the importance of marital sex. How, then, did we get from the radical 1969 “bed-in” for peace, with John Lennon and Yoko Ono cuddling in hotel room beds singing “give peace a change,” to a conservative evangelical “bed-in” celebrating marital sex? When did evangelicals start talking so much about sex? Continue reading