Opas and Haapalainen, eds, “Christianity and the Limits of Materiality”

Opas, Minna and Anna Haapalainen, eds.  2017.  Christianity and the Limits of Materiality.  London: Bloomsbury.

Publisher’s Description: Despite the fact that Christianity is understood to be thoroughly intertwined with matter, objects, and things, Christians struggle to cope with this materiality in their daily lives. This volume argues that the ambivalent relationships many Christians have with materiality is a driving force that contributes to the way people in different Christian traditions and in different parts of the world understand and live out their religion.

By placing the questions of limits and boundary-work to the fore, the volume addresses the question of exactly how Christianity takes place materially, addressing a gap in studies to date. Christianity and the Limits of Materiality presents ground-breaking research on the frameworks and contexts in relation to and within which Christian logics of materiality operate. The volume places the negotiations at the limits of materiality within the larger framework of Christian identities and politics of belonging.
The chapters discuss case studies from North and South America, Europe, and Africa, and demonstrate that the limits preoccupying Christians delimit their lives but also enable many things. Ultimately, Christianity and the Limits of Materiality demonstrates that it is at the interfaces of materiality and the transcendent that Christians create and legitimise their religion.
Foreword, David Morgan (Duke University, USA)
Introduction, Minna Opas & Anna Haapalainen (University of Turku, Finland)
Part 1: Doubting
1. Spirit Media and the Spectre of the Fake, Marleen de Witte (Unviersity of Amsterdam, the Netherlands)
2. Organic Faith in Amazonia: De-indexification, doubt and Christian corporeality, Minna Opas (University of Turku, Finland)
3. Things not for themselves: idolatry and consecration in Orthodox Ethiopia, Tom Boylston (University of Edinburgh)
Part 2: Sufficing
4. The Bible in the Digital Age: Negotiating the Limits of ‘Bibleness’ of Different Bible Media, Katja Rakow(Heidelberg University, Germany)
5. The Plausibility of Immersion: limits and creativity in materializing the Bible, James Bielo (Miami University, USA)
6.Humanizing the Bible: Limits of materiality in a passion play, Anna Haapalainen (University of Turku, Finland)
7. Semana Santa processions in Granada – Religion or Spectacle? Sari Kuuva (University of Jyväskylä, Finland)
8. The death and rebirth of a crucifix: Materiality and the sacred in Andean vernacular Catholicism, Diego Alonso Huerta (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú / University of Helsinki, Finland)
Part 3: Unbinding
9. Proving the Inner Word: (De)materializing the Spirit in Radical Pietism Elisa Heinämäki (University of Helsinki, Finland)
10. The Return of the Unclean Spirit: Collapse and Relapse in the Baptist rehab ministry Igor Mikeshin (University of Helsinki, Finland)
11. Mimesis and Mediation in the Semana Santa Processions of Granada, Sari Kuuva, University of Jyväskylä
Afterword: Diana Espirito Santo (London School of Economics, UK)

Malara and Boylston, “Vertical Love”

Malara, Diego Maria and Tom Boylston. 2016. Vertical Love: Forms of Submission and Top-Down Power in Orthodox Ethiopia. Social Analysis 61(4): 40-57.

Abstract: The classical sociological literature on Amhara hierarchy describes a society based on open relations of domination and an obsession with top-down power. This article asks how these accounts can be reconciled with the strong ethics of love and care that ground daily life in Amhara. We argue that love and care, like power, are understood in broadly asymmetrical terms rather than as egalitarian forms of relationship. As such, they play into wider discourses of hierarchy, but also serve to blur the distinction between legitimate authority and illegitimate power.

Boylston, “Death and the Semiotics of Remembrance”

Boylston, Tom. 2015. “And Unto Dust Thou Shalt Return”: Death and the Semiotics of Remembrance in an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Village. Material Religion 11(3): 281-302.

Abstract: This ethnographic article discusses funerary practice, Orthodox Christian ideas of body and spirit, and the ways in which people make memorials for each other on the Zege Peninsula in northwest Ethiopia. I pay special attention to gravestones because, here as in many other places, physical memorials to the dead become locations where latent uncertainties and conflicts about the relationship between spirit and matter, body and soul, and this world and the next, tend to crystallize. I show that material memorials highlight ambiguities in Orthodox attitudes to human embodiment and challenge priestly monopolies over relations between the living and the dead. Because of material chains of mediation and memorialization, the disaggregating practices of Orthodox funerary ritual can never fully untangle the deceased from their worldly social entanglements.

Winchester, “Converting to Continuity”

Winchester, Daniel.  2015. Converting to Continuity: Temporality and Self in Eastern Orthodox Conversion Narratives.  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.  Early online publication.

Abstract: Based on interviews with converts to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in the United States, this article documents and analyzes a narrative form in which conversion is described as the progressive discovery of a latent religious self that was part of one’s life all along, or what I term a conversion to continuity. These findings contrast markedly with those of most contemporary conversion research, which emphasize the narration of a dramatic temporal break between converts’ past and present religious selves (epitomized by the evangelical “born-again” genre). I examine how and why temporal continuity was a characteristic feature of these conversion accounts and demonstrate how such narratives helped constitute forms of religious experience and self-identity that differ in important respects from those documented in previous studies. In light of these findings, I argue for a reconceptualization of continuity and discontinuity within processes of religious identity change as an institutionally anchored figure/ground relationship as opposed to an either/or dichotomy. I also highlight promising avenues for future comparative research on the relationships between time, narrative, and subjectivity across religious and secular contexts.

Bakker, “Ritual Sounds, Political Echoes”

Bakker, Sarah Kellogg. 2015. Ritual Sounds, Political Echoes: Vocal agency and the sensory cultures of secularism in the Dutch Syriac diaspora. American Ethnologist 42(3): 431-445.

Abstract: Among Syriac Orthodox Christian migrant communities in the Netherlands, liturgical performance is a site of controversy over where and how to draw a boundary between “religious” and “ethnic” identity. Tensions materialize in discordant singing styles and modes of performance, echoing complex historical encounters with Dutch, Syrian, and Turkish secularisms. These encounters, I argue, have refashioned the liturgical tradition’s role as a central axis of ethnoreligious social life and kin relations across the diaspora. Secular state practices shape a diasporic sensory culture that is met with a distinct form of vocal agency. Syriac Orthodox liturgical experiments show how the voice can transform the sensorial interface between human subjectivity and social intelligibility, in turn transforming how categories of secular modernity—whether ritual, art, ethnicity, or politics—are distinguished and lived.

Forbess, “Paradoxical Paradigms”

Forbess, Alice. 2015. Paradoxical Paradigms: moral reasoning, inspiration, and problems of knowing among Orthodox Christian monastics. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21(s1):113-128.

Abstract: Whilst anthropological discussions of morality tend to be rooted in Aristotelian ethical theory, this paper highlights an alternative Christian moral reasoning rooted in Neoplatonist/Christian hybrids and visible in contemporary Eastern Orthodox monastic practice. The analytical move proposed here is to focus on the disjunctures between different ethical traditions within Christianity in order to show how they produce diverse forms of moral reasoning that rely on particular uses of exemplarity and exemplification. It is argued that the Aristotelian lens, with its stress on compliance, piety, obedience, and the daily practice of self-perfection, can produce impoverished accounts of ascetic life by excluding the more anarchic and idiosyncratic forms of spiritual training. Christianity has a long tradition of deploying paradox and perplexity to explode facile certainties, thereby carving out a space, at the limits of human knowing, where a divinity conceived as radically alter to the created world can be directly engaged with.

Bandak, “Exemplary series and Christian typology”

Bandak, Andreas. 2015. Exemplary series and Christian typology: modelling on sainthood in Damascus. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21(s1):47-63.

Abstract: In this paper, I explore the way in which examples are used in sermons among the pious followers of Our Lady of Soufanieh in Damascus, Syria. In the sermons, a particular logic of seriation functions to present specific models and exemplars as prisms of lives to be imitated. The framing of these lives takes place through entextualizations, whereby the life of some is made into texts that others are told to emulate. The process of making life into text and text into life is explored in the production of examples at the weekly Saturday sermons in Soufanieh. While directly related to life as lived, such sermons also stand for a broader class of life as forma vitae, that is, lives to be followed. I thus explore the example as exemplum, a particular moral story used for edification and didactic purposes, one which situates the listener at the centre of the story by integrating the miraculous happenings in Soufanieh with the response of the individual. The sermons thus serve to examine exemplification and the modelling of sainthood in Damascus in the years preceding the current civil war.

Bandak and Boylston, “‘Orthodoxy’ of Orthodoxy’

Bandak, Andreas and Tom Boylston. 2014. The ‘Orthodoxy’ of Orthodoxy: On Moral Imperfection, Correctness, and Deferral in Religious Worlds. Religion and Society: Advances in Research 5:25-46.

Abstract: This article uses ethnographic studies of Orthodox Christianities as a way to investigate the concept of ‘orthodoxy’ as it applies to religious worlds. Orthodoxy, we argue, is to be found neither in opposition to popular religion nor solely in institutional churches, but in a set of encompassing relations among clergy and lay people that amounts to a religious world and a shared tradition. These relations are characterized by correctness and deferral—formal modes of relating to authority that are open-ended and non-definitive and so create room for certain kinds of pluralism, heterodoxy, and dissent within an overarching structure of faith and obedience. Attention to the aesthetics of orthodox practice shows how these relations are conditioned in multi-sensory, often non-linguistic ways. Consideration of the national and territorial aspects of Orthodoxy shows how these religious worlds of faith and deferral are also political worlds.

Keane, “Rotting Bodies”

Keane, Webb. 2014. Rotting Bodies: The Clash of Stances toward Materiality and Its Ethical Affordances. Current Anthropology DOI:10.1086/678290

Abstract: Any community supposedly identified with a “single” kind of Christianity is likely to contain conflicts and divisions due to the different logics and temporalities associated, respectively, with ecclesiastical institutions, popular practices, and scriptural texts. These conflicts may extend even to basic ontological assumptions. This article looks at clashes concerning popular practices surrounding relics and icons in Eastern Orthodoxy. It asks what are the ethical stakes when people insist on the powers of material things even in the face of withering criticism and contempt from inside and outside their church. That criticism, which can have both theological and atheistic bases, often focuses on the allegedly instrumental reasoning and selfish motives of people who expect to receive divine intervention from objects such as relics and icons. I argue that popular practices that focus on the agency of objects may above all be responding to material properties as ethical affordances. These affordances provide ways of treating the world as ethically saturated. In the Eastern Orthodox context, this may be one way for ordinary villagers to take lofty theological claims about the divine nature of humans in concrete terms.

Hann, “The Heart of the Matter”

Hann, Chris.  2014. The Heart of the Matter: Christianity, Materiality, and Modernity.  Current Anthropology.  Early online publication.

Abstract: At the microlevel, this paper focuses on the Roman Catholic cult of the Sacred Heart, noting its spread among Catholic populations in Central Europe whose liturgical tradition is that of Byzantium rather than Rome. At the mesolevel, it places this instance of religious acculturation in the context of long-term economic and political inequalities between East and West. At the macrolevel, implications are outlined for debates concerning civilizational differences and modernity. It is commonly supposed that the latter was initiated when Protestants began a shift toward interior belief based on text, eventually dragging Roman Catholics in their wake, while Eastern Christians have remained largely excluded from both material and ontological progress. The anthropology of Christianity has concentrated on Western-influenced “moderns,” in their many guises, outside the religion’s heartlands. But the take-up of Sacred Heart religiosity among the Greek Catholics of Central Europe suggests that there are no deep ontological barriers within Christianity. Similarly, there are no grounds for dismissing Eastern Christian institutional patterns as premodern; they should be drawn into the comparative framework as a distinctive crystallization of Christian civilization.