Bielo, “Place-making in late modernity”

Bielo, James S. 2013. Urban Christianities: Place-making in late modernity. Religion 43(3): 301-311.

Bielo (ed.), “Urban Christianities”

The journal Religion has now published a special issue on “Urban Christianities,” edited by James S. Bielo, with contributions from: Omri Elisha, Anna Strhan, Simon Coleman and Katrin Maier, Catherine Wanner, William Girard, and Stephen Selka.

The Color of Sound: Book Review

Burdick, John. 2013. The Color of Sound: Race, Religion, and Music in Brazil. New York: NYU Press.

By: James S. Bielo (Miami University)

 

Eight young men gather on a Sao Paulo rooftop – surveying the city’s sprawling jumble of ramshackle houses, the periferia – writing rhymes and composing gospel raps. A congregation is divided as they hear and see a samba band perform: some uncomfortable with this being worship, others dance joyously yet careful not to sway too much. Hips don’t lie. Gospel singers view videos of U.S. gospel choirs performing in church, and talk excitedly about which techniques to emulate. Scenes like this form the ethnographic backbone of John Burdick’s The Color of Sound: a comparative study of how blackness, musical artistry, and evangelical Christianity intersect.

Burdick’s ethnography traverses ten poor and working-class neighborhoods in Sao Paulo: Brazil’s largest city and the world’s eighth largest. The book derives from nine months of fieldwork (2003-2005), and focuses on a particular racial-religious identity. Negros and negras: Afro-descendent Brazilians who are historically and structurally marginalized throughout the nation. Evangelicos: Protestant Christians from a variety of denominations, including millenialists (Seventh-Day Adventists), “classic Pentecostals” (8), and neo-Pentecostal prosperity churches. The core question that moves the analysis is this:

“To what extent may evangelicos develop black pride from within the ideological matrix of evangelical Christianity” (11)?

To answer this, Burdick concentrates on a certain kind of religious actor: music artists. It is in the musical lives of evangelicos, he argues, where a marked potential to develop racial consciousness exists. Burdick compares musicians in three genres: gospel rappers, gospel sambistas, and gospel singers. The striking differences among these three provide the book’s biggest yield. Ethnographically, Burdick does not limit himself to polished performances; instead, he tracks “rehearsals, backstage gatherings, and everyday transits…workshops, classes, seminars, and trainings” (16). The behind-the-scenes feel that results is one of the book’s shining qualities. Theoretically, the core argument is this: “in order to understand the role of music in the formation of collective identities, we must attend to how musical practices and discourses articulate and generate ideas and feelings about history, place, and the body” (19).

The central finding of Burdick’s ethnography is that the three genres – rap, samba, gospel – offer evangelicos very different sets of possibilities. To begin, as genres they carry different social meanings and histories. Rap in Sao Paulo bears much the same weight that rap bears in Tokyo (Condry 2006) or Nairobi (Ntarangwi 2009): urban hipness, youth agency, cultural critique, and a sense of locality. Samba, on the other hand, is dangerous for evangelicos. The genre is intimately associated with sexuality and party culture; it is the most difficult to redeem. In this way, gospel is samba’s ideological opposite: thoroughly and definitively spiritual, primed and ready for Christian ends.

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Conference Dispatch: 2013 Society for the Anthropology of Religion

2013 Biennial Society for the Anthropology of Religion meetings, April 11-14, Pasadena, California.

By: James S. Bielo (Miami University)

This year, 2013, marks ten years since Religion published a special issue devoted to the anthropology of Christianity. Many in the field point to this print moment as something like a formal debut. Most every review article observes that despite plenty of scattered anthropological research about Christianity, it required an intentional, explicit, and bold call to really coax an anthropology of Christianity into view (e.g., Bialecki, Haynes, and Robbins 2008). One question that animated the 2003 collection, and numerous work that followed, is what comparative questions and theoretical problems might instill some cohesion into the field. A profusion of ethnographic work would be great to see, but certainly it would be more effective if there was some centripetal center of gravity. Listening to papers this past weekend at the Society for the Anthropology of Religion meetings, it seems the question of cohesion is both packed with potential and yet still seeking some gravity. Continue reading

Bielo, “Promises of Place”

Bielo, James S. 2013. Promises of Place: A Future of Comparative U.S. Ethnography. North American Dialogue 16(1):1-11.

Excerpt: In this essay I capitalize on a convergence in some recent U.S. ethnography to explore the cultural power of place-making and the conceptual promises of ‘place.’ Reports of losing, forgetting, and otherwise being disconnected from place are legion in depictions of late modernity. Said (1979) called it a “generalized condition of homelessness” (18), Gupta and Ferguson (1992) described it as a “profound sense of a loss of territorial roots, of an erosion of the cultural distinctiveness of places” (9), and Appadurai (1996) termed it “deterritorialization” (49). The culprits of this anxiety in the U.S. are multiple. A post-industrial economy fuels constant mobility, creating highly flexible labor regimes and others that are not reliant on geographic locale. Expanding urbanization disrupts relationships to land, transforming farm acreage into ultra-planned exurbia. Neoliberal corporate infrastructures prize predictable familiarity over uniqueness in order to secure service industry profits. There are, as well, technological and media empires that can render the particularities of place irrelevant. We late moderns are said to struggle to maintain meaningful place attachments and places themselves struggle to be distinctive. We are increasingly uncertain of how to recover from our pandemic placeless-ness. Of course, this narrative is ideological; it contains truth and myth, history and nostalgia, is uncannily accurate for many and exaggerated for many others. Nonetheless, the threat of placeless-ness is an American social fact, very real for the discontents it generates. According to recent U.S. ethnography that addresses different cultural spheres – religion and food – this anxiety has also produced resistance. People are not simply internalizing erosion and loss, they are responding by actively cultivating senses of place. Regarding religion, I look to my own fieldwork with American evangelicals… Emerging evangelicals are not the only late modern Americans looking to place to fashion a better future. This essay ensues from a repeated observation about recent work in U.S. ethnography: first, in step with developing interests in the anthropology of food, ethnographers are writing about American food systems; and second, analyses of the sustainable food movement reveal a striking veneration of place.

Bielo, “The New Evangelicals: Does Fragmentation Equal Change”

Bielo, James S. 2013. Does fragmentation equal change? The Immanent Frame. http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2013/01/25/does-fragmentation-equal-change/ (accessed January 25, 2013).

Excerpt:  ‘Marcia Pally’s post tracks the important fact that contemporary American evangelical social and political engagement is fragmenting. She rightly observes that such fragmenting is not historically novel, and is a self-consciously critical response to the power of the Religious Right.

To read of “robust polyphony” among evangelicals was especially welcome to me, as I addressed this phenomenon in a recent ethnography, Emerging Evangelicals (NYU Press, 2011). As a cultural anthropologist, I explored the identities fashioned, practices performed, histories claimed, institutions created, and critiques waged among evangelicals influenced by the Emerging Church movement. Pally’s astute analysis returned me to a question I stopped short of fully developing: does fragmentation equal change?

While it is clear that evangelicalism is diversifying, it is unclear what this amounts to. We see voting blocs split, financial donations broaden, volunteer labor disperse, and moral-political agendas expand. But, do these fragmentations signal tectonic, hard-wired, all-bets-are-off cultural change? Or, is it more superficial (which is not to say unimportant or not deeply felt) social change? Do electoral politics and other shifting forms of activism amount to fundamental change, or merely changing patterns of action?’

Bielo, “Writing Religion”

Bielo, James S. 2012. Writing Religion. In Missionary Impositions: Conversion, Resistance, and Other Challenges to Objectivity in Religious Ethnography, eds. Hillary K. Crane and Deana Weibel. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Bielo, “Belief, Deconversion, and Authenticity”

Bielo, James S. 2012. Belief, Deconversion, and Authenticity among U.S. Emerging Evangelicals. Ethos 40(3):258-276.

Abstract: In this article I examine the status of belief among U.S. evangelicals organizing under the moniker of the “emerging church.” As part of their cultural critique of the conservative Christian subculture, many emerging evangelicals recast their standpoint toward the role of propositional doctrine in their definition of an authentic Christian self. I join with colleagues in the anthropology of religion, in particular the anthropology of Christianity, who are rethinking the nature of belief as a form of relational commitment. I argue that emerging evangelicals seek a faith where human–human relationships are a precondition for human–divine relations to flourish. To achieve their desired sense of community emerging evangelicals create ritual structures that foster a highly relational religiosity. I illustrate this recasting of belief through analyses of narrative and institution making, grounded in three years of ethnographic fieldwork.

Abraham, “Review Essay: Biblicism, Reception History, and the Social Sciences”

Abraham, Ibrahim (2011) “Review Essay: Biblicism, Reception History, and the Social Sciences” Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception 1(2):xx-xxx [Advanced Copy, Specific page numbers not yet available]

Article Excerpt: “The works from anthropologist James S. Bielo, an ethnographic monograph of an Evangelical small group Bible study in Michigan and an edited collection, released within a few months of each other, focus and develop the study of “Biblicism.” Abidingly an anthropological undertaking pioneered, in part, by Brian Malley’s earlier ethnography, How The Bible Works, these studies and the broader emerging field offer interesting parallels, insights and divergences when considered alongside somewhat similar developments in the analysis of scripture and society within, in particular, reception history. In his essay comparing processes of exegetical and pastoral authority amongst mainline and charismatic Catholics in Guatamala, Eric Hoenes del Pinal gives us a nice definition of Biblicism as a question of “the ways that social actors construct certain understandings of and relationships to sacred text, and how those understandings and relationships order their religious practices”. As this sandwiching of scripture between the recognition of social agency and the broader process of religious practices suggests, the biblical text is not where the analysis begins or ends.

The social scientific studies presented here are particularly relevant in an interdisciplinary light given recent debates around the practice of recep- tion history within biblical studies. A rather loose term for comparative analyses of diverse understandings and uses of biblical texts in diverse cultures and eras, the manner in which reception history has been carried out to date within biblical studies is exemplified by collections such as John F. A. Sawyer’s, which gives us the Bible in Calvin’s Geneva and the Bible in Barnum & Bailey’s circus. Roland Boer sees within the loosely defined discipline a Bourdieusian distinction between scientific/theological biblical exegesis carried out in the academy that seeks—under appropriate supervision—to uncover an original or authoritative meaning of the text, and the explanation and analysis of comparatively deviant (ab)uses of the text. To cite examples from the two texts under review here, the distinction Boer sees as foundational to reception history would be between the exegeses of the “strange guild” of biblical scholars and scholar-priests in secular and ecclesial academia on the one hand, and the exegeses of the small Evangelical Bible study group that meets for breakfast in a Michigan restaurant featured in Bielo’s monograph  and the exegetical dialogue between anthropolo- gist John Pulis and his interlocutor Bongo (a mango farmer and Rastafarian “bredren”) featured in a chapter of Bielo’s edited collection on the other hand. In a response to Boer’s criticism, Christopher Heard denies any claim that reception history, as a loosely defined discipline, asserts “ideological primacy to singular textual meanings,” but doesn’t quite get to the nub of Boer’s complaint that the very existence of a subdiscipline of biblical scholarship called “reception history” implies that there is a form of biblical studies that is not reception history. There is an echo, then, of Adorno’s act of distinction within twentieth-century music; that which he certified “serious” was suitable for scholarly engagement and philosophical reflection, while that which he proclaimed “popular”—the mass-produced products circulated amongst a browbeaten proletariat—was suitable only for sociological explanation . . . ”