Merz and Merz, “Occupying the Ontological Penumbra”

Merz, Johannes and Sharon Merz. 2017. Occupying the Ontological Penumbra: Towards a Postsecular and Theologically Minded Anthropology. Religions 8(5):80-97.

Abstract: In the wake of the postsecular turn, we propose to reappraise both the religious as studied in anthropology and how anthropologists who have religious or spiritual interests can contribute to an emerging postsecular anthropology. Such an anthropology recognizes the failure of secularization theory to dissolve the dichotomy between the religious and the secular. We propose that as anthropologists we consciously occupy the ontological penumbra, an ambiguous and plural space in which we engage with various counterparts, both human and nonhuman. This means that we have to be open to the real possibility of the existence of gods, spirits, and other nonhuman entities. These should not only be treated as subjects of study, but also recognized as valid counterparts with whom we can engage in the ethnographic encounter. While this necessitates relinquishing the former privileged position of secular and Western epistemology, it opens up the discipline to a potentially unprecedented ethnographic productivity that is epistemologically and ontologically innovative. Without neglecting its secular heritage, such a theologically minded postsecular anthropology places anthropology in a better position to explore what it is to be human, especially in terms of understanding religious and spiritual experiences.

Merz, “A Religion of Film Experiencing Christianity and Videos Beyond Semiotics in Rural Benin”

Merz, Johannes. 2014. “A Religion of Film Experiencing Christianity and Videos Beyond Semiotics in Rural Benin.” PdD diss,. 

Excerpt: In 2002, Paul Eshleman of the American Jesus Film Project claimed that their flagship known as the Jesus Film was “the most-watched, and the most-translated film in world history” (2002: 69). Seven years later, Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra (2009) declared Nigeria the “Christian movie capital of the world” in the influential American evangelical magazine Christianity Today. In more academic circles, New Testament scholar Adele Reinhartz speculated that “it may well be the case that more people worldwide know about Jesus and his life story from the movies than from any other medium” (2007: 1), while Asonzeh Ukah commented for Nigeria: “The medium of video has become one of the preferred channels for the communication of religious truth, hope, ideas and propaganda” (2003: 226).

These different observations indicate a trend in evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity towards an increasing use of films and videos. This raises the question, which I address as the overarching theme of this book, of whether we are witnessing a shift in certain forms of Christianity from a religion of the book towards a religion of film. Such a shift from text to film would have wide-ranging implications not only for Christians but also their wider socio-cultural settings, both on a local and global scale. I address the various factors that contribute to such a shift and discuss its implications for rural Benin. I propose that the best way to approach this theme is to study how contemporary Christians engage with audiovisual media. More specifically, I am interested in how people watch and experience Christian films, what they make of them and how these films become part of their lives and the world they live in. In order to grapple with such ques- tions and fully understand the results of my ethnographic research, I need to move beyond semiotics, which has been one of the foundational premises of Western science.

With Nigeria having become the world leader in the production of Christian video films, West Africa seems an ideal place to study this phenomenon. While obvious places may be cities in southern Nigeria or Ghana, such as Ibadan or Accra, I chose a less likely area for my research on Christian films, namely the rural Commune of Cobly in the northwest of the Republic of Benin. Cobly is often considered one of the remotest parts of the country and those Beninese from outside the region who have heard of it associate it with backwardness and as being steeped in tradition. State employees, such as teachers or policemen, resent being sent to work there and missionaries often consider it a difficult place to work given that its people are largely “unreached” (cf. Mayrargue 2005: 247), a current missionary euphemism for “pagans”. My knowledge of the area, on the other hand, made me realise that the Commune of Cobly would be a fascinating site for researching people’s experience of Christianity and video films. Especially during the last two decades, the younger generation have become increasingly interested in all things they consider modern, whether mobile phones, television sets, videos or Christianity, thereby participating in the trends of the wider region. Older people often stayed more sceptical towards these developments, promising an interesting mix of views and opinions in a society that is facing rapid and significant social and cultural changes.

In this book I discuss three Christian films that are all known in the Commune of Cobly and that have been used in evangelistic events and sometimes circulated on Video CD or DVD: Jesus (1979, produced by John Heyman) has been made in American evangelical circles with the goal of global evangelism; La Solution (The Solution, 1994, David Powers) was produced by American missionaries in Côte d’Ivoire; and Yatin: Lieu de souffrance (Yatin: Place of Suffering, 2002, Christine Madeleine Botokou) is a Beninese video production that has a direct link with the Nigerian Christian film industry.

I am particularly interested in how people watch and experience these films, focusing not only on their contents, but also, and maybe more importantly, on their materiality. I include what people make of television sets as material objects that are usually used to watch videos. Furthermore, it is important to discuss the history and backgrounds of the films and how they became popular in rural parts of Benin. This allows me to link my research with regional and global trends of Christianity and address my overarching question of whether Christianity is shifting its focus from Biblical texts to Christian films…