Kaell, “Seeing the Invisible: Ambient Catholicism on the Side of the Road”

Kaell, Hillary. 2016. Seeing the Invisible: Ambient Catholicism on the Side of the Road. Journal of the American Academy of Religion. doi: 10.1093/jaarel/lfw041

Abstract: The public role of religious objects is highly contested in Quebec, epitomized by the Charter of Values in 2013. In this heated political atmosphere, rural Catholics continue to create and care for more than 3,000 wayside crosses. They note that these colourful, fifteen-foot devotional objects often remain invisible to passersby, unless a cross “calls” someone to it. Proceeding from this observation, this article unites studies of mate- rial culture with recent work on secularism to argue that the crosses exemplify a form of engagement with secularism that corresponds to what anthropologist Matthew Engelke calls “ambient faith”: religiosity that filters in and out of sensory and conscious space. Extending this idea, I argue that ambient objects exert an authority often missed in stud- ies of public religion, which still focus largely on political discourse and legal codes about marked objects (e.g. the hijab). As ambient objects, wayside crosses are powerful because they ‘act’ on human beings, thereby mediating a dichotomy between “modernity” and traditional Catholicism by laying claim to both at once.

Review: Joseph Webster on “The Boundaries of Christianity and Beyond”

Part II: Review Forum, “The Anthropology Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions”

The Anthropology of Christianity at the Boundaries of Christianity and Beyond

Coleman, Simon. 2014. Pilgrimage as Trope for an Anthropology of Christianity. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s281-s291.

Engelke, Matthew. 2014. Christianity and the Anthropology of Secular Humanism. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s292-s301.

Hoskins, Janet Alison. 2014. An Unjealous God? Christian Elements in a Vietnamese Syncretistic Religion. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s302-s311.

By: Joseph Webster (Queens University, Belfast)

The Special Issue of Current Anthropology under review seeks, as its title states, to push the anthropology of Christianity in ‘new directions’ – and it is the third section of the SI, it seems, where this effort is pursued most vigorously. Indeed, as its title states, this section does not limit itself to Christianity – however (generously) one defines it – but instead approaches its ‘boundaries’ by offering papers from Coleman, Engelke and Hoskins who discuss, respectively, the evanescence of pilgrimage as ‘ritual semiengagement’ (Coleman: 24: 288), the ‘not Christianity’ of secular humanism (Engelke 2014: 299), and the ‘counter Orientalism’ of Caodaism (Hoskins 2014: 310). Yet, the question remains – and this is the question with which I want to frame my review – do these papers successfully manage to go ‘beyond’ Christianity, or do they still find themselves stuck in its orbit? The authors themselves appear to have this same question in mind – albeit approaching it differently and with different conclusions – when presenting their own ethnographic and theoretical commentary. The question is important because it goes to the heart of what the anthropology of Christianity must be if it is to be ‘properly’ anthropological. Are we, then, in these three essays, presented with a comparative project that is equally concerned with ‘unity’ and ‘diversity’, both within and outwith religion (in general) and Christianity (in particular)? Put another way, where is the anthropology of Christianity, and where are these essays in relation to it? In an attempt to suggest some possible answers, I want to discuss each piece in turn before making some more speculative comments regarding what they might collectively tell us about the present location of this most prolific (if not yet particularly promiscuous) anthropological sub-discipline.  Continue reading

Engelke, “Christianity and the Anthropology of Secular Humanism”

Engelke, Matthew.  2014. Christianity and the Anthropology of Secular Humanism.  Current Anthropology.  Early online publication.

Abstract: Secular humanists in the United Kingdom regularly think about, talk about, and act in relation to religion, especially Christianity. In this article, I address the relationships between secular humanism and Christianity by drawing on fieldwork with a local humanist group affiliated with the British Humanist Association. In line with many moderns, as indeed with many kinds of Christians, these secular humanists often want to sever ties with the past—in this case, with what they understand to be Christianity’s religious elements. At the same time, they want to preserve those aspects of Christianity they understand to be human, not religious. These engagements with and articulations of Christianity can be helpful not only for understanding contemporary secular-humanist formations but also some of the debates that have framed the anthropology of Christianity over the past decade.

Engelke, “God’s Agents”

Engelke, Matthew.  2013. God’s Agents: Biblical Publicity in Contemporary England.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Publisher’s Description: The British and Foreign Bible Society is one of the most illustrious Christian charities in the United Kingdom. Founded by evangelicals in the early nineteenth century and inspired by developments in printing technology, its goal has always been to make Bibles universally available. Over the past several decades, though, Bible Society has faced a radically different world, especially in its work in England. Where the Society once had a grateful and engaged reading public, it now faces apathy—even antipathy—for its cause. These days, it seems, no one in England wants a Bible, and no one wants other people telling them they should: religion is supposed to be a private matter. Undeterred, the Society staff attempt to spark a renewed interest in the Word of God. They’ve turned away from publishing and toward publicity to “make the Bible heard.”

God’s Agents is a study of how religion goes public in today’s world. Based on over three years of anthropological research, Matthew Engelke traces how a small group of socially committed Christians tackle the challenge of publicity within (what they understand to be) a largely secular culture. In the process of telling their story, Engelke offers an insightful new way to think about the relationships between secular and religious formations: our current understanding of religion needs to be complemented by greater attention to the process of generating publicity. Engelke argues that we are witnessing the dynamics of religious publicity, which allows us to see the ways in which conceptual divides such as public/private, religious/secular, faith/knowledge, are challenged and redefined by social actors.

Engelke, “Angels in Swindon: Public religion and ambient faith in England”

Engelke, Matthew (2012) “Angels in Swindon: Public religion and ambient faith in England” American Ethnologist 39(1):155-170

Abstract: this article, I introduce the idea of “ambient faith” in an effort to clarify the stakes in long-standing debates about public and private religion. I take as my starting point the increasingly common recognition that conceptual distinctions between publicity and privacy are difficult to maintain in the first place and that they are, in any case, always relative. The idea of “ambient faith,” which I connect to work on the turn to a materialist semiotics, can serve as both a critique of and supplement to the ideas of “public” and “private” religion. Introducing ambience—the sense of ambience—allows one to raise important questions about the processes through which faith comes to the foreground or stays in the background—the extent to which faith, in other words, goes public or stays private. I use my research on a Christian organization in England, the Bible Society of England and Wales, to illuminate these points, discussing the society’s campaign in 2006 to bring angels to Swindon and its promotion of Bible reading in coffee shops. I also consider Brian Eno’s music and recent advertising trends for additional insights into the notion of “ambience.”

Stadler, “Between Scripture and Performance”

Stadler, Nurit (2011) “Between scripture and performance: cohesion and dissent at the Feast of Mary’s Dormition in Jerusalem,” Religion [advance copy – volume, issue, & page to be announced later]

Abstract: In contrast to popular Marian rites throughout the world, the Jerusalem Dormition Feast is held on a canonical route that includes the purported sites of some of the key moments in the Virgin’s life. The festival boasts an ancient liturgical order consisting of utterances and customs that are assiduously preserved by Jerusalem’s Greek-Orthodox Church. Drawing on Engelke’s distinction (2007) between scriptural authority and religious performance and numerous scholarly analyses of cohesion and dissent at assorted Marian shrines (e.g., Eade and Sallnow [1991]), this article explores the reactions to the local ceremonial on the part of various participants. While the clergy strives to impose its particular reading of the Scriptures on all the attendees, the different lay groups insist on performing rituals that give expression to their own knowledge of the canon and their own understanding of the Virgin’s nature. All told, their reactions range from rigid obedience to creative practices and heated dissent. The event ultimately splinters off into several factions and the host’s orderly script is compromised.

Engelke, “The Semiotics of Relevance”

Engelke, Matthew “The Semiotics of Relevance: Campaigning for the Bible in Greater Manchester” Anthropological Quarterly 84(3):705-733

Abstract: This is an article about an advertising campaign that ran in the Greater Manchester area, north of England, in May and June 2007, sponsored by the Bible Society of England and Wales, and aimed at stressing the relevance of the Bible to the general public for understanding today’s world. One of the Society’s assumptions was that the best way to do this was by appearing not-Christian: drawing on semiotic and aesthetic registers that drew from what were understood to be “Cultural” rather than “Church”-based repertoires. The specificities of the case study are explored in some depth, but related also to the wider literatures on Christian approaches to language and secularization theory.

A part of the special issue Beyond Logos: Extensions of the Language Ideology Paradigm in the Study of Global Christianity (-ies)