Mayblin, “The Lapsed and the Laity”

Mayblin, Maya. 2017. The lapsed and the laity: discipline and lenience in the study of religion. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institution. DOI: 10.1111/1467-9655.12650

Abstract: This article cautions against an ‘earnest turn’ within the anthropology of religion, pointing up the tendency for anthropologists of religion to over-emphasize the role of discipline in the construction of the religious subjecthood over mechanisms of leniency and compromise. Taking the Catholic Church as an example, I show how discipline andlenience have been co-constitutive of Christian subjectivities, as different movements in a gigantic choreography which have spanned and evolved over several centuries. By looking at certain technologies of lenience that have emerged over the course of Catholic history, I trace an alternative genealogy of ‘the Christian self’; one in which institutional growth, power, and survival depended not only upon the formation of disciplined bodies and interior dispositions but also upon a carefully managed division of labour between clergy and laity, as well as upon a battery of legal commutations and practical avoidances aimed at minimizing the effort and pain of the ascetic approach. Taking the concept of ‘lapsedness’ as cue, I ask to what extent the ‘lapsed Catholic’, rather than indexing an ever-increasing tendency towards secularism, might already be contained and accounted for within Catholicism as a living, evolving form.

Ikeuchi, “Accompanied Self”

Ikeuchi, Suma.  2017. Accompanied Self: Debating Pentecostal Individual and Japanese Relational Selves in Transnational Japan.  Ethos 45(1): 3-23.

Abstract: While the notion of the individual figures prominently in the debate about Christian personhood, the concept of relational selves has shaped the existing literature on Japanese selfhood. I take this seeming divergence between “individual Christian” and “interdependent Japanese” as the point of departure to probe how Japanese-Brazilian Pentecostal migrants in contemporary Japan understand and experience their sense of self. The article is based on 14 months of fieldwork in Toyota, Japan, which consisted of participant observation, interviews, and surveys among Brazilian and Japanese residents there. The discourses about the category of religion serve as a major source of data to tease out cultural understandings about “the authentic self.” I will argue that Pentecostal personhood does not fit within either the “individual” or the “relational.” The concept of “accompanied self” will then be proposed to accurately capture the kind of self that many migrant converts strive to embody.

Haynes, “Learning to pray the Pentecostal way”

Naomi Haynes, 2016. “Learning to pray the Pentecostal way: language and personhood on the Zambian Copperbelt,” Religion, early online publication:

Abstract: This article examines the role of prayer in the production of the Pentecostal person on the Zambian Copperbelt. While Pentecostal prayer is partly focused on private concerns, and therefore reinforces a classic Protestant notion of bounded, individualised personhood, success in this practice depends on a believer’s ability to incorporate the language of the Pentecostal community. Prayer is also therefore dependent on a model of personhood in which permeability has an important part to play. One of the implications of this latter element of Pentecostal prayer is that it turns individual believers into iconic representations of their communities.

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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High, “A Little Bit Christian”

High, Casey. 2016. “A Little Bit Christian”: Memories of Conversion and Community in Post-Christian Amazonia. American AnthropologistDOI: 10.1111/aman.12526

Abstract: Conversion to Christianity in Amazonia is often described in terms of collective action rather than radically new beliefs interior to the individual. I describe how Waorani people in Ecuador remember the conversion of specific elders as a time of civilization that brought Waorani into a wider social order after a period of violence and isolation. Despite having largely abandoned Christianity since their mass conversion in the 1960s, Waorani today embrace past conversion as a catalyst of social transformation that they say made the present ideal of living in a “community” possible. The individual experiences evoked in memories of collective “civilization” and an insistence on personal autonomy in Waorani visions of community illustrate why the moral commentaries of Waorani Christians remain highly valued in communities where Christianity has ceased to be a dominant social identity.

Revival and Awakening: Book Review

Becker, Adam. 2015. Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

By: Secil Dagtas (University of Waterloo)

What is the relationship between the modern categories of “religion” and “nation”? The general tendency in popular and academic works has been to approach this relationship as one of tension, contradiction, or replacement. Revival and Awakening takes a different approach and unearths the co-constitution of these categories in the borderlands between Qajar Iran and the Ottoman Empire with a particular focus on the global underpinnings of this process.   Continue reading

Mosko, “The Christian Dividual and Sacrifice: Personal Partibility and the Paradox of Modern Religious Efflorescence among North Mekeo”

Mosko, Mark. 2015. The Christian Dividual and Sacrifice: Personal Partibility and the Paradox of Modern Religious Efflorescence among North Mekeo. In Josephides, Lisette (editor) Knowledge and ethics in anthropology: obligations and requirements. London; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 95-121.

Excerpt: This chapter explores the paradox of modern religion’s efflorescence as exemplified in North Mekeo peoples’ encounter with Christianity. It argues that certain critical compatibilities between the pre-existing religion and notions of Christian personhood and agency have facilitated villagers’ conscous conversion. The North Mekeo experence of conversion thus can be regarded as owing as much to the centrality of transcendence in the two religions as to the continuity of Mekeo attitudes and actions towards the sacred. My argument conjoins two strands of anthropological theorizing: ethnographic treatments of distinctively Melanesian personhood and sociality as exemplified in works by Marilyn Strathern and Roy Wagner and dubbed ‘the New Melanesian Ethnography’, and classical treaties on the logic of sacrifice beginning with Hubert and Mauss. While neither the NME nor the anthropological theory of sacrifice was desgined expressly for the study of change, I hope to show that through the modifications proposed here they enable the delineation of key processes of social and religious transformation. I argue that this reorientation of the NME and sacrifice theory to North Mekeo expereinces of religious change offer new answers to the paradox of modern religion’s effervescence in Melanesia and the Christian world beyond.

Bernstein, “Freeze, Die, Come to Life”

Bernstein, Anya. 2015. Freeze, die, come to life: The many paths to immortality in post-Soviet Russia. American Ethnologist 42(4):766-781. 

Abstract: Through practices such as cryonics and plans to build robotic bodies for future “consciousness transfer,” the Russian transhumanist movement has engendered competing practices of immortality as well as ontological debates over the immortal body and person. Drawing on an ethnography of these practices and plans, I explore controversies around religion and secularism within the movement as well as the conflict between transhumanists and the Russian Orthodox Church. I argue that the core issues in debates over the role of religion vis-à-vis immortality derive from diverse assumptions being made about “the human,” which—from prerevolutionary esoteric futurist movements through the Soviet secularist project and into the present day—has been and remains a profoundly plastic project.

Bonfim, “Glossolalia and Linguistic Alterity”

Bonfim, Evandro.  2015. Glossolalia and Linguistic Alterity: The Ontology of Ineffable Speech. Religion and Society 6(1): 75-89.

Abstract: This article proposes a revised definition of glossolalia based on the ritual value of incomprehensible speech, which allows for an approach to meaning emergence in non-human languages and the issue of extreme linguistic alterity. The main social and acoustic features associated with glossolalia will be presented through the case study of a Christian charismatic community in Brazil (the Canção Nova), showing us how linguistic evidence supports different notions of Christian personhood and an iconic-based communication between human and divine beings.

Occasional Paper: Daswani, “Christian Personhood in a Ghanaian Pentecostal Church”

Christian Personhood in a Ghanaian Pentecostal Church

Girish Daswani (University of Toronto)

Abstract: The question ‘what is Christian personhood?’ has been on the anthropological radar for some time now. Most of these debates around Christian personhood have engaged with ideas of ‘individuality’ and ‘dividuality’ and have considered whether Christians are individual or dividual first. By looking at how relationships are organized differently within one Pentecostal church in Ghana, I argue that both individuality and dividuality should be considered as intrinsic to any notion of Christian personhood. I examine how church leaders and prophets from the Church of Pentecost reveal the different social arrangements through which a Pentecostal identity and its relations are constituted, managed, and brought into being in Ghana. Ultimately this paper argues that the qualities of how church leaders and prophets of this church come together, and come apart, as individual or dividual, can also be studied through a better understanding of kinship and the social structures that people cohabit.

In early 2015 I met up with Albert, a friend and interlocutor, someone who introduced me to The Church of Pentecost (CoP) when I was in Ghana between 2003 and 2004. It was Albert who in 2004 said to a prayer congregation that Pentecostalism in Ghana was not about a ‘belief in God’ but about ‘relationships’, that God worked through people to help those in need (Daswani 2015). My attempts to make sense of what he meant by relationships helped frame my first impressions of Pentecostalism and in understanding how CoP members were related to God through their shared spiritual practices and through the networks of care and support that were a part of. Back then Albert spent much of his time visiting and assisting several prophets from CoP. Through prayer and prophecies they helped build his hopes for the future and provided him with a sense of security in the world. Albert eventually left CoP and in 2014 formed his own prayer fellowship, which quickly turned into a small but vibrant church. He now had others, followers of his own, who clung to his every word as he gave them advice, predicted their future and spoke demons out of their bodies. His new role as a prophet of his own church allowed him to take on a special position in Ghanaian society as a spiritual guide and mentor. Albert told me that one could convert, become born-again, speak in tongues and learn from others as to how to be a good Pentecostal but the gifts of the prophet were something that one could not cultivate over time. Instead the prophetic gifts were given by God to a chosen few and within different degrees of intensity, either present or absent in the Christian person. When Albert emphasised ‘relationships’ as central to his understanding of Pentecostalism in Ghana, I came to understand that he was referring to the relationships of support and spiritual protection he had received from prophets and from other church members who attended these special prayer services. Over time I realized that there were different types of relationships in CoP and different understandings of ‘relationships’ that informed a Pentecostal identity in Ghana.

The two groups that best represented the different types of relationships in CoP were (1) the church leaders who included pastors that held administrative positions and who provided guidelines for how Pentecostal relations ought to play out practice, and (2) the prophets who held spiritual power and who operated out of prayer camps and prayer centres. The former provided specific theologically based guidelines for how church members were related to God and to each other, paying particular attention to how Pentecostals should come together as individuals-in-Christ. The latter were subject to the same criteria of biblical relatedness but were also described as specially chosen vectors of divine power. Because of their special relationship with the Holy Spirit, prophets were described as more spiritually powerful than ordinary Christians and even CoP leaders. They were known to be able to see what lies behind people’s intentions and to mediate on behalf of others with God and the spirits causing them harm. Church leaders and prophets represented two models of ‘intersubjectivity’ (see Hamberger 2013; Course 2013) that co-existed but that were in tension with one another. They also informed my understanding of the divisions within CoP and within Pentecostalism in Ghana more generally – between more hierarchical-institutionalized forms of Pentecostalism and more charismatic forms that centre around individual personalities and their ability to transmit spiritual power.

In this paper I pay special attention to church leaders and prophets in CoP in order to demonstrate how they help form Pentecostal ‘relationships’ differently. I argue that while interconnected as members of a single institution these two groups reveal the different social arrangements through which a Pentecostal Christian identity and its relations are constituted, managed, and brought into being in Ghana. This distinction between groups speaks to the interconnected but different ways of conceiving Christian persons and their relations – one that can be chosen and cultivated over time and another that is simply gifted to a select few. If the acceptable forms of socialization and the constituent parameters of individual selfhood within the church community are prescribed by CoP leaders, and as premised on the cultivation of certain Christian virtues, prophets provide another way of imagining social relations, acting as channels of and for a divine power that not every Christian possesses. These two groups are not representative of different types of “Ghanaian Pentecostal” but tokens of a single type, moral characters that are identifiable in many Christian churches in Ghana including CoP. In CoP church leaders and prophets operate alongside each other and criticize each other but their interactions also help us consider the structure of relations that frame personhood and to reconsider an important theme in an anthropology of Christianity to which I now turn. Continue reading