Reynolds, “Discourses of Love”

Reynolds, Nicola.  2015. Discourses of Love, Compassion, and Belonging: Reframing Christianity for a Secular Audience.  Journal of Contemporary Religion 30(1): 39-54.

Abstract: Religious plurality has implications for religious organisations active within the public realm. Using semi-structured interviews, I examine how Christians and Christian organisations are framing faith discourses so that they resonate with religiously neutral discourses dominant in the public sphere. There are indications of a shift towards the use of profane terms instead of sacred terms to explain aspects of the Christian faith and Christian teachings of love, compassion, and belonging are amplified to counter criticisms that Christianity is a threat to liberal rights and beliefs. This article conceptualises these discourses as two social action frames: the ‘Love Frame’ and the ‘Inclusivity Frame’. I do not refute claims that the social significance of religion is declining but argue that Christians and Christian organisations are working within the confines of secular discourses to disseminate their messages in order to build credibility as egalitarian public service providers.

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.

Engelhardt, “Singing the Right Way: Orthodox Christians and Secular Enchantment in Estonia”

Engelhardt, Jeffers. 2014. Singing the Right Way: Orthodox Christians and Secular Enchantment in Estonia. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Publisher’s description: Singing the Right Way enters the world of Orthodox Christianity in Estonia to explore musical style in worship, cultural identity, and social imagination. Through both ethnographic and historical chapters, author Jeffers Engelhardt reveals how Orthodox Estonians give voice to the religious absolute in secular society. Based on a decade of fieldwork, Singing the Right Way traces the sounds of Orthodoxy in Estonia through the Russian Empire, interwar national independence, the Soviet-era, and post-Soviet integration into the European Union. Approaching Orthodoxy through local understandings of correct practice and correct belief, Engelhardt shows how religious knowledge, national identity, and social transformation illuminate how to “sing the right way” and thereby realize the fullness of Estonians’ Orthodox Christian faith in context of everyday, secular surroundings. Singing the Right Way is an innovative model of how the musical poetics of contemporary religious forms are rooted in both consistent sacred tradition and contingent secular experience. This landmark study is sure to be an essential text for scholars studying the ethnomusicology of religion.

Hancock, “Short-Term Mission Voluntarism and the Postsecular Imaginary”

Hancock, Mary.  2015.  “Short-Term Mission Voluntarism and the Postsecular Imaginary.”  In Religion and Volunteering, edited by Lesley Hustinx, Johan von Essen, Jacques Haers, Sara Mels, 217-237, Springer International Publishing.

Abstract: This chapter examines the spiritual motivations and impacts of voluntarism in the USA through an investigation of international short-term mission (STM), a paradigm involving 1–2-week trips that amalgamate leisure tourism, evangelism, and voluntary development work and are carried out among Christian and non-Christian communities. Mainline and nondenominational bodies sponsor STM, but it is most popular among evangelical Christians. I argue that STM’s effects, while partially explicable in terms of the social capital that it may (or may not) engender at home and in mission fields, include challenges to secular norms and institutions. STM, especially as carried out among non-Christian communities, provides (1) experiential contexts for imagining a world in which divinity is reckoned as immanently and sensorially present, and (2) communicative tools for enacting that world. It thus may rework the categorical boundaries between secular and religious practices and spaces at home, as well as on mission sites. As such, STM can be understood as an artifact of an emergent postsecular imaginary—a characterization that signals the limits of the secularization thesis and the recognition of significance of plural religiosities, spiritual orientations, and faith commitments in social action and institutions. This chapter is based on ethnographic research in southern California conducted from 2009 to 2012.

Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury & Free Speech: Book Review

Asad, Talal, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, & Saba Mahmood. 2013. Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury & Free Speech. Second Revised Edition. New York: Fordham University Press.

By Brian Howell (Wheaton College)

This past summer began with a United States news cycle dominated by a single story. The U.S. Supreme Court voted in a 5-4 decision in favor of Hobby Lobby and its evangelical owners, the Green Family, supporting their claim that to provide certain forms of contraception through their health insurance plan would violate their religious conscience. Conservatives and many religious groups declared the decision a victory for religious freedom. Progressives, many women’s advocacy groups, and many supporters of the Affordable Care Act decried this the inappropriate imposition of religious views on individuals, and a failure of the state to protect the rights of women to comprehensive health care.

While both sides generally argued their positions based on liberal principles of individual rights, there were more complex questions in the background: what is the legitimate role of religious views in the secular public sphere? What is properly a “religious” belief and what is its relationship to economic, social, and political actions? Where are the limits of religion in a secular state?

Working from a different set of conversations around global Islam and secular Europe, these questions are taken up in one of the more productive reads I have enjoyed this year. Beginning as a conference at the Townsend Center for the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley in 2007, Is Critique Secular? lived for a time as a publication of that conference. After some years of reaction and discussion, the authors decided to re-frame the collection with a new preface by the authors, and published as a mutli-authored book by Fordham University Press in 2013. The book now consists of chapters from two anthropologists – long-time scholar of secularism Talal Asad and comparatively more recent voice Saba Mahmood – paired with an introduction by Berkeley Professor of Political Science Wendy Brown, and response from Judith Butler, a prominent feminist scholar and social theorist. Asad and Mahmood each provide short replies to Butler’s discussion, constituting the last two chapter of the book. Although the entire volume comes in at a slim 145 pages, the format provides for vigorous interaction. Going far beyond the cases on which the authors primarily rely, the questions of secular society and its relation to religion as practice and concept are taken up with vibrancy that will make this volume a key conversation for anyone interested in the nature of secularism and liberal society in a rapidly changing global context.

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Bakker, “Fragments of a Liturgical World”

Bakker, Sarah. 2013. Fragments of a Liturgical World: Syriac Christianity and the Dutch Multicultural Debates. Doctoral Dissertation, Dept. of Anthropology. Santa Cruz, CA: University of California-Santa Cruz.

Abstract: This dissertation explores the reconfiguration of Syriac Orthodox liturgical tradition among Aramaic-speaking Christian refugees in the Netherlands. Under the pressures of Dutch integration policy and the global politics of secular recognition, the Syriac liturgy is rapidly losing its significance as the central axis of social life and kinship-relations in the Syriac Orthodox diaspora. As such, it has become a site for debate over how to be religiously, culturally, and ethnically distinct despite the narrative binary of Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East that dominates Dutch multiculturalism discourse. Every week, young Syriac Orthodox women and men congregate at their churches to practice singing the liturgy in classical Syriac. What they sing, and how they decide to sing it, mediates their experiments in religious and ethical reinvention, with implications for their efforts at political representation. Singers contend not only with conditions of inaudibility produced by histories of ethnic cleansing, migration, and assimilation, but also with the fragments of European Christianity that shape the sensory regime of secular modernity. Public debates over the integration of religious minorities illuminate this condition of fragmentation, as well as the contest over competing conceptions of ethical personhood inherent in the politics of pluralism in Europe.

Coleman, “Do ‘we’ ‘do’ God?”

Coleman, Simon. 2013. Do ‘we’ ‘do’ God? Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19(3): 639-644.

Abstract: What does it mean to talk of the religion ‘of’ a given country? I reflect on an edited volume dealing with religion in Britain and consider two related themes: the secular considered as ‘absence’ or ‘presence’, and the siting of religion not in conventional denominations or ritual practices but in spaces of encounter between religions, and between the so-called ‘religious’ and ‘secular’.

Knibbe, “Faith in the Familiar”

Knibbe, Kim. 2013. Faith in the Familiar: Religion, Spirituality and Place in the South of the Netherlands. Boston: Brill. 

Publisher’s Description: Faith in the familiar is an ethnography of religious change in the Netherlands, discussing Catholicism and popular forms of New Age. It focuses on the location of religion in local life and how people relate to religious authority.

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.

Leichtman, “From the Cross”

Leichtman, Mara A. 2013. From the Cross (and Crescent) to the Cedar and Back Again: Transnational religion and politics among Lebanese Christians in Senegal. Anthropological Quarterly 86(1):35-75.

Abstract: This article examines the changing relationship between religion, secularism, national politics, and identity formation among Lebanese Christians in Senegal. Notre Dame du Liban, the first Lebanese religious institution in West Africa, draws on its Lebanese “national” character to accommodate Lebanese Maronite Catholic and Greek Orthodox Christians in Dakar, remaining an icon of “Lebanese” religion, yet departing from religious sectarianism in Lebanon. As such, transnational religion can vary from national religion, gaining new resonances and reinforcing a wider “secular” ethno-national identity.