Abstract: The ethnographic imagination links the big stories of broad historical forces and the small stories of individual lived experience. In the study of world Christianity, it links church movements with individual participants, texts with oral traditions, creeds with practices. In this article the author examines the role of migration in the Christian story of the Lisu of southwest China. The author tells the big story of how migration across borders greatly impacted the resilience of Lisu Christianity, allowing it to transcend the political turmoil of particular countries. But she also tells a small story, showing migration as a lived experience that greatly impacted one Christian family. The ethnographic imagination seeks truth in the frayed edges where big stories and small stories meet. Ultimately, the ethnographic imagination is an appropriate research posture for world Christianity because it requires that scholars approach the subject less as a corpus of texts and more as a community of souls.
Abstract: This article focuses on religious pedagogies as an essential part of the practice and the making of modern religion. It takes the case of the Syrian Orthodox communities in Kerala, South India to examine how shifts in pedagogical models and practice have reframed their understanding of knowledge and God. The paper highlights two moments of transformation—the nineteenth-century missionary reforms and twenty-first-century Sunday school reforms—that brought “old” and “new” pedagogies into conflict, redefining the modes of knowing and religious subjectivities they presuppose. For this I draw from historical and pedagogical materials, and ethnographic fieldwork in churches and Sunday schools. The paper diverges from widespread narratives on the missionary encounter by showing how colonial efforts to replace ritual pedagogies with modern schooling were channeled into a textbook culture that remained close to Orthodox ritualism. The “new” pedagogy turned learning into a ritualized practice that continued to emphasize correct performance over interiorized belief. Contrasting this with todays’ curriculum revisions, I argue that educational reforms remain a privileged mode of infusing new meanings into religious practice and shaping new orthodoxies, especially under the threat of heterodoxy. This reflects a broader dynamic within Orthodox Christianity that takes moments of crisis or change as opportunities to turn orthopraxy into orthodoxy and renew the faith. The paper engages with postcolonial debates on religion, education, and modernity, and points to more pervasive assumptions about what makes Orthodox Christianity and the modes of knowing and ethical formation in Eastern Christianity.
Abstract: This article examines themes of religion tourism, presence, devotional labour, and place-making from the vantage point of a ‘forgotten’ Christian attraction in the United States. I integrate archival, oral history, and ethnographic data to analyze the accumulations throughout the 60-year life course of the Garden of Hope, a site in northern Kentucky (USA): from distinctly Protestant and distinctly Catholic material features, more ambiguous theological features, stories of supernatural intervention and stories of human ingenuity, competing claims to authority and authenticity, choreographed rituals, and multiple forms of devotion. I argue for an interpretation of the Garden that accounts for the ways in which Christian engagements with the problem of presence accumulate promises of presence: the expectation, anticipation, and potentiality that a desired spiritual intimacy will be actualised. In particular, I highlight the devotional labour of custodians and visitors as integral for defining, narrating, and maintaining this promise.
Abstract: Drawing on ethnography from central Greece, this article is about the way people narrate their encounters with the devil. Although it echoes the idea that life as told and life as lived are structured in the same way, it takes the argument a step further by suggesting they are structured through a narrative plot wherein the present and the future of the story-tellers pre-date the past of which their stories tell. It also foregrounds the link between this structure and a particular kind of morality which replicates the narrative logic of the stories, giving rise to an inherently relational personhood – a personhood that, just like the way in which its narration destabilizes the logic of before and after, destabilizes the distinction between self and other. Lastly, contextualizing the current economic crisis in the lives of such persons, the article suggests we need to think of it in relation to the devil and the stories people tell of him.
Abstract: During ethnographic fieldwork among lay Catholics in eastern Uganda, informants occasionally turned to deception in their dealings with God and the Holy Spirit; in doing so, they appeared to reject the Christian notion of divine omnipotence and omniscience. Based on ethnography conducted in a sub-county I call Buluya, this article tries to explain how such attempts are deemed possible and plausible. My argument is made up of two main strands. First, I argue that, in an indeterminate social landscape in which no one can ever fully ‘know’ (ngeo) another person, many interpersonal relationships in Buluya are firmly grounded in practical efforts to gain better jobs, more money, education and greater security. I show how deception is a normal and morally neutral aspect of these relationships, as each party strives to protect what they have, and to improve their prospects. Second, I draw on ethnographic and historical data to suggest that the Holy Spirit has entered into the local cosmology in Buluya as a powerful yet limited being, dependent to some extent on the guidance of its human mediators. Finally, I bring these two strands together to suggest that, when the Holy Spirit is conceived of as a limited being (it, too, does not fully know people), relationships with it that take place through a human mediator can also be legitimately characterized by deception, without risking the work of the Holy Spirit.
Abstract: Throughout the world, conversion to evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity produces what Joel Robbins calls ‘duplex cultural formations’, whereby surviving aspects of local cosmology and worldview are brought into tension with paramount Christian values through a process of critical evaluation. I explore the dynamics of this process within Oksapmin understandings of human and cosmic origins. Traditional anthropogonic models explaining the emergence of lineages from primordial figures have been brought into tension with more-valued understandings of God as creator of the universe through the process of diabolisation, in this case, local figures being associated with fallen angels expelled from Heaven. I argue that these beings are permitted to continue because the anthropogenic and historic nature of their power does not significantly contradict the cosmogonic and eternally present conception of God’s creative capacity, but are diabolised owing to their continued existence as symbols of creative power and the source of sinful ritual practices.
Abstract: The popular sport of CrossFit has attracted a number of Christians who simultaneously celebrate their passion for their faith and their passion for their sport. In this interplay of sport and religion, fashion becomes an important means for the profession of faith. This essay focuses specifically on religious athletic T-shirts that appear regularly among Christians in CrossFit. I argue that these are not a mere profession of faith but serve a dual purpose: on the one hand being athletic (and one could argue secular) and on the other being religious symbols with a deeper theological meaning. As such, they are sites where business opportunities, religious and sacramental practices, advertisement and consumption practices collide. I argue that religious CrossFit T-shirts need to be taken seriously as a religious-sacramental practice, but also that religious athletic clothing makes faith fit for consumption.
Christian love has historically been subject of extensive theological study but has rarely been studied within anthropology. Contemporary Coptic society receives growing attention over the last two decades as a minority in Egyptian Muslim majority society. An important bulk of this scholarship involves a discussion of the community’s sometimes self-defined and sometimes ascribed characterization as a persecuted minority. Particular attention has gone to how social and political dimensions of minority life lead to changes in Christian theological understandings. This paper builds on these insights and examines how Christian love is experienced, and shapes feelings of belonging, everyday morality and political sensibilities vis-à-vis Muslim majority society. It draws from ethnographic observations and meetings with Copts living in Egypt between 2014–2017. It focuses on three personal narratives that reveal the complex ways in which a theology of love affects social and political stances. An anthropological focus reveals the fluid boundaries between secular and religious expressions of Christian love. Love for God and for humans are seen as partaking in one divine love. Practicing this love, however, shapes very different responses and can lead to what has been described as Coptic ‘passive victim behaviour’, but also to political activity against the status-quo.