Abstract: Mormon religiosity is deeply marked both by a culture of secrecy and also by a culture that obliquely indexes secret religious material as a means of communication. This secrecy, though, can at times be an engine of disbelief, a process which has been exacerbated by the internet. Because of high levels of social integration in the community, Mormon disbelief can have high social costs. Some Mormons, however, have retained a ‘testimony’ by using the concept of transhumanism as a way to re- negotiate what ‘belief’ in Mormonism means. However, in part due to the very culture of secrecy that can fuel doubt, and also in part due to the technical codes that transhumanism as a community often relies on, this very shift can itself be difficult for Mormon non-transhumanists to discern.
Abstract: I trace interrelations and tensions between varied practices of concealment and discernment in the Church of England by examining contrasting attitudes to sexuality among Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals. Moral panics over the sexual orientations of priests point to wider conflicts over incarnation, mediation, communication and knowledge. Combining historical and ethnographic data on the Church in England and the global Communion, I explore what can and should be openly ‘known’ in Anglican circles. I link my analysis of the Anglican case to wider considerations of what anthropology can and cannot claim to ‘know’ and discern through ethnographic observation, description and analysis.
Abstract: Debtera are Ethiopian Orthodox ritual specialists known for their advanced religious education, as well as for engaging in illicit magic. This article traces how their secret magical knowledge and practices emerge from the official Orthodox tradition. Yet, while drawing on this tradition, the debtera’s ritual repertoire also transgresses some of its central proscriptions. Transgression, in this context, does not abolish the boundaries it violates, but reinstates their legitimacy. This dynamic prompts debtera to engage in imaginative ethical reassessments of the unstable relationship between illicit knowledge and official tenets. Through their transgressive performances, debtera enable their clients to secretly address and actualise sinful desires that otherwise remain unacknowledged or are suppressed by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. By examining this ritual management of covert desires, I conclude that the study of debtera’s secrecy illuminates fundamental complexities and contradictions in Ethiopian Orthodox sociality which operate beneath the surface of public moral discourse.
Abstract: This essay argues that modalities of interreligious conflict and coexistence in Gondar, Ethiopia entail shifting sites of discernibility and concealment. In religiously mixed interactions, both parties tend to see concealment as a key facet of a self-conscious ethical project of harmonious, interreligious relations. Hence, many reserve interreligious evaluations for homogenous settings of religious insiders, where the expressions cannot frame real-time mixed interactions in antagonistic terms. On occasion, though, the concealment is unsustainable, and interreligious evaluations leak into shared spaces, becoming discernible in a mutually recognisable way, thus creating open conflict. Adhering to norms of concealment marks one as a respectful other, however, these norms can conflict with religious ethical imperatives. The way they conflict differs for Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Pentecostals. Moreover, the significance attributed to concealment/revelation within religious and interreligious value frameworks often shapes patterns of relations across religious boundaries, including routine mutuality, ambivalence, and escalating tensions.
This article explores the theoretical and political potential of ethnographic research for World Christianity by focusing on the “subversive power” of this methodology. Through a discussion of four aspects of ethnographic research: the use of the term “informants,” a commitment to holism, the political power of participant-observation, and the “double location” of ethnographic practice, I argue that the primary objective of ethnography is to decenter a scholar’s view of the world, often by taken the position of those at society’s margins. The political potential of this move is clear, and World Christianity as a discipline is perhaps especially well positioned to make good on its possibilities, given its capacity to draw on social scientific and theological models in equal measure.
Premawardhana, Devaka. 2020. “In Praise of Ambiguity: Everyday Christianity through the Lens of Existential Anthropology.” Journal of World Christianity 10, no. 1 (2020): 39-43. doi:10.5325/jworlchri.10.1.0039.
A recent theoretical move among ethnographers of religion challenges the social scientific tendency to reduce people’s beliefs and practices to one or another religious tradition, to a religious affiliation assumed to operate as a master identity. Some scholars advancing this move draw on the insights of existential anthropology to emphasize the ambiguities and indeterminacies of religious life. The aim of this article is to argue for the relevance of existential anthropology for ethnographic approaches to the study of World Christianity. That relevance lies not only in existential anthropology’s capacity to convey the complexity of everyday religion, but also in the entanglements of existentialism itself with multiple aspects of Christian theology, past and present.
The pinnacle of the Christian year and the telos of Christ’s earthly ministry, Easter Sunday is the celebration of Christ’s “trampling down death by death” as an Orthodox hymn poetically proclaims. For liturgically grounded churches like the Eastern Orthodox or the Armenian Apostolic, one of the ancient Christian churches that are together known as the Oriental Orthodox Churches, that heightened theological experience can only be secured through liturgical participation: keeping the Holy Thursday vigil, processing with the tomb on Good Friday, and finally, receiving Holy Communion on Easter Sunday. What then, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic forcing people to remain at home, could the experience of Easter and all of Holy Week preceding it have been for such liturgically dependent Christian denominations? What can liturgy and its quintessential activity of Holy Communion look like under quarantine?
Among the broad religious spectrum of the Levant, the figure of Saint George/Al-Khader stands out. As the patron saint of Palestine, Saint George is one of the most popular saints among Palestinian Christians. Traditionally, the popular Saint George veneration has been associated with phenomena such as Canaanite rituals, shared shrines, blood sacrifices, and rural culture. This centuries-old practice survived and is still widely alive among local Palestinian Christians. Based on a critical study of textual sources and twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork in the West Bank, this article provides an ethnographic-theological account on the Palestinian Saint George veneration, focusing on the controversial political uses and the spiritual meaning of this figure in the Palestinian context. I argue that this popular faith expression has transformed from a cult focused on human flourishing to a platform for grassroots theological ideas, mainly concerning themes like martyrdom, liberation, and belonging to the land.
Reviewed by: Michael Lambek (University of Toronto Scarborough)
Faith in Flux combines limpid ethnography with a sustained and lively argument that is at once both about the Makhuwa, people who live in the interior of northern Mozambique, and about, or rather, against, certain assumptions associated with the anthropology of Christianity as espoused by Joel Robbins and his disciples. Despite the original and insightful anthropological work on Christianity by Fenella Cannell, Webb Keane, and others that stands outside this paradigm, it has become, says Premawardhana repeatedly, the dominant paradigm. It proposes an anthropology “of Christianity” rather than an anthropology of worlds that people who happen to be Christian inhabit and cohabit with others who are either not Christian or not the same kind of Christian, worlds that encompass more than can be encompassed under the label “Christianity.” Hence the anthropology of Christianity paradigm begins by reifying its object of study. By contrast, a phenomenological approach, as Premawardhana takes it up, renders Pentecostalism [or Christianity, religion, etc.] “less autonomous, distinctive, and determinative than it tends to appear in studies predefined as studies of Pentecostalism [Christianity, religion, etc.]” (p. 156).
Inevitably, Premawardhana overgeneralizes from the Makhuwa case, but along the way he makes a number of significant points. Rather than conducting a chapter by chapter synopsis as many of the reviews on this site do, I’ll begin with some of his reflections on religion, Christianity, Pentecostalism and the anthropology of those fields and then turn to a few words on the Makhuwa. Where Robbins (in Premawardhana’s depiction) argues that Christianity is premised on rupture, Premawardhana offers a more nuanced account in which, first, such rupture is not an inevitable feature or accompaniment of Christianity, and second, in which when looked at over a broader frame of time, each ostensible rupture is one of a sequence, followed by returns. Rupture, in other words, is temporally and experientially relative. Furthermore, the appreciation of change or rupture is not unique to modernity or to conversion to Christianity but may well have been an accepted feature of life in many precolonial and pre-missionized societies. Continue reading
Abstract: Based on a multi-sited study of five Messianic Jewish congregations in North America, this paper analyses the widespread tendency for gentile (non-Jewish) adherents to hint about having ‘Jewish DNA’. I argue that Messianic Judaism’s theology and social structures promote the search for Jewish roots while also suppressing it, which results in the grassroots circulation of hints in a ‘semi-public’ register. Bringing together work by Kim Tallbear on gene talk and Veena Das on rumours, I frame these hints as unfinished stories that may benefit believers within religious communities oriented around individual seeking. However, my second point concerns how such ‘hints’ serve as, what Ritchie Lowry calls, ‘a primary means for informal social control’. The semi-public genre encourages informal strictures, often based on the racialisation of ‘Jewish DNA’. I end by exploring another aspect related to registers of disclosure regarding my role as a fieldworker who conceals other people’s secrets.