Negotiating Respect: Book Review

Thornton, Brendan Jamal. 2016. Negotiating Respect: Pentecostalism, Masculinity, and the Politics of Spiritual Authority in the Dominican Republic. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

By: Ruthie Meadows (University of Nevada, Reno)

In 2016, I took an evening stroll through the small city of Baracoa, Cuba as the sun set against façades of brightly-painted, columned wooden homes. In a country internationally-renowned for its rich Afro-Cuban musical genres – rumba, Latin jazz, timba, reggaetón, batá – I was surprised to encounter an unexpected sound dominating the nighttime aural landscape: the songs of evangelical Christianity. Through open doorways and windows leading into private homes, passersby could see (and hear) groups of singers standing in circles singing evangelical hymns and praise songs, their proud harmonies spilling out from living rooms into the public domain of the streets. Incredibly, I re-encountered this scenario in home after home throughout my walk, passing by multiple groups as they intoned their own sets of praise songs and asserted – through sonic presence – the arrival and dominion of evangelical Christianity within Cuba’s post-atheist religious environment.

In the Caribbean, the spread of evangelical Christianity constitutes one of the most culturally and religiously significant developments of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. Brendan Jamal Thornton’s Negotiating Respect: Pentecostalism, Masculinity, and the Politics of Spiritual Authority in the Dominican Republic (2016) provides a nuanced and provocative reading of Pentecostalism’s social status in the Dominican Republic, outlining the often-incredible ways in which Pentecostals have established their faith as the preeminent “moral and spiritual authority” (Thornton, 2016: 87) among residents of the urban barrio. Through an ascetic, performative, and public-facing approach to “true” Christianity predicated upon visible, empirical transformation rather than esoteric belief, Thornton argues that Pentecostals establish themselves as “flag-bearers” (86) of moral and spiritual authority among an unlikely array of social actors, ranging from Catholics and Dominican vodú practitioners to members of youth gangs (naciones). Through a relational ethnographic methodology that interrogates the ways in which Pentecostalism interfaces with societal institutions in the urban barrio (of both religious or secular impetus), the author contributes a novel, and productive, ethnographic model for analyzing religious movements in relation to seemingly disparate social phenomena. Furthermore, Thornton carves a powerful argument for Pentecostalism as a movement grounded in the immediate “social currency” of “respect” (190) rather than the esoteric, differed reward of the afterlife. In so doing, Thornton joins other scholars who foreground the tangible social benefits and exceptional opportunities for “self-re-creation” (223) that Pentecostalism offers individuals throughout Latin American and the Caribbean (as well as their respective diasporas, See Austin-Broos 1997; Brodwin 2003; Burdick, 1998; Toulis 1997; Wedenoja 1980). In foregrounding the continuities and transformations wrought upon dominant models of masculinity (i.e., tigueraje) in the Dominican Republic, however, particularly through the all-male prerogative of “charismatic conversion” (1), Thornton contributes an alternative, and localized, gendered perspective.

Thornton begins by setting forth a provocative argument grounded in an unexpected state of relationality between Pentecostalism, Catholicism, and Dominican vodú. Joining other recent scholars who urge us to provincialize Western notions of truth and ontology (Chakrabarty, 2007) as they relate to analyses of belief in the Caribbean (See Holbraad, 2012), Thornton “challenge[s] our assumptions about religious difference locally” (79) by arguing for a state of ontological agreement between the three religious traditions – one that defies common-sense notions of opposition and irreconcilability. In the ethnographic field site of Villa Altagracia, an urban municipality located thirty kilometers northwest of the capital of Santo Domingo, Thornton argues that Pentecostalism, Catholicism, and Dominican vodú constitute a “religious continuum” (79) of shared logics and ontological ascriptions, interfacing with one another by means of a consensus grounded in the country’s particular history of Christian hegemony (53). Despite oppositional discourse, this consensus allows “local religions to join in their understanding of the basic contours of their shared mystical universe” (73) and to even relationally bolster, in turn, the logics of each. Thornton’s theoretical maneuver moves away from analyses of religious difference as a matter of “belief,” emphasizing, instead, commonly-held ascriptions surrounding the existence of spiritual entities (i.e., shared ontologies) and yet divergent perspectives on their moral and ethical value. In so doing, Thornton echoes the recent theoretical work of ethnographers of religion in the Caribbean, including Holbraad, who relativize Western representational ontologies of truth as they relate to religious practice and belief in the region (i.e., as a dichotomy of truth/falsehood ascertained by a “comparison between representations and facts” among competing truth claims) (Holbraad 2012: 205). More specifically, Thornton extends this theoretical work to Pentecostalism by highlighting a localized – and surprisingly convergent – ontology of “belief” in the Dominican context, intervening into analyses of religious plurality often theorized through the lens of difference.

Thornton first forges this argument by tracing the spiritual trajectory of a woman named Mariela Consuelo (Chapter 3), a Pentecostal convert who shifts spiritual affiliation over the course of her lifetime between Catholicism (as a young girl), spirit mediumship/Dominican vodú (following an illness in adulthood), and ultimately Pentecostal conversion. What Thornton finds so compelling about Consuelo’s narrative is the way in which her movement between these competing traditions indicates not a shift in underlying logic or “belief” but rather a transposition of the mystical forces affecting her life into new categorizations with alternate moral meanings. Rather than disavowing the seres/luases/misterios (“spirits”) of Dominican vodú and spirit mediumship as nonexistent or “false,” Consuelo transposes these mystical forces into “demons” within her Pentecostal orientation, disavowing not their existence but their moral and ethical value as agents in her religious life. Demons, as ontological correlates of the seres/luases/misterios of Dominican vodú/spirit mediumship, continue to exercise a crucial role in the religious paths of Pentecostal converts, Thornton argues, taunting and tempting them as they forge forward in their often difficult, and ascetic, spiritual paths.

Thornton then delineates a fascinating “conversion exception” (74) enjoyed by Pentecostals in Villa Altagracia, one that bolsters this vision of a “shared grammar of belief” (ibid). As an empirically-rooted identity grounded in the public performance of ascetic sanctity, Pentecostalism achieves an exceptional status within the Dominican barrio through the encouragement of public-facing practices that highlight the radical transformation of converts from “sinner” to “saint” (99). Such transformations include linguistic changes (i.e., the use of “respectable” speech), sartorial proscriptions for personal dress (such as the banning of pants for women), the public performance of “testimonies” of radical transformation (176), and a “politics of place” (120) that re-inscribes personal identity as one linked to an individual’s rootedness in the church and home rather than the public domain of the streets (i.e., bars and nightclubs).

Through such practices of differentiation – ones that highlight “adhering to various limits on earthly pleasures” (99) – Pentecostals “distinguish themselves as moral exemplars” (ibid) within the broader community to such a degree that they come to enjoy a respected, and even exceptional, status. Fascinatingly, an unlikely array of social actors – including Catholic priests, Dominican vodú practitioners, and youth gang leaders – recognize Pentecostal conversion as a legitimate and even encouraged means of disrupting cycles of reciprocity in diverse domains of life. For Dominican vodú practitioners, for example, Pentecostal conversion permits an accepted means of escape from the compulsory practices of service to the spirits. For Dominican youth gangs, Pentecostal conversion similarly provides a sole, legitimated means of escaping life-long cycles of violence, revenge, and reciprocity – so long as converts correctly perform (publicly and continuously) their newfound status as “true” Pentecostals. This extraordinary means of sacred and social transcendence (and its equally extraordinary acceptance among an unlikely array of social actors) underscores for Thornton the shared underlying logics tying divergent religious traditions into a “single integrated whole” (84). Additionally, the “conversion exception” (74) underscores the exceptional privilege and social status enjoyed by Pentecostal converts within the community of the urban barrio more broadly.

In Chapter 6, “Residual Masculinity and Gendered Charisma,” Thornton turns towards the dynamics of gender in Dominican Pentecostalism, interrogating the ways in which male converts draw upon dominant models of masculinity to bolster the all-male prerogative of “charismatic conversion” (1). In a religion dominated by “binary models of perception and explanation” (45-46) that demarcate boundaries of strict opposition between good and evil, the “profane” and the “gospel”, the home and the street, etc., Thornton highlights the ways in which male converts mobilize the gulf between two dominant, and opposing, archetypes of masculinity – the tíguere (“tiger”) and the hombre serio (“serious man”) – to enact rich public testimonies of radical personal transformation. In foregrounding the opposition between their pre-conversion lives as sinful, street-wise, macho hustlers (tígueres) and their post-conversion lives as ascetic, family-oriented “serious” men (hombres serios), male converts discursively enact the Pentecostal ideal of radical transformation, achieving “charismatic authority,” or “exceptional status and special regard” among members of the church and community (185).

Interestingly, Thornton’s analysis of the tíguere/hombre serio gendered archetypes through the theoretical lens of charisma echoes ethnomusicologist Sidney Hutchinson’s coeval publication on “cultural charisma” and the tíguere/hombre serio archetypes in Dominican popular music from the same year (See Hutchinson, 2016). Both authors draw upon secondary sources that examine Max Weber’s notion of charisma, itself rooted in the concept of the divine (Weber 1947), to approach the contrasting dualism of the hombre serio and the tíguere in Dominican (and, specifically, male) performance (Hutchison, 2016: 73 via Greenfeld 1985, 119-120; Thornton 2016: 182-183 via Baehr 2008, Shils 1965: 200, and Parsons 1964: 668). However, while Thornton analyzes the discursive contrast between pre-conversion sinfulness and post-conversion sanctity in male testimonies as evidence of “negative-charisma,” or “legitimacy established by way of negative terms and associations” (drawing loosely on Aberle 1966; 186), Hutchinson mobilizes theater scholar Joseph Roach’s notion of charisma as a form of “radiance” and “attraction” predicated precisely upon the conjunction of opposites: i.e., “strength and vulnerability, innocence and experience, and singularity and typicality among them” (Roach 2007: 7-8, in Hutchison 2016: 75). While both authors highlight the contrast between binary oppositions as key in the charismatic performance of Dominican men – whether through Pentecostal testimony or merengue típico musical performance – Hutchinson more explicitly, and usefully, foregrounds the conjunction of opposites (i.e., the discursive conjoining of a convert’s “negative,” sinful past and “positive,” pious present in testimonies) as a key ingredient in the construction of “charisma” itself.

Thornton’s Negotiating Respect: Pentecostalism, Masculinity, and the Politics of Spiritual Authority in the Dominican Republic (2016) succeeds in demonstrating the often incredible social and spiritual reach of Pentecostalism among a wide array of individuals in the Dominican barrio. In highlighting the tangible benefits conferred to converts through the “conversion exception” (74), the all-male prerogative of “charismatic authority” (185), and the “social currency” of “respect” (190), Thornton convincingly delineates the draw of Pentecostalism, particularly for Dominican men, foregrounding the opportunities for self-re-definition, self-worth, and the refashioning of dominant archetypes of masculinity that Pentecostalism offers for disenfranchised male converts. Through a relational ethnographic methodology that interrogates Pentecostalism in its interactions with Catholicism, Dominican vodú, and Dominican youth gangs, Thornton additionally provides a provocative ethnographic model for analyzing religious movements within their broader social and institutional environments. Finally, Thornton succeeds in delineating the powerful draw of Pentecostalism while simultaneously provincializing Pentecostalism (and Christianity more broadly) as but one of a multitude of “established channels of mystical aid” (73) that confer “immediate solutions to everyday problems of barrio life” (191). In so doing, Thornton convincingly demonstrates the power and rootedness of Pentecostalism in the tangible benefits of social efficacy and “respect” while relativizing the religious movement within a wider array of Dominican, and more broadly Caribbean, religious practices.


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