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.
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.
Abstract: When is a church a church? What makes a church a denomination? What makes a denomination an institution? And what constitutes that institution: people, the law, money, divine approval, or something else? In asking questions such as these, Handman, Opas, Hardin, and MacLochlainn usefully address denominational forms as institutions, which has long been a sociological concern—most especially in the work of Goffman (1961)—but has arguably received comparatively little attention within the anthropology of Christianity. Taken together, then, the articles in this collection address not just questions about form and function, but also questions about how the self becomes built into structures that regard rules and norms as an important, even sacred expression of Christian life and truth.
Abstract: This article explores how in Samoa, Christians from diverse denominational backgrounds regularly talk about and critique church giving practices ranging from weekly announcements of offerings to tithing. By comparing Pentecostal and mainstream Christian giving practices, Pentecostals discursively created denominational difference through valuation: the comparative process of differentiating between ways of giving. Pentecostals created a socially embedded subject position through giving critiques, demonstrating how denominational comparison is religious practice. By looking at the metapragmatics of giving—that is, how accounts of giving are used in everyday life—discussions of giving become a primary means to navigate the institutional mediation of individualism evident in giving practices. This article thus shows how critiques of giving collapse the distinction between “religious” and “economic” spheres showing that they are often co-constitutive.
Abstract: For the Amazonian Yine people, Christian denominationalism provides an important means for organizing social life. Denominations in this context are not, however, to be understood as clearly bounded entities. Simultaneously with forming and renewing denominational boundaries, the Yine continuously cross, dissolve, and redefine them. This article attempts to understand the denominational dynamics among the Yine people, and in particular their back and forth movement between Evangelicalism, Catholicism, and Pentecostalism, without viewing their denominational allegiances as subordinate to other forms of social organization or as something religiously insincere. Seeking inspiration from the ethnography of personhood and humanity in Amazonia, it suggests that denominations among the Yine can be understood to exist as unstable forms of belonging, as “thickenings” of different kinds of Christian moral relations to sociality, that take place on a continuum pictured not as a line but rather as a space. At the more general level the article shows how Christian vernacular denominationalism is likely to not be based on dogmatic differences but to be rather something that comes to be in practice. Furthermore, the article makes explicit how denominational boundaries are not always of the one and the same kind everywhere but vary between denominations.
Abstract: This article describes how, amidst Christian schism in the Philippines, the corporate form emerges as a central facet through which religious communities come to be understood. Centered on the legal fallout of a schism in the United Methodist Church in the Philippines that began in 2011, the article discusses how the schism foregrounded the necessary legal identities of religious groups in the Philippines as corporations. Having inherited the corporate model of religious organization from the United States’ colonial administration in the early 20th century, the legal configuration of the religious corporation is often at odds with how Christian actors themselves understand the divinely informed nature of the congregation. While such legal processes are undertaken to resolve matters of property ownership and church finances, they also reveal how legal bureaucratic regimes are involved in conceptualizing, abstracting, and circulating particular communal forms of subjectivity.
Handman, Courtney and Opas, Minna. (2019) “Institutions, Infrastructures, and Religious Sociality: The Difference Denominations Make in Global Christianity.” Anthropological Quarterly. 92(4): 1001-1014.
Abstract: Scholars working in the anthropology of Christianity have focused in large part on the subject in Protestantism, emphasizing the ways in which the modern subject is a Christian subject (Robbins 2004, 2007; Keane 2007; Meyer 1999; Elisha 2011; O’Neill 2010). This follows a wider trend in the renewed anthropological analyses of religion, morality, and ethics that have been oriented around religious subjectivities as the primary sites of investigation (e.g., Hirschkind 2006, Mahmood 2005, Laidlaw 2013, Lambek 2010). As productive as this line of questioning has been in conceptualizing Christian subjects, it has largely come at the expense of an emphasis on the social groups in and through which Christian practice takes place. Although relatedness has been understood to contribute to the rise of individuals’ faith (e.g., Bielo 2009, Coleman 2015, Elisha 2011, Luhrmann 2004), the significance of institutionalized structures of sociality has rarely been addressed. In this collection, we ask: what is lost when the institutions and infrastructures of Christian practice are elided? In addressing this question, we pay particular attention to the denominational form, doing so in the face of long-standing theological and ethnographic traditions that have resolutely denied the importance of this institution.