Hardin, “‘Father released me'”

Hardin, Jessica. 2019. “‘Father released me’: Accelerating Care, Temporal Repair, and Ritualized Friendship among Pentecostal Women in Samoa.” American Ethnologist 46(2).

Abstract: Samoan Pentecostal churches, ritualized friendships among women are an informal but essential relationship through which churches grow. The mentorship that women provide when a new convert is introduced to church life creates escalating forms of care and obligation, as well as an experience of urgency and acceleration. Converts learn how to construct rupture in their narratives and spiritual practices, which are modeled in peer socialization practices. This period of intense yet temporary mentorship creates a temporality of “repair”—embodied, linguistic, and social practices that restore the convert’s identity, which has been disrupted by conversion. This care work compels us to consider the temporalization of care as a future‐making endeavor.

Eds. Gilhus, Tsakos, and Wright, The Archangel Michael in Africa

Eds. Gilhus, Ingvild Saelid, Alexandros Tsakos, and Marta Camilla Wright. 2019. The Archangel Michael in Africa: History, Cult, and Persona. London: Bloomsbury.

Abstract: This book takes an interdisciplinary approach in order to understand angels, focusing on Africa and the cult and persona of the Archangel Michael. Traditional methods in the study of religion including philology, papyrology, art and iconography, anthropology, history, and psychology are combined with methodologies deriving from memory studies, graphic design, art education, and semiotics.

Chapters explore both historical and contemporary case studies from Coptic Egypt, Nubia, Ethiopia, and South Africa, providing a comparative perspective on the Archangel Michael.

Ravalde, “Deceiving the spirit”

Ravalde, L. (2019). “Deceiving the spirit: engaging with the Holy Spirit in Catholic Uganda.” Africa 89(1), 147-164. 

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.

McAllister and Napolitano, “The Powers of Powerlessness”

McAllister, Carlota and Valentina Napolitano. 2019. “The Powers of Powerlessness.” Political Theology Network.  

Abstract: This is the Prize winner Essay for the Inaugural Political Theology Network on New Directions in Political Theology. In this essay we invite those of us who work in political theology to listen to the Americas and to do so, insofar as possible, ethnographically.

Whitmarsh, “Protestant Techniques of Care”

Whitmarsh, Ian. 2019. “Protestant Techniques of Care: The Hindu, the Pentecost, and the ‘Secular.'” Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 

Abstract: Modern techniques of caring for the self through staying healthy rely on an ethic of choice, often evoking critiques of the (neo)liberal subject. This sense of choice has carried frequently overlooked Protestant commitments from Luther to Kant and Locke to 19th‐century American health reformers, premised on a refusal of ritual, mysticism, and the priest as the source of truth. This article explores how these implicit commitments shape the relation to other religious traditions in countries like Trinidad. Campaigns against chronic disease in Trinidad carried out in public health venues and churches echo multinational health projects in pronouncing, “We all want a healthy life.” The article draws on a Caribbean ironic sense of secularity to analyze the way that the threat to this “want” found in other religious traditions such as Pentecostal healing and Hindu ecstatic practices reveals Protestant commitments masked within a modern global “secular” care of the self.

Brahinsky, “The effects of scale”

Brahinsky, Josh. 2018. “The effects of scale: How Western agency-anxieties mold affect theory, and how Pentecostalism and neuroscience teach us to think differently.” Anthropological Theory. 18(4).

This paper offers a critique of affect theory using the analytical concept of scale that is made concrete through an ethnography of Pentecostal Christianity and an exploration of current neuroscientific thinking. Affect theory is one recent form of a Western philosophical concern about the loss of agency in modernity, what I call “agency-anxiety.” Affect theorists tend to privilege the sense of freedom gained by immediate and individual experience over the constraints of more extended experiences and collectivity. That is, affect theory often scales its analysis tightly. This paper responds with an ethnography of Pentecostal practice and exploration of work in neuroscience that describes an analytic space in which broader scales can be useful as well. Ethnography scaled beyond the instant reveals that the Pentecostal ideal of surrendering to God in a moment of abandonment often results from a “fake it until you make it” approach; in other words, from extended, effortful, willful practice. This practice leads to the formation of habits and dispositions that allow the attainment of spontaneous rupture. Likewise, neuroscience can scale out its analysis by focusing on dispositions, moods and habits, rather than simply a more immediate view. Further, “scale effects” and emergent properties in scale-to-scale relations undermine reductionism. Finally, because Pentecostals are generally right wing yet also exemplify ruptural practice, it seems that outside of a particular conjuncture, the tightly scaled eruptive moment of affect is by no means per se a productive or (politically) progressive formation. As such, making scale an explicit analytical category might help us to see agency, change, and structure more clearly.

Praying with the Senses: Review Forum Response (Sonja Luehrmann)

Luehrmann, Sonja, ed. 2018. Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 

By: Sonja Luehrmann (Simon Fraser University)

Politics and Aesthetics in Orthodox Prayers: A Response to the Review Forum

This is an extraordinarily thoughtful set of responses, and I feel grateful and humbled to read them. As Helena Kupari notes, Praying with the Senses is more than a compilation of essays, but the outcome of a research collaboration in which all contributors enriched each other’s understanding of the poetics and politics of Orthodox Christian prayer. The reviewers acknowledge the coherence and synergy of the volume, and hopefully this will be palpable for other readers as well.

I cannot answer all the rich remarks of the reviewers in this forum, but would like to pick up on some shared threads, one of which is a call for more explicit discussion of politics. Valentina Napolitano asks about “the wider role of the state and post-national formations that make religious spaces new important local and transnational modes of political aggregation.” Earlier in her post, she already notes that Orthodox prayer practices transcend the unhelpful distinction between private inner experience and public ritual practice. Simon Coleman asks about “forms of Orthodox mobility” such as migration, diaspora-formation, and mutual influences among national orthodoxies. These are questions about the political existence of prayer events and their grounding in national, denominational, or ethnic imagined communities.

In answer to this challenge to address the political dimensions of prayer, I am reminded that in the Orthodox church, community is constituted liturgically and collectively. Countering Western images of Orthodox churches as closely welded to particular monarchical or nation state formations (the infamous “caesaropapism”), Orthodox Christians often claim to keep politics out of religion by avoiding the unified transnational hierarchy of the Catholic Church in favor of the communion of equal patriarchs. As the recent severance of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople shows, these relationships are fraught with inequalities and competing interests; in other words, they are political in a secular sense.

However, for ordinary believers and clergy the split manifests in restricted possibilities of participation in worship, bringing into play a slightly different understanding of politics. When lay members of either side can no longer receive the eucharist in churches affiliated with the other, and priests can no longer celebrate liturgy together, what is at stake are not just relations among contemporary hierarchs, but a given Orthodox believer’s relationship to the church as a transtemporal community that spans past, present, and future generations. The immediate cause of the rupture is disagreement over the appropriate national church on Ukrainian territory: the Kiev Patriarchate (now recognized by Constantinople against the wishes of Moscow) or the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. In this dispute, one of the major markers of distinction and points of contention is who gets commemorated in the solemn intercessions during divine liturgy – Patriarch Kirill of Moscow or Patriarch Filaret of Kiev. In the absence of a unified transnational hierarchy, liturgical prayer is a major marker of allegiance that some lay participants listen for attentively, while others ignore it as they pursue health or blessing across the “Orthodox continuum” (Naumescu 2007).

Drawing on Sarah Bakker Kellogg’s (2015) wonderful work on liturgical community among the Syriac Christian diaspora in the Netherlands, one can say that this reliance on prayer and liturgy gives Orthodox communities a degree of independence from particular ethnic and state formations, and enables them to reproduce community in mobile forms. It also allows for different understandings of politics to intersect – one that is concerned with patronage and allegiance in quite worldly ways, and another one that is closer to what Nicholas Heron (2018) calls “liturgical power.” Liturgical power is vested in the figure of the minister as an instrument animated from elsewhere, and in prayer practices that reach beyond immediate location to saints who lived long ago but are still present, and places that are elsewhere but metonymically accessible through church namings and iconography (Heo 2018). If there is a politics of Orthodox prayer, it pushes against the dominant image of modern Orthodox churches as nation-bound, even as it is often implicated in Orthodox nationalisms.

Sarah Bakker Kellogg’s response calls attention to another dimension of politics in Orthodox worlds: the split between the so-called “Oriental” or non-Chalcedonian churches and those that derive from the state church of the Byzantine empire. Kellogg is justified in her critique of our volume as being mainly concerned with churches of Byzantine derivation; with the exception of Heo’s chapter on Egypt, Boylston’s on Ethiopia, and Bandak’s extended vignette on Syria, the Oriental churches get relatively short treatment. However, in reading Kellogg’s retelling of the “legacy of Orthodox Christianity’s historical relationship with empire, which has functioned to obscure other kinds of Orthodox worlds contained within it,” I am struck by how similar her articulation of the non-Chalcedonian position is to how Orthodox Christians in Russia and Eastern Europe articulate their predicament vis-à-vis Western Christendom: they, too, feel that dominant narratives of church history erase and orientalise them in relation to a West that is “heir to the imperial position,” in this case that of Rome.

Susan Gal’s (2002) concept of fractal distinction seems applicable here. A division among dominant and alternative strands of Christianity reproduces itself at various historical and geographical intersections, between “Hellenic” and “Semitic” Christians, “Rome” and “Byzantium,” logocentric Protestants and ritualistic Catholics/Orthodox, etc. At each juncture, one side is made to represent the forward movement of history while the other is relegated to a static past, to be recovered by sympathetic scholars (Hann 2012).

This is not to deny the important warning against an unthinking adoption of imperial histories. As Lars Hedegard Williams puts it, a focus on prayer as “aesthetic formation, discursive tradition, and skill” allows us to keep history and politics in view as we look at sensory practice in its personal and communal dimensions. Hopefully this framework will also prove useful in contexts that the volume leaves insufficiently illuminated.

Gal, Susan. 2002. A Semiotics of the Public/Private Distinction. differences 13(1): 77-95.

Hann, Chris. 2012. Personhood, Christianity, Modernity. Anthropology of this Century 3, http://aotcpress.com/articles/personhood-christianity-modernity/

Heo, Angie. 2018. The Political Lives of Saints: Christian-Muslim Mediations in Egypt. Berkeley/L.A.: University of California Press.

Heron, Nicholas. 2018. Liturgical Power: Between Economic and Political Theology. New York: Fordham University Press.

Kellogg, Sarah Bakker. 2015. Ritual sounds, political echoes: Vocal agency and the sensory cultures of secularism in the Dutch Syriac diaspora. American Ethnologist 42(3): 431-445.

Naumescu, Vlad. 2007. Modes of Religiosity in Eastern Christianity: Religious Processes and Social Change in Ukraine. Berlin: Lit.


Thebault & Rose, “What kind of Christianity?”

Thebault, Deborah and Lena Rose. 2018. “What kind of Christianity? A v Switzerland.” Oxford Journal of Law and Religion.

Abstract: This comment explores how legal authorities understand religious identity and sets these understandings in a wider context. The comment questions whether the interpretation of the claimant’s conversion to Christianity by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and the Swiss Asylum authorities might not be too restricted to a particular Western European form of Christianity. The European Convention on Human Rights gives to the contracting States a certain margin of appreciation in assessing the risk of ill treatment undergone by a convert. In this case in its application of the Convention the ECtHR accepted the ruling of the Swiss authorities.

Praying with the Senses: Review Forum (Sarah Bakker Kellogg)

Luehrmann, Sonja, ed. 2018. Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 

By: Sarah Bakker Kellogg (University of California, Berkeley)

Worlds within Worlds: On Imperial Christianity’s Illegible Internal Others

The over-arching question running through Sonja Luerhmann’s marvelous edited volume on Orthodox Christian prayer is how sensory practices and bodily disciplines work together to create a world. Rightly identifying a shared emphasis on the corporeal dimensions of corporate worship across capital-O Orthodoxy, the contributors to this volume offer a number of valuable insights into questions of personhood, mediation, tradition, authority, publicity, intimacy, belonging, and the theological valences we attach to the human sensorium. Their collective labor demonstrates that Eastern Christianity is rich soil for anthropological inquiry from a number of vantage-points and for a host of theoretical interests. It is only further evidence of this richness that despite the book’s nuanced take on Orthodoxy’s historical and geographical complexity, a number of questions remain. In this brief essay, I take up just one of these remaining questions in order to reflect on the extent to which this volume’s claims about the senses, prayer, and the worldliness of an Orthodox world resonate with my own ethnographic work on an especially marginal branch of the Orthodox Christian tradition: the Syriac Orthodox diaspora in Western Europe. One of the key claims this book makes, and its authors offer a great deal of compelling evidence to support it, is that Orthodox Christianity is a world, as common stylistic features, ethical questions, and theological preoccupations reappear again and again, from Russia to Ethiopia to India and beyond. The question I am concerned with is how much this depiction of the worldliness of the Orthodox world relies on the legacy of Orthodox Christianity’s historical relationship with empire, which has functioned to obscure other kinds of Orthodox worlds contained within it.

It will take some work to make this case, given how persuasively the contributors to this volume describe and analyze this Orthodox worldliness. When understood as a globalized aesthetic formation, following Birgit Meyer’s apt phrase, Orthodox Christianity makes Christian persons through diverse kinds of relationships among practitioners spanning multiple scales and modes of mediation. These relationships, in turn, are fashioned through ongoing processes of sensory exchange and the ethically attuned cultivation of individual capacities that enable such exchanges. Naumescu names this Orthodox mode of being and becoming “relational ethics,” and this approach mirrors my own observations of diasporic Syriac Orthodox liturgical practice, which is the site par excellence for enacting a deeply felt ethics and theology of Syriac kinship, moral personhood, and ethnic belonging. The ethical, the theological, and the ethnic are so tightly bound that the sung prayers and hymns of the West Syriac Rite serve as a parish level ethnic boundary of a sort that is entirely illegible to conventional secular social science understandings of the distinction between “ethnic” and “religious” identity (Bakker Kellogg 2015; see also Atto 2011; Calder 2016; Jarjour 2018).

In sensory practices like icon veneration, sacramental listening, repetitive recitation, pilgrimage, and learning to read ancient sacral languages, Orthodoxy’s aesthetic forms and relational ethics articulate with what the authors understand to be an authoritative discursive tradition in the sense that Talal Asad means it, in that it aspires to a kind of coherence as an ethico-theological corpus rooted in a genealogy of ecclesiastical authority. Among Syriac Orthodox Christians who have resettled in Western Europe, this dynamic takes shape in the weekly recitation of the litany of saints, from St. Ephrem of Nisibis to St. Jacob of Serug to Philoxenos of Marburg, who are not only moral exemplars for Orthodox becoming (Bandak and Boylston 2014), but also beloved ancestors, who as members of the family remain intimately and immanently involved in everyday life. For the broader Orthodox world described in this volume, the historical imagination that shapes both the aesthetic and the discursive dimensions of this ethico-theological corpus is a political imagination as well, in that it is anchored in intellectual, poetic, visual, and sonic evocations of ancient Byzantium, and this is where the authors’ views of what makes Orthodoxy Orthodox diverge from mine.

It is, to my mind, a very healthy thing when anthropologists attend critically to the imaginative and reconstructive processes through which contemporary Christians establish claims of continuity with the past, and yet it also strikes me that something crucial is lost when we do not worry as much as we might about how the present’s relationship with the past is sometimes more than just an act of imagination and commemoration. Sometimes, certain narratives of the past, originating in the past, maintain their purchase in the present because of their decisive world-making effects. In the case of Orthodoxy’s roots in 4th and 5th century Christological controversy, I do not contest the point that much of the Orthodox world aspires to a principle of unity-in-diversity made largely possible by a shared imagined connection to Byzantium. This shared imagined connection is, as often as not, a geotheopolitical construct meant to fill the space left behind by any number of failed secular and even “western” (does that mean Roman?) ventures. It is also true that this ostensibly unifying thread, which both spans the Orthodox world and defines it as Orthodox, is not to be found in the Syriac Orthodox corner of it in which I work.

Despite public lip service to ecumenical reconciliation, I know of no Syriac Orthodox person with a strong aesthetic, moral, or theological attachment to a Byzantine past. What I can attest to are many Syriac Orthodox Christians who, if they know you well enough to trust you with this revelation, will privately express anger about how their liturgical forebears were mistreated at the Council of Chalcedon (451 C.E.) by the imperial bishops of Byzantium and Rome. From their perspective, which is filtered through their own lived memories of religious suppression and political violence in south east Turkey, eastern Syria, and northern Iraq, the misdeeds of the imperial Greek-speaking bishops of the Byzantine Empire at the Council of Chalcedon constituted the founding moment of Syriac Christianity’s historical troubles as a perennially marginalized, subjugated, and persecuted minority. From this moment on, a vast, cosmopolitan, and continent-spanning Syriac world took shape, encompassing both “orthodox” West Syriac Christians and “heterodox” East Syriac Christians. This world was not set apart from the Greek-speaking Christianity of formerly Byzantine lands but overlapped it, and engaged it in agonistic dialogue. For centuries, this Syriac world stretched beyond Greek-speaking Christian hegemony through the expansion of the Islamic world.

This history makes a difference to how anthropologists construe the historical context of the twenty first century Orthodox world because this context has shaped that historical imagination in variable ways. How the Roman and Greek churches remember and commemorate the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, and thus how they remember their own Byzantine pasts, is very different from what the heirs of the early Syriac speaking Christians remember and commemorate, as these memories have been shaped and reshaped by their shifting position as subjects of other empires, whether Sassanid, Abbasid, Mughal, or Ottoman. It matters that the Syriac Orthodox I work with consider themselves Orthodox because they adhere to the Nicene Creed. It also matters that they consider themselves non-Chalcedonian and not in the slightest bit Byzantine, not because they disagree with the substance of the Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s incarnate nature, but because they object to how the Bishops of Rome and Constantinople used the Council’s proceedings to establish their own political dominance and cultural hegemony in ways that had long-term material effects on the Syriac speaking world.

Thus it strikes me that when an anthropologist studying the heirs of the imperial position today characterizes the proceedings of the Council of Chalcedon in terms of the Christological divisions among so-called Nestorians, Miaphysites, and Chalcedonians, the impression given is somewhat slanted towards an imperial Christian understanding of what those early Christological debates were all about (Luerhmann 2018:4-7). Take the term miaphysite, for example, which is the label ascribed by Euro-American scholars to non-Chalcedonian churches like the Syriac Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox Churches, who, in response, have also taken up the term. Yet the term does not convey a coherent position taken at the Council of Chalcedon—it was invented as a neologism by English-speaking scholars in the twentieth century by conjoining the Greek word mia- (the feminine term for “one,”) and the Greek word physis (“nature”) (Millar 2013:52; see also Amar 2011). The purpose of this neologism was to emphasize what these western scholars understood to be the non-Chalcedonian Christians’ “weak” one-nature Christological doctrine without explicitly naming it as heterodox. The weakness of their “one” was signaled through use of the grammatical feminine, even though, according to Church historian Fergus Millar, no such term is to be found any relevant ancient texts (2013:50-58). This point ought to raise an anthropological eye-brow or two. As we seek to construe the relevant context to account for “Eastern” Christianity’s constitutive difference from “Western” Christianity we do well to situate even the most neutral seeming of scholarly claims about the past within the very traditions of imperial Christian heresiology, ethnography, and historiography out of which our own modern practices of textual inscription have emerged (Berzon 2016).

An altogether different perspective on what was at stake in those earlier councils comes into view through the Syriac literary tradition of the second through seventh centuries, as shifts in Syriac rhetorical conventions and theological motifs reveal Greek Christianity’s growing encroachment into Syriac modes of theological discourse, which Syriac Studies scholars have recently discerned to be a sign of the incommensurability of Greek, Latin, and Syriac as languages of theological discourse and Christological description. Part of the purpose of these councils was not only to put a limit on what could be said about the person and nature of God but on how it could be said, as in the case of the First Council of Constantinople in 381 C.E., which prohibited using feminine language to characterize any aspect of the Holy Trinity, effectively putting an end to the genre of Syriac poetic theology in which the Holy Spirit, the grammatically feminine ruho, was conventionally described as the Mother, and both God the Father and God the Son were frequently attributed with feminine anatomical attributes and capacities (Amar 2011:17). Such imperial maneuvers not only quashed an entire genre of theological discourse, but they set about to render the Syriac theological imagination illegible within Greek and Roman Christianity, while for Syriac Christians, in turn, Byzantium became synonymous with the imperial West (see also Weltecke 2016; Wood 2013)

The point of this excursion into late antique and early medieval geotheopolitics is not to fault the authors of this volume for insufficiently emphasizing the diversity within Orthodox unity. This historical material is not well known and its salience to anthropological concerns is not immediately obvious, and so I would not expect someone who works on twenty first century Romania or Russia to know what was going on in 13th century Baghdad. The point, rather, is to show how the aesthetic and discursive dimensions of a world emerge in generative tension with the other worlds it overlaps—although it might also be worth a methodological pause to consider the techniques we use to construe particular narratives of the past as necessary “context” to our anthropological analyses of the present, lest we recapitulate past imperial Christian narratives in which other Orthodox worlds are rendered illegible (Bakker Kellogg forthcoming).

For the Syriac Orthodox Christians I work with in the European diaspora, there is not one competing spatiotemporal imaginary at work in their religious and political lives but three, and not one of them is Byzantine. Instead, Syriac Orthodox Christians who think ethnically identify with either the ancient Assyrian Empire or with the ancient city-states of Aram, while those for whom the concept of “ethnicity” is meaningless identify simply with their parishes, ancestral villages, and monasteries. These historical imaginations are shaped, in variable and complex ways, by a sense of Syriac Christianity’s status as simultaneously indigenous, Semitic, and diasporic from the outset. These spatiotemporal imaginaries inform Syriac Orthodox prayer in that they are connected to what I have come to think of as distinct sensory cultures within the broader Syriac Christian world, which in turn reflect that world’s complex diasporic existence and its interactions with other worlds, whether global secularity materializing in local secular nationalisms, Turkish urban culture, Arab music worlds, rural Kurdish village life, or transnational ecumenical activism. If the worldliness of a world is marked by the convergence of aesthetic formation, discursive tradition, transnational connection, and historical imagination, then Syriac Christianity is a world straddling numerous others. This is possible because of the anchoring effects of Syriac prayer, an essential element of the liturgical performance of Syriac liturgy. Liturgical prayer, in this tradition, is an open interpretive space in which competing spatiotemporal configurations of Christian kinship, community, and ethnic belonging, originating in different regions of the Middle East and brought together in diaspora, jostle uncomfortably against one another. This is a world within others’ worlds, both fractured and knit together through intersecting sensory cultures, and its illegibility is produced, in my view, by the dominant knowledge practices and historical narratives shared by secular states and the devout heirs of imperial Christianity alike.

Admittedly, the question of Orthodoxy’s others is brought up in William A. Christian, Jr.’s epilogue, but it is not explicitly thematized as a constitutive, defining feature of the kind of Orthodox world that is represented conceptually and ethnographically in this volume. In some sense, this is good news: there is a great deal left to explore at the interface among worlds, and the multiscalar problem of finding worlds within worlds, in order to illuminate Orthodoxy’s imperial historical imagination. This imagination can at times obscure these other worlds, but this is no mere criticism for the sake of being critical; rather, in thinking about the imperial legacies of Orthodox thought and practice, we can expand our sense of what is at stake both theologically and politically in the aesthetic and discursive practices entailed in Orthodox prayer, which would in turn expand our understanding of how Orthodox prayer might in fact be shaping worlds beyond Orthodoxy itself.


Amar, Joseph. 2011. “Christianity at the Crossroads: The Legacy of Ephrem the Syrian.” Religion and Literature 43(2):1–21.

Atto, Naures. 2011. “Hostages in the Homeland, Orphans in the Diaspora: Identity Discourses Among the Assyrian/Syriac Elites in the European Diaspora.” Leiden: Leiden University Press Dissertations.

Bakker Kellogg, Sarah. 2015. “Ritual Sounds, Political Echoes: Vocal Agency and the Sensory
Cultures of Secularism in the Dutch-Syriac Diaspora.” American Ethnologist 42(3): 431–445.

Bakker Kellogg, Sarah. Forthcoming. “Perforating Kinship: Syriac Christianity, Ethnicity, Secular Legibility.” Current Anthropology.

Bandak, Andreas, and Tom Boylston. 2014. “The ‘Orthodoxy’ of Orthodoxy On Moral Imperfection, Correctness, and Deferral in Religious Worlds.” Religion and Society 5(1): 25–46.

Berzon, Todd S. Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Calder, Mark D. 2016. “Syrian Identity in Bethlehem: From Ethnoreligion to Ecclesiology.” Iran and the Caucusus 20 (3-4): 297–323.

Jarjour, Tala. 2018. Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo. Oxford University Press.

Luehrmann, Sonja. 2018. Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Indiana University Press.

Millar, Fergus. 2013. “The Evolution of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the Pre-Islamic Period:
From Greek to Syriac?” Journal of Early Christian Studies 21(1): 43–92.

Weltecke, Dorothea. 2016. “Bar ‘Ebroyo and Identity: Remarks on His Historical Writing.” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 19(2): 303–332.

Wood, Philip. 2013. The Chronicle of Seert: Christian Historical Imagination in Late Antique Iraq. Oxford University Press.

Praying with the Senses: Review Forum (Valentina Napolitano)

Luehrmann, Sonja, ed. 2018. Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 

By: Valentina Napolitano (University of Toronto)

Via a rich ethnographic lens this timely collection sheds new light on a long scholarship of Orthodox Christianity.  Rather than addressing the themes of each single piece, I address the collection as a whole. Therefore, my comments aim to highlight only a few themes forwarded by this collective effort without, of course, doing full justice to the richness of the material.

This collection’s perspective stands between an Asad/Mahmood approach to the study of religion and praying -as disciplined inclinations of ethical subject-making – and a renewed effort to take seriously the ontological reality and the affective histories of saints and holy figures. In this reading, praying is not just a drama within a discursive tradition, or only a mediation of ethical encounters, but it is also a way of calling into being ontological presences via multiple aesthetic formations and material exchange. Within a long and complex durée of Byzantine and Orthodox Church’s history, these ontological presences – if taken seriously – help us recalibrating what we come to understand as a socio-historical regime of the visible (see Sonja Luehrmann’s Introduction).

This collection refreshingly takes up stories not only of praising the holy and the saints, but also of doubting them. Self-doubt and doubting the world, through a multisensorial unfolding of praying, is an interesting avenue through which this approach to Anthropology of Christianity can help us to overcome the unhelpful division between the domain of the religious and that of the secular. When praying ‘by the books’ transtemporally connects the present event to past and future ones, the nature of those events becomes both personal as well as communal and public – and always in the making (see Sonja Luehrmann’s chapter). This clearly pushes against another unhelpful distinction in Christianity at large, that between a public domain of rituals and a private, inner dialogue, with the holy.

If for the faithful Syrian Christians -comparatively addressed in Ukraine, Romania and South India (see the chapter by Vlad Naumescu) – a tension between mystery and mastery is both a question of discernment as it is of purification of the heart, then praying is also a site for creativity, with and beyond conditions of pain, suffering and the process of salvation. When praying is lived as a received gift to call into being the spirit of fathers (and doing so in a diaspora), this human-divine relation sparks a capacity for imagination.  Praying as fabulation (which of course has a long history, see the work of Michel de Certeau) is not only a technique of subject-making, but also a site, a space of porous boundaries between ordinary life and death (in relation to saints) – between the co-creating worlds of the dead and the living. To approaches based on ethical subjectivity and Aristotelian poesies, through these different chapters, we are invited to pair a perspective of the prayer-event as one of creative, embodied and affective acts of fabulation – indeed an enriching angle in bringing the study of Orthodox Christianity to the anthropological table.

The miraculous, the fathers of the desert, the histories of schisms and exile (see chapters by Heo, Pop, Luerhmann, Kormina) are treated as imaginative, lived cartographies, graphic moments in the witnessing relation between saints, the holy and the people. Through praying with the senses, a place, a site becomes the creative potential for a present and future and cannot be contained in a generic space, but is always situated and enlivened through specific code switching. So, praying with the senses is not only about engaging with conditions of consolation, affections, but it is also an attuning to code switching between public, collective and personal realms, especially, but not only, in liturgical events constantly remade by histories of revivalism. Moreover, through an ethnographic reflection on Coptic practices (in Angie Hoe’s chapter) we learnt that there is a living threshold which constitutes self-orientation, communal memory and remembering. This threshold is actively constituted by specific form of materiality such as baraka, a particular substance that mediates between the human and the holy.

Overall this collection’s approach to the study of Orthodox Christianity combines a focus on generative grammar with an historical long durée and analytical angle on material religion and mediation. This is in line, but also pushing forward, approaches such as the ones by Webb Keane and Birgit Meyer on the study of religion, mediation and subjectivity. However, there are a few areas that this collection could have addressed further. For instance, gender and how the gendered body, through the prayer-event, shapes differently the synergy of material mediation and generative grammar.

We have a hint of this domain while we learn that women may show particular forms of consumption of orthodox praying material (see Jeffers Engelhardt’s intervention) and that in Ethiopian Orthodox Christian circles the availability of religious media for women transform their space of work in temporary religious and devotional spaces, without disrupting household gendered division of labour (see Tom Boylston’s chapter). While this material contributes to a burgeoning of research on the role of social media and how they have significant effects on people’s religious experience, we learn, specifically, that mediation not only defines what is magically imaginable, but also allows an imagination of a community with particular divisions of labour.

Moreover, this collection brings to view a reframing of local, national and transnational spaces through the prayer-event, and the nature of the accidental.  In an intervention, itself a lovely fabulation, by Andreas Bandak we are presented with a Syrian story of an indented car, masculinity, marriage and (failed) blessings – all in a space of a few days. We learn that the prayer-event has to be set in a sociality of the accidental. If one of the friends/informants of Bandak would had not dented this newly acquired car – bought in preparation for his wedding to come – a narrative of a later collective pray-singing, in that same car, would have taken a different route. A wide canvas of animated signs is part of the devotional urge for praying, but so it is a capacity for the accidental and the fortuitous in life to make its mark in a religious register.

To conclude, perhaps my main question to this collection is the wider role of the state and post-national formations that make religious spaces new important local and transnational modes of political aggregation (see, for instance, how currently some aspects of Catholic praying are championed in Poland and Hungary against undocumented immigration). Simion Pop’s intervention, while revisiting charismatic Orthodox revivalism in Romania, starts to address this topical domain of inquiry. His work shows that orthodox Christian revivalism has multiple faces and political purchase. If we pay attention to renewed forms of charisma and the ritual labour they express, we can also grasp how orthodox Christianity allows people to try to legitimize other forms of authority, which are normally dominated by clericalism. By doing so people struggle for emancipation from historically given forms of authority, while fabulating new economies of prayers. So how do we understand these ecclesiastic vis-a-vis revivalist authorities as part of state-crafting? And how to grasp, more generally, state-crafting via a focus on the praying-event?  If praying with the senses help us to see the multivocality and interdisciplinarity of a study of religious mediation, we need to further address how this sensing is political.