Arrington, “World Christianity and the Ethnographic Imagination”

Arrington, Aminta (2019). “World Christianity and the Ethnographic Imagination.” Journal of World Christianity 9(1), 103-113. 

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.

Macdonald, “‘God Was Here First'”

Macdonald, Fraser. 2018. “‘God Was Here First’: Value, Hierarchy, and Conversion in a Melanesian Christianity.” Ethnos.

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.

Pond-de Wit, Houtman, Exalto, Lieburg, Roeland, and Wisse, “Buildings and Bibles Between Profanation and Sacralization”

Abstract: Based on an ethnographic case study of three recently erected church buildings in the Dutch Bible Belt, this article demonstrates how orthodox Reformed congregations in the Netherlands define church buildings—especially the auditoria—and bibles as simultaneously profane and mediating the sacred. These at first glance ambivalent discourses are informed by a particular semiotic ideology, which maintains that material spaces and objects like these are sacralized if, and only if, individual believers can meaningfully relate them to their personal spiritual experiences. This ideology makes a primary attitude of profanization of material forms indispensable, because any preexistent sacredness of matter would precisely rule out these personal spiritual experiences.

Conference Dispatch: 2018 Preaching as Performance

2018 Preaching as Performance, October 26-28, Calgary, Alberta.

By: Kyle Byron (University of Toronto)

In October of 2018, the Department of Classics and Religion at University of Calgary, in conjunction with the biannual meeting of the Collectif d’Anthropologie et d’Histoire du Spirituel et des Affects, hosted an interdisciplinary conference titled Preaching as Performance. The goal of the conference was “to foster research on the anthropology and history of religious teaching and public communication by providing an occasion for the interdisciplinary and comparative analysis of preaching as a performance event,” focusing specifically on “the way preaching uses theatrical, material, sensory, linguistic, and affective resources to produce religious sentiment, form religious subjects, and transmit doctrinal messages.” The conference’s 28 presenters included anthropologists, historians, religious studies scholars, and dramatists. While the call emphasized that preaching as a form of performance cuts across religious traditions, roughly two-thirds of the conference’s presenters focused on the Christian tradition. Nonetheless, the conference was historically and geographically diverse, with presentations on preaching traditions in Canada, China, France, Guatemala, Hungary, India, Japan, Nigeria, and the United States.  Continue reading

Bjork-James, “Gender and Religion”

Bjork-James, Sophie. “Gender and Religion.” Oxford Bibliographies

Abstract: Gender is central to most religious orders. In turn, religions have a significant impact on gendered relations. The study of gender and religion stems from a broader interest in feminist anthropology, and multiple approaches to the study of gender and religion have been developed. An early approach explores the ways that religious practice influences male and female behavior. Studies in this vein explore changing gender norms attending conversion to new religions, or the ways that women’s and men’s roles are constrained and shaped by religious practice. More-recent work analyzes the ways that gender itself structures religious and spiritual ethics and practice. While patriarchal relations are central to many global religions, this is not a universal principle. Some religious orders emphasize cooperation and respect for women over hierarchy. Others may prioritize male leadership but indirectly provide women with types of ethical identities and spiritual positions that create spaces for women to practice their own agency and forms of power. The ethnographic record also demonstrates that there is often a significant difference between how patriarchal gender relations are prioritized in formal religious spaces and how they are practiced. Gender often shapes the religious meanings of space and materiality. Continue reading

Hardin, “Faith and the Pursuit of Health”

Hardin, Jessica. 2018. Faith and the Pursuit of Health: Cardiometabolic Disorders in Samoa. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. 

Publisher’s DescriptionFaith and the Pursuit of Health explores how Pentecostal Christians manage chronic illness in ways that sheds light on health disparities and social suffering in Samoa, a place where rates of obesity and related cardiometabolic disorders have reached population-wide levels. Pentecostals grapple with how to maintain the health of their congregants in an environment that fosters cardiometabolic disorders. They find ways to manage these forms of sickness and inequality through their churches and the friendships developed within these institutions. Examining how Pentecostal Christianity provides many Samoans with tools to manage day-to-day issues around health and sickness, Jessica Hardin argues for understanding the synergies between how Christianity and biomedicine practice chronicity.

Golomski, “Funeral Culture”

Golomski, Casey. 2018. Funeral Culture: AIDS, Work, and Cultural Change in an African Kingdom. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 

Publisher’s Description: Contemporary forms of living and dying in Swaziland cannot be understood apart from the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, according to anthropologist Casey Golomski. In Africa’s last absolute monarchy, the story of 15 years of global collaboration in treatment and intervention is also one of ordinary people facing the work of caring for the sick and dying and burying the dead. Golomski’s ethnography shows how AIDS posed challenging questions about the value of life, culture, and materiality to drive new forms and practices for funerals. Many of these forms and practices―newly catered funeral feasts, an expanded market for life insurance, and the kingdom’s first crematorium―are now conspicuous across the landscape and culturally disruptive in a highly traditionalist setting. This powerful and original account details how these new matters of death, dying, and funerals have become entrenched in peoples’ everyday lives and become part of a quest to create dignity in the wake of a devastating epidemic.

Tomlinson, “Repetition in the work of a Samoan Christian theologian”

Tomlinson, Matt. “Repetition in the work of a Samoan Christian theologian: Or, what does it mean to speak of the Perfect Pig of God?” History and Anthropology

Abstract: The Samoan Christian theologian Ama’amalele Tofaeono draws on diverse intellectual sources to articulate an ecological theology both distinctively Samoan and self-consciously Oceanic. I examine Tofaeono’s writings through the lens of recent work in linguistic anthropology on repetition and replication. By paying close attention to the ways texts and their original contexts, authorship, and intentions can be brought forward into new contexts, such anthropological work offers a useful perspective on Tofaeono’s theological arguments about creation and salvation. Tofaeono frames creation and salvation as actions that are necessarily ongoing—matters of repetition rather than rupture, a kind of continuity that depends not on fundamental durability but on repeated reengagement. An appreciation of Tofaeono’s articulation of time and repetition can in turn illuminate the anthropological study of social transformation and help develop productive interdisciplinary dialogue between anthropology and theology.

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.

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Feller, “Portable Power, Religious Swag”

Feller, Gavin. “Portable Power, Religious Swag: Mediating Authority in Brazillian Neo-Pentecostalism.” Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief. 14(3). 

Abstract: This study is an ethnographic and conceptual analysis of religious objects, their uses, and mediation of authority within the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Universal Church) in Brazil. Drawing on scholarship within media studies, religion and media, and material religion, I distinguish between artifacts used to cement implicit contracts between Universal Church followers and their church community, which I call contractual media, or swag, and those that followers bring to meetings to be blessed and then take home to mediate both good and evil forces in family, work, and social life—these I call portable media. While portable object media are seen by their owners as powerful tools, contractual media, on the other hand, create implicit power relations that keep followers tied to the institutional church in a reciprocal exchange predicated upon expected prosperity as evidence of faithful attendance, fidelity, and personal sacrifice. The physical exchange of material goods in religious spaces constitutes a perpetuation rather than a disruption of institutional religious authority. As infrastructure, contractual object media establish and maintain conditions for otherwise mundane materials to mediate power on a daily basis. Through attention toward portable and contract object media, as part of what I am calling material microstructure, we can further complicate religious authority as it is mediated through objects, not just in one-way flows but as dynamic exchanges and trade-offs between personal empowerment and institutional control.