Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heaven: A Review and Response

Carroll, Timothy. 2018. Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heaven. New York and London: Routledge Press.

At the conclusion of this review is a response by the author of Orthodox Christian Material Culture, Dr. Timothy Carroll.

By: Elena Kravchenko

In Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heaven, Timothy Carroll presents a detailed description of how Orthodox Christians who attend and work at St. Æthelwald’s parish in London think about and engage materiality. Relying primarily, though not exclusively, on interview data and participant observation of clergymen, Carroll asserts that Orthodox Christians see themselves as doing things with the help of, through and by, the power of things. In Orthodox material economy, people are not the only agents that do things. Things do things too.

For example, a practitioner who chooses to wear a replica of the belt of the Theotokos believes that through it she gains a connection to the subjectivity, and materiality, of the Mother of God, and because of this belief she expects and allows this material connection – between the Theotokos, the belt, and her own body – to affect a change in her human person to become a proper Orthodox self. This practitioner understands her actions in the world not as solely her own, but as a part of an assemblage consisting of things and bodied people – living and dead, divine and human, saintly and ordinary – which interconnect and affect each other. In short, she believes in the agency of things and acts accordingly: she surrounds herself with things and lets them act upon her. By drawing attention to the embrace of materiality exhibited by the Orthodox faithful in London, Carroll’s book does more than parochialize a Protestant way of thinking about material things and their activity (or rather inactivity) in the world by demonstrating that not all Christianities are cut out of the same cloth. It also challenges the universality of terms in which such concepts as a self, a body, or an agent are commonly understood. Orthodox theology makes it possible to think about a person not as autonomous, but as a part of an assemblage; of bodies not enshelled by skin, but porous and connected to other material things; and of an actor not motivated by her personal will, but rather called to action by the vibrant energy distributed over interconnected beings and things.

As a scholar of Orthodox Christianity, reading this book left me appreciative of its call to pay attention to the specific ways in which Christians may think about and approach materiality. As a scholar of material culture, I was left pondering the methodological approach of this work. Carroll’s interviews, participant observation, and visual evidence (photos, charts, and diagrams) provide the reader with a good view of how Orthodox Christians conceptualize materiality, and what they do with it. But is that enough to unpack howthey come to acquire these commitments materially? By putting Orthodox concepts in conversation with the theoretical approaches to materiality of such scholars as Alfred Gell, Michel Foucault, and Sara Ahmed, among others, Carroll avows to do just that: to theorize and to demonstrate ethnographically the link between the subjective and the material. His theoretical propositions about the interconnectedness of mind and matter, along with a person’s dependability on material environment for self-formation and action, are more than convincing.

In addition to Carroll’s productive conversation about materiality, I would have liked to see him probe more deeply into how his interlocutors felt when interacting with Orthodox materiality in order to make his ethnographic evidence work more effectively with his theoretical postulations. For example, we are told that a practitioner who venerates an icon understands herself to be connected to it and influenced by it. This knowledge is gained by venerating the icon – kissing it, touching it, crossing oneself in front of it, and being affected by it. She stands in front of the icon “affected.” What exactly that affect is, how it gets there, and its relationship to the practitioner’s ability to know that icons are active presences and have transformative powers, is not fully clear. To trace ethnographically howmateriality affects human subjectivity, an anthropologist – in addition to describing what people do, and what they think they do – needs to describe in detail how they feel, and how their feelings develop over time. An additional line of enquiry is required.[1]

A woman that stands in front of an icon may think that this is the right thing for an Orthodox Christian to do, because it feels right. But how exactly does it feel? How does standing in front of the icon compare to doing other tasks? Does the woman feel calmer, quieter, protected, when subjected to the gaze of the saint and that of the other faithful? Has she always felt this way? We are told that the woman treats the icon as another human being. But what does that mean in terms of emotions? What has she prayed for when venerating the icon? Did she pray for a job? A healing? A friend in need? Were her requests granted? Denied? How did that feel? Did she cry? Does the icon remind her of that affect every time she looks at it? Does she treat the icon as a confidant, a friend, and trust it with her every need? Has she always treated the icon this way? When did she first feel like she could? Knowing more about this woman’s daily interactions with the icon – in addition to her traditional acts of veneration – and what feelings, capacities, and desires these interactions helped her to produce, allows us to move towards answering howmateriality affects this woman’s ways of knowing and interacting with things in the world.

When reading this manuscript, I thought about Robert Orsi’s work. In his ethnography of the Catholic Eucharist,[2] he described how women who grew up attending Catholic schools obtained the understanding that the Eucharist has real material presence and is a transformative force. I remember vivid snippets of women talking, laughing, recalling to Orsi and each other the fear, the awe, and even resentment they felt towards the Eucharist, because they were punished when they did not approach the cup respectfully, because they saw nuns dive on the ground to pick up crumbs of communion bread that fell down, because their knees hurt when they kneeled on the floor, their stomachs ached from hunger, and their bodies felt stiff as they sat still in the pews during mass under the watchful, and often reproachful, gaze of the clergy. The abstract proposition learned by these practitioners during school lessons – that the Eucharist was active and had power over people, and had to be treated accordingly – made sense to them because in the sanctuary they felt a physical and emotional transformation in their bodies in relation to it. Even in their old age these Catholic women carried the memories of what they experienced as children, and were able to recall and affirm to each other their feelings and affect during a casual conversation. Including this type of information – interlocutors’ descriptions of how they felt while interacting with Orthodox materiality, emotionally and physically – would have provided more ethnographic support to Carroll’s sophisticated theoretical approach to materiality, which posits material things as essential for human ability to think, know, and act in the world.

This suggestion should in no way be taken as a critique of this important book, but rather a testament to how difficult it is to do an ethnography that evaluates the material power of things. As a form of a playful exercise and a way to move forward, I offer a set of ethnographic questions for consideration in the fieldwork. Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heavenhas captivating chapters that nuancedly discuss how cloth is used by practitioners to reconfigure the profane space into sacred, and a mere human (man) into the likeness of God (priest). In the chapter on priest’s clothing specifically, Carroll gives a meticulous description of the texture and other physical qualities of the fabric used for priest’s clothing, and explains how the priest uses vestments – along with other materials, spoken words, and ritual actions – to change himself into a figure capable of giving others absolution of sins. The reader is presented with the symbolic meaning of each item, gesture, and word, as well as with the theological explanation of the vestments’ transformative power. In the end, we are told, “By dressing in fabric anchors of anaphoric chains, the priest is able to change his subjectivity from a sinner to a righteous priest. …He is dressed in textile symbols, such that he is a visual representation of Christ’s priesthood. Taking onto himself specific items of fabric, each with successive images of Christ’s ministry and person, he has rendered himself an index and icon of Christ” (p. 131).

In this description, the change in priest’s subjectivity is affected through a change in materials for sure, but these materials are treated as meaning-carrying symbols. While Carroll insists that the priest uses the fabric to do more than re-signify himself, what that process looks like remains under-examined. How can we, then, move beyond the symbolic of the fabric, and into discovering what fabric does materially? Can the ethnographer ask questions about the weight, the smell, the warmth of the fabric and how these affect the priest’s body? Does the priest’s body feel different when he puts each layer on? How? The chapter mentions in passing that priests often note that it feels very taxing to hear confession. This is a wonderful point of departure to ask: what is taxing about it? The need to stand motionless for a long time, with the pressure of vestments over one’s tired body? The need to emotionally relate to people who cry, supplicate, and share their life stories, while covered by the epitrachelion(part of the priest’s vestments, that looks something like a long apron) during the rite? Does the donning of the garment trigger memories of previous liturgies served, confessions heard, and blessings bestowed on the faithful? When the priest uses fabric to become like Christ, is he able to cultivate and feel in his own body Christ’s compassion, love, sadness for the fallen world? Does the fabric help the priest feel, remember, move differently? How does that change over time? Asking practitioners about how things work with their sensory and emotive perceptions gets us closer to understanding the process through which a practitioner can recognize himself not a man, but an “index and icon of Christ” – different materially and therefore symbolically.

In the end,Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heavenis a substantial contribution to the academic fields of Orthodox Christianity, Anthropology of Christianity, and Material Culture. It not only demonstrates that adherents of diverse Christian traditions think about things differently, but also, in ways the scholars of Orthodoxy will recognize, challenges such taken-for-granted concepts as a thing, body, selfhood, and agency. Because of the nuanced and complex theory about materiality that this book sets forth, it would be more appropriate for adaptation in graduate, rather than undergraduate courses. When read by a scholar or used in the classroom by an instructor, this book is bound to generate much productive thought and discussion not only about Orthodox Christian material culture, but also more broadly about material culture as a theory and method in the study of religion.

[1]A good example of an anthropological study that utilizes these three lines of questioning productively – in order to explore the process through which Orthodox Christians become comfortable with and shape their understanding of materiality, with the help of, through, and by the power of things – and achieves a flawless symbiosis between theory and ethnographic evidence is Daniel Winchester’s dissertation, Assembling the Orthodox Soul: Practices of Religious Self-Formation among Converts to Eastern Orthodoxy(University of Minnesota, 2013).

[2]Orsi, Robert. “Chapter Three: Material Children: Making God’s Presence Real for Catholic Boys and Girls and for the Adults in Relation to Them” in Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Response by: Timothy Carroll

I’d like to thank Elena Kravchenko for her comments and reflection, and also AnthroCyBib for hosting this chance to have a brief conversation about my book. Elena offers an interesting perspective on this book and raises questions about the important aspect that emotion plays in religion. Thinking about Of People and Things, Elena is correct, I do not go into emotions much – in fact the word is hardly used in the text, though there is some discussion of the ‘freeing’ feeling of confession or parishioners’ affective sense of space. I suspect that this is for two important reasons. First, my fieldwork was conducted amongst groups of people who (stereotypically and accurately) are known to be somewhat stoic. English (even multi-ethnic metropolitan London) society is not profuse with emotion. Similarly, the monastic context of Vatopedi is not marked by emotional display. Secondly, in my experience of various kinds of Christianity, Orthodox tend to be less emotive. Two anecdotes from research: The first, in one instance when I asked a parishioner in London a question about emotion and feeling, my question was brushed to the side, and they told me that ‘emotionalism and sentimentality is what the Protestants do’. The second, one morning the monk I worked alongside in Vatopedi told me we’d be closing the tailor shop early that day. He was literally dancing with effusive joy. I asked him about his happiness, he sang, ‘The bishop! The bishop!’ – the cause for joy was assumed self-evident, a bishop’s retinue (three in fact) was arriving late morning in advance of the Great Festival. So, I do not deny the role of emotion, and I do note emotion as part of the display for some pilgrims and parishioners. It would be interesting, however, to see what an ethnography of emotion would look like in an Orthodox British context. It is a register that was not actively used by any of my interlocutors, except in the context of differentiation: against the Anglicans and their overly sentimental imagery, against Protestants and their emotionalism, against Catholics and the ‘Franco-Latin kitsch’. In my currently research (on death), I have in fact had priests tell me they wish their British congregations would show more emotion and cry more openly, as is common in the Orthodox Mediterranean. However, while this would be a useful avenue of enquiry to follow, I’m not convinced it would accomplish what Elena proposes it would. To suggest that having descriptions of/about feelings would help position how material things work in the human experience places a very strong (I think all too central) role on emotions. While affect is important within my theoretical approach (and thus I draw heavily on Gregg and Seigworth’s[1] idea of affective spaces), I think that much of this affect is prediscursive and prehermeneutic and thus is not (in the actual fact) and cannot (in our analysis) be abstracted to articulate statements about emotion and feeling.

I would also like to clarify a couple points – one particularly important, and one more trivial. Elena summarises my argument, saying that my interlocutor ‘believes in the agency of things’. I must insist that this is not the case. It is, in my understanding of Orthodoxy, borderline heresy to say that Orthodox believe in the agency of things. They acknowledge the capacity of Christ and the saints to work in and through the material world, and – to quote a contemporary Orthodox theologian – while the ‘non-believer is incapable of seeing the spiritual reality behind the phenomena of the visible world, which is present and co-exists with the material world’ the believer ‘sees the hand of God in everything’[2]. I think scholars of religion need to be careful about the possible bleed of analytical models (like Gell’s agency) into our understanding of ethnographic contexts. As such, in Of People and Things, I try to be sure to use terms like ‘agency’ in ethnographic contexts only if referring to Christ or a saint who is acting within the social milieu – and while that action may be done in and through material things, it is important to clarify that the Orthodox do not see the things to be the agents, but rather the grace of God and the saints. This is, in large, the point of the theoretical insight about anaphoric chains advanced within the book: it offers a way to understand how the subjectivity of the divine operates in the objectivity of the thing.

The second, more trivial point, is simply the ethnographic locus of the book. Elena suggests that the work relies ‘primarily, though not exclusively, on interview data and participant observation of clergymen’. While there is one extended case study that is drawn on participant observation with clergymen (the priestly vestments), the dominant portion of ethnographic research is based within parishioners in London and a lay monks and pilgrims in Mt Athos. In these contexts, clergymen are around, but not the primary focus of interest. I think this is worth bringing up as this book is not an ethnography of the religious elite, which might be implied if the research had, in fact, been done primarily through interviews and observation of clergy.

[1]Gregg, Melissa and Gregory Seigworth (2010). The Affect Theory Reader. Duke University Press.

[2]Alfeyev, Metr. Hilarion. 2011. ‘Unbelief is Spiritual Blindness’. Homily given 30/01/2011 in Moscow. Published by the ROC: Dept. for External Church Relations.

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.

Continue reading

A Diagram for Fire: Book Review & Author Response

Bialecki, Jon. 2017. A Diagram for Fire: Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

By: Timothy Carroll (University College, London)

In A Diagram for Fire, Jon Bialecki draws upon his ethnographic field research amongst Vineyard churches – principally in Southern California – to lay the groundwork for ‘a kind of commonality’ (p. xviii) not only to Vineyard religiosity, and wider evangelical charismatic and Pentecostal movements, but even (in the conclusion) Christianity and religion more broadly. Most of the pages, however, focus on specific case studies of miracle accounts, small group discussions on hearing from God, prayer circles and other examples of charismatic religiosity in order to advance, explicate, and problematize Bialecki’s concept of ‘the diagram for fire’. It is a long review, longer than most on this blog. For those not interested in a long review, I offer an abbreviated synopsis:

tl;dr: It is a rich, insightful, and at times dense and highly nuanced anthropological argument about the event moment, and how this moment is situated and becomes recognised as a miracle. Probably best for advanced UG or research students as well as professionals interested in charismatic Christianity or a more structuralist/frameworks approach (as opposed to an epistemological or concepts approach) to ontology. If you’ve only time for one chapter, read Chapter 3.

If you’ve read Diagram, skip the outline, and go straight to the Discussion, below. The Outline offers a summary of the chapters, and provides a context for the discussion at the end. Continue reading

Moving by the Spirit: Pentecostal Social Life on the Zambian Copperbelt: Book Review

Haynes, Naomi. 2016. Moving by the Spirit: Pentecostal Social Life on the Zambian Copperbelt. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Reviewed by: Casey Golomski (University of New Hampshire)

The key values Haynes describes in her innovative book about Pentecostals in a Zambian town are “moving” (ukusela in Bemba) and “moving by the spirit.” Moving means to be visibly, recognizably improving one’s lot, and it can be materialized or realized in growing up, having children, gaining weight, getting an education, or advancing professionally. Things move in a positive sense, and stagnate or regress in a negative sense. “Moving by the spirit” is the newer, Pentecostalized version of ukusela, with the religion offering new evaluative metrics and modalities of relating to others in the Copperbelt. Haynes’s use of vernacular concepts to illuminate anthropological theory was one of my favorite things about the book overall. I can easily envision, when teaching this book, writing the different concepts of “moving” and “moving by the spirit” on the board to illustrate Bantu (Bemba) grammatical structures and show students how local values are religiously reframed. Continue reading

On Knowing Humanity: Book Review

Meneses, Eloise and David Bronkema, eds. 2017. On Knowing Humanity: Insights from Theology for Anthropology. London and New York: Routledge.

Reviewed By: Leanne Williams Green (University of California, San Diego)

On Knowing Humanity: Insights from Theology for Anthropology contributes to several current projects and proposals in which the disciplines of anthropology and theology engage one another. Several of these endeavors aim to make each discipline speak to the other in particularly foundational ways (see Lemons et al. forthcoming, or Banner 2013 for an approach from moral theology). These emerging projects are situated where the significant growth in anthropological studies of Christianities has opened up space not only to make Christianity in its diverse and global manifestations a focus of anthropological interest, but also to account for the intellectual heritage of anthropology itself and its association with Christian visions of humans and of the world. In his elegant tracing of the faith commitments of several early anthropologists, Timothy Larsen (2014) has pointed out the ways this kind of engagement has already been evident historically in the work of individual scholars. In the examples he describes, the interaction between theology and the subject matter of these anthropologists is categorical, going beyond merely a faith stance from which each operates as ethnographer and analyst. While other singular efforts like those of John Milbank (1990) sought to take theology as social theory, a larger shared project did not emerge within anthropology. Continue reading

Living Salvation in the East African Revival in Uganda: Book Review

Bruner, Jason. 2017. Living Salvation in the East African Revival in Uganda. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Reviewed by: Emma Wild-Wood (University of Edinburgh)

Since its beginnings in the 1930s the East African Revival has had a lasting influence on the religious culture of the region. It began in Uganda and Rwanda as a lively, internal critique to the orderly and hierarchical Anglican Church of Uganda and spread into Kenya, Tanzania, Congo and Burundi. Revivalists sought to transform all aspects of society in conformity with their strict code of conduct and their expansive vision of Christianity. With this volume Jason Bruner makes a significant contribution to the study of the Revival. He takes the movement beyond the parameters of mission history, and beyond an interest in its leadership figures. He shows that the distinct spiritual culture of revivalists was a response to the late colonial social context. Continue reading

Christianity, Wealth, and Spiritual Power: Book Review

Lauterbach, Karen.  2017.  Christianity, Wealth, and Spiritual Power in Ghana.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

By: Girish Daswani (University of Toronto)

In an important thesis published in 1998, Birgit Meyer showed how making a ‘complete break with the past’ had become a central concern for Ghanaian Pentecostals. Five years later, Joel Robbins’ (2003) piece on the problem of “continuity thinking” (an anthropological bias toward emphasizing cultural continuity) called for “an anthropology of discontinuity”, that further engaged with a self-conscious anthropology of Christianity (see Bialecki et al 2008:138). Since then, the literature on discontinuity and rupture, which takes seriously Christian ideology and Christian attempts to bring about change, has shaped many debates (Meyer 2004; Engelke 2004; Robbins 2007). It has also impacted on how, when I came back from my doctoral fieldwork in 2004, I related to my ethnographic material. While I purposefully moved at the time beyond the public rhetoric of rupture to, instead, reflect on how different groups of Ghanaian Pentecostal believers selectively drew from and struggled with the discourse of discontinuity (Daswani 2007; see also Engelke 2010), the underlying question of what Ghanaian culture brought to Pentecostalism eventually fell – at least for a while – out of focus (Daswani 2015).

Continue reading

Pastures of Plenty: Book Review

Heuser, Andreas, ed. 2015. Pastures of Plenty: Tracing Religio-Scapes of Prosperity Gospel in Africa and Beyond. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

By: Hans Olsson (Lund University)

This multidisciplinary volume adds to a growing body of scholarly work focusing on the highly debated topic of Pentecostal-Charismatic prosperity teachings (a.k.a., the faith gospel or health and wealth gospel). The book has a broad scope (21 contributions plus an Introduction) which enables the exemplification and comparison of the many different contemporary strands of prosperity teachings. Divided into six subsections, Pastures of Plenty deals with prosperity teachings in relation to (i) political and social contexts (Tetzlaff, Köhrsen, Maltese); (ii) its theological foundations and place in current ecumenical debates (Gifford, Kahl, von Sinner, Biehl); (iii) its significance and influence in current public debates across religious denominations and traditions (Heuser, Zakaria, Langenwiesche, Nrenzah, Opare Kwakye, Hasu); (iv) its relation to the Protestant work ethic and entrepreneurship (Sundnes Drønen, Daniels, Zapf); (v) exchange and gift economies (Droz & Gez, Lindhardt); and (vi) migratory contexts (Fröchtling, Rey, Frei). While the majority of the contributions are case studies drawn from African contexts such as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso, there are also some cases from other parts of the world such as the Philippines (Maltese), Brazil (von Sinner), Switzerland (Frei), and the US (Daniels). The anthology’s thorough collection of research offers deep insights into contextual differences but also provides a multifaceted and multidisciplinary analysis of the phenomenon of the prosperity gospel at large. Continue reading

Negotiating Marian Apparitions: Book Review

Halemba, Agnieszka. 2015. Negotiating Marian Apparitions: The Politics of Religion in Transcarpathian Ukraine. Budapest: Central European University Press.

By: Sonja Luehrmann (Simon Fraser University)

Catholic believers have been seeing the Virgin Mary appear for centuries, especially at times of crisis and social and ecclesiastical upheaval. In her book, Agnieszka Halemba argues that what is remarkable about these visions is not that they occur, but how some of them are embraced by a Church organization while others are not. Her ethnographic study deals with apparitions of Mary to two girls in Dzhublyk in Transcarpathian Ukraine that began in 2002. As with many apparitions, the official investigation about these has not yet been concluded, but local Greek Catholic communities have embraced the site and made it into a pilgrimage destination. Rather than focusing on the visionaries or pilgrims, Halemba looks at the organizational agents and processes in relation to which the apparitions gain lasting meaning and renown. In so doing, she creates a fascinating institutional ethnography of the Greek Catholic Church and its place in wider Christendom. Continue reading

Choosing the Jesus Way: Book Review with Author Response

Tarango, Angela.  2015.  Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

By: Aminta Arrington (John Brown University)

In the 1880s, two missions administrators, one on each side of the Atlantic Ocean, simultaneously, yet independently, developed the indigenous principle (also called the three-self principle): that the goal of missions should be to create self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating churches, thus allowing the phasing out of the mission (Neill, 1990). The indigenous principle was designed to cure some common missionary maladies of the time: overzealous control, dependency, lack of local leadership, and overreliance on western funds.

Angela Tarango has chosen this missiological concept—the indigenous principle—and used it as the narrative thread for Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle, examining how the indigenous principle was put into practice in Assembly of God (AG) missions among American Indians. She follows the indigenous principle through the archives, teasing out its (uneven, and at times halfhearted) implementation and the resulting effects. Ultimately, she argues that despite its official status, AG mission leaders dragged their feet in applying the indigenous principle. In contrast, American Indian leaders within the AG claimed the indigenous principle and used it to develop their own identity, push for greater power, and negotiate their own autonomy. Thus in practice, the indigenous principle meant not that rights to local leadership, rights to national recognition, or rights to Native Bible colleges, were given to new Native American believers, but that the new believers took hold of these rights and claimed them as their own. The indigenous principle became less a strategy of bestowing rights on the part of the missionaries, and more a theology of resistance on the part of the Native American Christians.

The indigenous principle has long held sway as a theoretical handle in the history of missions. John Nevius, a missionary to China, expounded upon these ideas, and the Nevius plan was used in the evangelization of the Korean peninsula in the late 19th and early 20th century. Later, Roland Allen (1927), in The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, (a follow up to his earlier work Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?) showed that failure to adhere to the indigenous principle in China missions had produced a handicapped church incapable of influencing its own society.

But the crucial missiologist for Tarango was Melvin Hodges, AG missionary to Nicaragua. Hodges read both of Allen’s books and adapted them for Pentecostalism. As expected of a Pentecostal missionary, Hodges emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit in the implementation of the indigenous principle. Not only did Hodges attempted to practice the indigenous principle in Nicaragua, he wrote several influential books about the indigenous principle (including The Indigenous Church (1953) and The Indigenous Church and the Missionary (1978)). Important for Tarango’s narrative is that Hodges taught the indigenous principle in the missionary training center in Springfield, Missouri in the 1950s, where one of his students was Charlie Lee, American Indian convert and evangelist.

It is in her narrative of Charlie Lee that Tarango’s book achieves its greatest brilliance. After graduating from the Central Bible Institute in Springfield, Lee returned to the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, where he worked as an evangelist for the next several decades. With Hodges’ ideas in mind, during these years Lee encouraged tithing by the mission church, trained Indians as Sunday School teachers and church administrators, and as pastors and evangelists, until every available leadership position was filled with an Indian. In 1973, the members of the Mesa View Assembly of God formed a board of directors, and drafted a constitution and bylaws. Charlie Lee resigned his missionary appointment with the AG, and accepted the new title of church pastor, with his salary paid not by AG Home Missions, but by his church. Within a few years, Mesa View Assembly of God was supporting Pentecostal evangelism in other Indian areas. Tarango emphasizes that Lee embraced the indigenous principle not primarily because it was the best missionary method; he embraced the indigenous principle because it was best for Indians.

In the same chapter, Tarango presents another fascinating personal narrative, this one, about white missionary Alta Washburn’s successful effort to start an All Tribes Bible School. Alta Washburn, though the recipient of scant education herself, intuitively grasped the principle that if the Indians were to lead their own churches, evangelize their own people, and realize the indigenous principle, they were going to need education. Tarango effectively uses Washburn’s story to demonstrate the AG’s reluctance in fully realizing the indigenous principle. When Washburn brought her vision to her missionary district’s leaders, they narrowed the scope from training Indian church leaders to training Indians merely as helpers to the white missionaries, such as Sunday school teachers and deacons.

This narrative underlines that indigenous principles cannot be fully emplaced without indigenous schools. As Tarango states, “without educated indigenous leadership, there would be no indigenous church” (p. 137). The Bible school Alta Washburn started in 1957 has been renamed the American Indian College, now located in Phoenix, Arizona. Its homepage states its purpose as “Equipping students for Christian Service within a Native American collegiate community.”

This book is not an ethnographic study, but rather a historical study based on archival research. Teasing out theory and theology from archival sources is a difficult task, made more complex by Tarango’s stance toward her primary sources. According to Tarango, the primary sources upon which she relied, mostly issues of the Pentecostal Evangel periodical as well as archival materials, are “scanty and biased” (p. 9), requiring her to read “between the lines” (p. 16) to tease out the truth. Though one recognizes the difficulty of writing a Native American story that relies primarily on white sources, as well as Tarango’s own priority of privileging the voices of the American Indian Pentecostals themselves, such acknowledged distrust of her own sources leads to an uneasy dance between writer and reader. This unmooring from primary sources means Tarango leaves herself great latitude in interpretation: she is free to read for material that supports her thesis, and toss out what she feels is biased reporting.

This methodological uneasiness might not be so noticeable, except that at times, Tarango’s account begins to feel one-dimensional with the Native Christians always heroically upholding the indigenous principle in the face of white opposition, the white women unfailing in their support of Native agency, and the white men continuously prey to paternalism and ethnocentrism. Tarango seems at times to have little faith in her readers, repeatedly telling them that this practice reflected ethnocentrism, and that one, paternalism. These two abstract terms—paternalism and ethnocentrism—are so overused, particularly in chapter three, that Tarango’s argument is weakened by their ubiquity. Even when whites took actions that seemed to support indigenous principles, such as suggest Indian evangelists wear their native garb, organize all-Indian camp meetings, or propose a national position to be filled by an Indian, Tarango discounts their efforts as tainted with ethnocentrism and halfway at best. In this account, Native Americans are always the saints; white men are invariably the sinners. One begins to ask if it really is all that simple, if there is not nuance and complexity and messiness. This tension raises again the question of how to privilege subaltern, minority, or diverse voices, without readers feeling as though new bias has been introduced.

Regardless of this ribbon of tension which runs through the book, Tarango still demonstrates that in regards to indigenous principle, theory and practice were two very different things. Moreover, in her focus on the indigenous principle, she present the Native American converts as active mediators of their own conversion.

Response from Angela Tarango (Trinity University)

Only as I made my way though researching my book on Native American Pentecostals, Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indians and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle (UNC Press 2014), did I fully realize the enormity of the lack of sources. As Pentecostalism is a more oral and spontaneous form of Christianity the “paper trail” that historians usually rely on is thin. Early Pentecostals didn’t tend to write down and save their sermons; those were extemporaneous. They did not agonize over whether they were saved or not like 18th century Puritans did in their diaries; instead they knew exactly when they were born-again and baptized in the Holy Ghost. Finally, the most common Pentecostal document, the conversion narrative, is “relentlessly stylized” (Wacker, 58) as the great historian of Pentecostalism Grant Wacker reminds his readers. In other words the texts that they left behind are filtered and understood through the Pentecostal framework, and must be acknowledged as such.

Since Native Pentecostals and white Pentecostals who served as missionaries to Native peoples did not leave behind extensive written records, I reconstructed their history by first using the Pentecostal Evangel (PE) to figure out important dates and names, as well as locations of mission stations. Yet it is crucially important to note that the PE is inherently biased. This is true of any denominational newspaper—the bias is to present their particular religion in a positive light. You don’t find “de-conversion” narratives in the PE even though inevitably, some people lost faith or left the religion. The pages of the PE are also deeply racist, especially in the first half of the twentieth century. Native people are often portrayed as “savage,” and problematic depictions of other racial minorities abound, especially of African-Americans.

Arrington states in her review that the source issues create vexing questions but that “such acknowledged distrust of her own sources leads to an uneasy dance between reader and writer. This unmooring from primary sources means Tarango leaves herself great latitude in interpretation: she is free to read for material that supports her thesis, and toss out what she feels is biased reporting (Arrington.)” Acknowledging that there is a source problem does not give a historian license to simply “toss out” what one feels is biased—instead a historian’s job is to read the biased material carefully and acknowledge the bias, which I did. To this point, Wacker is careful to point out that those who created early Pentecostal literature, especially periodicals and conversion narratives, did not “fabricate” or “deliberately distort” their writing, but “that autobiography involves an artful arrangement of the narrative to make things right. The present task is to accept that reality and try to correct for it (Wacker 59.)” As a scholar who was trained by Wacker himself, I understood my goal to be the same as his.

The fact is that the Assemblies of God (AG) was deeply racist in the early period of missions to Native peoples. White missionaries and white institutions were a product of their times, and any good historian has to acknowledge that. My acknowledging of this, or showing white missionaries to be problematic in the field does not mean that “Native Americans are always the saints; white men are invariably the sinners (Arrington).” In fact if anything, the thinness and bias of the sources means I was unable to find much where Native Pentecostals may have shown themselves to be “sinners”—which in and of itself is problematic and again points to the difficulty of trying to find the voices of Native Pentecostals through sources that are controlled by whites. Clearly white Pentecostals wanted “success” stories to be disseminated about their converts. This, of course, precluded any stories of Native backsliding or even of Native infighting within the AG.

As a scholar of Native American religious history I am well aware that the missionary histories of the past are weighted towards the hagiographic, and excluded the voices of Native converts. White Pentecostals also acknowledge this truth—many who I met during my research privately expressed dismay at how Native American Pentecostals have been treated by the AG. Allan Anderson was one Pentecostal scholar who was blunt with me about it. During a session at the Society of Pentecostal Studies his voice boomed out: “I read the book on my overnight flight. I liked it. But I think you were far too gentle with the Assemblies regarding how they treated Native peoples.” His comment has weighed on me since he said it. Should I have been more forceful in explaining the deep racist structures within Pentecostalism? I wanted the focus to be on the Native Pentecostals themselves—not the incessant racism that they faced, which would have made the book more about the structures of the AG than about indigenous forms of Pentecostalism. In the end the history of indigenous Christianities remains incomplete and scholars are often forced to work with what little they can find. Understanding those sources to be problematic isn’t a bias and it does not mean that we have “little faith in [our] readers.” It is simply being a good historian.

References Cited (Both Authors):

Allen, Roland. 1912. Missionary methods: St. Paul’s or ours? London, United Kingdom: R. Scott.

Allen, Roland. 1997 [1927]. The spontaneous expansion of the church. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.

Neill, Stephen. 1990. A history of Christian missions. New York, NY: Penguin.

Tarango, Angela. 2015. Choosing the Jesus way: American Indian Pentecostals and the fight for the indigenous principle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Hodges, Melvin. 1953. The Indigenous Church. Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House.

Hodges, Melvin. 1978. The Indigenous Church and the Missionary. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

Wacker, Grant.  2001.  Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.