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

Conference Dispatch: 2013 American Ethnological Society Meetings

2013 American Ethnological Society meetings, April 11-13, Chicago, Illinois.

By: Jessica Hardin (Brandeis University)

Just under 200 papers were presented in Chicago; only seven of which focused on Christianity, 10 on Islam and one on Candomble. This dearth of papers raised a number of questions for me. Mainly: given the conference theme “Anthropologies of Conflict in a New Millennium,” why weren’t more voices exploring the role of religion, religious mediation and spirituality in contemporary conflict? On a pragmatic level this may reflect the fact that the Society for the Anthropology of Religion meetings were being held the same weekend in California. But, it may speak to a limited engagement with how conflict has been treated in the anthropology of Christianity, and may also reflect the particular shape the anthropology of Christianity emerging today has taken thus far.

As I planned a panel for the conference I had to think hard about how my work related to conflict. In Samoa, where I conduct fieldwork, conflict arises from denominational diversity and competing spiritual economies. My panel sought to expand how we engage with conflict at the micro level through the topic of ritual failure. With this in mind, Hillary Kaell (Concordia U) and I organized a panel to explore the role ethnography can play in illuminating the meaning of failure for ritual participants. How do ritual actors navigate conflict as a context and conflict writ small? We also asked, what does the presence and categorization of failure reveal about humans as reflexive social actors who actively engage in social reproduction? The panel explored ritual action from a variety of perspectives, expanding how to think about failure, mistakes, and mishaps.

Casey Golomski (UMASS Boston) explored generational contest over ritual mistakes in a context of demographic change related to the enduring HIV/AID epidemic in the Kingdom of Swaziland. Elders are increasingly concerned about the lack of ritual socialization among youth. While this incompetence is a source of contestation, ritual efficacy is not contested but instead social action is focused on young ritual actors who require intervention. My paper explored multiple interconnected scales of ritual failure and conflict: (1) at the personal level of the practitioners who manage experiences and expectations and (2) at the social level where community boundaries are reified and contested. In the end I argue that ritual failure reveals a micro-level negotiation of denominational diversity in Samoa. Failed rituals do not just hinder social work but permit new forms of social action and formulations of the essence of social problems.

The panel shifted focus with Kristin Bloomer’s (Harvard U) exploration of the question of authenticity and discernment in ritual performances of Marian spirit possession in Tamil Nadu, South India. Bloomer considers the role of the constitution of subjects and communities in the performance and, more specifically, in the adjudication of ritual action. Elizabeth Brummel (U Chicago) explored the “how” of Pentecostal conversion through a linguistic analysis of how her interlocutors transformed a “mundane” narrative of salvation into an ideal narrative in Kenya. Brummel did not engage with failure but instead explored the social work accomplished in producing a narrative of rupture. Kaori Hatsumi (Kalamazoo C) ethnographically engaged with the unfolding ritual space of the Stations of the Cross in a paper titled “Tamil Catholic Easter in Postwar Sri Lanka.” She shows the regenerative processes engendered by the enactment of Easter rites.

Andrew Buckser (Purdue U) offered commentary on the panel, which highlighted the role of perspective. He asked, according to who are rituals deemed failures, inauthentic or mundane? Who controls such narratives and how is blame assigned or punished? What is the place of conflict in such ritual contestations? Shared across the papers is the problem of evaluation: who determines authenticity and success? Who adjudicates? How do participants themselves manage such expectations and evaluations? Buckser pointed to another common thread, the drive to document and fix narratives and the stories that emerge from ritual action.

Two papers that were part of larger organized panels also addressed Christianity. On a panel titled “Responsibility: Cultural Constructions of Agency and Conflict” organized by Ilana Gerhson (Indiana U), Sarah Bakker (UCSC) presented her work with Middle Eastern Christians in the Netherlands. Bakker explores how Syriac Christians are the targets of integration policies by the Dutch multicultural state. She revealed the conflicts and contestations that arise over distinct ideologies about freedom and responsibility, which require Syraic Christians to transform their embodied and social practices into more secular and private forms encouraged by the state.

Lauren Leve (UNC Chapel Hill) presented a paper on the panel “Interrogating the ‘Post-Conflict’: Temporality, Affect, and Social Transformation” organized by Amanda Snellinger (U Oxford) and Sara Shneiderman (Yale U).  Leve’s paper, “Of Conflict and Conversion:  Engaging the Post-Conflict through the Lens of Christianity in Nepal,” explores how rural Christian converts in post-conflict Nepal navigate emergent forms of democracy and citizenship through Christian orientations towards affect and temporality as well as religious practices including prayer.

The 2013 AES meetings was a vibrant conference exploring multiple facets of conflict and contestation in contemporary life. The papers addressing Christianity were rich and demonstrated the importance of incorporating the anthropology of Christianity into broader anthropological conversations about conflict, contestation, and social transformation

Conference Dispatch: 2013 Society for the Anthropology of Religion

2013 Biennial Society for the Anthropology of Religion meetings, April 11-14, Pasadena, California.

By: James S. Bielo (Miami University)

This year, 2013, marks ten years since Religion published a special issue devoted to the anthropology of Christianity. Many in the field point to this print moment as something like a formal debut. Most every review article observes that despite plenty of scattered anthropological research about Christianity, it required an intentional, explicit, and bold call to really coax an anthropology of Christianity into view (e.g., Bialecki, Haynes, and Robbins 2008). One question that animated the 2003 collection, and numerous work that followed, is what comparative questions and theoretical problems might instill some cohesion into the field. A profusion of ethnographic work would be great to see, but certainly it would be more effective if there was some centripetal center of gravity. Listening to papers this past weekend at the Society for the Anthropology of Religion meetings, it seems the question of cohesion is both packed with potential and yet still seeking some gravity. Continue reading