Interview with Melissa M. Wilcox

Melissa Wilcox’s recent book, Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody, explores the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an order of queer activists devoted to community-based activism. The Sisters both spoof nuns and argue that they are nuns, adopting an innovative form of engagement that Wilcox dubs “serious parody.”

Participants: Melissa M. Wilcox (University of California, Riverside) and Hillary Kaell (Concordia University)

HK: Tell us a bit about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence: who are they and what was the context for the order’s creation in the late 1970s?

MW: The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are a religiously-unaffiliated, international order of self-described “queer nuns” with houses (non-residential chapters) on four continents around the world today. They were founded rather unintentionally at first, on Easter Saturday of 1979, when three bored gay men put on retired Roman Catholic nuns’ habits left over from an Iowa City drag show and walked through some of the gay areas of San Francisco. They “manifested” a few more times because they thought they’d hit on something powerful and the group gelled around four founding members who were steeped in Catholicism (one had attended seminary from the ninth grade until well into university, and another had been raised Catholic), spirituality (one was a Transcendental Meditation teacher), radical activism (two had been the founders of the University of Iowa chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, and one of those was a former Mennonite who’d cut his activist teeth in high school organizing a Vietnam War protest), and the arts (one was a choreographer and dance therapist, another had a graduate degree in radio and television broadcasting, and one was strongly drawn to the arts despite having no formal training). So between them they had all of the influences that initially shaped the order. Within a few years, public health nurses like AIDS activist Bobbi Campbell, also known as Sister Florence Nightmare, became important influences too. Continue reading

Kalkun, Kupari, and Vuola, “Coping with Loss of Homeland through Orthodox Christian Processions”

Kalkun, Andreas, Kupari, Helena, and Vuola, Elina. 2018. “Coping with Loss of Homeland through Orthodox Christian Processions: Contemporary Practices among Setos, Karelians, and Skolt Sámi in Estonia and Finland.” Practical Matters Journal. 11. 

Abstract: In this article, we focus on the coping, healing, and commemorative aspects of religious rituals, discussing three annual religious feasts that also have significance as expressions of ethnic culture. They are the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God of the PskovoPechersky Monastery, the Saarivaara Chapel temple feast in North Karelia, and the pilgrimage of Saint Tryphon in Finnish Lapland. All take the form of Orthodox Christian processions or pilgrimages and are situated in symbolically significant landscape in the historical home area of minority groups – Setos, (Border) Karelians, and Skolt Sámi. The article relies first and foremost on research material gathered through participant observation in these three religious feasts. We are interested in how the Orthodox religion, through the processions and pilgrimages that are our focus, functions as a coping mechanism for the loss of homeland and other traumas related to changing national borders. The issues of loss and trauma are present in all our case studies. The three religious feasts express hardships related to (forced) migration and minority identity in concrete and visible ways. Our analysis demonstrates that the Orthodox religion continues to function as an important source of ethno-religious identity among Setos, Karelians, and Skolt Sámi. All three feasts take place in symbolically significant locations and help members of these minority groups reconcile the traumatic events of their past with the present-day situation. In all three processions national and ethnic identity is emphasized through concrete means. These include traditional clothes, food, objects, and customs, use of the local language and colloquialisms, non-religious ethnically inspired program, and the presence of respected elders. Through these markers, the groups assign special meanings to the rituals, asserting their identities. Ultimately, these practices are precisely what turn the feasts into manifestations of Seto, Karelian, or Skolt Sámi Orthodoxy.

Hurley, “Understanding Christian Conversion as a Post-Relational Ontological (Re)turn to Relations”

Hurley, Jill L. 2018. “Understanding Christian Conversion as a Post-Relational Ontological (Re)turn to Relations.” OKH Journal: Anthropological Ethnography and Analysis Through the Eyes of Christian Faith. 2(2).

Abstract: Since 1950, when Nepal opened its doors to Christianity, people have been converting in rapid pace.  Anthropologists have theorized for decades that in the process of converting from any religion to Christianity, persons experience a relational rupture. By combining the set theory of Hiebert and post-relational ontological turn theory of Holbraad and Pedersen, I explore how the anthropological approach must change its starting point in order to understand how and why conversion happens.  As we understand the motivations for conversion, we can see that relational rupture does not exist for Christian converts because of the core emphasis on relationality found within Christianity. Through ethnographic research, I was able to effectively show how conversion to Christianity should be considered a post-relational ontological re(turn) to relations.

Interview with Kimberly Jenkins Marshall

In Upward, Not Sunwise: Resonant Rupture in Navajo Neo-Pentecostalism (University of Nebraska Press 2016), Kimberly J. Marshall presents the first book-length study of growing neo-Pentecostalism among Diné (Navajo) people.

Participants: Kimberly J. Marshall (University of Oklahoma) and Hillary Kaell (Concordia University) Continue reading

Handman, “The Language of Evangelism”

Handman, Courtney. 2018. “The Language of Evangelism: Christian Cultures of Circulation Beyond the Missionary Prologue.” Annual Review of Anthropology. 47: 149-65.

Abstract: This article provides an overview of recent scholarship on the language of evangelism and missionization within the anthropology of Christianity. Attention to Christian evangelism and forms of circulation was minimized as scholars worked to distinguish the study of Christianity from the study of colonialism, often treating missionaries and missionization as a prologue to a more central analysis of transformation organized through local people and local cultural change. However, issues of circulation are at the heart of many Christian experiences, especially for those within evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic worlds. This research is discussed here in terms of Christian cultures of circulation specifically and of models of communicative circulation more generally. Framing the language of evangelism in terms of circulation allows for the integrated discussion of a wide range of related issues, including work on translation, missionary training practices, and material formations of evangelism

King, “Specter and Horizon”

King, Rebekka. 2018. “Specter and horizon: Critique in ethnographies of North American Christianity.” Critical Research on Religion. (6)1: 21-27.

Abstract: With reference to two different projects examining North American Christianities, this symposium contribution explores opportunities for critique when conducting fieldwork. Drawing from observations made by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, I suggest that critique is most productive when it uses the perspective and position of one’s interlocutors as its point of departure.

McIvor, “Human Rights and Broken Cisterns”

McIvor, Méadhbh. 2018. “Human Rights and Broken Cisterns: Counterpublic Christianity and Rights-based Discourse in Contemporary England.” Ethnos. 

Abstract: Although human rights are often framed as the result of centuries of Western Christian thought, many English evangelicals are wary of the U.K.’s recent embrace of rights-based law. Yet this wariness does not preclude their use of human rights instruments in the courts. Drawing upon fieldwork with Christian lobbyists and lawyers in London, I argue that evangelical activists instrumentalise rights-based law so as to undermine the universalist claims on which they rest. By constructing themselves as a marginalised counterpublic whose rights are frequently ‘trumped’ by the competing claims of others, they hope to convince their fellow Britons that a society built upon the logic of equal rights cannot hope to deliver the human flourishing it promises. Given the salience of contemporary political conservatism, I call for further ethnographic research into counterpublic movements, and offer my interlocutors’ instrumentalisation of human rights as a critique of the inconsistencies of secular law.

Willis, “It smells like a thousand angels marching”

Willis, Laurie Denyer. 2018. ‘It smells like a thousand angels marching’: The Salvific Sensorium in Rio de Janeiro’s Western Subúrbios. Cultural Anthropology 33(2): 324–348.

Abstract: Based on almost three years of ethnographic research living in Rio de Janeiro’s subúrbios, I consider how the senses comes to matter and how Pentecostalism, margins, smells, and soaps are put to work to construct new kinds of affective space. To do so, I track the way in which a fragrance composed of runoff waste from an international flavor and fragrance company has come to be understood as “pieces of grace,” or divinely given fragments of prosperity. I argue that the forms of racial and spatial governance that enable something like repurposed waste to become pieces of grace form part of a larger story of the sensorium of the subúrbios. In contending with Rio’s racialized urban landscape and how it is sensed and made sense of, I look to what I call the salvific sensorium, a kind of sensed space and territory that exists by engaging the senses with a divine alterity that reconfigures worth and temporality. It is affectively generative, if fleetingly so, and capacious enough to be open to both optimism and its cruelties.

Thornton, “Victims of Illicit Desire”

Thornton, Brendan Jamal. 2018. Victims of Illicit Desire: Pentecostal Men of God and the Specter of Sexual Temptation. Anthropological Quarterly 91(1).

Abstract: For men in the context of urban poverty in the Dominican Republic, Pentecostal conversion may lead to conditions of gender distress: frustration stemming from the challenges of reconciling the conflicting gender ideals of the church with those of the street. Drawing on ethnographic research conducted with members of a Pentecostal community in the town of Villa Altagracia, I discuss how many young men come to experience the initial trials of conversion as tormenting spiritual assaults on their manhood in the form of alluring succubi. At the same time, male converts adopt newly inspired antagonisms with women familiars whom they blame for their illicit desires. Elsewhere I have discussed the strategies Pentecostal men deploy in order to mediate the conflict between barrio masculinity and evangelical Christianity; here I am concerned with illustrating how this conflict is given personal and cultural expression and how the attending experience of gender distress and its symbolic elaboration shapes masculine identity and male subjectivity in the church and local faith communities. By focusing on male converts and their struggles to remain manly, this article contributes to a richer understanding of gender dynamics in Pentecostal churches and offers useful insight into how gender is variously troubled, performed, and remade through conversion and religious practice more broadly.

Dawley, “From Wrestling with Monsters to Wrestling with God”

Dawley, William. 2018. From Wrestling with Monsters to Wrestling with God: Masculinities, ‘Spirituality,’ and the Group-ization of Religious Life in Northern Costa Rica. Anthropological Quarterly 91(1).

Abstract: This piece explores the support group movement’s role in restructuring Latin American religion and contributing to the trans-denominational and trans-secular spread of the “reformation of machismo”—Elizabeth Brusco’s (2010) name for Latin American evangelicalism’s focus on transforming men and masculinity. Using ethnographic data from two years of fieldwork in an urbanizing area of northern Costa Rica and life history interviews with men from three churches and three men’s groups there, this paper argues that a region-wide popular discourse about a “crisis of masculinity/machismo” and a “crisis of the family” has broadened the appeal of efforts to transform men and masculinity—not only among most churches, but especially among a proliferating number of trans-denominational and non-religious men’s groups that are modeled implicitly on all-male Alcoholics Anonymous groups, which are extraordinarily popular throughout Latin America. This essay’s argument borrows from Wuthnow’s analysis of “the restructuring of [North] American religion” under the influence of the support group movement (1988, 1994a, 1994b, 1998), but it also employs an historiographic approach, exploring the origins of this restructuring of Latin American religion in the same “Methodist model” of social organization that has driven evangelical growth throughout the Americas (and men’s conversions especially) during times of social change and male social dislocation (Martin 1990). The conversion histories of two Catholic men are used to illustrate how it is participation in these groups, rather than formal conversion, that transforms many men’s lives, their gender identities, and their relationships with others. Finally, the possible contributions of this research to anthropological studies of religion, ethics, and morality are explored, in particular the role that models of social organization might play in the spread of new ethical practices, discourses, or identity models.