Sensational Movies: Book Review

Meyer, Birgit. 2015. Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

By John Durham Peters and Gavin Feller (University of Iowa)

One of the most exciting things about the anthropology of Christianity is the way it uses the minutiae of practices in out of the way cultures to cast light on ancient and deep philosophical and religious questions. To think about will and personhood, one can turn equally to St. Augustine and to Joel Robbins’ Urapmin. To think about translation and denominational schism, one can turn equally to Martin Luther and to Courtney Handman’s Guhu-Samane Christians. (Like the Urapmin, they live in New Guinea.) The anthropology of Christianity likes to coax theologizing from its armchair and show it at work in the wild, in the field, in vernacular forms.

Birgit Meyer’s Sensational Movies is a worthy contribution in this project. Amassing and integrating over two decades of her research, the book shows, as we will see, how richly the film culture of south Ghana treats the theological problem of necessary but productive evil and the theoretical problem of the ontology of the photographic or cinematic image. The producers, actors, and audiences she has worked with over the years may not be trained religious thinkers or media theorists, but their constant meditations about the occult, about the nature of acting, the power of the image, and the willing suspension of disbelief show them to have rich ideas about how media can form entities in this world and the world beyond. The resulting book is a major contribution to the interdisciplinary sweet spot where religion, media, and cultural anthropology converge. Continue reading

Meyer, “Sensational Movies”

Meyer, Birgit. 2015. Sensational movies: video, vision, and Christianity in Ghana. Oakland, California : University of California Press.

Publisher’s Description: Tracing the rise and development of the Ghanaian video film industry between 1985 and 2010, Sensational Movies examines video movies as seismographic devices recording a culture and society in turmoil. This book captures the dynamic process of popular filmmaking in Ghana as a new medium for the imagination and tracks the interlacing of the medium’s technological, economic, social, cultural, and religious aspects. Stepping into the void left by the defunct state film industry, video movies negotiate the imaginaries deployed by state cinema on the one hand and Christianity on the other.
Birgit Meyer analyzes Ghanaian video as a powerful, sensational form. Colliding with the state film industry’s representations of culture, these movies are indebted to religious notions of divination and revelation. Exploring the format of “film as revelation,” Meyer unpacks the affinity between cinematic and popular Christian modes of looking and showcases the transgressive potential haunting figurations of the occult. In this brilliant study, Meyer offers a deep, conceptually innovative analysis of the role of visual culture within the politics and aesthetics of religious world making.

Webb, “Palang Conformity and Fulset Freedom: Encountering Pentecostalism’s ‘Sensational’ Liturgical Forms in the Postmissionary Church in Lae, Papua New Guinea”

Webb, Michael. 2011. “Palang Conformity and Fulset Freedom: Encountering Pentecostalism’s ‘Sensational’ Liturgical Forms in the Postmissionary Church in Lae, Papua New Guinea.” Ethnomusicology 55(3):445-472.

Excerpt: In this article I take up Meyer’s recent call to scholars of Christianity: “global Christianity requires attention to aesthetics, understood in the broad sense” (2010:759). I concentrate on the shift in Lutheran worship music practices apparent in congregations in the vicinity of Lae, toward what might be considered a Melanesian Pentecostal or “sanctified” aesthetic (see Scandrett-Leatherman 2008; Yong 2010:175–81, 205–10). Meyer’s (2010) notion of “sensational forms” informs my approach. These are Pentecostal worship practices that are both ap- pealing to the senses and spectacular, and through which participants “sense the presence of the Holy Spirit with and in their bodies” (Meyer 2010:742; emphases in original). Sensational forms, Meyer explains, are “an excellent point of entry into processes of religious transformation” (ibid.:751). More specifically, I con- tribute to the ethnomusicological study of global Christianities by examining the local formation and social and cultural persuasiveness of one of Pentecostalism’s key sensational forms, its liturgy of “praise and worship” (Meyer 2010:751).

Following a description of the field setting and research scope, and a discussion of terminology, I provide a historical sketch of the musical activities and processes that have contributed to the formation of this Lutheran social imaginary in Morobe Province, this local dawning in Papua New Guinea of a new, Lutheran, Christian understanding of the world. Fast-forwarding, I report the emergence of new forms of local Christian musical expression around the time of national political independence in the mid 1970s, produced both in the context of the then-nascent popular music industry in Papua New Guinea, and as a result of encounters around the country with Pentecostal Christianity. Papua New Guineans were certainly attracted by Pentecostalism’s “enchanted theology of creation and culture” (Smith 2010a:39–41) and saw a vision of a new Christian imaginary in Charismatic revivalism and its musical liturgies.

Against this background, drawing on my recent fieldwork among Lutheran and Pentecostal congregations in and near Lae, I consider how, in Morobe Province, new Pentecostal praise and worship music might be understood as “a performative religious critique” (Smith 2010b:688). The gravitation toward Pentecostalized liturgies, I suggest, indicates—among other things—an increaseing dissatisfaction with the kind of temporality aesthetics that have come to govern the Lutheran imaginary, particularly as encoded within its hymnody. I frame the shift in worldview that has been underway from the mission era to the postmissionary church in terms of the transition, desired and/or actual, from acoustic guitar-accompanied to electric band-accompanied liturgy.5 For reasons including its ability to carve out a sonic space, bodily enliven worship, and create worship flow, many Lutheran congregations are, not without resistance from various directions, embracing amplified rock-based church music as the preferred musico-liturgical mode. The acoustic guitar, now pejoratively referred to as palang (Tok Pisin,6 plank or board), is being superseded by electric band worship known as fulset (PNG English,7 full set—of rock band instruments). The contrast in languages as “vessels of meaning” here is noteworthy, with Tok Pisin a local-national language and (localized) English a national/global language. Through interviews with church administrators, leaders, and musicians; discussion of repertoires; and analysis of exemplary praise and worship songs in liturgical performance, as well as field observations, I probe ways in which a new “ecumenical” imaginary is being formed.

Meyer, “Religious and Secular”

Meyer, Birgit. 2012. Religious and Secular, “Spiritual and “Physical” in Ghana. In What Matters? Ethnographies of Value in a Not So Secular Age, edited by Courtney Bender and Ann Taves, 86-118. Columbia: Columbia University Press.