Faith in Flux: Book Review

Premawardhana, Devaka. 2018. Faith in Flux: Pentecostalism and Mobility in Rural Mozambique. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 

Reviewed by: Michael Lambek (University of Toronto Scarborough)

Faith in Flux combines limpid ethnography with a sustained and lively argument that is at once both about the Makhuwa, people who live in the interior of northern Mozambique, and about, or rather, against, certain assumptions associated with the anthropology of Christianity as espoused by Joel Robbins and his disciples. Despite the original and insightful anthropological work on Christianity by Fenella Cannell, Webb Keane, and others that stands outside this paradigm, it has become, says Premawardhana repeatedly, the dominant paradigm. It proposes an anthropology “of Christianity” rather than an anthropology of worlds that people who happen to be Christian inhabit and cohabit with others who are either not Christian or not the same kind of Christian, worlds that encompass more than can be encompassed under the label “Christianity.” Hence the anthropology of Christianity paradigm begins by reifying its object of study. By contrast, a phenomenological approach, as Premawardhana takes it up, renders Pentecostalism [or Christianity, religion, etc.] “less autonomous, distinctive, and determinative than it tends to appear in studies predefined as studies of Pentecostalism [Christianity, religion, etc.]” (p. 156).

Inevitably, Premawardhana overgeneralizes from the Makhuwa case, but along the way he makes a number of significant points. Rather than conducting a chapter by chapter synopsis as many of the reviews on this site do, I’ll begin with some of his reflections on religion, Christianity, Pentecostalism and the anthropology of those fields and then turn to a few words on the Makhuwa. Where Robbins (in Premawardhana’s depiction) argues that Christianity is premised on rupture, Premawardhana offers a more nuanced account in which, first, such rupture is not an inevitable feature or accompaniment of Christianity, and second, in which when looked at over a broader frame of time, each ostensible rupture is one of a sequence, followed by returns. Rupture, in other words, is temporally and experientially relative. Furthermore, the appreciation of change or rupture is not unique to modernity or to conversion to Christianity but may well have been an accepted feature of life in many precolonial and pre-missionized societies. Continue reading

Kravchenko, Black Orthodox “Visual Piety”: People, Saints, and Icons in Pursuit of Reconciliation

Kravchenko, Elena. 2020. “Black Orthodox ‘Visual Piety’: People, Saints, Icons in Pursuit of Reconciliation.” Journal of Africana Religions 8(1): 84-121.   

Abstract: African Americans regularly join Eastern Orthodox churches in the United States. By focusing on what practitioners do with Orthodox icons, this case study explores the processes through which specific experiences and expressions of being an Orthodox Christian become possible and meaningful for African American practitioners. This article suggests that saint veneration became a compelling Orthodox practice to practitioners because it provided a unique way to connect to the divine and to resist continuing racial discrimination in the United States. With the help of icons, African American men and women demonstrated that African people were saints, that African women contributed significantly to the history of Christianity, and that African Americans performed saintly acts. In this way, practitioners aimed to cultivate a reconciled Christian community where the full and equal membership of people of African descent is taken for granted. In following how Orthodox Christians put the materiality of their icons to work to deconstruct the assumption that whiteness is a universal default for religious experience, this article urges scholars of African American religions to make room for Eastern Orthodoxy as yet another tradition that supplies African Americans with creative tools to craft a compelling way of being a religious person.


Kaell, “Catholic Globalism in the United States”

Kaell, Hillary. 2019. “Catholic Globalism in the United States: Notes on Conversion and Culture.” Exchange.

Abstract: Inspired by Norget, Napolitano, and Mayblin’s suggestion that anthropologists attend more closely to the mechanisms of Catholicism’s worldwide spread, this article juxtaposes two organizations—the Holy Childhood Association and Unbound—to explore “paganism,” conversion, and its legacy among U.S. laypeople. In the process, it makes two major points. The first concerns the recourse to “culture” as a rhetorical and ideational hinge connecting the singularity of Christian universalism and new valuations of local multiplicity. The second focuses on the U.S. Catholic relationship to institutional structures of missionary work, which they both associate with positive attributes of a vibrant society, while also being much more critical than their Protestant counterparts of their own Church’s role abroad. It ends by noting how Unbound and its supporters contend with ongoing inequalities by cultivating an imagined global parity where Catholic people choose to send their “gifts” to each other.

Hardin, “‘Father released me'”

Hardin, Jessica. 2019. “‘Father released me’: Accelerating Care, Temporal Repair, and Ritualized Friendship among Pentecostal Women in Samoa.” American Ethnologist 46(2).

Abstract: Samoan Pentecostal churches, ritualized friendships among women are an informal but essential relationship through which churches grow. The mentorship that women provide when a new convert is introduced to church life creates escalating forms of care and obligation, as well as an experience of urgency and acceleration. Converts learn how to construct rupture in their narratives and spiritual practices, which are modeled in peer socialization practices. This period of intense yet temporary mentorship creates a temporality of “repair”—embodied, linguistic, and social practices that restore the convert’s identity, which has been disrupted by conversion. This care work compels us to consider the temporalization of care as a future‐making endeavor.

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.

Mahadev, “Economies of Conversion and Ontologies of Religious Difference”

Mahadev, Neena. 2018. “Economies of Conversion and Ontologies of Religious Difference: Buddhism, Christianity, and Adversarial Political Perception in Sri Lanka.” Current Anthropology 59(6): 665-690.  

Conflicts over conversion often involve divergent logics about religious publicity and persuasion. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, Sri Lankan Buddhists began expressing renewed hostility toward Christians, who are seen as “unethically” converting Sri Lankans away from their native religions. They see the material accoutrements of Christian grace as estranging Buddhists from righteous, karmic inheritances. Distinctive economies of religious persuasion are perceived to engender differences in the essential character of persons. Buddhist nationalists tend to take evangelical Christian economic and religio-moral inclinations (prosperity gospels, charitability, and expansionism) as malignant attributes of Christian personhood (greed, zeal, misguided forgiveness, fraudulent economic manipulation). Anti-conversion discourses paint conversion to Christianity as an insidious socialization process that threatens Buddhism and generates fraudulence and anti-nationalism. These anxieties over religious difference crystallized in allegations that a Sinhala convert to Christianity—a businessman and philanthropist—was culpable for the death of a prominent Buddhist monk. The iconic conversion of the alleged culprit, seen alongside prior conversion trends, makes evident a periodized history of “pragmatic” conversions (a) from Buddhism to Christianity (colonial era), (b) from Christianity back to Buddhism (decolonization), and (c) from Buddhism to charismatic Christianity (during “nationalization” of the economy amid global neoliberalization). Religio-economic affinities are split along partisan lines in Sri Lanka, thereby intensifying the conflictual interplay between evangelical conviction and nativist skepticism.

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.

Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, “Fractured Christianity amongst the Tangsa”

Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, Meenaxi. 2018. “Fractured Christianity amongst the Tangsa in Northeast India- Bible Language Politics and the Charm of Ecstatic Experiences.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 41(1): 212-226 

This paper examines the proliferation of Christian denominations among the small Tangsa community in Northeast India. While resentment over the language chosen by the Baptist Church for the official Tangsa Bible triggered the initial fissures, the recent arrival of Pentecostal and charismatic churches has brought about further divisions. These divisions have not helped the cause of pan-Tangsa unity. However, in the everyday lives of most Tangsa, it is the Christian/non-Christian divide that is more relevant. Hence, the Tangsa situation is different from that of the neighbouring Mizo and Naga communities, in which Christianity has become a defining part of their identities.

Kpobi, Sarfo, and Yendork, “‘I’m Here Because of Christ and Worshipping God . . .’: actors Influencing Religious Switching Among Ghanaian Charismatic/Neo-Pentecostal Christians

Kpobi, Lily, Anokyewaa Sarfo, Elizabeth, and Joana Salifu Yendork. 2017. “I’m Here Because of Christ and Worshipping God . . .”: actors Influencing Religious Switching Among Ghanaian Charismatic/Neo-Pentecostal Christians. Archive for the Psychology of Religion 39 (3). 295-311. 

Abstract: Many people like to identify as belonging to one church or another. Previous studies have explored the process of switching from one religious group to another, and this process has identified various factors that determine the likelihood and reasons for switching. Although this has been explored, little is known about the factors that influence switching among charismatic Christians in Ghana, and the potential implications of such switching on mental well-being. Our study therefore explored the reasons given by members of selected neo-Pentecostal/charismatic churches in Ghana for their decision to switch to these churches. The study was conducted in six neo-Pentecostal churches in Accra and Kumasi through the use of individual and focus group interviews as well as observations of church activities. A total of 86 respondents cited reasons such as geographic mobility, marriage, answers to prayer, as well as miracles and prophecies as their determining factors. These are discussed with emphasis on the potential implications for mental health such as psychological distress, blind faith, and individual agency.

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.