Premawardhana, “In Praise of Ambiguity”

Premawardhana, Devaka. 2020. “In Praise of Ambiguity: Everyday Christianity through the Lens of Existential Anthropology.” Journal of World Christianity 10, no. 1 (2020): 39-43. doi:10.5325/jworlchri.10.1.0039.

A recent theoretical move among ethnographers of religion challenges the social scientific tendency to reduce people’s beliefs and practices to one or another religious tradition, to a religious affiliation assumed to operate as a master identity. Some scholars advancing this move draw on the insights of existential anthropology to emphasize the ambiguities and indeterminacies of religious life. The aim of this article is to argue for the relevance of existential anthropology for ethnographic approaches to the study of World Christianity. That relevance lies not only in existential anthropology’s capacity to convey the complexity of everyday religion, but also in the entanglements of existentialism itself with multiple aspects of Christian theology, past and present.

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

Premawardhana, “Anthropology of Christianity”

Premawardhana, Devaka. 2018. “Anthropology of Christianity.” In Encyclopedia of Christianity in the Global South, edited by Mark A. Lamport, 22-24. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Christianity has transformed many times in its 2,000-year history, from its roots in the Middle East to its presence around the world today. From the mid-twentieth century onward the presence of Christianity has increased dramatically in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and the majority of the world’s Christians are now nonwhite and non-Western. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the Global South traces both the historical evolution and contemporary themes in Christianity in more than 150 countries and regions. The volumes include maps, images, and a detailed timeline of key events.

The phrases “Global Christianity” and “World Christianity” are inadequate to convey the complexity of the countries and regions involved—this encyclopedia, with its more than 500 entries, aims to offer rich perspectives on the varieties of Christianity where it is growing, how the spread of Christianity shapes the faith in various regions, and how the faith is changing worldwide.

Premawardhana, “Egress and Regress”

Premawardhana, Devaka. 2016. Egress and Regress: Pentecostal Precursors and Parallels in Northern Mozambique, Ethnos, DOI: 10.1080/00141844.2016.1140216 [Pre-publication release]

Abstract: Based on fieldwork among the Makhuwa of northern Mozambique, this essay explores how non-Pentecostal models of transformation shape a people’s manner of relating to Pentecostalism. Radical change has long been constitutive of Makhuwa history and subjectivity. Yet Makhuwa patterns of change, commonly conceived in terms of movement, entail regress as much as egress – circular mobilities that disrupt linear teleologies. State administrators and Pentecostal missionaries attempt to reform local inhabitants by, respectively, ‘sedentarising’ and ‘converting’ them. Deploying their historical proclivity towards mobility, those among whom I worked appear simultaneously eager to partake in resettlement schemes and reluctant to remain settled by them. I argue that their ambivalence towards Pentecostal churches and teachings, in particular, challenges two prevailing assumptions within anthropological studies of Christianity: that discontinuity is definitive, and that it is exceptional to Pentecostalism.

Premawardhana, “Conversion and Convertibility”

Premawardhana, Devaka. 2015. “Conversion and Convertibility in Northern Mozambique.” In What is Existential Anthropology?, eds. Michael Jackson and Albert Piette. New York: Berghahn Books.

Abstract: Recent scholarship on Pentecostalism in the global South gives the impression of a singular trajectory of inexorable growth. In this chapter, I offer a counternarrative, not in denial of the widely reported statistical evidence but in affirmation of the ambivalence with which individuals behind the statistics experience novelty. In so doing, I bring existential insights to bear on such themes as rupture and discontinuity, which already, but inadequately, suffuse studies of Pentecostal conversion. Ethnographic evidence from northern Mozambique suggests that the “backsliding into heathenism” Pentecostal leaders decry is experienced locally as a capacity, a capacity for mobility and mutability, for shifting places and altering identities. The refusal of ordinary men and women to settle has long frustrated government administrators and religious reformers alike. It threatens to bewilder scholars as well unless we learn to think beyond the classificatory schemes outsiders so readily deploy and insiders so assiduously avoid.

Premawardhana, “Transformational Tithing”

Premawardhana, Devaka. 2012. Transformational Tithing: Sacrifice and Reciprocity in a Neo-Pentecostal Church. Nova Religio 15(4):85-109.

Abstract: This article examines a controversy surrounding the theology of prosperity associated with neo-Pentecostalism: the aggressive soliciting of tithes from largely underclass worshippers, and the eagerness of those worshippers to respond beyond what seems financially sound. Drawing on ethnographic research among Cape Verdean immigrants in a Boston branch of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, I argue that a sense of empowerment often accompanies sacrificial tithing. This sense comes through the insertion of worshippers into multiple relations of reciprocity. Those whom I observed submitting to their pastor’s calls to tithe should not, therefore, be glibly dismissed as victims of alienation or brainwashing. Their expressions of devotion are active and creative strategies of self-transformation in response to the precariousness of the migrant’s life-world.