Abstract: Within many North American evangelical Christian communities, discernment denotes attentiveness to an interior voice that believers learn to identify as God’s. This article adopts a comparative perspective on everyday domains of perception and feeling that practices of discernment implicitly distinguish as unmarked by God’s activity, and as characterized by specific forms of anxiety from which believers desire to be redeemed. In a majority White Pentecostal congregation in suburban Buffalo, New York, believers cast emotional insecurity as a condition demanding redemption, while members of African American churches in the inner city hope to be redeemed from sensitivity to insults. While practices of discernment counter such anxieties by fostering forms of intimacy and trust, they also reinforce anxiety by focusing believers’ attention on how familiar relations may be distorted in uncanny ways.
In an effort to engage with new and innovative research in the anthropology of Christianity, AnthroCyBib has invited Fred Klaits to explore a series of conversations he has had with a key research participant, a pastor of an African American Pentecostal church in Buffalo, New York, USA.
I am currently engaged in a comparative project on Pentecostal insight, focusing on how believers in majority White and African American congregations in Buffalo, New York understand knowledge derived from God as essential to their well-being. By comparing how Pentecostal believers in largely segregated faith communities attempt to foster well-being, I explore how specific sets of anxieties associated with Whiteness and Blackness lead believers to adopt distinctive methods for obtaining insights from God — what they call “discernment” — into their own and others’ life circumstances.
In November 2016, I invited Pastor John (a pseudonym), the leader of one of the African American congregations I am working with in inner-city Buffalo, to attend a roundtable at the American Anthropological Association meetings in Minneapolis entitled “Towards an Ethnography of God,” where I served as a presenter. Pastor John is a former drug dealer who was saved in 1999, at the age of 19. While serving as a minister under a series of bishops of African American Pentecostal churches, Pastor John developed a gift of prophecy whereby he receives words and visions from God about particular people in attendance at church services or revivals, or about others connected to them who may not be present. In 2011, he founded the nondenominational church I call Victory Gospel, most of whose members are from disadvantaged backgrounds. The church encourages enthusiastic worship and prophetic utterances in keeping with African American Holiness and Pentecostal styles.
Early in 2016, Pastor John called out in church that he was receiving a message from God about me that, he said, “I can’t even articulate. I see you speaking in front of a large group of people, making connections between academic work and God’s word.” Shortly afterwards, I received the invitation to participate in the panel and told Pastor John, whereupon he volunteered to attend the event with me. I felt that his presence and participation at the event would contribute positively to the politics of representation surrounding my ethnographic enterprise.
At the kind invitation of the AnthroCyBib curators, I subsequently recorded conversations with Pastor John about the panel, as well as about experiences of divine “confirmation” of the significance of events that I discussed in my paper. Below are partial transcripts of the conversations, interspersed with my own commentary.
Fred Klaits (SUNY, Buffalo) Continue reading
Abstract: I develop a case study of demonic glossolalia (speaking in tongues) for its cues in conveying religious commitment among a congregation of Apostolic Pentecostals. From the perspective of signaling theory, costly or hard-to-fake signals may convey psychological dispositions of members and would-be members toward an inclusive community. I utilize signaling theory in a broader systems approach to make sense of an incident of speaking in tongues that a congregation decries as demonic. To facilitate this interpretation, forms and motivations of glossolalia—the sine qua non that one has accepted Jesus as personal savior—are described and examined, including examples of calm and excited “Holy Ghost“ and “backslider“ and “mistaken demonic“ glossolalia. To an outsider, some of the differences among these signaling modes may be difficult to distinguish, but the underlying religious and family dynamics provide insights as to how church members make distinctions they attribute to the spiritual “gift of discernment.“ This approach promises to make unique contributions toward understanding the implicit folk psychologies of practices that, according to Pentecostals, mark them as “weird“ or “odd.“