Abstract: Anthropological studies of doubt have typically highlighted its productivity, pointing to the space that doubt opens to question established frameworks. This article builds on these observations by exploring an instance of doubt that I argue is unproductive. For Pentecostals on the Zambian Copperbelt, the fact that they do not receive the extravagant riches promised by the prosperity gospel—a Christian movement that is central to their faith—is not usually a problem. Most Pentecostal believers are able to reinterpret small gains in terms of a locally redefined prosperity, and therefore manage the doubts that their lack of wealth produces. For the poorest and most socially marginal believers, however, this kind of productive engagement with doubt is not possible. The productivity of doubt is therefore more an expression of structural factors than of the nature of doubt itself. This suggests that doubt—or at least the ability to mobilize doubt effectively—is a key index of power. This article provides an ethnographic exploration of the failure of the prosperity gospel while also expanding anthropological understanding of what makes doubt productive.
By: Jon Bialecki (University of Edinburgh)
Liahona is not an ethnographic film. It is not even a documentary, or, at least, a documentary of the standard type. Consisting of images shot on scratchy 16 millimeter film using a hand camera, mixed with a wealth of found footage (much of it originally filmed by the Church of the Latter Day Saints, for either missionary or apologetic purposes), and shot through with decontextualized voice-overs, it is not concerned with clear explication, or at least with granting immediate clarity. Rather, it has more of the sense of a piece of symphonic music, with images or scenes briefly introduced, which are returned to again and again in different ways as the film proceeds. Again and again, we are shown shots of the stark landscape and expansive skies of Northern Utah, both of which are presented as sublime (in the Kantian sense of the word). This landscape is repeatedly juxtaposed with vintage shots of quotidian Mormon life, as well as with views of prominent Mormon temples in the region, scenes from the Days of ’47 Parade down Salt Lake City or the Manti Mormon Miracle Pageant. Some of these scenes are eventually given the necessary context to become readable as the film progresses. Other elements, such as the repeated and unexplained use of characters from the desert alphabet, a column of smoke from a scrub wildfire, or the haunting image of a feathered headdress, worn at either dawn or sunset, shrouded in shadow as it is juxtaposed against the Manti Temple, remain unexplained even at the film’s close. (Similarly, the source of the movie’s title goes unexplained for those not familiar with it). The soundtrack is equally jarring; we shunt between thundering church organs, atonal droning, and acapella renditions of iconic Mormon hymns such as “If You Could Hie to Kolob” and “Called to Serve.” Continue reading
In this introduction, we take our point of departure in the question: what difference does Christianity make? We argue that the anthropology of Christianity must encompass believers, skeptics and observers, in that the differences Christianity makes never are simple or singular. We pose the play between foregrounds and backgrounds as a viable way to venture, but argue that this must be paired with a focus on the particular assemblage made in and across contexts. The effect of Christianity is therefore best conceived of in the very bundling of affects, forms, ideologies and practices. We contend that a focus on Christianity within anthropology should not be conceived as yet another subdisciplinary move, but is a focus that revitalizes the discipline of anthropology writ large. The theoretical elaboration on foregrounds and backgrounds we argue is of purchase beyond the focus on Christianity.