This article explores the theoretical and political potential of ethnographic research for World Christianity by focusing on the “subversive power” of this methodology. Through a discussion of four aspects of ethnographic research: the use of the term “informants,” a commitment to holism, the political power of participant-observation, and the “double location” of ethnographic practice, I argue that the primary objective of ethnography is to decenter a scholar’s view of the world, often by taken the position of those at society’s margins. The political potential of this move is clear, and World Christianity as a discipline is perhaps especially well positioned to make good on its possibilities, given its capacity to draw on social scientific and theological models in equal measure.
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.
Abstract: By overlooking the history of Catholic thought, anthropologists have made contemporary processes for negotiating intellectual authority in the Catholic Church into a lacuna in the anthropology of Christianity. I develop this claim by examining an ethnographic memoir called The Secret of Csíksomlyó by Árpád Daczó, a widely known contemporary Transylvanian Hungarian Catholic intellectual. Daczó blends autobiography and ethnography to argue that the Hungarian Virgin Mary is a Christianized pagan moon goddess. Halfway through, Daczó switches genres to propositional theology and defends himself to the magisterium, the Church’s institutional guarantor of orthodoxy. I situate Daczó’s effort to anticipate his critics in the history of Catholic-Protestant theological polemics, which helped make propositional theology into the Catholic Church’s privileged language for investigating heresy. By placing Daczó’s use of propositional theology against the backdrop of contemporary Catholic theologians’ debates about the magisterium’s authority, I challenge anthropological assumptions about the social significance of propositional belief.
Abstract: Anthropology has rejected religiously based thought in its analysis from its inception. Now, due to developments in the anthropology of Christianity, ‘theologically engaged anthropology’ is inviting mutually productive interdisciplinary dialogue between anthropology and theology. What might anthropology look like, going forward, if the religious views of ethnographers were to be included in the production of ethnographies? Those in reflexive ethnography have already acknowledged that ethnographers’ cultural backgrounds enter into representations of other cultures, and those in ‘the ontological turn’ are challenging anthropology’s ontological assumptions through the serious consideration of their interlocutors’ views. I suggest that there is value for the discipline in permitting discourses of ethnography and analysis that reflect the multiple, sometimes religiously-based, ontologies of ethnographers as well.
Abstract: The burgeoning field of theologically engaged anthropology has facilitated an overdue dialogue among anthropologists and theologians. The theologically engaged anthropology project created the stratified and transformational research frameworks. The stratified framework encourages anthropologists and theologians to collaborate on common religious topics while maintaining boundaries between each discipline, lest each loses its integrity. The transformational framework encourages anthropologists and theologians to cross the border between their two disciplines to facilitate discovery of new insights about religion. This special journal issue of Ethnos presents multiple examples of theologically engaged anthropology that illustrate the value of both frameworks. In this introduction, I invite readers to observe four themes that emerge from the papers. Each illustrates the value of additional theologically engaged scholarship.
Abstract: The ethnographic imagination links the big stories of broad historical forces and the small stories of individual lived experience. In the study of world Christianity, it links church movements with individual participants, texts with oral traditions, creeds with practices. In this article the author examines the role of migration in the Christian story of the Lisu of southwest China. The author tells the big story of how migration across borders greatly impacted the resilience of Lisu Christianity, allowing it to transcend the political turmoil of particular countries. But she also tells a small story, showing migration as a lived experience that greatly impacted one Christian family. The ethnographic imagination seeks truth in the frayed edges where big stories and small stories meet. Ultimately, the ethnographic imagination is an appropriate research posture for world Christianity because it requires that scholars approach the subject less as a corpus of texts and more as a community of souls.
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Abstract: Anthropological insights are not produced or constructed through reasoned discourse alone. Often they appear to be given in “leaps of faith” as the anthropologist’s conceptual grasp upon the world is lost. To understand these peculiar moments, we adopt the Kierkegaardian concept of religious faith, not as certitude in some transcendental principle, but as a deeply paradoxical mode of knowing, whose paths bend and twist through glimpses of understanding, doubt, and existential resignation. Pointing to the ways in which such revelatory and disruptive experiences have influenced the work of many anthropologists, we argue that anthropology is not simply a social science, but also a theology of sorts, whose ultimate foundation might not simply be reason but faith.
Abstract: With reference to two different projects examining North American Christianities, this symposium contribution explores opportunities for critique when conducting fieldwork. Drawing from observations made by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, I suggest that critique is most productive when it uses the perspective and position of one’s interlocutors as its point of departure.
Excerpt: In the preface to his five-book refutation of heresies, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon (c. 130-202), enumerate the principle hazard of the heretics. Their scheming argumentation, delusory interpretations, elaborate cosmologies, and falsification of scriptural proof text induces the addled-minded to abandon their training in the true faith and instead embrace the speculative opinions of duplicitous men. Precisely because they “think differently about the same things at different times, they never attain a steadfast knowledge, desiring more to be sophists of words than disciples of truth.” …In elaborating even the most minute of heretical customs and doctrines – from baptismal rituals and elaborate cosmologies to dietary habits and alternative scriptural interpretations – the heresiologists exhibit not only their own ethnographic of the formidable bastion that is the world of Christian heresy, they confront how the procession, production, and ordering of knowledge itself underscores and alters the very foundations of Christianity and the Christian world …
“On each trip, certain interpenetrations are articulated and shaped by group leaders, Many, however, are not. At the back of the bus, pilgrims make the experience meaningful in ways that guides and tour operators may not expect and cannot predict. Pilgrims keep these deeply felt connections to themselves, and they color each trip in very personal ways.” (Kaell 2014: 80)
Although I have been working with American Holy Land pilgrims for over three decades, both as anthropologist and as tour guide, Hillary Kaell’s book surprised me. The perspective she has chosen – accompanying and talking with women before, during and after the voyage – places the voyage within a longue durée that was invisible to me as tour guide, and only partially visible as researcher. Rather than privilege the narratives spoken into bus microphones by guides and pastors/priests, Kaell places her microphone with the woman in the back, who rarely expresses her desires or thoughts in public on the tour. This perspective is a useful corrective to scholars who focus on ecclesiastical guidelines, sermons, recited public prayers, guides’ explanations, and the goals made explicit by the pilgrim/tour industry or the pastors who organize and lead groups. Kaell’s concentration on the lived experience of 50-75 year-old Catholic and evangelical American women traveling to the Holy Land demonstrates how the geographical, political or even biblical context of the sites and routes of the Holy Land may serve as the background for an intensely personal trajectory. This personal path is a continuation of the home lives of ‘middle-old’ aged women, who make up a major portion of Holy Land pilgrims. Without ignoring denominational distinctions, Kaell reminds us that the pilgrimage experience is rooted in profoundly American, (mainly) middle-class values that cut across traditional religious lines. Continue reading →