Abstract: This article contributes to ongoing public and scholarly debates about evangelical social engagement in the United States. I illustrate that, for some conservative evangelical men, activism is fused to the cultural construction of masculinity. My central argument is that, despite becoming invested in ‘new’ acts of social engagement, these conservative evangelicals continue to rely on a familiar cultural script that uses individualist logics, rather than structural logics, to address social problems. My primary example is a relatively recent men’s movement, Acts29, and its commitment to anti-human trafficking campaigns. This article draws on ethnographic fieldwork and textual data collected between January 2009 and March 2011.
Bielo, James S. 2013. “FORMED”: Emerging Evangelicals Navigate Two Transformations. In The New Evangelical Social Engagement. Edited by Brian Steensland and Phillip Goff, 31-49. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Excerpt: This book asks a vital question. Is there a sea change happening on the social, political, and cultural front of evangelical social engagement? And if so, just how is that sea floor shifting? These questions are important due both to the significant influence of evangelicals in American public life and to the received wisdom among academic and mainstream discourses about evangelicals’ public presence. There is a familiar story at work here. American evangelicals are culture warriors, obsessed with abortion and homosexuality, who seek to elect their own into public office so they can codify religious morality. They create Christian alternatives to every imaginable form of popular culture and democratic institution. And they do service work with people who are socially disadvantaged and marginalized, largely from the comfortable confines of middle-class suburbia.
We might read this volume as a call to take seriously the complexity and tensions within the amorphous category “evangelical.” As Steensland and Goff outline in the Introduction, evangelicals have recently made waves on their own shores and those of secular media outlets for appearing in unexpected places: taking up arms in debates about sustainable development, climate change, HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, and global peacemaking. This chapter proceeds from the assumption that while platforms and agendas are indeed up for grabs, the future of evangelical social engagement will not unfold on the basis of specific public issues. It will unfold along the cultural contours that give expression and direction to evangelicals’ ongoing public influence.
Any comparative analysis of a new social engagement must confront the institutional and ideological changes that evangelicals have produced and wrestled with in recent years. The diverse movement known as the Emerging Church exemplifies such changes and was the focus of my ethnographic research from October 2007 to July 2011. In this chapter, I highlight one institutional invention among a small group of emerging evangelicals in Cincinnati, Ohio, to consider how views of social engagement are tethered to ideals of spiritual formation.
The journal Religion has now published a special issue on “Urban Christianities,” edited by James S. Bielo, with contributions from: Omri Elisha, Anna Strhan, Simon Coleman and Katrin Maier, Catherine Wanner, William Girard, and Stephen Selka.
By: James S. Bielo (Miami University)
Eight young men gather on a Sao Paulo rooftop – surveying the city’s sprawling jumble of ramshackle houses, the periferia – writing rhymes and composing gospel raps. A congregation is divided as they hear and see a samba band perform: some uncomfortable with this being worship, others dance joyously yet careful not to sway too much. Hips don’t lie. Gospel singers view videos of U.S. gospel choirs performing in church, and talk excitedly about which techniques to emulate. Scenes like this form the ethnographic backbone of John Burdick’s The Color of Sound: a comparative study of how blackness, musical artistry, and evangelical Christianity intersect.
Burdick’s ethnography traverses ten poor and working-class neighborhoods in Sao Paulo: Brazil’s largest city and the world’s eighth largest. The book derives from nine months of fieldwork (2003-2005), and focuses on a particular racial-religious identity. Negros and negras: Afro-descendent Brazilians who are historically and structurally marginalized throughout the nation. Evangelicos: Protestant Christians from a variety of denominations, including millenialists (Seventh-Day Adventists), “classic Pentecostals” (8), and neo-Pentecostal prosperity churches. The core question that moves the analysis is this:
“To what extent may evangelicos develop black pride from within the ideological matrix of evangelical Christianity” (11)?
To answer this, Burdick concentrates on a certain kind of religious actor: music artists. It is in the musical lives of evangelicos, he argues, where a marked potential to develop racial consciousness exists. Burdick compares musicians in three genres: gospel rappers, gospel sambistas, and gospel singers. The striking differences among these three provide the book’s biggest yield. Ethnographically, Burdick does not limit himself to polished performances; instead, he tracks “rehearsals, backstage gatherings, and everyday transits…workshops, classes, seminars, and trainings” (16). The behind-the-scenes feel that results is one of the book’s shining qualities. Theoretically, the core argument is this: “in order to understand the role of music in the formation of collective identities, we must attend to how musical practices and discourses articulate and generate ideas and feelings about history, place, and the body” (19).
The central finding of Burdick’s ethnography is that the three genres – rap, samba, gospel – offer evangelicos very different sets of possibilities. To begin, as genres they carry different social meanings and histories. Rap in Sao Paulo bears much the same weight that rap bears in Tokyo (Condry 2006) or Nairobi (Ntarangwi 2009): urban hipness, youth agency, cultural critique, and a sense of locality. Samba, on the other hand, is dangerous for evangelicos. The genre is intimately associated with sexuality and party culture; it is the most difficult to redeem. In this way, gospel is samba’s ideological opposite: thoroughly and definitively spiritual, primed and ready for Christian ends.
2013 Biennial Society for the Anthropology of Religion meetings, April 11-14, Pasadena, California.
By: James S. Bielo (Miami University)
This year, 2013, marks ten years since Religion published a special issue devoted to the anthropology of Christianity. Many in the field point to this print moment as something like a formal debut. Most every review article observes that despite plenty of scattered anthropological research about Christianity, it required an intentional, explicit, and bold call to really coax an anthropology of Christianity into view (e.g., Bialecki, Haynes, and Robbins 2008). One question that animated the 2003 collection, and numerous work that followed, is what comparative questions and theoretical problems might instill some cohesion into the field. A profusion of ethnographic work would be great to see, but certainly it would be more effective if there was some centripetal center of gravity. Listening to papers this past weekend at the Society for the Anthropology of Religion meetings, it seems the question of cohesion is both packed with potential and yet still seeking some gravity. Continue reading
Excerpt: In this essay I capitalize on a convergence in some recent U.S. ethnography to explore the cultural power of place-making and the conceptual promises of ‘place.’ Reports of losing, forgetting, and otherwise being disconnected from place are legion in depictions of late modernity. Said (1979) called it a “generalized condition of homelessness” (18), Gupta and Ferguson (1992) described it as a “profound sense of a loss of territorial roots, of an erosion of the cultural distinctiveness of places” (9), and Appadurai (1996) termed it “deterritorialization” (49). The culprits of this anxiety in the U.S. are multiple. A post-industrial economy fuels constant mobility, creating highly flexible labor regimes and others that are not reliant on geographic locale. Expanding urbanization disrupts relationships to land, transforming farm acreage into ultra-planned exurbia. Neoliberal corporate infrastructures prize predictable familiarity over uniqueness in order to secure service industry profits. There are, as well, technological and media empires that can render the particularities of place irrelevant. We late moderns are said to struggle to maintain meaningful place attachments and places themselves struggle to be distinctive. We are increasingly uncertain of how to recover from our pandemic placeless-ness. Of course, this narrative is ideological; it contains truth and myth, history and nostalgia, is uncannily accurate for many and exaggerated for many others. Nonetheless, the threat of placeless-ness is an American social fact, very real for the discontents it generates. According to recent U.S. ethnography that addresses different cultural spheres – religion and food – this anxiety has also produced resistance. People are not simply internalizing erosion and loss, they are responding by actively cultivating senses of place. Regarding religion, I look to my own fieldwork with American evangelicals… Emerging evangelicals are not the only late modern Americans looking to place to fashion a better future. This essay ensues from a repeated observation about recent work in U.S. ethnography: first, in step with developing interests in the anthropology of food, ethnographers are writing about American food systems; and second, analyses of the sustainable food movement reveal a striking veneration of place.
Excerpt: ‘Marcia Pally’s post tracks the important fact that contemporary American evangelical social and political engagement is fragmenting. She rightly observes that such fragmenting is not historically novel, and is a self-consciously critical response to the power of the Religious Right.
To read of “robust polyphony” among evangelicals was especially welcome to me, as I addressed this phenomenon in a recent ethnography, Emerging Evangelicals (NYU Press, 2011). As a cultural anthropologist, I explored the identities fashioned, practices performed, histories claimed, institutions created, and critiques waged among evangelicals influenced by the Emerging Church movement. Pally’s astute analysis returned me to a question I stopped short of fully developing: does fragmentation equal change?
While it is clear that evangelicalism is diversifying, it is unclear what this amounts to. We see voting blocs split, financial donations broaden, volunteer labor disperse, and moral-political agendas expand. But, do these fragmentations signal tectonic, hard-wired, all-bets-are-off cultural change? Or, is it more superficial (which is not to say unimportant or not deeply felt) social change? Do electoral politics and other shifting forms of activism amount to fundamental change, or merely changing patterns of action?’
Abstract: In this article I examine the status of belief among U.S. evangelicals organizing under the moniker of the “emerging church.” As part of their cultural critique of the conservative Christian subculture, many emerging evangelicals recast their standpoint toward the role of propositional doctrine in their definition of an authentic Christian self. I join with colleagues in the anthropology of religion, in particular the anthropology of Christianity, who are rethinking the nature of belief as a form of relational commitment. I argue that emerging evangelicals seek a faith where human–human relationships are a precondition for human–divine relations to flourish. To achieve their desired sense of community emerging evangelicals create ritual structures that foster a highly relational religiosity. I illustrate this recasting of belief through analyses of narrative and institution making, grounded in three years of ethnographic fieldwork.