Webster, “Praying for Salvation”

Webster, Joseph.  2016.  Praying for salvation: a map of relatedness.  Religion.  Early online publication.

Abstract: This article attempts to push Mauss’ work on the sociality of prayer (1909) to its fullest conclusion by arguing that prayer can be viewed anthropologically as providing a map for social and emotional relatedness. Based on fieldwork among deep-sea fisher families living in Gamrie, North-East Scotland (home to 700 people and six Protestant churches), the author takes as his primary ethnographic departure the ritual of the ‘mid-week prayer meeting’. Among the self-proclaimed ‘fundamentalists’ of Gamrie’s Brethren and Presbyterian churches, attending the prayer meeting means praying for salvation. Yet, contrary to the stereotype of Protestant soteriology as highly individualist, in the context of Gamrie, salvation is not principally focused upon the self, but is instead sought on behalf of the ‘unconverted’ other. Locally, this ‘other’ is made sense of with reference to three different categories of relatedness: the family, the village and the nation. The author’s argument is that each category of relatedness carries with it a different affective quality: anguish for one’s family, resentment toward one’s village, and resignation towards one’s nation. As such, prayers for salvation establish and maintain not only vertical – human-divine – relatedness, but also horizontal relatedness between persons, while also giving them their emotional tenor. In ‘fundamentalist’ Gamrie, these human relationships, and crucially their affective asymmetries, may be mapped, therefore, by treating prayers as social phenomena that seek to engage with a world dichotomised into vice and virtue, rebellion and submission, and, ultimately, damnation and salvation.

Webster, “Objects of Transcendence”

Abstract: How are objects used differently within different types of Protestantism? Proceeding from this question, this short anthropological essay takes as its ethnographic point of departure two apparently contrasting deployments of the Bible within contemporary Scotland, one as observed among Brethren and Presbyterian fisher-families in Gamrie, coastal Aberdeenshire, and the other as observed among the Orange Order, a Protestant marching fraternity, in Airdrie and Glasgow. By examining how and with what effects the Bible (as text and object) enters into and extends beyond the everyday practices of fishermen and Orangemen, I sketch some aspects of the material life of Scottish Protestantism that have hitherto been overlooked. The tendency to downplay the role of objects within Protestantism seems, in part, to be the result of an ideal-typical insistence that this religion—especially in Scotland and the Global North—remains transfixed by a thoroughly anti-material asceticism.1 This tacit assumption, which emerged within anthropology as the result of an overly hasty reading of Max Weber, continues to haunt ethnographic and theoretical framings of both Protestantism and modernity, either through their relative silence on the subject, or by treating (modern, Protestant) objects as somehow exceptional and novel.

Review: Joseph Webster on “The Boundaries of Christianity and Beyond”

Part II: Review Forum, “The Anthropology Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions”

The Anthropology of Christianity at the Boundaries of Christianity and Beyond

Coleman, Simon. 2014. Pilgrimage as Trope for an Anthropology of Christianity. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s281-s291.

Engelke, Matthew. 2014. Christianity and the Anthropology of Secular Humanism. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s292-s301.

Hoskins, Janet Alison. 2014. An Unjealous God? Christian Elements in a Vietnamese Syncretistic Religion. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s302-s311.

By: Joseph Webster (Queens University, Belfast)

The Special Issue of Current Anthropology under review seeks, as its title states, to push the anthropology of Christianity in ‘new directions’ – and it is the third section of the SI, it seems, where this effort is pursued most vigorously. Indeed, as its title states, this section does not limit itself to Christianity – however (generously) one defines it – but instead approaches its ‘boundaries’ by offering papers from Coleman, Engelke and Hoskins who discuss, respectively, the evanescence of pilgrimage as ‘ritual semiengagement’ (Coleman: 24: 288), the ‘not Christianity’ of secular humanism (Engelke 2014: 299), and the ‘counter Orientalism’ of Caodaism (Hoskins 2014: 310). Yet, the question remains – and this is the question with which I want to frame my review – do these papers successfully manage to go ‘beyond’ Christianity, or do they still find themselves stuck in its orbit? The authors themselves appear to have this same question in mind – albeit approaching it differently and with different conclusions – when presenting their own ethnographic and theoretical commentary. The question is important because it goes to the heart of what the anthropology of Christianity must be if it is to be ‘properly’ anthropological. Are we, then, in these three essays, presented with a comparative project that is equally concerned with ‘unity’ and ‘diversity’, both within and outwith religion (in general) and Christianity (in particular)? Put another way, where is the anthropology of Christianity, and where are these essays in relation to it? In an attempt to suggest some possible answers, I want to discuss each piece in turn before making some more speculative comments regarding what they might collectively tell us about the present location of this most prolific (if not yet particularly promiscuous) anthropological sub-discipline.  Continue reading

The Anthropology of Protestantism: Book Review

Webster, Joseph. 2013. The Anthropology of Protestantism: Faith and Crisis among Scottish Fishermen. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

By: Matt Tomlinson (Australian National University)

This book is an innovative attempt to understand the relationship between language and materiality in terms of the Protestant doctrine of consubstantiation, “that view of the Christian Eucharist that attempts to explain the real (material and spiritual) presence of the body and blood of Jesus as existing alongside the real material presence of the bread and the wine” (208). It is anthropology with a theological aura, but also a skillfully crafted ethnography that will appeal to scholars who don’t normally mix the anthro- and the theo-.

Webster’s ethnographic subjects are elderly fishermen and their wives in the northeast Scottish village of Gamrie. They provide a boatload of evidence that they live in a world that is, as the author puts it, both modern and enchanted. Many are members of Brethren churches and radical individualists as well as strict fundamentalists. As individualists, they distrust any authority except their own, leading one critic to characterize their attitude as “every man is his own skipper and he can go wherever he likes” (59; n.b., as they go wherever they like, they are likely to be watched by their neighbors, who keep binoculars at home “to see what others were up to further down the brae” [6]). As fundamentalists, they hold the Bible to be literally true, and they enthusiastically track signs of the end of the world.

Continue reading

Webster, “The Immanence of Transcendence”

Webster, Joseph. 2013. The Immanence of Transcendence: God and the Devil on the Aberdeenshire Coast. Ethnos 78(3): 380-402.

Abstract: In Gamrie (a Scottish fishing village of 700 people and 6 Protestant churches), local experiences of ‘divine providence’ and ‘demonic attack’ abound. Bodily fluids, scraps of paper, video cassettes and prawn trawlers were immanent carriers of divine and demonic activity. Viewed through the lens of Weberian social theory, the experiences of Scottish fisher families show how the life of the Christian resembles an enchanted struggle between God and the Devil with the Christian placed awkwardly in-between. Because, locally, ‘there is no such thing as coincidence’, these Christians expected to experience both the transcendent ordering of life by divine providence through God’s immanence and the transcendent disordering of life by demonic attack through the Devil’s immanence. Where this ordering and disordering frequently occurred through everyday objects, seemingly mundane events – being given a washing machine or feeling sleepy in church – were experienced as material indexes of spiritual reality. Drawing on the work of Cannell (on transcendence), Keane (on indexicality) and Wagner (on symbolic obviation), this paper argues that attending to the materiality of Scottish Protestantism better equips the anthropology of religion to understand Christian experience by positing immanence as a kind of transcendence and transcendence as a kind of immanence.

Webster, “The Anthropology of Protestantism”

Webster, Joseph. 2013. The Anthropology of Protestantism: Faith and Crisis among Scottish Fishermen. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Publisher’s Description: Narrowing in from the broader context of the north Atlantic, through northern Europe, to Britain, northeast Scotland, and finally the fishing village of Gamrie, this anthropology of Protestantism examines millennialist faith and economic crisis. Through his ethnographic study of the fishermen and their religious beliefs, Webster speaks to larger debates about religious radicalism, materiality, economy, language, and the symbolic. These debates (occurring within the ostensibly secular context of contemporary Scotland) also call into question assumptions about the decline of religion in modern industrial societies. By chronicling how these individuals experience life as “enchanted,” this book explores the global processes of religious conversion, economic crisis, and political struggle.

Webster, “The Eschatology of Global Warming in a Scottish Fishing Village”

Webster, Joseph. 2013. “The Eschatology of Global Warming in a Scottish Fishing Village.” Cambridge Anthropology  31(1):68-84.

Abstract: In Gamrie, an Aberdeenshire fishing village home to 700 people and six millennialist Protestant churches, global warming is more than just a ‘hoax’: it is a demonic conspiracy that threatens to bring about the ruin of the entire human race. Such a certainty was rendered intelligible to local Christians by viewing it through the lens of dispensationalist theology brought to the village by the Plymouth Brethren. In a play on Weberian notions of disenchantment, I argue that whereas Gamrie’s Christians rejected global warming as a false eschatology, and environmentalism as a false salvationist religion, supporters of the climate change agenda viewed global warming as an apocalyptic reality and environmentalism as providing salvific redemption. Both rhetorics – each engaged in a search for ‘signs of the end times’ – are thus millenarian.

Webster, “The Immanence of Transcendence: God and the Devil on the Aberdeenshire Coast”

Webster, Joseph. 2012. “The Immanence of Transcendence: God and the Devil on the Aberdeenshire Coast.” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, DOI:10.1080/00141844.2012.688762 [first print – pagination, volume and issue not available].

Abstract: In Gamrie (a Scottish fishing village of 700 people and 6 Protestant churches), local experiences of ‘divine providence’ and ‘demonic attack’ abound. Bodily fluids, scraps of paper, video cassettes and prawn trawlers were immanent carriers of divine and demonic activity. Viewed through the lens of Weberian social theory, the experiences of Scottish fisher families show how the life of the Christian resembles an enchanted struggle between God and the Devil with the Christian placed awkwardly in-between. Because, locally, ‘there is no such thing as coincidence’, these Christians expected to experience both the transcendent ordering of life by divine providence through God’s immanence and the transcendent disordering of life by demonic attack through the Devil’s immanence. Where this ordering and disordering frequently occurred through everyday objects, seemingly mundane events – being given a washing machine or feeling sleepy in church – were experienced as material indexes of spiritual reality. Drawing on the work of Cannell (on transcendence), Keane (on indexicality) and Wagner (on symbolic obviation), this paper argues that attending to the materiality of Scottish Protestantism better equips the anthropology of religion to understand Christian experience by positing immanence as a kind of transcendence and transcendence as a kind of immanence.