Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heaven: A Review and Response

Carroll, Timothy. 2018. Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heaven. New York and London: Routledge Press.

At the conclusion of this review is a response by the author of Orthodox Christian Material Culture, Dr. Timothy Carroll.

By: Elena Kravchenko

In Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heaven, Timothy Carroll presents a detailed description of how Orthodox Christians who attend and work at St. Æthelwald’s parish in London think about and engage materiality. Relying primarily, though not exclusively, on interview data and participant observation of clergymen, Carroll asserts that Orthodox Christians see themselves as doing things with the help of, through and by, the power of things. In Orthodox material economy, people are not the only agents that do things. Things do things too.

For example, a practitioner who chooses to wear a replica of the belt of the Theotokos believes that through it she gains a connection to the subjectivity, and materiality, of the Mother of God, and because of this belief she expects and allows this material connection – between the Theotokos, the belt, and her own body – to affect a change in her human person to become a proper Orthodox self. This practitioner understands her actions in the world not as solely her own, but as a part of an assemblage consisting of things and bodied people – living and dead, divine and human, saintly and ordinary – which interconnect and affect each other. In short, she believes in the agency of things and acts accordingly: she surrounds herself with things and lets them act upon her. By drawing attention to the embrace of materiality exhibited by the Orthodox faithful in London, Carroll’s book does more than parochialize a Protestant way of thinking about material things and their activity (or rather inactivity) in the world by demonstrating that not all Christianities are cut out of the same cloth. It also challenges the universality of terms in which such concepts as a self, a body, or an agent are commonly understood. Orthodox theology makes it possible to think about a person not as autonomous, but as a part of an assemblage; of bodies not enshelled by skin, but porous and connected to other material things; and of an actor not motivated by her personal will, but rather called to action by the vibrant energy distributed over interconnected beings and things.

As a scholar of Orthodox Christianity, reading this book left me appreciative of its call to pay attention to the specific ways in which Christians may think about and approach materiality. As a scholar of material culture, I was left pondering the methodological approach of this work. Carroll’s interviews, participant observation, and visual evidence (photos, charts, and diagrams) provide the reader with a good view of how Orthodox Christians conceptualize materiality, and what they do with it. But is that enough to unpack howthey come to acquire these commitments materially? By putting Orthodox concepts in conversation with the theoretical approaches to materiality of such scholars as Alfred Gell, Michel Foucault, and Sara Ahmed, among others, Carroll avows to do just that: to theorize and to demonstrate ethnographically the link between the subjective and the material. His theoretical propositions about the interconnectedness of mind and matter, along with a person’s dependability on material environment for self-formation and action, are more than convincing.

In addition to Carroll’s productive conversation about materiality, I would have liked to see him probe more deeply into how his interlocutors felt when interacting with Orthodox materiality in order to make his ethnographic evidence work more effectively with his theoretical postulations. For example, we are told that a practitioner who venerates an icon understands herself to be connected to it and influenced by it. This knowledge is gained by venerating the icon – kissing it, touching it, crossing oneself in front of it, and being affected by it. She stands in front of the icon “affected.” What exactly that affect is, how it gets there, and its relationship to the practitioner’s ability to know that icons are active presences and have transformative powers, is not fully clear. To trace ethnographically howmateriality affects human subjectivity, an anthropologist – in addition to describing what people do, and what they think they do – needs to describe in detail how they feel, and how their feelings develop over time. An additional line of enquiry is required.[1]

A woman that stands in front of an icon may think that this is the right thing for an Orthodox Christian to do, because it feels right. But how exactly does it feel? How does standing in front of the icon compare to doing other tasks? Does the woman feel calmer, quieter, protected, when subjected to the gaze of the saint and that of the other faithful? Has she always felt this way? We are told that the woman treats the icon as another human being. But what does that mean in terms of emotions? What has she prayed for when venerating the icon? Did she pray for a job? A healing? A friend in need? Were her requests granted? Denied? How did that feel? Did she cry? Does the icon remind her of that affect every time she looks at it? Does she treat the icon as a confidant, a friend, and trust it with her every need? Has she always treated the icon this way? When did she first feel like she could? Knowing more about this woman’s daily interactions with the icon – in addition to her traditional acts of veneration – and what feelings, capacities, and desires these interactions helped her to produce, allows us to move towards answering howmateriality affects this woman’s ways of knowing and interacting with things in the world.

When reading this manuscript, I thought about Robert Orsi’s work. In his ethnography of the Catholic Eucharist,[2] he described how women who grew up attending Catholic schools obtained the understanding that the Eucharist has real material presence and is a transformative force. I remember vivid snippets of women talking, laughing, recalling to Orsi and each other the fear, the awe, and even resentment they felt towards the Eucharist, because they were punished when they did not approach the cup respectfully, because they saw nuns dive on the ground to pick up crumbs of communion bread that fell down, because their knees hurt when they kneeled on the floor, their stomachs ached from hunger, and their bodies felt stiff as they sat still in the pews during mass under the watchful, and often reproachful, gaze of the clergy. The abstract proposition learned by these practitioners during school lessons – that the Eucharist was active and had power over people, and had to be treated accordingly – made sense to them because in the sanctuary they felt a physical and emotional transformation in their bodies in relation to it. Even in their old age these Catholic women carried the memories of what they experienced as children, and were able to recall and affirm to each other their feelings and affect during a casual conversation. Including this type of information – interlocutors’ descriptions of how they felt while interacting with Orthodox materiality, emotionally and physically – would have provided more ethnographic support to Carroll’s sophisticated theoretical approach to materiality, which posits material things as essential for human ability to think, know, and act in the world.

This suggestion should in no way be taken as a critique of this important book, but rather a testament to how difficult it is to do an ethnography that evaluates the material power of things. As a form of a playful exercise and a way to move forward, I offer a set of ethnographic questions for consideration in the fieldwork. Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heavenhas captivating chapters that nuancedly discuss how cloth is used by practitioners to reconfigure the profane space into sacred, and a mere human (man) into the likeness of God (priest). In the chapter on priest’s clothing specifically, Carroll gives a meticulous description of the texture and other physical qualities of the fabric used for priest’s clothing, and explains how the priest uses vestments – along with other materials, spoken words, and ritual actions – to change himself into a figure capable of giving others absolution of sins. The reader is presented with the symbolic meaning of each item, gesture, and word, as well as with the theological explanation of the vestments’ transformative power. In the end, we are told, “By dressing in fabric anchors of anaphoric chains, the priest is able to change his subjectivity from a sinner to a righteous priest. …He is dressed in textile symbols, such that he is a visual representation of Christ’s priesthood. Taking onto himself specific items of fabric, each with successive images of Christ’s ministry and person, he has rendered himself an index and icon of Christ” (p. 131).

In this description, the change in priest’s subjectivity is affected through a change in materials for sure, but these materials are treated as meaning-carrying symbols. While Carroll insists that the priest uses the fabric to do more than re-signify himself, what that process looks like remains under-examined. How can we, then, move beyond the symbolic of the fabric, and into discovering what fabric does materially? Can the ethnographer ask questions about the weight, the smell, the warmth of the fabric and how these affect the priest’s body? Does the priest’s body feel different when he puts each layer on? How? The chapter mentions in passing that priests often note that it feels very taxing to hear confession. This is a wonderful point of departure to ask: what is taxing about it? The need to stand motionless for a long time, with the pressure of vestments over one’s tired body? The need to emotionally relate to people who cry, supplicate, and share their life stories, while covered by the epitrachelion(part of the priest’s vestments, that looks something like a long apron) during the rite? Does the donning of the garment trigger memories of previous liturgies served, confessions heard, and blessings bestowed on the faithful? When the priest uses fabric to become like Christ, is he able to cultivate and feel in his own body Christ’s compassion, love, sadness for the fallen world? Does the fabric help the priest feel, remember, move differently? How does that change over time? Asking practitioners about how things work with their sensory and emotive perceptions gets us closer to understanding the process through which a practitioner can recognize himself not a man, but an “index and icon of Christ” – different materially and therefore symbolically.

In the end,Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heavenis a substantial contribution to the academic fields of Orthodox Christianity, Anthropology of Christianity, and Material Culture. It not only demonstrates that adherents of diverse Christian traditions think about things differently, but also, in ways the scholars of Orthodoxy will recognize, challenges such taken-for-granted concepts as a thing, body, selfhood, and agency. Because of the nuanced and complex theory about materiality that this book sets forth, it would be more appropriate for adaptation in graduate, rather than undergraduate courses. When read by a scholar or used in the classroom by an instructor, this book is bound to generate much productive thought and discussion not only about Orthodox Christian material culture, but also more broadly about material culture as a theory and method in the study of religion.

[1]A good example of an anthropological study that utilizes these three lines of questioning productively – in order to explore the process through which Orthodox Christians become comfortable with and shape their understanding of materiality, with the help of, through, and by the power of things – and achieves a flawless symbiosis between theory and ethnographic evidence is Daniel Winchester’s dissertation, Assembling the Orthodox Soul: Practices of Religious Self-Formation among Converts to Eastern Orthodoxy(University of Minnesota, 2013).

[2]Orsi, Robert. “Chapter Three: Material Children: Making God’s Presence Real for Catholic Boys and Girls and for the Adults in Relation to Them” in Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Response by: Timothy Carroll

I’d like to thank Elena Kravchenko for her comments and reflection, and also AnthroCyBib for hosting this chance to have a brief conversation about my book. Elena offers an interesting perspective on this book and raises questions about the important aspect that emotion plays in religion. Thinking about Of People and Things, Elena is correct, I do not go into emotions much – in fact the word is hardly used in the text, though there is some discussion of the ‘freeing’ feeling of confession or parishioners’ affective sense of space. I suspect that this is for two important reasons. First, my fieldwork was conducted amongst groups of people who (stereotypically and accurately) are known to be somewhat stoic. English (even multi-ethnic metropolitan London) society is not profuse with emotion. Similarly, the monastic context of Vatopedi is not marked by emotional display. Secondly, in my experience of various kinds of Christianity, Orthodox tend to be less emotive. Two anecdotes from research: The first, in one instance when I asked a parishioner in London a question about emotion and feeling, my question was brushed to the side, and they told me that ‘emotionalism and sentimentality is what the Protestants do’. The second, one morning the monk I worked alongside in Vatopedi told me we’d be closing the tailor shop early that day. He was literally dancing with effusive joy. I asked him about his happiness, he sang, ‘The bishop! The bishop!’ – the cause for joy was assumed self-evident, a bishop’s retinue (three in fact) was arriving late morning in advance of the Great Festival. So, I do not deny the role of emotion, and I do note emotion as part of the display for some pilgrims and parishioners. It would be interesting, however, to see what an ethnography of emotion would look like in an Orthodox British context. It is a register that was not actively used by any of my interlocutors, except in the context of differentiation: against the Anglicans and their overly sentimental imagery, against Protestants and their emotionalism, against Catholics and the ‘Franco-Latin kitsch’. In my currently research (on death), I have in fact had priests tell me they wish their British congregations would show more emotion and cry more openly, as is common in the Orthodox Mediterranean. However, while this would be a useful avenue of enquiry to follow, I’m not convinced it would accomplish what Elena proposes it would. To suggest that having descriptions of/about feelings would help position how material things work in the human experience places a very strong (I think all too central) role on emotions. While affect is important within my theoretical approach (and thus I draw heavily on Gregg and Seigworth’s[1] idea of affective spaces), I think that much of this affect is prediscursive and prehermeneutic and thus is not (in the actual fact) and cannot (in our analysis) be abstracted to articulate statements about emotion and feeling.

I would also like to clarify a couple points – one particularly important, and one more trivial. Elena summarises my argument, saying that my interlocutor ‘believes in the agency of things’. I must insist that this is not the case. It is, in my understanding of Orthodoxy, borderline heresy to say that Orthodox believe in the agency of things. They acknowledge the capacity of Christ and the saints to work in and through the material world, and – to quote a contemporary Orthodox theologian – while the ‘non-believer is incapable of seeing the spiritual reality behind the phenomena of the visible world, which is present and co-exists with the material world’ the believer ‘sees the hand of God in everything’[2]. I think scholars of religion need to be careful about the possible bleed of analytical models (like Gell’s agency) into our understanding of ethnographic contexts. As such, in Of People and Things, I try to be sure to use terms like ‘agency’ in ethnographic contexts only if referring to Christ or a saint who is acting within the social milieu – and while that action may be done in and through material things, it is important to clarify that the Orthodox do not see the things to be the agents, but rather the grace of God and the saints. This is, in large, the point of the theoretical insight about anaphoric chains advanced within the book: it offers a way to understand how the subjectivity of the divine operates in the objectivity of the thing.

The second, more trivial point, is simply the ethnographic locus of the book. Elena suggests that the work relies ‘primarily, though not exclusively, on interview data and participant observation of clergymen’. While there is one extended case study that is drawn on participant observation with clergymen (the priestly vestments), the dominant portion of ethnographic research is based within parishioners in London and a lay monks and pilgrims in Mt Athos. In these contexts, clergymen are around, but not the primary focus of interest. I think this is worth bringing up as this book is not an ethnography of the religious elite, which might be implied if the research had, in fact, been done primarily through interviews and observation of clergy.

[1]Gregg, Melissa and Gregory Seigworth (2010). The Affect Theory Reader. Duke University Press.

[2]Alfeyev, Metr. Hilarion. 2011. ‘Unbelief is Spiritual Blindness’. Homily given 30/01/2011 in Moscow. Published by the ROC: Dept. for External Church Relations.

Feller, “Portable Power, Religious Swag”

Feller, Gavin. “Portable Power, Religious Swag: Mediating Authority in Brazillian Neo-Pentecostalism.” Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief. 14(3). 

Abstract: This study is an ethnographic and conceptual analysis of religious objects, their uses, and mediation of authority within the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Universal Church) in Brazil. Drawing on scholarship within media studies, religion and media, and material religion, I distinguish between artifacts used to cement implicit contracts between Universal Church followers and their church community, which I call contractual media, or swag, and those that followers bring to meetings to be blessed and then take home to mediate both good and evil forces in family, work, and social life—these I call portable media. While portable object media are seen by their owners as powerful tools, contractual media, on the other hand, create implicit power relations that keep followers tied to the institutional church in a reciprocal exchange predicated upon expected prosperity as evidence of faithful attendance, fidelity, and personal sacrifice. The physical exchange of material goods in religious spaces constitutes a perpetuation rather than a disruption of institutional religious authority. As infrastructure, contractual object media establish and maintain conditions for otherwise mundane materials to mediate power on a daily basis. Through attention toward portable and contract object media, as part of what I am calling material microstructure, we can further complicate religious authority as it is mediated through objects, not just in one-way flows but as dynamic exchanges and trade-offs between personal empowerment and institutional control.

Carroll, “Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heaven”

Carroll, Timothy. 2018. Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heaven. New York: Routledge.

Publisher’s Summary: Although much has been written on the making of art objects as a means of engaging in creative productions of the self (most famously Alfred Gell’s work), there has been very little written on Orthodox Christianity and its use of material within religious self-formation. Eastern Orthodox Christianity is renowned for its artistry and the aesthetics of its worship being an integral part of devout practice. Yet this is an area with little ethnographic exploration available and even scarcer ethnographic attention given to the material culture of Eastern Christianity outside the traditional ‘homelands’ of the greater Levant and Eastern Europe.

Drawing from and building upon Gell’s work, Carroll explores the uses and purposes of material culture in Eastern Orthodox Christian worship. Drawing on three years of ethnographic fieldwork in a small Antiochian Orthodox parish in London, Carroll focusses on a study of ecclesiastical fabric but places this within the wider context of Orthodox material ecology in Britain. This ethnographic exploration leads to discussion of the role of materials in the construction of religious identity, material understandings of religion, and pathways of pilgrimatic engagement and religious movement across Europe.

In a religious tradition characterised by repetition and continuity, but also as sensuously tactile, this book argues that material objects are necessary for the continual production of Orthodox Christians as art-like subjects. It is an important contribution to the corpus of literature on the anthropology of material culture and art and the anthropology of religion.

Bielo, “Biblical Gardens and the Sensuality of Religious Pedagogy”

Bielo, James. 2017. Biblical Gardens and the Sensuality of Religious Pedagogy. Material ReligionDOI: 10.1080/17432200.2017.1345099

Abstract: This article explores how the phenomenon of biblical gardens joins three bodies of scholarship: the social life of scriptures, the study of religion’s media turn, and religious pedagogy. As a kind of religious attraction, the biblical garden is both devotional and pedagogical, with historic roots in nineteenth-century projects to connect botanical science with biblical literacy. I argue that the pedagogy of biblical gardens is anchored by an ideology of sensual indexicality and a strategy of metonymic immersion, which is differentiated from themed immersion. Analyses are drawn from observational and textual data, as well as comparative data from other forms of Holy Land replication, primarily in the USA. Ultimately, I argue that biblical gardens resist a modern ideology that elevates visual experience atop a sensory hierarchy.

Opas and Haapalainen, eds, “Christianity and the Limits of Materiality”

Opas, Minna and Anna Haapalainen, eds.  2017.  Christianity and the Limits of Materiality.  London: Bloomsbury.

Publisher’s Description: Despite the fact that Christianity is understood to be thoroughly intertwined with matter, objects, and things, Christians struggle to cope with this materiality in their daily lives. This volume argues that the ambivalent relationships many Christians have with materiality is a driving force that contributes to the way people in different Christian traditions and in different parts of the world understand and live out their religion.

By placing the questions of limits and boundary-work to the fore, the volume addresses the question of exactly how Christianity takes place materially, addressing a gap in studies to date. Christianity and the Limits of Materiality presents ground-breaking research on the frameworks and contexts in relation to and within which Christian logics of materiality operate. The volume places the negotiations at the limits of materiality within the larger framework of Christian identities and politics of belonging.
The chapters discuss case studies from North and South America, Europe, and Africa, and demonstrate that the limits preoccupying Christians delimit their lives but also enable many things. Ultimately, Christianity and the Limits of Materiality demonstrates that it is at the interfaces of materiality and the transcendent that Christians create and legitimise their religion.
Contents:
Foreword, David Morgan (Duke University, USA)
Acknowledgements
Introduction, Minna Opas & Anna Haapalainen (University of Turku, Finland)
Part 1: Doubting
1. Spirit Media and the Spectre of the Fake, Marleen de Witte (Unviersity of Amsterdam, the Netherlands)
2. Organic Faith in Amazonia: De-indexification, doubt and Christian corporeality, Minna Opas (University of Turku, Finland)
3. Things not for themselves: idolatry and consecration in Orthodox Ethiopia, Tom Boylston (University of Edinburgh)
Part 2: Sufficing
4. The Bible in the Digital Age: Negotiating the Limits of ‘Bibleness’ of Different Bible Media, Katja Rakow(Heidelberg University, Germany)
5. The Plausibility of Immersion: limits and creativity in materializing the Bible, James Bielo (Miami University, USA)
6.Humanizing the Bible: Limits of materiality in a passion play, Anna Haapalainen (University of Turku, Finland)
7. Semana Santa processions in Granada – Religion or Spectacle? Sari Kuuva (University of Jyväskylä, Finland)
8. The death and rebirth of a crucifix: Materiality and the sacred in Andean vernacular Catholicism, Diego Alonso Huerta (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú / University of Helsinki, Finland)
Part 3: Unbinding
9. Proving the Inner Word: (De)materializing the Spirit in Radical Pietism Elisa Heinämäki (University of Helsinki, Finland)
10. The Return of the Unclean Spirit: Collapse and Relapse in the Baptist rehab ministry Igor Mikeshin (University of Helsinki, Finland)
11. Mimesis and Mediation in the Semana Santa Processions of Granada, Sari Kuuva, University of Jyväskylä
Afterword: Diana Espirito Santo (London School of Economics, UK)

Blythe, “Emma’s Willow: Historical Anxiety, Mormon Pilgrimage and Nauvoo’s Mater Dolorosa”

Christopher James Blythe, 2016. Emma’s Willow: Historical Anxiety, Mormon Pilgrimage and Nauvoo’s Mater Dolorosa, Material Religion 12: 405-432.

Abstract: Religious institutions establish collective identities through the production of a usable past, and thereby provide adherents with a sense of heritage. This article examines how this process functions in a Mormon pilgrimage site, Nauvoo, Illinois, where not one but two competing institutions, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and Community of Christ, have established alternative narratives of identity. I focus on the thousands of (almost exclusively) LDS pilgrims who visit the town each summer. I argue that the presence of multiple interpretations raises significant anxieties for many of these pilgrims. In an attempt to mediate these anxieties a vernacular religious site, a willow tree, is employed to point pilgrims to a Saint figure, Emma Smith, Joseph Smith Jr.’s widow, in order to fortify an alternative narrative existing outside of either official representation of Nauvoo’s past.

Bielo, Replication as Religious Practice

Bielo, James. 2016. Replication as Religious Practice, Temporality as Religious Problem. History and Anthropology, DOI:10.1080/02757206.2016.1182522

Abstract: This article explores how religious communities actualize the virtual problem of temporality. Analysing two case studies from contemporary America, Mormon Trek re-enactment and a creationist theme park re-creating Noah’s ark, I argue that replication is a strategy for constructing a relationship with time in which a strict past–present divide is collapsed through affective means. This work contributes to comparative studies in the anthropology of religion and temporalizing the past.

Bielo, “Materializing the Bible”

Bielo James. 2016. Materializing the Bible: Ethnographic Methods for the Consumption Process. Practical Matters 9. 

Abstract: Throughout the world there are over 200 sites that materialize the Bible, that is, sites that transform the written words of biblical scripture into physical, experiential attractions. These sites are definitively hybrid, integrating religion and entertainment, piety and play, fun and faith, commerce and devotion, pleasure and education. Religious studies scholars and anthropologists have published insightful works about selected sites, but no genre-wide analytical appraisal exists. In this article, I focus on how religiously committed visitors approach and experience these sites. Framed in a comparative register with research in religious tourism and pilgrimage studies, I propose analytical and methodological frameworks for the ethnographic study of Bible-based attractions.

Bielo, “Replicating the Holy Land in the U.S”

Bielo, James. 2015. “Replicating the Holy Land in the U.S. (a ‘Materializing the Bible’ Road Trip).” Material Religions. 30 December.

Abstract: James S. Bielo analyzes a practice of religious replication: re-creations of Holy Land sites in the United States. Such replications invite visitors into an experience of sensorial and imaginative immersion, marshaling indexical techniques for materializing the Bible. Replicating the Holy Land is a strategy for actualizing the virtual problem of authenticity, a problem that animates any and every lived expression of Christianity. To explore this phenomenon, we indulge another national tradition: the great American road trip. This essay emerges from a larger project, Materializing the Bible, curated by Bielo.

Mesaritou, “He is among us, get it into your head, he is alive and always here”

Mesaritou, Evgenia. 2015. ‘He is among us, get it into your head, he is alive and always here’: saintly presence at the pilgrimage centre of Padre Pio and the importance of ‘being there’ Culture and Religion: An Interdisciplinary Journal. DOI: 10.1080/14755610.2015.1019896

Abstract: The paper will focus upon the issue of saintly presence and the ways in which this is felt, experienced and enacted at the pilgrimage centre of Padre Pio. This issue will be examined in relation to the material and spatial structures of the pilgrimage centre and in particular the Sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Grazie, at the crypt of which the tomb of Padre Pio was until recently emplaced. In examining the issue of saintly presence in relation to the sanctuary’s materiality, the paper will also explore the relationship of two of the dimensions Eade and Sallnow ([1991] 2000, ‘Introduction’, in Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage., 2nd ed., edited by John Eade and Michael J. Sallnow, 1–29, Urbana: University of Illinois) propose for the examination of pilgrimage, namely person and place. Drawing on ethnographic data gathered during fieldwork (2004–2005), it will argue that the feeling of saintly presence is mainly generated by the knowledge people have of Padre Pio having lived and being buried there. This knowledge shapes their pilgrimage experience.