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.
Protestants mobilize objects such as ‘Holy Land’ flowers, Jordan River stones, vials of Dead Sea water, sand from Lake Tiberias, and Golgotha soil as potent metonymic resources, promising a kind of direct access to the scriptural past and its sacred stories. This article uses this case of biblical landscape items to reflect on the historic ambivalence that characterizes Protestant relations with religious materiality. Building on scholarship that has demonstrated the prolific role of religious materiality in Protestant ritual and everyday lifeworlds, the author extends this analysis by asking: under what conditions do Protestants experience materiality as untroubled and under what conditions is a more anxious disposition activated? To differentiate among conditions, the author proposes that it is helpful to conceptualize Protestant engagements with materiality vis-à-vis legitimized frames (e.g. pedagogy, devotion, evangelism, entertainment). Drawing together archival and ethnographic data, primarily among US Protestants, the article argues that when Protestants function within legitimized frames they are prone to embrace biblical landscape items, but when they find themselves out of frame, their engagement with this particular species of materiality becomes troubled.
Hovland, Ingie. 2018. Beyond Mediation: An Anthropological Understanding of the Relationship Between Humans, Materiality, and Transcendence in Protestant Christianity. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 86(2): 425-453.
Abstract: How does a relationship come about between religious practitioners and supernatural beings? According to the mediation turn—which has recently taken hold in the material religion field and the anthropology of religion—religious communities use sensational forms to mediate the presence of an otherwise invisible transcendent. This article will apply the mediation framework to a case study of a particular Protestant group—namely world-renouncing, evangelical missionaries in nineteenth-century Southern Africa. I will argue that in this case the concept of mediation limits our understanding of the multiple God-human relationships involved. This raises questions concerning how and in which contexts the mediation turn can be analytically useful. In conclusion, the article will suggest that there is a dynamic range of modes of relating God and humans in Protestant Christianity, including modes that go beyond mediation.
Antohin, Alexandra. 2017. “Holy Water, healing and the sacredness of knowledge.” In The Material Culture of Failure: When Things Do Wrong, edited by David Jeevendrampillai, Aaron Parkhurst, Timothy Carroll, and Julie Shackelford, 75-94. London: Bloomsbury.
Excerpt: This chapter traces the processes by which people confront and seek to address failures in their lives by looking at one specific material: holy water. The following analyses will consider several key questions for evaluating when things go wrong by specifically interrogating the processes of knowledge production when using materials to achieve desired effects. In particular, what is the relationship between the expectation of individuals seeking a radical change and the reality of that change failing to take place?
Abstract: This article examines three Catholic home shrines in a Dalit community in North Indian and argues that it is misleading to think that home shrines and other collections of material objects are somehow static conveyors of meaning. “Meaning” can mean many things or nothing at all, depending upon the terms we are using and the scholarly methods we deploy. The crucial aspect of Dalit Catholic home shrines is that they are literally open to interpretation and reinterpretation, to touching and being touched. Their significance—their meaning—depends not on decoding their structure or symbolic logic, but interacting with them as part of a larger network of human and material connections and interpenetrations.
Marleen de Witte, “Encountering Religion through Accra’s Urban Soundscape” in Jonathan Darling and Helen Wilson (eds.), 2016, Encountering the City: Urban Encounters from Accra to New York. London and New York: Routledge. Pp. 133-150.
Excerpt: Encountering the bustling West-African city of Accra is an intense sonic experience. The metropolis is alive with sounds. Everywhere music is in the air, pulsating from portable radios, car speakers, and open-air drinking spots. Taxis honk their way through traffic jams; street hawkers market their wares; markets and transport hubs are cacophonies of voices: talking, calling, shouting, hissing, bargaining, quarrelling, laughing, singing, preaching. Amidst the fullness of sounds in the city, religious sounds claim a prominent place, day and night. Roaming evangelists on street corners, markets and in buses try to persuade their audiences of the word of God with raucous voices or loudspeakers at full volume. Charismatic radio preachers and Ghanaian gospel hits enter urban space on the airwaves, while singing and praying voices of devout Christians escape private rooms and church buildings through open louver windows…This chapter explores how religious diversity is encountered and negotiated through the urban soundscape.
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.
Abstract: This article situates a cultural phenomenon of women’s memory work through clothing in Swaziland. It explores clothing as both action and object of everyday, personalized practice that constitutes psychosocial well-being and material proximities between the living and the dead, namely, in how clothing of the deceased is privately possessed and ritually manipulated by the bereaved. While human and spiritual self-other relations are produced through clothing and its material efficacy, current global ideologies of immaterial mortuary ritual associated with Pentecostalism have emerged as contraries to this local, intersubjective grief work. This article describes how such contrarian ideologies paper over existing global aspects of people’s entangled relations with the dead – in three biographies of women and their objects – thus showing that memory work is not limited to people, goods, or ideas that flow between nations and expanding notions of the global and gendered practices of personhood.
Abstract: This paper examines how Utah’s 1947 This Is The Place Monument functioned in two contradictory ways: First, it confirmed the Mormon narrative of their entry into the Salt Lake Valley as a mythic narrative about a chosen people entering into their promised land. Second, it reinforced Mormonism as one among many traditions participating in the civil religion of Utah and the American West. In its exploration of these contradictory impulses, the paper examines the intersections of historical memory and the creation of sacred space.
Abstract: This ethnographic article discusses funerary practice, Orthodox Christian ideas of body and spirit, and the ways in which people make memorials for each other on the Zege Peninsula in northwest Ethiopia. I pay special attention to gravestones because, here as in many other places, physical memorials to the dead become locations where latent uncertainties and conflicts about the relationship between spirit and matter, body and soul, and this world and the next, tend to crystallize. I show that material memorials highlight ambiguities in Orthodox attitudes to human embodiment and challenge priestly monopolies over relations between the living and the dead. Because of material chains of mediation and memorialization, the disaggregating practices of Orthodox funerary ritual can never fully untangle the deceased from their worldly social entanglements.