Abstract: African Americans regularly join Eastern Orthodox churches in the United States. By focusing on what practitioners do with Orthodox icons, this case study explores the processes through which specific experiences and expressions of being an Orthodox Christian become possible and meaningful for African American practitioners. This article suggests that saint veneration became a compelling Orthodox practice to practitioners because it provided a unique way to connect to the divine and to resist continuing racial discrimination in the United States. With the help of icons, African American men and women demonstrated that African people were saints, that African women contributed significantly to the history of Christianity, and that African Americans performed saintly acts. In this way, practitioners aimed to cultivate a reconciled Christian community where the full and equal membership of people of African descent is taken for granted. In following how Orthodox Christians put the materiality of their icons to work to deconstruct the assumption that whiteness is a universal default for religious experience, this article urges scholars of African American religions to make room for Eastern Orthodoxy as yet another tradition that supplies African Americans with creative tools to craft a compelling way of being a religious person.
Abstract: I present here examples of the photographic presence of a religious minority community in the secret police archives in ex-communist Eastern Europe. The use of secret police archives by researchers to trace the history of repression and collaboration and to understand the methods employed by totalitarian regimes to control their populations is well established. The significance of these archives for the study of material religion, however, has been largely overlooked by scholars. The secret police archives in Romania and the Republic of Moldova constitute a hidden repository of confiscated religious materials and photographs which often sit alongside photographic images created by the secret police in the course of their investigations into “criminal” religious activities. These archives, therefore, represent an important resource for understanding both how religious groups chose to represent themselves, and how the totalitarian system created images of religious “others” in order to incriminate them and to produce anti-religious propaganda. In this paper, through the presentation of example cases from state security files, I discuss the dual character of the photographic traces of communities in the archives as both religious justification and incrimination, and suggest ways of approaching these images through their materiality in the context of contemporary post-communist society.
This article investigates the construction and transmission of charisma through online channels and its role in the formation of religious identities. Mindful of Max Weber’s observation that charisma inhabits the relationship between a leader and his/her followers, I argue for a critical reappraisal of the theoretical model in the light of the ubiquity in the twenty-first century of new, virtual forms of social encounter. I focus my analysis on the Christian creationist movement in the United States and particularly on an influential leader called Ken Ham. Using digital ethnographic methods, I show how Ham constructs charisma online and how a virtual community forms itself around his charismatic claims. I illustrate how this virtual community intersects with offline worlds and suggest that the theme park attractions that Ham’s organisation runs (Creation Museum, Ark Encounter) are imbued with deflected charisma by virtue of their association with his online avatar.
Abstract: Gender is central to most religious orders. In turn, religions have a significant impact on gendered relations. The study of gender and religion stems from a broader interest in feminist anthropology, and multiple approaches to the study of gender and religion have been developed. An early approach explores the ways that religious practice influences male and female behavior. Studies in this vein explore changing gender norms attending conversion to new religions, or the ways that women’s and men’s roles are constrained and shaped by religious practice. More-recent work analyzes the ways that gender itself structures religious and spiritual ethics and practice. While patriarchal relations are central to many global religions, this is not a universal principle. Some religious orders emphasize cooperation and respect for women over hierarchy. Others may prioritize male leadership but indirectly provide women with types of ethical identities and spiritual positions that create spaces for women to practice their own agency and forms of power. The ethnographic record also demonstrates that there is often a significant difference between how patriarchal gender relations are prioritized in formal religious spaces and how they are practiced. Gender often shapes the religious meanings of space and materiality. Continue reading →
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.
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.
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.
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.