The Idea of Global Christianity: An Interview with Angie Heo

Anthropologist Angie Heo’s first book, The Political Lives of Saints: Christian-Muslim Mediation in Egypt (2018), examines saintly intercession to explore the reconfiguration of religio-political imaginaries. Rather than seal off Coptic Christians and their religious tradition, she foregrounds the shared life between Copts and Muslims, as both transformed by the modern Egyptian nation-state and by geopolitical interests in the Middle East, particularly its Christians. Her book expands the terrain of the anthropology of Christianity, pushing the limits of the subfield’s conceptual foundations by offering new avenues of investigation. Below, in a four-part interview with AnthroCyBib co-curators Candace Lukasik and Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, Heo shares her insights on discipline, methodology, and the transnational and political stakes of global Christianity. 

The Political Lives of Saints examines divine intercession to illuminate the ways Copts and Muslims in contemporary Egypt imagine the otherworldly and also how they imagine each other. As an anthropologist of Christianity, what concepts, methodologies, or frameworks guided your approach? How has the subfield of the anthropology of Christianity and/or Religious Studies shaped your work? 

Christian-Muslim mediation is the overarching frame of my book.  By examining how Coptic Orthodoxy mediates social relations between Christians and Muslims, I sought to avert the culturalist notion that Christian ideas and practices serve to reproduce and reinforce Christian identities.  This notion is especially pervasive across studies of Egypt’s Copts, a group which frequently figures as a beleaguered minority battling to assert its religious identity in the throes of persecution. For theorizing about Christianity, the problem I found with this model of cultural assertion is that it leaves intact, even affirms, the sectarian structures of communal identity that end up ghettoizing Copts and Coptic Orthodoxy in the first instance.  In other words, the position of Copts in the Egyptian state and society are always and already-given ones in the political analysis, with Christianity merely providing its cultural and ideological contents for expression. Christian-Muslim mediation was my strategy for specifying how Orthodox Christianity serves as an historically specific medium for generating structures of minoritarian authoritarianism as well as potentials for overturning them. While researching and writing, I discovered that Orthodox Christianity and its modern transformations offer thick insights into intersections of state and religion, which means for Copts, important sites of Christian-Muslim governance. 

Intercession – that is, advocacy on behalf of another – is a key concept that grounded me in the material technics of religious mediation.  In my book, I focus on intercession to analyze two tiers of Christian-Muslim mediation at once: institutional and imaginary. My inspiration came from an illustration that I encountered several times during my fieldwork.  When I asked about how saints and their holy intercession works, many Copts would invoke the metaphor of “wasta”, the “who you know” or personal connections that work for you when you need something. The simple yet striking metaphor stuck with me.  There is a lot written on how the Coptic Church has assumed an increasingly centralized institutional role as an arbiter of Christian-Muslim affairs nationwide. There is less written on how this new institutionalization of communal advocacy has relied on major shifts in everyday activity of divine mediation.  Intercession allowed me to consider multiple genres of religious communication, with the aim of disaggregating institutions of state power into its various forms, acts, images, embodiments, ideologies. That is, breaking apart what seem like coherent institutional actors from the bottom up and inside out.

Lucky for me, anthropologists of religion had already been contributing to vibrant conversations in religion and media as I was first exploring intercession.  Here, I am thinking about the anthropologies of Christianity and Islam in particular, both fields pursuing overlapping questions around language ideologies along with the secular and global nature of modernity.  While pursuing a PhD in Anthropology at Berkeley, I also had the good fortune of studying with Bill Hanks, Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood who each advanced my thought on semiotics, materiality, and technology in different ways.  It is true that anthropologists of Christianity have spilled significant ink on Protestantism (and I will join them for the second project!). Having trained with an historically-oriented ethnographer of Catholicism and a leading expert in indexicality, I benefited from yet another perspective on the sensory dynamics of presence that helped my work on Orthodoxy’s visual and tactile elements.  Anthropological work on Islam, and with Egypt as a decidedly fruitful location, has also been formative of my approach to media, tradition and authority. I cannot even imagine how my book would have turned out without these remarkable writings which deal with the contending publics and politics of Islam and which speak volumes about religion beyond the limits of Islam.   

For your second project you have shifted your focus to Evangelical South Korea, to examine late capitalist development and the legacy of the Cold War. This project also takes a transnational shift, looking at the global linkages of political conservatism. Between the Middle East and the Asian Pacific Rim, and (Oriental) Orthodox Christianity and Evangelical Protestantism, what are some of the ways your conceptual engagements with and understandings of the anthropology of Christianity shifted between these two projects? Beyond theological or ritual differences, how is the study of Orthodox and Protestant forms of Christianity different in anthropological perspective? How do transnational linkages, migration, and global connection factor into your new analytic frames?

I find these questions especially stimulating because I have been thinking lately about what the term “global Christianity” both offers and obscures for interdisciplinary scholarship in religious studies.  It is too often the case, unfortunately, that “global” signifies a geopolitical hierarchy in which the originary norms of a given tradition are presumed to lie in the U.S. and Europe, while phenomena like “global religions” or “world literature” lie in the Global South.  Anthropologists of Christianity, I believe, can help push for more analytic clarity on what “global” and what “Christianity” mean, and what they mean together. Your line of questions pushes exactly for this clarity. Orthodoxy and Protestantism, as Christian traditions, both organize distinct orders of universalism and empire – we could even say competing orders.  They also encounter shared forces of globalization – trade, media and migration – that shape their respective orders of growth and expansion. Work gets exciting when we think about the universalizing aspects of tradition and the globalizing dimensions of political economy, conjointly and comparatively.  

What is unique to Orthodox Christianity is the intrinsic centrality of the ethnos or nation to its self-identity; that is, Coptic Orthodoxy is Egyptian Christianity.  This imagined link between nation and Orthodoxy relies on traditional ideologies of origin, nativism and continuity, and this link also changes across historical contexts of anticolonial nation-building and ecumenical aspirations.  Of all my book’s body chapters, the second one “Redemption at the Edge” most directly tackles various entanglements of Orthodox expansion with the modern nation-form. In it, I examine how Orthodoxy prescribes forms of pilgrimage and imaginings of Holy Land, and how religious boundaries and territorial borders are defined in the process.  The whole chapter revolves around the question of what Holy Egypt is, what the Egyptian nation-state is, and how these two converge in the 1960s. Vatican II and the Arab-Israeli wars, I argue, are significant historical events that shaped the specifically Egyptian character of Coptic Orthodoxy (Arab nationalism + Christian-Muslim unity) and its counter-imperial forms.  To make this argument, I had to engage the broader international and global frames that determined this dual status of Egypt’s image, and thus began with two imperial frontiers, Roman Catholic and Zionist.  

So while imaginings of the ethnos or nation are central to Orthodoxy, this does not mean that Orthodoxy is bound to nationalism in any primordial or essential way.  I think the intellectual project is to observe Orthodoxy’s changing definitions and attachments to the nation-form, and then, to analyze what it implies on a more global scale about national and religious belonging.  In The Political Lives of Saints, I trace how international contours of post-WWII imperialism shaped Orthodoxy’s claim as a distinctively “national” religious tradition.  Another angle at the global aspects of Orthodox Christianity embarks from transnational and diasporic displacements of national belonging (and I’m eagerly looking forward to reading both of your dissertations on this topic!).  For the Orthodox American context, I also find the longer history of Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska fascinating for historicizing questions of diasporic migration and settlement during periods of U.S. and Russian rule. From recent conference invitations I’ve received, I’m gathering that there is also budding interest in Orthodoxy’s growth across the Far Eastern borderlands, near and inside Japan, China and North Korea.  Here, I can’t resist giving another shout-out to Dominic Martin‘s forthcoming book on Old Orthodoxy in a former military zone for nuclear submarine repair near Vladivostok.

This brings me to my second book project on Cold War Christianity in the Asian Pacific Rim. My second book project more squarely examines the transnational and imperial impulses internal to Evangelical Protestantism, focusing on South Korea and the divided Koreas.  As in Egypt, the historical setting of anticolonial nationalism was crucial to the making of national Christianity and its liberatory identity in South Korea. Protestant Christianity’s explosive growth during the Cold War additionally meant that American-allied ideologies of anticommunism and freedom were always part of the equation.  For my work on Orthodoxy in Egypt, I devoted a lot of time to thinking about materiality, images, and the tradition’s deep ties to antiquity. In Korea, I’m finding that I am consistently asking questions about transnational religion alongside questions about political economy and fervently capitalist conditions. Development and globalization set the terms of rapid religious change in South Korea, in effect, a mass conversion to Protestant Christianity that unfolded over a couple quick and spectacular decades instead of the glacial pace of millennia.  This historical fact, of course, has to change the way we approach the study of Christianity in Korea and East Asia more broadly (versus the Middle East) . 

While Orthodoxy has been described by scholars and journalists alike as a “national” religious tradition, you’re asking us to defamiliarize this notion by looking to the historical contexts by which such a claim emerged—post-WWII imperialism, as well as postcolonial imaginaries of the nation. While transnational and diasporic displacements have decentered the nation over the past few decades—as Orthodox populations migrate, settle, and develop new notions of belonging—how does the current far-right iterations of nationalism and growing forms of political conservatism weigh upon Orthodoxy, in its many forms? For example, the renewed power of the Russian Orthodox Church and its intimate connections to President Vladimir Putin has reinforced the narrative of Orthodoxy as archaic and such majority Orthodox countries as antithetical to the promise of political secularism. Along these lines, how does the Coptic Orthodox context compare to, say, the Russian or Greek contexts? How do non-ethnic converts to these faiths trouble Orthodoxy’s perceived “nationalist” tendencies?

 The rise of far-right nationalism and right-wing populism is, unfortunately, a current and global phenomenon.  Considering the high value it places on origins, Orthodoxy may slide into ideologies of nativism, purity and authenticity, especially when allied with xenophobic strands of nationalism.  This is where I think race, racism, and racial hierarchies become important issues to explore alongside Orthodoxy, especially as it is linked to various forms of growth such as assimilation or invasion.  During my fieldwork, I also discovered that some of the most devout Copts were adherents of racial purity, and some measure of racism carried weight in their understandings of Arab Islam and Egyptian Orthodoxy.  In the Coptic Orthodox tradition of saint veneration, we also find imaginary traces of racial difference, colonialism and globalization in figures like Moses the Black (also called “the Ethiopian”), and most recently, Matthew the African (the Ghanaian migrant laborer who was among the Libya Martyrs). On the question of comparison, I still have much to learn about contemporary movements in the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, but I am sure that their mission dioceses join the Coptic Orthodox’s abroad in the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia. 

Examining Orthodoxy to specify the relationship between political conservatism and political secularism would make for a fascinating project.  Isn’t it precisely the authoritarian impulses internal to liberalism that have inspired so many studies in critical secularism recently?  And many of them have also looked closely at Protestantism for secular-liberalism’s shadows. I don’t believe there is anything intrinsic to Orthodoxy that overdetermines its alliances with far-right or extreme nationalist governments in any context.  What I find really interesting, in fact, are the resources within Orthodoxy that allow for those moments when Orthodox churches assert their autonomy from their sponsoring states. These moments include Pope Shenouda’s break away from President Sadat, as the “Arab’s pope”, when it came to maintaining the pilgrimage ban after The Camp David Accords in 1978.  They also include the post-Soviet churches seeking recognition from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople rather than the Moscow Patriarchate in 1991. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the various Ukrainian Orthodox Churches especially after the 2018 schism which is directly related to the Russian military occupation of Ukraine. I am excited to read Jeanne Kormina and Vlad Naumescu‘s writings, for example, on how this topic plays out for the Russian Orthodox churches in Western Europe for the next issue of Anthropology Today (Volume 35, Issue 4). 

Building off of your earlier response to the term “global Christianity,” how has studying non-Western forms of Christianity been received in the American academy, within and outside of the discipline of anthropology? Many times, when scholars write and speak of Christianity, they tend to collapse all of Christianity into Western Christianity. What implications does this have for Eastern forms of Christianity that stem from different historical contexts and genealogies? To get more specific in relation to your work in The Political Lives of Saints, how has Orthodoxy been made legible in the study of Christianity and religion more broadly? What are the possibilities of disentangling Western Christianity and the global North from studies of Christianity, in all its diversity, within the academy?

How do we locate where the East and West are in any form of Christianity?  For many postcolonial subjects of Christianity, the answers may lead to either alienation or emancipation.  And then, how do we specify where the East and West are within Coptic Orthodoxy in Egypt, and in ways that distinguish them from where they are within Evangelical Protestantism in South Korea?  I believe these are critical questions that all scholars of global Christianity – anthropologists, historians, theologians – need to be asking. I certainly understand why people call Coptic Orthodoxy an “Eastern tradition”, or Korean Protestantism an “Eastern” or “Asian” expression of a Western tradition.  In some venues, it even makes sense to deploy shorthand for complex geopolitical relations. But there is also the danger of reifying the East and West in ways that aren’t very helpful for understanding religious ideas and practices if you want to go beyond identity claims.  

I gave this little prelude of qualifiers about the limited use-value of East and West because I have heard these designations amply thrown around in Christianity studies.  But I suppose my real answer begins here, since I actually hear your question asking something different. Anthropologists of secularism and Islam, like Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, exercise the genealogical method to show how concepts are entangled in unequal relations of power. The West and non-West binary allows them to stage and expose an asymmetry between various traditions of thought and practice.  This asymmetry is also one in which certain elements from Christianity in Western Europe and North America become hegemonic in academic scholarship and political institutions. Few think of Asad as an anthropologist of Christianity (on this note, I find Gil Anidjar’s exchange with him to be lively and interesting).  But Asad is clearly examining not only Enlightenment Christian sensibilities in human rights’ regimes, but also medieval Christian forms of ritual discipline that informed pathbreaking work on submission and agency in Islam.  In my view, the first step for disentangling Western Christianity from studies of Christianity is to identify what norms govern our notions of religion and how these norms are related to imaginaries of the East / West divide. Doing this can also broaden conversation between the anthropology of Christianity and other subfields in anthropology at large.

 

 

Ravalde, “Deceiving the spirit”

Ravalde, L. (2019). “Deceiving the spirit: engaging with the Holy Spirit in Catholic Uganda.” Africa 89(1), 147-164. 

Abstract: During ethnographic fieldwork among lay Catholics in eastern Uganda, informants occasionally turned to deception in their dealings with God and the Holy Spirit; in doing so, they appeared to reject the Christian notion of divine omnipotence and omniscience. Based on ethnography conducted in a sub-county I call Buluya, this article tries to explain how such attempts are deemed possible and plausible. My argument is made up of two main strands. First, I argue that, in an indeterminate social landscape in which no one can ever fully ‘know’ (ngeo) another person, many interpersonal relationships in Buluya are firmly grounded in practical efforts to gain better jobs, more money, education and greater security. I show how deception is a normal and morally neutral aspect of these relationships, as each party strives to protect what they have, and to improve their prospects. Second, I draw on ethnographic and historical data to suggest that the Holy Spirit has entered into the local cosmology in Buluya as a powerful yet limited being, dependent to some extent on the guidance of its human mediators. Finally, I bring these two strands together to suggest that, when the Holy Spirit is conceived of as a limited being (it, too, does not fully know people), relationships with it that take place through a human mediator can also be legitimately characterized by deception, without risking the work of the Holy Spirit.

Pond-de Wit, Houtman, Exalto, Lieburg, Roeland, and Wisse, “Buildings and Bibles Between Profanation and Sacralization”

Abstract: Based on an ethnographic case study of three recently erected church buildings in the Dutch Bible Belt, this article demonstrates how orthodox Reformed congregations in the Netherlands define church buildings—especially the auditoria—and bibles as simultaneously profane and mediating the sacred. These at first glance ambivalent discourses are informed by a particular semiotic ideology, which maintains that material spaces and objects like these are sacralized if, and only if, individual believers can meaningfully relate them to their personal spiritual experiences. This ideology makes a primary attitude of profanization of material forms indispensable, because any preexistent sacredness of matter would precisely rule out these personal spiritual experiences.

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.

Hovland, “Beyond Mediation”

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.

Haynes, “Why can’t a pastor be president of a ‘Christian Nation’?”

Haynes, Naomi. 2018. Why can’t a pastor be president of a “Christian Nation”? Pentecostal Politics as Religious Mediation. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review. 41(1): 60-74.

Why has Nevers Mumba, one of Zambia’s most famous Pentecostal leaders, been so unsuccessful in his two presidential bids? Previous analyses have blamed Mumba’s political woes on a presumed Pentecostal belief that politics is a lesser vocation than the pastorate. In contrast to these interpretations, I argue that Pentecostals in Zambia are very committed to the notion that, at least ideally, their leaders should be pastors, and more specifically that they should be effective mediators of the divine covenant established when Zambia was declared a “Christian nation.” The problem with Mumba is, therefore, not that pastors are not supposed to be politicians, but rather that he has failed to convince believers that he is a good mediator. This article opens up new horizons in the study of Pentecostal politics, suggesting that populism in countries with high Pentecostal populations is increasingly defined by the capacity for religious mediation.

 

Boylston, “The Stranger at the Feast”

Boylston, Tom. 2018. The Stranger at the Feast: Prohibition and Mediation in an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Community. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Publisher’s DescriptionThe Stranger at the Feast is a pathbreaking ethnographic study of one of the world’s oldest and least-understood religious traditions. Based on long-term ethnographic research on the Zege peninsula in northern Ethiopia, the author tells the story of how people have understood large-scale religious change by following local transformations in hospitality, ritual prohibition, and feeding practices. Ethiopia has undergone radical upheaval in the transition from the imperial era of Haile Selassie to the modern secular state, but the secularization of the state has been met with the widespread revival of popular religious practice. For Orthodox Christians in Zege, everything that matters about religion comes back to how one eats and fasts with others. Boylston shows how practices of feeding and avoidance have remained central even as their meaning and purpose has dramatically changed: from a means of marking class distinctions within Orthodox society, to a marker of the difference between Orthodox Christians and other religions within the contemporary Ethiopian state.

Read an e-version for free courtesy of luminosoa!

Robbins, “Keeping God’s Distance”

Robbins, Joel. 2017. Keeping God’s Distance: Sacrifice, possession, and the problem of religious mediation. American Ethnologist 44(3): 464-475.

Abstract: Much contemporary work in the anthropology of religion explores how human experience of the divine is mediated. One question rarely asked, however, is why people distance the divine from themselves in the first place, such that complex practices of mediation are necessary to make it present. An answer to this question is provided by Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss in their book Sacrifice, which I read as a key precursor to current work on religious mediation. Hubert and Mauss focus on how religious mediations model and shape social mediations. I demonstrate the usefulness of an approach to mediation that draws on their work by examining a shift from sacrifice to possession as forms of mediation among Pentecostal converts in Papua New Guinea. I also show that this approach can help us further develop broader anthropological theories of mediation and social life.

Elisha, “Saved by a Martyr”

Elisha, Omri. 2016. Saved by a Martyr: Evangelical Mediation, Sanctification, and the “Persecuted Church.”  Journal of the American Academy of Religion. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfw016 [Early Pre-publication release]

Abstract: This article examines the significance of mediation in the public program- ming and activism of The Voice of the Martyrs (VOM), an organization that offers international aid and advocacy to Christians identified as victims of persecution. Focusing on VOM’s efforts to rally Westerners, especially evangelical Protestants, I argue that the antipersecution movement urges supporters to share the mantle of martyrdom by engaging in purposeful acts of religious mediation, including the consumption and circulation of martyrological media. I explore a related tendency among evangelicals to valorize non-Western Christians in precarious circumstances as exemplars of self-sacrificing piety, whose suffering represents and inspires conditions of sanctification. Drawing on media analysis and fieldwork, I explore how practices of mediation, as forms of “witness,” invite evangelicals to embody otherwise elusive virtues and modes of agency associated with Christian martyrs, while reflecting ambiguous modern conceptions of the nature of embodied suffering and the relationship between vulnerability and power.

Butticci, “African Pentecostals in Catholic Europe”

Butticci, Annalisa. 2016. African Pentecostals in Catholic Europe: The Politics of Presence in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Publisher’s Description: Over the past thirty years, Italy—the historic home of Catholicism—has become a significant destination for migrants from Nigeria and Ghana. Along with suitcases and dreams of a brighter future, these Africans bring their own form of Christianity, Pentecostalism, shaped by their various cultures and religious worlds. At the heart of Annalisa Butticci’s beautifully sculpted ethnography of African Pentecostalism in Italy is a paradox. Pentecostalism, traditionally one of the most Protestant of Christian faiths, is driven by the same concern as Catholicism: real presence.

In Italy, Pentecostals face harsh anti-immigrant sentiment and limited access to economic and social resources. At times, they find safe spaces to worship in Catholic churches, where a fascinating encounter unfolds that is equal parts conflict and communion. When Pentecostals watch Catholics engage with sacramental objects—relics, statues, works of art—they recognize the signs of what they consider the idolatrous religions of their ancestors. Catholics, in turn, view Pentecostal practices as a mix of African religions and Christian traditions. Yet despite their apparently irreconcilable differences and conflicts, they both share a deeply sensuous and material way to make the divine visible and tangible. In this sense, Pentecostalism appears much closer to Catholicism than to mainstream Protestantism.

African Pentecostals in Catholic Europe offers an intimate glimpse at what happens when the world’s two fastest growing Christian faiths come into contact, share worship space, and use analogous sacramental objects and images. And it explains how their seemingly antithetical practices and beliefs undergird a profound commonality.