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.

 

 

Ikeuchi, “Jesus Loves Japan”

Ikeuchi, Suma. 2019. Jesus Loves Japan: Return Migration and Global Pentecostalism in a Brazilian Diaspora. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 

Abstract: After the introduction of the “long-term resident” visa, the mass-migration of Nikkeis (Japanese Brazilians) has led to roughly 190,000 Brazilian nationals living in Japan. While the ancestry-based visa confers Nikkeis’ right to settlement virtually as a right of blood, their ethnic ambiguity and working-class profile often prevent them from feeling at home in their supposed ethnic homeland. In response, many have converted to Pentecostalism, reflecting the explosive trend across Latin America since the 1970s. Jesus Loves Japan offers a rare window into lives at the crossroads of return migration and global Pentecostalism. Suma Ikeuchi argues that charismatic Christianity appeals to Nikkei migrants as a “third culture”—one that transcends ethno-national boundaries and offers a way out of a reality marked by stagnant national indifference. Jesus Loves Japan insightfully describes the political process of homecoming through the lens of religion, and the ubiquitous figure of the migrant as the pilgrim of a transnational future.

 

Rocha, “God is in control”

Rocha, Cristina. (2019). “‘God is in control’: middle-class Pentecostalism and international student migration.” Journal of Contemporary Religion. 34(1): 21-37. 

In this article I explore the role of Pentecostalism in the lives of middle-class Brazilian students-turned-migrants in Australia. Brazilian students lead precarious lives in Australia. They are transitioning into adulthood, living away from the homeland and without their families for the first time and they experience downward mobility. In addition, they are at the mercy of constant changes in Australian migration policy. Drawing on three years of multi-sited fieldwork in Australia and Brazil in three Pentecostal churches (the Australian megachurches Hillsong and C3 and a Brazilian church), I argue that Pentecostalism supports these students in their migration pathway. This is particularly the case because these are Seeker churches. By focusing on youth culture, entertainment, and informality and by addressing real-life situations, these churches cater to middle-class sensibilities. I also contend that their religious beliefs and practices are interwoven with the students’ narratives of migration to Australia. Thus the students pray for visas, jobs, and sponsorships for permanent residency and they see every obstacle and achievement as God’s work in their lives. For them, God determines whether they can stay or must return home. Importantly, citizenship in God’s kingdom gives them a more significant sense of belonging than that of the Australian state.

Arrington, “World Christianity and the Ethnographic Imagination”

Arrington, Aminta (2019). “World Christianity and the Ethnographic Imagination.” Journal of World Christianity 9(1), 103-113. 

Abstract: The ethnographic imagination links the big stories of broad historical forces and the small stories of individual lived experience. In the study of world Christianity, it links church movements with individual participants, texts with oral traditions, creeds with practices. In this article the author examines the role of migration in the Christian story of the Lisu of southwest China. The author tells the big story of how migration across borders greatly impacted the resilience of Lisu Christianity, allowing it to transcend the political turmoil of particular countries. But she also tells a small story, showing migration as a lived experience that greatly impacted one Christian family. The ethnographic imagination seeks truth in the frayed edges where big stories and small stories meet. Ultimately, the ethnographic imagination is an appropriate research posture for world Christianity because it requires that scholars approach the subject less as a corpus of texts and more as a community of souls.

Kalkun, Kupari, and Vuola, “Coping with Loss of Homeland through Orthodox Christian Processions”

Kalkun, Andreas, Kupari, Helena, and Vuola, Elina. 2018. “Coping with Loss of Homeland through Orthodox Christian Processions: Contemporary Practices among Setos, Karelians, and Skolt Sámi in Estonia and Finland.” Practical Matters Journal. 11. 

Abstract: In this article, we focus on the coping, healing, and commemorative aspects of religious rituals, discussing three annual religious feasts that also have significance as expressions of ethnic culture. They are the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God of the PskovoPechersky Monastery, the Saarivaara Chapel temple feast in North Karelia, and the pilgrimage of Saint Tryphon in Finnish Lapland. All take the form of Orthodox Christian processions or pilgrimages and are situated in symbolically significant landscape in the historical home area of minority groups – Setos, (Border) Karelians, and Skolt Sámi. The article relies first and foremost on research material gathered through participant observation in these three religious feasts. We are interested in how the Orthodox religion, through the processions and pilgrimages that are our focus, functions as a coping mechanism for the loss of homeland and other traumas related to changing national borders. The issues of loss and trauma are present in all our case studies. The three religious feasts express hardships related to (forced) migration and minority identity in concrete and visible ways. Our analysis demonstrates that the Orthodox religion continues to function as an important source of ethno-religious identity among Setos, Karelians, and Skolt Sámi. All three feasts take place in symbolically significant locations and help members of these minority groups reconcile the traumatic events of their past with the present-day situation. In all three processions national and ethnic identity is emphasized through concrete means. These include traditional clothes, food, objects, and customs, use of the local language and colloquialisms, non-religious ethnically inspired program, and the presence of respected elders. Through these markers, the groups assign special meanings to the rituals, asserting their identities. Ultimately, these practices are precisely what turn the feasts into manifestations of Seto, Karelian, or Skolt Sámi Orthodoxy.

Brown, “In search of the Solemn”

Brown, Bernardo E.  2017. In search of the Solemn with Sri Lankan migrant priests.  The Australian Journal of Anthropology.  Early online publication.

Abstract: The declining number of religious vocations joining Catholic seminaries in Italy has encouraged some dioceses to hire migrant religious workers to compensate for the lack of clergy available for parish work. Although initially approached as a temporary solution, an unforeseen consequence of this policy has been the emergence of congenial relationships between migrant priests and Italian parishioners, who often describe their bond as deeply spiritual. This article examines the experiences of Sri Lankan priests who work in Italy, highlighting the distinct emphasis that they place on reaching out to the communities that they work with. Through fieldwork conducted in Sri Lanka and Italy, I analyse how South Asian priests use concepts such as devotion and sincerity to explain how their approach to the priesthood makes a ‘solemn’ difference that is celebrated by local parishioners. With an explicit focus on pastoral work, this form of Asian Catholicism emphasises the importance of bodily comportment, ceremonial poise and ritual dignity, capturing the yearnings of Catholic laities avid for devotional celebrations capable of re-connecting them to the spiritually meaningful aspects of their faith. My work draws lines of connection between the historical, theological and pedagogical underpinnings of Sri Lankan Catholicism and the affective responses that South Asian priests elicit in Europe.

Ikeuchi, “Accompanied Self”

Ikeuchi, Suma.  2017. Accompanied Self: Debating Pentecostal Individual and Japanese Relational Selves in Transnational Japan.  Ethos 45(1): 3-23.

Abstract: While the notion of the individual figures prominently in the debate about Christian personhood, the concept of relational selves has shaped the existing literature on Japanese selfhood. I take this seeming divergence between “individual Christian” and “interdependent Japanese” as the point of departure to probe how Japanese-Brazilian Pentecostal migrants in contemporary Japan understand and experience their sense of self. The article is based on 14 months of fieldwork in Toyota, Japan, which consisted of participant observation, interviews, and surveys among Brazilian and Japanese residents there. The discourses about the category of religion serve as a major source of data to tease out cultural understandings about “the authentic self.” I will argue that Pentecostal personhood does not fit within either the “individual” or the “relational.” The concept of “accompanied self” will then be proposed to accurately capture the kind of self that many migrant converts strive to embody.

Pasura and Erdal, “Migration, Transnationalism and Catholicism”

Pasura, Dominic and Marta Bivand Erdal, eds.  2016.  Migration, Transnationalism and Catholicism: Global Perspectives.  New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Publisher’s Description: This book is the first to analyze the impacts of migration and transnationalism on global Catholicism. It explores how migration and transnationalism are producing diverse spaces and encounters that are moulding the Roman Catholic Church as institution and parish, pilgrimage and network, community and people. Bringing together established and emerging scholars of sociology, anthropology, geography, history and theology, it examines migrants’ religious transnationalism, but equally the effects of migration-related-diversity on non-migrant Catholics and the Church itself. This timely edited collection is organised around a series of theoretical frameworks for understanding the intersections of migration and Catholicism, with case studies from 17 different countries and contexts. The extent to which migrants’ religiosity transforms Catholicism, and the negotiations of unity in diversity within the Roman Catholic Church, are key themes throughout. This innovative approach will appeal to scholars of migration, transnationalism, religion, theology, and diversity.

Napolitano, “Catholic Humanitas”

Napolitano, Valentina. 2017. “Catholic Humanitas: Notes on Critical Catholic Studies.” Immanent Frame. 9 January

Excerpt: “Contemporary engagement with embodied practices of Latin American transnational migrancy, as well as the long durée of the return of Catholic religious materialities, ideas, and fantasies from the Americas to Rome, shows the reignition of an old conflict within the Catholic Church and a lasting paradox within a Catholic Humanitas. This is the paradox growing from the Catholic fantasy of “full” conversion of the Other/Indian, with her imagined docile, childlike, as well as barbaric qualities—a fantasy that positions the Other/Indian as at once within and without a Catholic Humanitas. This constitutive dimension of Catholic Humanitas infuses the tension between Sameness and Otherness that still permeates Western cosmologies and, for better and worse, political practices toward migration and hospitality in Europe.”

Jung, “The Religious-Political Aspirations of North Korean Migrants”

Jung, Jin-Heon.  2016.  The Religious-Political Aspirations of North Korean Migrants and Protestant Churches in Seoul.  Journal of Korean Religions 7(2): 123-148.

Abstract: This article highlights an aspiration specific to Seoul that is projected onto, experienced, and contested by North Korean refugee-migrants who have recently arrived by way of China in this capitalist city of a divided Korea. I pay particular attention to the role of the evangelical Protestant Church in the process of subjectification of these migrant individuals and the performative rituals by which they negotiate religious-political aspirations toward the future. The bodily-spiritual transformation of individual North Korean migrants into Christians is not strictly teleological and is more complicated, ambivalent, and diversified. By comparing two distinctive North Korean migrant activities—the balloon leaflet campaigns and the With-U music concerts and activities—this article discusses the efficacies of the performative rituals of violence and peace that contest and constitute the particular religious-political aspirations in the context of late-Cold War Seoul.