Abstract: Within many North American evangelical Christian communities, discernment denotes attentiveness to an interior voice that believers learn to identify as God’s. This article adopts a comparative perspective on everyday domains of perception and feeling that practices of discernment implicitly distinguish as unmarked by God’s activity, and as characterized by specific forms of anxiety from which believers desire to be redeemed. In a majority White Pentecostal congregation in suburban Buffalo, New York, believers cast emotional insecurity as a condition demanding redemption, while members of African American churches in the inner city hope to be redeemed from sensitivity to insults. While practices of discernment counter such anxieties by fostering forms of intimacy and trust, they also reinforce anxiety by focusing believers’ attention on how familiar relations may be distorted in uncanny ways.
By: Aminta Arrington (John Brown University)
In the 1880s, two missions administrators, one on each side of the Atlantic Ocean, simultaneously, yet independently, developed the indigenous principle (also called the three-self principle): that the goal of missions should be to create self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating churches, thus allowing the phasing out of the mission (Neill, 1990). The indigenous principle was designed to cure some common missionary maladies of the time: overzealous control, dependency, lack of local leadership, and overreliance on western funds.
Angela Tarango has chosen this missiological concept—the indigenous principle—and used it as the narrative thread for Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle, examining how the indigenous principle was put into practice in Assembly of God (AG) missions among American Indians. She follows the indigenous principle through the archives, teasing out its (uneven, and at times halfhearted) implementation and the resulting effects. Ultimately, she argues that despite its official status, AG mission leaders dragged their feet in applying the indigenous principle. In contrast, American Indian leaders within the AG claimed the indigenous principle and used it to develop their own identity, push for greater power, and negotiate their own autonomy. Thus in practice, the indigenous principle meant not that rights to local leadership, rights to national recognition, or rights to Native Bible colleges, were given to new Native American believers, but that the new believers took hold of these rights and claimed them as their own. The indigenous principle became less a strategy of bestowing rights on the part of the missionaries, and more a theology of resistance on the part of the Native American Christians.
The indigenous principle has long held sway as a theoretical handle in the history of missions. John Nevius, a missionary to China, expounded upon these ideas, and the Nevius plan was used in the evangelization of the Korean peninsula in the late 19th and early 20th century. Later, Roland Allen (1927), in The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, (a follow up to his earlier work Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?) showed that failure to adhere to the indigenous principle in China missions had produced a handicapped church incapable of influencing its own society.
But the crucial missiologist for Tarango was Melvin Hodges, AG missionary to Nicaragua. Hodges read both of Allen’s books and adapted them for Pentecostalism. As expected of a Pentecostal missionary, Hodges emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit in the implementation of the indigenous principle. Not only did Hodges attempted to practice the indigenous principle in Nicaragua, he wrote several influential books about the indigenous principle (including The Indigenous Church (1953) and The Indigenous Church and the Missionary (1978)). Important for Tarango’s narrative is that Hodges taught the indigenous principle in the missionary training center in Springfield, Missouri in the 1950s, where one of his students was Charlie Lee, American Indian convert and evangelist.
It is in her narrative of Charlie Lee that Tarango’s book achieves its greatest brilliance. After graduating from the Central Bible Institute in Springfield, Lee returned to the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, where he worked as an evangelist for the next several decades. With Hodges’ ideas in mind, during these years Lee encouraged tithing by the mission church, trained Indians as Sunday School teachers and church administrators, and as pastors and evangelists, until every available leadership position was filled with an Indian. In 1973, the members of the Mesa View Assembly of God formed a board of directors, and drafted a constitution and bylaws. Charlie Lee resigned his missionary appointment with the AG, and accepted the new title of church pastor, with his salary paid not by AG Home Missions, but by his church. Within a few years, Mesa View Assembly of God was supporting Pentecostal evangelism in other Indian areas. Tarango emphasizes that Lee embraced the indigenous principle not primarily because it was the best missionary method; he embraced the indigenous principle because it was best for Indians.
In the same chapter, Tarango presents another fascinating personal narrative, this one, about white missionary Alta Washburn’s successful effort to start an All Tribes Bible School. Alta Washburn, though the recipient of scant education herself, intuitively grasped the principle that if the Indians were to lead their own churches, evangelize their own people, and realize the indigenous principle, they were going to need education. Tarango effectively uses Washburn’s story to demonstrate the AG’s reluctance in fully realizing the indigenous principle. When Washburn brought her vision to her missionary district’s leaders, they narrowed the scope from training Indian church leaders to training Indians merely as helpers to the white missionaries, such as Sunday school teachers and deacons.
This narrative underlines that indigenous principles cannot be fully emplaced without indigenous schools. As Tarango states, “without educated indigenous leadership, there would be no indigenous church” (p. 137). The Bible school Alta Washburn started in 1957 has been renamed the American Indian College, now located in Phoenix, Arizona. Its homepage states its purpose as “Equipping students for Christian Service within a Native American collegiate community.”
This book is not an ethnographic study, but rather a historical study based on archival research. Teasing out theory and theology from archival sources is a difficult task, made more complex by Tarango’s stance toward her primary sources. According to Tarango, the primary sources upon which she relied, mostly issues of the Pentecostal Evangel periodical as well as archival materials, are “scanty and biased” (p. 9), requiring her to read “between the lines” (p. 16) to tease out the truth. Though one recognizes the difficulty of writing a Native American story that relies primarily on white sources, as well as Tarango’s own priority of privileging the voices of the American Indian Pentecostals themselves, such acknowledged distrust of her own sources leads to an uneasy dance between writer and reader. This unmooring from primary sources means Tarango leaves herself great latitude in interpretation: she is free to read for material that supports her thesis, and toss out what she feels is biased reporting.
This methodological uneasiness might not be so noticeable, except that at times, Tarango’s account begins to feel one-dimensional with the Native Christians always heroically upholding the indigenous principle in the face of white opposition, the white women unfailing in their support of Native agency, and the white men continuously prey to paternalism and ethnocentrism. Tarango seems at times to have little faith in her readers, repeatedly telling them that this practice reflected ethnocentrism, and that one, paternalism. These two abstract terms—paternalism and ethnocentrism—are so overused, particularly in chapter three, that Tarango’s argument is weakened by their ubiquity. Even when whites took actions that seemed to support indigenous principles, such as suggest Indian evangelists wear their native garb, organize all-Indian camp meetings, or propose a national position to be filled by an Indian, Tarango discounts their efforts as tainted with ethnocentrism and halfway at best. In this account, Native Americans are always the saints; white men are invariably the sinners. One begins to ask if it really is all that simple, if there is not nuance and complexity and messiness. This tension raises again the question of how to privilege subaltern, minority, or diverse voices, without readers feeling as though new bias has been introduced.
Regardless of this ribbon of tension which runs through the book, Tarango still demonstrates that in regards to indigenous principle, theory and practice were two very different things. Moreover, in her focus on the indigenous principle, she present the Native American converts as active mediators of their own conversion.
Response from Angela Tarango (Trinity University)
Only as I made my way though researching my book on Native American Pentecostals, Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indians and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle (UNC Press 2014), did I fully realize the enormity of the lack of sources. As Pentecostalism is a more oral and spontaneous form of Christianity the “paper trail” that historians usually rely on is thin. Early Pentecostals didn’t tend to write down and save their sermons; those were extemporaneous. They did not agonize over whether they were saved or not like 18th century Puritans did in their diaries; instead they knew exactly when they were born-again and baptized in the Holy Ghost. Finally, the most common Pentecostal document, the conversion narrative, is “relentlessly stylized” (Wacker, 58) as the great historian of Pentecostalism Grant Wacker reminds his readers. In other words the texts that they left behind are filtered and understood through the Pentecostal framework, and must be acknowledged as such.
Since Native Pentecostals and white Pentecostals who served as missionaries to Native peoples did not leave behind extensive written records, I reconstructed their history by first using the Pentecostal Evangel (PE) to figure out important dates and names, as well as locations of mission stations. Yet it is crucially important to note that the PE is inherently biased. This is true of any denominational newspaper—the bias is to present their particular religion in a positive light. You don’t find “de-conversion” narratives in the PE even though inevitably, some people lost faith or left the religion. The pages of the PE are also deeply racist, especially in the first half of the twentieth century. Native people are often portrayed as “savage,” and problematic depictions of other racial minorities abound, especially of African-Americans.
Arrington states in her review that the source issues create vexing questions but that “such acknowledged distrust of her own sources leads to an uneasy dance between reader and writer. This unmooring from primary sources means Tarango leaves herself great latitude in interpretation: she is free to read for material that supports her thesis, and toss out what she feels is biased reporting (Arrington.)” Acknowledging that there is a source problem does not give a historian license to simply “toss out” what one feels is biased—instead a historian’s job is to read the biased material carefully and acknowledge the bias, which I did. To this point, Wacker is careful to point out that those who created early Pentecostal literature, especially periodicals and conversion narratives, did not “fabricate” or “deliberately distort” their writing, but “that autobiography involves an artful arrangement of the narrative to make things right. The present task is to accept that reality and try to correct for it (Wacker 59.)” As a scholar who was trained by Wacker himself, I understood my goal to be the same as his.
The fact is that the Assemblies of God (AG) was deeply racist in the early period of missions to Native peoples. White missionaries and white institutions were a product of their times, and any good historian has to acknowledge that. My acknowledging of this, or showing white missionaries to be problematic in the field does not mean that “Native Americans are always the saints; white men are invariably the sinners (Arrington).” In fact if anything, the thinness and bias of the sources means I was unable to find much where Native Pentecostals may have shown themselves to be “sinners”—which in and of itself is problematic and again points to the difficulty of trying to find the voices of Native Pentecostals through sources that are controlled by whites. Clearly white Pentecostals wanted “success” stories to be disseminated about their converts. This, of course, precluded any stories of Native backsliding or even of Native infighting within the AG.
As a scholar of Native American religious history I am well aware that the missionary histories of the past are weighted towards the hagiographic, and excluded the voices of Native converts. White Pentecostals also acknowledge this truth—many who I met during my research privately expressed dismay at how Native American Pentecostals have been treated by the AG. Allan Anderson was one Pentecostal scholar who was blunt with me about it. During a session at the Society of Pentecostal Studies his voice boomed out: “I read the book on my overnight flight. I liked it. But I think you were far too gentle with the Assemblies regarding how they treated Native peoples.” His comment has weighed on me since he said it. Should I have been more forceful in explaining the deep racist structures within Pentecostalism? I wanted the focus to be on the Native Pentecostals themselves—not the incessant racism that they faced, which would have made the book more about the structures of the AG than about indigenous forms of Pentecostalism. In the end the history of indigenous Christianities remains incomplete and scholars are often forced to work with what little they can find. Understanding those sources to be problematic isn’t a bias and it does not mean that we have “little faith in [our] readers.” It is simply being a good historian.
References Cited (Both Authors):
Allen, Roland. 1912. Missionary methods: St. Paul’s or ours? London, United Kingdom: R. Scott.
Allen, Roland. 1997 . The spontaneous expansion of the church. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
Neill, Stephen. 1990. A history of Christian missions. New York, NY: Penguin.
Tarango, Angela. 2015. Choosing the Jesus way: American Indian Pentecostals and the fight for the indigenous principle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Hodges, Melvin. 1953. The Indigenous Church. Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House.
Hodges, Melvin. 1978. The Indigenous Church and the Missionary. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
Wacker, Grant. 2001. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
Abstract: How do American Charismatic Evangelicals imagine human difference? Ethnographic fieldwork with the Vineyard, a Southern California originated but now nation-wide Charismatic Evangelical movement, suggests that for many lay American Charismatic Evangelicals, difference is conceptualized in three different modes, involving potentialities, relations, and boundedness. Much like a grammar shapes communication without imposing a single meaning, these forms of conceiving human difference mandate no single intrinsic political position, but do affect the way that American Charismatic evangelicals express and contest notions of human difference.
Bielo, James S. 2016. Creationist History-Making: Producing a Heterodox Past. In Lost City, Found Pyramid: Understanding Alternative Archaeologies and Pseudoscientific Practices, 81-101. Edited by Jeb J. Card and David S. Anderson. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
Excerpt: The past, though quite real, is forever and densely mediated by this production of histories. As a cultural process, history-making is a social and ideological accomplishment that is achieved through material means and infrastructure. In turn, the anthropology and ethnography of history-making confronts important questions: how are different relationships to the past cultivated? What strategies and resources are marshaled to perform history-making? And, what is up for grabs in competing acts of history-making? A key contribution of this volume is to develop better ways of thinking about how non-professional historians and scientists perform the work of history-making (cf. Beisaw this volume). The Answers in Genesis creative team reminds us with little subtlety that the past is ideologically contested and that even the most scientifically established historical claims can be actively challenged. As the historian Raphael Samuel writes: “History is not the prerogative of the historian, nor even, as postmodernism contends, a historian’s ‘invention.’ It is, rather, a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance, of a thousand different hands” (1994: 8). Moreover, those thousand hands are not working in concert, which means the present hosts multiple historical narratives vying for cultural authority. Anthropologically, our remit is to understand whose hands are doing what and to seek a full ethnographic account of all history-making projects, including those of creationists. To aim for any less is to shrug off our most profound scholarly responsibility.
Abstract: Messianic Judaism, a network of congregations that incorporate Jewish ritual into evangelical worship, is one branch of a fast-growing trend among Christians globally towards ‘Jewish affinity’. Drawing on a multi-site comparison in North America, this article examines one of Messianic Judaism’s most significant internal debates: should non-ethnically Jewish ‘gentile believers’ (GBs) obey biblical laws? It argues that GBs do not simply imitate Jews badly, as outsiders and their own leaders often believe. Rather, their actions are best characterized as mimesis in two complementary forms: mimesis of Jews and ‘mimetic discipleship’ of Jesus-the-Jew. Taken together, these forms offer a heuristic tool sufficiently capacious to explain both individuals’ propensity for Jewish practice and the socially specific ways it is constructed. I conclude that Jewish affinity reflects a key problem in contemporary Christianity, namely what happens when people in one religion (Christianity) come to believe that their God incarnated in the body of a man they now associate with another religion (Judaism)?
By: Jon Bialecki (University of Edinburgh)
Liahona is not an ethnographic film. It is not even a documentary, or, at least, a documentary of the standard type. Consisting of images shot on scratchy 16 millimeter film using a hand camera, mixed with a wealth of found footage (much of it originally filmed by the Church of the Latter Day Saints, for either missionary or apologetic purposes), and shot through with decontextualized voice-overs, it is not concerned with clear explication, or at least with granting immediate clarity. Rather, it has more of the sense of a piece of symphonic music, with images or scenes briefly introduced, which are returned to again and again in different ways as the film proceeds. Again and again, we are shown shots of the stark landscape and expansive skies of Northern Utah, both of which are presented as sublime (in the Kantian sense of the word). This landscape is repeatedly juxtaposed with vintage shots of quotidian Mormon life, as well as with views of prominent Mormon temples in the region, scenes from the Days of ’47 Parade down Salt Lake City or the Manti Mormon Miracle Pageant. Some of these scenes are eventually given the necessary context to become readable as the film progresses. Other elements, such as the repeated and unexplained use of characters from the desert alphabet, a column of smoke from a scrub wildfire, or the haunting image of a feathered headdress, worn at either dawn or sunset, shrouded in shadow as it is juxtaposed against the Manti Temple, remain unexplained even at the film’s close. (Similarly, the source of the movie’s title goes unexplained for those not familiar with it). The soundtrack is equally jarring; we shunt between thundering church organs, atonal droning, and acapella renditions of iconic Mormon hymns such as “If You Could Hie to Kolob” and “Called to Serve.” Continue reading
Abstract: This article examines how militarism has come to be one of the generative forces of the prayer practices of millions of Christians across the globe. To understand this process, I focus on the articulation between militarization and aggressive forms of prayer, especially the evangelical warfare prayer developed by North Americans since the 1980s. Against the backdrop of the rise in military spending and neoliberal economic policies, spiritual warfare evangelicals have taken on the project of defending the United States on the “spiritual” plane. They have elaborated a complex theology and prayer practice with a highly militarized discourse and set of rituals for doing “spiritual battle” and conducting “prayer strikes” on the “prayer battlefield”. The work draws on ethnographic fieldwork at an intensive spiritual warfare boot camp organized by a group of Native Americans who have founded a training base in Oklahoma dedicated to training recruits in the theology and practical strategy of spiritual warfare. Despite their hyper-aggressive rhetorical and ideological stance, members of this network in fact practice self-sacrificial rituals of fasting, holiness, and submission to the Holy Spirit. Native prayer warriors are using spiritual warfare prayer to assert a privileged place for themselves in Christian life as heirs of God’s authority over the stewardship of North American land and as central to the project of repairing sinful pasts both on and off the reservations, reconciling present racial conflict, and defending the land in spiritual battle against new immigrant invasions by foreign, demonic forces.
Abstract: Based on over four years of ethnographic research in an Afro-Caribbean Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn, this article focuses on the process of becoming a religious seeker, or what I call a God hunter, towards conversion to a Pentecostal tongue-speaking church. Becoming a God hunter requires knowing the causes that explain religious seekership, the invariable sequence of interrelated events that are part of the process. It also requires gaining insight into motives at each stage in the process where potential converts arrive at their final decision to search for a religious group. This requires moving beyond a single set of essential variables, like crisis, or providing normative explanations to the motivation to become a religious seeker. Rather, this work explains the series of steps in a sequence of events that have a long and complex story in which individuals arrive at a point of convergence and decide to embark on a religious search. This article challenges the concept of crisis, used in both old and new scholarly models, to explain why someone decides to become a religious seeker. Final attention is given to the relevancy of continued academic debates on whether active or passive forces drive these individual decisions towards seekership.
By: Martin Lindhardt (University of Southern Denmark)
Kate Bowler’s book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel is an important and highly readable contribution to our understanding of the history and significance of the so-called prosperity gospel, a Christian message of physical, financial and spiritual mastery that has become an increasingly dominating force within North American popular religion. The prosperity gospel has been successfully exported across the world, especially to the global south. It seems safe to say that this version of Christianity, which not only emphasizes the material blessings to which true believers are supposedly entitled, but also the duty to pay tithes and make donations, is as controversial as it is popular, with many (mainline theologian and other) observers wondering why people buy into it and expressing criticism of the excesses of prosperity pastors who have become media celebrities. Bowler’s agenda is not to provide any kind of theological or biblical evaluation of prosperity teaching and its main proponents, but the question of why it appeals to a large number of ordinary North Americans (17 percent of all American Christians openly identify with the movement, she informs us at one point) is a central one in her study. The argument, which she carefully develops throughout the book, is that the Prosperity Gospel, as exotic and un-familiar as it may seem at first glance, is in fact intimately entangled with different aspects of North American popular culture such as optimism, individualism, consumer culture and a firm belief in the transformative power of one’s personal will. The prosperity gospel, in other words, is presented by Bowler as a quintessentially American movement. At the end of the book, we do get brief nods to the Prosperity Gospel’s global expansion and different local appropriations, but Bowler’s main project is to unravel the history of the movement as it has unfolded in the US.
The prosperity movement as we know it took shape in the last half of the twentieth century, but Bowler provides a much longer history and traces its origin back to the late nineteenth century and the interweaving of three important streams: Pentecostalism with its emphasis on divine healing, an offshoot of Christian Science called New Thought, and finally a widespread popular belief in individualism and upward mobility. What New Thought added to this cocktail was an understanding of the power of mind to actually shape material reality. In the early history of the prosperity movement, the Holiness Pastor E.W. Kenyon was a particularly important figure in combining existing religious and cultural streams into an instrumental vision of faith as an activator of world transforming spiritual forces. In Kenyon´s vision it was in particular the spoken word such as positive confessions and prayers, sometimes framed more as demands than as petitions, that served as the template for activating spiritual power.
The development and growth of the Prosperity movement were further triggered by post Second World War healing revivals and, a decade later, by a charismatic revival that brought Pentecostal themes into mainstream churches. In this period, the theology of mind power and the electrified view of faith went from being minor to major themes. At the same time a number of preachers began to enlarge their vision of the miraculous results that faith and Christian speech could be expected to achieve. Key figures in popularizing the word of faith theology beyond denominational boundaries (in part through television ministries) included Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin, William Branham Kenneth Copeland, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
The prosperity movement of the 1970s and 1980s was dominated by what Bowler calls “hard prosperity” preaching and teaching, which made financial miracles an everyday prospect and involved straightforward assertions of hard causality between acts of faith such as tithing and prayers and blessings. Bowler describes how formulas for receiving financial blessings from God grew increasingly specific, with some believers whispering their desires as they placed their envelope with tithes in the offering and others scribbling confessions on dollar bills. However, by the 1990s, a softer version of the prosperity message had become increasingly dominant. The “soft prosperity” message has a more therapeutic touch with prominent preachers such as Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer offering tools in the form of relationship guides and focusing on emotional healing, self-esteem as well as fitness and weight loss. This gradual transformation enabled the prosperity message to broaden its appeal and establish more points of contact and overlap with popular secular culture. Bowler provides interesting examples of such overlap as she explores how America´s diet and fitness culture captured the religious imagination of Christians who evaluated obesity on spiritual terms and started to look to the fitness of their own bodies as evidence of faith and spiritual progress. She further notes how the language of deliverance from demonic forces commonly held responsible for physical conditions was supplemented by nutritional and fitness advice.
All in all, Bowler’s book offers a comprehensive and very helpful exploration of the prosperity movement and the way it has shaped the religious imagination of many North Americans. Bowler’s project is mainly a historical one, but an ethnographic analysis based on her own field work in North American prosperity oriented ministries adds significant nuances to the study. In particular, ethnography enables Bowler to shed some light on how ordinary lay members interpret their experiences and life situations within a prosperity framework and, interestingly, how they sometimes question church authorities and come up with interpretations, for instance of illness and the absence of healing, that are contrary to official church teachings. The prosperity movement, in other words, is portrayed it its empirical complexity. As such the book is valuable reading for scholars and students with an interest in the Prosperity Movement, in Pentecostalism/charismatic Christianity in general, and in the history of Christianity and popular culture in North America.
Publisher’s Description: This book investigates an African diaspora Christian community in Calgary, Alberta, and explores the ways in which the church’s beliefs and practices impact the lives of its migrant congregation. Importantly, it details the expressed utility of two central ideas: the Prosperity Gospel and Holy Spirit Power. As congregants and church materials persistently maintained, these two aspects of African Pentecostalism supply operative spiritual machinery to overcome the difficulties of living in Canada, as well as the means to thrive in a foreign land. Additionally, the connection between these elements and the democratization of power is explored, and Tom Aechtner provides an analysis of how the church cultivates a form of Christian Pan-Africanism among its multiethnic and multinational population. The book assesses the roles that African Pentecostalism plays in ameliorating longings for home and promoting the need to spiritually reform Canada. Aechtner also describes how African Pentecostalism relates to the mediation of responses to racism in the nation’s officially multicultural society.