Abstract: This essay is about a group of neo-Pentecostal evangelists who decided to represent their church in the New York Dance Parade, which they regarded as an opportunity to promote worship as the true purpose of art and engage in spiritual warfare. Their participation was predicated on a distinction between “performance” and “ministry,” privileging the latter. I argue that upholding this distinction in the immersive context of a secular festival required a process of intensive ritualization, involving physical and spiritual preparations and symbolic boundary maintenance. I further argue that anthropological perspectives on such instances of public religion should seek to account for how ritual forms produce and are shaped by the effects of what I call proximation, a condition of “closeness” between categories of activity otherwise regarded as separate and autonomous (e.g., religion and the arts). The concept is a means to explore how religious ministries are influenced by ostensibly external factors and the need to manage them, and by the various opportunities, tensions, and moral associations that arise when ritual strategies evoke comparisons with secular genres and domains. The proximations of religion highlight the ethnographic significance of ideal-typical categories and spheres, including their potential to intersect, which is a byproduct of how they have been differentiated.
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.
By: Omri Elisha (Queens College, CUNY)
I know I’m not alone when I say that my love of anthropology began with the study of ritual. As an undergraduate I was enchanted by the subject, captivated by all the drama, symbolism, and effervescence of the concentrated cultural tinderbox that was “Ritual.” My first anthropology professor, a master storyteller and something of an ethnographic traditionalist, introduced me to a rich lineage of dissecting ritual anatomies and signs, and of theoretical models revealing hidden patterns and intrinsic functions. Continue reading
Meneses, Eloise, Lindy Backues, David Bronkema, Eric Flett, and Benjamin L. Hartley. 2014. Engaging the Religiously Committed Other: Anthropologists and Theologians in Dialogue. Current Anthropology. Preprint – issue, volume, page not available.
Abstract: Anthropology has two tasks: the scientific task of studying human beings and the instrumental task of promoting human flourishing. To date, the scientific task has been constrained by secularism, and the instrumental task by the philosophy and values of liberalism. These constraints have caused religiously based scholarship to be excluded from anthropology’s discourse, to the detriment of both tasks. The call for papers for the 2009 meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) recognized the need to “push the field’s epistemological and presentational conventions” in order to reach anthropology’s various publics. Religious thought has much to say about the human condition. It can expand the discourse in ways that provide explanatory value as well as moral purpose and hope. We propose an epistemology of witness for dialogue between anthropologists and theologians, and we demonstrate the value added with an example: the problem of violence.
Elisha, Omri. 2013. All Catholics Now? Spectres of Catholicism in Evangelical Social Engagement. In The New Evangelical Social Engagement edited by Brian Steensland, Philip Goff, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Excerpt: “Addressing an audience of conservative leaders and lobbyists in February 2012, evangelical pundit and former governor Mike Huckabee boldly announced, “We are all Catholics now.” The surprising rallying cry, coming from an ordained Southern Baptist pastor, was in response to a controversy over an Obama administration proposal to require private employers, including religious organizations, to provide insurance coverage for contraception. Catholic bishops came out vigorously opposing the measure, and Huckabee’s show of solidarity, in the name of religious liberty and defeating President Obama, was adopted by a variety of high-profile conservatives, including evangelicals as well as other non-Catholics. In July, in what was heralded as an unprecedented move, evangelical flagship Wheaton College joined Catholic University of America in a lawsuit against the federal mandate.
Such politics of affinity may seem counterintuitive, but they make sense in the context of an election year when two GOP contenders (Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum) and the party’s vice presidential nominee (Paul Ryan) were Roman Catholics with strong support among conservative evangelicals. Indeed, evangelicals and Roman Catholics have found ways to get along for decades, demonstrating repeated, albeit cautious, willingness to forge mean- ingful partnerships despite stark doctrinal differences and mutual recrimi- nations. From the ecumenism of the Billy Graham crusades to the abortion activism of the religious right, to interfaith dialogue groups like Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good (spearheaded by veteran bridge-builders like Ron Sider), evangelicals and Catholics routinely find common cause around moral, political, and social issues. In recent years, leaders and intel- lectuals of both traditions have come together to form coalitions and working groups, issuing influential (and controversial) manifestos such as the landmark “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” document of 1994 and the Manhattan Declaration of 2009. The charismatic renewal movement opened up multiple lines of communication and joint worship that continue to influence adherents in both camps. And as is evident in this book, especially in chapters 2, 9, and 10, politically and socially engaged evangelicals have been borrowing conceptual tools and mobilization strategies from Catholic activists for many years.
Aside from formal partnerships and dialogues, there are subtle and implicit resonances between contemporary evangelical and Catholic sensi- bilities that are less conspicuous but worth investigating as well. This chapter is an attempt to think about notable features and cultural characteristics of evangelicalism’s new social engagement that recall or resonate with Roman Catholic theology and practice, with an emphasis on shared motivational themes especially as applied to ministries of social welfare. While the fact that evangelicals and Catholics are able to come together around certain social and political issues is significant, issue agreement is only one marker of elective affinity. By framing my discussion in terms of resonance (intentional or otherwise) rather than collaboration, I point to underlying affinities between these two traditions, and, more important, I highlight the ways that divergent traditions separated by centuries of theology and ritual practice may find themselves drawn into closer alignments in their modalities of religious and social action, resulting from gradual shifts in public consciousness. The possible ways in which uniquely evangelical influences make their way into Catholic ministries and services merit exploration as well, but this is not within the purview of my discussion here.”
Abstract: This article explores a recent trend in evangelical revivalism known as ‘citywide prayer,’ a movement organized around prayer networks and public rituals that highlight religious concerns deemed specific to cities and metropolitan regions. Building on research that includes ethnographic fieldwork in Knoxville, Tennessee, and focusing on the discourse and practical strategies of citywide prayer, the article argues that advocates of this movement promote a style of evangelical urbanism in which prayer serves as a key medium for reimagining one’s sense of place, against the disorientation and alienation associated with urban life. Moreover, prayer is presented as a medium for marking time in non-secular terms, as is demonstrated in the use of technologies of religious discipline such as annotated prayer calendars, which invite participants to inhabit multiple coexisting temporalities. It is further suggested that when enacted this evangelical urbanism constitutes a form of urban praxis, enabling projects of emplacement that respond to larger forces that are seen otherwise to limit grassroots agency. Among the wider implications of this discussion is the observation that evangelical revivals, despite their well-known emphasis on individual salvation and millennialist fervor, are oriented toward and engaged with situated social realities of the ‘here and now,’ including the rhythms of daily life in modern cities.
Excerpt: “Marcia Pally’s incisive essay on “the new evangelicals” highlights a relatively small but growing population of white evangelicals who appear to be embracing broader, less conservative visions of the common good, and public policy views (at least partially) more in line with Democratic politics than their recent forebears. While her descriptions presumably are not limited to those who necessarily call themselves “new evangelicals,” she does invoke the work and ideas of public evangelicals who clearly self-identify as such. This points to an interesting observation worth considering here: to assume the mantle of newness is to make an ideological statement as well as a historical claim.
Newness is a fascinating, and very loaded concept. It expresses ideas of innovation and progress, as well as rupture and substitution. Whether presented in the form of prophetic revelations, revolutionary ideologies, or consumer branding, “the New” is always wrapped in a combination of promise and threat – it promises to improve upon the old, while threatening to eclipse and even replace it. Newness inspires hope as well as fear, with a provocative power that sometimes borders on the messianic.”
Excerpt: “I lied to a dying man, although I meant every word. It’s a strange thing, to say you intend to do something that you don’t really intend to do, yet feeling as though the words themselves are embraced in such uncompromised truth that they actually exceed their indexical meaning. If there is spirituality in promises, prayers, and praise, can there also be spirituality in the excellence of the lie?”
Publisher’s Description: In this evocative ethnography, Omri Elisha examines the hopes, frustrations, and activist strategies of American evangelical Christians as they engage socially with local communities. Focusing on two Tennessee megachurches, Moral Ambition reaches beyond political controversies over issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and public prayer to highlight the ways that evangelicals at the grassroots of the Christian Right promote faith-based causes intended to improve the state of social welfare. The book shows how these ministries both help churchgoers embody religious virtues and create provocative new opportunities for evangelism on a public scale. Exploring aspects of evangelical life that are largely overlooked in existing studies, Elisha challenges conventional views of U.S. evangelicalism as narrowly individualistic. Instead he elucidates the inherent conflicts and contradictions that activists face in their efforts to reconcile religious conservatism with a renewed interest in compassion, poverty, racial justice, and urban revivalism.