Abstract: This article examines the rhetorical invocation of “secular ethnicity” among diasporic Syriac Orthodox Christian activists living in the Netherlands as they seek political recognition as an endangered, indigenous ethnoreligious group of the Middle East from the UN Human Rights Council, the Dutch state, and their local municipal government. In tracing how their efforts to stake a politically salient ethnic identity on the holy rites and rituals of the Syriac liturgical tradition are legible to some audiences while remaining illegible to others, I analyze how secularity intertwines with theologically informed ritual practices in geographically variable ways to shape how Syriac Christian kinship is reproduced in diaspora. I analyze these intertwined forms of legibility and illegibility through the notion of perforation, which I offer as an alternative to the one-dimensional metaphor of secular rupture, in order to show how diasporic Syriac Orthodox kinship is premised on the conviction that Christianity is an inherent, rather than an optional, dimension of human personhood. Ultimately, I argue that secular power and its effects are subsumed within other historical processes of division and reconciliation in a broader contest over the proper dispensation of political and ritual power throughout the history of Christianity.
Abstract: The establishment of a Syriac Orthodox archdiocese in Guatemala (including other countries in Latin America) in 2013 further complicated an already fragmented Guatemalan religious landscape. Under the leadership of a former Roman Catholic priest, now a Syriac Orthodox bishop, a religious renewal movement emerged in 2003, which was excommunicated in 2006 by the Roman Catholic Church. In 2013, the movement joined the Syriac Orthodox Church, whose Patriarch resides in Damascus, Syria. Members of this archdiocese are almost exclusively Mayan in origin, mostly live in poor, rural areas, and display charismatic-type practices. The communities that first joined this movement were located in areas severely affected by the armed conflict (1960–1996); but it subsequently attracted more diverse communities, including the cofradías (religious lay brotherhoods). This article studies the emergence of a Syriac Orthodox Church (SOC) in Guatemala, and argues that becoming Syriac Orthodox allowed these diverse communities to reconcile different aspects of their local world (traditional and charismatic practices, enhanced lay leadership, local Mayan identity) and its very shortcomings increased its attractiveness. This paper adopts a multi-disciplinary approach and draws upon diverse sources, including fieldwork in Guatemala and Los Angeles, to capture voices both inside and outside the archdiocese. While the Pentecostal and Catholic Charismatic movements in Guatemala have already attracted scholarly attention, the appearance of Orthodox Christianity on a large scale raises new questions.
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.
Publisher’s Summary: Although much has been written on the making of art objects as a means of engaging in creative productions of the self (most famously Alfred Gell’s work), there has been very little written on Orthodox Christianity and its use of material within religious self-formation. Eastern Orthodox Christianity is renowned for its artistry and the aesthetics of its worship being an integral part of devout practice. Yet this is an area with little ethnographic exploration available and even scarcer ethnographic attention given to the material culture of Eastern Christianity outside the traditional ‘homelands’ of the greater Levant and Eastern Europe.
Drawing from and building upon Gell’s work, Carroll explores the uses and purposes of material culture in Eastern Orthodox Christian worship. Drawing on three years of ethnographic fieldwork in a small Antiochian Orthodox parish in London, Carroll focusses on a study of ecclesiastical fabric but places this within the wider context of Orthodox material ecology in Britain. This ethnographic exploration leads to discussion of the role of materials in the construction of religious identity, material understandings of religion, and pathways of pilgrimatic engagement and religious movement across Europe.
In a religious tradition characterised by repetition and continuity, but also as sensuously tactile, this book argues that material objects are necessary for the continual production of Orthodox Christians as art-like subjects. It is an important contribution to the corpus of literature on the anthropology of material culture and art and the anthropology of religion.
Publisher’s Abstract: This paper adapts a glocalization framework in a transnational, anthropological exploration of liturgy in the Orthodox Church of Finland (OCF). It draws on long-term ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with participants of liturgy from Finnish, Russian, and Greek cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The main argument of the paper is that generic processes of nationalization and transnationalization are not mutually exclusive in practitioners’ experiences of liturgy in OCF, but rather generate a glocal space that incorporates Finnish, Russian, Karelian, and Byzantine elements. Individuals artistically engage with glocal liturgy on sensorial, cognitive, social, and semantic levels. What is important for the participants is a therapeutic sense that comes from a feeling of ‘being at home’, metaphorically, spiritually, and literally. People’s ongoing, creative work constitutes Orthodoxy as their national and transnational home.
Luehrmann, Sonja. 2015. The politics of prayer books: Delegated intercession, names, and community boundaries in the Russian Orthodox Church. Journal of Religious and Political Practice. Early online publication.
Abstract: Prayer is most easily conceived of as political speech when it is a spontaneous practice showing individual and group reactions to current events. Where prayer is a routinized activity involving the recitation of canonical texts, interpreters locate politics in the disciplining of bodies and acts of claiming space. This paper takes inspiration from ethnographies of oral ritual performance and Quranic recitation to include texts and the delegation of speech roles in the analysis of recited prayer. Most Russian Orthodox Christians either pray from a prayer book or order such prayers to be said by specialists. Focusing on the use of baptismal names as indexical elements in intercessory prayer, I argue that Orthodox Christian textual practices sustain a particular form of fractal social authority. Standardized prayer texts synchronize lay and delegated clerical voices, while individualizing responsibility for non-Orthodox kin and acquaintances. Through analyzing canonical and non-canonical intercessory formulae, one can see that part of the political force of prayer lies in constructing community boundaries while dynamically readjusting them.
Abstract: This paper discusses historical dynamics in the Russian Eastern Orthodox Church, in particular among the groups known as Old Believers. Seeing itself as the only true continuation of ancient Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy has been more concerned with continuity and institutional authority than with conversion into the faith, and therefore schism was regarded as a matter of utmost significance. The Great Schism of 1666 split the reforming central religious authorities from the plethora of Old Believers, so-called because they remained faithful to the truth of the old ways. Over later centuries the excommunicated Old Believers would themselves scatter and splinter repeatedly, in each case erecting boundaries around a newly defined (yet seen as ancient) righteous way of life, while also protecting it from the state law and external authority. In this paper I suggest that these schismatic decisions to adopt the stance of messianic “rightness,” and the willingness of martyrs to struggle for it, can be related to the moral-social basis of the Russian Revolution, especially if revolution is understood not simply as a political event but also as the forging of new and “true” meaning, accompanied by the rejection of wrongful thinkers.
Publisher’s Description: Recent years have seen increasing numbers of Protestant and Catholic Christians converting to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In this book D. Oliver Herbel examines Christian converts to Orthodoxy who served as exemplars and leaders for convert movements in America during the twentieth century. These convert groups include Carpatho Rusyns, African Americans, and Evangelicals.
Religious mavericks have a long history in Americaa tradition of being anti-tradition. Converts to orthodoxy reject such individualism by embracing an ancient form of Christianity even as they exemplify it by choosing their own religious paths. Drawing on archival resources including Rusyn and Russian newspapers, unpublished internal church documents, personal archives, and personal interviews, Herbel presents a close examination of the theological reasons for the exemplary converts’ own conversions as well as the reasons they offered to persuade those who followed them. He considers the conversions within the context of the American anti-tradition, and of racial and ethnic tensions in America. This book offers the first serious investigation of this important trend in American religion and the first in-depth investigation of any kind of African-American Orthodoxy.
Hein, Emily Jane Carter. 2013. The Semiotics of Diaspora: Language Ideologies and Coptic Orthodox Christianity in Berlin, Germany. Doctoral Dissertation, Dept. of Anthropology. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan.
Abstract: The dissertation is based on field research in Coptic Orthodox Church congregations in Germany, where Copts are living after emigration from Egypt. The data for the study are drawn from participant-observation, interviews, and recordings in these communities and include analysis of texts collected during fieldwork. The focus is on Copts’ ideologies of language in the diaspora, where their linguistic repertoires – Coptic (sacred language of religious texts), Arabic (most community members’ first language, spoken within the home or with other Copts), and German (language of the new location) – are being reconfigured. The dissertation has these main arguments: (1) in the liturgy and in its textual representations, the three languages are being interpreted as in a temporal progression, in which Arabic – devalued for its association with Islam and Arabs– is to be replaced by German, although there are some tensions surrounding this as yet incomplete process; (2) Copts are making a rhetorical effort, and (in effect) sociological project, to be identified with whites, Europe, and Christendom (seen as overlapping categories), thus evading German anti-immigrant prejudice and becoming part of the majority. This identification entails a semiotics of temporality as well, in the assertion that Christ came “out of Egypt” (as, more recently, did the Copts) – thus Egypt is to be included as the root domain of Christianity, rather than excluded from it because of its Muslim majority. This narrated past is part of Copts’ claim to inclusion in the (future) ecumene of Christianity. The author contends that the temporal progression implicit in the language shift in progress (1) can be seen as part of this wider semiotics of temporality (2). The present work contributes to debates on diaspora and the narrative construction of time and space. Its central themes of language ideologies, code repertoires, and textuality and performance are important topics in linguistic anthropology, the anthropology of Christianity and the anthropology of the Middle East and Europe. Detailing how Copts in the diaspora bring to life a dead language, while enthusiastically shifting to German, the dissertation is an ethnography of language contact and language shift.
Orienting the East: Notes on Anthropology and Orthodox Christianities
Tom Boylston (London School of Economics)
If this blog testifies to the efflorescence of the anthropology of Christianity, anthropological and ethnographic work on Eastern and, especially, Oriental Orthodoxies remains somewhat sparse and scattered at the time of writing. To some extent this is a matter of academic time lag: anthropologists have recognised a lacuna and a good amount of research is now underway and beginning to show fruit. Since a majority of anthropologists working on Orthodox Christianities are now at PhD or early career level, we can expect a substantial growth in the literature in the coming years. Rather than lament the lack of anthropological attention to Orthodoxy, people are getting on with the work of producing it.
With this in mind, I would like to use this post to begin asking: what can Orthodox Christianities do for the anthropology of Christianity, and what can an anthropology of Christianity do for the study of Orthodox Christianities? In the spirit of starting a conversation rather than a systematic review, I will suggest some areas of particular interest emerging from existing work, and outline some conceptual challenges that an anthropology of Orthodoxy raises for a broader anthropology of Christianity.