Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heaven: A Review and Response

Carroll, Timothy. 2018. Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heaven. New York and London: Routledge Press.

At the conclusion of this review is a response by the author of Orthodox Christian Material Culture, Dr. Timothy Carroll.

By: Elena Kravchenko

In Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heaven, Timothy Carroll presents a detailed description of how Orthodox Christians who attend and work at St. Æthelwald’s parish in London think about and engage materiality. Relying primarily, though not exclusively, on interview data and participant observation of clergymen, Carroll asserts that Orthodox Christians see themselves as doing things with the help of, through and by, the power of things. In Orthodox material economy, people are not the only agents that do things. Things do things too.

For example, a practitioner who chooses to wear a replica of the belt of the Theotokos believes that through it she gains a connection to the subjectivity, and materiality, of the Mother of God, and because of this belief she expects and allows this material connection – between the Theotokos, the belt, and her own body – to affect a change in her human person to become a proper Orthodox self. This practitioner understands her actions in the world not as solely her own, but as a part of an assemblage consisting of things and bodied people – living and dead, divine and human, saintly and ordinary – which interconnect and affect each other. In short, she believes in the agency of things and acts accordingly: she surrounds herself with things and lets them act upon her. By drawing attention to the embrace of materiality exhibited by the Orthodox faithful in London, Carroll’s book does more than parochialize a Protestant way of thinking about material things and their activity (or rather inactivity) in the world by demonstrating that not all Christianities are cut out of the same cloth. It also challenges the universality of terms in which such concepts as a self, a body, or an agent are commonly understood. Orthodox theology makes it possible to think about a person not as autonomous, but as a part of an assemblage; of bodies not enshelled by skin, but porous and connected to other material things; and of an actor not motivated by her personal will, but rather called to action by the vibrant energy distributed over interconnected beings and things.

As a scholar of Orthodox Christianity, reading this book left me appreciative of its call to pay attention to the specific ways in which Christians may think about and approach materiality. As a scholar of material culture, I was left pondering the methodological approach of this work. Carroll’s interviews, participant observation, and visual evidence (photos, charts, and diagrams) provide the reader with a good view of how Orthodox Christians conceptualize materiality, and what they do with it. But is that enough to unpack howthey come to acquire these commitments materially? By putting Orthodox concepts in conversation with the theoretical approaches to materiality of such scholars as Alfred Gell, Michel Foucault, and Sara Ahmed, among others, Carroll avows to do just that: to theorize and to demonstrate ethnographically the link between the subjective and the material. His theoretical propositions about the interconnectedness of mind and matter, along with a person’s dependability on material environment for self-formation and action, are more than convincing.

In addition to Carroll’s productive conversation about materiality, I would have liked to see him probe more deeply into how his interlocutors felt when interacting with Orthodox materiality in order to make his ethnographic evidence work more effectively with his theoretical postulations. For example, we are told that a practitioner who venerates an icon understands herself to be connected to it and influenced by it. This knowledge is gained by venerating the icon – kissing it, touching it, crossing oneself in front of it, and being affected by it. She stands in front of the icon “affected.” What exactly that affect is, how it gets there, and its relationship to the practitioner’s ability to know that icons are active presences and have transformative powers, is not fully clear. To trace ethnographically howmateriality affects human subjectivity, an anthropologist – in addition to describing what people do, and what they think they do – needs to describe in detail how they feel, and how their feelings develop over time. An additional line of enquiry is required.[1]

A woman that stands in front of an icon may think that this is the right thing for an Orthodox Christian to do, because it feels right. But how exactly does it feel? How does standing in front of the icon compare to doing other tasks? Does the woman feel calmer, quieter, protected, when subjected to the gaze of the saint and that of the other faithful? Has she always felt this way? We are told that the woman treats the icon as another human being. But what does that mean in terms of emotions? What has she prayed for when venerating the icon? Did she pray for a job? A healing? A friend in need? Were her requests granted? Denied? How did that feel? Did she cry? Does the icon remind her of that affect every time she looks at it? Does she treat the icon as a confidant, a friend, and trust it with her every need? Has she always treated the icon this way? When did she first feel like she could? Knowing more about this woman’s daily interactions with the icon – in addition to her traditional acts of veneration – and what feelings, capacities, and desires these interactions helped her to produce, allows us to move towards answering howmateriality affects this woman’s ways of knowing and interacting with things in the world.

When reading this manuscript, I thought about Robert Orsi’s work. In his ethnography of the Catholic Eucharist,[2] he described how women who grew up attending Catholic schools obtained the understanding that the Eucharist has real material presence and is a transformative force. I remember vivid snippets of women talking, laughing, recalling to Orsi and each other the fear, the awe, and even resentment they felt towards the Eucharist, because they were punished when they did not approach the cup respectfully, because they saw nuns dive on the ground to pick up crumbs of communion bread that fell down, because their knees hurt when they kneeled on the floor, their stomachs ached from hunger, and their bodies felt stiff as they sat still in the pews during mass under the watchful, and often reproachful, gaze of the clergy. The abstract proposition learned by these practitioners during school lessons – that the Eucharist was active and had power over people, and had to be treated accordingly – made sense to them because in the sanctuary they felt a physical and emotional transformation in their bodies in relation to it. Even in their old age these Catholic women carried the memories of what they experienced as children, and were able to recall and affirm to each other their feelings and affect during a casual conversation. Including this type of information – interlocutors’ descriptions of how they felt while interacting with Orthodox materiality, emotionally and physically – would have provided more ethnographic support to Carroll’s sophisticated theoretical approach to materiality, which posits material things as essential for human ability to think, know, and act in the world.

This suggestion should in no way be taken as a critique of this important book, but rather a testament to how difficult it is to do an ethnography that evaluates the material power of things. As a form of a playful exercise and a way to move forward, I offer a set of ethnographic questions for consideration in the fieldwork. Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heavenhas captivating chapters that nuancedly discuss how cloth is used by practitioners to reconfigure the profane space into sacred, and a mere human (man) into the likeness of God (priest). In the chapter on priest’s clothing specifically, Carroll gives a meticulous description of the texture and other physical qualities of the fabric used for priest’s clothing, and explains how the priest uses vestments – along with other materials, spoken words, and ritual actions – to change himself into a figure capable of giving others absolution of sins. The reader is presented with the symbolic meaning of each item, gesture, and word, as well as with the theological explanation of the vestments’ transformative power. In the end, we are told, “By dressing in fabric anchors of anaphoric chains, the priest is able to change his subjectivity from a sinner to a righteous priest. …He is dressed in textile symbols, such that he is a visual representation of Christ’s priesthood. Taking onto himself specific items of fabric, each with successive images of Christ’s ministry and person, he has rendered himself an index and icon of Christ” (p. 131).

In this description, the change in priest’s subjectivity is affected through a change in materials for sure, but these materials are treated as meaning-carrying symbols. While Carroll insists that the priest uses the fabric to do more than re-signify himself, what that process looks like remains under-examined. How can we, then, move beyond the symbolic of the fabric, and into discovering what fabric does materially? Can the ethnographer ask questions about the weight, the smell, the warmth of the fabric and how these affect the priest’s body? Does the priest’s body feel different when he puts each layer on? How? The chapter mentions in passing that priests often note that it feels very taxing to hear confession. This is a wonderful point of departure to ask: what is taxing about it? The need to stand motionless for a long time, with the pressure of vestments over one’s tired body? The need to emotionally relate to people who cry, supplicate, and share their life stories, while covered by the epitrachelion(part of the priest’s vestments, that looks something like a long apron) during the rite? Does the donning of the garment trigger memories of previous liturgies served, confessions heard, and blessings bestowed on the faithful? When the priest uses fabric to become like Christ, is he able to cultivate and feel in his own body Christ’s compassion, love, sadness for the fallen world? Does the fabric help the priest feel, remember, move differently? How does that change over time? Asking practitioners about how things work with their sensory and emotive perceptions gets us closer to understanding the process through which a practitioner can recognize himself not a man, but an “index and icon of Christ” – different materially and therefore symbolically.

In the end,Orthodox Christian Material Culture: Of People and Things in the Making of Heavenis a substantial contribution to the academic fields of Orthodox Christianity, Anthropology of Christianity, and Material Culture. It not only demonstrates that adherents of diverse Christian traditions think about things differently, but also, in ways the scholars of Orthodoxy will recognize, challenges such taken-for-granted concepts as a thing, body, selfhood, and agency. Because of the nuanced and complex theory about materiality that this book sets forth, it would be more appropriate for adaptation in graduate, rather than undergraduate courses. When read by a scholar or used in the classroom by an instructor, this book is bound to generate much productive thought and discussion not only about Orthodox Christian material culture, but also more broadly about material culture as a theory and method in the study of religion.

[1]A good example of an anthropological study that utilizes these three lines of questioning productively – in order to explore the process through which Orthodox Christians become comfortable with and shape their understanding of materiality, with the help of, through, and by the power of things – and achieves a flawless symbiosis between theory and ethnographic evidence is Daniel Winchester’s dissertation, Assembling the Orthodox Soul: Practices of Religious Self-Formation among Converts to Eastern Orthodoxy(University of Minnesota, 2013).

[2]Orsi, Robert. “Chapter Three: Material Children: Making God’s Presence Real for Catholic Boys and Girls and for the Adults in Relation to Them” in Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Response by: Timothy Carroll

I’d like to thank Elena Kravchenko for her comments and reflection, and also AnthroCyBib for hosting this chance to have a brief conversation about my book. Elena offers an interesting perspective on this book and raises questions about the important aspect that emotion plays in religion. Thinking about Of People and Things, Elena is correct, I do not go into emotions much – in fact the word is hardly used in the text, though there is some discussion of the ‘freeing’ feeling of confession or parishioners’ affective sense of space. I suspect that this is for two important reasons. First, my fieldwork was conducted amongst groups of people who (stereotypically and accurately) are known to be somewhat stoic. English (even multi-ethnic metropolitan London) society is not profuse with emotion. Similarly, the monastic context of Vatopedi is not marked by emotional display. Secondly, in my experience of various kinds of Christianity, Orthodox tend to be less emotive. Two anecdotes from research: The first, in one instance when I asked a parishioner in London a question about emotion and feeling, my question was brushed to the side, and they told me that ‘emotionalism and sentimentality is what the Protestants do’. The second, one morning the monk I worked alongside in Vatopedi told me we’d be closing the tailor shop early that day. He was literally dancing with effusive joy. I asked him about his happiness, he sang, ‘The bishop! The bishop!’ – the cause for joy was assumed self-evident, a bishop’s retinue (three in fact) was arriving late morning in advance of the Great Festival. So, I do not deny the role of emotion, and I do note emotion as part of the display for some pilgrims and parishioners. It would be interesting, however, to see what an ethnography of emotion would look like in an Orthodox British context. It is a register that was not actively used by any of my interlocutors, except in the context of differentiation: against the Anglicans and their overly sentimental imagery, against Protestants and their emotionalism, against Catholics and the ‘Franco-Latin kitsch’. In my currently research (on death), I have in fact had priests tell me they wish their British congregations would show more emotion and cry more openly, as is common in the Orthodox Mediterranean. However, while this would be a useful avenue of enquiry to follow, I’m not convinced it would accomplish what Elena proposes it would. To suggest that having descriptions of/about feelings would help position how material things work in the human experience places a very strong (I think all too central) role on emotions. While affect is important within my theoretical approach (and thus I draw heavily on Gregg and Seigworth’s[1] idea of affective spaces), I think that much of this affect is prediscursive and prehermeneutic and thus is not (in the actual fact) and cannot (in our analysis) be abstracted to articulate statements about emotion and feeling.

I would also like to clarify a couple points – one particularly important, and one more trivial. Elena summarises my argument, saying that my interlocutor ‘believes in the agency of things’. I must insist that this is not the case. It is, in my understanding of Orthodoxy, borderline heresy to say that Orthodox believe in the agency of things. They acknowledge the capacity of Christ and the saints to work in and through the material world, and – to quote a contemporary Orthodox theologian – while the ‘non-believer is incapable of seeing the spiritual reality behind the phenomena of the visible world, which is present and co-exists with the material world’ the believer ‘sees the hand of God in everything’[2]. I think scholars of religion need to be careful about the possible bleed of analytical models (like Gell’s agency) into our understanding of ethnographic contexts. As such, in Of People and Things, I try to be sure to use terms like ‘agency’ in ethnographic contexts only if referring to Christ or a saint who is acting within the social milieu – and while that action may be done in and through material things, it is important to clarify that the Orthodox do not see the things to be the agents, but rather the grace of God and the saints. This is, in large, the point of the theoretical insight about anaphoric chains advanced within the book: it offers a way to understand how the subjectivity of the divine operates in the objectivity of the thing.

The second, more trivial point, is simply the ethnographic locus of the book. Elena suggests that the work relies ‘primarily, though not exclusively, on interview data and participant observation of clergymen’. While there is one extended case study that is drawn on participant observation with clergymen (the priestly vestments), the dominant portion of ethnographic research is based within parishioners in London and a lay monks and pilgrims in Mt Athos. In these contexts, clergymen are around, but not the primary focus of interest. I think this is worth bringing up as this book is not an ethnography of the religious elite, which might be implied if the research had, in fact, been done primarily through interviews and observation of clergy.

[1]Gregg, Melissa and Gregory Seigworth (2010). The Affect Theory Reader. Duke University Press.

[2]Alfeyev, Metr. Hilarion. 2011. ‘Unbelief is Spiritual Blindness’. Homily given 30/01/2011 in Moscow. Published by the ROC: Dept. for External Church Relations.

Dulin, “Transvaluing ISIS in Orthodox Christian–Majority Ethiopia” 

Dulin, John. 2017. Transvaluing ISIS in Orthodox Christian–Majority Ethiopia: On the Inhibition of Group Violence. Current Anthropology 58(6): 785-804.

Abstract: In anthropological works on collective violence, the term transvaluation refers to a process in which a particular conflict is reimagined on a higher scale, giving the conflict a general significance that can lead to wide-scale group violence. This article argues that by taking into account the varied iterations of transcendence and evaluation in transvaluative reframings, a reformulated concept of transvaluation can be used to understand the forces that influence collectivities to commit violence and to abstain from violence in a volatile situation. It provides an ethnographic account of collective reactions in northwest Ethiopia to a film released by ISIS in 2015 that documents the massacre of dozens of Ethiopian Orthodox Christian migrants in Libya. Using a reworked concept of transvaluation, it elucidates how actors framed the event within different imaginative scales and in reference to different values. These framings, I argue, have implications for whether collectivities anticipate that violent action will receive a positive or negative evaluation. While some Orthodox Christians privately equated ISIS with Ethiopian Muslims, which could have motivated collective scapegoating and violence, all the public transvaluations in this case worked to delink ISIS from Ethiopian Muslims and converged in casting a judgmental gaze on retributive violence. The article addresses how different transvaluations—religious, subversive, and nationalistic—compete and converge to make sense of destabilizing events and shape collective action in response to them.