Arrington, “Songs of the Lisu Hills”

Arrington, Aminta. 2020. Songs of the Lisu Hills: Practicing Christianity in Southwest China. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press. 

Abstract: The story of how the Lisu of southwest China were evangelized one hundred years ago by the China Inland Mission is a familiar one in mission circles. The subsequent history of the Lisu church, however, is much less well known. Songs of the Lisu Hills brings this history up to date, recounting the unlikely story of how the Lisu maintained their faith through twenty-two years of government persecution and illuminating how Lisu Christians transformed the text-based religion brought by the missionaries into a faith centered around an embodied set of Christian practices.

Based on ethnographic fieldwork as well as archival research, this volume documents the development of Lisu Christianity, both through larger social forces and through the stories of individual believers. It explores how the Lisu, most of whom remain subsistence farmers, have oriented their faith less around cognitive notions of belief and more around participation in a rhythm of shared Christian practices, such as line dancing, attending church and festivals, evangelizing, working in each other’s fields, and singing translated Western hymns. These embodied practices demonstrate how Christianity developed in the mountainous margins of the world’s largest atheist state.

A much-needed expansion of the Lisu story into a complex study of the evolution of a world Christian community, this book will appeal to scholars working at the intersections of World Christianity, anthropology of religion, ethnography, Chinese Christianity, and mission studies.

Praying with the Senses: Review Forum Response (Sonja Luehrmann)

Luehrmann, Sonja, ed. 2018. Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 

By: Sonja Luehrmann (Simon Fraser University)

Politics and Aesthetics in Orthodox Prayers: A Response to the Review Forum

This is an extraordinarily thoughtful set of responses, and I feel grateful and humbled to read them. As Helena Kupari notes, Praying with the Senses is more than a compilation of essays, but the outcome of a research collaboration in which all contributors enriched each other’s understanding of the poetics and politics of Orthodox Christian prayer. The reviewers acknowledge the coherence and synergy of the volume, and hopefully this will be palpable for other readers as well.

I cannot answer all the rich remarks of the reviewers in this forum, but would like to pick up on some shared threads, one of which is a call for more explicit discussion of politics. Valentina Napolitano asks about “the wider role of the state and post-national formations that make religious spaces new important local and transnational modes of political aggregation.” Earlier in her post, she already notes that Orthodox prayer practices transcend the unhelpful distinction between private inner experience and public ritual practice. Simon Coleman asks about “forms of Orthodox mobility” such as migration, diaspora-formation, and mutual influences among national orthodoxies. These are questions about the political existence of prayer events and their grounding in national, denominational, or ethnic imagined communities.

In answer to this challenge to address the political dimensions of prayer, I am reminded that in the Orthodox church, community is constituted liturgically and collectively. Countering Western images of Orthodox churches as closely welded to particular monarchical or nation state formations (the infamous “caesaropapism”), Orthodox Christians often claim to keep politics out of religion by avoiding the unified transnational hierarchy of the Catholic Church in favor of the communion of equal patriarchs. As the recent severance of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople shows, these relationships are fraught with inequalities and competing interests; in other words, they are political in a secular sense.

However, for ordinary believers and clergy the split manifests in restricted possibilities of participation in worship, bringing into play a slightly different understanding of politics. When lay members of either side can no longer receive the eucharist in churches affiliated with the other, and priests can no longer celebrate liturgy together, what is at stake are not just relations among contemporary hierarchs, but a given Orthodox believer’s relationship to the church as a transtemporal community that spans past, present, and future generations. The immediate cause of the rupture is disagreement over the appropriate national church on Ukrainian territory: the Kiev Patriarchate (now recognized by Constantinople against the wishes of Moscow) or the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. In this dispute, one of the major markers of distinction and points of contention is who gets commemorated in the solemn intercessions during divine liturgy – Patriarch Kirill of Moscow or Patriarch Filaret of Kiev. In the absence of a unified transnational hierarchy, liturgical prayer is a major marker of allegiance that some lay participants listen for attentively, while others ignore it as they pursue health or blessing across the “Orthodox continuum” (Naumescu 2007).

Drawing on Sarah Bakker Kellogg’s (2015) wonderful work on liturgical community among the Syriac Christian diaspora in the Netherlands, one can say that this reliance on prayer and liturgy gives Orthodox communities a degree of independence from particular ethnic and state formations, and enables them to reproduce community in mobile forms. It also allows for different understandings of politics to intersect – one that is concerned with patronage and allegiance in quite worldly ways, and another one that is closer to what Nicholas Heron (2018) calls “liturgical power.” Liturgical power is vested in the figure of the minister as an instrument animated from elsewhere, and in prayer practices that reach beyond immediate location to saints who lived long ago but are still present, and places that are elsewhere but metonymically accessible through church namings and iconography (Heo 2018). If there is a politics of Orthodox prayer, it pushes against the dominant image of modern Orthodox churches as nation-bound, even as it is often implicated in Orthodox nationalisms.

Sarah Bakker Kellogg’s response calls attention to another dimension of politics in Orthodox worlds: the split between the so-called “Oriental” or non-Chalcedonian churches and those that derive from the state church of the Byzantine empire. Kellogg is justified in her critique of our volume as being mainly concerned with churches of Byzantine derivation; with the exception of Heo’s chapter on Egypt, Boylston’s on Ethiopia, and Bandak’s extended vignette on Syria, the Oriental churches get relatively short treatment. However, in reading Kellogg’s retelling of the “legacy of Orthodox Christianity’s historical relationship with empire, which has functioned to obscure other kinds of Orthodox worlds contained within it,” I am struck by how similar her articulation of the non-Chalcedonian position is to how Orthodox Christians in Russia and Eastern Europe articulate their predicament vis-à-vis Western Christendom: they, too, feel that dominant narratives of church history erase and orientalise them in relation to a West that is “heir to the imperial position,” in this case that of Rome.

Susan Gal’s (2002) concept of fractal distinction seems applicable here. A division among dominant and alternative strands of Christianity reproduces itself at various historical and geographical intersections, between “Hellenic” and “Semitic” Christians, “Rome” and “Byzantium,” logocentric Protestants and ritualistic Catholics/Orthodox, etc. At each juncture, one side is made to represent the forward movement of history while the other is relegated to a static past, to be recovered by sympathetic scholars (Hann 2012).

This is not to deny the important warning against an unthinking adoption of imperial histories. As Lars Hedegard Williams puts it, a focus on prayer as “aesthetic formation, discursive tradition, and skill” allows us to keep history and politics in view as we look at sensory practice in its personal and communal dimensions. Hopefully this framework will also prove useful in contexts that the volume leaves insufficiently illuminated.

Gal, Susan. 2002. A Semiotics of the Public/Private Distinction. differences 13(1): 77-95.

Hann, Chris. 2012. Personhood, Christianity, Modernity. Anthropology of this Century 3,

Heo, Angie. 2018. The Political Lives of Saints: Christian-Muslim Mediations in Egypt. Berkeley/L.A.: University of California Press.

Heron, Nicholas. 2018. Liturgical Power: Between Economic and Political Theology. New York: Fordham University Press.

Kellogg, Sarah Bakker. 2015. Ritual sounds, political echoes: Vocal agency and the sensory cultures of secularism in the Dutch Syriac diaspora. American Ethnologist 42(3): 431-445.

Naumescu, Vlad. 2007. Modes of Religiosity in Eastern Christianity: Religious Processes and Social Change in Ukraine. Berlin: Lit.


Praying with the Senses: Review Forum (Sarah Bakker Kellogg)

Luehrmann, Sonja, ed. 2018. Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 

By: Sarah Bakker Kellogg (University of California, Berkeley)

Worlds within Worlds: On Imperial Christianity’s Illegible Internal Others

The over-arching question running through Sonja Luerhmann’s marvelous edited volume on Orthodox Christian prayer is how sensory practices and bodily disciplines work together to create a world. Rightly identifying a shared emphasis on the corporeal dimensions of corporate worship across capital-O Orthodoxy, the contributors to this volume offer a number of valuable insights into questions of personhood, mediation, tradition, authority, publicity, intimacy, belonging, and the theological valences we attach to the human sensorium. Their collective labor demonstrates that Eastern Christianity is rich soil for anthropological inquiry from a number of vantage-points and for a host of theoretical interests. It is only further evidence of this richness that despite the book’s nuanced take on Orthodoxy’s historical and geographical complexity, a number of questions remain. In this brief essay, I take up just one of these remaining questions in order to reflect on the extent to which this volume’s claims about the senses, prayer, and the worldliness of an Orthodox world resonate with my own ethnographic work on an especially marginal branch of the Orthodox Christian tradition: the Syriac Orthodox diaspora in Western Europe. One of the key claims this book makes, and its authors offer a great deal of compelling evidence to support it, is that Orthodox Christianity is a world, as common stylistic features, ethical questions, and theological preoccupations reappear again and again, from Russia to Ethiopia to India and beyond. The question I am concerned with is how much this depiction of the worldliness of the Orthodox world relies on the legacy of Orthodox Christianity’s historical relationship with empire, which has functioned to obscure other kinds of Orthodox worlds contained within it.

It will take some work to make this case, given how persuasively the contributors to this volume describe and analyze this Orthodox worldliness. When understood as a globalized aesthetic formation, following Birgit Meyer’s apt phrase, Orthodox Christianity makes Christian persons through diverse kinds of relationships among practitioners spanning multiple scales and modes of mediation. These relationships, in turn, are fashioned through ongoing processes of sensory exchange and the ethically attuned cultivation of individual capacities that enable such exchanges. Naumescu names this Orthodox mode of being and becoming “relational ethics,” and this approach mirrors my own observations of diasporic Syriac Orthodox liturgical practice, which is the site par excellence for enacting a deeply felt ethics and theology of Syriac kinship, moral personhood, and ethnic belonging. The ethical, the theological, and the ethnic are so tightly bound that the sung prayers and hymns of the West Syriac Rite serve as a parish level ethnic boundary of a sort that is entirely illegible to conventional secular social science understandings of the distinction between “ethnic” and “religious” identity (Bakker Kellogg 2015; see also Atto 2011; Calder 2016; Jarjour 2018).

In sensory practices like icon veneration, sacramental listening, repetitive recitation, pilgrimage, and learning to read ancient sacral languages, Orthodoxy’s aesthetic forms and relational ethics articulate with what the authors understand to be an authoritative discursive tradition in the sense that Talal Asad means it, in that it aspires to a kind of coherence as an ethico-theological corpus rooted in a genealogy of ecclesiastical authority. Among Syriac Orthodox Christians who have resettled in Western Europe, this dynamic takes shape in the weekly recitation of the litany of saints, from St. Ephrem of Nisibis to St. Jacob of Serug to Philoxenos of Marburg, who are not only moral exemplars for Orthodox becoming (Bandak and Boylston 2014), but also beloved ancestors, who as members of the family remain intimately and immanently involved in everyday life. For the broader Orthodox world described in this volume, the historical imagination that shapes both the aesthetic and the discursive dimensions of this ethico-theological corpus is a political imagination as well, in that it is anchored in intellectual, poetic, visual, and sonic evocations of ancient Byzantium, and this is where the authors’ views of what makes Orthodoxy Orthodox diverge from mine.

It is, to my mind, a very healthy thing when anthropologists attend critically to the imaginative and reconstructive processes through which contemporary Christians establish claims of continuity with the past, and yet it also strikes me that something crucial is lost when we do not worry as much as we might about how the present’s relationship with the past is sometimes more than just an act of imagination and commemoration. Sometimes, certain narratives of the past, originating in the past, maintain their purchase in the present because of their decisive world-making effects. In the case of Orthodoxy’s roots in 4th and 5th century Christological controversy, I do not contest the point that much of the Orthodox world aspires to a principle of unity-in-diversity made largely possible by a shared imagined connection to Byzantium. This shared imagined connection is, as often as not, a geotheopolitical construct meant to fill the space left behind by any number of failed secular and even “western” (does that mean Roman?) ventures. It is also true that this ostensibly unifying thread, which both spans the Orthodox world and defines it as Orthodox, is not to be found in the Syriac Orthodox corner of it in which I work.

Despite public lip service to ecumenical reconciliation, I know of no Syriac Orthodox person with a strong aesthetic, moral, or theological attachment to a Byzantine past. What I can attest to are many Syriac Orthodox Christians who, if they know you well enough to trust you with this revelation, will privately express anger about how their liturgical forebears were mistreated at the Council of Chalcedon (451 C.E.) by the imperial bishops of Byzantium and Rome. From their perspective, which is filtered through their own lived memories of religious suppression and political violence in south east Turkey, eastern Syria, and northern Iraq, the misdeeds of the imperial Greek-speaking bishops of the Byzantine Empire at the Council of Chalcedon constituted the founding moment of Syriac Christianity’s historical troubles as a perennially marginalized, subjugated, and persecuted minority. From this moment on, a vast, cosmopolitan, and continent-spanning Syriac world took shape, encompassing both “orthodox” West Syriac Christians and “heterodox” East Syriac Christians. This world was not set apart from the Greek-speaking Christianity of formerly Byzantine lands but overlapped it, and engaged it in agonistic dialogue. For centuries, this Syriac world stretched beyond Greek-speaking Christian hegemony through the expansion of the Islamic world.

This history makes a difference to how anthropologists construe the historical context of the twenty first century Orthodox world because this context has shaped that historical imagination in variable ways. How the Roman and Greek churches remember and commemorate the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, and thus how they remember their own Byzantine pasts, is very different from what the heirs of the early Syriac speaking Christians remember and commemorate, as these memories have been shaped and reshaped by their shifting position as subjects of other empires, whether Sassanid, Abbasid, Mughal, or Ottoman. It matters that the Syriac Orthodox I work with consider themselves Orthodox because they adhere to the Nicene Creed. It also matters that they consider themselves non-Chalcedonian and not in the slightest bit Byzantine, not because they disagree with the substance of the Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s incarnate nature, but because they object to how the Bishops of Rome and Constantinople used the Council’s proceedings to establish their own political dominance and cultural hegemony in ways that had long-term material effects on the Syriac speaking world.

Thus it strikes me that when an anthropologist studying the heirs of the imperial position today characterizes the proceedings of the Council of Chalcedon in terms of the Christological divisions among so-called Nestorians, Miaphysites, and Chalcedonians, the impression given is somewhat slanted towards an imperial Christian understanding of what those early Christological debates were all about (Luerhmann 2018:4-7). Take the term miaphysite, for example, which is the label ascribed by Euro-American scholars to non-Chalcedonian churches like the Syriac Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox Churches, who, in response, have also taken up the term. Yet the term does not convey a coherent position taken at the Council of Chalcedon—it was invented as a neologism by English-speaking scholars in the twentieth century by conjoining the Greek word mia- (the feminine term for “one,”) and the Greek word physis (“nature”) (Millar 2013:52; see also Amar 2011). The purpose of this neologism was to emphasize what these western scholars understood to be the non-Chalcedonian Christians’ “weak” one-nature Christological doctrine without explicitly naming it as heterodox. The weakness of their “one” was signaled through use of the grammatical feminine, even though, according to Church historian Fergus Millar, no such term is to be found any relevant ancient texts (2013:50-58). This point ought to raise an anthropological eye-brow or two. As we seek to construe the relevant context to account for “Eastern” Christianity’s constitutive difference from “Western” Christianity we do well to situate even the most neutral seeming of scholarly claims about the past within the very traditions of imperial Christian heresiology, ethnography, and historiography out of which our own modern practices of textual inscription have emerged (Berzon 2016).

An altogether different perspective on what was at stake in those earlier councils comes into view through the Syriac literary tradition of the second through seventh centuries, as shifts in Syriac rhetorical conventions and theological motifs reveal Greek Christianity’s growing encroachment into Syriac modes of theological discourse, which Syriac Studies scholars have recently discerned to be a sign of the incommensurability of Greek, Latin, and Syriac as languages of theological discourse and Christological description. Part of the purpose of these councils was not only to put a limit on what could be said about the person and nature of God but on how it could be said, as in the case of the First Council of Constantinople in 381 C.E., which prohibited using feminine language to characterize any aspect of the Holy Trinity, effectively putting an end to the genre of Syriac poetic theology in which the Holy Spirit, the grammatically feminine ruho, was conventionally described as the Mother, and both God the Father and God the Son were frequently attributed with feminine anatomical attributes and capacities (Amar 2011:17). Such imperial maneuvers not only quashed an entire genre of theological discourse, but they set about to render the Syriac theological imagination illegible within Greek and Roman Christianity, while for Syriac Christians, in turn, Byzantium became synonymous with the imperial West (see also Weltecke 2016; Wood 2013)

The point of this excursion into late antique and early medieval geotheopolitics is not to fault the authors of this volume for insufficiently emphasizing the diversity within Orthodox unity. This historical material is not well known and its salience to anthropological concerns is not immediately obvious, and so I would not expect someone who works on twenty first century Romania or Russia to know what was going on in 13th century Baghdad. The point, rather, is to show how the aesthetic and discursive dimensions of a world emerge in generative tension with the other worlds it overlaps—although it might also be worth a methodological pause to consider the techniques we use to construe particular narratives of the past as necessary “context” to our anthropological analyses of the present, lest we recapitulate past imperial Christian narratives in which other Orthodox worlds are rendered illegible (Bakker Kellogg forthcoming).

For the Syriac Orthodox Christians I work with in the European diaspora, there is not one competing spatiotemporal imaginary at work in their religious and political lives but three, and not one of them is Byzantine. Instead, Syriac Orthodox Christians who think ethnically identify with either the ancient Assyrian Empire or with the ancient city-states of Aram, while those for whom the concept of “ethnicity” is meaningless identify simply with their parishes, ancestral villages, and monasteries. These historical imaginations are shaped, in variable and complex ways, by a sense of Syriac Christianity’s status as simultaneously indigenous, Semitic, and diasporic from the outset. These spatiotemporal imaginaries inform Syriac Orthodox prayer in that they are connected to what I have come to think of as distinct sensory cultures within the broader Syriac Christian world, which in turn reflect that world’s complex diasporic existence and its interactions with other worlds, whether global secularity materializing in local secular nationalisms, Turkish urban culture, Arab music worlds, rural Kurdish village life, or transnational ecumenical activism. If the worldliness of a world is marked by the convergence of aesthetic formation, discursive tradition, transnational connection, and historical imagination, then Syriac Christianity is a world straddling numerous others. This is possible because of the anchoring effects of Syriac prayer, an essential element of the liturgical performance of Syriac liturgy. Liturgical prayer, in this tradition, is an open interpretive space in which competing spatiotemporal configurations of Christian kinship, community, and ethnic belonging, originating in different regions of the Middle East and brought together in diaspora, jostle uncomfortably against one another. This is a world within others’ worlds, both fractured and knit together through intersecting sensory cultures, and its illegibility is produced, in my view, by the dominant knowledge practices and historical narratives shared by secular states and the devout heirs of imperial Christianity alike.

Admittedly, the question of Orthodoxy’s others is brought up in William A. Christian, Jr.’s epilogue, but it is not explicitly thematized as a constitutive, defining feature of the kind of Orthodox world that is represented conceptually and ethnographically in this volume. In some sense, this is good news: there is a great deal left to explore at the interface among worlds, and the multiscalar problem of finding worlds within worlds, in order to illuminate Orthodoxy’s imperial historical imagination. This imagination can at times obscure these other worlds, but this is no mere criticism for the sake of being critical; rather, in thinking about the imperial legacies of Orthodox thought and practice, we can expand our sense of what is at stake both theologically and politically in the aesthetic and discursive practices entailed in Orthodox prayer, which would in turn expand our understanding of how Orthodox prayer might in fact be shaping worlds beyond Orthodoxy itself.


Amar, Joseph. 2011. “Christianity at the Crossroads: The Legacy of Ephrem the Syrian.” Religion and Literature 43(2):1–21.

Atto, Naures. 2011. “Hostages in the Homeland, Orphans in the Diaspora: Identity Discourses Among the Assyrian/Syriac Elites in the European Diaspora.” Leiden: Leiden University Press Dissertations.

Bakker Kellogg, Sarah. 2015. “Ritual Sounds, Political Echoes: Vocal Agency and the Sensory
Cultures of Secularism in the Dutch-Syriac Diaspora.” American Ethnologist 42(3): 431–445.

Bakker Kellogg, Sarah. Forthcoming. “Perforating Kinship: Syriac Christianity, Ethnicity, Secular Legibility.” Current Anthropology.

Bandak, Andreas, and Tom Boylston. 2014. “The ‘Orthodoxy’ of Orthodoxy On Moral Imperfection, Correctness, and Deferral in Religious Worlds.” Religion and Society 5(1): 25–46.

Berzon, Todd S. Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Calder, Mark D. 2016. “Syrian Identity in Bethlehem: From Ethnoreligion to Ecclesiology.” Iran and the Caucusus 20 (3-4): 297–323.

Jarjour, Tala. 2018. Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo. Oxford University Press.

Luehrmann, Sonja. 2018. Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Indiana University Press.

Millar, Fergus. 2013. “The Evolution of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the Pre-Islamic Period:
From Greek to Syriac?” Journal of Early Christian Studies 21(1): 43–92.

Weltecke, Dorothea. 2016. “Bar ‘Ebroyo and Identity: Remarks on His Historical Writing.” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 19(2): 303–332.

Wood, Philip. 2013. The Chronicle of Seert: Christian Historical Imagination in Late Antique Iraq. Oxford University Press.

Praying with the Senses: Review Forum (Valentina Napolitano)

Luehrmann, Sonja, ed. 2018. Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 

By: Valentina Napolitano (University of Toronto)

Via a rich ethnographic lens this timely collection sheds new light on a long scholarship of Orthodox Christianity.  Rather than addressing the themes of each single piece, I address the collection as a whole. Therefore, my comments aim to highlight only a few themes forwarded by this collective effort without, of course, doing full justice to the richness of the material.

This collection’s perspective stands between an Asad/Mahmood approach to the study of religion and praying -as disciplined inclinations of ethical subject-making – and a renewed effort to take seriously the ontological reality and the affective histories of saints and holy figures. In this reading, praying is not just a drama within a discursive tradition, or only a mediation of ethical encounters, but it is also a way of calling into being ontological presences via multiple aesthetic formations and material exchange. Within a long and complex durée of Byzantine and Orthodox Church’s history, these ontological presences – if taken seriously – help us recalibrating what we come to understand as a socio-historical regime of the visible (see Sonja Luehrmann’s Introduction).

This collection refreshingly takes up stories not only of praising the holy and the saints, but also of doubting them. Self-doubt and doubting the world, through a multisensorial unfolding of praying, is an interesting avenue through which this approach to Anthropology of Christianity can help us to overcome the unhelpful division between the domain of the religious and that of the secular. When praying ‘by the books’ transtemporally connects the present event to past and future ones, the nature of those events becomes both personal as well as communal and public – and always in the making (see Sonja Luehrmann’s chapter). This clearly pushes against another unhelpful distinction in Christianity at large, that between a public domain of rituals and a private, inner dialogue, with the holy.

If for the faithful Syrian Christians -comparatively addressed in Ukraine, Romania and South India (see the chapter by Vlad Naumescu) – a tension between mystery and mastery is both a question of discernment as it is of purification of the heart, then praying is also a site for creativity, with and beyond conditions of pain, suffering and the process of salvation. When praying is lived as a received gift to call into being the spirit of fathers (and doing so in a diaspora), this human-divine relation sparks a capacity for imagination.  Praying as fabulation (which of course has a long history, see the work of Michel de Certeau) is not only a technique of subject-making, but also a site, a space of porous boundaries between ordinary life and death (in relation to saints) – between the co-creating worlds of the dead and the living. To approaches based on ethical subjectivity and Aristotelian poesies, through these different chapters, we are invited to pair a perspective of the prayer-event as one of creative, embodied and affective acts of fabulation – indeed an enriching angle in bringing the study of Orthodox Christianity to the anthropological table.

The miraculous, the fathers of the desert, the histories of schisms and exile (see chapters by Heo, Pop, Luerhmann, Kormina) are treated as imaginative, lived cartographies, graphic moments in the witnessing relation between saints, the holy and the people. Through praying with the senses, a place, a site becomes the creative potential for a present and future and cannot be contained in a generic space, but is always situated and enlivened through specific code switching. So, praying with the senses is not only about engaging with conditions of consolation, affections, but it is also an attuning to code switching between public, collective and personal realms, especially, but not only, in liturgical events constantly remade by histories of revivalism. Moreover, through an ethnographic reflection on Coptic practices (in Angie Hoe’s chapter) we learnt that there is a living threshold which constitutes self-orientation, communal memory and remembering. This threshold is actively constituted by specific form of materiality such as baraka, a particular substance that mediates between the human and the holy.

Overall this collection’s approach to the study of Orthodox Christianity combines a focus on generative grammar with an historical long durée and analytical angle on material religion and mediation. This is in line, but also pushing forward, approaches such as the ones by Webb Keane and Birgit Meyer on the study of religion, mediation and subjectivity. However, there are a few areas that this collection could have addressed further. For instance, gender and how the gendered body, through the prayer-event, shapes differently the synergy of material mediation and generative grammar.

We have a hint of this domain while we learn that women may show particular forms of consumption of orthodox praying material (see Jeffers Engelhardt’s intervention) and that in Ethiopian Orthodox Christian circles the availability of religious media for women transform their space of work in temporary religious and devotional spaces, without disrupting household gendered division of labour (see Tom Boylston’s chapter). While this material contributes to a burgeoning of research on the role of social media and how they have significant effects on people’s religious experience, we learn, specifically, that mediation not only defines what is magically imaginable, but also allows an imagination of a community with particular divisions of labour.

Moreover, this collection brings to view a reframing of local, national and transnational spaces through the prayer-event, and the nature of the accidental.  In an intervention, itself a lovely fabulation, by Andreas Bandak we are presented with a Syrian story of an indented car, masculinity, marriage and (failed) blessings – all in a space of a few days. We learn that the prayer-event has to be set in a sociality of the accidental. If one of the friends/informants of Bandak would had not dented this newly acquired car – bought in preparation for his wedding to come – a narrative of a later collective pray-singing, in that same car, would have taken a different route. A wide canvas of animated signs is part of the devotional urge for praying, but so it is a capacity for the accidental and the fortuitous in life to make its mark in a religious register.

To conclude, perhaps my main question to this collection is the wider role of the state and post-national formations that make religious spaces new important local and transnational modes of political aggregation (see, for instance, how currently some aspects of Catholic praying are championed in Poland and Hungary against undocumented immigration). Simion Pop’s intervention, while revisiting charismatic Orthodox revivalism in Romania, starts to address this topical domain of inquiry. His work shows that orthodox Christian revivalism has multiple faces and political purchase. If we pay attention to renewed forms of charisma and the ritual labour they express, we can also grasp how orthodox Christianity allows people to try to legitimize other forms of authority, which are normally dominated by clericalism. By doing so people struggle for emancipation from historically given forms of authority, while fabulating new economies of prayers. So how do we understand these ecclesiastic vis-a-vis revivalist authorities as part of state-crafting? And how to grasp, more generally, state-crafting via a focus on the praying-event?  If praying with the senses help us to see the multivocality and interdisciplinarity of a study of religious mediation, we need to further address how this sensing is political.

Praying with the Senses: Review Forum (Helena Kupari)

Luehrmann, Sonja, ed. 2018. Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 

By: Helena Kupari (University of Helsinki)

In her essay on icon veneration in Coptic Orthodox Christianity, Angie Heo (p. 94) relates how, when visiting Thessaloniki, Greece, she and her fellow contributors to the volume at hand came across realist icon paintings from time yet to be canonized elder Paisios. This remark, made in passing, brings home a crucially important feature of Praying with the Senses: it is an edited collection that has grown out of genuine collaboration between the contributors. The authors’ joint efforts at gaining a deeper understanding of contemporary Orthodox spirituality, including concrete field trips like the one described by Heo, are well evident in the outcome. The book is far from a patchwork of separate papers. On the contrary, the individual chapters are remarkably consistent in terms of style and tone as well as standard of argumentation – a rare quality in such edited volumes.

The essays all center on practices of prayer. This constitutes a rich field of study, for the Orthodox tradition, as Simion Pop (p. 223) observes, is “saturated” with such practices. Under the broadly construed theme of prayer, the contributors engage with many characteristic features of Orthodox Christianity, such as the generative interplay of tradition and innovation and the Orthodox interpersonal approach to salvation. Furthermore, the theme of prayer also prompts the authors to address some of the core questions in the study of religions, including the relationship between institutional legitimacy and individual experience, the location and nature of religious agency, as well as the role of materiality, embodiment, and sensory input in generating religious faith. All the individual chapters share an interest in this last topic, and the objective of understanding the sensory worlds of Orthodox Christian prayer.

Praying with the Senses looks at prayer through an anthropological lens, and many of the essays in the book constitute textbook examples of the kind of rich and hybrid knowledge that can be produced through careful ethnographic enquiries. The chapters integrate detailed analyses of local contexts and individual lifeworlds with theological insight – a good example is Vlad Naumescu’s (ch. 1) discussion of Orthodox ethical formation through the idioms of “mastery” and “mystery”. Furthermore, the introductory chapter by the volume’s editor Sonja Luehrmann is beautifully written. In a fresh and compact package, it provides the reader with both a historical outline of Orthodox Christianity and a conceptual framework for approaching Orthodox Christian prayer.

The book contains a delightful variation in geographical and cultural contexts, including case studies from Asia and Africa. This spectrum of glocalizations successfully displays the “unity in diversity” that characterizes Orthodox churches worldwide. Naturally, the picture provided is not exhaustive – but it is comprehensive enough to impress on the reader the importance of paying attention to the various historical, social, and political realities in which Orthodox praxis is embedded. For me, at least, the essays provided a very helpful comparative perspective on the particular context that has been the focus of my research: Finland.

While Orthodox Christianity has had a long historical presence in the borderlands between Russia and Finland, in present-day Finland Orthodoxy constitutes the faith of a very small minority. Evangelical Lutheranism is the historically dominant religion, the confessional “significant other” – a notion introduced by William A. Christian Jr. in his epilogue (p. 248) – of the Orthodox Church. The Finnish Orthodox community is not completely adrift among the overwhelming Protestant majority, however. For one thing, even contemporary Finnish Orthodoxy bears traces of the religious culture of pre-modern, rural North-Western Russia inhabited by various Finno-Ugric peoples. At the same time, Orthodoxy in Finland is also attuned to post-modern and post-secular sensibilities. The Orthodox Church has, in fact, faired quite well in the “spiritual turn” of the past decades, with many Finns turning towards the Orthodox tradition in their search for spiritual fulfillment.

The Finnish discipline of the study of religions has a strong tradition in the study of “folk religion”, including and especially the religious worlds of various Finno-Ugric peoples of Northern Europe and Siberia. Orthodox Christianity has thus entered the grid of Finnish scholars relatively early on, in the form of the ethnically infused beliefs and practices of people like the Mari woman introduced in Luehrmann’s chapter (p. 126–127). Later, Finnish researchers’ interest in folk religion expanded to modern contexts and was enriched with anthropological and sociological approaches to contemporary spiritual and religious landscapes.

One notion through which Luehrmann describes the subject matter of Praying with the Senses is “lived Orthodoxies” (p. 22) – a term that I immediately connect with “lived religion”. What separates the study of folk religion from the study of lived religion? This is a question that Finnish scholars have recently been asking amongst themselves. One possible answer (based on my intuitive take on articulations of the study of lived religion) is that lived religion stands closer to the institutional nexus of religion than folk religion. The most immediate and pressing context for enquiries into folk religion is the concrete material reality of the (often marginalized) people under study, not these people’s relationship with any (remote) religious authority. The lived religion approach, for its part, is centered on individuals’ various and often eclectic ways of “doing” religion, and how they relate to religion-as-prescribed by institutions. In research on lived Orthodoxies (or lived Catholicisms, lived Islams, etc.), I surmise, the focus is even more specifically on the application and adaption of Orthodox (or Catholic, Islamic, etc.) idioms.

The examination of a particular faith tradition “as lived” presents itself as a promising research strategy especially in the case of religions with a strong centripetal impetus. As Luehrmann (p. 12) notes, “[t]he Orthodox orientation toward tradition and its authoritative transmission [acts] as an important corrective to studies of Protestant Christianity, where the emphasis is on its connection to modern individualism”. Indeed, this orientation toward tradition is beautifully presented and exemplified in many of the individual essays of the book. Jeffers Engelhardt (ch. 2), for example, describes how Thessaloniki Greeks cultivating a pious lifestyle make use of modern media technologies to better orientate themselves toward the sacramental life of the Church, whereas Simion Pop (ch. 8) discusses the efforts of Romanian Orthodox faithful influenced by a revivalist drive for personal and social transformation to live by the Orthodox “spirit”.  Nevertheless, in both essays it is well in evidence that the people studied are not any average church members, but individuals who actively seek to position themselves as close to “authentic” tradition as possible. From this perspective, a refreshingly different case study is presented by Jeanne Kormina (ch. 5), who writes about Russian religious nomads, their innovative and unorthodox ways of tapping into the sacred, and the Orthodox Church’s endeavors to “domesticate” them. The religious sensibilities of Kormina’s informants are not primarily oriented toward parish life but toward permanent or provisional sacred sites situated farther away.

My own research has mostly been about the routinized everyday religiosity of people who have been socialized to Orthodox Christianity in childhood, who have struggled with marginalization in Finnish society, and whose religion has therefore been oriented toward coping and stability rather than spiritual advancement. This type of religious observance is not very well represented in the essays of Praying with the Senses. While it is rightly acknowledged that repetition and routinization as well as casual and occasional performance also constitute prevalent modalities of Orthodox prayer, the chapters are more concerned with the “spiritual exploits” (Luehrmann, p. 8) of what could be called lay virtuosi. However, as these individuals in question are, after all, laypeople (for the exception of the nuns discussed by Daria Dubovka, ch. 7), the contributors are able to identify and articulate fascinating negotiations taking place in the intersecting and overlapping terrain between this-worldly and other-worldly. They describe techniques of “everyday asceticism” through which the cultivation of a prayerful state of mind is immersed in the flow of daily life with its disturbances and responsibilities. Luehrmann (ch. 4), for example, discusses the complexity involved in correctly performing texts of prayer books – an act she compares to the generation of new texts (I would say new speech, on-going dialogue) with the help of grammatical structures. Moreover, her chapter also nicely illustrates how ordinary Orthodox faithful bend the rules of proper prayer to accommodate their own needs and interests, as in the case of prayers targeting non-Orthodox and unbaptized loved ones. I would have liked to read even more about such “deviant” behavior from the pages of the book.

One thread that runs through Praying with the Senses is the understanding of prayer as a skill that needs practice. Learning is an interesting theme in the context of Orthodoxy for, as Naumescu (p. 29) points out, whereas the process of becoming Orthodox is often described with organic metaphors that emphasize growth and the gradual maturation of a pre-existing essence, the Orthodox tradition includes myriad concrete ways of molding one’s sensibilities towards Orthodox ideals. In fact, from this perspective praying actually constitutes both something that needs to be learned in and of itself and an instrument of further learning. As someone who is in the early stages of a research project on conversions to Orthodox Christianity in contemporary Finland, I found the contributors’ engagement with the theme of learning of particular resonance and interest. How do you learn to pray, and what do you learn by praying?

The essays of the book present a wonderfully rich array of Orthodox pedagogies of prayer. Learning takes place through ritual participation (Naumescu; Pop), embodied interaction with icons and other sacred objects (Heo; Kormina), and immersion in religious soundscapes (Boylston; Engelhardt). It is also achieved through the practice of monastic obedience (Dubovka), as well as through developing personal relations with moral exemplars such as saints and spiritual fathers (Luehrmann; Naumescu; Pop). Overall, the chapters truly demonstrate that in “a tradition made up of many different voices” (Luehrmann, p. 15), people are able to choose from a plurality of paths.

In his discussion on Orthodox self-formation, Naumescu (ch. 1) grounds the “Orthodox ideal of human becoming” (p. 30) in the image-likeness model of Orthodox anthropology, suggesting that learning in the Orthodox context is always ultimately about the process of growing from image to likeness of God. This, he reminds the reader, is an endeavor that requires two parties: advancement is part human effort and part God’s gift (p. 35). The idea of divinely inspired learning (p. 39) is just one example of the many interesting and inventive notions introduced in Praying with the Senses that will help me to advance my own thinking about Orthodox Christianity and religious praxis more generally. Nevertheless, when I think about the elderly Orthodox Finns of my previous study, whose primary religious exemplars were their own (mostly illiterate) grandparents, or about the newly converted Finnish artist who in a recent interview stated that he is not, in fact, religious (, I cannot help but wonder whether all learning achieved through Orthodox tools is indeed geared toward theosis or toward securing oneself firmly within church-authorized tradition.

Praying with the Senses is a strong, coherent, topical and altogether fascinating compilation of ethnographically informed essays on Orthodox Christian prayer. As a scholar sensitized to the folk religion approach to religious phenomena, the one thing that I was left craving for after my reading experience was more voices from the margins of tradition. How do those people pray who do not have the skills, resources, or interest to try to pray “by the book”? This question merits further study, also in the context of Orthodox Christianity.


Kupari, Helena. 2016. Lifelong Religion as Habitus: Religious Practice among Displaced Karelian Orthodox Women in Finland. Leiden: Brill. DOI: 10.1163/9789004326743.

Praying with the Senses: Review Forum (Simon Coleman)

Luehrmann, Sonja, ed. 2018. Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 

By: Simon Coleman (University of Toronto)

Sonja Luehrmann’s edited volume is ostensibly focused on prayer, but in fact the book is about much more, since it ‘seeks to present both the diversity of practices and the shared aesthetic sensibilities that govern how Orthodox spirituality is lived in modern and globalized times’ (p.4). In one sense, using prayer as a means of understanding wider religious tendencies might be seen as a classic Maussian move, an analytical deployment of prayer as an institution not only central to religious life, but also capable of moving across different domains while still remaining recognizably itself (see e.g. Jenkins 2008). According to my reading of Luehrmann’s text, however, the broader question at stake concerns Orthodoxy itself: how might we both recognize and analyze it across very different national and cultural contexts?

Structurally, the book offers at least three different ways of answering this question. First, the contributions range across a wide landscape of national traditions, incorporating research on believers and institutions located in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Second, individual chapters tend to focus respectively on a particular dimension of what might constitute Orthodoxy, including old and new media technologies (Engelhardt), holy personhood (Heo), treatment of bodies (Dubovka), use of shared spaces (Boylston), attitudes towards the book (Luehrmann), and so on. When juxtaposed, these dimensions begin to suggest a ‘total’ picture of what to look out for in studying Orthodoxy. Third, there are brief, cross-cutting reflections on specific topics that act as counterpoints to the longer essays. Thus, for instance, Angie Heo’s short piece on Baraka takes the reader ‘across the Arab Mediterranean world’ (p.163), showing how the implications of this term spill over different concepts (blessing, holiness, charisma, and so on) as well as religious boundaries, helping to mix Muslim and Christian. Andreas Bandak’s piece draws together his conversations with a Greek Orthodox friend in Damascus, the latter’s purchase of a car, and a visit to a monastery to consider how the form and orientation of prayers may reflect the vast changes in the lives of Syrian Christians in recent years.

There is also a more theoretical stance that brings the different parts of the book together and suggests an underlying argument about how to study both Orthodoxy and other religious formations. The clue to this approach is already contained in the phrase ‘aesthetic sensibilities,’ for Luehrmann explains that the emphasis on a sensory ethnography bridges forms of materiality, subjectivity, and emotional engagement (p.10). Generally, the book does not delve very deeply into the specialized anthropology of senses per se. However, its focus on ‘aesthetic formations’ (Meyer 2009) encourages ‘a commitment to recognizable choreographies of gestures, sounds, images, and corresponding attitudes that can produce quite strong distinctions from non-Orthodox outsides’ (Luehrmann, p. 16). Aesthetics here really are meant to be ‘formative’ in the sense that such styles and choreographies take on considerable importance where no transnational Church administration exists to impose liturgical or political order. These broader aesthetics combine with ‘discursive tradition’ (taken from Asad) and the study of prayer practices to provide three further, interrelated areas through which to approach the study of Orthodoxy.

In the space that I have, I highlight just two cross-cutting threads where I think this focus on the aesthetic provides useful food for thought—suggesting the possibility of thinking across Orthodoxy, but also considering more comparative questions. One relates to the issues of religious rhythm. As Luehrmann puts it (p.8), quoting a Finnish Orthodox priest, ‘Orthodoxy is all about rhythm,’ thus also suggesting the significance of regular prayers as a means to create ritualized habits that can permeate different places and contexts. Similarly, in his piece on ‘becoming Orthodox’ and learning to ‘master’ a Christian tradition, Vlad Naumescu suggests that, ‘throughout the Orthodox world, liturgical rhythms are markers of spiritual strength and confessional identity’ (p.37). Such rhythms are obviously evident in monasteries and holy places, but are also detectable in other realms of life, such as the example of a woman unable to recognize herself in patterns of truncated, Protestant-like worship as it adopts a new tempo, unfamiliar to her. Furthermore, they raise questions of how Orthodoxy can adapt to novel environments, such as the ways in which new urban ascetics attempt to combine the demands of secular and family life with regularized visits to spiritual fathers, going on pilgrimages, and so on. Rhythm, like prayer, becomes a useful way to think through and across Orthodoxy because it reaches across so many different scales, from the body of the believer to the national landscape of holy places and sacred events, and it asks to what extent we might detect a ‘choreography’ of faith.

On the other hand, the other area I wish to highlight appears to be pitched rather precisely against the importance of rhythm in the reproduction of religious life, and can be found most obviously in Jeanne Kormina’s piece on Russia. Kormina talks of alternative regimes of belonging enacted through what she calls ‘the nomadic religious regime’ (p.144) evinced by believers who try to move away from the framework of local parish communities in Russia, to focus instead on making pilgrimages to sacred sites or visiting urban Orthodox fairs. These ‘nomads’ appear to be disrupting or cutting out some of the regularities of Orthodox life, incurring the disapproval of some clergy. Kormina thus quotes a Father Alekssii who states firmly that pilgrimage should be ‘a rare feast rather than a routine of religious life’ (p.151). Such practices seem to be developing a new tempo, with a type of engagement oriented more towards movement and leisure than towards parish-related virtues of situatedness and community-building. In doing so, they raise much broader comparative questions concerning the rhythms and locations of contemporary forms of Christianity in general, where ‘pilgrimage’ modes of engagement are proving more popular than regular participation at the local level (e.g. Coleman 2018).

In one sense, this volume represents a further contribution to the Anthropology of Christianity, and one that pulls us further away from the original impulse of the sub-field to focus on high-profile, globalizing, Pentecostal forms of revival. In this regard, Simion Pop’s piece on Orthodox revival raises intriguing and significant questions as to how ‘a hierarchical, liturgical religion such as Eastern Orthodox Christianity’ might be able to foster ‘interiorization of faith and personal commitment’ (p.226). In her introduction, Luehrmann states that ‘the Orthodox orientation toward tradition and its authoritative transmission’ (p.12) provide an important corrective to studies of Protestantism where the emphasis is on modern forms of individualism and ruptures with the past. However, more interesting, though less expected, are the potential parallels with varieties of Protestantism. Luehrmann herself, in her separate chapter on Orthodox uses of prayer books, notes that at times parallels may be found between Orthodox and evangelical prayer, or even charismatic speaking in tongues, over the interdependence that can be discerned between innovation and continual practice (p.121). Her point is a good reminder that while it is often useful to think in terms of denominational differences, there are other, cross-cutting ways to work comparatively in studying global forms of Christianity.

The final chapter of the volume, by William Christian, points to some of the historical, geopolitical changes that have affected national configurations of Orthodoxy, such as shifts in Ottoman attitudes towards pluralism in the Balkans, or the disestablishment of national Orthodox regimes in the Soviet Union and Ethiopia (p.244). Christian also returns to the question of potential relationships, and contrasts, with evangelicals and Pentecostals. He characterizes Orthodoxy as being akin to Catholicism and Judaism in its status as ‘a legacy religion,’ to which people rarely convert in its home territories except through marriage. The point is that Orthodoxy seems relatively static and place-based compared with the more mobile orientation of Baptists and Pentecostals. Such may well be the case. However, I would have welcomed more discussion in the book of two areas where forms of Orthodox mobility might have been considered in more detail: the importance of migration and diaspora-formation in the shifting of local forms of Orthodoxy into new relations of transnational mobility; and, also, the ways in which national Orthodox traditions might communicate and influence each other—not only theologically, but also aesthetically and materially. Nonetheless, this is an excellent book to consult for anybody wishing to learn about prayer, but also about so much more.


Coleman, Simon 2018 ‘From the Liminal to the Lateral: Urban Religion in English Cathedrals.’ Tourism Geographies Published online 21 March,

Jenkins, Tim 2008 ‘Marcel Mauss’ Essay on Prayer: An Important Contribution on the Nature of Sociological Understanding.’ Revue du MAUSS permanente, Published online 6 novembre,

Meyer, Birgit (ed.) Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion, and the Senses. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Praying with the Senses: Review Forum (Lars Hedegaard Williams)

Luehrmann, Sonja, ed. 2018. Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 

By: Lars Hedegaard Williams (Aarhus University)

The pastor of the small, Charismatic church leads us in chanting and singing, as we walk Akello Maria towards her grave. The women are wearing colorful robes and most men are in suits. People hold flowers in deep, bright colors in their hands that stand out in contrast to the brown and yellow nuances of the burnt grass in the northern Ugandan countryside. They place the flowers on the casket. As we arrive at the rim of the grave, prayers break out over the loudspeakers to console the mourning crowd. As the deceased is being placed in the ground, the pastor says a short speech, where he warns the families not to contact the dead again after this day: ‘that was the old tradition here in Acholiland, but now we are modern, we don’t do that anymore,’ he warns us and leads us in a last prayer for Akello Maria, to lead her on her way.

It was during my doctoral fieldwork in the Charismatic churches in northern Uganda that I began to realize how prayer can be a key to understanding, not just ‘religion’, but questions of subjectivity, temporality, epistemology and belief. Praying with the Senses adds to the already expanding literature that connects prayer to these central themes in anthropology. Although the short vignette above is from a Charismatic and not an Orthodox church, and this way of praying is rather different than in the Orthodox tradition, the relevance of the questions posed and of the analytical frame in Praying with the Senses nevertheless becomes highly relevant to these religious organizations as well.

 In Praying with the Senses Luehrmann and colleagues address prayer in Orthodox Christianity, not simply as an outcry from an individual soul, but as a form of practice that reaches both back in time towards tradition and forward towards innovation, inward as ethical practice and outward as communal activity.

The book is divided into two parts: Senses, which focuses on the sensory environments of personal spiritual practice, and Worlds, addressing the contexts people seek out to develop their prayer practice. The first section, Senses, engages with some of the central theological concepts of the traditions, such as deification and ethical discipline (Naumescu), with the shaping of saintly personhood (Heo) and the integration of new media in spiritual practice (Engelhardt), and how these practices are embedded in temporal cycles of days, weeks and years (Luehrmann). The second, Worlds, holds a focus on the landscape in which the persons engage with prayer and how this changes as people move close to and away from home (Kormina), as political fields change dramatically (Bandak), and in the search for the best conditions of prayer (Dubovka). Together these chapters display both great geographical and cultural variation, as well as common features in the aesthetics and theology of Orthodox Christianity. In the following, I will give a short overview of the different chapters, before I turn to some more general considerations on the conceptual framework, which I think adds a great theoretical capacity, not only to the Anthropology of Christianity, but to the Anthropology of Religion more broadly, as well as to interdisciplinary studies of prayer.

In the first chapter after the introduction, Naumescu asks: what makes a person Orthodox? How does one grow into being a practitioner of an old tradition in a new world? This focus on ‘becoming’ emphasizes that faith is not simply a ‘thing’ that one is born with, or receives automatically. Being Orthodox is, on the contrary, something that is developed, a sensibility that exists even beyond belief. As Naumescu writes, “there must be commonly accepted ways to cultivate an Orthodox sensibility that is expanded and carried on in life, even beyond belief” (29). Through an epistemological balance between ‘mastery’ and ‘mystery’ Naumescu shows how the path of becoming is always also a path of uncertainties and existential doubts. In the second chapter, Engelhardt examines the degrees of mediation so central to the Orthodox world. The emphasis here on both ‘new’ and ‘old’ media elegantly parallels the books theoretical framework of old tradition and (also) newer aesthetics, as Engelhardt describes how “media turns [the practitioner] away from belief and towards materiality; away from formalism and towards practice; away from religion and the secular towards the post-secular and in some cases, even back to enchantment” (p. 58, here also quoting Engelke 2010: 375). Through vignettes from his fieldwork in Greece, Engelhardt show us this balance, which at the end is condensed elegantly in one image of his interlocutor Stelios, who uses 30 minutes’ live-streaming of the Great Compline in substitution for the time he would otherwise spend on Facebook. In Heo’s beginning vignette from Cairo’s busy streets, she shows how remembering a holy person “with fullest sympathy is a multisensory experience involving pictures, sounds, smells, postures, and movements” (84). Her account of holy personhood shows how people remember human capacities to become divine through concrete techniques of the imagination. This takes great skill as well, since naming the holy person in the wrong way at wrong times can tempt them to ‘vain-glory’. A lot is at stake for both saints and practitioners. In the fourth chapter, Luehrmann brings attention to another medium; the prayer book. Based on her fieldwork from Russia, she shows how reading from prayer books matter both as sound and as semantics, as an object of focus and an aid to concentration. “When trying to perform a prayer text correctly, worshippers engage in complex negotiations between their own skills and aesthetic preferences, the authority they ascribe to particular aspects of Orthodox tradition, and practical problems, such as how to make time for prayer in a busy day and maintain focus over a prolonged period of time” (120). This quote from Luehrmann illustrates in condensed form how the theoretical framework is operationalized empirically in the field. This chapter concludes the first part on Senses.

The first chapter in the second section Worlds, by Kormina, introduces us to the problem of religious nomads for the Russian Orthodox Church. Issues of modernity and tradition, continuity and rupture, finds its nexus between the self-centering practices of modern Russian worshipers and the community-centered narrative provided by the church. This is exemplified by the icon, who does not adhere to a particular community, but can find its believers everywhere, in any market or any home. The worshipers of Kormina’s ethnography are always on the move to find a better parish, a more suitable prayer to recite or a more powerful spiritual father to confess to. Boylston’s chapter takes up the question of how developments in media technology play into the religious politics of the post-imperial era in one particular part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This is particularly a question of skill, since prayer is here largely a matter for specialists. Prayer is a bodily and public matter, where the “communication with God is achieved not through individual speech acts but through public networks of petition and deference” (167). However, this public nature of prayer also turns it political, and as a result Boylston traces the changing Christian-Muslim relation on the Zege peninsula through several years, as well as how public space is occupied through architecture and media technology. In her chapter, Dubovka, uses the body as an example of the contemporary domain of inscribing tradition. Modern nuns and novices are faced with ancient monastic challenges in the minimization or transformation of “the body into something fleshless” (207). Prayer is here both a mental activity, a collective ritual and a transformative practice, and the body both an instrument and indicator of deification. For the worshippers living in the monasteries it becomes a balance between being part of the modern world, while at the same time emphasizing their difference from it, which again leads to new ascetic potentialities for Dubovka’s interlocutors. Pop argues that the charismatization of tradition enhances believers capacity to “act and participate in their social and religious worlds and sustains interiorization of faith and personal commitment” (237). His fieldwork is done among the Orthodox revival milieu in Romania with a focus on social and ritual spaces. From here, Pop proposes a comparative framework for examining revival activities in other cases of Orthodox Christianity.

Between these chapters, vignettes by Veniaminov, Naumescu, Luehrmann, Bandak, and Heo serve aesthetic purposes in themselves. Particularly, the photographic collection in the middle from several of the authors and Bandak’s vignette from Syria are powerful aesthetic devices.

The volume poses questions so fundamental to much current Anthropology of Christianity: What kind of creature is prayer? How can it be adequately described and conceptualized? In what way do the senses play a part in prayer practice?

To answer these core question, the volume takes interdisciplinary steps drawing from ethnomusicology, comparative religious studies, art history, theology and psychology to create a sensory ethnography of prayer. This approach elegantly captures the dynamics between tradition and innovation, between staying connected to the organization, holding the image of the church fathers in clear sight, and simultaneously engaging with new media: you-tube prayer, loudspeakers and the internet. In doing so, it engages with current debates in Anthropology of Christianity in a way that places additional emphasis on the aesthetic dimensions and training of skills in prayer and by this offers new nuances.

This approach shows both broad empirically variety, with case material from Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, East Africa and India, as well as theoretical ambition in conceptualizing prayer through three dimensions: aesthetic sensibility, discursive tradition and a focus on skill. This theoretical focus makes the volume relevant to all sorts of debates, new and old, in the Anthropology of Religion and of Christianity. I will get back to that below, but first a dive in to the theoretical framework that informs the chapters of the book.

The debates concerning how to conceptualize prayer have been a longstanding issue in the Anthropology of Religion and Christianity. As Luehrmann writes, “Prayer happens in many different places and contexts: at home and at church, as collective performance and as a personal aside, as an explicit recitation of a canonical text and as a more general attitude of attentiveness” (8). With a broad conceptual frame the authors include a wide pallet of communicative practices in their scope: private and collective recitation of texts, performance of praise hymns, silent or voiced exchanges with sacred media such as icons, relics and candles, the bodily movements of pilgrimage and chanting and singing along with audiovisual media that brings the sounds and experiences of the Orthodox life into otherwise profane spaces. It is a way of thinking about prayer as “request, but also connection, ethical quest but also utilitarian plea, public statement but also a state of mind that may have no visible outside manifestation” (9). This approach owes a legacy to Marcel Mauss (2003 [1909]), for whom prayer was always a fundamentally social activity. It includes the traditional and the discursive, the things and non-things, living and the dead. As the modern Russian Saint Kronstadt is quoted for in concern of the dead “We name them, and they name us. But he who does not lovingly remember his brethren in prayer will not himself be remembered, and does not deserve to be named” (Kronstadt, quoted in Luehrmann: 9). This communal aspect is what makes these practices ‘Orthodox’, according to the authors.

However, a risk of focusing on cultural practices is that it so often comes at the expense of history, institutional organization and power structures. For the Orthodox practitioner the experienced richness and efficacy of prayer is always informed by a thick sensory environment, which builds its sincerity on historical and institutional legitimacy. No ethnographer can catch it all. Nevertheless, the three dimensions of the volumes theoretical frame – aesthetic formation, discursive tradition and skill – is a thorough way of going about this issue. In the icon, the powerful aesthetics meet a deep rooted tradition and the skill of the practitioner to engage with it in the correct way. In chants, the aesthetic expression of sound meets the historically evolved Byzantine system of modes, which alternate throughout the church year. It is an elegant way to make history and practice meet and to place the political at the heart of the poetic and the poetic at the heart of the political. This approach follows in the footsteps of scholars like Talal Asad (2009[1986]), Birgit Meyer (2009; 1998), Charles Hirschkind (2006) and Tanya Luhrmann (2012).

An intriguing next step using this theoretical frame could be to place it in relation to other debates with Anthropology of Religion / Christianity, for example, debates on belief (Good, 1994; Englund, 2007; Luhrmann, 2012; Bubandt, 2014). We could, for example, ask what consequences does this theoretical conception of prayer (the 3 dimensions) have for conceptualizing belief?
Or what does it mean to believe in something under these circumstances described so well in the volume, where practitioners stand between new and old, innovation and tradition? What role does skill and aesthetics play for belief?

Furthermore, we could ask if the theoretical framework would work on related areas in the Anthropology of Christianity e.g. in studies on Pentecostal-Charismatic churches? The authors pose the authoritative transmission in Orthodoxy as an important corrective to debates on Protestant Christianity, particularly its Pentecostal and Charismatic versions, were individualism and dramatic breaks with the past are often emphasized. As someone studying Pentecostal-Charismatic churches in Uganda, I do agree that these are important nuances when carving out an Anthropology of Christianity as such. However, I think the analytics used in the theoretical frame are highly relevant to studying, for example, Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity as well, and would work well as a comparative framework. This point brings me back again to the Pentecostal burial in Acholiland, northern Uganda.

The burial of Akello Maria was indeed an event where skills, aesthetics and tradition where central elements. Traditions in the plural were constantly at stake as ‘new’ Pentecostal practices of saying a final goodbye were crossing swords with ‘older’ Acholi practices of continuing a conversation with the dead. The sensory display of tossing flowers and singing while walking Akello Maria to her last resting place, would mix with the skills of performing these songs and of the long, rhythmic prayers that would flow from the loudspeakers to comfort the mourning crowd. To paraphrase the questions of Williams A. Christian Jr.’s epilogue to the book, one could go on to ask about the immediate and relevant configurations of which this sort of religious practice is a part. To what extent is the specific religious practice in question positioned as dominant, dual, plural or as a minority in these configurations? Are new forms of media the handmaids or foes of traditional spirituality discourses? Which skills, aesthetics and traditions are at stake? Praying with the Senses enables these questions in constructive ways, and I will ask myself these questions when I return to the churches of Acholiland in the future.


Asad, T. (2009). Genealogies of religion: Discipline and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Bubandt, N. (2015). The empty seashell: Witchcraft and doubt on an Indonesian island.
New York: Cornell University Press.

Englund, H. (2007). Pentecostalism beyond belief: trust and democracy in a Malawian township. Africa, 77(4): 477-499.

Good, B. J. (1993). Medicine, rationality and experience: an anthropological perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hirschkind, C. (2006). The ethical soundscape: Cassette sermons and Islamic counterpublics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012). When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with God. New York: Vintage.

Meyer, B. (1998). ‘Make a complete break with the past.’Memory and Post-colonial Modernity in Ghanaian Pentecostalist Discourse. Journal of Religion in Africa, 28 (Fasc. 3): 316-349.

Meyer, B. (2009). From imagined communities to aesthetic formations: religious mediations, sensational forms, and styles of binding. Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion, and the Senses, 1-28.

Mauss, M. (2003). On Prayer. New York: Durkheim Press.

Ingalls, Reigersberg, and Sherinian, “Making Congregational Music Local in Christian Communities Worldwide”

Ingalls, Monique, Reigersberg, Muriel Swijghuisen, and Zoe C. Sherinian. 2018. Making Congregational Music Local in Christian Communities Worldwide. New York: Routledge.

Description: What does it mean for music to be considered local in contemporary Christian communities, and who shapes this meaning? Through what musical processes have religious beliefs and practices once ‘foreign’ become ‘indigenous’? How does using indigenous musical practices aid in the growth of local Christian religious practices and beliefs? How are musical constructions of the local intertwined with regional, national or transnational religious influences and cosmopolitanisms?

Making Congregational Music Local in Christian Communities Worldwide explores the ways that congregational music-making is integral to how communities around the world understand what it means to be ‘local’ and ‘Christian’. Showing how locality is produced, negotiated, and performed through music-making, this book draws on case studies from every continent that integrate insights from anthropology, ethnomusicology, cultural geography, mission studies, and practical theology. Four sections explore a central aspect of the production of locality through congregational music-making, addressing the role of historical trends, cultural and political power, diverging values, and translocal influences in defining what it means to be ‘local’ and ‘Christian’. This book contends that examining musical processes of localization can lead scholars to new understandings of the meaning and power of Christian belief and practice.

Chenoweth, “Practicing and Preaching Quakerism”

Chenoweth, John M. 2014. Practicing and Preaching Quakerism: Creating a Religion of Peace on a Slavery-era Plantation. American Anthropologist 116()1: 94-109. 

Abstract: A meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (“Quakers”) formed in the British Virgin Islands in the 1740s offers a window onto broader practices of religion making. Equality, simplicity, and peace form a basis for Quaker thought, but in the BVI these ideals intersected with the realities of Caribbean life and the central fact that members also held enslaved Africans. What members did to create Quakerism varied for this group, yet it was nonetheless understood to be a part of the broader community of “Friends.” Practice perspectives are employed here to gain access to seemingly ephemeral religion through the concrete objects of archaeology but also as a means of reconciling variation in practice with the idea of a coherent religion. Here religious identity was negotiated through practices on multiple scales, creating unity via larger-scope practices of writing and reading while the most frequent identifications were local and variable. Written works are often seen to encode a static, “real” version of religion against which actions can be measured, but I will argue that religion is better seen in practice, and here Quakerism was created at least as much in the variable minutia of individual performance as in widely shared documents.

Kollman, “Generations of Catholics in Eastern Africa: A Practice-Centered Analysis of Religious Change”

Kollman, Paul (2012) “Generations of Catholics in Eastern Africa: A Practice-Centered Analysis of Religious Change” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51(3):412–428

Abstract: This article considers how well Martin Riesebrodt’s practice-centered theory of religion addresses religious change among Catholics in eastern Africa. Two arguments are advanced using a generational change scheme. First, Riesebrodt’s focus on religious practices assists in understanding many changes that African Catholics and their communities have experienced over time. It acknowledges believers’ perspectives and the impact of missionaries, and it generates comparative insights across different cases. However, Riesebrodt’s approach has limitations when developing a comparative perspective on historical transformation in these communities. Therefore, his focus on the objective meaning of interventionist religious practices needs supplementing: (1) capturing religious change within a given religion requires attention both to practices and their subjective appropriation by believers, and (2) in the forging of collective identities, theological reflection by elites helped connect Catholic practices to preexisting worldviews and Catholic practices marked generational change by distinguishing Catholics from other African Christians.