Bubandt, “The Empty Seashell”

Bubandt, Nils. 2014. The Empty Seashell: Witchcraft and Doubt on an Indonesian Island. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Publisher’s DescriptionThe Empty Seashell explores what it is like to live in a world where cannibal witches are undeniably real, yet too ephemeral and contradictory to be an object of belief. In a book based on more than three years of fieldwork between 1991 and 2011, Nils Bubandt argues that cannibal witches for people in the coastal, and predominantly Christian, community of Buli in the Indonesian province of North Maluku are both corporeally real and fundamentally unknowable.

Witches (known as gua in the Buli language or as suanggi in regional Malay) appear to be ordinary humans but sometimes, especially at night, they take other forms and attack people in order to kill them and eat their livers. They are seemingly everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The reality of gua, therefore, can never be pinned down. The title of the book comes from the empty nautilus shells that regularly drift ashore around Buli village. Convention has it that if you find a live nautilus, you are a gua. Like the empty shells, witchcraft always seems to recede from experience.Bubandt begins the book by recounting his own confusion and frustration in coming to terms with the contradictory and inaccessible nature of witchcraft realities in Buli. A detailed ethnography of the encompassing inaccessibility of Buli witchcraft leads him to the conclusion that much of the anthropological literature, which views witchcraft as a system of beliefs with genuine explanatory power, is off the mark. Witchcraft for the Buli people doesn’t explain anything. In fact, it does the opposite: it confuses, obfuscates, and frustrates. Drawing upon Jacques Derrida’s concept of aporia—an interminable experience that remains continuously in doubt—Bubandt suggests the need to take seriously people’s experiential and epistemological doubts about witchcraft, and outlines, by extension, a novel way of thinking about witchcraft and its relation to modernity.

Dawley, “From Wrestling with Monsters to Wrestling with God”

Dawley, William. 2018. From Wrestling with Monsters to Wrestling with God: Masculinities, ‘Spirituality,’ and the Group-ization of Religious Life in Northern Costa Rica. Anthropological Quarterly 91(1).

Abstract: This piece explores the support group movement’s role in restructuring Latin American religion and contributing to the trans-denominational and trans-secular spread of the “reformation of machismo”—Elizabeth Brusco’s (2010) name for Latin American evangelicalism’s focus on transforming men and masculinity. Using ethnographic data from two years of fieldwork in an urbanizing area of northern Costa Rica and life history interviews with men from three churches and three men’s groups there, this paper argues that a region-wide popular discourse about a “crisis of masculinity/machismo” and a “crisis of the family” has broadened the appeal of efforts to transform men and masculinity—not only among most churches, but especially among a proliferating number of trans-denominational and non-religious men’s groups that are modeled implicitly on all-male Alcoholics Anonymous groups, which are extraordinarily popular throughout Latin America. This essay’s argument borrows from Wuthnow’s analysis of “the restructuring of [North] American religion” under the influence of the support group movement (1988, 1994a, 1994b, 1998), but it also employs an historiographic approach, exploring the origins of this restructuring of Latin American religion in the same “Methodist model” of social organization that has driven evangelical growth throughout the Americas (and men’s conversions especially) during times of social change and male social dislocation (Martin 1990). The conversion histories of two Catholic men are used to illustrate how it is participation in these groups, rather than formal conversion, that transforms many men’s lives, their gender identities, and their relationships with others. Finally, the possible contributions of this research to anthropological studies of religion, ethics, and morality are explored, in particular the role that models of social organization might play in the spread of new ethical practices, discourses, or identity models.

 

Crawley, “Blackpentecostal Breath”

Crawley, Ashon T. 2016. Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility. New York: Fordham University Press. 

Publisher’s Description: In this profoundly innovative book, Ashon T. Crawley engages a wide range of critical paradigms from black studies, queer theory, and sound studies to theology, continental philosophy, and performance studies to theorize the ways in which alternative or “otherwise” modes of existence can serve as disruptions against the marginalization of and violence against minoritarian lifeworlds and possibilities for flourishing.

Examining the whooping, shouting, noise-making, and speaking in tongues of Black Pentecostalism―a multi-racial, multi-class, multi-national Christian sect with one strand of its modern genesis in 1906 Los Angeles―Blackpentecostal Breath reveals how these aesthetic practices allow for the emergence of alternative modes of social organization. As Crawley deftly reveals, these choreographic, sonic, and visual practices and the sensual experiences they create are not only important for imagining what Crawley identifies as “otherwise worlds of possibility,” they also yield a general hermeneutics, a methodology for reading culture in an era when such expressions are increasingly under siege.

Ikeuchi, “From ethnic religion to generative selves”

Ikeuchi, Suma. 2017. “From ethnic religion to generative selves: Pentecostalism among Nikkei Brazilian migrants in Japan,” Contemporary Japan, 1-16. Early online publication. DOI: 10.1080/18692729.2017.1351046

Abstract: Starting in the early 1990s, Brazil-derived Pentecostal denominations have flourished among Nikkei Brazilian migrant communities in Japan. While some researchers have characterized the phenomenon of Pentecostal conversion in this ethnographic context as a formation of ‘ethnic religion,’ the individuals often characterize themselves as primarily Christian. This article takes this apparent disconnect as the point of departure to investigate the relationship between ethnicity and religious identity. The concept of ethnic religion indicates an overlap between ethnic group and religious community, oftentimes prioritizing ethnic categories as the basic units of analysis. My ethnographic findings based on 14 months of fieldwork in Toyota, Japan, however, suggest that the very boundary of ‘ethnic group’ is fluid and unstable, which in turn shows that ethnicity cannot be taken as an analytical given. By tracing the varying narratives of four migrant converts, I detail the ways in which Pentecostalism in fact contributes to the proliferation of identities, both ethnic and non-ethnic. For example, migrant converts speak of Pentecostal ideas, practices, and networks as ‘Brazilian,’ ‘Japanese,’ and/or ‘just Christian,’ depending on the context. In conclusion, I argue that Pentecostal churches in this ethnographic context seem to give rise to generative selves rather than an ethnic religion.

“Is there such a thing as religious language?”

FORUM: 2015. “Is there such a thing as religious language? Is there such a thing as religion? Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 40(4): 37-51.

Bialecki, Jon. 2015. Protestant Language, Christian Problems, and Religious Realism. Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 40(4): 37-42.

Excerpt: If there is one thing that can be ticked off as ‘accomplished’ by the nascent anthropology of Christianity, it is cementing the idea that in multiple and disparate ethnographic locales featuring self-designated Protestant and Post-Protestant Christians, there are often shared and religiously inflected ideas about what constitutes effective and ethical language. In places as physically distant as Zimbabwe, Papua New Guinea, Northern Europe and the United States, ethnographers have found patterns in language use and in speech ethics; again and again, we see that the referential aspects of language are celebrated, and that linguistics agency and responsibility is properly placed directly with the ‘sincere’ speaker.

 

Opas, Minnas. 2015. Religion, Christianity and the Question of Generative Problems: Comment to Jon Bialecki. Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 40(4): 43-47.

Excerpt: The idea of looking at religion through the notion of the generative problem is, I think, a prolific point of departure for comparative work. Nevertheless, instead of looking at religion only through one specific problem, we could ask, what different kinds of generative problems motivate religious traditions?

 

Utriainen, Terhi. 2015. Language, Presence and Transforming Christianities through the Anthropology and Sociology of Religion: Comment to Jon Bialecki. Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 40(4): 47-51.

Excerpt:  The anthropology and sociology of religion make an interesting couple—a couple that could perhaps have even more conversation and family-life than they have today. From the perspective of the academic study of religion (or ‘religious studies’ as it is often called), which is my home base, anthropology and sociology are often considered two alternative approaches for the empirical study of contemporary religion—approaches to religion as a presence as well as to the presence (or absence) of religion in modernity. Even if they share some classics, Durkheim anyway, these two disciplines are sometimes considered to differ both in their methods (ethnography for anthropology and predominantly quantitative methods for sociology) and their fields and respective theories (non-Western others for anthropology and the religious and secularizing people in the West for sociology). This is, however, changing.

 

“Ending a Conversation with System R”: Book Review of Nongbri’s “Before Religion.”

Nongbri, Brent. 2013. Before religion : a history of a modern concept. New Haven : Yale University Press.

By: Jon Bialecki (University of Edinburgh)

On its face, Brent Nongbri’s book, Before Religion, is seemingly not about Christianity, but about religion more generally – or more specifically, about the category of religion more generally. Nongbri’s argument is that religion is not a human universal, but rather construction that has both a history and a genealogy (to the degree that those are two separate things).  To Nongbri, this is important because treating religion as a universal has costs in both how the thought of the analyst ends up structuring whatever object he or she is addressing, and in how work is presumably consumed by readers, many of which will come to the term with a lot of baggage attached.

Nongbri avers that religion as currently understood is marked by a set of invariant features: it is about internal experience, takes the individual as the primary unit, is oriented around ideas and sacred texts, is separate from institutions such as government, is effectively private, and is something that is a response to a universal human need – and is therefore presumably also universally present as well. Finally, religion forms identified bodies – the ‘world religions’ such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity – which are all fungible to the extent that they are formally homologous. Because of this common structure, the relation between religion in the abstract and religions in particular is equivalent to the genus/species formulation, or to put it in a metalanguage borrowed from linguistics, religion is the type, and various ‘religions’ are tokens.

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