Faith in Flux: Book Review

Premawardhana, Devaka. 2018. Faith in Flux: Pentecostalism and Mobility in Rural Mozambique. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 

Reviewed by: Michael Lambek (University of Toronto Scarborough)

Faith in Flux combines limpid ethnography with a sustained and lively argument that is at once both about the Makhuwa, people who live in the interior of northern Mozambique, and about, or rather, against, certain assumptions associated with the anthropology of Christianity as espoused by Joel Robbins and his disciples. Despite the original and insightful anthropological work on Christianity by Fenella Cannell, Webb Keane, and others that stands outside this paradigm, it has become, says Premawardhana repeatedly, the dominant paradigm. It proposes an anthropology “of Christianity” rather than an anthropology of worlds that people who happen to be Christian inhabit and cohabit with others who are either not Christian or not the same kind of Christian, worlds that encompass more than can be encompassed under the label “Christianity.” Hence the anthropology of Christianity paradigm begins by reifying its object of study. By contrast, a phenomenological approach, as Premawardhana takes it up, renders Pentecostalism [or Christianity, religion, etc.] “less autonomous, distinctive, and determinative than it tends to appear in studies predefined as studies of Pentecostalism [Christianity, religion, etc.]” (p. 156).

Inevitably, Premawardhana overgeneralizes from the Makhuwa case, but along the way he makes a number of significant points. Rather than conducting a chapter by chapter synopsis as many of the reviews on this site do, I’ll begin with some of his reflections on religion, Christianity, Pentecostalism and the anthropology of those fields and then turn to a few words on the Makhuwa. Where Robbins (in Premawardhana’s depiction) argues that Christianity is premised on rupture, Premawardhana offers a more nuanced account in which, first, such rupture is not an inevitable feature or accompaniment of Christianity, and second, in which when looked at over a broader frame of time, each ostensible rupture is one of a sequence, followed by returns. Rupture, in other words, is temporally and experientially relative. Furthermore, the appreciation of change or rupture is not unique to modernity or to conversion to Christianity but may well have been an accepted feature of life in many precolonial and pre-missionized societies. Continue reading

Haynes, “The Expansive Present”

Haynes, Naomi. (2020) “The Expansive Present: A New Model of Christian Time” (with comments and reply). Current Anthropology. DOI: 10.1086/706902.

Abstract: One of the most productive lines of inquiry in the anthropology of Christianity has explored how Christian adherence structures time. The organizing idea here has been rupture, whether the break with the pagan past at conversion or the expected break of the apocalyptic future. In contrast to this “punctuated” view of time, this article examines a Christian temporality focused not on a past or future break, but rather on an expansive present. For Pentecostals on the Zambian Copperbelt, this expansive present is structured by the narrative of the past in the form of scripture, which is perpetually relived. The Pentecostal future is also brought near to the present by the expectations of the prosperity gospel. By expanding the present along these lines, believers reject the logic of submission that structures many forms of both Christian and capitalist time. An analysis of the expansive present therefore moves us beyond the language of rupture that has been central to the anthropology of Christianity. It also speaks to concerns beyond the study of religion by exploring the experience of—and critical engagement with—capitalist time.

Falck, “The Thomas-Souls Ministry”


The Thomas Souls Ministry is a prayer group founded by Catholics from the middle Sepik. It is led by a spirit of the dead called Thomas who takes possession of a Nyaura (West Iatmul) woman to preach, prophesy, counsel, and heal. While a prominent debate within the Anthropology of Christianity argues for radical change and rupture with the pre‐Christian self and society, I suggest that continuity within change is found in the way my interlocutors have made Christianity their own. I argue that the local concept of the person defined by aspects of dividualism and reflecting ontological premises of people’s lifeworld has strongly influenced the way Christianity was appropriated. In current religious practices people put these premises into action and reinforce them in intersubjective encounters with the divine other. Analysing people’s ‘onto‐praxis’, I argue that the Thomas Souls Ministry can be understood as part of a re‐empowerment process that re‐appropriates local meanings, spirits, and practices despite, and in fact against, the influence of the Catholic mission proselytizing in the region.

Brahinsky, “The effects of scale”

Brahinsky, Josh. 2018. “The effects of scale: How Western agency-anxieties mold affect theory, and how Pentecostalism and neuroscience teach us to think differently.” Anthropological Theory. 18(4).

This paper offers a critique of affect theory using the analytical concept of scale that is made concrete through an ethnography of Pentecostal Christianity and an exploration of current neuroscientific thinking. Affect theory is one recent form of a Western philosophical concern about the loss of agency in modernity, what I call “agency-anxiety.” Affect theorists tend to privilege the sense of freedom gained by immediate and individual experience over the constraints of more extended experiences and collectivity. That is, affect theory often scales its analysis tightly. This paper responds with an ethnography of Pentecostal practice and exploration of work in neuroscience that describes an analytic space in which broader scales can be useful as well. Ethnography scaled beyond the instant reveals that the Pentecostal ideal of surrendering to God in a moment of abandonment often results from a “fake it until you make it” approach; in other words, from extended, effortful, willful practice. This practice leads to the formation of habits and dispositions that allow the attainment of spontaneous rupture. Likewise, neuroscience can scale out its analysis by focusing on dispositions, moods and habits, rather than simply a more immediate view. Further, “scale effects” and emergent properties in scale-to-scale relations undermine reductionism. Finally, because Pentecostals are generally right wing yet also exemplify ruptural practice, it seems that outside of a particular conjuncture, the tightly scaled eruptive moment of affect is by no means per se a productive or (politically) progressive formation. As such, making scale an explicit analytical category might help us to see agency, change, and structure more clearly.

Zetterström-Sharp, “‘I cover myself in the blood of Jesus’: Born Again heritage making in Sierra Leone”

Zetterström-Sharp, Johanna. 2017. “‘I cover myself in the blood of Jesus’: Born Again heritage making in Sierra Leone” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute DOI: 10.1111/1467-9655.12647

Abstract: This article concerns the risky terrain of heritage management in Sierra Leone and its navigation by devout Born Again Pentecostal Christians. It engages with the ever-expanding Born Again movement and its narrative of rupture, on the one hand, and the increasingly visible heritage sector and its focus on cultural continuity, on the other. These positions appear irreconcilable: one experiences the past as a dangerous satanic realm, the other as a valuable resource. However, as this article explores, they frequently meet in the workplace as many heritage professionals are also Born Again believers. I am interested in this meeting-point as demonic channels and godly practices converge. I argue that Freetown’s Born Again heritage professionals do not succeed in their roles despite their religion, but because of it.

Christianity, Wealth, and Spiritual Power: Book Review

Lauterbach, Karen.  2017.  Christianity, Wealth, and Spiritual Power in Ghana.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

By: Girish Daswani (University of Toronto)

In an important thesis published in 1998, Birgit Meyer showed how making a ‘complete break with the past’ had become a central concern for Ghanaian Pentecostals. Five years later, Joel Robbins’ (2003) piece on the problem of “continuity thinking” (an anthropological bias toward emphasizing cultural continuity) called for “an anthropology of discontinuity”, that further engaged with a self-conscious anthropology of Christianity (see Bialecki et al 2008:138). Since then, the literature on discontinuity and rupture, which takes seriously Christian ideology and Christian attempts to bring about change, has shaped many debates (Meyer 2004; Engelke 2004; Robbins 2007). It has also impacted on how, when I came back from my doctoral fieldwork in 2004, I related to my ethnographic material. While I purposefully moved at the time beyond the public rhetoric of rupture to, instead, reflect on how different groups of Ghanaian Pentecostal believers selectively drew from and struggled with the discourse of discontinuity (Daswani 2007; see also Engelke 2010), the underlying question of what Ghanaian culture brought to Pentecostalism eventually fell – at least for a while – out of focus (Daswani 2015).

Continue reading

Marshall, “Upward, not sunwise”

Marshall, Kimberly Jenkins. 2016. Upward, not sunwise: resonant rupture in Navajo neo-pentecostalism. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press.

Publisher’s description: Upward, Not Sunwise explores an influential and growing neo-Pentecostal movement among Native Americans characterized by evangelical Christian theology, charismatic “spirit-filled” worship, and decentralized Native control. As in other global contexts, neo-Pentecostalism is spread by charismatic evangelists practicing faith healing at tent revivals.In North America, this movement has become especially popular among the Diné (Navajo), where the Oodlání (“Believers”) movement now numbers nearly sixty thousand members. Participants in this movement value their Navajo cultural identity yet maintain a profound religious conviction that the beliefs of their ancestors are tools of the devil.

Kimberly Jenkins Marshall has been researching the Oodlání movement since 2006 and presents the first book-length study of Navajo neo-Pentecostalism. Key to the popularity of this movement is what the author calls “resonant rupture,” or the way the apparent continuity of expressive forms holds appeal for Navajos, while believers simultaneously deny the continuity of these forms at the level of meaning. Although the music, dance, and poetic language at Oodlání tent revivals is identifiably Navajo, Oodlání carefully re-inscribe their country gospel music, dancing in the spirit, use of the Navajo language, and materials of faith healing as transformationally new and different. Marshall explores these and other nuances of Navajo neo-Pentecostal practices by examining how Oodlání perform their faith under the big white tents scattered across the Navajo Nation.

Marshall, “Non-Human Agency and Experiential Faith”

Marshall, Kimberly Jenkins. 2015. Non-Human Agency and Experiential Faith among Diné Oodlání, “Navajo Believers.” Anthropologica 57(2): 397-409.

Abstract: The neo-Pentecostal Oodlání movement is on the rise among Diné (Navajo) of the US South-West, characterized by independent Navajo-led churches and charismatic worship. In this article, I focus on the experiential nature of neo-Pentecostalism to argue that its growth, over and above other forms of Navajo Christianity, capitalizes on a type of resonant rupture with traditional Navajo spirituality. Specifically, I focus on the Oodlání relationship with non-human (supernatural) actors. While experientiality provides an avenue for deeply felt continuity, a close look at Oodlání non-human actors (and the options for interacting with them) demonstrates that neoPentecostalism fundamentally forges cultural rupture.

Winchester, “Converting to Continuity”

Winchester, Daniel.  2015. Converting to Continuity: Temporality and Self in Eastern Orthodox Conversion Narratives.  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.  Early online publication.

Abstract: Based on interviews with converts to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in the United States, this article documents and analyzes a narrative form in which conversion is described as the progressive discovery of a latent religious self that was part of one’s life all along, or what I term a conversion to continuity. These findings contrast markedly with those of most contemporary conversion research, which emphasize the narration of a dramatic temporal break between converts’ past and present religious selves (epitomized by the evangelical “born-again” genre). I examine how and why temporal continuity was a characteristic feature of these conversion accounts and demonstrate how such narratives helped constitute forms of religious experience and self-identity that differ in important respects from those documented in previous studies. In light of these findings, I argue for a reconceptualization of continuity and discontinuity within processes of religious identity change as an institutionally anchored figure/ground relationship as opposed to an either/or dichotomy. I also highlight promising avenues for future comparative research on the relationships between time, narrative, and subjectivity across religious and secular contexts.

Dulin, “Reversing Rupture: Evangelicals’ Practice of Jewish Rituals and Processes of Protestant Inclusion”

Dulin, John. 2015. “Reversing Rupture: Evangelicals’ Practice of Jewish Rituals and Processes of Protestant Inclusion.’ Anthropological Quarterly 88(3): 601-634. 

Abstract: This article explores how an evangelical community in southern California can embrace disparate worship modalities—formalistic/anti-formalistic, Jewish/Christian—as legitimate and acceptable moral options. It argues that a major engine driving the acceptance of a previously excluded worship form is the way that Jewish rituals become framed within a particular Christian model of time. The meta-ritual discourse of religious leaders and lay people connects the ritual context to other moments in Christian narratives, opening up a pocket of biblical temporality where divine phenomena can crystallize into material worship forms. The model of time I discuss instantiates distinct aspects of Christian metaphysics—immanence/transcendence, spirit/absence/incarnation—at discrete periods in salvation history. The ethnography and argument presented here suggest that attention to discourses that connect different temporal contexts may help us understand how theological ideas drive shifts toward both exclusion and greater inclusion of disparate worship forms in Christian communities.