Anthropologist Angie Heo’s first book, The Political Lives of Saints: Christian-Muslim Mediation in Egypt (2018), examines saintly intercession to explore the reconfiguration of religio-political imaginaries. Rather than seal off Coptic Christians and their religious tradition, she foregrounds the shared life between Copts and Muslims, as both transformed by the modern Egyptian nation-state and by geopolitical interests in the Middle East, particularly its Christians. Her book expands the terrain of the anthropology of Christianity, pushing the limits of the subfield’s conceptual foundations by offering new avenues of investigation. Below, in a four-part interview with AnthroCyBib co-curators Candace Lukasik and Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, Heo shares her insights on discipline, methodology, and the transnational and political stakes of global Christianity.
The Political Lives of Saints examines divine intercession to illuminate the ways Copts and Muslims in contemporary Egypt imagine the otherworldly and also how they imagine each other. As an anthropologist of Christianity, what concepts, methodologies, or frameworks guided your approach? How has the subfield of the anthropology of Christianity and/or Religious Studies shaped your work?
Christian-Muslim mediation is the overarching frame of my book. By examining how Coptic Orthodoxy mediates social relations between Christians and Muslims, I sought to avert the culturalist notion that Christian ideas and practices serve to reproduce and reinforce Christian identities. This notion is especially pervasive across studies of Egypt’s Copts, a group which frequently figures as a beleaguered minority battling to assert its religious identity in the throes of persecution. For theorizing about Christianity, the problem I found with this model of cultural assertion is that it leaves intact, even affirms, the sectarian structures of communal identity that end up ghettoizing Copts and Coptic Orthodoxy in the first instance. In other words, the position of Copts in the Egyptian state and society are always and already-given ones in the political analysis, with Christianity merely providing its cultural and ideological contents for expression. Christian-Muslim mediation was my strategy for specifying how Orthodox Christianity serves as an historically specific medium for generating structures of minoritarian authoritarianism as well as potentials for overturning them. While researching and writing, I discovered that Orthodox Christianity and its modern transformations offer thick insights into intersections of state and religion, which means for Copts, important sites of Christian-Muslim governance.
Intercession – that is, advocacy on behalf of another – is a key concept that grounded me in the material technics of religious mediation. In my book, I focus on intercession to analyze two tiers of Christian-Muslim mediation at once: institutional and imaginary. My inspiration came from an illustration that I encountered several times during my fieldwork. When I asked about how saints and their holy intercession works, many Copts would invoke the metaphor of “wasta”, the “who you know” or personal connections that work for you when you need something. The simple yet striking metaphor stuck with me. There is a lot written on how the Coptic Church has assumed an increasingly centralized institutional role as an arbiter of Christian-Muslim affairs nationwide. There is less written on how this new institutionalization of communal advocacy has relied on major shifts in everyday activity of divine mediation. Intercession allowed me to consider multiple genres of religious communication, with the aim of disaggregating institutions of state power into its various forms, acts, images, embodiments, ideologies. That is, breaking apart what seem like coherent institutional actors from the bottom up and inside out.
Lucky for me, anthropologists of religion had already been contributing to vibrant conversations in religion and media as I was first exploring intercession. Here, I am thinking about the anthropologies of Christianity and Islam in particular, both fields pursuing overlapping questions around language ideologies along with the secular and global nature of modernity. While pursuing a PhD in Anthropology at Berkeley, I also had the good fortune of studying with Bill Hanks, Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood who each advanced my thought on semiotics, materiality, and technology in different ways. It is true that anthropologists of Christianity have spilled significant ink on Protestantism (and I will join them for the second project!). Having trained with an historically-oriented ethnographer of Catholicism and a leading expert in indexicality, I benefited from yet another perspective on the sensory dynamics of presence that helped my work on Orthodoxy’s visual and tactile elements. Anthropological work on Islam, and with Egypt as a decidedly fruitful location, has also been formative of my approach to media, tradition and authority. I cannot even imagine how my book would have turned out without these remarkable writings which deal with the contending publics and politics of Islam and which speak volumes about religion beyond the limits of Islam.
For your second project you have shifted your focus to Evangelical South Korea, to examine late capitalist development and the legacy of the Cold War. This project also takes a transnational shift, looking at the global linkages of political conservatism. Between the Middle East and the Asian Pacific Rim, and (Oriental) Orthodox Christianity and Evangelical Protestantism, what are some of the ways your conceptual engagements with and understandings of the anthropology of Christianity shifted between these two projects? Beyond theological or ritual differences, how is the study of Orthodox and Protestant forms of Christianity different in anthropological perspective? How do transnational linkages, migration, and global connection factor into your new analytic frames?
I find these questions especially stimulating because I have been thinking lately about what the term “global Christianity” both offers and obscures for interdisciplinary scholarship in religious studies. It is too often the case, unfortunately, that “global” signifies a geopolitical hierarchy in which the originary norms of a given tradition are presumed to lie in the U.S. and Europe, while phenomena like “global religions” or “world literature” lie in the Global South. Anthropologists of Christianity, I believe, can help push for more analytic clarity on what “global” and what “Christianity” mean, and what they mean together. Your line of questions pushes exactly for this clarity. Orthodoxy and Protestantism, as Christian traditions, both organize distinct orders of universalism and empire – we could even say competing orders. They also encounter shared forces of globalization – trade, media and migration – that shape their respective orders of growth and expansion. Work gets exciting when we think about the universalizing aspects of tradition and the globalizing dimensions of political economy, conjointly and comparatively.
What is unique to Orthodox Christianity is the intrinsic centrality of the ethnos or nation to its self-identity; that is, Coptic Orthodoxy is Egyptian Christianity. This imagined link between nation and Orthodoxy relies on traditional ideologies of origin, nativism and continuity, and this link also changes across historical contexts of anticolonial nation-building and ecumenical aspirations. Of all my book’s body chapters, the second one “Redemption at the Edge” most directly tackles various entanglements of Orthodox expansion with the modern nation-form. In it, I examine how Orthodoxy prescribes forms of pilgrimage and imaginings of Holy Land, and how religious boundaries and territorial borders are defined in the process. The whole chapter revolves around the question of what Holy Egypt is, what the Egyptian nation-state is, and how these two converge in the 1960s. Vatican II and the Arab-Israeli wars, I argue, are significant historical events that shaped the specifically Egyptian character of Coptic Orthodoxy (Arab nationalism + Christian-Muslim unity) and its counter-imperial forms. To make this argument, I had to engage the broader international and global frames that determined this dual status of Egypt’s image, and thus began with two imperial frontiers, Roman Catholic and Zionist.
So while imaginings of the ethnos or nation are central to Orthodoxy, this does not mean that Orthodoxy is bound to nationalism in any primordial or essential way. I think the intellectual project is to observe Orthodoxy’s changing definitions and attachments to the nation-form, and then, to analyze what it implies on a more global scale about national and religious belonging. In The Political Lives of Saints, I trace how international contours of post-WWII imperialism shaped Orthodoxy’s claim as a distinctively “national” religious tradition. Another angle at the global aspects of Orthodox Christianity embarks from transnational and diasporic displacements of national belonging (and I’m eagerly looking forward to reading both of your dissertations on this topic!). For the Orthodox American context, I also find the longer history of Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska fascinating for historicizing questions of diasporic migration and settlement during periods of U.S. and Russian rule. From recent conference invitations I’ve received, I’m gathering that there is also budding interest in Orthodoxy’s growth across the Far Eastern borderlands, near and inside Japan, China and North Korea. Here, I can’t resist giving another shout-out to Dominic Martin‘s forthcoming book on Old Orthodoxy in a former military zone for nuclear submarine repair near Vladivostok.
This brings me to my second book project on Cold War Christianity in the Asian Pacific Rim. My second book project more squarely examines the transnational and imperial impulses internal to Evangelical Protestantism, focusing on South Korea and the divided Koreas. As in Egypt, the historical setting of anticolonial nationalism was crucial to the making of national Christianity and its liberatory identity in South Korea. Protestant Christianity’s explosive growth during the Cold War additionally meant that American-allied ideologies of anticommunism and freedom were always part of the equation. For my work on Orthodoxy in Egypt, I devoted a lot of time to thinking about materiality, images, and the tradition’s deep ties to antiquity. In Korea, I’m finding that I am consistently asking questions about transnational religion alongside questions about political economy and fervently capitalist conditions. Development and globalization set the terms of rapid religious change in South Korea, in effect, a mass conversion to Protestant Christianity that unfolded over a couple quick and spectacular decades instead of the glacial pace of millennia. This historical fact, of course, has to change the way we approach the study of Christianity in Korea and East Asia more broadly (versus the Middle East) .
While Orthodoxy has been described by scholars and journalists alike as a “national” religious tradition, you’re asking us to defamiliarize this notion by looking to the historical contexts by which such a claim emerged—post-WWII imperialism, as well as postcolonial imaginaries of the nation. While transnational and diasporic displacements have decentered the nation over the past few decades—as Orthodox populations migrate, settle, and develop new notions of belonging—how does the current far-right iterations of nationalism and growing forms of political conservatism weigh upon Orthodoxy, in its many forms? For example, the renewed power of the Russian Orthodox Church and its intimate connections to President Vladimir Putin has reinforced the narrative of Orthodoxy as archaic and such majority Orthodox countries as antithetical to the promise of political secularism. Along these lines, how does the Coptic Orthodox context compare to, say, the Russian or Greek contexts? How do non-ethnic converts to these faiths trouble Orthodoxy’s perceived “nationalist” tendencies?
The rise of far-right nationalism and right-wing populism is, unfortunately, a current and global phenomenon. Considering the high value it places on origins, Orthodoxy may slide into ideologies of nativism, purity and authenticity, especially when allied with xenophobic strands of nationalism. This is where I think race, racism, and racial hierarchies become important issues to explore alongside Orthodoxy, especially as it is linked to various forms of growth such as assimilation or invasion. During my fieldwork, I also discovered that some of the most devout Copts were adherents of racial purity, and some measure of racism carried weight in their understandings of Arab Islam and Egyptian Orthodoxy. In the Coptic Orthodox tradition of saint veneration, we also find imaginary traces of racial difference, colonialism and globalization in figures like Moses the Black (also called “the Ethiopian”), and most recently, Matthew the African (the Ghanaian migrant laborer who was among the Libya Martyrs). On the question of comparison, I still have much to learn about contemporary movements in the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, but I am sure that their mission dioceses join the Coptic Orthodox’s abroad in the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia.
Examining Orthodoxy to specify the relationship between political conservatism and political secularism would make for a fascinating project. Isn’t it precisely the authoritarian impulses internal to liberalism that have inspired so many studies in critical secularism recently? And many of them have also looked closely at Protestantism for secular-liberalism’s shadows. I don’t believe there is anything intrinsic to Orthodoxy that overdetermines its alliances with far-right or extreme nationalist governments in any context. What I find really interesting, in fact, are the resources within Orthodoxy that allow for those moments when Orthodox churches assert their autonomy from their sponsoring states. These moments include Pope Shenouda’s break away from President Sadat, as the “Arab’s pope”, when it came to maintaining the pilgrimage ban after The Camp David Accords in 1978. They also include the post-Soviet churches seeking recognition from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople rather than the Moscow Patriarchate in 1991. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the various Ukrainian Orthodox Churches especially after the 2018 schism which is directly related to the Russian military occupation of Ukraine. I am excited to read Jeanne Kormina and Vlad Naumescu‘s writings, for example, on how this topic plays out for the Russian Orthodox churches in Western Europe for the next issue of Anthropology Today (Volume 35, Issue 4).
Building off of your earlier response to the term “global Christianity,” how has studying non-Western forms of Christianity been received in the American academy, within and outside of the discipline of anthropology? Many times, when scholars write and speak of Christianity, they tend to collapse all of Christianity into Western Christianity. What implications does this have for Eastern forms of Christianity that stem from different historical contexts and genealogies? To get more specific in relation to your work in The Political Lives of Saints, how has Orthodoxy been made legible in the study of Christianity and religion more broadly? What are the possibilities of disentangling Western Christianity and the global North from studies of Christianity, in all its diversity, within the academy?
How do we locate where the East and West are in any form of Christianity? For many postcolonial subjects of Christianity, the answers may lead to either alienation or emancipation. And then, how do we specify where the East and West are within Coptic Orthodoxy in Egypt, and in ways that distinguish them from where they are within Evangelical Protestantism in South Korea? I believe these are critical questions that all scholars of global Christianity – anthropologists, historians, theologians – need to be asking. I certainly understand why people call Coptic Orthodoxy an “Eastern tradition”, or Korean Protestantism an “Eastern” or “Asian” expression of a Western tradition. In some venues, it even makes sense to deploy shorthand for complex geopolitical relations. But there is also the danger of reifying the East and West in ways that aren’t very helpful for understanding religious ideas and practices if you want to go beyond identity claims.
I gave this little prelude of qualifiers about the limited use-value of East and West because I have heard these designations amply thrown around in Christianity studies. But I suppose my real answer begins here, since I actually hear your question asking something different. Anthropologists of secularism and Islam, like Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, exercise the genealogical method to show how concepts are entangled in unequal relations of power. The West and non-West binary allows them to stage and expose an asymmetry between various traditions of thought and practice. This asymmetry is also one in which certain elements from Christianity in Western Europe and North America become hegemonic in academic scholarship and political institutions. Few think of Asad as an anthropologist of Christianity (on this note, I find Gil Anidjar’s exchange with him to be lively and interesting). But Asad is clearly examining not only Enlightenment Christian sensibilities in human rights’ regimes, but also medieval Christian forms of ritual discipline that informed pathbreaking work on submission and agency in Islam. In my view, the first step for disentangling Western Christianity from studies of Christianity is to identify what norms govern our notions of religion and how these norms are related to imaginaries of the East / West divide. Doing this can also broaden conversation between the anthropology of Christianity and other subfields in anthropology at large.