Abstract: This article explores Jehovah’s Witnesses’ use of Oaxaca Chontal, an endangered language spoken in Mexico. The Witness religion is highly centralized and standardized: Witnesses obeyed instructions to use Chontal because these instructions bore the authority of the Watch Tower Society institution. This article proposes the concept of the globalizing textual community, which synthesizes understandings of community from throughout social science literature, in order to explain how religious identity can supersede national, ethnic, and linguistic identities. A central mechanism of this community is the discourse of the “pure language,” which renders language choice irrelevant even as it provides a warrant for extensive translation.
Orienting the East: Notes on Anthropology and Orthodox Christianities
Tom Boylston (London School of Economics)
If this blog testifies to the efflorescence of the anthropology of Christianity, anthropological and ethnographic work on Eastern and, especially, Oriental Orthodoxies remains somewhat sparse and scattered at the time of writing. To some extent this is a matter of academic time lag: anthropologists have recognised a lacuna and a good amount of research is now underway and beginning to show fruit. Since a majority of anthropologists working on Orthodox Christianities are now at PhD or early career level, we can expect a substantial growth in the literature in the coming years. Rather than lament the lack of anthropological attention to Orthodoxy, people are getting on with the work of producing it.
With this in mind, I would like to use this post to begin asking: what can Orthodox Christianities do for the anthropology of Christianity, and what can an anthropology of Christianity do for the study of Orthodox Christianities? In the spirit of starting a conversation rather than a systematic review, I will suggest some areas of particular interest emerging from existing work, and outline some conceptual challenges that an anthropology of Orthodoxy raises for a broader anthropology of Christianity.
Excerpt: “While an analytic focus on the semiotic techniques whereby media produce immediacy is crucial to analyzing the social processes by which those media are themselves made invisible in experience, such an analysis only goes so far in elucidating the “creativity and control of human subjects” that Eisenlohr argues is erased in such processes. Therefore, in this article, I emphasize the discipline and disciplining work as well as the ethical practices that make such cultural and social processes possible. I do so through an analytic emphasis on what I call the labor of immediacy, that is, the practices whereby human subjects discipline themselves and rehearse the necessary actions that allow the mediated nature of immediate religious experiences to disappear. I argue that the perceived spontaneity of musical performance as well as the practical techniques through which religious sound artifacts are performed in new contexts in order to produce connections and circulate values, all rest on this labor of immediacy.
More specifically, in this article, I examine the labor of immediacy that underlies the use of sound recording and playback technology in facilitating and enhancing religious experiences and worship practices for members of the Cherubim and Seraphim Ayọ ni o Church in Lagos, Nigeria. The Ayọ ni o Church is a branch of the Cherubim and Seraphim Church Movement—a form of Yoruba independent Christianity. This movement began in colonial Nigeria, when early Yoruba Christians broke away from mission churches to establish congregations of their own. The Cherubim and Seraphim emphasized healing through prayer, Holy Spirit baptism, and charismatic forms of worship that featured the extensive use of music and dance. The Ayọ ni o Church is located in a large compound at the edge of Surulere, a predominantly Yoruba, middle-class suburb of Lagos. Each Sunday more than three thousand people attend worship services at the Ayọ ni o Church, many of them attracted by the church’s reputation for including spiritually powerful and emotional musical performances in their worship. This musical reputation was enhanced by the Ayọ ni o choir’s commercially produced and distributed recordings, along with the music videos and other promotional materials that support their recordings.
More than thirty albums have been recorded by the Ayọ ni o Choir since 1978. These recordings reproduce and circulate aesthetic values central to producing religious belonging and ethical forms of personhood. As I discuss in more detail below, the recordings thus play an important role in the everyday religious practices of church members. However, the recordings did not replace live musical performance during worship services. While worship without instruments—no guitars, keyboard, or even drums—was acceptable, worship without singing was inconceivable. The idea that there were living people in the same space as oneself, participating in a shared musical ritual, was important for ensuring the success of worship both in terms of its ability to provoke appropriate emotional responses from the congregation as well as in terms of attracting the Holy Spirit to enter the worship space. Therefore, while the songs on the recordings played an important role in church worship, they were always represented in the form of live performance.
In order to analytically detail the labor of immediacy that underlies and produces religious musical experiences for church members, I explore here how the recordings are used by choir musicians in their everyday lives, in individual musical practice, and in rehearsals. I describe how through the musical labor of training, practice, and rehearsal the choir members engage with the recordings in order to regulate affective and emotional responses and expressions during church worship. Their recontextualization of previously recorded songs does important spiritual work for church members by creating links between aesthetic and religious values and allowing those values to be recirculated through the community. While such performances may seem spontaneous in the context of church worship, in order for the recontextualization of a previously recorded song to be successful in achieving the spiritual goals of the congregation, a great deal of planning and work takes place.
In this article, I explore how the work of choir musicians during practice and rehearsals makes possible the recontextualization of recorded sounds during Yoruba Christian worship. Through disciplinary practices of listening and music-making that make use of the recordings, church musicians attune themselves to particular modes of behavior and produce appropriate forms of emotionality. These emotional responses can then be summoned contextually by church members in relation to a given situation. As I suggest in the conclusion of this article, these disciplined forms of emotion and embodiment are seen as necessary to survive and thrive in the midst of the uncertainty provoked by the political and economic transitions taking place in contemporary Nigeria.”
Webster, Joseph. 2012. “The Immanence of Transcendence: God and the Devil on the Aberdeenshire Coast.” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, DOI:10.1080/00141844.2012.688762 [first print – pagination, volume and issue not available].
Abstract: In Gamrie (a Scottish fishing village of 700 people and 6 Protestant churches), local experiences of ‘divine providence’ and ‘demonic attack’ abound. Bodily fluids, scraps of paper, video cassettes and prawn trawlers were immanent carriers of divine and demonic activity. Viewed through the lens of Weberian social theory, the experiences of Scottish fisher families show how the life of the Christian resembles an enchanted struggle between God and the Devil with the Christian placed awkwardly in-between. Because, locally, ‘there is no such thing as coincidence’, these Christians expected to experience both the transcendent ordering of life by divine providence through God’s immanence and the transcendent disordering of life by demonic attack through the Devil’s immanence. Where this ordering and disordering frequently occurred through everyday objects, seemingly mundane events – being given a washing machine or feeling sleepy in church – were experienced as material indexes of spiritual reality. Drawing on the work of Cannell (on transcendence), Keane (on indexicality) and Wagner (on symbolic obviation), this paper argues that attending to the materiality of Scottish Protestantism better equips the anthropology of religion to understand Christian experience by positing immanence as a kind of transcendence and transcendence as a kind of immanence.
Abstract: this article, I introduce the idea of “ambient faith” in an effort to clarify the stakes in long-standing debates about public and private religion. I take as my starting point the increasingly common recognition that conceptual distinctions between publicity and privacy are difficult to maintain in the first place and that they are, in any case, always relative. The idea of “ambient faith,” which I connect to work on the turn to a materialist semiotics, can serve as both a critique of and supplement to the ideas of “public” and “private” religion. Introducing ambience—the sense of ambience—allows one to raise important questions about the processes through which faith comes to the foreground or stays in the background—the extent to which faith, in other words, goes public or stays private. I use my research on a Christian organization in England, the Bible Society of England and Wales, to illuminate these points, discussing the society’s campaign in 2006 to bring angels to Swindon and its promotion of Bible reading in coffee shops. I also consider Brian Eno’s music and recent advertising trends for additional insights into the notion of “ambience.”
Tomlinson, Matt (2012) “Passports to Eternity: Whales’ Teeth and Transcendence in Fijian Methodism,” in Lenore Manderson, Wendy Smith, & Matt Tomlinson (eds) Flows of Faith: Religious Reach and Community in Asia and the Pacific (Springer, New York).
Abstract: Christianity is often considered a religion of transcendence, in which divinity “goes beyond” human space and time. Recent anthropological scholarship has noted, however, that claims to transcendence must be expressed materially. This chapter examines the ways in which Fijian Methodists attempt to achieve a kind of Christian transcendence in which they escape negative influences of the vanua (land, chiefdoms, and the “traditional” order generally). They do so by offering sperm whales’ teeth to church authorities in order to apologise and atone for the sins of ancestors. Such rituals do not achieve the transcendence they aim for, however, as the whales’ teeth–the material tokens offered to gain divine favour–gain their ritual value precisely because of their attachment to the vanua.
Abstract: Taking into account the composition of Pentecostalism – a mixture of, on one side, a Protestant tradition that allows the constitution of the ‘sincere person’, and, on the other side, the enchanted aspects of personhood – what happens when this message is disseminated in a context with a long Catholic tradition by ‘translators’ socialized in the Catholic culture; in other words, by people with a particular interpretation of the Protestant tradition? In this article, the author explores this question and shows how the Catholic framing impacts the arrangements for accommodating the semiotic ideologies of ‘sincerity’ and ‘saintliness’ within Pentecostal religiosity, resulting in singular manifestations of the collective project and of the regional Christian Person.