Elisha, “Dancing the Word”

Elisha, Omri. 2018. “Dancing the Word: Techniques of embodied authority among Christian praise dancers in New York City.” American Ethnologist. 45(3): 380-391. 

AbstractPraise dance is a Christian movement genre, popular among churchgoing women of color in the United States, characterized by the use of interpretive dances as vehicles of liturgical worship, testimony, and evangelism. Combining spiritual and artistic disciplines, including techniques derived from ballet and modern dance, black female praise dancers embody the gospel and cultivate religious authority in ways that reinforce orthodox norms while elevating creative skills and aesthetic sensibilities normally found outside the purview of religious tradition. Such efforts, and the challenges and opportunities they entail, demonstrate how the movement of cultural forms between secular and religious domains influences ritual innovations and the terms in which they are authorized. They also show how gendered conceptions of embodiment and power may be reimagined.

Bielo, “Ark Encounter”

Bielo, James S. 2018. Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park. New York: New York University Press.

Publisher’s Description: Opened to the public in July 2016, Ark Encounter is a creationist theme park in Kentucky. The park features an all-timber re-creation of Noah’s ark, built full scale to creationist specifications drawn from the text of Genesis, as well as exhibits that imagine the Bible’s account of life before the flood.  More than merely religious spectacle, Ark Encounter offers important insights about the relationship between religion and entertainment, religious publicity and creativity, and fundamentalist Christian claims to the public sphere.

James S. Bielo examines these themes, drawing on his unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to the Ark Encounter creative team during the initial design of the park. This unique anthropological perspective shows creationists outside church contexts, and reveals their extraordinary effort to materialize a controversial worldview for the general public. Taking readers from inside the park’s planning rooms to other fundamentalist projects and diverse Christian tourist attractions, Bielo illuminates how creationist cultural producers seek to reach both their constituents and the larger culture.

The “making of” this creationist theme park, Bielo argues, allows us to understand how fundamentalist culture is produced, and how entertainment and creative labor are used to legitimize creationism.  Through intriguing and surprising observations, Ark Encounter challenges readers to engage with the power of entertainment and to seriously grapple with creationist ambitions for authority. For believers and non-believers alike, this book is an invaluable glimpse into the complicated web of religious entertainment and cultural production.

Hansen, “Addicted to Christ: Remaking Men in Puerto Rican Pentecostal Drug Ministries”

Hansen, Helena. 2018. Addicted to Christ: Remaking Men in Puerto Rican Pentecostal Drug Ministries. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Abstract: How are spiritual power and self-transformation cultivated in street ministries? In Addicted to Christ, Helena Hansen provides an in-depth analysis of Pentecostal ministries in Puerto Rico that were founded and run by self-identified “ex-addicts,” ministries that are also widespread in poor Black and Latino neighborhoods in the U.S. mainland. Richly ethnographic, the book harmoniously melds Hansen’s dual expertise in cultural anthropology and psychiatry. Through the stories of ministry converts, she examines key elements of Pentecostalism: mysticism, ascetic practice, and the idea of other-worldliness. She then reconstructs the ministries’ strategies of spiritual victory over addiction: transformation techniques to build spiritual strength and authority through pain and discipline; cultivation of alternative masculinities based on male converts’ reclamation of domestic space; and radical rupture from a post-industrial “culture of disposability.” By contrasting the ministries’ logic of addiction with that of biomedicine, Hansen rethinks roads to recovery, discovering unexpected convergences with biomedicine while revealing the allure of street corner ministries.

Wilcox, “Queer Nuns”

Wilcox, Mellisa. 2018. Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody. New York: NYU Press. 

Publisher’s Description: The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence make up an unlikely order of nuns. Self-described as “twenty-first century queer nuns,” the Sisters began in 1979 when three bored gay men donned retired Roman Catholic nuns’ habits and went for a stroll through San Francisco’s gay Castro district. The stunned and delighted responses they received prompted these already-seasoned activists to consider whether the habits might have some use in social justice work, and within a year they had constituted the new order. Today, with more than 83 houses on four different continents, the Sisters offer health outreach, support, and, at times, protest on behalf of queer communities.

In Queer Nuns, Melissa M. Wilcox offers new insights into the role the Sisters play across queer culture and the religious landscape. The Sisters both spoof nuns and argue quite seriously that they are nuns, adopting an innovative approach the author refers to as serious parody. Like any performance, serious parody can either challenge or reinforce existing power dynamics, and it often accomplishes both simultaneously. The book demonstrates that, through the use of this strategy, the Sisters are able to offer an effective, flexible, and noteworthy approach to community-based activism.

Serious parody ultimately has broader applications beyond its use by the Sisters. Wilcox argues that serious parody offers potential uses and challenges in the efforts of activist groups to work within communities that are opposed and oppressed by culturally significant traditions and organizations – as is the case with queer communities and the Roman Catholic Church. This book opens the door to a new world of religion and social activism, one which could be adapted to a range of political movements, individual inclinations, and community settings.

Bielo, “Flower, soil, water, stone”

Bielo, James S. “Flower, soil, water, stone: Biblical landscape items and Protestant materiality.” Journal of Material Culture. First Published June 18, 2018

Protestants mobilize objects such as ‘Holy Land’ flowers, Jordan River stones, vials of Dead Sea water, sand from Lake Tiberias, and Golgotha soil as potent metonymic resources, promising a kind of direct access to the scriptural past and its sacred stories. This article uses this case of biblical landscape items to reflect on the historic ambivalence that characterizes Protestant relations with religious materiality. Building on scholarship that has demonstrated the prolific role of religious materiality in Protestant ritual and everyday lifeworlds, the author extends this analysis by asking: under what conditions do Protestants experience materiality as untroubled and under what conditions is a more anxious disposition activated? To differentiate among conditions, the author proposes that it is helpful to conceptualize Protestant engagements with materiality vis-à-vis legitimized frames (e.g. pedagogy, devotion, evangelism, entertainment). Drawing together archival and ethnographic data, primarily among US Protestants, the article argues that when Protestants function within legitimized frames they are prone to embrace biblical landscape items, but when they find themselves out of frame, their engagement with this particular species of materiality becomes troubled.

Pryce, “The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity

Pryce, Paula. 2018. The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Description: The call to contemplative Christianity is not an easy one. Those who answer it set themselves to the arduous task of self-reformation through rigorous study and practice, learned through the teachings of monks and nuns and the writings of ancient Christian mystics, often in isolation from family and friends. Those who are dedicated can spend hours every day in meditation, prayer, liturgy, and study. Why do they come? Indeed, how do they find their way to the door at all?

Based on nearly four years of research among semi-cloistered Christian monastics and a dispersed network of non-monastic Christian contemplatives across the United States and around the globe, The Monk’s Cell shows how religious practitioners in both settings combined social action and intentional living with intellectual study and intensive contemplative practices in an effort to modify their ways of knowing, sensing, and experiencing the world. Organized by the metaphor of a seeker journeying towards the inner chambers of a monastic chapel, The Monk’s Cell uses innovative “intersubjective fieldwork” methods to study these opaque, interiorized, often silent communities, in order to show how practices like solitude, chant, contemplation, attention, and a paradoxical capacity to combine ritual with intentional “unknowing” develop and hone a powerful sense of communion with the world.

Peña, “Time to Pray”

Peña, Elaine. 2017. Time to Pray: Devotional Rhythms and Space Sacralization Processes at the Mexico-US Border. Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief 13(4): 461-481. 

Abstract: This essay uses the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge at the Port of Laredo to examine Catholic parish life at la Parroquia Santo Niño in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. Considering how infrastructure works, how it literally keeps people and objects moving, nuances our understanding of the devotional rhythms and space sacralization processes of actors who move and wait in a border environment. Contributing to debates about rhythm and mobility in border studies, it highlights religion’s temporal particularities—specifically the role that an international bridge plays in influencing where, when, and how often border-based actors manage worship and spaces of reflection. Thinking with scholars of material religion, this essay maintains that accounting for border infrastructure is worthwhile. Using infrastructure as a primary reference point can productively challenge still influential distinctions between American and Latin American religion. It will also show that infrastructure not only animates religious practice and dictates devotional rhythms within the walls of la Parroquia, but also facilitates or at times deters movement to and from that site of worship. Mapping out routes and relationships among objects, places, and people, it traces how parish life and international bridge usage are inextricably linked across several planes—geographic, temporal, cultural, and economic; it is impossible to understand the significance of one without attending to the other.

Lofton, “Religion and Authority in American Parenting”

Kathryn Lofton; Religion and the Authority in American Parenting, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Volume 84, Issue 3, 1 September 2016, Pages 806–841, 

Abstract: This article reimagines the history of parenting as a subject for the study of religion. Through a schematic description of parenting in the United States, I observe the expanded responsibilities and increased social expectations for parents in the formation of child identity. Focusing on the concept of parental authority, I argue that the relationship of authority between parent and child is an important document of religious history in a secular age, and encourage future scholars to explore parenting habits, prescriptions, and admonitions as an archive for religious studies.

Klaits, “Catch the Word”

Klaits, Frederick. 2017. “Catch the Word”: Violated contracts and prophetic confirmation in African American Pentecostalism. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7(3): 237-260.

Abstract: The image of a violated social contract has long held a distinctive place in African American Christian thought about injustice. This essay discusses the efforts made by members of Pentecostal churches in Buffalo, New York, to enter into forms of contract with God that supersede the broken social contracts they see as devaluing their lives. These believers listen to God’s words as expressed in prophetic utterances for “confirmation” of the significance of events. In their view, “catching the word” through faithful listening enables them to create social commitments on their own terms, whereas their creative capacities are liable to be alienated from them if they listen improperly. Applying David Graeber’s revisionist treatment of “fetishism” as a form of social creativity, this essay explores how believers create their blessings within a dialogic space involving themselves, God, the devil, and pastor- prophets with exceptional abilities to listen to and convey the terms of the divine contract.

Bielo, “Biblical Gardens and the Sensuality of Religious Pedagogy”

Bielo, James. 2017. Biblical Gardens and the Sensuality of Religious Pedagogy. Material ReligionDOI: 10.1080/17432200.2017.1345099

Abstract: This article explores how the phenomenon of biblical gardens joins three bodies of scholarship: the social life of scriptures, the study of religion’s media turn, and religious pedagogy. As a kind of religious attraction, the biblical garden is both devotional and pedagogical, with historic roots in nineteenth-century projects to connect botanical science with biblical literacy. I argue that the pedagogy of biblical gardens is anchored by an ideology of sensual indexicality and a strategy of metonymic immersion, which is differentiated from themed immersion. Analyses are drawn from observational and textual data, as well as comparative data from other forms of Holy Land replication, primarily in the USA. Ultimately, I argue that biblical gardens resist a modern ideology that elevates visual experience atop a sensory hierarchy.