Bielo, “Particles-to-People…Molecules-to-Man”

Bielo, James S. 2019. “‘Particles-to-People…Molecules-to-Man,’ Creationist Poetics in Public Debates.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. 29(1): 4-26.

This article examines religious language in a contested public sphere by analyzing performances of linguistic creativity among creationists in the United States. The public creation‐evolution debate has been a central speech event in the development of modern creationism, and functions as a key site for claiming cultural legitimacy. Focusing on three creation‐evolution debates spanning 33 years, I advance the concept of “creationist poetics” to capture how framing, stance taking, and speech play define the performance repertoire of creationists in the debate context. In particular, I illustrate how creationist speakers work to create a conspiracy‐populist frame and a revealer stance. Together, these strategies sketch a lifeworld that envisions elitist “secular” actors suppressing scriptural authority and creationists as humble, clear‐eyed people exposing the conspiracy through scriptural fidelity. I argue that this system of poetics is a key expressive resource in the ongoing struggle to wrest authority away from evolutionary science and claim it for biblical fundamentalism. Ultimately, this analysis of creationist poetics informs our understanding of how authority as a contingent social process is discursively mediated, a central theme in the study of both religious and political language.

Richlin, “The Affective Therapeutics of Migrant Faith”

Richlin, Johanna Bard. 2019. “The Affective Therapeutics of Migrant Faith: Evangelical Christianity among Brazilians in Greater Washington, DC.” Current Anthropology 69(3).

While increasing Evangelical religiosity among Latin Americans in the United States has been well documented, few studies have considered how this faith shapes and is shaped by migrant experience itself. Based on fieldwork among Brazilian migrants outside of Washington, DC, a new immigrant gateway, I suggest that attention to migrant affective experience sheds new light on the growth of Evangelical faith. In the first section, I show how migrant experience configured a common portrait of affective distress marked by loneliness and feeling stuck, which in turn stimulated novel religious longings among migrants. In the remainder of the article, I illustrate how Evangelical churches effectively addressed and reinterpreted migrant-related distress through what I call affective therapeutics—the strategic healing of migrants’ negative emotion states. I outline the five discursive and practice-based tactics of this strategy that I witnessed—happiness of believers, self as vessel, watchful community, open-scripted prayer, and testimony—and consider how they relieved migrant distress. Writing against a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” I instead offer this research as part of a broader effort in the anthropology of religion and Christianity to document the hopeful and creative strategies through which individuals pursue what they conceive of as the “good.”

Bielo, “Where Prayers May Be Whispered”

Bielo, James S. (2019) ‘”Where Prayers May Be Whispered”: Promises of Presence in Protestant Place-Making’. Ethnos. DOI:10.1080/00141844.2019.1604559

Abstract: This article examines themes of religion tourism, presence, devotional labour, and place-making from the vantage point of a ‘forgotten’ Christian attraction in the United States. I integrate archival, oral history, and ethnographic data to analyze the accumulations throughout the 60-year life course of the Garden of Hope, a site in northern Kentucky (USA): from distinctly Protestant and distinctly Catholic material features, more ambiguous theological features, stories of supernatural intervention and stories of human ingenuity, competing claims to authority and authenticity, choreographed rituals, and multiple forms of devotion. I argue for an interpretation of the Garden that accounts for the ways in which Christian engagements with the problem of presence accumulate promises of presence: the expectation, anticipation, and potentiality that a desired spiritual intimacy will be actualised. In particular, I highlight the devotional labour of custodians and visitors as integral for defining, narrating, and maintaining this promise.

Warner-Garcia, “Sex and Faith in Dialogue”

Warner-Garica, Shawn Rachel. 2018. “Sex and Faith in Dialogue: Interdiscursivity and Academic Activism in Baptist Communities.” PhD Dissertation, Department of Linguistics, University of California, Santa Barbara. 

What do we talk about when we talk about sex? …[S]exuality as a form of knowledge is made possible by the discursive processes that constitute it. Discourse is the field on which particular ideologies, structures, and desires surrounding sexuality get played out. In many ways, discourse holds a unique status in religious contexts: it can be constructed as a holy artifact or a means to salvation, and it is also vital for creating and disseminating religious tradition and identity…

Scholarly inquiry into these three veins – discourse, sexuality, and Christianity – has spanned a number of disciplines and has been marked by disparate methodologies and analytic frameworks. My dissertation seeks to bring many of these threads together to provide a meaningful account of the current discourses around sexual ethics among Christians in the United States. I focus in particular on the Baptist denomination of Christianity as a site of study, since its loose denominational structure gives rise to a wide variety of beliefs and practices around sexuality that are discursively negotiated in community spaces. Through a methodology I call event ethnography, I provide an in-depth examination of the 2012 [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant to capture the complexities of this singular event as situated within its larger cultural context. I analyze the constraints of the physical space of the event, how plenary speakers interdiscursively engage with many of the same Christian texts and traditions in radically different ways, and the emergent dialogicality of the audience’s engagement both in person and online through Twitter. My analysis of this event shows the ways in which social histories, institutional structures, and spatiotemporal realities both enable and constrain particular types of discourse. I also explore the ways in which my research has morphed from a traditional focus on discourse analysis to a more activist approach of community-engaged research. I discuss the various ways I am currently collaborating with Baptist leaders in the development of resources that promote healthier, more holistic conversations around sexuality. I argue that these forms of academic activism can help build more robust scholarship as well as bring about positive social change.

Bjork-James, “Training the Porous Body”

Bjork-James, Sophie. 2018. “Training the Porous Body: Evangelicals and the Ex-Gay Movement.” American Anthropologist. 120(4): 647-658

In this article, I examine how US evangelical opposition to LGBT rights stems from a unique understanding of sexuality and the person. As my respondents explained to me in over sixteen months of field research, evangelical rejection of LGBT individuals and practices is rooted not simply in prejudice but also in a culturally specific notion of personhood that requires Christian bodies to orient themselves to the divine. In evangelical Christianity, the body, along with its capacity to feel and communicate, is understood as a porous vessel receptive to communication with God. In contrast to a dominant idea that sexual orientations shape individual identities, sexuality within this religious world instead facilitates the movement of moral forces across individual bodies and geographic scales. Sexual desires and sexual acts are broadly understood in evangelical cosmology as communicative mediums for supernatural forces. This understanding of sexuality as a central component of moral agency shapes widespread practices of ostracism of people who identify as LGBT within evangelicalism and often leads to anti‐LGBT political positions. Claiming an LGBT identity is seen as making one a distinct kind of person incommensurate with evangelical porosity.

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.