In A Diagram for Fire, Jon Bialecki draws upon his ethnographic field research amongst Vineyard churches – principally in Southern California – to lay the groundwork for ‘a kind of commonality’ (p. xviii) not only to Vineyard religiosity, and wider evangelical charismatic and Pentecostal movements, but even (in the conclusion) Christianity and religion more broadly. Most of the pages, however, focus on specific case studies of miracle accounts, small group discussions on hearing from God, prayer circles and other examples of charismatic religiosity in order to advance, explicate, and problematize Bialecki’s concept of ‘the diagram for fire’. It is a long review, longer than most on this blog. For those not interested in a long review, I offer an abbreviated synopsis:
tl;dr: It is a rich, insightful, and at times dense and highly nuanced anthropological argument about the event moment, and how this moment is situated and becomes recognised as a miracle. Probably best for advanced UG or research students as well as professionals interested in charismatic Christianity or a more structuralist/frameworks approach (as opposed to an epistemological or concepts approach) to ontology. If you’ve only time for one chapter, read Chapter 3.
If you’ve read Diagram, skip the outline, and go straight to the Discussion, below. The Outline offers a summary of the chapters, and provides a context for the discussion at the end. Continue reading →
Publisher’s Description: What is the work that miracles do in American Charismatic Evangelicalism? How can miracles be unanticipated and yet worked for? And finally, what do miracles tell us about other kinds of Christianity and even the category of religion? A Diagram for Fire engages with these questions in a detailed sociocultural ethnographic study of the Vineyard, an American Evangelical movement that originated in Southern California. The Vineyard is known worldwide for its intense musical forms of worship and for advocating the belief that all Christians can perform biblical-style miracles. Examining the miracle as both a strength and a challenge to institutional cohesion and human planning, this book situates the miracle as a fundamentally social means of producing change—surprise and the unexpected used to reimagine and reconfigure the will. Jon Bialecki shows how this configuration of the miraculous shapes typical Pentecostal and Charismatic religious practices as well as music, reading, economic choices, and conservative and progressive political imaginaries.
Abstract: How do American Charismatic Evangelicals imagine human difference? Ethnographic fieldwork with the Vineyard, a Southern California originated but now nation-wide Charismatic Evangelical movement, suggests that for many lay American Charismatic Evangelicals, difference is conceptualized in three different modes, involving potentialities, relations, and boundedness. Much like a grammar shapes communication without imposing a single meaning, these forms of conceiving human difference mandate no single intrinsic political position, but do affect the way that American Charismatic evangelicals express and contest notions of human difference.
Abstract: This essay discusses the relationship between the Vineyard and the various other apostolic networks. By comparing the Vineyard with C. Peter Wagner and the New Apostolic Revival, I contend that the chief difference between these two movements lies in a Vineyard interest in pedagogy over a New Apostolic Revival interest in governance, and in the Vineyard’s use of the figure of John Wimber as an exemplar for practice rather than as a figure of authority.
The Judgment of God and the Non-elephantine Zoo: Christian Dividualism, Individualism, and Ethical Freedom After the Mosko-Robbins Debate
Jon Bialecki (University of Edinburgh)
Abstract: The recent debate between Joel Robbins and Mark Mosko regarding whether Melanesian and extra-Melanesian forms of Christianity should be considered “individual” or “dividual” gives us the opportunity to revisit the question of dividualisms, and to question the over one decade old “current anthropological wisdom” that “all persons are both dividuals and individuals.” (Englund and Leach 2000: 229; see also Lipuma 1998). Reading deployments of Mosko’s argument outside of Melanesia, in conjunction with careful attention to the works of Robbins and Webb Keane, as well as with fieldwork with American Charismatic Christians, this essay argues for a more complex analytic in which individualism as well as disparate dividualism form an economy, working at different scales and temporal frameworks, and at times toward unanticipated ends.
Bialecki, Jon. 2014. Diagramming the Will: Ethics and Prayer, Text, and Politics. Ethnos 1-23 (DOI: 10.1080/00141844.2014.986151)
Abstract: Framing prayer as an ethical exercise that operates on a recalcitrant will, this essay examines both this practice in the Vineyard, an American Neocharismatic church, and texts written by Vineyard pastors for the purposes of instructing believers in how to engage in prayer. It argues that the same abstract play of forces can be identified in both these areas. But that does not mean the two areas are identical. While prayer as a practice is marked by a certain indetermination about how and in what ways prayer is effective, instructional material about prayer are shown to be much more exacting. However, different choices among pastors in how they situate prayer is shown to have specific political effects; it also suggests some of the benefits for an anthropology of ethics in being careful to disarticulate ethical practice from texts describing means to properly engage in ethical practice.
Abstract: In this paper we suggest that it is important for the anthropology of Christianity and the anthropology of religion more generally to develop a comparative phenomenology of spiritual experience. Our method is to distinguish between a named phenomenon without fixed mental or bodily events (phenomena that have specific local terms but are recognized by individuals by a broad and almost indiscriminate range of physical events); bodily affordances (events of the body that happen in social settings but are only identified as religious in those social settings when they afford, or make available, an interpretation that makes sense in that setting); and striking anomalous events. We demonstrate that local cultural practices shift the pattern of spiritual experiences, even those such as sleep paralysis and out-of-body experiences that might be imagined in some ways as culture free, but that the more the spiritual experience is constrained by a specific physiology, the more the frequency of the event will be constrained by an individual’s vulnerability to those experiences. We will call this the “cultural kindling” of spiritual experience.
Abstract: In this paper I argue that sociological denomination theory, despite its success in describing historic denomination cycles, has limits to its contemporary use and does not match the ethnographic description of the variety of ways in which denominationalism is expressed in anthropological ethnographies of Christianity. The cause of this mismatch is placed at the feet of unilinear models of denominational evolution. In its place, a differential model of autopoietic denominational evolution is suggested, where denominations are seen as different and differing solutions to an insistent Christian problematic. The capacities of this model are explored through the Vineyard, an association of charismatic churches that originated in Southern California.
By Nofit Itzhak (University of California, San Diego)
While conducting fieldwork for her dissertation project among contemporary witches in Britain, Tanya Luhrmann woke up one morning to the startling vision of six druids standing against the window of her London apartment. The vision, a kind of temporary blurring of the boundary between the perceptible and the imagined, was the fruit, Luhrmann surmised later on, of visualization exercises aimed at enhancing one’s imaginative capacities, exercises she engaged in alongside her interlocutors, as she tried to understand how modern, rational people came to experience magic as real. In Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (1989), the resulting ethnography, she suggested that it was specifically this kind of imaginative and sensory retraining that allowed her interlocutors to inhabit a world which was at once rational and magical. Luhrmann’s latest ethnography, When God Talks Back, picks up where Persuasions left off, or rather addresses a similar problematic in a different ethnographic context, that of the American Evangelical Vineyard.
Abstract: Many social scientists attribute the health-giving properties of religious practice to social support. This paper argues that another mechanism may be a positive relationship with the supernatural, a proposal that builds upon anthropological accounts of symbolic healing. Such a mechanism depends upon the learned cultivation of the imagination and the capacity to make what is imagined more real and more good. This paper offers a theory of the way that prayer enables this process and provides some evidence, drawn from experimental and ethnographic work, for the claim that a relationship with a loving God, cultivated through the imagination in prayer, may contribute to good health and may contribute to healing in trauma and psychosis.