This article investigates the construction and transmission of charisma through online channels and its role in the formation of religious identities. Mindful of Max Weber’s observation that charisma inhabits the relationship between a leader and his/her followers, I argue for a critical reappraisal of the theoretical model in the light of the ubiquity in the twenty-first century of new, virtual forms of social encounter. I focus my analysis on the Christian creationist movement in the United States and particularly on an influential leader called Ken Ham. Using digital ethnographic methods, I show how Ham constructs charisma online and how a virtual community forms itself around his charismatic claims. I illustrate how this virtual community intersects with offline worlds and suggest that the theme park attractions that Ham’s organisation runs (Creation Museum, Ark Encounter) are imbued with deflected charisma by virtue of their association with his online avatar.
Summary: This thesis considers the world of Christian faith, as expressed by a particular social group of which I have been a part since 1998, as an alternative knowledge system. Focusing upon the lives of a number of key agents, including myself, I argue that at the heart of this knowledge system is a charismatic relationship, in the Weberian sense, with a divine Other. This relationship is freely entered into, is conceived as involving movement into or towards an embodied, experiential and relational knowledge of God, and is often expressed by participants through such metaphors as a ‘journey’, ‘adventure’ or ‘quest’. My original contribution to knowledge is in taking a sociological concept, Weber’s notion of the charismatic relation, and innovatively applying this framework to the relation between humans and a transcendent or disembodied ‘Other’. My work responds to a) recent ‘ontological’ challenges within anthropology to ‘take seriously’ other worlds, b) invitations to those with strong religious convictions to practise anthropology without feeling that they need to lose those convictions, and c) recent debates within the anthropology of Christianity concerning how to deal with the agential characteristics of non-human/spiritual beings within ethnographic work. Through a reflexive exploration of experience, I examine how certain Christian people constitute their lives, observing how charismatic devotion to a divine Other implies both a sensorium that extends beyond the corporeal senses, as well as the ‘planting’ of various conceptual seeds that, by providing concrete metaphors of what life is, shape the lives of those willing to ‘receive’ them. As social actors seek to maintain ‘openness’ to this divine Other, a transformational journey results, in which human perception and conception are continually open to renewal. As a reflexive ethnographic account from within such an alternative knowledge system, this thesis makes an original contribution to phenomenological and sensory studies, as well as contributing to anthropological work on Christianity.