Omri Elisha, “Moral Ambition,” (2011)

Omri Elisha, Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches, (2011)

In his ethnography of two megachurches in Knoxville, Elisha argues that socially engaged evangelicals navigate between many competing demands. In a tradition often associated with individualism, this minority seeks to call others “out of their comfort zone” and thereby change the world for Christ. While cultivating personal religious virtues, they make moral demands on other Christians and society at large. As social reformers, the evangelical institutions from which they emerge both inspire and inhibit them, support them and view them suspiciously. They are inheritors of the complex legacies of revivalism, overseas missions, Christian temperance, and fundamentalism. Elisha’s conservative evangelical reformers are intensely self-critical members of the middle class who genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of the poor, but who generally don’t see capitalism as a problem in itself—and who see the poor as fundamentally lacking. Elisha uses the term “moral ambitions” to unpack this “particular style of religious subjectivity, one that manifests in moments of concerted action and mobilization and yet reflects a range of personal desires, theological and cultural norms, historical circumstances, and social opportunities” (18). Elisha talks to ambitious people: reformers with a new vision for the church, activists who want to bring about meaningful change. But these folks display moral ambition: their ambitions are fundamentally social, being focused on others and produced by particular institutions.

Elisha’s book offers several important reminders to scholars of evangelicalism. First, he reminds us that conservative evangelicals care about more than just language and texts—much of their religious activity consists of doing, not saying or reading. Because the concept of the Word is so important for evangelical theology, we scholars tend to look to language/semiotics as the key to understanding evangelicalism. Elisha engages words surprisingly rarely. Second, Elisha offers a refreshing emphasis on evangelical sociality. Anthropologists probably deal better in general with relationships than historians do, but Elisha proves especially adept at drawing out the institutional and interpersonal side of evangelicalism. In Elisha’s telling, evangelicalism emerges through social structures like class, institutional structures of financial support, small groups of friends, and shared discourses. Personal salvation, silent prayer, and private reading play their parts, but they’re bit players in Elisha’s ethnography. Third, Elisha’s book reminds us that serious books can also be funny. As a Jewish anthropologist from New York, Elisha could never really shake his outsider status among the evangelicals of Knoxville. But that didn’t stop them from putting him to good use. I actually laughed out loud reading the epilogue, when Elisha finds himself thrust into the role of chaperone for a youth mission trip: “After nearly a year of participant observation… I was used to performing unfamiliar roles. But I honestly never imagined I would one day be the driver of a big church van, shuttling pubescent soldiers of Christ through the streets of DC on their mission to do God’s work” (213-214). Though Elisha’s subtle turns of phrase exaggerate the humor of an awkward situation, his disquiet also reveals how his subjects’ moral ambitions work. The mission trip pulled the kids out of their “comfort zones”; in a completely different way, Elisha got pulled out of his. Being thrust into the role of a socially engaged evangelical leader, Elisha could get down to the business of seeing the world change.

Matthew Engelke, “A Problem of Presence,” (2007)

Matthew Engelke, A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church. (U California, 2007).

Engelke examines immateriality in the Masowe weChishanu Church of Zimbabwe. Known as the “Friday apostolics,” members of this church proudly identify themselves as “Christians who don’t read the Bible.” In fact, they claim to have moved beyond the Bible to a “live and direct” faith, one that does not require the mediation of mere things like books to experience God’s presence. Conversing with the work of Webb Keane, Engelke unpacks “live and direct” as a semiotic ideology, a set of underlying assumptions about signification, representation, etc. An apostolic prophet, Madzibaba Godfrey Nzira, once phrased this “live and direct” semiotic ideology in terms unthinkable to other Protestants: “What is the Bible to me?… After keeping it for some time it falls apart, the pages come out. And then you can take it and use it as toilet paper until it’s finished. We don’t talk Bible-talk here. We have a true Bible here” (2). The thingyness, the materiality of a paper Bible makes it suspect. By contrast, the immaterial “true Bible” does not need words on the page to make its message clear, and in fact does better without them. This creates a problem for apostolics: a problem of presence. Certain objects, utterances, rituals, etc. do bring about live and direct encounters with the Holy Spirit, the true Bible, the angels—the prophet speaks, the church sings, congregants wear white robes. There is no such thing as pure immateriality, even in this tradition that prizes it. Some things are just more material than others.

Engelke’s prose sparkles. Chapter 7, “The Substance of Healing,” offered a very memorable case in point—it would work very well in a seminar on materiality. As an anthropologist, you’re bound to get sick while in the field. During one of his illnesses, church members insisted on giving Engelke “holy honey,” the most potent spiritual medicine made by apostolic elders. According to Friday principles, the therapeutic power of the honey comes only from the Holy Spirit—not from anything about the honey itself. But when Engelke drove a friend to work after church, the man, facing a long day at the office, hinted that a spoonful of the honey might really help him and sheepishly asked for one. In Engelke’s own phrasing, honey is a “sticky subject” of conversation and a “sticky object” for apostolics, since it is “the practical channel through which the apostolics articulate an exception to the rule that a Friday faith should be immaterial. . . .it represents the realization that even ‘strong’ Christians cannot divorce themselves from the material” (243). Materiality is not an either/or proposition, but rather “a matter of degree and kind” (ibid). Materiality is a sticky business indeed.

Review by A.T. Coates

William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish”

William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, II: The Origin of the Fetish.” Res: Anthropolgy and Aesthetics. No. 13 (Spring 1987): 23-45.

Rather than accepting and deploying the anthropological concept of “the fetish,” Pietz historicizes it. Far more than just a descriptor of “religious” practices, “fetishism” operated as an accusation that separated rational Europeans from irrational Africans, rational traders from deluded tribesmen, people from things, moderns from non-moderns. As Pietz demonstrates carefully, it was only peripherally related to pre-existing medieval religious concepts. Fetishism, in other words, did not come out of theological evaluation of a foreign religion—fetishism was never located within the traditional theological frameworks of witchcraft or idolatry. Rather, it was coined to describe undue allegiance to venial things, petty trifles, undeserving objects. Predicated on particular assumptions about materiality, fetishism served to reinforce a specific arrangement of power and the purity of the autonomous subject. Despite a little post-structuralist mustiness, the essay still offers much food for thought on religion and materiality, modern subjectivity, and “secular” exchange. In particular, the essay reminds us not to assume that exchange is–and has always been–secular and rational. Exchange offers a rich (and largely unexplored) field for analysis in religious studies.

According to Pietz, the word “fetish” derives from the Portuguese pidgin word “fetisso.” It emerged in the late 16th century on the West African coast. This is no curiosity: the term acquired its meaning in the context of colonial trade, bridging two cultures that were practically incomprehensible to each other. The European (primarily Portuguese and Dutch) traders used the term “fetish” to describe objects worn or ingested by the Africans, which were thought to be “quasi-personal powers” that could be coerced into exerting force on the material world (40). The Europeans found two major problems with the fetish—but both concerned economics. First, as far as the traders were concerned, all objects possessed exchange value. However, this exchange value easily became “distorted” in the fetish object. Africans would overvalue “trifles” as fetishes. Although often highly profitable, trading such items became much more complicated than “rational” exchange would require because the object of desire held personal, social, and/or religious value in addition to its exchange value. In short, what the Europeans regarded as the “secular” rationality of the market broke down in the face of the fetish. Second, in order to engage in trade with locals, Europeans frequently found themselves required to swear oaths on a fetish object. Instead of entering contracts between autonomous, rational individuals, Europeans had to enter social relations via “quasi-religious ceremonies” (45). It was precisely such “perverse superstitions” in matters of trade that conditioned the general theory of fetishism that developed later.

Pietz identifies four major aspects of the idea of the fetish. First, the fetish always denoted objects, things, “mere” matter—the fetish maintained “untranscended materiality” (23). The fetish concerned what things were and weren’t, what they could or couldn’t do, what their proper worth might be. Second, the fetish is not a natural concept, but arose out of a very particular historical encounter between two cultures in the context of colonialism. The term retains the weight of this historical encounter in every subsequent usage. Third, the “meaning and value” of the concept of the fetish depends on a particular social order (23). The concept of the fetish is an accusation that only makes sense under particular arrangements of power, arrangements which the term itself helps to establish and support. Fourth, the fetish served as an antithesis to the autonomous subject. Worn on the body of an individual, the fetish exerted its power from the outside. The accusation of fetishism sought to establish the proper bounds and responsibilities of the embodied subject.

Review by A.T. Coates

Webb Keane, Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (2007)

Webb Keane, Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (U California, 2007)

Christian Moderns spins a beautiful, complex argument. Calvinist missionaries, Sumbanese Bible diviners, modernity’s fetishisms, subjectivities, words, things, and more weave together into an astounding work. Those interested in religion and modernity, the materiality of religions, the anthropology of Christianity, or cultural change must read this book. Below, I have struggled to summarize some of the book’s major arguments. You can find much better reviews on The Immanent Frame.

Based on his fieldwork on the eastern Indonesian island of Sumba, Keane’s book explores the encounter between Calvinists (Dutch missionaries and their converts) and practitioners of Sumbanese ancestral religion (marapu). Keane’s study of this encounter circles around words, things, and human subjectivity. These Christians are not flashy or extravagant—they’re not even millennialists. This “ordinariness” of their everyday worlds makes them all the more interesting to Keane. For the Calvinists, the inertness of words demonstrates a speaker’s agency. The right words spoken sincerely reveal one’s beliefs about God. In traditional marapu practice, by contrast, words come in fixed forms from the ancestors. If you show “agency” while reciting these words, their efficacy became suspect. The Sumbanese and the Dutch missionaries lived in completely different kinds of representational worlds. But then there was a convert named Umbu Neka, who thought that the old words still had powers that needed to be redeployed in service of his newfound faith. His hybrid approach to words, things, and human subjectivity inspired Keane to examine how Protestant modernity affected the everyday lives of the Sumbanese. I found chapter six particularly interesting, as it examines how prayer operates in the mission encounter.

Among many other things, Keane argues that the mission encounter in Sumba reveals competing versions of “agency.” Bucking a trend in both history and anthropology to celebrate the agency of subjects blithely, Keane instead interrogates how “agency” comes to mean what it does in particular contexts. Without careful attention to our subjects’ understandings about what a subject is, what an object is, what a word is, what a thing is, what words and things can/can’t do, how to act meaningfully in the world,—in short, what he calls their “semiotic ideology”—we don’t have any idea what their “agency” might be. More than just calling for a deeper account of “the native point of view,” Keane cautions against imputing particular notions of agency to our subjects without attention to the discursive and material conditions in which their subjectivity emerges. Like ours, their self-understandings about agency appear as historically specific sets of concrete practices and “semiotic forms” (4). In brief, this means that there is nothing transcendent or abstract about agency—it takes shape as a historically conditioned set of practices, which are embedded in particular discourses, meaningful word-sounds, speech genres, habits of gesture, material cultures, etc. Even agency cannot escape the consequences of materiality. We must understand how our subjects distinguish words, things, and agents (not just what they say about how they do so) before we start celebrating their agency.

Becoming modern, becoming religious. Keane takes great interest in the modernist project of “purification.” Drawn from Latour, this refers to the desire to make hard category distinctions between things like subject and object, living and non-living, human and non-human. Purification never fully succeeds, and hybrids proliferate. Keane argues that Protestantism stands at the heart of the modernist project of purification, particularly with respect to language. Calvin turned the sacraments into signs of grace. Being nothing in themselves, the inert “elements” allowed agency to reside only with individual believers and with God: their “meaning” wholly immaterial, the material presence of bread and wine stood merely as a sign of the agentive action taken by God to save and the communicant’s sincere belief in it. Like reciting the creeds, taking communion as a Calvinist established the immateriality of meaning and the inertness of meaning’s material forms of expression. The norm of sincerity held this semiotic ideology together: only sincere believers could take communion or recite the creeds, and there were great moral consequences for treating the elements as anything more than signs of grace or thinking that the words of the creeds themselves held power. “Religion” described this province of private belief; “science” would come to describe the inert, material world. Thus, Keane sees this Protestant purification project as having a curious affinity with Saussure’s linguistics, in which the sign is a purely arbitrary vehicle for the immaterial meanings intended by an agentive subject. Modernity and Protestantism fed off each other in the Euro-American context, leading to similar projects of purification. Both attempted to preserve particular notions of agency.

Summary by A.T. Coates

Geertz, Asad, and American Religious History

Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System” and “Thick Description.”

Talal Asad, “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz” aka. “The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category.”

BONUS: Ronald G. Walters, “Signs of the Times: Clifford Geertz and Historians,” Social Research 47.3 (Aug 1980).

Review by A.T. Coates

Though rarely acknowledged, Clifford Geertz has exerted enormous influence on the field of American religious history for at least the last 25 years. Geertz encourages scholars to attend carefully to the cultural “webs of significance” from which meaning emerges. He demands that we look closely at the winks of culture, its feigned winks, and its parodies of feigned winks, to ferret out the intentions of religious actors as they make meaning in those “webs.” He finds religion producing “moods and motivations” and offering unique varieties of experience. He theorizes how religion connects the dots of individual and social life, providing a coherent worldview. Most importantly as far as religious historians have been concerned, he sees religion as a universal cultural phenomenon, one irreducible to its social or psychological functions. His famous definition states that “a religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (90). Religion occurs in the realm of symbol and meaning, generates special kinds of experiences, and presents a compelling worldview.

For at least one generation of American religious historians, Geertz offered a way out of the secularization and social control theses. His theory put religion on equal footing with other “meaning-making” cultural activities like science and aesthetics, suggesting that religion still held an important place in the modern era. Geertz permitted historians to take their subjects’ ideas and intentions “seriously,” since religion dealt in the “really real,” not in false consciousness. His method of close reading encouraged detachment but not skepticism, nicely aligning with the liberally Christian interests of major university seminaries. Under Geertz’s theory, a seemingly endless array of traditions and actors took their place in the constellation of American religion, each earning its own thick description. Celebrating creative agency became the name of the game. To historians influenced by Geertz, religious actors of all genders, social classes, racial groups, and (less often) sexual orientations proved themselves free, creative agents as they expressed intention and made meaning in particular symbol systems. Because they demonstrated agency, they were above criticism.

Historians of American religion seem to have loved Geertz’s work for all the reasons Asad criticizes it. Asad takes little interest in what “religion” is in any abstract or universal sense. Drawing on examples from medieval and early modern Christian history, he attends carefully to how power creates and shapes the category called “religion.” For Asad, “there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes” (Construction 29). Asad considers Geertz’s definition of religion’s essence an oddly double-edged sword wrought by a particular modern, western, Christian history. On the one hand, Geertz’s project confines religion in ways unthinkable before the modern era’s division of politics, law, science, and religion. On the other hand, it defends religion by giving it an unassailable place in modern life, locating it squarely within the free minds of individuals. Rather than endlessly documenting the sphere of the religious, Asad demands that scholars attend to the material and social conditions—the “authorizing discourses”—that make certain conceptions/articulations of religion possible. Nearly three decades after he published his reflections on Geertz, we seem to have barely begun heeding his call: “Instead of approaching religion with questions about the social meaning of doctrines and practices… let us begin by asking what are the historical conditions… necessary for the existence of particular religious practices and discourses” (Conceptions 252).

Joel Robbins, “Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society” (2004).

Joel Robbins, Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society (2004)
Review by A.T. Coates

Robbins’s Becoming Sinners explores the concept of cultural change through the lens of morality. Based on his fieldwork with the Urapmin, a group of about 400 people in western Papua New Guinea, Robbins seeks to understand the cultural changes effected by the group’s conversion to charismatic Christianity. Though he describes the Urapmin’s Christian culture using the term “hybridity,” Robbins wants to go a step further: rather than seeing this “hybridity” as simple mixing or blending, he seeks a more robust theoretical account of the interaction between the constituent parts of hybrid cultures. According to Robbins, when the Urapmin adopted Christianity they became inhabitants of two opposing cultural systems. Unlike in other postcolonial settings, the Urapmin’s traditional bases of life (family, gardening, hunting, etc.) remained unchanged before and after conversion, as did the culture that structured them. Rather than assimilating Christianity into their existing cultural categories or having Christianity transform the structural relationships between their cultural categories, the Urapmin held their traditional culture alongside their Christian culture (7-10). But the largely individualist demands of the new Christian culture conflicted with the largely relational demands governing traditional Urapmin society. As a result, the Urapmin found themselves in a perpetual state they called “sin”: the regular interactions of social life caused them to be sinful, so the Urapmin constantly had to perform Christian rituals to rid themselves of sin. Living in two cultures left the Urapmin “troubled” (314).

As it turns out, the Urapmin are not only charismatic Baptists—they are also dispensational premillennialists. This, argues Robbins, gives them particular outlooks with regard to their place in time and space. The Urapmin explain their history in episodic terms, episodes characterized by radical disjunction. Discussing the group’s conversion, people like to say, “Now is God’s time… Now is now, and before is before.” (164). Living in constant expectation of the coming Millennium, the Urapmin experience “a sloping temporal order in which people are forever pitched forward, placing their best attention on the future and their best energy on their efforts to be ready for that future” (164). Drawing on dispensationalism, the Urapmin also conceive of space in millennial terms. They map the world according to racial categories of “black” and “white”: the Urapmin see themselves and Papua New Guinea as “black” and most of the rest of the world as “white” Christian countries. “Blacks” like themselves, the Urapmin say, have very little self-control, act more immorally than whites, and are not good at getting things done. Dispensationalism plays a complex role in this racial system. The Urapmin see Christianity as a “white” religion—Robbins himself frequently heard that Jesus was white like him, and the Urapmin felt that most “white” countries were Christian. But they also see themselves as participants in a transnational Christian community. Jesus is white, but he “came for the sinners” like the Urapmin: unlike other whites, Jesus is willing to befriend and work with them despite their insufficiencies. When they attend church on Sunday, they see themselves as participants in a worldwide white community. More, the Urapmin believe they will finally be able to overcome their racial deficiencies when Jesus returns. Thus, they spend most of their lives preparing themselves for a future change.

Robbins’s chapter “Contemporary Urapmin in Millennial Time and Space” should be required reading for any course on fundamentalism/dispensationalism in America. The chapter provides much insight into cultures of dispensationalism. Obviously, not everything about the Urapmin case holds for nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americans. But Robbins’s anthropological approach challenges us to consider how historical American dispensational premillennialism operated at the cultural level. Robbins demands that we think about what, say, dispensationalism did to people’s experiences of the present/past/future, how it fostered transnational identities, how it interacted with cultural conceptions of space, how it related to issues of race, etc. In other words, this book has the power to do what anthropologists do best: it makes strange the familiar. Robbins challenges scholars of American history to engage and theorize Christianities as cultures, to reimagine how dispensationalism works through the case of the Urapmin.