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.

Daniel Miller, “Materiality: An Introduction.”

Daniel Miller, “Materiality: An Introduction.” In Materiality (Duke Press, 2005)

With an impressive list of contributors, Miller’s edited volume both surveys the field of material culture studies and advances key arguments about materiality. Regarding the former, all I will say is that the essays in this book would make excellent—if challenging—material for a seminar on materiality. Now, as to the latter…

Miller claims that the study of materiality belongs at the center of anthropological inquiry. Materiality can reveal as much about how people love, think, and conduct science as it can about the “artifacts” of, say, classical archaeology. Materiality, particularly the everyday materiality we often ignore, constitutes our worlds, our modes of subjectivity. But, lest we reify materiality itself, Miller insists on a “pluralism” of materialities—there is no one “materiality” to which we scholars must appeal (such as Marx’s objects of production), but only particular materialities whose dynamics we must uncover through careful, empathetic ethnography. Just like materiality, immateriality does not drop from the sky, but emerges through particular practices. More importantly for Miller’s argument, immateriality always finds itself expressed materially, whether in finance or in Protestantism. Materiality is no footnote to anthropology, even studies concerned with the abstract, the spiritual. Perhaps unsurprisingly at this point, Miller also demands that we acknowledge pluralism in the relationship between materiality and immateriality. He does so to overthrow “the tyranny of the subject,” which is “the assumption that objects represent people” (29). Why, he asks, must we assume that every object has a person behind it—as its creator, manufacturer, user, etc.? The clothes have no emperor. The clothing and emperor together form an “integral phenomenon” in which the clothes make the person: writes Miller “the subject is the product of the same act of objectification that creates the clothing” (32). Humans ought not have pride of place in our analysis, for we need our objects as much as they need us—we cannot be human without them.

Summary by A.T. Coates

Todd Ochoa, “Society of the Dead” (2010)

Todd Ramón Ochoa, Society of the Dead: Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba (UC Press, 2010).

Armchair anthropology this ain’t. Ochoa’s book proves worth the price of admission just for its riveting first-person stories. In Society of the Dead, Ochoa narrates being ritually cut and told he swore allegiance to the devil in an initiation ceremony, holding an overnight vigil with a plastic bag containing human remains, and being reduced to a “vomiting mess” in the presence of a particularly powerful spectral entity. Ochoa not only knows how to tell a good story—one reviewer describes his work as itself a kind of sorcery, conjuring an ontology completely foreign to the western metaphysical tradition. For his part, Ochoa calls it a thoroughly empirical experiment.

Drawing on fieldwork conducted in Havana from the 1990s-2000s, Ochoa dives into the “immanent materiality” of Palo, a Kongo-inspired creole tradition related to Ocha/Santo (Santería). Ochoa states that Palo “is best understood as a fluid mode of engaging the dead in matter to transform fate in a flash” (8). Palo practitioners engage the dead through drumming, candles, cauldrons, singing, and animal sacrifice. But they also feel called by the dead, get pulled out of bed at night by it, feel chilled and troubled in the gut by it. What Ochoa calls the “ambient dead,” Kalunga, is a sea: constantly in flux, the dead saturates, surrounds, generates, and dissipates. It flows through matter and assumes surprising, even contradictory, aspects. The dead is not a spirit that manifests, but material that rises and falls and folds: “Kalunga is a plane of immanence from which subjects and objects emerge and into which they are lost” (34). As a craft, Palo works with the dead to help or harm the living: it involves the creation and care of prendas (also called ngangas or enquisos). Prendas are cauldrons/urns stuffed full of dirt, sticks, feathers, and nfumbe—entities constituted of human remains. The most powerful, and the most unpredictable, prendas are the prendas judías, which contain “Jewish” or “unbaptized” nfumbe. These prendas can end a human life—but they only respond to practitioners’ pleas on Good Friday, when Jesus is busy dying on the cross. And they are volatile, unpredictable things known to turn on their keepers. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Palo doesn’t want to steal Cuban children to stuff them into these cauldrons. It wants to change fate by working with the dead immanent in matter; occasionally, doing so brings the living to their limits.

Reading Ochoa’s beautifully crafted stories, it’s easy to forget that this book presents a sustained philosophical meditation on an entire metaphysical tradition. In the conclusion, Ochoa names the villain of his story: the dualistic tradition that runs from Plato through Hegel’s dialectics to Marx and Adorno. In this tradition, matter usually appears as the abject, the base, the object, the negation of truth, spirit, subject. If this metaphysical tradition concerns the living, Ochoa’s book engages theorists of the dead: Bataille, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Deleuze. Society of the Dead explodes the subject-object dialectic—it just doesn’t work with Palo. Holding up matter without shape or form, abandoning rigid conceptual schemes and clever interpretive devices, Ochoa experiments with theory’s possibilities. He looks to matter, to the dead, to change theory’s fate.

Review by A.T. Coates

Latour, selections from “Reassembling the Social.”

Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. (Oxford, 2005).

Officially, my reading list calls for “selections from” Reassembling the Social. That turned into me reading almost all of it very, very slowly (hence the delay in posting). Reassembling the Social offers some of the most accessible Latour, but nonetheless provocative, I’ve ever encountered. The theory is profound, but slippery. The book is less about what actor-network theory is and more about what it does—but, even more, it’s about what actor-network theory doesn’t do. It offers exciting new possibilities for how we might conduct our work as historians of religion. But trying to explain it succinctly feels like THIS

Latour first carefully disassembles the concept of “the social.” Note that I didn’t say he “deconstructs” it. For too long, Latour insists, theorists have approached the social as “a kind of material or a domain,” one usually invoked to provide an explanation for some other state of affairs (1). Religion, for example, is said to operate according to its own logic most of the time, but “social context” or “social forces” pop into scholarly accounts to explain some of the erratic behavior of practitioners. To take an example from a book I just read, this understanding of the social says evangelicalism in America looks different than evangelicalism in Canada because of the social context—or even better, the socio-cultural context—in which it “manifested.” “The social” thus stalks behind, or floats above, practitioners and their practices, ready to offer a “social explanation” at any moment. For Latour, this conception of “the social” as a domain, a realm, a kind of thing, blinds us to the associations that actors actually have with each other. Those associations change constantly, as groups are formed, dismantled, and reformed (29). Instead of positing a particular thing or domain as “the social,” Latour asks what kinds of peculiar assemblages might reveal themselves if we carefully trace the associations between actors, if we allow actors to show us what “the social” describes at a particular moment. The term “social,” Latour insists, describes “the name of a movement, a displacement, a transformation, a translation, an enrollment… an association between entities which are in no way recognizable as being social… except during the brief moment when they are shuffled together” (64-65). For actor-network theory, tracing those movements, displacements, transformations, and enrollments, becomes paramount.

ANT brings mediation and materiality to the foreground. In Latour’s actor-networks, actors look very different from what we usually see. Actors need not be human, nor “animate” in the sense we’re accustomed to. Gasp. Latour considers an “actor” to be “not the source of an action but the moving target of a vast array of entities swarming toward it” (46). Actors are those made to act. He uses the example of a pilgrim who claims, “I came to this monastery because the Virgin called me.” The Virgin makes the pilgrim an actor (the actor who travels), but the pilgrim also makes the Virgin an actor (the actor who calls others to action). We should take the pilgrim’s word for what’s happening when she says the Virgin called her: “Recording not filtering out, describing not disciplining, these are the Laws and the Prophets” (55).

This goes further than the kind of uncritical pandering to actors’ claims that we’re accustomed to in religious studies. Rather, as hinted above, Latour wants to understand how social worlds get constructed. So, for example, a Protestant says she believes the bread and wine in communion are mere “symbols” of commemoration, but then fears supernatural retribution for taking communion in an unfit spiritual state. An ANT would try to trace the complex connections between actors natural and supernatural, subjects and objects, persons and spirits, bread and sinners, that such a statement invokes. It’s a painstaking process, but one that pays big dividends for students of materiality because it pays attention to the kinds of agency afforded to things. Latour argues that, rather than insisting on a neat divide between agentive subjects and inert objects, we ought to explore how the relationships between subjects and objects, agents and mediators, get construed. He suggests a metaphysical openness on the question of cause and effect, an attention to how “things might authorize, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid, and so on” (72, emphasis added). I’m not explaining it well, but tracing an actor-network in religious studies would never permit us to say, for example, that a certain object or image “manifests” religious beliefs. Instead, ANT would demand that we pay careful attention to ways people interact with things, the ways things interact with people, the ways supernatural and natural beings can use things, the ways causality gets described, the ways things can reveal or proclaim or mask or subvert or remind. Latour offers a negative method, in which we don’t take anything for granted about social worlds but instead wait to see what emerges…

Kelly J. Baker, “Gospel According to the Klan” (2011)

Kelly J. Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. (U Kansas P, 2011).

Like most significant historical works, this one makes important contributions in two ways: historical and theoretical. Baker not only sheds new light on the history of religion in 20th-century America, she also offers a compelling new model for scholarship in the field. Not bad for a dissertation book.

First, the history. Baker’s bold thesis declares that we can’t understand the KKK “revival” of the 1920s without understanding the movement’s Protestantism. That is, the KKK of the 20s was a thoroughly Protestant movement. Mainstream, “normal” Protestantism motivated and fuelled the Klan’s nativism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, gendered ideology, and white supremacy. The KKK didn’t “twist” or “distort” Protestantism for its own ends, but created an Invisible Empire of white knights as the last “manly” defenders of an imperiled Christian nation. And in the 20s, millions welcomed these protectors and their “twin messages of nation and faith” (6). Drawing on the Klan’s print culture and, to some extent, their material culture, Baker employs an ethnographic method to unpack the movement’s presentation of Protestantism, nationalism, white masculinity, white femininity, racial purity, and anti-Catholicism. As just one fascinating example, she discusses how the Klan’s iconic white robes and conical “hoods” functioned as part of its racial ideology. Klan photographs tended to show large groups in which everyone appears in white robes. The robes thus magnified whiteness and showed the racial homogeneity of the group. But the hoods also gave anonymity, protecting members from those who would persecute them for supporting the cause of the white race (189). In the eyes of members, the robes did not inspire fear (with their ghostlike appearance) or to make it easier to conduct violence anonymously. The white robe bolstered particular ideas about the persecution of white America, and encouraged concerned men to step behind it in order to protect their race.

Now, the theory. The Gospel According to the Klan also presents a new model of “engaged scholarship” (see 30). Like the best topics in our field, the 1920s Klan sits at the intersection of several important theoretical debates and enlarges our understanding of each. Baker attempts to “see with” the Klansmen and Klanswomen of the 1920s, to “take seriously” their perspective on the world. In this respect, Baker’s project resembles many other ethnographic works that use thick description to generate sympathy with their subjects. But, for Christ’s sake, this is a book about the KKK—and Baker never lets readers forget that. In some respects, this group doesn’t warrant sympathy, and certainly Baker does not want to create uncritical sympathy for their positions on race, gender, or nationalism. Rather, she insists that it is possible to be a careful ethnographic historian without resorting to mere description: “Seeing with the Klan does not mean that we have to like its rhetoric, agendas, or politics, nor does it mean that we need to avoid criticism and analysis” (240). In short, it’s possible to take our subjects “seriously” without pandering to their white supremacy, for example. More still, Baker demonstrates that we don’t need to check our politics at the door to write our histories effectively. Avoiding facile comparisons with the contemporary political right, Baker nonetheless shows how conservatism’s self-image as defenders of an embattled (white) Christian America resonates deeply with the perspective of the Klan. More than that, she argues that the 1920s Klan forms the historical bridge between nineteenth-century nativism and twentieth-century political conservatism. The point here is not to create straw villains out of her political enemies, but to show that ordinary people, even Christian people, can “commit heinous acts without evil intentions and …can promote a worldview founded on intolerance even as they describe its tolerance” (238).

Review by A.T. Coates