Archive for April, 2013

Miller, “Speculative Grace”

April 30, 2013

Miller, Adam. 2013. Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Orientated Theology. New York: Fordham University Press. 

Publisher’s Description: “This book offers a novel account of grace, framed in terms of Bruno Latour’s ‘principle of irreduction.’ It thus models an object-oriented approach to grace, experimentally moving a traditional Christian understanding of grace out of a top-down, theistic ontology and into an agent-based, object-oriented ontology. In the process, it also provides a systematic and original account of Latour’s overall project.

The account of grace offered here redistributes the tasks assigned to science and religion. Where now the work of science is to bring into focus objects that are too distant, too resistant, and too transcendent to be visible, the business of religion is to bring into focus objects that are too near, too available, and too immanent to be visible. Where science reveals transcendent objects by correcting for our nearsightedness, religion reveals immanent objects by correcting for our farsightedness.

Speculative Grace remaps the meaning of grace and examines the kinds of religious instruments and practices that, as a result, take center stage.”


Biehl, “The Right to a Nonprojected Future”

April 30, 2013

Biehl, João. 2013. The Right to a Nonprojected Future. Practical Matters 6:1-9

Excerpt: “There is a wonderful invitational quality to Christian Scharen and Aana Marie Vigen’s Eth- nography as Christian Theology and Ethics. I admire the tone and the kinds of conversa- tions that the book has unleashed and that are so thought-provokingly assembled here. Borne out of a close and passionately engaged reading, the commentaries by Emily Reimer-Barry, Mary McClintock Fulkerson and Ted A. Smith (in the order I read them) are sympathetic, critical, methodical and creatively constructive all at once. In their generosity, the commentators restore a kind of infancy, a sense of potential and possibility, to the book’s call for a theology and ethics that is marked by knowledge of the ethnographic Other, present but also absent, both worldly and particular within the totality of history, struggling to belong but at the same time transcending Christian membership. In their own commentary, Scharen and Vigen advocate for holding various binaries (reflexivity and self-absorption, objectivity and subjectivity, etc.) in “dynamic tension”— living in them instead of trying to resolve them. The goal is to create “as nuanced a picture as pos- sible,” recognizing that there are always risks and complexities to be engaged when describing lived realities.

The trust here is that the granular study of how beliefs, attitudes and values are refashioned and molded, as people navigate messy constellations of power and knowledge and face the unex- pected, brings into view alternative ontologies that can widen our sense of what is socially possible and desirable, be it at the cost of lowering our ability, real or imaginary, to discern the true truth or universal laws and historical continuities. What is at stake is “to defend the right to a nonprojected future as one of the truly inalienable rights of every person and nation,” in the luminous and al- ways contemporary words of the late Albert O. Hirschman. Scharen and Vigen’s brave book and this powerful set of commentaries make a strong plea for our own right as thinkers, across faiths and disciplines, to break open the expected value of the future: to remain relentlessly empirical yet open to theories, constantly tinkering with stories and interpretations as we face the active embroilment of life, reason, ethics and hope and try to give it a critical, albeit unfinished form, on a blank page. ”

Conference Dispatch: 2013 American Ethnological Society Meetings

April 29, 2013

2013 American Ethnological Society meetings, April 11-13, Chicago, Illinois.

By: Jessica Hardin (Brandeis University)

Just under 200 papers were presented in Chicago; only seven of which focused on Christianity, 10 on Islam and one on Candomble. This dearth of papers raised a number of questions for me. Mainly: given the conference theme “Anthropologies of Conflict in a New Millennium,” why weren’t more voices exploring the role of religion, religious mediation and spirituality in contemporary conflict? On a pragmatic level this may reflect the fact that the Society for the Anthropology of Religion meetings were being held the same weekend in California. But, it may speak to a limited engagement with how conflict has been treated in the anthropology of Christianity, and may also reflect the particular shape the anthropology of Christianity emerging today has taken thus far.

As I planned a panel for the conference I had to think hard about how my work related to conflict. In Samoa, where I conduct fieldwork, conflict arises from denominational diversity and competing spiritual economies. My panel sought to expand how we engage with conflict at the micro level through the topic of ritual failure. With this in mind, Hillary Kaell (Concordia U) and I organized a panel to explore the role ethnography can play in illuminating the meaning of failure for ritual participants. How do ritual actors navigate conflict as a context and conflict writ small? We also asked, what does the presence and categorization of failure reveal about humans as reflexive social actors who actively engage in social reproduction? The panel explored ritual action from a variety of perspectives, expanding how to think about failure, mistakes, and mishaps.

Casey Golomski (UMASS Boston) explored generational contest over ritual mistakes in a context of demographic change related to the enduring HIV/AID epidemic in the Kingdom of Swaziland. Elders are increasingly concerned about the lack of ritual socialization among youth. While this incompetence is a source of contestation, ritual efficacy is not contested but instead social action is focused on young ritual actors who require intervention. My paper explored multiple interconnected scales of ritual failure and conflict: (1) at the personal level of the practitioners who manage experiences and expectations and (2) at the social level where community boundaries are reified and contested. In the end I argue that ritual failure reveals a micro-level negotiation of denominational diversity in Samoa. Failed rituals do not just hinder social work but permit new forms of social action and formulations of the essence of social problems.

The panel shifted focus with Kristin Bloomer’s (Harvard U) exploration of the question of authenticity and discernment in ritual performances of Marian spirit possession in Tamil Nadu, South India. Bloomer considers the role of the constitution of subjects and communities in the performance and, more specifically, in the adjudication of ritual action. Elizabeth Brummel (U Chicago) explored the “how” of Pentecostal conversion through a linguistic analysis of how her interlocutors transformed a “mundane” narrative of salvation into an ideal narrative in Kenya. Brummel did not engage with failure but instead explored the social work accomplished in producing a narrative of rupture. Kaori Hatsumi (Kalamazoo C) ethnographically engaged with the unfolding ritual space of the Stations of the Cross in a paper titled “Tamil Catholic Easter in Postwar Sri Lanka.” She shows the regenerative processes engendered by the enactment of Easter rites.

Andrew Buckser (Purdue U) offered commentary on the panel, which highlighted the role of perspective. He asked, according to who are rituals deemed failures, inauthentic or mundane? Who controls such narratives and how is blame assigned or punished? What is the place of conflict in such ritual contestations? Shared across the papers is the problem of evaluation: who determines authenticity and success? Who adjudicates? How do participants themselves manage such expectations and evaluations? Buckser pointed to another common thread, the drive to document and fix narratives and the stories that emerge from ritual action.

Two papers that were part of larger organized panels also addressed Christianity. On a panel titled “Responsibility: Cultural Constructions of Agency and Conflict” organized by Ilana Gerhson (Indiana U), Sarah Bakker (UCSC) presented her work with Middle Eastern Christians in the Netherlands. Bakker explores how Syriac Christians are the targets of integration policies by the Dutch multicultural state. She revealed the conflicts and contestations that arise over distinct ideologies about freedom and responsibility, which require Syraic Christians to transform their embodied and social practices into more secular and private forms encouraged by the state.

Lauren Leve (UNC Chapel Hill) presented a paper on the panel “Interrogating the ‘Post-Conflict’: Temporality, Affect, and Social Transformation” organized by Amanda Snellinger (U Oxford) and Sara Shneiderman (Yale U).  Leve’s paper, “Of Conflict and Conversion:  Engaging the Post-Conflict through the Lens of Christianity in Nepal,” explores how rural Christian converts in post-conflict Nepal navigate emergent forms of democracy and citizenship through Christian orientations towards affect and temporality as well as religious practices including prayer.

The 2013 AES meetings was a vibrant conference exploring multiple facets of conflict and contestation in contemporary life. The papers addressing Christianity were rich and demonstrated the importance of incorporating the anthropology of Christianity into broader anthropological conversations about conflict, contestation, and social transformation

Mandes and Rogaczewska, “‘I don’t reject the Catholic Church—the Catholic Church rejects me'”

April 23, 2013

Mandes, Sławomir and Maria Rogaczewska.  2013.  “I don’t reject the Catholic Church—the Catholic Church rejects me”: How Twenty- and Thirty-somethings in Poland Re-evaluate their Religion.  Journal of Contemporary Religion 28(2): 259-276.

Abstract: Given measures of religious belief and participation, young adults in Poland are becoming increasingly disengaged from the Catholic Church. Broad theories of secularisation are less useful for making sense of this trend than an analysis of the role of Catholicism in Polish society in the twentieth century, which demonstrates the ways in which forms of belief are contingent upon wider social and political transformations. This article argues that, since 1989, attempts by the Catholic Church in Poland to influence public life through conservative social and political interventions have alienated young people who are looking for religious resources with which to make sense of their lives in a rapidly changing social milieu. Alongside disengagement from conservative, propositional forms of Catholic truth and rejection of direct authority, young people still possess ‘religious capital’ and look upon religious ideas to orientate their personal lives. However, disaffection from the propositional truths offered by the Church and disengagement from rituals and practices of ‘folk Catholicism’ at the level of the family and local parish have not led to widespread expressions of atheism among young people. Instead, there is a sacralisation of everyday life and there are attempts to use ‘religious capital’ to help young people make choices for life. The reconfigured ‘religious capital’ is often expressed through diffuse Catholic symbols and sentiment as well as the periodic use of major religious festivals as a means of finding access to some form of collective religious experience. The article concludes by reflecting on the implications of these changes for the future religious landscape of Polish society.

Brzozowski, “Spatiality and the Performance of Belief”

April 23, 2013

Brzozowski, Grzegorz.  2013.  Spatiality and the Performance of Belief: The Public Square and Collective Mourning for John Paul II.  Journal of Contemporary Religion 28(2): 241-257.

Abstract: The outburst of collective mourning for the death of Pope John Paul II in April 2005 in Piłsudski Square in Warsaw presented an exceptional case of intense religious emotions, expressed through an unprecedented variety of visual forms in a secular public space beyond the limitations of domestic and traditional worship spheres. Using displays of this emotion as a focus, this article considers how complementary theoretical frameworks can generate nuanced accounts of the dynamic intersection of such a space and the performance of belief in late modernity. Drawing on Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s concepts of strategies of religious spatialisation, Jeffrey Alexander’s theory of space as a mise-en-scene for cultural performance, and Erika Fischer-Lichte’s understanding of effects of space in shaping the nature of performance art, I argue that space must be understood as integral to such acts of believing. The meanings and uses of space should be understood as subject to the continuation or disruption of particular chains of memory, the operation of particular institutional strategies and resources, and the ways in which the material environment itself enables or precludes different forms of religious and cultural performance. Space as a condition of performance of belief thus binds together various levels of analysis: from the macro-level of institutional strategies to the micro-dynamics of individual behaviour. These levels of the theoretical framework will be followed along the analysis of stages in the material transformation of the Square. This perspective challenges privatised, propositional accounts of belief, further demonstrating that belief is inseparable from embodied emotion and action, the negotiation of various forms of institutional power, and the affordance of space and material objects.

Strhan, “Practising the Space Between”

April 23, 2013

Strhan, Anna.  2013.  Practising the Space Between: Embodying Belief as an Evangelical Anglican Student.  Journal of Contemporary Religion 28(2): 225-239.

Abstract: This article explores the formation of British evangelical university students as believers. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted with a conservative evangelical Anglican congregation in London, I describe how students in this church come to embody a highly cognitive, word-based mode of belief through particular material practices. As they learn to identify themselves as believers, practices of reflexivity and accountability enable them to develop a sense of narrative coherence in their lives that allows them to negotiate tensions that arise from their participation in church and from broader social structures. I demonstrate that propositional belief—in contexts where it becomes an identity marker—is bound up with relational practices of belief, so that distinctions between ‘belief in’ and ‘belief that’ are necessarily blurred in the lives of young evangelicals.

Guest, et al. “Challenging ‘Belief’ and the Evangelical Bias”

April 23, 2013

Guest, Matthew, Sonya Sharma, Kristin Aune, and Rob Warner.  2013.  Challenging ‘Belief’ and the Evangelical Bias: Student Christianity in English Universities.  Journal of Contemporary Religion 2(28): 207-223.

Abstract: Popular and academic accounts of university-based religion tend to privilege evangelical Christianity, presented as a morally conservative, conversionist movement at odds with university contexts, which are widely assumed to be vehicles for a progressive Western modernity. This is especially the case in the UK, given the association of higher education with secularisation, yet virtually no research has studied this interface by examining the lives of students. This article discusses findings from the three-year project “Christianity and the University Experience in Contemporary England”, including a nation-wide survey of undergraduate students, in examining how the experience of university shapes on-campus expressions of Christian identity. We argue that a sizeable constituency of undergraduates self-identify as ‘Christian’, but evangelicals emerge not as the dominant majority, but as a vocal minority. The emerging internal complexity is masked by a public discourse that conceives of religion in terms of propositional belief and presents evangelicalism as its pre-eminent form.

Engelke, “God’s Agents”

April 23, 2013

Engelke, Matthew.  2013. God’s Agents: Biblical Publicity in Contemporary England.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Publisher’s Description: The British and Foreign Bible Society is one of the most illustrious Christian charities in the United Kingdom. Founded by evangelicals in the early nineteenth century and inspired by developments in printing technology, its goal has always been to make Bibles universally available. Over the past several decades, though, Bible Society has faced a radically different world, especially in its work in England. Where the Society once had a grateful and engaged reading public, it now faces apathy—even antipathy—for its cause. These days, it seems, no one in England wants a Bible, and no one wants other people telling them they should: religion is supposed to be a private matter. Undeterred, the Society staff attempt to spark a renewed interest in the Word of God. They’ve turned away from publishing and toward publicity to “make the Bible heard.”

God’s Agents is a study of how religion goes public in today’s world. Based on over three years of anthropological research, Matthew Engelke traces how a small group of socially committed Christians tackle the challenge of publicity within (what they understand to be) a largely secular culture. In the process of telling their story, Engelke offers an insightful new way to think about the relationships between secular and religious formations: our current understanding of religion needs to be complemented by greater attention to the process of generating publicity. Engelke argues that we are witnessing the dynamics of religious publicity, which allows us to see the ways in which conceptual divides such as public/private, religious/secular, faith/knowledge, are challenged and redefined by social actors.

Conference Dispatch: 2013 Society for the Anthropology of Religion

April 21, 2013

2013 Biennial Society for the Anthropology of Religion meetings, April 11-14, Pasadena, California.

By: James S. Bielo (Miami University)

This year, 2013, marks ten years since Religion published a special issue devoted to the anthropology of Christianity. Many in the field point to this print moment as something like a formal debut. Most every review article observes that despite plenty of scattered anthropological research about Christianity, it required an intentional, explicit, and bold call to really coax an anthropology of Christianity into view (e.g., Bialecki, Haynes, and Robbins 2008). One question that animated the 2003 collection, and numerous work that followed, is what comparative questions and theoretical problems might instill some cohesion into the field. A profusion of ethnographic work would be great to see, but certainly it would be more effective if there was some centripetal center of gravity. Listening to papers this past weekend at the Society for the Anthropology of Religion meetings, it seems the question of cohesion is both packed with potential and yet still seeking some gravity. Read the rest of this entry »

Bielo, “Promises of Place”

April 18, 2013

Bielo, James S. 2013. Promises of Place: A Future of Comparative U.S. Ethnography. North American Dialogue 16(1):1-11.

Excerpt: In this essay I capitalize on a convergence in some recent U.S. ethnography to explore the cultural power of place-making and the conceptual promises of ‘place.’ Reports of losing, forgetting, and otherwise being disconnected from place are legion in depictions of late modernity. Said (1979) called it a “generalized condition of homelessness” (18), Gupta and Ferguson (1992) described it as a “profound sense of a loss of territorial roots, of an erosion of the cultural distinctiveness of places” (9), and Appadurai (1996) termed it “deterritorialization” (49). The culprits of this anxiety in the U.S. are multiple. A post-industrial economy fuels constant mobility, creating highly flexible labor regimes and others that are not reliant on geographic locale. Expanding urbanization disrupts relationships to land, transforming farm acreage into ultra-planned exurbia. Neoliberal corporate infrastructures prize predictable familiarity over uniqueness in order to secure service industry profits. There are, as well, technological and media empires that can render the particularities of place irrelevant. We late moderns are said to struggle to maintain meaningful place attachments and places themselves struggle to be distinctive. We are increasingly uncertain of how to recover from our pandemic placeless-ness. Of course, this narrative is ideological; it contains truth and myth, history and nostalgia, is uncannily accurate for many and exaggerated for many others. Nonetheless, the threat of placeless-ness is an American social fact, very real for the discontents it generates. According to recent U.S. ethnography that addresses different cultural spheres – religion and food – this anxiety has also produced resistance. People are not simply internalizing erosion and loss, they are responding by actively cultivating senses of place. Regarding religion, I look to my own fieldwork with American evangelicals… Emerging evangelicals are not the only late modern Americans looking to place to fashion a better future. This essay ensues from a repeated observation about recent work in U.S. ethnography: first, in step with developing interests in the anthropology of food, ethnographers are writing about American food systems; and second, analyses of the sustainable food movement reveal a striking veneration of place.

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