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A Matter of Belief: Book Review

June 9, 2014

Joshi, Vibha. 2012. A Matter of Belief: Christian Conversion and Healing in North-East India. New York: Berghahn Books.

Reviewed by Jessica Hardin (Pacific University)

This is a book about how animism and Christianity are practiced together among Angami people in Nagaland in North-East India. Vibha Joshi provides a wide overview of indigenous religious practices, the contemporary Christian landscape, and colonial/missionary history building on fieldwork spanning from 1985 through to 2011. Most broadly, the book aims to show how Christianity provides a framework for political peace for conflict arising between Naga nationalist groups and the Indian government. Specifically, Joshi argues that Christianity provides a language and organization for reconciliation, even if she remains skeptical of its capacities to truly “heal society.” The motivation for this book is to provide a deep overview of the historical complexity of the emergence of Christianity and the ways Christianity is intertwined with nationalism in North-East India. The book provides a wide scope of historical, political, and geographic context and, as such, is less a book about Christianity per se and more about (1) the relationship between indigenous religions and Christianity in beliefs and practice and (2) the political uses of Christianity from colonialism through to contemporary calls for peace, reconciliation, and unity.

The book is explicitly situated in conversation with the Anthropology of Christianity (5-11). Joshi writes that she did not start this project as a study of Christianity, but instead came to study Christianity through her work with Angami healers. She writes, “one could say that my research at the outset and throughout has focused on Naga as a people, including its healers, some of whom are Christian” (6). Nonetheless, Joshi frames the book as about conversion to Christianity. She explores both “the pragmatic” and “the passionate” (3) dimensions of large-scale conversion and aims to draw attention to the contradictions and tensions that arise when Christianity is put to the work of nationalism, calls for cultural homogeneity, and peace. One of the contradictions that Joshi highlights is that the rituals, attire, and art that expresses Naga-ness, which were originally discouraged by missionaries in the early phases of evangelism, are now taking center stage at public Christian celebrations. Joshi does not expand on how this tension is experienced by her interlocutors as much as suggests points of interaction between indigenous religion, Christianity, and historical context. Overall Joshi asks, “what, then, can a new religion offer, and what is appropriated by the converts?” (7). Read the rest of this entry »

Jennings, “Imagining Jesus doing a Whole Lotta Shakin'”

June 3, 2014

Jennings, Mark.  2014. Imagining Jesus doing a Whole Lotta Shakin’: Pentecostal worship, popular music and the politics of experience.  Culture and Religion 15(2): 211-226.

Abstract: This paper commences with a brief outline of the history of the symbiotic relationship between popular music and Pentecostalism in the USA. While early rockers learned many of the techniques of ecstasy from Pentecostal worship, in recent times Pentecostal/charismatic songwriters and worship leaders have completed the circle, re-appropriating popular music forms for use in church. This is particularly the case in Australia, where Hillsong and Planetshakers have led the way in composing worship music using rock, pop and hip-hop forms. Drawing from ethnographic data from my own participant observation at an Australian Pentecostal church, I attempt to address the question ‘Can the ecstatic encounter with God which is central to Pentecostalism be accessed in other, “unbaptized” (i.e. non-Christian) musical contexts?’ The ambivalence of responses from the members of ‘Breakfree’ Christian church point to the fact that this is a political issue: at stake is the authority to determine which experiences are ‘Christian’, and which not.

Dengah, “How Religious Status Shapes Psychological Well-being”

May 27, 2014

Dengah, H. J. François.  2014. How Religious Status Shapes Psychological Well-being: Cultural Consonance as a Measure of Subcultural Status among Brazilian Pentecostals.  Social Science and Medicine.  Early online publication.

Abstract: Research on subjective social status has long recognized that individuals occupy multiple social hierarchies, with socioeconomic status (SES) being but one. The issue, as such, has been to identify culturally meaningful measures of social status. Through cognitive anthropological theory and methods, I show that it is possible to identify multiple cultural models of “status,” and objectively measure an individual’s level of adherence, or consonance, with each—effectively placing them within the multidimensional space of social hierarchies. Through a mixed qualitative and quantitative study of 118 Brazilian Pentecostals carried out from 2011-2012, I show that dominant and limitedly-distributed cultural models of status operate simultaneously and concurrently in the lives of those who hold them. Importantly, each marker of cultural status moderates the other’s association with psychological well-being. I argue that the importance of a given social hierarchy is framed by cultural values. For Brazilian Pentecostals, their limitedly distributed model of religious status alters the influence of more dominant societal indicators on psychological well-being. The interaction between religious and secular lifestyle statuses on psychological health is stronger than the association of SES, effectively explaining 51% of the variance. This finding suggests that among some populations, limitedly distributed cultural models of status may be a dominant force in shaping measures of well-being.

Ketola et al., “New communities of worship”

May 15, 2014

Ketola, Kimmo, Tuomas Martikainen, Hanna Salomäki.  2014. New communities of worship: Continuities and mutations among religious organizations in Finland.  Social Compass 61(2): 153-171.

Abstract: The authors provide a summary of three key developments that have brought change to the field of religious organizations in Finland: the emergence of new Lutheran communities (the St Thomas Mass, the so-called Nokia Revival and the fundamentalist Luther Foundation Finland); Ashtanga yoga as a form of spirituality; and the spread of migrant religious communities. The article sets these developments in the context of late modern communal belonging and discusses how religious communities have been transforming over the last two to three decades in Finland.

Kaufman, “A Plea for Ethnographic Methods”

May 14, 2014

Kaufman, Tone Stangeland.  2014.  “A Plea for Ethnographic Methods and a Spirituality of Everyday Life in the Study of Christian Spirituality: A Norwegian Case of Clergy Spirituality.” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 14(1): 94-102.

Excerpt: What counts as “real spirituality” or “real pastoral spirituality”? What can be sustainable sources of spiritual nourishment for clergy and others who are employed by the church? These questions might call for a wider understanding of pastoral spirituality than has traditionally been the case, and also for the willingness to look for such spirituality outside the explicitly “religious or spiritual sphere.” The quotes above are taken from open ended, in-depth interviews with ordained pastors in my Norwegian, Lutheran context. The twenty-one strategically sampled interviewees of this study on clergy spirituality all served as pastors in the Church of Norway (CofN) at the time they were interviewed.

At the outset of my research, my focus was primarily the contemplative or devotional practices of the clergyHowever, during the analysis, the salience and significance of everyday practices related to children and family life began emerging as a pattern worth exploring more in depth. This is a discovery that I would have probably not reached had I only studied classical texts written by spiritual figures such as Julian of Norwich, St. John of the Cross, or Evelyn Underhill.

This essay, then, has a twofold purpose; one material and one methodological. Materially, it makes a plea for the significance of an everyday spirituality not only for lay (people), but also for clergy, at least in non-Catholic traditions. This might also apply to lay leaders and deacons in Catholic contexts. Methodologically, I want to suggest that an ethnographic approach might enrich the study of Christian spirituality by expanding the sources (or data) to be explored, and by challenging or nuancing existing categories of the field. The ethnographic lens gives access to the spiritual experiences of contemporary people who have not written—or are not in the position to write—spiritual texts themselves.

Ridgely, “Connected Christians”

May 14, 2014

Ridgely, Susan B.  2014.  “Connected Christians: New Practices in Evangelical Spirituality.”  Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 14(1): 84-93.

Excerpt: Having been reared on Focus on the Family’s Adventures in Odyssey and having been home schooled through high school, it was not surprising that Seth wanted his children to grow up to embrace Jesus and to live according to the Bible. Nor was it surprising that this millennial father, and second-generation evangelical, desired to express his religious commitments through a tattoo on his forearm that will read, “Veritology,” a term coined in a Focus on the Family (Focus) DVD seminar. “Veritology: What is Truth?” headlined The Truth Project’s first lesson, a lesson that asked the question that has anchored Seth’s life since he first saw the series two years ago: “Do our actions reflect what we believe to be ?” Seth explained, “you can go back and basically analyze your beliefs, not just the things you say you believe, but what you actually believe, by looking at how you behave. And I think that has been—it’s been both convicting and it’s been amazingly inspirational to me.” As Seth interpreted Focus’s question, it licensed his movement away from reliance on traditional Evangelical authorities, organizations, and the material they’ve produced. In this way, Seth reflected the “New evangelicals,” as Tom Krattenmaker calls them: Young “[b]elievers eschewing locked-down doctrinal declarations and political battles to tend to the specific and the local.” These young evangelicals might be seen as part of the “emergent church” or Gordon Lynch’s Generation X Christianity, but none of them used those terms or viewed themselves as part of a movement. Rather, like many of his generation, Seth shied away from the rigidness of Christian institutions or the labels of broad movements, while magnifying the piece of his tradition that demanded that he be in relationship with others. This emphasis on relationship with God and community has led me to term Seth and his fellow second-generation evangelicals “connected Christians.” In this short essay I compare the religious practices of Seth and twenty other “connected Christians” with those practiced by fifteen of their first-generation co-religionists. Here, I explore how feeling comfortable in their Evangelical tradition and confident in their relationships with both God and the world has oriented the second-generation toward what they perceive to be unique spiritual expressions of faith that have been shaped by, but are distinct from, their parents.

Klassen, “The Politics of Protestant Healing”

May 14, 2014

Klassen, Pamela.  2014.  The Politics of Protestant Healing: Theoretical Tools for the Study of Spiritual Bodies and The Body Politic.”  Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 14(1): 68-75. 

Excerpt: Spirituality and healing are a potent combination that is as likely to provoke skeptical critique as convinced testimony. Claims that physical healing may occur as a result of spiritual conviction or influence have long been problematic for most medical institutions, while lucrative for some religious ones. In this paper, I argue that scholars of religion who seek to study the confluence of spirituality and healing ethnographically must attend carefully to this tension between skepticism and testimony. As concepts or claims, both spirituality and healing are not exact, fully quantifiable, or fully measureable. The question for the ethnographer, who seeks to set spirituality and healing within cultural and political contexts, then becomes: what forms of legitimation do those testifying to the healing powers of spirituality use to make sense of it, and what forms do skeptics use to render claims of spiritual healing literally incredible? Answering this question requires that any scholar studying the confluence of spirituality and healing attend to how political economies and social imaginaries shape the practices of legitimation that support and constrain spiritual healing.

Gunther Brown, “Feeling is Believing”

May 14, 2014

Gunther Brown, Candy.  2014.  “Feeling is Believing: Pentecostal Prayer and Complementary and Alternative Medicine.”  Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 14(1): 60-67.

Excerpt: Sensory experience is pivotal to postmodern culture. A globalized world seems newly interconnected, yet individuals may feel more isolated than ever before. Scientific technologies and modern medicine have achieved remarkable triumphs and exhibited devastating limitations that leave people unsatisfied and searching for “more.” Modernization has not resulted in secularization, but sources of religious knowing—revealed Scripture, inherited tradition, institutional authority—have become unsettled. Postmoderns want more than intellectual certainty; they long for direct experiences of what is really real. In the United States and globally, many postmodern Christians combine “scientific” medicine with diverse touch-oriented “religious” and “spiritual” healing practices to find healing, reassurance that God is present with them personally, and hope for their future lives on earth and in the world to come.

This essay draws on ten years of ethnographic research, in the United States and across globally diffuse social networks, on Christian prayer for divine healing and participation in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). I argue that touch-oriented healing practices attract adherents by promising sensory experience of the sacred. Bodily experiences in turn shape religious perceptions and may open a revolving door between religious world-views.

Kaell, “Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and Holy Land Pilgrimage”

May 10, 2014

Kaell, Hillary. 2014. Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and Holy Land Pilgrimage. New York: New York University Press. 

Publisher’s Description: Since the 1950s, millions of American Christians have traveled to the Holy Land to visit places in Israel and the Palestinian territories associated with Jesus’s life and death. Why do these pilgrims choose to journey halfway around the world? How do they react to what they encounter, and how do they understand the trip upon return? This book places the answers to these questions into the context of broad historical trends, analyzing how the growth of mass-market evangelical and Catholic pilgrimage relates to changes in American Christian theology and culture over the last sixty years, including shifts in Jewish-Christian relations, the growth of small group spirituality, and the development of a Christian leisure industry.

Drawing on five years of research with pilgrims before, during and after their trips, Walking Where Jesus Walked offers a lived religion approach that explores the trip’s hybrid nature for pilgrims themselves: both ordinary—tied to their everyday role as the family’s ritual specialists, and extraordinary—since they leave home in a dramatic way, often for the first time. Their experiences illuminate key tensions in contemporary US Christianity between material evidence and transcendent divinity, commoditization and religious authority, domestic relationships and global experience.

Hillary Kaell crafts the first in-depth study of the cultural and religious significance of American Holy Land pilgrimage after 1948. The result sheds light on how Christian pilgrims, especially women, make sense of their experience in Israel-Palestine, offering an important complement to top-down approaches in studies of Christian Zionism and foreign policy.

Reinhardt, “Soaking in tapes: the haptic voice of global Pentecostal pedagogy in Ghana”

May 2, 2014

Reinhardt, Bruno. 2014. Soaking in tapes: the haptic voice of global Pentecostal pedagogy in Ghana. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20(2):315-336.

Abstract: Can a voice touch? This possibility is indeed what underlies ‘soaking in tapes’, a devotional practice performed in Anagkazo Bible and Ministry Training Center, a Pentecostal seminary based in Accra, Ghana. Soaking in tapes is a form of impartation, or grace transmission, homologous to the biblical method of laying on of hands. In this article, I explore the conditions of possibility of this transposition of touch into speaking and hearing, arguing that the haptic voice of soaking in tapes is predicated upon a cultivated receptivity and a specific bond connecting addresser and addressee. I situate the practice in the school’s broader pedagogical apparatus, where it operates simultaneously as a spiritual exercise, a method of discipleship, and a technology of church government. I conclude by showing how soaking in tapes gives a pedagogical inflection to the general tactility and flow-orientated materiality of global Pentecostal power.

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