David Mosse begins his book The Saint in the Banyan Tree: Christianity and Caste Society in India (UC Press, 2012) with the story of a miracle-working tree in the rural village of Alapuram (a pseudonym) in Tamil Nadu, southern India. As long ago as the late 1600s, the story goes, four brothers brought a tree cutting to the village from a coastal shrine. It was a banyan tree: the tree known for its complex, tangled growth and roots-turned-branches. In the tree was St James (Santiyakappar). The brothers' descendants are said to have settled in the village and become the subordinated Pallar caste -- among the so-called "untouchables." Already in the 1730s, Jesuit missionaries in the area wrote home about the crowds of people that traveled to the tree shrine to ask the saint for favors and to fulfill vows. Some centuries later, in the 1980s, David Mosse first visited the village to conduct anthropological fieldwork, and observed how people from different castes in the village participated in what had become the elaborate, Catholic Santiyakappar festival. And that is how the story of The Saint in the Banyan Tree begins. Then it grows into a complex, rich story about a village and about India, about a saint and about Christianity, about dalits ("untouchables") and caste society, about Jesuit letters and history, fieldwork bike trips and anthropology.
Christianity, place/space, and anthropology: Thinking across recent research on evangelical place-making
Why are places important to Christians? I recently had an article published on this in Religion, and here I want to summarize the main points I tried to develop. (For anyone interested in reading the whole thing you can download the article here, or go to Religion).
Introduction: Christian theories of place
I’m intrigued by Christianity and place-making: How do Christians decide what kind of places to use for their gatherings (e.g. cathedral or warehouse?), and how do these places in turn shape their Christianity? There has been a lot of research on religion and place/space in several disciplines, but, from an anthropological perspective, I still find myself missing a sustained comparative, anthropological conversation on local Christian theories of place – i.e. comparing how particular Christian groups use and think about their places (in order to think anthropologically about Christianity). I use the article to demonstrate what this might look like, by "thinking across" ten ethnographic accounts of evangelical Christian communities, and I try to pay attention to what these evangelicals pay attention to in their everyday place-making.
(If at this point you’re thinking: But why evangelicals? How does she even begin to define "evangelicalism"? And does she take a "politics" or a "poetics" approach to place/space? – then you are probably one of those people who should just bite the plowshare and go ahead and read the whole article. Everyone else, let’s continue–)
So, here’s my theoretical starting point: Simon Coleman and Peter Collins have proposed that the ideal form of revivalist Christian space might be represented by "the tent." The tent can be used for enthusiastic revival meetings, creating an infused space set apart from the world, and the next day it can be packed up and moved on. Revivalists, they suggest, mistrust being tied to a "place"; instead, they prefer non-conformist "space." While Coleman and Collins point to important aspects of the evangelical orientation, I want to pause here to present the other side of the case. It seems to me that evangelical communities do not usually mistrust or try to efface the concrete places to which they are anchored. Rather, most evangelical communities engage in careful, sustained work to actualize their Christian concerns in specific, enduring places. In the article I argue, therefore, that a central tenet of evangelicals’ place-making is a simultaneous taking apart and bringing together of faith and place.
Ten ethnographic cases; seven recurring concerns
I chose ten ethnographic accounts of evangelical communities to work with. In the article I spend some time describing each one of these, to give a sense of how certain similar problematics recur across different evangelical groups. At the same time I also wanted to use the extended descriptions to give a sense of some of the differences within evangelicalism, and some of the shifts in this movement over time.
But I will hold back on any details here, and simply list the ten cases that I use: Jeanne Kilde’s work on the first "free church" Presbyterian amphitheater in New York in the 1830s; my own work on pietistic mission stations in Southern Africa in the second half of the nineteenth century; Joe Webster’s work on dispensationalist Brethren fishermen on the Scottish coast; Tanya Lurhmann and Jon Bialecki on the worship and small group gatherings in the charismatic evangelical Vineyard; Omri Elisha on a multi-church "prayer month" in Tennessee; Brian Howell on Southern Baptists in the Philippines; Anna Strhan on a large conservative Anglican congregation in London; Matthew Engelke on a Christmas installation organized by the British Bible Society; and James Bielo on the urban commitments of "Emerging" evangelicals in the US.
Now, when looking closely at how these different groups use and think about place-making, there are some concerns that recur across the cases. Seven concerns are particularly striking to me, and in the article I discuss them under the following headings, and develop the following points:
(1) Linguistic concerns: evangelicals tend, on the whole, to want places that facilitate attentive listening and speech that can be clearly heard
(2) Material concerns: evangelicals tend to create places that employ a toned-down, utilitarian material environment (but do not eschew materiality)
(3) Temporal concerns: evangelicals usually want places that can aid them in both being ordered by Christian time and ordering time in a Christian manner (which means they value temporal continuity as well as discontinuity, and that they invest in the near future as well as the distant future)
(4) Personhood concerns: evangelicals gravitate toward places where the individual can relate to God both as an individual and in a community (not just as an individual, and not just in a community)
(5) Translocal concerns: evangelicals create spaces that help to build an understanding of translocal "Christian space" as opposed to "worldly space"
(6) Transcendent concerns: evangelicals are oriented toward spaces that connect to and are of a different, transcendent order: of the order of God
(7) Worldly concerns: evangelicals usually want their places to be "counter-spaces" in, not out of, the world
Some of these concerns draw evangelicals’ attention toward concrete "places" (such as their local church), while others pull them toward more abstracted "spaces" (such as the translocal space of the global church, or the transcendent space of the divine).
Conclusion: Bringing together and taking apart faith and place
This two-way tugging at evangelicals’ attention leads them, in practice, to a type of place-making that I don’t think ought to be labeled either "dis-placement" or, reversely, thorough "emplacement" (as other scholars have suggested). Instead I argue that evangelical place-making can best be understood as a simultaneous taking apart and bringing together of faith and place. A different way of saying this is that evangelicals seek to both fuse and "unfuse" situation and setting.
In the conclusion I also touch on how these points might relate to other Christian traditions (albeit very briefly, and regrettably I had to leave out discussion of some good work here, such as RDG Irvine’s analysis of a Benedictine monastery). Then I suggest that while evangelicalism provides a modern example of deterritorialization (with simultaneous re-territorialization), it is qualitatively different from the alleged modern sense of a "loss" of place, "rootless-ness" or "placeless-ness." The evangelical case is more agentive. But in turn, the intentional agency that surrounds evangelical place-making does not seem to be put into effect very straightforwardly (since some of the places I describe in the article end up having effects counter to those that were intended), which means that the evangelical case is also a good example to use when thinking about how complicated it is for human groups to hold ideals.
Boundaries of Christianity, boundaries of academic authority: Gil Anidjar’s Blood and responses by Pamela Klassen, Jonathan Sheehan
When we look at the stockmarket, institutionalized racism, Western secularism – are we seeing Christianity in action? Discuss. Please clarify which criteria you are using to make your answer seem authoritative to your colleagues.
Gil Anidjar’s recent book Blood: A Critique of Christianity was the central focus for a great forum in Marginalia Review of Books last week, organized by Nina Caputo. Caputo chose four respondents from different disciplines – theology/Christian studies (Amy Hollywood), anthropology/religious studies (Pamela Klassen), literary studies (Ana Schwartz), and history (Jonathan Sheehan). The forum concludes with a final response from Anidjar (which begins: “I am becoming the blood guy”). I enjoyed the forum very much. It made me think about boundaries – the boundaries of Christianity, boundaries of academic authority, working across the boundaries.
Hidden determinants of Christians’ behavior? Reading Annelin Eriksen and Joel Robbins on values in Christianity
I wonder, if someone were to describe my life, what they would say about my values. Would they list the same values as I would? Would they graciously point out that it is obviously complicated to try to put values into practice? Would they suggest that they can discern values driving my life that are hidden to me?
The anthropology of values / of morality / of ethics / of the good has received much attention recently (e.g. Hau, Anthropological Theory, the upcoming SAR meeting, James Laidlaw, Joel Robbins, etc). The anthropology of values / of morality / of ethics / of the good are not necessarily the same, and there are no agreed-upon definitions (shocking, I know). Ton Otto and Rane Willerslev helpfully point out that questions of value are elusive, both in the sense of what we are referring to as well as how we know about them. I wanted to sort through this some more. I’m interested in what it means to say that a particular group of Christians “value” something, and how anthropologists know what that “value” is.
[ ]: Hey!
[ ]: Hey!
Ingie: Who's that?
[ ]: It's me – a thing!
Ingie: Oh, sorry. I didn’t notice you there, thing.
Thing: You anthropologists of Christianity usually don’t.
Ingie: Now wait, that’s not fair. Several prominent anthropologists of Christianity write about things. Webb Keane instantly comes to mind, for instance.
Thing: Oh, Webb Keane. You know what Webb Keane loves?
Thing: Words and selves.
Ingie: And things.
Thing: As conceptualized by words and selves.
Ingie: Well, how else would he write about you, thing?
Ingie: Oh come now. I’m sorry. I see you feel a little snubbed in general. Look, I’ll study you for a moment. What kind of thing are you?
Thing: I am a handmade bandage.
What difference does Christianity make? Thinking about decisive change with Fenella Cannell, Matt Tomlinson and Debra McDougall
Last week I read Matt Tomlinson and Debra McDougall’s introduction to their edited collection Christian Politics in Oceania (2012). I made several interested notes, but one that particularly stuck with me was how they take issue with Fenella Cannell’s question “What difference does Christianity make?” More specifically, they take issue with the answer she provides to her question. This led me to re-read Cannell’s introduction to The Anthropology of Christianity (2006). Let me outline the two sides to the discussion.
Fenella Cannell: Let us (anthropologists) stop presupposing that Christianity changes everything forever
What is Christianity in the anthropology of Christianity? Pyramid, bundles, generative field (Reading Jon Bialecki's "Virtual Christianity")
What is the structure of Christianity? Christian traditions have sometimes presented it as something like a pyramid, making the theological claim that some Christianities are more Christian than others. Anthropological traditions, on the other hand, have sometimes imagined Christianity as bundles: each Christian community or tradition carries a bundle of attributes, and though many of these attributes reoccur, there is no single attribute that can be found across all the bundles. This month I read the article “Virtual Christianity in an age of nominalist anthropology” by Jon Bialecki (Anthropological Theory, 2012), and it has introduced me to thinking of Christianity as a virtual idea: a generative field of old, new, and unknown problems.
But – some of you may ask – why do we need an analytical tool to tell us what Christianity is? Isn’t it rather obvious? Broadly speaking it seems to be a world religion in which members believe in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and go to church and read the Bible and pray. Give or take some variations.