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.