AL-ARIAN, Abdullah, Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt, 320 pp., notes, bibliography, index. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Hardback, £37.49. ISBN 9780199931279.
The history of Islamic activism in 1970s Egypt has essentially congealed into a narrative whereby Anwar el-Sadat, seeking to firm up his Islamic bona fides in order to contest leftist and Nasserist opposition, encourages the growth of an Islamic movement already bolstered by the Six-Day War defeat in June 1967. Freed from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s prisons, the Muslim Brotherhood then embarks on a meteoric political rise that outlasts not only Sadat, but also his successor Hosni Mubarak.
Abdullah al-Arian’s intricate and empirically rich examination of this period in Answering the Call both enriches and confounds this general story. A narrow interpretation of the book would see it as a history of the Muslim Brotherhood during the 1970s, a critical moment in the movement’s re-emergence. Yet al-Arian’s investigation is much broader, and by considering seriously the ideological and political context of the late Nasser–early Sadat period, the story of the Brotherhood’s rise becomes much more contingent and much less preordained. As al-Arian shows, the 1967 defeat mobilized a broad student movement across Egypt’s swelling universities. Only later did this movement yield to the Islamically oriented critique of the Shabab al-Islam group, and even it was soon eclipsed by the Islamic student group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya. Especially in this early Sadat era, the Brotherhood plays only a minor role.
Members of the Brotherhood faced two key problems as they emerged from Nasser’s prisons. Not only had the organization been trimmed down to a core of charismatic yet aging leaders, but the sea into which the Brotherhood was released was already roiled by powerful alternative activist currents, both religious and secular. The Brotherhood kept its head above water by, in effect, bargaining away organizational homogeneity for survival. Al-Arian meticulously documents how a relationship developed between the Brotherhood’s leadership and those student activists whose ideological trajectories led them into the Brotherhood’s Islamist orbit. While this infusion of intelligent and inspirational cadres energized the movement and fueled its ascent in society and politics, the ideological tensions that this merger brought into the Brotherhood were never really resolved. In fact, many of the key members of this generation—among them, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, Ibrahim al-Za’afrani, Mohammed Habib, and Abul ‘Ela Maadi—eventually left the group, either in the waning years of the Mubarak era or early in the transitional phase that followed.
By showing how difficult it is to understand the Brotherhood’s rise without accounting for the role of Egypt’s other activist currents, Answering the Call provides an important corrective to our current literature on mobilization and contestation in Sadat’s Egypt. Al-Arian’s second major contribution is to shift the study of Islamic mobilization during this period away from violent and clandestine mobilization and toward those segments of the Islamist movement that focused on less visible political and social activism. Even studies of Brotherhood under Sadat usually frame the inquiry around Sayyid Qutb’s confrontational interpretations and the causes and consequences of the Brotherhood’s fragmentation into violent and non-violent elements. Answering the Call, in contrast, shows how and why it was the Brotherhood—and not Egypt’s myriad violent groups—that became such an enduring and significant socio-political force throughout the Mubarak era.
Al-Arian tells this story by leaning heavily on a variety of Arabic-language primary and secondary sources, including interviews with key players, coverage in contemporaneous Islamist periodicals such as al-Da’wa, and the numerous Arabic-language histories—including, for instance, autobiographies of former Brotherhood leaders Mohammed Habib and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh—that have proliferated over the past decade or so. This is a rich vein of largely underutilized source material, and Al-Arian mines it deeply.
Answering the Call tells a complicated, important, and neglected story well. Those looking for tighter causal explanations or larger theoretical insights, however, will potentially come away less satisfied. Perplexing questions remain. For instance, why did Islamists eclipse leftists on Egypt’s campuses? Did Shabab al-Islam collapse because of the regime’s interest in co-opting it or despite it? And why did al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya endure while Shabab al-Islam withered away? Al-Arian considers a number of intriguing possibilities, touching on the groups’ internal organization, stance on religious doctrine, and relationship to the state. But other than a valuable section in his chapter on Shabab al-Islam, the book does not seriously attempt to leverage these differences in order to explain the organizations’ varying fates.
These concerns are minimal compared to Answering the Call’s intricate and empirically rich examination of how diverse Egyptian activist organizations, the most prominent of which being the Muslim Brotherhood, mobilized during the early years of Sadat’s presidency. Today, as the Brotherhood faces new tribulations and struggles to forge a new relationship with Egyptian society, al-Arian’s work assumes a contemporary, as well as a historical, relevance.
AMSTER, Ellen J., Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877–1956, 350 pp., foreword, notes, bibliography, index. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013. Paperback, $34.95. ISBN 9780292762114.
Ellen J. Amster’s work takes us on a journey through medical encounters that occurred in Morocco between 1877 and 1956, when French colonial biomedical medicine first confronted and crushed the local traditional, spiritual, Sufi, and Islamic episteme of cure before eventually becoming enmeshed with it. Luis-Hubert-Gonzalve Lyautey, resident general of Morocco from 1912 to 1925 and hero of the associationist colonial lobby, envisioned domination, firstly, as collaboration with the native elites (indirect rule) and, secondly, as a mission civilizatrice through medicine. The colonized Moroccan body thus became the locus of colonial violence, political and ontological embodiments, and spiritual quests.
While British imperialism conceived of the difference between ‘races’ in biological terms, French imperialism thought of it as a difference of the mind. Hence, French doctors saw syphilis in Morocco as Arab syphilis, a Muslim pathology that reflected both the autochthones’ poor hygiene and their Muslim mentality. Pasteurian medicine and positivist thought were then reaching their apogee, while budding sociological and ethnographic research supported racist understandings of Moroccan medical practices. During the Third Republic, French doctors “drew upon a medicine deeply entwined with republican values” (p. 73) and used it as a yardstick of civilization. Social scientists such as Edmond Doutté (1867–1926) described the Berbers and their medicine as characterized by primitivism and maraboutism, the belief in the divine healing power of the marabout (spiritual leader). Sufism and traditional healing were equated, respectively, to Moroccan backwardness and magic.
Historically, leadership in Morocco replicated the opposition between state power (wilaya) and spiritual leadership (walaya). Sharifian sultans upheld authority based on their direct descent from the Prophet and on rational thinking (zahir) over the awliya, advocates of esoteric knowing (marifa), which the latter obtained by mastering the mystical law (batin) through baraka, the divine gift with which holy men are endowed. Sultan al-Hafiz (1908–1912) initiated a war on Sufism by professing salafi (Islamic modernist thought) arguments against his Sufi opponents, which led him to the execution of a Sufi saint in 1909, thus asserting the victory of zahir over batin. Al-Hafiz collaborated with the colonial authorities and with salafist ulama, who purported ideas of Islamic scientific reform (islah) and of modernity that interlaced with the colonial discourse of civilization and science, and that obliterated Sufi understandings of traditional reform (tajdi). Henceforth, the sultan became the pivot of Moroccan nationalism, accountable for the emergence of colonialism and for an imperialist anti-Islamic and anti-Sufi worldview. The French protectorate in Morocco was established in 1912.
The Jazulite Sufi idiom of saintly leadership died in the failed messianic revolts mounted by the opportunist al-Zharuni (aka Abu Himara) in 1902–1903 and al-Hiba in 1912. The graves of sultans Idris I and Idris II and their descendants became embodied forms of the Muslim body politic, the metonymic extensions of sharifian baraka that Moroccan people visited in Fez, Casablanca, and Rabat to heal their ailments. The Muslim physician (tabib) co-existed with the French doctor and drew upon a similar Galenic physiology. For instance, variolation, a traditional method of inoculation, was akin to vaccines and their forerunners. Sufi healing among the Gnawa and Isawa brotherhoods ran parallel to both Islamic and French medicine.
The perception of colonial medicine as a form of penetration and pacification through science gained ground during the epidemics that raged periodically in Morocco during the French protectorate. Quite emblematic is the case of typhus. Thousands of Moroccans fleeing starvation, war, and drought in the Sus and Talfied regions were coerced into de-lousing stations. As a result of dahirs (royal edicts) issued from 1915 to 1924, doctors could enter any private or religious space to forcibly intern infected people in lazarettos and bulldoze their houses. De-lousing showers were put inside shrines to sanitize crowds of pilgrims. Moroccans hid their sick and buried their dead clandestinely to avoid detection by the police. Both tribesmen and the urban Moroccan milieu suspected French doctors of attempting to subjugate them through vaccinations: needles marks indicated men newly conscripted into the sultan’s army. In Marrakesh in 1926, 10,000 people were vaccinated at gunpoint. French authorities came to realize that medicine could not simply be imposed without information and agreement. In 1912, city councils (majlis) were created in Fez. These were made up of wealthy Muslim and Jewish merchants and elites who gradually transformed into civic leaders, fighting on behalf of the poor. Coming together as the Comité d’Action Marocaine, nationalists and majlis members drew up their Plan de réformes marocaines (1934)—a manifesto of nationalist and welfare rights that eventually led to Moroccan independence in 1944.
Massive industrialization and heavy urbanization resulted in water shortages, typhoid and tuberculosis epidemics, the disintegration of tribal organization, and popular unrest and political organization, both in Morocco and in metropolitan France among labor migrants in Paris, Lyon, and Marseille. Lyautey feared the formation of a proletarian class and called for a ‘women for women’ project. This was designed to give female colonial agents, that is, doctors and social workers, access to the Muslim home, construed as a hotbed of anti-colonial resistance where Islamic values barred the penetration of French control. Therefore, the last attack on the Muslim/Sufi body was carried out through puériculture (the science of raising children) programs at PMI (Protection maternelle et infantile) centers, the first of which were opened in Meknes in 1948. The PMI program viewed the Muslim infant as a future individual who had to be inculcated with modern ideas of time and work. A further goal was to eliminate Muslim traditional midwives (qabla) and thus esoterica from domestic life.
While the colonial administration in Morocco considered “the educated Muslim mother as an extension of the doctor in the home” (p. 186), it did not manage to erase traditional childbirth—a sacred moment in which the newborn enters the Islamic community—or Sufi healing. Colonial biomedicine exploited the Muslim body and, even more saliently, displayed the female Muslim body through modern medical techniques and X-rays. Nevertheless, Moroccan medical syncretism between the hospital and traditional healers shows the strength and vitality of Sufi ontology, enacted by female practitioners through the body of Muslim women. The postcard-like image of an Isawa healing ritual “produced for tourist consumption” (p. 205) underlies, in my view, a much deeper ontological connection between Sufism and female Muslim embodiments, at which the author hints.
Amster’s ethnographically rich analysis serves as an excellent historical introduction to the medical encounters that took place during the colonial period in Morocco and as a pioneering study about the relationship between the female Muslim body and Sufism. In focusing on the differences between traditional and biomedical childbirth, it ultimately provides an anthropological understanding of Islamic gender and health in Morocco.
Jean Moulin Lyon 3 University
BALZER, Marjorie M., Shamans, Spirituality, and Cultural Revitalization: Explorations in Siberia and Beyond, 287 pp., bibliography, index. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011. Paperback, $35. ISBN 9781137005564.
This book is a particularly fine presentation of politically and historically inflected ethnographic case studies of spiritual and cultural revitalization among Siberian peoples. Included are large ethnic groups of Turkic-Mongol origin, such as Sakha, Tuvan, Buryat, and a numerically small Finno-Ugric group of Khanty reindeer herders. While the most detailed discussion is based on material collected among Turkic-speaking Sakha in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), where she carried out three decades of ethnographic fieldwork, Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer offers a stimulating and highly perceptive examination of post-Soviet ethnic religiosities and political aspirations. From the start, her elegant writing draws us into an enigmatic and complex account of how the aftermath of Soviet anti-religion campaigns, political repression, and communal traumas and the more recent quest for ethnic identity and territorial claims are molding multifaceted and often contradictory intersections of private and public negotiations over shamanic knowledge, spiritual power, and personal agency.
Building on a rich array of ethnographic case studies and fascinating life stories about Sakha urban shamans, rural healers, artists, prominent politicians, local ethnographers and historians, medical doctors, throat singers, and musicians, the author digs deeply into a set of interrelated questions. How have Siberian shamanic traditions survived in the aftermath of a long-term Soviet campaign to eradicate them? How did shamans respond to vicious ideological attacks against them during Soviet times? Who are the self-proclaimed, self-initiated, and recently emerged shamans and healers? What are contemporary markers of a shamanic identity, and can we currently speak of shamanic tradition(s) per se? What sources of shamanic knowledge, energy, and power are present-day shamans drawing from? How are contemporary Siberian shamans contributing to community spiritual renewal and assertion of ethnic identity?
All of the above questions are guiding the author’s attempt to “communicate the unevenness of cultural change and differences in shamanic practice over generations” (p. 5), as well as her review of renewed approaches in the anthropological field of religious continuity and emerging religiosities in the post-Soviet and post-socialist context. According to Balzer, the unevenness of the cultural change is now reflected in the spottiness and capricious processes of the cultural recovery and spiritual revitalization that often feature distinct and incongruous assemblages of medicine, music, theater, politics, and anthropology. The main thesis and message of the book is that “how shamans responded to potential and often very real devastation in Soviet times influenced the uneven 1990s recovery of shamanic practices and beliefs” (p. 46). While closely attending to the details of local processes of uneasy and strenuous recovery of shamanic knowledge among Khanty and highly politicized and often nationalistically charged claims over shamanic heritage among Sakha, the author provides an insightful discussion on patterns of shamanic responses to major socio-cultural upheavals, such as Soviet repression, and on shamanic stimulation of cultural revitalization.
One of the responses highlighted in the book is the feminization of shamanic practice. In the pre-Soviet era, women held casual and ambivalent positions as healers, dream interpreters, and midwives, while in the post-Soviet period—after decades of intensive political persecution of male shamans, the majority of whom were subject to incarceration and violent death in prisons and Stalin’s concentration camps—women took over shamanic practices on an unprecedented scale in most of the northern communities, including Khanty and Sakha. The most poignantly written episode in Balzer’s ethnography is the story of a female healer who was the daughter of a powerful shaman, Alexandra Chirkova. A professionally trained medical doctor and surgeon with many years of medical practice in one of the regional hospitals of the Sakha Republic, Alexandra first started experiencing shamanic calling in early childhood. Having gone through several painful stages of shamanic illness, she managed to survive with the help of her deceased father’s shamanic cloak and thereby inherited ‘the healing gift’ from her father. It was his spirit that assisted and guided her through the difficult process of her spiritual transference from a medical surgeon to a shamanic healer. Alexandra’s story is one among many others about newly emerging female and male shamans, most of whom are well-educated, city-based Sakha intellectuals. Having accepted the often involuntary spiritual call, they have channeled their shamanic potential into their medical profession, poetry, songs, theatrical performances, film directing, or even political and academic careers.
Notwithstanding the discussion about whether shamanic knowledge and human apprenticeship should be part of the ancestral inheritance or whether shamanic power can be acquired instead through reincarnation and transference, the options for shamanic becoming among contemporary Sakha have increased, and the position of a shaman has become democratized. Nowadays, the faith in shamanic power is eclectic, situational, elusive, and fluid. And although diverse claims of shamanic heritage and power are continuously debated and mutually contested by shamanic rivals, “the urge toward spirituality using shamanic idioms continues to inflame and enrich indigenous and scholarly perception” (p. 209). According to Balzer, it is the adaptability of shamanic practice and its non-missionizing eclecticism that led to its survival and diversity over the centuries (p. 46). Through an array of ethnographic examples such as Alexandra’s story, we learn that discourses on the loss of shamanic knowledge and power are false and misleading, since active, dynamic revitalization of shamanic knowledge and healing, including spiritual transference characterized by syncretic creativity and increased choice, has become a crucial part of a broader process of cultural recovery. Overall, Balzer’s monograph constitutes a powerful story of resilience, creativity, and shamanic flexibility in the face of profound cultural change, suffering, and tragic fate. The author has described her findings with admirable grace, humor, and mastery, but it is her loyalty, empathy, and deep respect for the beliefs of her Sakha friends that shine through the entire account.
University of Manchester
BELISO-DE JESÚS, Aisha M., Electric Santería: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion, 304 pp., preface, epilogue, glossary, notes, references, index. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. Paperback, $30/£22. ISBN 9780231173179.
Electric Santería is not so much a linear kind of book. Open its pages at any point, commence from any chapter, even the epilogue, and its ambience and arguments will most probably get to you after just a few lines. Only two scholars writing on Afro-Cuban religiosity have provoked in me a similar sense—the late Joel James Figarola (2006) and Todd Ramón Ochoa (2010). Some might object to the book’s ‘postmodernist’ feel, but there is more to it than style. Its apparent circularity manages to delve into things in minute ethnographic detail, without, however, becoming ‘just another’ Santería ritual manual. On the contrary, its author manages to show organically the more ritual and cosmological dimensions of Santería as they relate both to quotidian events, which would initially seem incidental or peripheral, and to much broader socio-historical dimensions, such as the politics of race, gender, social class, and, crucially, ‘transnationalism’. The last is perhaps the most predominant, provocative, and clearly articulated theme of the book.
In the skillful hands of Beliso-De Jesús, transnationalism does not merely reflect the fact that Santería travels in the most literal of senses beyond Cuba—to the American continent, to Europe, and back to Africa—through migration, religious tourism, and an ever-growing proliferation of initiations, all of which impact on the dynamics of such multiple flows. Transnationalism is a broad and encompassing field of affects, percepts, and concepts that creates a very peculiar Santería-imbued experiencing of being-in-the-world. More particularly, through a detailed description of its sensorial aspects, the author shows that Santería transnationalism is not a universalizing and totalizing experience of sameness but, on the contrary, a unique way of being different. As Beliso-De Jesús describes it, transnationalism is a state of “being-strange-in-the-world” (p. 117); it is a “queer racial ontology” (p. 146) that draws on “alternative sources of power” (p. 100). These sources of power, depicted as ‘co-presences’ and ‘assemblages’, create a ‘non-transcendental’ and ‘kinesthetic’ kind of transnationalism, the author argues. Processes of mediation are therefore not bridges to the transcendental and an imperialistic kind of universalism (pp. 71–78), but electrified instantiations of Santería’s ‘being-strange-in-the-world’.
For instance, new media technology, such as videos and the Internet, ‘mediate’, that is, shape and are shaped by, Santería’s ‘co-presences’, sometimes inducing people to get possessed through them. An apparent division between attending a ritual and watching a video of it categorically collapses. One could thus say that the ‘modernity’ of a camera or a computer screen is provocatively merged with the ‘traditionality’ and affective capacities of Afro-Cuban drums (pp. 61–65). In this way, the new technology becomes equally ‘traditional’, just as the rituals become equally ‘modern’. Such an approach moves “away from a representational analysis” (p. xiv), marking this book as a welcome addition to a relatively similar recent scholarly current in Afro-Cuban religiosity (Espírito Santo 2015; Espírito Santo and Panagiotopoulos 2015; Holbraad 2012). However, rather than dismissing representation altogether, Beliso-De Jesús skillfully manages to put it into dialogue with its only apparent opposite—an analytical approach that would put more emphasis on the ‘ontological’ dimensions of Santería. The originality of the book lies in its contention that a representational or epistemological analysis is not necessary incompatible with an ontological one. In this way, Beliso-De Jesús manages to go beyond ‘transcendence’ in a creative and Santería-like fashion by recognizing the academic transcendence that is often created between ontology and representation.
Perhaps the most ambiguous part of the book is its discussion about the politics of race, gender, and social class, even though they normally take center stage. These politics are indeed central to many analyses in Afro-Cuban religiosity, especially to those that are coming from a North American-influenced academic environment. It is a constant preoccupation that may reflect the importance of the issues not only on Cuban soil, but in North America as well (and possibly even more so). The book links these politics to the general statement of ‘being-strange-in-the-world’. Although ethnographic examples are given, especially for the issue of gender through the highly contested initiation of women in the Ifá tradition (pp. 183–211), I am still left with a relative and partial puzzlement about what is specific to Santería in relation to race, gender, and social class. This ambiguity is arguably not necessarily a flaw of the book itself but an element of the very context that it is depicting. Of course, through the study of Afro-Cuban religiosity, one bares witness to some obvious racial, gendered, and classist dimensions, both in their dominating and resisting instances, as well as in their historical and current manifestations. Yet my own ethnographic sense, which has been inextricably put into dialogue with my reading of Electric Santería, makes me wonder whether Afro-Cuban ‘co-presences’ not only affectively engage with issues of race, gender, and social class, but also, simultaneously and paradoxically, ‘magically’ elude them. This is not just to resist established ‘structures’, but a means of astute critique. Even though this approach acknowledges the socio-historical significance and presence of these sources of power, at the same time it strives to avoid them—exactly because of their otherwise marginalizing effects. To paraphrase the author, maybe ‘co-presences’ are also accompanied by significant and actively pursued ‘co-absences’. Perhaps, in this unusual way, issues of race, gender, and social class also lose their transcendental character.
Universidade Nova de Lisboa
Espírito SantoDiana and Anastasios Panagiotopoulos eds. 2015. Beyond Tradition Beyond Invention: Cosmic Technologies and Creativity in Contemporary Afro-Cuban Religions. Herefordshire: Sean Kingston Publishing.
BULLMichael and Jon P. MITCHELL eds. Ritual Performance and the Senses224 pp. illustrations notes bibliography index. London: Bloomsbury2015. Hardback £60. ISBN 9780857854735.
BULL, Michael, and Jon P. MITCHELL, eds., Ritual, Performance and the Senses, 224 pp., illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. London: Bloomsbury, 2015. Hardback, £60. ISBN 9780857854735.
‘Ritual’, ‘performance’, and the ‘senses’ have long attracted the research interest of anthropologists and other social scientists. One may therefore wonder what the scholarly and analytic value of a book might be when, as suggested by its title, it appears to contend with older and previously scrutinized concepts. The question is subsequently raised as to whether this book is simply a repetition of old debates with regard to the three main concepts it focuses on, or whether it really does offer a novel argument that is worth dedicating the time to read.
The significance of Michael Bull and Jon P. Mitchell’s edited volume lies principally in its attempts to reinterpret and negotiate the concepts of ritual, performance, and the senses under a different critical light. In fact, it reintroduces some central theories that in recent years have gained widespread impetus and have become highly ‘fashionable’ and ubiquitous in the anthropology and sociology of religion: religious transmission, cognition, and ontology. The contributors to this volume, some explicitly and others less obviously, endeavor to create a link between these key theoretical contexts and the three concepts (ritual, performance, senses) that the book is predominantly concerned with. At times, the balance between theoretical and empirical description appears as if it could be further developed and/or improved in order to accomplish a better understanding of how ritual, performance, and the senses engage in different socio-cultural contexts and also, from the opposite standpoint, how empirical data can be theorized under the umbrella of ontological, cognitive, and religious transmission theoretical perspectives. Generally speaking, the contributors effectively explore diverse ways of religious belonging in terms of belief, embodiment, agency, experience, and ritual performance.
When it comes to its organization and content, the book opens with a very useful introduction, which offers a detailed account of all the main theories that constitute part of the argument. From Durkheim to Whitehouse and from ritual theory to ontological and neuroanthropological approaches, Bull and Mitchell provide an eloquent explanatory model of the book’s theoretical basis, stating as one of its main goals the development of “a new understanding of religious transmission” (p. 1). Following the introductory chapter, Mitchell’s opening article focuses on ontology. In direct dialogue with one of the most influential recent works regarding the ontological turn in the anthropology of religion, Martin Holbraad’s (2012) Truth in Motion, Mitchell casts a well-needed critical gaze upon this turn and upon Holbraad’s theorization, proposing a reconfiguration of the ontological interpretation of religion through the act of mimetic performance.
The second and third chapters, by Robert Turner and Greg Downey respectively, place a crucial emphasis upon the relationship between ritual, cognition, and neuroscience. Turner asserts that there is a direct co-dependence between ritual and brain function. Thus, ritual can be part of a cognitive process, but at the same time it can affect our cognitive activities in surprising ways. Downey presents a specific paradigm of how this connection between cognitive function and ritual act operates by examining a specific repetitive ritual practice, that of praying. The next two chapters, by Trevor H. J. Marchand and Richard Schechner, concentrate on performance and its representation through place-making. They both give excellent accounts of two different pilgrimage experiences: the first to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and the second to Ramlila, at Ramnagar, Varanasi, in India. The importance of these chapters lies in that they present two cases of ritual action, where people negotiate and meaningfully re/construct the flow of ritual performance, transforming its conflicts and multiple dynamics.
The last three chapters, by Phillip B. Zarrilli, Zoila Mendoza, and David Howes, place the senses at the center of their analyses. Zarrilli locates sensoriality within various empirical examples of meditative, martial arts, and acting techniques, which he approaches as metaphors of sensory awareness through performance. Mendoza’s intriguing chapter brings together a cognitive approach and an examination of the sensory model he investigated in the Andes. He shows how the study of a synesthetic model of a particular society can lead to a better understanding of how ritual works, not only in that specific society, but also more universally. The book closes with an article by David Howes, one of the leading scholars in the study of the senses. Howes’s argument does not disappoint. Proposing a theory of the ‘extended sensorium’, a new concept he develops, Howes argues for conceiving religion as a ‘sensational form’. He suggests that religion should be approached in accordance to how people in each socio-cultural context perceive, perform, and, perhaps most importantly, sense.
As can be presumed by the book’s chapter outline above, this is an excellent collection of articles that are both theoretically and empirically rich and offer innovative approaches to long-standing concepts. It can certainly be valuable reading for students and scholars in a variety of fields, ranging from anthropology to cognitive science, and from ritual to performance and religious studies. Its readership, however, can unquestionably be extended to anyone who is interested in the themes of ritual, performance, religion, cognition, ontology, and, of course, the senses.
Universidade Nova de Lisboa
CONNOR, Phillip, Immigrant Faith: Patterns of Immigrant Religion in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, 192 pp., figures, tables, notes, bibliography, index. New York: New York University Press, 2014. Paperback, $22. ISBN 9781479883790.
Does religion have a role in moving people worldwide, and, if so, what role does it play? Do religious faith and practice change upon settlement in the destination country? Is there a relationship between religion and the possibility of success in the new country? And how does faith change across time and generations?
These are the main questions that this original book addresses by analyzing data gathered across different statistical sources. Its author, Phillip Connor, identifies two main variables in databases built on censuses and international surveys: ‘religious affiliation’ (membership in a religious group) and ‘religious attendance’ (the frequency of attendance at religious services). These variables are crisscrossed with other social parameters in order to explore the role of religion in the migratory experience and to sketch a picture of the changes that religious practice undergoes during the migration process.
Since comprehensive data are not available for many countries except the US, Canada, and some European nations, the study is limited to these three macro-contexts (with some insights from Australia included here and there). Nevertheless, the comparison across these regions allows us to observe remarkable differences in the processes of transformation and adaptation of immigrant faith to new religious environments.
In chapter 1 (“Moving Faith”), the author asks whether some religious groups are more likely to move than others and how religious features influence the choice of destination. Whereas the frequency of religious attendance has no bearing on the probability of moving, something different occurs for religious identity. Data show no correlation for the main groups of cross-border migrants (i.e., Mexicans in the US and Turks in Germany), clearly mirroring the prevailing religious composition of their countries of origin. However, some groups that are religious minorities in their home countries seem to be over-represented in the flows directed to countries where their faith prevails. This is the case for Indian, Nigerian, and Vietnamese immigrants of Christian faith who move to the US, Canada, the UK, and Austria. That is to say, some religious minorities may prefer to move to countries where their religion is practiced by the majority. This observation seems confirmed in the case of Muslim Indians moving to Egypt, Hindu Bangladeshis to Nepal, and Guatemalan Protestants to the US. As the author suggests, each of these cases may be influenced by some non-religious factors (geographical, historical, political, and the like). Still, this general pattern is worth exploring and may serve as a working hypothesis for future research.
Chapter 2 (“Changing Faith”) discusses the probability of changing one’s religion and/or religious practice after migration. While most immigrants maintain their religious affiliation after migration, not all groups have an identical rate of retention, and a slight predominance of conversions to the majority religion has been documented. An analogous phenomenon is observed with regard to religious attendance, which, after an initial short-term drop due to social readjustment, becomes more similar (in terms of style, organization structure, and frequency) to that of the majority. Very significantly, this general pattern seems inverted in cases of ‘highly different minorities’, that is, stigmatized groups within the society, for whom religion may be a fundamental support for their identity. A noteworthy example is the religious attendance of Muslim immigrants, which, in different regions across Europe, increases in parallel to the expression of negative attitudes toward immigrants.
Chapter 3 (“Integrating Faith”) weighs in on the advantages and hindrances of religious faith in the process of social insertion. Here again, the results draw attention to the specificity of the reception context: faith can be a bridge for integration in the US (a context in which religion is highly practiced and appreciated) and a barrier in Europe, especially for some socially stigmatized groups such as Muslims. As data indicate, in Western Europe and to an extent in Canada, religious minority immigrants and their adult children are less likely to be employed than the general public and Christian immigrants. The hypothesis is that an ‘overtly religious immigrant’ in a mostly secular society could be met with a negative public perception. Nevertheless, in all countries, and regardless of their religion, immigrants who regularly attend religious services are more likely to manifest higher levels of mental and emotional well-being. Interestingly, practicing believers also have a higher propensity to acquire citizenship (in the US) and to vote in national elections (in Europe). It thus seems that, to a certain extent, faith can work as a bridging tool to achieve social insertion and participation, at least in some countries. Furthermore, where religion works as a means of social integration (in the US and, to a lesser extent, Canada), attendance is also correlated with higher levels of education and career advancement, although this applies more to those who practice the religion of the majority.
The fourth chapter (“Transferring Faith”) investigates the intergenerational transmission of faith and practice to the ‘second generation’ of immigrants. Whereas in all contexts the children of immigrants largely remain in their parents’ religion, the movement toward other religious affiliations (non-religious groups included) is more common than in first generations, although not in the same way for all groups and in all places. For instance, it is more likely for adult children of non-religious immigrants to become religious in the US than in Europe, while this movement goes in the opposite direction in France. The analysis shows how the general adaptation to dominant religious groups, which occurs in the first generation in terms of faith (in fewer cases) and practice (to a greater extent), is similarly present and even more accentuated across the second generation. Not differently from what happens for the first generation, however, this general trend is not confirmed for those in stigmatized groups (again, Muslims in Europe), who have a greater probability of practicing the religion of their parents.
In the clear conclusive chapter, Connor weaves together the different threads of this wide tapestry in order to shed more light on the emerging patterns. In the final methodological appendix, he provides additional references and links to the databases consulted and explains the ways in which variables have been defined and measured.
Overall, the text is well-conceived, rich, and, despite being mainly based on statistics, widely accessible. Data are presented clearly, and findings are repeatedly reformulated in order to make them plainly understandable. Moreover, each chapter opens with a qualitative vignette, which illustrates the topic under scrutiny and gives more concreteness to the argumentation. All these features make this book a good complement to other introductory materials on studies of migration and religion.
This volume represents a convincing attempt to identify general trends in the ways in which migration and religion influence each other. Through its comparison of processes that occur in different countries of destination for international immigrants, the work indirectly achieves a further, perhaps not fully expected scope—that of contributing to the literature on migration and social inclusion by showing how the normal process of change and mutual integration can be hindered by social discrimination. This is a relevant point, particularly in contemporary Europe, where the religion of ‘the other’ (and Islam in particular) is often portrayed as incompatible with citizenship and, consequently, conflictive in its very nature.
Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa
ELSHAKRY, Marwa, Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860–1950, 448 pp., afterword, notes, bibliography, index. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. Hardback, $45. ISBN 9780226001302.
In 2000, Stephen Jay Gould remarked that creationism is “a local, indigenous, American bizarrity”—a statement that has been belied by recent scholarship. Among other works, Engels and Glick’s (2008) edited collection, The Reception of Charles Darwin in Europe, and Creationism in Europe, edited by Blancke et al. (2014), have focused on the contestation of Darwinism outside of the United States, both historically and today. Recent studies on the varying reactions to Darwinism in the non-Christian world have been somewhat sparser, although the 2011 special edition of the religion and science journal Zygon may be an indication that this is changing. Today, much of the Muslim world rivals the United States in its reputation and practice of hostility toward Darwinism on both individual and institutional levels. But is there an Islamic theological precedent for accepting a Darwinian conception of biological life? Put differently, is the rejection of Darwinism an organic part of Islamic tradition, or is it largely an American export? While scholars such as Taner Edis have taken the former position, others, including Salman Hameed and Martin Riexinger are closer to the latter view.
Marwa Elshakry’s Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860–1950 is poised to provide an important intervention in respect to these questions. But the title of the book, while arresting, is somewhat misleading. The emphasis throughout is on ‘reading’ rather than on Darwin. Readers hoping or otherwise expecting to find a historical exegesis on the early reception of Darwinism by Islamic (or Arab-Christian) communities may be disappointed. Darwin is hardly the book’s central figure, and his theory is often only tangentially related to the interactions within the “matrix of readership, translation, and cross-border interpretation” (p. 5) that populate Elshakry’s wide geographical and temporal zones of exploration. Likewise, the book’s lengthy fifth chapter, “Darwin and the Mufti,” could have been more accurately titled “Spencer and the Mufti,” as it is Herbert Spencer, not Darwin, who seems to have had a greater impact on the ideas fomenting in Arab lands during the period in question.
It was in the context of larger social and political debates—the British occupation of Egypt, the failure of Arab ‘civilization’ to modernize, the Eastern Question, pan-Arabism, and the prospect of an ‘Arab renaissance’—that Spencer and, to a lesser extent, Darwin found their greatest salience. Elshakry provides detailed accounts of reformers, including Faris Nimr, the editor of Muqtataf, a widely circulated science journal responsible for introducing Darwin and providing a platform for the dissemination of scientific ideas to Arab readers, and Muhammad ‘Abduh, the grand mufti of Egypt, who attempted the daunting task of educational reform through the incorporation of natural science into university curricula dominated by theology. Both men sought distinct paths to ‘Muslim modernism’. Despite ‘Abduh’s attempts to reconcile science and religion, “satirists, print pundits, and ‘ulama banded together against him, accusing him of pandering to foreign interests and imbibing all things European” (p. 210). On the other hand, through the pages of Muqtataf, Nimr and other reformers, such as Farah Antun, an Arab Christian, called for the institutional separation of science and religion—indeed, secularization. Again, these debates were less about Darwinism per se than about the interaction of political and scientific ideas in the Arab world during the late nineteenth century.
Elshakry provides fascinating glimpses into the diverse Arabic reaction to Darwinism. Ibrahim al-Afghani, whose views of biological evolution would change drastically, “depicted Darwin’s transformationism as the latest incarnation of a theory that had first been developed by medieval Arab philosophers [such as Abu Bakir ibn Bashrun] … who claimed that minerals transform into plants, plants into animals, and that the last of these three transformations and the highest link in the chain is man” (pp. 124–125). Muhammad ‘Abduh went so far as to suggest that the Qur’an contains the seeds of all modern scientific knowledge. In 1906, he wrote: “The ‘ulama say that the jinn [the Islamic notion of spirits] are living bodies that cannot be seen … those minute living bodies made known today through the microscope and called ‘microbes’ are possibly a species of jinn” (p. 177). While the views of these various reformers, scientists, and theologians are, by today’s standards, “eclectic” (p. 165), others rejected Darwin’s materialism out of hand. These include al-Afghani, whose A Refutation of the Materialists, translated from its original Persian to Arabic in 1894, was “perhaps … in the long run … the most influential attack of all” (p. 119). One of the primary strengths of Elshakry’s work is the presentation of historical attacks on ‘materialism’, which will surely be of tremendous value to readers seeking to add historical depth to their understanding of, for example, the infamous anti-Darwinist literature of Harun Yahya (aka Adnan Oktar), particularly his The Evolution Deceit: The Scientific Collapse of Darwinism and Its Ideological Background (1999). And in this sense, an Islamic rejection of materialism is nothing new. But on the other hand, the debates and range of positions taken by the reformers and clerics of the late nineteenth century would seem to be a far cry from much of today’s Islamic world, where the general public and various national governments remain not only hostile toward Darwinism, but apparently ignorant (willfully or not) of earlier Islamic interpretations.
In her afterword, Elshakry discusses the case of ‘Abd al-Sabur Shahin, a Cairo University professor charged with blasphemy for his 1998 book, My Father Adam. Only years earlier, in 1995, he had been instrumental in bringing similar charges against Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, who subsequently fled Egypt for the Netherlands. Elshakry writes: “Yet the Shahin anecdote is instructive, and it reminds us that contemporary discussions of evolution in Arabic … show as much diversity and flexibility of views now as they did nearly 150 years ago” (p. 309). This is certainly debatable. Elshakry acknowledges the explosion of anti-Darwinist tracts throughout the Muslim world in the 1970s, relinquishing ground to the idea that there has been a rupture with the past. But she remains committed to the continuity thesis: today’s Arabic world is an outgrowth of the one in which American missionaries did much to introduce Darwin to the Arabs and to provide much of the raw material that would shape their response to him as well. The only difference today may be that a Christian fundamentalist creationism has emerged “as a new kind of global discourse” (p. 310).
Despite its somewhat misleading title and rather soft-handed depiction of state repression of scientific inquiry in the contemporary Arab world—to say nothing of Turkey, which has regressed from its leading role in embracing Western science during the 1920s and is today well known as a bastion of anti-Darwinism—Reading Darwinism in Arabic can be recommended to those seeking a greater understanding of the historical relationship between science and Islam, the dissemination of Western scientific ideas, and the history of science. The book is also useful for those interested in how Islam has received Darwin’s big idea (i.e., natural selection), although it would seem that the definitive work on this subject remains to be written.
Jeffrey D. Howison
Yeditepe University, Istanbul
EZZY, Douglas, Sex, Death and Witchcraft: A Contemporary Pagan Festival, 216 pp., illustrations, appendix, references. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Hardback, £65. ISBN 9781472522467.
The social sciences and, indeed, science in general have long had issues concerning human interactions with non-material reality. In particular, anything to do with an ‘otherworld’, a ‘hidden world’, the ‘underworld’, a transpersonal dimension, ‘soul’, or ‘spirit’ tends to be ultimately deeply questionable on its own terms. Even ‘consciousness’, a slippery concept that refuses to be defined solely in materialistic terms and is so often the realm of philosophers rather than scientists, is complicated and troublesome to examine through academic analytic classifications. The transformation of human experience that is said to occur through communication with a non-material realm held deep within the body is equally problematic and difficult to analyze through scientific methods. Such interaction with a transpersonal dimension cannot be adequately pinned down in words or logic. In fact, words and logic can inhibit recognition of non-materially sourced forms of human intercourse. Poetry and other means of artistic expression, such as painting and dance, have long captured the essence of the embodied experience. As the nineteenth-century dancer Isadora Duncan famously put it in her oft-quoted comment: “If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.” Duncan thought that the dancer’s body was the luminous manifestation of the soul, and her statement captures the difficulty that the social sciences have in explaining this non-material phenomenon. Words, therefore, can come between an understanding of a dance, a work of art, or a ritual.
Douglas Ezzy’s book Sex, Death and Witchcraft explores ritual through an analysis of an annual Pagan festival, Faunalia, which is conducted in a rural location in southeastern Australia. Ezzy’s book boldly attempts to examine the ritual participants’ interactions with non-material reality—that is, to describe the indescribable. Through a detailed interview study conducted in 2005, Ezzy introduces the ritual festival and explains its effects on the participants, mostly in their own words. The Pagan deity Baphomet is central to the Faunalia rite and is considered “a window into a hidden world” (p. 2). This world is embodied in the remote hilltops at the ritual location, as well as deep within people’s hearts. Baphomet—reinvented from its original medieval form when the Knights Templar were accused of blasphemously kissing the deity’s behind—embodies “male and female, human and beast, goat and bird, creator and destroyer” (p. 106). Thus, the Faunalia is a ritual of Pagan reclamation. Not only does it take its participants through their individual passage into the hidden world and safely out again, but it is said to release Christian-imposed repression of the body and its pleasures. Mirroring the medieval Christian inquisitors’ denial and fear of the body, it sacralizes and celebrates participants’ animal nature and sensuality. When they are in the hidden world, the otherworld seeps into their souls, naked bodies, and erotic desires. The Faunalia rite “opens people’s hearts and blows their minds” (p. 2) as they undergo encounters with their own death. This experience allegedly leads to an expansion of an everyday sense of self and a transformation of understandings about sexual desire and the inevitability of death. Induced by alternate states of consciousness, as well as the knowledge of a transcendence of body in the form of spirit or soul, this subjective, experiential process, Ezzy claims, can have profound effects on the ritual participants.
Throughout the book, Ezzy allows his ritual informants to speak for themselves during interviews conducted before and after each event. Although the author participates in the ritual, he does not engage in participant observation himself, nor does he include his own experiences. He therefore refers to himself as a participant rather than an observer. In a study of embodied ritual experience, this might seem rather counter-intuitive from an anthropological point of view more familiar with participant observation. While the interviews lend a certain authenticity, one is left with the sense that there is hidden information located outside the interview format. The texts are self-conscious statements of experience that are by definition a form of qualia. But what of the less obvious subconscious or unconscious sensory aspects of the rite that cannot so easily be picked up through that particular methodological approach? The value of participant observation is that the researcher can identify and integrate less conscious articulations of the ritual process. In this respect, Ezzy’s own voice is silent. Nonetheless, the interviews do provide a very useful insight into the varying aspects of informants’ experiences of profound encounters with non-materiality, and this in itself makes the book an important source of ethnography.
The first chapter tackles the central topic of ‘soul’ head-on by examining what it means for participants of the ritual to live ‘soulfully’—to follow their hearts, live with passion, and be ‘authentic’. Doing so allegedly gives life meaning and purpose by connecting with “the surfaces and spaces ‘in-between’” the unconscious and conscious aspects of the self (p. 36), thus enabling the soul to be transformed. The second chapter, which focuses on ‘ritual’, engages with liminality and the process of approaching a space between the worlds, the zone that produces “communitas—a deep sense of intimacy of trust” (p. 62). Dramatizing aspects of fear and anxiety around sexual desire and death, the ritual brings participants to the barriers of their understandings of personal authenticity and meaning. ‘Death’ and ‘shadow’ are the subjects of the third and fourth chapters. The former draws participants in the ritual into the underworld, mirrored on the myth of Persephone and the Eleusinian mystery rites, while the latter discusses the participants’ understandings of the Jungian shadow as a ‘symbolic resource’ that shapes their underworld somatic experiences. In chapter 5, titled “Baphomet,” Ezzy gets to the heart of the ritual as a reclamation and re-Paganizing of the myth of the Witches’ sabbat as portrayed by Christian inquisitors during the early modern witch trials. This part of the Faunalia is charged with erotic energy that allows a “primal sexuality to be free” (p. 119). Chapter 6, on ‘ethics’, analyzes the ethical aspects of the ritual, while the final chapter, titled ‘religion’, discusses the rite of Faunalia within its religious context.
One of the strengths of Ezzy’s book is that it highlights dimensions and events relating to an inspirited hidden world, as well as the difficulties encountered in trying to articulate and make visible the invisible. The Faunalia ritual, like most rituals, has an ineffable component that is somatic and emotional. But is this ritual effect ‘just’ psychosocial? Put more specifically, is the Baphomet rite more about a humanistic resistance to social conventions or about finding a relationship with one’s ‘soul’? The latter is Ezzy’s approach toward his ritual participants. He claims that “[t]o live with soul is to live a life that has meaning, purpose and a sense of a life well lived’ (p. 36), and he devotes the first chapter of his book to the subject. However, an issue that is not raised in this work—but one that is explored in The Social Life of Spirits (Blanes and Espírito Santo 2013), for example—is whether spirits invoked during rites have a life of their own, independent of the bodies that host or channel them. Putting to one side what might be best described as the ‘straightjacket’ issue as to whether or not spirits are real, the question then becomes, what volitional or non-volitional dimensions are involved during such highly charged ritual events? And, indeed, what are the long-term effects? While these questions are not directly addressed in this book, the work opens up a field of fascinating subjects, ones that are central to any study of ritual process, and therefore Sex, Death and Witchcraft is to be recommended.
University of Sussex
JUNCKER, Kristine, Afro-Cuban Religious Arts: Popular Expressions of Cultural Inheritance in Espiritismo and Santería, 208 pp., plates, figures, tables, notes, bibliography, index. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2014. Hardcover, $71. ISBN 9780813049700.
In Afro-Cuban Religious Arts: Popular Expressions of Cultural Inheritance in Espiritismo and Santería, art historian Kristine Juncker sets up interrelations and innovation within Afro-Cuban ritual practices and their arts exceedingly well. Her noticeably non-theological yet culturally grounded command of Afro-Cuban rituals supports her interpretations of religious arts within the major Afro-Cuban religions. Espiritismo and la Regla de Ocha (i.e., Santería, although this term appears only in the title) are featured, but some consideration is given to Palo and Abakuá. Despite a few concerns, I am deeply appreciative of the information provided by Juncker’s study. I am more aware of the hundreds of art objects that I have watched practitioners creatively make, knowingly position, and lovingly display—on their bodies, on ritual altars, and in nature. I am even more sensitive than before to interrelating ideas about the spirits of the dead within Afro-Cuban ritual systems. Additionally, I am more familiar with art history perspectives on the spiritual lives of diaspora communities.
What I appreciate most is the author’s focus on Espiritismo. The emphasis on development in Caribbean forms of Spiritism is the first contribution of this study. Juncker points out that illiteracy among African descendants meant they could not access Allan Kardec’s translated publications on Spiritism that were circulating in Cuba after 1868. She also explains the historical links between varied African ritual heritages and African Catholicism from converted Christian Kingdom of the Kongo and related Central African peoples. Important also is Juncker’s brief examination of the connection between Caribbean Espiritismo and US Hoodoo. In defining Cuba’s plural religious context, however, I wish that the ‘folk Catholicism’ abundantly referred to later had been included at the outset and that it was differentiated more clearly from forms of Espiritismo and African Catholicism.
Juncker’s forte, the second contribution of this study, is a story of four Caribbean women ritual leaders who formed a spiritual house genealogy that promoted a mixture of Afro-Cuban rituals signaled by hybrid religious arts. Tiburcia Sotolongo y Ugarte, Hortensia Ferrer, Iluminada Sierra Ortiz, and Carmen Oramas Caballery illuminate the author’s archival and fieldwork accomplishments. This is especially the case regarding Tiburcia’s plantation beginnings, her training with an African-born woman, and her acquisition of three distinct ritual systems. Extensive evidence of cooperation within Tiburcia’s living spiritual family is also presented. Each ritual system’s range and boundaries are explained through analyses of altar placement and content within a Havana–Spanish Harlem lineage. Altar configurations are thereby presented as the historical work of Afro-Caribbean women.
Tiburcia first marked photography in her legacy with images of Hortensia and herself that were handed down. Hortensia’s art practices, which diverged from the common use of visual arts within Afro-Cuban practices, reveal the most complete and stunning case. Iluminada’s impact was pieced together within Regla de Ocha initiation rites and recipe standards, and Carmen continued Iluminada’s input, as well as Tiburcia’s and Hortensia’s use of photography, adding her singing to the previous emphasis on visual arts. Still, it is Hortensia’s photography—then an innovative technology that provided resources for teaching her clientele and documenting her diverse religious heritages—that is remarkable. Also, Hortensia placed her Espiritismo altars in public view, encouraging discourse about the diverse practices that they referenced. Juncker’s art history expertise draws readers into the artistic maneuvering of altar and doll construction, decoration, and placement that was standardized through photography by Hortensia and her spiritual community descendants. This involved, for example, the use of translucent lighting within altars, mirrors and satin or similar materials that reflected light when held taut, pyramid pedestals, arching flora patterns, and strategic medicinal leaves—all to signal intercultural expertise. Provocative issues circulating within Cuban society at the time, including Pan-Africanism, Afro-Cuban identity, Afro-Cuban women leadership, ancestor reverence, botanical knowledge, and the ebb and flow of governmental intervention, were applied to Hortensia’s practice—in effect, implicating a canon of altar creation and of instruction through religious arts.
I am truly fascinated by Juncker’s center-staging of religious arts, but less convinced that these practices or the views historically heralded by theorists and important art journals (e.g., Bohemia) constitute the “religious arts movement” that Juncker asserts (p. 1). Visual arts are seminal elements within diaspora religious rituals that regularly encompass innovation and continuity. What is impressive and outstanding are the lives and artistic works that Juncker has assembled. Her study builds an intriguing case for excavating unwritten histories of black women in the colonial era via the frustratingly sparse, non-narrative evidence of late-twentieth-century Espiritismo altars. The author links ritual practices to the contemporary art world by revealing under-recognized history within the artwork of Betye Saar, Ben Jones, and others. She suggests that religious arts might contain the curated art history of diaspora adepts who, like professional diaspora artists, “broadly engage audiences and topics otherwise historically shunned” (p. 123).
I am overwhelmingly grateful to know these women/leaders/artists and to be able to contemplate their featured artistry in Juncker’s excellent photographic collection. I am most appreciative, however, of this reintroduction to Afro-Cuban ritual communities within a less familiar but important Espiritismo perspective.
KING, Lindsey, Spiritual Currency in Northeast Brazil, 168 pp., notes, bibliography, index. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2014. Hardcover, $55. ISBN 9780826355317.
As analyzed by the Brazilian sociologist Cândido Procópio Ferreira de Camargo, the Catholic population in the country has decreased since the 1940s, more noticeably since the 1980s. However, some regions in Brazil, especially in the Northeast, still have a strong Catholic presence that is characterized by a popular quality. This helps to maintain the performative and creative character of the religion and to increase its diversification, showing that devotion to saints has taken on a new role in building Catholic diversity. Despite its statistical decrease and changes in the religious realm that affect it, the Catholic population has transformed itself through new communities, charismatic renewal, basic ecclesial communities, media use, popular movements such as pilgrimages, Marian apparitions, and renewed ways of showing devotion to saints, combined with other practices free from the hierarchical control of the Church. In the specific case of the Northeast, popular characters of the clergy, such as the folk saints Padre Cícero and Frei Damião, represent established Catholic symbols and values that still resist the penetration of other religious experiences, in particular Neo-Pentecostal ones. The Northeast is part of a religious context called Brazil, and in this book the two have been separated.
The first chapter presents a study about the devotion to São Francisco das Chagas that emphasizes the meaning of ex-votos, or votive offerings, as social texts. In this chapter, as well as in the last one, the author relentlessly tries to find, among the causes of Northeastern poverty, some of the possible relations between this poverty and the popular religiosity as something intentionally conditioned that brutalizes daily relations. The text deals with the region, but it does not establish its historical relationship with cronyism and patronage relations (mainstays of the social-political-religious structure) or with the remaining religious panorama in which the region plays a central role. It focuses on the contributions of President Lula’s administration, the financial aid program Bolsa Família and similar policies, and the ways in which such policies alone have made the region more visible.
There are many errors in the text due to lack of knowledge about historical and national political issues (errors that also pervade the other chapters). For example, the author states that former President Lula was born “in the northeastern state of Sergipe” (p. 6), when he was actually born in Pernambuco—a relevant fact for those who are familiar with the political history of the country, especially considering the tradition of political struggles that mark the Primeiro Estado period. The author’s reductionism approaches the Northeast as a whole, the poorest in South America (which in the national reality would be the Northern region), and not as a particular ethnography as she intended in the first place. There are statements, such as “[n]o holistic study of Brazilian ex-votos has been published” (p. 14), that show a lack of knowledge about the current bibliography on Catholicism in Brazil, especially about devotion to saints. There is also a false idea that ex-votos are studied as objects. But what are objects without their history and the way they fit into the broader Catholic context? It is worth noting that narratives about the country’s singularity tend to view saints as part of the national culture. Holidays, civil and religious parties, names of places, objects, patronage, and cronyism reflect the intense colonial past and its Padroado regime, when Catholicism was still the official religion of the national state and the Church was part of its bureaucratic apparatus. The attempt to Romanize Brazilian Catholicism at the end of the nineteenth century did not manage to penetrate the masses of believers, showing the strength of the popular in the management of the sacred.
In chapter 2, the field is presented along with a brief description of the city of Canindé that makes it easier to understand its role within this living Catholicism. Nevertheless, the most important idea in the text—that being from the sertão region is being part of a Catholic nation, the nation of São Francisco das Chagas—is described in a few lines with no deeper analysis. What could have been an interpretive key as to how the sacred creates nations and identities centered in a city such as Canindé, placing it on the Brazilian map and marking a culture that is shaped by the sacred, fails to be developed. The same problem is repeated in the conclusion, where the interesting idea of devotion as a metalanguage and a way to build a solidarity network with enormous social power is not emphasized. Instead, the author focuses on the circle of extreme poverty that keeps people tied to São Francisco das Chagas as a way to survive the sertão.
Chapters 3 and 4 describe the social function of ex-votos and the idea of their artistic value. Both discuss the importance of oral narrative in building the objects, since behind them are stories of sick bodies, of pilgrimages, and of how the broader community was formed beyond the state of Ceará, connecting different social networks in an internally differentiated Catholic belief. The man of the cross brings, in the object he takes to São Francisco, stories of many people connected to him in devotion. In an ocean of fascinating stories, we see that the narrator is his own master and that he has, in the ex-voto performance, total control over his religion, far from ecclesiastical hierarchies. In this sense, for believers ex-votos are relics that grant different meanings to an official Catholic story, making their own existence sacred and showing through their narratives and objects their own value. As a counterpoint to popular narratives, the author states: “I do not think there is any basis of truth in this story” (p. 62). Yet if we consider Bakhtin, it does not matter if a story is an urban legend; what matters is whether it grants meaning to those who tell it. The circulation of the ex-voto eventually leads to its desacralization. This coming and going between secular and sacred shows how an object can acquire other meanings and new owners.
The sacred, much like the irrational, is exchanged, circulated, sold, and turned into objects, cities, and characters. In these narratives, being poor acquires other meanings, and men in extreme poverty choose ways to reflect them. And what does God exist for?
State University of Rio de Janeiro
MANIGAULT-BRYANT, LeRhonda S., Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women, 278 pp., appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014. Paperback, $24.95. ISBN 9780822356745.
Professor Manigault-Bryant has written an eloquent ethnography of Gullah/Geechee women’s religious experience at a time of rapidly shifting economic realities (e.g., the dramatic increases in property taxes in Sea Island communities that make it difficult for people to hold on to their homes), the influence of the contemporary ‘prosperity gospel’ that results in the discontinuation of religious ‘seeking’ practices that many people held dear, the rise of a politics of middle-class respectability that often marginalizes black ecstatic religious practices and the musical forms it takes, the increasing professionalization of the ministry that has transformed lowcountry religion, and the growing commodification of Gullah/Geechee culture and the concomitant increase in the number of tourists and journalists visiting there.
Manigault-Bryant discusses these topics in some detail in chapter 6 of her book, but she focuses her attention on the individual experiences and musical practices of seven older women in the community whose specialized expertise in gospel singing, storytelling, healing, conjuring, the weaving of sweetgrass baskets, and the ability to ‘talk to the dead’ mark them, for her, as ‘culture keepers’ in the South Carolina lowcountry. These women are members of different churches, and the author’s analysis cuts across denominational differences to focus exclusively on the intense relationships these women cultivate with the dead, in and through their singing, storytelling, and basket making. ‘Talking to the dead’ as a localized folk custom at the intersection of African diasporic and Christian traditions is, Manigault-Bryant argues, as significant to these women as the formal and informal positions they hold within their various churches. She suggests that such women have always been the “primary caretakers and transmitters of aspects of Gullah/Geechee religious culture” (p. 63).
The call and response patterns, the overlapping harmonies, and the unique rhythmic patterns found in the choral music these women participate in are located at the center of their religious experience. According to the author, “[m]usic in fact serves as a primary way for these lowcountry women ‘to tulk to de dead’” (p. 169). It is, she argues, a unique repository of cultural memory that sustains the faith of the women she focused her work upon and communicates much about “their histories, present realities, and future hopes” (p. 170).
The subtitle of the book should be read primarily as a description of the locus of intersection of the ethnography and historiography that Manigault-Bryant provides. She does not present a comprehensive ethnography of religion or music or memory, but rather a focused analysis of their overlapping significances insofar as the practice of ‘talking to the dead’ is concerned. Chapter 1, “Culture Keepers,” acquaints the reader with the seven women and provides an introduction to the merged folk and Christian traditions of Gullah/Geechee religion, focusing on gendered identities and norms in the community. Chapter 2, “Folk Religion,” traces the historiography of writing about the Gullah/Geechee in nineteenth-century travelers’ and other accounts. Manigault-Bryant both critiques problematic representations in these reports and draws upon them in relation to her characterizations of contemporary practice. Chapter 3, “‘Ah Tulk to de Dead All de Time,’” describes the centrality of communication with the dead in the daily practices of singing, telling stories, praying, visiting the sick, and weaving baskets, as well as the more specialized religious practice of ‘seeking’ through which each of the women found and joined her local church as a young woman. Chapter 4, “‘Sendin’ Up My Timbah,’” lies at the heart of the book since it focuses on the performance of sacred music and the women’s own interpretations of it. The author argues that “[m]usic is the single most important element of Gullah/Geechee culture” and that it is through “the shouting, dancing, and singing traditions that these lowcountry women connect to their past and act in their present” (p. 22). Chapter 5, “Lived Memory,” discusses the significance (or lack thereof) to the women of their African heritage. It also explores the commodification of that heritage and the ways in which it and the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act of 2006 complicate and indeed endanger the practice of ‘talking to the dead’ and the broader elements of the Gullah/Geechee cultural legacy.
In some ways, the most important contribution of this book is that it provides us with a close ethnography of contemporary practices connected with African-American sacred music and the interpretations of the music put forward by its singers themselves, especially in chapter 4. The book’s usefulness for scholars of American vernacular and African-American sacred music is enhanced by the availability of 10 songs and chants from among Manigault-Bryant’s field recordings, which can be accessed at the Duke University Press’s website. Some of these songs (and others discussed in the text that are not available at this website) are of wider provenance, some are old spirituals with deep historical roots, and some have been heard on field and commercial recordings since 1909. In chapter 2, Manigault-Bryant provides vignettes about the religion and the music from nineteenth-century travelers’ accounts, but there is little by way of historical or geographic contextualization of the music in the twentieth century, and some of what is provided is erroneous. For example, “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” a recording of which is provided at the website and discussed in chapter 4, is said to have first been published in 1940 in John Work’s American Negro Songs: 230 Folk Songs and Spirituals, Religious and Secular (p. 244). The lyrics and music for the spiritual were, however, first published in 1915 by the Press of Fisk University in Work’s Folk Song of the American Negro. Moreover, the Fisk Jubilee Singers recorded it for Victor Records in 1909, several other singers and quartets recorded it in the 1920s, and Work and Alan Lomax made a field recording of it in Mississippi in 1941.
Another example is that of “Pure Religion,” also discussed in chapter 4. The author describes this song as “local to the lowcountry” (p. 138) and as recorded by Lead Belly (who was not in fact from the lowcountry), but it is also found in the 1930s Ruby Pickens Tartt collection of religious songs from Sumter County, Alabama. The Texas blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded a rather different version of it (as Deacon L. J. Bates) in Chicago in 1925/1926, and the Reverend Gary Davis, who was from northwest South Carolina, recorded what is perhaps the song’s most well-known version. A third example is Manigault-Bryant’s discussion of a song she calls “Operator” (p. 151). She makes no mention of the fact that in 1937 John and Ruby Lomax made recordings of this song as “Jesus on the Mainline,” sung by Lillie Knox, and as “Jesus on the Mainline Too,” sung by the Plantation Echoes, on Wadmalow Island in the lowcountry. And in 1959, Alan Lomax recorded a version sung by the congregation of the Independence Church in Tyro, Mississippi.
The strength of chapter 4 is that it provides us with extraordinary contemporary exegeses of these songs and their meanings for the Gullah/Geechee singers, who are the focus of this book. This is particularly valuable since we have so few examples of ethnographic work of this kind. I mention these early recordings of songs still being sung by Gullah/Geechee congregations (among the many examples that could be provided) only to suggest that they raise interesting questions about how the contemporary singers learned the songs. This might provide fascinating directions for further research on how the meanings of such songs and spirituals have changed over the course of more than a hundred years and on how the meanings that the seven Gullah/Geechee women attribute to them might be specific to their particular historical milieu despite the wider provenance of the songs, which is after all a primary concern in this insightful ethnography.
Gloria Goodwin Raheja
University of Minnesota
O’NEILL, Kevin L., Secure the Soul: Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala, 288 pp., illustrations, appendix, notes, references, index. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015. Paperback, $24.95. ISBN 9780520278493.
Is it possible to overcome sin through human will alone, or does salvation depend on grace and divine intervention? While the Pelagian Controversy of the early fifth century ce and the moral-psychological questions it raises about human nature and its limits may seem remote from the immediate security challenges posed by brutal gang violence and delinquency in post-war Guatemala City, Kevin Lewis O’Neill gives us good reasons to think otherwise in this subtle, multi-layered, and quite personal ethnography. Building from his previous work on ‘Christian citizenship’ (O’Neill 2009) and his interest in tracing how new forms of Christianity, governance, space, and ethics have emerged in relation to one another in the urban crucible of nation-rebuilding schemes in Guatemala City, Secure the Soul extends O’Neill’s intriguing project to consider the ephemeral world of ‘soft security’ and its attempts to remake former gang members into sober, self-governing, and well-groomed citizens and consumers through “Christian techniques of self-transformation” (p. 10).
Based on eight years of field research in Guatemala and trips to North Carolina (2006–2014), the author develops the main ethnographic arguments of this book using a novel combination of life history and multi-sited ethnographic approaches set within a nuanced concept of Christian piety built from Foucauldian ethics and bio-politics, affect theory, and the Confessions of St. Augustine. For O’Neill, piety begins with aspiration, an affect defined as a non-discursive, pre-conscious “raw, reactive sensation” (p. 208n9). Felt actively in the body, it comes from a deeply social origin and hence is open to social forms of control. The author also maintains that an affect can form the basis of an ontology and supply a “direction for life itself” through what he calls an “affective infrastructure” (p. 216n41). Finally, this affective infrastructure is polarized in Platonic terms of sin and salvation and animated by an eternal struggle between the two. Taken together, these positions allow O’Neill to frame Christian piety, in its most general sense, as (1) a kind of “religiously managed and politically manipulated sensation” (p. 209n9) felt in the body; (2) a particular way of ordering the world in terms of sin and salvation and sorting the people who make it up (e.g., pious/impious, lost/found); and (3) a way of being a person who struggles with the ‘moral demands’ of living in that kind of world and how best to do so. Grounding his notion of piety in affect and the body rather than in a particular religious denomination, O’Neill is interested in exploring how Christianity can be “undenominated” (p. 12). In doing so, his ethnography may be seen as responding to calls within the anthropology of religion and of Christianity to problematize the boundaries of Christianity and to explore the “idea of Christianity” (p. 210n12) (cf. Robbins 2014).
Seeing the body as an actively managed point of intersection that collapses hard distinctions between an internal sphere of the soul/subject/subjectivities (all used interchangeably in the book) and an external social world, Secure the Soul argues that this affective, embodied sense of Christian piety, rooted in the struggle between sin and salvation, underpins and structures the soft security approach to the problem of transnational criminal street gangs (maras) in Guatemala City. This strategy is premised on prevention and on opening up possibilities for life rather than foreclosing on them like the state policies of ‘hard security’ (mass incarceration, deportation, extrajudicial urban policing tactics) adopted by the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in the early 2000s to combat the rise, proliferation, and entrenchment of these gangs in the region’s cities. Unlike the built forms that discipline assumes in hard security (e.g., the prison, factory, and asylum), O’Neill sees in post-war Guatemala City a situation where such places are porous, a “waning centrality of disciplinary institutions” (p. 210n10), and where a world of soft security without “blueprints” (p. 20) is emerging.
The way in which O’Neill’s book attempts to bring this unstable world of soft security and Christian piety into focus is quite sophisticated methodologically as well as narratively. It is also how the book tends to get muddled. Embodying Secure the Soul is Mateo, the author’s close friend and informant. An ex-gang member, father, born-again Christian, recovering addict, reality television star, and deportee from the United States, Mateo lives the piety and world of soft security that the book tries to capture through his “sincere but always-frustrated effort to be better” (p. 204) and his life as “an honestly ambivalent subject, a divided person, one torn by Christian piety’s own extremes [of sin and salvation]” (pp. 22–23). Scenes of conversation between Mateo, who “speaks with an Augustinian accent” (p. 22), and the author about episodes and periods in Mateo’s unsteady life are captured in sections of the book titled “Forgiveness,” “Hamsters,” “Pangs,” “Service,” “Captivity,” and “Adrift.” Organizationally, these alternate with each of the book’s five core ethnographic chapters, which, in a clever use of an informant’s biography as a map, consider in detail five different types of soft security programs that Mateo has cycled through in Guatemala City since he was deported from the US in 2005. Those programs (followed by the chapter titles) are prison (“Insecurities”), a reality television show (“Reality”), a call service center (“A Calling”), a North Carolina-based child sponsorship program (“Left Behind”), and a rough Pentecostal drug rehabilitation center (“Forsaken”). The emotional timbre of the book, intentionally cultivated through the author’s affective word craft, can be seen in these titles. Within each ethnographic chapter, in turn, O’Neill is concerned with tracking how particular aspects of Christian piety manifest in each of the different soft security contexts and how soft security is often soft in name only. For example, the author sees the “violence of piety” (p. 188) as a practice that sorts the pious from the impious, selecting the deserving from the undeserving and abandoning the chosen when program funding or priorities change. With such a complex interweaving, it is perhaps inevitable that some things become unclear. In Secure the Soul, many of these muddles reside in reconciling the author’s evolving notions of Christian piety and soft security with each other and with his stated desire to consider Mateo the ‘thesis’ of the book itself. As O’Neill puts it: “He is the argument” (p. 12).
To conclude, Secure the Soul is an exemplar of how to creatively blend styles of ethnography and theory with an ambitious use of literary devices (allusion, imagery, motif). In conjunction with affective language and careful scene writing, the book gives the reader an emotional sense of the despondent aftertaste of cycling in and out of soft security programs and of the “cruel optimism” of Christian piety (p. 210n10). While the motif of looping, of being stuck going in circles, is emotionally central to the people in Secure the Soul, it is also mirrored in the book’s circular narrative structure and the closed circle formed by the coupled chapters themselves. In the book’s opening scene, the loop motif first appears sonically as a song playing repeatedly in the background while Mateo expresses a nostalgic longing for his family in Los Angeles. It then reappears spatially in the final chapter as Mateo and O’Neill stroll aimlessly in circles around Mateo’s monotone neighborhood “as if it were some kind of medieval labyrinth” (p. 191). That the highly meta-ethnographic epilogue stands outside this closed circle of main chapters raises a host of curious questions about the nature of salvation and ethnography, sadly left undebated by St. Augustine and Pelagius long ago. Secure the Soul should have a broad appeal to those within anthropology of religion and Christianity circles, as well as those outside of them.
Charles Lincoln Vaughan
RobbinsJoel. 2014. “The Anthropology of Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions. An Introduction to Supplement 10.” Current Anthropology 55 (S10): S157–S171.
SMITH, James H., and Ngeti MWADIME, Email from Ngeti: An Ethnography of Sorcery, Redemption, and Friendship in Global Africa, 240 pp., appendix, notes, bibliography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014. Paperback, $29.95. ISBN 9780520281127.
With Email from Ngeti, James W. Smith and Ngeti Mwadime have written a book that will become a classic. At once a genre experiment, an honest description of the relationship between a fieldworker and a close collaborator, and a unique analysis of the life-world of a young African man, it is one of the most innovative books I have recently read. Its title is reminiscent of romantic Hollywood films and airport literature describing the melodrama of long-distance relationships, and in fact this book is very much like that as well. Email from Ngeti describes a unique friendship between an American ethnographer and an erudite and cosmopolitan Kenyan man, who travel together through Kenyan cities and villages to eastern Congo, and their continued conversations online. Here already one of the lesser-known aspects of long-standing ethnographic research is revealed: the intimacy of fieldwork does not end when ‘Jimmy’ has traveled back to the US. In the book, Smith is not very vocal about what happens in his own life, although we can imagine him struggling with the analysis, writing up of his dissertation, becoming a PhD, and securing a position at a university. Instead, the book mainly concentrates on Ngeti. The drama of distance seems to play more a part in Ngeti’s personal life-world, where new societal dynamics, such as the increasing influence of Pentecostal Christianity and political turmoil, absorb him. Yet Ngeti is never totally on his own, for Jimmy and Ngeti remain present in each other’s lives, even from a distance. The book pays homage to their friendship, which started in 1991. Ngeti, the loudest voice here, gets through Jimmy the opportunity to realize his dream: writing a book. It is clear that Ngeti intends to communicate not only to Smith but also to the world through his e-mails, imagining that a whole group of people will be reading them along with Jimmy.
Email from Ngeti goes further than the classical dialogic writing by recognizing a fieldwork assistant as a co-author. While Smith has organized the data into eight chapters, has edited the e-mail conversations, and also interprets and comments on Ngeti’s texts, Ngeti has set the tone by providing the most important themes of this book: sorcery and redemption. Smith interprets and comments on these themes and, in doing so, engages with the anthropological literature.
After the introductory chapter 1, each of the following chapters has a main theme announced in a sometimes enigmatic title. Chapter 2, “English Makes You See Far,” details Ngeti’s fascination with the English language. Chapter 3, “God Helps Those That Help Themselves,” is devoted to Ngeti’s search for help and meaning via ‘traditional means’, such as divination. Chapter 4, “Good Ants, Bad Milk, and Ugly Deeds,” narrates Ngeti’s confrontation with various invisible powers and his understanding of these as related to personal conflicts and jealousies. These insights push him to reject Taita culture and even Taita society and pull him toward the city of Mombasa, “hoping to leave witchcraft behind [him]” (p. 99). There, Ngeti converts to Pentecostal Christianity, as described in chapter 5, “The Power of Prayer.” Pastor Patroba, who plays an important role in distancing Ngeti from his relatives, is introduced here. Chapter 6, “Works and Days,” tells about Ngeti’s involvement in Patroba’s evangelization campaigns, offering us a compelling insight into the doubts and uncertainties that Pentecostal Christians experience even when taking on the decorum of a perfect, born-again Christian. In Chapter 7, “A Confrontation,” it is recounted how Ngeti and Smith travel back to Taita after Patroba’s death and how Ngeti confronts his family with Patroba’s accusations about their involvement with witchcraft. He accuses his mother of having bewitched him. The final chapter, “Reflections,” recounts Ngeti’s more recent thoughts on witchcraft and his renewed engagement with Taita society. Importantly, Ngeti no longer considers his mother to be a witch.
The book is fascinating first and foremost because of the deep personal experiences that are shared in a very insightful way. It is also a genre experiment in which multiple means of communication—e-mails, essays (among others, a school essay written by Ngeti in 1981), and conversations between Smith and Ngeti—are combined. These sources are visually marked. Texts written by Ngeti are indented and often have subtitles (developed by Smith), and different fonts are used for the different styles and authors. Smith often introduces a new genre, telling his readers what kind of editing he has carried out on it. Despite the fact that two authors are identified, the only ‘I’ of the frame story is Smith. Here, one critical remark can be made. While Smith is transparent regarding the editorial work carried out on Ngeti’s texts, and while he is also often open about personal dilemmas (e.g., his relationship to his own parents at the end of the book, a visit to a psychic in the US, etc.), the issue of ethics regarding the publication of these personal lives and the potential impact on the book’s protagonists remain untouched.
To conclude, this book will undoubtedly speak to various audiences. It illustrates a hitherto underexplored aspect of knowledge production in (Africanist) anthropology, and scholars of religion and post-colonial African societies will certainly appreciate it. Finally, readers interested in the praxis of fieldwork will unquestionably find this book illuminating.
University of Leuven, University of Birmingham
VAN WYK, Ilana, The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in South Africa: A Church of Strangers, 280 pp., figures, glossary, bibliography, index. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Hardcover, £65.00. ISBN 9781107057241.
Ilana van Wyk has written a thought-provoking ethnography on the Brazilian Pentecostal Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), one of the world’s most controversial churches, and more specifically about the UCKG in Durban, South Africa. The UCKG is a radical advocate of the ‘prosperity gospel’, the global Christian movement associated mostly with Pentecostal Charismatic churches (PCCs), which emphasizes that it is God’s will for believers to be successful in every aspect of their lives. Following a divine logic of ‘sowing and reaping’, congregants’ investment in both spiritual and monetary terms is believed to generate success for them in this world in the form of a prosperous life. Moreover, similar to other PCCs, the UCKG’s view of the world is one of a spiritual battlefield between demonic and heavenly forces.
Various scholarly explanations for the popularity of PCCs often stress the emancipatory social and economic functions of these churches, as van Wyk describes in the introductory chapter 1. Yet van Wyk’s whole book is a profound demonstration of the contrary case of the UCKG in South Africa. The church’s battle against evil, including a ‘spiritual war’ against family members who are accused of witchcraft, puts enormous stress on intimate social relationships. Moreover, the endless requirement to offer money to the church means that bills and school fees cannot be paid, increasing the tensions between UCKG followers and their kin. In chapter 2, “Christian Warriors and Spiritual Warfare,” we read about van Wyk’s research assistant Phukile, who is disrespectful to a sangoma (diviner) and talks aggressively to her aunt. The constant fight among the UCKG’s ‘overcomers’ against the demons AIDS, sangomas, and crime offers little room for the liberating power of the Holy Spirit that is known in other PCCs, van Wyk observes.
Furthermore, as described in chapter 3, “On the Front Lines: Men of God,” the Brazilian and South African bishops and pastors are regularly transferred and “are always from somewhere else” (p. 71). They are not locally embedded pastors who build a relationship with their spiritual children; instead, they are “front-line spiritual fighters in a global war against Satan” (p. 86). Similarly, no relationships between the church visitors develop, no social gatherings take place in the church, and many believers stay for just a short period of time. The only group that seems to form a minimal community are the assistants. Chapter 4, “Women of God, Love and Marriage,” describes how the assistants prepare for the church services, help the pastors by distributing tithe envelopes, and patrol the aisles to look for demons. But the social lives of assistants are constrained. Intimacies with their colleagues are restricted, as these could harbor evil through jealousy and unfulfilled ideals of romantic love between male and female assistants. In addition, their families are often highly suspicious of their involvement in the UCKG. In chapter 6, “Gossiping Demons, Strong Words and Lies,” it is explained further that family members and other citizens often accuse the UCKG of witchcraft. UCKG members are so busy fighting evil that they themselves are suspected of having knowledge about how demons work.
So why would people want to participate in the UCKG if it leads to even more jealousy, suspicion, and distress? Taking the local cosmological reality of spiritual forces and evil into account, van Wyk explains in chapter 5, “The Leaking Nature of Things,” that the attraction of the UCKG is related to the possibility of a pragmatic faith instead of the more propositional faith of other PCCs. The UCKG offers technologies through which believers can direct good luck into their lives. These include physical objects, such as small bottles containing holy water that helps to defend one’s body from evil, and clear instructions about how to tithe and pray.
In accounting for the church’s success in South Africa, van Wyk states: “The UCKG thus concentrated on individual bodies as a nexus from which the intersections between material and invisible realities could be controlled” (p. 131). It is in such a context that the strong emphasis on money collection in the church appears to make sense, as analyzed in chapter 7, “Profit Prophets and God’s Money.” Seeing money as part of people’s relationships, the UCKG considers it to be contaminated by its evil origins, be it employers or family members. Sacrificing large amounts of money, sometimes the income of a few months, becomes a ‘triumphant moment’ in a longer process of combating Satan: one’s money, job, and house are safeguarded by putting them in the hands of God. The technologies of faith show a logic of ‘overcoming’ by becoming radically suspicious of others—creating obligations not within a community of believers but between individuals and God. As depicted in chapter 8, “Family Demons and the Blessed Life,” even though believers feel empowered by their combative faith, in the end they stand alone, leading to a growing army of demonic enemies in their lives that need to be battled.
Van Wyk’s study is a welcome contribution to the study of Pentecostalism in particular and of religion more generally because it challenges and complicates the dominant view on the role of religion in Africa (and Brazil), which is seen as mainly offering help, community, and emancipation. In this sense, the book’s emphasis on the UCKG as a contrary case could be considered a drawback, as scholars might conclude that the UCKG is an exception to the rule. It is on the implications of her analysis for the future study of Pentecostalism at large that I think Van Wyk could have elaborated more in her last concluding chapter. Even if the UCKG seems to be extreme in many ways, other work on PCCs in Africa show similar issues, such as in the case of Ghanaian churches in Botswana (van Dijk 2010), the Nigerian Redeemed Christian Church of God (Ukah 2008), and other Brazilian Pentecostal churches in Mozambique (van de Kamp 2010). That said, Ilana van Wyk’s book is important in bringing the study of global Christianity to a new level.
Linda van de Kamp
University of Amsterdam
van de KampLinda. 2011. “Converting the Spirit Spouse: The Violent Transformation of the Pentecostal Female Body in Maputo, Mozambique.” Ethnos 76 (4): 510–533.
van DijkRijk. 2010. “Social Catapulting and the Spirit of Entrepreneurialism: Migrants, Private Initiative, and the Pentecostal Ethic in Botswana.” Pp. 101–117 in Traveling Spirits: Migrants Markets and Mobilities ed. Gertrud Hüwelmeier and Kristine Krause. London: Routledge.