Book Reviews

in Religion and Society

BADER, Christopher D., F. Carson MENCKEN, and Joseph O. BAKER, Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture, 272 pp., appendix, notes, references, index. New York: New York University Press, 2017. Paperback, $25.00. ISBN 9780814791356.

Over the last 10 years or so, there has been a growing scholarly interest in the paranormal among the social sciences. This book is an important element of that renaissance of interest in the paranormal, legitimating the sociological study of a topic that has, for some time, been subject to scholarly taboos (Turner 1993; see also Hansen 2001). Paranormal America is an engaging sociological study of the contemporary American paranormal milieu. Over the course of eight chapters, Bader, Mencken, and Baker take us on an ethnographic tour of various paranormal subcultures, from Bigfoot and ghost hunters to alien abduction support groups, psychic reading circles, and glossolalia practitioners, among others.

In this respect, the book is similar to other scholarly paranormal ‘road trips’ around the US—such as Darryl Caterine’s (2011) Haunted Ground: Journeys through a Paranormal America—and paints a picture of a particularly vibrant paranormal scene. Fieldwork among these groups has also been supplemented by extensive long-range survey research conducted between 2005 and 2014, making use of the Templeton-funded Baylor Religion Survey. This gives the book a broader quantitative perspective, which is used to contextualize the more particular ethnographic portions.

The authors begin their exploration with the caveat that the book “is not … about evidence for or against the paranormal” (p. 11). Instead, their “primary interest is in the believers, how their beliefs are perceived by others, and how these beliefs influence the lives of those holding them” (ibid.). In this sense, therefore, the approach taken by the authors is a fairly standard one in the social sciences—examining belief relative to various socio-economic factors, such as age, gender, education, religious affiliation, and so on. The authors specifically limit their investigation to these traditional sociological questions, arguing that the “question of the validity of religious beliefs is … a matter that simply cannot be addressed with social scientific methods” (ibid.). Indeed, they go on to suggest that “no amount of fieldwork will grant us a picture of heaven” (ibid.). It is fair to say, then, that despite the unconventional subject matter, the study itself is a conventional sociological one—which is no bad thing.

The final chapter summarizes key findings relating to the demographics of paranormal beliefs. For example, women are more likely to believe in enlightenment-related paranormal topics than men, and economically marginalized individuals gravitate toward fortune tellers, astrology, hauntings, and Bigfoot. The highest levels of paranormal belief are correlated with moderate religiosity, while biblical literalism seems to negate belief in the paranormal. The concluding argument maintains—in agreement with other sociological studies of paranormal belief over the last 40 years (Greeley 1975; see also Castro et al. 2014)— that the paranormal is anything but abnormal. In fact, the paranormal is normal, and does not seem to be showing any signs of disappearing from public consciousness. The authors conclude that “the paranormal is clearly here to stay. Whether future authors wish to lament or cheer this fact, their arguments will be strengthened by a clear understanding of who believes in and experiences the paranormal, and in what ways” (pp. 194–195).

Now that the normality of the paranormal has been established, where do the social sciences go next? Studies such as these are essential in laying out the groundwork for future research, giving a strong sociological justification for the study of the paranormal, but the social sciences must not stop there. The challenge for the next decade, in this author’s opinion, is to push forward into new ontological domains. Perhaps by incorporating something of the comparative approach of historian of religion Jeffrey J. Kripal (2010, 2014) and the participatory and experiential approach of the late Edith Turner (1992, 2010), future researchers will be able to build on these sociological foundations and catch a glimpse of ‘heaven’, as Bader, Mencken, and Baker put it.

To conclude, this is an enjoyable and well-researched sociological study of the contemporary paranormal in America, in all of its various manifestations. The book demonstrates the ubiquity of paranormal belief and experience in the US and across the various socio-economic demarcations, and it makes interesting predictions about the future of paranormal belief in light of changing social trends. This is a vitally important contribution, but from this author’s perspective it is just the start. Now the real work begins.

Jack Hunter

Honorary Research Fellow University of Wales Trinity Saint David

REFERENCES

  • CastroMadelineRoger Burrows and Robin Wooffitt. 2014. “The Paranormal Is (Still) Normal: The Sociological Implications of a Survey of Paranormal Experiences in Great Britain.” Sociological Research Online 19 (3): 115.

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  • CaterineDarryl V. 2011. Haunted Ground: Journeys through a Paranormal America. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

  • GreeleyAndrew M. 1975. The Sociology of the Paranormal: A Reconnaissance. London: Sage.

  • HansenGeorge P. 2001. The Trickster and the Paranormal. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris.

  • KripalJeffrey J. 2010. Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • KripalJeffrey J. 2014. Comparing Religions: Coming to Terms. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

  • TurnerEdith. 1992. Experiencing Ritual: A New Interpretation of African Healing. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

  • TurnerEdith. 1993. “The Reality of Spirits: A Tabooed or Permitted Field of Study?Anthropology of Consciousness 4 (1): 912.

  • TurnerEdith. 2010. “Discussion: Ethnography as a Transformative Experience.” Anthropology and Humanism 35 (2): 218226.

BIALECKI, Jon, A Diagram for Fire: Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement, 288 pp., prologue, notes, works cited, index. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017. Paperback, $34.95. ISBN 9780520294219.

This book can be seen as a translation of charismatic experiences and conceptions of miracles into anthropological understandings. This translation from religion to social science, mediated by French philosophy, is a great achievement. In A Diagram for Fire, Bialecki analyzes the experiences of Vineyard Christians—their architectural spaces and language; their living room seminars and discussions; their doubts and mistakes, such as the challenges in “hearing God speak” (p. 96); the charismas (healing, deliverance, hearing or feeling God, etc.) and their history (from Jon Wimber and his course on miracles at the Fuller Theological Seminary); and even the font they use in their flyers (Helvetica)—in order to tease out what he calls “the charismatic diagram” (p. 83).

The diagram is a map to help the reader grasp what charismatic Christians are undertaking. The drawing of the diagram is based on minute ethnographic detail but also on high abstraction, often in the same paragraph. Bialecki shows us the diagram in operation—in living rooms, sermons, and narratives, to mention just some of the contexts we read about. He borrows the idea of the diagram from Deleuze, but in Bialecki’s presentation of this analytical tool, it becomes much clearer than in my reading of Deleuze. It is almost as if the very idea of “relations between forces” and notions of “intensity” are designed for an understanding of phenomena like “miracles” (p. 199). Of course, the notion of the diagram is wide: it can depict any social field. However, it works particularly well in an understanding of the religious (charismatic) field, for the diagram helps us comprehend what a miracle is.

However, the miracle in itself, as an isolated phenomenon (if that it possible), is not what Bialecki focuses on. Rather, the charismatic religious movement, in particular the Vineyard, is his main concern. What is it? Can it be defined? Bialecki starts the book by showing us how difficult this is. It seems that at the very moment we finally appear to have a clear idea of what the main mechanisms of the movement are, it disappears yet again. The variation seems to be endless. Bialecki’s solution is the diagram: it is a map to a specific mode of becoming, a specific field of relations where a sign (from God) generates surprise due to its ‘unnaturalness’. The space around the sign is then reorganized according to the main operating forces, that is, the willingness to accept the sign as a miracle or the unwillingness to do so, which moves in another, perhaps more skeptical direction. These relations between the willing and unwilling can occur within a person (whereby part of the person wants to accept or to ‘see’ the miracle, while another part is unconvinced) or between persons (a believer and a non-believer). According to Bialecki, however, this is not a decisive distinction for the diagram: it is not important whether the conflict between willing and unwilling is internal or external to the person. This is not a core element of the diagram.

The identification of this pattern in the diagram is interesting for the anthropology of Christianity where, for some time, the discussion of individualism has been essential (see Bialecki and Daswani 2015; Bialecki et al. 2008; Daswani 2011; Robbins 2002, 2004, 2015). Without delving into the debate as such, which is mentioned only in passing (p. 75), Bialecki argues that the key mechanism of the charismatic diagram is based not on the notion of the individual, but rather on the difference between the willing and the unwilling. One might of course ask whether the charismatic diagram in itself reflects the most central part of the Christian charismatic value system, or whether it is a phenomenon that is integral to a greater whole or even a context where the key value of the movement might not be visible as such (e.g., if this value was individualism), or where the values are inverted. This is not the frame within which Bialecki discusses the mechanisms of the Vineyard movement. Instead, he totally reframes the discussion of what these movements are about: the charismatic diagram.

The greatest analytical achievement of the charismatic diagram described here, in my opinion, is that it overcomes a key dualism, as Bialecki points out in chapter 3, which has the same title as the book. Cases where, for instance, a call for healing or deliverance is unsuccessful or where one suspects divine influence without understanding or seeing the effects are instantiations of the charismatic diagram. These denote unfulfilled or potential miracles. Bialecki argues that the mode of becoming that the diagram maps—and the difference between the relations of force that are involved—is not present or absent in an absolute sense. In other words, the question is not whether a phenomenon took place, or whether or not there is proof. Rather, if one aspect of the field of relations is not responding, the event is still there, as a ‘promise’ or a ‘potential’. It is there, hidden, but possibly visible in the next instance.

The charismatic diagram maps a mode of becoming, which also means that it maps a process of ongoing change—the main point of Bialecki’s analysis. This is more of the Deleuzian philosophy: the focus is always on becoming, on processes of differentiation. In translating these concepts from the field of philosophy into our anthropological understanding of charismatic phenomena, Bialecki bridges a very difficult ontological gap between the religious experience and social scientific understanding. Furthermore, this map to a charismatic mode of becoming might also give us clues to processes of differentiation or of change more broadly. As Bialecki concludes in one of his final paragraphs, religion, in general, is “nothing but change and its antonym, slowed down to eternity or accelerated to revolution” (p. 216). This book not only offers a portrait and an analysis of the Vineyard movement. It also considers, and suggests answers to, the very question of what religion as such is all about.

Annelin Eriksen

University of Bergen

REFERENCES

  • BialeckiJon and Girish Daswani. 2015. “Introduction: What Is an Individual? The View from Christianity.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5 (1): 271294.

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  • BialeckiJonNaomi Haynes and Joel Robbins. 2008. “The Anthropology of Christianity.” Religion Compass 2 (6): 11391158.

  • DaswaniGirish. 2011. “(In-)Dividual Pentecos tals in Ghana.” Journal of Religion in Africa 41 (3): 256279.

  • RobbinsJoel. 2002. “My Wife Can’t Break off Part of Her Belief and Give It to Me: Apocalyptic Interrogations of Christian Individualism among the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea.” Paideuma 48: 189206.

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  • RobbinsJoel. 2004. Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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  • RobbinsJoel. 2015. “Dumont’s Hierarchical Dynamism: Christianity and Individualism Revisited.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5 (1): 173195.

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BLANES, Ruy Llera, and Galina OUSTINOVA-STJEPANOVIC, eds., Being Godless: Ethnographies of Atheism and Non-Religion, 154 pp., afterword, notes, references, index. New York: Berghahn Books, 2017. Paperback, $27.95. ISBN 9781785335730.

As Matthew Engelke points out in his afterword to this timely volume, “atheism is having a ‘moment’” (p. 138). With it, the study of atheism, secularism, non-religion, or, as the editors here prefer, ‘godlessness’ has acquired a certain sense of urgency. It is a focus that has gained momentum since the fin-de-siècle/millennial critiques of prevailing secularization theses and analyses of the secularism of the social sciences in general and anthropology in particular. With these came a recognition that the ‘secular’—together with all its numerous synonyms—was best thought of not as a residual category (i.e., what is left when you remove religion), but a phenomenon that deserves attention in and of itself.

In keeping with this move, the volume’s introduction, by editors Ruy Llera Blanes and Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic, presents ‘being godless’ as “an important empirical reality” (p. 1) that is worthy of ethnographic scrutiny. Godlessness, they argue, can take multiple forms, on a continuum spanning disengagement from or indifference to religion, on the one hand, to active state-sponsored atheism, on the other—and everything in between. Reluctant to overdetermine the category of godlessness, just as they recognize the difficulties with determining its obverse—religion—they prefer a looser, ethnographically driven focus on the phenomenological realities of human reluctance to engage with “divinized beings or notions of transcendental agency” (p. 6).

This looseness of definition is a theoretical strength of the overall argument of the volume, but something of an empirical handicap. The problem is not so much the breadth of the term ‘godless’ as the range of different types of research that qualify as ‘ethnography’ among the ‘ethnographies of atheism’. Particularly in a volume that explicitly targets ‘phenomenological realities’, the use of qualitative surveys, political biographies, and intellectual histories in some of the chapters risks distancing the reader from those realities.

Despite this slight misgiving, there is much to admire in the volume as a whole. The chapters cover a range of different contexts—the UK, India, Angola, the Philippines, Taiwan, Russia, the Soviet Union, and Macedonia. Lois Lee demonstrates how, in the UK, ambivalence and indifference toward religion might be seen as concrete forms of self-identification, but play out differently for diverse social groups, depending on their relative power and different orientation toward ‘explicit’ forms of godlessness—atheism, agnosticism, humanism, and so forth. Jacob Copeman and Johannes Quack explore the attachment of self-professed atheists and rationalists to the practice of post-mortem body donation in India. Positioning the body at the center of atheist-rationalist material culture, they argue that donation can be seen as a form of gift that resolves tensions between atheism and morality.

Ruy Llera Blanes and Abel Paxe turn the tables on the prevalent assumption of African religiosity to examine the promotion of atheism in Angola. They trace the shift from traditional African religion to missionary Protestantism to atheist emancipatory socialism in the lives of key political actors and the institutions they founded and promoted. Paul-François Tremlett and Fang-Long Shih critique the transnational ‘New Atheist discourse’, as exemplified in the work of Richard Dawkins, and particularly its treatment of religion as a set of propositions or hypotheses. Using examples of spiritual healing in the Philippines and propitiation of the spirit of nuclear power in Taiwan, they argue that commitment to such (religious) practices is both much more pragmatic and much more socially embedded than the New Atheism would recognize. This explains why ‘modernity’ does not inevitably lead to godlessness.

Sonja Luehrmann examines Soviet ethnographies of religion, especially from the later Soviet period. Turning Durkheimian orthodoxy on its head, such work is rooted in a political agenda of eradication and emphasizes the corrosive and anti-social effects of religion. Luehrmann uses this to forge a critique of the current trend for ethnographic empathy in studies of religion. Important insights might just as readily emerge from a more critical, less empathetic stance toward the religious convictions of our interlocutors. Finally, Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic uses an encounter with a Sufi mystic and exorcist in Macedonia to address the issue of methodological atheism within established anthropological practice. She suggests we might usefully distinguish the cognitive from the embodied in our understanding of the ethnographic encounter. Thus, while it is common to suspend our (cognitive) disbelief when researching religion, there are perhaps stronger challenges to suspending our (embodied) ‘dispositional disbelief’. This raises the prospect of identifying an ‘atheist body’ or ‘godless body’, as others have focused on a ‘Pentecostal body’ or a ‘Catholic body’, for example.

This volume is the first in the new Berghahn series “Studies in Social Analysis.” The series is a welcome addition to the anthropological corpus, just as the volume is a welcome addition to the ongoing debates about religion and non-religion in anthropology.

Jon Mitchell

University of Sussex

CANALS, Roger, A Goddess in Motion: Visual Creativity in the Cult of María Lionza, 212 pp., notes, glossary, references, index. New York: Berghahn Books, 2017. Hardback, $120.00. ISBN 9781785336126.

As a researcher of Candomblé in Bahia, Brazil, what little previous knowledge I had of the Venezuelan María Lionza cult came from Rafael Sánchez’s (2001) wonderful chapter “Channel-Surfing: Media, Mediumship, and State Authority in the María Lionza Possession Cult (Venezuela).” For a long time, Sánchez’s text was a great inspiration for me. The María Lionza cult he described struck me as an extraordinarily ‘wild’ religious formation. Facing few attempts at canonization, and unhampered by the restraints and formalities imposed by religious institutions, the central figure of the cult, María Lionza, seemed subject to an unbridled, whirling movement of non-stop transfiguration. To add to such extravagant movements, the Venezuelan cultists welcomed ever-new spirits to their altars and possession ceremonies, ranging from Indians and blacks to Vikings and media celebrities. Sánchez’s writings on the María Lionza cult made my Candomblézeiros in Bahia look like a diffident lot. More importantly, he flauntingly exposed the limits of an anthropology geared toward capturing movement in the fixed categories of analytical thinking.

Almost two decades later, Roger Canals’s A Goddess in Motion: Visual Creativity in the Cult of María Lionza similarly highlights the cult’s dizzying fluidity, unstoppable movement, relentless transformations, and ongoing metamorphosis. And again, reading this study made me uncomfortably aware of what a strange activity we anthropologists are engaged in, trying to pin down the movement of religious life and being in our writings. There are also important differences to note. Sánchez’s work (which does not appear in Canals’s bibliographical references) describes the cult against the backdrop of populist movements in Venezuela, showing how “through its transfigurations, the cult effectively disrupts the totalizing representations of ‘people’ and ‘nation’ on which it draws” (see Sánchez 2000: 403). Canals’s book has little to say on politics, although there is a brief but interesting discussion of the cult’s relation with Chavismo. The author is more interested to bring his research findings to image theory.

Based on 10 years of research in Venezuela and Spain, during which he attended religious ceremonies and spoke with mediums, artists, and vendors of esoteric art, Canals asks why “believers and artists constantly experiment with the images of the goddess” and “put such effort into reinventing her” (p. 7). In his analysis, he compares religious images of María Lionza with “other visual representations of the goddess, such as artistic works, craftwork, murals in public spaces, or digital images created by the believers themselves” (ibid.). Moreover, he considers not only material images but also, following the propositions made by image theorist Hans Belting, the ‘corporeal images’ of possession and the ‘mental images’ of dreams and consciousness.

The result of this effort is a great ethnography that puts the much-neglected María Lionza cult on the map—and a global map at that. Chapters on the history of the cult and its different origin myths, the aesthetics at work in altars, and the manifestations of the cult in Barcelona and on the Internet offer readers a solid introduction to this thriving religious formation. Yet Canals’s ambition clearly reaches beyond ethnography, and the book can indeed be read as an interesting example of current attempts in anthropology to theorize the fact that all we ever describe are worlds-in-motion.

Canals courageously holds on to his intention to highlight the goddess ‘in motion’. We follow images of María Lionza as they move from objects to bodies, from bodies to dreams, and from the religious domains to the art world. Moreover, he introduces and discusses key concepts that might well become part of a future anthropological toolkit for the study of worlds-in-motion. In Canals’s view, “visual creativity” is understood as “one of the privileged ways in which the relationships between spirits and individuals … are negotiated and updated” (p. 8). The author therefore suggests that the study of religious formations ought to become the study of creative process. The notion of ‘intrinsic multiplicity’ refers to María Lionza’s plural identities, whereas the ‘extrinsic plurality’ of the divinity brings into view her ‘doubles’: independent divinities with their own myths and representations that can be worshipped without any reference to María Lionza, yet are easily associated with her. The notion of ‘nomadic images’ refers to the actual mobility of images, as they are posted on public transport, travel to points where religious artifacts are sold, and traverse the Internet. But it also alludes to the continuous combination and fusing of different images with each other, giving rise to hitherto unseen representations.

Here, we no longer have an anthropologist asking what María Lionza ‘means’, but one who seeks to describe the permanent process of representing her. Indeed, the one question of meaning that is being asked concerns “this incessant emergence of new images” (p. 9).

Canals’s attempt to keep movement, transformation, and process center stage had an odd effect on me: I could not help but notice a certain incongruity between his discourse on motion and the medium of a book. The immobility of printed words on white paper, the straight lines of the layout, and the somewhat predictable sequence of the chapters all stand in sharp contrast with what Casals’s words, lines, and chapters argue about the dynamics of the María Lionza cult. Looking for an escape from the stillness of the printed word, and knowing Canals to be a visual anthropologist, I went to his website, where some of his film work is available. I watched a clip in which a mother and daughter set up an altar in a forest (https://vimeo.com/155666731). Much to my surprise, these images and sounds—while obviously in motion—did not present me with the fluidity and metamorphosis mentioned in the book. The dialogue between mother and daughter is one of naming and identifying the different statues as different beings with separate identities.

Clearly, this does not mean that the movement described in the book is not there. But to me, the clip served as a reminder that laudable attempts to bring motion back into the anthropological picture—to recognize the permanent instability of life and being—should not lose sight of people’s continuous efforts to bring the unstoppable forward movement of life and being to a halt, in order to produce stability. Canals’s book taught me that these efforts might have to be called ‘fantasies’ of stability, but as such, they deserve our ongoing attention.

Mattijs van de Port

University of Amsterdam/VU University

REFERENCES

SánchezRafael. 2001. “Channel-Surfing: Media, Mediumship, and State Authority in the MaríaLionza Possession Cult (Venezuela).” In Religion and Media ed. Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber388434. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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DESJARLAIS, Robert, Subject to Death: Life and Loss in a Buddhist World, 304 pp., halftones, postscript, notes, references, index. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Paperback, $30.00. ISBN 9780226355870.

The idea that we must face death alone is widespread. It appears everywhere, across cultures and genres, from popular songs and stories to Heidegger’s assertion that “every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.” Robert Desjarlais’s brilliant exploration of death among Hyolmo people in Nepal suggests that this idea is, if not entirely incorrect, at the very least only partially true. For Hyolmo people, death is a fundamentally collective enterprise. As Desjarlais puts it: “People die as they live from the moment of their birth: among others” (p. 53). Starting with the care given to the dying, to the ritual and narrative accompaniment of the deceased’s consciousness during its sojourn in the realm between death and rebirth, to the final phases of dissolution, the living both care and labor for the dead. This commitment to, and compassion for, the dead leads Desjarlais into a profound and moving reflection on what he has learned during four decades of research with Hyolmo people, both in Nepal and in the United States.

Along with a prelude and a postscript, the book is structured in five parts, which flow more or less chronologically through illness and dying, the preparation of the corpse, cremation, mortuary rites, and the final ritual dissolution of the deceased’s consciousness. The subsections within each part are prefaced by a brief summary of the fundamental techniques at play in the relevant phase of death. As such, the book can be read almost as a ‘how to’ guide to death. A page-long summary of these instructions and injunctions in the final part of the book summarizes this Hyolmo patterning of death. The real core of the book, however, comprises the ethnographic encounters with a variety of interlocutors—many of whom speak with both wisdom and humility about mortality and what is to come—that flesh out these techniques.

Perhaps the greatest success of Subject to Death is Desjarlais’s management of the inevitable tension between the culturally particular and the universal. He writes: “Loss nicks at all of us. While it is important to note its cultural patternings, it is equally necessary to note the similarities in the wounds and in our efforts to mend them” (p. 19). Indeed, many cross-cultural themes will be immediately familiar to students of death—the pollution of the corpse, the role of affines in the funeral rites, the importance of visibility, the attraction of the living to the dead, and, of course, connections between death and new life. Although a more comparative ethnographic approach might have been fruitful, Desjarlais instead mines a productive seam of reflections upon how Hyolmo ideas have affected his own thinking about death. In doing so, he makes a clear case, both intellectually and existentially, for the value and relevance of fine-grained ethnographic studies of death.

As I hope to have made clear above, Subject to Death is indeed a very fine book, but it is not perfect (as of course, no book is). Many of the sections are somewhat repetitive, and this leads to a book that is much longer than it needs to be. Desjarlais’s writing is both beautiful and thoughtful, but at times it slips into a verbosity that exacerbates the lengthiness of the text. Perhaps this problem is no more acute than in the postscript on the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, which, to my mind at least, detracts from the heart of the book instead of adding to it. A related problem is the constant referral, even deferral, to a familiar canon of twentieth-century Continental philosophers. While I have no doubt that luminaries such as Bataille, Blanchot, Deleuze, Derrida, Levinas, and Ricoeur, among others, all have many interesting and useful things to consider about death and dying, they seem to be used here to prop up or authorize thoughts that Desjarlais’s Hyolmo informants have already stated with great eloquence and clarity. For example, we are told of Levinas’s injunction not to “leave the other alone in the face of death” (p. 55), but the ethnography that both precedes and follows this states the same thing in a more moving and convincing way than Levinas ever did, so what does Levinas add? For me, the accounts of Hyolmo people’s reflections on death are the book’s greatest strength, and the frequent recourse to the usual philosophical suspects does not always necessarily add to our understanding. Perhaps a more productive analytical dialogue could have been constructed through the comparative anthropology of death, with which the book engages relatively sparsely.

Hyolmo people, especially those of older generations, clearly know a lot about death and dying, and what they know frequently comes from first-hand experience, that is, from witnessing death, from assisting in cremations and mortuary rites, and so on. One gets the impression that this is a source of sadness but also of solace, an indirect way of preparing for one’s own death. The removal of death and dying from the public gaze in many parts of the world, so well-described in Philippe Ariès’s The Hour of Our Death, has taken death from us—has hidden death from us and us from death. Reading Subject to Death, one cannot help but feel that Ariès was right, that this has been a huge loss, one that has left us ill prepared for our own deaths. At the last two funerals I attended, a curtain simply swept in front of the coffins at the touch of a fully automated button. Today, death has never seemed farther away. Perhaps because of this, the reconnection with our mortality offered through reading Subject to Death has never been more valuable. In his prelude, Desjarlais asks: “Might anthropologizing also help one to learn how to die?” (p. 19). I have yet to reach the unavoidable moment when I will be able to answer this question definitively, but having read this book, I will hazard a guess, and say “Yes.”

Magnus Course

University of Edinburgh

ESPINOSA, Gastón, Latino Pentecostals in America: Faith and Politics in Action, 520 pages, halftones, notes, index. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. Paperback, $22.95. ISBN 9780674970915.

Gastón Espinosa’s book is one of the most recent works about the Hispanic/Latino Pentecostal movement in the United States. Its focus is on the development of the Assemblies of God (AG) community since the beginning of the twentieth century. The book undertakes an exhaustive and original effort that combines a historiography of the Latino Pentecostal movement and its political relationship within the public sphere, a diagnosis of the denominational institution, and a compilation of narratives of church members and leadership.

The book comprises twelve chapters. In the first six, the author presents a historical analysis of American Pentecostalism from its origins, demonstrating how intercultural, racial, and social dimensions were tense matrices throughout the process. Thus, it is evident that the Latino presence in North American Pentecostalism (as well as within African-American communities), especially in the AG, implied the construction of a space marked by interracial and socio-political tensions. The leadership position of Euro-Americans was constantly confronted by Latino groups—especially Mexicans and Puerto Ricans—who demanded that their leadership and work be recognized. These tensions resulted in progressive mutations within the denomination as well as an important exodus of Latin American groups, which later created independent churches that today are also representative of the Pentecostal movement within the US and Latin America.

Chapters 7 to 9 focus on the emergence of AG churches in Puerto Rico, observing that the missionary work on that island has its origins earlier than claimed by official historiographies. There, a ministry was set up by a missionary from the Azuza Street church—the recognized starting point of Pentecostalism—which emerged as a platform for the establishment of the AG as a denomination later on. The book also gives an account of the frictions that existed in the Puerto Rican leadership itself, between the groups on the island and those from the diaspora in New York City—especially from Harlem, an area of vital importance for the study of Latin American migration to the US.

The rest of the book deals with issues of AG practices in particular and Latino Pentecostalism in general. Chapter 10 examines the place of Latino women in the AG. Despite several cases of women who played a central role within the denomination—some of which are developed in this book—the author concludes that women’s place has been rather paradoxical. Beyond the possibility of pastoral ordination, women have a secondary place within the structure of the church, based on a theological discourse maintained at the institutional level by both men and women, which puts women in a position of subordination to men, since their primordial activity is to care for their families and be submissive to their spouses. Chapter 11 describes how, in spite of an ‘apolitical’ social and theological world-view within the AG, this church contributes considerably to various instances of public advocacy, from the creation of strong and extended community work with immigrants to political lobbying for immigrant legislation. The level of involvement has reached such a point that, starting in the late twentieth century, as developed with considerable detail in chapter 12, several leaders of the AG have acted as key agents of dialogue with US governments, from Reagan to Obama.

One of the main objectives of this book is to dismantle some existing preconceptions about the emergence of the Latino evangelical movement in the US and, specifically, the Latino Pentecostal movement. First, it shows that Latin Americans involved in the Pentecostal movement did not emerge from Euro-American missionary work after 1915, but were part of the Azuza Street Revival in 1906. Moreover, Latin Americans were counted as the first ‘fruits’ of Azuza’s work. Second, this book also shows that Latino churches and communities have an independent origin in several regions of the country. Their starting point was the pioneer ministry of Latin Americans and not that of Euro-American missionaries, as claimed by some ‘official’ accounts. As a result, these communities became the platform for the extension of the AG and Pentecostalism. This process started from the beginning with tensions that developed when Euro-American missionaries took over official positions in the denomination, resulting in the emergence of racial conflicts, until an institutional recognition of the Latino community more clearly took place after 1950.

Espinosa’s book not only embodies an important contribution to the study of Latin American Pentecostalism and the AG; it also provides analytical matrices that contribute to the study of this evangelical expression in the region as well as in the rest of the world. On the one hand, it deconstructs the extended linear vision of the history of evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which generally begins with the intervention of white Euro-American missionaries. It demonstrates instead the existence of an indigenous and local origin, which had to deal from the outset with racial, social, institutional, and even economic conflicts within the parameters of ecclesial institutions. On the other hand, this book also provides analytical tools to understand what might be seen as paradoxical processes of identification within evangelical groups—in other words, these groups cannot be easily located between the conservative/liberal, right/left poles.

As the analysis of the place of women demonstrates, we can see that there exists at the same time an instance of empowerment and agency—even of pressure by that sector on the patriarchal logic of the church—despite the predominant conservative theological discourse on sexuality and family models. We can also see this empowerment in AG advocacy practices. Although distancing themselves from critical theologies (such as liberation or feminist theology) and from progressive political perspectives (especially those related to sexual diversity), AG communities have been extremely active in other matters of public importance, such as immigration regulatory laws and social development. The analysis in this book is relevant for the Latino movement, not only in the US but throughout the region—and we could even say the world, through what is known as ‘global Pentecostalism’.

Nicolás Panotto

INTE Universidad Arturo Prat

FOLK, Holly, The Religion of Chiropractic: Populist Healing from the American Heartland, 366 pp., halftones, notes, bibliography, index. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Paperback, $34.95. ISBN 9781469632797.

This smart, readable cultural history uses chiropractic as both a specific study and a way of shining light on other American non-orthodox health subcultures. The two main themes that Folk finds in chiropractic, and which she believes to be an illuminating frame through which to view much ‘irregular’ medicine, are those of ‘vitalism’ and ‘populism’. Folk claims that she had originally hoped to find via these themes a “unified theory for alternative religion and medicine” (p. 12) but arrived at the more modest, and undoubtedly more realistic, proposition that they are “helpful heuristics” (ibid.) for understanding the connections, overlaps, and interfaces between alternative religious movements and alternative health cultures.

Folk’s core contention is that chiropractic blurred the lines between religion, health, and politics. Its trajectory involved complex, contested, and shifting negotiations of the boundaries between these domains and is illustrative of tensions that were “acutely felt in American culture” (p. 213), including respect for and resistance to medical authority, ambivalence about science, and the tension between reason and Romanticism.

The book’s critical apparatus, set out in the introduction, comes largely from sociology and religious studies and includes an interesting light-touch consideration of race and gender. Folk draws on an impressive range of sources from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the writings and advertorials of chiropractic’s founder D. D. Palmer and the biography written by Palmer’s son B. J. She claims that chiropractic history has largely been ignored by historians of medicine and left to chiropractors themselves (p. 7). This book thus undertakes the tricky two-way work of using religious studies scholarship to critically examine chiropractic, while also hoping to use elements of chiropractic theory to advance religious studies scholarship. This approach is one to which I am sympathetic and have tried to mobilize in my own work on the New Age. Similarly, the challenges of adopting an insider/outsider perspective—the double act of critically revealing the conceptual sleights of hand and discursive strategies of an anti-establishment practice while also finding many of its practical “lifestyle habits” (p. 8) worthy of adoption—is also one I know well. This remains latent since Folk chooses to acknowledge her implication in the practice without revealing its nature or extent.

Chapter 1 situates the ‘discovery’ of chiropractic in the mid-1890s within its broad historical and cultural context—that of Progressive Era America. The changing relations between science and religion and the overlap between religious and health discourses are important themes. The religious, political, and medical discourses of this period were characterized by factionalism, anti-authoritarianism, dogmatism, and moralization. Folk follows church historian Ernst Troeltsch in pointing out the importance of the burgeoning print industry in fostering a culture of auto-didacticism committed to education, moral improvement, and economic success(p. 21). This popular intellectual culture arose in strange tandem with a populist hostility toward formal education (p. 22).

A core philosophical context for the development and reception of chiropractic was the rise of vitalisms of different kinds. Chiropractic is underpinned by what Folk terms “vertebral vitalism” (p. 32)—a vitalism in which the central nervous system came to be understood as the key to health. In this conception, the spine was not merely a conduit for the diseases of other organs but was understood as the source of well-being or disease (pp. 35–36). Indeed, “at its most extreme versions, ‘vertebral vitalism’ was a single-cause theory of disease; it claimed the spinal cord was the only organ in the body that could become truly diseased” (p. 36).

Chapter 2 gives a biographical account of chiropractic’s founder, D. D. Palmer, a Canadian immigrant whom Folk characterizes as a “strang[e]” (p. 52), cantankerous, itinerant auto-didact who began his healing career as a magnetic healer and made his own lack of formal education “a point of personal pride” (p. 23). Palmer’s tale of the discovery of chiropractic—an incident in which a jocular slap on a deaf man’s back restored his hearing—has evolved into a foundational myth for chiropractic. Chapter 3 draws on Palmer’s writings to trace his gradual movement away from magnetism toward a theory and practice of the body that recognizably prefigure contemporary chiropractic—an approach focused on the spine and the nerves and using a language of ‘adjustment’ rather than disease and cure.

Subsequent chapters detail the achievements and struggles by which chiropractic eventually came to be “a visible part of the American social landscape” (p. 147), a narrative that demonstrates the entanglement of chiropractic’s philosophical development with institutional skirmishes and that foregrounds the “symbolic battle for leadership” (p. 189) between D. D. and his “boosterish” (p. 152) son B. J., whom D. D. saw as having “taken and corrupted his life’s work” (p. 155). This family drama was enmeshed in larger ones, including the internecine wars between different early chiropractors struggling to be understood as the true discoverers and interpreters of chiropractic; the battle to distinguish chiropractic from osteopathy; legal trials of early chiropractors and the subsequent “Go to Jail for Chiropractic” campaign of the early twentieth century; and B. J.’s attempt to follow Christian Science and obtain First Amendment protections for chiropractic by explicitly reframing it as a religion.

Such institutional struggles were accompanied by, and contained within, debates and differences within chiropractic theory, such as the legitimacy of ‘mixing’ chiropractic with other forms of ‘natural’ healing. Some theoretical developments—like the idea of subluxation and the conception of the body’s innate intelligence—remain central today, as do the tensions between those who see chiropractic as purely scientific, compared with the “small but vocal contingent within the profession” who see chiropractic not only as a health practice but also as “a full, systematic theology” (p. 52).

While the details of this history will be of interest mostly to historians and chiropractors, the thematics and analysis are useful to philosophers and to scholars of religion, spirituality, and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Having explored the New Age within cultural studies rather than religious studies, I found that the book gave me an enriched historical context for understanding the rise of the New Age—one that expanded the familiar outline of its grounding in the nineteenth-century American metaphysical religions into an understanding of the role of Progressive Era culture more broadly in shaping beliefs and stances that continue to this day in New Age subcultures. The analysis suggests numerous antecedents to New Age culture beyond familiar accounts of its core metaphysical propositions such as vitalism and metaphysical disease causation, including a broader cultural valuing of intuition and a belief in the “efficacy of ideas” (p. 76; original italics), as well as the axiomatic belief that “thoughts are things” (p. 77). It also delineates a host of more stylistic and discursive elements recognizable in New Age culture: a distrust of formal education, a culture of auto-didacticism, “therapeutic pluralism”(p. 66), theoretical eclecticism, a “radically individualist epistemology” (p. 23), the strategic use of science and scientific metaphors, the “integration of content from the realms of science and religion” (p. 76), and the sincere belief of many practitioners that they have discovered some unique healing power (p. 75).

The analysis is equally interesting for two key differences it posits between chiropractic and other forms of alternative (or, to adopt Folk’s preferred term, ‘irregular’) medicine—those of gender and social reach. Whereas the popular healing modalities taken up in the US in the latter half of the twentieth century via the New Age are distinctly feminized, both demographically and discursively, chiropractic was and is characterized by its masculinized “feistiness” (p. 17), and its dynastic workings (p. 6) played an important role from the very start. In common with most New Age modalities, its practitioner base is largely white, but in contrast to the predominantly middle-class and counter-cultural New Age, its core demographic was and continues to be America’s conservative heartlands (p. 78).

It is always fun to cherry-pick historical curiosities, especially medical ones. My favorite from this book is Folk’s account of the “rather common belief that masturbation led to curvature of the spine” (p. 37)—which gives a whole new meaning to bad posture.

Ruth Barcan

University of Sydney

HANNIG, Anita, Beyond Surgery: Injury, Healing, and Religion at an Ethiopian Hospital, 256 pp., halftones, notes, references, index. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. Paperback, $27.50. ISBN 9780226457291.

Beyond Surgery presents a compelling ethnography of a specialist hospital in Ethiopia, the Bahir Dar Fistula Center, where surgical repair is offered for maternal childbirth injuries. Hannig invites readers to look beyond any notion that the significance of this process might be limited to its technical, bioscientific accomplishments. She explores how families, communities, and the affected women themselves deal with the transformations wrought by fistula. Central to this are questions of women’s agency, narratives of cultural failings, and the guiding religious sensibilities that give shape to the values and actions of both patients and staff.

Obstetric fistula occurs due to breakdown of the tissue separating the bladder and vagina or the rectum and vagina. Typically caused by the stresses of abnormally prolonged labor in the absence of timely obstetric intervention, it results in chronic incontinence of urine and/or feces, and often additional health-related complications. Further consequences, according to prevailing discourses about the condition, include divorce, abandonment, and isolation, as repulsed kin and neighbors invariably turn the sufferer into a social outcast, confining her to a segregated hut and banishing her from family and community life. Surgery therefore offers not only physical recovery, but social resurrection. Without ever downplaying the enormous improvements that the operation can make to women’s quality of life, Hannig dismantles the misrepresentations in this narrative of pariahs and salvation. She shows how it systematically erases the ongoing social and familial relationships that these women maintain and explores the differing experiences of the women for whom cure is not, or only partially, achieved. The notion that abandonment by families is widespread is revealed to have little foundation in fact, although it exercises enormous power over funders and care staff.

The first two chapters describe what women at the hospital told Hannig about their post-fistula lives in their communities. These accounts reveal that they exercise more agency than is realized: it is often the women themselves who initiate marital separation, sometimes against the will of their husbands. In her writing, Hannig negotiates complex terrain with sensitivity, showing that while these women rarely find themselves shunned or banished from social spaces, insecurities and shame (hafret) about their ‘leaking’ lead to self-regulation and the decision to withdraw from certain activities. A key priority is how they can continue to participate within the Orthodox Church when their condition puts them at risk of causing ‘pollution’, which, in a holy setting, would violate core religious values. They wonder if they face religious exclusion and how best to react. Hannig’s analysis situates this dilemma within the symbolism and normative practices that make it such a critical concern, concluding that the way Orthodox worship is structured allows for gradations of (im)purity and enables meaningful forms of involvement to be maintained.

The book’s focus then shifts from the community to the institutions that provide treatment. Chapter 3 charts the origins of fistula treatment in Ethiopia in Protestant missionary medicine, and how this ethos remains significant in present-day efforts. Successive governments have placed marked restrictions on religious proselytizing activities by overseas organizations, while aiming to retain access to the material resources and expertise provided by their aid, and Hannig shows how the fistula relief centers have navigated these constraints.

Chapters 4 and 5 engage with the treatment center, where religious sensibilities permeate daily life. This is evident not just in the religious parallels that can commonly be identified in places where life, death, and health routinely come into play (van der Geest 2005), but also in the direct concerns of both the patients—as they contemplate how to reconcile the hospital dietary requirements with their fasting obligations and wonder what God has in store for them in the operating room—and the clinicians, who consistently attribute their skills and achievements to divine assistance and are seen as “priests of the body” (p. 131). Occasionally, mild tensions stem from the institutional encounter between Protestant and Orthodox understandings of spirituality. While this is analytically revealing in terms of what contrasts people find salient, any disruptions they cause are minimal.

Moral education takes place in the hospital, but apart from weekly screenings of the evangelical film Jesus (which, according to Hannig, is of limited interest to the women), it focuses mostly on the adoption of modern practices, the promotion of medical science, and the rejection of bad bahil (traditional culture). Bahil is employed by the center’s staff as an umbrella term for early marriage, patriarchal oppression, and ‘non-engagement’ with medical services. Hannig critiques the prominence afforded to cultural practices—or, as she puts it, “cultural pathology” (p. 117)—in public health communications about childbirth injuries as misleading, arguing convincingly that it downplays or conceals the significance of structural inadequacies in health care and obstetric services in particular.

Chapter 6 relocates to Desta Mender, a colony founded in 2003 near Addis Ababa for women for whom full fistula repair has proved impossible and who therefore live with urostomy bags. Its recent history, and the changes in institutional ethos it has undergone during that time, offers insights into the wider shift toward responsibilization and self-reliance that has become hegemonic in contemporary development efforts. It also underlines once more the shakiness of the assumption that women entering the colony are already shut off from social networks in their own communities.

Beyond Surgery extends the burgeoning literature on hospital ethnography, showing how a surgical setting can serve as a lens through which the study of experiences of biomedical care and the study of religious concerns and practices can result in mutually informative findings. This intersection is underexplored in the Ethiopian context and is very much welcomed. A further key contribution of this analysis lies in how it complicates the apparently straightforward fistula repair narratives of twinned medical and social salvation that have been adopted and reproduced uncritically by faith-based and secular NGOs and donors alike. Important questions are raised about the appeal and effects of discourses of ‘abandonment’ (cf. Pinto 2014), which simplify or misrepresent what is happening on the ground.

It might be considered a limitation that the ethnography never really ventures outside the repair and rehabilitation settings. Hannig describes the ‘concentric’ model of worship in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (p. 79), with congregants coming closer to the center the greater their relative state of purity, and those in a state of impurity participating from outside the church walls. In something of a figure reversal, her ethnographic understanding of family care, religious practice, and interactions in the community appears to be gained entirely from what women tell her during ethnographic interviews within the hospital walls, and we do not meet any of the relatives, neighbors, or healers in the women’s lives. Hannig is open about this and the ethical arguments that dissuaded her from attempting to extend her ethnography into homes and communities. Indeed, it is hard to envisage how such intrusiveness could be justified, given that her informants were trying hard to minimize the public visibility of their condition. Thus, while one might occasionally wish for some of the discussion to be more ethnographically rooted in family and community life, the fact that it is not does not detract from the text’s accomplishments and value as a highly readable example of critical medical anthropology that engages productively with the anthropology of religion.

David M. R. Orr

University of Sussex

REFERENCES

  • PintoSarah. 2014. Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

  • van der GeestSjaak. 2005. “‘Sacraments’ in the Hospital: Exploring the Magic and Religion of Recovery.” Anthropology & Medicine 12 (2): 135150. Descola Philippe. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture. Trans. Janet Lloyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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HAYNES, Naomi, Moving by the Spirit: Pentecostal Social Life on the Zambian Copperbelt, 224 pp., illustrations, notes, references, index. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017. Paperback, $34.95. ISBN 9780520294257.

In Naomi Haynes’s book, ‘moving’ is an important value for Zambian Pentecostals. It is in part about economic progress and in part about spiritual breakthrough. But how do Zambian Pentecostals evaluate such a combined movement? This is one of the central questions Haynes asks in her beautifully written book. Critiquing a neo-liberal account of Pentecostalism that highlights the breakdown in social relations, Haynes instead draws attention to its creative and productive abilities to sustain relationships through periods of economic instability. Building on Robbins’s notion of the ‘anthropology of the good’, Haynes views Pentecostals as working toward a better life. However, in order to know what the ‘good’ is, it becomes important to first understand which values are being prioritized (what Haynes refers to as ‘value as a noun’) and how they are connected to social life (or ‘value as a verb’).

Dumont is central to Haynes’s understanding of value. On the one hand, Pentecostalism provides new ways for cultural values on the Copperbelt, such as ‘living well’, to be realized. On the other hand, what is unique about Pentecostalism is what Haynes calls “moving by the Spirit” (p. 12), which highlights the importance of the prosperity gospel that encompasses traditional notions of advancement but which also brings a dimension of novelty through the concept of ‘charisma’. Pentecostalism comes to play a central role in mediating movement, and ‘moving by the spirit’ is that larger whole in which two subvalues—prosperity and charisma—circulate and where charisma is ranked higher than prosperity.

Haynes paints a different picture of the Copperbelt, which is often portrayed as a place of despair and economic upheaval. She describes how Zambia’s economy has waxed and waned over the years and how this temporal rhythm has allowed Zambians, especially the emerging middle class, to have hope for the future. Such optimism is enabled by the economic diversity of the township where Haynes did her research, in which residents build relationships with neighbors of different backgrounds. In chapter 2, Haynes recounts how the asymmetry between two women neighbors who attend the same Pentecostal church opened up a space for friendship where each helps pull the other along. Another way support systems work is through chilimba groups—rotating credit associations that allow individuals to make investments that are outside their ordinary flow of income. Other committees help solicit financial contributions to social events such as bridal showers or ‘kitchen parties’. These different support systems become spaces for Pentecostalism to operate and for church members to invest in their religious leaders as “icons of value” (p. 128).

For Haynes, who conducted research with three small congregations (chaps. 3 and 4), Pentecostalism is structured around social relationships. The experience of horizontality and verticality through which relationships are produced is what makes Pentecostalism appealing and productive. Haynes gives the example of church services in which “collective-personal prayer” (p. 63) allows everyone to experience the Holy Spirit and to demonstrate a sense of egalitarianism. It is during the sermons that pastoral authority takes over and divine power is transmitted to others. This ‘charisma’ also leads to the creation of asymmetrical ties between church leaders and members. According to Haynes, ‘charisma’ and ‘prosperity’ are gendered categories (chap. 5), where the female orientation is identified with prosperity and the male orientation with charisma. Even when women become pastors, such cases of reversal, where prosperity encompasses charisma, work at less important levels of social life (such as the household or small fellowships) and does not contradict the dominant subvalue of charisma. Although a woman can sometimes preach like a man, men continue to hold charismatic power.

In chapters 6 and 7, Haynes describes how the ‘prosperity gospel’ can threaten Pentecostal social life and disrupt the idea of equality or democratic access to pastors. The giving of ‘gifts’ introduces moral ambiguity in instances when more substantial ‘seed offerings’ create special relationships between pastors and church members (‘super-members’) or when the gift given does not result in a return. Pastors become ‘corruptible’ if they are seen to favor prominent members, and ‘jealous’ members can disrupt church unity by leaving. In chapter 8, Haynes sees such divisions as an ongoing effort “to connect with the divine more effectively” and as “a commentary on value” (p. 156). In her conclusion, Haynes suggests that Pentecostalism is globally popular because it is able to balance being accommodating and critical and “resonates with local concerns” (p. 161).

This book is an important contribution to the anthropology of Christianity. It speaks to a wide range of themes: the anthropology of the good, gender, reciprocity and the gift, and value. Yet one wonders how much of this value of ‘moving by the spirit’ causes Pentecostalism to simply reaffirm itself in a way that does not contradict the ‘whole’. How do we account for non-Pentecostal divergences? What do we do when religious life is not simply about the good? In order to truly understand the difference Christianity makes, one has to also decenter Christianity and assess how religious life is not always about reconfirming the whole, but about partial connections to other ways of being and knowing. These questions signal further interest and do not detract from this well-written ethnography about how Pentecostalism in Zambia is an important site of value and a process of valuation that makes ‘moving’ possible.

Girish Daswani

University of Toronto

INGMAN, Peik, Terhi UTRIAINEN, Tuija HOVI, and Måns BROO, eds., The Relational Dynamics of Enchantment and Sacralization: Changing the Terms of the Religion Versus Secularity Debate, 292 pp., illustrations, notes, index. Sheffield: Equinox, 2016. Paperback, $29.95. ISBN 9781781794753.

Questions concerning secularity and modernization have been on the forefront of social sciences since their origins. This collection testifies to the continuing allure of these issues when thinking about the experience and politics of religion. While much of the secularism debate has revolved around the plural character of religion as a matter of belief, little attention has been paid to the implications of secularism in positioning religious practices outside the realm of acceptable modern politics. Secularism therefore can be seen as a particular expression of the broader project of modernity. As argued by Bruno Latour (1993), one of the main inspirations behind this collection, modernity entails the constitution of one impenetrable realm—that of nature, which has been separated from society with the consequent denial of the legitimate existence of hybrids, elements resulting from the entanglement of features belonging to both the social and the natural realm. The articles presented in this volume contribute to the ongoing debate on secularism by drawing attention to the resistance of religious practices when confronted with different projects of modernization. This resistance does not need to be overt. It often unfolds as a process by which non-human subjects are made proliferate and partake in complex relational dynamics. This is, I believe, the core of the novelty of this collection.

In approaching the ontological effects that emerge from religious practices, the editors of this volume have identified two processes as pivotal to the constitution of non-human agencies: enchantment and sacralization. As stated in the introduction, enchantment and sacralization are terms “especially felicitous for attending to political matters of concern, considering how much politics involve the negotiation of boundaries of what is important, what is worth protecting, and who or what is allowed to influence decision-making” (p. 12). Of the two terms, the more compelling in illustrating the ontological effects of religious practices, and thus in offering a critique against modernist understandings of religion, seems to me to be enchantment, given the more enunciative and intentional nature of the idea of sacralization.

For many contributors to this collection, enchantment is a technology capable of instituting the necessary conditions for intersubjective relations with non-humans. McWilliams, for instance, in debunking the role of museums, which consign “powerful objects to a sterile vitrine, in which they are forced to be merely beautiful” (p. 259), draws attention to the role of the humanities, as understood within the traditional framework of scientific analysis, in contributing to the ‘disenchantment of the world’—something that Weber saw as a necessary condition for the establishment of a rational society. Yet McWilliams also recognizes that aesthetic approaches to religious objects, such as those on display in museums, might not necessarily lead to yet another reinstatement of the project of modernity. To paraphrase Latour, “we have never been disenchanted.” Any action, whether intentional or not, can elicit the disenchantment of powerful non-humans, but it is often met with a recalcitrant attitude by these very agents. Many of the chapters in this volume offer empirical insights into the implications of enchantment for the constitution of complex human and non-human assemblages in social contexts, generally understood as secular. It is not by chance, then, that many contributors have drawn on research about regions like Scandinavia that have often been too hastily labeled as secular, where uncanny encounters with entities from the more-than-human world, such as angels, can become part of an apparently secular everyday life.

This collection is a fascinating mix of theoretical and empirically oriented contributions from multiple disciplines, creating a space for dialogue among researchers from anthropology, art history, and religious studies. Drawing on recent theoretical developments in nonrepresentational theory and new materialism, the book will be of interest to any reader looking to rethink religion beyond its connotation as belief and to situate it as a central element of current debates on ontological pluralism. In the spirit of constructive criticism, I would like to identify three shortcomings, inevitably built around my own anthropological upbringing, which I hope can be helpful for future engagements with these issues.

My first hesitation comes from the working definition of animism adopted by many of the contributors to this collection. Inspired by Harvey’s insights on the new animism, the volume at times tends to conflate animism with any existence of non-human agencies, including in contexts, such as Roman Catholicism, where relations with powerful non-humans are dictated by an overall prominence of the principle of transcendentalism. It might be worth while to expand a working definition of animism with insights from social contexts, where immanence is the defining cosmological trait. As noted by Philippe Descola (2013), among many other researchers familiar with Amerindian anthropology, animism stands as a virtual inversion of naturalist ontologies by positioning the body as the site of subjectivity, both human and non-human. In animistic societies, the main ontological differentiator between entities is characterized by a continuity of interiorities (e.g., subjectivity, intellect, soul) and, consequently, a discontinuity of exteriorities (e.g., the body). I believe that insights from animistic conceptions of body/soul can be fruitful when examining the dynamics of enchantment discussed in this volume.

My second concern refers to the internal division of the volume into three sections dedicated to animism, political concerns, and academic concerns. The division between political and academic concerns, in particular, might give rise to potential misunderstandings of the last section as a general umbrella for works not dealing directly with the politics of religion or animism. And finally, I believe that the debate on the politics of secularization could have benefited from a more direct focus on overt religious conflicts, especially outside Europe, given the presence of several works on European religious expressions that do not deal directly with tensions over secularization.

Piergiorgio Di Giminiani

Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile

REFERENCES

  • DescolaPhilippe. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture. Trans. Janet Lloyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • LatourBruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

JOKIC, Zeljko, The Living Ancestors: Shamanism, Cosmos and Cultural Change among the Yanomami of the Upper Orinoco, 296 pp., illustrations, bibliography, index. New York: Berghahn Books, 2015. Hardback, $130.00. ISBN 9781782388173.

Shamanic experience, transitions between life and death, and invisible realities lie at the core of this book. Jokic offers a detailed ethnography of Yanomami shamanic practices based on fieldwork in 1999–2000, intertwined with a description of the ancestral continuum of the Yanomami, cosmic differentiations, and ongoing transformations. His account is largely based on his dialogues with male Yanomami shamans and is shaped by a phenomenological approach to the spirit world.

The book is divided into eight chapters. The first provides a background to the subjects of the research: the Yanomami, an indigenous group living in the Amazonian rainforest area in Venezuela. The second chapter looks at the Yanomami macrocosmos through mythical accounts of it; the third, the intentional spirit powers affecting Yanomami health and the body; the fourth, shamanic initiation; the fifth, the practice of shamanic powers; the sixth, the ambiguous role of shamans. The seventh chapter explores hybrid forms of shamanic cure and Western health care, while the eighth and final chapter discusses the disinterest of current generations in becoming a grand shaman.

The central chapter of the book, chapter 4, examines a lengthy shamanic initiation ritual that the author followed during the course of his fieldwork. Describing how to become a shapori (shaman) and how hekura (spirit forces and auxiliary spirits) are received and incorporated among the Yanomami, this chapter is the most extensive in the volume. The author’s main interlocutor is a young man, Arawё, whose intention is to incorporate his late father’s hekura. Weaving together elements described in other chapters—such as multiple soul components, archaic humanity in the form of the hekura, single parts standing for a macrocosmos, the use of shamanic plant substances, and the domestication of spirit powers—the initiation demonstrates that hekura, living ancestors portrayed in detail both literally and visually through photographs of Arawё’s spirit encounters, are to be taken very seriously. Jokic’s focus on Arawё offers convincing descriptions of how hekura can cause illness or death but can also constitute the source of power and knowledge. Yanomami biopolitics, in which invisible forces play a great role, dictate that hekura can attack a person at any time, a state of affairs the author successfully describes.

In chapter 5, Jokic provides a good bibliographical overview of studies on dreams, including those in Western science. Yet further references to, and comparisons with, other Amazonian ethnographies would have provided a more complex understanding of the practice and role of dreaming in this region. The same applies with regard to Amazonian studies of witchcraft, a subject and set of practices that have been generously documented.

The volume presents a male perspective on the Yanomami world, and it would be of interest for readers to know more about the value of women’s shamanic knowledge in the community. It is noted in many parts of the book that women are excluded from shamanic practices among the Yanomami, but Jokic also hints several times that women have specific curing skills obtained through ancestral knowledge. It would therefore have been of benefit to include a female perspective on the world of the primordial ancestors.

The Living Ancestors also recounts the author’s own experiences of becoming a shaman novice and his gradual initiations according to Yanomami shamanic training. Thus, the book is a refreshing personal account of an anthropologist’s inner journey to experience reborn ancestral spirits as well as states of altered consciousness. Consequently, another element that would have been fascinating to include in the analysis would have been a discussion, at a methodological level, of the value of producing participatory ethnography.

The book ends with a postscript describing the social and cultural situation of the Yanomami since the author’s first field trip almost two decades earlier. It would have been interesting to know what the Yanomami thought about Jokic’s scholarly work on their living ancestors and what kind of effects, if any, they expected as a result of the publication. These unanswered questions notwithstanding, The Living Ancestors can be recommended as providing a foundation for anyone interested in shamanism, Amazonian ethnography, medical anthropology, consciousness studies, or comparative religion.

Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen

University of Helsinki

LOUIS, Bertin M., Jr., My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas, 200 pp., notes, references, index. New York: New York University Press, 2015. Hardback, $75.00. ISBN 9781479809936.

What does it mean to be Pwotestan (Protestant) in Haiti and in the Haitian diaspora’s religious life in the Bahamas? What are the distinctions between Pwotestan and devout Haitian Protestant migrants who call themselves Kretyen (Christian)? How do these forms of identity making reveal deeper dynamics of discrimination, exploitation, and marginalization of Haitian Protestant migrants in the Bahamas? How does the Kretyen behavior help migrants reflect upon new forms of Haitian citizenship and nationalism? Bertin M. Louis, Jr., seeks to answer these questions in his ethnography of Haitian Protestant migrants in the Bahamas. His monograph is a remarkable presentation of the growing participation of Haitians across borders in Protestant forms of Christianity, contributing with rich ethnographic data to the study of Haitian Protestantism and emphasizing the intellectual motives behind its beliefs and practices.

The book is based on the author’s participant observation in the religious lives of pastors and members of three prominent Haitian churches in New Providence—two Baptist churches and one Nazarene church—along with previous research experience in Protestant churches and Protestant milieus in the United States and in Haiti. He took part in various religious rituals and church activities and conducted semi-structured interviews with specific members of the religious communities. Based on his findings, he constructs in this book a Haitian Protestant habitus—rules of appearance and comportment—and a Haitian Protestant worldview—their faith, opinions, and self-understanding as Protestants and migrants—within the framework of Bahamian society and Haitian transnationalism.

The author describes in depth how devout Haitian Protestants distinguish themselves from other migrants in their diasporic religious community. Drawing upon symbolic boundaries theory, transnationalism theory, and modernization theory, Louis explains how Bahamians, Haitian Protestants, and Bahamians of Haitian descent view their own identities in the Bahamas and Haiti. Bahamians constitute an ethnic boundary against Haitians and their progeny and legitimize this discrimination to maintain a Haitian under-class in Bahamian society. The oppression against Haitians is promoted by the Bahamian state and codified in Bahamian migration laws. Devout Protestant migrants use three main categories—Kretyen, Pwotestan, and moun ki poko konvèti (people who have not converted to Protestantism)—to differentiate themselves from other migrants. In the case of Kretyen, they use symbolic boundaries to criticize the community behavior of Haitians in the Bahamas as part of a transnational moral agenda for Haitian politics. Kretyen in the Bahamas understand that Haiti’s crises derive from religious problems among the Haitian people who fail to follow ‘authentic’ Protestant beliefs and practices, thereby condemning the future of the country.

Haitian Protestant migrants turn to Protestantism to live a dignified life in the Bahamas. However, Haitians in the Bahamas are considered a threat to the nation’s sovereignty and stability; they are continuously stigmatized, marginalized, and exploited in their labor. According to the author, contemporary Bahamian identity is based on an anti-Haitian sentiment that maintains this migrant group in a permanent underclass. Also, Bahamian laws that intend to safeguard employment opportunities for Bahamians increase the vulnerability of Haitian workers. Louis highlights the fact that children born to Haitian migrants in the Bahamas are not Bahamian citizens regardless of their parents’ migratory status, spending “a lifetime as aliens in the country of their birth” (p. 66). Because of these discriminatory laws, many Haitian migrants and Bahamians of Haitian descent turn to religion to cope with these forms of marginalization and exploitation, with the church as the primary institution that deals with these issues. In this context, Haitian migrants practice Protestant Christianity to endure the predicament they experience daily, which also motivates some Haitian migrants to start attending church and converting. In the case of Bahamians of Haitian descent, church participation and conversion is a way to adjust to their status as second-class citizen and to integrate into a Haitian form of identity that is free of social stigma.

Devout Haitian Protestant migrants judge the behavior and appearance of others to set the boundaries of authentic religious life in the secular world, distinguishing between Kretyen, Pwotestan, and moun ki poko konvèti. People who are thought of as moun kipoko konvèti include Bahamians, Haitians who practice Vodou, and Haitian Catholics. Under Kretyen understandings, how people behave and dress reflect who they are as Christians. Moreover, they reinforce these standards of appearance and behavior with fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible. Through participation in numerous church activities and prayer, Haitian migrants construct a Christian karacktè (character), which guides human action in every possible social setting while living “in a foreign country that exploits and oppresses them” (p. 111). In contrast, Pwotestan are those who participate in church activities and believe in God, but fail to have a Protestant Christian conscience—that is, they do not regret the sins they have committed or pray to extinguish sinful desires.

Overall, this monograph is rich in ethnographic data and dialogues with the scholarly work of Haitian religious studies and the anthropology of Christianity, refreshing with new evidence the academic discussion on conversion, beliefs, and practices of Protestantism among marginalized and oppressed communities such as the Haitian diaspora in the Caribbean. Perhaps one of the most thought-provoking findings of this ethnography is the link between a Haitian migrant’s individual salvation and the salvation of Haiti, a nation immersed in a long-term social, political, and economic crisis. According to Haitian Protestant Christians in the Bahamas, Haiti’s salvation and stability depend on compliance with ideas, morals, and practices associated with the Kretyen character.

These ideas profile a specific form of political agency in a transnational context. The individual practice of Protestant Christianity as nationalism personifies the perfect example of Haitian citizenship, which can transform Haiti, “through the power of God and its citizens, from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere to a nation where Haitians can lead dignified lives” (p. 140). Louis presents devout Haitian Protestantism and its new form of citizenship as a project whose primary objective is to transform Haiti into a respected nation based on the religious beliefs and practices of Protestant purity, rendering the modernization project of progress into a better future for Haiti.

Sofía Ugarte

University of Cambridge

ROBERTSON, David G., UFOs, Conspiracy Theories and the New Age: Millennial Conspiracism, 264 pp., illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. Paperback, $35.96. ISBN 9781350044982.

As David Robertson notes in the prologue to this book, any investigation into New Age spirituality will sooner or later encounter so-called conspiracy theories, often in the company of unidentified flying objects (p. 3). It therefore made sense to him to address conspiracism, UFOs, and the New Age together in order to ascertain the nature of their connectedness, which has heretofore received only peripheral or piecemeal treatment, however scholarly.

The resulting monograph examines the emergence in the late twentieth century of a distinctive ‘millennial conspiracism’ as New Age millennialism engaged conspiracist apocalypticism, with the Anglophone cultic milieu as the context for—and UFOs as the primary object of—this “discursive transfer”

(p. 166). Robertson argues that disaffected ‘subscribers’ to both New Age and conspiracist discourses found millennial conspiracism a satisfying way to explain their perceived disenfranchisement, as well as a valuable way to accumulate epistemic capital—Robertson’s extension of Bourdieu’s toolkit from “what you know” to “how you can know” (p. 29). In the theoretical second chapter, Robertson lists five discursive strategies employed by actors in the UFO–New Age field to “seize the means of cognition” (p. 207), two of them (traditional, scientific) consonant with and three of them (experiential, synthetic, channeling) counter to the dominant episteme as elaborated and defended by “traditional religious institutions and academia” (p. 27).

Three Anglophone ‘counter-experts’—Whitley Strieber, David Icke, and David Wilcock—each receive their own chapter-length study at the book’s heart. In addition to applying a close critical reading to these authors’ outputs, Robertson participated in public events featuring interaction between the authors and their subscribers and among the subscribers themselves, collecting limited survey data regarding the latter’s demographic characteristics and conspiracist views.

That this work was published in a series meant to advance theory and method within religious studies raises two unavoidable criteria for its appraisal. The theoretical contribution, as stated in an introductory first chapter and elaborated in a concluding seventh, is, first, to replace ‘beliefs’ with epistemologies and discourses in their social context and, second, to introduce more self-conscious relativism and reflexivity (via application of the emic-etic distinction) into conceptualizing the relation between religious studies and its object.

The book’s methodological advance is less obvious. While emphasizing the importance (and relative infrequency in religious studies) of discourse analysis on textual and audiovisual sources, Robertson appears to consider his study’s innovation to be the pairing of discourse analysis with participant observation. As yet, the field of religious studies offers only a few ethnographic examinations of New Age spirituality (e.g., Sutcliffe 2003), with even those tending to treat belief and agency unproblematically, leading to paradoxically insufficient efforts to socially contextualize their subjects (see Wood 2010). To its credit, Robertson’s book exhibits sensitivity to how situated social actors understand themselves and construct and contest discourses dialogically.

As an anthropologist whose own work engages with religious studies, I endorse Robertson’s call to incorporate “anthropological fieldwork” (p. 22) and increase theoretical attention to context and reflexivity. Thus, I was initially heartened but ultimately disappointed with how these intentions are carried out in the book. First, both the bibliography and the text reflect an incomplete awareness of recent anthropological research on New Age spirituality (e.g., Brown 1997) and on UFOs (e.g., Battaglia 2005) in comparison to that on conspiracism.

Second, the research as described does not approach the intensity or duration of even those ethnographic studies that are cited (e.g., Palmer 2004). The effect is treating fieldwork as a supplement to discourse analysis rather than as a co-equal contributor of data and insights.1 How might the contextualization of English-speaking subscribers to millennial conspiracism—or the formulation of millennial conspiracism itself—have changed if Robertson had engaged with subscribers in person over a longer period of time (cf. Lepselter 2016) or compared them to people integrating UFOs into “all-encompassing explanatory systems” (p. 72) in another cultural context (cf. Saethre 2007)?

Third, given its professed perspective, methods, and aims, the book stops short of a fully anthropological reflexivity that might have truly taken religious studies in a new direction. For instance, what are the aspirations for and complications of Robertson’s self-framing as a ‘social scientist’? Is it not simply to avoid alienating his subjects but also to position himself within religious studies? Does this make him, in context, a counter-expert and therefore susceptible to the analysis he applies to Strieber, Icke, and Wilcock?

Even taking those concerns into account, this book provides a solid and valuable investigation of the connections among seemingly disparate communities and discourses. Robertson obviously read widely and thoughtfully on new religions, UFOs, and conspiracism, and the resulting work offers a strong, insightful synthesis of those materials. The third chapter lays out one of the best short summaries of the Cold War context for Anglophone millennialism and conspiracism I have encountered. I can only hope that religious studies bends toward the path Robertson lays out, even as I wish his book could have gone further in that direction.

Ryan J. Cook

Lake Forest College

Notes
1

For more balanced examples of such integration, see Krzyżanowski (2001) or Macgilchrist and Van Hout (2011).

REFERENCES

  • BattagliaDebbora ed. 2005. E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • BrownMichael F. 1997. The Channeling Zone: American Spirituality in an Anxious Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • KrzyżanowskiMichał. 2011. “Ethnography and Critical Discourse Analysis: Towards a Problem-Oriented Research Dialogue.” Critical Discourse Studies 8 (4): 231238. doi:10.1080/17405904.2011.601630.

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  • LepselterSusan. 2016. The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics Power Captivity and UFOs in the American Uncanny. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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  • MacgilchristFelicitas and Tom Van Hout. 2011. “Ethnographic Discourse Analysis and Social Science.” Forum: Qualitative Social Research 12 (1). doi:10.17169/fqs-12.1.1600.

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    • Export Citation
  • SaethreEirik. 2007. “Close Encounters: UFO Beliefs in a Remote Australian Aboriginal Community.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13 (4): 901915.

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  • SutcliffeSteven J. 2003. Children of the New Age: A History of Spiritual Practices. London: Routledge.

  • WoodMatthew. 2010. “W(h)ither New Age Studies? The Uses of Ethnography in a Contested Field of Scholarship.” Religion and Society: Advances in Research 1: 7688.

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ROCHA, Cristina, John of God: The Globalization of Brazilian Faith Healing, 288 pp., halftones, notes, references, index. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Paperback, $31.95. ISBN 9780190466718.

John of God presents a fascinating study that follows in Karen McCarthy Brown’s (1991) footsteps of a multi-sited ethnography. While Brown followed Mama Lola’s journeys between Brooklyn and Haiti, Rocha portrays in her ethnography the transnational spiritual community around the Brazilian faith healer known as John of God. As Rocha outlines from the start, John of God and his growing community of followers present a perfect case study for a new type of research that is no longer limited by conventional categories such as spiritualism and religion. While spirituality used to be defined as private and religion as belonging to the public sphere linked to religious institutions, John of God does not fit into either category, at least not since he became an internationally recognized figure. John of God does not adhere to a religious institution and would consequently be categorized within a spiritual spectrum. Nonetheless, he is part of a public, even international domain with healing events across the globe and tour guides selling tickets to his shows online. The John of God movement shows the merging and intersection of the private and the public religious spheres (p. 7) that is so representative of the twenty-first century and can be seen, following Heelas and Woodhead’s argument (2005), as a characteristic of late modernity.

In the late 1990s, John of God was known as João de Deus, whom Rocha describes as “an illiterate, mostly unknown, faith healer in a village in the middle of nowhere in Brazil” (p. 3). A decade later he had become an international superstar, and even Oprah Winfrey who had previously interviewed some of his followers on The Oprah Show, went to visit him in his main healing center. In addition to numerous publications, television documentaries, and films uploaded on YouTube and other social media platforms, John of God offers huge healing events in a range of countries, which has led to the establishment of overseas branches of the Brazilian healing center.

This book is based on extensive and longtime fieldwork conducted in Brazil, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, and New Zealand for more than a decade. Rocha visited the healing center in Abadiânia for the first time in 2004 and stayed there for several months in 2007, in addition to shorter annual visits. She also participated in meditation circles in various locations in Australia, interviewed tour guides and followers, and attended five of the international healing events in different locations. Her study combines traditional anthropological methods such as participant observation and interviews with an analysis of the wider material culture around the John of God movement, including websites, media stories, and discussion on social media. What makes the book different from other multi-sited ethnographies is the inclusion of her own experience of illness and healing. Following Behar’s (1996) approach of a ‘vulnerable observer’, Rocha uses her subjectivity as a Brazilian woman born in the megacity of São Paulo but living in Australia as a point of departure for her analysis of the John of God movement.

I welcome her critique of an ethnocentric or even Orientalist portrayal of Brazil and its healing scene. With a secular and highly diverse society, Brazil is quite similar to other countries with a range of secular biomedical therapies on offer as well as various so-called alternative healing practices, such as reiki, channeling, and more. It would be too simplistic to explain the healing experiences and the international fame of the John of God movement via the Brazilian cultural context—in particular, as Rocha highlights, because the majority of its clients are not Brazilian. Rocha correctly argues that we need to accept within anthropology that ‘the field’ is no longer as distant from our own worlds as in the times of the founders of anthropology. Consequently, the primary aim of her study is to explore why Westerners are drawn toward this Brazilian faith healer.

Rocha’s scholarly work makes a valuable contribution to the development of anthropology, following in the path of Karen McCarthy Brown, Ruth Behar, Edith Turner, Paul Stoller, and many others. It challenges preconceived notions of spirituality and religion and even our understanding of reality while addressing the wider academic field of the anthropology of religion. This book is informative as it introduces its readers to the world of faith healing practices that have spread from Brazil to countries across the world and offers an explanation about why the practices of John of God make sense to non-Brazilians. In places, it could have been a bit shorter and less descriptive. However, the overall balance of academic distance and personal insights offers an engaging account of spiritual healing.

Bettina E. Schmidt

University of Wales Trinity Saint David

REFERENCES

  • BeharRuth. 1996. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

  • BrownKaren McCarthy. 1991. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • HeelasPaul and Linda Woodhead. 2005. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell.

WOODBINE, Onaje X. O., Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball, 224 pp., illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. Paperback, $22.00. ISBN 9780231177290.

In Black Gods of the Asphalt, Onaje Woodbine brings an unusual approach to street basketball by basing his argument on the relation between sports and religion. Through a narrative that mixes an autobiographical account with historical data, the author delves into Boston’s inner city, using basketball as a process of mediation with the divine. Woodbine aims to reconsider the “standard view in the literature” that takes ‘hoop dreams’ as “primarily motivated by status and social mobility” (p. 34), and he successfully does so.

The author considers practicing sports as a ritual process that first allows the registry of the memory of the deceased, then grants hope to the mourner, and finally allows healing by overcoming and experiencing the pain caused by the absence of those who have passed away. The structure that organizes Woodbine’s argument also structures his book, which is divided into three parts—memory, hope, and healing. The author mimics the tripartite structure by which van Gennep conceptualized ritual, translating through form that which is effectively the focus of his reflection, namely, religion. Whether in his discussion of the ‘lived religion’ or through the framework he chooses to elaborate on ritual, Woodbine makes his theoretical and conceptual choices, although it is unclear why he did not draw on others. For instance, Victor Turner ([1969] 2008) and his already classic account of ritual and religion, built upon van Gennep’s three-phase model, are not even mentioned. Be that as it may, there is a clear and systematized discussion about ritual and religion, convincingly showing us how this framework helps Woodbine reach the lived dimension involved in street basketball.

The same, however, cannot be said about other themes announced as central to the discussion. With regard to body aesthetics, stylistic traits, and music—aspects emphasized by the author as crucial to grasping the meaning of street basketball (p. 13)—these arise more as the background of the scene than as agents of the social situation formed by bodies, styles, movements, and sonorities. We do not see how the body language learned on courts is effectively converted into a “shared style” (p. 4) that is present in daily life.1 We might also wonder to what extent the text we read can be qualified as ethnographic (p. 14) as, again, we are not offered the elements for us to locate the discussion. Clifford Geertz, the only author mentioned by Woodbine who is pertinent to that discussion, appears only once and fleetingly (p. 5). The debate concerning ethnography has marked anthropology since the beginning of its modern era, and we can say that one of its main traits stems from the imbrication of theory and fieldwork.2

Actually, the productive dimension of the narrative is the self-reflexive approach that Woodbine employs, using his own emotions, perceptions, feelings, knowledge, and old friends to guide his argument. He seems to take upon himself the task of showing the reader the power that the place of speech can hold. It is the fact of having been born and raised in the same environment he depicts that gives Woodbine the ability to bring to the reader the agency of the subjects whom he investigates (p. 48). On the other hand, different authors have shown that emphasizing agency—the subject, material objects, women, spirits—is never determined by the researcher’s social position. Rather, it always depends on the framework that the researcher chooses (see, e.g., Gell 1998; Latour 2005; Ortner 2006).

Woodbine offers us a vivid picture of life unfolding in the black communities and impoverished neighborhoods of Boston, and here the distinction he makes between street and professional basketball (p. 5) is crucial. It is in the informality of street basketball that youngsters and elders elaborate creatively on aspects of collective life that revolve fundamentally around the death of loved ones. This brings an interesting contribution to the discussion regarding memorials.

If the traditional memorial seeks ways not to forget—hence the entire discussion between materiality and memory fixation (Forty and Küchler 1999)—Boston’s Memorial Games show a pragmatic perspective on memory immobilization. Loss is dealt with in performance, not only by annually experiencing previous losses, but also by honoring the newly deceased who are invariably brought forth. A ceaseless cycle of grieving is thus formed, a mourning that is also a way of experiencing future deaths. In this sense, the dead of today are a foretaste of the dead of tomorrow. They are thus more of an announcement of new deaths than a way of preventing them, through memory, from happening. In Boston, inner city death is always lurking, thus making it impossible to forget.

Street basketball fits fully into what the author calls ‘the streets’, the great space of sociability, socialization, and informal education that replaces institutionalized spaces, such as churches and schools. As a result of the power of ‘the streets’ in Boston’s inner city, “you could become a gangster, a rapper, or a ballplayer” (p. 17). Woodbine convincingly shows us not only that street basketball is a product of the reality unfolding before our eyes, but also that the assemblies made through street basketball contribute to engendering its world.

Mylene Mizrahi

Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro

Notes
1

Since Gell’s (1993) seminal study on tattoos in Polynesia, different authors have been dealing with the relation between aesthetics and daily life through bodies and body adornment. See, for example, Hogle (2005), Mizrahi (2011), and Taylor (2005).

2

Malinowski’s ([1922] 2005) Argonauts of the Western Pacific is considered an exemplar of modern ethnography, and it is as a result of its naturalistic narrative that the reflexive turn emerged in the discipline (Clifford 1988). For a contemporary discussion on ethnography, see Ingold (2014).

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Religion and Society

Advances in Research

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