Ritual Language and Christian Ontologies

8 01 2015

This post originally appeared on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy site in August 2014 (http://practicumreligionblog.blogspot.com/2014/08/ritual-language-and-christian-ontologies.html).

By Rebekka King, Middle Tennessee State University



At Middle Tennessee State University, I have inherited a course on Western Religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), which is a 4000-level or senior course. While at most universities a course that purports to be an overview of the so-called ‘Abrahamic’ traditions would be listed as a first- or second-year course, this course’s listing as a senior level course means that I strive to straddle two pedagogical imperatives. First, I want to teach adequate material or data about religions, so that the students have a sense of the traditions themselves; however, because the course is a senior-level course, I also want to equip them with a theoretical apparatus with which they can think critically about religions. In addition, the reality of living in the “buckle of the bible belt” means that many of my students come to class with very clearly defined assumptions about what religion does (particularly Christianity, which is my area of specialization).

I’ve divided this course into three units: Text, Tradition, and Imagination. For this blog post, I would like to reflect on an exercise that I use to teach tradition in regards to Christianity. Along with providing an overview of Christian ritual practices, I want the students to consider language as one of the primary locations of Christian practices. Thus, I draw from my own disciplinary home, the Anthropology of Christianity, and have the students discuss Christian language ideologies and notions of sincerity and performance. More precisely, I want the students to think about larger questions concerning what we think language does—that is, its communicative capacities.  


In preparation for the assignment, we consider Joel Robbins’ article, ‘On Not Knowing Other Minds,’ which among other things helps the students to think about the ways that we understand language  and Western culture. The crux of Robbins’ piece suggests that the idea that we can or should be able tell what other people are thinking based on what they do or say is related to particular cultural practices and not necessarily universal.

In addition, since many of my students are not familiar with liturgical traditions in Christianity, I have them attend a service (or watch one online) at a local liturgical church in order for them to begin thinking about the diverse ways that language is employed in Christian practices. I lecture briefly on the differences between language ideologies: referential language (that is the idea that words can signify objects and experiences) and constitutive language (the idea that words can make something happen, including enacting some sort of ontological change).

Class Exercise

“Hand me your pen,” I will say to an unsuspecting student in the front row.

I follow up with a question to the rest of the class: “what did I do there?” A chorus of “you took his pen” usually ensues, and with a bit of prodding we come to the conclusion that I have made that particular student “penless.” In other words, I transform the student into a “penless individual.” Somehow the words themselves made the student into a different type of person (one without a pen). This is an example of language that is constitutive: my words did more than just express my own desire for a pen, they transformed the student into a new type of being.

From there, I then proceed to declare various students united in holy matrimony. For extra bonus points, I will marry myself to a piece of technology (this year I developed an intimate relationship with an old overhead projector, which served as a continuous reference point for students when we talked throughout the term about ontological boundaries). After performing the various marriages, I have the students discuss whether or not they are actually married. It doesn’t take long for the students to uncover the reasons that they are not married are my lack of authority to actually marry them and the social space in which we are located is not one that has been entered with expectations of the performance of a marriage ceremony. Marriage it seems is more than words.

At this point, we discuss what language does for evangelical Christians. Much of the evangelical mind, relies  on an understanding of language as referential (think, for example, or biblical literalism). Again, the ‘bible belt’ works to my advantage here, and I am able to draw on the knowledge from my students regarding Christian conversion language and its assumed transformative potentials.

My intention, ultimately, is to have the students see how Christian notions of language and conversion (which many of them take for granted) are intertwined as simultaneously referential and constitutive in the Christian consciousness. Why does saying/thinking that one is “born again” make someone born again for evangelicals? What do the words do and what do they signify? And what are the ontological consequences of a worldview that allows language to hold that kind of power?

In so doing, I try to draw out from the students Christian conceptions of the ways in which words serve to mediate interior experiences that are often contingent on the assumptions we make about individuals as moral agents. I use examples from contemporary Christian culture that disrupt these assumptions: Ted Haggard is a good example, although this year only a handful of my students were familiar with the Haggard case, so I will likely have to wait for another unfortunate fall from grace by an authoritative figure in the future.


As mentioned above, I have several pedagogical aims that come to the forefront in evaluating my students that reflect my desire for students to both acquire information and engage the theories we have looked at in class. Most importantly, I want them to be able to apply the theories to new data, especially data that doesn’t fit a neat definition of religion. So while I teach them to think about language in the context of a particular variety of evangelical Christianity that permeates the American South, I also want them to transpose those ideas into other, non-religious discursive spaces.

PJ Harvey’s anti-war ballad, “The Words That Maketh Murder,” (click here for lyrics) is a great way to think about what words do and how authority is invested in particular individuals and institutions. This year I used this song on a unit test to evaluate my students’ abilities to think critically and creatively. The test included the usual definition questions and short answer questions intended to determine whether students had done the readings, attended lectures and studied, but the final section of the test—featuring Harvey—was meant to take them to the next level.

(“The Words That Maketh Murder“)

I asked them a number of questions that corresponded to some of the larger themes from our class, including describing the language ideology that this song presumes. The great thing about this song is that there is no right or wrong answer. Clearly, a song that provides a narrative in which words make murder can be seen as constitutive, but if one steps back from a literal reading from the text (itself a referential act), one can begin to see that Harvey’s larger critique of British institutions (a point which is perhaps reinforced more so in the video than the lyrics) also could be seen as evoking an interpretive practice that falls within the realm of the same referential assumptions that evangelicals make about language and human subjectivities. A critique of the critique reminds us that Harvey herself is encapsulated by the very forces she subverts.

It’s also a pretty great song.

Ethics of Belief and the Discipline of Sincerity, Or, Progressive Christianity 101

13 06 2014

This post originally appeared on the Society for the Anthropology of Religion’s section of Anthropology News in November 2013 (http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2013/10/18/ethics-of-belief-and-the-discipline-of-sincerity-or-progressive-christianity-101/)


How Not to Pray to an Interventionalist God

We’ve all been there before: a crowded mall, running late, mounting tension and shoulders moving closer to the top of your head. And then, you can’t find a #%@! parking spot! For some, it warrants the call for divine mediation: “please let me find a spot.”

Inadvertently praying for a parking space poses a problem for progressive Christians.  Photo courtesy Mike Casterline

Inadvertently praying for a parking space poses a problem for progressive Christians.
(Photo courtesy Mike Casterline)

The Anthropology of Christianity has directed a significant amount of attention to the ways that language is used as a tactic for the creation of the Christian self. North American Christians assume a certain degree of intentionality when it comes to religious speech acts, in ritual settings or otherwise. Language is used in scripture, worship, sermons, prophecies, revoking evil spirits and in both formulaic and spontaneous prayers. Scholars interested in the study of Christian language practices have sought to extend or substantiate Keane’s (2002; 2007) presentation of ‘sincerity’ as the central concern animating Christian understandings of the purpose and necessity of language. According to Keane, the term sincerity is particularly interesting “because of the links it forges among language, social interaction, personal character, freedom, regimes of truth, and some narratives of modernity” (2002: 65). The most important component of this understanding of language is the perceived intentionality that is attached to one’s linguistic act. In everyday speech acts the task is then to determine whether or not intention is aligned with words and actions (eg, when a Christian proclaims herself to have been “born again,” this inner transformation is determined to have actually occurred when she models the behavior and beliefs of a born again Christian). While sincerity is difficult enough to decipher in relation to one agent, Christian notions of sincerity are even more difficult to discern when they involve multiple actors.

But for the progressive Christians that I study, there are not multiple actors—or at least not divine ones. Progressive Christians understand themselves to be ‘Christians who do not believe in God’, at least not in the traditional sense of a transcendent being with the ability and desire to intervene in, or relate to, the natural world. Additionally, many progressive Christians question the divinity of Jesus, the authority of the bible and the traditional theological tenets of the church. Progressive Christians come to this perspective by highlighting extra-Christian intellectual knowledge in the form of a contextual study of biblical texts, alongside commitment to scientific empiricism and liberal morality. In doing so, they develop a distinct ethics of belief that disciplines their use of language in both a religious and a non-religious setting.

Theirs is an ethics of belief that determines that it is immoral to affirm many of the core (traditional) teachings of the biblical text. For example, in depth study of the historical context of the bible in its original languages yields the opportunity to set aside conservative theologies (such as, the virginity of Mary, which is a result of a mistranslation of a passage in Isaiah). Commitments to scientific empiricism allow progressive Christians to reject portions of the biblical story that contain miracles (eg, Jesus walking on water, healing the sick). Likewise, an allegiance to liberal morality allows them to ignore and reject discriminatory teachings (such as those that posit homosexuality or witchcraft to be a sin).

Because biblical texts are deemed to be incorrect, it is essential for progressive Christians to not simply reinterpret them, but rather to outright reject them. This way of thinking weaves together belief and language with morality and ethics. For example, in his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1998), Episcopalian Bishop John Spong, a well-known progressive Christian thinker, argues that the notion of God as an interventionalist deity, that is, as a God that answers prayers, is immoral. Discussing the Hebrew bible’s depiction of God, Spong points out that the deity comes across as “clearly pro-Jewish” in his interventions:

After freeing the Jews from slavery in Egypt by visiting great violence on the Egyptians. God lead the marauding Israelites in their conquest of the land of Canaan. God had championed his people in their continuing conflict with the Philistines. One can only imagine that such a view of God was wildly popular among the Jews. It was not, however, a very pleasant view of God if you happen to be Egyptian, Canaanite, or a Philistine. A universal God of love this deity was not (Spong 1998: 30).

The deity has been depicted as intervening on behalf of one-side (the Israelites) and not the other (the Egyptians, Canaanites, or Philistines). Spong determines this interventionalist version of God to be immoral and unethical because of its unequal treatment of people (thus transgressing important modern teachings about the equality of all people). Additionally, for progressive Christians anyone who claims to believe in a God that intervenes likewise is judged to be unethical. It thus becomes imperative that progressive Christians completely reject the notion of God intervening in their lives in any way—a task which for some is easier said than done.

Returning to the mall, the crowded parking spot and my fieldwork in suburban Toronto: a common motif emerges during formal interviews and casual conversations concerning the problem of mistakenly evoking an interventionalist deity. Many progressive Christians draw upon the example of not being able to locate a convenient parking place in the mall and the inadvertent spontaneous thought, “please let me find a spot,” as a mistaken invocation of an interventionist deity. This request is interpreted as being directed towards a divine or otherworldly force that has the power to intervene and materialize a parking spot. Whether or not the progressive Christian actually believes in such a divine force with the ability to generate a parking spot is irrelevant because, according to the progressive Christian language ideology, such a request—even one that is only thought and not spoken aloud—is considered problematic because it aligns them with the notion of an interventionalist God who would just as soon slaughter the innocent children of the Egyptians, Canaanites, or Philistines as it is willing to miraculously make a free parking spot available. Even when inadvertent, the prayer aligns the individual with a theology that presupposes a (potentially) wrathful God. Passive participation in this discourse is seen as unethical and thus generates guilt on the part of progressive Christians.

While this example may be seen as superficial one, it points to larger questions about the ethics of believing and the fact that sincerity, although often purported as something spontaneous and natural, becomes something that must be carefully disciplined to achieve and maintain.

The Resolve to Disbelieve: Tracing a Genealogy of Skepticism in Canadian Protestantism

18 02 2011

I am currently at the University of Victoria as a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society (Winter 2011). I had the opportunity to give a public lecture as part of the CSRS’s Wednesday afternoon public lecture series. The audience was a really great mix between members of the university community and interested members of the public. The lecture was recorded and can be listened to on the CSRSs website: (http://www.csrs.uvic.ca/events/audio_files.php). It’s available as a MP3 file.


Civic Engagement and Civic Spaces

14 10 2010

This article was originally posted on the Religious Studies News website, October 2010


Religion in the City

One of my aims of teaching religion is to make the familiar seem unfamiliar. It was with this in mind that I took my third-year undergraduate class, “Religion and the City,” to a Salvation Army shelter in downtown Toronto. For two hours, our guide and local expert, Anthony, a former crack-addict who had lived on the streets for eight years, gave my class a tour of the city, our city, from the perspective of a person experiencing homelessness.

“It was a lot quieter before the revitalization,” Anthony remarked as we walked through Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square (which some call the Times Square of Canada). We had just walked through the massive Eaton’s Centre when I turned to make sure that I had not lost any would-be shoppers to the call of the mall and observed several students reaching for their cameras to snap pictures of Canada’s busiest intersection. I was somewhat surprised by their desire to capture this moment — the students’ interaction with this space stood in sharp contrast to Anthony’s intimate knowledge of the site. This interlude raises important questions about the necessity of offering opportunities for civic engagement both inside and outside our classrooms.

This course offered students a chance to develop their own theory that could then be applied across historical and cultural realms. I specifically was interested in encouraging the students to look at the ways that religious and secular narratives described and constructed categories of the insider and outsider within civic spaces. I emphasized that we can understand meaning-making as deriving from both official and unofficial narratives. In doing so, I wanted them to understand that their lived experiences outside of the classroom could also serve as primary sources or “texts” available for scholarly examination (Morton, 2002: 41–42).

The course texts — biblical passages, novels, poetry, essays, documentary films, and a field trip — provided case studies with which we, as a class, could develop a theoretical approach to non-conventional sacred spaces in both ancient and contemporary worlds. In the first half of the course we read, among other texts, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which we used as the model for exploring specific questions related to ontological constructions of the self and community. In the second half of the course we read Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (Knopf Doubleday, 1997), which is a modern retelling of the Gilgamesh narrative set in early twentieth century Toronto. Ondaatje’s poetic novel combines fiction and reality to tell the unofficial history of the working-class immigrants responsible for the construction of Toronto. More than once we joked that we were starting our own religion, “Ondaatje-ism,” which would have certainly dismayed the well-known Canadian fiction icon.

Although we did not start our own religion, we did develop our own theory. With a healthy dose of Foucault and Jonathan Z. Smith, we constructed a theory that we were confident applying to several case studies. I suggested to the students that in respect to the title of our course, “Religion and the City,” perhaps there is a religion of the city that could be identified in Ondaatje’s novel. The characters in the novel are forced to express their identity by investing in nonconventional spaces while opposing established authority structures. Our task then was to ask the same questions about, and to apply the same theory to, contemporary Toronto. More specifically, who is included and excluded in the physical construction and cognitive imaginings of Toronto in 2010? What sites become nonconventional sacred sites to those who define themselves as citizens non grata in opposition to the establishment?

These questions were addressed in a major assignment for the course. I instructed students to select their own spaces within the city of Toronto that they felt resembled spaces described above and to apply our theory to those sites. In order to help them, I offered my own example, the Salvation Army’s Gateway Shelter and Drop-in Centre, for people experiencing homelessness in downtown Toronto.


Civic Engagement as Knowledge-Production

So it was on a chilly March morning I took my class to the shelter where they spoke first with Dion Oxford, the manager, who addressed the challenges of urban homelessness. He then turned the class over to the aforementioned Anthony, who runs walking tours of the city to provide community groups with insights into the ways in which individuals experiencing homelessness navigate Toronto’s downtown core.

The Religion in the Public Sphere (RPS) Initiative at the University of Toronto was established three years ago with the intent to provide a forum for interdisciplinary conversations among scholars, students, and community members concerning religion in public venues (politics, art, education, etc). Several RPS initiatives are directed primarily toward undergraduate students, including the student steering committee, an online blog forum, and the opportunity to take a service-learning course.

While not directly related to the RPS initiative, the goal of the “Religion and the City” course was to incorporate some of the core themes of research focusing on public manifestations of religion, and was made possible in conjunction with generous funding from the Jackman Humanities Foundation. The course was initially taught in 2008 by Pamela Klassen (director of the RPS Initiative) and graduate student Arlene MacDonald (who has since received her PhD from the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Religion). They passed on to me a format that emphasised ethnographic engagement within civic spaces.

Civic engagement as a pedagogical practice has been defined in numerous ways (Battistoni 2002; Boyer 1990; Ehrlich 1999; Tritelli 2003). At the most basic level it suggests a collaborative and reciprocal interaction between students and the community at large. Civic engagement promotes a framework of learning in which students are encouraged to understand themselves as agents or participants in their field of study and in relation to their object of study. Ideally it positions students to ask intelligent and meaningful questions about their own roles within their communities and social spheres of influence.

In employing this framework, I aspired to provide my students with nonconventional objects of study and to challenge them to include their own subjective experiences and epistemologies in their analyses of religion (Palmer 1998: 106). From the perspective of the “Religion and the City” course, a focus on civic engagement meant the production of knowledge in an environment that is not inaccessible but rather one in which the students could take personal ownership over both their topic and method of study.

In my view, the class trip to the Gateway provided students with an opportunity to learn within a framework of civic engagement. As we followed Anthony through the streets of Toronto, he paused frequently to shake hands in jovial camaraderie with men and women who are likewise a part of street culture. Anthony introduced the students to a space that many of them have occupied for years and offered a completely different perspective. At the city courthouse, where one of my students had served as an intern, Anthony told us about various fights in the basement holding cells. At Eaton’s Centre, where another student worked as a sales clerk, Anthony reported to us that he is often rudely asked to leave by mall security. Finally, in the park in front of the twenty-four-story apartment building in which I live, Anthony reminisced about the nights he had slept in the park as part of an all-night “sleep-out” designed to draw attention to affordable housing needs in Toronto. After Anthony left, I pointed to my building and admitted to my students that I do not know my neighbors’ names, and then asked my students the following: who is really at home in these spaces? (Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, 2008).


Expanding Boundaries in the City and in the Classroom

Teaching and studying at the University of Toronto provides a great venue for theorizing about and interacting with urban spaces. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I was surprised to witness my students stop to take pictures during the trip. Upon closer reflection, I realized that because the city of Toronto is a so-called megacity with an ever-expanding metropolitan conglomeration of sizable suburban municipalities, the majority of my students reside in the suburbs and in a very real way were tourists in their own town.

While the students understood themselves as Torontonians, many of them later reported to me that this identity was one that they tentatively held because they felt uncertain about what the major issues and concerns were for the city. With this in mind, one of my goals in teaching this course is to provide a space where students can draw connections between their learning inside the classroom and their lived experiences outside of the university. As Parker Palmer suggests, the teacher’s role is one that allows students “to be introduced to a world that expands their personal boundaries and enlarges their sense of community” (120).

In an attempt to have the students expand personal boundaries and better understand the city, I encouraged them to select and analyze sites that would challenge them to view the city from an unfamiliar perspective. Furthermore, I told them that they would be evaluated not only on their critique but also on their selection of data. Following my lead, many of the students selected sites that are central to specific subcultures within the city (the Gay Village, Jewish or Muslim community organizations, domestic abuse care centers, the University’s Centre for Women and Trans People), whereas others chose to focus on what have traditionally been viewed as ethnic neighborhoods within Toronto (Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Portugal) or neighborhoods that are notorious for violence and gang activity (Toronto’s Flemingdon Park and Regent Park).

In the end, I was surprised by the number of students who selected sites in which they were personally invested. In their papers, students reflected on and problematized their own interactions with their selected sites. Since the focus was on the way that spaces create narratives that include some while excluding others, the assignment provided an opportunity for students to challenge some of their own communities’ practices regarding the construction of boundaries and the implementation of authoritative systems.

I have left my definition of “civic engagement” intentionally broad. As a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Religion, I am sensitive to the reluctance of many of my colleagues to employ pedagogical practices that might be deemed ideological or values-driven. For example, in providing Anthony such a generous allocation of class time, one might assume that I am emphasizing my own personal (albeit fairly normative) commitments to reducing homelessness in Toronto. I have yet to resolve this concern, but I found it helpful to address the issue with the students in class as part of our discussion and reflection about the field trip. In doing so, I hope that I am attending to Jonathan Z. Smith’s instance that we must reveal to students the hard work that goes into our pedagogical and intellectual endeavors.

A lot of the research focusing on civic engagement promotes a classroom experience that compels students to be involved in political activities and social justice initiatives. There is a concern that university-educated individuals are becoming less involved in civic responsibilities (Putnam, 2000). In fact, there have been calls from student groups, community organizations, and university educators to integrate intellectual and practical venues for civic engagement (Zlotkowski and Williams, 2003). To date, service-learning initiatives are one of the primary ways through which this integration has been successfully accomplished (Devine, Favazza, and McLain, 2002). This initiative is a popular option for independent students with the means and aptitude for experiential learning. In order to truly meet the demands for a cohesive integration of the concerns of civic engagement, universities must move beyond one-off courses and begin to integrate these themes into the curriculum and learning objectives of more established courses.

In my experience it was optimal to use the resources already available to students in the course. They served as resident experts of Toronto and were able to identify objects of study within their own neighborhoods and communities. Assured that they were indeed already experts, and armed with a new method of looking at civic spaces from a different perspective, my students uncovered a city that was simultaneously less and more familiar to us all.

Syllabus – Religion and the City – King

Gospel Music Makes Me Feel Alright – How I Spent My Summer Vacation*

31 08 2010

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, July 13, 2010

Matt Sutton who is a regular contributor to one of my favourite blogs, ‘The Religion in American History Blog’, has posted a series of reviews of his summer visits to archives across the US titled “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” Although admittedly I’m not as studious as Sutton—my summer vacation time is occupied by trips to music festivals in Upstate NY, New England, and Central Canada—but as an anthropologist of North American religion, I find plenty of data, even while on vacation.

This past weekend, I attended the 50th anniversary of the Mariposa Folk Festival on the shores of Lake Couchiching in Orillia, Ontario. The Mariposa Folk Festival was originally established in 1961 as a Canadian equivalent to the Newport Folk Festival (Mitchell 2007: 80). Like the Newport festival, Mariposa was bedevilled by problems with crowd control throughout the late sixties and early seventies. The festival was at one time the biggest folk festival in North America and featured popular headliners such as Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Buffy St. Marie.

The big-name artists are certainly what draws the crowds (this is equally true today as it has been in the past), but the appeal of a folk festival is the smaller daytime stages that feature ‘workshops’. For the unfamiliar, the workshop usually features several musicians and is organised around a common theme, style of music or type of instrument (e.g. Songs of Protest, Bluegrass Tunes, Slide Guitar). The musicians take turns performing but the expectation is that the other panelists will join in and lend their own styles to each others’ songs.

The folk festival as secular/sacred space, pilgrimage site or Bakhtinian carnival is an easy identification to make, one that, being unfamiliar with the field of ethnomusicology, I’m not sure if someone has already analysed. Instead of opening that can of worms, though, I would prefer to focus my discussion on observations on an overtly religious musical medium re-explored in this secular setting.

Hippie dancing at Mariposa Gospel Music Session (2009)
My favourite kind of participant-observation! I’m in the red skirt and black top towards the front.

That Old Time Religion: Reinterpreted in the New Secular Times

Regular attendees at folk festivals know that the Sunday morning gospel hour is an essential component of the festival experience. At Mariposa this year, the gospel music showcase was hosted by Ken Whiteley, well-known among Canadian folk music fans as the patriarch of the Whiteley family, Canada’s folk dynasty. Whiteley regularly hosts the Sunday Morning Gospel Brunch at Toronto-based roots music club, Hugh’s Room (now that my two years of fieldwork is *finally* over, those in the Toronto area will probably find me there as a semi-regular attendee). This year’s workshop featured Whiteley’s band along with Canadian blues artist Matt Anderson and South African singer-songwriter Liziwe Mahashe.

Whiteley opened the session by singing an old spiritual, ‘It’s Another Day’s Journey (I’m so Glad)”, which he first learned at the Mariposa festival in 1979 from African American gospel singer, Bessie Jones. Anderson followed with another traditional piece. Both Whiteley and Anderson stuck with traditionally religious songs (Whitely also sang his own song: ‘Let My Life Be Prayer’ and Anderson performed crowd favourites ‘Consider the Lilies’, ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and ‘People Get Ready’). Mahashe was the one who brought the themes into the more secular realm by contributing songs of liberation and political freedom from her native South Africa (‘My People, My People’ and ‘Soweto Blues’). For Mahashe, the gospel workshop created a space that was, for her and the audience receptive to a post-colonial critique.

Liziwe Mahashe and band, Sunday Morning Gospel Hour (2010)

I am often surprised at the popularity of the Sunday morning gospel sessions. The demographic of people who attend folk festival (both in Canada and the US) tend to be white, middle-class, left-leaning individuals between the ages of 45 and 70 (data on those who attend folk festivals in general is available here); they represent the same aging demographic who have in mass departed from organised religion over the past generation or so. In informal conversations I find that the majority of folk festival attendees are resistant, if not completely hostile, to religion, specifically Christianity (to the degree that in the last few years I have elected to tell people that I study anthropology, rather than religion, so as to avoid conversations about how the church/bible/clergy, etc are exclusive/controlling/obsessed with sex/money/power, etc). When religion does come up, most of the individuals with whom I have spoken would be classified as what Robert Fuller calls ‘the spiritual but not religious’ (Fuller 2001), or those whom Wade Clark Roof identifies as ‘Seeker Culture’ (Roof 1993). So while the message of the ‘Old Time Religion’ in terms of its social teachings and its theology has been swiftly rejected by most in attendance, the music itself continues to be celebrated by its mostly non-religious audience.

Audience picture taken during the sound check for Gospel Music Session (2010)

I asked Whiteley on Saturday afternoon why he thought that despite increased secularity and the decline in religious involvement, gospel music continues to appeal to people, particularly patrons at the festival. Whiteley explained to me that he thought that gospel music contains a message that is uplifting, something which appeals to a force that is beyond us and something with which anyone can connect, regardless of their background or beliefs.** Whiteley echoed this sentiment during the gospel workshop by pointing out that the session is intended to be inclusive: “atheists are more than welcome,” he explained, referencing the emcee’s introductory remarks about the strangeness of the gospel music workshop, since he is the only atheist on the Marisposa board of directors. Whiteley went on to declare that not only atheists but also people of all religious beliefs, from Gnostics to agnostics, are welcome.

The Sacred and the Profane: Remixed

The religious rhetoric at the Mariposa stage was light-hearted and friendly. At one point, Whiteley asked for an “amen” from the audience. Later he joked with one of the patrons about starting a revival (although, I wasn’t clear whether it was a folk music revival or a religious one; Mariposa has struggled financially in the past couple of years).
The appeal to inclusivity is of course not surprising for the hippie or folk subcultures that attend folk festivals. In 2005, American singer-songwriter Liz Carlisle wrote her dissertation for an ethnomusicology degree at Harvard on the folk festival subculture at a well-known American Festival, Falcon Ridge (which I also attended that year). Carlisle observed that the host introduced the gospel hour as not being about religion: “This morning’s service is not for any religion,” the emcee announced. “It’s for the spirit.” Later, he explained that “there is only one religion: it’s compassion.”

While not divorced from the theology behind most traditional gospel songs, the message of inclusiveness stands in contrast to some debates concerning authenticity within the contemporary gospel music community. Many traditionalists argue that the emergence of gospel music in the secular realm diverts from biblically based mandates that the sacred and the profane be separated (see Simpson: 18; see also Jackson 2004). They often appeal to epistle letters (e.g. 2 Corinthians 6:14; James 3:12) to argue that the intrusion of secular into the sacred music is a sin (interestingly, similar arguments were made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries about the integration of musical instruments into worship services at many gospel and holiness churches).*** The imposed separation of the sacred and the profane dictated by certain gospel music purists is not a position held by all. As Jerma A. Jackson (2004) argues the integration of gospel music into the public sphere served a political purpose through which the Black Church sought to cultivate an image of respectability in the eyes of white America.

Arguments about the place of the sacred in the profane (and vice-versa) are in part what keep scholars of religion employed. My own personal conversations with some members of the folk community suggest that the integration of religion, specifically traditional and exclusive brands of Christianity is not welcome and is deemed to be out of place at a folk festival, which I’ve posited resembles a secular pilgrimage site). But as I and Carlisle observe, the integration of an open, inclusive religiosity is welcome; one that is rooted in traditional Christian theologies but explicitly represents itself as having, along with its audience, transcended specifics of belief and practice.

* Note to my dissertation committee: I swear I am working on my dissertation, please remember that at my recent review meeting you said it would be healthy for me to take the weekends off.

** I would like to say a special thank you to Ken Whiteley for taking the time to speak with me and for permission to paraphrase our conversation here on The Religion Beat blog. This conversation was the highlight of the festival for me (along with watching Ian and Sylvia Tyson perform ‘Four Strong Winds’ together).

*** A really interesting discussion of this debate and its manifestation in gospel music is available in a sound recording from the 1975 Mariposa gospel session, also titled ‘That Old Time Religion.’ Sound recordings, photographs and other material related to the history of the Mariposa festival are available at the newly launched Mariposa permanent collection housed at York University’s Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections.

Fuller, Robert. 2001. Spiritual But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jackson, Jerma A. 2004. Singing in My Soul: Black Gospel Music in a Secular Age. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Mitchell, Gillian. 2007. The North American Folk Music Revival: Nation and Identity in the United States and Canada, 1945 – 1980. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.

Roof, Wade Clark. 1993. A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Simpson, Alphonso, Jr. “A Thin Line Between Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: The Secularization of Sacred Song in the African American Religious Culture.” International Journal of African American Studies 2(2): 1 – 24.

An iPhone Convert in More Ways than One

31 08 2010

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, May 24, 2010

I’m a Blackberry girl. My closest friends and family can attest to the fact that my BB and I are rarely apart from each other. My partner has an iPhone, and I occasionally go over to the dark side. In all honesty, it has better (cooler) applications. To date my favourite iPhone app is the Ocarina (iPhone flute), or it was, until I discovered iChristian, a free application which “contains the minimum required information to become a Christian.”

The App leads the would-be believer through the standard evangelical message of salvation citing scriptural evidence of God’s love (John 3:16), human sinfulness (Romans 3:23 and 6:23) and the necessity of sacrificial atonement (Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:8-9). The App concludes with the common image of Jesus standing at the door of the potential adherent’s heart (Revelation 3:20). Our tech-savvy convert is invited to receive Jesus and pray the Sinner’s Prayer (see previous link) through which she assumes the Christian identity as a ‘child of God’ (John 1:12). The newly minted Christian is then instructed to follow up on their commitment:
  • Tell someone else about your faith in Christ.
  • Spend time with God each day. It does not have to be a long period of time. Just develop the daily habit of praying to Him and reading His Word. Ask God to increase your faith and your understanding of the Bible.
  • Seek fellowship with other Christians. Develop a group of Christian friends to answer your questions and support you.
  • Find a local church where you can worship God.
Interestingly, the new believer is not directed to be baptised which is common in most online salvation templates (both those used by Christians to convert their friends, family and strangers and those, like the iChristian application, which guide the user through the process on her own).

Upon completion of the conversion process the believer “may register as a Christian” and have his or her name and email address listed on the website of the company that created the App.

Materiality and Transcendence

The use of the cell phone for religious activities has been documented by Inken Mädler (2008) whose work focuses on the way that cell phones represent for adolescents a means by which they generate and express identity. She examines the ways that the cell phones function as both a medium for religious symbols and a (lived) religious symbol itself. Mädler argues that the cell phone serves as a venue in which relationships might be created and ordered. Many of the teens in her study reported that they felt an intimate connection to their cell phone, and it served as a “symbol of the self” (18) and a storehouse of “sacred memories” of the individual’s biography (19). We develop, Mädler argues, in relation to physical items.

The use of the cell phone as a material location for Christian conversion is not all that surprising or even innovative (the Gideon’s have been leaving bibles in hotel rooms for over a century hoping that a would-be convert might lead himself—or, as they would have it, be led by God—through the conversion experience). For Protestant evangelicals, especially, the iChristian application complements their emphasis on solitary introspection, which stands in opposition to the preferences of other forms of Christianity emphasising community or clerical authoritarianism. With this in mind, I suggest that the iChristian phone application reflects a conflict between materiality and transcendence, which anthropologist of Christianity Webb Keane (2007) identifies as one of the core concerns of Protestantism. He points out that while Protestant conversion has paradoxically served as a model for enacting agency (a paradox since, theologically speaking, the agency should be God’s), it remains a human activity in which human practices enable self-transformation (see Keane 2007: 56; see also Keane 2002).


Both Keane and Mädler point to interiority as the primary concern of their subjects and examine the way that material objects become a location for a process involving self-generation and transformation to occur. The iPhone itself is an ideal venue for these themes, as Mädler’s research specifically suggests. Indeed, the very name of the iPhone, with the first-person personal pronoun at the beginning, lends itself to the process (I assume that this is not merely a coincidence but rather represents clever market research). The iChristian application continues this linguistic word play by registering the user on an international list of individuals who have likewise pursued salvation and may proudly declare (in 200 characters or less) that “I am a Christian” through the iChristian app. This pronouncement that transformation has occurred is an important part of the contemporary evangelical conversion process (see Stromberg 1993; note that the first directive for the new adherent is to share their faith/status with someone else).

In the ancient world this declaration, “I am a Christian” served to generate a new identity. As Judith Lieu (2002) explains the term ‘Christian’ itself is used infrequently and perhaps we could say anachronistically in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16). The term gains currency among would-be martyrs for whom explicitly stating, “I am a Christian” was the appropriate response to an interrogator in early Christian martyr literature. In fact, according to Lieu, “the label ‘Christian’ belonged pre-eminently to the martyrs,” who even in death emulate Jesus but less so to other Christians (2002: 221). Lieu explains that in this literature an understanding of those who die as Christians are not conceived of as victims but rather as agents through whom “a new way of understanding is created and maintained.” She goes on to argue that from the perspective of the text, “the determinative moment is not the death, however extended or graphic, nor even the preceding torture; rather it is the declaration Christiana sum (2002: 213). This performative spoken declaration is so powerful, according to Lieu, that for some well-known martyrs (e.g. Perpetua, Tertulian and Polycarp) the statement “I am a Christian” is represented as a self-conception in which ‘Christian’ surpasses and subverts ethnic, national, civic or familial identities (in the case of Perpetua, her father is so distraught at this new identity that he comes close to physically assaulting her and gouging out her eyes).

This emphasis on the performative statement as indicative of an inner transformation is one of the core characteristics of contemporary evangelicalism. From the perspective of the iChristian app, I was able to nonverbally transform my partner into a Christian by clicking a few hyperlinks, scrolling through the Sinner’s Prayer and sending his name to the app’s designer. Contemporary evangelicals, for the most part, do not have to worry about eye gouging as a result of the declaration but I may need to when my partner finds out that I also sent them his email address (the app promised, but did not deliver, a certificate indicating his new status).


Keane, Webb (2002). “Sincerity, “Modernity,” and the Protestants.” Cultural Anthropology 17(1): 65-92.

Keane, Webb (2007). Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lieu, Judith (2002). Neither Greek nor Jew: Constructing Early Christianity. New York: T &T Clark.

Mädler, Inken (2008). “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In On Cell Phones. About the Materiality of Life-World as a Challenge for Religious Education.” Pp. 13-23 in Lived Religion: Conceptual, Empirical and Practical-Theological Approaches: Essays in Honor of Hans-Günter Heimbrock. (eds). Heinz Streib, Astrid Dinter and Kerstin Söderblom. Leiden: Brill.

Stromberg, Peter G. (1993). Language and Self-transformation: A Study of the Christian Conversion Narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Take My Exam . . . Trust Me, It’s “Cool”

31 08 2010

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, April 28, 2010

It’s the end of term and I’ve been overwhelmed with the hectic activities of marking and . . . well, marking. I’ve barely watched the news. There was a volcano or something that erupted, right? For the past few days my whole life has been consumed by marking final exams. With this in mind, I thought that instead of writing something new I would hit two birds with one stone and blog about my final exam.

My students think I’m cooler than I am. Or at least I like to think they do. This is because I try to bring the study of religion into conversation with phenomena that is socially relevant to what I imagine are the daily musings of an undergraduate student. Usually, I fail miserably: like the times I told them that Jonathan Z. Smith is the Tom Cruise of religious studies, referred to Gilgamesh and Enkidu as BFFs, and passed around Kool-Aid Jammers while screening a documentary on Jonestown.

But I think I got things right this time.

In my third year ‘Religion and the City’ course we looked at theories surrounding the ways that civic sites and identities become invested with ‘sacred’ meaning. Primarily we discussed the narratives that individuals and communities create in order to represent their relationships to, what one might term, non-conventional sacred spaces. All semester, we built theories involving North American religious identity; the ways, à la J. Z. Smith, that religions endorse locative or utopian worldviews; and the manner through which those on the margins subvert urban structures in order to articulate new or different ontologies.

I tried to draw connections between our material and the so-called “real world.” I showed them clips of Sarah Palin and Disney cartoons and attempted to argue that the hit movie Avatar is really a re-creation of Paul’s project in Rome.

Twenty-minutes into their three hour exam, I turned down the lights and announced that it was time for the audio-visual component of the exam. They smiled (or maybe smirked?) as the image of the Grammy-winning rapper Jay-Z (who I like to call “the other J-Z”) appeared in on the screen.

The exam question was as follows:

You have just been shown the music video for “Empire State of Mind” by hip hop artist Jay-Z, featuring guest contribution by R&B and soul singer-songwriter Alicia Keys. The lyrics have also been distributed to you. Making reference to both the lyrics and the images in the video, please answer the following questions.

  1. Identify the “speaker(s)” and the intended audience. Of what does the “speaker(s)” wish to persuade the audience?
  2. Is this a locative or utopian worldview? What leads you to your conclusion and why?
  3. What does the song suggest about human identity, civic/urban spaces and (potential) transcendence?
  4. How does the narrative of the song represent the city of New York? What does it suggest about American identity? Is it necessary that New York serve as the protagonist in this song (for example, could the same song feature Toronto or Istanbul or another major urban center?). Do you think that the lyrics would have been different if the song had been released prior to September 11th, 2001?
  5. Imagine that Jay-Z has asked you to adapt this song to Toronto. What themes and images would you include in your version of the song? Provide some sample lyrics of your song.

The students’ answers were brilliant! Absolutely brilliant!!!

They drew comparisons between Jay-Z’s text and the texts that we examined this term (The Epic of Gilgamesh, Augustine’s City of God, Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City, John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion), our case studies (which examined the early Jesus Movement, Mormonism, Jonestown and the Salvation Army’s Gateway Shelter in Toronto’s downtown core) and our major theoretical interlocutors (Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm, Harold Bloom, Belden C. Lane, Michel Foucault, David Sibley and Mark Kingwell).

Their own attempts at rapping were innovative and definitely, in my opinion, give Jay-Z a run for his money (of which he has a lot). They mostly looked towards the identity of Toronto as a city of neighbourhoods, a multicultural haven for new immigrants to Canada and a place where diverse lifestyles are embraced. My students spoke to elements of Toronto that both evoke pride and inspire change—in some instances they even found time to suggest ways that they would like to change some of the negative aspects of our city.

I learned a lot from them, lessons which can only make me cooler for future pedagogical efforts.

Savage Minds

Notes and Queries in Anthropology

Culture on the Edge

Studies in Identity Formation