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).

i[am]Christian

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).

References:

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.




Reality TV, reality me.

31 08 2010

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, February 12, 2010


This blog post begins with a confession: I love reality television, like really love it —in fact, I might be addicted. As is often the case with graduate students, when I like something, it is for the selfish reason that it reminds me of my project. That’s right! Reality television makes me think about my research on contemporary liberal Protestants. Specifically, it reminds me of the ways that Evangelical Protestant conversion rhetorics are mirrored in non-evangelical environments.

Religion and Reality TV

I am certainly not the first person to note the religious elements of reality TV. Many have commented on the ways which shows like Survivor or Big Brother seem to replicate the liminality of an initiation ceremony à la Victor Turner. Others have taken note of the genre’s explicit religious references: prayers and religious discussions by contestants, the God-like powers provided to the audience who are often given final judgement over the fate of the contestants, the overly ritualised ceremonies of elimination, so on and so forth. Still others have reflected on the fact that after having passed through this period of testing and undue suffering, the contestants are granted celebrity status similar to that of the mythic heroes of old (although whether or not one designates them as heroes or so-called Z-list celebrities depends on one’s own affection or lack thereof for the genre).

The upcoming season of ‘Survivor: Heroes versus Villains’, which premiered last night, is banking on the hero designation from its fan-base. This season features a Manichean casting of the ten most benevolent against the ten most malevolent contestants from past series (the American version of the show is in its twentieth season). Astute observers of the show will note that rather than the familiar slogan: ‘Outwit, Outplay, Outlast’ this season’s catch phrase has apocalyptic undertones: ‘Return, Revenge, Redemption.’ If last night’s episode is meant to set the standard, it is clear that the show is seeking to complicate the hero-villain dichotomy by suggesting that the status of hero is retroactively applied after all the chips have been played.

Their Eyes were Watching Us


Scholars of reality TV (yes, there is a vibrant discourse on the topic) have found that while many cultural commentators dismissively presume that audiences are attracted to reality TV by some sort of sick voyeurism, the majority of viewers tune-in specifically because they seek an experience that is simultaneously authentic and performed. According to Hill (2005) reality shows have “capitalized on this tension between appearance and reality by ensuring that viewers have to judge for themselves which of the contestants are being genuine” (70). This quest for a determined authenticity appeals to the inner-Calvinist, which Weber tells us we all possess as members of Western society, and echoes concerns of the “frozen-chosen” about who is and who is not predestined for salvation.

In reality television the tension between the performed self and the authentic self is addressed in the contestant’s one-on-one interviews with a silent, off-camera interviewee (who stands in for the viewing audience). In CBS’s Big Brother these interviews take place in a special location of the house known as the Diary Room, which is off-limits except for these moments of introspection. In their interviews, contestants reflect upon their actions; these monologues often resemble a confession of sorts explaining, or perhaps justifying, acts of deception within the game. The audience, having been provided with “the whole story,” is therefore able to determine whether or not the deception (dare I say, sin) is forgivable.

The winner is ultimately selected by either the television audience or the other contestants themselves. In Survivor and Big Brother the two finalists are subjected to one final grilling, or judgement, during which they are asked to account for all of their past actions. In this context their past sins are arranged narratologically in such a way that we are made to understand that while they may have deceived so-and-so it was done for the greater glory of the game (evidenced by their position in the final two). With liturgical exactness, all of their past sins are brought to light by the former contestants, and they are ultimately deemed worthy or unworthy—see Susan Hawk’s infamous snake and a rat speech from the finale of the first season of Survivor as an example.

These various depictions and presentations of the self are what I find most fascinating about reality television, as they seem to follow a pattern and adhere to tensions evident in contemporary Protestant narratives of transforming identity (I refer specifically to the conversion experience most popular among evangelical Christians which advocates a new self brought about through the process of having been ‘born again’).

It’s Just a Game; It’s Just your Life


The recognition that “it’s just a game” is common in shows like Survivor, Big Brother and The Amazing Race, which establish themselves as competition-based. A second genre of reality television, the Makeover Show, intersects intimately with the so-called real lives of real people.

Popular series such as TLCs ‘What Not to Wear,’ the Slice Network’s ‘Last Ten Pounds Bootcamp’ or NBC’s ‘The Biggest Loser’ are specifically focused on exposing its subjects failings and enacting a permanent physical, psychological (and moral) transformation. In What Not to Wear, the participants are unknowingly filmed for weeks to expose their many fashion faux-pas and then subjected to 360 degree mirror in which their favourite outfits are mocked and critiqued. They are schooled in the laws of fashion and are then sent out into the world to attempt to abide by the new rules. The initial attempts of the contestants are never successful, and after a tear-filled recognition that they cannot save themselves from their fashion failings, the perfectly assembled co-hosts swoop down to save the day. In the Slice Network’s ‘Lat Ten Pounds Bootcamp’ contestants’ cupboards are raided and their junk-food consuming sins are exposed for all to see. The hosts make the offense especially clear by dumping pounds of lard and sugar on the floor to represent the calories consumed each week by the lethargic glutton. NBC’s hit series ‘The Biggest Loser’ follows a similar pattern: contestants are stripped naked and dramatically confronted by their obesity on a weekly basis. They are asked to account for each calorie consumed and each minute of physical activity. Each week those who lose the least amount of weight are eliminated until the final individual must stand alone in judgement providing a full account of his or her actions. In each instance the problem is recast as a moral dilemma (contestant A does not respect her body; contestant B has a weakness for potato chips; contestant C is living in the past—evidenced by her inability to give up her nineties-styled hair scrunchies and neon pants). These problems and others are overcome by hard work and the right program: as long as she follows the correct diet/exercise/colour coordination she will find relief.

In each instance the champion emerges as a new self–the unfashionable heroine is decked out in the latest trends; Ali Vincent loses 112 lbs in Season Five of The Biggest Loser; and contestant after contestant on The Last Ten Pounds weeps because she is finally able to fit into her wedding dress/string bikini/skinny pants.

The Makeover Show provides a neatly packaged thirty minute/one hour/or season-long transformation of the old self into a new (and better) self. In the end, despite the humiliation, the subject represents his or herself as improved and redeemed. Affirming for the viewing audience that the process was “the best thing ever,” participants understand themselves as having received deliverance from their food/bad fashion/etc. sins. This transformation, they tell us, would have been impossible were it not for the actions of the hosts and the good people at [insert major television network here].

The ultimate thanks, however, goes to the individual herself. She enacts agency and brings about her own physical (moral) transformation. A revelatory moment of self-awareness and an inner-desire for change prompts her to take that initial step, that first act of faith to contact the producers and audition for the show.

The resemblance to Protestant conversion rhetoric is telling; participants in the Makeover Show follow the traditional model for a Christian testimony. The Pauline echoes of the new self are palpable. As with the final vote ceremonies in Survivor and Big Brother, the subject summarises all of the events into a concise and coherent narrative of transformation. The past self is no more as the new and better self emerges; this transformation is visually signified to us by new clothes, better hair and a fitter body, as well as the many declarations that now, at last, they feel fulfilled.

Confession and Obsession


It all starts with that initial recognition that something is not right—the public confession on the part of the reality television subject ensures the ultimate resolution and transformation. So maybe there is still hope for me. I have after all taken the first step. I have confessed my addiction in this very public forum of the Religion Beat Blog – I’ll be waiting for my million dollars and my new and better self but until then I’ll be tuning in to Survivor on Thursday nights.




Avatar, Ever-After

31 08 2010

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, January 13, 2010

I have given up trying to define religion. I agree with most scholars of religion that attempts at defining it lead to generalizations and undermine the importance of a subject matter in which both internal and external tensions exist. Instead, I challenge my students to look at the ways in which religions struggle for legitimacy and authority. My class focuses on the ways in which religious agents and communities produce narratives as a means of constructing and maintaining their worldviews and identities. This was the topic of my most recent lecture on religious representations of civic space and the Epic of Gilgamesh. I was surprised after my most recent lecture when one of my students declared that I absolutely had to see James Cameron’s futuristic, implicitly anti-war, post-colonial, eco-apocalypse, Avatar.

Originally, my inner Luddite had anticipated that the three-hour long movie’s 3-D, stereoscopic imaging technology would leave me dizzy and nauseous, but the student’s insistence and (perhaps) my general graduate student desire to procrastinate actual thesis writing in the name of “research” convinced me to give the new-fangled technology a try.
The film itself is ripe with obvious religious references. Jake Sully, the Christ-figure (see image) is identified as the “chosen one” for the Na’vi tribe (note the use of the ancient Hebrew word for prophet) who live in harmony with nature on the moon-planet, Pandora. Sully is sent by the Sky People (humans) to take the form of one of the Na’vi peoples in order to bring them a specific message. In doing so he learns the ways of the Na’vi people from Neytiri, the daughter of the tribe’s chief who is herself in training to take over from her mother as the spiritual leader of the Omaticaya Clan.
The Na’vi people claim a spiritual connection to all of nature as well as to their mother-goddess, Eywa. Their religious rituals are a complicated, communal affair and they are able to at times tap into the power of Eywa in a tangible way (so as to retrieve memories from their ancestors at the Tree of Souls, or, as at the end of the movie, to transfer Jake Sully’s mind from his human body to his avatar).
Many have already pointed to the religious representations in the film. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat attacks the films “gospel of pantheism” which he argues has been the “religion of choice” for a generation of Hollywood filmmakers: from the Jedi force in George Lucas’ Star Wars to the eco-worship advocated in Disney’s Lion King and Pocahontas. Douhat, apparently, feels that the pantheistic message of the film lacks the credibility of “traditional theism,” which he argues delves into questions of good and evil in a way that nature worship does not.
Some sites have pointed out the more nuanced Judeo-Christian imagery in the film, such as Kwok Pui-Lan, contributor to Religious Dispatches, who detects parallels between the Book of Joshua’s story about the prostitute Rahab. Pui-Lan also links Avatar to what she suggests is a subversive atonement theology influenced by liberation theology (the oppressed Na’vi “rise up in solidarity to fight against the colonizers”).
Responding to Douthat, John Podhoretz points out that the nature-worship and pagan rituals are not necessarily the promotion of a sustainability gospel. Alternatively, he suggests that the Na’vi pantheism is used to give the “special-effects some resonance”— not because it is controversial, but rather because it is “most pleasing to the greatest number of people.”
And certainly, the majority of the viewers in the audience will (and in my opinion, should) cheer for Eywa, the mother-goddess over the militaristic, shock-and-awe tactics of the human (read: American) Sky People. The Sky People are heartless opportunists whereas the Na’vi possess an authentic, unbiased spiritual concern for the well-being of all.
But the religious narrative of the film takes a crucial turn right before the final battle, when our hero, Jake Sully, goes to the Tree of Souls to pray to Eywa. “I’m probably just talking to a tree” he pronounces, but nevertheless he asks that she watch over them and guide them to victory. The heroine, Neytiri, explains that Jake’s request is theologically untenable, our Great Mother does not take sides, Jake. She protects only the balance of life.”
Sully appears to accept Neytiri’s statement and the two venture off to prepare for battle. The underdog Na’vi put up a valiant effort against the Sky People but are on the verge of losing the battle and all hope until the last moment when Eywa intervenes by summing the wildlife of Pandora to join the fight.
This deus ex machina, or perhaps more appropriately, deus ex natura moment suggests a radical departure from the theological/ontological structure of the Na’vi religious economy. Instantly, Eywa is transformed into a deity who is much more readily aligned with the familiar image and actions of the Judeo-Christian God – a deity who takes sides, judges between good and evil and punishes transgressors and rewards the faithful.
This transformation is most clearly symbolized by Sully’s “re-birth” as an Avatar in which he dies in one life (the human) to be reborn as a new self. It is hard to imagine a more Pauline-derived Evangelical metaphysics.
Thus, the battle is won and the Sky People are sent home to their dying planet, Earth. But as viewers, we are left wondering at what cost? Post-colonial theory tells us that once colonial contact has been made there is no returning to a pre-contact existence. Every aspect of a society and culture necessarily react to this exchange. In the case of the religious narratives of the Na’vi, they now must contend with a deity who turns out to be something different than what they originally thought. What is worse is the only one who truly understood their Na’vi deity and her will is an outsider from a different race and planet, not the Na’vi themselves.
Cameron has hinted that he would like to produce a sequel and possibly create a trilogy out of the film. In this case, one wonders how the religious structures and beliefs of the Na’vi have been altered by their interactions with the Sky People? As an anthropologist of religion, I cannot help but wonder whether the Sky People have left more than Jake Sully (and select others) behind? Did they also leave the relational, interventionist God of Christianity, and if so, what lasting effects will this distinctive representation of a deity have upon the cultural narratives of the Na’vi?







Savage Minds

Notes and Queries in Anthropology

Culture on the Edge

Studies in Identity Formation