Christianity as neither exception nor rule (An essay in the Self-Positionality in the Anthropology of Christianity series)

By Girish Daswani, University of Toronto

As someone who grew up in Singapore, my relationship to Christianity was a peripheral one. Some of my friends were Christians, but many others were Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Even within these category markers, there were other distinctions such as race, language, social class, sexual orientation and gender. Religion only became important when special occasions and festivities came around – when we could visit each other to receive the hospitality of our friends, eat to our heart’s content, or mark a break in our school calendar by simply enjoying a holiday from the daily, cruel grind of the Singaporean education system. I really never thought too much about Christianity or what it meant to be a Christian. 

I was first exposed to the Bible when my Primary School teacher tried to get me to attend volunteer “remedial classes”, which were thinly disguised Bible Studies classes – probably something she was not allowed to do. Yet, I still did not understand much. I enjoyed the stories but, please, do not ask me to commit to something or someone at age 12. The reason why Christianity never stood out, I believe, is because none of my friends spoke at length about religion. They worshipped at churches, mosques, temples and gurdwaras, but religion was never really discussed or widely debated – we simply had or came from different “Religions” (which became a way of assigning distinction when deciding which Religious Studies class to take in Secondary School or when selecting Halal/non-Halal diets during National Service). What was important were our situated relations. We were in relations to our families, our neighborhoods, our schools, and to other overlapping communities. And what brought us together was friendship and, also, boredom. Usually, they went together. 

What did become part of many conversations, however, were ghosts, spirits, deities and haunted spaces. Friends would tell me about how they had been possessed when they were young (one was able to throw three men off him while possessed), or how they or someone in their family could see spirits (especially after eating certain tropical fruits like longan or durian). We would go in search of ghosts in abandoned public housing buildings and houses, which were scheduled to be demolished, and visited homes where someone filled with a Hindu goddess helped people with their problems. My adopted uncle was a Tamil astrologer who helped others keep many of the not-so-nice spirits at bay. He created powerful amulets and uttered prayers into lime or holy ash that could heal and remove attaching spirits or the influence of the evil eye. When I was 18, army camps were filled with stories of abandoned rooms that had become doorways to the spirit realm and had to be sealed by Taoist priests. During military training, we were advised to apologize every time we urinated under a tree or accidentally stepped on a grave, and not to respond to a female voice calling our name in the night (potentially a female vampire called a Pontianak) – especially if we were at the end of the formation or when the voice was accompanied by the sweet scent of frangipani flowers. 

At the National University of Singapore, I remember wanting to do my Sociology Honors thesis research on anything that allowed me to engage with the work of Michel Foucault. I ended up choosing Reiki and spent several months with ReikiMasters and practitioners, at Reiki-sharing sessions and in healing rooms, doing participant observation and interviews. I picked up meditation, spoke to practitioners who shared their ‘conversion’ stories, and while writing my dissertation, interpreted the Reiki-body through the intersections of self-disciplinary practice, religious knowledge and Capitalism (hi, Foucault!). The label “Hindu” was given to me but never made sense to me (I would discover it was a biproduct of colonialism). I was simply in relations with people, with divinities, spirits, ghosts and their stories. Later on, while back in Singapore during a break from studying at the LSE, I was struck when my cousin told me how she had gone to a Hindu priest to help her get rid of a negative energy in her home (it was affecting her marriage), only to be told that he was not the right person for the job. He advised her to seek the help of a bomoh (Malay shaman). The bomoh captured a toyol(spirit of a stillborn or aborted baby) in a glass jar, in front of her, while chanting verses from the Quran. He then sent it back to its sender. The fact that someone I grew up with had seen a small black figure (with red eyes) trapped in a glass jar, angrily banging on its walls and trying to escape, was enough for me to know toyols were real. I did not have to believe her – she was my cousin and I had already heard stories about toyols. The same way that I never had to believewhen a Christian in Ghana experienced the Holy Spirit or when a traditional priest was possessed by a dwarf-spirit (mmoteia). None of this was odd for me. And I never saw Christianity as exceptional or important till I went to Ghana. 

Pentecostal Christianity in Ghana as (not) exceptional  

It was in Ghana that I came to see how Pentecostalism had penetrated the public, political and inter-personal spheres. It was worthy of study and unexceptional in that it penetrated every aspect of public life. I spent so much time with Pentecostals (almost seven days a week) that I quickly learned the Bible, the prayers, and the rituals. Many assumed I was one of their flock. Until they asked me, of course, and I told them. I remember their disappointed and baffled looks – many were sympathetic and felt sorry for me. Others tried to advise me to pray over it and assumed that I would eventually understand since I spent so much time in church (praying). Institutionally, the Church structures I studied reminded me of the Singaporean government and its political leadership – strict, patriarchal and hierarchical. Church leaders were warm, hospitable and always made time for me. But they were cogs in a well-oiled institution that worked hard to reproduce traditional Pentecostal values while keeping themselves relevant in a changing “post/modern” world. The church I did my research with – the Church of Pentecost (CoP) – was filled with self-disciplined and well-educated Pastors and Apostles with Masters’ and PhD degrees. It was one of the biggest Protestant churches in Ghana, endowed with wealth and its own theological University. Its leaders were extremely busy, and as I could not last long in their company, I reserved my time with them to scheduled interviews and church services. 

I spent more time with church members who were prophets, some of whom were women, and most of whom provided spiritual advice, direction and protection. They reminded me of the religious priests I knew in Singapore. Being filled with the Holy Spirit, and gifted with prophecy and healing, meant that prophets based their judgments and prayers on how they intuitively felt or what the Holy Spirit told them. Obviously, they were influenced by their personal ambitions and hopes for the future, but most were aware that they were also guided by something else and were somewhat obligated to this something extra. Otherwise, if they failed to heed that voice in their head (or feeling in their stomach), there were would be consequences – since they were in ongoing relations with the Holy Spirit (and Jesus). And because of their confidence in this relation, some broke church rules, many left the church when it stifled them, and others were quick to embrace me even if I told them I was not Christian. They simply asked the Holy Spirit about me, and if they agreed, they prayed over me and I was good to be in their company. They built spiritual communities called prayer camps and prayer centers that were somewhat detached from the institutional management of CoP leadership. Even if the Church as an institution kept a firm disciplinary hold on their members and how (born-again) Christian kinship was imagined and expressed, Pentecostalism was potentially accessible to me – like the spirits and deities in Singapore – through the relational way that friendship always brought different people and worlds together. 

It was during my friendship with one (independent) prophet that my worlds in Singapore and in Ghana converged. I first met Philip at a Charismatic church bookshop. He struck a conversation with me, said that the Holy Spirit had guided him to me, and prophesied to me about my family in Ghana. He did not know me, yet he spoke as if he did. He said my family in Ghana once held a high reputation but that it had since declined. That this was caused by an ancestral curse on my father’s side of the family. But, for whatever reason, I was not affected by that curse. It struck me how he knew so much about my family or their changed status in Ghana. At first, I took it as coincidence – after all, many prophets made connections with people through the ability to speak to their past or projected future. But it was an uncanny coincidence. As our friendship developed, I started accompanying Philip to his prayer center. I also started sharing with him news about my mother’s failing business in Singapore. One day, he revealed to me that he “saw” a male spirit (wearing a white hat) who occupied the house where my mother’s childcare center was and who was causing the business to deteriorate. The spirit no longer wanted the school there. I contacted my mother and told her about it and she later confirmed that when she had spoken to my adopted uncle, the astrologer, he had (independently) told her that the house was occupied by a male Malay spirit and that the property the school was on was also his (the spirit’s) since it was his burial site. I remembered my own indirect relation to that spirit when I lived in the upper level of that house with my mother – the scent of perfume that wafted down the stairs from the bathroom and the creaking of the sliding door that accompanied me when I strummed on my guitar at night. That Malay spirit had every right to be there, both Philip and my Astrologer uncle told us, and making him leave would be close to impossible and unadvisable. He had had dominion over that land for many years. So, my mother decided to leave. She shut down her declining business and retired. A few years later my uncle in Singapore confirmed Philip’s revelation of an ancestral curse on my father’s side of the family. He told me that one of my ancestors had grievously hurt a woman and she had cursed him and all his male descendants. I was exempt. He had conducted prayers for me many years back.

Self-Positionality as an Anthropologist of Christianity

Like my colleagues’, my positionality and location matter (Chua and Mathur 2018). They matter to how I view the world and to the kind of anthropologist I am. I am not a European nor an American anthropologist. I am not Christian, do not abide by an Abrahamic faith, and am not White. Neither have I sought after similarity and/or difference when studying Ghanaian Pentecostal Christians. I was not drawn to Christianity by some previous fascination or intimate encounter – instead, I was in love with Ghana and everything it held within it. During fieldwork, I did not hold the assumption that I was sufficiently distant from or dangerously close to my Ghanaian Pentecostal interlocutors. Neither did I falsely assume familiarity. I was always a guest in their church and in relations with them – I prayed with them, I ate and traveled with them, and I discussed non-religious topics with them. I also respected them in the same way I respected the people I knew in Singapore – I never had to doubt or question their faith or what they expressed to me. Only if people themselves demonstrated contradictions between what they said and how they behaved did I pay closer attention. Yet, just as I represented the kind of person that White anthropologists studying Singapore might write about (non-White, “Asian”, “exotic”, non-secular), I was trained to write about Ghanaian people in a similar way – as a non-indigenous Ghanaian studying and representing the “other”. My presence in Ghana did not challenge the classic image of the ethnographer as Male and White (I was called oburoni and considered “White” by many Ghanaians). As bell hooks writes: ‘To simply be an “observer” does not imply the displacement or subversion of the white “authorial presence.”’ (hooks 2015: 198). Neither did I write in any new way that challenged my own cultivated Whiteness (Daswani 2021). As I wrote my ethnography (Daswani 2015), I had in mind a European and North American academic audience. I had in mind a predominantly White, Judaeo-Christian or secular audience from within this growing field called the Anthropology of Christianity. Neither was I challenging any system of power or domination. I wanted to be accepted (read and re-cited) by my advisors, my peers and those who I read and cited.  

My role as ethnographer and anthropologist allowed me to be in a privileged position of power, where I acted as an intermediary “between the white power structure and indigenous people of color, usually black folks” (hooks, 2015: 205). I did not interrogate my motives for studying Ghanaian Pentecostals. Through anthropology, I became an interpreter of African Christian experience. I was one of the “others” (formerly colonized peoples) who sought a place in Western academia, who wanted to be recognized as an equal through re-producing otherness. The emergence of an Anthropology of Christianity while I was writing my PhD (from 2004), offered a new and exciting focus on Christianities and their importance to (not just the people we studied but) anthropology. It opened up new possibilities. We acknowledged how anthropology and social theory were haunted by Christian history and metaphysics, how anthropologists (past and present) held Christian “beliefs”, and how Christian people and countries took “Christianity” seriously and thus should also be understood through their faith. It became a lucrative conversation – a book series started, workshops and conferences were created, special issues published, and people held discussions across disciplines. A dialogue between scholars who were not traditionally inclined to speak to each other was happening – so, on one level, it was a success. But the desire to create a common language or to set the agenda, of “what” an Anthropology of Christianity was, left others feeling like outsiders. Those who held the door open to others, and for whom these doors remained open, held importance. Some responded by creating an alternative (and even more specific “Anthropology of…”) focus on Christianity. But the problem was not with any “Anthropology of…”. Instead, it was with “the centrifugal force still arguably granted to Christian thought and history” (Craig and Yuntae 2021: 8) and the way anthropological knowledge about Christianity was re-produced through specific people and the specific ways in which certain scholars claimed this knowledge for themselves and became its gatekeepers. 

What I have seen in an Anthropology of Christianity is what I did not see talked about. When certain Continental scholars were brought into discussions, to supposedly raise the level of theoretical engagement, the racial and colonial violence that also haunted this work or the presence of Christianity in these post-colonial spaces was minimized or not touched on at all. We did not interrogate how “Hegel’s notions of religion and Spirit and Kant’s historical teleology do not exist without cultural and racial hierarchies” (Craig and Yuntae 2021: 26). Post/colonial literature, especially feminist theories, remained occluded from view and not seriously engaged with. Instead, the Anthropology of Christianity has worked hard to gain authenticity by engaging with and validating the classical work of anthropologists and social theorists whose work have a tendency to reproduce the power structures and elitism (i.e. inaccessibility) of Anthropology – mainly White and mainly Male. By loudly demanding that evangelical Christians were not the “repugnant other,” this subfield may have allowed the conversation about (evangelical) Christians to be taken seriously as well as shone an important light on other conversations such as the intersections of secularism and faith. But you still had the nagging feeling that anthropologists (even when studying various kinds of Christians) were studying something (occluded) about themselves. And by this, I do not mean our shared “human condition.” I am talking about the Abrahamic faith that many anthropologists either claim or claim to have moved away from – or simply, their deep fascination with it (even when denying or rejecting it). I am writing about a site of repression that is not openly acknowledged nor spoken about. 

What would it be like for a ‘polytheist’, Buddhist, Wican, or Hindu to study and construct theories about Christians? And should it matter? If religion has had a role in the reproduction of coloniality, then acknowledging the personal connections to the stories we tell are important. For example, “[w]riting Mules and Men enabled [Zora Neale] Hurston to reconnect fragments of her self, to bring together writer and anthropologist, and to allow the writer identity to take precedence over the anthropological standpoint” (hooks 2015: 220). Writing from and about one’s positionality was important for Hurston. But Hurston was not simply writing about herself or for the people she identified with – she was writing for and about a group that had also been enslaved, oppressed, and who had little ability to represent themselves. This is when the power relations, the histories of colonialism, and the personal investments around one’s positionality reveal itself as important. Hurston’s work was part of a struggle against forgetting – the pain, the suffering, as well as the victories of previously enslaved Southern Black people in the U.S. I do not write in that same way nor share that positionality, but I certainly speak from “the margins” (to borrow from bell hooks) within an Anthropology of Christianity – non-Christian, non-monotheistic, non-White, non-European and non-elite. I have also embodied and cultivated the Whiteness of the center in order to gain recognition and whatever praise it would afford me. Yet, the multiplicity of the roles I embody do not absolve me from my role in reproducing elite-ness and Whiteness. They should not allow me to look away from violence and the potential repugnancy of Religion as a force for violence or when religious kinship (or commitment) becomes an exclusionary form for discrimination. This is when positionality ought to become more than a metaphor or a non-performative statement about one’s intersectional identity. It needs to demonstrate a commitment to addressing the silences, the (his)stories, the ambiguities and the political struggles that often get excluded from the conversation. What becomes important for me is “what ways of life, religious and otherwise, will nurture “the states of feeling needed to counter dehumanization”—embodied counterpoetics that can resist both coloniality and capitalism” (Craig and Yountae 2021: 19).

Sharing Different Stories, Alternative Outcomes

How do we as anthropologists (of Christianity) not just work to compare and study Christianity – or simply confirm and speak of ongoing forms of domination – but also work to refuse the dehumanization of others and to share “information and stories and resources to build the capacity for social change” (McKittrick 2021)? How do we acknowledge the patriarchal power of relations in religion, including in “Christian coloniality” (Craig and Yountae 2021) and other forms of religious coloniality (think Hindutva or Hindu fundamentalism)? How do we respond to the religious ideologies (not specific to Christianity) that serve to dehumanize or strip self-respect or rights from people? We need to ask questions about what our own commitments and investments are and how we study religion alongside the greater freedom of lives that have been silenced and damaged through oppressive structures. As Katherine McKittrick (2021: 30) suggests in Dear Science and Other Stories: “black studies theorizes black liberation not through categories (identity) but from the perspective of struggle (struggle is entangled with identities-places-embodiments-infrastructures-narratives-feeling)”. I suggest that we take heed of that advice, of starting from the perspective of struggle, where “unknowing ourselves” is one way to think or write differently, and to tell alternative stories about liberation, freedom and resistance:

“What if we read outside ourselves not for ourselves but to actively unknow ourselves, to unhinge, and thus come to know each other, intellectually, inside and outside the academy, as collaborators of collective and generous and capacious stories? Unknowing ourselves. The unhinging opens up a different conversation about why we do what we do, here, in this place, that despises us — not focusing on reparation of the self, alone, but instead sharing information and stories and resources to build the capacity for social change. Alternative outcomes.” 

(McKittrick 2021: 16)

Alternative ways of telling stories, of sharing and citing, in building the capacity for actual change becomes more important than ever before. I hope that this will be read as an invitation to working differently and sharing ideas relationally rather than hierarchically. The struggle begins within and with us – with all our relations, and not just the ones we know or easily recognize. It begins with sharing ideas/relations about how to resist injustice and forms of discrimination. 

Over time, I would watch a cousin in the U.S. become born-again and a Pentecostal pastor with his own congregation. I was told by my best friend in Singapore that he and his family were converting to Catholicism. I recently learned that my father accepted Jesus, in Melbourne, while being prayed-upon and worshipping with Catholic Charismatics. These different relations speak to a common observation – that of a shift in religious identity – but not of the relations themselves. What remains between us is an ethic of love that could see past differences and respect choices. However, what did become repugnant for me – and sometimes caused a rupture in relations – were the Hindu nationalists in my family who spread pro-Modi propaganda on WhatsApp group chats and blindly saw nothing wrong with the anti-Muslim sentiment of Hindutva. We might all be “Hindus”, but our respective understanding of what that meant (or not) diverged tremendously.  

When I became an anthropologist of Religion, Christianity felt peripheral in my life. More recently, as loved ones turned to Christianity to find meaning and happiness, I could no longer claim that Christianity was peripheral: It had become more personal and, thereby, interesting to study not only from the inside out, but also, and perhaps serendipitously, from the outside in.

References

Chua, Liana and Nayanika Mathur. 2018. Introduction to Who are ‘we’? Reimagining alterity and affinity in anthropology, edited by Liana Chua and Nayanika Mathur. Oxford and New York: Berghahn, pp. 1-34. 

Craig, Eleanor and An Yountae. 2021. Introduction: Challenging Modernity/Coloniality in Philospophy of Religion.” InBeyond Man: Race, Coloniality and Philosophy of Religion, edited by An Yountae and Eleanor Craig. Durham and London: Duke University Press, pp. 1-31.

Daswani, Girish. 2015. Looking Back, Moving Forward: Transformation and Ethical Practice in the Ghanaian Church of Pentecost. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Daswani, Girish. 2021. “On the Whiteness of Academia”. Everyday Orientalism.

hooks, bell. 2015. Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. New York and London: Routledge Press.

McKittrick, Katherine. 2021. Dear Science and Other Stories. Durham and London: Duke University Press.