Coda: An Origin Story (An essay in the Self-Positionality in the Anthropology of Christianity series)

By Jon Bialecki, University of California, San Diego

Two stories. It is my first time giving a talk abroad; indeed, it is my first time abroad to a country that I was not visiting for reasons of either family connection, North American proximity, or ethnographic aspirations. I am to give a talk drawn on my just completed dissertation research, which centered on the Vineyard, a Southern California-originated group of Charismatic Evangelicals known for engaging in Pentecostal-style miraculous acts such as prophecy, healing, and casting out demons. A few years from now, the Vineyard would receive a great deal of anthropological renowned (though sadly not due to my work!) (Luhrmann 2012). But at this point in time, my object of study seems like an underdetermined curio to most anthropologists I talk to. 

The room I’m going to give my seminar talk in is full of photographs of notably British, white, and male anthropological worthies, making me feel out of place. I am, of course, suffering from the usual disquiet any incredibly junior anthropologist experiences when put in this situation. What I don’t know is that this amalgam of panic and anxiety is about to balloon by an order of magnitude. The person introducing me makes a small, certainly well-intentioned, joke, referring to me as a “native ethnographer.” This status is not due to any religious commitment, he wants to be clear, but rather because I had grown up in Southern California. His caveat did little to assuage me – I feel a strange thrill of rage. How dare he call me that, I think to myself, as I fidget with my papers, waiting my turn to begin. Of course, what escaped me at the moment is why such a categorization should quicken my pulse in quite that way. What also went without any examination on my part was why he made that joke in the first place, which in retrospect was a back-door method to assuage the audience as to my non-religious bona fides. I go on to what I remember as a particularly uneven performance – something that was no doubt in the cards from the start. But at the time, I chalk up not to my green nature or jet-lagged fog, but to that passing moment of disquiet and high dudgeon that I did not fully understand. 

A second moment, years later. I’m in a week-long conference on the anthropology of Christianity; as part of the conference’s design, the small hotel we are installed in has been transformed into a total institution; we sleep there, meet there, eat there, and (since we are anthropologists) drink there. The idea is that this will give rise to conversations and connections that otherwise would never take. And it did, usually – but not always – to happy effect. It is, of course, the exceptions that are remembered best. During some off-time moment, a late-career social anthropologist comes up to me. Quickly, he turns the topic of conversation to my family name, a move that felt a bit like a non-sequitur. Is it Polish? Why, yes, it is, I reply. And then, in short order, he tells me I studied the wrong thing as an anthropologist. I should not have attended to a form of Pentecostal-type activity located in the region of the United States that arguably played an outside role in the development of Pentecostalism. I instead should have studied Poles. Of course, what I heard was this: Document the Christianity of my ancestral people! Master their charming folkways! A moment passes, and my head is full of caricatures of garish peasant costumes and sepia-colored statues of saints. I find myself thrown off, studying his face for some indication of irony, humor, or malice, and find none. I quickly discover that I’m at once angry and on my back heels. Why this strange but probably heartfelt bit of retrospective career advice, this brief excursion in field-choice counterfactuals, should have struck me so, of course, never crossed my mind. 

These two stories are just tokens of a type – I have plenty more on hand, most of which are memories married to equally unpleasant affects (there is a certain book review that incorrectly described me as in effect ‘a member of the Vineyard in good standing’ that I encourage you not to ask me about). At a surface level, these tales may seem to bear resemblances to the other narrative moments in the essays that constitutes the main body of this series on self-positionality in the anthropology of Christianity; stories of researchers, either out in the field or navigating the halls of academia, discovering anew what their lives, histories, and belongings meant for them as colleagues and as producers of knowledge. A person certainly could will themselves to read my narratives of petty, imagined slights in that way if they wanted to, I am sure. But that isn’t the spirit in which my two accounts are being offered here. Instead, I would argue that my stories are actually inversions of the narratives that constituted much of the main part of this series of essays on self-positionality. These were not moments where my particular personal history complicated my interactions with an unmarked academic subject position that was at once generic, and yet also implicitly males, white, and middle class. There were rather moments where a positionality was instead threatened to be given to me, where my comfortably non-specified nature would suddenly be specified. And what is instructive is not that someone should do this to me, but rather the unarticulated source of the rage that I felt at the time – and, to my shame, which I still feel sometimes even to this very day.

“Are you now, or have you ever been?”

To understand my strange reactions, a word on something that has not been meditated upon in this series so far: why is this a discussion regarding the anthropology of Christianity?

As observed by Girish Daswani’s introductory essay to this discussionevery ethnographer arrives already situated. Having a history comes free with being alive. And as we’ve seen in both this series of essays and in the broader literature (Chua and Mather 2018; Daswani 2021), the disjunct between, on the one hand, one’s actual position, and on the other hand, a default anthropological “we” that is blind to the unmarked ways it is gendered and raced, has effects – and often, costs – throughout the discipline. So, we cannot claim – and what is more, we are not claiming – that this problem is exclusive to the anthropology of Christianity. 

So why discuss it in the New Directions in the Anthropology of Christianity webpage? Well, there is a reason. Without taking away anything from the general nature of the broader problem, we can say that due to the history of the subdiscipline, the issue of self-positionality, while not unique to the anthropology of Christianity, takes forms that are particular to the anthropology of Christianity. The underlying issue is the same, but its texture is different when it erupts in conversations are in dialogue with this specific body of ethnographic and anthropological literature. This is because, at its first moments, the anthropology of Christianity was built around what we might call a virtual identity, a problem that, for the sake of argument, assumed that one was formulating the question from a particular vantage point. 

Now, the advent of the anthropology of Christianity was not the first moment when Christians were studied by anthropologists, or even that Christians qua Christians were studied by anthropologists. (See Robbins 2014). What made the anthropology of Christianity into the anthropology of Christianity was two elements. The first aspect was having an initial common question. While there were many formulations of this core problematic, the pithiest one is probably that of Fenella Cannel (2006:1), who asked, “[w]hat difference does Christianity make?” But this question only made sense if it was asked from the stance of an anthropologist who, due to demographic forces in the global south and political events in the anglophone north, had just realized that they must come to terms with this “difficult” religion. (Robbins 2003: 192). 

Christianity’s “difficult” status was not just a challenge in the abstract. Christianity was framed as a challenge to anthropology because Christians were too much like the anthropologist while also being too different from the anthropologist, a claim that implied something about not just who Christians were, but also what this fictive generic anthropologist was like. The logic here was that contemporary Christianity, like anthropology, had developed in dialogue with regnant modernist ideas. But at the same time, though, the stances taken by Christianity were often antithetical to anthropology, advocating a Christian universalism that was a challenge to reconcile with anthropological sensibilities. (Robbins 2003; see also Harding 1991). Christianity had answers to many of the problems that anthropology also had – except that the answers of Christianity were quite different.

This awkward relationship of simultaneous similitude and difference (and it is telling that the phrase ‘awkward’ comes up more than chance in discussions of anthropology and Christian thought – see Robbins 2006) was laminated to other judgments that, with differing degrees of explicitness, also implicitly situated the anthropologist. Christianity was described as, to anthropological eyes at least, as lacking a “degree of cultural alterity that has until quite recently been definitional of an apt disciplinary object.” (Bialecki, Haynes, and Robbins 2008: 1140). This claim was not meant to substantively describe any essence of Christianity, of course. It was merely made to explain why it had not been previously set aside as an explicit object of anthropological concern in the way that, say, the anthropology of Islam had been. (See, e.g., El-Zein 1977). But this still characterized a certain anthropological point of view that at once prized alterity (though it appears to be ‘getting better’), and which is also a bit jaded about previous exposure to Christianity so that what was distinctive about this religious tradition was hard to see (even if anthropology was doing something like ‘repenting’ for this attitude at the same time). Then there is the political problem. Christians were understood to be “disappointing subalterns” (Bialecki, Haynes, and Robbins 2008: 1140, citing Maxwell 2006: 10), which of course raises the question: disappointing to who? Obviously, to anthropologists who are informed by the default disciplinary political sympathies. Again, a back-door positionality is found. 

Still, this identity position was not meant to be substantive, controlling, or permanent; it was something more along the lines of a fictive persona meant to lay clear contrasts between a social science and a faith. You did not have to inhabit this persona. You just had to agree with the claim that most anthropologists had been like this until this point in time. There was, therefore, certainly nothing intentionally invidious about this back-door formulation of an anthropological self-positioning. There certainly wasn’t any policing; those that openly signaled that they stood at right angles from this generic anthropology-of-Christianity fictive positionality, at least as far as confessional affiliation goes, not only were a part of the conversation; they were actually in on the ground floor. (See, e.g., Howell 2003, 2007, 2008). Still, the then common challenge experienced by those who studied Christianity anthropologically in those early days of the subdiscipline – “Are you now or have you ever been a Christian?” (see Harding 1991: 375) – showed that this disjunct in possible identifications expressed a real tension in the discipline, a tension that exists to the present day. (See McIvor 2020: 27-28).  It also suggests that in those initial years, outliers who identified as Christian anthropologists of Christianity were exactly that – outliers. 

Looking at this pattern, the underlying challenge the anthropology of Christianity has vis-à-vis self-positionality becomes clear. Because Christianity was something that could be found both ‘out there’ in the field and ‘right here’ in the social space inhabited by the anthropologist at ‘home,’ the potential forms of ‘belonging’ to the very community an anthropologist studied proliferated. Whether one was or was not a ‘native’ ethnographer was usually a binary choice – or at least understood as a binary choice, since the very clumsiness of the category collapsed all sorts of gradations of difference and belonging (see Narayan 1993). But collapsing the different imaginable forms of belonging became difficult in the anthropology of Christianity since one could potentially not herald from ‘the field,’ and still in a way ‘belong’ to the group under investigation through being a co-religionist with them. If you are, say, a Baptist at home studying Baptists in some distant field site, were you a ‘native’? Or, at one more level of remove, if you are, perhaps, an Evangelical studying devotees of the Prosperity Gospel, are you ‘native’? Gradations complicated things. But they did not complicate things to such a sufficient degree that the procrustean, binary form of ‘in or out’ couldn’t return. Since there already was an ‘image’ of Christianity in the field, as evidenced by the animus that an anthropology of Christianity was pushing back against, there was also an effect where, no matter what sort of Christian belonging one had, one was viewed through the narrow window of anti-Christian prejudice. This prejudice was fueled by an American academic allergy to certain Evangelical Protestants and comparable post-Protestants, but the immune reaction was not limited to these narrow forms of Christianity alone. And this prejudice was blind to any and all of these gradations of difference. 

Another turn of the screw came with the fact that this was the one time where potentially being a ‘native’ ethnographer didn’t at the same time come along with some small advantages that at least partially undid the costs that came with not fitting the standard, paradigmatic image of who anthropologists ‘were.’ Most of the time overlaps in belonging by ‘native’ anthropologists took some of the sting out of the political problem that came with representing a ‘different’ community. But since Christians were the ‘repugnant other,’ no one particularly worried about representing them – and indeed, to the degree that you were dealing with ‘domestic’ Christians who were understood as being animated by at best questionable political positions, you were probably a bit better off if you salt your ethnography with trenchant critique, since it underscored that you weren’t one of ‘them.’ And besides, since Christianity was a ‘Western’ religion and an Anglo-American category, the representational danger that came with discussing ‘otherness’ weren’t all that sharp since Christians weren’t all that ‘other.’ The growth of Christianity in previously non-Christian locales may raise theoretical problems about, say, social and linguistic change. But at another level, as far as alterity went, this was not Papua or Amazonia (even though, geographically, it often actually was). While this was not said out loud much, all of us already knew what Christianity ‘was’ and who Christians ‘were.’

So it was imperative that, if someone wanted a ‘good’ career back in the early days of the anthropology of Christianity, the anthropologist had to stabilize and control how he, she, or they were read. The viewpoint that framed the conversation was fictive, but the social and professional costs associated with any identification with the object of investigation were quite real. It is, therefore, no accident that this fictive positionality was something that anthropologists working on Christianity went out of their way to substantively inhabit. In the various prefaces and introductions to the early ethnographic monographs, the same trope is replayed again and again; the off-handed, but at once still somewhat forced and labored, mention that the author is not a Christian, or has little familiarity with Christianity, or was forced by circumstances in the field to take up Christianity as a research focus. (I won’t point out specific moments in the ethnography of other scholars, but rest assured that clumsy moments where I performatively disavow any ties to a Christian identity can be found in moments of my work.) These claims being made by ethnographers about who they were weren’t being made in bad faith, of course. Many in the first generation of the anthropology of Christianity had stumbled upon the topic by accident when out in the field. And there were plenty of ethnographers whose personal ties to Christianity were notional if not entirely absent. But scholars still felt compelled by anxieties regarding outside judgment to mention these facts about their personal history. And through the repetition of the recitations of identity and personal history, a certain kind of default vision of ‘who’ anthropologists of Christianity were was laid out; and it unsurprisingly soon dovetailed with other presumed forms of the ‘we’ found in anthropology. 

Thinking in images always does this, as images, built out of probabilistic tendencies and not out of the myriad ways that a position could conceivably be inhabited, works to conflate race, ethics, and identity, and to constrain difference. (Bialecki 2017). What is more, this shift from a virtual vantage point to an imagistic identity increases the reliance on paradigmatic thought, taken here in the cognitive science term of things. If someone out of the blue asks you to ‘think of a bird,’ what is likely to come to mind is something along the lines of a sparrow or a finch, common birds that might be used as examples of birds in the generic, and not some avian outlier like an ostrich, emu, or dodo, even though these creatures also fit within the Linnaean biological class. And if someone asks you to think of an anthropologist of Christianity out of the blue… well, cue the white, most likely male, ethnographer? As we’ve seen in these essays, though, this is a poor fit for many people who study Christianity through an anthropological lens. And while the aspects concerning religious affiliation have received some critical attention, the other aspects of position, identity, and belonging have not.  

Taking in more of the world

As some of these essays we have had in this series on self-positionality suggest, this calcification of the imagination can haunt those anthropologists who fall outside of the paradigmatic example, pressuring them to speak the language of a fabricated positionality that they don’t inhabit. But as we’ve also seen, there also are moments of escape from the narrowing of identity for those non-paradigmatic anthropologists; sometimes, these moments come with a particular frisson; sometimes, they demanded a deterritorialization of a sense of identity as the ethnographer reterritorialized themselves in the fieldsometimes they come with sadness and beauty. But these revelatory events and encounters can only be shared – and indeed, in many cases, they can only be seen – if our sense of who anthropologists of Christianity are is turned from an imagistic notion that is weighted down with too many unstated probabilistic presumptions and instead is returned to the more virtual and open stance that was always present in the way that the guiding questions of the subdiscipline were formulated, though which were not always foregrounded. 

What is more, this has to be a collective labor, rather than a task that is devolved onto anthropologists whose self-positionality does not map onto the generic anthropological “we.” This is because nothing is done by anthropologists alone. Training, fieldwork, publishing, granting and funding mechanisms, and even the broken system of academic remuneration and reward are all collective labors. And as long as the anthropological “we” has a particular unmarked, imagistic cast to it, what is possible in these collective labors will be constricted in such a way that we will lose certain capacities for seeing things anew. The projects we reward will only be the projects that study Christianities that are “interesting” from a particular vantage point, that is, from points of view that cater to a particular sense of what is either inexplicable or which demands critical political attention. The problem is not that those conventionally interesting projects are unworthy; they have, after all, produced good scholarship in the past, and will most likely continue to produce further scholarship and drive conversations in the future. But they do not exhaust what is out there, and they certainly do not reveal all that could be made visible. This is not about questions of ‘identity politics.’ This is about dilating the anthropological eye to take in more of the world. 

This labor cannot be reduced to virtuous self-work; institutional aspects have to be attended to. But that does not mean that self-work has no role. We have to learn to make out our unthought presumptions, a difficult task given their unmarked nature. This requires listening to other voices, and it requires careful critical attention. But it also requires our learning what might be called a symptomatic reading of our own thought and behavior. We need to look to those small moments of inexplicable indignation and shame, name what drives them, and see if these animating forces are things that we truly want to guide our words, feelings, and choices. For me, this has meant acknowledging the contingent and marked position I inhabit, something only made possible by seeing how upset I was when its particularities rise up and become visible. Everyone, after all, is particular and partial in their own way – the generic is not what is given, but instead is what happens when we those who are ‘unmarked’ choose without choosing to be blind to who we are. 


I would like to thank Liana Chua and Girish Daswani for conversation on this topic, and for notes on this essay.

Works Cited

Bialecki, J. 2017. Eschatology, Ethics, and Ēthnos: Ressentiment and Christian Nationalism in the Anthropology of Christianity. Religion and Society: Advances in Research, 8: 42-61.

Bialecki, J., N. Haynes, and J. Robbins. 2008. The anthropology of Christianity. Religion Compass, 2(6): 1139-1158.

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

Cannell, F. 2006. Introduction. In F. Cannell, ed., The Anthropology of Christianity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Daswani, G. 2021. ‘On the whiteness of academia’. Everyday Orientalism blog. 17 February 2021.

El-Zein, A. 1977. Beyond ideology and theology: The search for an anthropology of Islam. Annual Review of Anthropology, 6: 227–254.

Harding, S. 1991. Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other. Social Research, 58(2): 373-393. 

Howell, B. 2003. Practical belief and the localization of Christianity: Pentecostal and denominational Christianity in global/local perspective. Religions, 33: 233-248.

Howell, B. 2007. The Repugnant cultural other speaks back: Christian identity as ethnographic ‘standpoint.’ Anthropology Theory, 7(4): 371-391. 

Howell, B. 2016. Christianity in the local context: Southern Baptists in the Philippines. Springer.

Luhrmann, T.M. 2012. When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with God. Knopf.

Maxwell, D. 2006. African Gifts of the Spirit: Pentecostalism and the Rise of a Zimbabwean Transnational Religious Movement. James Currey Ltd, Oxford, UK.

McIvor, M. 2020. Representing God: Christian Legal Activism in Contemporary England. Princeton University Press.

Narayan, K. 1993. How native is a “native” anthropologist? American Anthropologist, 95(3): 671-686.

Robbins, J. 2003. What is a Christian? Notes toward an anthropology of Christianity. Religion, 33(3): 191-199.

Robbins, J. 2006. Social Thought and Commentary: Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship? Anthropological Quarterly, 79(2): 285-294.