Conference Dispatch: 2013 Society for the Anthropology of Religion

2013 Biennial Society for the Anthropology of Religion meetings, April 11-14, Pasadena, California.

By: James S. Bielo (Miami University)

This year, 2013, marks ten years since Religion published a special issue devoted to the anthropology of Christianity. Many in the field point to this print moment as something like a formal debut. Most every review article observes that despite plenty of scattered anthropological research about Christianity, it required an intentional, explicit, and bold call to really coax an anthropology of Christianity into view (e.g., Bialecki, Haynes, and Robbins 2008). One question that animated the 2003 collection, and numerous work that followed, is what comparative questions and theoretical problems might instill some cohesion into the field. A profusion of ethnographic work would be great to see, but certainly it would be more effective if there was some centripetal center of gravity. Listening to papers this past weekend at the Society for the Anthropology of Religion meetings, it seems the question of cohesion is both packed with potential and yet still seeking some gravity.

Of the 92 papers presented, no fewer than 42 directly engaged Christianity (~45%). I saved the counting for the plane ride home, but the obvious abundance of Christian-focused papers was repeatedly noted in many casual conversations. (For whatever this kind of comparison is worth, that count is 35/109 (~32%) for the 2011 meetings in Santa Fe; unfortunately, that was the only prior program I could excavate online.) Not having mastered the art of being in more than one place at once, I attended only 16. From what I could observe, the 42 presenters ranged from tenured faculty to more junior faculty and graduate students. In short, there seems to be no shortage of anthropological work on Christianity being done and rising up through the ranks.

I was able to attend two full sessions: “Roundtable on Material Objects and Christian Intimacies” and “Towards an Anthropology of Catholicism: Carnality, Ambiguity, and ‘the Homely’.” The individual papers in both sessions were impressive. Still, the sessions gathered around a phenomenon (materiality in Christian practice) and a tradition (global Catholicism), not a shared and defined set of analytical problems.

The Roundtable featured six scholars. Anderson Blanton (UNC-Chapel Hill) spoke about the untold U.S. Pentecostal history of prayer cloths. Blanton emphasized tactility and the affective use of objects to reassess the logo-centric and interiority-centric tradition of understanding prayer. Rebekka King (Emory University) presented on fieldwork that is examining how the currently traveling Dead Sea Scrolls museum exhibit is being consumed by North American evangelicals. King is asking how the text itself, encased in glass and not available for sensory engagement, is being worked into evangelical tellings of early Christianity. Hillary Kaell (Concordia University-Montreal) shared research on the rural Quebec practice of building and maintaining roadside crosses. Like Blanton, Kaell explored the interplay of materiality, intimacy, and affect, for example when caretakers seasonally pull down and retouch the crosses. Amy Fisher (University of Toronto) gave a close ethnographic reading of a Toronto Salvation Army homeless shelter. The analysis focused on shelter talk about the absence of glass in the entryway, which is taken to be a sign of welcoming, intimacy, and trust. Kristy Nabhan-Warren (University of Iowa) examined the practice of Christian Cursillo weekends, short courses in Christianity that are widely popular among Latino migrants to the U.S. The material elements of worship and sociality are central to practitioners’ experience. Laurel Zwissler (Central Michigan University) spoke about the progressive politics and theology of a United Church of Canada congregation, which shifted its public stance on same-sex relationships after the female pastor came out as gay. Zwissler focused on the immanence of spiritual intimacy, achieved through material action around bodies and the church building.

Those are terse summaries, but the richness and creativity is hopefully clear. What, though, apart from prioritizing materiality, links the cases? One possibility would be to read the session as a play on “the problem of presence” (Engelke 2007). Religious objects are not simply vehicles, conveyers of meaning; they can be seen as actually carving a space for the production of intimacy. Material items (or, as in Fisher’s case, the noted absence of some material item) are used to make intimacy possible, to create a point of access. The papers made clear that objects alone are not enough. Linguistic action, sensory engagement, and emplacement act like triggers, flipping on the switch of materiality’s intimacy potential.

“Towards an Anthropology of Catholicism” featured seven scholars. Andrea Muelebach (University of Toronto) examined Catholic-neoliberal exchanges in northern Italy, in particular modes of charity and moral responsibility. Maya Mayblin (University of Edinburgh) explored the gendered logics of response to sex abuse scandals and female ordination, focusing on two conflicting models of Catholic personhood. Ashley Lebner (University of Toronto) analyzed the secular forces behind Brazilian popular Catholicism’s syncretic mixing, with a keen historical eye toward the nation’s political economic shifts. Valentina Napolitano (University of Toronto) spoke about the “Atlantic Return” of Latino migrants into Rome, and the unexpected outcomes that result when these two Catholic populations encounter each other. Eric Hoenes (University of Arkansas) gave a close linguistic reading of religious performance in a mixed Guatemalan parish, where traditional and charismatic Catholics co-exist. Christine Thu Nhi Dang (University of Pennsylvania) explored the musical practices of Senegal’s Catholic minority, focusing on the soundscape’s role in balancing nationalist and religious imperatives. Kristin Norget (McGill University) spoke about highly visible and audible public performances of evangelizing Catholics in Mexico City and Oaxaca.

Again, these overly succinct summaries don’t do justice to the session’s quality, which really was quite high. The conceit of the panel – that the comparative study of Catholicism stands to contribute substantially to the broader anthropology of Christianity – did remain more potential than actual by session’s end. The ‘bring it all together’ moment never quite arrived. The closest thing to a shared problematic arose during the discussion. An audience member made the observation that most of the presenters, in either their own framing or in reporting ethnographically, alluded to the pre/post-Vatican II split. Taken together, this event seems to figure quite differently across Catholic communities, interpreted by some as rupture and by others as continuity. Perhaps there is an opportunity here to think in terms of a global event fitted to localized social memories.

All in all, the 2013 SAR was a good day for the anthropology of Christianity. It was incredibly encouraging to see the range and quality of work being done, and helpful to see where some moorings are needed. I learned a great deal!



Bialecki, Jon, Naomi Haynes, and Joel Robbins. 2008. The Anthropology of Christianity.

Religion Compass. 2(6):1139-1158.

Engelke, Matthew. 2007. A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African

Church. Berkeley: University of California Press.