Conference Dispatch: 2018 Preaching as Performance

2018 Preaching as Performance, October 26-28, Calgary, Alberta.

By: Kyle Byron (University of Toronto)

In October of 2018, the Department of Classics and Religion at University of Calgary, in conjunction with the biannual meeting of the Collectif d’Anthropologie et d’Histoire du Spirituel et des Affects, hosted an interdisciplinary conference titled Preaching as Performance. The goal of the conference was “to foster research on the anthropology and history of religious teaching and public communication by providing an occasion for the interdisciplinary and comparative analysis of preaching as a performance event,” focusing specifically on “the way preaching uses theatrical, material, sensory, linguistic, and affective resources to produce religious sentiment, form religious subjects, and transmit doctrinal messages.” The conference’s 28 presenters included anthropologists, historians, religious studies scholars, and dramatists. While the call emphasized that preaching as a form of performance cuts across religious traditions, roughly two-thirds of the conference’s presenters focused on the Christian tradition. Nonetheless, the conference was historically and geographically diverse, with presentations on preaching traditions in Canada, China, France, Guatemala, Hungary, India, Japan, Nigeria, and the United States. 

While it would be impossible to do justice to each presentation, several notable themes emerged over the course of the three day conference. Some speakers focused on the relationship between preaching and theatre—a relationship that some preachers embraced and others anxiously dismissed. For example, Joseph D’Ambrosi (Indiana University) spoke about the role of theatrics in the preaching of American evangelist Charles Finney, who encouraged other preachers to “throw away their notes” and draw on the cues of theatre to provoke an emotional reaction in the audience. Staying within the United States, Evangeline Jimenez (Texas Tech University) offered an ethnographic account of Vía Crucis—or the Stations of the Cross—processions organized by Latina/o Catholic communities in southern Texas. While the actors chosen to portray Jesus, the Roman guards, and other figures in the procession are understood to be just that—actors—Jimenez argued that this does not detract from the powerful affective response the procession evokes in both the actors and the audience, linking their suffering to the suffering of Christ. Finally, bringing questions of mediation into the theatrics of preaching, Isabelle Wallace (University of Georgia) discussed artist Christian Jankowski’s “The Holy Artwork,” a piece of performance art created in conjunction with Paster Pete Spencer of Harvest Fellowship Church in Texas. In “The Holy Artwork,” Jankowski approaches Spencer during his Sunday sermon, collapsing at his feat in front of the congregation. Spencer then gives a sermon about the relationship between art and faith, before “resurrecting” Jankowski at the end of the sermon. Drawing on this performance, Wallace showed that the highly mediated space of the contemporary church, with its live video feeds and projector screens, enables new ways of experimenting with position and voice. 

Other scholars focused on the relationships among language, place, mobility, and translatability. Eric Hoenes del Pinal (University of North Carolina at Charlotte) discussed the role of stance and code switching in a bilingual Q’eqchi’-Maya Catholic community. Canice Nwosu (Nnamdi Azikiwe University) spoke about the Beggar’s Theatre, a traveling Nigerian performance troupe for Nigerians with physical disabilities that draws simultaneously on the dramatic structure of sermons and postcolonial and postmodern thought. Drawing on themes of mobility, my own presentation looked at the role of rhythm in American street preaching, arguing that street preachers have developed a style of preaching based on the quick, cyclical rhythms of bus stops, stoplights, and other features of the urban built environment. Interestingly, Darleen Pryds’ (Franciscan School of Theology) wonderful keynote, “Vociferous Midwives, a Diffident Comb-maker, and the Anonymous Faithful: Emotional Range of Lay Preachers and their Somatic Preaching in Medieval Cities” also discussed a form of street preaching, though the term may be a little anachronistic. Pryds told the story of Catholic women lay preachers who would preach in the streets of medieval cities while engaging in other disruptive acts, such as wearing necklaces of rotten meat. These activities, Pryds noted, were often excluded from later images and narratives of the women circulated by the Catholic church as part of their beatification. 

One final and particularly generative theme that emerged—less in any individual presentation and more in the conversations that took place in restaurants and bars—was the relationships among preaching, materiality, and silence. Early on, several participants noted the similarities between the Christian tradition of natural theology and the Buddhist notion that, as one scholar put it, “the world—the grasses and trees—preaches the truth.” This led to an ongoing conversation about the usefulness of “preaching” as an analytic for the study of objects, from icons to the bodies of the dead. Others flipped this conversation on its head, noting that, in some cases, the more than human world of objects, animals, and angels plays the role of the preacher’s audience, as we see in St. Francis of Assisi’s famous sermon to the birds. Discussions of preaching and materiality connected with a more explicit focus on the embodied nature of preaching. For example, Joy Palacios’ (University of Calgary) presentation explored the practice of “preaching by the eyes” in early modern France, focusing on how the movements and gestures of disciplined liturgical bodies constituted a form of preaching, but also a form of ethical self-formation. 

Not every presentation fit neatly into these themes, of course. There were methodological discussions about the gap between texts about performance and the performances themselves, reflections on sound, noise, attention, and disruption, and speculations about the usefulness of the ideas emerging from the conference for thinking about secular forms of performance. Overall, Joy Palacios, John Vanderspoel (University of Calgary), Anne Régent-Susini (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3), and Emmanuelle Friant (Université de Montréal) organized a personally intimate yet intellectually expansive conference, demonstrating that while preaching may be a foundational concern in anthropological and historical research on Christianity, there is still much work to be done.