Review: Katja Rakow on “Christianity, Space, and Place”

Part III: Review Forum, “The Anthropology of Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions”

Christianity, Space, and Place

Schieffelin, Bambi B. 2014. Christianizing Language and the Dis-Placement of Culture in Bosavi, Papua New Guinea. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s226-s237.

Huang, Jianbo. 2014. Being Christians in Urbanizing China: The Epistemological Tensions of the Rural Churches in the City. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s238-s247.

Bandak, Andreas. 2014. Of Refrains and Rhythms in Contemporary Damascus: Urban Space and Christian-Muslim Coexistence. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s248-s261.

By: Katja Rakow (Heidelberg University)

The three articles in the section “Christianity, Space, and Place” assemble ethnographic studies concerned with different space-place relations in various geographical settings, ranging from urban spaces in Beijing (China) and Damascus (Syria) to rural settings in Bosavi (Papua New Guinea). I will give a brief overview of each essay before I draw a comparison and point out similarities, shared themes and insights. Further, I will discuss each article’s contribution to broader discussions in the Anthropology of Christianity and to what research desiderata these articles point us in terms of future studies.



Short Review of the Essays

Bambi Schieffelin’s essay traces the shift from place to space in the context of mission practices and Christianization in the rural setting of Bosavi. The transformation of traditional and locally bounded notions of place to a more universally inclined concept of space reshapes what Schieffelin calls “moral geographies” (228) on several levels. On the level of language ideologies, the shift is coded in the binary terminology of “(Christian) center” and “(non-Christian) periphery”; on the level of the village community, the new spatial metaphors translate into new social divisions and altered housing styles and village layouts referring to Christian and non-Christian identities and orientations. Schieffelin points her readers to the importance of language ideologies and speech practices in missionization and Christianization processes showing how Christian tropes of separation and division are translated into sociospatial categories. In the Bosavi case, the notion of inhabiting the correct physical and correct moral space are linked together. In a process described by Schieffelin as “dis-placement” (227), the new sociospatial terminology creating new moral geographies reshapes traditional notions of place and disconnects formerly linked notions of persons, activities, memories, and places in the Bosavi world. This reshaping process extends into the cosmological realm where the introduction of the binary opposition of earthly/non-earthly establishes a new social category based on this cosmological spatial division, which separates “those who are left on the earth” and “those who were not” (233).

While Schieffelin’s ethnographic material stems from the rural Bosavi setting, Jianbo Huang’s article bridges the sociospatial divide between rural and urban contexts in his study of city churches that cater to rural migrants in urban Beijing. Caused by China’s rapid urbanization over the last two decades, hundreds of millions of rural residents migrated to the cities in search for a better life. In the new urban setting, Christian migrant workers are not only confronted with a strange, overwhelming and fast-paced city life, but also with a different church life and unfamiliar ways of expressing their familiar faith. While urban Christians are characterized by a more intellectual and text-centered approach to faith and experiencing God, rural Christians are more emotional in their religious expressions with an emphasis on prayer, miracles, and personal experiences. As Huang shows, migrant worker churches in the city, predominantly situated in suburban areas on the margin between urban and rural spaces, carve out a third space between those spheres and function as social support for “the strangers in the city” in offering them “a home away from home” (242). Institutional and social discrimination, low levels of income, and the experience of real hardships separate the migrant Christians from their Christian brothers in urban churches. The latter usually are better educated, have more stable jobs and better living conditions while the former are still classified as “peasants” by the residential registration systems and thereby denied the status of “urban citizenship” (239). For the rural migrants, the hostile urban space becomes a mere temporary residential place while their true “citizenship” is projected into the future as the glorious “citizenship of Heaven” (243). Huang’s example of the “rural church in the city” (246) refines our understanding of “rural” and “urban” not just as mere geographical and economic concepts, but rather as cultural concepts.

After Huang’s discussion of rural churches in contemporary Chinese cities, Andreas Bandak’s essay takes us into an urban context in the Middle East. Bandak discusses the role of sounds, rhythms, and refrains in marking the urban landscape as Christian in the predominantly Muslim city of Damascus. His work demonstrates the fruitfulness of approaches that center on the sonorous “orchestrations of space” (248) in place-making practices. Deploying Deleuze’s concept of ‘refrain’, Bandak focuses on the Damascene Catholic and Orthodox Christian minority and their ways of sounding out their Christian identity in a Muslim majority context. The ringing of church bells, the singing of devotional hymns, the sound of processions through the streets as well as the lighting up of church buildings and crosses with blue neon lights mark the urban space as Christian. Such sonic and visual assemblages are strategies of place-making in the face of an intensified Muslim presence in Christian quarters of the Damascene cityscape. According to Bandak, sounds, lights, architecture and processions can be seen as Christian ways to reshape the city in response to amplified prayer calls from minarets, the noisy celebrations of Ramadan and green neon lights adorning mosques and thereby marking the urban space with the sounds and color of Islam. The repetition of sounds and rhythms sediment and solidify as refrains, which can be experienced by Christian inhabitants as melodic lines and/or noisy intrusion that de- or reterritorialize the urban space as Christian or Muslim places. In this sense, the texture of the city is made up not only of visual and architectural structures but also by rhythms and repetitions of noise, sounds, and music that become the “sounding board of sociality” (250). When the local frame of the city of Damascus is broadened to the national frame, Christian refrains that emphasize religious differences and latent enmity are foregrounded by national refrains that invoke a Syrian unity.



Shared Themes and Topics

A theme that unites all three articles is place-making practices that rewrite and reshape spaces, mark places and draw boundaries. Bosavi Christians language ideologies rewrite traditional notions of place with the new Christian terminology of center/periphery, which translates into sociospatial concepts and divisions separating Christian and non-Christian spaces, orientations, and practices. Located at the margins of the city space and upholding rural worship styles and rural expressions of Christian faith, Huang’s migrant churches in urban Beijing carve out a familiar place in the unfamiliar urban space by offering migrant workers a home away from home. Although Huang discusses questions of language ideologies only implicitly, sociospatial terminologies that separate and divide, such as “peasant” and “urban citizen,” play an important role in the case of rural Chinese migrants. The classification as peasants prevents their recognition as urban citizens and the unregistered, unofficial nature of the migrant churches, which often don’t even have a name, mirrors their marginal status in the urban landscape and situates them on the margins between the urban and rural spheres in more than mere geographic ways.

Bandak’s Damascene Christians use sonic and visual assemblages to mark the city space as Christian. Although not on the side of Christian speech practices, language nevertheless is an important factor in the sonic territorializing processes between Christian minority and Muslim majority in urban Damascus. The call to prayer, “Allahu akbar!” is a sonorous emblem of amplified words, which mark the city space as Muslim while sonic attempts to reterritorialize the space as Christian engage practices such as the ringing of church bells and the singing of hymns. All three examples emphasize – although in different ways – that place-making and territorializing practices are discursively as well as materially and affectively grounded in language ideologies, audiovisual orchestrations, and sociospatial structures.

Another theme that runs through all three essays is the notion of a larger reference frame that transcends local space-place conceptualizations. The sociospatial division operating on the horizontal level of the Bosavi world, which differentiates the Christian center from the non-Christian periphery, is transcended on the vertical level by the cosmological spatial division, which separates “things of the earth” (Schieffelin 2014: 233) from the non-earthly spheres extending the moral geography into horizontal and vertical directions. In a similar way, the Christian migrant workers’ notion of “Heavenly citizens” (Huang 2014: 242) downplays earthly wealth associated with urban citizenship not available to them and renders their current place in the city marked by socioeconomic and cultural marginalization as a mere temporal sojourning on earth. Although the heaven/earth dichotomy does not have any relevance in the case of Syrian Christians, Bandak sketches the national context as a reference frame that foregrounds the unity of the Syrian nation. The national frame transcends the local context of the urban city of Damascus marked by religious differences between Christian minority and Muslim majority.



Contributions to the Anthropology of Christianity and Desiderata

All three articles offer a range of contributions to current discussions in the Anthropology of Christianity besides the thematic focus on questions of place-making and processes of territorialization. Schieffelin’s essay demonstrates the importance of language ideologies in the context of missionization and Christianization. Her analysis of language and discursive practices in the transformation of the Bosavi world contributes to the study of conversion and related questions of continuity and rupture as well as to the study of linguistic practices whereby she covers two of the five emerging subfields in the Anthropology of Christianity identified by Bialecki, Haynes, and Robbins (2008: 1143-1147).

Huang’s study of migrant workers in Beijing and Bandak’s work on Damascene Christians provide rich material on the questions of how Christians inhabit their particular urban context and thereby advance the subfield of “urban Christianities” as another area of comparative efforts in the larger context of the Anthropology of Christianity (Bielo 2013: 303). While addressing the move from rural to urban spaces, Huang touches on broader topics and discussions such as (trans)national migration, urbanization, and social marginalization. Here, we find similarities between the experience of migrant churches catering to mainly African migrants in Northern Europe as described by Freston (2010) and the rural migrants in Beijing. In a similar manner, African migrant churches function primarily as social support groups oriented towards the needs of migrants in a foreign country. They uphold their familiar worship styles and expressions of faith and usually fail to attract urban European converts and thus continue to occupy a marginalized position in North European cities.

From the viewpoint of material culture, all three articles address questions of materiality and mediation in place-making and territorializing practices and contribute to comparative work on materiality in the Anthropology of Christianity. In Schieffelin’s case study, language ideologies that separate and divide are mediated and materialized in altered village structures and housing styles that refer to Christian and non-Christian orientations. The Christian minority in Syria needs to mediate their presence in the urban space via sound and visual signals, such as church bells and blue neon lights. A rich material assemblage of architectural structures, processions, sounds, rhythms and visual displays mark the urban space (though temporarily) as a Christian place. The socio-economic conditions of rural migrants in Beijing directly translate into the scarce material conditions of their church life in the urban context: simple buildings with no heating located in suburban areas serve as meeting places for worship services and church activities. The socioeconomically marginalized status confines them to the geographical and sociospatial margins of the urban space.

A comparative reading of the articles stimulates questions pertaining to the role of language, materiality, and different sociospatial settings in practices and processes that transform space into place, draw boundaries, and mark a certain space as Christian. It would be interesting to know more about the language ideologies employed by Christian migrants in Beijing. How do they refer to their meeting places and churches that have no name (yet) and how do they refer to the established urban churches? How are the sociospatial structure of the megacity and the migrants place in it coded on the level of language or in the absence of a specific terminology? What does a comparison between rural and urban settings tell us about how Christians use their particular cultural resources in their various place-making attempts in different settings? How are the different modes of inhabiting rural or urban spaces mediated? These are just a few questions that point towards a more systematic study of how Christians live their religion and express their Christian identity across the sociospatial divide between rural and urban spheres, an area of study that is according to Robbins (2014: 164) not yet prominently addressed in the Anthropology of Christianity.




Bialecki, Jon, Naomi Haynes and Joel Robbins. 2008. The Anthropology of Christianity. Religion Compass 2(6): 1139-1158.

Bielo, James S. 2013. Urban Christianities: Place-making in Late Modernity. Religion 43(3): 301-311.

Freston, Paul. 2010. Reverse Mission: A Discourse in Search of Reality? PentecoStudies 9(2): 153-174.

Robbins, Joel. 2014. The Anthropology of Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions: An Introduction. Current Anthropology 55(s10): S157-S171.