Review: Ruy Blanes on “Christianity and Gender”

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

Christianity and Gender

Eriksen, Annelin. 2014. Sarah’s Sinfulness: Egalitarianism, Denied Difference, and Gender in Pentecostal Christianity. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s226-s237.

Mayblin, Maya. 2014. People Like Us: Intimacy, Distants, and the Gender of Saints. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s271-s280.

By: Ruy Blanes (University of Bergen)

Unlike other, previous ‘nation-building’ endeavors, Current Anthropology’s special issue on the ‘Anthropology of Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions’, edited by Joel Robbins and Naomi Haynes, is particularly valuable due to its explicit tackling of the epistemological limitations and potentialities of this disciplinary project. It congregates many protagonists of the emergence of this subdiscipline, with the identified goal of producing what could be called an ‘angelus novus move’. When Walter Benjamin wrote his theses on the philosophy of history (1968), he began his reflections with Paul Klee’s famous painting “Angelus Novus”, in which an angel appears, ‘moving forward but looking backward’. Benjamin interpreted this movement as the inevitable ‘storm of progress’ (1968: 258), in which we are involuntarily pushed into the future while looking back at what is left. This issue can be seen as one in which a similar looking back while moving forward takes place.

Within this critical framework, gender appears as one of the most challenging, problematic and simultaneously rewarding problems. Interestingly, it has not taken the center-stage of the epistemological and heuristic debates that inform this subdiscipline, perhaps due to the inherent difficulty in empirically ‘locating’ grounded gender narratives and discourses as ‘problems’ across most Christian contexts. For this reason, the fact that this special issue incorporates a specific section on gender is frankly welcome and stimulating.

The two authors that contribute to this section have worked in different geographical and theological contexts – Mayblin on rural Catholicism in Northeast Brazil (e.g. Mayblin 2010) and Eriksen on Pentecostalism in rural/urban Vanuatu, Melanesia (e.g. Eriksen 2007). But both have shared a longstanding concern with tackling the subalternization of gender as a theme within the Anthropology of Christianity. They have therefore been active contributors to this critical agenda, conducting ethnographic research and simultaneously advancing a theoretical agenda of deconstructing established categories.

Mayblin’s article addresses what she calls an issue of ‘gender ambiguity’ within Christianity’s anthropocentric nature: the difficulty of defining God’s humanity in terms of gender. Within the anthropology of Christianity, Mayblin distinguishes between two kinds of approaches: sociological and symbolic. In this text, she prefers to use a “gymnastic” approach, focusing on how gender is flexible enough, to the extent that it alternates from fixed dyadic categories to more androgynous forms, depending on context.

Through an ethnography that encompasses different “Catholic registers”, Mayblin questions how gender intersects the understanding and experience of divinity and sacredness within Christianity. Through the scope of the sociality of sainthood in Brazil, she explores three dimensions: intimacy and kinship; corporeality; and finally “gender gymnastics” and controversies. What emerges is a reflection on how experience of divinity is inherently ambiguous, as it is ‘corporealized’ through experiences of affect, empathy and imagination, reaching the extent of ‘overfamiliarity’; but is also necessarily ‘distant’ and unattainable, or else it would not be ‘saintly’. This is exemplified throughout the text with stories of familiarity and relationship between people and their preferred saints, such as frei Damião, in the local Catholic culture. Another example is given concerning the virginity of the Virgin Mary, and its importance for the illustration of how movements towards sanctity invoke a process of a-sexualization (p.S277).

In conclusion, and inspired by a Strathernian approach, Mayblin choses to enhance the relationality of sociality in order to suggest that gender cannot be analytically deconstructed solely within arguments of authority. This, in any case, does not solve the enigma of intimacy/distance and male/female divinity. But that, in any case, was not the point: what matters is, precisely, the ambiguity and lack of resolution in the ordinary experience of Catholic believers in this region of Brazil. As she concludes, “saints are ‘people like us’ but also ‘not like us’” (p.S279).

Annelin Eriksen’s article, in turn, proposes to deconstruct the traditional approach to gender in Pentecostalism in terms of power relations, in which the categories of masculinity and femininity appear as stable wholes that would only interact with each other within logics of hegemony and submission. To counteract that epistemological tradition, she proposes to look at gender politics within processes of production of community and social change, which in the case of Pentecostalism is motivated by what can be seen as an ‘egalitarian move’, a challenging and redefinition of established social and political hierarchies, in which the question of gender is included.

Ethnographically speaking, and through a comparison of Melanesianist and Africanist literature on Pentecostalism, Eriksen detects what she calls the ‘charismatic space’, the physical, ideological and symbolic location in which the spirit reveals itself unto the believers (p.S263), one that is structured by gendered values, which in turn produce ideas and senses of ‘borders’. Through accounts of ‘opening up’ to the spirit such as that of Pastor Torboe’s biography of conversion and the ‘fall from grace’ of Sarah – a young powerful Pentecostal healer expelled from the church due to inappropriate sexual behavior – we learn how such spaces of encounter, revelation and mediation also convey a structuration of gender difference that is nevertheless ambivalent, perhaps due to Pentecostalism’s ‘denial of difference’ (p.S268) through the reconstruction of the articulation of previously contradictory logics: hierarchy/egalitarianism, individualism/communitarianism, etc.

In conclusion, Eriksen proposes a shift from looking at gender as a ‘category’ to looking at it as a ‘value’, an ordering process through which difference is articulated. As it is portrayed here, the charismatic space becomes the space where previously fixed categories become open and contested. However, as we learn from Sarah’s outcast condition, this does not imply a political equalization of gender politics, but instead the production of mechanisms of encompassment and the production of new differences.


References Cited

Benjamin, Walter. 1968. ‘Theses in the Philosophy of History’. In Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.

Eriksen, Annelin. 2007. Gender, Christianity and change in Vanuatu: an analysis of social movements in North Ambrym. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Mayblin, Maya. 2010. Gender, Catholicism, and morality in Brazil: virtuous husbands, powerful wives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.