Symposium Introduction

Webb Keane


Playing with Fire

Commentary on Bialecki and the Vineyard’s Religious Ineffability

It is a real pleasure to acknowledge Jon Bialecki’s distinctive qualities as a scholar and individual. His intellectual generosity serves his own work well—the extraordinary ambition of Diagram for Fire amply demonstrates that. Jon seems not just to have read everything, and to have done so with a critical intelligence; he appreciates the works of others in their own terms. Doing both at once—the critical reading, and the willingness to approach work in the terms it sets for itself—is a rare skill. It is also, dare I say, one of the scholar’s preeminent ethical virtues. If we find in the anthropology of religion a community of scholars, and not just a grab-bag of egos, surely one reason is that there are people like him. I take this admonition from his book to stand in for his own scholarly ethic: “Perhaps it is best to be brave and humble at the same time” (201). For indeed, this book embodies both the theoretical audacity of the first adjective, and the temperamental modesty of the second.

What kind of ethnographic object is the Vineyard? Jon opens his book with a narrative of how he abandoned the older styles of anthropological “other” for the otherness of the Americans, who, let it be said, are a truly strange people, or congeries of peoples. He’s hardly the first to reject the exotic—indeed, he handles with singular grace the potential awkwardness of finding himself in the same fieldsite as another, much more senior and well-positioned researcher. But he also avoids some other familiar pathways. The faithful of the Vineyard are not exactly Susan Harding’s “repugnant other” or Joel Robbins’s “suffering subject,” nor do they quite embody Saba Mahmood’s “religious incommensurability.”1 In the local setting, they are comfortable enough both financially and socially. In global terms, like the rest of us, they are among the most privileged people who have ever existed. They are in no need of saving by us (their ultimate salvation, of course, lies in other hands). But they do seek miracles.

The Vineyard is a remarkably hard entity to grasp—by design it is elusive. At the heart of Jon’s approach is the idea of the miracle. The miracle simultaneously situates this church within a perennial problem of any religion that is oriented to a supra-experiential transcendental reality, and helps give specificity to this particular version of the problem. In my own work, I’ve approached this problem by looking at the recurrent material forms—icons, ritual speech, possession, relics, et cetera—by which religions simultaneously posit and, by the same gesture, overcome the ontological divide within—and against—experience that they posit. As I’ve argued, before making the divine present, they first must make palpable its very absence in order to make the resulting presence an achievement.2 But true to a certain style in American religiosity, and focusing on individuals and their experiences, the Vineyard rejects most of these long-standing solutions, or at least makes them secondary (Bialecki’s discussion of music in the Vineyard forms a bridge between them). The theoretical challenge taken by the book is, in effect, isomorphic with the religious challenge faced by the faithful: how to square the possibility of surprise, of ruptures in the ordinary flow of experience, with the replicable, stable forms that make a church something that has a specific history, social reality, and creedal basis—something one can be a part of. How do you get from Saul on the road to Damascus, suddenly and unaccountably stricken, completely out of the blue, to Paul laying down doctrines meant to bind entire communities forever? And from that end point, a seemingly more or less continuous liturgical, theological, and institutional tradition, how do you work your way back again to that impalpable originary moment of rupture? And why would you want to? Viewed from one angle, this challenge drives the history of many religions as they oscillate back and forth between processes of institutionalization and enthusiasm. How does the utter singularity of Saul’s conversion come to form a type of which other miraculous interventions are also tokens? Viewed from another angle, it’s a special version of the even more general phenomenological problem of typification: how do the necessarily distinct, irreplicable moments that make up the flow of experience in all its particularity come to be recognizable as instances of something already known? What makes experience coherent—cultural labor? Disciplinary apparatuses? Divine order? Natural selection?

The Vineyard, in a sense, faces the opposite problem. For the faithful already inhabit a knowable word of repetitive experiences within stable and continuous lives, and already acknowledge a relationship—of some sort, at least—to creed, scripture, ecclesiastical offices, the regular recurrence of Sundays, as well, I suppose, as the longer cycles of the liturgical calendar, and even the fellowship of other churches in other denominations acknowledged as Christian. Granted all this, the problem is how to produce novel experiences, to make possible, Jon writes, “the seeding of a new space of potential” (4). One implication, as Jon puts it, is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, “acting as an ethical Christian complicates rather than simplifies life. In the opinion of Vineyard believers, ethical problems ramify rather than become more simple as one tries to ‘act like Jesus’ in a world where it is not always clear what Jesus would do” (96).

Much of the book is devoted to analyzing how this works. But one might wonder, why it is surprise that a religious person should seek, rather than, say, moral order, eternal truth, blessings, reassurance of salvation, orthopraxy, divine law, or just the comforts of familiarity, stability, and community? Or, conversely, what holds the faithful back from full-fledged mystical rupture or utopian separatism? What locates the Vineyard in the spectrum somewhere between, say, Greek Orthodoxy and the Jonestown massacre? Here I would hazard that there is something so familiar about the Vineyard that these questions hardly arise: it’s just so familiar . . . so American. Now I am not going to fault Jon for not writing a different book from the one he has so brilliantly given us. But after reading both of the recent ethnographies of the Vineyard, I can’t help but want to know more about that Americanness.

One of Jon’s most daring moves is his willingness to talk about “religion” as a comparative field. He bravely pits himself against the particularistic (and often paralyzing) nominalism that defines so much contemporary anthropology. What he calls a Peircean abduction is that religions have something in common (xviii). Peirce coined this term for a mode of inference that has neither the axiomatic certitude of deduction nor the evidentiary confidence of induction.3 Abduction is a best guess, a necessary stab at an answer to a question, subject to revision. Of the three modes of inference, in my view, this comes closest to the way ordinary social life actually goes. Most of the time, we demand neither deductive certainty nor inductive proof to know who you are, what’s going on, and what might happen next. As we make our way through any given day, our grasp of things is always subject to revision, and sometimes—but rarely—prey to utter confusion. For this reason, abduction is well suited to understanding human worlds at their most everyday and routine.

The abduction that Jon dares to propose is that there are commonalities across Christianities and even (more daring yet) religions in general. I am not enough of a historian to endorse or refute his account of the emergence of Christianity, but it has the salutary effect of posing a challenge to the essentialism that underwrites the so-called “ontological turn.” From this perspective, as he puts matters, “A particular ‘religion’ . . . sketches out sections of a possibility map and the degrees of freedom that allow for the traversal of the possibility space” (212). Surely this sense of fluidity and transit better captures actually existing ontologies than some of the current anthropological models that situate people in distinct alterities, in some writers’ hands even describable in algorithmic terms: “If we are X, they are negative X.”

On the one hand, Jon’s formulation seems to capture something real and visible about religious histories over the long run—the oscillations between accumulation and purification, institutionalization from above and reactions from below. But, on the other hand, how do the ideas of possibility map and autopoiesis translate into the concrete terms of on-the-ground actions and the people who carry them out? One response might be to follow out an implication of this remark (with its scriptural echo): “As long as two or three people are gathered together and can agree on what constitutes a means of hailing, an instantiation, or a sign of one of these . . . entities . . . then the work of religion . . . can be said to be done” (206). This process requires sociality, mediated within a pragmatics of interaction and a semiotics that renders people’s actions and experiences mutually recognizable. We might speculate, then, that the oscillation emerges from the interaction between the relative autonomy of the means available to people (such as pictures, verbal scripts, legal systems, bodily habits) where it is taken up by the relatively autonomous actions of people whose projects light upon the affordances those means offer. That this recognition draws on a shared reality seems to be implicit when Jon writes: “Fire is often put forward as the essence of mercurial change. But fire still has it immanent casual forces, and the relation between them and the way that field unfolds from them are still recognizable” (20).

If Jon has any single theoretical masters (and he’s wisely eclectic enough not to be too bound too tightly to just one), they are Deleuze and Guattari. Although early in the book he issues a disclaimer, that “what is of interest is not an ontological prioritization of change . . . as a good in itself” (18), nonetheless what he calls “the play of play” remains not just a central topic but, it seems, a positive value. It’s a value for people of the Vineyard and, dare I say, for much of contemporary anthropology. If we’ve moved beyond the problem of “structure and agency” that exercised the generation of my teachers, it’s often by virtue of simply dropping structure from the discussion. Now unleashed, agency can transmogrify into the ceaseless polymorphism of rhizomes and assemblages, with no impulsive source behind them other than inherent vitalism, tacitly celebrated as a good in its own right.

Now Jon is far too subtle, sophisticated, and self-critical a thinker to find a solution in any master theory. He anticipates the critical reader at every turn. Having devoted a volume to the miracle, near the end he astutely remarks on the danger that “this book has framed things in a way that makes the miraculous hard to distinguish from other phenomena. It has gifted the charismatic diagram with a capacity for change, but it has also assumed a wider Heraclitean world, of shifting intensities and clashing wills, that would seem to make change a general feature of existence” (201). If comparison requires a degree of abstraction at which the miraculous is hard to distinguish from anything else, where does that leave us? Could it be that the sociologists working the unglamorous lowlands of “middle-range theory” are on to something after all?

A final question: Is there an elective affinity between the Vineyard and Deleuzian anthropology? They seem to share a neo-romantic fascination with, and place a high value upon, fluidity, surprise, and the ineffable. And if that’s so, could one condition of possibility for the appeal of fluidity as a Good turn out to be the very social stability and ontological security, a version of Charles Taylor’s “buffered self” that the people of the Vineyard take for granted?4 By contrast, it’s hard to imagine, say, a refugee in exile—or a sinner in the hands of an angry God—valuing surprise above all else. For many people, after all, salvation lies in having firm ground under their feet, and binding ties to the people around them.

  1. Susan Friend Harding, “Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other,” Social Research 58.2 (1991) 373–93; Joel Robbins, “Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19.3 (2013) 447–62; Saba Mahmood, “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?,” Critical Inquiry 35.4 (2009) 848–49.

  2. Webb Keane, “The Evidence of the Senses and the Materiality of Religion,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14.1 (2008) S110–27.

  3. Charles Sanders Peirce, “Abduction and Induction,” in Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler (New York: Dover, 1940), 150–56.

  4. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard, 2007).

  • Jon Bialecki

    Jon Bialecki


    Response to Webb Keane

    Why surprise, indeed?

    As Keane observes, beyond the miracle, there is a multiplicity of other potential succors offered by religion: “moral order, eternal truth, blessings, reassurance of salvation, orthopraxy, divine law, or just the comforts of familiarity, stability, and community.” And yet if the argument of Diagram is correct, it is surprise that these Vineyard believers desire—or at least, surprise is the signal that they are watching for. As Keane notes, one of the preconditions for this desire/sensitivity to surprise is that those other religious succors are already acknowledged as goods within reach of believers. The connection between the novelty of the miracle and the comfort of those more established desiderata, though, runs deeper. For these other forces are not just established goods, they are both the precondition of the miracle, and the miracle expressed in another form.

    There are conceptual preconditions for the miracle that only makes sense through the public, collective mediation that Keane alludes to in his comments. This is not just because the idea of the miracle has to be encountered socially, though that is part of it. As seen in the introduction to Diagram, sometimes odd experiences can be held on to for years as unexplained anomalies, only to later be retroactively reclassified as miraculous. But the social and conceptual collectivity constituted by the Vineyard is important for other reasons. One reason is that the miracle is rarely completely individuated in its scope. Many miracles, such as healing, prophesy, and deliverances, are at minimum dyadic in nature. These are miraculous events that require a patient (sometimes in the grammatical sense of the term, and sometimes in the most literal sense of the term as well). Further, miracles exist not just in the experience, but in the telling as well. This telling requires an audience, and given how these events are understood by Vineyard believers themselves to be “strange,” and often off-putting to secularized ears, the most natural audience for these accounts is the like-minded faithful.

    What is more, it is the collective element of the oracle that precludes the “mystical rupture or utopian separatism” that Keane mentions. This is, in part, done by setting the mood and pace for the affective intensities that are shaped by the Pentecostal/Charismatic diagram; questions of speed and force in the way that charismatic gifts are expressed are one of the markers of the Vineyard rather dialed-down style. “Mystical Rupture” and “utopian separatism” is also partially foreclosed by the typifications and elaborations of the miracle that both serve to give some form to inchoate experiences, and in part by marking some experiences as “false positives” if they seem ethically problematic or theologically shaky. In the absence of such community-informed typification, connections with the holy spirit become weird. More than one Vineyard believer has recounted times where they were not affiliated with any Charismatic Church and “went off on their own.” And they report a sense of hollowness from the lack of community—but also a descent into a kind of charismatic solipsism where miracles hew a bit too closely to hopes or fears, and where potentially meaningful divine signs proliferate, creating what might be called the metastases of supernatural signals. Of course, not all believers engage in the course correction of returning to the Vineyard community; having changed more than they perhaps initially experienced, they either join charismatic groups characterized by different affective intensities, or fly off into the void as their experiences become increasingly idiosyncratic. So it is the weight of community that acts as the flywheel here encouraging some, calming others.

    Is the Vineyard particularly American? Is the Vineyard effectively Deleuzian? These may not be unrelated questions. Both Charismatic and Pentecostal Christianities are often seen as being shaped by their purported American origins. And Keane is not the first to suspect that there is an affective affinity between a particular strand of Deleuzian thought and Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity. Jean Comaroff has commented,

    I find it fascinating that many scholarly writers—those in the Nietzschean tradition, for instance, like Deleuze and Guattari . . . express faith in a certain kind of vitalism that will animate history, that will escape logocentrism, that has the power to give birth to redemptive action that will move beyond culture and tradition. When one listens to many born-again Pentecostals, they’re saying a similar thing.1

    And to tie these to seemingly separate strands together in a single bow, Deleuze himself had a fondness for Anglo-American literature, which he preferred to French literature, which he saw as “too human, too historical, too concerned with the future and the past.”2 Of course, we should be careful ourselves with going too far, too fast: there are Vineyard Fellowships throughout the world, and as other ethnographic work has shown, the Vineyard is capable of being interrogated from other theoretical perspectives as well. But the Vineyard is an entrepreneurial faith, in as much as it is a bottom-up church-building movement and not a top-down denomination. And there is a lack of history, an aphasia or perhaps a blindness to all the tragic dross seen by Benjamen’s Angel of History, that marks much of the Vineyard imaginary. So reading a certain Americanness into all this is not unwarranted. But not a unique Americanness. When I was conducting my field research, there was a Vineyards short-term mission visit to Thailand. While there, some members met with Christian Kachin refugees, who regaled their American co-believers with tales of their own miraculous survival (one story recounted how a group of Kachin, fleeing Burmese military scouts, became temporarily invisible thanks to God’s intervention). We must naturally allow for a little bit of unconscious hermeneutic violence as the story was repeated by returning Vineyard believers. And we have to acknowledge that there are obviously some quite different understandings about how the world works that shaped the Kachin’s tale. But we should also be open to the possibility that the sort of at times wild transitions associated with the miracle may be attractive to more than privileged Americans. Considering the stratospheric rate of growth Pentecostal and Charismatic forms of Christianity are enjoying in what is referred to as the “global south,” the allure of rupture and surprise may be rather wide indeed.

    1. J. Comaroff, “Anthropology, Theology, Critical Pedagogy: A Conversation with Jean Comaroff and David Kyuman Kim,” Cultural Anthropology 26.2 (2011) 169.

    2. G. Deleuze and C. Parnet, Dialogues 37 (1996).

Matthew Engelke


Jon Bialecki’s Geometric Imagination

We all have certain words, or stock phrases, that we rely upon, or make ample use of, in the work of analysis. The extent to which we realize this is, I’ll guess, variable.

One of those words for Jon is “orthogonal.” I don’t remember exactly the first time I heard Jon use it in conversation, but I do remember having to dig deep into my memory bank, and especially the vault labeled, “lessons from math class,” to recollect that it means at right angles.

Jon uses this word a lot in conversation, if by “a lot” we mean once or twice per extended encounter (e.g., something like the seventy-two hours of an SAR meeting). Any such conversation, as those of you who have had one with Jon will know, is always generous, and it’s likely that he is speaking of something orthogonal in, or related to, your own scholarly interests, or a paper you have both just listened to, or something similar. Jon is an electric thinker and he gives a lot to his friends, colleagues, students, and broader set of interlocutors.

But Jon also frequently uses this word in his writing, as I have now come to fully appreciate, by rereading A Diagram for Fire in preparation for this session. Here are some of the instances:

[Worship time] does not work to one end, but to several, producing a disjunctive synthesis that gives rise to independent and cross-cutting axes of Vineyard time, temporalities that run orthogonal to all the other colors of time discussed so far. (28)


On top of the natural variability in any one diagram, there are multiple, and possibly endless, diagrams for all sorts of processes that constitute both the “social” and the “natural” worlds (and for processes that run orthogonal to that divide, too). (199)

There are two things I’d like to note about these deployments of the term in question. The first, upon which I’ll dwell, is the extent to which it reflects just how much Jon’s anthropology is shaped by what we might call—or at least, I want to call—a geometric imagination. Saying so might raise Jon’s hackles, since it could imply something very Claude Lévi-Strauss. As Jon writes, his own interests are—despite impressions—anything but those of the structuralist. But here I want to pause, and pose the question to Jon: Are they, really, anything but that? Could we say one problem of presence in this book is the place of Lévi-Strauss?

Certainly this term, “orthogonal,” is one that we could well imagine him using. We could imagine it appearing in a passage of The Elementary Structures of Kinship, or with respect to Lévi-Strauss’s many other angular productions, all of which have poetic turns of phrase but are written out as if on an endless ream of graph paper.

I have never thought to myself: Ah yes, Jon, my structuralist friend. Yet through both his kinship ties, and also his broader interests and debts, it’s not as funny a thought as I would have said it was, before rereading his book for this event. Consider the genealogy, which runs from Joel Robbins to Roy Wagner, for each of whom structuralism, sometimes mediated and rearticulated in the projects and problems posed (very differently) by Marshall Sahlins and Louis Dumont, is not a force to join, but definitely one to reckon with. A Diagram for Fire is essentially a book about structure and event, continuity and change, the concrete and the abstract in a dance (or paroxysm of surprise) with ideology and values. There is also something Wagnerian in this all, to be sure, from the Escher-like idea of the invention of culture to Wagner’s later articulation, in An Anthropology of the Subject, of the holographic worldview. Along these lines, consider also Jon’s broader interests, above all his engagement with the work of Gilles Deleuze. For Deleuze as well, Lévi-Strauss is the other, and in some ways the adversary, but that only underscores the links of consanguinity and affinity.

Don’t get me wrong: this is an original text, from an original mind. In pointing to Jon’s genealogies and debts—all of which he’d be the first to acknowledge (except perhaps the one to Lévi-Strauss)—I am not gesturing toward being derivative. In fact, as a side note, one of the most important things to say about Jon’s book is how it defies all the extant models of “first book” with which we now work in anthropology. Those models all demand fealty, if not to individuals, to certain regimes of citation. As a first book, A Diagram for Fire is wholly unorthodox on this score. As any book, in fact, it is indeed “brave and humble at the same time” (201), as Jon puts it, not only in the ambition to limn religion, but in the diagram for fire—or, in other words, rendering of the Holy Spirit—offered up to his friends and interlocutors in the Vineyard Church.

And no, Jon is not a structuralist. Just like Roy Wagner is not a structuralist, and Gilles Deleuze is definitely not, either, though again there is something in their rejection of Lévi-Strauss that ties their own to approaches to his. One of these is their penchant for diagrams, by which I mean the use of shapes, arrows, lines, and the like to articulate or illustrate something which cannot be captured with language, or which otherwise demands a nondiscursive rendering. Mary Douglas and Bruno Latour are also suckers for a good diagram. And they also grapple with the legacies and lineaments of structuralism.

Jon has a diagram for the diagram for fire—the only extra-discursive thing in the book—though in some ways I find this curious, because three pages before presenting it, he makes clear that his own use of the term diagram is not “meant here in the sense of anthropology’s long-standing practice of presenting ethnographic material in a schematized two-dimensional form” (69). True, Jon’s diagram doesn’t present ethnographic material; it is an algebraic rendering, and also one which works to incorporate three dimensions. But I still want to push Jon on this, not least since one figurative image he relies upon to help explain the potentials of the Deleuzean diagram is a rubber map, which can be manipulated or reconfigured such that locations aren’t fixed, but can be bent and squeezed and squidged into new alignments. “On one shuffle, a rubber map of Scotland is next to England; on the next shuffle, perhaps it is next to Belize or Mongolia” (70).

It’s not next to Narnia, though, or Atlantis. Because those would be on different maps. And so there is still some structural confinement in play here, it seems to me, some set of pre-given possibilities, and I’d like to hear more from Jon about why this metaphor of the rubber map works, or at least more of how.

I said there were two points I wanted to discuss with respect to Jon’s use of the word “orthogonal” and I’ve only covered one. The other is relevant to its appearance at another point in the text:

Whether this production of the new [conception of the individual] is a fruit of a Protestant or Christian inheritance, or is instead completely orthogonal to Christianity, it can easily be argued that the shared promises of modernity, postmodernity, and the Enlightenment open up the possibility of creating almost de novo entirely new forms of thought and being in the world.” (18)

This statement as a whole is worthy of reflection—at great length. But what I want to note is that the primary definition of the word “orthogonal” is not fitting. This isn’t a question of being “at a right angle” to Christianity. However, Jon is not being sloppy; he has not misused a word. For as I learned, on consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, a secondary meaning of “orthogonal” (not covered in my math classes, though it might have been) is “statistical independence.”

From this second point, two conclusions follow. One is that here again Jon’s penchants direct us to a structuralistic sensibility. This is another mathematization of the argumentation. It is more of being like Lévi-Strauss. The second conclusion, upon which I’ll end, is the carefulness with which Jon constructs his ideas and arguments. A Diagram for Fire is not an easy read. But this could never be construed as a forfeiture, by Jon, of his commitments, and, I’d wager, sense of duty to the reader. It is, rather, the fruits of his efforts for utter thoroughness. Here I am, at the end of my allotted space, having just gotten to one word, and the ideas and insights it opens onto. I look forward to my next reading, and to Jon’s next offerings to our discipline.

  • Jon Bialecki

    Jon Bialecki


    Response to Matthew Engelke

    Matthew Engelke is very kind here, which is a good thing, given the influence exerted on Diagram by Engelke’s first book, A Problem of Presence. So while I expect critical attention from a sharp mind such as his, a dismissal would be chilling from my point of view. Signs of influence can be easily identified. It is possible to read the central section of Diagram as about the titular problem of presence; much of the miraculous phenomena discussed here not only works to make divine will evident, but to make this will manifest by the simultaneous creation and collapse of a gap. This miraculous form also works to characterize the Vineyard’s brand of religiosity as being “live and direct” (another phrase form Engelke’s first book used to denote the tenor of the sorts of divine mediation often foregrounded by Charismatic religiosity).

    Of course, narcissistic concerns about Matthew Engelke may be central to my fragile, limpid psychology, but they are most like . . . orthogonal? . . . to the concerns of readers. Except that such concerns also touch on exactly why Diagram is such a “geometrical” book, to lean on Engelke’s interpretations yet one more time. Sure, as Engelke points out, my academic pedigree carries a structuralist strain, but that is at more a precondition—a necessary but insufficient ingredient.

    The person responsible is Matthew Engelke.

    Or rather, Engelke and his colleagues in the first wave of the anthropology of Christianity. There always have been anthropologists who worked on self-described “Christian” populations, and many of them foregrounded that religious affiliation in their ethnographies. But as a self-consciously used term, the first moments of an anthropology of Christianity can be backdated to around the commencement of the twenty-first century. It had several different strains. There was what might be called a semiotic wing, where authors such as Webb Keane, Matt Tomlinson, and (yes) Matthew Engelke took an inheritance from authors like Bambi Schieffelin and Richard Bauman; these scholars focused on identifying the implicit sensibilities and aesthetics found in various instantiations of “Protestant” speech. Materiality, exchange, and networks were taken on by Simon Coleman. Running parallel to Thomas Csordas’s earlier work on the phenomenology of charismatic Christianity, Tanya Luhrmann took on the psychology and cognitive science of Pentecostally-infused Evangelical Christians. Birgit Meyers and Joel Robbins thought through conversion as cultural change. And of course, Fanella Cannel and Joel Robbins did the most work in thinking what an anthropology self-consciously documenting Christianity would look like. There were naturally overlaps and resonances. The work on materiality and exchange and the work on speech ethics bled into one another, and the concern with language often intersected with discussions of break and rupture as a mark of Christian cultural change, as well as the nascent concern with subjectivity and experience. And there were gaps, some of them quite embarrassing: for instance, despite early warnings from figures such as Fanella Cannel and Brian Howell, it took a very long time for work on non-Pentecostal, non-evangelical subjects to become a part of the conversation. But more or less, with allowances for all names I inevitably have unthinkably excluding, this was the state of things.

    What this left was a series of what could be called, for lack of a better term, a series of strata: exchange, language, subjectivity. Depending on how thinly one cut, the number of strata could be separated even further. Further, these strata also had implicit scales. Experience was at the level of individuals, language worked at larger collectivities (often with implications for others still), and networks and exchange could vary in the size of their remit, but at their largest, they could be global in their reach.

    Now, I’ll grant that the geological metaphor of strata is perhaps slightly misleading. It is easy to confuse the position of various strata as indexing some temporal priority, creating a cultural version of the “layer-cake” view of human evolution that was rejected by Clifford Geertz. And it must be remembered that not only does one stratum affect the strata above and below, and that these strata sometimes bisect other planes, but that each stratum is always in a state of transformation due to internal forces. But with these provisos, it seems that strata isn’t the worst way to describe all these simultaneous, semi-independent research agendas that characterized the first decade and change of the anthropology of Christianity.

    One way of handling this problem if you are a second- or even third-generation scholar here is to focus on a particular stratum, with an eye towards expanding or, for those with a critical eye, reconfiguring it. And there has been a tremendous line of good work done along those lines. (Only my anxiety about unintentionally leaving someone out is preventing me from inserting a very long string citation here.) These are after all areas that never can be exhausted (which, unfortunately, is different from claiming that one’s readership can’t become exhausted). Or a new stratum can be laid down, which is one way to think of the attention that has been given to the intersection of theology and anthropology, or work done on the politics of Pentecostalism and evangelicalism. But one can also attempt to assemble a concept that is purposefully designed to run . . . orthogonal? . . . to the extant sub-disciplinary strata.

    This is what Diagram was an attempt to do. Isolate a term or object common to all these strata, and look for homologies in the relations between various instances. See if one can identify a shared structure that allows for both an account of the difference in the multiplicity of ways that the form are expressed on different strata, yet still point to underlying generative tendencies in the process of structuration. And ensure that this is an account of not a perduring structure, but rather the anatomy of an event. The performative nature of language, the transactional nature of exchange, the hot temporality and cultural change implied by individual and collective conversions, the liquid nature of subjectivity, all demand an événementiel framework.

    The only way to discuss the anatomy of an event, without imposing substantive material on each different stratum, is to think algebraically. Hence my claim that the Pentecostal/Charismatic diagram is not another instance of “anthropology’s long-standing practice of presenting ethnographic material in a schematized two-dimensional form.” The fact that this is a relatively abstracted map of a generic event, rather than a schematized depiction of a particular slice of ethnographic material, may make my claim cheeky and annoying, but at least it is not self-contradictory.

    This is why I have to demur when Engelke suggests that there is some structural confinement to this model. The concern with allowing for novelty, and being relatively strata and scale-independent, has results that suggest his claim, while not incorrect, is not quite on the nose. It is true that the Pentecostal/Charismatic miracle is not universal in the sense of being capable of erupting in every social ecology, or within every medium. It has to either express within, or connect with, spaces where a miracle of this variety is intelligible. But the number of potential strata it can occur in, and the number of social situations, is an open set, and perhaps an infinite one as well, even if the set is not so expansive to include all conceivable situations and strata. This may be an arid framing, and also one that is not in any way particular to the Pentecostal and Charismatic miracle. But that is the price imposed by the productivity and utility of the first wave of work in the anthropology of Christianity. The task is to move forward without rejecting or ignoring the work of other colleagues.

    So that means that, putting aside the fact that what is an accomplishment on his part is, unfortunately, set in negatively valued normative language, in a way, Matthew Engelke has no one to blame but himself.

Girish Daswani


August 18, 2020, 1:00 am

Timothy Larsen


August 25, 2020, 1:00 am

Hillary Kaell


September 1, 2020, 1:00 am

Andreas Bandak


September 8, 2020, 1:00 am