It is relatively rare that a book from a first-time author becomes the object of as much attention as Jon Bialecki’s A Diagram for Fire: Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement (University of California Press, 2017). The book has an unassuming goal at first glance. It is an ethnographic look at the largely white, middle-class members of the Vineyard Church, a Pentecostal group that formed in Southern California in the 1960s as a Christian offshoot of the countercultural revolution. If one project of anthropology is still to engage in a process of defamiliarization of taken-for-granted norms and structures, trying to make these bundles of sociologically unmarked categories strange in any sense would be a tall order. But Bialecki in fact convinces the reader that few communities are more difficult to describe.
One of the things that makes Vineyard experiences so challenging to talk about is that members of the church bring together the miraculous and the mundane in a way that would seem to distort any normal sense of either term. Church members experience divine miracles regularly, sometimes even on schedule. If the miraculous is something that interrupts the flow of the everyday, as a surprise of some kind, then how does the church cultivate in its members a capacity to be regularly surprised? How does a command to in essence “expect the unexpected” become a religious vocation and not just a trite tagline from the local tourism board?
Answering these questions would be enough of a challenge for most ethnographers. The particular importance of Bialecki’s text is that he develops his ethnographic answer through a deft deployment of some of Gilles Deleuze’s philosophical reflections on diagrams and diagramaticity to think through the possibility of repeated interruptions that maintain a sense of surprise and difference. Inspired by Deleuze, Bialecki argues for a form of diagram that is plastic enough to be radically reconfigured but still capable of being recognized as a version of what has come before, a minimalist form of delimitation in which an infinite number of variations is possible but not every variation is possible.
Bialecki not only develops a model of the charismatic diagram with which to understand the Vineyard group members that he engaged with during and after his fieldwork, but more ambitiously, in the conclusion Bialecki offers an even broader (yet still delimited) diagram of religion itself. Here Bialecki’s longstanding argument against nominalism and the anti-comparativist moment in contemporary anthropology and religious studies comes dramatically to the fore, although it structures the book’s argument throughout. The conclusion stakes out a strong stance in direct contrast to the Asadian arguments against religion as a coherent category that have become foundational in almost all religious studies departments and to many anthropologists.
A Diagram for Fire was the 2017 winner of the Sharon Stephens Prize from the American Ethnological Society and the 2018 runner-up for the Clifford Geertz Prize from the Society for the Anthropology of Religion. Unfortunately, neither of these awards (which are given out at the American Anthropological Association meetings) came with an opportunity to discuss the book in detail. Happily, it was possible to bring together a group of scholars to do so at the 2019 Society for the Anthropology of Religion biennial meeting at the University of Toronto.
The papers that emerged from that panel, revised and collected here, offer a set of challenging, sometimes confrontational, looks at Jon’s book. While there are many different resonances across this set of papers, the bulk of the conversation has revolved around two primary issues. A number of the papers, including those from Matthew Engelke, Girish Daswani, and Hillary Kaell, address the nature of the Deleuzian diagram—in general, in understanding Vineyard lives, and in forming the basis of a revived definition of religion. Engelke pushes back against the idea of a preternaturally plastic diagram and considers the potential overlaps between Bialecki (or Deleuze) and Levi-Straussian structuralism. Daswani offers a set of ethnographic rebuttals to Bialecki’s diagrams by reflecting on some miraculous events during his fieldwork, while Kaell pointedly questions the need for a reemergent definition of religion.
The second major concern running through a number of the responses here focuses on the nature of surprise and wonder as the basis for constituting sociality and social groups. This theme of wonder as the basis for sociality is the primary focus for Webb Keane’s contribution, and (like Engelke) Keane sees a debt to structuralism in Jon’s discussions of diagrammatic transformations. Timothy Larsen (like Daswani) recounts and reflects on some of his own experiences with the miraculous, noting the role that encounters with the unexpected or new have played in his interactions with particularly church communities. Andreas Bandak looks at the ways that surprising events become narrativized and relived in communal church life as miracles and wonders.
Many of the authors note Jon’s intellectual rigor, generosity, and love of a good debate. These characteristics are all on display in his responses to these different pieces. In one way or another all of the papers think through (and sometimes against) Jon’s sense of the diagram. His responses further explore the inherent tensions in his model of the diagram, arguing both that the diagram in his sense is not a structuralist project of categorization and that the diagram is not so plastic and manipulatable that it has no ordering form to it.
This symposium came together because of the support and encouragement of a large number of people who have been engaged with Jon Bialecki’s work for a considerable time. I want to thank each of the contributors for the important discussions they have written about and around Jon’s book. Not only did the original panel members jump at the chance to talk about Jon’s work, but the audience at the Society for the Anthropology of Religion conference packed the room we presented in and helped demonstrate how strong the interest in Jon’s book has been. Joel Robbins helped considerably in both the planning of the original panel and in stepping in to read Webb Keane’s paper when he was not able to attend the SAR conference. I thank the editors of Syndicate for giving us this space to present these papers to a wider audience, and for being patient as the inevitable delays piled up in the process of getting them together. Finally, I want to thank Jon Bialecki for being such a willing and helpful object of attention. I fear we may have exhausted his supply of self-deprecating jokes in the process.