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.
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.
or When the Experience Surprises
How do we effectively discuss the interactions between the institutional limits of ideological practice and the free play of affective forces that can surprise and provide opportunities for change and variation? Jon’s book proposes a way forward. He moves away from the limitation of a binary framing, which often renders invisible the forces that create these divisions in the first place and allows us to envision a novel possibility for thinking comparatively and collectively about Pentecostal and charismatic Christianities as well as religious practice more broadly. Jon’s book on the Vineyard charismatic movement in North America takes us through a historical, sociological, and ethnographic journey in which “miracles” are central to the experience of unanticipated possibilities and to the diverse ways of being a charismatic Christian in the United States. This journey is as exciting as it is rigorous and detailed. Jon confidently engages us with multiple conversations from within the social sciences and his voice rises beyond what has been said in order to make a novel contribution to anthropology. This is a difficult thing to do in our discipline and a quality that makes this a gem of a book.
The specific gem with which I want to metaphorically compare Jon’s book is called a “time crystal.” A “time crystal” is a scientific discovery (proposed in 2012 and first observed in 2017) of an open system of non-equilibrium matter that cannot be isolated from its environment. Time crystals repeat themselves in time as well as change from moment to moment. Jon’s engagement with the work of Gilles Deleuze provides him with a theoretical framework in which to describe Christianity as an unstable structure and a flexible process at the same time—a time crystal that is always engaging with its historical and material environment, while allowing believers to find stability and certainty through the way in which it repeats itself, even if this repetition is different from moment to moment. Time—as change and non-change, as linear and cosmological, as repetitive and unanticipated—is central to Jon’s work. Jon introduces his readers to different yet simultaneously operational temporalities and shows how they interact with each other (“the play of play”) and his work has implications for a growing literature that places anthropological attention on Christianity and its multiple temporalities and on an anthropology of the future. In helping us think further about Christian temporalities, and drawing on Deleuze’s idea of a “diagram,” Jon provides a map of religiosity that is unhinged from a stable origin—what he calls a “diagram for fire.” Through this diagram, Jon provides us with a model of charismatic Christian form and plasticity in which we can find varying possibilities of temporal convergences and where temporality is given specificity through its relation. In a diagram for fire, he moves away from his previous framing of contrasting forces that are always interacting and in a stable opposition with each other (e.g., centrifugal vs. centripetal), to posing important questions of how such social forces emerge in the first place and how they find a collective expression?
Any contribution to anthropological theory lies less in its explosive innovation and more in how it eventually rests within ethnographic practice (its ability to be helpful to other ethnographers in thinking about their work) and Jon’s ideas have already been taken on in productive ways. What specifically interests me about Jon’s diagram are its mutations, as well the limits in which such a “diagram of fire” can be conceptualized given different ethnographic examples. This is especially the case where an unanticipated communication occurs that does not demand an abandonment of a long-term plan or a reconstitution of the willful self. If the study of “religion” (or “diagram r” as Jon calls it) continues to provide a recurring shape through a “relation with or orientation toward beings” that are more than human, then how do we make sense of the contradictions that arise and when we cannot contain “religion” to a single frame? How do we understand a “religious” experience that is not contained by a single religion? What are some of the silences that are not articulated or shared? Jon’s work permits us to ask these questions and points to the need for contradiction to be in-built features of any definition of (non-) religious experience. I want to critically engage with his book through my own fieldwork with Pentecostals in Ghana and will divide the next part of my comments into two short sections: (1) When people surprise you or “when things don’t conform to a charismatic Christian diagram” and (2) When the experience surprises you or “when the religious interpretation is not enough.” Both these examples describe a “surprise”—though different—that is contrary to the acceptable structural contours of charismatic Christianity and to the expectations and willing representations of the individuals involved. They point to the important question of how we, as anthropologists, render technical our experiences and our experiences of fieldwork: as scientists (readers and writers of worlds) or as people caught up in these same, contradictory, feelings and social worlds (while often pretending that we are not). They also express the importance of decentering religion as an institutional and coherent structure and from a Judeo-Christian fixation with the transcendental. This first example asks the specific question of how we make sense of a charismatic Christian who demonizes non-Christian religions but who also believes in reincarnation?
When Things Don’t Conform to a Charismatic Christian Diagram
Many of the Pentecostal Christians I have come to know in Ghana resemble or share similarities with the Vineyard church members Jon writes about. One Pentecostal I have known for over fifteen years, who is both a prophet and a born-again evangelist, is Albert. Albert is the founder of an independent charismatic church and an online Christian radio show in Ghana: many people look up to him as an exemplar of Christian virtue and spiritual power. On my trip to Ghana, in April 2019, Albert shared with me a personal belief that he had not shared with anyone except for his wife. Through personal revelations and visions he has had, Albert told me that he believed in reincarnation: specifically, that in previous lives he had been a Christian architect and a traveler from Turkey and an African prince who was murdered by his then fiancée. He described to me in detail how he was betrayed by his family and how his chief guard (his present wife) had died protecting him. This came as a surprise to me as it presented itself as a contradiction that could not easily be resolved. It reminded me that religion is a privileged site for the study of contradictory thinking and that individuals can hold contradictory opinions while maintaining a semblance of normalcy (Berliner 2016). Albert’s belief in reincarnation could not have legitimately been described as “Pentecostal” since reincarnation is not theologically acceptable even if he described the Holy Spirit as present in his visions and dreams. Albert could not share this belief with anyone else, in fear that other Christians would call it the work of the devil, and because it would compromise his position within the charismatic Christian community. But he knew reincarnation to be true, he told me, that reincarnation was real and that our previous lives were enmeshed within the unfolding of our present. Learning of his past lives allowed him to make sense of the difficulties he has faced, his connections with people in this life, and the purpose of his Christian work for the future. The second example is of a “surprise” that the anthropologist encounters while doing fieldwork with Pentecostal Christians.
When the Religious Interpretation Is Not Enough
One morning in 2004, while I sat meditating in my uncle’s home in Ghana, and before venturing out into the Pentecostal spaces I frequented while on my field research, I had a vision that came to me unexpectedly. It was of my then-girlfriend in London drunkenly snogging a guy. This vision (which felt real and like I was watching a film) seemed to be in response to my personal (unspoken) question about whether I should carry on in this long-term and long-distance relationship. While holding this question in my mind I had been fasting and praying with other church members as part of my fieldwork. That morning, after a few days of attending “breakthrough” prayer services and while I sat down with my eyes closed, I felt a warm tingling and an immense feeling of love flow through me as I had this vision. This was strikingly similar to how my Pentecostal interlocutors described their own visions. But it came at a time that I was meditating in front of my uncle’s Hindu altar (also the guestroom and my bedroom). I was not and am not a Christian. And neither do I want to be pigeon-holed a Hindu. Was this the Holy Spirit responding to my days of fasting and praying? Did I have to be a Christian or a Hindu to receive such a vision? Did the Holy Spirit and Durga have a conversation about how to help me in this dilemma? It did not matter to me whether it was a Christian or Hindu experience—nor which form this experience took—since neither religious identity had a long-lasting personal significance for me. What mattered to me was that the experience was real, as later confirmed by my then-girlfriend to be true, and that it allowed me to make my decision.
Religion: Possibility Spaces and Conceptual Limits
Both these examples are disruptions to the charismatic diagram that do not allow for a valid mutation of the diagram. The “diagram” also does not have to consider them since they present contradictions that need not be resolved. As Michael Lambek (2016) suggests, not all contradictions are of the same logical type (e.g., paradox, inconsistency, incommensurability), they can be resolved in favour of a “law of non-contradiction,” and that people can continue despite of contradictions. Contradictions pose an interesting question though—not simply because contradictions potentially reinforce belief or can be compartmentalized or held together. Contradictions are important in how they exist as a surprise to the anthropologist and to interlocutors themselves. What I described for Albert and myself included personal sensations and unanticipated experiences that cannot be easily compartmentalized because they amount to cases where the more-than-human is not easily stitched together with the human. Neither Albert nor I experienced a crisis or felt persuaded to keep this “communicatively problematic surplus from escaping.” The visions simply came (obviously we were thinking about questions) in ways that we were not expecting. These experiences both conform to and do not conform to ideas about religion. The “problem of presence,” for example, makes certain assumptions: that the “presence” of spirits or God is characterized and qualified by an absence or that the presence of the nonhuman needs to be qualified. Like Jon, I would argue that such absent others ought to be considered independent actors and important to any definition of religion. I would also argue that religious “presence” is not easily qualified by an absence or a presence of some kind. Instead, it is characterized by an interaction that may be contradictory and that can be made absent and/or present depending on whether it makes sense to share it with others and how that message then gets transmitted. In other words, it may or may not be “religion” depending on who you ask and when you ask them.
The question for Albert and for myself was never “How do we talk with invisible interlocutors?” nor “Are these experiences true?” Instead it was “How do we deal with this experience?” and “How do we not talk about it?” If we did talk about it, it was with the risk of seeming out of sorts with the religious and secular realities we were part of. It is worthy of mention that Albert had never mentioned this to anyone in Ghana apart from his wife, and later me, and that I have not mentioned my experience to other academics for similar reasons as Albert. The work of religion was not being done and yet one could potentially describe them as religious experiences. These examples I just gave were not simple expressions of a mode of religiosity and they did not have to be religious even if they were explanatory. They raised other questions though. For example, when might our explanations reach a tipping point and attain recognition or social currency or even gesture toward alternative futures and pasts. Can the diagram capture what is unspoken or contradictions that do not fit into a taxonomic type? I found myself brought back to Jon’s idea of “possibility space” and the multiple, yet distinct realities, of these spaces. These contradictory experiences threatened the idea of group membership and Albert and I did not seek to form a community around these experiences. Instead, they provided us with answers that we were not expecting and were not expected to articulate. They were possibility spaces that were not shared widely but that became potentialities for further exploration of how religion is present but not as central to the conversation as anthropologists (and Christians) would like it to be.
My own reading of religion confirms but perhaps unnecessarily complicates Jon’s ideas about religion as a phenomenon that is flexible and has no inherent criteria (“nothing is special to religion, nothing is excluded at all”) but at the same time is biologically limited by human cognition. Obviously, as anthropologists, we draw limits in order to identify something “as something” and to be able to use the concept of that thing to compare with other, related and similar, things: such as religion. Where we draw these limits are important for differences in definition. Here, I return to Jon’s fascination for human cognition and the ordering of the variables that help produce our religious sensibilities. It suggests that, if not for the mapping of specific kinds of variation that come from assumed possibility spaces, there would be chaos or the impossibility of definition. I have also suggested that some things just won’t fit into a diagram—something that Jon acknowledges—and that what we choose to call religion is as much a thing in the world as it is about our need to organize and classify as anthropologists.
For Those Who Have Ears to Hear
Signs and Wonders in the Anthropology of Charismatic Christianity
I need to begin by confessing that I am an interloper. My primary discipline is history. If you are willing to pay me enough, then you can temporarily purchase the right also to identify me as a theologian. I am certainly not an anthropologist, however, though I heartily think that an anthropologist is a splendid thing to be. My main credential in this world is that I wrote a history of the discipline of anthropology and religion: The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith. Someone was willing to pay me enough, and so I also became part of a well-funded project on “Theologically Engaged Anthropology,” in which Jon Bialecki was one of those representing anthropology and I had to do what I could to hold up the side of the theologians. At that consultation, over some early afternoon Manhattans at the upscale bourbon bar at our high-end hotel, I decided that Bialecki was a Good Thing and that he could count on me for a favor. As it happened, however, I needed a favor from him first. Delightfully, he somehow contrived to get Tanya Luhrmann to review and then to blurb my book. I certainly owned him one and—liking the fellow whether I owed him or not—talked an editor at the Times Literary Supplement into the idea that A Diagram of Fire was worthy of a review in that venerable journal and that I was the person to do it. I assume it was that TLS review which led to my being invited to give this response.
I suspect, however, that if I have anything insightful to say to occupy the time of anthropologists, then it is primarily as a participant observer. Hence, I will need to go in the direction of “positionality” or “reflexivity” or “autoethnography”—or whatever the correct anthropological jargon is that gives one an excuse to just talk out of your own, personal experience. Not having a reputation as an anthropologist to maintain, I can confess candidly that I have spent the best part of a year and the odd Sunday here and there in other periods of my life worshipping among the Vineyard—not as a fieldworker or a scholar, but just in an effort to tend to my own, sinful soul. Moreover, I have spent many years of my life in congregations that are part of the wider charismatic movement—and some of these were ones that were directly cross-pollinating with the Vineyard. As to my experiences with the Vineyard itself, the one time I most encountered it as the “repugnant cultural other” happened in Canada. I was a first- (and last-) time visitor to this congregation. Their Sunday morning gathering was marked by dancers on stage dramatically waiving intermingled Canadian and Israeli flags (not a sight I found conducive to drawing near to the Eternal). Moreover, this same service included praise choruses with uncomfortably erotic lyrics including one line, believe it or not, addressed to Almighty God, which is seared in my brain: “Your scent drives me crazy.” (Admittedly, ill-conceived though it is, I think that it was intended as a pop culture paraphrase of Song of Songs 1:3.) Nevertheless, my overwhelming, general impression of Vineyard people—their tendency to hear from God, give prophecies, see visions, and testify to how their everyday lives have been disrupted by signs, wonders, and healings notwithstanding—is that they have a charmingly unpretentious and self-aware approach to their spiritual lives, ministries, and testimonies. Vineyard people, in my experience, are usually quick to make fun of themselves—to see themselves as others might see them—and vigilantly anxious that no bit of ministry could even be misconstrued as contrived, let alone manipulative.
I say all of that primarily just to be able to testify as an insider or eyewitness that Bialecki’s ethnography is shrewdly observed and brilliantly analyzed. He entirely fulfills the old anthropological dream of being able to know the people one studies better than they know themselves—but not in the old, imperialistic way of imposing a meaning on their thoughts and actions that is unrecognizable to them—but rather by making explicit what was so implicit that those who were doing it never quite realized what they were doing. Bialecki confesses to his own religious unmusicality, but if he has any musical musicality I bet he could lead quite an effective and useful workshop for wannabe worship leaders. His tip on how to pray for a person in need is spot on—as is his explanation for the desire of church leaders to steer people toward sharing visions rather than prophecies. And Bialecki’s eye for detail extends all the way to the preferred font choice among the Vineyard (spoiler alert: it’s Helvetica).
Having been awed by Bialecki’s shrewd observations, all I can do is chip around the edges where I see an insight here or there that he somehow left on the table. For one, I think he could have interrogated more the very category of “miracles”—one that he has made so prominent that it is even the first word in the subtitle of the book. My own experience is that Vineyard people prefer the alternative biblical language of “signs and wonders” and that, although they will use the “miraculous” as an easy way to gesture at that category, the former is actually the more technical term for what they want to say, and it is employed precisely because it does not entail a miracle in the strict, philosophical meaning of that word. Bialecki writes: “Naturalistic double coding of supernatural phenomena is a common framing in the Vineyard. Like a shady legal operation that has two different sets of books, parallel naturalistic and supernaturalistic accounts are often produced concurrently about the same phenomenon.” There is no shady dealing here, however, in the world of signs and wonders. To take a biblical prompt, Acts 12:23 says: “Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.” Of course, the coroner did not put down as the cause of death, “touched by an angel,” but only the parasite infestation. In the spirit of the kind of sharply-observed analysis that Bialecki offers, I would go so far as to say that signs and wonders that are not miracles in the technical sense are actually more useful to the spiritual cause—their function is to leave room for the observer to choose to strengthen their faith and commitment by discerning meaning in an event that is objectively exhaustible through other plausible or valid interpretations—and thereby grow spiritually. This diagram of fire was presented in the Hollywood film The Miracle of the Bells (1948). What makes the film so faith-friendly and inspirational is precisely that not only is what happens not a miracle in the strict sense, but that the full, naturalistic explanation of what happened is emphatically insisted upon by the good and holy priest of the parish (who is played by Frank Sinatra). It is precisely because the audience has been entirely satisfied that the natural explanation is the right one at the level of the mechanics of what happened that allows them to then delight in choosing freely to discern an additional meaning in the event as a sign or wonder sent by God.
A point in A Diagram of Fire at which I thought I could see what was going on better than Bialecki did is the account of the injured dancer. She spoke of her healing and financial needs in a Vineyard small group meeting and was prayed for. Bialecki writes: “No prayer, however, was offered about her debt.” Instead, a quiet effort was initiated in the group to raise the money she needed. This was James 2:15–16 in action: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” Having imbibed this scriptural admonition in the past, the members of the small group were rightly ashamed to pray for a need which it was in their power to meet. When I suggested this to Bialecki in an email a year or so ago, he replied that this biblical text was never mentioned. My reply is: Of course not. To make the James text explicit would be to invite a freeloader problem—the group discreetly discerns who is a sincere member of the group with a bona fide need who is not being manipulative—and then the James text implicitly kicks into action.
Another area where I thought Bialecki could have gone further in his analysis is on the tension between disruption and continuity. The diagram of fire privileges disruption. This means that charismatic churches can serve as extraordinary helpful, life-giving, transformative places for people who are in crisis; whose lives have become desperate; who urgently need to break free from something; who badly need to find a way to get through deeply trying times. What these churches too often are not good at, on the other hand, is offering a long-term path of steady spiritual growth, sustenance, and maturity for people whose lives and relationships are basically healthy and on track and who just need to continue on with an undramatic, incremental, long obedience in the same direction. Charismatic churches partially mitigate this problem by turning as many of such lay people as possible into volunteer, part-time, unofficial ministers who find meaning and growth in helping the people who are in crisis or in need of a good shaking up in their midst—that is, the ones who are the main target audience of the church’s dominant kind of ministry. It is only a partial and therefore insufficient solution, however, and therefore there is often a strong revolving door in such churches as people who are in crisis find their way to them only to leave for a more ordinary and sustainable spiritual diet in a different kind of church after their time of crisis is well behind them. This is an occupational hazard for a religion of rupture.
Bialecki can hear the campy, knowing, self-satirizing tone which the Vineyard often use to help to create a crumple zone, as he aptly and satisfying analogizes. I also thought I heard a few occasions in the book where things were said in this mode that could have been teased out more. Bialecki writes: “Believers will say that particular prophecies could be from ‘God’ or from last night’s undigested pizza (for some reason, they often jokingly attribute fallacious prophecies to colorful but not too distasteful digestive difficulties, perhaps because this was a trope that John Wimber used).” This, of course, is a riffing on Scrooge’s insistence that the impression that Marley’s ghost was speaking to him could be explained away naturalistically: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” As with the Miracles of the Bells, by being the first one to advance the reasonableness of an entirely naturalistic explanation, the Vineyard speaker is warding off any concerns that they might be behaving manipulatively while also inviting the hearer to become the kind of person who can discern meaning beyond the mundane.
Then there is the testimony told by a pastor that when he was a freshman at a university in Southern California he heard the voice of God say to him: “Do you, do you feel lucky?” The bit of knowing camp that Bialecki neglects to mention is that, of course, as a male, American teenager he was a “punk”—and as he was in Southern California, references to the canon of iconic Hollywood films were obligatory. Thus Almighty God speaks to him through his best Dirty Harry impression and prods: “Do you, do you feel lucky, punk?” Like the pizza-induced prophecy and the miracle of the bells, part of the delicious dance of having it both ways here is to undercut any fear of seeming pompous or a po-faced fanatic will simultaneously daring the listener to still be able to discern the divine message even when it is made incarnate through Clint Eastwood in an R-rated, 1970s action crime thriller. Vineyard people are often over-educated professionals, and the additional joke is that “lucky” is a decidedly untheological category.
I was particularly pleased with Bialecki’s astute identification of the “too muchness” of worship and ministry. Once again, he has made explicit something that even those who have experienced it had only understood implicitly. Throughout this book are sprinkled little flowers that, to Bialecki’s great credit, carry their own poignant and powerful too-muchness: an entirely private religiosity is just as impossible as a private language; failure and mutation can have its own utility; some of these modes are practices that hone bodies and minds through repetition, with each iteration leaving a mark. And—perhaps not least because I am a historian—the line that carried so much too-muchness that it made me want to cry: it is only through change that time is made visible.
The Form and Substance of Miracles
The last date of predicted frost in Montreal this year was May 5. I mention this because I live in Montreal and this day organizes my spring; it marks the moment I can start putting my garden to rights after the winter. This last spring, it was also the day I started rereading Jon Bialecki’s A Diagram for Fire in preparation for the conference at which this symposium essay was first presented. So how could there not be a sense of resonance when that afternoon I removed a pile of wet leaves to find bright yellow mushrooms sprouting underneath? A strange bit of life pushing out of a ground barely unfrozen, conjuring up one of my favorite anthropological passages about religion. Writing of Bali, Clifford Geertz described how the villagers were intensely interested in an oddly shaped mushroom growing at an accelerated pace. “One does not shrug off a toadstool which grows five time as fast as a toadstool has any right to grow,” he wrote.1 And that, Geertz suggested, was the matter of a miracle. It was not the mushroom per se that caused a stir, but the uncanny quality of its size, strange placement, and rate of growth that made it seem other than natural. It was, potentially at least, supernatural.
In Jon Bialecki’s A Diagram for Fire, the miraculous is not dissimilar, although he focuses on the human capacity for change, rather than naturalistic miracles associated with mushrooms and such. That focus is in keeping with the Vineyard’s kind of US evangelicalism that centers itself on human change—marked experiences such as being born again, healed of pain, or receiving sudden clarity of understanding. Along these lines, Bialecki starts with an evocative story: a young man in the Midwest sees the word LIAR emblazoned on the face of a candidate for senior pastor of his church. It set the young man on a new path that eventually brought him to the Vineyard. As Bialecki makes clear, the young man saw this moment as a godly sign—that is, a miracle—precisely because the form was unprecedented, but the substance was not. The word “liar” was framed within familiar ethical and socioeconomic contexts: hiring and evaluating a new pastor, Protestant interpretations of sincerity, and gospel aspirations about Christian relationships. It was the mushroom, if you will. An unprecedented form, but a familiar substance. At the Vineyard, the miraculous opens up the capacity to live a more fulfilled life, not escape from what you know. And yet miracles are set apart. They may slow or speed up time. They reorder events and displace elements. In that moment in a Midwestern church, a word shimmered into being—not in the gospel text where evangelicals expect godly messages to be found, but written across someone’s face.
In the Vineyard, miracles are recurrent events that bring subjects into being. Bialecki tells us that “miracle is both the mechanism through which novelty is produced and the sieve used to strain and order novelty” (19). That is the crux of the Vineyard and the problematic it evokes: how does a movement cohere and remain a recognizable form of Christianity (in the United States, even a rather mainstream one), while also organizing itself around the constant novelty of the miraculous? In other words, how does one make the miraculous an everyday order of things? The Vineyard seems, Bialecki writes, “to teeter on the edge of being an oxymoron” (5).
A Diagram for Fire assesses this play of miracles in terms of range and variation. What is the possible range of variation in Christian forms? What are the hidden continuities or ongoing set of relations therein? When does the category of “miracle” reach a limit? Toronto, where this essay was presented, is a good place to ask the question: it is the site of the Toronto blessing at a Vineyard church where manifestations of the Fire—that is, the Holy Spirit—strained the diagram too far; the church was ultimately asked to dissociate from the Vineyard altogether. Bialecki approaches this question about the variation of miracles by appealing to a rather un-Vineyard like figure: the Marxist, post-structuralist, neo-Spinozan Gilles Deleuze. The title of the book refers to a Deleuzian diagram, which denotes how relations between social forces can be actualized in different modes and played out to new effect. (It brings us back to my garden too: Deleuze’s metaphor for metaphysical thought was the rhizome, the plant root that spreads underground to pop up its shoots in unexpected sites each spring). In Bialecki’s hands, Deleuze’s diagram offers a hermeneutic to clarify how the Vineyard is both cohesive to some degree but also dependent on internal differentiation that encourages a fractal relationship between churches and the mobility of congregants who join or leave at will. It also underlines that explanations for miracles may draw on other diagrams simultaneously (what we might think of as “secular” explanations) that keep Vineyard believers always in/out of the secular world, as it were. As the Vineyard says, “God can happen anywhere.”
The diagram must weather decoherence and even a certain amount of collapse. Prayers do not get answered. Prophecies are wrong. Other studies of US evangelicals have also found that, far from being fatal, decoherence can actually reinforce belief. Susan Harding famously posited that each time Rev. Jerry Falwell was caught in a lie, his followers filled in the “gaps” by making “leaps of faith” that continually renewed their commitment to his ministry. It worked, says Harding, because it reflected how they read the Bible, making sense of its inconsistencies and thereby drawing closer to it.2 In her work on the Vineyard, Tanya Luhrmann offers a complementary analysis, arguing that unanswered prayers are crucial conduits not only for (re)iterating trust in God, but also for creating intimacy. Believers learn to view small failures as opportunities to rely even more on the Lord.3 I also found similar patterns in my work on Holy Land pilgrimage. Evangelicals focused on the “suggestion of future meaning”4 and it was when prayers went unanswered that participants most clearly described pilgrimage as an incremental process where results happen in “God’s time.” “It’s just baby steps,” as one woman told me. “Things don’t always look the way I want it to look, but [the Lord] does answer prayers.”5 Whereas the pilgrims I got to know focused on a human lifetime, Bialecki considers the larger temporal frame of soteriology and eschatology: the already / not yet. Jesus has already come to bring salvation, but he has also not yet returned to finish the task. In the interstitial moment within which humans live today—the Kingdom of God in Vineyard terms—God can act, but so can Satan. As a result, sometimes miracles happen and sometimes they don’t. This structure converts potential absences of meaning into a stronger assurance of God’s goodness, at least over the long term (45). Or, as Bialecki quips, “Failure and mutation have their own utility” (171).
Recently, I have been thinking about failure, doubt, and absence again. It feels like a cluster of some of the most productive anthropological questions we can pose about Christians like those at the Vineyard. In fact, charismatics and evangelicals regularly wrestle with such issues themselves, though it may seem counterintuitive to outsiders. US Christians—especially of the evangelical and Latter-day Saint varieties—often seem to foreclose uncertainty. They speak with such conviction. In my current work on Christian globalism, many of the evangelicals I work with—some of whom are Californian, some of whom go to Vineyard churches—seem relentlessly confident about the humanitarian programs they support at World Vision and Compassion International.6 They tell me, reiterating organizational publicity brochures, that child sponsorship plans make a discernable difference in a single child’s life. But scratch the surface and another diagram often emerges, one in which they ponder the deepest questions of theodicy: Why do bad things happen and millions suffer? Why do gaps between rich and poor widen? Christian universalism amplifies the problems of theodicy; Christians credit a unitary God as the only certain power in the world yet refuse the idea that their God is capable of allowing such injustice.
In my experience, most evangelical child sponsors assimilate these questions into a call for personal action that secures their own failures and doubts within another frame of reference: God’s time and space. This logic overlaps with Leibniz’s famous response to the problem of evil: what appear to us as evils in the present may in fact be doing good, from God’s enlarged perspective. In terms of global commitments, this response can actually propel an important conviction: Christians interpret poverty and disasters as glimpses of God’s global project. In other words, the awareness of large-scale evil can do important existential work if it affords the basis for superseding the merely human, for acknowledging the inscrutability and immensity of God. Carl F. H. Henry, a key leader in mid-century US evangelicalism as editor of Christianity Today and a founder of Fuller Theological Seminary (where the Vineyard movement later incubated),7 expressed it well in a letter to World Vision sponsors in 1976. He began by admitting his inadequacy in the face of what he poetically called “a world panorama, a global vision of grief.” He wrote, “When I hear that . . . almost 650 million [people] subsist on an annual income of $50 or less, I am emotionally staggered.” And yet, “superscribing and overarching all this human grief is an incomparable world vision of divine grace.” Henry put the words in bolded italics. This is what sponsors are getting at when they aver that poverty has results far beyond what we can comprehend. Such answers are neither doe-eyed optimism nor apocalyptic pessimism. They are more tensile and hybrid, like the diagram in Bialecki’s book: it is a mode of relations that expects miracles but also failures (or, at least, inscrutability), and simultaneously celebrates one and reorganizes the other to create an overarching assurance of the Christian God’s power and presence.
The final claims in A Diagram for Fire are exciting, even audacious, forays into the speculative realm. Bialecki argues that the diagram he gleans from the Vineyard can, in fact, encompass “religion” as a whole. The nub of religion seems to be, quoting Bialecki, “the sensible absence of a more-than-human interlocutor [that] might drive religion’s central capacity, the ability to conceive and control in the abstract both change and its antonym, eternity” (21). This idea prompts a number of questions for me, among them whether the term “more-than-human interlocutor” is helpful. I have also struggled with this terminology, in the end opting for other-than-human presence (in a rather Orsian register)8 to encompass the many formerly human beings—such as ancestors or saints—that remain present after death, but are not necessarily more omniscient or less capricious than they were in life. More fundamentally, can the “problem of presence”—an idea that is so Christian in its orientation around a deity understood to have been immanent on earth and now absent until a final return—really provide the basis for a universal definition? Is this terminology and conceptual apparatus persuasive to anthropologists of Hinduism, Buddhism, indigenous spiritualities, or ancestor cults? Is it persuasive to historians of earlier iterations of Christianity? Does it not reiterate Western evangelicalism as a global benchmark, just as we are becoming more aware of the foundational role of this bias in the academic study of religion? What is the taxonomic need to define religion-as-religion in the first place?
Bialecki anticipates most of these questions and still forges ahead, a bold explorer of previously charted territory that I have perhaps become too wary (weary?) to cross. And the payoff could be big: anthropology of religion’s El Dorado, if you’ll allow me to indulge the metaphor. It could lead to a reinvigoration of dialogue among scholars in very different field sites. To a justification and motivation for engaging in biannual meetings like the Society for the Anthropology of Religion. It could create a better understanding of what it’s like to do anthropology in a religious studies department (an issue near to my own heart). Most of all, it makes this book something to debate, teach, and discuss.
Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System ,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic, 1973), 101.↩
Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).↩
Tanya M Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Knopf, 2012), 272.↩
Matt Tomlinson and Matthew Engelke, “Meaning, Anthropology, and Christianity,” in The Limits of Meaning: Case Studies in the Anthropology of Christianity, ed. Matthew Engelke and Matt Tomlinson (New York: Berghahn, 2006), 20.↩
Hillary Kaell, “Can Pilgrimage Fail? Intent, Efficacy, and Evangelical Trips to the Holy Land,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 31.3 (2016) 402.↩
Hillary Kaell, Christian Globalism at Home: Child Sponsorship in the United States (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, forthcoming).↩
The Vineyard’s founder, John Wimber, was working as founding director of the Department of Church Growth at an offshoot of Fuller Seminary from 1974–1978, during which time he grew his house church into the Calvary Chapel that became the Vineyard.↩
Robert A. Orsi, History and Presence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).↩
Miracles, Surprise, Orientation
Engaging with Jon Bialecki’s A Diagram for Fire
Jon Bialecki has written a wonderful book. A book ethnographically exploring the Vineyard branch of Christians in Southern California and beyond, their engagements with religion and their formation as a self-conscious Christians. The book engages key theoretical questions regarding what characterizes this mode of religiosity but also the overarching problem of how to conceptualize “religion” as such in today’s wider academic landscape. The book is one of astute insights and ranges widely in its ethnographic and anthropological scope. Where this would earn many books accolades such as the one I just used, namely the book being wonderful, my intent in this short critique is to focus more specifically on one of the key features of the book, wonders. This may allow us to engage differently with what is wonderful in Bialecki’s book, that this is a book full of wonders, a book engaging wonders in the form of the miraculous.
In A Diagram for Fire, Bialecki presents us with a vivid account of Vineyard Christians’ attempts to cultivate a sensibility, where miracles can be brought about in the everyday and quotidian interactions of the lives of devout subjects as well as the movement as such. The interest in miracles and the miraculous for the Vineyard Christians, Bialecki tells us, “is not about escaping this life but rather about living life in a more fulfilled manner” (33). However, on Bialecki’s exposition, what the Vineyard Christians strive to attain is a fine calibration of surprise (cf. 71, 95–96). Surprise here is not just a valued mode of being but amounts to a practice. A sensibility, which expects to hear and read signs from God in everyday contexts, in devoted practice, and in critical times. Miracles are therefore to be understood as signs, signs from God.
Exactly the value and purpose of miracles among the Vineyard Christians is their capacity to function as signs. Bialecki lays this out as follows (55): “‘Signs’ are both indexes to and icons of the kingdom, simultaneously proclaiming it as a future certainty and as evidence of its realization in the here and now; thus these supernatural wonders serve to persuade as well, which was how they were assimilated by evangelical Christianity that has conversion as its central desideratum.” In effect this means that the consummation or fulfillment of the miracle is not in the event or supernatural happening itself, it is as much in the later evocation and act of passing on the story of the miracle. The miracle on this understanding redirects the attention from the event to the broader web of signification in a community of fellow believers but also to family, kin, and neighbors not yet convinced and converted to Christ (43–44).
Where miracles need to be storied, Vineyard Christians on Bialecki’s account work with a particular set of narrative framings (35), where instantaneousness is a critical element in constituting the miraculous. The miracle has to break with ordinary perceptions to ground what has happened as extraordinary, indeed as a miracle. In the assessment of the miracle, both naturalistic and supernaturalistic elements are frequently played out alongside each other, and the miraculous needs to be produced as a breakaway from categories such as chance, coincidence, or luck. However, Bialecki also sees miracles as “happening events” (67). Such happening events, however, need to be incorporated in a specific narrative logic to make sense, or to adjust sensibilities to the miraculous in the event. As such the miracle is never stable but is in need of constant harnessing and reinscription, which happens in the subsequent acts of retelling how God spoke to persons, met them on airplanes, gave specific words to them in situations of need, or changed life by healing otherwise fatal ailments. As Bialecki argues, people may over time develop differential relationships with the miraculous (80). The miracle in this mode of religiosity here serves as a cipher of a becoming one with God’s purpose. Worship, prayer, reading the scripture, and deliverance are different avenues in which such forms of becoming are made viable, livable and purposeful. This is so because these aspects of Vineyard Christianity are considered places and practices that render God’s power intelligible and palatable for the believers themselves but also by extension to the world as such. Here, however, Bialecki presents a fertile perspective on how the miracle works on the will of the subject.
Bialecki over the course of the book presents the miracle as serving not merely to forge the will of the subject, but also more significantly to create a tension in the will of the subject. He asserts that the miraculous event creates a splintering of the self (136). Such an engagement with the will and split in the will of the subject, Bialecki both reads as a figure formulated in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (72–73) but also more widely in Vineyard experience and articulation. The alignment with and to the will of God is accordingly a formative force in what Bialecki following Gilles Deleuze designates as a diagram (e.g., 69). A diagram in this understanding is conceived of as “abstract maps of how forces play out that point as much toward the different potentials in outcome as they do toward a similarity in relations or constitution” (69). Such a diagrammatic focus allows Bialecki to see how the machinations of intensities work in a Vineyard formulation. The diagram on this understanding allows us to explore and engage the variation in the Vineyard movement and its mode of religiosity, but also the particular forces at play, which are productive for the constant formation and emergent becoming of the Vineyard movement. And here the miracle has a particular salience as it calibrates and cultivates a sense of surprise and dedication to see God at work in creation. The diagram allows Bialecki to engage with the way kingdom theology emphasizes the miracle but also the miracle’s tangible effects on everyday practices.
At this point, I should like to extend some reflections on the work of the miracle and the miraculous. Bialecki asserts that believers “tend not to try and look inside the miracle to see if they can spy the clockwork” (78). But what does this amount to? Is this claim equally valid for a John Wimber and any ordinary member of the Vineyard movement? Is it not also a matter of what exactly is being calibrated and made visible in the diagram? Here to keep the miracle as miracle is constant work, as later courses of events often risk leading to a reinterpreting or repurposing of the miraculous at a later stage if not constantly anchored inside the diagram. However, is this the same as to say that one is unaware of the work of the miracle, or that one shy away from looking inside it?
Further, Bialecki addresses the work of Ruth Marshall, who has elaborated on miracles among Pentecostal Christians in Nigeria. And perhaps more could be made of the comparative potential between the work of Bialecki and Marshall. One of Marshall’s key insights is that miracles are not about explanation, but orientation, or in her own formulation: “The miracle exceeds both the magical and rationalist explanations, since, its context of possibility is not explanation but orientation.”1 On this understanding, the miracle produces a form of receptivity, which is nurtured and cultivated in a community. Marshall herself phrases this eloquently: “The miracle, as a sign of divine grace and providence, opens the subject up to the experience of the divine in the everyday; to the experience of the mundane as miraculous, and the extraordinary as an event that may be expected, fated or willed. It renders experience significant, and requires of the subject a state of watchfulness.”2 What gains salience, then, is matters of proof and/or protocols for the establishment of truth. Exactly because miracles are ambiguous signs where their importance and meaning open up for interpretation and reframing, they must be brought into a meaningful narrative. One could invite further reflections on the interplay between Bialecki’s and Marshall’s accounts. Is orientation an equally valid frame, when interrogating Vineyard Christians?
Another point would be to push further on the lack of stability on the part of the miracle. Here the framing and the acts of witnessing, retelling, and passing on in the community of believers go hand in hand with attempts at stabilizing the sign-quality of the miracle, whereas on the part of the merely curious it just instigates marvel, awe, and wonder, but no sign-effect. Such an avenue of reflection and discussion is also found in the work of David Hume. In the text “Of Miracles,” in Hume’s Enquiries concerning Human Understanding and concerning the Principles of Morals,3 he interrogates the value of the miracle. In his skeptical account, Hume does not want to place too much trust in witnesses. And as such if only testimonies are counted as proof, as the entire proof, he would find lacking any greater weight to accounts of miracles. He asserts that what we then would have is proof against proof. Or as he formulates this insight, “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience possibly can be imagined.”4 And as he continues one page later: “There must be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.”5 The question here amounts to a particular problematic, namely how trust and efficacy of the very veridiction pertains to post-enlightenment sensibilities.
One way to extend the conversation would be to reflect with Robert Shanafelt on what is captured in the word miracle as contrasted to that of marvel.6 Shanafelt argues contra the miracle as it already from the onset is packaged with a framing pertaining to the divine. He would rather want us to move towards marvels, which do not pertain to any single register. When would this be a way forward? I am less inclined to see this move as critically opening up for an understanding of the miracle itself, and—what Bialecki designates—its inside. However, the social effects of the very labelings also among anthropologists merits further attention. Perhaps, as I have argued elsewhere, the processes whereby miracles and evidence are co-constitutive may be worth pondering.7 Here processes of pointing out what counts as evidence and what the miracle points to can be seen in processes of evidentification, processes for the devout to find suiting evidence for divine workings, and to keep retelling these events for posterity. Such narrative ordering may run well with Bialecki’s own project but also extend it beyond the Vineyard movement to other forms of Christianity. For instance, it could reflect on the notion of grace,8 and how narratives of petition and narratives of grace intersect.9 In these formulations the will of man and God can mysteriously be aligned in the grace bestowed upon the subject, and this formulates a diagram with both similar and different forces as the one presented by Bialecki. One last question could accordingly be posed, namely how encompassing is a diagram? How far can it be stretched and still be a variation of the same diagram and not a mutation into something different? And when does this matter more for our interlocutors than for the scholarly community, and when are the stakes reversed?
These questions, however, we are only allowed to formulate due to the formidable book Bialecki has written. Indeed it is a “wonderful” book, and it may allow new formulations of both modes and problematics of religion, thereby filling the scholarly community with new wonders to scrutinize.
Ruth Marshall, “The Sovereignty of Miracles: Pentecostal Political Theology in Nigeria,” Constellations 17.2 (2010) 213.↩
Marshall, “Sovereignty of Miracles,” 214.↩
David Hume, “Of Miracles,” in Enquiries concerning Human Understanding and concerning the Principles of Morals (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975 ), 109–31.↩
Hume, “Of Miracles,” 114.↩
Hume, “Of Miracles,” 115.↩
Robert Shanafelt, “Magic, Miracle, and Marvels in Anthropology,” Ethnos 69.3 (2003) 317–40.↩
Andreas Bandak, “Our Lady of Soufanieh: On Knowledge, Ignorance, and Indifference among Christians of Damascus,” in The Politics of Worship in the Contemporary Middle East: Sainthood in Fragile States, ed. A. Bandak and M. Bille (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 129–53.↩
Julian Pitt-Rivers, “Postscript: The Place of Grace in Anthropology,” in Honor and Grace in Anthropology, ed. J. G. Peristiany and J. Pitt-Rivers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 215–46.↩
Robert Orsi, Thank You, St Jude: Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).↩
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.
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.↩
Webb Keane, “The Evidence of the Senses and the Materiality of Religion,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14.1 (2008) S110–27.↩
Charles Sanders Peirce, “Abduction and Induction,” in Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler (New York: Dover, 1940), 150–56.↩
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard, 2007).↩
8.5.20 | 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,
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.
J. Comaroff, “Anthropology, Theology, Critical Pedagogy: A Conversation with Jean Comaroff and David Kyuman Kim,” Cultural Anthropology 26.2 (2011) 169.↩
G. Deleuze and C. Parnet, Dialogues 37 (1996).↩