Scholarly Story Telling

I once had a professor tell me that every good piece takes into account three things: race, class, and gender. As always, Dr. Frederick weaves these themes into engaging stories and thought-provoking analyses so smoothly it seems effortless. She describes her methods and how she collects said stories. She says that she abides by George Marcus’ proclamation “follow the thing” (p. 8), which she certainly does. Dr. Frederick takes us on a journey around the world, most notably Jamaica, where she helps us to get to know the challenges and needs of communities and how people look toward televangelists to fulfill those needs. Dr. Frederick does not just discuss the actual televangelists, but she also studies and shares knowledge about their congregations and production studios. She truly follows the thing, not just the outward-facing parts but the thing as a whole and multifaceted entity.

            Dr. Frederick’s energy about the topic is contagious. I watch a few televangelists, and the book made me excited to watch them some more and helped me to appreciate them, their global impact, and their shared tropes. I am also impressed by how up-to-date the book is. For the time, the pop-culture references are spot on. And to be living in the post-2016 world now and watching the mentees of these personalities follow in their footsteps makes reading the book so engaging and intriguing.

            One observation about televangelists that Dr. Frederick makes is that while she studies Black televangelists, those personalities do not necessarily preach Black religion. She describes Black religion as having an element of protestation, but the egregiously famous televangelists that she discusses preach what she calls “American religion.” Which she notes is already global and is not dependent upon Black televangelists to make it so (p.5). This was very interesting to me and prompted me to think about the role of White supremacy in the globalization of American religion and how Black televangelists, their congregations, and their producers participate in this.

Anthropology of Ethics and Morality: Understanding the Complexity of Everyday Religious Practices 

By: Mufdil Tuhri

In his 2002 article titled “For Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom,” James Laidlaw introduced the idea of a new subdiscipline within anthropology dedicated to exploring issues related to ethics and freedom. Laidlaw’s proposition marked a departure from his criticism of existing moral frameworks that did not sufficiently emphasize the concept of human freedom. Specifically, he critiqued both the Kantian moral law, which stressed the obligation to adhere to moral principles, and Durkheim’s perspective, which highlighted the role of society in shaping moral norms. Laidlaw proceeded to develop a novel viewpoint that places greater importance on human freedom in ethnographic analyses of ethics. He argued that ethical freedom revolves around the capacity to choose one’s own self-fashioning, setting it apart from agency, which he contended constrains human freedom (315). Drawing from Foucault’s concept of the “technique of self,” Laidlaw further elaborated on the moral significance of ethical freedom in enabling individuals to select and shape their own identities (324). He proposed that achieving this understanding required a thorough ethnographic approach that explores how individuals enact their ethical projects and employ techniques of self-fashioning (327). 

While Laidlaw advocated for anthropology to delve deeply into the complexity and diversity of ethical practices across various cultures and historical contexts, Webb Keane’s 2014 article examined two empirical studies on ethics by Joel Robbins (2006) titled “Becoming Sinners” and Charles Hirschkind (2006) titled “Ethical Soundscape,”. He highlighted the complexity of the relationship between deontology and virtue ethics in an ethnographic context. Keane demonstrated that in practice, the separation between moral and ethical concepts is not as simple as in theory (224). Keane also illustrated that ethics becomes separated from everyday habits due to the process of objectivization, as he showed that there is always contestation between religious doctrine and religious practice (230). While distinguishing between ethics within the context of religious beliefs and ethics in everyday routines, Keane underscored that the conflict between religious values and daily practices is key to understanding ethics in religious societies. This persistent tension appears to be a major source of urgency for the piety movement, which equates ethics with piety. 

During debates about ethics and morality within the framework of anthropology, there is a tendency for anthropology, which makes it too easy to see the complexity and difference of human lives, and it often ignores the aspect of theology or transcendence in people’s daily experiences. Here, Joel Robbins (2006) seems to want to bridge the anthropological approach, which requires interaction with theology to gain a deep understanding of various aspects of human life. In Robbins’ terms, “we should take on the challenge to find real otherness” (292). Anthropology must ground us in the efforts made by ordinary people in their search for real otherness and describe how they achieve that. Robbins considered that the emphasis on values and ideals encoded and consciously articulated within religious communities is an important part of ethical life, and the rejection of such domains can be inadequate to understanding ethics. 

Laidlaw, Keane, and Robbins have collectively offered a theoretical foundation in the field of the anthropology of ethics and morals. It appears that they concur on the necessity for any ethical framework to accommodate conscious reflection regarding social and ethical norms. Their contribution holds significant value in uncovering ethics within human experience, particularly concerning the ongoing debate concerning the role of ordinary or everyday phenomena in shaping ethical life. To me, this will serve as a tool for analyzing various instances of everyday ethics within the broader societal context. Nevertheless, I also acknowledge the anthropological challenges that I may encounter during fieldwork. For instance, for those who argue that ethical life is common and ordinary, how important is it to explain how ethics can be reflective?  What if ethics isn’t always fully conscious, for example, in cases where people practice religion as a routine or take it for granted? And what about moral relativism itself? 

Since Laidlaw’s complaint in 2002, I believe that there have certainly been significant developments in the study of ethics and morality in anthropology. The various anthropological concepts offered, such as the anthropology of ethics, morality, and freedom, can help enrich our understanding of human complexity in various cultural and religious contexts. Finally, I am also intrigued to think about the various anthropological approaches to religion that have been developed so far. For instance, does the anthropology of morals and ethics aim to broaden the perspective of analyzing the practices of religious communities to a wider extent? So, how do we understand “religion” today if there is already an anthropology of ethics and morality that might be considered more universal? 

Ethnography, Place, and Practices as Sources for Theologians

By: Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum

Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s Places of Redemption utilizes ethnographic research of a church in North Carolina to look closely at how one community lives out its Christian conviction to be inclusive across boundaries of difference (specifically differences in race, ethnicity, and ability). From a theological perspective, McClintock Fulkerson sees this working-out of community convictions through lived practices to be a form of (if still imperfect and incomplete) transformative redemption (21-22). As I was reading Places of Redemption, the question Dr. Seeman posed to those of us in class who are interested in doing theological ethnography came to my mind. How is ethnography useful for doing theological work?

McClintock Fulkerson offers us one example of an ethnographic study with larger theological or ecclesiological implications. McClintock Fulkerson says, “theological reflection is not a linear form of reflection that starts with a correct doctrine (or a ‘wordly’ insight) and then proceeds to analyze a situation; rather it is a situational, ongoing, never-finished dialectical process where past and present ever converge in new ways…the sense that racialized and normate bodily interactions demand attention for faithful life together is not reducible to any classic doctrine of human being” (234). While systematic theology privileges historical church doctrine and “agreed upon” Christian belief, McClintock Fulkerson aims to show in her work that place, embodied practices, relationships, and even contradictions can inform theological reflection. McClintock Fulkerson asserts that there is something to be learned from what living and breathing Christians do and think together in the ongoing process of forming and sustaining a religious community across differences.

I appreciate McClintock Fulkerson’s desire to take seriously how a specific community of Christians work out their theology of living and worshiping together. Just because “what Christians do” cannot always be neatly categorized by traditional doctrinal language, does not make these lived-out practices (and the contradictions within them) any less significant than the solitary pondering of academic theologians or religious figures. I particularly loved her exploration of community practices that were not traditionally associated as strictly Christian in nature (such cleaning and maintaining property, telling stories, and eating together), yet were essential to how this community lives out its Christian vocation (131-143).

While I admire McClintock Fulkerson’s aims to think theologically through the community of Good Samaritan, I am left with some questions after finishing Places of Redemption. I hope we can ponder some of these questions together! At times, I felt as though McClintock Fulkerson makes some sweeping statements about the thoughts and feelings of the different groups at Good Samaritan. For example, she says things like “…the university students’ widely shared preference for Gerald’s ‘more intellectual’ sermons” (90). McClintock Fulkerson’s writing relies heavily on her own analysis of what is happening in a situation. While she does offer dialogue, she seldom includes her own participation in the conversation. Who did she interview to give her the sense that the students’ preferences were widely shared? What were her questions about worship? What assessments does she base on conversations and what is based on observation alone? This may be a mere stylistic preference of my own, but I longed for more direct quotes and longer excerpts from congregant interviews (akin to what we saw in the works of T.M Luhrmann and Robert Orsi) to support her claims about inward feelings, group preferences, and dynamics at Good Samaritan.

Another related topic for discussion has to do with the balance between “thick description” and analysis. Does the “thick description” in Places of Redemption give us an example of theology that is communally created or is the book itself too heavily filtered through McClintock Fulkerson’s own theological and philosophical leanings and perhaps even her own feelings of discomfort?

This brings me to my next question for discussion, which is “what do we think of McClintock Fulkerson’s theological move?” As a practicing Christian myself, I can openly say that I do look for God’s grace among the people of God. I also think that good theology comes out of people in real situations. Yet, it still felt like a big leap to go from description to the claim that “what I trace at Good Samaritan is not simply (incomplete) social transformation; it is divine grace” (246). What a bold claim! Is there a way to make theological observations about lived practices without making totalizing claims like “what I am observing is God’s grace”? What would that look like?

Finally, what do we think about McClintock Fulkerson’s use of ‘habitus?’ Good Samaritan is described as a place that (however imperfectly) tries to habituate people to practices of acceptance, comfort, and belonging that can combat wider social norms of discomfort and prejudice. How does this relate to the idea of religious practices as formational? Do we see these communal practices as forming new ways of being for people? Is this what McClintock Fulkerson would call “redemption”?

I look forward to exploring these and other questions for discussion on Wednesday! Thanks for reading!
-Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum