This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Simon Coleman. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.2.016



Ethics, ethnography, and “repugnant” Christianity

Simon COLEMAN, University of Toronto

I explore the troubled relationship between anthropology and conservative Christianity, represented here by Prosperity-oriented Pentecostalism. My interest is not only in the complex boundaries erected between social scientific and religious practice, but also in the ways both involve the construction of ethical orientations to the world that are chronically constituted by the deployment of boundaries that play on movements between the foregrounding and backgrounding of ethical standpoints. One implication of my argument is that we need to consider more carefully the temporality of ethical framing of action. Another is that anthropology must acknowledge the fragmented, even ironic and playful, aspects of Pentecostal practice.

Keywords: Pentecostalism, prosperity, ethics, borders, Sweden

“Why are you studying such crap?”1 That was a question a colleague put to me a few years ago about my research in Sweden on Prosperity Christians and the so-called Health and Wealth Gospel. I was not especially surprised. This kind of Christianity has hardly had a good press over the years, becoming associated with the self-aggrandizements of televangelists, the miraculous claims of faith healers, and numerous guides to “more effective” living that can be found in the self-help or business sections of bookstores. An article in the Atlantic magazine published a few [276]years ago actually accused Health and Wealth-inspired risk taking of being a fundamental cause of the worldwide debt crisis (Rosin 2009). Denunciations of these Christians’ supposed fakery and self-interest often come from fellow Christians, to say nothing of secular commentators. So variants of pretty much the same question have been posed to me over the past quarter of a century. It has often come from fellow anthropologists, though perhaps this occasion was especially notable because it involved an ethnographer of a form of popular religion that, while not Christian, encourages an explicit search for prosperity that does not look so remote from the people I have been studying. Still, for my colleague, his non-Western field clearly constituted a very different kind of anthropological object, and not one that needed overt justification—unlike mine.

I am certainly not the only anthropologist of conservative Christianity who has been subjected to this kind of question. Susan Harding’s well-known essay “Representing fundamentalism: the problem of the repugnant cultural Other” (1991) created what was almost a charter of origin for the subfield. Harding argued that the Christians she studied constituted, from the conventional anthropological point of view of the time, the wrong kind of cultural Other: supposedly antiand not simply nonmodern; powerful, in possession of their own voice; and thus to be kept away from the conceptual and political space occupied by vulnerable ethnic minorities or the colonized (ibid.: 392).

This type of Christianity was also “wrong” owing to its habit of crossing borders into fields occupied by ethnographers: missionary matter out of place (Douglas 1966) because it was to be found in places of academic observation and production; and yet, for many scholars, matter out of place that was not interesting, “local,” or morally appropriate enough to deserve serious attention. As ethnographers of Christianity in specifically Euro-American contexts, both Harding and I have therefore had to deal with the study of evangelicals who occupy positions as close institutional and cultural “neighbors” to our own everyday lives as academics. In practice, this proximity may lead, as Harding’s work suggests, to policing academic discourses connected with assumptions that she herself may well be a believer; or more often in my case to a questioning not only of the inherent interest of my subject, but also of its inherent value as a cultural phenomenon. Such boundary concerns are often exacerbated in the United States by actual discursive contexts between anthropologists and their evangelical students (discussed in Coleman and Carlin 2004: 12–21). In the Swedish context, especially in the early years of my study of Prosperity Christians in the university city of Uppsala, I encountered anxieties among social scientists and theologians about the potentially baleful effects of a well-funded, Americanized (and therefore glossy) Prosperity ministry on the intellectual as well as emotional and spiritual lives of undergraduates. Within a day of my first arriving in Uppsala to do fieldwork in 1986, a local anthropologist had asked me, “Why on earth do you want to study those nuts?” (a variant of the “crap” question) (Coleman 2002: 79).2

[277]Many points relating to Harding’s piece have been taken up over the years, but I want to point to an interesting juxtaposition raised in the very final paragraph of her text, and one that has been much less frequently remarked upon. For Harding ultimately does commit herself as an anthropologist to the project of designing effective strategies to oppose the positions and policies advocated by conservative Christians; yet, at the same time, she argues that we need more nuanced, local, and partial accounts to describe who they are, thus “deconstructing the totalizing opposition between us and them” (1991: 393). Arguably, we see revealed here two routes of ethical practice for anthropologists in relation to conservative Christianity, though they may not lead in the same direction. There is ethics as overt political action, a hardening of attitudes and a fight for what is perceived as the morally good beyond the academic world—a kind of engagement as opposition, coming close to what Michael Lambek (2010: 9) refers to as the meaning of ethics used in common speech to refer to the positive valence put on certain acts. But there is also a disciplinary stance being taken, a plea for understanding, complexity, and nuance that is a form of academic self-cultivation constituted precisely by seeing aspects of the self in the conventionally repugnant Other.3 This latter point is exemplified in dramatic fashion in another well-known article by Harding, “Convicted by the Holy Spirit” (1987), where she talks of how the language of conversion nearly catches her in its narrative hooks. But I think one obvious question here is: How might acceptance of the need for politically articulated opposition relate to the ethnographic project of self-deconstruction on behalf of the Other? Is the Other repugnant in the first modality but not the second? And need we see these modalities as in conflict or perhaps rather as incommensurable within the work of the same scholar? These questions are central to my concerns in this article. They prompt me to address the theme that the editors of this collection have raised in relation to understanding how people negotiate a multiplicity of ethical positions—in my case both within and across the respective “worlds” of anthropology and evangelicalism. They also resonate with Didier Fassin’s (2008: 333–34) project of constructing a moral anthropology that subjects the discipline’s own moral prejudices to scrutiny, even as it contemplates scholars’ sometimes uncomfortable positioning between a relativist nihilism regarding knowledge and power, and the “ethical” as signified by marked activism in the field.

In my approach, I am interested in what we might think of as the varied edges of ethical practice: not only how far a given stance can be taken, and not only how (and where) one stance acknowledges another, but also how seemingly very different ethical orientations may nonetheless articulate in ways that are both surprising and, at times, mutually productive. Thus, to reverse the phrasing, I am exploring how ethical practice can become productive precisely through the chronic assertion and deployment of edges, of boundaries, in ways that play on movements between the foregrounding and backgrounding of ethical standpoints.4 Thus are ethical [278]borderlands created, and here we might think of Renato Rosaldo’s argument that just as actual borderlands such as those along the US–Mexican boundary should now be studied as sites of hybridity and cultural creativity, so metaphorical borderlines—say, of class, gender, ethnicity—run through supposedly monolithic societies and may be loci of continuous invention (Rosaldo 1989; see also Carrithers 2005: 441). One of the borderlands I want to explore here is that between anthropology and the kind of Pentecostalism that I study, and in doing so I want to show that this is a metaphorical and literal space that contains still more dimensions than Harding’s identification of repugnance, opposition, and (at least from one side) attempts at understanding. Of course we can use the older language of liminality here, but my interest is in ethical stances that are less neatly or systematically articulated with each other than such a perspective tends to imply. Nor am I restating the important but now established argument that anthropology emerges from, and sometimes reflects, Christian roots (e.g., Cannell 2005). Rather, I see myself as exploring the shifting and sometimes overlapping ethnographic space created by two ethical orientations to the world—anthropology and Pentecostalism—that constitute themselves through the chronic construction as well as overcoming of borders.

In reflecting on such themes, we need to remember that Harding’s piece is itself a response to a call to public account. She is essentially asked by colleagues: “Are you now or have you ever been a Christian fundamentalist?” in an American context where encounters between anthropologists and such apparent ideological opponents might well occur on university campuses. Her ethnographic crossing of this particular border between social scientific and religious commitment leads to what Webb Keane (2010: 78) calls the giving of reasons as a kind of consequential action that can enter into both making moral claims and ethical self-formation. Through such justification, an anthropological ethics comes to the surface when Harding indicates to her colleagues why she carries out such work (compare Lambek 2010: 30).

So, I want to start by taking the “why are you studying such crap?” question seriously rather than dismissing it as either trivial or lacking in self-awareness. Why should Prosperity Christianity look, from a certain anthropological perspective, like crap, like matter out of place, not merely in religious landscapes but in ethnographic ones as well?5 And why might exploring that question lead us to an ethnographic and not merely a self-reflexive examination of speaking ethically across borders? Without wishing to overuse the metaphor, how might such crap act as [279]fertile theoretical manure and not merely represent the predictable result of ethical outrage?

The fertility of borders

One initial response to the task I have set myself can be expressed in a methodological register: in working with Prosperity Christians, we might indeed struggle to apply what Michael Carrithers (2005: 433) has described as the “moral aesthetic standards” of our discipline, “the ability to enter into another person’s situation imaginatively without necessarily sharing the other’s values or cosmology” (ibid.: 438). This is not just a matter of politics. The Prosperity Gospel refers to a faith that (in common with, for instance, varieties of so-called conservative Islam) may appear self-consciously to resist its encompassment by the language of others, to deny the legitimacy of intellectual appropriation through anthropology, and to do so by deploying a powerful linguistic armory of its own. Arguably, the very power of that armory constructs, at first glance, the image of a religion that seems to be propounding a rigid, deontological approach to the exercise of faith. It also implies confidence in believers’ ability to challenge or appropriate specific parts of the academy. In 1987, during my fieldwork on a local, Prosperity-oriented gathering of Christian undergraduates in Uppsala, I listened to a young Swedish preacher tell his student audience that university-based theology and anthropology were the worst subjects to study: the former removed God and the latter relativized him to death (Coleman 2002: 82). During the 1980s and 1990s, however, I also saw the work of scholars such as Ernest Gellner being put on reading lists for Christian students at the Word of Life’s new university so that they could incorporate his perspectives within their worldview. I wish I had been in the room when Nations and nationalism (1983) was being discussed,6 and am equally curious to know what would have happened if Gellner himself had been there to join in.

But there is much more to be said about anthropology’s troubled relationship with such Christians. For I wish to see borders not only as routes across which ethically charged speech may travel, but also as fertile catalysts for such speech on behalf of informants or anthropologists. These borders become places that are productive of explanation or justification, prompt explicit navigation—become contexts where the ethical becomes manifest and objectifiable (see Lambek 2010: 30; compare Keane 2010: 69). If we wish to push the logic of this statement a little further, we might say that making something manifest does not simply express what is already there, it also remakes it, since objectification has certain effects and permits certain forms of reflexivity (Keane 2010: 69) that are productive in their own right. In these terms, Prosperity Christianity is not only objectionable to many anthropologists, it is also a particular kind of object, or is shaped to become one, taking on a semiotic form that can help make explicit but also (re)make certain aspects of the ethics of anthropological practice. It might in the process indicate how and why we [280]ourselves speak professionally across certain cultural borders but prefer to remain silent over others—or to recognize them, perhaps, only as “crap.”

However, I am interested in Prosperity Christianity not only as a kind of border object for anthropology, but also as itself chronically constituted by the construction and traversing of borders through speech and other media. Such borders are made manifest at very different scales, but a key focus for this article is one that is often associated with both ethical practice and reflections upon such practice, as well as constituting a topic that has been debated within the virtue ethics approach: the cultivation of the religious subject, and the means through which cultivation itself may involve the apparent exercise of certain kinds of choice.

Reflecting on questions of choosing between options, Jarrett Zigon (2007: 133) considers whether and how a person is being moral when he or she is not being consciously forced to take a particular decision, as well as how a given dispositional training might transfer across social contexts. He goes on to argue that ethics are “performed” in moments expressing dilemmas or breakdown of normal expectations, when disagreements arise, or when an older “moral-cultural way of being” encounters a new one, such as Pentecostal Christianity: “In this way, then, I make a distinction between morality as the unreflective mode of being-in-the-world and ethics as a tactic performed in the moment of the breakdown of the ethical dilemma” (ibid.: 137). For Zigon (ibid.: 138), the ultimate goal of ethics as tactics is to reach the state of once again dwelling in the unreflective comfort of the familiar. While, as noted, I agree with him on the need to consider the temporal framing of ethical action, I am less convinced by the imagery of unreflective comfort, primarily because it does not capture the extent to which Pentecostalism may involve the active cultivation of “dilemmas” or “breakdowns” as part of its dispositional makeup.

One reason why the issue of making active choices is a significant one in considering the relationship between anthropology and Pentecostalism is that the latter—unlike, say, being a member of the Nuer or the Azande—involves a cultural framework that the actor can usually opt into or out of. This possibility contributed to the suspicions of Susan Harding’s colleagues regarding her interest in American evangelicalism. But being Pentecostal implies more than an original, one-off decision to become born-again: it is also to enter a whole new range of ethical choices. James Laidlaw notes that “a number of philosophical and theological traditions have held some variation of the idea that the ethical act presupposes a degree of autonomy on part of the actor, since it must be the outcome of a choice made among possible alternative courses of action” (2013: 65; see also S. Howell 1997).7 For the anthropologist, one of the issues at stake here involves avoiding Durkheimian determinism and conflation of the social with the cultural.8 I want to argue that for Swedish Prosperity Christians, participation in their faith plays with the ambiguity [281]not only of the borders of the subject, but also with choice itself as a marked category and constituent of ethical action that can help contribute to self-cultivation. In a recent article on Ghanaian Pentecostals, Girish Daswani (2013: 469) talks of the complexities for believers of making moral judgments around positions of uncertainty, and describes these moments of indeterminacy as destabilizing the conventional parameters of what is acceptable in the present (ibid.: 468). Ethical questions are thus roused, made explicit. I agree with him from the perspective of my fieldwork; but I also argue that for the religious subjects I study, speaking and acting across certain borders can become chronic means to cultivate and not merely mitigate risk (Coleman 2011: 42), and in the process to experiment, often consciously, with temporary loss of autonomy in the sense that such risk may allow external forces to threaten but also to reconstruct what they perceive about themselves. Such a combination of choice and restriction may look like a paradox from the “outside,” though not necessarily from the “inside.” It also raises a particular kind of question for me as an ethnographer of a religious movement where participation involves the learning of embodied practices, but where engagement may nonetheless be fragmentary and situational. Michael Lambek (2010: 11), James Laidlaw (2013), and others suggest that we are to see the ethical as a modality of all social action or being in the world, rather than regarding it as a particular domain of social life. The ethical is indeed always there in different forms, and Lambek has emphasized the inconsistency of human action (2010: 9) but also the centrality of the exercise of judgment to “everyday ethics” (ibid.: 26). These comments remind us of the need to proceed with caution in thinking of the exercise of piety9 as a nondeliberative aspect of one’s disposition, as Laidlaw (2013: 178) suggests in discussing Sabha Mahmood’s influential work on Muslim women in Cairo (2005: 137). But how might we see religious participation as involving the situational and thus temporally bound placing of a certain, marked ethical frame on events? And how, in the case of a religious form such as Prosperity-oriented Pentecostalism, does the situational character of the invocation of the frame coexist with a seemingly confident rhetoric of encompassing all of human life?

These questions take us back to borders and borderlands as productive catalysts for the objectification—or, to change the metaphor, the temporary crystallization—of ethical action and discourse. Referring to Ghanaian Pentecostalists, Daswani (2013: 475) talks of the need to “understand how individual believers deal with the challenges of negotiating between the normative and the tacit, between incommensurable and incompatible practices.” Again I agree, but I am also interested in understanding how exercising choice can be a specifically positive form of self-cultivation.

Making a choice often involves rendering one’s actions accountable to oneself as well as to others. Michael Lempert (2013: 370) has recently suggested that “the [282]presumption that ethics is immanent in practice continues to distract from the problem of how to narrate, and theorize, the entanglements of discourse and ethics.” For Lempert, accepting the ordinariness of ethics does not mean that we can assume that they are effortlessly immanent, locatable as if turning over a stone on a path. Rather, ethics are subject to performative contingency, are precarious achievements requiring explicit semiotic labor to happen and to be intersubjectively evident, and indeed “to the extent that ethical activity is kindled through discursive interaction rather than being an ever-present quality of it, we must remain alive to performative felicity, and failure” (ibid.: 371).10 Of course, forms of reflexivity will vary across several dimensions, some violations will be noticed more than others, and under certain conditions—especially those of moral broaches or quandaries—we might expect people to cite cultural discourses on morality more readily than on other occasions (ibid.: 377).11

Lempert usefully suggests that we might grasp the workings of ethics through contingent and distributed performativity, with “interactants” working to invoke as well as infer the ethical in situations (ibid.: 379). However, while he explores the idea that in a discursive context one might shift “from speaker to hearer the burden of figuring out that ethics is relevant and who this ethics is for” (ibid.: 379), my emphasis on the invocation of ethical frameworks by believers (or anthropologists, for that matter) as an act of self-cultivation means that I focus on speakers as much as or sometimes more than I do on apparent recipients of ethical claims. My approach here comes close to Carrithers’ (2005: 434) model of culture and interactive moral aesthetics as a matter of persuasion and rhetoric rather than a determining, software-like program. I agree with Carrithers that people may use these cultural tools to work not only on others, but also on themselves. In such work, I shall argue, a set of ethical stances that constantly invokes borders, boundaries to be marked and crossed, can have considerable effectiveness. Regarding much Pentecostalism, the bringing to consciousness and objectification of ethical practice as chronic action is central to the performance of a faith that is oriented around the creation of cultural and moral borderlands. It also, as we shall see, poses questions as to the immanence and coming to objectification of the ethics of commentators, including anthropologists.

Anthropology and global Pentecostalism

I shall soon explore these questions further through a case study of the Swedish Prosperity Christians whom I have been studying since the 1980s. But before doing so I need to reflect for a final time on the place of conservative Christianity, and [283]in particular Pentecostalism, in the wider landscape of the social sciences. In the more than twenty years since Harding originally published her articles on studying—and encountering—conservative Protestant discourse in the United States, the discipline has changed in ways that her work partially anticipated. Since the 1990s, much scholarly attention has in fact come to rest on evangelical and especially Pentecostal activity around the world. Two of the most prominent analytical approaches within anthropology agree on its cultural impact, though they do so from rather different disciplinary stances. I see their respective positions as instructive in reflecting further on the tangled ethical relations between anthropology and Pentecostalism.

Jean and John Comaroff ’s diagnosis of Pentecostal millennialism as a particular expression of a broader millennial capitalism and a form of “occult economy” (e.g., 1999, 2000) uses the materialist, comparative tools of anthropology to indicate the power of Prosperity discourse as an explanation of their plight for victims of the current economic order, but also to explore the ability of anthropology to uncover the ideological implications of such discourse. Clearly, I am not expressing their (well-known) ideas in any detail, but the relevant point here is that their work has provoked a particular kind of debate over the location and boundaries between anthropological and Pentecostal forms of understanding and practice. Most notably, Ruth Marshall (2009: 30) worries that in their approach the authorial voice of the scholar is made to speak “through the cultural text that is local religious belief,” in the process “insisting that religious or supernatural signs signify a truth hidden from those who express and elaborate them.” In other words, religious practice is assumed to have an underlying rationality that is discernible through the methods of social science;12 and yet, for Marshall: “What is left out of these studies [is] that irreducible element of faith that marks the frontier of what it is possible for social science to think, and which analyses circumnavigate, reduce, or ignore.” So at issue here are the ethics of representation of such religious practice, and questions over the extent to which the latter maintains a voice that can escape and exceed that of social science. If we think back to the two routes of ethical practice that I sketched out at the beginning of this article, we see a further worrying over the relationship between anthropology as political (and critical) practice, and a disciplinary stance that seeks more overtly to locate aspects of the self in the Other.13

However we position ourselves in relation to these contrasting ways to analyze Pentecostalism, we might see the Comaroffs as deploying anthropology as a means of politically engaged enlightenment that acts on Prosperity Gospels while also keeping its distance from them. But other work has revolved precisely around borders [284]that have linked the effects of religious mission not only with shifts in the constitution of religious subjects, but also with changes in the constitution of the discipline itself. Here, then, I move to the second of the prominent analytical approaches that I want to mention in this section. If part of the force of Harding’s writing was in its depiction of her being assailed by the language of colleagues (invoking the “repugnant Other”) and of believers (invoking “conviction by the Holy Spirit”) so that her identity as a rational American scholar was called into question in both cases, recent writing has invoked the charged language of rupture and continuity in depicting still wider battles between Pentecostal and anthropological discourses. Joel Robbins (2004, 2007) captures these issues beautifully in his depiction of the Urapmin of Melanesia negotiating between traditional and Pentecostal Christian worldviews, a sometimes tormented negotiation that leads them to approach so much of life as a process of moral decision making (Daswani 2013: 468), even as it might also prompt anthropologists to debate whether we are seeing some form of modernity and irreversible change being instituted through such decisions. For Robbins, the wider moral of his ethnographic story of transformation is that in recognizing the influence of Pentecostalism on informants, anthropology itself must change in accepting the potentially irreversible transformations in the local: Pentecostalism becomes a kind of hybrid trickster figure in such terms, articulating with and transforming local ontologies and thereby forcing observers to accept that informants do not simply assimilate new events into already existing cultural categories. So neither “local” cultures nor anthropology itself can be seen as immune from the effects of such Pentecostal border crossings. Perceived in this way, what Robbins (2007) calls anthropology’s “continuity thinking” in the face of rupture becomes a form of pollution behavior, protecting the categories of the discipline through asserting the preservation of the power of local cosmologies to domesticate Pentecostal ideologies.

Again, whether or not we agree with Robbins’ thesis, we must acknowledge its impact in its subfield, its ability to hit a raw intellectual nerve. His argument uses ethnography to comment on previously taken-for-granted anthropological ethics, given that assumptions over the moral and epistemological integrity of “local” worlds helped to form the discipline and its practitioners over many years. In this article, however, my imagery is less one of rupture per se than of examining the constitution of Pentecostalism (as well as anthropology) at and through borders, including Euro-American contexts where scholarly and religious practices are closely juxtaposed. I emphasize the ways in which part of the dynamism of Swedish Pentecostalism and indeed of Pentecostalism elsewhere is in its inevitably partial character. A rhetoric of world encompassment is consonant with and complements the assumption that cultural and religious Otherness is always present and must be engaged with. I therefore describe Pentecostalism as a kind of “part-culture” (see also Coleman 2010: 800–802), presenting worldviews meant for export but often in both tension and articulation with the assumed values of any given host. We should not assume, of course, that Pentecostal forms exist in transcendental form, waiting to be downloaded into societies or individuals. But a key point for me is that a part-culture, defined in these terms, is one always already prepared to exist on and through salient borders, to focus on and often to mark shifts in ethical practice through a variety of semiotic means that have their own aesthetic integrity but also prey almost parasitically on existing forms.

[285]A related point, often underemphasized, is that the borders through which Pentecostalists work are not simply “out there,” somehow expressive of the essential differences between Pentecostal and local worldviews.14 They are constantly constructed and reconstructed by believers, and while much writing seems to think that the key reason to examine Pentecostal activity is because of its ability to convert non-Christians to its worldviews, I maintain that it is equally important to examine another dimension of the boundary: the ways in which Pentecostalism itself is reconstituted through asserting its need to work within borderlands involving nonbelievers as well as believers. We might go back to Keane here, and his argument that “the act of giving an account of oneself to others can be at the same moment an act of self-formation” (2010: 78). Such accounts are surely forms of self-objectification, and the audience might be the self as well as a putative Other.

Prosperity discourse in Sweden

Over the past quarter of a century, I have been studying the Prosperity-oriented Word of Life (Livets Ord) foundation, based in Uppsala, as it has evolved from a tiny congregation in the early 1980s into a churchand ministry-planting megachurch whose empire stretches into Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, the Holy Land, and beyond. Expansion has involved a fractal-like duplication of the Word of Life ministry model (e.g., Coleman 2000), which itself takes strong inspiration from North American Prosperity roots. Within Sweden in the 1980s, it soon became known for its attraction to younger people, its apparently slick, Americanized selfpresentation (smart clothes, video screens, professional music), and its staging of large conferences attracting luminaries of the global Prosperity circuit to faraway and secularized Sweden.

While much of the recent literature on Pentecostalism refers to its expansion in contexts of conversion to Christianity or away from Catholicism, or through reverse mission from Southern to Northern countries (e.g., Ukah 2008), the Swedish case involved the emergence of neo-Pentecostalism in a context where, despite the country’s reputation for secularity, more classical congregations have formed a powerful and increasingly respectable institutional presence since the 1920s or so. Nor, obviously, was this a case that raised questions of Pentecostalism as a medium or harbinger of modernity. Rather, from its origins, Word of Life rhetoric looked outward toward the idea of converting secular Swedes to Christianity, and inward in its attempts to reform and revitalize the longstanding, respectable but bureaucratized Swedish Pentecostal movement. Reactions to the emergence of Prosperity Christianity as a kind of part-culture in Sweden reflected this double orientation quite closely, though less predictable was the sheer force of the reactions that the group catalyzed. I have noted elsewhere that the emergence of the Word of Life [286]sparked a moral panic in the country that presented the group as a fundamental threat not only to Pentecostalism, but also to many of the values of Sweden at large (Coleman 2000: chapter 9).15 In 1986 and 1987, the archbishop of Sweden released two statements regarding the group that referred to spiritual movements “foreign to our own Christian interpretation and tradition of faith,” seen as causing “splits, confusions and arguments” in Christian congregations, encouraging “fanaticism,” and possibly leading to depression (ibid.: 208–9; reproduced in Wikström 1988: 13–15).16 One morning in October 1987, residents of Uppsala woke up to find slogans such as “Word of Death” and “Hang Ekman” daubed on walls around the town (Coleman 2000: 211), and a few examples of this graffiti were still evident in parts of the city into the 1990s. By the year 2000, around thirty academic reports had been produced on the group, mostly in Swedish, generally focusing on its anomalous and controversial character in Sweden (ibid.: 211). If a national and cultural border was being crossed, it was one that seemed to call for almost weekly demands for accountability from the ministry’s representatives, and especially its head pastor at the time, Ulf Ekman. Did the group represent a brainwashing cult, luring young people off the streets or out of more liberal congregations into its portals? Was it a mere conduit for an American Christian Right to establish a base in a rich European country, contributing to the religiously sanctioned neoliberalizing of what had been a formerly stable social democratic state? Was it somehow even indirectly responsible for the murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme, after he was mysteriously gunned down on a street in central Stockholm in 1986? And so on.17

The panic has since largely died down, though it still surfaces occasionally, most recently over accusations that Ulf Ekman is a hyprocrite for having decided to leave the Word of Life and become a Roman Catholic.18 As a researcher who first arrived in the mid-1980s, I found myself at times being approached by local theologians who wished me to adopt one of the ethical stances I sketched out for Susan Harding, that of political opposition, and they were disappointed when I would not do so (Coleman 2002: 79).19 As noted, some of the local anthropologists I encountered denied the value of the other stance she suggests, that of attempting [287]to understand the group in a more nuanced way. In these scholars’ terms, the Word of Life did not present genuine ethnographic material because its members were “nuts,” or it involved studying urban Sweden while the role of anthropology should be to examine non-Western parts of the world. All of these views provide variations on the “crap” theme, though I suspect that many of them have at least moderated, as, for instance, anthropology “at home” has become an important dimension of Swedish ethnographic practice. But what I also explore here is a different way of thinking about the ethics of this case, in other words the question of how anthropologically to characterize a religious subjectivity formed through chronic if also chronically partial traversing of borders at different scales of perception and action.

I begin by highlighting a notable point of discursive contact between the Word of Life’s public representatives and its critics: in the early days especially, both largely agreed at least officially that religious participation meant a radical and complete shift into a new framework of being, thinking, and acting. As the sociologist of religion Margareta Skog (1993: 113) put it, the considerable authority enjoyed by the Prosperity pastors represented a new religious form in Swedish free (i.e., nonconformist) churches, and one where the sheer force of personality of the leader appeared to attract followers as well as acceptance of a seemingly authoritarian, “One Shepherd” principle of governance. But for me the question is what to make of this totalizing discourse as an ethnographic object in itself. In the context of thinking about the contingencies of marking out ethical practices as well as the ambiguities behind determining the agency underlying ethical judgments, I am also interested in how such discourse was operationalized by both believers and critics as a framing device where choice appeared to be combined—consciously or not—with a certain surrendering of autonomy on the part of the individual believer.

Unsurprisingly, Prosperity thinking formed a key, if disputed, point of distinction between the group and its conventional, more classical Pentecostal forebears and rivals: many of the latter abhorred the brash materialism of the new group—at least those who were not discreetly attending some of its services. Yet, in practice, the Prosperity Gospel can mean many things. Even within the Word of Life, and despite the totalizing rhetoric mentioned above, it needs to be seen less as a coherent theology and more as a multivalent practice, an orientation constituted by boundary crossing that occurs at different scales and through very different media of articulation. In this vein, a dimension picked up by some critics in Sweden was the way in which ideas associated by Word of Lifers with Prosperity contained twin notions (and associated practices) of abundance and overflow,20 materiality combined with movement, invoking senses of both excess and exuberance.21 I have [288]recently discussed aspects of this concept of overflow elsewhere (Coleman forthcoming), so here I mention its most basic aspects, while expanding on its links with my discussion of ethics.

The first point is that Prosperity implies less a conventional theology as such, less a following of specific propositions or rules of conduct, and more the creation of an attitude toward the world that might be adopted and used to reframe any “circumstances” (omständigheter). Such an attitude incorporates but also has wider application than the conversionist orientation conventionally associated with such Christians. In other words, missionary attempts to convert others to the faith draw on broadly the same assumptions as those behind the idea that God blesses ambitions of believers to build new congregations across Sweden and beyond (starta eget, literally “start one’s own”), or is bound by divine covenant to reward donors who give tithes or other monetary donations to the church. These are all methods of “reaching out” (att nå utt) into the world, and note how they invoke scalar expansion across boundaries of self and other, sacred and secular, in a number of respects: ideological, spatial, material, linguistic (Coleman 2000: 131–42; 2004).22 Notice also the complex double orientation that such reaching out entails. Its associated notion of overflow can imply both self-extension/objectification—pushing beyond normal boundaries of personal etiquette—and self-reward—the benefits expected from such extension. Social, material, and spiritual productivity redound back upon the believer as well as out in the world at large. Significant here, also, is not only the prepositional orientation of “over,” but also the associations of “flow,” the breaking down and moving across accepted categories and expectations in ways that easily resonate with charismatic notions of the Spirit. Such “overflowing” practice can be adapted to numerous situations, but may also be emphasized or deemphasized according to the moods and motivations of the actor. Thus one elderly Pentecostalist missionary explained to me that his engagement with both classical Pentecostalism and the newer, neo-Pentecostal ministry involved disparate ways in which to actualize spiritually charged practice as well as religious subjectivity (Coleman 2000: 188), and while my conversations with him took place in the late 1980s, he expressed attitudes that are still evident today among believers who move between the two sets of religious practice. While being a conventional Pentecostalist implied a more intense social engagement with others and a close sense of mutual and complex engagement, adopting a “Prosperity” orientation was more a matter of increasing the scale of one’s ambition in order to take command of situations, whether they involved converting others, ordering one’s business affairs with confidence, or simply “conquering” the mundane challenges of everyday life. In other words, Pentecostalism and Prosperity did not just represent different (albeit related) movements; they also involved different framings of his own attitude toward his own capabilities and understanding of his influence over others. In [289]his terms, a person might be more classically “Pentecostal” in attitude one minute, more “Prosperity” another, with the latter implying much more of a sense of going beyond one’s behavioral comfort zone, and often interacting with anonymous others—either encountered face to face or more virtually through electronic media. The sense of moving across literal or metaphorical territory entailed in flow invokes some notion of the presence of Otherness as an overt motivation for one’s actions:23 the believer must identify strategic areas of action such as encounters with hitherto unsaved people, money that is not being used properly for God’s purposes, even stubborn aspects of the self that should be worked on so that static “form” can indeed turn into fertile flow. In practice, the range of things that can be declared Other in these terms is quite varied, and may differ among believers. The degree and direction of imposition on Otherness are not always predictable, and may say something about the specific character of a given person’s invocation of Prosperity. Thus considerable semiotic work was evident in some of the contested proxemics of Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal worship that I observed particularly in the 1980s, but also into the 1990s. When some Word of Life supporters attended services at the established Pentecostal church in Uppsala, they would engage in a directly parallel ritual repertoire: tongues, raising of hands, private prayer, and so on, but with a force, loudness, speed, and intensity that echoed but also surpassed (and sometimes simply drowned out) those of other members of the congregation. Other Prosperity supporters, however, simply adopted classical Pentecostal norms of force and tone, appropriate to context.

In Sweden, especially in the last decades of the twentieth century, these attitudes could also take on much wider cultural and political resonances (Coleman 2000: 210–20): a form of brash Americanization in the eyes of critics, or a breaking out from staid, overly cautious, cramped attitudes toward worship and indeed life at large in the eyes of supporters. In common with their American counterparts, some Word of Lifers felt encouraged to start their own businesses, ranging from hot-dog stands to computer supplies to financial advice, on the grounds that blessings could extend into the worlds of work. Probably the most striking of these initiatives was a telephone sales firm, founded in the mid-1980s by a Word of Life member and staffed by fellow believers, where deploying persuasive rhetoric over the phone to clients was juxtaposed with bouts of speaking in tongues in the office (Coleman 2000: 192). Such actions indicated the links between exercising “overflow” and the adoption of risk taking as an orientation to various dimensions of one’s life, exposing oneself to potential ridicule from skeptics or financial embarrassment in business affairs, and yet remaining confident in the assumption of receiving God’s blessings, later if not sooner (compare Marti 2008).24 Risk taking could itself become indexical of the spiritual strength or current state of the person: believers might come to assess and indeed objectify their own trust in God [290]precisely by perceiving how much they would put in play at a given point. Thus the thinking might run (in a scenario that has often been mentioned to me by believers throughout all of my fieldwork): A person stands alone next to you at a bus-stop. Do you remain silent (in typical Swedish fashion) or do you engage them in conversation that will soon turn into witness? Any given day is full of such opportunities, and you can learn to identify them, but you must also choose to take advantage of them—to become, as one of my key informants, Pamela, has put it, a “fighter” for the faith, partaking of a God who “has no limitations” (Coleman 2003: 22–23). In making this point, Pamela is referring not only to her explicitly Christian abilities as a missionary, but also to her seemingly secular role in the telephone sales firm mentioned above.

What is less clear is the limit that might be put on such action, without contradicting the optimism of much Prosperity thinking: Where does human reason meet spiritual ambition in a way that satisfies both? At one point in the mid-1980s, Pastor Ekman had to tell Bible school students that they should stop going around to unwitting potential partners and saying that God had told them that they would get married to each other (compare Coleman 2000: 139). I found his statement striking for his public acknowledgment that not all “revelation-knowledge” from God (uppenbarelsekunskap) could be regarded as an unquestionable guide to action. More broadly, we see here something of the ambiguous character of such risk taking by students: its decidedly proleptic and subjunctive character, its confounding of future reality with present desire, challenging and indeed collapsing the temporal division between the two. To convert an idea/hope that one has into the definitive statement “God has told me that I will marry you” is an interesting variation on illocutionary language, where the wish for, and the performance of, action come together in ways that might at times be effective, but which are highly likely to cause unease in the listener. In Prosperity contexts, such unease is likely to be increased by mutual awareness of the power of language, combined with valorization of an ethic of reaching out. As Lambek has noted (2010: 18), certain ritual acts, such as making sacrifices or giving and receiving gifts, have the power to initiate (or cancel) particular ethical criteria, conditions, or states. In this Word of Life example, we see words, backed by the assertion of revelation, seeming to reframe the social conditions and spiritual stakes of an encounter between two people. We also observe, as Maussian anthropology indicates, the potentially agonistic quality of extending the self out to another. Borderlands can be uncomfortable places to inhabit and coconstruct.

From the perspective of the initiator of action, such evident risk taking is conceptualized and carried out through means that come close to positive thinking: acting as if one’s desires were already realized is seen as a way of obtaining one’s wishes (Coleman forthcoming). Believers may talk of thinking of themselves as already prosperous, even in circumstances where their situation “in the natural,” that is, viewed through secular eyes, appears to contradict such a view. This logic applies both to speech and to wider forms of embodied behavior, encapsulated in the notion of the “happy giver” (glad givare), where both externalization of materiality and outwardly expressed confidence increase the power of what is being done. Thus giving of money, time, or assistance should not be done grudgingly. Prosperity and the proleptic are united here, but so are two senses of “act” in Western [291]terms: both a perception of self-determined agency and a more theatrical dimension of “acting out,” forcing the self to adopt a pose of certainty in relation to outcomes as well as the gaze of others and, indeed, the self. A spiritual authenticity emerges through risks that demonstrate and simultaneously objectify commitment to the faith. This point was forcefully made to me in an intriguing way by Pamela (see above; Coleman 2003). She noted that she swiftly gained status at the Word of Life in the late 1980s through her ability to embody an outgoing attitude to others, expressing her qualities as a fearless communicator of the faith to believers and nonbelievers alike. At the same time, this very quality of expressing unfettered conviction, assumed to be a sign of spiritual authenticity, was also described by fellow believers as making her seem like an echo of a famous American preacher, Sandy Brown (ibid.: 23). Such mimesis (conscious or unconscious) of another person was not taken to be a challenge to Pamela’s authenticity but was interpreted instead as further proof of its existence.

The subjunctive collapsing of present and future in acting out certainty bears some comparison with Jane Guyer’s (2007) analysis of the “experiential horizon” of both monetarist and evangelical notions of time, where the near future is evacuated—perceived not only as a hiatus but also as unintelligible, and thus even morally dangerous (ibid.: 415). Word of Lifers often also see the present age as one where human action is carried out in the gap—of uncertain length—that remains until the very end of time, and yet I have tried to show how danger and risk are also cultivated in relation to the proximate future. Having said that, the interpretation of the success of such risk taking need not be subjected to secular criteria of judgement: it is considered that events do not necessarily appear “in the natural” world as quickly as they are registered as having occurred “in the supernatural” realm. This assumption of what we might see as subjunctive, or spiritual, success is itself a disposition that can be cultivated, and it is one that precisely encourages the cultivation of a proleptic orientation to life.

Prosperity as abundance and overflow clearly cannot be seen as embodied in any single Word of Life set of propositions or form of practice; but it can be seen as an ethical quality of action that includes a sense of “going beyond” at different scales of operation, deploying different forms of materiality not as mere consumption goods but as means of indexing spiritual status. In other work, I have developed this point extensively in relation to practices of donating money not only to the ministry but also to unknown others (e.g., Coleman 2004, 2011). Here, then, the spiritual and material are coconstitutive in ways not always understood by external commentators. Scale becomes important both as a measure of significance and because it implies a sense of translation and/or transaction across borders, moving from spirit to labor, from saved to unsaved, the local context to the distant mission field, and so on. It is no accident that highly significant institutional forms for the Word of Life have included not only its congregation, but also conferences and its international Bible school. These latter institutions are not merely gatherings where networks can be consolidated, collections taken up, and so on; they are also key sites for ethical practice, venues where publics are both made present and made to embody principles of scaling up and reaching out.

It is hardly surprising that Word of Lifers, especially in the early days of the group, were accused not only of reckless economic activity but also of attempting [292]to proselytize in inappropriate contexts, for instance supposedly trying to force faith healing on patients while working as medical staff in local hospitals (Coleman 2000: 112). What should also be emerging, however, is the often fragile, even fragmented, quality of the invocation of Prosperity discourse. To be sure, reaching out can become a habit, even almost a habitus (ibid.: 62), but it also involves an element of choice in the sense that it often calls upon believers to make a conscious decision to (re)frame their activity—and desire—in explicit terms to themselves and to others. In this way, the “total” confidence contained in Prosperity discourse may be combined with feelings of ambivalence at a personal level, which people in my experience have been far more willing to reveal after they have left the group.25 This is an ambivalence that perhaps inhabits the gap between Zigon’s unreflective mode of being-in-the-world and ethics as a tactic performed in moments of breakdown. Assuming proper exercise of spiritual agency involves constant engagement with, and exercising judgment in relation to, a wider landscape of action where circulation of words, objects, even bodily practices, forms part of the construction and reconstruction of an always potentially “amplified” self. From one perspective, we see here a form of personhood that seems well adapted to a religious ideology where the generic, fungible nature of the spirit part of the person allows him or her to engage with anonymous as well as known others. So what I am sketching out may be seen as a form of Prosperity-oriented self-disciplining that contains a striking combination of solipsism—the construction of a spiritual reality that is validated through personal ambition—alongside the need to reach out beyond the self in order to constitute effective faith. In choosing to reach out, the person is converting immanent desire into publicly recognizable action, often through the medium of language. It thus seems appropriate to draw brief parallels once more with Carrithers’ (2005: 442) notion of rhetoric culture, concerned as it is with the moves that people may make to move from the inchoate and the not-yet-grasped to both interpretation and planning, followed by action. Prosperity as proleptic action makes the move from idea to embodied claim on reality, and does so in numerous contexts, ranging from the church to the workplace to the possibly romantic encounter. In doing so, it throws current definitions of reality into doubt, encouraging an attitude that “seeds” reality with potential. Although such potential may not be realized in the immediate moment, that is not to say that it will not be realized in God’s time, or after the literally diabolical shackles of doubt and self-limitation have been removed.

Yet the point is also that the system cannot be seen as hermetically sealed in terms of its actual operation, no matter what its rhetorical orientation implies. While much Word of Life rhetoric is totalizing in its claim that reaching out reaches reliably into all areas of life, the apparently uncompromising language of much Prosperity discourse has not been accompanied by exclusivity of membership or practice: the ministry has some closed meetings and a good group of core supporters, to be sure, but much of the time it has been open to people of other theological persuasions, or none (Coleman 2000: 109). Certainly, when the group was emerging [293]in Uppsala in the 1980s, it was very common for regular visitors to maintain their membership in another congregation (Lutheran, Pentecostal, Methodist, etc.). In fact, when I first carried put fieldwork in Sweden, I found the level of surveillance of my personal conduct and social networks to be much more extensive in the local Pentecostal congregation than at the Word of Life: the moral density of the former was simply far greater than in the latter. Similarly, Jonathan Walton (2012: 109) juxtaposes the seeming theological consistency of the American Faith Movement with the creative interpretations and appropriations of it by the demographically and denominationally diverse believers whom he encounters at a conference. Here, perhaps, we see a further dimension of overflow, albeit not one that is articulated much in public by leaders: the fact that choice frequently involves opting out rather than in, that this apparently uncompromising variety of religious engagement is totalizing in self-presentation but deeply situational, temporally bound, in enactment. I think we also see some further dimensions of part-culture, including not only the sense that Prosperity’s powerful framing as ethics may depend on its optative quality, but also its capacity to ignore or absorb variations in practice—the fact that in the actual lives of believers it may frequently coexist with apparently incommensurable forms of Christian life. From a theological perspective, it possibly seems impossible to be both a mainstream Lutheran and a Word of Life supporter; but from a perspective where ethical frames may or may not be invoked at any given point, it is eminently feasible. Thus I think, for instance, of the elderly woman I first met in the Pentecostal church where she was a member, whom I also occasionally met at the Word of Life in the 1980s, and whose apartment, I discovered when invited over for lunch, was festooned with beautiful Orthodox icons. More broadly, I came to learn of the significance of the division of religious labor involved in participating in Word of Life services but retaining membership in other congregations, where the latter offered community but not the sheer energy and outward orientation that the new group embodied, as both my missionary informant and Pamela have illustrated in this article.

So what I have been describing is a stance, or rather a behavioral idiom rather than an all-encompassing habitus, that when appropriate involves an amplification or extension of the powers of the self—or even the creation of a persona that can be operationalized at certain points in one’s life. Some American believers seem very similar to their Swedish counterparts in this respect. Walton (2012: 127) refers to ways in which “the seeming clarity and coherence of the Word of Faith message provides the authoritative baseline from which persons ... can then appropriate, negotiate, and religiously interpret on their own terms.” It is as if the overflow can exceed the official, interpretive limits of the religious language itself. Walton (ibid.: 109) uses the metaphor of jazz to describe “an operative chord structure or repetitive rhythmic refrain within the Word of Faith Movement to which persons adhere,” even as “adherents strategically riff and creatively improvise within the system.” In my vocabulary, if Prosperity practices can form part-culture at the level of wider institutional structures, they can also frequently operate as part-time culture at the level of the individual adherent without necessarily creating dissonance.26 In [294]talking of the ethics of Prosperity, I am referring to situations where amplification and overflow can be enacted through the everyday practice of applying for a mortgage as much as through speaking in tongues; and where some participants at least are engaged in positively if not necessarily coherently piecing together a religious life. Thus to choose to enter the ethical realm, the temporal frame,27 of prosperity, of overflow, itself becomes part of an act of piety: it is to choose to cross the boundary into a kind of borderland that one is constantly making and remaking in contrast to other possible ways of perceiving and acting in relation to “reality.” In such circumstances, the repugnance of others is not only to be expected; it can become a sign that one has entered a powerful realm of Christian action and potential. After all, the Devil attacks those who threaten His realm.

Conclusions: Back to crap; or, the importance of (not always) being e(a)rnest

I began this article with a discussion of anthropology’s troubled relationship with Pentecostalism and conservative Protestantism in general, before moving on to an extended examination of Prosperity-inspired Word of Life enactments of “reaching out,” “self-amplification,” and “overflow” in numerous areas of life. My remarks have indicated some of the reasons why such Christians often appear so opposed to anthropological ethical practices and orientations. Other peoples, other cultures, other traditions, are acknowledged as believers are encouraged to raise their perspectives toward far as well as proximate horizons, but the result is not, from a cosmopolitan point of view, a widening of viewpoints so much as the invocation of Otherness as a semiotic and ideological catalyst for producing borderlands. The views available in the latter look within as much as without, and are consequently much concerned with particular forms of self-cultivation.

It may gladden the hearts of most anthropologists to know that conventional mission seems, at least in relation to its overt purpose, to be a deeply inefficient activity: almost nobody is ever converted by being approached in the street in Sweden. But from another perspective (not necessarily one shared by believers or anthropologists), such a conversionary stance must not be seen as only about [295]turning others to the faith: it also provides opportunities to delve into realms of positive risk and the subjunctive, the borderlands that are chronically produced and reproduced as part of the labor of exercising and constituting faith. The very— or mere—act of reaching out therefore provides its own kind of success.

There remain many reasons why some of us might, if we are secular, liberal anthropologists, still regard Prosperity Christians as rather crappy, and dangerous crappy at that. Nonetheless, if they want to produce nuanced ethnography or even effective activism, anthropologists should not let themselves be seduced into deploying the very language of totality and encompassment that such Christians use in making such statements, to echo the rhetoric of self-amplification with an equal and opposite reaction against the alleged homogeneity of the “opposition.” Ironically, such an approach would be to accede to the power of Pentecostal language, while also deploying an older anthropological language of encompassing whole peoples within notions of a single “culture.” And in another irony, my argument says something about borders that, again, neither the opponents nor the proponents of Prosperity Christianity in Sweden or elsewhere will like very much. For if we are to see such Prosperity as made up in part of complex but fragmented overflow, a partly opportunistic piety and part-culture that is deeply adaptable to circumstance at different scales, we are also suggesting that to talk in one-dimensional or constant terms of belief will not suffice. In “Convicted by the Holy Spirit” (1987: 178), Harding talks of the “membrane” that separates belief from unbelief, and of how she is nearly seduced by proselytizing language to cross from one to the other. But I am not convinced that such a membrane exists in any obvious or stable way for the people I study. I therefore prefer the other metaphor that she uses, that of coming under conviction as standing in the “gaps” that open up in the ordinary world, helping to constitute a paradoxical state of overlap between engagement and skepticism, and thus revealing the kind of space where ethnography can locate itself. The borderlands that believers inhabit are plural, they are patchy, and they come in and out of focus, sometimes within one’s control, and sometimes not. There is no single way in to the borderlands of Prosperity, and there is no single way to remain there. If such neo-Pentecostal culture is partial, it is also in a sense playful: there is much humor in its practice, but as we have seen there is much exercise of the proleptic, the subjunctive, the exploration of the “what if.” For many believers, there is movement in and out of explicitly articulated Prosperity frames of perceiving and acting on the world. Dogmatism thus becomes one discursive practice alongside others. There is also evidence of experimentation with radically other uses of other language, other vocabularies, for instance as believers move from the church to the university seminar. Thus while Word of Lifers have been encouraged to read Ernest Gellner (1983) on nationalism, I wonder whether they would also recognize themselves in his Postmodernism, reason and religion (1992), his staging of a “trialogue” between advocates of the Enlightenment, of fundamentalism, and of the latest forms of relativism. If so, I suspect they might have difficulty identifying themselves only with the so-called fundamentalists of Gellner’s text: in practice they share with the relativists a strong sense of the coexistence of numerous worldviews, and the experience of moving between different frameworks of understanding even in the chronic attempt to place a Prosperity frame on their actions. I am therefore reminded not only of “Ernest” the person but also of discussions in this [296]collection of the quality of earnestness per se, and Lambek’s suggestive exploration in his article here of typological differences between earnest and ironic traditions. In Lambek’s terms, the former seek to reach agreement, consistency, certainty, and truth, whereas the latter emphasize contingency, multiplicity, discontinuity, and movement. The temptation is to see the Word of Life as the epitome of earnestness, and in doing so we would also contribute to the remaking of a boundary between anthropology and one of its primary, repugnant Others. I am asking for a little more irony over our own positioning. As anthropologists, we should not let the earnestness and seriousness of our ethical stances cause us to fail to acknowledge the particular qualities of irony and play in practices of Prosperity. Borderlands can be confusing, if productive, places in which to dwell, and in which to make ourselves.

I therefore finish this article by briefly juxtaposing some final forms of irony: both evangelical and anthropological. If we see irony (in its manifold varieties) as involving implicit comparisons with other performances and possibilities (Carrithers 2014), or as an exploration (and cultivation?) of nonfixity through perceiving the disparities between different versions of the world (Fernandez and Huber 2001: 3–4), then it emerges as a significant dimension of the ethical practices of both believers and their scholarly observers. In the very act of framing the world through the subjunctive and self-consciously expansive discourse of Prosperity, religious practitioners explore the temporal and perceptual gap between the “is” and the “as if ” (one that is parallel to, but not quite the same as, that between the “is” and the “ought”). Part of the anthropological challenge then becomes not only to locate such evangelical practices within our own comparative frameworks, but also to understand how what looks like an all-encompassing and monotonal approach to the world is anything but, and indeed persists through, not despite of, its very flexibility and even fragmentation. This is not to say that such an assertion resolves my initial question concerning the anthropologist as activist versus the scholar concerned to deconstruct totalizing oppositions. It is, however, to suggest that our responses in both modalities are unlikely to be effective unless they acknowledge the ethical polytonality of much Pentecostalism, its ability to work at different temporal and cultural registers as it not only attempts to convert the world to an alternative system of values, but also applies the proleptic to already existing believers.

Naturally, we might apply such conceptual charity, if that is what it is, to ourselves. How do I know that the speaker who asked me why I was studying such crap was not being playfully ironic? I cannot be absolutely sure. But I can at least hope that his remark has been productive as a catalyst for exploring the borderlands of, and between, the worlds of both anthropology and Pentecostalism.


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Zones frontalières: éthique, ethnographie, et ’répugnant’ christianisme

Résumé : J’explore la relation tourmentée de l’anthropologie avec le christianisme conservateur, représenté ici par le pentecôtisme partisan d’une théologie de la prospérité. Je m’intéresse non seulement aux frontières complexes érigées entre une pratique des sciences sociales et une pratique religieuse, mais également aux manières dont ces dernières comprennent aussi des orientations éthiques face au [300]monde qui se constituent par des changements de perspective renouvelés, et donc soutenues par des positions éthiques changeantes. Une implication de mon raisonnement est que nous devons considérer avec plus d’attention la temporalité des positions éthiques concernant l’action. Une autre implication est la nécessité, pour l’anthropologie, de prendre en compte le caractère fragmenté, et même ironique et ludique, des pratiques pentecôtistes.

Simon COLEMAN is Chancellor Jackman Professor at the Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto. Previously, he was Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sussex. He has carried out fieldwork in Sweden, England, and Nigeria, and works on both charismatic Christianity and pilgrimage. He has been editor of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and is coeditor of Religion and Society: Advances in Research, as well as series editor of Ashgate Studies in Pilgrimage. Books include The globalisation of Charismatic Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 2000) and The anthropology of global Pentecostalism and evangelicalism (edited with Rosalind Hackett, New York University Press, 2015).

Simon Coleman
Department for the Study of Religion
Jackman Humanities Building, Rm. 333
170 St. George St.
University of Toronto
Ontario M5R 2M8 Canada


1. With thanks for the comments from those who attended the “Speaking Ethically Across Borders” workshop at which this article was originally delivered, including my discussant Richard Irvine. Special thanks also to the editors of this collection and to anonymous reviewers for their helpful and astute comments on an earlier draft. I am grateful to St. John’s College, Cambridge, for hosting and funding my attendance at the workshop.

2. This question was given extra piquancy in the local academic context by the lively debate that was occurring in the Uppsala Cultural Anthropology Department in the 1980s as to whether fieldwork “at home” was legitimate.

3. I discuss this disciplinary stance in relation to the ethics of carrying out “participatory” fieldwork in Coleman (2008).

4. For a discussion of foregrounding and backgrounding in relation to religious engagement, see the articles in the special issue of Ethnos “Foregrounds and backgrounds: Ventures in the anthropology of Christianity,” edited by Bandak and Jørgensen (2012). This concern with the productive dimension of (often shifting) boundaries links well with the themes of Paolo Heywood’s article in this collection.

5. Of course, it can be argued that attitudes toward the study of evangelicalism have shifted over the past two to three decades, gaining nuance as more anthropologists have entered this subfield (Coleman and Hackett 2015). Recent articles that challenge the anthropological–evangelical divide—while thereby indicating that it still exists—have been provided by B. Howell (2007) and Meneses et al. (2014). Crapanzano (2000: 83) presents an intriguingly ambivalent attitude: while indicating that the literalism of Christian “fundamentalists” is in fact endemic within American culture as whole, he also reports his extreme aversion to being subject to missionizing discourse during fieldwork.

6. I consider the use of Gellner’s work at the Word of Life, as well as reflecting in more detail on the implications of his work for the study of evangelicals, throughout Coleman (2008).

7. Though, as James Faubion notes (2014: 438), both he and Laidlaw seek to find a balance between assuming unfreedom, on the one hand, and an implausible assumption of fully realized autonomy, on the other.

8. But see, for example, Fassin’s (2014: 430) assertion of the need for a more nuanced approach to Durkheim, and one that demonstrates that duty does not exhaust morality (see also S. Howell 1997: 7).

9. We need, of course, to bear in mind that piety in, say, Muslim and Pentecostal contexts will have different associations. In the latter case, it introduces links with the Methodist roots of Pentecostalism. For my purposes, piety implies the personally directed exercises of Pentecostaland Prosperity-oriented practice, which, as we shall see, must be regarded as forms of self-discipline/cultivation but also a more playful sense of exploration.

10. Lempert (2013: 376) also discusses two major approaches to the contemporary anthropology of morality: the neo-Aristotelian or Foucauldian approach, which regards ethics as embodied in practice; and a more Kantian view of ethics as acts of standing apart from the world.

11. Though I do not have space to develop the point here, we might consider parallels between moral infractions and discourses of the miraculous as means of encouraging reflexivity (see also Clarke 2014 on a Sufi example).

12. There are echoes here of Fassin’s discussion (2014: 432; see also Laidlaw 2014: 60) of how concepts of agency may incorporate analysts’ views of the appropriate use of freedom (i.e., the pursuit of “real” interests) into their very definition. We might also compare Marshall’s remarks with critiques of the political economy approach to examining culture and difference, as documented by the editors in their introduction to this collection.

13. I confess that I remain unclear as to what might be meant by the phrase an “irreducible element of faith.” But in saying so, in Marshall’s terms, I perhaps betray my own irreducibly social scientific sensibility.

14. Thus, note the shifting analytical location of “the local” in this section. At times, Pentecostalism is constructed by scholars as an example of global, or at least transnational, culture in relation to more established, traditional ways of life. At other times, Pentecostalism is regarded as part of the local cultural ecology, which is being analyzed by an external agent—otherwise known as the anthropologist.

15. Despite the fact that, even now, the Word of Life congregation only has around 2,500– 3,000 members. Coleman (1989) includes a survey of national press reactions to the Word of Life in the 1980s, indicating that the most frequent themes revolved around the alleged psychological instability caused by membership and the targeting of the young, but also broader accusations such as presenting a rightwing (American) political agenda under a religious guise, and poaching members from other congregations.

16. My translation.

17. For a list of theories concerning Palme’s death, including the possibility that the Word of Life was somehow to blame, see, for instance, https://minalistor.wordpress.com/1999/12/12/lista-over-tidernas-skonaste-teorierkring-mordet-pa-olof-palme/ (last accessed September 24, 2015).

18. See, for instance, http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2014/08/13/how-i-moved-frommy-megachurch-to-catholicism/ (last accessed, September 24, 2015).

19. Examples of such opposition included Bjuvsjö et al. (1984) and Nilsson (1988).

20. Överflöd. This is translatable as both “overflow” and “abundance.”

21. Bible school students at the Word of Life were instructed, for instance, to read a core text by the American preacher Kenneth Copeland on this topic, and then to start putting the so-called laws of prosperity into practice in their lives in Swedish Överflödets lagar (1985; translatable literally, if unidiomatically, as “The Laws of Abundance/Overflow”) and published by the foundation itself. The English title for the book is in fact The laws of prosperity, so that the local version published by the Word of Life has a very slightly different connotation—more directly a sense of going beyond boundaries (see Coleman forthcoming).

22. A good illustration of the link between missionary expansion and personal empowerment is provided by the young convert Anders, who described his involvement in a minifellowship within the Word of Life in the 1980s thus: “I got to hear that our group... was viewed by the congregation leadership as pioneers who would save Uppsala first, and then Sweden and then the whole world. My sister’s circle wasn’t regarded at all in the same way and it really boosted my ego to be picked out” (Coleman 2000: 111).

23. As one reviewer of this article has remarked, the “Other focus” inherent in proselytizing groups may provide food for comparative thought across the “Abrahamic tradition” in general.

24. Numerous explanations for delays in success are available, ranging from one’s own lack of confidence to the actions of the Devil, to the fact that success has indeed occurred in the divine realm, but not yet in the “natural” one.

25. Thus Coleman (2000: 182-3) includes an analysis of the sometimes traumatic experiences of those who leave the Word of Life, and often feel caught between admiration of the ministry’s energy and exhaustion at the effort required in maintaining a Prosperity outlook on life.

26. Compare Lempert (2013: 387) on the important of the temporality, and not just the location, of ethical consciousness.

27. Compare my argument here with Stephen Collier and Andrew Lakoff ’s (2005: 23, 31–2) discussion of “regimes of living,” or situated forms of moral reasoning, where configurations of normative, technical, and political elements are brought into “alignment” in problematic or uncertain situations, and oriented toward a specific understanding of the good. Thus (to paraphrase them closely) they discuss Weber’s description of Benjamin Franklin’s ethic of self-conduct, organized around accumulating rather than consuming capital. The ethic describes norms of action that can be deployed in a wide variety of circumstances, and which are ethical not only in the sense of being morally correct, but also in suggesting techniques for working on and constituting the self as a certain kind of subject. Furthermore, in parallel with my argument, an important quality of regimes of living is a capacity for extension, so that they can be flexibly invoked by actors in problematic or uncertain situations—such as situations characterized by a gap between the real and the ideal. However, Prosperity, in my terms, emphasizes “overflow” rather than “accumulation” (see also Campbell 1987).