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Spirits and Letters

Spirits and Letters: Reading, Writing and Charisma in African Christianity

Thomas G. Kirsch
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: NED - New edition, 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Spirits and Letters
    Book Description:

    Studies of religion have a tendency to conceptualise 'the Spirit' and 'the Letter' as mutually exclusive and intrinsically antagonistic. However, the history of religions abounds in cases where charismatic leaders deliberately refer to and make use of writings. This book challenges prevailing scholarly notions of the relationship between 'charisma' and 'institution' by analysing reading and writing practices in contemporary Christianity. Taking up the continuing anthropological interest in Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity, and representing the first book-length treatment of literacy practices among African Christians, this volume explores how church leaders in Zambia refer to the Bible and other religious literature, and how they organise a church bureaucracy in the Pentecostal-charismatic mode. Thus, by examining social processes and conflicts that revolve around the conjunction of Pentecostal-charismatic and literacy practices in Africa, Spirits and Letters reconsiders influential conceptual dichotomies in the social sciences and the humanities and is therefore of interest not only to anthropologists but also to scholars working in the fields of African studies, religious studies, and the sociology of religion.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-010-4
    Subjects: Anthropology, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. x-x)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xi)
  5. Notes on Language
    (pp. xii-xii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-30)

    It had already got dark when the senior leaders of the Spirit Apostolic Church assembled at a fireplace outside the ceremonial grounds. Even though the Good Friday services were not yet finished, the leaders wanted to draw up an administrative schedule for the coming year. The General Secretary put a rough-hewn table near the fire and took a pen, a school exercise book and a ruler to the table. As if they were in an office, the other senior leaders took seats opposite him. In the background choir hymns alternating with sermons and periods of communal dancing could be heard...


    • Chapter 1 Colonial Literacies
      (pp. 33-52)

      The role of literacy in Western colonial projects in Africa can hardly be overestimated. For the missionaries, the Bible simultaneously represented the divine assignment for evangelization, the essential script for proselytism, a means for its enactment and the pivotal symbol of self-representation. As metaphor and practice, religious literacy thus often represented the sine qua non for converting ‘pagans’ and transforming them into what the missionaries considered to be divinely ordained subjectivities. The colonial administration, on the other hand, was striving to regulate and control the colonized by entangling them in a network of passes, statistics and files. Theirs represented an...

    • Chapter 2 Passages, Configurations, Traces
      (pp. 53-70)

      The area in which I conducted my ethnographic fieldwork, namely the Gwembe Valley and the adjacent Central African Plateau in the Southern Province of Zambia, has been extraordinarily well covered by the longitudinal studies of the Gwembe Valley Research Project (in particular by Elizabeth Colson and Thayer Scudder), the main exception being African Christianity. In now laying the groundwork for the subsequent analysis of literacy practices among African Christians by sketching out the general ethnographic setting of my research, I shall draw on their findings. But I shall also adopt an approach that takes the biographical narrative of one of...

    • Chapter 3 Schooled Literacy, Schooled Religion
      (pp. 71-82)

      In her article ‘Literacy and Schooling: An Unchanging Equation?’ Jenny Cook-Gumperz (1986) retraces the relationship between literacy and formal school education in Western societies. She demonstrates that although ‘school’ and ‘literacy’ nowadays appear as inseparably interlinked, this association is actually a relatively recent phenomenon with an astonishing temporal sequence:

      the shift from the eighteenth century onwards has not been from total illiteracy to literacy, but from a hard-to-estimate multiplicity of literacies, apluralisticidea about literacy as a composite of different skills related to reading and writing for many different purposes and sections of a society’s population, to a twentieth-century...


    • Chapter 4 Literate Cultures in a Material World
      (pp. 85-94)

      Whenever Sepiso opened his Bible during a service at his church, a slight smell of gasoline spread throughout the building. Almost two years before he had been travelling to a church meeting on the crowded back of a lorry, where he was forced to crouch near a leaking barrel of diesel. Since then, his Bible resembled a palimpsest: it was so thoroughly soaked with gasoline that its pages were almost transparent; the letters of any particular page intermingling intimately with those of the succeeding pages. The Bible of Patias, on the other hand, had lost its rectangular trim size. He...

    • Chapter 5 Indices to the Scriptural
      (pp. 95-104)

      Churchgoers are widely described as ‘book people’ in sub-Saharan Africa, an allusion to the central role of the Bible for Christian identity and self-representation. The present chapter deals with two dimensions of such identificatory and emblematic uses of the Scripture. First, in dealing with the question of how the Bible formed part of oral discourses in my area of research, I shall demonstrate that quotations of biblical phrases served the formation of religious group identities by providing not only a mutually shared language, but also a means for covering up disagreements and avoiding (possibly dangerous) frank talk where, for example,...

    • Chapter 6 The Fringes of Christianity
      (pp. 105-116)

      During the Pentecost meeting of the Spirit Apostolic Church in the Gwembe Valley in May 2001, Rabson and his wife Derina were receiving patients to be healed in a shelter near the ceremonial grounds. Attending one of those patients while a church service was going on right beside her, Derina started to speak in tongues. After calming down she explained what causes of affliction had been revealed to her while she had been possessed by the Holy Spirit. The patient and her accompanying relatives were easily convinced, as it turned out maybe too easily, because upon leaving they declared: ‘Your...

    • Chapter 7 Thoughts about ‘Religions of the Book’
      (pp. 117-122)

      The preceding chapter dealt with several aspects of literacy practices in a pluralistic religious field that is characterized by, first, a great variety of different religious experts who all relate to the Bible; and secondly, divergent definitions of what it means to make religiously adequate use of it. In view of this complex situation, what is involved when we talk about Christianity as a ‘religion of the book’? What is the relationship between the status of the Scriptures as a sacred text and literacy practices? In what follows, therefore, I attempt to outline some analytical questions and conceptual frameworks that...


    • Chapter 8 Texts, Readers, Spirit
      (pp. 125-136)

      As we have seen in Chapter 2, Western Protestant missionaries in southern Africa had regarded literacy as promoting ‘the ascendance of the reflective, inner-directed self’ (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991:63). As regards literacy, this self was conceived as resulting from dyadic interactions between readers and texts. Yet, what has also become clear is that many churchgoers in southern Zambia took it for granted that their activities could at times be supported or controlled by an agency beyond their personal human faculties, namely the Holy Spirit (muya usalala). This chapter thus sets out to examine reading practices among members of Pentecostal-charismatic churches...

    • Chapter 9 Evanescence and the Necessity of Intermediation
      (pp. 137-144)

      In most Pentecostal-charismatic churches, there were just a small number of Bibles available. This undoubtedly had to do with the fact that many participants could not afford to buy their own copy of the Scriptures. What is surprising at first glance, however, is that those churchgoers who might have been able to afford to buy a Bible often chose to spend spare cash on other items, and not always those required by the material needs of their subsistence economy. Such investment preferences might well be interpreted as indicating a lack of commitment on the part of these particular churchgoers. However,...

    • Chapter 10 Setting Texts in Motion
      (pp. 145-154)

      In his bookBeyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion, William Graham cautions that we should not ignore the ‘prominent but rarely emphasized oral function – in ritual, reading, recitation, devotions, and song – of all religious texts’ (1987: 5; see also Coward 1988). This perspective is pivotal in the present case, since it shifts the focus in studies of ‘religions of the book’ from an emphasis on hermeneutics and religious doctrines to performativity and the experiential dimensions of textual reception. At the same time, however, the emphasis on the ‘oral dimension of the written scriptural...

    • Chapter 11 Missions in Writing
      (pp. 155-168)

      Exploiting the potential of the newly invented printing press, the Protestant reformation movements of the sixteenth century set new standards for Christianity as a ‘religion of the book’. According to Elizabeth Eisenstein, the symbiosis of religious agencies, discourses and printed matter not only enhanced a hitherto unknown spatial spread of religious ideas, it also created novel organizational forms that revolved around the production, distribution and consumption of an everincreasing output of typographical letters. ‘Within a few generations’, Eisenstein points out, ‘the gap between Protestant and Catholic had widened sufficiently to give rise to contrasting literary cultures and lifestyles’ (1979:312; see...

    • Chapter 12 Enablements to Literacy
      (pp. 169-180)

      As has become clear in the preceding chapters, the difference between Africaninitiated Pentecostal-charismatic churches, as discussed using the example of the Spirit Apostolic Church, and churches with headquarters in a Western country, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the New Apostolic Church (Neuapostolische Kirche), is not a difference between churches in which writings are used and those in which they are absent: it is not, in other words, a contrast between ‘literate’ and ‘oral’ cultures. Instead, both types of church have in common the fact that they make objects of writing a quintessential component in chains of socio-religious interaction that...


    • Chapter 13 Offices and the Dispersion of Charisma
      (pp. 183-200)

      In my area of research, churches of all types engaged in some sort of organizational writing, through which the particular religious practice was more or less planned, administered, monitored and, in some cases, linked to a wider denominational framework. The importance attributed to such writing practices was connected with specific model conceptions of how churches should be organized. In contrast to ‘traditional’ herbalists and possession cults, churches (bachikombelo) were generally perceived to require a formal organizational structure that, according to my interlocutors, had to be specified in written form and in the English language. Thus, all churches had formally defined...

    • Chapter 14 Positions of Writers, Positions in Writings
      (pp. 201-212)

      In his bookDiscipline and Punish(1977), Michel Foucault attributes to ‘writing’ a crucial role in the interrelated processes of producing knowledge, exerting disciplinary power and subjectification. Referring to a number of different relationships in European history, like priest–confessor and doctor–patient, he highlights how surveillance, normalizing judgement and examination brought about the subjugation and inscription of ‘subjects’ into existing power relations. This inscription, according to Foucault, was bound to particular literacy practices:

      The examination that places individuals in a field of surveillance also situates them ina network of writing; it engages them in a wholemass of...

    • Chapter 15 Outlines for the Future, Documents of the Immediate
      (pp. 213-226)

      The word ‘organization’, it has been argued, ‘is a noun and it is also a myth. If one looks for an organization one will not find it. What will be found is that there are events, linked together, … and these sequences, their pathways, their timing, are the forms we erroneously make into substances when we talk about an organization’ (Weick 1979:358). While having in the preceding chapter addressed Pentecostal-charismatic attempts to establish bureaucratic inscriptions of socio-religious positions and hierarchies, this chapter takes up Karl Weick’s emphasis on the processual character of organizing practices. Dealing with the bureaucratic coordination of...

    • Chapter 16 Bureaucracy In-between
      (pp. 227-242)

      In the preceding chapters, various dimensions of writing practices that took the form of a ‘bureaucracy in the Pentecostal-charismatic mode’ were analysed. Building on these findings, this chapter examines the role of bureaucracy, first in relation to the organizational structure of the Spirit Apostolic Church, and secondly with regard to the church–state relationship. I shall argue that bureaucracy here served as both an internal and an external ‘facade’, which actually enabled Pentecostal-charismatic practices, rather than constrained them.

      As we have seen, the attempts by senior church leaders to restore their authority in 1999 and stabilize the Spirit Apostolic Church...

    • Chapter 17 Epilogue
      (pp. 243-246)

      Johannes Fabian once noted that, by the mid-1990s, ‘a generation of anthropologists [had] emerged which could no longer maintain the illusion of clear distinctions between literate and illiterate societies even if they wanted to. Almost all ethnographers … now face people-writers: “natives” who use literacy for their own projects of survival’ (1993: 84). The present book started with the observation that – surprisingly, and despite the insights above–situated literacy practices in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa have hitherto only rarely been made the object of anthropological investigation. The book therefore attempted to fill this gap by examining reading and writing practices among...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 247-266)
  12. Index
    (pp. 267-274)