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The materiality and immateriality of religious movements in the Pacific


Christiane Falck, Fraser Macdonald

Session presentation

The religious landscape in the Pacific has importantly been shaped by religious movements. These have not only molded people’s theological and ideological visions and moral perspectives, but also impacted their material aspirations and material culture. Absorbing and mixing both material and immaterial imported and local cultural elements, religious movements in the Pacific have created new cultural forms. In our panel, we want to explore the dynamics between the materiality and immateriality of introduced and local cultures in religious movements and the role they play as drivers in religious change and cultural innovation in the Pacific. Possible themes and questions that can be explored (but not limited to the following suggestions) are: How are religious movements in the Pacific interconnected through (im)materiality and what role does (im)materiality play in their formation, mediation and diffusion, e.g. institutional networks, moving charismatic bodies, new technologies and media? What (im)materiality do they cultivate, innovate, or spread, e.g. (ethno)theologies and other ‘ideoscapes’, material culture, music, and other new cultural forms? How are the movements shaped by theologies and ideologies and how do the movements shape them? How are religious movements connected to wider changes in society? Are they intrinsically political? How does (im)materiality inform and become part of their devotional practices, religious aspirations and imaginations, e.g. processions/crusades, prayer meetings, ideas of salvation, heaven and hell? How do religious movements mark an acceleration or intensification of spiritual forces?

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

Mending “divided subjects”: Universalism and secularity in Tahiti

Guillaume Aleveque (EHESS - Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales)

Christianity, by casting itself as a rupture and a foundation often urged converts to make a complete break with the past. According to Robbins, this phenomenon and its consequences, observed in many times and places, engenders “divided subjects” who see themselves as incomplete Christians drawn to sin by their pagan heritage.
In the Society islands, this phenomenon has been a core dynamic of Christianity since the evangelization in the early 19th century. Yet, in recent years, remembering and perpetuating the very past that needed to be cast away, has gradually become essential to define belonging and cultural heritage.
I propose to expand on Robbins' discussion about the way faith, the self and the past are thought of in relation to each other. However, I will reverse the focus by questioning this relationship between them, not from the perspective of a Church, but through the study of a Tahitian revitalization movement that attempts to combat westernization by reawakening the culture thanks to the prechristian ancestral deities invoked in their rituals. The analysis of this movement allows us to understand how innovative ritualisation can be exploited to challenge the duality between secularism and religiosity in contemporary societies, especially regarding the way people determine how to affect the immaterial that affects them, such as culture or the past.

When God really came to Ahamb: Materiality and Persuasion in Vanuatu

Tom Bratrud (University of Oslo)

Ahamb Island is a Christian centre in South Malekula in Vanuatu. However, the island also has a reputation for enduring land disputes and sorcery which locally are signs of dissolving Christianity and moral decay. In 2014, a Christian revival movement developed on Ahamb fuelled by islanders’ hope that their problems could be solved with help from the Holy Spirit. The revival was characterized by about 30 children and adults who on a daily basis over a period of nine months fainted in the Holy Spirit’s power and conveyed visions and messages from the Spirit to the community on how to live. These bodily reactions, together with findings of hidden sorcery objects, were seen as evidence that God had really come to Ahamb. In the paper, I discuss how Ahamb people – through these material expressions of cosmological capacity – found ‘evidence’ for the existence of immaterial powers that they previously could only imagine. I suggest that this persuasion must be seen in relation to Rachel Smith’s notion of the ‘porous’ view of self and mind in Vanuatu, where knowledge, meaning and intention is often found to be discoverable through the body rather than inner domains.

Building the world of God in hierarchized lands: concrete uses in churches and graves in the Banks Islands, Vanuatu.

Marie Durand (Université de Strasbourg)

In the Melanesian archipelago of Vanuatu, building materials and the social and temporal relationships with places (ples in the Bislama language) that they entail have been singular material sites for the expression of complex relationships to a hierarchized landscape. To materially anchor the actions of the mission in new attended territories equally appears as a first necessity for the missionaries from the Melanesian Mission who gradually settled in the Banks Islands from the mid-nineteenth century. Concrete, as a material allowing churches and graves to be more durable has especially been an agent enabling missionaries and converts to assert their social and political presence in the land. They did so by actively playing upon the vernacular socio-cultural meanings of building techniques.
Drawing upon an archival research that has been informed by previous ethnographical fieldwork conducted in the area, this paper will show that the socio-cultural meanings of these building techniques were not separable from the peculiar qualities of the materials employed for the constructions. It will argue that concrete was for the missionaries a potent agent, because it appeared as both a foreign and a local material. In turn, closely looking at concrete churches and graves fabrications allows to elaborate on some of the complex webs of transformations of the social and political landscapes that came with Christian conversion in this area of Vanuatu.

The Power of Things in a Catholic Charismatic Movement at Lake Chambri, Papua New Guinea

Christiane Falck (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)

Discussions of material things in religious movements in the Pacific have predominantly applied symbolism and poststructuralism as analytical lenses and look at things as material signs or material disciplines. In my paper I seek to explore whether the ontological turn offers a perspective from which material things themselves and the role they play in religious change come into sharper focus. Taking inspiration from the New Materialism and New Animism literature, I discuss how a religious movement in the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea happens materially. I analyze the power of things to direct the actions and shape the belief of members of a Catholic charismatic movement called the Thomas Souls Ministry. Things not only feature centrally in the religious movement’s ambitions, but play a vital role in its practices. Emanating from the premise that human and nonhumans assemble in historically and sensuously idiosyncratic ways, I argue that material things are constitutive and generative of religious reality and practice in the Sepik. In fact, the material and immaterial dimensions of religion are not distinct fields of experience, knowledge and practice but co-constitutively intertwined. Focusing on the ways that bodies, rosaries and mobile phones have become part of Catholic charismatic practice and ethno-theology, I suggest that materiality is an important part of religious aspiration and practice and drives religious change.

Creating Presence across Borders: Devotions to Papua New Guinea’s Blessed Peter To Rot in the Australian diaspora.

Anna-Karina Hermkens (Macquarie University)

This paper engages with politics of ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ in the context of religious transnationalism. It looks at how migrants from Papua New Guinea (PNG) are ‘relocating’ PNG Catholic shrines and ritual celebrations to Australia in order to celebrate their National Patron Saint, the Blessed Peter To Rot. In relocating rituals, regalia and images associated with Peter To Rot, migrants generate ‘belonging’, as well as new connections and communities, fostered through the circulation of specific material religion, such as soil from Peter To Rot’s empty grave and water from a nearby cave. The paper will address how these materialities and associated rituals are meant to convey and mobilise the Blessed Peter To Rot’s presence and intervention, while his human remains are still in PNG, and hence, absent in the diaspora. At the same time, this paper shows how customary notions, practices and materialities are conflated with Catholic ones, often much to the disapproval of Catholic clergy and the Catholic Church in general, while Catholic practices contradict and cause tensions with local customary ideas about the treatment of human remains.

(in absentia:) Im/material dimensions of historicity: Linking sound documents and historical representations of a religious movement in Kiribati

Wolfgang Kempf (University of Goettingen)

In this paper I explore the historical connections between a sequence of songs and dance chants about the rebuilding of a Protestant church and a previous religious movement. This sequence of seven audio documents is taken from a tape collection put together by the anthropologist Gerd Koch and his wife between 1963 and 1964 in the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati). Brought back to the attention of some I-Kiribati interlocutors as part of a current research project, the selected recordings from the island of Onotoa evoked in the listeners a wide range of emotions, memories and historical knowledge. In particular, the place, church, and name of the composer were associated with a religious movement from the 1930s whose history continues to have negative connotations today. My analytical interest focuses first on Onotoans' agency and anticipation in the process of assembling the tape recordings in the 1960s. I then examine the contemporary discursive linkages of sound documents and historical narratives about church building and religious movement by some I-Kiribati interlocutors. Finally, this ethnography of historicity is related to archival representations of the millenarian movement from the colonial period. I argue that the analysis of these temporally different, heterogeneous assemblages of im/material components (such as people, places, buildings, signs, dreams, sounds) and their distributive efficacy makes a significant contribution to the understanding of historicity.

(in absentia:) Religious Rhizomes: Charismatic Revival as Intensive Assemblage

Fraser Macdonald (Waikato University)

This paper argues that charismatic revival, that is, the sudden, prolonged eruption of ecstatic Christian phenomena like tongue speaking, healing, deliverance from demonic evil, prophetic visions, trembling, and so forth, embodies the Deleuzian-Guattarian ontology of intensive assemblages. Drawing on a variety of concepts found within Deleuze and Guattari's work, especially A Thousand Plateaus, I show that revival is a form of actuality that exists in a 'far-from-equilibrium' crisis state that dwells at or near the threshold across which virtual intensities and difference emerge into the material world. Bodies within revival are transversed by forces that explode mundane coordinates, the movements that erupt exhibit high degrees of internal heterogeneity and are invariably elements of much larger regional becomings, and their molecular dynamics unfix and recode a range of cultural materials. Through offering such an analysis, the paper's broader goal is to continue to work towards a rigorous theorisation of what 'revival' really means within the wider field of Pentecostalism.

Win Neisen 2020: Transformations of historicity in the Paliau Movement

Ton Otto (Aarhus University)

Win Neisen is the latest manifestation of what is widely known as the Paliau Movement in Manus, PNG (see Mead, Schwartz and Smith, Otto, and others). In this paper I will present material from my latest fieldwork on this movement, just before the start of the Covid19 pandemic in 2020. The Paliau Movement has morphed through various manifestations since its start in 1946 and has had periods of greater and less religious fervour and greater and less political impact. In this paper I suggest that a focus on changing regimes of historicity (a concept I borrow from François Hartog but adapt to my own purposes) may be helpful to understand changing forms of agency and future expectations at different stages of the Movement. I aim to connect this to wider and changing contexts, that have led to crises in the understanding of time and the experience of temporality.
During my last visit, the Movement was clearly in a state of crisis and paralysis due to the death of its most influential leaders. Nevertheless, there was continuing religious debate and a fierce struggle for leadership. I will focus my analysis on the co-existence of different temporalities (‘physical’ versus ‘spiritual’), the building of a temple (freedom house) that contains the chair of King David, the role of business in all this, and how this material intervention should initiate the unification of the living and the dead, and thus the integration of physical and spiritual time.

The materiality of religious experience in the Karawari region of Papua New Guinea

Borut Telban (Research Centre of Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts)

Several recent studies in the field of material religion emphasize that in many societies around the world, especially pre-modern ones, there is no opposition between transcendence and immanence, concept and thing, nor between spirit and matter. This refers not only to the emplacement of religion or to material objects such as statues or shrines, but also to people's experiences in their encounters and relationships with divine beings. For the Karawari-speaking Ambonwari, matter without spirit is incomplete, empty, or dead matter, and spirit without matter is an unfulfilled, unrealized, or unsettled spirit. While there is a dualistic interpretation of the world, for example in modern objective science or the Christian abstraction of the spiritual from the material, this is not the case with the Ambonwari and their religious movements. For the Ambonwari and the entire region, the materiality of religious experience became the main impetus for the decades-long involvement of people in the Catholic Charismatic Movement and other movements.

Moses in Melanesia: Mystery and Theology in Anthropology

Jaap Timmer (Macquarie University)

In recent discussions on the relationship between theology and anthropology there has been a lack of clarity over how theology articulates with religio-political movements and their mystical elements. To address that lack of engagement with political formation I propose a redemption of political theology for the anthropology of religion based on a case study from Melanesia. In that region, several religio-political movements in civil society advocate for a new Christian constitution. These movements are inspired by a theological understanding of state and nation, according to which Christ is regarded as mystically present in social life. I argue that the political efficacy of Christ’s mysterious absent presence can be illuminated by engaging with Karl Barth’s idea of theology as an ongoing response to the mystery and Kantorowicz’s account of the mystical body (the head of which is Christ) in the King’s Two Bodies, especially his emphasis on poiesis to make things mystical. I will suggest that the anthropology of religion might benefit from Kantorowicz’s conclusion that the theological aspect of the political resides in the mystery of the institution rather than in the miraculous instant of Carl Schmitt’s decision on the state of exception that has significantly coloured political-theological and anthropological analysis of religio-political movements in the margins of the state from the 1990s onwards.

Afterword: (Im)materiality and religious movements in the Pacific.

Lamont Lindstrom (University of Tulsa)

A summary of session contributions that identifies common themes and also notable aspects of the various Pacific religious movements discussed. I draw on the history of Tanna Island movements to help situate the material and immaterial aspects of the movements presented, including their incorporation of local and imported elements within innovative cultural forms, theologies of spirit, and devotional practices.