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Anthropology and theology in parallax


This essay is about Doug Erickson’s Living the Future. I suspect that most readers of Anthropology of this Century will have not heard of this book; in fact, I suspect that for many, Erickson’s book, even if it were known, would not appear to be an apt object for AOTC in the first place. For that matter, for some it may not seem to be an apt object for anthropologists altogether, or at least not for any operating in their professional capacity (though, we shall see, consensus on its anthropological value may be shifting). This seeming inappropriateness is not because of any particular deficiency in this book; it is a solid text with clear goals that accomplishes what it sets out to do, and has been well received by its intended audience. Rather, it is the nature of the work that makes it a surprising, and perhaps problematic, candidate for the discipline.

The reason that this book may not seem like the usual fodder for AOTC is because Erickson’s book sees itself as completely, and unproblematically, an exercise in theology.

There is a specific reason I want to talk about a theological book in a forum dedicated to discussions of contemporary anthropological literature and thought; that reason also explains the penumbra of anthropological texts that inevitably swirl around Living the Future. In a very real way, that anthropological penumbra is the true object of this essay, and the point of this exercise as well. But why should a theological work have an ethnological or anthropological penumbra? Part of the reason this penumbra exists lies in the rather simple fact that there is no such thing as a book, theological or otherwise. Books are both written and read in different moments, alongside other texts, creating different possible contexts that alter the way a book is received.  It is because of this fact that a book can be likened to a single star embedded in a larger constellation: like a star, a book is an object with a certain set of objective, fixed traits (a determinate set of common characters laid out in a sequence particular to this specific abstract object), but like a star, it is also one entity in an over-abundance of other objects that, when viewed from a certain vantage point, and when informed by certain hopes, histories, and categories, can be seen as part of a larger meaningful pattern. There are more wrinkles to this metaphor, I’m afraid. What stars are proximate enough to be visible in the night sky to be envisioned as a part of a larger constellation-gestalt is a function of where one is located in space. When alien intelligences, hypothetical or otherwise, turn their sense-organs to the skies, they would see the stars from the position of their own world; the patterns that they would draw in the night sky would be different not just because they are different minds, but because the lights they see in their night sky would be arranged in different ways.

I mention this in the context of Erickson’s book because more and more anthropologists appear to be of the opinion that the disciplines of theology and anthropology are themselves not alien to one another, or at least that they are disciplinary planets drifting towards each other in some form of mutual orbit or convergence. Others hold that there is still a great distance between the two fields – with many feeling that anthropology is the better for this, though of course there are those who feel it is for the worse.  Hence the penumbra, as people position themselves in regard to anthropology and theology more generally, as authors spar about how close anthropology and theology actually have become (or perhaps already were), and whether the disciplines’ metaphorical firmaments are anywhere close to one another. Is there enough of a convergence that at least when some anthropologists and theologians look at the heavens, they can see the same stars in the sky, locked into the same patterns?

Answering the question of the intellectual proximity of anthropology and theology is difficult, however. One way to do this would be to try to map how the entirety of things looks from each vantage, and then compare these sky-charts for matching patterns. Such a cataloging is a dizzying and exhaustive proposition, though, and not even those who have made the greatest investment of time and thought on this issue are suggesting that we are anywhere near the point of sufficient mastery of an anthropological/theological conjunction to engage in that work. As we will see, for the most part the theology/anthropology rapprochement is a project that is still in its formative stages, offering plenty of promissory notes instead of hard arguments. But still, this is a development that is still quickening, and so a comprehensive account of the overlaps in the views of both disciplines has to wait. A far more economical move might be to simply select a single book and use it to make what we might call taking a parallax measurement. We would ask how this book might appear from different vantage points, with each vantage point’s likely view of the text compared with the other to see how far apart the two standpoints are, i.e. to see how the book might appear to both non-theological and theological readers. As we will see, there are actually far more than two vantage points, however. The gradations and modes of theological engagement by anthropology go far beyond an easy binary, with theology either embraced or scorned. This may be an exercise in intellectual parallax, but once we look into the particulars of how theology and anthropology could relate it is also an exercise in the intellectually vertiginous.

However many vantage points are involved, Living the Future is a perfect choice for such an exercise in measuring the distance between anthropology and theology. That is because while Living the Future has big ideas – about eschatology, time, and the Holy Spirit – it does not claim to be a work of systematic theology, some across the board decontextualized, universalized, and formalized abstract set of statements about God and The Human. It is rather a consolidation and re-presentation of the often-implicit theology of a Southern California originated, but now worldwide charismatic evangelical movement called the Vineyard. This designation of the Vineyard as a “charismatic evangelical” movement needs some breaking down. The word charismatic refers to the common practice of the sort of supernatural exercises associated with Pentecostalism and also with much of the newer forms of quickly spreading Christianity in the global south: speaking in tongues, receiving prophecy, healing, battling demons, and the like. The word evangelical refers both to an imagined lineage running all the way back to the reformation that the Vineyard creates for itself, but also for the Vineyard’s possession of a certain theological tradition and aesthetic, a reliance on a specific set of mostly North Atlantic thinkers wresting with a series of problems that arose after the split with the Roman Catholic Church.

The reason that Living the Future is such a good fit for our exercise in parallaxis is that the Vineyard has been something like the darling of both the Anglophone North American and European anthropology of Christianity. Tanya Luhrmann’s (2012) widely read and well received book When God Talks Back was written as a commentary on the wider way that American Christians relate to God, but its core case study was a multi-year ethnographic investigation of two Vineyard churches (one in Chicago, and another in the Bay Area in California).  My own ethnography, A Diagram for Fire: Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement (Bialecki 2017) also centered itself on the Vineyard (in this instance, the Southern California flavored Vineyard offering) where I studied the way that supernatural practice varied in its expression, and how these practices, and the patterns in variation within and between them, spill over to affect Vineyard believers’ ethical, economic, and political senses and imaginations. These two books by no means exhaust all the attention paid to the Vineyard, I should note. Peter G.A. Versteeg has a European-based study of the Vineyard (The Ethnography of a Dutch Pentecostal Church: Vineyard Utrecht and the International Charismatic Movement), and individual Vineyard- and Vineyard-style- believers have walk-on roles in ethnographies by Matthew Engelke (2013) and James Bielo (2011). The Vineyard has even been given some sociological attention, in the form of Donald Miller’s (1999) Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium, where the group was placed alongside two similar movements in order to sketch what Miller humbly trumpeted as a ‘new reformation.’

This recital above of anthropological books on the Vineyard also hints at why ethnographers have turned to that particular religious movement again and again. The reason for this privileged status for the Vineyard lies more in the word charismatic than it does in the world evangelical. It is the supernatural pyrotechnics that seem to compel an anthropological explanation, especially when those pyrotechnics take place in educated middle class redoubts of secularism such as Southern California, Europe, or the United Kingdom. The evangelical aspect (that is, the aspect that motions towards the Vineyard’s own self-understanding) is not entirely ignored, but certainly it is not taken as the warrant for these investigations. Even as some anthropologists have tried to bring in theological concerns when discussing the Vineyard (see Jenkins, in press; Bialecki 2017: 37-47), it was never the theology which was paramount. It was all about the miracles.

That being noted, we have a sense for what anthropologists tend to say about the Vineyard, even if they do not all speak with one voice, and they do not always center theology in their discussions. There is nothing like a taken for granted ethnographic object, but at least we know what conversations about the Vineyard look like, so to speak. This means that it is possible to imagine how Erickson’s theological account of the Vineyard could be ‘read’ from the position carved out by these ethnographies, but also to use Erickson to imagine what an even deeper engagement with theology might bring as well. And this in turn gives us something else. We can also imagine how Douglas’s book would be read from other stances, such as that of those anthropologists advocating for a greater substantive engagement with theology. And all these readings can furthermore be juxtaposed with one another, allowing us to see how great a difference there is between the various anthro-theological positions, and also how one specific, identifiable book shifts and turns if we shuttle between positions. And this would allow us to get a sense for the degree of difference between anthropology and theologically-informed anthropology. It would also give us an indication of what a theologically-informed anthropology might be like, and for whether a substantive engagement between these two disciplines is more likely to give rise to a wonder or to a sport.


This threatened convergence between theology and anthropology did not occur all at once; it has been a long time in the making. The first thing that must be noted is that while the conversation here will focus on the anthropological side of the ledger, there has been movement coming from both ends of things. Of course, theology has long thought about culture, though often theologians wrote the word culture with a capital “c.” But more recently, theologians have taken a concern with ‘practice,’ with practice understood as ranging “from the formal rituals of the liturgy to the practices of everyday life, such as child rearing and relating with people of other races” (Snyder 2014). This has in turn led to their adoption of ethnography as a mode of theological investigation, hoping to put some meat on overly schematic and decontextualized ecclesiological bones, or to give Christian ethics more nuance by tracking how its issues are played out in the real world, instead of in theological thought experiments (Banner 2014, Ward 2012). This is not necessarily ethnography as understood by anthropologists; one sign of the difference can be found in the fact that it has been referred to as ‘sanctified’ ethnography (Snyder 2014), with sanctified here drawing on the understanding of the sacred as ‘set aside.’ The word sanctified in this context might give some anthropologists pause. But whatever one makes of it, this is still a turn to ethnography to purposefully disturb and complicate theology. This reliance on field-evidence to unsettle could be seen as an expression of an almost anthropological faith in the value of ethnography as encounter, instead of merely using ethnography as an exercise to ratify already extant theological clichés.

From the anthropological perspective, though, things are quite different. Of course, there have been anthropologists who have always been at some level tacitly engaged with theology, as either enemy or muse (see Engelke 2004; Larsen 2014). But such conversations were mostly sub rosa.  And in the eyes of the mainline of anthropology, it seems safe to say that as many understood it, the trajectories of the two disciplines marked not a convergence, but rather an anthropological escape – or worse yet, a failed escape, with anthropology attempting to free itself from the gravity well of the theological, but still falling back in. Anthropology, and particularly the anthropology of religion, was understood to be hobbled by concepts of belief, with its reasoning bent by the attractive force of an overly secular-Protestant sense of what was the proper form of religiosity (Asad 1993; Lindquist and Coleman 2008; Needham 1973; Ruel 1982). Riding off of the fact that the lexical item “anthropology” is also used to mark a sub-category of theology (theological anthropology, the study of what the human is in her relation to God), some sort of big-bang has been suggested, where anthropology and theological anthropology are just shards of one another, split apart by the singularity breaking moment of modernity (Klassen 2013). Either way, anthropology’s tie to theology was (ironically enough) treated as a sort of unescapable original sin, demanding endless anthropological contrition, though not necessarily promising any anthropological forgiveness or salvation.

Where many saw contagion, though, others saw opportunity. In 2002, the theologian Douglas Davies published Anthropology and Theology, and while this unheralded book did not create “significant traction” (Bielo 2018:29), it suggested a level of engagement that went beyond either theological nicking of social science methodology or the invocation of anthropological purity taboos. Almost simultaneously to Davies (at least as far as ‘academic time’ marks simultaneity), Joel Robbins (2006), who has spent more than his share of time thinking about the relation between Christianity and anthropology, took a first stab at charting the current state of affairs between these two disciplines. As he assayed it in what has become the pilot article for the theology/anthropology ‘question,’ anthropology’s possible relation to theology is multiple. For anthropology, theology is at once a source of ethnographic evidence, another instance of indigenous thought that can be added to the ethnographic record and subsequently decoded; here he places such classic ethnographic volumes as Susan Harding’s The Book of Jerry Falwell (2000) and Simon Coleman’s The Globalization of Charismatic Christianity (2000). And in a nod to earlier discussions of origins-anxieties, he also notes the earlier anthropological use of theology as a form of auto-critique, where theology is used as a template to identify religious contamination still found in the ideational social-science body.

But Robbins also points to one additional way in which theology can serve anthropology: as a challenge. His provocation was to suggest that theology contained something that contemporary anthropology lacked – the idea that somewhere out there, there might be a vision of life that was worth living. He was not suggesting that the theological vision of life was necessarily where one should settle, of course. This was instead a sideways gesture towards the utopian anthropology of another era, a time when it was hoped that the anthropological investigation of alterity could provide some balm for the psychic injuries of modernity and capitalism. Theology, which promises paradises and heavens of its own, could therefore be an instigation for contemporary anthropology to return to earlier practices and use ethnographic data to supplement its diet of historicist critique with some vision of better modes of being that might be found by researchers out there in the vast human experiment.  Like theology, anthropology could aspire towards uncovering some vision of the good.

Coming at a time when other anthropologists were leaning into topics such as Carl Schmitt’s “political theology,” Robbin’s contrasting anthropology and theology to find out what was distinctive to each formation didn’t seem too outré. And early exercises in this theological/anthropological rapprochement, such as a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly edited by Robbins and Matthew Engelke (2004), certainly didn’t seem too world breaking; in it, anthropological and theological voices both weighed in on contemporary continental philosophical reconceptualization of the Apostle Paul (or, if you prefer Paul née Saul of Tarsus), which had a bit of an uptick following the end of the cold war.[1] For the most part, the anthropologists and theologians were rigorous in their engagement with this particular body of continental philosophy … but the two were circumspect about engaging each other. And even at the moment where the conversation did get a little heated and direct, as in an essay jointly written by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas and the anthropologist Brian Goldstone (2010), there was still a lack of engagement, but in this case the lack of engagement was purposeful. Anthropology to Hauerwas and Goldstone was such that it inevitably attempts to domesticate and circumscribe Christianity. The effect, and possibly the point, of anthropology was to put Christianity in some sort of box. It was only through taking up the praxis of Christianity as a form of self-production, of becoming an almost existentialist Christian witness alienated from the social, that the anthropologist could ‘get Christianity’ right. If anthropology wanted provocation from theology, well, there it is.

But Robbins’s call for anthropology to reconsider its relation with theology, to possibly take theology as a provocation, was understood by some differently.  Rather than engaging in contrasts, there were those who tried something between conversation between and a merger of the two disciplines. Some, such as the editors of a special issue of The Australian Journal of Anthropology, took it as a call for anthropologists to “engage explicitly and forthrightly with theological concerns” (Fountain & Lau 2013: 228) rather than to merely engage in juxtaposition for the sake of educative contrasts. This was not theology as a dare for anthropology to do better, but as an object for anthropology to directly wrestle with both ethnographically and theoretically. Doing this would mean, as Joel Robbins notes with approval when commenting on this later development, we would be treating our informants as being as “fully intellectually involved with the world” in their theoretical musings as we are in our anthropological ones. (Robbins 2013: 331). They, like us, were intellectuals, and that intellectual status of their labors would have to be acknowledged. This would result in, as some of the ‘ontologically’ inclined anthropologists would put it in a difference context, ‘taking our informants seriously.’ (See, e.g., Viveiros de Castro 2013; cf. Astuti 2017). And like the ontologists, who see themselves as using indigenous concepts implicit or explicit in the contours of the ethnography as anthropological-theoretical tools, some of these theologically-curious anthropologists began to incorporate theological concepts and use them as anthropological theoretical engines (see, e.g., Morgain 2013, Morton 2013). Again, this was a hair too far for Robbins, who at this stage still called for a core incommensurability between anthropology and theology. But for others, this engagement with theology wasn’t far enough.

This hunger for a deeper engagement with theology can also be laid at the feet of the proponents of the ontological turn, even if what occurred isn’t necessarily something that they would have ever purposefully sought or could have anticipated. The question, though, is which kind of ontologist is to blame. That is because it could easily be said that one of the headaches during the heyday of the ontological turn was that there were actually two simultaneous ontological turns; one we could call a high ontology, devoted to producing new modes of thought by extracting concepts from the life-worlds of the non-West, and which self-consciously modeled itself off of authors like Marilyn Strathern and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and another that we could call a low ontology, dedicated to the real-world veridicality of their informant’s understanding of the actual ontological mechanisms and agents in the world, an approach that could be seen as more akin to how most people understand Edith Turner. The reason for this bifurcation, and why it took so long for it to be clear to even some of the most astute observers of the conversation that the two approaches could be distinguished from one another, is a discussion for another time. It suffices to say, though, these two approaches to ontology often appeared to be laminated together. However, despite this seeming lamination, this lower ontology shifts the theological conversation in a new way. It is one thing to say that some theological concepts can be re-articulated in an anthropological milieu, as for example has been done by Brian Howell (2017), as part of a recent edited volume called On Knowing Humanity: Insights from Theology for Anthropology (Meneses and Bronkema 2017). Howell achieves this by suggesting that the Christian concept of the mystery might be a way of thinking through some of the epistemological problems that, ever since the representational crisis of the eighties, have been causing some anthropologists anxiety; relying on theological understandings of the mystery as at once unfathomable yet simultaneously comprehendible, of being utterly other yet open to being grasped, was a way of thinking that could cut the Writing Culture Gordian knot. As Howell notes, such a move does not require one to acknowledge the literal existence of the Christian God or of the Trinity that the concept is predicated on (though, Howell also observes, it in no way precludes it, either). For others, though, theology means an investigation into – or sometimes, just an assumption of – the truth of the supernatural agents, both Christian and non-Christian, that their interlocutors in the field struggle with. Sometimes this concern is articulated in ways that specifically acknowledge the ontological turn (Merz and Merz 2017), and sometimes it is just presented as a simple empirical question with pragmatic stakes, a need to know about actual entities if one is to ameliorate the conditions of those who are (literally) bedeviled by these forces (Bronkema 2017). Sometimes all that is requested is openness to the possibility that these entities exist, a possibility that is to extend both to the reality of the understandings our informants have of the (supernaturalized) world, but also an openness in the sense of a full disclosure of the theo-ontology of the anthropologist his- or her- self (Meneses 2017).  It was as if Hauerwas got his wish, but only stripped clear of the self-forming existentialism, leaving just a brass-knuckles foundationalism behind. To be properly anthropological with a Christian population, one must in a certain sense not just learn to think like a Christian, but acknowledge the truth of their understanding of the world.

One hears, again and again, from the low-ontology theological anthropologists that all this is just in furtherance of the anthropological value of dialogue. It is uncertain what kind of dialogue, though, the low-ontology-minded anthropologists imagine themselves starting. Their argument in effect makes ethnography all of anthropology, as at the same time it makes their ethnography impossible to assail from any outside position. Such a move breaks with the premise of multi-ontologies as an organizational heuristic, meaning that assent to a particular anthropological postulate would mean -again- something akin to, if not identical with, assent to a religion. And it would also make arguing over ethnography, or more properly, arguing over interpretations of ethnographic evidence, difficult to the point of being impossible, as there is no way to critique a transcendental mono-ontological theologically informed anthropological argument. We might be left, as Joel Robbins put it (repurposing an earlier argument made by Paolo Heywood [2015]), with no option other than “agreeing to disagree” with these sort of low-ontology theological claims (2017: 233).

But even for this low-ontology theological position it is early days, and we should remember that this position may change as the exchanges sharpen, since the discussion involving theology and anthropology is still bubbling. The evidence that we are on the lip of a major shift is clear. There is a major volume, edited by Derrick Lemons (in press), on anthropology and theology that is due to come out this year[2]; similarly, the 2018 “Stanton Lectures” on theology were given by none other than Joel Robbins, where he articulated a more broad-ranging yet specific vision of what theological tools could be metabolized by anthropology; and finally, novel positions on the issue are still being produced, such as James Bielo’s (2018) call for politically motivated anthropologists to tactically ally themselves with progressive “prophetic voices” as they work to bend the shape of public religion.

Despite the mid-development state of the maturation of the theology/anthropology exchange, a state that is also sprinkled by more than a pinch of intellectual Brownian motion, we can still intuit a few positions, a few vantage points that could be deployed in a reading of Erickson’s book.  We have a position of extant anthropology of religion, present in the already penned books on the Vineyard, we have a position where theology and anthropology would be both mutual provocateurs and fellow travelers as they each concretize their own intellectual stance, we have a position where one can import conceptual material from theology, and we have a position where we would grant both conceptual and ontological suzerainty to theology over anthropology.  Setting all these things in relation with a relatively straightforward, reader-friendly theological tone should be easy lifting.

But intellectual work is never that easy.


The problem is that Erickson’s book may be reader friendly, but that shouldn’t be taken to mean that it is relatively straightforward. That is because Erickson’s book has a complicated relation to all its potential audiences (or to be clear, a complicated relation to all the intended audiences he must have imagined when he penned this book, because he probably didn’t envision that it would also be placed under anthropological scrutiny as well). Explaining the ambitions of the book makes that clear. To condense Erickson’s thought here to an almost unconscionable level of simplicity, he argues that as formulated in practice by John Wimber, the effective founder of the movement, the Vineyard’s melding of the theologian George Eldan Ladd’s eschatology of a non-yet/already account of the kingdom of God with a charismatic pneumatology has produced a singular and here-to-fore nonexistent theological vision. Rather than God’s Kingdom being something entirely futurial, or having been already accomplished, it is something that erupts into the present scene in flashes, identifiable in unexpected moments of miraculous power, but also in unforeseen moments of grace or generosity. It is therefore not just an eschatological account, but an ethical and practical account as well.

Already, we can see from the appearance of alien names and terms like “George Eldan Ladd” and “charismatic pneumatology” that this is a part of a scholastic theological exchange that was running for quite a spell before it accidentally tumbled out into the open and fell in front of anthropological eyes. This book was drawn from an academic doctoral dissertation, and as such it can be read as a full-throated technical and scholarly apologetics for the Vineyard, and an effort to produce a particularly Vineyard eschatology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and theological anthropology. At the same time, however, this book doesn’t merely address theological academics outside the Vineyard who might be curious as to what constitutes “Vineyard Theology.” It is also an intervention within the Vineyard itself, a cry for the movement to at once recognize that they have an implicit theology, and also to acknowledge that there is much to be gained by being consciously cognizant of that implicit theology through articulating it in explicit technical language. The tell that this is one of the purposes of this book can be seen in the ‘study guide questions’ that have been introjected into the book at the end of each chapter. In typical American evangelical style, these questions call for individuals to think about the arguments of the book not just as academic puzzles, but in concrete terms that supposedly reflect on their own lives; this is an obvious attempt to ‘ground’ the heady theological discourse with the sort of experientially-near practical therapeutic applications that many American evangelicals crave. Either because or despite of this, the book has been adopted by many Vineyard training programs, and Erickson has now started to give expository talks on his book at various American Vineyards. It has therefore become a book where the Vineyard expresses particularly Vineyard thoughts so that it can tutor itself to be more Vineyard.

Part of the reason that this book has to take on multiple tasks has to do with the specific origins of the Vineyard. Although the Vineyard was technically instituted by Kenn Gulikson, an early Los Angeles Christian rock musician perhaps best known for his role in converting Bob Dylan, the movement was in effect built up by John Wimber, a jazz musician, session player, and manager for the American blue-eyed soul duo the Righteous Brothers. Wimber abandoned his musical career when he converted to a cessationist evangelical Quaker strain of Christianity, eventually becoming a rather accomplished pastor in Orange County, California. In time, Wimber because a Church Growth Consultant for the Fuller School of World Missions, a missionary training center run by Fuller Seminary in Pasadena California (Fuller arguably being the premier American Evangelical seminary at the time). Wimber’s mission was in essence to visit ailing U.S. churches, and help them turn themselves around using techniques first pioneered in missions to the global south. While at Fuller, Wimber became aware of a problem that Evangelical missionaries were suffering when they were working in places such as Africa and South America. The difficulty was that these missions were being wildly outcompeted by Pentecostal groups.

This problem led Wimber to start experimenting with the charisms, despite the fact that his cessationist background had left him with a profound lack of first-hand knowledge regarding how the charisms operate. His experimentation with the charisms forced him to break with his Evangelical Quaker denomination, and eventually led him to join the then nascent Vineyard, which had only twelve churches when he affiliated himself with the movement. After Wimber joined, though, the Vineyard developed a reputation for charismatic activity – particularly healing, prophecy, and deliverance from demons; this allowed Wimber to grow the movement from its rather paltry initial state to an influential and over one thousand church large global movement.

This specific Vineyard history appears to have left Erickson, the author of Living the Future, in an interesting position. To the degree that he also wished to address Vineyard members and not just academic theologians, he had to contend with the fact that the effective foundation of the movement was within living memory for much of his audience. He could also not present Vineyard theology as a single unchanging and uncontested truth. Vineyard believers of sufficient age had seen how Wimber tried to at once learn and promulgate the charisms on the fly, while constructing an evangelical theology for these gifts and also while learning how to govern a movement subject to charism-fueled crises. This was not a smooth process. There were several bumps on the way, perhaps most striking being when the Vineyard disaffiliated itself with the Toronto Airport Vineyard (the home of the “Toronto Blessing”) due to concerns about what were considered to be unconventional expressions of the “Holy Spirit” being taught there. While these institutional traumas drew attention, the theological tasks were vexing as well. Because of Wimber’s early affiliation with Fuller, he was under more pressure, and given more scrutiny, in his production of an evangelical theology than many other neocharismatic leaders were. Erickson also had one more Vineyard-history-derived difficulty in presenting a systematic Vineyard theology. Wimber became extremely ill in the early 1990s, eventually dying of cancer in 1997. This means that Erickson also had to acknowledge the theological reinvention that occurred when the Vineyard started constructing an identity centered on something other than a single charismatic figure (charismatic here being understood in all senses of the world).

It is because of this challenge that Erickson’s presentation of his vision of Vineyard eschatology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and theological anthropology had to itself become something more. It is a rehearsal of 19th and 20th century theological battles, ranging from one the earliest moments of German Higher criticism to the twentieth century American evangelicals like George Eldan Ladd. But this is not just about how theology was written, but also about how theology was read at various times.  Because of this, what Erickson penned was also something like a spiritual biography of Wimber that, over the course of the book, slowly dilates in scope until it becomes a spiritual biography of the Vineyard movement itself. The story of how the Vineyard orders its theology is to a large degree also the story of how the Vineyard learned to order its own self. But this is not a blow-by-blow history of all the changes that rocked the Vineyard. (Such a book does exist already – see Jackson 1999). Rather, because these theological understandings were adduced from intense charismatic practices, this book also gives a vision of how these charisms grew and changed in the Vineyard, both under and after Wimber’s leadership. It is a meditation on practice. And for that reason, I would argue that even without considering the various anthropology-and-theology positions sketched out earlier, Erickson’s book is also an ethnography.

This is apparent in both the form as well as the substance of the book. Given its relative youth, it is interesting to remember that the Vineyard has been blessed with a great deal of attention from some prominent anthropologists and sociologists. While working with an “n” of just a few points above three is probably not too statistically compelling, we have enough written accounts to form a broad enough sample for us to see that there are certain scholarly tropes that arise in all ethnographic depictions of the Vineyard. All these books contain detailed descriptions of ‘worship’ at the Vineyard, with worship being a term for extended periods of praise music played on the usual set of instruments (guitar, bass guitar, keyboard), during which the audience will sing along, cathartically emoting, and sometimes breaking into prayer.  During textual presentation of worship in academic prose, it is not uncommon for the author to express his or her experience of surprise when first seeing the levels of affect displayed and the various forms of spontaneous, unguarded behavior people engage in.  Many times, books and article begin with a description of this initial observed instance of worship (my own book on the Vineyard, for instance, spends a great deal of its first chapter laying out such a scene).

Erickson starts with such a story, too. He begins his book with what is without a doubt a classic exemplar of the “anthropologist coming to the village” trope. To quote

“I stood amazed in a small auditorium. People all around me stood with hands raised, or held quietly at their sides, singing a soft rock ballad together. Many were weeping, and around the room, groups of people were huddled together, praying for one another. The pastor of this small church had just given a sermon on caring for the poor, and spoke about an outreach that the church was planning for the community in the coming weeks. In response, he had asked all those who felt moved to a deeper concern for the ‘lost, the least, and the last’ to come forward for prayer.” (Pg 1)

Now, it is important to note that Erickson’s account ends with a statement that could never serve as a cap to an anthropological ethnography, at least understood in the conventional secular genre form – “I was home” – but that shouldn’t take away from how much his narrative mirrors anthropological accounts.

It is not Erickson’s tropes that make his work ethnographic, however. Rather, it is his careful attention to how the charisms have functioned and evolved in the life of the Vineyard community. For instance, Erickson’s discussion of the charisms has a specificity that could match that of any other anthropologist of the Vineyard or similar neocharismatic movements. And what sets Erickson’s discussion apart from a mere theological account is that he narrates the charisms in an almost pedagogical way, such that one can imagine engaging in that practice in an almost step-by-step mode. But this is not an ahistorical move, with an abstracted and hence timeless view of Vineyard praxis. That is because Erickson acknowledges the way that understandings of the Holy Spirit move – or to put it in more secular terms, he acknowledges how shifts in charismatic praxis transform not only one’s understanding of what sort of charisms might be performed, but also of the wider regime in which they make sense. He carefully notes the overly schematic understanding and practice of the early Vineyard, when the movement was focused on developing a charismatic pedagogy that could allow for rapid growth. He documents the ecstasies associated with the Toronto Blessing; Toronto being that rolling revival characterized by a spiritual praxis that, when compared to the early Vineyard, appeared extravagant and perhaps out of control; and finally, he shows us the synthetic post-Wimber period, when limitations on the charisms were acknowledged, and there was a conscious effort to ensure that the exercise of these spiritual gifts functioned to benefit community. And throughout, the attention to the details that constitute the particularities of the charismatic experience – the feel of the flesh, the sense of a gravitic mass and energy in the room, the affective, experiential plateaus of intensity –  are described with a care that is on the same level as any ethnographic account.

It is easy to track the underlying generative problems in my account of Erickson; we have an initial crisis among cessationist evangelical missionaries to the global south; this triggered a subsequent, and more structured problem of producing pedagogically useful techniques for charismatic practice, techniques that quickly spread to a larger set of experience-hungry evangelicals; this led to the eschatological problem of how to understand gifts against the wider swath of history, and the ecclesiological problem of how to contain without squelching the multiplicity of centers of prophetic authority that arises if one grants validity to a democratic access to prophecy. What troubles my presentation of Erickson’s book as ethnography, of course, is intent. Ethnographically rich as it is, Erickson’s book was not intended to function as an ethnography. Rather, as an apology in the full technical sense of the term, it was penned to be a persuasive statement.  In the end, it is much like an ethnography, but it is still concerned with theological problems, which are treated with theological material in a theological key.


It is time to engage in our parallax reading. How would this piece of theology be read by the various anthropological courtiers of the Queen of the sciences? The easiest reading is to imagine what would stand out for to those who value theology only for its evidential worth, regardless of what instigating, conceptual, or (low) ontological value it may have.  It is possible to merely read Erickson’s book as a document written by an informant, to ignore the underlying theological aspect and treat it as mere data; recall among the possible modes of engagement between ethnography and anthropology outlined by Robbins, that in addition to the reading of theology in the service of critiquing anthropology’s Christian roots, there is the reading of theology as just another expression of whatever religiosity produced it. We could relegate Erickson to just one of these bundles – theology as ethnographic evidence – and ignore the other possible approaches.  There is certainly enough there for that, not only in Erickson’s social history of how the charisms developed in the Vineyard over time, but also for how he ties challenges to organization and praxis to particular shifts in Wimber’s (and after Wimber’s passing, in the Vineyard’s) theology. This is certainly something that books on the Vineyard have done before; When God Talks Back, Diagram for Fire, and Versteeg’s Ethnography of a Dutch Pentecostal Church all reference theological texts and discussions, where this material is used as crystalized representation of how it is that Vineyard believers understand their own practice.

However, if we take that strategy, we still have to be careful in remembering what we are using Erickson as evidence for. This is because we have to remember that to the degree that theology is normative, it is always assuming that there are those who do not adhere to the norm, but might still acknowledge the legitimacy of the norm if it were presented to them. Theology is always an intervention of some sort (Jenkins 2014). As evidenced both by Wimber’s attempt to theologically ‘get ahead’ of the gifts so that they would not disrupt the growing church-network, but also by the wider educative use that Erickson hopes for his book to have in the Vineyard and other likeminded churches, theology is not just a mirror of practice, but also an instigation to practice, or a corrective of practices out there that may not have the same contours as what Erickson puts forward. Understanding theology as intervention may not be too difficult, and Courtney Handman’s (2015) reading of denominationalism as a form of social critique might be a good template for what theology-as-intervention might be productively used by anthropologists. But we would still have to take care to remember that theology is more than just a tracing of already extant practices and beliefs.

But whether using it as evidence of practice, or as an aspiration of what practice could be, we would ourselves not be transparently conveying the voice of our informants; rather, in culling and reordering the information presented, in conducting what amounts to editorial violence on it, we have stripped it of its message, and replaced it with our own. And we would be making an argument that touched on the expression of religion, which is to say that in a way, we would be writing theologically. This is not to endorse any position that sees all social science as always engaging in some kind of crypto-theology, a claim that has been put out by theologians like Milbanks (2008), and one that is at least implicit in the contribution from Hauwerwas and Goldstone as well. This is just to observe that in this particular domain, through omission and repurposing, we have taken an implicit stand on the existence of God, or at least on the necessity of God, if we try to work around this problem through a willful ambiguity.  It may not be bad to speak in this implicit theological mode, but many of those who wish for us as a discipline to have a more sustained and deeper relation with theology are right to note that the secular position is itself not entirely denuded of a certain theological edge.

Not that going deeper into theology solves our problem. The weight of implicit theological claims still rises up even when we grant theology a certain rigorous intellectual status and attempt to deploy theological arguments in relation to  ethnographic details. Again, this can still be a partial or inconclusive theological claim.  A use of theology as a source domain for anthropological theory may also be ambivalent about the necessity of God, as we saw with Brian Howell’s contribution, though one could imagine that this ambivalence might read to some as if the burden of proof has shifted sides a little bit during the anthropological deployment of theology as a lens for ethnography, with the balance of the weight drifting from acknowledging that God could still exist, to admitting that it is possible God may not.

But in a reading of this sort of Erickson’s book, we see that the real problem that arises is the risk of either irrelevance or redundancy. Redundancy becomes a risk in that if we use the vision of eschatological rupture contained in Erickson’s account of Vineyard time and the charismatic gifts as a theoretical model abstracted from the evidence, we in effect have spoken with something like an anthropological stutter, paraphrasing what Erickson tells us theologically and mirroring it back as an anthropological concept. That does not mean that this exercise is without value. In this theoretical rearticulation of what is already present in the ethnography, we have produced something that is portable, that can be brought to some other scene to order another instance of messianic temporal imagination, pulled from some other space. But then we have the problem of fit. Such a redeployment can’t enforce an order that is not already ethnographically present. But if it was already present in some other ethnographic scene, then it could have itself been extracted from the depiction of that other self-same ethnographic scene. And if it couldn’t be at least theoretically extracted from the ethnography, then there is a good chance that this theology-cum-anthropology is irrelevant. We have perhaps saved ourselves some time in not having to recreate everything from scratch; though of course, saving time is not an insignificant good. Or where there is some slight difference between what we see in the Erickson-as-anthropological theory account and what is on the ground in some other hypothetical ethnographic scene, we at least have in our theory ported from Erickson a useful foil, available either as a clarifying point of contrast, or as another syntagmatic possibility among a larger set of possible lateral comparisons.

Again, neither clarification nor contrast are insignificant goods either. But it is important to note that theoretical doubling doesn’t add anything to an ethnographic discussion that wasn’t already there, although present just in a theological mode, or in a pre-theologically articulated sensibility.  To some, not adding anything may be a virtue, proof that the ethnographic presentation was unadulterated by foreign concepts. But unlike many other ethnographic situations, in this case the lack of any exterior supplement may make one wonder why there is an ethnography there in the first place. Even given the criticism that has been made of the idea of ethnography as translation (Asad 1986), it is still true that in some spaces, the ethnographer may be a necessary intermediary, presenting the ideas of the people that he or she worked with in another idiom, without doing too much technical violence, such that outsiders can understand them (see, e.g., Viveiros de Castro 2014). But here, Erickson, like most of the other academic theologians that are relied upon for their clarifying effect, already speaks our language. This is both metaphorically and literally the case for Erickson, who worked hard to meet us more than half way in presenting the clearest picture possible of Wimber’s and the Vineyard’s sense of the structure of time, salvation, and the church. In other cases, theologians may not be writing in English, but they will still be writing using the recognizable logic of academic reasoning. Or, when dealing with theologians running up to at least the early modern period, we will be working with authors who are actually the precursors of our kind of reasoning, writers setting down the very material out of which much of contemporary academic logic is partially constructed. We don’t need others to speak for these intellectual projects, either; as in the case of Erickson, they already speak quite well for themselves.

And again, in the conceptual use of theology, the nature of theology as an intervention causes problems. In this case, the problem is even more pressing. Reading theology only as evidence allowed us to see theology as a form of social engineering or ethical suasion, or at least as a prophylactic against error in concept or practice. But if theological concepts are interventions, then using them as an anthropological analytic concept becomes problematic. These are not ideas or valid descriptions that spring up unbidden, emerging from certain social or cultural forces or arrangements. These are instead operations that the Vineyard performs by itself. It is not impossible to take these ideas and form anthropological theory out of them. But when such ideas are made anthropological, they end up being contributions to the anthropology of self-formation (see, e.g., Hirschkind 2006, Mahmood 2005). To a certain level, while ‘experience’ is an important category in many of the already existing ethnographies of the Vineyard, they could also be taken as discussing how Vineyard members train themselves to engage in these Pentecostal-style practices, and so reading Erickson along these lines is not too wild a suggestion. But then, we already have a fully developed anthropology of self-cultivation, thought of either in ethical terms (Faubion 2011; Laidlaw 2013), or alternately in terms of neoliberal subjective engineering (see, e.g., Rudnyckyj 2011). Contrary to the high-ontological dreams of inventing novel concepts, in using theological material with an overt pedagogical edge, we are given only more of what we already had ready to hand.

And what does a low-ontological reading do with Erickson? Again, to the degree that Erickson is right, then anthropology is redundant, in part because if it is incapable of engaging in either critique or in presenting alternatives, then it can do nothing other than speak on behalf of a group that, in Erickson, already has a capable spokesman, one who is both a member of the group under question, and has been institutionally at least partially ratified by the group under question as well. We have an additional problem, though, if we read Erickson as making veridical statements about ‘ontology’, at least as anthropologists use that word. That is because we make Erickson not just a ratified voice, but a controlling voice as well, and moreover controlling in a way that he explicitly rejects in his text.  Erickson is at pains to say that his book is not the theology of the Vineyard movement, but instead just a theology of the Vineyard movement; that there is still the possibility of other theologies that might be equally Vineyard is something that Erickson in no ways denies. Additionally, Erickson in no way privileges the Vineyard above others, invoking the theological truth that, speaking from the position of the Vineyard as a whole, “[w]e are just one member of the body, and we cannot say to another member that the body doesn’t need it, or that it is less important to the body of Christ, his global church.” (6). But an anthropological ontologizing of Erickson takes away this openness, making a legislator of fundamental laws out of someone who instead dearly wishes to relativize and position his own account. And the usual anthropological tricks used to smooth away clashing ontologies don’t work here, either. It would be hard to make a poly-ontology out of what is clearly intellectual and ecclesiological humility, and a poly-ontology seems to be the only real way to at once make Erickson right, and at the same time allow for the possibility of difference that Erickson as a theological thinker is clearly leaving a space for. At this point, we are building ontological shells around shells – something that is not too challenging when ontology is just an engine for the production of concepts, but which is crippling when ontology is used as a guide to the way that the world may actually be (see Heywood 2012).

None of these approaches seem to be without their problems, and for that matter none of them escape completely from visiting intellectual violence on Living the Future, even if Living the Future through its social-historical emphasis on the developments of Vineyard theology makes it seems as if the book was more than willing to meet anthropology halfway. Despite these very anthropological sensibilities, these readings flatten theology to social evidence; or the readings give Erickson’s work the patina of anthropological theory by doubling it, stripping Erickson’s authorship by presenting it as a concept we control, and then reversing the order between the doubled instantiations of Erickson in the anthropological text, so that the source of the theory becomes instead just an example of it. These failings should probably not cause too much anxiety, though. Infelicities such as these may be hard-baked into any attempt to create relays between quite different academic conversations; for instance, it would be hard to say that the attempt to open up the sometimes philosophical, sometimes psychological discussions of affect to anthropology didn’t itself have plenty of moments of even more grievous dislocation and willful misreading, and yet affect is now a common anthropological analytic tool. It may also be that there are other imaginable ways to relate religious ontology and secular anthropology such that greater commonalities between the two could be productively utilized without demanding that the anthropology of religion becomes a religious anthropology (see, e.g., Bialecki 2014). Alternately, what might be needed is not a new approach, but merely a new way of thinking about the relations between these various articulations of an anthropological-theological ambition. Like a bad dream during which you keep coming back to the same anxiety again and again, this entire conversation has been haunted by a phantom struggle to categorize everything as first order, second, and sometimes even third order operations; is it anthropology commenting on theology commenting on ‘real practice,’ or is theology the highest node in the series instead? But there also may be different ways to think of the relation between theology, anthropology, and ‘real practice’ (or instead of ‘real practice,’ of ‘the culture’ or ‘society’ or whatever someone wants to use as the place-holder for the slot that use to be filled by ‘ethnos’). These new framings might entail stressing both the immanence and the coevalness of the theological, of the anthropological, and of our informants, rather than seeing them as of logically different orders. So far, seeing anthropology and theology as truly each other’s peer, with neither category controlling or being controlled by the other, is an approach that was only taken by theology-as-provocation, and even here theology and anthropology were both presented as being parasitic on some other ‘actual’ event. A conversation tracing out how we might flatten all three analytic objects could be productive, but such a conversation is beyond the scope of what I can undertake here (see Bialecki, in press).

But even as each of these approaches has problems, they are not the same problems by any stretch. The gaps between how a book like Erickson’s Living the Future appears to an anthropology that will attend to theology, but only as evidence, and the low-ontological reading of Erickson’s book is considerable; but then, even the high-ontology reading of Erickson, both in what it produces and in the sort of problems that arise from it, seems fundamentally different from what the two other theological-leaning approaches would have. If we take the low-ontology theological approach as a proxy for theology itself, and theology-as-evidence as a proxy for an anthropology that sees theology as an object and not an equally powerful mode of thought, then it seems that theology and anthropology may not be anywhere close. Even this exercise has a certain kind of irony to it, however.  That is because while the various anthropological readings of Erickson as theology end up looking so different from one another, Erickson himself, read on his own terms, seems more like the actually existing ethnographies we have of the Vineyard than any of these three readings. Perhaps the kinship that Erickson, as pure theology, has with existing anthropological readings should tell us something. Perhaps our challenge isn’t reconciling anthropology to theology, or suggesting how one discipline productively ‘uses’ the other. Rather, our challenge might instead be our learning to look for the cracks where theology offers to become anthropology, or anthropology offers to become theology, and see that not as failure or confusion, but rather as an index that these are the sites where, perhaps, we come closest to grasping an actual problem itself in its virtual, and hence most productive and multiple, form.


An earlier, and quite different, version of this paper was presented at the NOSTER thematic interdisciplinary seminar “Changing the tacks: exploring new directions towards an interdisciplinary study of the lifeworlds of believers: A dialogue between cultural anthropology and systematic theology,” at the VU University in Amsterdam, on February 8th 2018;  I thank all the participants for their comments and feedback; I also want to thank Miranda Klaver for the original invitation, and Miranda C.R. van Holland for the organizational support during that engagement.


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  1. [1]In the interest of transparency, I should note that I had an essay in that special issue as well: see Bialecki 2004.
  2. [2]Again, in the interests of transparency, I should also note that I have an essay in that text as well; see Bialecki in press.

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