anthropology english ethnographic

Field notes from JC’s place

Yongho Kim
Anthropology (248) of Religion
Wednesday Oct 29th, 2003.
Field notes from JC’s place

Foreword for Mary, Ben, and Prof. Patten: In the middle of this fieldnote, I realized that it would end up being quite long. Then I thought I should share this with the JCP staff and our group. So I decided I should explain why I would like to share this and why it is so long. One reason may be because this week I am finishing Jean Comaroff’s Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People [Tshidi] for the African Societies (258) class. It’s an amazing book and I’d like to bring up a theoretical framework she borrows from Zola and Foucault in analyzing the healing process as a resistance to industrial colonization, which I think provides another alternative in interpreting Kimbrough. If I overhaul this note with details, it’s her fault. The second reason is that I just started doing anthropology this semester and the main reason I liked it was for its emphasis in details. I can’t help the excitement of giving myself the space to write every single thing observed and analyzed. Hopefully these trivial details will have some use when writing our paper.

Foreword for JCP staff: I would like to give you this field note with two purposes. One is transparency. You have opened the church and its practices to us without hiding anything, and I believe the treat should be mutual, if not morally imperative as a brother in Christ. There are some portions in this field note that may offend you, such as my remarks on race and class. I believe that a through study of a religious congregation is not possible without examining both the aspect of faith and the social/material components. What I wrote here is all I observed and thought while staying at JCP without censoring myself. Some of it is analysis, and some are judgments, but mostly it is observation. It may be academic bias, but for me school is school and church is church. I thought that it would be utterly unfair for you if our group analyzed the site and faith in your back without your knowledge, especially if it our notions may make you uncomfortable. We won’t share any of these thoughts with other believers in the congregation, since disturbing the faithful is not our work.
Second is to let you understand the nature of the work we intend to do at JCP. Ben was offended that we were regarded as some college kids trying to finish their homework, and I share his feelings. I hope this field notes give some sense of the breadth and depth of observations we intend to do. While this is not a draft of our paper, it will serve as a reference when making arguments and observations. I hope this won’t sound elitist, but rather mutual understanding of our stance.

I would like to let you know that my stance is a critical one, not a hostile one. I was grown up Presbyterian in South Corea, and received Christ at the age of 16. I am a practicing Presbyterian with a very conservative theology (I went to a Baptist high school).

Our professor compelled us to proceed in the project always under the consent of the leaders. If you feel my attitudes and observations in this field note are not quite for God’s glory and may not be appropriate for the site, please let me know. I can be reached at and (651) 696-6938. I won’t be coming on November 5th because of other commitments, but hopefully I’ll see you the week following it.

Preparations. Mary, Ben and me met conferred by email between Tuesday and Wednesday on details for our first field visit. I sent them the progress report written to be turned in to professor Patten. Ben said that maybe we could watch a TV recast at 4pm before going, and also contact the administrative assistant (Shannon) before going, “just so they know we are coming”. I argued that most likely all staff personnel would be busy preparing the worship at this time, especially because it seemed like a big congregation. We met at 4:40 but could not find the channel. We found other televised programs, in which an old person was preaching, and thought that if this was JC’s place, we should better look for other sites.

My understanding of the place was that it was going to be a show-focused practice, mixing theological teachings emphasizing material wealth and individualism, the kind my father used to warn me against.

We reexamined the project assignment sheet, lined up the general strategy for our work during the month of November, and set out two specific tasks for tonight’s visit: one, to participate and get a feeling of the site; two, to talk with leaders and obtain permission to continued participant observation and interview of practitioners. We had dinner and departed at 6:15 in Ben’s car.

I fell asleep during the car trip and felt sorry later. When I woke up, we had left the highway, around 6:45pm. Ben was driving, Mary was sitting next to him and I was in the back. I think we didn’t talk much in the trip, except for helping with directions.

1. Physical Features

Urban Surrounding. In the dark, the surrounding area seemed quite desolate, and the parking lot was crowded mostly with SUV’s and vans. I suggested that because this is a suburban church, a lot of rich people may flock into it, and that the size of the cars could be one proof. Inside, we found a small children worship. The fact that there is no sidewalk that leads the way from the streets through the parking lot to the church building itself, may be another symbolic challenge to those who do not have cars. I asked at the info kiosk where the campus ministry was, but the people weren’t sure what that was. Ben asked where JC’s place was in the next kiosk, and then I realized that I had mistakenly been thinking of the site as a comprehensive church with a separate “campus ministry” program.

Site of worship. We entered the lobby area through the corridor, and youth were standing at the entrance doors and handing out plastic necklaces. We approached them and each one got our necklace, which turned out to be an imitation of some hawaaian practice. The information kiosk girl told me that the worship lasts 20 to 30 minutes, while the whole program ends at 8:30pm. The site of worship was a large semicircular hall with an elevated stage. The hall was about 40 meters wide, 30 meters deep, and 20 meters high. [Note that these dimensions are eye guesses based on post facto impressions; they should be understood to give the relative ratio between each one of its dimensions, and not the actual size] Cushioned lecture-style seats were arranged in three groups and two tiers of about four rows each. There was a paper palm tree for each group of seats, in between the front and back tiers. Mary and Ben chose seats in the third row at the back tier of the central group, and I told them that we should move forward. We picked seats at first row, back tier in the right wing. Most of the central seats were occupied. The stage arose at two steps or levels, the net height being about 2 feet. I think the hallway was covered with red carpet, but I don’t remember well.

The hall was darkly illuminated with dim lights on the roof and side colored lights hitting the stage diagonally. There were cameramen with tripod-mounted cameras at the two wings, in between the two tiers. Behind the back tier of the right wing, a huge mixer was installed along with video controlling apparatuses. I once read in an internet article that mixers of such size may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. There were two entrances located in between each group – basically surrouding the central group.

Stage setup. The stage featured a paper volcano pictured to have a flowing lava, a screen in the middle, and curtains covering both ends of the stage. I could not find the projector that was shooting video images directly from the worship site itself to the screen. At first the stage was smoked, but it went away as worship started. Beneath the screen was a curtain wall, presumably to allow performers prepare their costume and materials. There were two mic poles, a drum set and a few paperholders on stage.

Congregation. I assumed from the fact that the site was suburban, that most people would be white. In fact, they were. I noticed some people of color, mostly African-americans. Later, as we discussed the racial aspect of the congregation, Mary and Ben and me differed in our estimation of diversity. Mary and Ben counted at most 5 colored people, but I believe I saw close to 20 or more. (Of course the crowd was between 150 and 300 people). This having been a surface scanning based on skin color, I doubt any major analysis arising from this observation may be of value. The ages ranged from 5 to 25, but the sheer majority was a homogenous youth compact (15-18) Most practitioners sat in groups, chatting freely throughout the worship. Some greeted each other at their arrival. As worship started, I noticed that the most physically vocal group had gathered in the front tiers of the hall.

2. Temporal Structure

The ritual is divided into three main parts. The first twenty minutes is praise. Then it is followed by several entertainment performances for twenty or thirty minutes. The rest is preaching which ends up with an altar call and a prayer.

2. a. Praise

During praise, the congregation sings songs displayed in the screen, led by a trio of a male guitar player, female singer, and male drummer. All were dressed up in beach style costumes (shorts, skirts and t-shirts), with paper necklaces to spice it up with hawaaian culture. The lead singer went from song to song, without much comment or testimony in between. The congregation was all standing up during worship. Most clapped for tightly tempoed songs. A number of people raised hands while singing, with palms facing the front and the forearms and shoulders forming a line, just like the national-socialists did, but with both hands. The majority of hand-raisers were concentrated in the first tier (some went up very close to the stage) and hand raising occurred most during loosely tempoed songs. (Some would raise hands and later clap, and vice versa) Some were jumping up and down for tight tempo songs, and most of them were concentrated in the first tier. Some in the space between the stage and the first row of the first tier were jumping into different directions, an initiative allegedly possible only in the context of this open space. This core of hand-raisers and jumpers in the first tier of seats is what I mean by the “physically vocal group”. Some moved to the left and to the right while singing, but this was more prevalent throughout the congregation.

Dichotomized practice groups. I come from a Presbyterian tradition, and also am currently an active, rather fundamentalist believer and practitioner. I have had some exposure to urban Baptist, rural Pentecostal and Lutheran churches in the VIII and IX regions of Chile, large orthodox Presbyterian churches in Pusan and Seoul, South Corea, three Corean immigrants’ Presbyterian churches in Chile (Concepción, Temuco and Santiago), and a Presbyterian Korean-american church in Los Angeles. I had some contact with inter-confessional groups in Chile, but have not delved into them because my father discouraged me saying that their theological foundations were not to be trusted. Based on my experience, I can say that the physically vocal groups often constitute the leaders, mostly of the small groups, and also of emotional practitioners, a group that can be relied upon to give testimony and prayer. I suspect that the formation of physically vocal and non-vocal groups in the congregation gives way to a certain formulation of social cliques, to such a degree that an interview with a practitioner from each group should give way to notorious differences, if not in faith and belief systems, in the form of expression and terms chosen to describe particular theological ideas.

Immediate surroundings. The practitioner sitting to my left – Mary and Ben were to my right, in that order – was one of the jumpers, although he did it less consistently than the core “front tier” group. Often groups started jumping at the beginning of a song but abandoned the practice once realizing that the song had a loose tempo.
I myself felt quite comfortable with the setting. Although I felt a charged repulsion to the supposedly “cultural” representation of Hawaai and the Hawaaian rhythm as intended in the final song, I was familiar with the lyrics and song styles presented.
On a side note, I think that the melody of songs used in US congregations have a purposely blurred tonal configuration, so that any digressing pitch would fit harmoniously with the instruments; I thought of this because it was very hard to follow the singing itself (as opposed to talking). In contrast, the Chilean and Korean congregations I have been present at show clear distinction of tonal configuration in songs. I fear that this may relate to elements of difference in elementary education between the US and other countries. My hypothesis in brief would be that in the US education, having individualism emphasized, subjects not liked by students may be roundly rejected, whereas in most countries the elementary and secondary education curriculum is a fixed one, including music.

My identification with the setting and the activities therein practices reminded me later of the awkwardness of having my other two colleagues who did not identify themselves with the congregation. While clapping and singing, I was in fact praising God. Having to identify elements of social structure and observe my own participation throughout the worship put me at odds with the fact that I was not a mere participant in it. Recognizing that I was not observing the worship from the same stance as my colleagues made me worry about them for a moment. But as I looked back, they seemed to be enjoying the atmosphere. Good.

Overall the people were not too aware of each other, focusing mainly in the praise itself. Our companion to my left often talked with another girl in the back row, which made me wonder if our impassiveness towards worship made him overly self-conscious. These worries, too, were gone when he later told me that she was his girlfriend.

I noticed some kids hitting each other in the last row of the front tier, right in front of us, but this seemed to be confined to the younger of the congregation.

Elements of Trance. Three elements seem to corroborate towards induced trance status in the physically vocal group. The most evident one is the beat. Bass guitar and drum sounds were remarkedly loud, inducing rythmic vibration in toraccical bones (or at least it was most noticeable in these areas of the body for me); presumably controlling palpitation. The second element is jumping. Continued practice requires strenuous physical effort, with an increase in breathing and blood circulation. Because it is repetitive, it may be cause of light hypnosis as well.

Thirdly, being in front of a large group (even when backing them) is socially tension producing for any individual. Indeed I myself sit in the first line to fight sleepiness with the aid of the tension that being watched by people behind creates. Hypothetically, if a practitioner were to fall into epileptic behavior, doing it at the very back row, within sight of only the two or four neighboring practitioners, is far less strenuous than doing so in the very front row, immediately attracting the attention of the cone expanding from the point of origin. This is based in sight range, but it is so only in square audiences. In semicircular settings as in JC’s place, A curved triangular area, with its area expanding logarithmically outwards, corresponds to the immediate visual reach of an overtly deviating behavior. However, because people are prone to look towards where others are looking, an overtly deviating behavior occurring in front lines in a semicircular congregations is spotted by every single person within seconds. This potentiality of attention should create an enormous social stress on those standing in the front lines.

These three elements ought to create a favorable environment for trance. Even when the Holy Spirit may move people into this efervecent adoration, the aforementioned sociopsychological factors should not be ignored.

Leadership. During worship, the guitarist took the leading role. He didn’t say much, however. At the start, he said “Can you see I am barefooted?”. Throughout praise, he was smilin’.

2. b. Entertainment

This portion I identified most strongly with the show proper. Among others, there was a teaching of “aloha”, a dance skit, taking apple cans out of a swimming pool, and celebrity jeopardy. And it ended with teaching “hallalloojah”. Between each entertainment, the pastor introduced the next one.

Explanation of Aloha. The pastor explained that “aloha” was a hawaaian word that meant both hello and bye. He remarked, “it means both hello and bye with love. That makes me feel all warm.” He also read the story of Hawaai, in which the evil hawaaians invaded other good hawaaians. This connects with the following skit:

Dance skit. A group of 4 male performers with ugly masks and torn suits showed up through the curtain walls. They started dancing on stage, emphasizing discordant movements between arms and legs. One of the dancers stuck out for his originality in bodily movements; particularly raising his left arm repetitively (from a purely landscape-based perspective, this raising hand singled him out). I could her many behind me ask aloud: “who’s that? Is it Mark?” The evidently social nature of this performance when everybody laughed heartily after finding out later that he was somebody else. The lighting was limited to red illumination only. After a while, a 4 female performers appeared from the left, wearing tight clothes and dancing a movement that was meant to be hawaaian. As they joined the male performers, they “converted” male dances to the female dances. At the end of the performance, The leading male performer took his mask off, bringing the aforementioned comments.

Pumpkin prizes. The pastor then explained that hawaaians celebrated the hallaloojah by carving up pumpkins. Then the highlight was on the moderator, who showed three favorite pumpkin carvings (there were about twenty on stage) and said that everybody should yell out the names of pumpkin carvings they thought to be the best. The big screen hanging high in the stage was crucial to the implementation of this portion of the program, for the pumpkin carvings were way too small to be discernible at a distance. Most people yelled out names, but it was rather not intelligible. He then said he would choose the best pumpkin by hearing which yelling was loudest at the mention of each pumpkin. Upon the test, the moderator passed the baton to the pastor with an awkward smile.

Costumes. The pastor then said that hawaaians also put on costumes in hallaloojah, and three costumes were presented. Each presenter entered the stage from left and left the stage before the next presenter entered. The first team was two girls with football shirts and blue jeans. Pastor asked them what they were representing. A girl said that she was representing [some college] football team. Then they set on confronting each other and imitated something that was meant to be a tackle. (But she took the shoulders of her opponent and not her thighs). Next was a girl dressed with a white one piece. When questioned by the pastor, she said awkwardly, “I am freshman at North Central. …. Do you see my future husband?”. She seemed to be willing to say more, but pastor said a few words instead. Last was a boy with a opal blue curtain around his waist and small bras on his chest. He claimed to be the mermaid. The pastor nominated him the best costume.

Finding apple cans. The moderator (not the pastor) requested three volunteers. Several dozen raised hands, and the moderator called out three by their names. They were to take out 7 apple cans from the swimming pool. The moderator mumbled something about that it usually wasn’t cans, but that budget problems had them buy cans. It wasn’t explicitly laid that they should do it with their teeth, but that’s what the three males did. They kneeled down, stuck their heads in the small pool, and spit out cans upon taking their heads out. The camera shown through the big screen gave a good insight of what was going on in the small pool, which would not have been possible from afar. As they all finished, the moderator said that there was one more left. All dipped their heads in, somebody took the can out, and the game was over. Moderator returned the participants.

Celebrity Jeopardy. Three people caricaturizing actors showed up for the jeopardy. Actors stood up behind paper stools with their names inscribed vertically on them. The moderator stood to the right behind a transparent plastic stool with a large ship handle on it, at chest level. One was a muscular and blunt man; let’s call him Arnold. The other was a pretty woman; I’ll call her Britney. The other was an old man with white hair and moustache; I’ll call him Oscar. The jeopardy moderator (not the same person as the entertainment moderator) initiated the game. Actors rang a beep and then responded. All three participants showed stereotyped stupidity driven to the utmost imaginable.
Examples of questions and answers during jeopardy are as follows:

Arnold: Ben, I’ll take the award question for $200.
Moderator: It’s not an award question, it’s a a-word question. And my name is not Ben, it’s Alex Traibeque. Anyways, an a-word question is about words that start with A. The hint is this: it’s a fruit, red, and traditionally given to your teachers.
Ben: Uh.. Matt, I didn’t have teachers.
Moderator: My name is ALEX TRAIBEQUE. Wrong answer.
Britney: Can I call my husband?
Moderator: no, you can’t call because we don’t have any partners, such as Qwest or Comcast or AT&T
Oscar: I’ll take the hallaloojah question for $100.
Moderator: Hellaloojah questions are about the history of hallaloojah, and all answers are the word “hallaloojah”. I repeat: all answers are “hallaloojah”. (Congregation laughs) Question: this festivity was celebrated among the HAwaaians in the 18th century and was transmitted to us today.
Britney: It’s cold here.
Moderator: Wrong.
Oscar: You were in it.
Moderator: NO.
Oscar: Your mom, then.
Arnold: Uh, October.
Moderator: the answer is Hallaloojah. I told you that all answers of this category are “hallaloojah”! Britney, choose yours.
Britney: I’ll choose the tic-tac-toe for $300.
Moderator: it’s not a tic-tac-toe, it’s a number. That’s an universal symbol for number. [notice the multivocality of geometrical pattern # blatantly being negated in this instance!] The question is: [and so they went]

This was the pattern that jeopardy took, ranging for a dozen questions and answers. I think I often noticed offensive denials to creative solutions, even though I cannot remember the concrete examples, but only the fact that I thought they [answers] were creative at the moment. (None of the three examples featured above constitute a strong case of denial to creativity).

Role of Entertainment for the overall ritual. One clear role is that of converting the otherwise sheer participatory nature of liturgy into a spectacle (Debord may prove useful in analyzing this) During praise, participants are expected to sing or clap, or at the very least follow the lyrics with their eyes. During preaching, the message is clearly intended to touch on each one of the individual practitioners congregated there. But the performances are no more than what the name says: performances. They invite the practitioner to take on the gaze of the detached observer, to partake on a jouissance of physical activity channeled as surplus value.

The second role could potentially invalidate the first one. The performers were not outsourced, but they were all members of the congregation offering voluntarily (hopefully) to perform. Thus the performance conveyed a sense of social exchange. Recall the outbursting wishes of practitioners to identify the individual performers and match them up in the cognitive personal records system (Boyer) I think the leading “ugly hawaaian” from the dance skit was the campus ministry pastor, but I am not sure. Were it true, however, then the hierarchy portrayed at the performance level would mimic that prevalent at the religious-social level. (Possibly Durkheim here, even though Durkheim focuses on the religious performance establishing a parallel to societal structure. And the third role is precisely that of a secular overtone of the performances)

The third role is the secular nature of the performance. I am adept at identifying Christian themes. These performances are definitely not intended at conveying any Christian message. The closest it got was when the pastor explained that “aloha” meant hello and bye at the same time so that we brothers and sisters in Christ should say aloha at each other (I find it a stretch, however). The pumpkin selection, costumes and finding apple cans are the kind of activities often seen in TV shows designed for a secular youth. Celebrity jeopardy may have been intended as social criticism and a call for consciousness, but the aim was kind of low. What’s the point of insulting somebody who cannot spell?

A task left for the project paper will be integrating these roles into a coherent analytic unit. One quick hypothesis I could advance here goes like this: The performance was a transitional device intended to smoothen the distance between the participatory nature of praise and the sociohierarchical nature of preaching. Praise gave ample leeway to deviatory action, such as throwing balls around and yelling out jokes; these actions, if left to persist through the preaching portion, may illegitimize the message itself, for preaching was charismatic at its very core. Performance emphasized passivity in the congregation (role two). It is easier to lead a passive crowd into top-to-down transmission of religious notions than a rowdy one. During preaching, the pastor stands in the center of the stage and talks unilaterally to the congregation. The pastor may walk in between tiers and groups of seats to lessen his totalitarian presence, but talking to any one of the practitioners –and thus allowing the potential breach in the momentum of gospel preaching – is not permitted. Later at the car, Mary recalled that while the pastor asked practitioners to think of their relationship with God, she tried to but was constantly interrupted by the voice of the pastor interrupting her thoughts, by saying “I see you. Thanks”, “You at the left. Thanks Lord”. (He was letting those who raised their hands know that he had seen them. When the pastor acknowledged seeing their hands, those hands were immediately dropped. This is an issue of anonymity I’ll dip into in discussing preaching) I would suggest that these remarks by the pastor were precisely intended to interrupt anybody’s thoughts, for the intended effect was in uniting the whole congregation into the action of salvation of souls, letting everybody know that there were 2, 5, 16 people who had received Jesus as their personal saviors. The congregation was supposed to concentrated in the counting of hands, mediated through the pastor to ensure anonymity, and not in a inner reflection. Back to the argument, this level of popular unity and silence required a passive attitude from the practitioners which was facilitated by the performances. Additionally, the secular nature of this phase eased the transition by phasing out what would otherwise have been a tight dual sequence of sacred participation to sacred passivity. Because an important portion of the crowd (especially the younger generations) are “cool” with being Christian, as our initial contact person said, it is important to ensure a comfortable dynamics during the entire worship for the purpose of keeping up attendance. In our jargon, it’s giving every soul a chance. That’s my hypothesis. I am not sure as on how to incorporate the social role into the rest.

2. c. Preaching

  • illumination and spatial displacement.
  • message. Love God and people. Salvation.

2. d. Altar call

  • charismatic aspects
  • anonymity.
  • guilt at dual position of believer practitioner and observer.

3. Extraritual aspects

3. a. Postworship socializing
Youth ministers.

3. b. Obtaining consent and proselytizing

3. c. Debriefing
Incompatibility of fundamentalist and pluralistic systems.

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