Ben P. Johnson
Anthropology of Religion
December 12, 2003
JC’s Place: Rescue, Develop, Send
Our group studied JC’s place, which is a semi-informal Pentecostal Christian gathering based in the Emmanuel Christian Center.
The Emmanuel Christian Center is located at Spring Lake Park, a suburb located close to Anoka County, to the north of Minneapolis. It is a large establishment and several other groups gather at the place.
This establishment is considered religious because many religious practices take place here. The practices, among which JC’s place is one, because things occurring inside are considered sacred, whereas the same acts, such as jumping or singing, when performed outside the building they are considered profane.
JC’s place as an activity consists of a weekly Wednesday evening meeting, from 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM. Other small social/bible study groups, called Cell Groups, meet every week at different times, in the group leader’s houses. A Sunday worship, called “Disciples for Christ”, meets Sundays at 8:30 AM.
JC’s place makes use of extended media publicity through the TV and web. The effectiveness of such efforts may be glanced when considering that Ben, who proposed JC’s place as a field site, found out about JC’s place in a cable recast of the worship, and that most subsequent information gathering was done via web.
Most of our arrangements about fieldwork started in October 14th in the form of short emails and chats after class. Once we were set on visiting the site regularly, we would coordinate activities inside the car, both on the way to the site and the way back home.
Prior to our initial visit to JC’s place, Ben wanted to make contact with the administrative assistant or the pastor (whose email and phone number were available on the website) to somehow arrange our visit. Due to time constraints, this was not possible. The group did field work in three occasions – visiting JCP in October 29th and November 12th, and participating in a Cell Group in December 4th. Because the Cell Group was a more intimate affair, Yongho contacted the Cell Group leader to obtain explicit permission.
The group used Ben’s car exclusively for transportation. Given the merciless weather and the long distance to this northern suburb, access to a personally owned car was critical to carrying out regular visits in the middle of the week.
Once at the site, the group made use of participant observation and recorded and unrecorded interviews to gather information. A few pamphlets and paper advertisements were collected as well. During the interviews, Mary focused in gender roles and fundamentalism; Ben questioned issues of decoupled cognition and internal contradictions in the church’s theology; and Yongho explored agency of supernatural agents.
Setting. The weekend following our first site visit was thanksgiving week. JC’s place had staged a special theme appropriate to the spirit of thanksgiving – Hawaaian dances and songs. Somehow, the team had managed to mix Hawaaian dance with Pumpkin carvings, and claimed that thanksgiving was really initiated by Hawaaian natives who celebrated the liberation from invasors. At the main entrance to JCP, practitioners were greeted with plastic necklaces and praise staff was dressed up with colorful T-shirts and shorts.
Inside the hall, 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. The stage arose at two steps or levels, the net height being about 2 feet.
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. There were two entrances located in between each group – basically surrounding the central group.
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. 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.
For the second field visit to the site, most of the stage decorations were removed. Smoking at the beginning of the worship persisted, but ritual professionals carried civiliann clothes and no particular set-ups were seen.
Emmanuel Christian Center, in which JC’s place is staged, is a large multisided construction surrounded by its parking lot. There was no way to enter the place by foot.
The Cell Group meeting took place at the house of Group Leader’s in-law. It was a large house located in a neighborhood protected from the main street by a ten-block-long barrier. The house itself had hardwood floor, a spacious lounge, three stories, and light bulbs distributed every two feet on the kitchen roof. Cell Group worship took place in the lounge, located in the back side of the house; the lounge was equipped with a large TV, one long couch and three single couches, carpeted floor, and a fireplace.
Activities. Ritual practices at JC’s place is mainly divided into two. The first twenty minutes is praise. Then there is some sort of activity, and the rest is preaching which ends up with an altar call and a prayer. In our first visit, there were several entertainment performances related to Thanksgiving for twenty or thirty minutes in lieu of activities, between praise and preaching. In our second visit, there was a video clip showing Iraqi refugees in Jordan.
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. From now on, we will call this core of hand-raisers and jumpers in the first tier of seats as the “physically vocal group”. Some moved to the left and to the right while singing, but this was more prevalent throughout the congregation.
In our first visit, a large portion of time was dedicated at a number of games. Some of these games are described in the following citation from the October 29th fieldnotes:
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 hear 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.
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.
Pumpkin prizes. … 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, … would choose the best pumpkin by hearing which yelling was loudest at the mention of each pumpkin. …
Finding apple cans. … 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. …. and the game was over. Moderator returned the participants.
Many activities involved a strong social component, as many practitioners needed to identify the performers down to people they knew.
Both the first and second field visit included a message preached by the pastor. The message in the first visit was about sin and salvation. In the second one, our initial contact person’s father-in-law preached about his experience doing missionary work in many countries throughout South America. This was coupled with the video about Iraqi refugees and ended with an exhortation to give money for the missionaries in Jordan to buy two cars. This offrend took the form of “the loudest offering”, in which people were beforehand asked to bring change and deposit it in a metal can. (Thus making tons of noise)
After the message is given, a final prayer, followed by individual prayers (which is practiced by a majority of practitioners, roughly constituting a prayer session) closes the practice. Practitioners who decide not to pray walk out into the hallways and chat in small groups.
In the Cell Group session, the order is that of praise, prayer, and study session. The Group Leader decided to do a study of other cults and religions and compare them with Bible-based Christianity and discuss what was wrong with them. After the study session was over, practitioners gathered around the kitchen to share doughnuts and pop.
Demographics. The first thing that we noted at JC’s place was that the parking lost was filled with big and expensive cars. Then Ben pointed out the homogenous (white) composition of practitioners. During the preaching of our second visit, several cues were given as to suggest that the practitioners were too spoiled to perceive the contradictions of poverty. As the pastor mentioned that the U.S. was blessed in comparison with other poverty-stricken nations to make his point that the rich should give, everybody clapped, having (presumably) understood that they should be proud of having so much money to spend. On the other hand, Mary noticed the lack of female leadership and inquired about it to Noel, one of our interviewees. She answered that in general it was harder for women to hold such positions, and that the situation had improved over the years anyways. At the Cell Group meetings, Yongho noted that the students present at Cell Group meetings were students coming from 2-year or technical schools and didn’t have much luck finding jobs.
Hierarchical Faith. The fact that there was a group division in the praisers depending on their physical involvement hints at some sort of spiritual hierarchization within JC’s place. Later on, while requesting permission from the Cell Group leader to interview one or two students from the Cell Group, Yongho was told that the Group Leader would rather prefer to pick those who can actually say something in the interview, implying that he preferred those with a stronger faith to be interviewed. Later in the Cell Group meeting, as we improvised the selection of a second person, the Group Leader asked around for people to be interviewed and there was a quick exchange of glances. In this, we would assume that there is a consensual division among practitioners with a stronger faith and weaker faith.
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.
Spectacle and Social interaction. One clear role of the games in JC’s place was that of converting the otherwise sheer participatory nature of liturgy into a spectacle. 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.
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 possible integrative explanation of these seemingly disparate activities is as follows. 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 concentrate 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.
Importance of supernatural entities. Supernatural entities, namely God and Jesus, were particularly relevant. Both of our interviewees, Noel and Travis, stressed that Jesus had a portion in their everyday lives. Noel explained that while the formal aspect of her relationship with God was by praying before going to bed, she had a constant spiritual exchange with God throughout the day. Travis was more explicit:
I was making coffee and I was like God thank you so much for creating coffee. I love coffee. It’s a continuous conversation… if something just pops into my head I’ll start … about it. Like it’s snowing outside and I’m driving home I’ll just start praying for safety for me for everybody else around me, my friends who might be driving.
Thus Supernatural entities have become an integral part of conceptualizing everyday life for practitioners like Travis. This may have been the result that Travis was the chosen “strong faith” practitioner (Group Leader recommended him first). But interviews with other practitioners has led our group to conclude that this feature is a generalized phenomenon in the practiing population.
Aspects of morality. It was not easy to discover moral prescription in the message transmitted through preaching nor in the cell group session. However, the pamphlets collected at the hallway of the Emmanuel Christian Center provide some useful moral guidelines. In a booklet published by the Emmanuel Christian Center and titled “Be an active church member”, it is suggested that an active church member would “serve others”, “use their spiritual gifts”, “manage their time effectively” and “enjoy giving to those in need”. These kind of moral guidelines, however, were not discussed in JCP’s preachings nor in the group study discussion.
JC’s place is a place of dichotomies. On the one hand, it is a place where rich and poor populations mix during the rituals. On the other, it is located in a primarily immigrant neighborhood yet it maintains a racial and ethnic homogeneity. At the larger group meetings, the preaching focuses on accepting those with different beliefs but Cell Group sessions deal with correcting cults. Above it all, it maintains a cohesiveness as a religious institution despite internal tensions. Some of these intriguing issues will be dealt with in our individual papers.