December 12, 2003
Anthropology of Religion
JC’s Place: Individual Analysis
1. Describe any ontological categories and the tags that contradict them which you have identified based on your (jointly gathered) data and reading.
I could observe several ontological category violations – some within the religious practice per se and others in the stated belief system. The most common one was that of the recognition of a supernatural entity as a human category with other violating tags. Travis explains that “I believe that the Bible teaches that Jesus is omnipresent, he can be everywhere at the same time.” Clearly by referring to Jesus as a “he”, Travis is perceiving Jesus using human categories, but attributes him the tag of being everywhere, which is not possible for an entity limited in space.
The Bible also took the form of a category violation. To the Bible, a written form of text, a tag of “being a voice of God” was attached. Also, the Bible also acquired a tag for cognition because when discussing cults, practitioners often argued that “the Bible says that humans cannot become God” or “according to the Bible, …”. Evidently, this kind of category violation occurs when talking about most texts in general conversation. Nevertheless this violation was an observed phenomenon and worth noting.
2. Did you observe any examples of decoupled cognition? If so, please describe them
Yes! When things happened that ordinarily a presiding God would not have allowed to happen, Noel recognized that she felt doubting God – emotionally she was rejecting the existence of God into her perception, but that her ontological construction, rational thought brought the notion of God back into the system.
I guess whenever somebody dies in the family, or something tragic has happened to you, you ask “god are you there?”, so yeah there have been times that I’ve questioned that., but then I always get back into the word of god, and I read what a loving god we have and to serve. Although we can’t see the big picture it must be in our minds, god knows the big picture.
Instances of decoupled cognition were not often, but they certainly slipped through the interviews from time to time.
3. Do you think that the practitioners you observed constitute a coalition or some part of a coalition? If yes, describe the nature of the coalition and the cooperative strategies in use. Does it have a specialist involved?
A social cooperative was present in the structure within which JC’s place was organized, but I am not sure if this was a coalitional interest group. According to Travis, there was an enormous amount of social interaction taking place outside the formal boundaries of religious practice at JC’s Place.
I think we hang out more outside the church that we do in the church. That’s the one thing that is so huge about jc’s place and how we’re set up. We focus so much on building a community and relationships, that’s the main reason for cell groups. … We’ve got middle school upstairs that is running 150, we’ve got jc’s place with the high school and colleges running 500-600 people, the college is gonna be moving onto (n,e,) in February, so it’s such a large group that it’s hard to… you can get lost. So, we created cell groups to build that relationship, to feel connected. Everybody is involved. So, yeah, like after were done here we’re probably going to Perkins to hang out for a couple hours, just because it’s such an important and vital part of how we are, I don’t know, we’re way huge on the fellowship and community building.
Clearly, there is a conscious recognition of “community and relationships”, which are structural embodiments of social interaction. Travis also tells of a history of building social groups divided in age groups (high school and college groups), which may possibly be interpreted as coalitions, but it is quite a weaker form when compared to Boyer’s description of interest group coalitions. (Boyer 275)
A stronger case for religious coalitional formation may be found in the Cell Group study sessions, in which different cults where criticized. By making sure that practitioners did not fall into the ways of other sects, a line was being drawn where members of one religious group were distinguished from those of other cultic groups. This is precisely the kind of coalitional work that serves as a background to fundamentalist practices. (Boyer 280)
A corollary observation of economic coalition could be pointed out in the second field visit to JC’s place, in which “the loudest offering” took place. By making the giving of money a noisy and spectacular practice, those who were giving joined the ranks of devouts. It may be possible that those with “weaker faith” may have improved their status within the congregation by giving money.
4. Did you observe any indications of agency on the part of supernatural entities? If so, please describe.
Supernatural entities exercised a limited amount of agency. As Travis tells how he became a born again Christian, it should be noted that God as an actor mostly stays where it is, whereas Travis goes back and forth in his search for God.
… it was either my sophomore or my junior year in high school when I really made that decision on my own, … things just kinda made sense. where it wasn’t like just floating around, not really knowing what I was doing, when I’m like I had a purpose, you know.
However, orthodox Christian teachings explain that it is God who exercises agency in the process of salvation and also in everyday interaction with God. This may be a source for decoupled cognition, for it is really the believer doing the actions, but she or he must believe that it is God who is acting. This tensions is present in Travis’s account of this everyday interaction with Jesus:
Me and Jesus are pretty tight. It’s kinda weird if someone was looking in they would say this guy is schizophrenic just talking to himself. I believe that the Bible teaches that Jesus is omnipresent, he can be everywhere at the same time. You can talk to him like he’s your best friend, like he’s just sitting there in the room. I just talk, no eloquent words or anything like that, just talking to him as a friend. I talk to him about everything.. I talked to him about how my day went if I had an awesome day if I had crappy day you know whatever it’s like that he’s so personal to me. He knows everything, I mean, he’s God. But there’s just something about actually saying it and sharing it specially that knowledge like that person actually cares. It’s kinda weird when you think about it. But it’s totally like talking to somebody, like I’m talking to you right now.
Notice how it is Travis who does the talking when Jesus will sit there and listen. In a sense, it is the grammatical structure of any language that will not allow for creation of such a situation where the believer is really acting but is pushed to think that it is God who is acting. Within the Travis’s narrative structure, it can be seen that he is struggling with this conceptual difficulty.
Thus there is agency on the part of supernatural agencies, but this cannot be conciliated with the human way of conceptualizing relationships unless a decoupled cognition separating the action (the practitioner talking to God) from what ought to be happening (God having the practitioner talk to him) occurs.
5. How is this religion grounded, practical, relevant for its practitioners?
As explained above, practicing religion at JC’s place provided grounds for socializing with others from the area. Other than that, it provided food and drinks (both in the main JC’s place worships and Cell Group meetings, although Cell Group food was more substantial than in JC’s place. Often the pastor announced after JC’s place was finishing that there would be snacks outside, but when we stepped outside we could see some people eating something but never saw the actual food on the table- there must have been only a scarce amount.)
It also provided a place where groups of different economic class could gather and to an extent share their benefits with each other. I would speculate that it also worked as a soothener to social malcontents arising from suburban inequality.
6. Briefly describe your reactions to this (limited) involvement you have had with this group of practitioners in the context of their religious setting, beliefs, and activities.
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.
Primarily, I found the pompous staging of the worship in JC’s place offensive and also theologically incorrect. I also assumed many things about the social status and economic power of those visiting JC’s place based in the cars seen in the parking lot, the fact that the practitioners were mostly blonde whites, and that the worship hall boasted professional video cameras and an expensive mixer. I have to say that I could not relate to nor feel sympathy to the group overall. However, when partaking in participant observation, I could not help but realize that no matter how corrupt the church may be, the same God that I have faith in was the same God being worshipped in the religious ritual, and had to accept the double nature of worship as a subject of study and worship as a fully religious experience. This sometimes made me uncomfortable, as I had to open my eyes during prayer to observe the fact that those who raised their hands during altar call immediately dropped their hands upon being named, for example.
Upon visiting the Cell Group, my conception of the practitioners changed. These are students with very little education, and barely getting any jobs, who come to church sometimes to just cope with the social reality of living poor in an affluent neighborhood. I felt that I was more privileged than the average population present at the Cell Groups, and felt sorry for having an overcritical attitude. However, this has been my stance throughout the two field visits to JC’s place, and it reflects in my observations.
Practitioners at the Cell Group invited us to keep coming, but I don’t feel that would be adequate – I would have to show them this report first, and I am embarrassed and afraid of showing such a negative portrayal of JC’s place.