Onward Christian Strangers – By Omri Elisha

Omri Elisha on Anna Strhan’s Aliens and Strangers?

Anna Strhan, Aliens and Strangers? The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals, Oxford University Press, 2015, 288pp., $90
Anna Strhan, Aliens and Strangers? The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals, Oxford University Press, 2015, 288pp., $90
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Nearly a generation has passed since a time when anyone would be surprised to learn that reports of the death of God were greatly exaggerated. The decline of religion in public life, a cornerstone of secularization theory, turned out to be not so inevitable. Whereas the forward march of the modern once heralded the end of miracles, magic, and myth, history reminds us daily that this narrative was something of a myth unto itself.

Intriguingly, at the very moment when grand theories predicting mass secularization came under fire, scholars began to take greater interest in the cultural significance of “the secular.” As luminaries like Talal Asad, Jose Casanova, and Charles Taylor have shown, “the secular” is best understood not merely as the absence or opposite of “the religious,” but as a relevant category in the study of many aspects of social life (including religion) that have been shaped by the ideas, institutions, and technologies that made the project of Western modernity possible. It refers to a process of classification, rather than negation. Religion did not wane with the advance of secularism so much as get consigned to a specific role and purpose in the world. Secularization theory is dead, long live secularism.

This is an important distinction. When we view secularism as a system of generalized principles and institutional arrangements, it is easier to recognize that religion as we know it is neither a remnant of ancient pasts nor a natural adversary of progress but a category born of, and integral to, the very ways in which our modern lives are ordered. If secularism set religion apart in the order of things, limiting its public authority, then by the same token secularism effectively enhanced public faith in the idea that something universal called “religion” actually exists, and that it is worth preserving, so long as it knows its place. Secularism thus poses religion as a distinguished ideal as well as a problem to be resolved.

Few religious groups embody this tension, and struggle with its everyday implications, as routinely as conservative Protestants in the Euro-American West. It is no wonder then that tension and struggle emerge as central themes in Anna Strhan’s book, Aliens and Strangers? The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals. This is an ethnographically rich and theoretically ambitious study, based on 18 months of fieldwork with the urban congregants of “St. John’s” (a pseudonym) — a conservative evangelical Anglican church in central London, whose members are mostly white middle-class professionals and college students. Though Strhan’s work is not explicitly on secularism, it is focused squarely on “the secularity of urban space” as a context where we find evangelicals working through multiple, intersecting modes of inhabiting “the City,” while trying to minimize conflicts that ensue.

The conflicts Strhan unpacks are not the usual mass-mediated controversies like abortion, but everyday ethical and existential conflicts that arise for churchgoers in situations where doing what God wants and doing what seems like the right thing at the time are not necessarily one and the same. This is apparent, for example, in moments when the desire to be a strong Christian “witness” to the world comes up against metropolitan ethics of tolerance, propriety, and non-intervention.

Take James, a young investment analyst who incurs the ire of his HR director by distributing an evangelistic tract, which he wrote himself, to every employee in his firm. Forced to apologize to his co-workers individually, James cleverly re-imagines this as “one-on-one follow up time” with each person in the office. Yet this seems a rather small victory, as James is duly chastened by the prohibition against proselytism in the workplace. He chalks it up to the persecution of the righteous, and like so many white-collar evangelicals, decides that he can still evangelize at work, but by working hard and doing a good job for his firm.

Such concessions are so common for urban evangelicals as to become almost intuitive, but they are hard pills to swallow. This is just one of the reasons Strhan describes evangelical life as a “struggle for coherence” amidst layers of disjuncture and alienation that come with “metropolitan modernity.” In her thoughtful analysis, it is a struggle that produces as much fragmentation as it seeks to ameliorate, though for Christians this seems to pose at least one clear advantage: fragmentation makes room for God.

Strhan’s main argument is itself quite layered and relies on several key concepts, “fragmentation” being the most vivid. Her analysis builds on the idea that life in the big city, as urban theorists have long argued, is intrinsically alienating, driving people to distraction and detachment, and putting them in contact with cultural norms they find disagreeable or frustrating. Conservative evangelicals, already theologically predisposed to regard “the City” with great ambivalence, respond to this by seeing themselves as “aliens and strangers” (from 1 Peter) in relation to urban others (“the lost”), by virtue of their orientation toward a transcendent Other. Religious identity is rooted in a sense of rupture with the secular city in which they dwell. Strhan calls this “external” or “moral fragmentation.”

In turning to the divine, she further argues, evangelicals learn to know God as the source of ultimate coherence, otherwise absent from their lives. The “personality of God” (a term nicely adapted from Georg Simmel) instills in them the desire to attain such coherence, a desire that intensifies as evangelicals become conscious, almost obsessively, of their own inadequacies as Christians, fixating on how often they fall short of doing what they believe God expects of them. Strhan characterizes this as a form of “ethical subjectivity” in which the self is divided within itself, a condition of “internal” or “subjective fragmentation.”

Extending from all this are two additional insights worth noting: First, Strhan brings together recent scholarship on object-oriented ontology and lived religion to make a case for analyzing God as a “sacred figure,” whose “personality” exerts a kind of social agency in the everyday lives of evangelicals. This agency is mediated through “embodied practices” of evangelical speaking and listening, which I return to shortly.

Second, since the experience of “subjective fragmentation” has the effect of increasing evangelicals’ sense of utter dependence on God, and since that utter dependence is precisely what God desires, the “struggle for coherence” is essentially an unending one. It cannot be otherwise. It is a cyclical pattern in which facing one’s own insufficiency is a precondition for seeking the fullness of God, and seeking the fullness of God provides ample opportunities to feel insufficient. (This remains mostly implied in Strhan’s account, but does factor in her conclusion.) The cycle is further perpetuated by the fact that conservative evangelicals are hardly exempt from social norms outside of the church, including those regarded as spiritually undermining. The separation of evangelical self from secular other is never absolute.

In several respects, Aliens and Strangers? is a highly theoretical book. The pages are densely populated with canonical social theorists and philosophers. Roughly the first third of the book is devoted to exhaustive literature reviews, as Strhan develops the framework of her argument. The works of Foucault, Levinas, Latour, De Certeau, and Sennett feature prominently. But ultimately it is Simmel — arguably one of the most underappreciated (outside of academic sociology) social scientists of the last century — whose influence really shines, particularly with regard to issues of metropolitan life, modern subjectivity, and religion. At times, the amount of agency granted to these sacred figures of academia feels excessive, especially given the strengths of the author’s own analytical voice. Nonetheless, Strhan’s ability to synthesize these works and make them speak to each other is masterful, and lends considerable depth to the ethnographic evidence.

The ethnography draws on fieldwork that involved regular church attendance and participation in Bible study groups, and much of it looks at how members of St. John’s learn to embody, and reflect upon, discursive events that matter most when it comes to evangelical indoctrination and socialization. Sermons, songs, scriptures, prayers, discussions, and narratives of daily encounters with non-Christians assume crucial significance for evangelicals as means “through which they develop an orientation towards God and learn to focus on His character.” Techniques of speaking and listening (and reading) reinforce core values, such as paying attention to sermons, reading the Bible daily, hearing the Word of God, and sharing the Word of God through verbal interactions with strangers and friends. Talking about such techniques, moreover, appears to be a technique unto itself, one that facilitates spiritual commitments through linguistic performances of rational contemplation and emotional reflexivity.

For conservative evangelicals, spiritual enlightenment means hearing and understanding the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and thus depends on the circulation of words as carriers of meaning. Recent interventions by anthropologists such as Webb Keane and Simon Coleman have demonstrated that it is not merely the semantics of Protestant language that bears critical examination but the inescapable materiality of words as well. Strhan rightly highlights the fact that when evangelicals transact in meaning they do so through physical and sensory channels, from how one sits to read or listen to God’s Word to how churchgoers come to inhabit the spatial and moral geography of London. By drawing our attention to the “mundane textures” of people’s religious and social lives, Strhan shows us that the interiority of evangelical faith, as a lived reality, is invariably rooted in substance.

Indeed, Strhan does an excellent job of conveying how Christian “interrelationality” with God is composed of matter and not just “belief.” Yet by focusing chiefly on embodied practices that are anchored to one or another form of entextualization, her analysis does not entirely break free from a theologically sedimented bias toward language. This is not a flaw insofar as it accurately reflects the totalizing, world-defining power of “the Word” as the wellspring of evangelical consciousness. But it does mean that the range of mundane textures that Strhan promises to evoke remain somewhat limited to those that evangelicals (leaders most notably) endow with religious significance, as opposed to more subtle aspects of material life that may also be significant but are less often marked as such.

In other words, Strhan’s welcome intervention deserves to be pushed even further. What does evangelical life and sociality look like if we include things like food, fashion, hobbies, and recreations? How do people of faith use their smartphones? What do young parents do on date night? If evangelicals are prone to worry about worldly activities that distract them from God, what kinds of worldly activities are exempt from that concern? Such questions seem trivial, but they bring us closer to intimate aspects of the struggle for coherence that evangelicals are more likely to take for granted.

Still, through Strhan’s emphasis on embodiment and materiality, we witness evangelicals experiencing God as real and engaging in concrete strategies to reimagine London in biblical terms. We also learn that such practices are at times overdetermined by sociological factors as well as theology. In one case, Strhan observes that members of St. John’s who do door-to-door evangelism tend to approach the ministry very differently depending on the class character of each neighborhood. Strhan notes that “in spaces associated with middle-class privilege, it is harder for evangelicals to go public with their faith” because they find it embarrassing and awkward. In contrast, when evangelists venture out to local council estates, they are no longer inhibited by the same norms of social etiquette. It is thus in spaces of relative deprivation, rather than bourgeois respectability, that the “idealization of the speaking subject” flourishes most freely. In this and other ways, evangelical efforts to approximate the fullness of God become defined by the very norms and boundaries of urban fragmentation they would rather transcend.

To their credit, Strhan’s interlocutors are “conscious of tensions in their logics of practice.” While they normally attribute this to their nature as sinners, they recognize that their spiritual aspirations are “shaped through their simultaneous inhabiting of differentiated social spaces suffused with differing moral norms.” They know that the virtue of “attentive listening” is so hard to achieve because the distractions of modern media consumption and corporate “busyness” are not as alien to them as they would like them to be. They acknowledge that, as one church leader points out, living in twenty-first-century London makes it difficult to think about the future in apocalyptic terms. Far from displaying the unwavering certainty associated with religious fundamentalism, Strhan’s evangelicals are keenly aware that their pursuit of transcendence is entangled in urban secularity rather than immune from it.

The presence of doubts, ambiguities, and conflicted ambitions, alongside faith in God’s love and hope in salvation, is something that scholars of North American evangelicalism, including myself, have noted before. The great value of Strhan’s contribution is in her sensitive portrayal of evangelical “techniques of the self” that address this, and more importantly, the fact that she provides sophisticated theoretical language for making sense of it. Her applications of the concept of “fragmentation” alone are extremely productive for the study of modern religious practices that straddle the divide between public and private, and those that reinforce the sense that we are all somehow incomplete, in a world of moral logics competing to make us whole.

But are the differences between “religious” and “secular” really so profound? This brings me back to the idea of secularism as an ideological framework responsible for differentiating religion from other things, as tenuous as those differentiations sometimes seem. Though many would chafe at the idea, evangelicals are actually remarkable exemplars of the secular — not because they embrace “secular values,” but because they rely so much on the boundaries that divide the world up into separate social spheres, while they simultaneously embody the reality that those boundaries are far more fragile and permeable than they appear.

To draw out one last example, Strhan describes a course offered at St. John’s that aims to teach members how to speak about their faith in situations outside the church where they find it difficult. The goal of these sessions was for church leaders to “encourage a habitus oriented towards evangelistic speaking” in a city where such performances tend to be awkward and subject to derision. Strhan observes from these discussions that despite their loftier desires as evangelists, “many members have internalized the sense that faith is a private matter.” What I find interesting here is that while this is seen as a case of secular norms hindering religious ideals, it is just as plausible to say that the move to classify “faith as a private matter” is something internal to evangelical culture as well.

I say this because secular modernity, no less than evangelicalism, is inconceivable without its roots in Reformation history and theology. Among the outgrowths of that legacy is the Western tendency to view religion in individualistic terms, as something personal and non-political. Moreover, Protestant missionary efforts to promote Christianity as “true religion” had a major influence on wider cultural and intellectual impulses to mark out religion as a category wholly distinct from other worldly institutions and social domains. Although evangelicals have always been committed to the expansion of religion in public life, they are also known to reinforce the sacredness of religious faith by maintaining certain ethical boundaries. Many evangelicals, perhaps most, do not actively proselytize at their jobs, as James (whom we encountered earlier) did by distributing tracts among his co-workers. As we try to assess why, we should consider the possibility that some evangelicals do not feel comfortable bringing their religion into the workplace because, on some level, they might not want it there.

Anna Strhan’s Aliens and Strangers? is thought-provoking and insightful. Written in a style that is at once diligent and poetic, the book does a great service by documenting the complexities of urban evangelicalism, qualities rarely acknowledged in popular media. Strhan’s analysis of how evangelicals wrestle with diverse social norms resonates strongly with my own research, and I’m grateful for the intellectual clarity she brings to the issue. The point I want to add is that perhaps another reason why evangelicals’ struggles endure as they do is because sometimes what seems like a conflict between religious and secular norms may just as well illustrate the presence of conflicting norms nurtured within a religious realm. That this goes unrecognized is a quintessential tension of the secular age. We are seldom fully aware of the patterns that make us strangers to ourselves.