Gordon, “Invisible Agents”

This November, the Ohio University Press will publish Invisible Agents: Spirits in Central African History by David M. Gordon (Bowdoin College).  The publisher’s description follows.

Invisible Agents shows how personal and deeply felt spiritual beliefs can inspire social movements and influence historical change. Conventional historiography concentrates on the secular, materialist, or moral sources of political agency. Instead, David M. Gordon argues, when people perceive spirits as exerting power in the visible world, these beliefs form the basis for individual and collective actions. Focusing on the history of the south-central African country of Zambia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, his analysis invites reflection on political and religious realms of action in other parts of the world, and complicates the post-Enlightenment divide of sacred and profane.

The book combines theoretical insights with attention to local detail and remarkable historical sweep, from oral narratives communicated across slave-trading routes during the nineteenth century, through the violent conflicts inspired by Christian and nationalist prophets during colonial times, and ending with the spirits of Pentecostal rebirth during the neoliberal order of the late twentieth century. To gain access to the details of historical change and personal spiritual beliefs across this long historical period, Gordon employs all the tools of the African historian. His own interviews and extensive fieldwork experience in Zambia provide texture and understanding to the narrative. He also critically interprets a diverse range of other sources, including oral traditions, fieldnotes of anthropologists, missionary writings and correspondence, unpublished state records, vernacular publications, and Zambian newspapers.

Invisible Agents will challenge scholars and students alike to think in new ways about the political imagination and the invisible sources of human action and historical change.

O’Connor, “Islam in Hong Kong”

This October, the Hong Kong University Press will publish Islam in Hong Kong: Muslims and Everyday Life in China’s World City by Paul O’Connor (Chinese University of Hong Kong).  The publisher’s description follows.

More than a quarter of a million Muslims live and work in Hong Kong. Among them are descendants of families who have been in the city for generations, recent immigrants from around the world, and growing numbers of migrant workers. Islam in Hong Kong explores the lives of Muslims as ethnic and religious minorities in this unique post-colonial Chinese city. Drawing on interviews with Muslims of different origins, O’Connor builds a detailed picture of daily life through topical chapters on language, space, religious education, daily prayers, maintaining a halal diet in a Chinese environment, racism, and other subjects. Although the picture that emerges is complex and ambiguous, one striking conclusion is that Muslims in Hong Kong generally find acceptance as a community and do not consider themselves to be victimised because of their religion.

Neither Belonging Nor Believing?

Reader John McGinnis sends this interesting piece from the International Herald Tribune on an attempt by the Catholic Church in Germany to encourage its faithful to continue paying that country’s so-called “church tax.” Under German law, religious associations can assesses a tax — really, it’s more like membership fee — on members. The state collects the tax, which typically amounts to 8-9% of the taxpayer’s total liability, and then distributes it to the church the taxpayer designates on his tax form. All a taxpayer has to do to avoid paying the tax is to resign his church membership. Traditionally, however, German taxpayers have continued to declare church membership, and pay the church tax, notwithstanding the relatively low rate of religious observance in that country. Sociologists of religion have described this phenomenon as “belonging without believing,” and it reflects a standard European attitude toward religion.

That may be changing. The IHT suggests that an “exodus” is underway both in the Catholic and Lutheran Churches, as taxpayers increasingly end their formal affiliations to avoid paying the church tax. The Catholic hierarchy has come up with a strategy to stop the departures. Starting this week, Catholics who resign their church membership “may no longer qualify for religious ceremonies such as a Christian burial and may not partake in confession or communion; become a godfather at baptism or confirmation; or hold office within the church.” This has led to protests from Catholics who resent being told they have to pay for such things, as well as perhaps predictable references to the pre-Reformation sale of indulgences — notwithstanding the fact that the Lutheran Church participates in the church tax too.

From an American perspective, this is all very interesting. Americans fund our churches through private (though tax-deductible) donations. Early on, we decided that the state could not collect revenue for religious bodies — not even “three pence,” in Madison’s famous phrase. Many European countries, by contrast, have adopted a state-funding model; the level of private donations is comparatively low. Now, it seems, increasing numbers of Europeans want neither model. Yet they insist on the right to receive church services and protest when someone points out that it costs money to keep a church open. Grace droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven, but someone has to pay the electric bills. What these protesters seem to be saying is, give us the services, but don’t ask us for anything. Come to think of it, that does sound a bit American.