Contested Missionary and Historical Paradigms

11 Dec

Last week I wrote about George Otis’ Last of the Giants, the work that helped put spiritual mapping into the wheelhouse of evangelical spiritual warfare. This week I’ve been trying to write a lengthy section of a chapter on spiritual warfare that is a counterpoint to the (only) full-length academically based text on the subject, René Holvast’s Spiritual Mapping in the United States and Argentina, 1989-2005. Holvast is a current and former Professor of missions and holds a PhD in theology from the University of Utrecht. Much of his work connects many of the missing pieces in the complex network of individuals and parachurch groups that make up the larger spiritual warfare community. However, I have issues with the way he outlines the origins of spiritual mapping and the way it relates to prayerwalking. In brief, I think he fails to see both practices as spiritual warfare techniques that belong to a higher order classification–one which emerged in fits and starts but came to add a series of remarkably spatialized elements to evangelical practice.

It is probably a difference of perspective. I’m writing from within religious studies, articulating my ideas from a historical perspective that values critical theory and its ability to reveal broader conceptual ideas. As a researcher I remain outside of the tradition I’m studying, and while I always try to represent my subjects and their beliefs fairly, my academic goals are to attempt to explain their origins within the broader context of religious practice and religious history in America. I have other theory-driven goals that are surely not shared by my subjects, but which I would hope they could appreciate if and when they read my work. I wouldn’t want my presentation of their beliefs to be an obstacle to my interpretation of them. [I happen to be studying people, groups, and events that are recent enough that oral history and other methodologies could be available to me for an expansion of this project.]

Holvast, by contrast, works for the Faculté de Théologie Evangélique de Boma in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a Professor of Missions and Vice Rector. This isn’t to say he has not produced an academic text, only to suggest that his motivations and perspectives are not likely to be closely aligned with my own. His text’s conclusion, for instance, walks a very narrow line in its tone. I’ll quote it at length so you can get a good sense of it:

Spiritual Mapping’s use of both theology and anthropology is thus to be considered a blind alley in Neo-Evangelicalism. Spiritual Mapping stemmed from something else. The driving force of Spiritual Mapping was found in the overarching concepts of Americanism, the American Dream, Manifest Destiny and popular American spirituality.

Spiritual Mapping indicated the vitality of this Americanism in its Christian version. It is as inspiring as it is an illusion. Its Manifest Destiny is a mechanism that drives missionary action restlessly from frontier to frontier, enveloped in the drama of the competitive religious market.

Spiritual Mapping was a blind alley in itself. All together, Spiritual Mapping is to be considered a shortcut to the realization of Manifest Destiny. In the US[,] Christian alleys of all kinds keep popping up as hypes, incessantly trying to achieve the divine destiny of the US. They continually appear promising on the horizon, functioning as shortcuts in order to achieve the vision of Americanism in a quick fix. However, as is so often the case, shortcuts turn out to be blind alleys.

Here’s the rub: Holvast admits at the beginning of the conclusion that the “historical descriptive approach” used in chapters 1-6 is over. Chapter 7, his final say on Spiritual mapping, will be different. In fact, Holvast even reveals a significant shift between his proposed title and the final title of the work (or the secret title of the conclusion). As published, the text is called Spiritual Mapping in the United States and Argentina, 1989-2005: A Geography of Fear. In the conclusion, however, Holvast says that title of the study is “Spiritual Mapping: The Turbulent Career of a Contested American Missionary Paradigm 1989-2005.” It’s a minor shift, but it suggests the restraint in the first 6 chapters that is absent from the quotation above. There’s very little presentation of these ideas until they appear full bore at the end of the text (apart from a sentence on the jacket and a few paragraphs in the introduction).

Native Americans flee from the allegorical rep...

Native Americans flee from the allegorical representation of Manifest Destiny, Columbia, painted in 1872 by John Gast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To call spiritual mapping an “American missionary paradigm” is highly revealing–it orients the technique as one of empire. As you read, Holvast isn’t shy about connecting the evangelical fringe’s techniques to the extension of American protestantism throughout the world. Moreover, it attempts to distance leaders in other parts of the world (Africa, Asia, South America) from their participation in the extension of that perceived American empire.

I could go on (and I plan to in the final chapter of my dissertation), but today I only want to make one point about authors and positionality.

In most graduate programs, students enroll in some type of theory class. Inevitably a work such as Brown’s Mama Lola or Griffith’s God’s Daughters or Orsi’s Between Heaven and Earth is assigned. These works challenge the perspective and position of the scholar. Where do you stand, students are asked. Where is it appropriate for scholars to stand? When is it necessary to reveal where you stand to your readers? To your informants?

Holvast’s work gives me fits because he casually proceeds along for six chapters (250+ pages) of detailed historical lineages. These lineages and their theological nuances are challenging and often intensely frustrating to parse. Holvast holds his own–especially since his work is the initial academic offering on the subject. It’s the kind of presentation that I think he verified with the subjects he was studying. He even acknowledges their assistance in his preface. They seem to approve of his portrait of them.

And yet, when I come to end of his work, when he finally shifts from description to interpretation, the sky is suddenly falling. The dry connections suddenly catch on fire and are said to burn for causes that are hardly indicated previously. It’s an unwelcome surprise because the tone of the criticisms do not appear to be from the same perspective as the earlier portions of the work. Holvast refrains from positioning himself in the shifting perspective, leaving me to wonder what has suddenly changed now that he is ‘free’ to interpret rather than describe.

I struggle myself with my academic position and perspective as an outsider to the evangelical community that practices the techniques of spiritual mapping and prayerwalking. And yet I would certainly not write a conclusion that didn’t follow substantially from my presentation of my subjects. Holvast shocks me when he takes his gloves off because it isn’t clear why he keep them on for so long.

I worry that I might unfairly represent my subjects by continually trying to contextualize and theorize their actions and ideas as I go along. It makes the writing more difficult and much slower. The advantage to my readers, though, is that they are never unaware of the analytic perspective I’m using. I’m not writing about spiritual mapping or prayerwalking simply for their own sake. I do find them fascinating–I couldn’t have spent the last few years reading about them if I didn’t. But when I use them to make other points (about American religion or spatial theory or the creation of sacred space or even American empire) there is no doubt about how things are coming together. Separating the two insulates the criticism from a ‘just the facts, M’am’ historicism. In this instance it is actually a disservice because it doesn’t give Holvast’s ‘factual’ evidence the benefit of confronting his interpretation of it. Authors can make these items speak to each other. When they do so successfully it’s a beautiful thing to read.

I was, frankly, rather taken aback, when I came to the end of the work. If the original title had been given to the text, I might have wondered instead, where all the contestation was for the first five chapters. (Indeed, the sixth is actually about theological refutations of spiritual mapping, but they are also presented fairly even-handedly.)

I don’t want to paint an overly grim picture. And I’m not judging Holvast too harshly for his decision to leave his interpretation of spiritual mapping until the end of his work. You can tell from what I’ve quoted above that he’d probably have had some trouble with primary sources if that was his introductory material. I can absolutely empathize with the challenges that might have presented him. On the other hand, if he really felt that way, his work would have benefited from integrating his presentation of the figures and their beliefs with his critical perspective. Not only would this have opened the contestation to the informants/subjects but it would have been a more valuable historical perspective. After all, criticisms about America’s Protestant colonialism are indeed historical arguments–even when they are about events that happened as recently at the last 10 years.

Yes, yes, go ahead and say it: So, Dave, where do you stand?

Guess you’ll just have to keep reading.


2 Responses to “Contested Missionary and Historical Paradigms”


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