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The Stuff of Everyday Religion

Alexandra Antohin offers a set of reflections on her training in visual and material culture at University College London and how that facilitated insights regarding her ethnographic study of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

MLA citation format:
Antohin, Alexandra.
“The Stuff of Everyday Religion”
Web blog post. Material Religions. 3 Dec. 2014. Web. [date of access]

In his chapter on the development of material culture studies, Basu (2013) provokes us to consider a comparison: why has the study of human artifacts as a contemporary phenomenon failed to elicit the same scholastic legitimacy as the study of language? How are the things people make and use of lesser distinction than the technology with which they use to communicate? Rather than argue for the merits of material culture as a school of anthropological thought, an achievement long since accomplished, I want to use this juxtaposition to emphasize the oppositional logics of action/material that initially persisted as a methodological block in my studies of the lay experience of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. In 2009, as a novice inducted into the society of London anthropologists through my studies at University College London (UCL), I encountered a novel class of specialists, students of material culture, who far outnumbered my cohort in the Social Anthropology program. While their dominant representation reflected the particular legacies of my institution in this field (again, see Basu 2013), I gathered its characteristics primarily from the UCL seminar series on Visual and Material Culture. It covered a wide set of themes that ranged from Muslim dress practices, the consumer circulation of knock-off brands, ritual display of yams, and virtual archiving and community curatorship, to name a few. And as much as this forum was a window into the raw research of the creative engagements with materiality, the post-presentation discussions provided to be just as much of an education. Individual skeptics of this approach recoiled at the exclusive focus on the ‘stuff’ of people’s lives, and it was frequent enough to hear a reaction of “I don’t do material culture”. While this certainly spoke to the repercussions of shaping new disciplinary concentrations, the tension also served as a chance to interrogate the working premises social scientists follow and employ. In his outline of the historical developments of subject/object oppositions, Keane (2006) identified the challenge of studying objects in their own right: “The sheer materiality of objects, their formal properties and phenomenological qualities, tend to be of somewhat secondary importance, as media for significations, for instance, or as evidence of something recalcitrant outside the person (2006:202).” However, somewhere between leaving and coming back from the field, the material dimensions of actions and ideas became an integrated component of my intellectual orientation to everyday religion.

The Everyday Character of Spiritual Devotion

The objective to study the everyday practices of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians was motivated by a clear demographic reality: across age, class, and gender, life at and around the church was active and engaged. This engagement was evident by the place of liturgy as a social phenomenon. For example, to wear white cotton cloth (netella,) as part of standard church attire, was a significant material indication of liturgical participation. By studying aspects of pilgrimage, vows, and the liturgical calendar, a class of “believers” (amanyoch) demonstrated the tenets of Church dogma and shifted the direction of observation in ways that were novel for the communities and networks linked with the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia. Therefore, to position mass liturgical participation as the central object of study was to showcase the popularity of a type of social action, and thereby blend distinctions of “religion” and “secular” as inclusive to modalities of living.

Figure 1: A scene of liturgical engagement, on the feast day of the Archangel Raguel,
Addis Ababa. Photo by author.

Since few full-scale anthropological studies on contemporary Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity had been conducted when I entered the field, a guiding frame of reference on “lay experience” was inspired by complementary data from ethnographies of other Orthodox Churches. By positioning the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in relation to its theological cousins, the aim was to envision how common ideas had traveled and reformatted in specific historical and geographical conditions. Dubisch (1995), whose work detailed the pilgrimage to the Greek island of Tinos, referred to the popular appeal of the “vernacular church”, such as the practice of lighting a candle under an icon of a personally relevant saint, or the admiration of the rites of Holy Week or Orthodox liturgy in general. Paxson’s (2005) ethnography on how a village oriented to memory in North-Western Russia, featured the importance of the icon-corner as a symbolic and archival space. The spot was employed in ways that extended beyond Orthodox rituals and displayed photographs, treasured items, as well as portraits of Soviet leaders. These sample Orthodox Christian communities highlighted several established vantage points that have depicted devotional practices as galvanized by feast days and socio-cultural place of icons. These portrayals of popular religion delineate themes of Orthodox worship, as modeled by the church through its public rites, and the repertoire and media of how people compose their own approaches and values of religious doctrine. I say “delineate” because the material culture of everyday religion has been distinguished by scholars and, as I will present later, by members of faith communities as improvised, informal, and thereby peripheral to the religious tradition represented.

Underlying these endeavors to describe the place of lay action are certain well-circulated analytical paradigms that have long relied on oppositional logics; what Scheilke and Debevec (2012) have described as disjunctures between “normative doctrine” and “popular enactment.” These legacies have been evident in ethnographies of “folk” Orthodoxies and Catholicisms of the 1950s and 60s, where one cannot fail to note the real presence of social stratifications that have positioned the actions of lay people as marginal, and one contributing factor for why theories such as Great and Little traditions have logged such mileage. Overall, dichotomies of clergy:lay, high:low have been dismissed as spurious and in the Ethiopian context had little resonance. The category of “clergy” was a broad and populated class in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, as church education has developed many non-vested individuals who were considered officially knowledgeable. Moreover, an anthropology of religious practice, according to Scheilke and Debevec (2012), should be grounded in “common knowledge and everyday practices” as constitutive of the grand schemes of religious traditions (2012:9), and should be prepared to interrogate “how to account for the relationship of articulations of a coherent world-view and the practice and knowledge of living a life?” (2012:7). They suggest that this modification to analyses of everyday religion reduces the fixation on “the popular” and the power hierarchies it implies, but I would counter that trends of mass engagements are not exclusively a scholastic imposition but also help form critiques mobilized by faith communities themselves.

The materiality of worship has particular part to play in these disentangling conceptions of both “popular enactment” and “normative doctrine.” This study was situated to observe how urban parishes manage the demands of church expansion and changing religious demographics, research I conducted over sixteen months in the city of Dessie as well as certain collaborations in Addis Ababa. As I encountered lay activities of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, the intentional acts of individuals attending liturgy reflected the extension of religious mindedness via media such as the sounds of the liturgy. My interest was to question whether the active character of church-going was supported by legacies of cultural encompassment or if lay activities were constitutive of “normative doctrine”?An example of the latter, I suggest, was evident in the observance of the Tsige Tsom (“Fast of the Season of Flowers”), a minor fast that in practice was more strongly subscribed to by lay members than by clergy. This forty day fast commemorated the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt to the temple of Mt. Qwesqwam, where they received protection from King Herod’s wrath. During this period in the liturgical calendar, contemporary worshippers refrained from the consumption of animal products, as they did every Wednesday and Friday throughout most of the year. They also participated in weekly meals for the poor, served at church and run by the senbete, a parish-affiliated organization. The customs around this particular fast that emphasized the themes of refuge and charity were one common articulation of the importance of liturgical engagement for participating lay members. The commemorations build into the schedule of fasts and feasts were public, social and a circulation of blessings that had recursive effect—to offer goods to the receiver was to confer blessing on the giver as well. This example of the responsibilities of the laity to serve as exemplars suggested that liturgical engagement was not limited to listening to the service or carrying out individual regimes of worship. Thus, the context of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity not only offered possibilities of situating lay activities as integral to the formal statutes of the Church, but also required us to recognize theology as dynamic, an approach that Boylston (2013) has suggested as subject to alternative orientations of knowledge and scriptural interpretation as developed by specific intellectual traditions.

Certain frameworks for interpreting popular actions of faith communities have been discussed with an adjusted lens of paying attention to the material dimensions of religious traditions as praxis. Scenarios have been described where devotees, by their participation in the formal rites of the church such as the Eucharistic service, have promoted a portability to liturgical engagement. Individuals, households, banks, and restaurants, from rural to urban environments adhered to the calendar of saint commemorations that involved three essential items: a candle, a loaf of bread, and, depending on the importance of the feast day or annual holiday, freshly cut grass. This transformation of space, installed by rituals of commemoration and material placement of bounty and fertility, demonstrated how Ethiopian Orthodox engaged in ways that kept them synchronized with “the church” as a moving centre. Therefore, the queries posed by studies of everyday religion has shifted to consider “normative doctrine” and “popular enactment” as less either/or categories but as subject to negotiations, facilitated by structures available within socio-theological thought and by methods of spiritual expression via scales of Christian fellowship. I will explore a few examples of the latter in the following section, in order to underscore how the schema of everyday/popular/vernacular religion remains significant as a form of local discourse.

Touching Books and Breaking Bread

I consider two instances when Ethiopian Orthodox Christians reflect on the material dimensions of worship, one concerned with prayer, the other with commemoration, which showcase how informants came to terms with ideas of tradition/modernity in contemporary liturgical life. To understand “Senait’s” relationship to books and prayer, it is essential to relate her living space as a focal point for various kinds of benediction-giving. She was a thirty-year old, Orthodox Christian, who spent most of her life in Dessie and had long-standing relationships with church communities in the city and surrounding villages. In the time that I spent with her, it was a common occurrence for a local priest to visit once a month and make inquiries into the welfare of her family, her health, and to prompt those present in the room to receive a blessing by kissing the Bible. This action itself was reflexive, as the same process occurred at every liturgy service. At the moment when the bells are rung and the preparatory service has shifted to the Liturgy of the Word, a deacon spiraled through the divisions of the church’s interior and out into the church yard, where each individual pressed their forehead and then their lips to touch the book covered by gold-embroidered cloth, an object material yet invisible to its observers. In Senait’s living room, the priest’s book was less ornate, a rectangular object sewn together by old canvas and a decorative patch of embroidered cloth, tied together by a knot to allow for ease of opening.Senait, however, admitted she was not sure of the extent to which the learned members of the church, the priests, deacons, memhirs (lit. scribes), read these books. This is somewhat surprising to note, as the average church education is ten to twelve years and is incredibly rigorous in its pedagogy. Even Senait had some training in Ge’ez, the liturgical language, and could functionally understand the canonical texts. However, what she was addressing was the subjective experience of reading and her dilemma about how to use these books and what kind of spiritual-mindedness it would produce.

Figure 2: A young girl reading during a Christmas service, Kechine Medhane Alem Church,
Addis Ababa. Photo by author.

Private regimes of reading were plentiful at church. During times of the service that were considered canonically to be particularly confessional (i.e. when Eucharist is being prepared), it was common to see people pull out their books such as Mezgeba Tselot (lit. registry of prayers). The passages were read in silence or mumbled aloud, individuals often running their fingers along the lines of the page. Certain parts of people’s prayer books were written in red, these words being the names of the Holy, and related to a similar practice of bowing and sometimes prostrating every time the name of God was pronounced aloud during liturgy. Other books such as the apocryphal texts and hagiographies (ged’l) of saints were similarly treated with revered status, which Senait demonstrated when displaying her mother’s collection. One day, as she took me to a glass cupboard filled with silverware, porcelain plates and teacups, she unlocked the door to pull out a stack of leather-bound books and recollected how her mother treasured these items—the Giorgis and Mikael ged’l were her favourites—but also tried to imagine how they were used during her mother’s lifetime. She confessed that not only would she and I have difficulty reading them, but that she could not understand what her mother could have extracted from these stories on the trials, sufferings, and covenants these saints forged. Her ambiguity about interacting with these inherited books became more obvious when she described how she approached other devotional media. Friends had given her short booklets, published by local Evangelical Churches that detailed how to live a fulfilling Christian life. She vehemently stressed that possessing these materials in no way altered her identity as Orthodox. However, the direct rhetorical style of the text in vernacular language, she felt challenged her to question how she was informed by her faith. Another more functional characteristic to consider was that they were items that she slipped inside her bedside table and whose pages she flicked through while watching TV. The material properties of Orthodox vs. General Christian literature forced Senait to behave in ways that created different dimensions to her spiritual engagement.

Figure 3: Distributing bread at a ‘mahaber’ event, at Abune Gebre Menfes Qedus Church,
Addis Ababa. Photo by author.

I now turn to a final example of how the material character of lay devotion was critiqued by “Dawit”, a young deacon in his twenties and member of the Sunday School group of a London Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Discussing the parameters of my study, he was alarmed that I would consider certain commemorative customs as inclusive of Orthodox liturgical life. The popularity of the mahaber, which approximately translated as lay confraternities or organizations, and in particular the ts’ewa mahaber generated the most criticism. Colloquially, the expression “to drink mahaber” (mahaber metetat) refers to the chalice (ts’ewa) that members partake of when participating in a mahaber gathering, which revolved around the saint day of their association’s namesake. For these commemorations, the household-specific aesthetic of spreading grass, lighting a candle, and cutting bread occurred on a grander scale. For Dawit, the mise-en-scene of objects of the ts’ewa mahaber detracted from what he articulated was its intended purpose, the spiritual guidance harnessed via Christian fellowship, and made this custom primarily a social affair. Here, the material dimensions of worship had a negatively transformative effect. However, rather than the objects of ts’ewa, in its real and symbolic essences, doing work on the properties of the Orthodox subject, it is the circulation of subject-charged objects that permitted social events to achieve their devotional objectives. The distribution of the bread was one component of religious practice where the values of fellowship were materially evident, as one mahaber member illustrated: “The pieces without the entire bread are meaningless, they don’t amount to anything.”


In this essay, I sketched out the developmental process of devising an approach to Ethiopian Orthodox worship that incorporated the media of spiritual devotion.As this brief exposition has illustrated, researching how individuals attempted to make linkages with the formal rites of the Church necessitated coming into contact with peoples’ devotional items. The fact that members of the church seldom described their methods and spaces of spiritual devotion that used the words “object”, “material” or “thing”, as I intuitively gathered during fieldwork, proved an ethnographic challenge and later an analytical insight. Therefore, a methodology attentive to practice, “the site of the dialectic of the opus operantum and the modus operandi” (Bourdieu 1980:52), enabled me to consider how the object properties of spiritual expression emphasized key attributes of what defines the lay experience. Taking the materiality of worship seriously created an opening for observing the process of how devotees sought to understand what informs their faith.


  • Basu, Paul. 2013. “Material Culture: Ancestries and Trajectories in Material Culture Studies” In Handbook of Sociocultural Anthropology. Edited by Carrier, JG and Gewertz, DB. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Boylston, Tom. 2013. “Review Essay: Orienting the East.” The Anthropology of Christianity Bibliographic Blog.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990 [1980]. The Logic of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. Standford: Stanford University Press.
  • Dubisch, Jill. 1995. In a Different Place: Pilgrimage, Gender and Politics of a Greek Island Shrine. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Keane, W. 2006. “Subjects and Objects” In Handbook of Material Culture. edited by C. Tilley, W. Keane, S. Kuchler, M. Rowlands & P. Spyer. London: Sage Publications.
  • Paxson, Margaret.2005. Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village. Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press.
  • Schielke & Debevec. 2012. Ordinary Lives and Grand Schemes: An Anthropology of Everyday Religion. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books.


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