Out this week in Ethos is a paper I wrote called “‘The Wrong Holy Ghost'” Discerning the Apostolic Gift of Discernment using a Signaling and Systems Theoretical Approach.” It’s about an incident I call “the wrong Holy Ghost” because that is what the brethren I was working with nicely called demonic possession to avoid hurting the person’s feelings. When I was doing my dissertation fieldwork among Apostolic Pentecostals in upstate New York to investigate the relationship between dissociative speaking in tongues & stress & arousal (see 2010 & 2011 publications on those analyses), I observed an incident wherein a woman was ostracized in public for essentially faking tongues.
It was important to me because it became apparent that speaking in tongues wasn’t simply stress-reducing all by its lonesome. This is rather obvious now, but at the time, it really effed up my hypothesis & research design. However, as with most research disasters of this sort, it was really the best thing that could have happened. I believe it was Renato Rosaldo who said that when doing ethnography, we need to see when people are doing culture wrong & see them get their feathers ruffled about it because otherwise we won’t actually recognize what their normal culture is & it’s probably so quotidian to them that they’ll never be able to simply explain it to us anyway.
This case study is about a couple who were having some problems, with their marriage, with their congregations, with life…And the gist of it is, he’s trying to come back to his church, but the Devil in him is fighting with God–&, believe me, it was quite a show! But even better, his wife wanted to help, but it all backfired on her when the pastor singled her out for being possessed by the Devil. In fact, this downright pissed her off, & after pounding on the stage & demanding to be given the “right” Holy Ghost, she stormed out. I was left thinking, ‘Boy, that lady sure isn’t releasing the valve on her psychic radiator thru this stress-reducing culturally constructed possession trance state.’
In fact, this whole scene was resplendent with rich cultural behavior that I spent the next year or so trying to figure out. How did they know she had the Devil in her? What was going on with her husband? Why did speaking in ecstatic tongues usually mean one had accepted Christ & at other rare times indicated a battleground with the Devil? And how did one know if someone was faking? And what about those little blips I was seeing in sermons that looked like a really dramatic tic? And did people speak in tongues when no one was looking?
As I was wrapping up this research, I became immersed in signaling theory, & it gave me a whole new perspective on this scene & way to begin thinking about how they knew these things. The brethren call being able to make these distinctions the “gift of discernment,” which is one of the Gifts of the Spirit. Could I, a heathen anthropologist, come to understand how this gift worked? I believe, thru the application of religious-commitment signaling theory, that it is in fact possible to discern, as I have tried to do in this article.
Furthermore, I got some really nice press on this piece already, in the form of an interview conducted for The Weekly Weinersmith. Follow them on Twitter: @TheWeinersmiths