This dialogue began as an opportunity to engage one another’s projects about the global contours of Christianity. Goh’s most recent book, Protestant Christianity in the Indian Diaspora, examines evangelical and Pentecostal Christians in India and its diaspora. Kaell’s book, Christian Globalism at Home, traces two centuries of child sponsorship programs in the United States, focusing on the creation of global networks and imaginaries. Our dialogue covers the lure of the international, “agglomerative impulses,” and attachments to strangers.
As the first comment states, we have never met or spoken in person before. This dialogue is therefore also an experiment in how scholars create global networks via virtual means—a task that becomes more urgent as we recognize the need to lessen our carbon use, stem viral infection, and better include colleagues without the means or capacity to travel. The dialogue is literally the embodiment of sites of fieldwork, cultures, communities, and knowledge.
Each comment was posed in the order it appears below, with the respondent having forty-eight hours to email his or her reply. Our virtual dialogue took place from May 25 to June 5, 2020.
Hillary Kaell: We’re connected through our overlapping research interests but we’ve never met in person. In fact, we’ve only ever “conversed” in writing. We are also based, respectively, in Montreal and Singapore, which are thirteen hours apart. I wanted to explain our connection and our method of “dialoguing” over email because it underscores the fractured, uneven nature of this kind of transoceanic exchange.
We’re labouring under the restrictions that mediated communication creates. It seems appropriate to begin this way since a classic theme in studies of globalization is lauding how technology and travel collapse distance to make “being there” possible. While there’s a lot of truth in that statement, as both our projects show, I wanted to start with how globalization—or globalism, as I call it—is not only about better communication and deeper experiences of knowing. Writing about sponsorship, I was constantly reminded that the attempt to build relationships across distance is also about yearning for a closeness that is necessarily absent. The issue struck me as I was reading your work, too, which was incredibly global in scope; your research took you to ten different countries and regions across multiple continents.
So my first cluster of questions is related to the people you met and to your methodology: Did the diasporic Indian Christians you met feel a yearning for something more—more closeness, perhaps? If so, with what or with whom? Did you feel that your methodology was “fractured” in some way—I’m sure there’s a better way to put it—because of its global scope? I’ve never done multi-sited transnational research like yours, so I’m curious to hear what you think.
Robbie Goh: I really enjoyed reading your book, Hillary, and certainly found lots of resonances with mine. It brought back memories of my own time as a sponsor with Christian Children’s Fund (I think—it was a very long time ago, in the early 1990s) and more recently with an India-based organisation. I thought that one way of thinking about the relationship between our two books is that you consider a set of issues to do with “global Christianity” from a North American perspective, while I consider a different but overlapping set of global Christianity issues from a South Asian, or Asian diasporic (certainly non-US), perspective. Both books together give a complementary picture of how Christianity constructs a global imaginary.
I like the opposing terms “immensity” and “intimacy” that you use, and I’ll frame my reply to your question in those terms. I think my subjects were all too aware of the immensity of the global order—how the Indian diaspora constituted only a tiny fraction of the world outside of India, and how the Indian Christian diaspora in turn constituted a tiny fraction of that fraction. Various kinds of yearning for intimacy then obtain: on the one hand, for connection with some kind of global (evangelical and Pentecostal) Christian order, and on the other hand, for various kinds of “Indian” connectivity. Both pose challenges and problems. My book is about how those problems, never fully resolved, are negotiated.
Since the subjects are themselves torn or divided, my methodology was certainly “fractured” in various ways. One way was having to constantly navigate the different frames with which my subjects saw themselves: as “Indian,” in regional identities (e.g., Punjabi, Tamil), as citizens of various host countries (Canadian, Singaporean), as communal Christians (e.g., Telugu Christians), and so on.
Which leads me to my first question for you: At several points in your book you clarified that you were using “emic” terms and frames of reference. How crucial was this emic perspective to your project, and what research benefits did it yield?
HK: You’ve prompted me to step back and analyze my own writing! I see that I use “emic” mainly in two cases: when my sources use a term (like “heathen”) that is outdated and, frankly, offensive, and when contemporary sponsors use a term (like “love”) that is widespread, clearly important, yet nebulous. So, in fact, I tend to use emic to signal to readers that I’m going to deconstruct the term at hand. At a more conceptual level, though, sponsors and sponsorship professionals did shift my thinking a lot, especially in terms of that dialogic you noted between “immensity” and “intimacy.”
Going into the project, I expected that sponsors were trying to create attachments to something larger than themselves, but I thought it was going to be all about the “one-to-one” intimacy sponsorship promises. It wasn’t until I heard sponsors telling me that they had a “big God” (emic language in US evangelicalism) that I began to see things differently. It pushed me to focus on “globalism.” Admittedly, that’s an academic term that I draw from Anna Tsing. Sponsors talk about their attachments to God and to global forms of community like the “Kingdom of God” or “the Church.”
In that respect, there’s a link with what you call the “agglomerative impulse”—a delightful turn-of-phrase! In one case, certain Christian organizers try to create “South Asian” evangelicalism to unite separate communal churches. In another, younger Indian evangelicals choose “international” churches. As you know, I’m interested in the embodied techniques and affective experiences that make a space or an action seem big and global, or “agglomerative” to use your word. And you’ve discussed this too, in your fantastic essay on performativity in mega-churches. So I’m curious: What makes something feel “South Asian” or “international” compared to communal churches that are the norm in India and the diaspora?
RG: I think that reflection on “emic” constructions was crucial to both our projects. Just as you initially went in thinking that sponsorship would all be about “one-to-one” intimacy, I went into my project thinking that Indian diasporic Christianity would primarily be about social networking and ease of acculturation in Christian-legacy host countries like the United States and Canada—rather like some of Peggy Levitt’s case studies in God Needs No Passport. The picture was really far more complicated, and needed emic unpacking of concepts like being “a Christian in your heart” (versus being a “namesake Christian”), the “Great Commission” imperative (Matthew 28: 19-20), and evangelical notions of salvation through Jesus Christ. Different groups of respondents constructed their identities as Christians according to different emic understandings of those evangelical concepts.
In terms of embodied techniques and affective experiences, one big aspect was the use of communal languages (Malayalee, Punjabi, Tamil, etc.) in the liturgy. It was as if the praxis of the communal tongue (in the singing of songs of worship, prayer, testimonies) recalled and reinforced communal identities and manifested this in related practices and experiences (food, social networks, matchmaking attempts, and other forms of what we might call “embodied communalism”). In contrast, there was an embodied “international church” (to use the term of some respondents) Christianity: English was the lingua franca, the worship songs were by well-known Western artistes, and embodied techniques were in use, such as raising hands and vocal affirmations of the sermon.
This “international church” practice in many ways corresponds to the sponsorship practices you discuss: the staging of international choirs and “international nights,” the bodily postures that mirror Western Christian norms. To what extent do you think both our books are about the ways in which dominant Western Christian practices (narratives, artistes, etc.) exert a homogenizing effect (contested, of course) on “varieties of globalism” (to use your phrase in your concluding chapter)?
HK: That’s a hard one—I want to hear your thoughts, too. Certainly, a lot of scholars (and Christians) have made that point. Recently, some fantastic work in my field, for example by David Swartz, David King, and Melani McAlister, shows that Christians elsewhere not only contested Western dominance, but succeeded in changing aspects of US evangelicalism. I discuss it a bit in terms of child sponsorship organizations in the 1970s. Recognizing the back-and-forth is important. But the point you make about the lure of the international is still vital.
What I love about your work is its emphasis on subtle ways that the “international” overlaps with “Western,” and youthfulness, vitality, boldness, et cetera. These associations speak to a power imbalance in global Christian networks that is much less subtle in sponsorship, where money moves from the West along the same routes linked to colonialism and other forms of exploitation. The homogenizing effect of certain forms of Western Christianity is also related to who have passports to travel or the capacity to export cultural and educational norms.
And, in my work, the question of mobility also implicates who is able to conceive of themselves as a global charitable giver. I thought a lot about race in that context, so I was struck when at one point you wrote with brackets, “White (or international) churches.” In my book, I say that whiteness is entangled with assumptions about having a “capacity for capacity,” as Jasbir Puar puts it, to reach out and change things. Which is also a very evangelical Christian trait, as you note! Even when US sponsors aren’t white—most are, but not all of them, of course—“whiteness” itself is still key. I wanted to hear more about how you thought about whiteness, race, and other categories of difference, like caste or language, as you mentioned above. Did you also struggle with how to place these factors in your work or was it obvious to you from the start? Are you still working through some of these issues, as I am?
RG: I think your observation is spot-on: in so many ways, “international” or “global” Christianity is still entangled with “whiteness,” and (for many of my respondents) with value-positive terms like vibrancy, youth, evangelicalism, size/growth, “Spirit-filled” services, and so on. This despite the fact that many of the fastest growing churches are actually to be found in places like South Korea or Brazil, or are “ethnic” churches in Western countries. Part of the reason for this continued entanglement of Christian globalism with “whiteness” is the continuing control of the Christian culture industry (book publishing and marketing, music in digital or CD form) by agencies in countries like the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia.
Another reason is the role of English as lingua franca, which promises a way out of the linguistic-cultural divides of Christianity in the world. You talk about this in chapter 7 of your book, the way in which musical “synchrony” is the hope of a kind of return to Edenic unity, a kind of anti-“Babel.” Some of my respondents were struggling with these issues, and I certainly am as well. On the one hand, ethnic or communal churches are preferred because they embed an individual’s cultural heritage; on the other hand, “international” churches are tempting because they promise to overcome limitations such as caste distinctions and racial-communal-linguistic isolation. These tensions, as you know, are not easily resolved.
This might be a good time to talk about “embodied” practices that seem to be prior to—or at least able to temporarily surmount—cultural differences. You talk about “participatory techniques” that enhance sponsors’ empathy with their children. As you noted, some of my work on megachurches highlights similar embodied forms of participation, put to different purposes. What is the potential of these embodied participatory techniques to foster (aspects of) a Christian globalism? How will this look in years to come, particularly with digital technologies?
HK: Embodied participatory techniques are central to my argument because, ultimately, sponsorship’s key claim is that you can foster attachments to strangers. That idea is so familiar in global charity, but it’s surprising and even counterintuitive. It arises among Protestants in the ‘middling classes’ in early modern Europe—not the poor or the landed aristocracy. But even the heirs of this tradition must find ways to repeatedly affirm affective ties to strangers. One way sponsorship has done so is by telling people to listen to their bodies. Today, North Americans might say the heart tells us something or (in less Christian language) we feel it in our gut. Crucially, Christians understand that a single Creator makes all human bodies in similar ways. It’s a profound theological concept, which implies that what one feels in one’s own body is similar to what strangers feel elsewhere. It seems like a key point of visceral connection that doesn’t require dialogue or encounter. That’s why sponsorship organizations have promoted embodied experiences, such as dressing up or eating like others. A contemporary example is the Compassion Experience, which is a multisensory “experience” of poverty.
The Compassion Experience is very sophisticated, technologically. But, in terms of digital technologies, I found that they generally reiterated the same kinds of experiences that sponsorship has promoted for generations. Like the musical synchrony, you mentioned, which today is found in “virtual choirs” on YouTube. However, my work on digital technology was limited in part because many US sponsors are older and many kids they support have little access to those technologies. That’s enormously important for anyone trumpeting the spread of digital media “across the world.” The poorest people, and the youngest or oldest people, often have little or no access to digital technology.
So let me turn the question around to ask you: Were digital technologies being used in the diasporic communities you studied and how? What do you think it will look like in the coming years?
RG: There was a predictable socioeconomic gap. Settled Indian Christian communities in wealthier societies (e.g., in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia) were very comfortable with digital platforms such as having a church webpage, using social media like Facebook, and even exploring things like digital giving and archives of sermons. In un-settled diasporic communities such as in the Arab Gulf countries, the level of both brick-and-mortar church as well as digital church organization was much lower. It’s not hard to predict that while that digital divide will persist, there will be a general move on the part of churches and Christian communities toward more digitalization—although that will take different forms, and be employed to different extents, according to the digital inequalities you note. Like the digitalization of other aspects of life—shopping, learning, “travel”—religious digitalization has been hastened by Covid-19. In Singapore, with churches closed, many Christian communities were forced to discover Zoom church services and small-group fellowships.
Convenience and necessity aside, I think there is an inherent compatibility between digital media’s promise of connecting Christians around the world and evangelical Christianity’s vision of the world united under God. The compatibility may not be a perfect one. In addition to the digital divide, a lot of digital content is still language- and culture-specific, but it’s alluring. As you point out, many sponsorship techniques were derived from global missions movements and the desire to connect churches with mission fields.
But aren’t there empathetic experiences in Christian globalism that simply can’t be replaced? I’m thinking in particular of the role of physical touch in Pentecostal-charismatic healing ministries, which play a big role in diasporic Christian communities, too. Are there similar embodied experiences in sponsorship relationships that will play an important or maybe even bigger role, despite advances in digital technologies?
HK: I completely agree. I can’t imagine technological mediation substituting for embodied experience in Christianity. The rubber hits the road in branches of the faith, like Catholicism or Orthodoxy, that believe in the transubstantiated Eucharist, and in Pentecostalism, which as you just mentioned, focuses on the power of healing touch. Other kinds of Christianity—evangelicalism—reject or downplay some of the more obvious sensory aspects of this theology, but that doesn’t mean evangelicals rise above the (very human!) need for materiality or relationality.
Gender is also important: most US sponsors are women. They tend to live their Christian lives more emotionally and relationally, which is in line with broader cultural expectations for women. For many of them, sponsorship is necessarily embodied. A major goal is Christian self-cultivation, by nurturing certain “charitable” emotions as they exchange letters with the child. If they are wives, mothers, or grandmothers, they often want to foster similar experiences within their household. The dinner table is a key site for this spiritual labour. Promoters of sponsorship also rely on (fresh) memories of embodied experiences to animate mediated experiences. Just one example: if they are coordinating a prayer group that “meets” online, they might tell participants to recall being in their churches on Sunday, standing together with other bodies.
Something else that comes to mind is sponsors’ responses to my question about whether they had a “relationship” with the child. Promotional materials say they do, but nearly every sponsor said “not quite.” They know there’s a gap between a mediated relationship and an embodied one. So, in short, my sense is that digital experiences work because Christians distinguish them from “real life” experiences, while they use memories of being “IRL” to animate digital encounters.
Actually, this discussion of gender and encounter reminds me of another aspect of your work that I wanted to ask about: conversion. While I was doing my fieldwork in 2017, Compassion pulled out of India amidst accusations of proselytism. How does conversion factor into Christianity’s place in India, but also into the lives of diasporic Indian evangelicals and Pentecostals, within their families and with respect to their natal country?
RG: Thank you for raising the issue of gender. In fact, your book very importantly points out the gender-marked nature of sponsorship—that sponsorship is not only a technique of White Christians in the West, but also predominantly the labour of White women. Just as it would be no exaggeration to say that Christian sponsorship would not have been possible without the affective and empathetic labour of women, it would also be true to say that much of the affective evangelical labour in the Indian Christian diaspora is done by women. We see this (generally) in two ways: in their maintenance of endogamy with equally evangelical and even Pentecostal partners; and in their household-based evangelical network involving visitations, preparation of food, and the role of hosting fellowships. It would appear that Christian women have their own version of “capacity for capacity” (to return to your mobilization of Puar’s idea), closely tied to their particularly emotional and relational lived experiences.
We might thus speak of two different types of evangelical work: formal and informal. You’re absolutely right that any kind of obvious proselytism in India is bound to attract attention and opposition (particularly in the Modi regime), and this includes many formal events such as rallies and public evangelism. When such activities have sponsorship from organisations outside India, that’s even more cause for concern, so Compassion’s experience is not entirely surprising. However, there is also what might be called informal evangelism, which is more aligned with the kind of emotional and relational everyday networking that Indian women do, and that seems to be more acceptable and successful.
How do you think gendered evangelical work will play out in the “religious internationalism” you discuss in chapter seven? As you point out, evangelical internationalism/transnationalism does not supercede nationalism but presupposes it. How do gendered religious lines fit into this? Or fit into the trend of technological mediation we’ve discussed?
HK: “Religious internationals” comes from historian Vincent Viaene. He’s one of the scholars whose work was helpful for me in thinking about how contemporary nation states structure sponsors’ conception of the global. One way that gender factors into this discussion is that charities or development organizations, especially if they work with children and appeal to female donors, often claim to be apolitical. Lots of work disputes this, from James Ferguson’s classic The Anti-Politics Machine to Erica Bornstein’s study of World Vision and child sponsorship in Zimbabwe. But the idea is still very common among the sponsors I met. It shouldn’t be surprising that female-majority charitable activities would be seen that way: the oldest democratic systems in Europe and North America long assumed that women were moral lodestars who could perhaps influence national politics, but were not themselves “political.” This year marks only a century since women could vote in the United States (and it was 1940 where I live, in Quebec).
Actually, I thought you were going to respond to my initial question about gender by talking about Indian nationhood. Using Julia Kristeva’s feminist theory of “abjection,” you argue Indian Christianity must take on “female” qualities of submissiveness and quietness to be indigenized within the Hindu, putatively secular, nation. It’s an interesting comparison to the United States where the unmarked “Protestant secular” often entwines democratic citizenship with masculinity, activism (often militarism), and race (back to whiteness). An extreme is the Christian nationalism associated with Trump. In the contexts you studied, was there a sense that certain nations are “good” and “Christian” and others are not? How does the “Indian secular” correspond to Hinduism, and with what consequences for Christianity? It seems an appropriately Immanent Frame sort of subject upon which to conclude!
RG: Kristeva is definitely relevant here. Formal and public evangelism (particularly when it involves non-Indian agencies) is what Kristeva might call a “phobic object” that gets abjected and transformed into the quieter informal evangelism associated with Indian women. This deliberate turn to a quieter informal evangelism is a kind of “weapon of the weak,” as James Scott might say—a response from a community that is in a marginalized and largely powerless position. This is probably a very curious notion for Christian communities in Western Christian-legacy countries, where evangelical Christianity is often associated with the political right (as we see with Trump and some of his supporters), and historically aligned with Western colonial control and influence. But in countries where Christians are very much in the minority—South and Southeast Asia, the Arab Gulf and elsewhere—evangelical Christianity is often about quiet lived experiences and personal networks, not about public evangelism and even less about political power. The consequences of an overtly “masculine” display of evangelical Christianity could very well be violence from elements within the Hindu or Muslim majority.
This of course affects the kind of “spatiotemporal compression” and “transcendence” of space and boundaries you speak of. Sponsorship seems to link women’s labour and capital to “masculine” Western networks and organisations that can then affect those spatial transcendences and territorialisations that you describe. In Indian Christianity we might say that the reverse is true: that those “masculine” organisations and networks have to recede, their place taken by “feminine” networks whose focus is on the local and the regional rather than on the international or global.
While it’s tempting to oversimplify and associate an evangelical Christianity with a global imaginary and reach, what I liked about the dialogue between our books is that it reminds us that there are in fact “evangelical Christianities” whose sociopolitical characteristics and powers are always tied to specifics of their culture, time, and space.