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Praying, Prayer Ideologies and Christian Inter-denominational Relations in Indigenous Amazonia

Prière, idéologies de la prière et relations interconfessionnelles chrétiennes en Amazonie indigène
Oración, ideologías de la oración y relaciones interdenominacionales cristianas en la Amazonia indígena
Minna Opas
p. 53-73


Depuis toujours, l’histoire du christianisme en Amazonie est marquée par les controverses et les négociations autour de la définition même de christianisme. Représentants de confessions diverses, les missionnaires ont tenu les formes locales indigènes de christianisme pour inauthentique. L’incertitude liée à ce qui doit être considéré comme le vrai christianisme a d’ailleurs caractérisé les relations interconfessionnelles au niveau local et fissuré la cohésion sociale. En prenant appui sur un terrain ethnographique parmi les Yine péruviens, cet article analyse les enjeux de l’orthodoxie dans le contexte des christianismes indigènes amérindiens. L’article s’intéresse aux relations interconfessionnelles de base entre catholiques, évangéliques et pentecôtistes et montre comment les pratiques d’oraison du peuple Yine sont un terrain crucial de la négociation des relations sociales et de la légitimation du christianisme. L’article soutient que ces négociations sont étroitement liées aux logiques socio-cosmologiques amérindiennes de la corporéité, et qu’elles peuvent être pleinement appréhendées dans la perspective d’une idéologie de la prière.

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1It was a silent and tranquil evening in one Yine community in southeastern Peruvian Amazonia in April 2015. The sun had set a while ago and soft darkness was falling over the community. I had the day before returned to the community after two years to conduct fieldwork and sat with several people from my host family on a bench by their house cooling down after a hot day. Suddenly, a sound, resembling singing and emanating some distance away begun. It took me a while to recognise the sound, although I had heard it many times before during my previous stays in the community: it came from the Pentecostal church, where people were praying in loud voice. I had previously participated in these Pentecostal meetings several times and had therefore actually listened to them at distance very rarely. The sound was familiar to my Evangelical host family, so they did not pay much attention to it. But when I, half to myself, half to the others, and to confirm my observation, noted that these were the Pentecostals praying, my host sister replied saying that these people “were mad, yelling like that”. I thought that this was quite a surprising comment from her – the Pentecostals were fellow Christians, after all – but at that moment, as she had already stood up and was heading to her kitchen to prepare food, I did not continue the conversation. It was only later that I realised that this comment was part of the Yine inter-denominational negotiation of legitimate Christianity, and that the prayer practices constituted one central space in which this negotiation took place. Furthermore, these negotiations were intertwined with Yine understandings of corporeality.

2The history of Christianity in Amazonia until the present day is replete with controversies and negotiations over right kind of Christianity. Previous research has paid attention especially to such negotiations in the context of encounters between (foreign) missionaries and indigenous peoples. Under scrutiny have been the differing ways in which Christianity has been conceptualised, and socially and politically contextualised and appropriated, by missionaries, on the one hand, and indigenous peoples, on the other (e. g. Bonilla, 2009; Capredon, 2020; Fausto, 2005; Gow, 2006; Grotti, 2009; Montero, 2006; Pompa, 2003; Vilaça, 2010, 2016; Viveiros de Castro, 2002). In addition to relationships to missionaries, recent research has increasingly addressed indigenous groups’ internal controversies concerning legitimate Christianity in contemporary contexts. Among local populations, these often take the form of inter-denominational disputes over proper form of Christian praxis (Capiberibe, 2007; Opas, 2014, 2019; Pereira, 1999; Veiga, 2004; Wright, 2009; Xavier, 2013). In this article, I will follow this latter vein of research and examine inter-denominational negotiations of orthodoxy in relation to Amazonian grassroots’ level indigenous Christianities among the Peruvian Yine people. In particular, I will focus on one elemental Christian form of worship, namely, prayer.

3In anthropological studies on Christianity, prayer, alongside with other speech and vocal acts such as sermons, testimonies, glossolalia, and singing, have been identified as important fields for forming and managing social relationships to fellow Christians, other people, and non-human others such as Christian divinities (Bialecki, 2011; Bialecki, Hoenes del Pinal, 2011; Coleman, 2006; Csordas, 2001; Engelke, 2007; Harding, 2000; Harkness, 2010, 2017; Keane, 2007; Luhrmann, 2012; Makihara, Schieffelin, 2007; Opas, 2016, 2020; Reinhardt, 2015; Robbins, 2004). These communicative acts have been shown to rely in multiple ways on the language ideology particular to each case, that is, on the specific understandings of what language is, how it is used, and what it can do (Silverstein, 1979; see also Bialecki, Hoenes de Pinal, 2011; Keane, 2003, 2007; Makihara, Schieffelin, 2007; Woolard, 1997; Woolard, Schieffelin, 1994). Language ideologies are often discussed as embedded within the broader notion of semiotic ideology. According to anthropologist Webb Keane (2003: 419; 2007), semiotic ideologies refer to people’s fundamental understandings about the nature of signs and the ways in which they work in the world. The notion thus enables us to consider the role of different non-linguistic rituals, bodily communication and practices, and other material meaning-making processes, too, in constituting people’s lived worlds.

  • 1 I have previously discussed Yine prayer ideologies from the point of view of technologies of imagin (...)
  • 2 The research has been funded by the Academy of Finland (project No 252542) and Turku Institute for (...)

4In this article, I will employ the notion of semiotic ideology, and its derivative, the notion of prayer ideology, that is, understandings of what prayer is and what it can do, to examine Yine negotiations of Christian orthodoxy.1 I will approach Yine prayer practices and discourse about prayer as one important space within which the Yine erect inter-denominational boundaries through physical and discursive acts, make and share their evaluations of the Christian condition of those Yine affiliated with a different denomination, and so engage in negotiations of legitimate forms of Christianity. I understand this space to be informed by denominational differences in Yine Christian prayer ideologies, which intertwine with their Amazonian ontological and epistemological views on the body highlighting the aspects of openness and closeness of the body. The discussion is based on my fieldwork among the Yine in 2012, 2013 and 2015, in particular, but it also draws from my long experience of research with the Yine from the year 2000 onward2.

5In what follows, I will first look at the question of orthodoxy and its intertwinement with questions of corporeality in Amazonia. After that, I will give an outline of the Christian organisation of the Yine community in question, and – based on my previous research – the three denominations’ understandings of the legitimate Christian condition. Then, I will turn to examine more in detail how these understandings inform the prayer ideologies behind Yine Christian prayer practices. Last, I will discuss how the field of prayer practices is central for Yine negotiations inter-denominational relations.

Corporeality and the Question of Orthodoxy in Indigenous Amazonia

6One characteristic of Christian history, as well as of other monotheistic religions, are controversies over orthodoxy (e.g. Cannell, 2006; Garriot, O’Neill, 2008; Robbins, 2003). The word orthodoxy comes from Greek words orthos (right, true) and doxa (opinion, belief). Nominally the word thus refers to correct belief or dogma, but here it is employed as including also other aspects, such as those of orthopraxia or correct praxis (Cannell, 2006) and orthomorphia or correct form (Opas, 2017a).

7The Christian question of orthodoxy has coloured social life also among Amazonian indigenous peoples in different ways during the past 500 years. Catholic missionaries’ attempts to evangelise Amazonian peoples during the first centuries after the “finding” of the continent; the later proselytizing attempts by Protestant and Pentecostal missionaries; the Catholic inculturation politics following the II Vatican Council; the battle between different denominations over indigenous souls; and the splitting or establishment of indigenous churches, for example, have all been situations in relation to which local people have encountered the central question related to orthodoxy: who is a Christian (Garriot, O’Neill, 2008; Robbins, 2003)? Previous research has approached these processes of negotiation of Christian orthodoxy in historical and more contemporary Amazonian contexts from the perspectives of language, translation, and semiotics (e. g. Monteiro, 2006; Pompa, 2003), and personhood and the body (Bonilla, 2009; Fausto, 2005; Grotti, 2009; Vilaça, 2010; 2016; Viveiros de Castro, 2002), in particular, although these have often overlapped with other approaches such as those of cosmology, myths, and socio-cosmological logics (Capredon, 2020; Shapiro, 1987; Wright, 1998, 1999), and social organization and politics (Capiberibe, 2004, 2007; Gow, 2006; Pollock, 1993; Vilaça, 1997). The same principal themes of language, semiotics and the body are relevant for the present discussion too. Derived from the notion of semiotic ideology, the notion of prayer ideology incorporates not only language and communication but also corporeality within the examination of Christian orthodoxy and inter-denominational boundaries.

8It is not, in fact, surprising, that in indigenous Amazonia negotiations over orthodoxy are often related to corporeality and semantics of the body. Research especially from the 1980’s onward has demonstrated in many ways the centrality of the body and bodily form for Amazonian cosmologies. The human body has been found as an important medium in forming and communicating social status, role, and hierarchy (Turner, 1980, 1995). Social groups and human bodies have been understood to be formed through joint material practices related to sustenance and work, for example, thus forming “communities of substance” (Seeger et al., 1987; see Conklin, Morgan, 1996; Londoño Sulkin, 2012; McCallum, 1996; Opas, 2006, 2008, 2014; Taylor, 1996; Vilaça, 2002). In these processes of bodily formation, different objects and substances considered as persons or having some degree of agency also have been found to obtain an important role (Santos-Granero, 2009; Walker, 2013). In Amazonia, the limits of a person thus clearly extend beyond the visible human body. This requires an openness of the body to the world, a quality commonly found in Amazonian socio-cosmological logics (Lévi-Strauss, 1995; Overing, Passes, 2000; Vilaça, 2005). It is this openness that enables a constant reproduction of people’s human condition, on the one hand, and allows the incorporation of exterior influences to one’s body (and personhood) but also exposes one to their harmful effects, on the other. A different and complementary view of Amazonian bodies was provided by the coining of the term perspectivism (Århem, 1993; Lima, 1999; Viveiros de Castro, 1998) to understand the dependence of human personhoods on relational contexts. From the perspectival point of view, human body and personhood are not fixed but, similarly as kinship positions, depend on relationships: a person may be the sister of one man and the wife of another (Vilaça, 2016; Viveiros de Castro, 1998). The perspectival quality turns attention from processes of fabrication of bodies to their transformation and instability.

9This profound role of the body in social communication and the formation of personhoods and communities in Amazonia also has invited to take corporeality into account in the study of Amazonian inter-denominational relations and negotiations of legitimate forms of Christianity. In the case of the Yine people, as I have shown in my earlier research, the formation and transformations of bodies feature central in their interpretations of Christianity: their views of the proper way of being a Christian (Opas, 2008), and its epistemological and moral premises (Opas, 2014; see also Gow, 2006); their change of and movement between denominations (Opas, 2019); and doubting of one’s own Christian condition (Opas, 2017b). Here, I will focus on one specific practice, praying, through which inter-denominational relations and Christian orthodoxy are negotiated among the Yine.

The Yine and Christianity

10The Yine (also known as Piro) are an Arawakan speaking indigenous people living mainly in the Peruvian Amazonia. Most of the Yine communities lie in the Lower Urubamba region of Central Peruvian Amazonia (see Gow, 1991, 2001), but there are Yine communities also in southeastern Peru in the Madre de Dios area. My research focuses on the latter region, where Yine came into contact with Christianity first at the beginning of the 20th century, during the rubber boom. In this era, the Catholics (Dominicans) ran a mission with a school in a rubber workers’ settlement, where also some Yine people lived. In the early 1920s, however, as the rubber boom was fading, the mission was closed (Álvarez, 2001; Fernández, 1952). It took three decades before Christian missionaries, this time the Evangelicals, returned to the area.

11The Yine community where I have conducted prolonged fieldwork and which this article investigates has currently a population of approximately 300 persons. The community and its school were founded in the 1950s from the initiative of the Protestant Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL)/Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT) missionaries. According to my Yine interlocutors, during the following two decades, the Yine were introduced to and adopted Evangelical Christianity and many, even some adults, learned to read. At the beginning of the 1970s, however, the SIL/WBT was forced to leave the Madre de Dios area because of obscurities related to their involvement in the extraction of natural resources. This created a space for the Catholics to return to the area. They established a primary school in the Yine community, which is still operating today. In spite of the withdrawal of the SIL/WBT missionaries, Evangelical Christianity did, however, thrive locally. As a result, from the 1970’s to the 2010’s both the Catholics (Dominicans) and Evangelicals had an established presence in the Yine community. Consequently, the Yine were forced to live in a situation in which inter-denominational discord became unavoidable (Opas, 2008, 2019). In 2013, the inter-denominational situation became even more complex. In that year, a non-indigenous Pentecostal pastor with background in the Assemblies of God church arrived in the community to spread the Word of God. He had little prior knowledge about the community, but – as he told me – he had been given this place to come to in a dream. As the local Evangelical church was at that time without a pastor and was led by three Evangelical brothers in Christ, the Pentecostal pastor filled the void and took the leadership. This was possible because, as is common in Amazonia, different Protestant and Pentecostal/Charismatic churches and movements were commonly depicted as being Evangelical as opposed to Catholicism. Nevertheless, the new pastor’s ways and practices were very charismatic in comparison to the customary Yine Evangelical Christian practice. This had the effect of alienating the Evangelicals from the church and after some months, only a few people continued to go to the weekly meetings. Consequently, the pastor – now without any prerequisite for continuing his work within the Evangelical framework – established a new church in the community. Since 2014, therefore, the community has counted with three Christian denominations – the Catholics, the Evangelicals, and the Pentecostals.

12The Catholic Church’s (run by Dominicans) role and practices differed considerably from those of the two other denominations in the community. Although the Catholics ran the community’s primary school, and consequently, it occupied a visible role in the communal life, Yine adults adhering to Catholicism rarely participated in worship at the Catholic chapel. As will be discussed below, some of them did, however, pray for hunting luck, for example. Nevertheless, for the Yine Catholics, Christianity was still important as it stood for everything associated with “being civilized”: knowing how to read and write, and leading a moral life (Opas, 2008). In contrast to the Catholics, the Evangelicals and Pentecostals in the community practiced their religion actively and publicly. They had meetings three to four times a week at their churches, and many did engage in the reading of the Bible and prayed individually too. Members of both denominations considered practicing Christianity and living according to Christian teachings an important part of their Yine identity.

13Despite the differences, corporeality and the body were central to all denominations’ understandings of Christianity, the local level inter-denominational relations, and the Yine negotiations of orthodoxy. Among the Yine, being a Christian was commonly conceptualised as a highly unstable bodily condition, and to stabilise their bodies and make them legitimately Yine and Christian, they aspired to form a community of similars (Overing 2003), a community comprising of people with similar Christian bodies. However, the denominations differed in regard to their views on the nature of, and ways of producing, a proper Christian body (Opas, 2014, 2019). Whereas for the Yine Evangelicals maintaining one's body Christian was achieved through ongoing engagement in Christian praxis, the Catholics deemed such religious praxis unnecessary. In the production of proper Christian bodies they rather relied on customary forms of sharing substances, such as manioc beer (see Gow, 2001: 165-166, 232). In regard to Pentecostalism, which was a new-comer to the community, my existing data does not yet allow me to make far-reaching conclusions on the possible changes in the understandings of those former Evangelicals and Catholics who started to participate in the Pentecostal meetings on how proper Christian bodies were formed. According to my observations, however, there were significant differences for example in their understandings of prayer’s constitutive power in this respect, to which I will now turn to.

Yine Prayer Ideologies

14Just like their views on what was central in Christianity in general, the public prayer practices of the three denominations in the Yine community differed significantly from one another. I understand these practices as being governed by, and the differences between them to be based on, different prayer ideologies, that is, Yine understandings concerning what kinds of things are possible in and for prayer, and how prayer works semiotically, materially, and corporeally.

15In the Yine community, the Pentecostal pastor had a strong influence on the prayer habits of those, especially young adults, attending the Pentecostal meetings. The non-indigenous pastor prayed aloud in Spanish, glorifying God, and his praying was structured by loud exclamations:

Thank you God, thank you, in the name of Jesus, I praise you, thank you for what you have done, for your love, Hallelujah! […] Lord, come to our hearts, use our prayer in the battle against the Devil, Father, Hallelujah, thank you Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, Hallelujah, glory to God, holy, holy, holy…

16The participants responded to the pastor’s loud prayers by at times even louder praying (see Opas 2020). The most intense response came from the young adults, who put their soul and their whole bodies into praying: standing up they raised their hands to worship, and instead of using complex sentences, repeated individual praise words and short exclamations in a loud voice:

Hallelujah! Glory to God! Blessed God! In the name of Jesus! Amen! Holy, Holy, Holy! Thank you God, Blessed God! In the name of Jesus Christ! Yes God! Lord, you are Holy! Lord, He who lives forever and ever! Holy Jesus!

17These prayers, I think, were not just acts or performances but stemmed from a prayer ideology emphasizing form (on the suppression of form in Protestant cultures, see Meyer, 2008). In one of the weekly meetings, the Pentecostal pastor explained how a short prayer is not sufficient for receiving a prayer answer, but Christians should pray for several hours in a day if they wished to obtain things, such as construction materials for the church. Furthermore, people should not be afraid to show their faith but should disseminate it through loud prayer. Such loud prayer was directed to God, on the one hand, and to other people, on the other. The louder the prayer, the more probably it generated an answer from God. The loud prayer also informed the other Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals alike about one’s strong faith and relationship to God.

18Jon Bialecki (2011) has analysed Christian language ideologies in terms of what he calls their centripetal and centrifugal forces. The first refers to an inward orientation stressing intimacy of speech and individual’s private relationship to God, while the second emphasizes the externality and the circulation of language and spreading of the Word. Bruno Reinhardt (2015) has further argued that whereas Protestant language ideologies tend to accentuate centripetal characteristics of language, Pentecostal language ideologies highlight centrifugal traits. In line with these observations, the Yine Pentecostal prayer ideology can be understood to prioritize the centrifugal forces and the emanation of the Word and faith from the person into the trans-personal realm. Like projectiles send by and connected to the body of a witch – although the Yine themselves never put it in these words – the utterings in Pentecostal prayer appeared as objectifications (Santos-Granero, 2009; see also Opas, 2018; Coleman, 2006) of the prayer’s intentions impregnated with faith. They were material, embodied expressions of faith aimed at affecting the world around. Similar observations have been made among Swedish Faith movement Christians by Simon Coleman (2006: 165), who notes that “to ‘speak out’ sacred words that have been stored in the self is not merely to communicate to other in a semantic sense; it is also to recreate and extend one’s persona in the act of giving an aspect of the self to others – an aspect that is never truly alienated from the giver” (see also Reinhardt, 2015: 267; Harkness, 2010). In relation to God, the loud exclamatory prayer utterances could be understood as being by the Yine capable of turning God’s attention toward the person praying and even bringing about the desired prayer answer. In relation to fellow Pentecostals, the loud praying – or, collaboratively produced cacophony (Harkness, 2017) – created a sensuous space in which it was possible to enforce one’s Christian body and Christian condition. And, in relation to other Yine people, such cacophony worked in erecting inter-denominational boundaries, a point which will be further discussed below. Although there certainly were centripetal elements to the Yine Pentecostal prayer, too, as people also prayed silently in private, also these prayers were – at least as instructed by the pastor – to be directed outward to the benefit of the Pentecostal congregation, the Yine community, and the worldwide community of Christians. The Pentecostal prayer ideology among the Yine could therefore be described as one accentuating form instead of content. Words, especially short exclamations, were considered capable of doing things but they first needed to be infiltrated or empowered by bodily gestures and high volume of speech.

19In contrast, Yine Evangelical praying emphasized more the content of prayer and the morally legitimate bodily condition of the person praying (see also Vilaça, 2016: 173-193), and their prayer ideology could be understood to accentuate centripetal rather than centrifugal forces. Evangelical prayer conducted at the weekly meetings was relatively quiet and expressionless. The Evangelicals sat with their heads bowed down while they prayed silently. Usually this silent prayer was preceded by or took place simultaneously with a prayer delivered aloud by a pastor or some other person selected for the task. These prayers were alternatingly uttered in Yine and Spanish depending on the person praying. Thematically, the prayers focused on the challenges people encountered in their daily lives, such as health issues and individuals’ moments of disbelief and uncertainty, as the following example from one of the weekly evening meetings demonstrates:

Lord Jesus, in this late evening I thank you, thank you for all the good, for nothing bad happening to us, for us all being healthy, Lord, tonight no one is ill, only some children have a flu, but you can help them and strengthen them, and us, because we have come here so that you would strengthen us and also strengthen our faith so that we could do what is right, because you see, don’t you, what we are doing right now. Lord, call those who do not listen to your word, call them and […] whatever we have in our hearts, whatever causes us concern, release us from these [issues], Lord, wipe them away from us in Jesus' blood, cast them away, because they serve no purpose ...

20As I have noted previously (Opas, 2020), the Evangelical prayer ideology appears to be more closely connected to the Yine socio-cosmological logic depicted in myths and personal narratives of people’s encounters with non-human others than the Pentecostal prayer ideology. This depends, of course, largely on the non-indigeneity of the Pentecostal pastor, and on the fact that Pentecostalism had not yet during my fieldwork been able to take root in the community. In many Yine myths, words invite the listener to interaction, but their impact depends on the reactions of the listener. Exemplary cases are myths, in which a person walking in the forest thinks about or utters a hope that an animal seen would be a human being and that they would become spouses. Upon hearing the wish, the animal decides to act on it, and transforms into a human being. In a similar manner, God is considered by the Yine Evangelicals to hear people’s wishes even if they are not said aloud, and to decide whether to act on them or not, and when. This view differs from the Pentecostal prayer ideology, in which words empowered with high volume and bodily gestures impregnated with faith were deemed capable of affecting God’s prayer answers and decisions. The duration and form of prayer were not particularly significant for the Yine Evangelicals. In fact, they refuted the idea that by increasing the intensity of prayer one could enhance the possibility for getting an answer for it. What one could do, according to the Evangelicals, was to live tranquilly and in peace with others and thus to fabricate and maintain a legitimate Christian body through taking part in Evangelical practice, reading the Bible, sharing food and other necessities with others, and living close to other Evangelicals. The legitimate bodily condition, having a pure and sincere body, was considered a precondition for prayers to be successful (on the topic of sincerity among Christians, see Keane, 2007; Robbins, 2004). As an Evangelical brother in the community explained:

In prayer, the Lord becomes alive, he listens, he lives. He knows what we lack, what we want and what will happen to us. That is why we have to pray, so that we could live in peace... prayer is a secret, in it we are together with the living Lord, he listens to you, he cleanses your heart. But if you have wronged others, God will not listen to your prayers. Things need to be settled before one can pray.

21The Evangelical prayer ideology was therefore targeted at the production of legitimately Christian (Evangelical) persons with focus on their bodily sincerity (Opas, 2017b), rather than at the delivering and spreading the Word within one’s congregation and the community. The latter aspect – creating a community of Christian similars (Seeger et al., 1987) – was however considered a prerequisite for success in the first (Opas, 2008, 2019).

22As noted above, the Catholics in the Yine community differed from the Evangelicals and Pentecostals in that Catholic adults, even though asserting that Christianity was very important for them in many ways, did not practice their faith in public, nor were they very interested – despite my attempts – in contemplating spiritual issues. It was mainly schoolchildren, led by the community’s primary school’s missionary teachers affiliated with the Dominican order, who attended services and rosaries always held in Spanish at the Catholic chapel. The adults came to the chapel primarily for baptisms, and even then, only for the ritual of baptism itself omitting the Mass preceding it. However, the many small clues gathered from discussions concerning other aspects of Yine Catholicism, and from participating in Yine Christian lives, help to form an outline of Yine Catholic prayer ideology.

23Altough most Catholic Yine adults had in their childhood learned the Catholic practices, praying at the Catholic chapel was uncommon. A few Catholic adults did however tell me about their practice of praying individually and privately before going hunting, for example. This was done to ensure good hunting luck. The logic behind these prayers can be seen as likening that of the use of amulets attracting game animals during hunting. Just as the amulets, such as particular small stones sometimes found inside peccaries, which were carried around in one’s pocket, also prayers were conceived to bring game animals to the vicinity so that the hunter could then easily kill them. On the other hand, prayers uttered when needed, just as crucifix necklaces worn by some young Catholic Yine adults, were considered to protect the person from haunting souls of the deceased or influence of malevolent non-humans. The Yine Catholic prayer ideology could therefore be interpreted as having a centripetal orientation. Prayers were often uttered for the protection or wellbeing of the person in question (even though the game killed was used for the benefit of the person’s family). As in the case of the Pentecostal prayer ideology, the language in the Catholic prayers was considered powerful. Instead of being empowered by the prayer’s own faith as in the Pentecostal case, however, the words uttered appeared infused with divine power and as such had the capability to produce effects in the world (brining game close to be killed, for example). They did, however, seem to be irrelevant or inconsequential for the Catholics’ human-to-human relationships and the formation of a Christian community.

24Despite their reluctance to discuss their own Catholicism and prayer practices, the Catholic adults did have opinions concerning the other denominations’ praying practices, which they did voice especially when discussing inflamed inter-denominational relations. I will now turn to examine Yine prayers in relation to this inter-denominational field.

Negotiating Inter-denominational Relations through Prayer and Praying

25The differences in praying and praying practices were a sphere where and in relation to which inter-denominational relations were negotiated. This was, I suggest, because praying made concrete – visible and audible – the differences between the Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Catholics in the community. When I inquired about people’s attitudes toward other denominations, the issue often mentioned in this context was the others’ “wrong” kind of praying practices. These practices provided a concrete demonstration of inter-denominational differences and served as a platform for anchoring criticism and discursively erecting boundaries between denominations. They were not, however, merely a question of differences in practice but incorporated fundamental differences in understandings about the right kind of Christian body and Christian orthodoxy.

26For the Evangelicals, both Catholic and Pentecostal prayer practices, although differing from one another, revealed these denominations to be unauthentic and insincere forms of Christianity. In both cases, the Evangelical criticism targeted the repetitive style of praying, which in the case of the Pentecostals meant the repetition of the words hallelujah, amen, holy and the names of God and Jesus Christ, and in the case of the Catholics the recitation of the Our Father and the Hail Mary prayers. As one Evangelical woman explained in relation to the latter (see also Opas, 2019: 1079):

At the Catholic Church […] people just repeat… We [Evangelicals] do not repeat prayers, we have to say different things, what we are lacking, we have to ask for these things, right? Once when I went there [Catholic Church], they were only repeating: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,” that is all they say.

27From the point of view of the Evangelical prayer ideology, to be effective, a prayer should be an intimate conversation with God in which one shares one’s personal concerns and needs with God. From the Evangelicals' perspective repeating given lines or words of praise in exaltation were empty speech void of meaning and possibilities to have an effect. Although repetition can also make a prayer intimate (see Haeri, 2013), to the Evangelicals the repetitive style of praying was opposed to practices of sincere faith (on the topic of sincerity see e.g. Bialecki, 2011; Coleman, 2006; Engelke, 2007; Keane, 2007; Robbins, 2004). For them, sincere faith was based on personal interaction with God, which contributed to the production of the prayer’s body as properly Christian (Opas, 2017b). Repetitive praying aloud was not considered capable of establishing such intimate interaction or producing legitimate Christian bodies. This interpretation concerning Catholic and Pentecostal prayer also parsed the Evangelical understandings of these forms of Christianity as a whole: in the Evangelical view they were not proper ways of being a Christian.

28In the case of Pentecostals, the Evangelical criticism was in addition directed to the loud voice used in praying. As I noted above (see also Opas, 2020), in Evangelical prayer ideology, people reached out to God through silent (centripetal) prayer stemming from purified and sincere body. Loud (centrifugal) prayer was not considered to emanate from a truly sincere body. Furthermore, loud voice was customarily in the Yine social logic valued negatively. It was associated with “mad” behaviour caused by a human being distancing from their legitimate human bodily condition as result of being – through the openness of the body – under the influence of a non-human (Opas, 2014). Such distancing was identified on basis of illegitimate behaviour: yelling, going about naked, and eating charcoal, for example. According to the Evangelicals, Pentecostal prayer bore likeness to such situations. As my Evangelical host sister cited at the beginning of the article noted: the Pentecostals were mad, yelling their prayers. The Pentecostal form of praying was in their view not something healthy and legitimately human people would do, and it certainly was not something Christian people should do.

  • 3 In some contexts, also the Evangelical Yine considered the Catholics to side with Satan rather tha (...)

29If the Evangelicals held Pentecostal and Catholic prayer practices as insincere, also the Pentecostals had similar views concerning the Evangelical and Catholic forms of praying. The Pentecostal critique, as voiced by the pastor, focused on the inwardness, or centripetal tendency, of the other denominations’ prayers. According to this view, the Evangelicals – who otherwise did count as properly Christian in Pentecostal thinking – did wrong in praying silently and keeping their faith to themselves. Rather, they should have made their devotion to God explicit through animated prayer and loud worship. As the Pentecostal pastor once said, they “should not just pray in their own church [but] proclaim the Word to others.” In the Pentecostal view, then, even if the Evangelicals might have been able to establish a personal connection to God, they failed in letting the Word flow (Reinhardt, 2015) to reach other people. True Christians should actively preach the Word both in the Yine community and beyond. Evangelical Christianity was therefore in their view incomplete as Christianity. The Pentecostal view toward the Catholics was more critical than toward the Evangelicals. Rather than considering merely Catholic ways of praying inauthentic, they viewed the Catholics not to be Christian at all, but instead siding with the Satan3. Even though this critique mostly targeted the non-indigenous Catholic father and Catholic missionary school teachers rather than the Yine Catholics, it did diffuse to concern the latter too, thus impacting the inter-denominational interaction in the community.

30For their part, the Yine Catholics saw both the Evangelicals and Pentecostals as not living up to their faith and accused them of hypocrisy. Although the Catholics did not directly comment to me on Pentecostal or Evangelical prayer practices, they did refer to them when speaking about these denominations more generally. One Catholic man, for example, said to me that while both aforementioned groups claimed to be living decently, reading the Bible and praying to God regularly, they still acted inappropriately in their private lives. I have previously (Opas, 2014, 2017a) discussed how for the Yine Catholics a proper Christian was a person who was taught to read and write by the missionaries, could live in a morally correct way, and prioritized customary ways of forming a Yine community of substance through living together, and sharing food and manioc beer. For them, a proper Christian could be recognised from these actions. In the Catholic view, the Evangelicals’ and Pentecostals’ were not living this way. Their actions did not correspond to their words: they said one thing but did another. Although there exists the possibility of overinterpretation, against this background I dare to suggest that in the Catholic view Evangelical and Pentecostal prayers were being uttered in vein. Their behaviour not suitable for a Christian annulled their prayers making them just performance.

  • 4 As I have discussed elsewhere (Opas, 2019, 2020), also social discrepancies not directly related t (...)

31The differences between denominations in Christian prayer practices thus worked for the Yine as a one important platform for voicing their views on the other denominations and the legitimacy of different forms of Christianity4. This was for large part connected to the notable presence of these practices in people’s daily life. Several times a week, the sound of the Pentecostal worship, for example, extended far toward the limits of the Yine communal space in the darkness of the Amazonian evenings. The Evangelicals' abstaining from such audible praying even if regularly congregating at their centrally located church, and the Catholic abstaining from most public praying all together, created a stark contrast to this Pentecostal way of praying. These constant visible and audible reminders kept prayer a topical issue in the community and added to the inter-denominational tensions related to, and given expression in, these practices.

32The acts of praying and discourse about prayer appeared then almost exclusively to mark and reinforce denominational boundaries rather than deconstruct them.It was especially the form of praying informed by the differing prayer ideologies and their centripetal and cetrifugal tendencies, which engendered critique in members of other denominations. What was common to all this critique was that it was largely motivated by the impact the different ways of praying had for the bodily constitution of the Yine community. By producing different kinds of Christian bodies, the distinct prayer practices for their part inhibited or prevented the achievement of the Yine socio-moral objective of living tranquilly in a “community of similars,” in a community of people with similar bodies. The Yine community comprised three separate denominations, in a way three communities within one, and there did not seem to be any solution foreseeable to the situation in the future.


33The discussion above has shown how understandings of prayer and praying practices among the Yine were used to strengthen the boundaries between denominations and to differentiate them from one another. It has to be noted, however, that concentrating on praying alone does produce a rather one-sided picture of Yine inter-denominational boundary-work as aimed at enforcing and guarding the boundaries. In actuality, the Yine inter-denominational relations were more variable and the boundary-work also included deconstructing, modifying and crossing the boundaries between the Evangelicals, Catholics and Pentecostals. As I have argued elsewhere (Opas, 2019), the examination of discord between denominations easily leads to an understanding of denominations as separate entities and reinforces the view of the exclusivity of denominational adherence. Such a view veils much of the daily denominational dynamics and ways in which denominationalism works in Christian people’s everyday lives as a generating force. Albeit recognising this pitfall, in this article, however, the topic of study under scrutiny has led the discussion toward the processes of boundary-drawing. I have concentrated on Yine prayers and praying and their underlying prayer ideologies, which have an impact on their inter-denominational relations. In this examination, praying appeared as an important field for Yine negotiations over proper ways of being Christian, because it gave the differences between denominations a concrete form.

34This production of difference and erecting of inter-denominational boundaries was among the Yine inherently related to their views on legitimate human and Christian bodily form. Each denomination had their own prayer practices informed by a particular prayer ideology accentuating either centripetal or centrifugal tendency, which they considered efficient in the production of legitimate Christian bodies. It was in and through the different denominations’ own praying activities, but especially the Yine views and experiences of other denominations’ praying habits, that the Yine corporeally and semantically negotiated and lived out inter-denominational relations and the correct form of Christianity.

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1 I have previously discussed Yine prayer ideologies from the point of view of technologies of imagination (Opas, 2020). The citations of prayers analysed in this article are cited also in the previous article

2 The research has been funded by the Academy of Finland (project No 252542) and Turku Institute for Advanced Studies (TIAS)

3 In some contexts, also the Evangelical Yine considered the Catholics to side with Satan rather than God (Opas, 2014).

4 As I have discussed elsewhere (Opas, 2019, 2020), also social discrepancies not directly related to Christianity often got their expression in the field of inter-denominational relationships.

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Minna Opas

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