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Crédits : Samuele Poletti

Miracles matter and the matter of miracles

The miraculous reshaping of world and self among Nepali Pentecostal Christians
Samuele POLETTI

Résumés

Parmi les chrétiens pentecôtistes convertis à Sinja, au Népal, des miracles se produisent lorsqu'ils reconnaissent des moments narratifs de la Bible dans des événements fortuits de leur vie. Leur engagement dans les technologies pentecôtistes spécifiques de l'imagination, comme la lecture de la Bible et le récit de leur conversion à d'autres, provoque un déferlement de la Parole dans le monde, transformant les convertis de Sinjali en sujets véritablement chrétiens des récits de conversion qu'ils racontent. Dans ces récits, le chevauchement de la vie quotidienne avec le récit biblique agit comme un dispositif imaginaire qui soutient la conversion des personnes défavorisées dans un contexte où elles ne jouissent pas d'une grande liberté de choix. Réalisant la promesse d'une vie meilleure, la production des miracles que je présente donne un aperçu de ce que pourrait signifier "vivre dans un livre".

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1It was the autumn of 2019 when, walking along the dirt road that runs through the Sinja valley, I noticed a folded wheelchair in front of a little house on the outskirts of the bazaar. This detail struck me, as I could barely imagine the struggles that a disabled person must face in this remote corner of northwest Nepal. I wondered who lived there. One morning, as my research assistant and I were sipping tea waiting for the first sunbeams, a tall man came out of the house. I had already seen him the previous Saturday at the local church. I saw him again a few days later. He was sitting outside his house with a visibly disabled adolescent, who I came to know was his daughter. He invited me to eat some apples with them, and told me his story.

The mysterious wheelchair, Sinja valley, November 2019.

The mysterious wheelchair that caught my attention.

Photo: Samuele Poletti

2Ashish is 34, and comes from a village above the bazaar. To my surprise, he revealed he had been a Christian only for three weeks. His family had been plagued by many adversities over the years. His mother died when Ashish was still a child. So, he and his siblings dropped out of school to help at home. Years later, his only daughter was born with a severe physical and intellectual disability. Adequate medical assistance was unavailable in Sinja, and they were too poor to seek help elsewhere. The only option was to turn to the local Hindu deities (devideutā), embodied by their human mediums (dhāmī).

Ashish pointed at his daughter, who was sitting in her wheelchair next to us, patiently tended to by her mother.

Ashish: You can see her conditions … We consulted many dhāmī, but she is 12 now and she is still like that. We sacrificed goats and whatever else the dhāmī told us to offer the gods, with no effect. So, at last I thought that maybe Parmeshwor [the Christian God] could help us.

When he left his parental home, Ashish had nowhere to move to with his own family. He received some financial help to build the house where they live from a Christian organization, which also provided the wheelchair for his daughter. “They helped me, whereas the devideutā did not,” Ashish said. “Hence I decided to become Christian.”

  • 1 It must also be noted that, throughout Nepal, both individual pastors and large Christian organizat (...)

3Ashish’s words might corroborate the prejudice, widespread in Nepal, that conversion is motivated by opportunistic reasons. Yet, as Ian Gibson noted (2017b: 98-99), this would be unjust.1 As will be seen in the following pages, often, in Sinja, conversion to Pentecostal Christianity is set in motion by the occurrence of miracles—generally addressed with the Nepali term “jādu”, which roughly translates as “magic”—that manifest the truth of the Word in the world.

4Miracles have been interpreted as counterhegemonic tools making the world more suitable for religious minorities to dwell in (Shenoda 2012). Whilst in Sinja, too, Jesus’s supremacy over the indigenous gods is affirmed through miraculous events, those presented here, recorded in 2015-2016 and 2019, are less a political means of contestation than a manner whereby local converts reexperience their lives as biblical events. In this way, Sinjali Pentecostals partake in the narrative reality of the scriptures in an act of “anamnesis (remembering forward), which is also anagoge (reading ultimate spiritual meanings in given literal ones)” (Kearney 2016: 247). In other terms, miracles transfigure the lifeworld of believers in a manifestation of the Word conveyed in the Bible. But what does it actually mean that the Bible keeps happening in their lives, and what are the existential implications of saying that they are living actors in that story?

5The attempt to ground the eternal “Truth” of scriptural events in one’s life is a documented hermeneutic activity amongst Pentecostals worldwide (Bielo 2008: 4-5; Haynes 2020; see also Harding 1987). However, James Bielo noted,

Given the centrality of scripture in Christian discourse and praxis, there are surprisingly few anthropological accounts of how the Bible figures into the cultural logics of Christianity, or what actually occurs when Christian believers interact with their sacred text. (2008: 3)

6Webb Keane illustrated how, manipulating the materiality of texts, believers in several religious contexts mediate between ontological planes, “either materializing something immaterial or dematerializing something material” (2013: 2). In other words, Keane underlines people’s agency upon the written sign.

7The imaginary reality of Pentecostal miracles shows instead how the scriptures act in turn upon people, underscoring the “ethics of passion” that, according to Amira Mittermaier, pertains to “modes of religiosity that centre neither on acting against nor on acting within but on being acted upon” (2012: 252). In the stories that follow, rather than an inert item subjected to rational exegesis, “the Word” features as an “an elsewhere”—in Mittermeier’s terms—that, inscribing converts into the biblical reality as this keeps coming true in their lives, contributes to mould quintessentially Christian subjects.

8As I have argued elsewhere (Poletti 2020), in Sinja, the overlapping of “reality” and “imagination” does not constitute a logical conundrum, being part and parcel of everyday lived experience. Nonetheless, the unproblematized summoning of “the imagination” bears the risk of encouraging a solipsistic, psychocentric rendering of imaginative faculties as an inborn precondition of the human mind, neglecting the external factors through which imaginary effects are engendered (Sneath et al. 2009: 14). Instead, according to Sneath et al., approaching imagination as the result of specific technologies allows for a better grasp of what one is actually referring to when deploying this term, beyond making vague reference to a rather obscure yet supposedly universal human faculty. I thereby propose to see the miracles reported by converts I met in Sinja as the imaginary products of distinct Pentecostal technologies of the imagination, the outcome of which is that of materializing narrative moments of the Bible in the “external imaginary space spanning [...] between persons and things” (ibid.: 14). At the same time, the imaginary effect of the interaction between Sinjali Pentecostals and the Holy Writ is also, necessarily, a hermeneutic engagement with its narrative content, which discourages the dismissal of agency that characterizes Sneath et al.’s view of these technologies. Miracles are, indeed, the result of the Bible acting upon believers as they get hermeneutically involved with the text in the act of reading it and of telling their conversion narratives to others, thanks to which they quite literally enter the text. The matter of miracles explored in these pages interrogates the relationship that Pentecostal converts in Sinja come to establish with the book that structures their lifeworlds, and the way this relationship contributes in fashioning who they are.

An accidental prophet

  • 2 The presence of Christianity in the country has been steady, though marginal, since the early eight (...)

9Most Evangelical churches in Nepal are Pentecostal/charismatic.2 For Pentecostals, the possibility of miracles and of experiencing the gifts of the Holy Spirit is ubiquitous in everyday life. Indeed, about three-quarters of Nepali Christians report having been blessed by a miracle (Fricke 2008; Gibson 2017b: 100). In a religious reality wherein the Hindu gods are actively involved in shaping people’s lives (see, e.g., Poletti 2018, 2020), Christianity needs to acquire a competing role to succeed. During Saturday service, great emphasis is put on biblical tales of miraculous efficacy, such as Jesus walking on water or multiplying loaves and fishes. The pastor also invites people to narrate their stories of miraculous healing. Divine healing, though, is taken to mean more than the disappearance of a physical ailment. It often implies the pacification of difficult family relations (Gibson 2017a: 766). Ashish, however, did not report any issue in this respect. Furthermore, he noted, his sister had married a Christian about the time his daughter was born, and has been Christian herself ever since. She remains on good terms with her native family, whom she visits from time to time.

  • 3 To be considered fully converted, a person has to undergo baptism. In Ashish’s case, though, his co (...)

10Ashish said his sister did not have any role in his conversion. This was his own choice. He had nonetheless turned to her husband to ask about the practicalities. They went to a local pastor, who prayed over Ashish and gave him a Bible, which he was now reading at home with his family. That was the day when, in Ashish’s own view, he became Christian.3 What had inspired him most to seek relief in Christianity was the story of Hari, his sister’s husband’s brother, whom Jesus had healed of paralysis. Thinking of his daughter, I assumed this must have been what Ashish wished for her too. But this was a hasty guess.

Pentecostal healing, Sinja valley, October 2019.

Praying over an aching body part is common practice amongst Sinjali Pentecostals.

Photo: Samuele Poletti.

11I came across Hari sometime later at “the mother church”. Established in 2006, this was the first of the four Evangelical churches now to be found in Sinja. “It all started when I was 11,” Hari told me on that occasion. He suffered from an uncontrollable, violent shaking, which, for some reason, he and others labelled with the English term “paralysis”. “I had no control over my body,” he explained, “and negative thoughts came to my mind.” Several dhāmī reassured the family that he would be healed were they to offer something to the deities. But the situation only worsened, and eventually Hari’s father decided to take him to hospital in the southern plains. Hari received injections that calmed the symptoms. As a precaution, though, he stayed there with an uncle for a few months. During this time, his paralysis seemed to have vanished. So, when he returned to Sinja, his family organized a feast to celebrate his recovery. Soon after, however, Hari started shaking again. He was taken to hospital for some more injections. This happened a few times: after the injections the problem would disappear, but it manifested anew back in Sinja. Although Hari’s family was relatively wealthy by local standards, this drained their finances.

12Hari’s father heard about Christianity from a friend. This man, who back then was amongst the few Christians in the valley, persuaded him that Jesus had the power to help his son. Every Saturday, Hari and his father started going to church. But Hari’s condition remained unaffected, and kept tormenting the boy. Hari’s mother told him to stop hanging out with other villagers his age, fearing that he would be mocked because of his father’s choice. Thus, Hari started feeling lonely. To make matter worse, initially he found church quite boring. Hari’s new life as a Christian did not start very well—not at least until the Bible came true in his life, and quite literally spoke to him.

Hari: I thought about the money my family had to spend for me, and yet, because of my problem, they couldn’t have peace. So, one day I went into the jungle to hang myself. But the bough to which I had tightened the rope broke, and I fell to the ground. I was puzzled. I opened the Bible to a random page. It was Galatians 3:13. There was written: “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree.” I got scared and I cried, saying I wouldn’t do this ever again! I was impressed by those words, so I started reading the Bible more. I found encouragement there, and my problem disappeared. Later, I recounted what had happened at the church, and many people were inspired as well.

Conversion narratives, Sinja valley, November 2019.

Believers are encouraged to share personal stories of miraculous healing during service.

Photo: Samuele Poletti

13Hari’s is a fairly typical conversion narrative that can be heard in Nepal (e.g. Gibson 2017a: 765). Local Hindu deities and their human mediums lose credibility after repeated failure in solving people’s issues, who start depicting traditional practices and the burdensome sacrifices they entail as a fraud. Then, a Christian—Nepali or foreigner—assures them of the complete resolution of their problem were they to convert. Whilst sparking interest in Christianity, this is not enough to actualize the drastic change that characterizes Evangelical conversion narratives worldwide (see Stromberg 1993; also Fricke 2008: 42-46). At this point, the occurrence of a miracle incontrovertibly manifests Jesus’s superior power, leading to a full conversion. Oftentimes, a sort of domino effect follows. While initially only Hari and his father had become Christians, after this episode the rest of their family converted as well. Hari’s healing was crucial for this to happen. As he said, “If I hadn’t been healed, my family would have thought Jesus isn’t good either.” In Hari’s view, God had healed him to inspire other people. This was indeed the case, as Hari’s story has led many to convert, including, recently, Ashish.

  • 4 This is a strategy God has resorted to since early in the Bible (see, e.g., Exodus 10:2). Not all p (...)

14Amongst these converts is Bhim, a young shopkeeper in his mid-thirties distantly related to Hari. Bhim­, now a pastor of this congregation, was troubled by a mysterious illness that had affected his mother for a couple of years. Deeply touched by Hari’s healing, he borrowed his Bible, put it under his mother’s pillow, and prayed for her. Soon afterwards Bhim’s mother had completely recovered—a miracle that led him, eventually, to undertake pastoral ministry. Bhim said that Hari’s problem was caused by the devil, who wished to discredit Hari in front of his community. Visibility was imperative, and was the reason why his paralysis manifested only in Sinja, since in other places Hari did not know anyone. It was not very clear to me, though, why the devil would bother to disgrace someone like Hari, who was just a teenager at the time. I kept pressing the pastor on this point. Exasperated by my questions, Bhim lost his temper a little and blurted out: “I think this was God’s big plan (ṭhulo yojanā) for Hari’s life. God created these problems to heal him, so that he and others would believe.” Causing troubles in Hari’s life only to later solve them, God’s aim was not only to persuade him, but, through the witnessing of his miraculous healing, also to convince others of His greatness.4 Hari was thus turned into an “accidental prophet”, whose personal story opened to many the doors of Christianity. These events led to the establishment of a little church near where Hari lives, where every Saturday now Bhim celebrates services for the little congregation that has flourished there.

The reality of the Bible

15Miracles have been central to the Pentecostal movement since its very beginning in the early twentieth century in America (Weddle 2010: 165-166). But what are we to make of stories like Hari’s in Nepal? Scholarly detractors of Pentecostal Christianity have resorted to a hermeneutics of suspicion aiming at debunking the bad faith behind these alleged “marvels” (see Stolz 2011: 459). Anthropologists, argued Jörg Stolz, tend to take these narratives more seriously, though generally fail to show “with what ‘social techniques’ Pentecostals routinely produce impressive miracles and healings” (ibid.: 457). What needs to be accounted for are hence the elements that combine in creating a distinct social atmosphere in which miracles can germinate (see also Pelkmans 2015). Just like the capacity to hear God “talking back” described by Tanya Luhrmann (2012), miracles do not happen spontaneously; they are the achievement of specific techniques.

16But let’s take a step back. Miracles are commonly understood as a disruption of the status quo caused by God to intervene in favour of particular individuals, for reasons that are never quite clear (Shanafelt 2004: 321). They are, first of all, events: “things that happen” (Bialecki 2017: 67). However, Jon Bialecki suggested, some events are more meaningful than others. Evangelical miracles happen to be particularly dense events that catalyse, through the convergence of specific social forces, the alternative potentialities intrinsic to the event itself (ibid.: 68-69). Actually, miracles matter not simply because they happen, but because they are recognized as such and thus come to acquire specific meaning for a certain group of people. Rather than a mere event, “a miracle is an interpreted event” (Weddle 2010: xii-xiii, emphasis added; also Pelkmans 2015: 186), which, in this case, is recognized as a narrative moment of the Bible that manifests in real life. Within the narratives of which they consist, Pentecostal miracles become tangible proof of the possibility for reality to be otherwise that actualize this virtual potential in the lifeworlds of believers. Perhaps the most striking example of this process is Bindu’s. Her story instantiates, better than any I am aware of, how “shared expectations and discourse can turn ordinary events into marvels” (Shanafelt 2004: 334). But it also shows that this is achieved in a particular way: miracles happen where “world” and “Word” converge in a unique reality.

17Bindu comes from a village near Hari’s; she is Bhim’s younger sister. When their mother was miraculously healed, her entire family embraced Christianity. Bindu was a teenager at the time, and, in line with virilocal kinship norms, was expected to move to another clan. She was thus kept at the margin of what was happening to the family. About a year after her mother’s miracle, Bindu married a Hindu man and moved to his village. She had her first son at the age of 20. Bindu was 24 when, on a rainy afternoon in the summer of 2015, I went to visit her in her little shop, not far from Ashish’s house. Her brother had just told me the story of her conversion after her son was miraculously resuscitated, and I wanted to know more about it. I saw Bindu again in 2019, and asked her to recount to me once more what had happened. What follows is a synthesis of these accounts.

18Bindu recalls well what she witnessed when she was still living with her natal family (māiti). Aware that she would soon move to another household, though, initially she did not give Christianity a second thought. But then came the day of her infant son’s death. It was Holi, a major Hindu celebration, and the baby was playing in front of her shop. Suddenly a man approached and smeared coloured powder all over his face, as it is customary on that day. That night, Bindu dreamt her son was unwell, and when she woke up she realized he was vomiting. The child soon fell unconscious. Bindu panicked and felt helpless. She was alone in the back of the shop where she lives, as her in-laws live far from the bazaar, and her husband was abroad with the Nepali Army, serving as a United Nations peacekeeper.

  • 5 Local Christians often organize feasts concomitantly with major Hindu festivals. As they explained, (...)

19For a few days, Bindu sought help from several dhāmī and even a doctor, but none of them was capable of solving the problem, so she lost faith in them. Bindu knew there was a feast at the “mother church” to welcome a visiting pastor, and many local Christians were staying there overnight.5 She thought that, maybe, they could help her. But she was torn, fearing her Hindu family might got angry if she went there. That evening her husband called her, and she expressed to him her doubts. She worried that the baby was about to die. Her husband said that if she could save their son, she was free to seek help wherever she wanted. He also told Bindu that if this worked, they would both convert to Christianity, and reassured her not to fear what others might say. Bindu rushed to the church, helped by a Christian friend close to her brother.

20When she got there, the visiting pastor asked her, “Do you really believe?” “If this can save my son, I will!,” replied Bindu. The pastor told her not to worry. He and other people prayed for the child, who started making some cries. Hearing this, Bindu felt relieved. She kneeled and started praying. At this point, her son regained consciousness and started moving again.

Bindu: I went to the church crying in despair, and I came back from it laughing. I was so happy! I thought, “Why did I worship the devideutā?” They haven’t helped my son, so I decided not to worship them anymore. Jesus instead saved my baby. I thought “God (Parmeshwor) is real!” From then on I became a Christian, and later my husband converted as well. If that day I wouldn’t have gone to church, my son would have certainly died…

From then on her baby—who on that summer day of 2015 was a healthy four-year-old toddler sitting next to us—never had any other problem.

Resurrections, Sinja valley, November 2019

Despite the allegorical meaning, the child in this image was simply playing.

Photo: Samuele Poletti

21Religious communities are often formed around miraculous events that unequivocally give proof of the transcendental power that underpins the community (see Weddle 2010). In this case, “the transcendental” does not refer to a faraway metaphysical realm, but rather to the content of a book: the Bible. “Previously, when we heard of people who died and came back to life again,” Bindu said, referring to Christ’s resurrection, “we thought they were only mocking us.” “But when this happened in my life, I believed it was true.” Christ’s conquest of death was actually the most crucial amongst the numerous signs of power that he performed during his earthly life. First, Jesus brought back to life Lazarus of Bethany, and, eventually, he himself resurrected—the key episode at the heart of Christianity (ibid.: 150-151). Seen in this light, Bindu’s story acquires a very specific meaning. Her son’s resurrection re-actualized, in the community’s lived experience, the main event upon which rests their faith. More explicitly still than in Hari’s case, the Bible came true in their lives.

22There is a specific theological foundation to this. From Jesus Christ’s very conception, miracles, for Christians, have always been “signs of God’s presence in history” (ibid.: 141; also Keane 2013: 5). Jesus himself, according to the Gospel of John, was nothing less than God’s Word (Logos) made flesh. Put differently, through the figure of Christ, the Word entered the world, and became indissociable from its temporal development, i.e. from history. This fundamental tenet of Christian theology is paramount to fully appreciate the profound implications of what miraculous occurrences truly accomplish. Thanks to miracles like these, the Word keeps manifesting in converts’ lives, becoming part of (their) history.

  • 6 Actually, many converts revealed that, at first, they struggled to understand what is written in it (...)

23If this is shared by all Christian churches, here it acquires particular significance given the Protestant literal understanding of the Bible. After the Reformation, the written Word has become preponderant in Protestant Christianity over any other sign of God’s presence (Engelke 2007: 20). Reading the Bible, Sinjali Christians say, is an indispensable food for the soul (ātmā ko khānā) that nourishes the spirit just as food does the body. Nepali translations of the Bible have been made available for decades by the Nepal Bible Society, which was established in 1975. Printed copies reach the Sinja valley thanks to connections with the broader organization to which this Pentecostal congregation belongs, and can be purchased for a modest price by believers, who are usually literate. Most of those I met own one, typically in a pocket format, which they read privately at home or in the more formal setting of Saturday service at church. In these occasions, after having asked someone to read aloud a certain passage of the Bible, the pastor goes on to explain its meaning, allowing people to better grasp the scriptural message.6 This acquaintance with the scriptures is what permits believers to discern the occurrence of miracles: real events of their lives that replicate biblical episodes.

Food for the soul, Sinja valley, November 2019

Reading the Bible is food for the soul.

Photo: Samuele Poletti

24The merging of Word and world is not limited to Sinja. For Zambian Pentecostals, Naomi Haynes showed (2020), the Bible matters not for what it promises about the future, but as a model for the present that constantly actualizes through the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, “when Pentecostals read the Bible, they recognize their own stories of healing or deliverance or prophetic utterance in the text” (ibid.: 59; also Bielo 2008: 3; Engelke 2007: 7). Many a Christian in Sinja also said they were struck by the Bible precisely because it spoke about events they had experienced in their lives (usually, cases of healing). This sparks interest in the holy text, deeper knowledge of which allows them to identify, in turn, new miraculous occurrences, in a sort of hermeneutic circle. Henceforth, “What the church community does is to provide a context in which these two thingspersonal experience and Biblical narrativescan come together” (Gibson 2017b: 219). In effect, as the next section exemplifies, retelling over and over the miraculous circumstances that led one to embrace Christianity, usually within the framework of the conversion narrative shared with other church-goers, the factuality of miracles gradually consolidates, causing the imaginary overlapping of Word and worldin other words, a miracle.

Pentecostal technologies of the imagination

25Bindu’s is not the only story of a child being resuscitated in Sinja. A few years later, her youngest brother was coming back from school when he saw some popular wild fruits on a tree. According to the narration of what had happened, these fruits had been poisoned by the devil, who then entered the child’s soul to provoke a temptation to eat them, like he had already done with Adam and Eve. Bindu’s brother started feeling sick, and collapsed to the ground soon afterwards, dead. A passer-by carried him home, throwing his family into despair. However, Bhim recalled a passage from the Gospel of Mark: “They will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (16:18). They all prayed for the dead child, reciting this passage over and over, until eventually he came back to life. As Bhim explained, “What Jesus says, this happens on Earth.”

26This story does not only bear a narrative aspect reminiscent of that concerning the fall of humankind as told in Genesis. What is even more significant is that it happened years after Bhim and his family had converted to Christianity. Miracles, therefore, do not only facilitate conversion; they keep happening long after it, as if to substantiate, in converts’ lives, the rightness of their choice. While, in 2015, Bindu simply described her son as being “unconscious”, for Bhim both children had undeniably died and were subsequently resuscitateda view his sister had embraced too when she told me the story again four years later. Just like Hari’s healing from a paralysis, these miracles appear to have a sedimentary effect. The more they are retold, the more their actuality materializes in the world, welding together their “real” and “imaginary” components in an inextricable storyline. Regardless of what had really happened, in these accounts Hari, Bhim’s mother, Bindu’s son, and her youngest brother were miraculously healed.

27Miracles, therefore, do not simply occur; they are the specific product of distinctively Pentecostal “technologies of the imagination” (Sneath et al. 2009). Reading the Bible alone or in groups, believers gain the ability to recognize that what they witness in their everyday lives is really the same as what is told in the scriptures. Although obviously not all parts of the Bible lends themselves equally to generating miracles, past occurrences are narratively re-experienced in light of this knowledge as the miraculous circumstances of one’s conversion are narrated to others, not least to the anthropologist who recorded these stories. This narrative acts retroactively upon converts’ past, developing the full imaginary potential intrinsic to mundane events – a practice in and through which the narrative content of the Bible is released into the world. This is achieved in a particular manner: not by effacing being-in-the-world to replace it with being-in-the-scriptures. Rather, Pentecostal habits like reading the Bible and presenting one’s life in terms of a conversion narrative cause “Word” and “world” to overlap and literally become the same.

28While this process is not fully intentional, it is not completely unintentional either, as “technologies of the imagination” were originally conceived (see Sneath et al. 2009). A miracle is more than just a passive product of Pentecostal practices (techne). It is more accurate to say that a particular hermeneutic fabric intertwines with fortuitous events, in a sort of “fusion of horizons” (Gadamer 2004 [1960]). Reading is indeed an inherently hermeneutic act of appropriation whereby the content of the text enters the reader’s life, generating what Hans-Georg Gadamer called the “tension between the text and the present” (ibid.: 305; also Kearney 2016: 13). Sinjali Pentecostal miracles are the result of this tension, fostered by specific techniques. As the Word enters the world through this hermeneutic fusion of horizons, it transfigures converts’ lives in a manifestation of the scriptural truth, “giving new meanings to old events and putting different emphases in the bigger ‘plot’ of their life stories” (Gooren 2010: 93).

Miracles matter, Sinja valley, November 2019,

For Pentecostals, the possibility of being blessed by a miracle is ever-present.

Photo: Samuele Poletti

29Miracles might hence be dismissed simply by arguing that one always sees only what one wants to see, and, perhaps, this would not be utterly incorrect. But saying that Sinjali Pentecostals invent their miracles would imply approaching the matter in bad faith, suggesting that they are lying. Miracles happen to people as an effect of their involvement in specific Pentecostal practices. Nonetheless, it is important to stress the accidental nature of this process. The risk is indeed that of attributing too much agency on the converts’ part, portraying these miracles as yet another instance of “self-cultivation”: namely, how believers constantly reshape their own selves through specific activities (see Mittermeier 2012: 251). As China Scherz observed,

in this otherwise laudable focus on freedom, we might be drawn dangerously close to a view of the subject as a self-determined individual who experiences, perceives, and lives in relation to a world of others without being directly entered or affected by them. (2017: 109)

  • 7 This agency may extend to the very object of the book itself, as instantiated by the case of biblio (...)

30But Sinjali Pentecostals do not deliberately superimpose a certain meaning on the world in the attempt to insert themselves in the biblical narrative. They are rather made to partake in that story as, reading the Bible, they realize that what is written in the book is truly happening in their lives. In other terms, the Bible features as an external force with its own agency to act upon them7—capable of materializing in their lives the veracity of God’s Word. Yet, this is not the mechanical result of Pentecostal technologies of the imagination. To manifest, miracles need to draw upon what happens in people’s lives. Actually, “‘technologies’ count as being ‘of the imagination’ insofar as they serve to precipitate outcomes that they do not fully condition” (Sneath et al. 2009: 25). For the Word to overlap with the world, the latter has to cooperate, providing the right conditions for this hermeneutic fusion of horizons to take place. This, however, is not always the case, even when that would be helpful.

Imaginary weapons of the weak

31Being the only convert in a Hindu family is hard. Even more so for those in structurally disadvantaged positions within Nepal’s patriarchal gerontocracy, like women and the young. For them, conversion usually does not happen in the blink of an eye. It takes some time. Bindu, in typical Pentecostal style, presented her conversion narrative as an abrupt rupture with the past. It is nonetheless obvious that this had been brewing for a while, culminating eventually with her cathartic response when the pastor asked her, “Do you really believe?” In the initial years after her marriage, Bindu described feeling torn between the Hindu customs of her husband’s family and those of her native kin. When she went visiting her brother on Bhai Tika—an important Hindu festival wherein siblings exchange presents—Bhim was not celebrating it, making it difficult to fulfil her obligation as a sister. Bhim and their parents felt uncomfortable too seeing that Bindu was the only married woman to return to the village on that day who did not receive any gift. However, it was only when her husband joined the army and she went to live in her shop that conditions became propitious for something to change. Moving to the bazaar greatly increased her independence, and the proximity to other Christians, like her brother. At that point, igniting her conversion needed only a spark, which finally arrived with her son’s resurrection. Miracles seem therefore to offer imaginary “weapons of the weak” (Scott 1985) that support women like Bindu, and young people like Hari and Bhim, at the time of their conversion, in a context in which they do not enjoy much freedom of choice. Miraculous events appear indeed to happen only where there is a need for them. Ashish, instead, converted regardless of any miracle, since, as the head of his family, he was free to take any decision independently.

32Hari did not recover from his paralysis immediately upon conversion. Still, like in the other cases described here, fortuitous occurrences allowed the abovementioned Pentecostal technologies of the imagination to produce the desired effects. Talking about his miraculous recovery, Hari suggested that the stronger one’s faith is, the easier it is for miracles to occur. But this is not always the case. No matter how strongly one would want it, a miracle cannot manifest without the support of what happens in one’s life. This is encapsulated in the story of Dhauli, a young lame girl who lives not far from Hari. According to him, Dhauli’s leg miraculously healed after he had prayed over her. However, to Hari’s surprise, soon afterwards she recanted and left Christianity. But this is not quite how Dhauli told the tale of what had happened.

33When she was two, Dhauli fell and broke her leg. Her laments were dismissed as childish whims, thus the fracture did not properly heal, causing her to be crippled for life. When she was 10, the same Christian organization that helped Ashish contributed to financing surgery to have a plate screwed to her shinbone. Sometime later, though, she fell again on her way to school. The iron plate was jarred out of place and started hurting. From then on she could only walk on crutches. When they learned about her condition, local Christians collected some money for the metal plate to be removed, after which the pain went away. Yet, her visible limp remains. Hari and others encouraged her to convert, which she eagerly did, thinking that, as a Christian, her future could be better. But her father, who was a dhāmī, did not accept her choice. He told her that were she to become Christian, she would have to leave the house, as their lifestyles would be incompatible. She told the congregation that either they could arrange a place for her to stay, or she had to leave Christianity, which she eventually did after her request fell on deaf ears. “I had no other choice,” she explained.

34I encountered Dhauli in 2019, a few years after these events. She was 22. Dhauli was still pondering the possibility of converting to Christianity. Her father had died the previous year, and neither her mother nor her brothers had any objections. “It’s your own choice,” they kept telling her, as did the Christians. No one was pressuring her in either direction. On the contrary, she appeared in a great dilemma precisely because the choice was left to her. “Sometimes I think that my life could be better as a Christian,” she disclosed. “But then other people say you’ve already gone there once, and what did that change? So I’m unsure …” Dhauli hesitated to take this major step without the reassurance that Christianity would really improve her life conditions—a certainty that, perhaps, only a miracle could provide. But just as Ashish said matter of factly that he did not expect God to heal his daughter, Dhauli did not hold any naïve expectations about her leg. Both appeared to have come to terms with their lives the way they were. They simply hoped conversion could bring them the kind of existential peace that many a convert in Nepal seeks in Christianity (see Gibson 2017a; also Poletti forthcoming).

35Reducing the (in)efficacy of miracles to material effects would indeed be too reductive and rather misses the point. The healing properties that converts ascribe to Christianity far exceed the possibility to recover from a physical ailment, and should be understood in the broader sense of a rediscovered well-being that supersedes a difficult situation. Tackling the underlying reasons leading people to seek relief and the prospect of a better life by converting to Christianity requires a discussion of its own. Suffice it to say that, in a highly relational context such as this, personhood is deeply entangled with the position one is expected to occupy in society. Consequently, among Hindus in Sinja, being-in-the-world is not a guaranteed achievement, but needs to be constantly actualized in conformity with social demands. The pressing existential imperative to embody the “right” social persona can have catastrophic outcomes in the event that protracted adverse circumstances hinder the fulfilment of these expectations. Not even relatively high-caste people like those featured in this paper, in fact, are sheltered from the life-threatening prospect of an utter “failure of being” (Poletti forthcoming). Conversion to Christianity features among the range of “modern” options now available to Nepali people to cope with the hardships entailed by this struggle for being. In the Church, converts find themselves embedded within a new social setting of fellow believers that welcomes them regardless of whatever might have gone wrong in their lives, a point frequently stressed on Saturday services. This promise of unconditional acceptance guarantees social misfits a full-fledged presence in the world vis-à-vis the menace of social death (see also Poletti 2021).

36To that end, miracles matter as they come to play a paramount role in bringing about a radical shift in the lot of people in structurally unprivileged positions like Dhauli. Indeed, as a young unmarried woman, she does not enjoy Ashish’s financial and social independence. Unlike Bindu, though, the evident issue with her leg limits the possibility for a miracle to manifest in support of her conversion, regardless of what Hari says about her putative healing. Dhauli’s story thus highlights yet another side of “the limits of meaning” by which Matthew Engelke and Matt Tomlinson (2006) sought to address those situations wherein Christian practices fail to produce desired outcomes, and the subsequent repercussions that this apparent absence of meaning has on believers’ lives (see also Bielo 2008). This points to a crucial element of my argument: namely, it foregrounds the inherently incidental nature of technologies of the imagination (Sneath et al. 2009: 26). The fortuitousness wherein “the world” lend itself (or not) to overlap with the biblical narrative is paramount to avert an instrumentalist reading of Pentecostal miracles, according to which these would be merely as a matter of intentional choice. If the Bible is the ultimate source of truth for Pentecostals, Dhauli’s case instantiates that their technologies of the imagination are powerless if these are not endorsed by what happens in their lives.

The tension between the text and the present, Sinja valley, November 2019

Photo: Samuele Poletti

World-making techniques

37As Mittermeier suggested (2012: 258), “the subject” does not vanish in being acted upon by external forces; it is turned into a particular kind of subject. Just like the Egyptian dream narratives that she described contribute in giving shape to proper Muslims, miracles, in Sinja, turn believers into the truly Christian subjects of the conversion narratives they tell. Seminal works on conversion have emphasized that the linguistic operations underlying the conversion narrative and the radical process of self-transformation that ensues is what nurses commitment to Christianity (Stromberg 1993: 16; also Harding 1987). The narratives of miraculous healing that I was told by Sinjali Pentecostal converts feature the same power to act upon the world, structuring it according to a specific worldview, which also imbues shamanic speech acts in Nepal with “the ‘magical’ dimension that is inherent in linguistic exchanges” (De Sales 2016: 245): in this case a magical, indeed miraculous, capacity to transform the world into a manifestation of the Word of God.

38In Protestant Christianity, the Word of God is seen as the very force that engenders people’s faith (Harding 1987: 168). According to Susan Harding, “The appropriate question then is how does this supernatural order become real, known, experienced, absolutely irrefutable?” (ibid.: 168). In Sinja, this process—and the radical change in subjectivity that follows—is not so much the result of the Word being internalized by believers (ibid.: 174). Rather, it is the commitment with distinctively Pentecostal technologies of the imagination that gives the Word the faculty to act upon them, “imposing” its narrative content onto the world, and, in so doing, quite literally materializing this elsewhere in converts’ lives. Sinjali Pentecostals hence become distinctive Christian subjects through their engagement in specific practices such as reading the Bible and telling their conversion narrative to others, which also constitute the “technical means” through which the Word of God can enter their (life)worlds.

39According to Sneath et al. (2009), technologies of the imagination result from the interaction between people and objects, which, they say, also include narratives. In the present case, the object in question is a book: the Bible, and, much more importantly, the tale it conveys. It would in fact be erroneous to suggest that Sinjali Pentecostal converts create miracles interpreting the Bible at their convenience. Reading the Bible provides them with the hermeneutic capacity to find out that they are actually living actors of that story. In other terms, miracles happen to people as a result of the Word acting upon them as they hermeneutically engage with the scriptures, making believers at the same time the subjects that fashion the experiences that they undergo and the objects fashioned by those very experiences (Mittermaier 2012: 253). Highlighting the “ethics of passion” exercised by the Bible upon believers in inscribing their lives within its narrative system helps us to move beyond the trope of self-cultivation for the anthropological study of religious realities. At the same time, though, stressing the appropriation of the text by its readers—“the tension between the text and the present”—problematizes in turn the passive role attributed to people in Sneath et al.’s original formulation of the technologies of imagination. The assimilation of the Word and the narratives of miracles that spark from this encounter are indeed the production of a hermeneutic process that requires active participation on the part of believers. Consequently, what is described in these pages points towards a religious reality in which “acting and being acted upon converge” (Mittermaier 2012: 259).

40Reading the Bible and narrating about one’s conversion to others become therefore for Sinjali Pentecostals a specific way to exist as particular subjects (see also Poletti 2020). The materialization of the Word of God in their lives creates for them a new world wherein they can dwell as quintessentially Christian actors of the biblical events in which they partake. But active participation in the scriptures does not mean that converts are merely turned into biblical characters, regardless of who they really are. What happens in their everyday lives is crucial for the Word to re-actualize itself over and over again in their lifeworlds, without the help of which the biblical message would remain, literally, a dead letter. So, the more miracles materialize the hope for a better life, the more this virtual potential comes true in the world, making it difficult to distinguish the cause from the effects of this imaginary process.

41As Bielo pointed out, “Questions of ‘meaning’ in Christian life are inextricably linked to uses and understandings of the Bible” (2008: 3). With this is mind, focusing on the “the social life of the Bible”, Bielo argued that “meaning” is not simply found by believers, but it is instead constantly fashioned in and through the social activities in which they participate. The technical aspect that underpins the production of Pentecostal miracles in Sinja is paramount for the imaginary reshaping of world and self that conversion entails, which provides a glimpse of what may it mean to “live in a book”.

I wish to thank Chiara Letizia and David Gellner for their encouragement and support in the uncertain times that followed the end of my Ph.D. programme. Generous support from the Camel Trust Small Grant for Postdoctoral Research in Anthropology allowed me to carry out fieldwork in Sinja during the autumn of 2019, while an Early Postdoc.Mobility grant funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) provided the perfect conditions for writing up the results in the context of a postdoctoral fellowship at the Laboratoire d’ethnologie et de sociologie comparative (LESC).

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Notes

1 It must also be noted that, throughout Nepal, both individual pastors and large Christian organizations are highly sensitive to potential accusations of “bribing” people into Christianity, allegations which they actively strive to avoid (see also Gibson 2017b: 96-97).

2 The presence of Christianity in the country has been steady, though marginal, since the early eighteenth century, when the first Christian missionaries reached Nepal. This presence has gained considerable traction during the last few decades, which have seen an exponential growth in the Christian population. For a thorough historical account, see Gibson (2017b: 87-108; see also Poletti 2021 for an overview on the specific case of Christianity in the Sinja Valley).

3 To be considered fully converted, a person has to undergo baptism. In Ashish’s case, though, his conversion was still very fresh. So, when I asked if he had already been baptized, he did not understand what I meant.

4 This is a strategy God has resorted to since early in the Bible (see, e.g., Exodus 10:2). Not all problems of such nature are caused by God, though. The Hindu gods do not indeed disappear from converts’ cosmos. As it is commonplace among Pentecostals, these entities are all reduced to surrogates of the devil that may occasionally cause problems to believers whose faith in Christ is not yet fully established.

5 Local Christians often organize feasts concomitantly with major Hindu festivals. As they explained, on those occasions converts may feel saddened to see other people celebrating, and driven by this nostalgia they might slip back into their former practices. Celebrations like this serve to prevent that from occurring.

6 Actually, many converts revealed that, at first, they struggled to understand what is written in it. When I heard a young American missionary giving a detailed summary of the geographical wanderings of the twelve tribes of Israel, I thought I understood what they meant.

7 This agency may extend to the very object of the book itself, as instantiated by the case of bibliolatry that engendered Bhim’s conversion following her mother’s miraculous healing.

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Référence électronique

Samuele POLETTI, « Miracles matter and the matter of miracles », Terrain [En ligne], Terrains, mis en ligne le 09 juin 2022, consulté le 27 juin 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/23528 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/terrain.23528

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Auteur

Samuele POLETTI

Laboratoire d’ethnologie et de sociologie comparative (LESC) poletti.samuele@gmail.com | www.samuelepoletti.com

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