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Spirits and Letters: Reading, Writing and Charisma in African Christianity

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Spirits and Letters

Reading, Writing and Charisma in African Christianity

Thomas G. Kirsch

288 pages, 7 illus., bibliog.

ISBN  978-1-84545-483-8 $135.00/£99.00 Hb Published (May 2008)

ISBN  978-0-85745-142-2 $34.95/£27.95 Pb Published (March 2011)

eISBN 978-0-85745-010-4 eBook

Hb Pb   Buy the eBook! $34.95 Request a Review or Examination Copy (in Digital Format) Recommend to your Library Available in GOBI®


Kirsch is impressively well read in the history and anthropology of Christianity and the study of literacy, and uses a range of insightful comparative examples to draw out the significance of his researchAs well as providing an important and fascinating account of reading practices within and beyond African Christianity, Kirsch’s study also alerts us to how religious print moves across the globe via religious organizations and networks to create and reinforce religious identities.”  ·  Africa

This book has opened the internal communication system of so-called Spirit-filled churches for academic scrutiny. We can now begin to ask how and why are the Holy Spirit and internal communication becoming the principal tools for control, domination, or democracy in them.  ·  Pneuma

For those interested in the social life of the bible and other written materials, this book is sure to surprise…The surprise value of Kirsch’s work lies in the broad sweep from fine-grained descriptions of individuals’ bibles to far-reaching theoretical critiques of the anthropology of literary practices and bureaucracy.  ·  Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale

 “From relative obscurity, the study of Christianity has grown into a major academic field, to which this book makes an important and timely contribution. It is the first book-length study of literacy practices among African Christians.”  ·  JRAI

"Developing new theoretical perspectives out of sensitive historical and ethnographic research on practices of reading and writing in the Spirit Apostolic Church, this well written and accessible study offers anthropology at its best. Cautioning against simplistic understandings of literacy and textuality that still underpin much work on Christianity, his work offers a substantial intervention into broader debates about religion, media and materiality."   ·  Birgit Meyer, Faculty of Social Sciences, Vrije Universiteit

"the primary aim of the author challenging the presuppositions made in the study of African religion - and in this he has admirably succeeded"   ·  H-Net Reviews

“…Kirsch…provides an excellent introduction, contextualizing his material and his aim of explaining the relationship between ‘charisma’ and ‘institution’ in the Spirit Apostolic Church.”   ·  Choice

"The examination of literacy practices presented in this book enables – and hopefully will engender – much thought in a variety of ethnographic domains."   ·  Ethos

“[The author] demonstrates in this book an extraordinary command of several scholarly literatures and takes up questions that have vexed the social sciences since at least the time of Max Weber. In particular, Kirsch wishes to understand how something as fundamental to the ‘religions of the Book’ as literacy could be so often overlooked in current anthropological discussions of Christianity in favor of electronic and other media.. Kirsch has produced an impressive monograph here, one that ought to be read by Africanist anthropologists, religious studies scholars and by others interested in understanding the meaningful qualities of literacy for all ‘peoples of the Book’.”   ·  Journal of Religion in Africa


Studies of religion have a tendency to conceptualise ‘the Spirit’ and ‘the Letter’ as mutually exclusive and intrinsically antagonistic. However, the history of religions abounds in cases where charismatic leaders deliberately refer to and make use of writings. This book challenges prevailing scholarly notions of the relationship between ‘charisma’ and ‘institution’ by analysing reading and writing practices in contemporary Christianity. Taking up the continuing anthropological interest in Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity, and representing the first book-length treatment of literacy practices among African Christians, this volume explores how church leaders in Zambia refer to the Bible and other religious literature, and how they organise a church bureaucracy in the Pentecostal-charismatic mode. Thus, by examining social processes and conflicts that revolve around the conjunction of Pentecostal-charismatic and literacy practices in Africa, Spirits and Letters reconsiders influential conceptual dichotomies in the social sciences and the humanities and is therefore of interest not only to anthropologists but also to scholars working in the fields of African studies, religious studies, and the sociology of religion.

Thomas G. Kirsch is professor for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Konstanz. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) in 2002 and taught at the Department of Anthropology and Philosophy in Halle (Saale) and at the Department of Anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, before coming to the University of Konstanz in 2009. Between 1993 and 2001, he conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Zambia. He has published a book on African Christianity in Zambia and articles in some of the major refereed journals for anthropology and sociology in Germany. Other articles were published in the journals American Anthropologist (2004), Visual Anthropology (2006) and American Ethnologist (2007). Since 2003, he has also conducted fieldwork and published on issues of human safety, security and crime prevention in South Africa.

Subject: Anthropology of Religion Anthropology (General) Colonial History Educational Studies
Area: Africa


List of Illustrations
Notes on Language


  • Charisma – Institution
  • Charisma/Spirit/Orality – Institution/Letter/Literacy
  • African Literate Religion
  • ‘Spirit’ and ‘Letter’ in African Christianity
  • Examining Literacy Practices
  • The Fieldwork
  • Outline of the Book


Chapter 1. Colonial Literacies

  • Mission, School and Printing Press
  • Steps towards Secularization
  • Counterforce in Writing
  • What is a School?
  • Resistance and Non-religious Literacies
  • Colonial Bureaucracy
  • Evangelists as Administrators

Chapter 2. Passages, Configurations, Traces

  • At the Edge of the Road
  • On the Road
  • Early Evangelisations
  • Christianity in the 1990s
  • Religious Intersections

Chapter 3. Schooled Literacy, Schooled Religion


  • Enrolment in School
  • After the Ringing of the Bell
  • Recitations of Syllabi
  • Experiences with Mission Schools
  • Contemporary Religious Education

Chapter 4. Literate Cultures in a Material World

  • The Bible as an Everyday Object
  • Literacy in Times of Paper Shortage
  • Getting Hold of Christian Publications
  • Publications as Property

Chapter 5. Indices to the Scriptural

  • Bible Talks
  • Programmatic Visibility
  • References to the Book

Chapter 6. The Fringes of Christianity

  • Blurrings and Criteria
  • Turning Letters Upside Down

Chapter 7. Thoughts about ‘Religions of the Book’

  • Book People
  • Scriptural Inerrancy and Authority
  • Canonization and the Bridging of Realms


Chapter 8. Texts, Readers, Spirit

  • Bibles, Versions, Origins
  • Pamphlets and Eclecticism
  • Selections and Combinations
  • Private Readings, Implicit Influences
  • Bible Studies

Chapter 9. Evanescence and the Necessity of Intermediation

  • The Impossibility of Storing the Holy Spirit
  • Objects, Bodies and Spiritual Evanescence

Chapter 10. Setting Texts in Motion

  • Deciphering and Preaching
  • Sediments of the Spirit

Chapter 11. Missions in Writing

  • Literacy Networking
  • The Jehovah’s Witnesses: Questions and Answers
  • The New Apostolic Church: Mediation via Circulars
  • Supplements as ‘Obligatory Passage Points’
  • Enablement through Denominational Publications

Chapter 12. Enablements to Literacy

  • Rumination and Scholarship
  • Scripture and Enablement
  • Enabling Supplements


Chapter 13. Offices and the Dispersion of Charisma

  • Bureaucracy as Social Practice
  • Organizational Formalization as a Founding Myth
  • Dispersing Charisma, Allocating Offices
  • Charisma, Hierarchies, Variations
  • Ignorance and Mutual Recognition

Chapter 14. Positions of Writers, Positions in Writings

  • Certifications of Authority
  • God’s Secretaries
  • Identifications and Registries
  • Fixing Polyvalent Rites of Passage
  • Portrayals of the Momentary

Chapter 15. Outlines for the Future, Documents of the Immediate

  • Agendas as Revelations
  • Reports of the Unpredictable
  • Agendas, Reports, and the Holy Spirit
  • Re-spiritualizing Bureaucracy

Chapter 16. Bureaucracy In-Between

  • Flows and Facades
  • African Christianity and the State
  • Formalizing Social Relations
  • Imagining the State
  • Legacies and Isomorphism
  • Presentations and Concealments
  • Bureaucracy as Pentecostal-charismatic Empowerment

Chapter 17. Epilogue


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