Aliens & Strangers?

The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals

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Anna Strhan
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     2015.
     288 pages.
     $90.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198724469.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The truism in the social sciences that religion and modernity are at odds in the arena of the Western city has begun in recent years to yield to complication. Anna Strhan’s research into the complexities of Christian subjectivities is a welcome addition to this shift. Aliens and Strangers? centers on a single conservative evangelical Anglican church in central London—“St. John’s”—whose congregants are by and large affluent educated professionals, and follows several members into their social spheres within and without the church. It is a look at evangelical actors’ formation of boundaries and cogency in a modern urban landscape.

However, Strhan unpacks far more than the well-worn binary of traditional evangelical certainty versus modernity. Framed in much broader sociological and philosophical questions of subjectivity and ethics, Strhan’s analysis is ultimately an intimate portrait of her interlocutors’ experience, which carries her argument beyond its stated objectives. Her intention in addressing extant ideas of “religious intersubjectivity” is to show “how conservative evangelicals’ experience of the personality of God leads them to work to form themselves as ‘aliens and strangers’ and their ongoing struggles with this task” (5). This follows from a common Protestant ideology, as articulated by the members of St John’s, that Christians in the present world are strangers in a strange land, passing through and eschewing assimilation, en route to their final destination as citizens of heaven.

Strhan approaches her aim from several angles, taking up analysis of material and embodied practices, everyday social and spatial interactions (i.e., listening and speaking), and urban identity. Her discussion of how these urban Christians border on, and coexist with, “unsaved” others leans heavily on Georg Simmel’s works on both religion and the modern city; indeed, his influence on the overarching analysis is evident. Although the plurality of lenses Strhan utilizes occasionally confuses the narrative focus, a clear theoretical theme stands throughout: the habitual striving for coherence in a sea of subjective and interrelational fragmentation. It is in Strhan’s argumentation around this point that the book demonstrates its strongest merit. She finds that the members of St John’s engage in all of the collective practices she observed—listening to sermons, orientation toward the Bible, speaking to and about non-Christian others—to develop and maintain a coherent understanding of themselves, mediated through their relationships with the person of God, who is the author of coherence. In doing so, Strhan overtly challenges the accepted notion that evangelical Christians, in opposition to secular modernity, approach the world, and indeed God, with confident cogency unmitigated by fracture, shame, and doubt. Instead, her informants treat wholeness in faith and relationship to God as an often-uncertain project. Significantly, Strhan is mindful to write about God in this project as a physically absent, but socially present, personality in the real experience of the members of St John’s. This choice is not one every social scientist would make, but it proves invaluable to her analytical contribution.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alice Nagle is a doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh. 

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anna Strhan is a Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Kent. Her research interests lie in the interrelations between religion, ethics, meaning, and modernity, both historically and in contemporary cultures. She is the author of Levinas, Subjectivity, Education: Towards an Ethics of Radical Responsibility.

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