A Diagram for Fire

Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement

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Jon Bialecki
The Anthropology of Christ
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , March
     2017.
     288 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520294219.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book has been reviewed in JAAR by Anna Strhan.

Jon Bialecki’s A Diagram for Fire: Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement is a strikingly original examination of a religious movement, that of Southern Californian Vineyard Christianity. Situating his work within the Anthropology of Christianity and the study of religion more broadly, Bialecki asks how the analyst can conceive of religious systems that take significantly varying forms, but also hold together as recognizable phenomena. The Vineyard movement is well positioned to address this question given that its participants are concerned with miracle and surprise—two features Bialecki explores that bring with them a desire and concern for the new. The question then becomes how this form of religiosity emphasizes novelty and change evident in the miracle, while persisting as a recognizable and self-perpetuating mode of Christianity. 

The answer to Bialecki’s central question lies in his use of the diagram to explore the miracle in Vineyard Christianity. The diagram is drawn from Gilles Deleuze: “a term for the repeatable set of relations between forces” (199) that Bialecki identifies in a “charismatic diagram.” Dubbed a “diagram for fire,” it consists of sets of relations of intensities (including time, speed, and sensory experiences) that vary and shift. Plastic in form, the diagram can be considered topographically—unlike an elastic band that is stretched and snaps back to its more “natural” form, the diagram is more akin to a plastic sheet, changing shape but holding together. The diagram avoids a considerable problem in the study of social phenomenon: the presumption of an ideal type from which other types or manifestations are simply a deviation. Thus there is no original or typical form of charismatic religion or Christianity, but merely a broad range of potential actualizations of the diagram. “The attraction of diagrammatic thinking,” the author claims, “is that it allows for infinite variation while not allowing just anything to be counted as an instance of the diagram” (101).

Miracle is at the heart of the charismatic diagram. In chapter 1, we see how the space for the introduction of the miracle is produced by “Vineyard time,” that is, the kinds of temporality and sensory experience created by “worship” (28). A mutability in speeds and intensities of time, and the eschatological outlook of something that is both “already” and “not yet,” create room for the surprise of the Holy Spirit’s appearance (37). In the miraclesurprise points to divine action that appears to believers as something not originating fully in human agency or institution. 

The surprise of divine intervention also produces the tension described in chapter 2. The Vineyard aspires to create a moderated uniformity across institutional forms and aesthetic presentation, but human “planning and quality control” (59) confront the continual prospect of divine intervention which upsets these plans and appears as contrary to the human will—a sign that this is indeed God at work.

Chapter 3 introduces the “diagram for fire” in depth as sets of relations in potential that actualize the charismatic miracle. Bialecki explores instances of these actualizations: prophecy, tongues, hearing from God, studying the bible, healing, and “demonic manifestations” (163). The diagram for fire involves a “scission” which reorders the will of the subject—a subject that need not correspond to individual persons, but can cut across groups, institutions and internal/external divides—transforming and reordering its “willful and willing” aspects (80). 

While prioritizing surprise, Vineyard believers can still “train the mind and body” (101) to learn to recognize the miracle through various pedagogical processes, which are explored in chapters 4 and 5. The possibility of learned recognition of the miracle means that the instantiations of the diagram can be typified and are open to elaboration. 

The diagram can order areas of life beyond charismata—including the economic and the political—but the “diagram for fire” may also reach its limits and bump up against adjacent diagrams. Discussing the possibility of diagram collapse, chapter 7 makes clear that we have been dealing with two different diagrams that the author situates as part of a larger Vineyard “problem,” that is a “juridical/textual” diagram and the “diagram for fire” (187). In the former, the subject’s will must be pressed into alignment with given rules or ethical codes. In the latter, the miracle works to transform the will of the subject in unexpected ways. Bialecki brings both diagrams together in the “problem” of immanence and transcendence. This “meta-problem” (189)— a recurring theme in the Anthropology of Christianity—re-emerges in the book’s final chapter. 

In the conclusion, Bialecki’s bold program is to take religion as approachable for examination without presuming an ideal type or a series of characteristics that must be present in order to allow for comparison. He closes by reckoning religion as change: “variations in the abstract of particular forms of possible change” (216), not as the only—or even predominant—human avenue for change, but one particularly capable of speeding up or slowing down processes, without the change preventing self-reproduction of that religious system. 

Anthropological readers of Bialecki’s book may find themselves seeking more ethnographic content in earlier chapters but will find the argument unfolding along its own trajectory, building to a theoretical offering for the comparative study of religion. This theoretical offering makes the work an intellectually challenging read, and some readers may question whether the author’s analysis and claims about the Vineyard movement could stand on their own apart from the complex theoretical apparatus employed. The level of abstraction entailed in the diagram may make it difficult for analysts to operationalize the theoretical tools presented here in other contexts, but the level of abstraction is precisely what allows Bialecki to gesture towards the inclusion of various religious phenomena, far beyond the study of charismatic Christianity, into his theoretical system. Diagram for Fire offers a unique contribution to the study of religious movements and to pressing contemporary questions about human production, and experience, of change in its many actualizations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Leanne Williams Green is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego.

Date of Review: 
January 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jon Bialecki is a fellow in the school of social and political science at the University of Edinburgh. His work has been published in several edited volumes as well as in academic journals such as the South Atlantic Quarterly, American Ethnologist, Anthropological Theory, Current Anthropology, and the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 

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