Seekers and Things

Spiritual Movements and Aesthetic Difference in Kinshasa

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Peter Lambertz
  • New York, NY: 
    Berghahn Books
    , December
     2017.
     308 pages.
     $130.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781785336690.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Seekers and Things: Spiritual Movements and Aesthetic Difference in Kinshasa, Peter Lambertz provides an extensive ethnography of a New Religious Movement (NRM) “from Japan” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo). Following initiates and leaders of the Eglise Messianique Mondiale (EMM) and the Temple Messianique Art de Johrei (TMAJ), Lambertz provides a unique view on the practices and position of a minority religious movement in the urban context of the capital city of Kinshasa. Lambertz convincingly shows how strong local communities are made by drawing on the transnational connections in which these new religious movements are grounded. Lambertz calls this a “centripetal force” (260), contrasting “centrifugal” theories of global religious communities, which posit that relying on transnational connections reinforces belonging to a global, cosmopolitan community.

Combining transnational historical research with extensive local fieldwork, Lambertz’s broad scope allows him to construct a detailed account of the complex position of the movements within the diverse religious market of Kinshasa. Interviews and fieldwork among various Pentecostal Charismatic and Catholic churches complement the deep investment in the EMM and TMAJ movements, in which Lambertz was himself initiated. Using a material approach, the author reconstructs the ways in which EMM and TMAJ members distinguished themselves aesthetically from these Christian movements through objects and practices. Contrasting EMM and TMAJ with mainstream semiotic ideologies compliments this approach by showing how, paradoxically, the movements are popularly understood as secretive, both due to and despite explicit public performances of aesthetic difference. 

In the first part of the book, Lambertz shows how transcultural trajectories and pre-existing affinities between the DR Congo and Japan allowed for a messianic movement “from Japan” to establish itself in Kinshasa (19). Moreover, he details the complex position of the EMM and TMAJ movements in the highly Pentecostalized urban cityscape as well as the tensions that members of these movements experience within this environment. The second part consists of shorter case studies that centralize objects and practices to show how aesthetic difference is performed materially through the arrangement of flowers in and around the house, the cleaning of public spaces, the wearing of the Ohikari amulet, and the “vibrating words” of prayer and silence. Lambertz also describes how the practice of Johrei—the sharing and amplification of the “divine light” to improve health and prosperity—is performed. This practice, central to both movements, creates different effects in various contexts. Teams of practitioners can be sent to houses, for example, where they practice Johrei to appease spirits. Rather than casting these spirits out, appeasing ancestral or other spirits is a divergent approach, which leads members to be suspect of witchcraft as well. Seekers and Things concludes with a chapter on the “reverse orientalism” of ancestor worship, a category formerly used to set apart African religions practices as primitive, but appropriated by these movements in a post-colonial move as an “asset of cultural pride” (250). 

Lambertz describes the practice of Johrei as a “technique of the self” (188), a means of setting oneself apart by shaping one’s own original aura—in the Benjaminian sense. Describing the process of transmitting Johrei, where an initiate uses their hand to magnify the divine light sourced from aura and amulet and transmit it to the receiving person (147), Lambertz presents the experience in rather abstract terms. He refers to the person receiving Johrei as a “haptic screen” perceived through “corporeal eyes,” and Johrei as a projection of “physical interpersonal difference” (181). These abstractions are a useful result of Lambertz’s analysis of the power structures reinforced in the practice of Johrei, but they are also exemplary of the general absence of the author’s own experience throughout the book. While Lambertz, at times, figures as an actor in different stories from his fieldwork, his own experience—as an initiate in the movements who has both transmitted and received Johrei—is often absent. Most of Lambertz’s argument is based on the aesthetic formations and embodied experiences of his interlocutors, but Lambertz neglects reflection on his own bodily experiences. This is unfortunate, especially as his interlocutors are not open about their “inner sensations” relating to Johrei either (160), describing them mostly in terms of their desired effects.

Lambertz’s study offers a great example of the value of material religion scholarship, focusing on objects and the performance of aesthetic difference. Combining this framework with an analysis of conflicting semiotic ideologies also proves very fruitful. Seekers and Things provides a substantial contribution to scholarship on NRMs in central Africa, while being very aware of the antagonistic relationship with the Pentecostal movements that are usually found in the spotlights of academic research. As a white European who is politically instrumentalized by EMM and TMAJ, and less predisposed to the mainstream classification of this African NRM as “occult,” Lambertz is put in a unique position, able to explore a very original topic in postcolonial DR Congo, with the promise of exciting research yet to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jerrold Cuperus is a graduate student in Religious Studies at Utrecht University.

Date of Review: 
August 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Lambertz is a post-doc fellow at the German Historical Institute (Paris) and the Centre des recherches sur les politiques sociales in Dakar. He holds a joint PhD from the universities of Utrecht and Leipzig (Religious Studies/African Studies) and has been teaching at the Philosophat Edith Stein in Kisangani.

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