Anthropology of Religion Art Theory

Rapture Music – Intensity And Eschatology Within Christian Revival Movements, Part 2 (Fraser Macdonald)

The following is the second of a three-part series. The first can be found here. The full article is also available in the Spring 2022 issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.

Human No More: Human Transontology

The profound affective movements that occur within religiously intensified music dislodge the coordinates of the body and trace out emergent webs of non-human power. Human no more, religiously intensified individuals assume manifold existential aspects. The reconfiguration of human ontology by forces of intensity is a staple feature of many religious systems. Deleuze and Guattari maintain that in many indigenous societies, their semiotic is nonsignifiying, nonsubjective, essentially collective, polyvocal, and corporeal, playing on very diverse forms and substances. This polyvocality operates through bodies, their volumes, their internal cavities, their variable exterior connections and coordinates (territorialities)…becomings-animal involve an animal spirit…that takes possession of the body’s interior, enters its cavities, and fills its volumes instead of making a face for it.[1]

Religious intensity conduces ontological metamorphosis as one modality of life supplants another. Bodies transmit different essences as the intensive interior is excavated and refilled with fresh, often unforeseen capacities. In Deleuzian parlance, Viveiros de Castro’s[2] discussion of pan-Amazonian shamanism and cosmology underscores a ‘chiastic distribution of identity and difference’ whereby humans, animal spirits, and shamans become ontologically reversible, shifting between different planes of immanence according to ritual and cosmological contexts. We might label such fluidity of being as transontological.

Music has a special affinity with this kind of ontological gymnastics. As Kielian-Gilbert argues, “music offers a singular milieu for actualizing and thinking about an ontology of change, effects of becoming, and their promise for life….Encountering musical difference as expressive, productive, and affirmative in temporally and metamorphically changing relational dynamics of subject, frame and other(s) actualizes the new and unforeseen.”[3] Within religious contexts, heightened musical intensity produces transontological movement by facilitating the body’s population with spiritual entities, thereby reconstituting its essence and perspective.

Spiritual infilling; becoming-spirit. In her article espousing a “theology of sound,” Hagedorn describes the central role played by music within Cuban Santeria: “The batá drums, with their consecrated godhead inside, call the orichas in this sacred tongue and persuade them to come to earth.” She continues that a song or rhythm is deemed efficacious if it “has already invoked a deity, or oricha, to possess the body of a religious adherent, or seems about to accomplish such a feat.”[4] Feld’s lauded monograph on Kaluli (Papua New Guinea) aesthetics, Sound and Sentiment (1982), also describes musically catalysed transversals. As he states, “becoming a bird” is the foundational metaphorical base for Kaluli:

“expressive modalities of weeping, poetics, and song. Birds are mediators because they are both natural beings and ane mama, the ‘gone reflections’ of Kaluli who have left the visible word upon death and reappeared ɔbɛ mise ‘in the form of birds.’ Sound is the behaviour of birds that is both indicative of their natural lives and actions and expressive of their feelings as ane mama to those who are living.”[5]

The central objective of Kaluli aesthetics is the reproduction of bird sound-qua-ancestral presence. Becoming a bird through song is to talk from the dead.

The established propensity of humans to use intense musical forms to explode bodily coordinates and diagonally traverse planes of immanence is vividly exemplified within contexts of Christian religious intensification. Musically produced transontological movement is first and foremost an affection of the Holy Spirit. It is this intensive force that usurps existential perspective, displacing and inhabiting the body’s interior. The wilful dispossession and abandonment of one’s modal essence: not so much spiritual inspiration, but becoming-spirit. After all, the pillars of human agency – speech, bodily control, cogency, etc. – are jettisoned as the unruly, surging spirit invades and dominates internal space, giving rise to an explosion of otherworldly manifestations.

As Butler states, Haitian Pentecostals in the midst of intense musical performance “sing and dance their way across a boundary between earthly and spiritual realms, transcending the self to bring mind and body in contact with the Holy Spirit.”[6] Similarly, Althouse and Wilkinson describe how musical processes within charismatic “renewal meetings,” events specifically designed to heighten religious intensity, “produce an atmosphere of emotional arousal and dissociative states.”[7] In her work on two American evangelical conferences with clear revivalist emphases, Ingalls  begins to trace such transversals among her participants. They described how “worship times were ‘a taste of heaven’” and that singing was “the ‘sound of heaven.’”[8] Also in the American context, Marina and Wilkinson maintain that music “converts profane time and space into sacred time and space inviting the supernatural world into the church building.”[9] Musicalised intensity prizes open the ontological canopy, allowing a deluge of spiritual immanence to overwhelm humanity.

The musical propulsion of transontological movement is well evidenced in reports of the Melanesian Great Awakening. The Urapmin spirit disko, which emerged during their 1977 revival, are specifically designed to explode the body’s parameters and flood its interior. As described by Robbins,

So central is possession to the Spirit disko that if it is not achieved in a reasonable time, those gathered halt the ritual and declare its performance a failure…during possession, the Holy Spirit wrestles with the sins in one’s body and ultimately “throws them out.”[10]

Being-human gives way to becoming-spirit as the body’s excavated volumes teem and convulse with performative intensity. Jan Pasterkamp, a Dutch Pentecostal missionary centrally involved in the eruption of charismatic revivalism on Malaita, Solomon Islands, in 1970, also reports a dramatic musical possession:

After we prayed for a woman she started to sing in the Spirit while she raised her hands. The language and melody were beautiful. She was totally lost in the Spirit. It was tremendous to see and to hear. Later she was asked if she knew what happened to her. She did not know, except, that when she was praying she had seen a vision, in which she saw the Lord Jesus, sitting on the throne and angels singing a beautiful song to worship Him! In the vision she had joined the angels and sang that song![11]

Not just affected or inspired by the Holy Spirit, but inhabited and permeated by it. For the duration of her ecstasy, this lady’s interior was invaded and utilised by the Holy Spirit and its angels, making her sing and speak not as a different kind of human but as a different kind of being altogether: ‘Totally lost.’ Not a human singing in the key of spirit but a spirit singing in the key of human. This radical transontological movement through musicalised intensity is also evinced through her partial ignorance of what had happened. ‘She did not know.’ This isn’t amnesia – forgetting something that happened to her. After all, how can one remember an experience that belonged to somebody else? ‘She did not know’ because it was not her. Rather, her memories were simply a trace, impression, or image left upon her intensive core by the moving spirit. A becoming-spirit entails an eventual return to being human, but this ontological loop retains its secrets. 

Religiously intense becomings may entail crossings into animality. Animal crossings. Surreal visions and dreams of becoming-animal feature within several accounts of religious intensification in Melanesia during the 1970s. In the thrall of ecstatic trance, one student at the Duranmin Bible College in 1977 described how he “saw a ‘Kakaruk Man’ (a man with a rooster’s head) piloting a plane over Duranmin.”[12] Among the Enga, during 1973, a pastor’s wife had an elaborate prophetic dream also about a becoming-bird:

At this point, the man changed and changed into a dove or large bird and sat on the table…Two women…stood up and raced each other to catch hold of the bird…The two women left off and the bird looked severely at me and spoke to me and said “SEIKO, SEIKO.” I spoke to the bird and said, “I don’t understand what you are saying.”[13]

The Holy Spirit may thus not only overwrite and colonise religiously intense bodies but may compel them to seek out planes of immanence within which the human and animal intermingle. Importantly for our purposes here, this emergent animality is manifest within musical performance. One particular example stands out from the intensification of Melanesian Christianity in the 1970s, again from the Enga area of the Papua New Guinea Highlands. Dawia explains how:

At some points in the singing some of the women would cry out in a peculiar fashion much like dogs yapping. Others would laugh, and yet others stood up and gyrated or flung their arms about in a windmill fashion in time with the singing. The yapping noise and laughing was accompanied by violent jerkings of the head.[14]

Overwhelmed by affective intensity, bodies decompose and then recompose as new assemblages. But what should conduce not only an intense becoming-animal, but also a specifically canine metamorphosis into a singing dog-woman? Dogs possess a powerful sense of smell. They are also skilled hunters. Within instances of religious intensification, the identification and resolution of sin is paramount. To enter the Kingdom, one must not be carrying any moral overburden. Becoming-canine is to sniff out sin. Such an interpretation is shared by other observers of the Enga upheavals, who noted similar articulations of animalised fault finding.[15] This form of transontology moves beyond human abilities of discernment and appropriates the dog’s powerful olfactory ability to expose hidden human folly. Intensification, religiously motivated and musically articulated, precipitates such hybridised becomings, crossings, and reconfigurations.

The musicality of religious intensification also propels crossings into dream worlds.  It is in this fantastical realm, and not in the cold light of quotidian life, that composed songs exist, waiting to be retrieved. The dreamer/the visionary/the prophet enters an otherworldly reliquary and returns back to human life with new music brimming with intensity. In this context we should speak not of musical composition but song capture. Composition is a thoroughly human process; the rapid or gradual assembly of sound molecules into a coherent musical form. Dream-songs, to the contrary, do not participate in worldly labour. They are not crafted but caught on dream-flights. Ecstasy and intensity place the surging individual on an ontological plateau where their own intentionality and creativity dissolves; songs are not fashioned but appear, are given, or come to those who can see.

In 1970s Melanesia, Osborne reported how “Many of the best new songs were given to women or girls in dreams and visions.”[16]  At Imbongu, in the Southern Highlands Province, White states that during widespread charismatic upheavals, “Most songs we learned came from people’s dreams. We would teach each other the songs we learned in our dreams.”[17] Robbins’s reports of Urapmin revival songs similarly “came to people, usually in dreams and visions.”[18] Songs obtained from dream-crossings are also inextricably related to the production of embodied intensity. As Kale observed of the 1970s Enga revival, dream-songs were “sung repeatedly until…trembling was induced.”[19]

We can also note that the intermixture of song, dream, affective intensity, and transontology is an established Melanesian propensity. In striking parallel to the processes just described, the Kaluli séances described by Feld require that “The medium leaves his body and journeys into the invisible. Throughout the course of the evening, different spirits…come up through his mouth, sing gisalo, and talk with the audience…mediums theoretically claim no prior knowledge of the songs they sing” and that such spiritually acquired music “provoked tears and sing weeping.”[20] Groundless music, floating in the ether, plucked and deployed for affective upheaval.

Sonic Monadology

“Since any given genre or style consists to a significant degree of musical and technological parts arising elsewhere, it is reasonable to believe that vagrancy, migration, importation, appropriation and the modular alchemies they cluster into are essential conditions of music.”[21]

The heterogeneous elements that comprise musical or performative assemblages are not held to each other through an intrinsic relationship but are free to decompose, flow, and recombine. The sudden emergence of new, powerful intensities compels existing cultural forms to literally break apart and regather as a new extensive shell for these immanent forces. Existing musical modes cannot accommodate new intensive movements. The existing channels are unable to carry the massive burden. Affective flooding. The overwhelming burst of energy running through a community seeks out, indeed necessitates, the creation of new forms to inhabit. Performative assemblages transform from solid blocks to floating molecules that then combine in unexpected mixtures to express a new orientation to life. Heterogenesis.

The only logic that determines their integration is that they are able to operate in the appropriate intensive key. In such a pressing scenario, calculation, reflection, and deliberation are torturously slow. Intensity is rapid or quickening movement and it is approached only through dynamic action, like trying to saddle a runaway horse. Stopping to think and represent the situation ultimately arrests flow and the magic escapes. ‘Whatever works’ is the mantra of the intensifying body. Dueck rightly honours the spirit of the bricoleur when he states that “most characteristic musical activities are acts not of ‘invention’, but of historically situated cobbling together, of fabrication from the musical materials we have at hand in a particular place and time.”[22] But to do justice to the musicality of religious intensification, we must add that the gathering and combination of materials operates to rapidly envelop a new affective-intensive plateau; and also that the music’s emergent structure depends fully upon acts of decomposition.

Charismatic Christians are not the rupturists that the Anthropology of Christianity first made them out to be. Probably the most vehement declamation of the rupturist position is Casanova’s statement that “Pentecostals are, for instance, everywhere leading an unabashed and uncompromising onslaught against their local cultures.”[23] Robbins would then go on to build up a new subdiscipline following this same logic, an enterprise made all the more worthwhile since it steers us away from the “perils of continuity thinking.”[24] But these views contain two interrelated errors. Firstly, they reify an ideology of world breaking; ‘making a complete break with the past’ is tantamount to really making a complete break with the past. Secondly, rupture is equated with change; absolute discontinuity is the only modality of charismatic religious transformation.

Such a model is at odds with an understanding of music as an emergent heterogeneous multiplicity. The musicality of religious intensification is not formed through the dialectic of monolithic wholes but emerges from the innovative synthesis of a plurality of influences. Not static molar blocks but dynamic molecular flows. The recognition of ostensibly ‘traditional’ elements in this mix does not place us on the side of continuity. Quite the opposite. To see traces of tradition in the effusion of new religious music indicates acts of intensive transversal, not the complication of a divide erected between Christianity and culture.

As Campbell states, all creative innovation “is said to involve processes of deterritorialization in which concepts break down and are uprooted from their context only to reassemble with other heterogeneous elements to form new assemblages, perhaps on a different plane altogether.”[25] The melodies, instruments, lyrics, adornment, and dances that comprise ‘traditional’ performance are not imprisoned by analytic designation but are so many elements free to detach, roam, and recombine. Their cohesion as a ‘style’ only reflects the relative stability of the intensive plateau (territory) they articulate.

The music of intense Christianity across the world shows the deterritorialization of ‘tradition’ with striking clarity. Kalu describes how in the midst of renewal, African Pentecostal musicians “dug deep into indigenous music and appropriated both the lyric and the rhythm,”[26] and thereby “reconstructed indigenous music for Christian use within a decade.”[27] Navajo revivalists studied by Marshall utilise dimensions of their traditional expressive culture within Christian song, exemplifying what she calls “resonant rupture,” where “although the aesthetics of the form remain the same, the meanings have changed.”[28]

Rommen’s work on the musicality of spirit-filled Christians across several Caribbean and American contexts demonstrates a similar transformation, whereby “Reggae as sound is adopted and adapted with relative ease.”[29] No wholesale acrimony between tradition and culture, only a pragmatic redefinition of existing elements to fit new intensive demands. A process of cultural decomposition and reconstruction “where the past returns to infuse and inflect the present, where the past renews itself in the present, transforming both.”[30]

Religious intensification across Melanesia in the 1970s bears witness to the deterritorialization of ‘traditional’ musical forms and their reterritorialization upon new Christian plateaus of intensity.  Even Robbins, the prophet of rupture himself, observes how exuberant Urapmin revival songs “borrow their melodies from traditional women’s songs sung at drum dances (wat dalamin).”[31] Not far away in Enga Province, Tramulia[32] explains how the prolific eruption of new music during the early 1970s leaned heavily upon intensively recoding five core traditional song patterns. Among the Guhu-Samane of Morobe Province, religious intensification “put drums into the hands of adult women,”[33] a facet of intensification also in Mt. Hagen.[34]

As communities surge with dramatic accelerations of intensive force, the constituent elements of traditional performative styles decompose, flow, migrate, and regather within unprecedented configurations. The prolonged excitement, motion, and joy precipitated by the Holy Spirit’s sudden saturation of life demands the immediate creation of a musically expressive face. Urgently furnishing a sonic dwelling for the surging force, elements of existing, sometimes dormant, local styles are quickly recoded to play in a new intensive and metaphysical key.

But let us not lose sight of the key fact that religious intensification breeds heterogeneous multiplicities. While we have shown the mobile capacities of traditional performative elements to freely regroup and regather on new intensive planes, they do not do so as a unitary sonic block. Intensification engenders the multiplication of difference, not the consolidation and establishment of stable entities. The music that wraps around and expresses a tremendous upsurge in spiritual intensity within a community will not draw upon one, but rather all available sources in its becoming. It is a diversified force welling from the depths, a plurality arriving at the surface, not a practice already constituted as a repeatable object.

We should not think of musicalised intensity as emerging from a carefully orchestrated synthesis of this and that, but rather an urgent scramble to connect this to this to this, followed to the maximum extent. The rebranding of tradition is not a dominant motif within this mosaic, but rather only one important thread in a broader process of detachment and recoding.

Fraser Macdonald is an anthropologist of religion and a senior lecturer at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. His research focuses upon global evangelical-Pentecostal Christian movements in Melanesia among the Oksapmin people with emphasis on how different aspects of their traditional religion and cosmology have been reshaped and revalued through coming into contact with globalized forms of Christianity.

[1] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 175-176.

[2] Edward Viveiros de Castro, “The Crystal Forest: Notes on the Ontology of Amazonian Spirits” Inner Asia 9 (2007): 155.

[3] Marianne Kielian-Gilbert, “Music and the Difference in Becoming” In Sounding the Virtual: Gilles Deleuze and the Theory and Philosophy of Music eds. Brian Hulse and Nick Nesbitt (London: Routledge, 2010), 200.

[4] Katherine J. Hagedorn, “Toward a Theology of Sound: Drum talk, oricha worship, and other ecstatic phenomena” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 34, no. 2 (2006): 2.

[5] Steven Feld, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 218.

[6] Butler, “The Weapons of Our Warfare: Music, Positionality, and Transcendence Among Haitian Pentecostals,” 25.

[7] Althouse and Wilkinson, “Musical Bodies in the Charismatic Renewal: The Case of Catch the Fire and Soaking Prayer,” 37.

[8] Monique Ingalls, “Singing Heaven Down to Earth: Spiritual Journeys, Eschatological Sounds, and Community Formation in Evangelical Conference Worship” Ethnomusicology 55, no. 2 (2011): 255-279.

[9] Marina and Wilkinson, “Pentecostalism as Cultural Resistance: Music and Tongue-Speaking as Collective Response in a Brooklyn Church,” 223.

[10] Robbins, Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society, 282.

[11] Jan Pasterkamp, Unpublished Newsletter (1970): 2.

[12] Bennett and Smith, “A revival movement among the Telefomin Baptist churches,” 130.

[13] Tramulia, The Story of the Revival among the Enga People 1973-2004, 7.

[14] Dawia, “A Revival Convention, Lumusa Baptist Church, Baiyer River,” 123.

[15] Geoff Cramb and Mapusiya Kolo, 1983. “Revival among W. Highlands/Enga Baptists” In Religious Movements in Melanesia Today 2 (Goroka: The Melanesian Institute, 1983), 100-101.

[16] Ken Osborne, Winds of Change in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea (Newcastle: Jennings Print Group, 2016), 47.

[17] White, “Family Prayer Movement at Imbongu, Ialibu, Southern Highlands,” 157.

[18] Robbins, Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society, 284.

[19] Joan Kale, “The religious movement among the Kyaka Enga” In New Religious Movements in Melanesia eds. Carl Loeliger and Garry Trompf (Suva: University of the South Pacific and University of Papua New Guinea, 1985), 68.

[20] Feld, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression, 182.

[21] Hulse, “Thinking Musical Difference: Music Theory as Minor Science,” 45.

[22] Jonathan Dueck, “Making Borrowed Songs: Mennonite Hymns, Appropriation and Media.” In Christian Congregational Music: Performance, Identity and Experience eds. Monique Ingalls, Carolyn Landau, and Tom Wagner (London: Routledge, 2013),  85.

[23] Jose Casanova, “Religion, the new millennium, and globalization” Sociology of Religion 62, no. 4 (2001): 437.

[24] Joel Robbins, “On the paradoxes of global Pentecostalism and the perils of continuity thinking,” Religion 33 (2003): 222.

[25] Edward Campbell, Music after Deleuze (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 39.

[26] Ogbu U. Kalu, “Holy Praiseco: Negotiating Sacred and Popular Music and Dance in African Pentecostalism.” Pneuma 32 (2010): 36.

[27] Kalu, “Holy Praiseco: Negotiating Sacred and Popular Music and Dance in African Pentecostalism,” 37.

[28] Kimberly Marshall, ““Soaking Songs” Versus “Medicine Man Chant”: Musical Resonance Among Diné Oodlani (Navajo Believers)” In The Spirit of Praise: Music and Worship in Global Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity eds. Monique Ingalls and Amos Yong (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2015), 158-159.

[29] Timothy Rommen, “Protestant vibrations? Reggae, Rastafari, and conscious Evangelicals” Popular Music 25, no. 2 (2006): 259.

[30] Hulse, “Thinking Musical Difference: Music Theory as Minor Science,” 39.

[31] Robbins, Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society, 284.

[32] Tramulia, The Story of the Revival among the Enga People 1973-2004, 29-30.

[33] Handman, Critical Christianity: Translation and Denominational Conflict in Papua New Guinea, 238.

[34] Guido Schwarz, “The Catholic Fellowship in the Mt Hagen Area” In Religious Movements in Melanesia Today (2), ed. Wendy Flannery (Goroka: The Melanesian Institute, 1983), 75.

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