Skip to content

Teachable Moment in the Anthropology of Religion

I showed the film Holy Ghost People in my Anthropology of Religion class last week. The film was made in 1967 and it depicts a service in the Holiness Church in West Virginia. It in, church members are shown in trances, speaking in tongues, convlusing, and handling poisonous snakes. I use the film in a lecture on altered states of consciousness and it does a good, albeit dramatic, job of showing how communion with God is accomplished by one group of Christians.

My discussions with students in the class and outside of it were fascinating. Several people expressed disbelief with what they had seen in the film, and some went as far as to question whether or not what they had seen was ‘real.’

Somewhat taken aback, I posed a question back to them and asked if they considered events we had seen in other films in terms of real or fake as well. I asked specifically about the reading of oracles by the Azande in the film Witchcraft Among the Azande and about the ritual warfare among the Dani shown graphically in Dead Birds. Student responses suggested that these films did not pose as much controversy or problems of interpretation.

In the course of the discussion, it became clear that Holy Ghost People hit too close to home. Many in the class are Christians, and some things in the film were familiar. In the film, a picture of Jesus Christ hangs on the wall of the church. The Bible is used as a religious text. And, the Holy Ghost is central to the lives of the church members. Yet, it was different enough — odd enough — to cause some to feel that these people couldn’t really be Christians. To paraphrase: they are sort of like us but not really.

It seems that the Azande and the Dani are too exotic for easy interpretation or affiliation and the Holiness Church is not removed enough from student reality to be as a serious ethnographic example. There are clearly issues of cultural relativity here too, particularly in teaching and using examples from around the world. It seems I must do more to address these issues at the beginning and, indeed, throughout my courses.

Sphere: Related Content


  1. Jamie wrote:

    I saw Holy Ghost People a few years ago, but decided to watch it again tonight in light of some visual anth classes that I have taken. I have to say that this really is an impressive film. I am amazed at how contemporary it feels, especially for its time. There is a reflexivity and attention to the voice of participants that really surprised me. Sure some may construe the film as somewhat sensational, but having visited churches of this and similar types I felt that it was quite fair and honest in its portrayal of what went on at the meeting. It really provided a nice portrait of how members of the holiness congregation see themselves and what they felt it was important to show the viewing public.

    Thanks for reminding me about this movie. I will have to keep it in mind as a good example of ethnographic filmmaking.

    Tuesday, March 21, 2006 at 4:04 am | Permalink
  2. Cool Jamie … thanks for the comment … you’re first hand experiences are fascinating and interesting.

    Wednesday, March 22, 2006 at 8:59 pm | Permalink
  3. Jeff Sharlet wrote:

    I show “Holy Ghost People” in two courses I teach at NYU, a journalism course on literary journalism about religion, and a religious studies course on 20th century conservative Christianities in the U.S. I’ve never gotten a negative response from Christian students who come from very charismatic backgrounds. One secular student complained, though, that the film made what it portrayed too pretty, too seductive.

    Monday, March 27, 2006 at 8:33 pm | Permalink
  4. Jeff … thanks for your comments and your experience with the film. I hesitate to label the student comments as negative. Skeptical might be a better word. Still, there was some real concern that the film was not accurate or the people’s activities were not genuine. I’m still trying to make sense of why.

    Wednesday, March 29, 2006 at 10:23 am | Permalink

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] If I’ve learned anything this teaching term, it’s that it is always appropriate to have conversations with students about cultural relativity, etic/emic distinctions, and insider/outsider dilemmas despite the fact that many students protest that ‘they’ve heard it all before.’ Earlier in the term I blogged about student reactions to the film Holy Ghost People. In that case, some students had a hard time accepting the possibility that the religious rituals they witnessed in the film were actually taking place or were real. […]