Megachurch Materiality: Bodily Dis-Orientation and Belief
The rise in faith-based political influence - radical Islam in the middle east and evangelical conservatism in the US - is evidence of the global social and political significance of religious belief. Yet the religious material culture that founds this belief lacks ‘serious empirical, let alone theoretical interest.’ (Meyer & Houtman; 2012:1). In seeming opposition to religious fundamentalisms, contemporary art reflects liberal, progressive, and secular values. Within the arena of Western contemporary art, there is a paucity of nuanced work about religious culture and belief beyond a deconstructive criticism (Cattelan; Mapplethorpe) or a re-appropriation of historical religious artforms (Hirst; Wallinger; Viola). Religious culture and belief is overlooked as embarrassing or irrelevant, a product of ignorance or irrationality. This practice based project redresses this lack by investigating the orienting appeal of the material culture of evangelical Christianity against a backdrop of socio-economic precarity and a ‘post-truth’ political climate.
This project contributes to discourse on the significance of religious materiality through both scholarly work in the field of visual and material cultures and contemporary artistic practice. In writing for theory and practice, research will explore the entanglement between materiality and fabulation, between embodied perception and the certainty of religious belief. Drawing on my research into three orienting materialities of the evangelical church culture: site (architecture, staging), spectacle (crowd, performance, screen) and narrative (voice, fabulation, myth), my situated writing and performance practice will be written and staged for the arguably non-religious sites and audiences of contemporary art. Both site and audience are addressed in fictions in which belief becomes apparent as both contingent on body and material context, and as an orienting necessity for the believer. In this way, the complexity of belief is materialized and a dialogic space is formed for the duration of the performance.
Materialism, the belief that we are nothing more than matter, is typically viewed as antithetical to religious belief, yet an engagement with spirituality has emerged within New Materialism. This recent category of theories refuses reductive dualisms and emphasises the embodied self as part of a dynamic network of relations with matter (Barad; Braidotti; Hayles; et al). In addition to this emphasis on relationality, matter is viewed as both agential and lively (Bennett). As a reaction to the linguistic and cultural turns of postmodernity, the revived transdisciplinary interest in materialism has had a wide impact on contemporary art. The focus on agentic materiality has led to a recent upsurge of interest in the occult, shamanism, witchcraft and panpsychism within artistic practice. Whilst minority and unauthorized forms of spiritual and religious thought and practice are deemed acceptable within the canon of contemporary art, the taboo on organized religion persists, serving to render it virtually absent. Whilst a number of theorists have discussed the relationship between contemporary art and religion (Groys; Elkins; Zizek et al), curator Anselm Franke states: ‘An invisible background condition of contemporary art still valid today is that it stands outside of faith-based practices, only citing them at most. The historical break with religion continues.’  Concurrently, recent events in the US and Europe (Brexit, the election of Trump, a resurgence of right wing nationalism, rejection of climate change, castigation of refugees) point to an increasing polarisation and entrenching of opinion between conservative and progressive ideologies. The secular-progressivism that insists on tolerance and egalitarianism is paradoxically hierarchical, and pillories both conservatism and religious belief.
Beginning with the understanding that ‘faith’ is not only produced by cognitive processes, the research explores how faith is also materially constructed through embodied experience, focussing on the phenomenon of the evangelical megachurch in the UK and the US. Worship services are visually spectacular, amassing thousands of worshippers on banks of bleachers within stadium sized venues. Theatrical lighting and vast projection screens multiply the presence and forcefulness of charismatic preachers, cultivating faith through a message of certainty. This conviction is experienced as a bodily orientation, through both a perception of being grounded and of being enchanted into a collective fabulation. Yet, conversely, the very embodiment which is implicated in the call to faith is repressed within a socially and politically conservative church culture, which locates value in the transcendent, reinforcing binaries of mind over body, interior experience over exterior action, transcendent immateriality over immanent materiality. My research, informed by a new materialist complication of reductive binaries, both addresses the religious context that resists recognition of embodied materiality, and the secular contexts of contemporary art and academia in highlighting the complexity and orienting appeal of belief. Van der Tuin, writing from a new materialist perspective, states: ‘Dualistic splits are traversed by a call for immanent scholarship that ‘orients’. (2012: 150)
Building on the idea that object based fictions provide conditions in which a future subject might emerge (O’Sullivan; Avanessian), I will research how the materiality of site (architecture, staging), spectacle (crowd, performance, screen) and narrative (voice, fabulation, myth) orient the congregant in the megachurch auditorium. These orientations will be explored and applied within scholarly writing and writing/ staging for sites of contemporary art reception. I will ask: how might the practice create a reorientation towards the world of matter and its significance in generating belief? How might this reorientation cut across binaries: religious/ secular, conservative/ progressive, immaterial/ material? In doing so, can this contribute to a move towards tolerance and empathy between secular and religious communities?
Through visits to UK megachurches, and drawing on sociological and historical research into megachurches and evangelicalism (Strhan; FitzGerald; The Pew Research Centre; Megachurch Social Capital Research Project) I will investigate the materiality of megachurch culture through a new materialist lens as a contribution to visual and material cultures. Three new fictive works, written for specific sites of artistic reception, will be created, combining auto-ethnographic research methods with narratology (Bal; Genette) and dramaturgy (Castagno; Trencsényi & Cochran). These will be written in the second person: the reader is directly addressed and written into narratives which move between structure/ orientation and collapse/ disorientation. These will also be non-linear: a movement in the form of the writing which parallels the content, will be linked phenomenologically to affect (a bodily experience or reaction, both interior and immediate). I will consider how affect might impact on our relationship to objects and the formation of rational thinking and ideology (Massumi; Leys).
• A new body of three situated performative works focusing on site, spectacle and myth. These works will generatively entangle embodiment with matter, evoke (dis)orientations to explore belief. They will implicate the audience who are written into the fiction as a crowd who follow a script and vocalise a chorus, creating a brief dialogic community for the duration of the performance. I will organize interdisciplinary workshops to develop these works. The workshops will focus on new materialism and fiction and will be held with theorists, creative writers and artists within Goldsmiths and CHASE institutions.
• A thesis of scholarly writing, informed and inflected by practice based writing, will bring megachurch materiality to the fore as a necessary contribution to how belief is formed by the embodied perception of the visuality and materiality of religious sites.
Year 1: Orientation Beginning with Sara Ahmed’s Orientations Matter (2010), I will consider how narrative and spatial orientation makes thinking bodies and bodies of thought. I will research how bodies are located and held within narrative and spatial structures of the megachurch. How narrative is vocalized (the repetition and reinforcement of preaching, bible study groups and public testimony), and how site (architecture, interior design and stage) creates orienting structures will be evaluated. This will extend into a consideration of vantage points: where the believer is situated within the verticality and hierarchy of megachurch worship. I will develop ‘critical assemblages’, a spatial method of writing, informed by feminist theorists Haraway’s ‘Situated Knowledges’ (1988) and Bennett’s concept of assemblages (2010) to write through the actants within the megachurch. Bennett theorises assemblages as uneven but agentic groupings of elements which modify and are modified by each other (2010: 22). This will inform both practice and theory around the embodied experience of participating in megachurch services. I will also form the interdisciplinary workshops on new materialism as a means to develop practice based writing through both discussion of relevant texts and receiving feedback.
Year 2: Disorientation This year will constitute an inquiry into where a sense of embodied disorientation might be located in the megachurch experience. This will be related to the construction and loss of belief, focusing on spectacle: performance, staging, crowd and screen. As Sara Ahmed points out in Orientations Matter, to be oriented towards something is to turn to it, to have bodies directed to it.  I propose that to be entranced, or enchanted by a thing is to become particularly fixed within that orientation. Similarly, disenchantment may be viewed as a particular form of disorientation, where that which once enchanted loses its power, and the unhinging from it causes a dizzying turn away. Applying this to the megachurch context, research will consider the link between enchantment and fabulation, fiction and belief, and the loss of that particular orientation as a collapse into disorientation. This will be linked with affect (Massumi; Leys; Connolly). I will continue to work with the new materialism and fiction workshops, bringing theory and practice into a deepened engagement.
Year 3: Reorientation This year will constitute a consideration of the socio-political potential of a situated writing practice in speculative ‘alter worlding’, how embedded and embodied thought: ‘…becomes a very material process, a performative process of the world, a form of worlding itself.’ (Asberg; Thiele; Van Der Tuin, 2015: 152) Drawing on the historical confluence of evangelicalism, social and political conservatism and capitalism, I will consider what the problems and potentials of megachurch materiality might be for how communities are formed and sustained. How the singular and heterogeneous voice of fiction might relate to the voice of the chora, crowd or community, how it might refuse the totalizing myth (Nancy) and form communities of difference will be thought in relation to political philosophy (Connolly; Gilbert). The practice will be evaluated in the light of its potential to foreground the embodied materiality of belief, with implications for both the secular mindset that dismisses religious belief and the religious prohibitions on embodiment and sexuality.
Narrative as an orientation device: a consideration of the role of narrative in creating orienting, meaningful and authoritative structures for the addressee, including an exploration of how narrative, site and materiality become enfolded. The common ground of disorientation: an overview of theorisations relating to the impact of the current moment on an embodied sense of orientation.
Chapter 1 Narrative Orientation: The Myth & The Teller.
Utilise narrative, story and fabula (Bal) along with discourse on myth (Nancy, Eliade) to unpick the evangelical narrative and how it is materialized within the megachurch. Consider how the narrative embedded within the megachurch and presented as naturalized rather than constructed or fabricated. Explore what literalism might be within this context and its embodied affects.
Chapter 2 Spatial Orientation: Architecture & Stage.
An inquiry into the embodied experience of being positioned and located within a stadium and a vast crowd (Cannetti). Bring theorisations of church as theatre (Kilde; Loveland & Wheeler) and the structures of dramaturgy together with embodied affect and belief formation.
Chapter 3 Dis-Orientation: Structural Ruptures
The link between enchantment and fabulation, fiction and belief with a particular focus on the voice (Dolar; Cavarrero), its ability to create a sense of orientation in the listener, and the disorientation and loss of narrative linearity and authority in communicative break downs and loss of belief (Gauchet; Gelner; Elkins). Where narrative and spatial structures break down, the myth or totality is interrupted (Nancy) and subject-object distinctions dissolve, engendering a sensation of free fall (Steyerl). How this disorientation might productively unfix the subject from rigid positions.
Chapter 4 Reorientation: The Broader Socio-Political Context.
Inherent individualism in evangelicalism, conservative emphasis on individual rights and responsibilities, alongside a conforming, socially and politically conservative community culture (FitzGerald; Heineman; Ellingson; Lee & Sinitiere).
Chapter 5 Reorientation: New Fictions, Multiple Voices, Shifting Grounds.
Megachurch materiality, and how it produces community, considered in relation to political philosophy (Connolly; Gilbert). The potential of a situated writing practice which produces a chorus for the audience/ crowd to create shared understanding. How it might reorient the secular individual towards the believer, and the believer towards plurality and difference. How might the blurring of religious/ secular, conservative/ progressive, immaterial/ material binaries enable empathy.
Goldsmiths offers a particular combination of expertise which will enable me to realise this project through the internationally renowned Departments of Art and Visual Cultures and in cross disciplinary research centres: The Centre of the Body, Goldsmiths Writers Centre, the Pinter Centre for Performance and Creative Writing and the Faiths and Civil Society Unit. Professor Kristen Kreider’s research into how artworks generate meaning through a ‘material poetics’ and her site writing, performance and fiction practice will prove crucial in guiding how I theorise and form my practice. Doctor Bridget Crone’s background in writing about and curating performance practices that deal with embodiment and the real, and her research into New Materialism will provide further necessary support. Additionally, the Art Department contains a number of student researchers who deploy writing and performance in their practice, allowing for a sharing of knowledge and skills.
Previous art writing, nationally and internationally exhibited and published, has drawn on Evangelical Christianity to create affective narrative trajectories for the reader in exploring the materiality and agency of religious and corporate buildings. Recent site specific works Empathy Structure (2017) and Cell (2017), foregrounded bodies that were both visceral and religious, held by and merging with narrative and material structures. I have presented papers on the socio-political implications of evangelical and megachurch culture at a symposium for art researchers (TigerSprung, Goldsmiths) and a CHASE conference (Post-Truth & American Myths, University of Essex). Additionally, my arts project management experience in founding and running Peer Sessions, an Arts Council-funded critique group for professional artists, will be applied to the project.
 Anselm Franke quoted in Question of Faith: Is There a Return of the Religious in Contemporary Art? (2013) In ArtMag [Online] http://db-artmag.com/en/76/feature/question-of-faith-is-there-a-return-of-the-religious-in-contempo/
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