spirits and letters

Thomas G. Kirsch 2008. Spirits and Letters. Reading, Writing and Charisma in African Christianity. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
(paperback edition 2017)

“Kirsch is impressively well read in the history and anthropology of Christianity and the study of literacy, and uses a range of insightful comparative examples to draw out the significance of his research…As well as providing an important and fascinating account of reading practices within and beyond African Christianity, Kirsch’s study also alerts us to how religious print moves across the globe via religious organizations and networks to create and reinforce religious identities.” 


“Developing new theoretical perspectives out of sensitive historical and ethnographic research on practices of reading and writing in the Spirit Apostolic Church, this well written and accessible study offers anthropology at its best. Cautioning against simplistic understandings of literacy and textuality that still underpin much work on Christianity, his work offers a substantial intervention into broader debates about religion, media and materiality.”  (Professor Birgit Meyer, Faculty of Social Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)

“Through a meticulous ethnography of reading, writing, and speaking practices in a Zambian Pentecostal-charismatic church, Kirsch shows how bureaucratic and charismatic performances enable one another. Indeed, church leaders embody both kinds of authority: being an officeholder in the church and being spiritually gifted are mutually reinforcing roles. Detailing how the terms spirit and letter are also complementary within practices of reading the Bible, Kirsch challenges distinctions between oral traditions and “religions of the book” as well as questions pernicious assumptions that Africa is the site of orality but not of homegrown literacy practices.“ (American Anthropologist)

“From relative obscurity, the study of Christianity in Africa has grown into a major academic field, to which this book makes an important and timely contribution. It is the first book-length study of literacy practices among African Christians, which is remarkable given the historical importance accorded to literacy and formal education in Christian missions, and the role that literacy played in the establishment and spread of African Independent and later Pentecostal Charismatic churches.” (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute)

"Tout l’intérêt de cette très belle ethnographie de l’écriture est, en définitive, de montrer que la Lettre ne se conçoit pas sans l’Esprit au sein des Églises africaines, et plus particulièrement au sein de ce que l’auteur appelle les 'religions charismatiques-pentecôtistes du Livre' (p. 3). En mettant en avant ces figures hybrides que sont le prophète bureaucrate et le secrétaire inspiré par l’Esprit saint, Thomas Kirsch pose à nouveaux frais la question de la nature de l’autorité religieuse." (Cahiers d'études africaines)

“the primary aim of the author lies ... in challenging the presuppositions made in the study of African religion – and in this he has admirably succeeded”   ·  (H-Net Reviews)

“[The author] demonstrates in this book an extraordinary command of several scholarly literatures and takes up questions that have vexed the social sciences since at least the time of Max Weber. In particular, Kirsch wishes to understand how something as fundamental to the ‘religions of the Book’ as literacy could be so often overlooked in current anthropological discussions of Christianity in favor of electronic and other media. ... Kirsch has produced an impressive monograph here, one that ought to be read by Africanist anthropologists, religious studies scholars and by others interested in understanding the meaningful qualities of literacy for all ‘peoples of the Book’.” (Journal of Religion in Africa)

“Kirsch … provides an excellent introduction, contextualizing his material and his aim of explaining the relationship between ‘charisma’ and ‘institution’ in the Spirit Apostolic Church.” (Choice)

“The examination of literacy practices presented in this book enables – and hopefully will engender – much thought in a variety of ethnographic domains.”   (Ethos)

“Kirsch challenges us to think about the spread of Christianity – and literate religious dogmas in general – in new ways.” (African Studies Review)

“For those interested in the social life of the Bible and other written materials, this book is sure to surprise. … Thomas Kirsch’s thick description of reading and writing among Zambian Pentecostal-charismatic church leaders and laity shears away what the author considers the ‘exceptionalism’ often ascribed to these organisations based on a scholarly fascination with speaking in tongues, exorcism and healing. The author moves beyond this exceptionalism through challenging the scholarly boundaries drawn around forms of authority typified as ‘charismatic’ and spiritually evanescent on the one hand and ‘institutional’ and bureaucratic on the other. For readers, the result is that Kirsch manages to unravel deeply entrenched assumptions about ‘religions of the book’ that oppose and separate matters of the ‘Spirit’ from the ‘Letter.’“ (Social Anthropology)