the performative construction of charisma

Kirsch, Thomas G. 2002. Performance and the Negotiation of Charismatic Authority in an African Indigenous Church of Zambia. Paideuma 48: 57-76.

 “Understanding charisma to be an essentially social phenomenon, I … show how charisma is socially negotiated, constructed and maintained in the course of the rituals of [an African-Christian] church by means of an interactional form of control over the performance. Entitlement to religious leadership within [this church] is immediately linked to acknowledgement as a medium of the Holy Spirit. But as the Holy Spirit is considered to be independent in selecting his worldly manifestations, there exist no official procedures for the appointment of religious leaders. Acquiring abilities as a medium is conceptualised as a spiritually propelled phenomenon that can not be influenced by human agents but has to be appreciated as it appears. Yet for the participants in religious practice, it is not possible to find definitively binding criteria to distinguish a medium of the Holy Spirit from a patient possessed by demons. Without discussion, diverging interpretations of phenomenological appearances, and varying social and moral expectations, are brought into a religious practice that is mainly directed at a holistic empowerment mediated by the spiritual powers of the community’s religious leaders. On the basis of this situation, it will be argued in what follows that the negotiation of who is collectively entitled to religious authority unfolds processually through the singing of communal hymns. As songs are held to invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit, the communal singing of hymns is a prerequisite for almost any religious activity of the congregation. Without songs, no mediumistic power is to be expected. At the same time, singing these hymns involves a sometimes collaborative and occasionally antagonistic negotiation of who is accepted as a religious leader. Since their mediumistic activities are dependent on the congregation’s commitment to singing hymns, the church leader’s status is in effect negotiated in a dialogical call-and-response form of singing that allows everyone to express a judgement by either participating in singing hymns or simply refusing to participate. A general refusal therefore ends mediumistic activities so that the church leader’s status is ultimately reduced to that of a patient. Conversely, strong communal involvement in the singing might give religious authority to a participant who previously had the status of an ordinary church member. These processes exhibit the church leaders’ remarkable dependency on the laity, which at first sight seems to impede the establishment of enduring leadership. Thus, it must also be asked how religious leaders stabilize their authority in the face of such dependency.”